Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Les Trois Soeurs et les trois frères

Les Trois Soeurs par Claude St-Jacques

The centre of the painting is open and empty, a distant blue horizon. On the left, symmetrical trees dot a rich grain field. To the right, the three faceless women, formal as widows, gaze solemnly out of the picture. I love the mystery of these three figures, impassive but daring the viewer to project some meaning on to them.

This picture, Les Trois Soeurs by Claude St-Jacques, hangs in the living room of my Montreal home. On this Autumn evening my three young sons are sleeping softly, loose-limbed and tousled. These women remind me that there's another side to my boys, a sensitive mysterious feminine side (shh - don't tell them!); it's often hidden but it's always there behind their wide eyes. And that far blue horizon is their future, stretched out under a big sky, hopeful, leading to ... who knows where?

The figures are forever mysterious: just when I think I understand them their expression changes, facelessly. Sometimes I think I know my young sons too; other times less so. And occasionally on their faces I believe I see an expression that says they might know me better than I know them.

Friday, 30 August 2013

On boredom

"Boredom in its pure form is a resource to be cherished, the last great wilderness. It is basically what we've got left now, our shield, our bunker, our lead-lined helmet against the digital tinnitus, the unceasing transactional white noise of modern life. Against all this boredom stands as something cold and still and grey. Nobody has ever tried to sell you boredom. Nobody has ever successfully rebranded, celebrified or generally ruined boredom with money. In spite of which boredom remains an essential component of anything of any value: it is the thing that tells us what isn't boredom, a state out of which all elements of genuine fascination must emerge."
Well that's intelligent and wonderful writing...in a review of a football match!

Listening to my kids this morning I realise from their screams and complaints that they aren't good at dealing with boredom. That's not surprising I suppose - they've spent their summer being kept active and busy in summer camps with little time left to their own devices. I think I'll lock each of them in their room with some books for an hour or two...

In his book "Diary of a Bad Year", J.M. Coetzee recalls Nietsche "Only the higher animals are capable of being bored" and builds on the idea.
"While it may be so that only the higher animals are capable of boredom, man proves himself highest of all by domesticating boredom, giving it a home."
Just so.

On the passing of Seamus Heaney

Sad news today that Seamus Heaney has died at the young age of 74.

He was a wonderful reader of his own works, but although this video isn't one of his better readings I've chosen it here because it was one of his last, recorded in Paris at the Centre Culturel Irlandais this past June, and it begins with a poem about a musician that could also be about Heaney himself:

For he had gone alone into the island
And brought back the whole thing.
The house throbbed like his full violin. 

So whether he calls it spirit music 
Or not, I don't care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic. 

- from The Given Note

The newspapers in Ireland are full of tributes and obituaries today but most seem hastily written and unworthy of their subject - the Irish Times is particularly disappointing. By contrast, The Guardian has a beautiful piece by Colm Tóibín who seemed well prepared with his thoughts and reflections on Heaney.

Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam uasal.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

More wise words of a 5-year-old

"Dad, you always take the longcut on the lowway!"

- Philou, August 2013

Friday, 26 July 2013

Mad as the mist and snow

Setting the poetry of Yeats to music could be awkward and pretentious, but in Mike Scott's hands the result is spectacular. This is his powerful, earthy performance of "Mad as the mist and snow".

Bolt and bar the shutter,
For the foul winds blow:
Our minds are at their best this night,
And I seem to know
That everything outside us is
Mad as the mist and snow.
Horace there by Homer stands,
Plato stands below,
And here is Tully's open page.
How many years ago
Were you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mist and snow?
You ask what makes me sigh, old friend,
What makes me shudder so?
I shudder and I sigh to think
That even Cicero
And many-minded Homer were
Mad as the mist and snow. 
 --- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Dr. John at the Montreal Jazz Festival

Dr. John played at the jazz festival last night and my partner-in-life and I were at the Theatre Maisonneuve to see him.

dr john - montreal jazz fest 6

The good doctor played an entertaining show, ably supported by a tight band featuring an eccentric singing trombone-player who wowed the crowd with her musical and physical shape-throwing. It took a while for the concert to get going and for the band to find its groove; the first few songs felt a bit stilted and tight but after 20 minutes the music was loose, the crowd was swinging and it was hot and steamy. Just like New Orleans I guess.

Dr. John & the Nite Trippers - Montreal Jazz Festival 2013

Leon Russell played support but he shouldn't have bothered. The sound was terrible for his part of the show and he insisted on using a cheesy synthesizer to beat all the subtlety out of his music - it was pathetic. Thankfully Dr. John's show made us forget all about it.

The show finished just after midnight. Outside it was 25 degrees, there was a large crowd enjoying a free jazz show in the quartier des spectacles, the cafes and bars were buzzing. Montreal in the summer - it's hot and it's cool.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

It's camping, but not as we knew it

What if you could go camping in the wilds of Canada without the troubles of packing and unpacking, mosquito bites or highway traffic?

Well Parcs Québec has the solution to one of these and we tried it on the long weekend of the Fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste. (Warning: don't tell people in the RoC - Rest of Canada - that this holiday is known here as La Fête Nationale du Québec. They won't understand, on many many levels, and could get a tad upset...).

The solution is called Huttopia: you arrive at your camp site and the big family tent is already pitched, with electricity, stove, fridge, dishes and cutlery, a camp fire, indoor and outdoor tables and chairs, mattresses and everything else you could have forgotten. Even a corkscrew. All you have to bring is food and sleeping bags. 

We went to the Parc National de la Jacques-Cartier just outside Quebec City and we had a blast. We hiked for miles, silently crept up to observe a wild moose, bicycled, ate, drank, snored in the fresh forest air, kept on the lookout for black bears, stuffed ourselves with burnt marshmallows and more. 

We discovered too that "OFF" with 25% DEET is a good way of keeping the mosquitoes at bay. And the best way to avoid traffic is to travel on Saturday morning, not Friday night. 

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Wise words of a 5-year-old

Two is not a lot, but it's plenty...
                         - Philou, June 2013 

Monday, 11 February 2013

Les Messes Luthériennes de Bach

The chamber choir "La Chapelle de Québec" begged Our Lord for mercy while Les Violons du Roy played the imploring melodies and counter-melodies of Bach.
Kyrie eleison,
Christe eleison,
Kyrie elieson
We in the audience bathed in the glorious sound, though there was a notable lack of begging and imploring amongst us, we comfortably-off classical music aficionados. On a Sunday afternoon in Montreal in the second decade of the 21st century we appreciate the religious culture of 18th century Europe; for most of us  it is our culture, even if we no longer have the faith it was meant to support. I wonder if we will be one of the last generations to have this appreciation - will the words of the Kyrie be literally meaningless to our children?

Interpreting the art of Western Europe depends on recognising the references to that religious culture, though the greatest art also transcends it.

When I look at Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ I am influenced by my Catholic childhood and all cultural baggage (and guilt of course!) that goes with it. What does it change to see this picture as the arrest of a mere revolutionary, a Nazarene Che Guevara?

Anyway the concert was pretty damn good and Les Violons du Roy played to their usual high standard. The four masses are quite different from each other and for me the Mass in G Major (BWV 236) was the highpoint: a beautiful Kyrie to begin with that allowed the choir to show great subtlety and precision, and then the Agnus Dei was a quite breathtaking duet of a combination I'd never heard before: a soprano (Shannon Mercer) and a counter-tenor (Robin Blaze). I'm normally not that keen on counter-tenors but Blaze has a ridiculously pure voice; it inter-wove with Mercer's to heart-aching effect.