Sunday, March 28, 2010

We'll always have Paris

I recently bought a copy of The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross's book on music in the twentieth century. I was surprised to see it on the shelves. Since my early teens, I've been passionately fond of 20th-century art music (until Philip Glass came on the scene), but long ago gave up the search for fellow fans. Tellingly, the best-known treatment of the subject prior to The Rest Is Noise is Henry Pleasant's The Agony of Modern Music, which came out in 1955.

Ross's book is very good.  I may review it later.  What caught me at the start was his discussion of creative life in Paris in the twenties.

What a time that must have been.  Everybody who was anybody swarmed the city: Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Stravinsky, Satie, Poulenc, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamps, Diaghalev, Nijinsky... I'm not trying for exhaustive here, just throwing out some names that spring to mind.

I first encountered 1920s Paris in my teens, courtesy of Canadian John Glassco's wry account, Memoires of Montparnasse. (Another Canadian, Morley Callaghan, cast an equally detached eye on the Left Bank in That Summer in Paris.  Canadians have a talent for observation; consider the war art of Frederick Varley and Arthur Lismer).

What drew me about Paris in the twenties was its fairytale quality.  At least that's what it seemed like to this budding writer-pianist-composer.  I spent my teenhood in a suburb.  A really nice suburb, mind you, noted for its pioneering, people-friendly planning.  Just the same, it was a suburb: middle-income, middle-class, middle everything.  No wonder twenties Paris seemed like an enchanted world.  Everyone had big ideas.  Everyone was partisan.  Movements started, had their day, and faded into footnotes.  Turncoats fled from camp to camp.  Legends bickered constantly.  Genius rubbed shoulders with inanity; wannabes and poseurs occupied the middle ground.  Anyone could join the fray, provided they had something new or daring to contribute.

Sure, the level of pretension was sky high.  Sure, mistakes were made with dreadful consequences on aesthetics in the decades following.  Sure, some dumb ideas got respect they didn't merit.  Sure, a lot of quasi-pseudo-semis (as my friend, Ron, likes to call them) strutted round in borrowed colours.

But Paris in the twenties wasn't about good or bad, right or wrong, talent or the lack thereof.  It was about the freedom to be unconventional, the freedom not to feel judged for having an imagination, the freedom to indulge in intellectual debate that had no goal but served a purpose.

Heady stuff if you're a teenager in love with poetry and music.

* * *
When I started writing this, I planned to wrap up asking: Where is Paris now?  Where's the spiritual homeland for the artist-thinker-visionary suffering the loneliness of non-conformity, the censure of the middle-class, the awful silence of ideas that, shouted at the rockface of society, don't even raise an echo?

I must have started writing in a pessimistic mood.  The answer was in front of me: The Web.  Funny how I missed it.

Looks like Rick was right.

Here's lookin' at ya, kid.

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