Monday, January 26, 2009

Its a pleasure that is bound to satisfy, when you decide that Mr. Gould must have been a very personable guy

Over the past six months, I have listened to the Goldberg Variations, watched Thirty Two Short Films, pondered the Solitude Trilogy. I have looked at pictures, met countless people who have been deeply touched by Mr. Gould, read many articles and interviews. Yet I still do not know. There is still so much to learn about Mr. Gould.

Thankfully, I do not walk alone. Every young grasshopper needs a sansei and I am lucky enough to work alongside mine. I call her "Dr. Piano." Dr. Piano is both kind and knowledgeable. She patiently answers all of my seemingly random questions. She doesn't judge me when I repeatedly need her to pronounce the words 'Salome' or 'Fidelio' before going to an opera. She understands that I am both unsure and forgetful when it comes to foreign pronunciations.

In December, I asked Dr. Piano to come with me to see the Elmer Isler Singers perform Handel's Messiah. As we sat listening, I felt like there was something familiar about the arrangement. I eagerly shot Dr. Piano a look, wordlessly asking "Is this contrapuntal!?!" She understood but quickly shook her head. I was wrong. Later, I work up the nerve to try again, looking at her like an eager puppy. This time I am rewarded with an enthusiastic nod. I have identified the contrapuntal music! I beam triumphantly. Needless to say, I like Dr. Piano a lot.

The other day, I asked Dr. Piano about the relationship between fugues and counterpoint. Dr. Piano smiled. She had just the thing for me. Liz, meet 'So you want to write a fugue.' Written by Mr. Gould, the song is in the form of a fugue and uses fugue devices in its composition. How impressively clever! (...Although doesn't Mr. Gould say in the song, "Never be clever for the sake of being clever, for the sake of showing off." Now I am confused...?) I love the string quartet paired with the utter professionalism of the singers. The best part? I think I get it. I understand the fugue and its devices! I even feel that I can appreciate Mr. Gould's dry wit.

There is only one thing left to do: I shall conquer the Art of Fugue with my newly discovered clarity!

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Fran's Restaurant

There's an unusual amount of interest in Glenn Gould's eating habits—mainly, I guess, because he didn't eat very much, so it so it ties in to the ascetic quality of his personna.

You probably know that Gould was a frequent patron of Fran's Restaurant, and I can think of at least three good reasons why he would be. First, Fran's served the kind of food that, for a long time, was the only kind of food you could get at a restaurant in Toronto: i.e. bland and/or boring food—GG's favorite kind. Here's the menu from 1940 featuring such gourmet items as Pork Sausages and Gravy, Boiled Ham, and Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches. Second, and probably more important, Fran's is open 24 hours a day, which would accommodate Gould's nocturnal schedule. And third, Fran's had locations immediately proximate to both Gould's St. Clair Avenue apartment and the Eaton's auditorium on College Street where he made many of his recordings.

Fran's is still around as a chain although the original Yonge & St. Clair location is now closed. Fran Deck and his family sold the business to independant investors in 1977.

I don't eat out much because I'm a low-budget kind of guy these days. But some days I don't feel like cooking. Okay, most days I don't feel like cooking. So, a few weeks ago I decided to go to Fran's on College St., both to get some dinner and to do some reportage for this blog here. So, what's Fran's like now?

Well, first of all, the menu has been updated insanely. Now you can get items such as "Cajun Jambalaya Pasta" or "Foil-Packed Halibut Florentine." Actually it now resembles, both in character and in scope, a menu from one of those suburban franchise "eateries" like Applebee's, typically located on the perimeters of shopping mall parking lots the size of Switzerland.

But anyway, remember the 1980's, when it was briefly fashionable to describe certain things as being "post-modern?" No? Okay, well one of the many contemporary interpretations of that term involved the concept of ironic self-reference. The idea was that (for example), whereas in the past, you would simply have a diner, in the post-modern era you would instead have a "diner." That is to say, the proprietorship of the post-modern enterprise would be aware of the cultural trope of "The Diner" and thus self-consciously conform the presentation of the establishment to match it. In the case of an artificial franchise like Johnny Rockets, you might describe the end result as a "fake" diner. And in the case of a place like Fran's, you might call it an instance of a thing's becoming a parody of itself. And if you won't, I will. Here's their website. You be the judge.

I'm not sure whether there was ever any agreement about what the term "Post-Modern" really meant. This may well be because most of the writing about it was fatuous academic mumbo-jumbo. The term has pretty much disappeared now. I think it was a passing fad. So let's move on to discussing actual food.

I just got off the subway at College St. after work, and Fran's is basically right across Yonge St. It's about minus 20 degrees outside, and so my first thought is just to go for a rice pudding and coffee, but I actually need to eat something substantial and so resolve to order an actual plate. My recent Fran's experiences have been kind of hit-and-miss. I don't trust the more "Applebee's" selections on the menu, so I decided to go for one of the few remaining "old-school" selections: Liver and Onions with Bacon, a side of vegetables, mashed potatoes, and a Coke, as shown below:

Overall, I found this to be a really good platter. The liver was cooked nicely—not over done, and with a subtle, peppery flavor. There was, albeit, a fair amount of gristle, but this is pretty much unavoidable with liver. The mashed potatoes had just the right amount of butter mixed in, and also a good, fluffy texture. The bacon was a fitting compliment to the liver and was cooked, I think, to suit all tastes—exactly mid-way between floppy and crispy. But, the big surprise here was the vegetables. I was expecting, of course, that the vegetables would be re-heated from frozen. And perhaps (ok, probably) they were. But frozen vegetable technology has come a long way from what I remember when I was a boy back in the 20's. These vegetables had a good flavor and al dente texture that was a very pleasant surprise. They were so good that I actually finished them! Imagine that.

They say that Things Go Better with Coke. I'll say, at least, that Liver and Onions go better with Coke.

I would have had the rice pudding and coffee, but I was really full and, also, over budget.

So, there it is. Fran's: now kind of an 80's theme restaurant, but you can still get good food there if you order right.
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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Glenn Saves Me from Pischna

Pischna (peesh nuh) n. A set of sadistic finger exercises designed to destroy an amateur pianist's self-esteem.

I am addressing my fingers. Trying to be reasonable with them. Giving them a good shaking to rid them of tension and hostility. Cracking the knuckles to re-align them. They are ignoring me. In fact, they are doing whatever the hell they want because I am imposing Pischna on them.
Pischna purports to train your fingers to be independent so that you have reasonable hope of playing Bach in a reasonable way.

However, my fingers take a different view. They are stubbornly, furiously insistent on working in tandem. If the ring finger moves, the baby finger wants to come along, like a tag-along younger sibling. I play the two required bars in a slow and tortuous tempo (say, M.M. = 20). I start to fester about the next key change. How many sharps and flats in the next one? Or, to my peabrain, is the next note black or white?

After ten minutes of chromatically crawling my way through a dozen key signatures, my fingers look like claws. They give a new dimension to rigidity and stab at the keys. Help, help, what to do?

I conjure up Dr. Gould on You-Tube. Viewing any of the myriad, close-up footage of Glenn Gould's playing reveals the long, liquidy digits fairly dancing over the keys, much like the fancy footwork of professional figure skaters and ballerinas. He is positively frolicking. I am watching someone at play.

Then I remember. I am taking piano lessons again for recreation. Am I having fun yet?
Okay, then, I shall re-create.

In my hands, Pischna has never sounded quite so different. I like to think that Glenn might approve, if not in practice, then certainly in theory.

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