Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Gift for You

My gift to you: a Christmas story, with a twist. This story was originally posted a few years ago, but I wanted to repost it, with a few small edits, as a Christmas gift to everyone. There is also a surprise gift at the end of the story in the guise of links to some full-length samples from my debut album, “Music from the Inner Voice”, which is available on iTunes and Amazon. 10% of all the sales from this album are being donated to Amnesty International. The inspiration for this story does not relate to any particular person or event, though it was written after seeing the report about an IED explosion which had killed some Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in 2007. After seeing the footage of the carnage I couldn’t help but think about the families, back here in Canada, and how they have to keep on living when a part of their family has been violently ripped from their lives on the other side of the world. The story’s dedication is at the end of the text. Please note, this is not a political statement about the war, it is a story about the human cost of war.

I hope you enjoy the story. Have a Merry Chanukah; a Joyous Christmas, and a Happy, Happy New Year.

Department Store Santa

Every year since he had turned fifty, and his long beard had turned white, he had worked as the department store Santa in one of the large shopping malls in the centre of town. Hundreds of children would come to sit on his lap every day in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but as the years passed by and he grew older the old man began to feel more than a small amount of resentment towards the ever growing commercialisation of Christmas. As much as he tried to hide those feelings of bitterness behind his bushy beard and smiling eyes they ultimately filtered down towards the children and their parents. Playing Santa used to be fun, now it was only a job.

Christmas wasn’t what it used to be, he thought to himself with a heavy sigh, as yet another child recited yet another list of expensive computer games and electronic devices that they not only wanted but already knew they would be getting for Christmas. It was even getting to the point, he sadly realized, where he was finding it increasingly difficult to smile for the photographs that his “elf” would take with the children while they sat on his lap; all he wanted to do was leave this shattered Yuletide fantasy of commercialised fraud and seek refuge with his wife, safe in their home where they had created a lifetime of memories of Christmas’ past. Living in the past had become something of an obsession of late, especially now as Christmas approached.

“Today’s your last day,” his wife had said as she gently squeezed his hand. They had just finished breakfast in their comfortable breakfast nook and he was preparing to leave for work. The words had managed to cheer him up considerably as he left their house near the Canal and walked to the mall with an added bounce in his step. A faint smile crept over his face for the first time in a long while as he approached the employee’s entrance and made his way to the locker room. He kept thinking about the conversation that he had with his wife over breakfast about retiring completely, and the more he thought about it the more he liked the idea. He had been able to retire early from his consulting job and had taken on this job as Santa seventeen years ago just for fun, not at all expecting to do it for such a long time. Of course, if he was perfectly honest with himself, and his wife, he would have admitted that his heart just was not into being around so many people any more, not after what had happened to their son, Kevin.

As he entered the locker room and put on his Santa suit for the last time this year, and perhaps for good, there was something a little different in his attitude; it seemed as though a weight had been removed, perhaps because he had decided to retire. This day, he thought, would be different, if only for the fact that it was the last day that he would ever have to wear this pathetic costume and sit in the stupid throne while wisecracking teens laugh at him all day. Santa suits, he thought, as he walked towards his “Kingdom” for the last time, should come with pockets where you could conceal water guns and other projectile toys.

Throughout the day and the endless, anonymous children, all seeming to want the same mp3 playing robot that could do all kinds of cool things … (he really was getting too old for this, he thought to himself, not for the first time this season), he still managed to keep smiling, reminding himself of the Christmas Eve dinner awaiting him at home that his wife would have been working on all day; and he remembered to laugh at the appropriate places for the children, to smile for the photos and to give each of the little urchins one of the obligatory candy canes for having had the pleasure of screaming in his ear (no wonder he was nearly deaf in his left ear). Since this was Christmas Eve it was busier than usual with last-minute shoppers desperate to find that elusive, perfect gift. This did not prevent the old man from letting his mind wander to what his wife would be doing at home.

His wife came from a family that celebrated Christmas Eve with what could only be described as gusto; the family was not particularly religious, they were just enthusiastic. When it came to the meal no expense was spared: they made a roasted ham, a turkey with all the trimmings, potatoes of several varieties, salads enough to sink a ship and more than enough side dishes to feed dozens of people. It was a feast worthy of royalty, and it was a tradition that the family tried to continue, as much as possible.

Unlike other Christmas Eve dinners, this would be a meal only for the two of them; their only son had been killed only five months earlier in the year while serving with his unit in Afghanistan, but knowing his wife there would be more than enough food for a small army; or at least a battalion. This would be their first Christmas without their son, without their Kevin, he thought to himself with a note of sadness as the last of the children was admitted through the gates to see Santa; his assistant pointed to the “closed” sign, signalling to him that the gates to “Santa’s Kingdom” were now locked for the season. Thank God, he thought to himself.

As the boy approached there seemed to be something odd about him that immediately caught the old man’s attention. He was only about seven years old, but there was something about his eyes that made him look much older, far more mature than his years. When he was close enough to speak, he said, in no uncertain terms, “look: we both know that I’m too old for this, right? I’m only here for my mother — it’s been a rough year for …” but he couldn’t continue as a tear began to roll down his freckled cheek.

“Come here, my boy,” the old man said, his voice kinder and gentler than it had been since the Chaplain had arrived with the news of his own son’s death, five months before. “What is it that you want for Christmas?”

The boy looked up at the old man and, seeing his own grief reflected back in his eyes, replied, “I want my father to come home from Afghanistan so we can be a real family again, but he already came back,” his voice cracked, “… in a coffin.” The boy buried his face in the deep plush of the Santa costume and he cried for several minutes while his mother came to get him, visibly embarrassed by the situation. But the old man didn’t mind the tears, for they were his as well, and those of his wife. They were tears that seemed to flow unceasingly, from eyes that saw ghosts in every corner of their house; they were tears that never seemed to run out, that never seemed to lose their sting.
When the boy stopped crying and his mother introduced herself to the old man he took her offered hand and asked, his voice thick with emotion, “would you and your lovely son do my wife and I the honour of joining us for dinner this evening? You see,” he continued, gently squeezing her hand, “this will be our first Christmas without our son as well. He was also killed in Afghanistan,” these final words were barely whispered, but the mother and son had no difficulty hearing.
All she could do was nod her head and do her best to smile, something she had not done very much of since the Chaplain had arrived at their house two months ago. As the three of them left the mall the old man was still dressed in his Santa Claus suit and for the first time in a long, long time, he was feeling every bit the part.

Dedicated to the Canadian Servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and all other Peace Keeping Missions, and to their families; Merry Christmas. Peter Amsel, Ottawa.

Previews from the debut album of Peter Amsel - "Music from the Inner Voice"

Ambience 3: Arab Spring This piece is dedicated to those who died in the struggle for the changes in their nations - and to those who continue in the struggle.

Lost Innocence: In Memory, Oslo, 22-07-2011 This piece was composed in memory of the tragedy this summer in Oslo and is dedicated to the survivors and those who were murdered.

"46664" The Number of a Man A piece based on the number given to Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned on Robben Island (video).

The album includes works for small ensembles and chamber orchestra, including my "Chamber Symphony No. I - Momento Mori" - which is dedicated to the survivors of the Japanese earthquake of 2011. The music was performed by a virtual chamber ensemble, featuring the Garritan Personal Orchestra. Some tracks were performed by the composer, using a program called "Reason" (the orchestral and chamber pieces were composed in Finale). For more information about the album, and to hear samples of every track, please visit here
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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Malcolm Forsyth: In Memoriam

When I first met Malcolm Forsyth at a concert of the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, several years ago, my first impression was that he was an exceedingly charming man, something that was immediately apparent when you listened to his music. That charm was something that persisted through to his last premiered work, A Ballad of Canada, a joint commission with the NACO and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, which was premiered at the National Arts Centre of Canada in June, and which I had the distinct honour of reviewing for this blog. At the time of that premiere, on the 9th and 10th of June it was not expected that Malcolm would be able to attend due to his the fact that he had already been battling pancreatic cancer for almost a year, but he beat the odds and, much to the delight of the audience, was on hand to accept the standing ovation at the end of a well prepared, extremely well crafted composition that will definitely become a treasure of the Canadian repertoire for chorus and orchestra.

The sad news that Malcolm Forsyth lost his battle with cancer on Tuesday, July 5th, at the age of 74 was announced yesterday. He died in the Royal Alexandra Hospital at 2:30am, only five months short of his 75th birthday. A Ballad of Canada will receive its second premiere on November 11th and 12th by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra with the Richard Eaton Singers, but A Ballad of Canada is not Malcolm Forsyth’s last work, though it certainly is his final major composition. According to his daughter Amanda, an accomplished musician in her own right who serves as the principal ‘cellist of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Malcolm composed an encore piece for her and her violinist-conductor husband, Pinchas Zukerman, the director of the NAC orchestra. The piece, entitled Bliss for Brahms, was written to be played at the end of Double Concerto for Violin and Violoncello by Johannes Brahms, which Forsyth and Zukerman will be performing in Israel at the end of July at which time they will premiere the Forsyth encore.

We often give the last words of a dying man more weight than what someone might say under normal circumstances, but what of composers who have defied death itself to continue to create, to strive against the impending darkness to continue to seek the elusive beauty that we endeavour to set down so future generations can enjoy the ideas that seemed so fugitive only moments before? For the brief moment that an idea exists in our minds, composers capture, collate, synthesize, and combine them into what will ultimately be transformed into something that others will want to listen to and perform; something that is called music. It is often said that composers do not retire, and nothing truer can be said about those who pursue this craft: how can you retire from something that consumes you, that defines you as an individual? How can you retire from your life? Malcolm Forsyth demonstrated this by living through his music, and by composing music that continues to live on long after his body has passed from this world. His enduring legacy will continue on through the decades he spent as a teacher of composition at the University of Alberta: composers cannot help but be influenced by the composers with whom they studied. Every work written by those who worked with Malcolm Forsyth will be, declared or not, a tribute to the man who has given so much through his music.

Even as this is being written my mind recalls various parts of the performance of A Ballad of Canada, especially the extremely evocative “Toll of the Bells” section, the second section of the second movement, which was simply breathtakingly beautiful, and the dramatic setting of “Flanders Fields” which will hopefully become something that is heard at every Remembrance Day service of the future. Unfortunately, nobody who is unable to attend the performances of A Ballad of Canada in Edmonton in November will be able to hear A Ballad of Canada, unless the CBC decides it is worthwhile to record the piece and broadcast it, sharing this great work with the rest of the country; something they did not believe was the case during the Ottawa premiere back in June.

Memories are wonderful, but not always faithful; having an opportunity to hear A Ballad of Canada performed again would be a treasured experience, one well worth having in honour of such a treasured Canadian icon. Having dedicated the last 42 years of his life to the Canadian music scene it is easy to say that Malcolm Forsyth was truly one of Canada’s great composers: he will be missed.

Malcolm Forsyth: a life in brief
Born on December 8, 1936 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
Received his BMus in Composition in 1963 from the University of Cape Town.
Received his MMus (Cape Town) 1966.
Emigrated to Canada in 1968.
Received his DMus (Cape Town) 1972.
Taught at University of Edmonton, Faculty of Music for 34 years.
Performed in the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra as a trombonist for 11 years.
Won 3 Juno Awards, his third one in 1998 for Electra Rising: Concerto for Violoncello and Chamber Orchestra, which was composed for and performed by his daughter, Amanda Forsyth.
Named “Composer of the Year” by the Canadian Music Council in 1988.
In 2003 he received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and was invested as a member of the Order of Canada.

With information from the Edmonton Journal and The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Ballad for Canada from a Canadian Treasure

Concert Review: NAC Orchestra, June 10, 2010, Southam Hall

Pinchas Zukerman, conductor
Ottawa Choral Society, Matthew Larkin, director
Cantata Singers of Ottawa, Michael Zaugg, director
Ottawa Festival Chorus, Laurence Ewashko, directors
Ottawa Regional Youth Choir, Kevin Reeves, director
Arianna Zukerman, soprano
Heather Johnson, mezzo-soprano
David Pomeroy, tenor
Christopher Temporelli, bass
Duain Wolfe, chorusmaster,
Laurence Ewashko, associate chorusmasters

by Peter Amsel

There are many reasons for a composer to write a new piece; some are inspired by love, some by the thought of a new season, others by a work of art, and then there is the commissioned work. When a work is commissioned it only means that the composer is getting paid upfront for the composition of the work and, even more importantly, especially to the composer, the work will be performed – usually before the death of the composer. That is the most important thing about the new work that was recently performed at the National Arts Centre of Canada for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the composer in question, Malcolm Forsyth, who will be celebrating his 75th birthday on December 8 of this year, is in the final stage of an heroic battle with pancreatic cancer. He is dying, but his music, most definitely, is not; it is vibrantly alive and was enjoyed by two virtually sold out performances with the NAC Orchestra on Thursday and Friday, June 9 and 10, under the baton of Maestro Pinchas Zukerman, with four combined choirs of about 185 members under the direction of Grammy Award winning chorus master Duain Wolfe and associate chorus master Laurence Ewashko.

Malcolm Forsyth emigrated from his birth country of South Africa in 1968, relocating to his adopted home of Canada where he began a career teaching at the University of Edmonton. Last year, after spending decades as a fixture of Canadian music, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the National Arts Centre Orchestra presented him with a joint commission with the challenge to compose an “iconically Canadian work” which, Forsyth recognized, was a strange request to make “from an immigrant”, but it was not, not really. Not when you consider the nature of Canadian music and the effects that outside influences have had on its development. There should be no cognitive dissonance at the thought of an immigrant to this nation composing an iconic Canadian work; after all, our national anthem was composed by a man who spent most of his professional life living in the United States. Calixa Lavallée, the composer of O Canada, died in Boston in 1891 where he had worked for several years. Malcolm Forsyth, Canada’s “Composer of the Year” in 1989, is more than qualified to compose a work representing Canada. The question is, is Canada willing to accept such a work?

While the central portion of A Ballad of Canada is entitled “Canada in Time of Trial”, when Forsyth got to the writing of the final movement it could well have been called “Composer in Time of Trial”. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer: this could well be the last piece he composed. The battle was on. Composing became a salve, a form of therapy, and a reason to fight to survive, and he did just that: he survived. It is not always obvious what a composer is feeling based on how their music sounds: a composer that is feeling depressed does not necessarily write maudlin, dark sounding or turgid music. A Ballad of Canada is not morbid music, nor is it music that sounds as though its creator is prepared to give up the ghost. This is music that reflects a vital spirit; a questing, curious mind that still has a great deal to explore and experience through the sounds that there are to lay down on the page. Malcolm Forsyth is not prepared to go quietly into the night, not with A Ballad of Canada.

It would seem, as evidenced by Forsyth’s work, that being Canadian is more than about birth; it is about pride of place, and about a genuine love of the land. These things were abundantly present in his new work for choir and orchestra, which features the poetry of four poets in its five sections, which are divided into three movements. The first movement of the piece and the final movement each contain one section, based on poems by Ralph Gustafson (1909-1995) and E.J. Pratt (1882-1964). These outer movements represent “The Land” of Canada, with the first representing the Yukon through Gustafson’s evocative text and the fifth representing Newfoundland in one of the most interesting texts of the piece.

The central portion of the composition is entitled “Canada in Time of Trial” and focuses on Canada during war. The first of the three sections takes on one of the truly iconic poems of Canadian history, “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae (1872-1918). Every schoolchild grows up learning this poem, and learning that McCrae died shortly after having set it down on paper, so choosing to set such a well known text was truly a bold move, but it was a risk worth taking: the composition demanded a strong text. The first emotional climaxes, if the rousing setting of “In Flanders Fields” was not enough for the audience, truly comes in the third part of the piece, or the second section of the second movement: “The Toll of the Bells” by E.J. Pratt. While this is the shortest of the movements, it is stunningly beautiful and was truly one of the highlights of the night. One of the poems used in the composition was written especially for the work, by poet Carl Hare (b.1932 - ). His poem, “On the Waverly Road Bridge” portrays the emotional confrontation between two mothers during the funeral procession along higway 401.

As a composition there is much to laud in A Ballad of Canada, especially the evocative “Toll of the Bells” and Forsyth’s truly exceptional setting of the almost over-known “In Flanders Fields”. When a text is as well known as “Flanders” it is difficult to do something that does not sound contrived or cliché, but Forsyth’s handling of that section is anything but – it is the consummation of a career as a composer that shows a man who, though declining physically, retains the faculties that makes him one of Canada’s living treasures. Unfortunately the concert was not recorded by CBC Radio for broadcast to the nation so there will not be a chance for the public to hear a work that should become part of the Canadian repertoire. It is truly sad when the cost of a production is put ahead of the value of the preservation of our cultural treasures, particularly when one is as influential as Malcolm Forsyth. Hopefully the CBC will realize that A Ballad of Canada is something that Canada deserves to hear and they will record the Edmonton premiere in November.

One of the reasons that concerts have been declared obsolete by some is the fact that with recordings it is possible to create your own listening experience, whenever you desire, including the ability to listen to a composition over again if you want to hear something more than once. Unfortunately, when you take the live performance out of the equation you lose the opportunity to see certain things, things like over 180 choir members standing on risers at the back of the stage, or an expanded NAC orchestra assembled for the performance of the Forsyth, and the Beethoven in the second half of the concert. You would also miss the opportunity to see the composer receive acknowledgement for their work when the performance was concluded, as it was on Friday when the crowd rose to its feet for several minutes of a prolonged standing ovation for Malcolm Forsyth who waved repeatedly to the orchestra, choir and the audience from the Royal Box in which he had been seated.

If the measure of a piece of music is whether or not you want to hear it again then A Ballad of Canada is, indeed, a piece of music that may be great. At the intermission of the concert the first thing that went through my mind was that I wanted to hear certain parts of the piece again, especially the evocative “Toll of the Bells”, but, in truth, the entire piece is well worth exploring for the richness of Forsyth’s orchestral palette and his deft use of colour throughout the piece. Forsyth was definitely not out of his element in his use of the choir. Unfortunately, there were times when the choirs were slightly out of their element in the performance of the Forsyth.

The greatest issue of the evening, and the issue that struck at the performance of Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, seemed to be an issue of size. There is a perverse assumption in music that “size matters”, and that “bigger is better”, but this is not necessarily the case, not when it comes to assembling large amounts of singers for large choral events. A Ballad of Canada is sung in English but, at times, you would hardly recognize this fact given the diction of the massed voices. This is not the fault of the setting of the text, something that I can say with assurance for having seen the score: the text is well set, with opportunities for it to be declared clearly. So, who is to blame? Since Forsyth used an expanded orchestration it was decided to expand the rest of the orchestra: the string sections were bolstered with extra members which gave them a much fuller, warmer sound. The choirs, however, were another story. Perhaps it was just that there were too many choristers, or that a few were off the mark, but there were too many places where the clarity of the enunciation was such that the text was simply obliterated. Were it not for the printed text in the programme, it would have been difficult to follow the progression of the piece.

This was especially evident in the choral finale to the Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. For most people all one need do is say, “Ode to Joy” and the famous melodic motif that Beethoven immortalized in his work will be heard, hummed and whistled by those who profess to “not know anything” about classical music. It is a piece of music that has entered the collective consciousness of our civilization. It has been performed by choruses of thousands, with diction that would put the Vienna Boys Choir to shame, so why so much trouble for 180-or-so odd singers? Why indeed. Quite simply, size does matter. Too many singers, when there are too many amateurs who are not fully up to the task of what Beethoven wrote, add up to a performance that sounds like a professional orchestra married to an amateur chorus. It does not sound like a concert at the National Arts Centre; it sounds like the National Arts Centre Orchestra that suddenly brings on a choir of enthusiastic people who, knowing how the music goes, volunteer to sing the finale because they happen to have the right outfits for the concert.

In actual fact the finale was not as bad as that may sound, though there were some truly dreadful moments in the choral singing, there were some very nice “toneful” moments as well, when the tone of the amassed singers was quite lovely, though it was virtually impossible to make out any text other than the word “Freude” and “Elysium”. Granted, singing in German is never an easy thing to do for English speakers, it is something that singers do on a regular basis; it is part of the craft of singing. Making excuses that “the language is difficult” is simply not acceptable when the piece on the program is in German. Singing in a choir often requires one to sing in foreign languages, it is part of the challenge of choral singing so that excuse is not at all acceptable.

What the finale may have lacked in diction, it made up for with its enthusiasm, from the orchestra and vocal soloists, to a fairly entertaining performance by Maestro Zukerman who seemed to have lost all inhibition in the epic battle between Beethoven’s sonic world and the temporal, in which he stood, waving his arms about like an off-kilter windmill being assaulted by a demented Don riding a burro. It was, in effect, with apologies to Dickens, the best of movements and the worst of movements. The first movement, with its ethereal opening over the sustained pedal, was a bit harried and unfocused in its direction. There was such a long pause between the first and second movement that the opening of the rousing scherzo, which begins with a driving dotted-quarter note, eighth note, quarter note motif, lost all of the dramatic impact that the beginning of the movement can have, if it begins immediately after the end of the first. As a result, it fell flat, seeming to be totally without context to what had just come before. Truly however, one of the highlights of the performance was the orchestra’s rendering of the theme and variations in the third movement, which Pinchas Zukerman conducted with as little interference as possible, allowing the orchestra to play as they had been rehearsed, with confidence and clarity of vision. Throughout this movement the individual voices of the orchestra could be heard at their finest, making the listener long for opportunities to hear these performers in similar situations. The principal players were each brilliantly represented as Beethoven wove his web of variations and the strings of the orchestra, with the extra players, provided a lush sound that one could easily get used to hearing from the stage at the NAC.

Unfortunately, that was the end of most of the cohesiveness for the evening. It was a sign of musical laziness that brought things to a crashing halt at this point. When Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is performed there is often the question as to what to do with the soloists and the choir. It is obviously too much of a distraction to have over one hundred voices march onto the stage after about 50 minutes of music, to join the final 20 minutes of the piece, right? But what about the quartet of vocal soloists who sit at the front of the stage? Should they be made to sit there through the entire orchestral work, waiting for their short time in the spotlight? After hearing the long break that takes place when the four singers in Friday’s performance came onto the stage it is without reservation that this reviewer’s opinion is that yes, the quartet should be onstage for the entire performance. They are performers; it is part of their job. To take such a break between the sublime slow movement and the beginning of the finale is, in a word, idiotic. Unless there is a compelling reason that would prevent one of the singers from sitting still for 50 minutes, it seem incongruous that the soloists should not be able to tolerate such an ordeal. In consideration to the fact that 50 minutes may be too long for some people to sit on the stage, it would have been much less disruptive to the performance for the soloists to come out onto the stage after the scherzo movement. Sitting through the third movement, which is not overly long, would have greatly aided the flow of the performance.

The soloists of the evening made for an interesting group; led by Christopher Temporelli, who presented the opening bass recitative with confidence and panache, his voice filling Southam Hall at the NAC with an ease that one rarely hears with the lower voices. The same, unfortunately, could not be said for tenor David Pomeroy, who suffered from an insensitive accompanist in the form of Maestro Zukerman who ran over him with the orchestra and choruses. Pomeroy’s sweet voice, heard at the opening of his “Froh, wie seine Sonnen ...” (Happy as the sun flying ...), was quickly drowned out by the crescendo of the orchestra and choir, which is really unfortunate. Some singers love to sing Beethoven, while others hate him, and the reason for this is simple: Beethoven composed for the voice as though he was composing for any other orchestral instrument, which means the voice is not necessarily treated in a very characteristic manner. Beethoven’s vocal music does not fall into the category of what is commonly called the “Bel Canto” style that was so beloved among lovers of the opera of the day. The “beautiful singing” for which the “Bel Canto” is not something that Beethoven was concerned with when he composed for the voice; when Beethoven wrote he was only interested in having the voices perform just as if they were any other instrument in the orchestral force at his disposal. As a result, Beethoven’s vocal music is not always very easy to sing, especially when it comes to the community choirs that are invariably called upon for performances of the Choral Symphony. Performing this music takes a great deal of technical accomplishment and dedication from the singers; it is both challenging technically and musically.

Soprano Arianna Zukerman and mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson made the best of a difficult situation by rising above the assembled forces without sounding overly harassed. Heather Johnson’s tone was especially fine in the quartet portions of the finale. The final choral sections of finale was especially rousing, with the orchestral forces and the choirs coming together in time to find their way to a rousing finish that did not fail to satisfy any of those in attendance at the concert. Was this a performance that would withstand the fine scrutiny of multiple listenings? That is a question for the individual audience member, but it is not one which I would choose to replace any of the recordings that presently inhabit my Mp3 player. The audience at the NAC was, however, more than appreciative and for the second time that evening offered a standing ovation to the orchestra, chorus, and their leaders.

All music lovers should have an opportunity to hear a performance of Beethoven’s infamous and historic Choral Symphony at least once in their lives. It is the type of piece that fights the boundaries of a recording device, it defies the limits of a disc, whatever its dimensions. Seeing hundreds of musicians gathered together with a single purpose, particularly in the spectacular finale, you cannot help but be moved, and this performance, even with its imperfections, did just that. It may not have been the ideal performance, it may not have been a gem that will be cherished forever, but it will be the one that is dreamt about for it is the only one that is real.

The Edmonton premiere of A Ballad of Canada will take place under the baton of William Eddins on November 12, 2011, with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
Peter Amsel is an Ottawa based composer and writer.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Let Alvaro Stay in Canada

The following comment was inspired by a petition posted at the site. A young man, Alvaro Orozco, fled his home in Nicaragua when he was 12 years old to escape the beatings from his father. His father was beating Alvaro for a simple reason: the boy was gay. He came to Canada where he has become a very accomplished artist, as well as a gay activist. In 2007 his refugee claim was denied when it was declared that Orozco did not look "gay enough" (the adjudicator was in Calgary, conducting the interview via video conference).

You can read the details about the case and sign the petition here, but please read my comment below.

I would like to call on Minister Kenney to immediately rule in favour of the Humanitarian and Compassionate application made by Alvaro Orozco. The fact that he potentially faces death by the hands of his own father in Nicaragua is only compounded by the grossly insensitive treatment that he received by a government official who, interviewing him via a television screen, rejected his application on the bases that Orozco did not, according to the adjudicator, look "gay enough" to fulfill the requirements for a Calgarian's assessment. The fact that Alvaro Orozco had been working extensively in the gay community and had left his native Nicaragua to escape severe physical ab from his father who had threatened to kill "any child of his that was homosexual" was apparently not proof enough.

It is illegal, in Canada, to discriminate against someone on the basis of sexuality, and that is precisely what has been done here, but in such a perverted manner, it is mind boggling. Someone has come to this country seeking our help, seeking safety from persecution, and a Canadian official has cavalierly judged them based on their looks, declaring their sexuality to be not what they declare it to be simply because of the adjudicator's prejudices and preconceptions. This is something that must be redressed as quickly as possible, before Orozco is deported to Nicaragua where he faces the very real possibility of losing his life.

Minister Kenney: it's time to right this wrong before it's too late.

Orozco Arrested, May 13
Story from Gays without Borders

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Composing from A to Z

Note of Introduction:

The point of this essay is to discuss the development of a musical idea from its inception through to the realization of the completed composition. There is, however, no technical instruction relating to the composition of new music within this essay. While this essay is not about how to be a composer of contemporary classical music, the author invites composers (especially those in training) to read this article in the hopes that they might benefit from an alternative point of view in regards to the approach to composition. For the sake of the essay it is assumed that a composer will already be well versed in the literature of music, possessing a fundamental knowledge of both theory, counterpoint, and harmony (though these will not necessarily be required to understand the concepts presented within the essay).

From Seed ... to Flower

Anything can inspire a composer to create a new work: a beautiful spring day, a reef seen while diving underwater, a painting in a museum, the face of a loved one smiling enigmatically ... or countless other things that stir our hearts as we live our lives. Composers, first and foremost, are humans and, as such, are inexorably tied to the thoughts and feelings that affect our every waking moment. The main difference between a composer or artist and someone who does not regularly express their feelings through something as permanent as music is that creatives focus on distilling their feelings down to something that is far more condensed and, essentially, purified than that which is encountered under normal circumstances.

Rather than declaring “I love you” to the woman they love a poet will write a poem – sometimes a rather long declaration of their undying devotion to the woman in question. When depressed about the death of his child Gustav Mahler composed one of the iconic works the repertoire, Kindertotenlieder.

At the same time, since it often takes extended periods of time to create large scale works, composers and other creatives must deal with the issue of creative continuity – or consistency – when returning to the same piece over a period of months or, perhaps, even years. The reason is quite simple: as time continues its relentless march we all change; it is inevitable, irrevocable, and something that we would not want to prevent regardless – without change we would stagnate and die. At the same time, artistic change is something that can render a composition musically unsatisfying for the simple reason that the composer that began the work is not the same one that completed the piece. The inconsistencies cry out like a sore thumb.

Maintaining the cohesiveness of thought from the beginning of a long project through to its end is one of the great challenges that composers face when composing large scale works, but it is something that is incredibly important if we are to maintain a sense of musical context and integrity throughout the work. There are several things that can assist in maintaining cohesion through a project that takes an extended period of time to create, some of which may be helpful to some while other composers will find other strategies are of use; the important thing is to aim for consistency in what is being composed, otherwise we risk producing work that sounds unbalanced and, perhaps, unprepared.

The biggest mistake that young composers make (though this is an issue that can certainly be applicable to mature composers as well) – that most creatives make when starting a project – is that they do not imagine what the final version, the outcome of the work, is going to look – or sound like when all has been said and done. This is, perhaps, one of the most important things that we can do as creative artists: envision the final form of the work before it has been completed. If we can “see” (or “hear”) how the composition is supposed to turn out we then have a much better idea of what we are pursuing in the work that we are doing. It is also a critical step in the development of the strategies that will get us to that point: how are we going to accomplish this goal? What must be done to get from the opening of a work to the final notes of the piece? Once those questions are answered (in our minds) we are in a much better position to begin the work on the piece than we had been only moments before.

Yet, the question remains: if we all change, even over short periods of time, how are we to prevent this from adversely affecting the quality of our music?

The compositional process is not something that can be described in terms of a specific form that works for everyone: as each individual approaches their own ideas, the methods for the development of compositions will similarly be expressed in as unique a fashion as reflected by the individual undertaking the work being done. The evidence of this is heard in the variety of music that is composed by composers around the world: after studying a curriculum of “classical” foundations the “rules” of music are used to produce a myriad of different outcomes – many of which still have not been heard.

It is not the process itself that we are overly concerned with, however, but the manner in which that process is approached: it is the consistency with which a composer faces the task of composing a work that will ultimately determine whether or not a composition sounds coherent or fragmented. Fortunately, there are several strategies that composers can use that will help maintain the “frame of mind” in which a composition was composed.

Using the horticultural metaphor of the seed, let us continue with the idea that an idea, once it has been turning over in our heads for awhile, has begun to “germinate” ... in essence, it begins to sprout. The obvious first step is to compose: discipline, on the other hand, leads to greater planning and, in the case of a large scale work, sketching out the ideas that will make up the entire work. As mentioned before, for as many composers as there are there are different approaches to composition, so if you are not the type of composer that works from a detailed plan, do not be discouraged: this can still help you a great deal.

There is a big difference between a detailed plan for a work and sketching, the greatest being that in sketching we are less concerned with the individual elements such as rhythm, thematic development, and specific instrumentation, which would be indicated in a detailed plan. A detailed plan for a work, in essence, may be considered to be somewhere close to one step below the first draft of a piece (again, some composers do not compose drafts – that’s fine as well); it is something that will be immensely valuable to the composer who prepares it for the reason that it presents the majority of the musical materials to be used within the composition (both melodic, harmonic and contrapuntal).

In lieu of a detailed plan, for those composers who find such a thing to be too onerous, the use of the sketch is highly recommended to capture the essence of the germinating idea in an effort to maintain coherence throughout the composition. Since a sketch pad is the constant companion of the author, this happens to be the preferred method, though detailed plans have also been prepared, they have often been constructed during the compositional process, in an effort to re-spark the creative flow if there happens to be a lull in the creativity.

Sketching is, essentially, jotting down any musical idea that comes to mind when we do not have an opportunity to write them down in a composition. Beethoven was always carrying his sketchpads around with him, composing notes for future works out in nature or wherever he happened to be; it is a great way for composers to make sure they do not lose anything important that happens to come to mind. In the case of sketching out an idea that has begun to sprout to the point that it is almost ready to become a fully fledged composition, the sketch is something that need not be overly detailed, but should contain enough material so that the composer can use the material to return to the state of mind that they were in when they began the process of composing that particular piece.

Due to the fact that we are constantly changing as individuals, and especially as creative artists, the person that began the composition of a multi-movement work in January is not the same person that completes it ... whenever it happens to be finished. This is where the idea of the frame of mind, or state of mind, becomes so important to both composer and composition. If we are writing a deeply emotional work that draws upon passionate feelings it is of paramount importance that the composer is able to touch those feelings within themselves, otherwise the music will be devoid of the one thing the music cries out for: passion. When the composer returns to their work, of course, it is necessary to return to that state of mind – to that emotional state – so that the music being composed at that moment is of the same emotional intensity as that which was already composed.

Sometimes it is necessary to leave a work for a day or more before returning to it, in which case the idea of returning to the same state of mind we were in when last working on it is not such a difficult idea to embrace, but what happens if there is one month – or longer – between the time working on a piece? How can we return to a state of mind that existed 30 days or more before? While referring to the sketch, or detailed plan, will refresh the musical memory it may not be able to fully transport us to the emotional “place” where we had been at that time; in order to do that it may be necessary to try something else, to try something that is as easy as breathing, but takes a little more thought: meditation.

When speaking of using meditation in order to re-focus our mind for the purpose of composition it is important to note that we are not speaking of that which is normally associated with “Eastern mysticism”, or having anything to do with the New Age. Meditation is, quite simply, a quiet contemplation; it is a tool through which the mind is able to focus itself and, depending on the techniques used, access a particular emotional state – even if it is a state from quite a while ago. For the purposes of composition, the simplest way to meditate is, perhaps, the most effective, and it all begins with the breath. Just as many musical instruments rely on the breath of the player to provide their sound, we rely on our breath for everything that we do, but, as we go through our lives we usually pay very little attention to the vital importance of the breath and breathing in general. Ultimately, however, when we focus on our breath – when we focus on the actual mechanics of what we are doing – it becomes possible to influence the entire organism.

It all begins with one breath. You take a deep breath in through your nose and, very slowly, fill your lungs. The important thing here is that as you are breathing in, visualize your lungs being filled as though you were pouring water into a large container: it fills from the bottom first and then the water rises to the top. Imagine your lungs filling up slowly, filling from the bottom to the top until you have filled them like two large barrels, filled to the brim. Hold the breath for a few beats ... and then exhale, slowly, through your mouth.

In through the nose, slowly, filling the lungs from the bottom to the top ... holding for a few beats ... exhale through the mouth. Slowly. This is not a race, nobody wins a point for finishing first. Now, when you have taken a few cleansing breaths, close your eyes and picture in your mind how you felt when you were composing the piece you are working on – hear it in your mind’s ear – feel the music as you take in each new breath – allow the music you have composed to meld with that which has not yet been written until you are sure that your present state of mind is sufficient to continue the work on the piece without changing the style or continuity of the piece. After you have tried this a few times you will realize, quite quickly, when you have attained that state of mind that you have been seeking. If, on the other hand, it takes more to enter this state, it may be necessary to use more advanced self-hypnosis techniques (essentially the same as meditation, but more intense).

The individual practising self-hypnosis, or the modified form as described here is merely, for all intents and purposes, meditating at a deeper level. The only real difference being that with practice, it is possible to introduce triggers or “suggestions” to yourself that will assist when it comes to the fulfilment of a specific goal. People have used self-hypnosis for many years as a means of helping with weight loss, smoking cessation, and all types of other issues, but many musicians are introduced to it in order to help cope with performance anxiety, otherwise known as stage fright. It is one of the most widely used non-medical options for dealing with some situations that may also be treated with medication.

Rather than taking a Beta Blocker, which is a common type of medication prescribed to assist with performance anxiety, or even a low dose of an anxiolytic drug such as those found among the benzodiazepine group of medications, it is possible to cope with this increased level of stress with self-hypnosis. All one has to do is, again, breathe ... and, in this case, follow a script specific to the situation being addressed. A typical self-hypnosis session will begin with the deep breathing exercise as previously described and then the script will gradually shift to having the individual become more and more aware of how their body is feeling. This is not about how you are feeling physically, per se, but rather how the body is feeling, in the physical space that it is taking up at that moment.

There are many methods to achieve self-hypnosis, with a full examination of even one method being far beyond the scope of this essay. It shall suffice, for now, that the use of self-hypnosis can be very effective in achieving the aforementioned goal of realizing a state of mind that had existed at a previous time. With practise it is also possible to use the deep relaxation techniques to such an extent that a state of near self-hypnosis is achieved; it is merely a matter of putting your mind to it and allowing a “script”, internalized or recorded, to run through your head as you are performing the exercise. As with all things, the more you try it, the better at it you will become.

By getting the mind to concentrate so intently on the present, on the “here and now”, it becomes possible to access those feelings that we experienced – or were experiencing – at other times, and that is the key to recovering that mental state you were in when you last worked on the composition. By doing this it makes the act of composition something that some might describe as a near spiritual experience, but do not fear, we are merely focusing on the oldest impetus there is within humanity: the desire to create.

Once we have achieved the appropriate state of mind, the real task – the real fun – begins. Now, we’re composing. Taking an idea from its inception to the final form is not always an easy task. Some pieces, it would seem, “compose themselves”, requiring very little intervention on our part ... at least, from the perspective of the composer, that is how it sometimes feels. You start with a blank page and an idea and the next thing you know the page is full of music and the only thing you know is that the coffee in your cup is cold and the sun has shifted in the sky. Save for the passage of time it is almost as though someone else has composed the music in front of you – that you were only a conduit to what is now on the page ... and that is how it is, sometimes.

At other times the notes seem to be struck with a timidity that makes them hide from you, making it difficult to hear how things are supposed to be going. Rather than having things flowing into place, this time it is more like dragging a log up a hill rather than having the flower blossom, as though by magic, right before your eyes. So, what can be done when the music is not flowing so easily? Do we surrender to a lack of inspiration and only work when in this “mystical” state? Of course not. Composers are very much like writers of literature: we are using our own language – the language of music to express our ideas; sometimes, with writers, things come out with great fluidity, very easily, as though it was writing itself but, at other times a writer must sit there and work at their craft – and it is a craft, just as composing is a craft.

Composers must never become complacent about the ease with which a musical idea or composition might come to them for things have a tendency of changing, even for the most prolific of composers. We must understand, however, that when we do “work” on our craft there is nothing that will be gained by banging our heads against a stone wall. If things are not working out and we are unable to figure out where a piece is supposed to be going, then it is time to take a break. Sometimes it is necessary to take more than a small break from a composition in order to regain our perspective, something which can easily be lost when we are too close to the piece.

When we have regained our sense of perspective, after a few days – or even weeks – then, when we return to the composition it will be with a renewed energy, a renewed desire to complete that which was previously started. Above all else, we must not become discouraged when a composition is not completed at a particular time. Composing is a process, it goes from one point to the next and will ultimately arrive at the end when it is ready to, not a moment sooner. When a work is completed it is as long as it needs to be, or as short as needed to convey the musical idea that the composer had at that time.

One of the methods that has worked particularly well for me personally when composing anything with more than 3 parts is what may be called the “Layer System” ... or, the Onion. While composing a piece for multiple instruments the first thing that will be done will be deciding where the active voice for that section is: what instrument is the most important. Once that part has been composed (either an entire section or several measures at a time, it all depends on the context of the composition) the next step is to start “filling in the blanks” in the score – composing out the remaining parts, one instrument at a time.

It is generally advisable to establish the harmonic content of any measures first as that (the harmonies and implied harmonies therein) will help determine the choice of the other notes used in the section. At this point it does not matter whether or not you are composing tonal or atonal music: your “harmony” will be based on your own musical choice, be it post-tonal or tonal, so long as the choices are well made and musically logical. As each layer is completed it is possible to begin to see the growth of the blooming flower – or whatever it is meant to be. At some point in this process you will come to the realization that you could add more notes, but you don’t have to for the section to be complete. Follow your instincts. It is very easy to “over compose” while using the layering method, but do not be afraid of allowing your instruments to rest if necessary.

It is always dangerous when writing for a large ensemble to use the Tutti for prolonged periods of time without relief. While we do not want to have instruments sitting on stage for too long without playing a single note, it must also be acknowledged that Tuttis can be potentially very tiring when heard over extended periods of time. If you are composing for a large ensemble consider the number of pairings, of trios, quartets, etc. within the ensemble that might be exploited for the colourful effects and musical challenges they may offer. By varying the ensemble it becomes possible for the composer to vary the musical material by simply re-scoring it rather than recomposing something. It is, in essence, one of the simplest forms of musical variation: restating a musical idea in an alternative scoring.

What do we do with musical ideas that do not fit? Fragmented ideas that are too good to toss out, but not right for what we are working on at the time? These are called “Fragments of a Dream”, or FOADs for short. There will be times when an idea emerges, but it just does not fit into what is being written: what should be done? There are two things that work very well, the first being the aforementioned sketchpads and the second being the use of a second document in Finale, (or whatever program the composition is being composed in, if it is being written on a computer). When writing a piece entirely on paper it is sometimes less obvious when new material does not fit, which is one of the advantages of using a software package like Finale or Sibelius as they have the ability to provide an instant playback of what has already been written, giving the composer a much better idea as to how the music may sound when realized by live performers.

Whichever way you compose, the most important thing that you must be aware of is the importance of being able to edit a composition without feeling as though you are cutting off part of your own body. When we write something we are so close to it that making any changes, or hearing a criticism, can be exceedingly difficult; we are too emotionally invested when the project is only just completed in order to be able to approach it with a detached perspective, with the emotional clarity that is needed to be able to make the difficult decisions regarding how to make it a better piece. Self-editing is, without doubt, one of the most difficult things any creative individual can ever do for the simple reason that it feels as though we are attack our own work, until we come to the realization that there is nothing personal about what is being done: the goal is to produce the best quality piece in the end. If that means cutting a little bit here, fixing something there, then so be it: it is all part of the process.

While it is helpful for composers to take advantage of the features of these compositional tools it must be stressed that they are just that, they are tools; neither Finale nor Sibelius, nor any other music program will take the place of the experience garnered over many years of study and applying what has been learned to the craft. Composing music is much more than following a formula or filling in some blanks on a page, it is about creativity, it is about making something where there was nothing but silence before; composing music is a form of communication that is codified on paper, as a language to be transmitted for a future generation to discover.

The tools of composition will not make up for the skills, or lack thereof, that any particular individual may or may not have. When someone approaches a composition software package like Finale or Sibelius they not only have to learn how to use the program (the learning curve on Finale is quite high, it is a fairly difficult program to master, but a very powerful program, used by many professional publishing houses and professional composers), they have to know what it is they are trying to input into the program: Finale will not accept improperly formatted music, it has to be entered correctly or it “won’t fit” into the template. Technology is only an aid to contemporary composers: it does not replace the tools we need in order to write something down on paper.

Ultimately, what a composer is able to do with an idea will not be determined by the program they are using or any of the peripheral things associated with the piece; it will come down to the musical ideas that they are able to generate themselves: how well are you able to manipulate the seed from which the original idea was born? If the seed is not yielding what you had been hoping it would do not get upset; take a step back and regain your perspective before trying again. If it still does not work, plant another seed.

Do not be afraid to have a piece with multiple “seeds” as the foundation; having a piece that stems from only one idea, quite frankly, would be the exception, not the rule, though you could derive a second theme from an idea relating to the initial idea, which could also lead to a third theme, and so on. Most importantly is that the secondary ideas (the second “seed”) should flow together in a natural, organic manner, that compliments the other ideas in the composition. When the music is forced it loses the sense of freedom that it could otherwise have, a feeling that is difficult to articulate, but is often easily recognizable when heard.

How do we know when the composition is completed? If you have been using the “onion” or layered approach to the compositional process then there are times when you may think the piece is finished, but you return to it to add something else here and there, little things to touch it up. When composing a large work for chamber orchestra it was especially difficult to come to that final ending without constantly revisiting certain parts over and over again. What it finally comes down to is the discipline to be able to look at the piece and make the decision that “it is finished”, even if more could be added, it does not have to be added.

In this instance using Finale to compose is an advantage as it can provide a reasonably decent playback of what has been written, providing an excellent idea of how the piece will sound for the composer. With that assistance it is possible for a composer to know, with much better certainty than when composing on paper alone, how a piece of music will sound during a performance; it is also possible to make renderings of these pieces to be shared as sound files, so composers can share their music not only as scores but as audio files as well.

By accessing the technology available today it is possible for a composer to hear their music without using live musicians, though that is, of course, the goal for any composer who wants to see their music come to life on stage. With the use of technologies such as Finale and a third-party instrumental add on, however, a composer may easily create a recording that can rival that of some professional players ... or, at least, they can create a recording that will reproduce everything that the composer puts in the score. The music heard from a rendering by Finale will be limited to what the composer has designated in the score; if there are no indications for dynamics, the piece will sound accordingly. If no phrasing is indicated, none will be played. Live players can only be emulated when enough information is given that the performance will sound as though someone is making musical choices during a performance.

A composition is completed when you have entered enough information on the score so that the only question that has to be asked about the performance is: where would you like to sit? A score is a road map for the performers; do not be afraid to provide them with enough road signs and markers to give them everything they need in order to produce the performance you want. The less there is on the score means that much more for the performer to decide upon during the preparation of the piece. That may work for a solo work, or a piece for two players, but when dealing with a work for several players or larger ensemble the idea of leaving things up to the performers will lead to confusion, unless the work is conducted and the conductor makes the decisions for all the players.

Some composers have indicated that putting too many indications on the score is “over controlling”, but this is only the case when taken to the extremes of certain composers. We are not talking about having an articulation or dynamic marking over every single note, such as has been done by some composers in the 20th century: that is definitely on the excessive side of things and could well be seen as over controlling. However, indicating where a player should be playing a crescendo or decrescendo, and the specific dynamics in different sections, that is definitely not over controlling the score, it is directing how you see – how you hear – your piece. It is part of the language of music, it is part of the process. After all, it is what we do. When that is done, when you can look at a piece and say, “they will know how it goes” when they look at the score, the job is done.

The following video is of a piece I composed called “46664: The Number of a Man” - a work based on the number given to Nelson Mandela when he arrived at Robben Island in 1964.

To listen to some of my other compositions please visit my SoundCloud page.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

100 Years of International Women's Day – What's the Big Deal?

For 100 years women have been celebrating International Women's Day, a day that started before women had the right to vote in most countries, or the right of personhood.

A line from the song “Bread & Roses”, with words by James Oppenheim, which was sung at the now famous 1912 strike against the American Woolen Company in Lawrence Massachusetts sums up the struggle of the entire “woman's movement” and all that it stands for: “The rising of the women means the rising of the race”. The line speaks an ultimate truth about humanity that is impossible to deny: when a portion of society has their rights oppressed all of society suffers, making it impossible for it to blossom into its full potential. We cannot claim to be free unless each and every one of us enjoys the same freedoms enjoyed by all, which is why the pursuit of women's rights seems so inexorably tied to the battle for all civil rights.

The rights of women are fundamental and must be guaranteed for a very simple reason: if we live in a society that is unwilling to recognize the absolute unquestionable equality of women how can we expect that same society to extend those rights and freedoms to the rest of society, to those members who have been traditionally excluded as a result of their sexuality, or even because of what they believe? A simple example of how this is glaringly true can be found in present day Uganda, where their parliament is considering a “kill the gays bill” which would make homosexuality an act punishable by death. They contend that gays are gay by choice – that someone who is living a “gay lifestyle” can simply choose to live a “straight lifestyle”. Of course, that assertion has been debunked on numerous occasions, one of which can be found in a compelling interview that Rachel Maddow conducted on her show last year. The debate over the bill has been getting coverage around the world, which has helped reveal some of the thinly repressed feelings that some people harbour about homosexuality in their community.

If homosexuality is treated as something that will send people to their deaths in Uganda, how are women treated? Is this a nation that values their mothers, their sisters, their daughters, and their grandmothers, or is it a paternalistic society that wants to have absolute control over every aspect of production, including procreation? Well, the facts speak for themselves: while there are women in positions of authority, and working in professions, just as in the West, in Uganda the “tradition” is for women to be subordinate to men. A tradition of subordination prevents the existence of equality for the simple reason that it is diametrically opposed to it by its very nature.

In the 1990's many Ugandans recognized and followed several female religious leaders who led revolts, overthrowing the paternalistic political system, and in some areas women were able to own land and fully participate in the political process, but on the whole, there was still a well defined role that women in Uganda were expected to live by, including being subordinate to their husbands. If you consider the state of women's rights in a nation like Uganda it is not difficult to imagine how or why their lawmakers could be so moved to craft legislation with the ultimate end being the execution of homosexuals. The legislation of hatred, the attempted codification of morality through the abuse of the legislative process, is merely a reflection of how that society feels about the issue of rights for anyone other than the dominant class in that society: that being the heterosexual (married) male in Uganda.

Oddly enough we seem to encounter a similar phenomenon here in North America, minus the “kill the gays bill”, yet replete with all of the institutionally entrenched denials of rights – all of the things that serve to, in one way or another, prevent the largest portion of the population from having the same opportunities as the rest of the population. It is repression, be it passive or active, it is a form of repression, and it must be ended: when women battle inequality they are fighting for all of us, be they, women, children, gays or men – or rights as individuals and our status as humans can only be fully realized when each and every one of us is treated with the equality and dignity that they deserve, regardless of their sex, age, colour. The use of contrived excuses to demarcate where one person has every right under the law while others are denied only serves to prove the desperate state that these individuals are in as they attempt to rationalize the oppression of any selected group.

The celebration of International Women's Day is an opportunity to remind the world that the struggle for equality has not yet been realized. In 1995 the International Labour Organization, an agency administered by the United Nations, estimated that women would make up at least half of the global workforce by the turn of the century. In 2008 the number of women in the workforce was estimated at 40.5%, but that does not include the number of women who work long, unpaid hours, in their homes. With around 1.2 billion women in the workforce women are responsible for upwards of 80% of the food production in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as more than half of the world's total food production.

At the same time, the issue of pay equity continues to be a topic that serves to actively repress women: by forcing women to work for less than the men who work beside them, or at equivalent jobs, women are forced into poverty. Poverty causes women to do desperate things in order to survive, including remaining in abusive relationships in order to maintain their means of support. Poverty also leads women into degrading situations where they are forced to sell the one commodity that they should have complete power over: their own bodies, though this is another thing that is often taken from them through the acts of violent men, seeking to subjugate women both sexually and emotionally. When someone is unable to control what happens to their own body how can they claim to be free?

On this International Women's Day let us not forget that there are still places in the world where the sexual mutilation of young girls is accepted as a routine part of daily life. Female genital mutilation, or FGM as it is referred to by the World Health Organization, is practised in many western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, as well as in some countries in Asia and the Middle East. Female genital mutilation is also practised among various immigrant communities in North America and Europe, making it something that potentially threatens a young girl that you or one of your children know. Between 100 and 140 million girls and women are estimated to have endured these barbaric procedures that have absolutely no health benefits: their only purpose is to prevent a woman from feeling pleasure during the sexual act in the warped belief that this will keep a young woman from seeking out a sexual partner before she is married. The fact that the spread of HIV/Aids amongst heterosexual couples in Africa demonstrates that it is spreading as a result of the promiscuity of married men. The “purity” of the young girls isn't the problem, the fact that there are so many men who seem incapable of thinking about anything beyond their gonads – that's a problem.

Another form of mutilation that women are enduring is called “breast ironing”, and is meant do serve a similar purpose as FGM, though not quite in the same manner. Rather than having the women mutilated to the point where she is unable to feel pleasure from having sex, breast ironing destroys the breast tissue as it is developing, scaring and disfiguring the child. The desired outcome being that the girl will not want to pursue men and, as a result, stay “pure” until marriage. The practise of this form of mutilation is mostly carried out in the nation of Cameroon, but is practised in other nations as well.

It is time for society to come to grips with the fact that women are far more than the traditional roles they have been groomed for since birth. The idea that a young girl must have a portion of her anatomy mutilated because of how a man might react to her shifts the responsibility of our actions away from the perpetrator of the aggressive act onto the individuals being victimized. As long as we continue to view women as the “weaker” or “fairer” sex we continue to subjugate them in our minds, weakening them before even engaging them in a dialogue. How can we advance as a society if our very mode of thought prevents us from viewing women as equals to men? Is that equality possible when our language serves to weaken them, implying that they need the strong hand of a man to aid them in their times of trouble?

After the mutilation of women's bodies in order to control their sexual lives and sexuality comes the recent attempts in the United States by the GOP at completely controlling every aspect of women's reproductive rights, down to their ability to control whether or not they will be able to receive counselling for family planning through one of the most trusted organizations in existence. Planned Parenthood has come under the same type of attack in the Congress of the United States that resulted in the defunding of ACORN, an organization that was wrongfully accused of wrongdoing through a “sting operation” that turned out to be less of a “sting” and more of an “operation”, being sponsored by a neo-conservative entity on the Blogesphere who likens himself to a journalist (no link is provided to the ACORN videos for the simple reason that I refuse to direct attention to that individual; it is easy enough to find if you are interested).

The GOP attacks on women and their essential rights, unlike the attacks on ACORN, seem to be driven by their desperate attempt at discrediting anything and everything that President Obama stands for and what his administration represents. The 112th Congress of the United States consists of a total of 541 elected officials from 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia, divided into the 100 member Senate and the 435 member House of Representatives, which has 6 non-voting delegates. Of these 541 elected officials only 88 are women. With this disparity of representation it is hardly a surprise that the agenda of the GOP has been allowed to become one aimed at overtly oppressing the rights of women, by denying them access to health care and services that are uniquely designed for their particular health issues.

Contrary to the myths being perpetuated by the noise machine of the right wing, Planned Parenthood does much more than merely providing for women's preventative health care than anything else, providing a wide variety of services, including mammograms and screenings for cervical cancer as well as numerous other services making it one of the most trusted health care providers in America. At least one in five women has used Planned Parenthood once in their lives as a means of maintaining their health, and the majority of the work done by Planned Parenthood is aimed at preventative health care, working towards the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. If the GOP, which claims to be “pro-life” is really as anti-abortion as they say they are, what they should be doing is increasing the funding to an organization like Planned Parenthood for the simple reason that they actually prevent the overall number of abortions by providing women with choices before they become pregnant.

The myth is that Planned Parenthood uses abortion as a form of birth control. This is an ugly, obscene fallacy that is being used by those on the right to hack away at the funding of women's health. This is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt at placing another element of control over the reproductive cycle, from conception through to the end. It goes hand in hand with the attempts, by some legislators, to redefine the access that women have to abortions in certain instances so that victims of incest or date-rape would not be forced to carry any children resulting from these brutal acts to term.

No woman should be forced to make that terrible choice, but it is their choice to make, guaranteed under the law. The Republicans have no right to act as the “moral guardians” when they were not given a mandate for this act. The 2010 election were about jobs, not reproductive rights; it's time to get the agenda back on course and stop trying to oppress women just because that's the traditional role of the GOP.

There can be no denial, not then, nor now: “The rising of the women means the rising of the race”. One hundred years after it began International Women's Day is as important a symbol for women across this planet as it was when it was first started. For women living in risk of mutilation, at risk of contracting HIV/Aids from husbands or boyfriends who view them as sexually inferior, believing that promiscuity is acceptable for males, for women who work for less than men: International Women's Day is a symbol of hope that must never be forgotten until every right has been won. It is true that after 100 years much has changed, for the better, but there is so much more that needs to be done; regardless of the gains that may have been made, the struggle has not ended ... and the battle has been joined.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Raping with Words – the Attack on Lara Logan

After watching events unfold in Egypt, and particularly in Tahrir Square – “Liberation Square” – the world rejoiced as the people of Egypt were given what they had been demanding for 18 days. This was a revolution unlike any that had been seen before, and certainly unlike any of the revolutions that we know of from our textbooks. The American & French revolutions were bloody affairs, as was the Russian revolution of 1917 and many other historical revolutions. There was some violence in Egypt, to be sure, and some people did die, but most of the violence was perpetrated by the government, by supporters of the harassed and confused “President” Hosni Mubarak. This was an historical event not only for the reason that the people of Egypt drove out their despotic dictator, but for the fact that they did it without resorting to violence.

The brutality that everyone was expecting to come out of the Egyptian revolution, from those expecting such things, did not manifest itself, and this must have been a terrible disappointment for those who constantly bang on the drum that Islam is the Seed of the Devil and will destroy us all, and that all “Islamists” are “terrorists” and seeking to be martyrs in one way or another. Which is why, I am certain, so many pundits, right-wing bloggers, and, quite frankly, unhinged individuals, have taken some sort of perverse pleasure from the attack on Lara Logan. It is understandable that some people do not like others, particularly because of disagreements along partisan lines, but at the same time, there is no need to leave civility behind. This issue was addressed by President Obama in the speech he delivered in Tucson after the tragic assassination attempt of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ).

Image © by Ben Heine
When President Obama spoke in Tucson part of his concluding comments included these words: “I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

The fact that we may not believe the same thing that our neighbour has never been the issue; the issue is that they are our neighbour and we must live next to them, in peace. The idea that we should be revelling in the suffering of others is, in a word, perverse. There is nothing positive about it, and it is indefensible. There is even a word in German for taking pleasure from the misfortune of others; they call it “Schadenfreude”. The people that have taken pleasure from the attack on Lara Logan have revealed far more about themselves than they can possibly imagine: by mocking a woman who has been brutalized and raped they demonstrate just how they view women, and what value they place on women in society.

At the same time that the new Congress has decided to focus their energies on making access to legal abortion, for any reason, the highest thing on their agenda, you have to wonder, why do these people hate women so much ... especially when some of them ARE women? Anyone who would mock the brutal assault & rape of Lara Logan is likely the same type of individual that supports the political “redefining” of rape, & denying women access to life-saving medical procedures.

Some of the most vitriolic comments came from an individual named Debbie Schlussel (I'm not going to link to her site as I doubt she would return the favour). She boasts of her appearances on the Bill O'Reilly Show, and a claim to having single handedly caused Starbuck's Coffee to have one or their best quarters ever as a result of what she said at one point. Obviously, Debbie Schlussel has a solid connection with reality. Ms Schlussel, in her comments on the attack on Lara Logan, makes the point of accusing Muslims specifically of the attack, using the attack as an opportunity to vilify all Muslims, claiming that “This.Is.Islam.[sic]”. She referred to the demonstrators in Tahrir Square as “animals”, essentially stating that Ms Logan had called this attack upon herself for going back to Egypt so soon after the departure of President Mubarak.

While there's nothing funny about an assault on anyone, especially a rape, using a sexual assault to promote a political agenda is especially heinous. The idea that this was an attack perpetuated by “Muslims” is pure and absolute conjecture: news services showed that Tahrir Square was filled by Egyptians of both the Islamic and Christian faith (and quite a few non-believers I would imagine given the age of the demonstrators). The fact that Muslims surrounded Christians so they could pray without fear of attack, after the Christians had surrounded the Muslims, the day before, demonstrates that people from both religions were cooperating in this revolution. It was NOT an “Islamist” revolution, as people like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh would have you believe, it was a revolution of the Egyptian people, and that's what Lara Logan was there to report on.

Saying that this crime was an act committed by a specific group is not only a gross generalization, it is overtly racist and exemplifies the worst in what has become an increasing “Islamophobic” attitude in the west that climaxed during the second term of George W. Bush. The fact that George W. Bush contrived the story we were given that propelled the United States into a war against a nation that had not attacked them in any way whatsoever is lost on those who call all Muslims their enemy; they have decided that Islam owes them a level of civility that the west is not provided them with. These critics of Islam want Muslims to go off and hide, pretending that they don't exist, but they forget that so-called “Christians” have acted as badly, or worse, than Muslims through the course of the past two thousand years.

Rape is only one small example of the crimes that have been used as a weapon against women in countries where men claim to be “Christians”. Rape is a crime that has been well practised in the west, a predominantly “Christian” area, it could well be argued that the attackers of Ms Logan were, in fact, not followers of the Muslim faith but Christians (not very good ones, one should point out, but that's another point as well).

Saying that Lara Logan was raped by Muslims assumes facts that can only be known by one who was on the scene, with the perpetrators of the act. Facts and evidence, that's what's important here, not the wild conjecture and overt prejudices of people who hate Muslims, regardless of what they have done. Facts and evidence are the two things that are lacking by those who want to vilify “Islam” as the all-consuming evil that it must be in order to validate their place at the apex of civilization. But, that hasn't stopped the pundits before. As the saying goes, “never let the facts interfere with your arguments”. After all, if you allow facts to enter the fray you just might find yourself persuaded by your opponent's argument ... the one using the facts.

All the while they ignore the facts that are known. Facts that do not need any special skills to discern, they are right out in front of us. The 1st fact: Lara Logan was brutally assaulted and raped; that's the first FACT that we have. The 2nd fact: She was saved by a group of Muslim women & about 20 members of the Egyptian Army; that's the Second FACT that we have. There has been absolutely NOTHING released on the nature of the criminals who attacked her; nothing about their identities, or their religion.

Image © by Ben Heine
So, why do the attackers have to be Muslim? Do Americans, people claiming to be “Christians” never commit the crime of rape? Have not American soldiers, while on active duty in Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq and probably Afghanistan been accused of, charged of and convicted of raping and murdering civilians? If you want to condemn all of Islam for the attack on Lara Logan, then you must do the same to all of Christianity for the crimes perpetuated by those who have slaughtered “in the Name of the Lord” over the last thousand years, or Jews who have killed in the name of “HaShem”.

Ultimately we must remember that rape is not about sex; it isn't about love: it is about the domination and complete control of a victim. Rape victims are not only women or girls; men are raped often in prison and boys are often the victim of sexual assault. Unfortunately, due to the stigma surrounding the reporting of sexual assaults, many of these events go unreported or under-reported, making accurate reporting on numbers difficult to come by. What rape is about is an intellectually impotent male who is so sexually frustrated he feels his only choice is to take control over someone that they are able to physically and/or emotionally dominate. There is nothing romantic about rape, nor is there anything “sexy” about it; it is the ultimate degradation of humanity, removing any possible element of beauty from the sexual act. Mocking a victim of this type of crime serves to continue the victimization, creating an atmosphere of hate that foments more and more hatred until some unseen line is crossed, moving toward some “critical mass” of hatred that will eventually lead to all out war. At least, that would be the ideal for the Islamophobes; their “worst case” must include an Islamic war with the west, a war with Christianity (as though “Christianity” is an organized “force” which will do battle).

I'd also like to remind those who disagree with me - and I know that people disagree - American soldiers - "Christians" - in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and MANY other fields of battle committed acts of rape and barbarism - if you want to condemn all of Islam for the attack on Lara Logan after this attack, then do the same to all of Christianity for the crimes perpetuated by those who have slaughtered "in the Name of the Lord", or Jews who have killed in the name of "HaShem".