Monday, November 11, 2002

On Remembrance Day and World Peace

Today is Remembrance Day, the day we solemnly reflect upon the sacrifices made by those brave young men and women who offered their lives to preserve and protect our way of life. But it is so much more than that.

When I think of the horrendous acts that took place in the darkest days of the Second World War it is beyond my ability to believe that the world was able to withstand the convulsions of the plague set upon it. The "Thousand Year Reign" of the Nazis didn't even last a decade, but in their own warped way they helped shaped the course that our society would take by galvanizing the moral fiber of enough people - outraging them enough - to work to prevent the possibility of a reoccurrence of this global catastrophe.

The idea of the Peace Movement was not new to the world after WWII, but it certainly had more momentum, and more relevance as people began to realize that we simply could not afford to dedicate the economies of the world towards killing each other - which is why we had the Cold War, and the United States and the Soviet Union dedicated huge portions of their GNP towards the production of weapons and the maintenance of their military readiness (just in case the Soviet Union decided to attack the United States, each would be able to effectively destroy the world twenty times over)?.

Thus the world was introduced to the concept of MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction (or "how effectively can we wipe ourselves off the face of the earth without leaving any trace that we ever existed?").

I would offer that Remembrance Day should be changed. Instead of a less of a solemn reflection on the past sacrifices, which should never be forgotten, we should have a call for international peace. Canada has been a powerful part of the international peace movement since the establishment of the United Nations Peace Keeping Forces, but that is no longer enough. We are living in a time where the risk of a terrorist attack with a device of mass destruction has left the realm of science fiction: can we still risk the threat of war between nations when we should be focusing on the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, especially those which are particularly vulnerable to falling into the hands of people who would consider using them for political reasons - to instill terror into the hearts of innocent people.

Imagine what might happen if the resources used for the military in the world could be turned towards humanitarian efforts? How many schools could be built with what it costs to build and maintain an aircraft carrier - Or a hospital - housing for the poor - food for the hungry. The list is, sadly, endless. I don't know if we could end the problems of the world this way, but it seems to me that when you build weapons, in the end, somebody is going to want to use them - and that usually means they will try to find a way to do so - even if it is through political means. War is not something that we should be looking at in this time as a potential solution to problems. It is a barbaric response that we should be able to put behind us as we move further into this new millennium.

On this Remembrance Day, my thoughts will go out to those who died to help preserve the freedom we enjoy, but I will also be thinking — perhaps you can call it praying - about what this world may be like when we finally put an end to war. That will truly be a day to remember - a day for the world to rejoice, and for all of us to celebrate our freedom.

Sunday, November 10, 2002

Mental Health in Peril: Saving the Royal Ottawa

When I am introduced to someone it is usually as a composer, a writer, and a poet. Presently I am also on the board of directors of a new music society that presents concerts of contemporary classical music, and am the new Music Director of that organization. What usually doesn't come up in a conversation is that I also have an illness that I have been living with for about 19 years, and which has profoundly affected my daily living, and my ability to effectively interact with people, sometimes forcing me into a self-imposed exile to prevent the symptoms from overtaking me completely. I am speaking of bipolar affective disorder, otherwise known as manic depression. In essence, I am a crazy composer. Historically speaking, many far greater creative minds than mine have also been afflicted with this illness, including the likes of Robert Schumann, and Hector Berlioz, not to mention writers like Lord Byron and Sylvia Plath.

You may think it odd that someone would willingly admit that they have a mental illness, and in a sense, you would be correct: "normal" people don't want to talk about these things, and that is a serious problem. Mental illness, and consequently mental health has remained a marginalized: it is a ghettoized health concern and when it rears its ugly head it is turned into the "dirty little secret" that nobody wants to face. Unfortunately the world in which we live is making that attitude more difficult to maintain: while many are trying to cope with these illnesses and remain working, more people are ending up on medical leave for extended periods of time as they succumb to depression, manic depression, or one of the other illnesses that can become so overwhelming it becomes impossible to work. Mental illness has been described as the fastest growing cause of disability in the world by the World Health Organization, which reported in 2001 that of the people aged 15-44 who were classified as living a "disability-adjusted life" 20.6% had a form of mental illness. This compared to 13% who were living with HIV/AIDS.

Manic depression is a disease that can steal your life. I have found it exceedingly difficult to interact with other people, virtually impossible to work in the "real world", and it has placed tremendous strains on interpersonal relationships. While it is possible for me, as someone living with this illness, to understand how it affects my life, it doesn't change the fact that I don't always have the control over my emotions that I would like. Fortunately for me I do not experience full-blown mania, but I do cycle very rapidly which can be very difficult to cope with: from one moment to the next my mood can go from feeling quite elated, almost euphoric, to a melancholic depression that leaves me feeling like I want to die. If a disease is to be classified as serious because of the potentiality of death, then you should know this one thing about manic depression: this is a potentially fatal illness that will get worse if left untreated. Twenty-Five percent of those afflicted with this disease will die by their own hand over the course of the illness. Suicides will often take place as a period of depression is ending, when things are looking less hopeless and there seems to be less cause for concern. This is where mental health workers come in, because we simply cannot make it on our own.

There are many hospitals that will treat you well if you become ill in Ottawa: the Heart Institute is renowned for its quality of care, and CHEO is similarly celebrated for its caring staff and dedication to their young patients. But there is only one hospital that is singularly dedicated to the treatment of mental illness: the Royal Ottawa Hospital. The Royal Ottawa Hospital is where you want to go if you need help with a mental illness. The ROH cannot be replaced by any of the other hospitals in the area as it is staffed by professionals who only deal with patients with mental illnesses, and the people who are a part of their lives. The ROH is also involved in undertaking cutting edge research into the causes of mental illness, and it was a doctor at the hospital who was a part of the team that discovered the so-called "suicide gene" which was widely reported and will hopefully lead to new, more effective treatments of depression. But more important than any of that, the staff at the Royal Ottawa are in the business of helping people put broken lives back together, healing wounds that cannot easily be seen on the outside and preventing new wounds from being opened. In a very real way, these people save lives, just as much as a heart surgeon who performs a life-saving procedure: I have no doubt that without the caring, decent people, with whom my care has been entrusted to at this irreplaceable institution, I would not be in a position to write this — or anything else for that matter.

But that is not the whole story.

Several weeks ago it was announced that it might be necessary to lay-off up to seventy members of the Royal Ottawa staff and cut some of the services provided. This was in response to an operational deficit faced by the hospital and the new law by the government of Ontario making it illegal for hospitals to operate in such a position. The truth behind the shortfall, however, has much more to do with government badgering than fiscal irresponsibility. The government of Ontario ordered the ROH to restructure: the absorption of the Brockville Psychiatric Unit and the transference of the emergency services unit from the ROH to the Ottawa Hospital are just part of that restructuring. With the restructuring came a commitment from the Ministry of Health to cover the costs of the process, otherwise the ROH would not have chosen to undertake the horrendous expenses on their own, and why should they?

When faced with a similar scenario the Board of Directors of the Ottawa Hospital refused to cut any of their staff. Many positions were eliminated with attrition, but services were preserved. However, the Board of the Royal Ottawa seems incapable of guiding the hospital through this troubled time: instead of lay-offs the hospital would be better suited by their removal and the installation of a new board that is willing to fight for the quality of care that was provided in the past and improving upon it, not letting it degrade with unnecessary cuts. The one thing that politicians and administrators fail to understand when it comes to the provision of health care is that publicly funded care is not, nor should it be considered, a for-profit industry. The "health industry" is one which we must invest money into rather than cutting funds from if there is to be any hope of preserving the quality of care that we have today without risking severe degradations of service.

There seems to be a distorted sense of value when it comes to the treatment of mental illness. If this reduction of services is allowed to take place, for example, there is a very real possibility that some of the people needing the expertise offered by the staff of the ROH will not be able to receive that care. In the long run, this can result in more expense to the health system as some conditions becoming more serious to the point that more expensive, in-patient hospital stays will be required. The worse-case scenario, of course, is much worse: a person who is unable to receive the help they need may make a decision out of desperation, choosing to end their life, thus becoming another statistic. This is the real human tragedy that the provincial government is contributing to in their failure to provide the necessary funds in order to prevent the cuts in services.

It has been asserted by the administration of the Royal Ottawa that the cutting of seventy staff members will not have a negative affect on the services provided. This is ludicrous: the people who have been targeted for these cuts are already carrying inordinately heavy work loads. Nurses, occupational therapists, psychologists and social workers are carrying combined caseloads of both inpatients and outpatients that could often be covered by two full-time positions, but instead, one person bears all of the responsibilities, as well as running whatever groups they may be committed to. Even if one position is eliminated it will mean that a heavier workload will result for the remaining members of that particular health-care team, putting the health and life of patients at risk.

It is time for us to put our priorities in order, understanding that mental health care and the treatment of mental illness is an investment in people worth far more than any amount that is put into it. If we allow the government to force our hospitals to select a course contrary to that which they would have taken and then force them to pay for the misguided restructuring with the people who are there to provide care for the ill, then we are doomed to see our health care system collapse under the incompetence of the administrators currently running the province. The people who work at the Royal Ottawa Hospital need to be saved from this "hacking and slashing" mentality of fiscal responsibility. We need this hospital, with all of its staff, not some "Royal Ottawa Lite" that takes a step backwards in mental health care. That is a price none of us can afford to pay.

Monday, June 17, 2002

What's Wrong?

Is there something wrong with people being good to other people? Oh, I know, that sounds far too much like Oprah and the "random act of kindness", but really, all I want to know is if there is some genetic predisposition within us that enables us to betray each other with ease — as if it is the easiest thing in the world to do.

As we are bombarded with news reports I seem to see a pattern emerge, and it all seems to be a variation on a simple theme: people all over the world taking every chance they can to hurt their neighbours. It seems to have become the modern "blood sport" to see just how much you can get away with before the law catches up with you — and if you are caught the game then becomes to find the best defense that deflects all responsibility away from the person who committed the violent act so that nobody every has to be personally accountable for anything.

It is so terribly sad.


There is something attractive to me about the idea of total randomness — of something moving along on its own without being constrained by a pre-ordained set of rules or a specific criteria established to control its eventual outcome.

For some people this is, perhaps, a frightening concept: the abandoning of control. Or it could, if taken to the extremes, represent a total disintegration of all law as we know it and, in turn, allow for the beginnings of a totally chaotic, or even anarchistic type of government. But I am really just talking about a method of composition: not some great metaphysical dilemma encompassing every aspect of the social order.

My idea of randomness, or perhaps chaos, relates to the way it has influenced composers dating as far back as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who rolled a set of dice in order to generate melodic material for his music. We wouldn't think of Mozart as a composer of aleatoric music in the same sense way as John Cage or other composers of the twentieth century, but the tradition and technique extends back for centuries.

A composer who wants to experiment with random elements in their music has countless tools available to them, from computer programs which will, literally, compose music given a set of specific parameters, through to the use of fractal algorithms, to more "traditional" means, such as using sets of dice to determine the pitch of the notes and even the rhythms in the music. The level that a composition can be given over to the chaos is really only limited to the particular abilities of the composer, or the limitations of their imagination.

Whatever method a composer decides to use, the quest for an "aleatoric style" leaves a composer with a daunting challenge: do they face the paragon of musical chaos, John Cage, or do they seek to find their own voice amongst the erratic happenings, and in so doing hope to create a piece that has some enduring value — something worthy of being revisited time and time again.

Supporting the Modern Composer

There is a certain desperation amongst modern composers, I believe, in that the audiences to whom new music is being directed have become jaded by the availability of acoustic perfection as found through studio recordings. Everyone has access to their favourite music — so there is no longer an urgency for people to go to concerts: music will still be there tomorrow. At one point the concert hall was practically the only place where a person could go to hear a performance of large-scale works, but now the sound of the symphony can be heard coming from any personal stereo — and new music gets relegated to obscurity.

A person going to a concert faced with a programme of unfamiliar music must ask themselves "why should I subject myself to this new music?" Why indeed — the reason is simple: Because it is alive. We easily forget that Mozart and Beethoven were modern in their day, not all of the music that is embraced today came into the world so peacefully. Some of the most loved works of Tchaikovsky were condemned by the critics: but the performers persisted and the audiences learned that there was something in the music worth hearing.

We cannot allow "new music" to be so easily condemned: the only way that we will see the continuation of the art is to understand that artistic progress comes through continued experimentation, and artistic growth comes through allowing artists to develop their abilities in a supportive atmosphere. Creative work cannot be done in a vacuum, and no matter how many people hear the performance of a new composition it is vitally important to support the production of new music concerts, giving composers venues for their ideas and allowing audiences to hear what the future is producing.

Thursday, June 13, 2002


In the spirit of sharing, since this seems to be the place to do that, it occurred to me that one of the things that I wanted to do when this page was made was to write something that would be so inflammatory people would have to sit up and take notice. Then I backed away — but why? As the saying goes, no guts, no glory.

Simple Solutions to Complex Problems:


All this talk about priests and whatnot — well, I have the most elegant solution: castration and a tattoo. Cut them off and tattoo "Pedophile" on the forehead of the offenders — I guarantee that there will not be any repeat offenders. If anyone is creative enough to actually repeat after that, reopen the Roman Coliseum and let the lions have some fresh meat.

Drunk Driving:

Why do we talk about multiple offenses? That is obscene. First offense: the car is confiscated and sold, with all proceeds going into a fund for victims of the crimes. Licenses are suspended for life. If somebody whines about their "rights" being infringed upon, tough!

We had a diplomat from Russia in this city run over someone and get away with it because of "diplomatic immunity" — they weren't immune enough to get drunk, but they are immune when it comes to infringing on the rights of others, the innocent victims of their crimes. It has to stop. I am not against drinking, by the way — not at all. Just the fools who decide to turn their cars into lethal weapons.


Since the issue of "diplomacy" has been broached, what is it with politics, anyway? Is this the field that people chose to go into when they have a pathological need to disseminate false information to the largest group of people over an extended period of time? In other words, the truth stops here.

Is there a written rule out there dictating that these esteemed individuals who are dedicating themselves to "public service" are also incapable of looking the electorate in the eye after they take office and telling the truth about anything?

Well — that's enough rambling for now — time to go work on my string quartet.

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

First Entry

Welcome to my very first "Blog" entry — this is going to be a semi-journal-like "thingy" that is connected to my For the Love of Music* site, which you can find here. I hope you find these writings to be both interesting and perhaps even enlightening � maybe even enraging at times. I will promise one thing: you will not find the "same old thing" when you read what I write.

Is there an innate need for people to create things? Obviously, I cannot answer that for anyone else, but at the same time I cannot imagine what life would be like if I did not have the desire to create. To compose is to open up a world that did not previously exist — to fill it with anything that I desire, and give it life.

The quest for being truly expressive cannot end with the selection of a note or a melodic motif. The whole of the composition embodies the essence of the composer and through their creativity they are revealed. It is through the musical works that you will discover the deepest emotional secrets of a composer as nothing can be hidden in the quest for true creativity and expressiveness.

Enjoy your read, and come back often!

Peter ... aka

* The original link was changed as the page no longer exists. This post updated on June 23rd, 2006.