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Current Issue: #223 Agency & Affect (Winter 2014)

Canadian Literature's Issue 223 (Winter 2014), Agency & Affect, is now available. The issue features articles by Ranbir K. Banwait, Paul Huebener, Lisa Marchi, Veronica Austen, and Andrea Beverley, as well as an interview with Laurence Hill by Kerry Lappin-Fortin, along with new Canadian poetry and book reviews.

Performer and Audience

  • William Aide (Author)
    Starting from Porcupine. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Nancy Huston (Author)
    The Goldberg Variation. Nuage Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Bryan N. S. Gooch

Both Nancy Huston’s The Goldberg Variations (a translation by the author of her award-winning Les Variations Goldberg (1981)) and William Aide’s Starting from Porcupine take the reader into the world of keyboard performance—its pressures and pleasures—and reactions to the playing. While Aide offers an enlightening, discursive, and lucid autobiography which focuses on his own career and some of his reactions to work by other artists, especially pianists, Huston offers—as a tribute to her late teacher Roland Barthes—a fictional bedchamber/salon harpsichord recital of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as an opportunity—and also as a framework—for miniature studies of the thoughts and reactions of her performer, Liliane Kulainn, and a thirty-member audience of relatives and friends (including former lovers, students, and so on) of Kulainn and her husband Bernald Thorer, whose academic career has been abruptly cut short by nervous collapse.

Every performer has also been an audience member many times and can recall, sometimes vividly, emotions and reactions stimulated by particular pieces and artists. And every performer has more than once speculated before, during, or after a concert about what might be going on in the minds and hearts of the listeners—about the music’s effect, about the emotional impact, and about the degree, indeed, to which the composer’s ideas and intentions are successfully being communicated to the hearers, some of whom are probably attending for wrong, un-musical reasons or who, perhaps, have been dragged along by a more enthusiastic companion. Huston’s fictional audience is, to be sure, a widely diverse lot; in attendance out of loyalty, friendship, or even duty, they are portrayed, one for each variation, much as a series of thirty cameos might be offered; the pictures are often stunningly compelling in their incisiveness, deftness, and economy, and while each person is ostensibly in the room to listen to Liliane play, most are depicted as thinking more about themselves and their personal worlds than about Bach or the performance; on the whole what connects them is the occasion and their acquaintance (or relationship) with a few others in the room, and not the kind of artistic experience and communion which a good concert can really produce. Nor do their personalities seem particularly linked to the character of the variations with which they are associated as the recital rolls on. Public performance is a tough, nervy business, and it requires real effort to get some audiences on side, but Huston’s crowd appears, for the most part, to be seemingly unreachable, at least during the time when Huston takes the reader inside their heads. Self-interest in midst of perfectly good Bach is hard to imagine and rather difficult to forgive. Yet Huston’s own virtuosic performance in producing her set of sketches, in the linkages which she draws between the characters in the brief portrayal of Liliane (who figures subjectively only in terms of the initial aria and its terminal reprise) and others’ reactions to her, and the intensity of audience members’ interest in her husband Bernald make this a fascinating if, at times, disconcerting narrative.

Aide’s Starting from Porcupine never hints at the possibility of such an apparently musically detached audience as Huston’s Goldberg Variations presents. Here, rather, is the work of a fine pianist and poet who is also a good listener (as first-class musicians must be) and a sensitive reader. Starting from Porcupine details many of the events— professional and personal—in Aide’s remarkable career from his youth in the Porcupine, Ontario, area through his days as a student in Toronto (with Alberto Guerrero) to his emergence as one of this country’s most distinguished soloists, accompanists, and teachers, now head of the keyboard faculty at the University of Toronto. But this is far more than just a graceful, touching, and insightful look at the growth of a prodigious talent; it also offers intriguing glimpses of major figures—friends and colleagues of Aide—in the musical and literary fabric of this nation, including Glenn Gould (and the Bach’s Goldberg again), Teresa Stratas, Greta Kraus, Margaret Avison, and Jane Coop. Along the way there is a sensitive look at the pressures of piano competitions, technical preparation, public performance, touring, specific works, and teaching. And there are critical views too—for instance, of Claudio Arrau and Vladimir Horowitz— and generous acknowledgement of varying opinions: the discussion of Horowitz’s work is a case in point. When does technical display—hell-fire octachordal surges, for example—overtake musicality and a composer’s artistic intention? Aide’s judgment of Horowitz and his unreserved praise for Arrau’s playing of Beethoven reveals a compelling musical sensibility, just as his perceptive reading of Margaret Avison and his own touching poetry confirm his artistic breadth and his fine ear. Of course, not all readers will agree with him about Horowitz and the latter’s manner of stunning audiences, just as they will not all share his admiration for Gould’s Goldberg recordings. But that is the stuff of the arts. We cannot all like the same pictures in the galleries, and it would be a thunderingly boring world if we did, but I, for one, think Aide has got it right. As for Gould’s manner of playing—that is just not an issue. As the late Ira Swartz, also a remarkable pianist and teacher, once remarked to me in a lesson focused on some of the Bach Forty-Eight, "I wouldn’t care if Gould played with his toes as long as he goes on doing what he’s doing." Aide really is a musician’s musician. Audience and performer come together seamlessly in author as listener and performer as interpreter and communicator. Woven in to this story as well are elements of family life—of happiness and despair—and the narrative moves with fluency, grounded in love and compassion, and without a hint of self-importance despite the record of achievement and a list of friends which could serve as the basis for a who’s who.

There is no question about the importance or artistic effectiveness of either volume, but they are quite different books. Huston’s can be read, pondered about, and re-read, in whole or part, much as each variation in the Goldberg can be read, though the thematic linkages do not really offer a one-to-one parallel with the structural integrity of Bach’s variations. Aide’s book can be treated the same way, in a sense—discussions of his relationship with individual artists can be taken again one at a time, out of order, even. However, so compelling is his narrative and so easy is the style that I am prepared to start again with Porcupine. Bravo!

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MLA: Gooch, Bryan N. S. Performer and Audience. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 149 - 151)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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