Of birds and wires

Leonard Cohen died on November 7, 2016. He was very popular in Poland in the 1970s and 80s, long before Hallelujah, before the world tours and the late commercial success. We loved our obscure-not-obscure artists, even as we misunderstood or misinterpreted them. We mispronounced his name (“Lee-oh-nard”). We didn’t understand English well enough to get the wry sense of humour or the sexual innuendos. And still.

We had no commercial radio at the time, and no record industry to speak of. Western music was brought to us by enthusiasts who travelled abroad – not many of us could – and spent their own money to buy records, then played them in clubs or on the radio. The rest of us made mix tapes off radio broadcasts, borrowed records and tapes from those who had access to them, stayed up late or rearranged our schedules to listen to music we cared about. There was no Western style commercial promotion through exposure. There was institutionalized political pressure to play Soviet bloc artists, but few, if any, commercial incentives to promote Western rock music. The DJs and broadcasters played it because they loved it, and the audience listened because we loved it back.

Cohen’s fandom first percolated to Poland through word of mouth: a borrowed record here, a tape there. Then a dude, Maciej Zembaty, translated some of Cohen’s songs into Polish and started singing and recording them. It took off like wildfire.

It was not all Cohen all the time, of course. We listened to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and the Beatles, and Hendrix and Tangerine Dream and Dead Can Dance. They were beloved, but also intimidating. You could blast Zep II or Tubular Bells or The Dark Side Of The Moon on your home stereo equipment and get blown away by the sound effects. You could delve into the complexities of The Wall. But when we needed something to sing around the campfire, or on a train, or in a dorm room when a conversation was too much and silence was not enough, few of us would attempt Floyd or Zep. Maybe some of the ballads, and even that was hard.

Cohen was more forgiving. It was OK if you only had a cheap guitar. It was OK to sing Cohen badly; after all, he was doing that himself. Your back could be bent into a permanent question mark, your lungs shrivelled and throat inflamed from the coal dust or chemical pollution or cigarette smoke. You could be missing a few teeth, as people often do when the food does not nourish, hygiene is impossible to maintain, and dentistry is the stuff of nightmares. You could still sing Cohen. And that might have been because he, as the songwriter, had done most of the heavy lifting for you in advance. Bob Dylan, interviewed for a New Yorker article, praises Cohen’s musical gift:

When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius… Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. … [Cohen’s] gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres.

For all of Cohen’s self-deprecating comments about his “golden voice,” he wrote melodies that were eternal and indestructible. They could withstand all the abuse that we inflicted on them, the drunken performances, the missing chords and forgotten lyrics. It would still be alright.

He was forgiving in other ways as well. I learned later that, in the land of the constitutionally guaranteed pursuit of happiness, Cohen was considered dark and depressing. That was not how we saw it. Sure, he sang of broken people, failed promises, lost wars. These were statements of facts that were just true, even when we did not have the permission or ability to say so. Having them spoken out loud felt like understanding and forgiveness. It might have even felt uplifting, in telling us that such things mattered, that they were worth a song.

On November 9, 2016, some Americans woke up feeling that they were in a country they did not know. Disoriented, they looked to historians and philosophers of faraway places for advice and consolation. They resolved to remember what normal life looked like and take note of everything that was not normal. They made lists of things they would not do and compromises they would not make.

Oh, you sweet summer children. I do hope that you will act, that your institutions can be mobilized to prevent the worst. I really do, for your sake and my own and that of everyone else on the planet. But since you ask me so often where I’m from, let me tell you what it’s like to live under oppression and see no end of it.

Continue reading “Of birds and wires”

Lou Reed

Every now and then, I get asked what kind of music I like, or who is my favourite music artist. I don’t have any straightforward answer to that. It’s not only that I’m long past the age when everything was a competition, or that I see no point in restricting myself to a single “favourite” artist or genre. It’s that I don’t really think of my relationship with music in those terms.

I may “like” a catchy tune and forget it a few minutes later. The music that etches a deeper groove does more than that. It might channel my emotions, counterpoint them, transcend them. It might engage me intellectually. It might provoke, question, irritate. It might be cool as an ice-covered cucumber straight out of the freezer, or it might sing its heart out, magnificent in its abandon. It might fall short of its apparent aims, but remain fascinating in its failure. I connect with different music pieces in different ways, each one unique, irreplaceable, impossible to reduce to the simple notion of “liking.”

I’m not nostalgic by default for every piece of music from my youth. I enjoyed it well enough then, back when I was still into making lists of favourites; or if I didn’t, I criticized it passionately. As I grew up, much of it fell by the wayside, now covered by the dust of indifference.

But not all. Some of it went deeper, growing into me as I got older, becoming part of who I am. As a naive, uncool teenager with a very limited command of English, I fell for it based more on a hunch than any real understanding; still, it got me hooked, then drove me to learn more, molding me along the way. In time, I became more knowledgeable and critical. I found out what the English lyrics meant. I got past the stage where a “favourite” artist could do no wrong. But, because this music had become so entwined with who I was, I cannot be entirely objective about it even now, not any more than I could be about myself. Whether I “like” it is beside the point. I don’t even always listen to it that often now. I don’t have to.

Lou Reed died today, at the age of 71. I only saw him live once, at a Neil Young tribute concert here in 2010 during the Winter Olympics. He did one or two songs, somewhat perfunctorily; it was Elvis Costello who stole that show. Laurie Anderson was in town, too, performing “Delusion” at the Playhouse. Just before the show began, Lou came in through a service door right by where I was sitting. I just stared, openly. Then someone found him a seat by the aisle in the center. The guy next to him must have recognized him, too; after the performance, they shook hands, then Lou left quickly. I remember his face looking much more wrinkled than it did in photos.

RIP. And thank you.

Lillian Alling and the immigrant experience

The Vancouver Opera has just concluded a run of 4 performances of Lillian Alling, a new opera by John Estacio and John Murrell based on a true story. Lillian Alling was allegedly a Russian immigrant who arrived on Ellis Island sometime in the 1920s and travelled across the continent, mostly on foot, with the stated intention to return to Russia via Alaska and Siberia. In 1927, she was arrested for vagrancy and possession of an unlicensed gun and sent to prison in present-day Burnaby. She then continued her journey to northern British Columbia and may have reached Alaska; her ultimate fate is unknown. The writers took more than a little bit of creative license with this material, inventing a fictional backstory for Alling and an ending with a twist.

This is the second new opera that the Vancouver Opera staged this year, after Nixon in China, which I have also seen. Nixon was an unqualified masterpiece. It had the larger than-life theme, the grandeur, the mystery. The score moved back and forth between soaring Philip Glass-like orchestral pieces and sonic dissonances reminiscent of experimental jazz. The libretto… forget everything you’ve heard about opera librettos being silly and disposable. It was brilliant, poignant, poetic. The breathtakingly choreographed scenes, and especially the theatre performance within the opera, will remain with me for a long time.

You can probably see where this is going. Lillian Alling didn’t even come close. Musically, it was far more conventional, entertaining enough but not that memorable. The story didn’t necessarily benefit from the rewrite, either. The real-life Alling must have been a fascinating character, a woman travelling alone through any number of rough places. I would imagine her like Sharon Stone in The Quick And The Dead, determined and resourceful; there’s even a vague physical resemblance. I don’t know whether I would have identified with her, but I think I would have admired her at the very least. Alling the opera character is inconsistent: somewhat silly at first, then sympathetic once her true motives are revealed in the second act, then… then she does something far too naive for a woman who’d grown up in Russia, not exactly a kinder, gentler place, and then crossed the continent on foot. Give me Sharon Stone any time.

I’ve been asked whether I could identify or connect with Alling’s “immigrant experience” as presented in the opera. The answer is no. Here’s her immigration experience in a nutshell: her English gets mocked a few times early on (all good-natured, of course), then during her journey she takes a moment now and then to look around and exclaim that this land is so wide (or so peaceful, or whatever) – and that’s all. We’re given to understand that within a few years nobody will be able to tell her from an honest-to-goodness Anglo-Saxon Canadian. That’s par for the course in opera where realism isn’t anyone’s top priority and characters are supposed to be drawn with wide brushstrokes. But I can no more identify with her character than I would with a recycled Christmas gift of someone else’s Mary Sue.

Continue reading “Lillian Alling and the immigrant experience”

Gustavsen and Stanko

While you’re waiting for something more substantive…

This is sort of by request. Tord Gustavsen and Tomasz Stanko, with their respective bands, played a fantastic show in Vancouver last week. There are no clips from that show to the best of my knowledge, but these two should give you some idea of how good it was.

The extreme right tail

Some arguments never die, they just go around in circles like zombies. John Tierney in The New Your Times brings back the old trope about there being more men than women at the “extreme right tail” of the bell curve.

As it happens, I already responded to this two years ago. I could simply copy and paste it here, possibly with a few updates. Instead I think I’ll just note that “The Extreme Right Tail” would be a perfect title for an Andrew Bird song.

Camille Paglia looked into Sarah Palin’s eyes

And got a glimpse of her soul. I mean, of her powerful clarity of consciousness.

Yes, I know. I was supposed to lay off politics for a bit. But this is just too good:

As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist. I stand on what I said (as a staunch pro-choice advocate) in my last two columns — that Palin as a pro-life wife, mother and ambitious professional represents the next big shift in feminism.

No, she doesn’t. Here’s what Vivian Gornick wrote in the L.A. Times last week:

Every 50 years since that time, the movement has raised its head, opened its mouth, made yet another effort to have that sentiment heard, absorbed and acted on. Each time around, its partisans have been renamed — new women, odd women, free women, liberated women — but in actuality, they are always the same women. And, while they have had different issues to take up — the right to vote, or divorce, own property, go to medical school — their underlying message has always been the same: The conviction that men by nature take their brains seriously, and women by nature do not, is based not on an inborn reality but on a cultural belief that has served our deepest insecurities.

There. But Paglia prefers to look into a feminist’s eyes and see a be-bop sax player. So, especially for Palin and Paglia, here’s the real thing: Charlie Parker blowing it to hell and back.

Where the eagles cry, on a mountain high…

I was fortunate to see Buffy Sainte Marie in concert here in Vancouver several years ago. She’s witty, charismatic, inspiring, and of course a fantastic singer. You have probably heard this Oscar-winning song that she wrote, but there’s a good chance that you’ve never heard it performed by Buffy.

Actually, when she does sing it, it’s quite a different song.

More substantive blogging will resume soon.


Hello. My name is Izabella Laba. I’m a mathematics professor at the University of British Columbia. This will be my blog. I’m planning to write about mathematics – research in math, teaching math, math politics, and more – but also about anything else that I might be interested in.

To illustrate this last point, and for a good start, here’s a vaudeville Brel cover…

a jazzy Brel cover…

and a subtitled Brel in person.