Archives for category: On the air

Dramatic irony is one of those storytelling techniques we all learn about in high school, and I haven’t thought about it much since then – except to enjoy it, when it’s used effectively, and even then, I don’t sit there and think, “This is a really great example of dramatic irony.”

But I’ve been thinking a lot about dramatic irony this week. This afternoon, on CBC Radio 2‘s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, I’ll be presenting Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti. It’s a paragon when it comes to the tension and emotional impact that dramatic irony can confer. Especially when the incredible Edita Gruberová is in the title role.

For it’s the music which amps up the power of Donizetti’s plot line (which he adapted from a play by Victor Hugo, which in turn describes a fictional episode in the life of the real historical figure, Lucrezia Borgia.)

Usually, when the audience is in on something (as is always the case with dramatic irony) it has been well and duly tipped off: for example, in Romeo and Juliet, we all know Juliet’s not dead; she’s merely taken a sleeping potion, even if the rest of the characters (save the friar) are unawares.

But in the Prologue of Lucrezia Borgia, it’s never revealed to the audience that Gennaro’s long-lost mother is in fact Lucrezia. Sure, it’s blatantly obvious, if you’re paying attention. It may as well have been written into the script. But it wasn’t, and this creates an opportunity for Donizetti to tell you with the music. When Lucrezia first spots Gennaro asleep by the side of the canal in Venice, the tenderness with which she sings is unmistakable. It’s unconditional, maternal love. Donizetti captures her restraint, too, in the music: she can’t tell Gennaro when he wakes and tells her about his long-lost mother. And Donizetti captures her anguish too.

A mere reading of the plot doesn’t impart the effectiveness of this particular example of dramatic irony. The story itself isn’t what impresses. Here, it’s all about the music. A kind of musical irony – shall we call it operatic irony? (Or, perhaps better – melodramatic irony.)

In Gruberová’s voice, it’s all the more heartrending. If you’ve the opportunity to watch it, I highly recommend the documentary “The Art of Bel Canto”, all about the ageless Gruberová, and the amazing operatic career that has already spanned four decades. Towards the end of the above clip from this doc, there’s an example of just how powerful the end of Lucrezia Borgia can be in her hands.

 

For the next week and a half I’ll be filling in for host Stephen Quinn on CBC Radio Vancouver’s afternoon drive show, On the Coast – an enormous privilege, and I’m terribly excited!

I’ve been very busy of late. On top of On the Coast, I’ve been working on a number of projects. You’ll see more posts in the coming days and weeks devoted to some of them:

  • Signal to Noise: my audio piece, commissioned as one of the first winners of In the Dark Radio’s Sound Bank grant programme in London, England. LISTEN HERE
  • RPM.fm: a fantastic new website devoted to indigenous music culture. I’m producing their podcast. LISTEN HERE
  • Authentic: I’ve written music for one of Neworld Theatre’s PodPlays, “Authentic”, by C.E. Gatchalian, to be launched August 8. READ MORE
  • Thucydides: I had the opportunity to do the sound design for Nicola Luksic’s excellent Ideas documentary on CBC Radio 1, “Thucidydes: the First Journalist.” READ MORE
  • And last but not least, 8-part series The Wire: the Impact of Electricity on Music, Peabody Award and Prix Italia winner, is at long last made available for on-demand listening online, thanks to CBC’s “And The Winner is…” LISTEN HERE

I’ll get around to writing a proper post for each of these, but in the meantime, hope you can join me for On the Coast!

 

I love recording things. Capturing moments in time. Working in radio is like being a photographer of sound.

Microphones are like best friends. They’re reliable. They don’t lie. They tell you exactly what happened. Who said what. How it all went down. Recently on CBC Radio’s DNTO, I joined Sook-Yin Lee to tell the story of the day my mic let me down.

It happened a few years ago when I was producing a CBC summer show called Subcultures.  Host Hal Niedzviecki and I were in backcountry BC, “embedded”, I guess you could say, in the subculture of cryptozoologists – people who spend the better part of their waking hours in the pursuit of mythical creatures, like the Ogopogo or the Sasquatch (aka Bigfoot).

That morning might have been the breakthrough cryptozoologists were waiting for, because we might have nearly recorded the sound of a Sasquatch snuffling.

The Land Rover you see dangling off the side of the road in the photo above is part of the story. (It was much worse than it looks in the photo. Sasquatch hunter Thomas and I were almost fish food.)

Here’s the rest of the story:

The Chinese New Year is next week, and the Year of the Tiger is coming to a close.

I’ve been thinking a lot about tigers this week, because I spent the earlier part of it completely wrapped up in and riveted by John Vaillant’s superb book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. In addition to being incredibly well-researched, and a gripping adventure story, it’s also an eloquent tribute to this iconic predator with whom we have a surprising amount of qualities in common – and that we are in danger of driving into extinction.

Much to my surprise, as I was finishing up the last chapters, I was called in to guest-host CBC Radio’s NXNW this weekend (because the program’s amazing regular host, Sheryl MacKay, is sick) – and discovered I’d have the opportunity to speak with John about his book. You can hear the interview on the NXNW podcast for January 30th.

photo by Daragh Owens

As this Year of the Tiger comes to its end, I’m finding myself hoping that when the next one rolls around in 2022, we won’t be talking about how there are only a few tigers left in the wild, but rather how the tiger population has increased. There are a number of conservation organizations trying to help save the tiger.

Also on the show this weekend: the irrepressibly creative singer/songwriter and painter Mae Moore talks about her beautiful new book and new album, both called Folklore; actor and comedian Gary Jones reflects on the resurgence of live storytelling; the story of a gorgeous new children’s book out of Haida Gwai’i about Aboriginal basketball, and much more including of course lots of great music from here in BC and beyond. Hope you can join me 6 am – 9 am Saturday and Sunday.

This is what the autumn cattle auction looks like in Okanagan Falls, BC.

I went there in October to speak to some of the ranchers who live in the South Okanagan-Similkameen area of southern British Columbia, near Oliver and Keremeos.

The ranchers are very concerned about a proposal for a National Park which has been underway for about 7 years. If you drive through the area, you can’t miss the NO NATIONAL PARK signs by the side of the highway.

They’re worried a park will threaten their livelihood, because it will mean they’d lose access to crown lands for grazing purposes.

On the flip side, the area is very ecologically sensitive and unique in Canada. It’s a desert-like, arid environment full of endangered species, and park proponents are also concerned – they’re worried that, without a park, development will mean big changes to this beautiful and relatively untouched area.

One of the reasons it’s untouched is because the ranchers and local First Nations have been such good stewards of the land.

But with so much development in the Okanagan Valley, it’s uncertain whether this ecologically sensitive landscape will survive in the long term, and environmentalists say a National Park is urgently needed.

It’s a very complicated situation and the people involved are all very passionate about their particular point of view, whether it’s for or against the park.  I put together this report for All Points West on CBC Radio 1 in BC, giving a general overview of this story about a very beautiful and important part of the province in which I live.


2010 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great Romantic-era composer Robert Schumann. Schumann was perhaps the archetypal moody artist, alternating between blazing bouts of creativity and periods of antisocial depression. It’s a common cliché that has, all too often, been sustained by sad life stories punctuated by tragic endings. Schumann died a broken man in an insane asylum.

More recently, we’ve seen gifted musicians like Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith take their own lives after struggling with depression.

There are many, many others who fit the cliché (Tchaikovsky, Billie Holiday, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis…the list goes on and on). Why are there so many artists and musicians that struggle with depression and other forms of mental illness?

Anthony Storr was a British psychiatrist who wrote about music and mental illness in his book Music and the Mind. He suggested that there might be a link between mental illness and creativity – he wrote: “The ability to think creatively, to make new links between concepts, is more often found in families which include a member who is diagnosable as mentally ill.”

I can’t be absolutely certain, but I’d be surprised if Schumann, Cobain and Smith weren’t at their happiest when they were writing and playing music. We’ve all experienced a moment in our lives when music has helped us get through a rough patch; when listening to or singing a particular song has just seemed to simultaneously hurt so good and help mitigate the pain.

Is it also possible that, for Schumann, Cobain and Smith, music was almost like self-medication, a treatment for their mental ailments?

I put together a short musical essay about music and mental illness that first aired on CBC Radio 2’s In Concert on Sunday October 24th, 2010. For info on all the music I used in the piece, please look here and scroll down to the list of musical works.

This Saturday, on CBC Radio’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, I’ll be presenting a Canadian Opera Company production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, starring soprano Rinat Shaham.

Photo by Michael Cooper, COC

Carmen is an opera that’s impossible not to love (in my opinion). It’s not for nothing it’s one of the most popular operas of all time. And Carmen herself is a big part of that. She’s a powerful woman, irresistible, independent, bewitching, someone who meets every challenge head-on. Someone who loves the spotlight.

On the show, I’ll be taking a look at the Carmen archetype by paying tribute to singers who embody Carmen’s spirit: singers like Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Loretta Lynn, and, especially to be remembered this year, the late Lhasa de Sela.

Lhasa passed away on Jan 1, 2010 in Montreal, much too young, after a battle with breast cancer. I was in Montreal that week and it felt like the city itself sensed the magnitude of the loss: it snowed for 40 hours straight – true, not an uncommon occurrence in Montreal in winter – but there was a palpable hush, as if Montreal’s musical soul was taking a moment to acknowledge the tragic loss of one of its most talented daughters.

Hope you can join me, Saturday, November 20th, starting at 1pm  (1:30 NT, 2 AT) on CBC Radio 2 across Canada or online from wherever you are at cbc.ca/radio2.

I always like it when something opens up my ears in ways I hadn’t considered.

That’s exactly what happened this week when I listened to a new piece by Gordon Monahan called A Piano Listening to Itself.

Monahan’s been creating compositions for years that force us to think about how we listen – he’s swung speakers around and he’s strung super-long piano wires in unexpected places, for example. I first encountered his work when I was producing the doc series, The Wire: the Impact of Electricity on Music.  He had a lot of interesting things to say about how we interact with the sounds around us and about the influence of the composer John Cage.

This time around, Monahan has strung six piano wires from the roof of the Royal Castle Bell Tower in Warsaw, Poland, and attached motors to them to make them vibrate with an acoustic signal of piano music by Chopin. You can sort of see the setup in the photo he sent me.

The impression you get is of listening to the ghost of Chopin.

Now, that’s the impression I got just listening to a recording. I’m imagining that’s what it must have been like to walk through that square in Warsaw and come upon that piano by chance – to feel as though you’d stumbled on Chopin’s ghost.

I didn’t get to go to Warsaw, but I did have a chance to speak with Monahan for this Sunday’s edition of In Concert, a weekly classical music program on CBC Radio 2 that I guest-host every once in a while.

The thing that struck me most about his new piece is that it’s the amplification of an electronic signal by acoustic means (piano strings playing back an  mp3 file via the motors attached to them).  If you think about it, that’s exactly the reverse of how we usually experience music these days – well, at least, music that isn’t electronic itself in the first place.

My ears also got opened this week listening to the miraculous playing of Austrian pianist Till Fellner, who plays Beethoven piano concerti exactly the way I like to hear them. He is a master of precision, and listening to him is like drinking some kind of mind-clarifying elixir. On Sunday’s program, he plays Beethoven’s 1st along with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Kent Nagano. Just absolutely glorious.

When I was a kid, like many kids, the stories I loved best were the ones with talking animals, from Louis the swan in The Trumpet of the Swan, to the rabbits in Watership Down, to a certain frog named Kermit. There’s something undeniably magical about looking at the human world through the eyes of animals.

Now that I’m all grown up, I’ve noticed that apart from being fantastic and enchanting, and, well, anthropomorphic, all those stories have something else in common. They all somehow manage to strike at something deeper about nature and humanity and the cycle of life. (Yes, even Kermit.)

I loved all those stories, but I had one clear favourite: Fantastic Mr Fox, by Roald Dahl. But long before Fantastic Mr Fox was a glint in Roald Dahl’s eye (much less Wes Anderson’s), another talking fox was at the heart of another story, a story for grown-ups: The Cunning Little Vixen, the opera by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček.

It’s just as enchanting and just as powerful, and I’m lucky to get the chance to present it this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, August 21, on CBC Radio 2, in a production from Florence with the glorious Isabel Bayrakdarian in the starring role. I’ll also be celebrating the life of the late Australian conductor and Janáček champion, Sir Charles Mackerras, who died this past July.

This Saturday, August 14th, I’ll once again have the pleasure and the privilege to fill in for the inimitable Bill Richardson on Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC Radio Two.

This week’s featured opera is L’Étoile, or The Star, by 19th-century French composer Emmanuel Chabrier. It’s been a fun opera to get to know – and although it’s mostly remained obscure since its premiere in 1877, it seems to have gathered steam over the past decade with productions popping up all over the place. It’s light and frothy; the characters have ridiculous names, there are mistaken identities and plot twists of all kinds, and lots of pretty tunes.