Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Go, Iggy!

Well, things on Parliament Hill are looking up since I last posted. It appears that the Liberals are now taking ample advantage of the opportunities Harper has presented them with his series of petty acts.

(To recap, these include, first, calling an early election in defiance of his own legislation, because he saw in the weak Dion an opportunity to gain a majority, thereby showing himself a rank hypocrite; second, deciding to sneeringly attack the arts in Canada because, evidently, he felt they were not friendly towards him, thereby losing credibility and support among Quebeckers, who take cultural identity very seriously, and condemning himself to another minority government; third, using the financial crisis not as an opportunity to be a statesmanlike, non-partisan leader, but as an opportunity to attack the opposition, thereby galvanizing their disparate antipathies toward his government into the united threat of a political coalition; and most recently, refusing to express regret or to attempt to work with the exasperated and disaffected majority opposition, and instead trying to end run them by refusing to allow parliament to meet for nearly two months while he attempted to whip up a national unity crisis by raising the bogus threat of separatism, in the process snuffing out his last ember of integrity as remorselessly as one might grind a cigarette butt underfoot.)

At any rate, the backlash from Harper's attack has resulted in the early resignation of Dion and the sudden promotion of Michael Ignatieff, a much more formidable opponent. Under Ignatieff, there is no risk that the idea of the coalition is going to look like an act of childish and petulant retaliation against Harper, as it did under Dion, nor as an attempt to wrench the Liberals out of the political Centre and toward the Left as it did (albeit probably unfairly) under Rae's guidance. Instead it looks just as it should: the threat of a group of intelligent, prudent patriots who are exasperated by an incompetent dictator's appallingly reckless egoism and petty partisanship.

For a taste of what Harper can expect now, have a look at THIS CLIP of Ignatieff in action.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Liberal-NDP Coalition versus Harper: What now?

A couple of friends have asked me whether I feel angry about Governor General Michaelle Jean's decision to prorogue Parliament until late January. The answer is no, not really. I feel frustrated at the whole situation, I suppose, but not really angry at Michaelle Jean. I think that she more or less followed constitutional protocol, which, as I understand it, declares that the Governor General is obligated to follow the advice of her first minister (i.e., the Prime Minister) before all others, so long as the PM does not openly counsel action contrary to the interests of the nation. And, unless Stephen Harper is a yet bigger fool than he has lately shown himself, in his private conversation with Jean, he won't have told her that he wanted a prorogation because (as Bob Rae aptly put it, he is "afraid to show up for work") but rather, he would have argued blandly that since the stability of the country and the demands of the majority opposition both demanded a sound financial plan, and since such a plan cannot be written overnight, a suspension of parliament was necessary. I'm quite sure that Jean, as a small-l liberal, was gnashing her teeth when she heard this, knowing that Harper was a disgusting hypocrite who only wanted to hold on to power; but perhaps she was hoping that the very fact that Harper was willing to have the country go ungoverned for two whole months (!) during a national crisis would demonstrate conclusively to Canadians just how bad a leader they were stuck with. In short, she may be expecting that, through his crass attempts to save his job, Harper would have destroyed his career. It's certainly likely that he will now NEVER win a majority, because he has alienated Quebec so far with his anti-separatist hysteria that they will be unable to ever convince them of his honesty again.

But, alas, if the Globe and Mail polls are accurate, the rest of the country has not, apparently, yet realized what a disastrous mess Harper has made with his egoistic approach to governing. Most of the country still blames the crisis on the coalition parties, not on Harper. That is a crazy notion that seems to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of parliamentary democracy. I am not sure whether the saturating effect of American television is to blame here or not, but most Canadians apparently still do not understand how their system works; and when Harper's apologists speak of our government as if it were a republican system, crying out, more or less, that Stephen Harper was "elected" leader, and that to depose him would be a usurpation of the duly elected head of state, people seem to believe this. Yet, the fact is that we do not elect Prime Ministers or Premiers, we elect Members of Parliament, and those people, along with other party members, choose party leaders. The Governor General, in deputation for the Queen, is our head of state, and one of her jobs is to invite a leader and party of her choice to form the government. By convention, she invites the party which has had the most members of parliament elected, because the crucial point is that the government of the day must have the confidence of the house. So, in the case of a majority government, the choice is a no-brainer. But in the case of a minority government, the matter is not so straightforward. To take a theoretical example, suppose we had a parliament in which as many as twelve parties were represented by elected members, and one of them was an extreme-right party like the Nazis, which had, simply through a splitting of the centre-left vote, gained the most members of parliament---albeit still a minority, just a larger minority than the other parties, for whom a fascist government, naturally, would be anathema. Well, in that case, the GG might, quite legitmately, declare that she did not believe the Nazis held the confidence of the house, and instead invite a plausible coalition of non-fascist parties to form a government, provided they could sustain the confidence of the majority of the house. That's how it works. So a leader of a minority government is forced, in such a situation, to consult and co-operate so as to sustain the confidence of the majority of the house, and we thereby see democracy in action. At least, in theory that's what happens.

However, in this case, although Stephen Harper had secured the confidence of the house with his Speech from the Throne, he then promptly lost it by (a), refusing to offer or vaguely promise or even seriously consider a financial strategy consonant with those which virtually ALL economists and other world leaders declared was necessary given the financial crisis; and instead (b), using the occasion of the greatest financial crisis facing the country in eighty years and the opportunity presented by a lame duck Liberal leader to viciously undermine the other parties by removing the per-vote financial support which a previous bill had put in place. (The notion of that per-vote support was to level the playing field, so that a party that attracted very rich voters with promises of high income tax cuts (e.g., the Harper Conservatives), would not be able to buy elections by easily winning the financial support of the very rich and thereby buying the most effective election advertising.) Harper did this without consulting the rest of his caucus. His arrogant bet was that the Liberals were too weak and would never dare to risk an election by removing their confidence, and he certainly never dreamed that they would be angry enough at his combination of complacent ineptitude and mean-spirited pettiness to cut a deal with the NDP, let alone the Bloc. But he was wrong. He ruined himself through hubris.

Now, of course, Harper is in full panic mode. His request that parliament be suspended for two months is an outrageous abdication of responsibility, but under constitutional protocol, the GG could hardly be expected to deny the request. I only wish that there were at least a little more public indignation about his ostrich strategy during a time of national crisis, which, surely, with a little nudging, even the most partisan idiot can see represents an unacceptable dereliction of duty.

However, having said that, I am no longer eagerly awaiting the coalition to take over, as I was last weekend. I have regretfully concluded that, at this point, we are really better off sticking with a (presumably, for public appearances anyway) contrite Harper and his party for the next year, because as things stand, the Liberals have just got to get another leader in place before they can govern effectively. Stephane Dion badly screwed up his last best chance to redeem himself by botching the video response to Harper's attempt to portray the coalition as some sort of anti-democratic usurping force. Dion's was a weak and banal speech in any case (and it would have been so EASY to make Harper look like the duplicitous manipulator that he is!); but even setting aside the underwhelming content of the speech, the technical ineptitude with which it was assembled and communicated is simply inexcusable. After all, this was possibly the most important television address of his career, and yet Dion seemed to have handed responsibility for making the recording over to Laurel and Hardy. In case you haven't read, the thing arrived more than an hour late, at the wrong address, and in the wrong format, and in the video Dion is positioned before a bookshelf upon which, prominently displayed, is a book entitled "Hot Air" just to the upper left of his head. Was this deliberate sabotage, perhaps? That would explain something. At any rate, Stephen Harper must have been crowing with laughter.

But I was just depressed. Up until then, I had been rather hoping that, in January, when Harper tabled his budget, the three oppostion parties would give a vote of no confidence and then, when the inevitable election was called (it being no longer five or six weeks after the election, but a full three and a half months), the NDP and the Liberals would go into the election with a sort of non-agression pact that saw them making a pact in which one or the other removed candidates for ridings in which, by presenting the electorate with either a Liberal candidate or an NDP candidate, but not both, they could unseat a Conservative. Now, however, I think it would be a bad idea because the chance to allay the suspicions of Canadians was botched the other day, and the whole enterprise now looks likely to backfire. And on that note, I also believe that it's a really, really bad idea to have Bob Rae, of all people, as the points-person for this coalition. Personally, I like and respect Bob Rae, but we must be realistic: if he has an albatross around his neck, it's the perception of the flakiness of his Ontario Provincial NDP government of the early nineties, with, first, its year of wildly impractical overspending, and then, when it became obvious that this could not be sustained, its years of desperate cutbacks. There might well be mitigating factors, but as things stand, Rae is only going to bring the taint of suspected head-in-the-clouds socialism to the whole idea of the Liberals getting into bed with the NDP, let alone the Bloc. Certainly, the Liberals could benefit from making SOME headway with the left, but mainly they need to win back the centre which has, bizarrely, been wooed over to the Harper Conservatives. People look at Harper and they mistake his banality for moderation.

At any rate, I now believe that the best scenario for those of us of whom Harper has made enemies (such as people with some respect for the arts, some concern for the environment and some compassionate sense of fairness with regard to gay Canadians) is this: the Liberals limp along until May, and in the meantime take advantage of the golden opportunity to show up Harper as the small, spiteful, incompetent, duplicitous man that he is, and also to allow the Conservative government to begin to feel the pain of the financial cataclysm to come in the next six months. Then, in May, the Liberals might be able to perform a rebirth at the leadership convention, and after a summer of subtle campaigning Ignatieff might win the election when they call a vote of confidence in Fall of 2009.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Salutary Disorder

On Sunday morning, at a rally in Kingston which preceded a blitz for the “Art is Your Story” project, there were two middle-aged men who were angered by the rather small, extremely mild and good-natured demonstration held by the fountain. They were both inarticulate in their objections, complaining bitterly that they were “offended” by the gathering, and they both declined to engage in further debate (and certainly not with me, another middle-aged male) and so walked away in angry huffs after separately hurling their complaints at a female photographer whom they incorrectly assumed to be the organizer, perhaps because she was a few years older than the students who were still gathered there.

Now, the voices of those who spoke could only just be heard over the roar of the fountain, so it was clear that what these two men objected to was not a disturbance of the peace but of their own complacence. They wanted the gathering stopped not because it interfered with any other activity but because the sight of people gathered in a public square to collectively make a statement of concern which they did not share was inherently an affront to their comfort. Implicitly, what they want is a world in which they are not required to hear dissent, to accept differences or to scrutinize themselves. They vaguely invoked the threat of the police, which would be merely laughable were it not that it conveyed what is, at its base, a deeply fascist attitude towards society: the world must not merely BE but APPEAR to be wholesome; dissent must be silenced and conformity to the status quo---the pleasant bourgeois blandness of the usual antiques and vegetable stands, untainted by (as one man said, with furious disgust) “politics”---should be enforced by physical coercion if necessary.

Well, all this goes to show exactly why the arts are so necessary and why they are so distrusted by some of those in power. The arts pose questions and doubts to those who believe they have all the answers; and they force alternative perspectives upon those who feel they have seen it all. They represent a salutary dose of disorder in our society which, understandably craving stability and comfort, by setting these so high a priority that pursuing them becomes a vice, is wont to settle into a morbid rigidity. Our society would be no more than an ossified hierarchy of privilege and intolerance were it not for the shifting perspectives and hard questioning and downright turbulence represented by art. In Classical Athens, where democracy and drama came of age together, this point was understood—at least until those who were frightened by any public airing of doubt and dissent had their way, and democracy and drama were crushed simultaneously to be replaced by an intolerant bland oligarchy. Let’s not drift towards the same reckless failure of imagination. Let’s not be silenced by those who want no more than bland conformity.

You Have A Choice

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Risk Management & the Canadian Federal Election

The video below is "How It All Ends" by Greg Craven, an Oregon science teacher. In it, he makes a clear, good-humoured argument for acting to prevent climate change rather than remaining idle because of skepticism. The question that I would pose to Canadians in the light of this argument is what could possibly justify the risk of voting for Stephen Harper, the leader who dismissed the Kyoto protocol as a socialist scheme, and whose idea of a realistic program of action is one that unfolds over five decades?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Not Him

I'd like to pass on this message from writer/performer Darren O'Donnell to those who live in the 905 region (just outside of Toronto).

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Harper Conservatives' Cultural Policy, Part III

My friend Kevin sent me this video. Although I generally dislike the reducto ad adolphus sort of argument, this one, in the form of a "mash-up" made by an anonymous Canadian film-maker, is just too witty to resist. In my view, it is difficult to comprehend such senselessly destructive policies as Harper has been advocating as the product of anything but the most narrow, spiteful and paranoid mind. Hence, I think this clip represents fair and accurate satirical comment on the back room mindset of the Harper Conservatives.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Harper Conservatives' Cultural Policy, Part II

I was feeling a bit guilty for not finding the time to post for the last two months, but with the latest culture-hating activities of the Conservatives, my last post suddenly looks timely again:

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Harper Conservatives' Cultural Policy

Photo by Mike Morin from

I'm afraid that most of the Harper Conservatives simply don't get culture and never will. The evidence is there in Bill C-10, of course, which will be getting its third reading in the House this Friday, June 13th. The part of the bill that has become notorious amounts to a very short half-sentence in an enormously long bill. It basically says that in order for a film to be issued a "Canadian film or video production certificate" (the certification---heretofore concerned with where the film was made and who funded it---which is necessary to entitle a Canadian production to tax credits), the Minister of Canadian Heritage must be satisfied that "(b) public financial support of the production would not be contrary to public policy." (If you care to, you can read the whole bill here.)

The most obvious thing that is wrong with this proposed law is that a film or video production must be completed and in the can before the producers can know whether it will satisfy the Heritage Minister. Of course, to budget for and not receive public funding would be enough to bankrupt most small Canadian film and video companies; and naturally, other investors are going to be extremely leery of investing their money in any project that might have the rug pulled out from under it after the fact by the Heritage Minister of the day. So, not only will this create a substantial chilling of the consideration of any politically controversial topic, but, from an accounting point of view, it is contrary to all common business sense: everybody knows that you can't attract the small investors to a project until the major ones are on side. True conservatives deserve better than this daft idea from the government that bears their name.

But a second and more trenchant objection is that, from the point of view of jurisprudence, this is one of those vague laws in which a government gets greedy about taking all the power that it might ever possibly want to use in one grab. "Public policy"? What's that? Well, it is whatever they say it is. C-10, then, is, in short, a piggy law that any real democrat must despise.

Naturally, the current Heritage Minister, Josée Verner, has been robust in her defence of the law that bestows upon her a despot's powers of acting on caprice. Not long ago, she huffed impatiently:

We are far from censorship here. We are just putting forward an intention from our government and (from) the former Liberal government just to make sure that we will take fiscal measure to make sure that the Canadian taxpayers' money won't fund extreme violence, child pornography or something like that.

Apparently, she didn't actually add "Trust me," but she might as well have done so. "Or something like that" is one of those phrases that should send shivers down the spine of anyone who knows anything whatsoever about the history of what politicians have felt at times about the arts. But let's leave that aside for the moment and stick with "extreme violence" and "child pornography." Talk about inflammatory subjects!

But wait a minute. Has any film ever been made in Canada, that featured either "extreme violence" or "child pornography," and for which the producers applied for tax credit? Well, no. Never. Besides which, "child pornography" is against the law already, so given that example, the new law would basically say that it's against the law to do something which is against the law.

So, what are they worried about, really? Well, the only clue we're left with is "something like that," which, in the eyes of the Honorable Ms Verner or whoever her successors may be!, could mean almost anything that runs contrary to the views of the government of the day: gay marriage, abortion, the Kyoto protocol, Rick Mercer, or whatever.

I know that sounds as though now I am just being ridiculous, but here's the thing: the law DOES give them that power. Ergo, it is not me that is ridiculous, but the law. As I say, it is a piggy law.

But the main point that I want to make here is a new one---or, at least, as far as I can tell, it seems to have escaped all the discussion thus far:


What I mean by this is: why not write a law that says that if any industry does anything which is "contrary to public policy" (or, better still, in violation of the Criminal Code---remember that old thing?), said industry will not receive any government funding or tax credits? Either the principle is a sound one or it isn't. So why not extend the law?

Why not, indeed. Because it is very clear that, while there has not yet been a film or video made in Canada that received funding while doing any of the heinous things Mr Harper and Ms Verner imagine, there have, repeatedly, been other sorts of companies that have taken public funding while violating all manner of laws, policies and public interests again, and again, and again. Who am I thinking of? Well, just consider for a second how the oil, or mining, or forestry companies would react to such a restriction. Demonstrably, if there are mad dogs that need to be muzzled in this country, those are the sectors of the economy in which you will find them, not in the arts.

So, I find myself forced to this conclusion: Stephen Harper's Conservatives have gone after the arts because they are galled by the freedom of imagination that artists embrace and represent. To a sensitive mind, this is obviously a deeply shameful situation, but I suspect that Ms Verner and many of her colleagues would be completely baffled by the suggestion that there was any shame at all in what they intend to do.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Gods and Puppets

Gordon Craig argued that puppets are "descendants of a great and noble family of images, images which were made in the likeness of God." You can see something of what he means in this video: the amplified illusion, with all the torturous labour to perform it crudely visible, is so much more powerful than any more realistic enactment possibly could be. The awe it evokes is similar to that elicited by images of gods, which, although we know them to be human creations, call our dormant imaginations into play in ways that, breaking free of banality, seem superhuman.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Barack Obama

Being Canadian, I naturally don’t get to vote in the U.S. Presidential primaries or elections, but just as naturally, I have an opinion. Because it is the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world, everyone has some stake in who becomes the next President of the United States of America. And because the country is our closest neighbour, our largest trading partner, and our nearest relative culturally, Canadians have an even greater interest than most others in the question.

So here is my opinion. When the candidates were first named, it seemed to me that John McCain was obviously the best of a rather weak Republican field. For the Democrats, I assumed that I would favour Hillary Clinton, despite some slight misgivings about a couple of her past tactical blunders. At the time, I had little direct knowledge of Barack Obama, so the suggestions of his “inexperience” seemed credible. Over the course of the winter, however, I became convinced that Obama is by far the most promising candidate, for the following reasons.

The world is at a crucial turning point in which the ecological crises are and will be generating enormous political tensions all over the globe, and especially in the Middle East and Africa. Deforestation, lack of clean water and over-population will foment drought, famine, disease and social violence. It is naïve to think that this coming situation is any longer avoidable; the crucial question will be one of how it is managed.

In any attempt to meet this problem creatively and positively, the role played by the United States will be crucial. The world needs it to play a positive role of leadership, because we cannot afford to have so powerful a player working against the needs of the team. But if the United States continues to be riven on the domestic front by all the old dysfunctional suspicions and hatreds between the Right and the Left, between the rich and the poor, and amongst Black and White and Hispanic Americans, it will not be able to provide effective leadership. Likewise, if the profound hatreds and suspicions felt towards the United States by many in the world ⎯ particularly the Muslim majorities in the Middle East and North Africa, which are the greatest ecological and political trouble spots ⎯ continue to grow, then we can only expect the cataclysmic results of the inept invasion of Iraq to spread and worsen. Hearts and minds must be won over and united at home and abroad in order to begin to unite moral authority to the political power possessed by the United States. The nation needs to recover the high idealistic ground represented in its founding documents and overthrow all the years of self-interested conniving, petty ideological grudges and profound social disaffection that have resulted in all those many disgusting spectacles of moral failure which I hardly need to itemize here. The person who should be the next President of the United States is the person with the character and skills best suited to creating the conditions in which this nearly miraculous transformation can take place.

I don’t believe that John McCain, for all his courage, can do such a thing, because his domestic ideas are basically cut from the well-worn wishful-thinking of the Reagan era, and because he is too deeply distrusted outside of his own country to build any new bridges. I don’t believe that Hillary Clinton can do the job, because although she has had some good ideas, she is in her character a profoundly partisan politician. Her campaign style is further evidence of this fact. In the past, she may have been right sometimes in pointing to the workings of nefarious right wing conspiracies, but nothing she has said since the days of Kenneth Starr’s investigations is likely to allay the hatred of any of those who have been against her. If she gains the Presidency, it will represent, at best, a swinging of the pendulum back to something like its place under the leadership of her husband; but she will carry an even longer history of partisan grudges with her, with much less of Bill Clinton’s disarming charisma to offset the anger and distrust.

Barack Obama, by contrast, is as honest and forthright and as non-partisan a Presidential candidate as the United States has seen in more than a century. His rhetoric is inspiring not because it offers facile platitudes, but because he re-embraces the founding principles of his country from a stand-point that is fully-informed and truthful about the deep grievances and angers felt by many about the repeated betrayal of those principles by self-interested political parties. He is formidable in debate, but refuses to stoop to cheap shots, not out of weakness, but because he believes what he says: that such kinds of discourse represent much of what is wrong with the political culture of his country, and he would like to change this.

The notion of Obama’s inexperience is a canard. The eligible person with the closest experience of what it is like to be President in the post 9/11 world is Dick Cheney. Is there anybody who believes that his experience really qualifies him? George W. Bush, who is rightly considered a strong candidate for "Worst U.S. President in History," was the son of a President, and moreover had years of experience as Governor of Texas (where the experience he gained included signing more sentences of execution than any other politician in American history). The point I am trying to make is this: people gain their experience of decision-making in a certain sort of context; they come to believe through experience that certain kinds of decisions are the most effective. So, if you want a different sort of decision-making, you go to somebody with a different sort of experience: someone whose different experiences have created a different sort of character. That Obama understands American politics well enough to have come so close to the Amerian Presidency as he has already, while runnng a radically different campaign that refuses to practice the politics of fear-mongering, of resentment, of unfair insinuation, of character assassination or of venality, shows, to my mind, that he is eminently well-qualified for the office.

Finally, let’s consider the question of race. You would have to be profoundly self-deceptive to deny that race matters a great deal on both the domestic and the international stage. The feelings of disaffection from the American mainstream among young Afro-Americans is probably as severe a problem as the feeling of hatred and distrust of America amongst the Islamic nations. But imagine what the prospects might look like for a solution to this problem from the point of view of someone who actually represents the future. Try to put yourself in the place of a black twelve year-old---either an inner-city Afro-American or a Muslim living in North Africa---who has been taught that the founding principles of American democracy have become nothing more than hypocritical words used by rich, white patriarchs to secure political advantage. The effect of hearing these principles recovered, in a realistic, committed way, by a man who does not come from a rich, white background but who has attained a position of respectability and influence; who has a deep understanding of Islam that was fostered by being taught in a Muslim school; who refuses to gain advantage through low, partisan attacks; and who fearlessly speaks about difficult truths, would make an incalculably huge positive difference.

I’ll close with three videos. The first is a long one: about 40 minutes or so. It shows Obama making what I consider to be one of the finest political speeches of the modern age, a speech given in Philadelphia in March. He is talking about perhaps the most inflammatory issue in American society: race. He is honest, forthright, realistic, dignfied, statesmanlike and hopeful. In my view, only the most hardened cynic could listen and yet remain unmoved by what he says.

The next two are short music videos featuring songs by Will.I.Am, from The Black-Eyed Peas. I include them here in an attempt to capture something of the inspiration Obama instils in others. It is difficult to think of any other politician in recent years who could have inspired such heart-felt, unironic, admiring and hopeful tributes as these are.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Björk and Arvo Pärt

There is something about this clip that makes me incredibly happy. It's not just that I like both Björk and Arvo Pärt very much. It is that two such fiercely uncompromising artists can seem so comfortable and lacking in pretensions in the company of one another. The way that Björk, without any evident embarrassment, makes the analogy to Pinocchio, and the cerebral aesthete Pärt listens, charmed, and agrees, says much about the honesty of both of them: it suggests that, however deeply idiosyncratic each may be, their strangeness is not motivated by affectation, but by a striving for artistic expression that is free from the temptation of trying to meet the expectations of others.

Of course, each pays the price for this in a certain resistance to their work from some listeners. In general, the resistance is understandable, I think, because the work demands certain kinds of attention that not everyone is prepared to offer at any given moment: to each his own. However, I find myself less comfortable when I hear outright dismissals of either of these two, because there often has been a sneering present in such dismissals which I actually find morally distasteful. I have come to believe that those who don't want to even try to take Björk seriously, citing her elfin appearance and manner, may be blinded to their own patriarchal prejudices; and that those, especially among classical music aficionados, who look down their noses at Pärt because his work is "too simple," have become deafened by the fanfare of their own pomposity. I emphasize that this is not to say that everyone should like what I like. However, disliking artists' work is quite different from disparaging the authenticity of their vocations; and these two have shown enough integrity in their different ways to deserve at least our respect, if not our enthusiasm.

As much as part of the pleasure of seeing and hearing this conversation lies in watching two musicians who are so unlike one another have a meaningful encounter, I am also interested by the idea that behind their work there stands a similar attitude towards the place of music in the modern world, which I think is manifested in two quotations that I recalled while watching the video. I read each of these quotations some time ago, and I can't remember where now, so I will have to paraphrase. Arvo Pärt once said that the ultimate purpose of all music was to return our ears to silence. Björk once said that people should either listen carefully to the music they liked at a decent volume, or shut it off and "just skip it," because the idea of filling the air with bland muzak was deplorable. In both cases, then, there is a sense that it is in the relationship to the absence of music that their work defines its purpose. I'm not sure I wholly agree with either of them (to Pärt, I would say that I sometimes I play a song to whip up my enthusiasm; and to Björk, I would say that sometimes a soft musical background can be, as Bob Dylan sang, "nothing, really nothing to turn off"). But in any case, I find both ideas stimulating, and one would have to admit that this is certainly not the way music is regarded by most of the commercial entertainment industry, with its frantic efforts to pry our attention away from competitors.

Anyway, with that, I give you the video.

I think the only thing that would make me happier about that would be if Arvo Pärt also interviewed Björk about her work. Oh well, maybe next time.

Monday, April 7, 2008


I have been in France all winter, but I'll be leaving soon, and it seemed a good time to break my blog silence. Last week, a few of my graduating students asked me to contribute something to their final celebration, notwithstanding that I am still in Paris until later this month. This is what I sent them.