My real job is to love.” – Christopher Doyle

Christopher Doyle finished his beer on stage halfway through the TIFF event, too shy to ask for more – but he managed to hold on to his brilliance to the end. This is the first part of his Little Red Audiobook from the event compiled especially for you. Enjoy!

1. On career choice:“Don’t fucking trust the system; just do your own shit.”
01.Just do your own shit by untimelythoughts

2. On the philosophy of life: “You do what you can, not what you want. This is a very important concept.”
02.You do what you can by untimelythoughts

3. On the dichotomy of thought and action: “How did we do the trick? In Chinese, we say “wenxi, wuxi” (arts vs. actions), a traditional division of labor.”
03.Wenxiwuxi by untimelythoughts

4. On who holds the authority: “A person’s authority comes from the objects he works with. Many of you spend much more time online or on computer than I do, and you are the ones who shall be telling me how to do.”
04.Objects and persons by untimelythoughts

5. On style coming from restrictions and obligations: “In the West, you are probably going to build a cave [to create the style], but for us, style comes from restrictions and obligations. That’s the cultural dichotomy of the image-making between the West and East. “
05.Dichotomy by untimelythoughts

6. On “persons and things” in cinema: “There are only three people in cinema: actors in front of camera; audience behind it; and those who are in between – most of time it is me. My real job is to love, to be trusted, to be a bridge, to be a hollow tube.”
06.Three people in cinema by untimelythoughts

7. On what it takes to be a great artist : “The function of art is to be subjectively objective. The real artist has the ability to put all of himself in, and stand back.”
07.Little Britain by untimelythoughts

8. On purity: “What you see is what we shot. I believe as an artist you shall put as much in there as what you wish to share with the audience. Editing is only secondary – I’m such as a purist!”
08.Such a purist by untimelythoughts

9. On the lure and danger of impact-making in art: “The balance between organization and impact sometimes went wrong.”
09.Balance by untimelythoughts

10. On Toronto: “Toronto is a kind of oasis, not Miami as you said.”
10.Oasis by untimelythoughts

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Sunday. A dark day at noon. The snow and rain were both falling at once, a scene almost reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, but this was Toronto in April. At the corner of Bloor and Bay, I spotted this lonely glove – probably one of the last orphaned gloves of this winter – and again I felt a bit sad: gloves should have come in pairs; they take care and are expected to be taken care of by a pair of hands. But everyday in Toronto’s winter I spot lonely gloves abandoned by careless hands and lying desperately at street corners. I always wanted to take pictures of them and keep an album as their virtual funeral home. However, in the end, this is the only picture I took this winter.

The last paragraph and its sentimentality do come as mannered and unnatural, but it is so only because I, an anonymous person, put them into words – and words are things, words are objects,  words are inevitably artificial. It takes a real artist to unify “objective” lyricism with philosophical aloofness.

There are two ways: aesthetics of anecdotes and aesthetics of drama.  Feng Zikai’s art belongs to the former category, probably consistent with a Chinese tradition. In relating his failure to go into details, Feng said:

“At times a vague and fleeting vision would appear before me. I would take up my brush and immediately set to capturing it in ink, but I would only manage to sketch an outline before the vision faded. All I had caught on paper was a rough impression; the face [of the figure depicted] would be incomplete. But that is why it was a true expression of my vision, and there was no need to add any more details. Once I tried altering a painting that I had done some earlier, but I only succeeded in making a very different picture from the original that had come to me; the painting was ruined.” (see Geremie R. Barmé An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai)

Realism (or naturalism), I believe, is the result of dramatic passions very particular to the time and space they are allowed to be practised. Feng Zikai claimed an disinterest in and ignorance of science,  but he did manage to depict objects sympathetically, either in image or in words. His feelings are those of small ones, and they show up in his art as humorous anecdotes, but I doubt he is very far from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey where gothic architecture and myriads of details are ruled by drama, passion and history but come down to lyric humor of modern life.

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Just learned that the music critic Ken Winters, who for the past few years wrote for the Globe and Mail, passed away two months ago at the age of 81. A former radio producer who worked with Mr. Winters during his years as a CBC host commented that he “didn’t fit the CBC mould” because “he didn’t speak in short sentences, with the subject always at the beginning … Sometimes, we would just have to stop tape and wait for him to finish his script, in longhand. He was … very old-school.”

In fact, Mr. Winters didn’t seem to fit the “Global and Mail mould” neither. Here is his 2009 review of a Ying Quartet concert at Music Toronto (I was at the concert). Note the headline was written by a newspaper editor:

Ying Quartet’s new member plays like one of the family: new violinist caps a dazzling evening of music making

      It was hard to realize that the irrepressibly youthful, all-sibling Ying Quartet – in residence since 1996 at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester – has been performing for more than 20 years. Its passion and verve bear no faint taint of world-weariness. Incredible, too, was first violin Timothy Ying’s announcement from the platform that this concert for Music Toronto would be his final one with the ensemble.

      Ying has moved with his wife and children to Toronto, and his three siblings – Janet, second violin; Phillip, viola; and David, cello – have been joined by Frank Huang as the quartet’s new first violin.

      Timothy bade his farewell before the opening Haydn quartet ( Opus 76 No. 2 , the famous Quinten ) with, he said, “mixed emotions,” and we had to wonder whether these emotions were the cause of the only shadow on an otherwise dazzling evening of music making.

      The first violin’s swift upward-arching roulades in the opening Allegro of the Haydn fell off pitch in their upper reaches. These tiny but audible flaws apart, the performance of the Haydn was brilliant, if a touch incorporeal. The term Haydnesque implies intellectual lucidity and great élan but with firm body in its sounds and rhythms. The Yings certainly achieved that body in the tough little third movement, the canonic Menuetto , but elsewhere they sacrificed the music’s heft for speed and lightness.

      For me, the real musical surprises of the evening began with the short pieces by three Chinese composers – Tan Dun, Zhou Long and Chen Yi.

      The excerpts from Tan Dun’s Eight Colours for String Quartet were stunners, fully on a level with vintage Bartok, bristling with the same calibre of rhythmic zest and sonic invention, but with a singular ingenuity all Tan Dun’s own, drawing, he says, on “Chinese colours and the techniques of Peking Opera.”

      Zhou Long’s Song of the Ch’in (a plucked, seven-string zither-like instrument) is a softer, more pastoral concept, depicting mountains, valleys and mists of southwestern China with delicate lines and original textures.

      Chen Yi’s Shuo (Initiate) is the most conventional harmonically of the three, yet she, also, has her own voice, rising out of a sympathy with Chinese folk and mountain songs.

      The Ying’s performances of these variously exacting pieces were deeply committed, rhythmically riveting and a triumph of natural sympathy.

      Then they topped all with an amazing performance of the Debussy Quartet in G minor , the French master’s only contribution to the genre, and a work I have always admired but never quite loved. All I can say about the Ying’s ravishing performance is that it transformed my feelings about this music. It entered the essence of Debussy’s unique vision, adoring it and making it speak. In the rapt silence between the movements, you could have heard a pin drop.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The question is: who played first violin in the concert? A new member (Frank Huang), or the old one (Timothy Ying)? It might not be particularly obvious for an impatient reader if he hasn’t been to the concert; especially so when he has limited reading ability. The third paragraph is just a little intriguing when Mr. Winters said “Timothy bade his farewell before the opening …”, but if the editor who wrote the headline paid attention to what followed, he would have understood that the violinist went on playing the concert after bidding the farewell verbally, hence the “shadow” – in fact, the concert itself was the farewell. Again:

“Timothy bade his farewell before the opening Haydn quartet with, he said, ‘mixed emotions,’ and we had to wonder whether these emotions were the cause of the only shadow on an otherwise dazzling evening of music making.”

This is probably the kind of discursive writing that is beyond the reach of modern journalism when a labored coarseness is treasured, and when a spontaneous floridity went unheeded.

Ken Winters hosted CBC’s Mostly Music:
Ken Winters by untimelythoughts

When Viktoria Mullova triumphantly but calmly finished the last note of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major in unison with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado, you can hear on the Polygram recording the response of a Tokyo audience in 1992: enthusiastic, but polite. This is not altogether different from Yo-Yo Ma’s observation of the English audience: “The English are very auditory and they applaud less, but you can feel the warmth.” (Ulla Colgrass, For the Love of Music)

Visually speaking, Toronto audience’s response to the same work last week was a lot warmer than the Japanese: the ovation for the soloist Vadim Gluzman was boisterous and long-lasting, in contrast to the critic John Terauds’ cool review in which he praises the conductor Klas for his “depth and warmth” but deplores Gluzman for his coldness: “ there is nothing in his music-making that engages the heart.”

Not surprising: In 2009 Terauds delivered a similar verdict to the Cleveland Orchestra after their towering performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 under Franz Welser-Möst in Roy Thomson Hall. Key to his criticism was again an assumed lack of spontaneity and humanity. But what is humanity? what is the human touch we are looking for? What is spontaneity? Is spontaneous response to a canonic work possible?

Those are the questions for today’s audience, and those are the questions for Brahms. Here I would like to quote in length Paul Henry Lang’s observation of the composer (Music in Western Civilization):

“The great art attained by Brahms makes his works classically poised, but one feels that this calm and poise hide something, a tragic philosophy, a developed world of pessimism and resignation. His soul was sick, but he discovered the illness and tried to combat it with discipline, for his illness was the romantic ill, the overflowing richness of the romantic soul. Therefore he tried to limit it, bind it, balance it with art and study. The struggle was profound and the relapses frequent … what had been impossible to achieve spontaneously – order in the feverish world … could be done by applying the brakes of art, and that Brahms set out to learn how to manipulate them … he learned also that the taming of the imagination demands compromises and sacrifices.”

“This explains Brahms’s extraordinary sense for the past, which, like his noble sensibility, is an aristocratic trait … Such an infinitely sensitive and complicated soul does not give immediate impressions but nourishes itself from memories discreetly veiled, therefore his art is less lyric and dramatic than epic. At the bottom of this epic poetry there is a secret but undeniable subjectivity, yet its appearance seems objective. His sensibility enables him to perceive the finest in the past, and, in the fact of his antagonism toward the present, his solicitude to render these impressions faithfully is unlimited.”

“This conscientiousness was Brahms’s tragedy, the tragedy of all sensitive, aristocratic souls devoted to tradition. [But] moral conscientiousness is not always a virtue; most often it is inborn as one of the characteristics of the honest bourgeois spirit … Not so with Brahms … This is at the basis of that extraordinary sensitiveness which made Brahms’s life the life of Hamlet, made him hesitant and chaste … , for he whom every seemingly innocent action may become the source of new regrets shuts himself in and shuns action … he endeavors to live a blameless life, a life that can remain blameless only if others are not intimately involved in it.”

This brings us to Fou Lei’s observation of the English people: “ Their so-called inhibition in fact indicates the depth and strength of their passionate nature: if not restrained, it will easily burst out and overflow, just as uncontrollable as those of Shakespearean characters.” (Letters to Fou Ts’ong: June 26, 1961)

The deep love for humanity is sometimes represented by a desire to get away from them. The warmth of heart is sometimes embodied in coldness, and spontaneity in discipline. The serene, solemn, and silent universe contains numerous brusque, vulgar and noisy miniatures, if one observes carefully. The sense of beauty, however, always comes at a sudden, to the beholders’ surprise.

Mullova plays the finale of the Brahms concerto with Berliner Philharmoniker under Abbado in Tokyo (1992):

In front of Tafelmusik’s Ivars Taurins, I’m a criminal. Not that I have the luck to know him personally or professionally, but I was the culprit who was so eager to applaud in the end of one of the greatest performances of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor a few years ago that I had the ending silence Mr. Taurins so solemnly held with his still batons shortened. That performance of this unfinished masterpiece transcendentally finished with a repetition of the opening Kyrie.

Bach’s Mass in B minor Tafelmusik performed this Friday opens and ends with similar expansive solemnity and calmness, although the final moments of chorus (in particular the sopranos), timpani and trumpets are not without euphoria. The concert was deliberately paced for a period performance, but the exuberance easily came when it was called for. The conducting of Mr. Taurins, as usual, was a feast on its own. One of the great aspects of musician as a profession, is their privilege, when intelligently applied, of expressing their deepest personal feelings publicly without being improper.

So how about the audience? The next evening I attended TSO’s concert of Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 4 with Garrick Ohlsson) and Tchaikovsky (Manfred Symphony). The audience were responsive to the point that they applauded after almost every single movement, including the slow ones. This invites smiles from connoisseurs and snobs, but the fact remains that the “no applause between movements” rule was invented relatively recently. Applause between movements was probably even expected in Beethoven and Tchaikovsky’s times, as Alex Ross of the New Yorker discusses in details here.

Putting all those noise from impulsive applause and self-applause to rest, you may still find the gold so eloquently shining in the darkness of silence. I just finished Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s 1993 ethnography In the Realm of the Diamond Queen (about the Indonesian Meratus Dayak people). True to the spirit of the so-called postmodernism, the book is overly verbal and unnecessarily self-referential – I felt compelled to detoxify myself by reading Hemingway’s short story Indian Camp afterwards to have a moment of serenity. However, in retrospect, the book is indeed ethnographically and philosophically rich. There are a lot of wisdoms you may not find anywhere else. If only the author had been more restrained in her eagerness! Probably only if anthropologists are not such a lonely group of people!

I would usually be annoyed if my fellow audience keep chit-chatting or rocking their chairs during a performance (so did one 400-pound dude in a TSO concert of Sibelius’ rousing symphonies last year). But during the Friday’s performance, I was absolutely delighted by a neighboring young girl who kept whispering in her ageing father’s ear. The performance of Bach’s mass is clearly a very lively event for her (probably even more so than to many adults there). And I find myself rocking the bench to the rhythm of Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus:

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Little Puyi becomes the emperor

I was surprised at my own quietness in front of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. I might have been enraged by the film as I had been by Julian Schnabel’s Before the Night Falls –a vulgar distortion of Reinaldo Arenas’ brilliant autobiography. Every Cuban person in that film, which is not a comedy, speaks English in an “Allo, Allo” way. But here, I felt no objection to the Chinese emperor Puyi talking to his enuchs in perfect English and in a perfectly straight face. The dialogues are banal, but suitably so.

Banality characterizes Puyi’s life experiences, but it comes with imperial opulence – a recipe for a good Bertolucci film. The Last Emperor, in fact, differs little from The Conformist he made 17 years ago. The timid souls of non-heroes in both films struggle in vain against excess for just a little humanity. Marcello Clerici failed. Puyi, on the other hand, had limited success. Their objects of passion (and connections to humanity) have similar fate: Anna Quadri died a terrible death; Wan Jung lived a terrible life. Their sidekicks, however, ended radically different: Guillia was entrapped with the man who doesn’t love her; Wen Xiu broke into freedom in a torrent of blue rain.

Bertolucci’s films are not films. They are operas. They don’t have characters. They have icons. Those icons are not idols. They are banality. They are ourselves dressed in the best clothing possible, shown in the best light possible. They move from one cinematic aria to another. What we treasure, after feasts of majesties, however, is still the simple human feelings and humble inspirations we already have.

That’s probably why we sat comfortably in front of the films, enjoying the grandeur, the banality, and the oddity of English-speaking Chinese. Despite its sumptuosity, history is just like us. We are the history.

Wen Xiu breaks into freedom:

Visited for the first time Royal Ontario Museum’s H. H. Mu Far Eastern Library yesterday. An unexpectedly small, dim-lit, shabby, and somewhat messy reading room with stuffy air. It is a little hard to reconcile this image with its official description that this is “the most important library in Canada uniquely devoted to the arts of the Orient” and “service point for library collections on the Near East & Egypt and West Asia.” The entrance is at the back of the museum from the basement level, opposite to the extravagances and glamour of the public front on the Bloor Street.

Unexpected, yet not unpleasant. On the contrary, it reminds me of all the goodnesses this city used to have.

Just a few months ago, Cinematheque Ontario abandoned its small home at the basement of Art Gallery of Ontario, moving into the unwieldly TIFF Lightbox – and lost all its charm. The last screening there didn’t bode well: it was Julian Schnabell’s Before Night Falls, an intolerable misrepresentation of Reinaldo Arenas’ masterpiece. The full audience sat sheepishly after the screening, listening to the non-Q&A between Noah Cowen and the Master , a multi-millionaire masquerading as one of the people of Walmart. The gist of the Master’s non-answers is that “my friend Javier Bardem and my friend Johnny Depp are the best actors in the world.” I left when a handsome, well-dressed and obviously university-educated young man started to ask about “the symbolism of the water, the sea and the blue color in your paintings and films” with the most reverent tone.

I walked past the front desk staff who recognized me as one of the regulars. They asked me: “Is the Q&A done?” This was not as much a question as a friendly farewell.

“Not really.” I replied in a cold voice and left. I’m never a fan of the bureaucratic style of those AGO people, but I could have been more understanding. At least, they represent a world that is no more.

What is the purpose of art? There are two different views: for some, art is the exploration of reality; for others, it’s the exploration of truth. The difference is subtle or even ambiguous. For argument’s sake, let’s say artists belong to the former camp while art critics belong to the latter. This of course is extremely crude, for there is no (true) real boundary between truth and reality, and there is no real (true) boundary between art and art criticism.

Susan Sontag despises Tennessee Williams. For her, he lacks style and he only uses gothic materials to exploit their commercial value. Here, “style” is actually the code word for “truth”. Now, let’s check out their respective biographies. Besides the fact that Sontag is primarily a critic and Williams a playwright (who was always anxiously anticipating the morning notices), they belong to two generations: when Sontag came of age, Williams was already “past it”. Sontag’s primary life experience is her reading (or film-watching for that matter). Williams, on the other hand, is said to have not read much (according to Edmund White). Sontag is “postmodern”, to use a catch phrase, while Tennessee Williams wrote in “southern Gothic” style, which is realism with modernist touches. Sontag’s inspiration is intellectual and her own style is prickly but dry. Williams’ idiom, on the other hand, is extraordinarily lively. He claims: “I always feel I am black.” Williams’ works grow out of life. Sontag’s grow out of texts.

But a thing growing out texts could still be full of life, when it’s playful, when it’s beautiful, when it’s ambiguous. If anything, art criticism exposes inherent ambiguity of art, in turn, of life, and it is itself full of ambivalence – in fact, the moment of ambivalence is the moment of art, in art criticism. From this point of view, we shall not take art criticism at its face value: it’s not about ultimate truth; it’s about process of thought. It’s not about opinion; it’s about style. It lives between reality and truth. It connects reality and truth. It lives between the individual and the public. It connects the individual and the public. It lives between the white and the black. It connects the white and the black.

(The simplest style of criticism is probably compiling a list, such as a “top ten”. Here is Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times’ take.)

From CBC Tennessee Williams’ South:




Ode on Solitude
Alexander Pope 

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mixed; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.

The impression the second rendition gives is probably closer to truth, for Alexander Pope wrote the poem before he was 12 (although I’m not sure if the poet was also a jock).  Child prodigy, it seems, besides a natural talent for technical command, could also possess profundity in thoughts and feelings.

It’s not all that surprising really, considering developmental psychology is regarded by some as microcosm of the evolution of human thoughts. Somehow, we already know all we are about to know. Empiricism is inevitably rooted in its poetic gene. After all, outside the realm of natural sciences and engineering, who would claim with full confidence that we are smarter than the ancients who lived more than 2000 years ago?

There is poetry, and there is prose. There are child prodigies, and there are those who “come to terms” late in their lives. As it happens, Stendhal is said to be ashamed of his youthful attempts to write poetry, and Leo Tolstoy is said to hold contempt for those who wrote poems only because they could not think clearly and who could not do anything more useful.

In the Milos Forman film Amadeus, an adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play about Salieri, Mozart is portrayed as a goofy genius with silly laughs. This  image is probably as false as the senile portrait of Alexander Pope above – you only have to listen to the subtle sadness in his Symphony No. 1, written when he was about 9:

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To Find Our Life – The Peyote Hunt of the Huichols of Mexico (1969)

This ethnographical film documented a 1968 Huichol journey in search of the psychoactive cactus peyote, an event of supreme cultural importance. For the Huichol participants, the pilgrimage was intensely spiritual and sentimental, as seen in the end of the journey (not shown in this clip) when everyone wept. The film is rightfully acclaimed for its sensitivity, for it’s evident that the indigenous participants had full trust of the filmmakers/ethnographers. However, even a casual spectator would not fail to notice the bland voice-over that narrates in English the passionate thoughts of the band leader Ramón Medina Silva without a single trace of emotion.

This blandness may be merely technical, for after all this is not a film for entertainment. But there may be underlying philosophy: to this date, anthropology can not decide if it is science or art (although it might be offensive to most anthropologists if you suggest that anthropology is not a science). This ambivalence is shown in a recent controversy concerning dropping the word “science” from American Anthropological Association’s statement of its long-range plan.

There are similar questions. Whether we, the spectators (or “participant-observers”), are outsiders or insiders? Do we believe make-believe? If not, do we believe in make-believe?

In our own comedic arts, make-believes are never contradictory to truthfulness. In fact, by instinct, we know the truth of comedy is inseparable from its entertainment value – a detailed scientific proof of a humor’s validity would render the humor humorless. Humor is its own truth serum:

René of the café talks to the “outsiders” from the “inside”.

In fact, we invest our body and soul in more serious forms of dramatic arts where the boundary between fancy and reality blurred almost to the level of the Huichol peyote hunters, when we are moved by the drama. Here, even our bland voice, just like the voice of Mrs. Venable – played in the film by the peerless Katharine Hepburn – in the conclusion of Suddenly, Last Summer, betrays our trembling heart:

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Winter finally arrives. For days repeatedly I’ve been listening to Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1, music that lightens and warms up the chilly dark night. Whether this is a better choice than going to one of the numerous Messiah concerts in the city is hard to say. But I’m allergic to festivity anyway.

Mendelssohn and Handel are both Germans, yet both possess a distinct trait of Englishness. It’s hard to say what exactly it is. Probably, it’s an effortless balance between the intimate and the magnificent, the sentimental and the visionary, the private and the public.

As anything in the art of music, this Englishness is the ideal, not the reality. Reality is always unbalanced – history is able to proceed precisely because of this unbalance, the personal manifestation of which could be seen in people’s miens. Many a time you see individuals of shallow character with perfectly dignified appearances and manners, or individuals of depth with confused and panic bearings. This is true now as this is true then.

George Gissing wrote in the last turn-of-the-century: “So striking is the difference of manner between class and class that the hasty observer might well imagine a corresponding and radical difference of mind and character. In Russia, I suppose, the social extremities are seen to be pretty far apart, but, with that possible exception, I should think no European country can show such a gap as yawns to the eye between the English gentleman and the English boor. The boor, of course, is the multitude; the boor impresses himself upon the traveler. When relieved from his presence, on can be just to him; one can remember that his virtues … are the same, to a great extent, as those of well-bred of man. He does not represent – though seeming to do so – a nation apart. To understand this multitude you must get below its insufferable manners, and learn that very fine civic qualities can consist with a personal bearing almost wholly repellent.”

Speaking of Russia, I still haven’t finish Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a very awkward novel about the new and totally confused middle-class and urbanites.

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