Globe and Mail October 1st 2005
For artists abroad, the CBC is the voice of Canada
My life as a composer has involved me in constant international travel. However, it was only in 1993, aged 50, that I first came to Canada – at the invitation of the CBC. For the next five years I worked extensively with great Canadian artists; my second opera, Dr. Ox’s Experiment, for the English National Opera, had such a strong Canadian contingent (Atom Egoyan, director; Michael Levine, designer; Valdine Anderson, soloist) that the first-night party was held at Canada House in London. Work with the CBC has taken me from Toronto to Winnipeg, from Montreal to Moncton, from Vancouver to Edmonton. In Victoria, in 1998, I met my wife Anya. Since the birth of our son – in Victoria General Hospital – Vancouver Island has been a second home.
CBC Radio has been at the centre of almost all my work in Canada; I am a devoted listener. Over time, this has evolved into a simple Radio Two routine: in the mornings, the erudition of Tom Allen, followed by the subtle, homely continuity of Shelagh Rogers (now on Radio One), giving way to Shelley Solmes on Take Five; then the benign haze of Jurgen Gothe’s afternoon meanderings; the overemphatic “h” in Danielle Charbonneau’s pronunciation of “music for a while.” ….. The week was never complete without Two New Hours, one of the finest contemporary-music programs to be broadcast in any country.
This year, everything became topsy-turvy. When I came back to Canada in the summer I tried to re-establish contact with a couple of producer friends at the CBC. It was only when I called them at home that I discovered that their e-mail accounts and voicemails were blocked by CBC management. As for the radio, it had become a constant stream of anodyne, middle-of the-road music (Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World) with no linking announcements.
So this is what “radio without producers” really means. What is broadcast on radio at times like these somehow defines the way that a culture views itself. If one were in Eastern Europe in Soviet times, the presence on the radio of constant funereal music (played by military bands) during times of crisis gave a sense of the implied value system of the background culture. You can understand a great deal about the values of a broadcast organization by the kinds of ambient music it emits at times like these. I find CBC’s lockout programming a terrifying vision of what the future holds with CBC management as producer.
The irony is that many of those working in CBC management have moved “up” from the ranks of producing. The artist Barnett Newman, in his introduction to a 1968 edition of Prince Peter Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist, talks about the ways in which the active revolutionary becomes the reactionary establishment on gaining power. It is sad that such decent people in the CBC have become similarly implicated. And let us be clear: This has been a lockout, not a strike, something reminiscent of the techniques of vicious 19th-century industrial barons.
CBC is a broadcast corporation which is, from my perspective, second only to the BBC. Its producers are in constant professional contact with every major broadcasting organization in the world. Its senior contemporary music producer, David Jaeger, was in 2002 elected president of The International Rostrum of Composers. Its recording engineers – such as the legendary David (Stretch) Quinney – are held in awe by the recording industry.
Canada is a country with an astonishing sense of balance, of tolerance and of fair play. What has happened at the CBC is the antithesis of that. I long to return to our house in Metchosin, B.C., to tune in to CBC Radio Two, and to encounter intelligent broadcasters putting together programs that blend sophistication with the homely, and erudition with wit. For the time being, I must retune the radio to pick up National Public Radio from Seattle where I can again hear committed broadcasters.
But this is not what I want. And nor should you.
Gavin Bryars is one of England’s leading contemporary composers. His Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet established his name in North America after it was recorded in 1993 on Point Music, a label directed by Philip Glass.
(Original article – before editing)
Home thoughts from abroad
My life as a composer has involved me in constant international travel. Although I had spent a great deal of time in North America from the 1960’s onwards, it was only in 1993, aged 50, that I first came to Canada – at the invitation of CBC. For the next 5 years I worked extensively with a wide range of great Canadian artists and my second opera, for English National Opera, even had such a strong Canadian contingent (Atom Egoyan, director; Michael Levine, designer; Valdine Anderson soloist) that the first night party was held at Canada House in Trafalgar Square. My work with CBC has taken me from Toronto to Winnipeg to Montreal to Moncton to Vancouver to Edmonton, and to Victoria.
It was in Victoria in 1998 that I met my wife Anya and since the birth of our son – in Victoria General Hospital – Canada has become a second home for me, both literally and spiritually. I now spend a substantial part of every year living on Vancouver Island, and so strong is my love of Canada that, notwithstanding my Yorkshire roots, I am even considering moving towards ‘landed immigrant’ status.
I must say that, while CBC Radio has been at the centre of almost all my work in Canada, I have also developed strong and lasting friendships with many of its producers, engineers and presenters. I am a devoted listener during my Canadian months and have a strong sense of the character of the various presenters and producers. Until a couple of years ago I had a simple routine in terms of my listening on Radio Two. In the mornings I have the erudition of Tom Allen, followed by the subtle and homely continuity of Shelaugh Rogers (now on Radio 1) giving way to Shelley Solmes on Take Five; the benign haze of Jurgen Goth’s afternoon meanderings; the overemphatic “h” in Danielle Charbonneau’s “music for a while”; the almost Perry Como smoothness of Eric Friesen’s presentation of the evening performances and, although I accept the greater accuracy of the new late night jazz show’s announcements, I do miss the self-consciously husky intimacy of Ross Porter’s “Ross is the name, jazz is the game”…
And my week has never been complete without Two New Hours, one of the finest contemporary music programmes to be broadcast in any country.
This year, however, everything became topsy-turvy. When I came back to Canada in the summer I was saddened by the death of the West Coast producer David Grierson. Then I tried to re-establish contact with a couple of producer friends at CBC by sending emails and leaving messages on their voice mails. I had no response for some weeks and it was only when I called them at home that I discovered that their email accounts and voicemails were blocked by CBC management. Then things started to change in terms of my daily listening. Instead of the pattern with which I had become familiar I heard a constant stream of anodyne middle-of the-road music (Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World”, Frank Sinatra’s “Fly me to the moon”) with no linking announcement. I was encountering the world of the “lockout”.
It was then that I realised what “radio without producers” really meant. What is broadcast on radio at times like these somehow defines the way that a culture views itself. If one was in Eastern Europe during the former Soviet time, the presence on the radio of constant funereal music (played by military bands) at times of crisis made it very clear what was happening, and gave a sense of the implied value system of the background culture. It used to be said by sociologists that you understand the values of a society by the way it runs its prisons. By extension, I would say that you understand a great deal about the values of a broadcast organisation by the kinds of ambient music it emits at times like these. This audio ambience represents the terrifying vision of what the future holds with CBC management as producer!
And of course the irony is that many of those working in CBC management, and implicitly involved in what I learned was a “lockout”, have moved up (sic) from the ranks of producing. The artist Barnett Newman, in his introduction to a 1968 edition of Peter Kropotkin’s “Memoirs of a Revolutionist”, talks about the ways in which the active revolutionary becomes the reactionary establishment once gaining power. It is sad that such decent people in CBC have become similarly implicated in such hierarchical values.
Some time ago the Globe and Mail’s music critic Robert Everett Green chose a work of mine – “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”, a repetitive piece lasting around 75 minutes – for broadcast on the critic’s choice section of Shelaugh Roger’s show. This resulted in an astonishing outcry of hostility against the broadcast, a hostility which was so great that it made the front pages of the Globe and Mail, and the Head of Radio Music was obliged to defend the broadcast with great vigour. Ironically the producer of this iconoclastic broadcast is now part of the senior management that is conducting the lock out. And let us be clear – this is a lockout, not a strike, something which is reminiscent of the techniques of vicious 19th century industrial barons, or of the worst excesses of corporate America.
We have here at CBC a broadcast corporation which is, from my perspective, second only to the BBC, whose producers are in constant professional contact with every major broadcasting organisation in the world, whose senior contemporary music producer is president of The International Rostrum of Composers, whose recording engineers – like the legendary ‘Stretch’ Quinney – are held in awe by the recording industry. I see from my files that nine years ago I wrote to Wendy Reid, the then Head of Radio Music, about the threat at that time to the CBC Radio Orchestra, the only radio orchestra in the whole of North America. I was concerned that this was the beginning of the downgrading of tremendous national institutions – like that of the Canadian railway system, like the diminution of the National Film Board. But it also smacked of a general Americanisation of culture – which is the opposite of what I perceived to be the case when I first started to come to Canada. I had thought before coming to Canada, in my ignorance, that Canada was simply the USA, with added niceness. But of course it is not like that at all. Canada is a unique country with gritty independence and vast resources, albeit with a population half the size of UK, but at the same time with an astonishing sense of balance, of tolerance, of decency, of fair play.
What has been happening at CBC over the last few weeks is the exact antithesis of all that. I am now back in England (although my wife is travelling through Quebec as I write) but my concern with what is happening in my adopted country is very real. I long to return to our house in Metchosin, to drive into town with my car radio tuned to CBC Radio Two, and to encounter every day intelligent broadcasters putting together programmes that blend sophistication with the homely, erudition with wit. But for the time being, as with many of my friends, I have no option but to retune the radio, and pick up National Public Radio from Seattle where I hear committed broadcasters – and even with weather forecasts that include the coast of Vancouver Island opposite Port Angeles.
But this is not what I want. And nor should you.
(Gordon Krieger letter October 8th)
I was tickled by Gavin Bryars’s piece about the CBC (For Artists Abroad, The CBC is The Voice Of Canada – October 1). In the early days of the program I work for, Brave New Waves, we played his piece Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which is based on a short tape loop of a man singing the words in the title.
The loop runs over and over again, for a maddening 75 minutes in the full version of the piece. This delighted some listeners but flummoxed others; “there’s something wrong with your transmitter,” read one of the complaints.
We’ve gone on to play Mr. Bryars’s work many more times since then. So we were slightly miffed to be left off his list of his favourite Radio Two programs, since we are one of the few homes for his music on the CBC. We are, admittedly, on after midnight; perhaps he doesn’t stay up late.
Gordon Krieger, CBC music programmer, Brave New Waves, Montreal
Gavin Bryars reply sent October 13th
I enjoyed CBC music programmer Gordon Krieger’s letter in response to my recent article in your newspaper on the CBC, though I’m sorry that he feels ‘slightly miffed’ that his post-midnight show Brave New Waves was left off my list of programmes. I intended no criticism by this omission.
In fact I applaud his (and the CBC’s) courage in playing my “maddeningly repetitive” 75 minute Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, something incidentally that the BBC has never done. It was following a CBC broadcast that the piece once caused a vitriolic and hostile national reaction, played out on the Globe & Mail’s front page for a couple of days, after music critic Robert Everett Green chose it for the critic’s choice section of Shelaugh Roger’s show (on prime time daylight radio). The Head of Radio Music was even obliged to defend the broadcast, and did so with great vigour. And I still have the voluminous file of letters sent to me, with justified pride, by the then producer of the show Mark Steinmitz.
Mr Krieger speculates that perhaps my habitually missing his late night show is because I am already in bed, and this is true – but only when I’m in Canada. I must point out, though, that this is partly down to the way that the CBC used to end my day. Jazz show host Ross Porter’s final self-consciously husky words before the midnight news were always the same: ”Be cool. Stay warm. And for goodness sake, take care of the one’s you love”.
Billesdon, England (and Metchosin, BC)