classical music, popular culture, philosophy and anything else that catches my fancy...But for the most part the close focus is on classical music with occasionally a look at popular music. Aesthetics, which is a very important part of the approach, is the channel between music and philosophy. Of course, in discussing music in its context a lot of other things creep in, like politics and economics.
Today's post might seem a bit off-topic, but I am going to talk about my perspective on being Canadian almost exclusively in terms of music, specifically my musical identity. I often write things quite critical of Canada and music in Canada and this post (which was inspired by a little discussion of the Tragically Hip in the comment section) might explain why.
I was born in northern Canada and I should explain what that involves. From different sources we find that about 90% of the population of Canada live within 100 miles (160 kilometres) of the US border. I was born in northern Alberta, over a thousand kilometres (655 miles) north of the US border. The music I encountered when young was almost entirely the folk music of the Canadian prairies: jigs, reels, schottisches with the occasional polka. This music derives from the largely English, Scots and Irish settlers (the polka from the Ukrainian immigrants to the Canadian prairies). My mother was a Canadian folk musician, a fiddler who played by ear and did not read music. The first time I saw someone read music (a schoolteacher and pianist) it fascinated me. When I was fourteen we moved to Vancouver Island (Courtenay, still 260 kilometres from the US) which brought me in contact with a lot more music. This included not only the latest pop and rock via Vancouver radio stations, but also classical music due to a local festival. I vaguely recall hearing a performance of the Penderecki Threnody one summer.
When I was fifteen I began playing the electric bass and acoustic six string. Soon after I took up the six-string electric. I owned a lovely old Gibson from 1953. But it wasn't long before I discovered classical in a really serious way. A friend played me a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and I was hooked. From then I listened intently and passionately to Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, Debussy, Schubert and others. This set me on my path. I enrolled in the School of Music at the University of Victoria for two years of an undergraduate degree. By this time I was a committed classical guitarist and I realized that this school could not offer me what I needed: a real master to take private lessons with. I was taking lessons privately at this point with the best teacher I could find which meant commuting to Vancouver every week. He told me to study with his teacher in Spain, which I did, Maestro José Tomás in Alicante. I did that for a year and when I came back I was a real, honest to goodness classical guitarist. I'm going to stop the autobiography right here.
So, can you see the problem? What is my musical identity? It says on my passport that I am a Canadian (and a subject of Queen Elizabeth II, but that's a whole 'nother topic), but in what sense am I a Canadian musician?
I rejected, in succession, the folk music of Canada as transmitted to me through my mother, the rock and pop music of Canada, the US and Great Britain, and the avant-garde and contemporary music I encountered composed by professors and students at the University of Victoria and McGill University. What did I seek out instead? The music of the great European masters: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy. In practical terms I sought out a Spanish guitar master and became a concert guitarist playing largely Bach and the music of Spain and Latin America. Sure, I performed and taught in Canada, but it is hard to see how I am a specifically Canadian musician.
Perhaps as a composer? When I was a young pop musician I wrote a lot of songs. These were not rock songs and the inspiration was probably Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen with a touch of B. B. King. Somewhere there is a reel-to-reel tape of a few of these songs that I multi-tracked around 1970 just as I was about to leave the pop world. Are those Canadian songs? If I can run down a copy, I will listen and see what they tell me.
After I became a classical musician, I would write the occasional piece, usually because of musicians I was working with. There were pieces for solo guitar, two guitars and harpsichord, large guitar ensemble, flute and guitar and so on. Now here we might be getting into some actual Canadian music. The inspiration for a lot of these pieces was Canadian landscapes, mostly Vancouver Island. Some titles include "Unbounded Vision in Blue and Purple" for flute and guitar or "Long Lines of Winter Light" for large guitar ensemble. But wait, the way I saw that Canadian landscape tended to be influenced by ukiyo-e, the Japanese woodcut landscapes that I was very into at the time:
So you see, apart from a few Canadian influences such as Leonard Cohen and Glenn Gould, it is hard to find much Canadian music that I didn't actually reject! What I sought out was the great music of the Western European traditions.
Sure, I'm Canadian. But like many Canadians, I find the musical culture of Canada to be a bit undeveloped and narrow.
I think the best envoi for this post is the first of my own performances I put up on the blog. This is Carora, vals venezolano, a lovely piece by the Venezuelan guitarist Antonio Lauro. I can't embed it as I am not at my home computer, so you have to follow the link: