Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Mystical in the Songs of the World

As one who came of age in the Nineteen-Sixties, for me Brad Wheeler’s now forgotten  2009  review article in the Toronto Globe and Mail remains a seminal read. He was memorializing the 90th birthday tribute to Pete Seeger on May 3rd in Madison Square Garden. Titled  'The songs, they are a-changing'  Wheeler's piece was a trip down the memory lane of the big “songs-of-the-times” and a lament for the great pop anthems of our past. Perhaps the last of these was Neil Young’s Rocking in the Free World of 1989.  

Wheeler's obituary for great songs quoted Don McLean, who in 1971 had penned that superb tribute to the rural American South, American Pie, as saying: “Pop culture is illiterate now; nobody cares about words and they don’t care about melody either. In order to write an anthem, you have to be at least reasonably poetic, and I don’t think that people today have the verbal wherewithal”. McLean went on: “People love language, they crave it, but the support for it is drifting away. Society is not going in the direction of poetry. It’s going in the direction of numbers.”

In regretting “the vanished mighty sway of music” Wheeler attributed it to the ever-expanding diffusion of outlets for music so that “..the potential to reach a large audience with a serious topic is diminished”. The possibility of a single and singular artist capturing the ethos of a time in history is disappearing. The ‘do you remember where you were when...’ moments of  today and tomorrow will have myriads of uploaded YouTube snips or their future equivalents. While a few are widely spread by viral means online, nearly all will be without the broad exposure that creates an enduring image in the public mind

As there is now so much noise out there, nothing can any longer be definitive.  No single vision can capture a time or place’s dominant mood or emotion. How can there be shared nostalgia for an era, like there is still for the Sixties, when there is no longer a signature tune or memorable picture or quote that forms a collective point of remembrance of how it felt to be alive then? Are we already coming into the time when the truly transcendent, the stuff of myth, can no longer find an entry into our society’s collective consciousness?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Snared by Technology

US consumer reporting agencies are required by their federal laws to show consumers their credit reports to allow them to correct errors in their own records, but data brokers who collect and sell consumer information for marketing purposes are not required to give individuals access. The business of collecting information about our individual tastes and behaviours is running amok pretty well everywhere in the World, totalitarian or democratic. It's just the purpose for doing it that differs.

Google is now using its mapping and GPS capabilities to send you locally tailored ads - the shape of things to come. One just can't hide, short of dropping off the grid and becoming a hippy or hobo, or going to live with an Amazon tribe. The itinerant Roma keep trying but it's not working. And even true hippies have to consume something commercial at some point.

You can be sure a great deal of the promotional digital bumf that data collection technology developments bring your way will be unwelcome. The old broadly distributed and loosely targeted analogue advertising was easier to ignore than the rifled hit that you get on your smart phone, a message that is more intrusive and may well cost you money to read. Watch an old 1960s Star Trek episode on DVD and you'll time it at 51 minutes, then compare that to the length of the action in a modern one hour show on TV.  Just how many more unwanted messages can we receive before there's little else?

But is anyone really fighting back? What liberates also enslaves, and technology is our modern slaver.

A Weird and Crazy Empire

"With the N.R.A. (US National Rifle Association) unusually quiet since the (Newtown CT school) shootings, gun control supporters and opponents had looked to Friday’s event as a sign of how the nation’s largest and best-known gun lobby would respond and whether it would pledge cooperation with the White House and lawmakers seeking new actions.
Mr. LaPierre’s (NRA V-P) defiant tone suggested otherwise. He and David Keene, the group’s president, took no questions from reporters at the event who called out asking whether they planned to work with President Obama.
The N.R.A.'s main answer to school violence was a model program it unveiled called National School Shield, which would train and arm security guards at schools in those local districts that want to use it.
 From 'N.R.A. Calls for Armed Guards in Schools to Deter Violence' in  N.Y.Times: 21.12.2012

"Hey kids, our gift to you is upping our taxes to give you real protection at school next term!"

I generally enjoyed living in America the few years in mid-life I did so but the place has always had a different take on social order. Perhaps some of this derives from its relatively short but violent expansionist history in trying to grab the British North American colonies (unsuccessful), hiving off one-third of Mexico then much of the remaining C19th global Spanish Empire (successful), and dispossessing, killing or relocating large numbers of  indigenous people who got in the way. Everyone else calls this empire building. The fact that America resolutely refuses to accept that it created an empire, and did so by the usual time-honoured methods, ranks as really odd. But at least one can see why they once needed guns.

Post-imperial societies like Western Europe, Japan and even Russia don't see why the population needs to be armed. America is to all intents and purposes post-imperial. When will they understand that?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Individual Mental Illness vs. Social Lunacy

"Perhaps the horror of 20 children being killed in Newtown will finally push members of Congress to locate their spines and begin working to pass some sensible gun legislation. Consider that on the very same day as the Newtown massacre, a deranged man walked into a school in Chengping, China and tried to kill as many children as he could. He attacked 22 of them. But because he was wielding a knife, not one of the children died." Paul Waldman, US editor and author

The current heightened debate in the US media on gun ownership is as highly polarized as so much of American social discourse. Their argument seems to distill down to strategies for dealing with the nut jobs in society versus limiting access to automatic weapons that facilitate massacres. In any other civil society the difficulties presented by identifying and effectively managing all mentally ill individuals who might pose a danger to society, when set against those presented by rigorous screening and licensing of gun owners and limiting military-grade weapons to security forces, would create only a brief debate.

Not so in the US. Uniquely there it all boils down to the historical right of an American Patriot to carry a flintlock to fend off the 'foreign' tyrants, especially those known as the British Crown. Only nowadays that's morphed into fending off your fellow patriots with repeating weapons that don't need reloading. It's worth remembering that, at the time of the American Revolution, 40% of the population of the Thirteen Colonies weren't opposed to the Foreign Tyrant. Those guys fared badly in the first 40 years of the new republic, and many left. The descendents of those United Empire Loyalists, at least those here in Canada, don't seem to be any more gun-loving than the rest of us. Too bad they couldn't have stayed home down there - they might have kept things a bit saner.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Hirising the Countryside

A recent Council meeting in our bucolic and largely rural township discussed planning progress on major developments at the southern end where we edge the 'big smoke' that is widely known as the Greater Toronto Area. It was refreshing to hear my county councillor wonder aloud about the logic of government policy that seeks to press ever higher housing densities onto rural community developments. He pointed out that he had yet to meet someone who planned to move up here to live in high-density dwellings! As a resident of a nearby once-historic township for over 40 years, I saw a lot of poor decision-making around the preservation of social continuity.  I now fear that much of what is socially and historically meaningful will be lost in what is being developed hereabouts under the pressure of blanket policies forced upon our town and mandating increasing density and industrial / retail space.  

Urban planning guru Jane Jacobs may have got it right for cities, but a New Urbanist strategy for our still-remote byways, small villages, spacious prime farmland and seemingly endless treed hills is nonsensical. If the price of rapid population growth is the disappearance of a sense of place and the past in once-cohesive communities as happened within one generation where I last lived, what hope is there for social consensus down the years?

A Pandit Passes On

Ravi Shankar died the other day. He was 92.  

"Ravi Shankar was the ideal ambassador for Indian culture. As an artist he was a great hybridizer, respecting tradition but innovating freely. Collaborating with George Harrison on the “Concert for Bangladesh”; giving lessons in Indian classical music to John Coltrane; merging new musical technologies with classical Indian instruments and dancers from the Bolshoi in a stunning live performance inside the Kremlin; working with Philip Glass on the chamber-music album “Passages”; writing film and TV scores: Shankar’s unbounded and creative curiosity, steeped in the classics but pointed always at the new..." from Ravi Shankar (namesake American writer and editor), NY Times, Dec 17, 2012

For me the deceased Ravi Shankar has been a partner in music since university days. The complex musical tradition that he almost single-highhandedly introduced to the world beyond India was alien-sounding yet completely in sync with the mood of the 1960s. It is liquid and extemporaneous but also very spiritual. Still exotic to Western ears, it speaks to us in a soulful way. I have copies of Shankar's Russian collaboration and that with Yehudi Menuhin, both gifted works of art.

I vividly recall, while driving a rental car through one fine summer evening a decade or so ago, listening enthralled to a BBC radio documentary on the differing traditional musical styles to be found down the Indian subcontinent. Some of my forbears were in military service in the former Raj and motoring down the prehistoric spine of England helped the artistic richness of another complex and ancient land resonate as a place of connection.

Before Shankar there would have been no such documentaries to enrich my travels. His contributions to our shared global culture were extraordinary. I shall miss him.