April 22, 2014

My Life on Eart and Elsewhere by R. Murray Shafer

I quite enjoyed this very quirky autobiography of Canadian composer and dramatist Murray Shafer. I'd never heard of him before (probably embarrassing to admit, but I just hadn't) but he apparently was quite well-known and has won a number of honorary doctorates and awards, including the Order of Canada in 2013. It's a good read, reminiscent for me of the biography of John Hirsch I read some time ago, in that it's a revealing insider look at the Canadian arts scene over the past half century.

I suppose "avant-garde" would describe Shafer's work. He wrote modern music for orchestras and voice - operas/musicals that were so difficult artistically that some of them were never staged at all, and others only once. He drew complicated mythological pictures to illustrate his works, which were rooted in the mythologies of cultures ranging from North American First Nations to Greek to Japanese to Inca. Shafer worked in many universities and schools, teaching the lessons of "soundscape" to students. He sometimes worked with towns or cities to stage massive dramatic and musical festivals, with thousands of local participants in scores of venues throughout the town.

I didn't really like the main character very much. He seemed prickly, cocky, confrontational and judgmental. From the outside, his personal life looked like a mess. He left his first wife weeping on the floor because he'd found someone younger and prettier. Then he left that woman too, (she was also devastated) for his third relationship, but took his second partner back for a time when the third woman was busy in Europe with her work and another partner. He admits to feeling terrible about these things and never writes a word of criticism about any of the women. But loyalty was obviously not his strong point.

On the other hand he was wildly creative and passionate, and I was fascinated by the arc of a career that leaped from one new project to another, each one upping the ante on the last for bizarreness. He got commissions from various Canadian symphonies throughout his career, some perhaps because of the requirements of Canada Arts Council grants.

His main success seemed to have been in his soundscape teaching, and it was also in this that the book most resonated with me. I've become more aware of the sounds around me since I read it, and more appreciative of the very serene soundscape of my own little piece of paradise here on Caldwell Street.

April 13, 2014

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlman

When I see that I haven't posted since last October, I feel as though I've been in some kind of gap in the time-space continuum. I have read books, but maybe not very good ones or maybe I just haven't had the bandwidth to post about them.

This was a really good book, by a young Austrian writer. He fictionalizes the lives of 19th century explorer/scientist Alexander Humboldt (the Humboldt current) and brilliant mathematician Carl Gauss. The novel revolves around their meeting at a conference, with Gauss a hilariously reluctant participant because he just wanted to stay home, whereas Humboldt traveled all around the world.

There are a lot of interesting ideas about the nature of genius, curiosity, measurement, and how new things are discovered. The author draws fascinating pictures of life in the 19th century, almost unbelievably harsh.

I haven't yet looked up the lives of these two men on Wikipedia, but I'll be interested to do so to see how much of the book is true. This book would make a fabulous movie if it hasn't already been made into one. I couldn't put it down. It's smart and funny.