Sunday, November 30, 2008

How do you Fugue when you play the Feel?

I am going to Maryland the week after Thanksgiving to participate in a Bach documentary by Michael Lawrence Films. I am very excited :) Guess what ? Ms Mommy Bach is even more excited. But she is not going to be on the film :)

Bach = Humanity vs. Bach ≠ Humanity

Every artist in the film talks about the above equation. Is this infinite equality? Or finite inequality? I don’t know what to say about Humanity. I want to talk about the feeling when playing a Fugue.

Mr. Harpossisimo, my harpsichord teacher, asked me the question when I first started my Bach project two years ago – “How do you feel when you play the Fugue?”

At that time, I felt like it was a mission to keep Mr. Mario (from Super Mario) alive by giving him 1-ups and those jumbo mushrooms. It was very exciting and a breath-taking exercise.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Pianossisimo, my piano teacher, asked me the same question after I finished playing a complicated fugue.

“It feels like chasing a lot of people in a maze. They start together and separate into their own tracks. I have to turn round and round. Sometimes I hit a dead-end and have to come out again and turn again. It is very exciting, exhausting. I have to keep finding all the ways around the maze looking for all the people. I have to try every track. At the end, they all re-unite at the end of this complicated maze and I am relieved I do not lose any of them!”

I wonder how Glenn Gould feels when he plays a fugue. Did Mr. Gould ever answer this question?

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Visit with Glenn via YouTube

YouTube is my secret little indulgence. Since I have no access to television, people assume that I occupy myself with all sorts of productive activities -- such as practising Hanon dutifully on the piano.
But today I have just spent upwards of an hour surfing the myriad offerings on YouTube. Among them, a delicious variety of videos of Glenn Gould -- at work and at play on the Steinway and the dear old Chickering, holding court thoughtfully as he does during interviews, in occasionally mischievous discussion with other musicians, walking with his beloved dog, Banquo.
One of the pieces I return to again and again is a short clip of him at the Chickering in the cottage on Lake Simcoe, playing Bach's Partita No. 2 in C minor. Here he is a relatively young man, hardly looking out of his teens with fine cheekbones and almost gangling limbs. He has already adopted some of the mannerisms he will become known for -- the singalong tendencies, conducting himself, indifference to dress (he appears to be in a housecoat).
But, oh the absorption, the intense study, the nearly complete morphing of man with music. I suppose one might suspect Glenn of ham-fisted performance in the most obvious sense of the word -- he gets up abruptly from the keyboard in the middle of a frenetic passage and walks to the window, contemplating its execution with his unself-conscious muttering of the rhythm and immediately returns to the piano as if there had been not the slightest nanosecond of a pause. Had he been planning this one all along? Certainly Glenn was known for his delight in playing fictitious personas, replete with terrible accents. However, in spite of the fact that he would have been quite aware of a camera lens following his every move and scrutinizing each sniff and warble, I don't believe you make music as he did without stepping into its notes and rests and bar lines.
This film clip, part of a documentary that probably helped create the myth of Glenn Gould the Solitary, perhaps unwittingly touches on Glenn Gould the Ordinary Fellow. There is a teacup on the piano. The dog yawns as he lies near his master. The fluttering shadows of leaves outside the cottage on a sun-baked day is memory itself -- bleached, singularly another time in our lost consciousness.
It is always the way with Glenn Gould; one beholds his playing and is heartened while wistfully wondering if he ever knew contentment.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Diners &c.

Since writing last time about the impossibility of visiting Glenn Gould's Toronto, this article appeared in the EYE Weekly covering the disappearance of local diners in the city and their replacement by more generic eateries. The article generated a predictable response a week later when one modern Torontonian wondered (rhetorically) why anyone would miss such places now that we can go for falafel, rhoti, empanada, or whatever, on our lunch breaks. The response was so predictable because it clearly represents the prevailing sentiment that the old-fashioned diner is a vestige of the "bad old days" and that the sooner we can be rid of these relics the better.

Well, if all you can get at such establishments is fare like "a broiled turkey sandwich with powdered gravy on Wonder Bread" as the letter writer claims, then I would agree that perhaps there are few reasons to lament their passing. (Although I'll bet that GG would think: "broiled turkey . . . powdered gravy . . . Wonder Bread . . . sounds delicious!") But I know I've had better meals than that at various diners around town.

Now, because I am on a budget tighter than the rusted lug-nuts on a '57 DeSoto (to quote Dan Rather), I don't eat out much. But over the next three weeks, as a public service, I will be re-visiting some local establishments to report on the food, service, and general ambiance. I plan to go on Thursdays, since by that point in the week my enthusiasm for preparing dinner tends to be a little low. If I can borrow a camera, I'll take some pictures. If anyone wants to join me let me know. If I determine that you make more money than I do, then the bill is on you. Just kidding. Maybe.

Finally, if you live in another place and really do want to visit "Glenn Gould's Toronto" to whatever extent it is still possible to do so, then I should point out that the best time to visit is between now (November) and early April. There is no point coming here during the other months.
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Thursday, November 20, 2008

First Page of my project


Let’s solve Bach’s music using our imagination!

Dear Readers,

Do you have a love for the music of Bach? The answer for most people, especially young musicians, would be a ‘no’. I play Bach on the harpsichord and piano. I would like to change the fact that most people are turned away from Bach, or have never even heard his music. I intend to bring Bach to everyone, all over the world. I want to bring Bach to all the kids who haven’t heard of his music or played it before. His music not only brings “happiness”, but also a sense of compassion. My goal is to start a series of i ♥√Bach concerts to the globe. I just hope that you all enjoy it!

Ms. Bach :) September 2, 2007

* it reads – ‘i’ times the ‘love’th root of Bach

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An introduction to Mr. Gould the radio artist

When you work somewhere like The Glenn Gould Foundation and when you are on a quest to get acquainted with Mr. Gould, it is often challenging to decide where to go next. I walk over to the shelves, my eyes glancing over the numerous book titles. Yes, Kevin Bazzana's Wondrous Strange, that is on my to-do list. I am not quite ready to commit. After reading all but the final novel, I have decided to finish the Harry Potter series. I am currently too involved for Kevin. My eyes move on to the CD section.

"Glenn Gould the radio artist." My attention is caught. I choose "The Quiet in the Land" and pop it into my computer. I have always been interested in the Mennonite community. I took a history course on the subject while in university and grew up in a rural area where I often encountered this isolated society. When I was little, whenever we passed by a buggy or some young lads on bicycles, my dad and I used to try and track and give meaning to the different types of hats and bonnets that we would see. A little random but a lovely childhood memory nonetheless!

I listen. I love his contrapuntal style. It is full and captivating. The way Mr. Gould pairs spoken word and intellectual thought with soundscapes and music is incredible. Being a country girl in the city, I can relate to many of Mr. Gould's sentiments about solitude. I sometimes find it challenging to live in the city, so close to so many. The amount of consumption is startling. I like to have nice possessions but I make an effort to draw some sort of line before excess. I miss having a strong sense of community but I love the freedom and anonymity that the city provides.

The more I listen, the deeper I fall in love with his style of documentary. It is powerful and soothing while disseminating interesting ideas. The Mennonites' sense of the world is thought provoking. "95% of the television programs are not worth watching," the documentary states. Why have a television set? I agree with Mr. Gould's fascination with solitude. Why do some people crave the city, living in such close proximity to many others? Why do others prefer to be left alone?

I love the hymns and choral music. I don't find the documentary to be pushy; more so descriptive and informative. "To be a Christ-follower means to be concerned for the total well being of the next person." I am not religious yet I find myself wondering how my values align with the bible. More importantly, what does all of this tell me about Mr. Gould?

Mr. Gould's concluding predictions about the future of Mennonite society were insightful, especially considering that he never lived to see today's 21st century society. I enjoyed the documentary and am excited about experiencing more of his work. It is unlike anything that I have experienced. Mr. Gould, you did it again. I am left wanting more.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Taking the children out for a walk

The left hand continues to do battle with the right hand.
Or perhaps, more accurately, I am doing battle with both. They are like a couple of recalcitrant children, wanting to go their own ways. If that wasn't trying enough, each brings its own temperament to the keyboard. The right hand, smugly content in having the melody most of the time and getting the most attention by the mere fact that I am right-handed, smirks as I play a passage in the left hand endlessly. Look, it's like this, the neurons are telling it, trying to keep exasperation from taking over; there you go, you separated those notes very nicely -- no, you joined them AGAIN! Try it again...
Still with the Couperin; surprisingly, it hasn't killed my love for the baroque period. But training the left hand to be independent, to NOT do what the right hand is doing, is getting to be a questionable pursuit. Is it possible at age 53 to reclaim a dubious mastery of baroque technique shoddily managed more than a decade and a half ago? I say shoddily managed because unlike many adults, I did not learn piano as a child. My parents offered piano lessons to my three siblings, but, strangely, not to me. Perhaps they were wiser than I gave them credit for.
It was as an idealistic parent of young children that I seized upon the idea of learning piano (properly), along with my 6-year-old. Never mind that she was destined to surpass me. For a few years, anyway, I could lord my sonatinas over her Twinkle variations. Besides, piano teachers patiently look the other way when adult beginners never reach the suggested M.M. of a piece. They understand that adults often operate under a fog.
So for the nth time, I attempt an outing with the left and right hands. They start off all right, happy creatures enjoying one another's company for the first few bars. Then it happens. The left hand starts to join its notes; I stop and scold. It responds by doing what it wants and starts to not only join all the notes but slurring them as well. Going for broke.
It isn't fair. I have practised. It has worked out. The left hand and right hand have sometimes been quite companionable. To quote Glenn:
"It's true that I've driven through a number of red lights, but on the other hand I've stopped at a lot of green ones."
Glenn, you the man.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Visiting Glenn Gould's Toronto? I'm sorry, that train has left.

Glenn Gould was a life-long Torontonian by choice. He had no desire to live anywhere else. And yet, according to Kevin Bazzana, very few authors mention Toronto in any significant way when writing about Gould. Bazzana argues that to miss the influence of Toronto is to miss something essential to Gould's character. That seems exactly right to me.

One of the reasons that GG was and continues to be so interesting to so many people is that, personally, he seemed so radically different from other internationally renowned artists; his puritanical disposition and persistently provincial tastes presented as a little bit odd. But, to long-time Torontonians, it all kind of makes sense. Bazzana does a great job of explaining this in his book so, if you're interested in the specifics, check it out.

I never saw Glenn Gould in person, but he's been around as part of the general Toronto "background radiation" for as long as I can remember. He was on TV regularly, on the radio a lot, and was a sort of general "man about town"—if by "about town" you mean low-key diners around Yonge & St. Clair or College Street in the middle of the night. My dad remembers Gould from high school (Malvern Collegiate) and my mom shared an elevator with him once (she recognized him by the overcoat, gloves, etc. in July). Today there is a Glenn Gould Studio, two Glenn Gould "parkettes", Gould's piano sits in the foyer of Roy Thomson Hall, and so on.

The prevalence of Glenn Gould "sites" around town is the source of some degree of international "Gould Tourism." A number of fans are keen to visit "Glenn Gould's Toronto." And it is certainly true that you can still go to a number of specific physical places that GG would have been familiar with, or known intimately. But, unless you can devise a way to travel through time, it is impossible to visit Glenn Gould's Toronto. The place is long gone.

This has little to do with what buildings are still standing or serving their original functions. The specific character of the city: sober, circumspect, grey, industrious, Protestant, provincial . . . uhhh let's see, what else can we throw in there? . . . dour, private, Church-going, Victorian/Edwardian, uhh did we already say grey? . . . anyway, that's mostly gone now, replaced by more modern, vibrant, multi-cultural, World-Class, blah, blah, blah.

Now, if you were flying in from say, Rio, you might say "Christoff, what are you talking about? This Toronto place is exactly as dismal now as you claim it was in the past." And, at least from that perspective, you may be right. But, seriously, if you weren't around before the 1970's, you have no idea of how much the place has changed.

Nine out of ten Torontonians will tell you that things are better now that we don't have to drive to Buffalo for something exciting to do on the weekend. Gould, of course, would have been that tenth guy—preferring the city when, as Northrop Frye put it, it was "a good place to mind your own business." Certainly something of the city's old soul seems to have been lost, and I find that regrettable, even if it was the soul of a Victorian spinster. Science fiction author William Gibson actually captures it well here.

Over the next few posts I'll try my best to find, if not some places, then at least some "situations" that might give you a feel for the Hogtown of yore. If you're into that sort of thing. You might start by renting this Canadian Classic movie. Maybe this one too.
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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On the last day of the 'Year of Glenn Gould',

Ms. Bach made a speech in the Library of Congress in Washington DC in United States. Ms. Bach felt like a Congress-woman :)


Dear all,

I am very happy and honored to come here today to receive the Davidson Fellowship award. It feels like a ... Grammy award for... kids!

My project is called 'I Love Bach'. My goal is to share the complexity and joy of Bach's music with the world, especially my generation of classical music students. I personally find Bach's music intriguing and challenging. For all kids who know what Nintendo is, playing Bach is really like trying to keep Super Mario alive all the time. It's a breath-taking exercise.

I personally find that the process of learning Bach's music can keep me focused and helps me to train my mind to think analytically in many subject areas.

My dream is to start a series of 'I love Bach' concerts across the country and around the globe so that more classical students of this generation can share this joy and appreciate Bach's music!

I want to thank my teachers, my parents for all these years of support and coaching, and lastly to Mr. Glenn Gould, my favorite pianist, for giving me the inspiration to start this 'I Love Bach' project. And mostly, I wish to thank the Davidson Institute for all they do for us kids with dreams and ideas.

Today happens to the last day for the 'Year of the Glenn Gould', as declared by the Glenn Gould Foundation, in memory of his 75th birthday and 25th anniversary after he died.

I hope all of you will go home tonight and download one piece of Bach's music to your iPod to help me with my mission of sharing Bach to everyone.

Thank you

For those who ask Ms. Bach which piece of Bach music to download, please download the 1955 version of the Goldberg Variations from Mr. Gould. This is the highest recommendation from Ms. Bach :)

September 24, 2008

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Hands Separately

I am learning to play
"It Might As Well Be Spring"
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him into the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.

-from "Piano Lessons" by Billy Collins

The left hand. Stubborn, sulky, even diabolical. My mother used to consider it the weak sister, destined never to be the equal of the right; using a left hand to hold a pitcher full of milk or a boiling kettle was courting disaster. You never knew what the left hand would do. In its caprice, it could suddenly collapse.

But playing baroque piano pieces pulls the left hand out of its torpor and gives the lethargic child a sense of purpose. All of a sudden the left hand is thrown bits and shards of the melody (without warning, as it were) and it is now required to be absolutely at the ready. I've got it! it cries and in a Charlie Brown moment, it utterly misses and turns the stately, logical run of notes into a jarring cacophony, as if Bach has just channelled R. Murray Schaefer.

When I play, hands separately (as strongly advised in the first tentative days of sussing out the piece), the left hand is a smooth operator, able to con me into thinking I have it. It executes its pianistic triple axels and salchows confidently and gives me reason to believe it is truly independent, set on its right path. The right hand (which has always picked things up more easily, breezing through the accidentals, thumb ducking under the index ever so expertly) enters the picture and all is chaos once more. Resentfully, the right hand drops out to allow for intensive remediation of the left hand. It dutifully goes through its paces. I wonder how many times the members of my family can stand listening to the same eight bars over and over again.

Glenn has spoiled me. I listen to him execute the left hand of any one of the Goldberg Variations and the Idea of the Left Hand is fairly imprinted on my brain. Its precise dance on the keys is confident, joyful, deliberate, triumphant. I should be depressed but I am not. Listen to the celebrant left hand, always hitting its mark but never having to look for it.

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Can you connect-the-dots?

My first day of work at the Foundation was on August 11th. In addition to the exciting new addition of Liz Murray, in the newly created position of fundraising administrator, the Foundation was also moving to a new downtown home. After four years of constant relocation as a co-op student, I have developed a slight aversion to the act of moving. Luckily, Brian and I decided that they would move on Friday, unpack all weekend and I would start on Monday in a brand new functioning workspace.

Of course, as with most moves, we were overly optimistic about how long it would take to get up and running again. I arrived at work to find that the furniture had been delayed; therefore nothing could be unpacked. Under the mountains of boxes, I tried to orient myself.

Over the month of August, great progress was made. Shelves were built and lined with our vast collection of Gould books, CDs and videos. Files were sorted and given a proper home. Artwork and pictures were hung ever so carefully. To inspire hard work, I even took a particularly stern picture of Mr. Gould and placed it over my desk.

Quickly, september arrived and I still felt as if I had barely broken the ice with Mr. Gould. It could have been my heavy conscience playing tricks on me, but I could have sworn that Mr. Gould was starting to give me dirty looks from his place above my desk! What perfect timing for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to bring Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould out of the vault. This was my first time seeing the film. Somehow, I had developed this preconceived notion in my head that it was like I Shot Andy Warhol but for piano lovers. This was also my first time taking part in a TIFF screening. I was excited!

There were two theatres screening the film: both reasonably full, a mix of old and young, male and female. I sat back and watched. I was captivated. Colm Feore as Mr. Gould was so intriguing and enigmatic yet so human and likeable. What appealed to me most about Mr. Gould was his sense of humour and dry wit. The interviews with people who knew him were touching. I nearly cried at how sweet his piano tuner was or his cousin, Jessie.

The use of his music was beautiful whether it was featured centre stage or just in the background. The film was like a collage. Just giving me little snippets of a central theme. I learned a lot about Mr. Gould. For example, I was not aware of his use of prescription drugs or even how he soaked his hands in boiling water before performances (I know, I know! I already admitted that I did not know anything about him in my first post!)

In the back of mind, I kept thinking what is the truth? What is just part of the film? There were so many things to think about! His idea of north, the contrapuntal truck stop, stock tips, the pills, the afterlife... In the Q&A session following the screening, Director, Francois Girard stated that the film was meant to "evoke not describe." It certainly did the trick. Like a connect-the-dot puzzle, it is up to me to make the picture.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Slouching towards perfection

My first piano lesson in nearly a decade began inauspiciously.
"You're sitting far too close to the piano," the teacher points out immediately, noting that my fingers are touching nearly the tops of the black keys.
"But I can't sit any further back," I whine like a petulant child, at the ready with flimsy excuses.
She ignores my protest and comments instead on the flatness of my fingers."You need to curve your fingers," she suggests.
"But Glenn Gould always --"
I get The Look, a well-honed disciplinary tool perfected by the great majority of piano teachers. It is one of the Essentials at Piano Teacher School. Trying to invoke the name of Glenn Gould to defend one's atrocious posture at the keyboard is nothing less than presumptuous. Hunched over in a very low chair built by his father, Glenn Gould's nose appeared to hover over the keys. It seems that he completely disregarded the rules of piano posture and very likely caused unnecessary strain and pain to his neck and back. Whether the insistence on sitting to play as if you were Mister Magoo was borne of superstition or mere habit doesn't really matter. I get a perverse pleasure out of knowing that he got away with it. Rule-breaking in piano playing is highly satisfying as Glenn must have found out again and again. His many ground-breaking and unconventional interpretations of old chestnuts are proof positive.
Meanwhile, I adjust the distance between bench and piano, hold my fingers as if clutching a tiny ball and try not to curse or apologize out loud every time I hit a wrong note (see previous blog). Glenn, I don't pretend to be in your company but I'm with you. If you can't sit up straight, slouch proudly.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Bounce back!

Ms Bach’s last email to Mr. Gould bounced back. :(

Mr. Gould was still concertizing in 1964. The Glenn Gould Foundation has not formed yet. Ms Mommy Bach said she forgot to tell Ms. Bach. She’s always like that. :(

Ms. Bach ended up writing a letter to Mr. Gould. The letter stopped in Boston in United States where they have great lobsters and the great “FromTheTop” people ( It then got re-routed to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) in United States before it reached the Glenn Gould Foundation in Toronto, Canada. It took such a long way to send a letter. Sigh!

Share and enjoy! :)

Mr. Gould really needed a Facebook account to share his thinking, compositions, music, documentaries and all those ingenious presentations. Then we all can communicate using 21st century technology. ‘The’ Facebook :)

Ms. Bach Nov 17, 2007 :)

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