Serge Gainsbourg’s empathy

Do popular songs aim low? According to the French wikipedia, Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ was a hit in 1959. It is a poem about a ‘ticket puncher’ in Mairie des Lilas (a railway station in Paris) who talks very quickly about punching holes in tickets all day and about someone making a final hole for him, where he won’t have to listen to talk about holes any more.

Serge Gainsbourg photographed by Claude Truong Ngoc, 1981.
Serge Gainsbourg photographed by Claude Truong Ngoc, 1981.

(The original music video—with English subtitles—is also on YouTube, but the audio track is not clear.) “The main road,” which the persona of the poem says he hopes to leave, is actually, in the French lyric, “la grand’route” or ‘the great highway’—surely a reference to the road we all take to the grave.

The song is a poetic and political act of empathy, and of a kind that has become rare in the sanitised marketplace of popular songs. And it is the poetry that saves it from being only political ideology and lifts it into the realm of art.

Gainsbourg died in 1991, having established himself as one of the world’s most influential popular composers and performers.

Santiago Cañón Valencia | interview

Santiago Cañón Valencia is a cellist, and an emerging solo artist of great technical brilliance. He was born in May 1995 in Bogotá, Colombia, completed his bachelor degree with James Tennant at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and advanced studies with Andrés Díaz at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Winner of many awards, he has performed with orchestras in Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, and Hungary, and given more than a hundred concerts with pianist Katherine Austin. Cañón Valencia’s first album, ‘Solo’ [iTunes link ⤴︎], recorded works by Gaspar Cassadó, Alberto Ginastera, György Ligeti, and Zoltán Kodály on the Atoll label.

Santiago Cañón Valencia
Santiago Cañón Valencia

Cañón Valencia has two new compact disc recordings published by Atoll: one a selection of twentieth century Russian sonatas (Shostakovich, Schnittke and Prokofiev); and the other of short and virtuoso pieces for cello and piano.

He was a finalist in the 2017 Queen Elisabeth Cello Competition. There are excellent videos of the performances in this competition.

Williams: The special nature of education for elite musicians is mano a mano, so to speak. Who are your musical antecedents, and what have they given to you?

Santiago Cañón Valencia
Santiago Cañón Valencia

Cañón Valencia: I come from a family of musicians, my father is a clarinet player who works at the Bogotá Philharmonic, my sister is a violinist, and my mother used to play the cello. She was in fact my very first cello teacher and the one that got me to play the cello. Because of my family’s background, my life has always been surrounded by art. I believe being an artist in any discipline was always meant to be, though, I am sure that if I wanted to do something non-art related my family would have been just as supportive and encouraging as they have been with what I am doing now. From all of this I have learned to love, value and admire not only music but art in general and I am proud of being an artist.

Williams: Anyone who watches and listens to your performances closely will have noticed your father’s immense pride when you perform with the Bogotá Philharmonic. It’s clear he gets a buzz from it.

Cañón Valencia: Yeah, I am happy I make him and the rest of my family proud.

About my teachers… I’ve only had three throughout these almost sixteen years of playing the cello and I believe each one of them has had a huge impact and influence on the way I approach the cello and how I play it, of course.

My first teacher was Henryk Zarzycki, I studied with him for about eight years and he is like a musical grandfather to me. He was the one that basically formed me musically and technically as I started studying with him since the age of four and a half. Not only was he an amazing teacher but he also encouraged my other interests, aside from music, like painting. His teaching was truly inspiring, he always had a way of coming up with different stories for every piece I was working on. Apart from being entertaining, it really opened my mind to think of music as just another way of communication, much like a book you read or a person you listen to speak or sing.

Santiago Cañón Valencia's first album, Solo, published by Atoll.

My second teacher was James Tennant, with whom I studied for five years. This was an amazing time, not only because that is when I was introduced to the beautiful country of New Zealand, but because in those five years James developed my musical and expressive side so much. Those five years were spent mostly focused on really delving inside every piece of music I played. It did not matter whether it was a big work like a sonata, or a short concert piece, the point of it was to really give meaning to every note in every work I played and to think beyond just playing everything nicely without mistakes.

My third teacher was Andrés Díaz with whom I worked for two years. The time I got to spend with him was very interesting as he provided me with an inside look of what it was like to live the life of a touring soloist. This for me is very valuable as he not only focused on cello playing but he also focused on teaching me how to be smart in the professional music world.

I have nothing but admiration and respect for these three amazing musicians.

Williams: Musicians of your age and younger are the first ‘generation’ to learn about music, performance and technique with the additional aid of both audio recordings and YouTube. Do you think it has it made a difference?

Cañón Valencia: I think YouTube has had the biggest impact on music students as it gives all of us the opportunity to have all the great performers in front of us and watch them play whenever we want. However, for me, YouTube is also a great platform to promote myself as a musician because it gives me the opportunity to share all my performances with the world. Many people do this because it is a great way to gain a worldwide audience.

Williams: You answered a ‘dinner party’ question recently with a list of ideal guests that included Casals, Chuck Close and Arvo Pärt—but left out Rostropovich! This is your chance to explain yourself, and maybe to tell us about the kind of art and artists you like …

Casa Batllo (Barcelona, Spain). Architect: Antoni Gaudí.
Casa Batllo (Barcelona, Spain). Architect: Antoni Gaudí.

Cañón Valencia: In that answer I thought that for me, it would have been a more interesting dinner party if it wasn’t just centered in music. I chose a variety of artists that I really admire. For example, I always think of Dalí and Gaudí together because Gaudí’s constructions look like something that could have easily come out of a Dalí painting, or, a Dalí painting looks like something inspired by a Gaudí construction. For me, those two are some of the most interesting and innovative artists and their works just have a way of getting inside my mind without ever leaving. Another one is Arvo Pärt, who’s music I have always loved and he is one of the very few minimalist composers who always keeps me listening carefully with never-ending interest. I chose Casals as the only cellist simply because he is like the father of all modern cellists and definitely one that I admire the most, not only because of his artistic qualities but also because of his human qualities. I could have chosen so many cellists but I admire so many that if i was to list them all, there would be too many. Of course I admire Rostropovich and if he wanted to join the party I wouldn’t dare say no.

Williams:  Rostropovich would have brought the vodka; I’m not sure about Casals. I agree wholeheartedly about Casals, though.

I mention Rostropovich because he used his status and relationships with composers to create new music; and I wanted to ask you: Where do you think new music (for the cello) is going to come from now? We are living in a difficult period for composers, aren’t we? —More difficult for composers than performers?

Cañón Valencia: I think that as long as there are great musicians, there will always be a big open door for great new music to come. I also think that the popularity that the cello has gained over the years is constantly inspiring more and more young composers to explore the instrument and its vast tonal range. Like you say, Rostropovich, more than any other cellist, brought so much great music to the cello repertoire from great composers like Britten, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ginastera, Dutilleux (just to name a few). I think that in the present there many great cellists still promoting new music and I hope I can also become a part of that.

‘Nightwind’ (for two cellos, composed 2011) is from the album Toru (ACD143, Atoll), a collection of chamber works by Martin Lodge. In this recording Santiago Cañón Valencia and Edward King are the cellists. The producer was Wayne Laird.

Williams: It is a fairly common view among musicologists—and competition judges—that “recording has directed performance style into a search for greater precision and perfection, with a consequent loss of spontaneity and warmth”. Trying to negotiate an audience’s desire for both perfection and spontaneity becomes a high-wire act for solo performers. Lucas Debargue’s performances in Moscow show how interesting—and divisive—this act can be.

What is your opinion about this, and do you have a strategy for coping with it yourself as you prepare for performances or recordings?

Cañón Valencia: This is an interesting question. I’ve always been in a search for balance between both, musical spontaneity and technical precision. I believe that both are important when presenting yourself to an audience in any concert hall.

CD recordings for me should be the same, they need to have the excitement and spontaneity that comes with the adrenaline of performing live. I think listening to mere technical perfection would eventually get a little boring.

When it comes to competitions it is really difficult to know what the judges want exactly. I say this because I’ve had personal experiences in international competitions where personal expression and spontaneity is actually looked down upon. Some judges are very literal with the score and a ‘perfect’ performance for them might just mean playing exactly what’s written. Whereas some others encourage individuality and may think that there is more to the music than what is printed on the page.

In my personal opinion, I like to take both points of view into account and address pieces with my own individual approach but still find a way to keep true to the work. I believe in being true to the style of every piece too. If it’s a work by Bach I would not play it like I would play Dvořák, and I would not play Dvořák the way I would play Shostakovich. Apart from the individual musical language from every composer, I think it is also important to take into account the musical style of the period in which they lived in.

Williams: If you were a writer I would ask you what you were reading. But you’re a musician, so you should tell me what you are listening to …

Cañón Valencia: I’m listening to quite a lot now. For study: Il Progetto Vivaldi: Sol Gabetta and Sonatori de la Gioiosa MarcaSix Suites for Violoncello Solo: Pieter Wispelwey (this recording is his 1998 version of the suites, I believe). Truls Mørk’s recording of the sonata for solo cello by George Crumb. And the Ginastera Cello Concertos: Mark Kosower, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Lothar Zagrosek.

As far as music that I listen to in my free time, there are too many albums to list but mainly I like to listen to post rock, ambient, shoegaze, noise rock and a bit of prog metal.

This interview, conducted in writing between 3 October and 21 October 2015, is copyright © Santiago Cañón Valencia and Stephen J. Williams and may not be reproduced without permission of the authors.

Related links on other sites

Music and videos related to this interview

Ginastera: Cello Concerto # 2, Op 50, Santiago Cañón Valencia

Lucas Debargue performs Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Six Pieces, Op. 51 No. 6 in F Minor, ‘Valse Sentimentale’.

Cañón Valencia performs Niccolò Paganini caprice number 24

Cañón Valencia at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition


Conversations

  • Michelle Ramin | in real life - Michelle Ramin won the San Francisco Bay Guardian 2014 Goldie Award for Excellence in Visual Art. She has exhibited her paintings in San Francisco, New York, Portland, Nashville, New Orleans, and in the UK. She was born in North Central Pennsylvania and currently lives and works in San Francisco. Ramin studied at Penn State University …
  • Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence - Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.
  • Santiago Cañón Valencia | interview - Santiago Cañón Valencia is a cellist. An emerging solo artist of great technical brilliance, he was born in Bogotá, Colombia, completed his bachelor degree with James Tennant at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and advanced studies with Andrés Díaz at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Winner of many awards, he has performed with orchestras in Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, and Hungary.
  • David Hensel | interview - “I cheered on reading Brian Sewell’s scathing article about the Summer Exhibition, because I read it returning from going to the preview, where I’d hoped to find my own sculpture. Instead what I found was the empty base, without the sculpture. We know the art market prefers obscure art as somehow more advanced, and anything …
  • Victoria Contreras Flores | Art~natomist - Artnatomia is a tremendously clever use of Flash and a great educational tool. It is the inspirational work of art teacher and artist, Victoria Contreras Flores, who, with a contrary view of the demands of the art market, has decided to concentrate on using new tools and media to express herself and teach her students. Her …

Melisma variations

“Children are lucky if their parents have the good sense to force them to learn a musical instrument. Even if the knowledge does not stick or the child has no talent, there are important ideas and impressions that are planted in the mind by a musical education.”


My father had a secret stash of Shirley Bassey records. There was a record-player in the house. Mine. It was not a very good record-player. I was eleven and I did not know what hi-fi was. I was into noise, and catchy tunes and syncopations. I had no idea what a ‘Shirley Bassey’ was either, except that it was obviously extremely glamorous and sparkly, could be photographed with its mouth open and got hidden in my father’s bedroom closet—where there was no record-player to play it.

'Melodica'—sucky instrument one blows into to produce windy notes.
‘Melodica’—sucky instrument one blows into to produce windy notes.

Many years later I learned my father lived most of his life in another house, an apartment he kept in Collingwood, an inner suburb of Melbourne, while I reconnoitred the border of ‘Forest Hill’ and ‘Nunawading.’ His Shirley Bassey records got played—if they were played at all, I never heard them—in Collingwood.

I compensated for the lack of a musical education, from my parents or anyone else, by trying to figure out how musical scales worked with the aid of books and a strange, little keyboard called a ‘Melodica’ (which sucked, even though I had to blow in it). This ‘instrument’ emitted horrifyingly weedy, windy sounds that were supposed to be musical notes.

Children are lucky if their parents have the good sense to force them to learn a musical instrument. Even if the knowledge does not stick or the child has no talent, there are important ideas and impressions that are planted in the mind by a musical education. Exactly what these ideas and impressions are is difficult to say.

One of them, for example, might have something to do with scales. Leave aside the discipline and patience needed to practice them: every distinct culture has a distinct musical scale that is a framework upon which all its music is built. There is a Chinese scale, an Arabic scale, a Greek scale, an Indian scale, scales that are equally tempered and scales that are not. Discovering these facts through musical exploration changes a person’s understanding of what culture is and how culture shapes perception.

I listened to Mozart, and graduated to Bach. I had no idea what a Sex Pistol was, or a Clash; David Bowie, The Ramones, The Osmonds and The Bay City Rollers were all just words.

One of the popular boys in high school, who seemed to know things the unpopular boys did not know, started to mock me and gave me the nickname “Stevie Wonder”. His mockery was so gentle and, I see in retrospect, so complimentary that I wonder now whether he might have fancied me. Whatever his motive, my new nickname introduced me to the artist who convinced me that contemporary music was worth listening to. Motown. It was fresh air.

Wonder was twenty-three when he made the live studio promotional video for a new album and recorded ‘All in love is fair’. What a voice he had! Conversational and easy-going when singing quietly, it could suddenly unleash tremendous emotion. Wonder’s version of his own song is a study of contrasts between beautiful vibrato, playful melisma, and striking crescendos.

Shirley Bassey singing 'All in love is Fair'.
Shirley Bassey singing ‘All in love is Fair’.

Other singers, mainly women, took up this song very quickly, and made it their own. Shirley Bassey renders it in a sassy, wise-ass style in which her jaw really looks as though life is punching it crooked as she sings. Barbra Streisand performs it straighter, as though whispering a lesson in life and love right in your ear. Carmen McRae’s version is jazzier, seeming to plumb darker notes, but all the while keeping the melodic line under tight control. Dionne Warwick’s is the saddest version and, just by a little, the slowest.

These other artists are not merely channeling Wonder’s song. Each version seems like something completely original that is made out of the singer’s own life.

The great French cellist Paul Tortelier said of musicians, “We are fortunate. We know about happiness.” Note, though, that he does not say they are happy. And that is another mystery music teaches us, and which it is best not to explain.


Carmen McRae

Barbra Streisand

Dionne Warwick

Stevie Wonder

Shirley Bassey

Paul Tortelier

Not a threepenny opera

“Why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?”


Toner-gate, Victoria’s little arts scandal, revealed some interesting facts about government and administration of the arts.

Firstly, public sector employees working in the arts believe that going to arts events is “a fundamental obligation of their professional life”. Penny Hutchinson, Director of Arts Victoria, rejects the idea that free tickets to arts events should be registered as gifts. The Ombudsman concluded, “a lack of management and auditing at Arts Victoria contributed to a culture that allowed the corrupt conduct to go undetected”.

Secondly, the Director of Arts Victoria told the Ombudsman that department employees keep a diary of their attendance at arts events. However, neither the Arts Victoria website nor the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) annual reports of Arts Victoria’s activities contain statistical information gathered from employees or arts organisations about the numbers of tickets given away, for this or any other purpose. Detailed statistical information about attendance at arts events comes mainly from Australian Bureau of Statistics data from census interviews. The Arts Victoria website is an analytical wasteland. Sure, you can find out how much money the government spent and on what projects. When percentages and dollar figures are provided, they all point to the munificence of the public purse and the crucial role of the arts in the economy. They are statistics served up like comfort food to make the public sleep.

Third, though Toner-gate is trivial compared to other public sector governance problems (annual expenditure on ICT in Victoria is around $1.6 billion), the numbers are not trivial to artists themselves—especially artists, like writers and poets, who are not part of the ‘color and movement’ industry. Chris Flynn, who organises writers’ events in Melbourne, posted on Facebook the day the Toner-gate news broke, “Thank God I didn’t get those Arts Victoria grants after all—turns out they needed 80 grand to buy toner.” I suspect this reaction would be mild among writers.

The ABC’s comedy series ‘Angry Boys’ was viewed by “just” 569,000 viewers on Wednesday 15 June 2001, when it went head-to-head with broadcast of a state of origin rugby union match. Chris Lilley, the comedic artist in question, must think that such contests are a harsh proving ground.

Go the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) website and look at the 2010 annual report and you will find that in 2010 the total audience for 2010 was 181,387. The total “paid attendance” was just 121,330. It’s not clear from the report whether any of these figures includes free concerts in the park (40,000 in attendance) or other outreach programs. Using the two available numbers, 33 per cent of seats at concerts are given away.

The Victorian Opera annual report includes the tantalising remark that audience figures are prepared according the standard Arts Victoria methodology. Gosh. Arts Victoria has a methodology for counting audience numbers? —Its annual report does not say what it is. Neither does its website. And this is strange because performing arts publications make so many remarks about audience numbers, it would be handy to know if there is a ‘special’ way of counting them.

The VO says that the total audience in 2010 was 41,799. This number includes dress rehearsals, educational and promotional events, and even 6,500 at free concert in The Bowl with the MSO. Leave all free seats in, and any others that may or may not be free, and divide it into the total of government grants (including a small sum from the federal funding body), and it appears that every single seat at an opera event is subsidised to the tune of $91. This figure is closer to $150 if you exclude seats given away for whatever reason; but, because we don’t know how many seats are filled by arts administrators for the purposes of “professional obligation”, there is no way of telling how high the figure goes. To be fair, the numbers should look better if one took into account that public funds also pay for modest administration, marketing and other expenses.

None of this even touches on the extraordinarily generous donations received by the operatic arts by various kinds of patrons, though it is interesting to note that the VO annual report has two not-quite-full pages of these donors’ names, some of whom gave over $20,000 and at least one (I wonder who?) who came up with $2.

The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.
The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.

And the numbers were especially healthy in 2010 because of the spectacular success of Kurt Weil’s ‘Threepenny Opera’. More than ten thousand people attended 22 performances, about two and half times more than the next most attended opera and about five times more than most.

Why is the writer beating up on the euterpean muse? (I didn’t even look at the statistics for the ballet. My pure heart would be too beaten up!)

Arts Victoria’s and DPC’s websites used to bulge with business plans and targets related to the ‘Creative Capacity +’ framework for arts development in Victoria, a document that, now, even Google can’t find in the Orwellian memory hole of documents published on the Internet.1 I used to look into them to wonder, as I do now after Toner-gate, how little light these numbers, goals and performance measures throw on the ironies of arts funding.

Why, if nearly a third of seats at some concerts are unpaid for, is there no detailed information about how the seats are filled?

Why, if public taxes pay for astonishingly expensive artistic productions, are these productions not televised?

Why, considering apparent waste and inefficiency, can no public funds be found to support a poetry recitation prize for Victorian secondary school students? And why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?

Why, if arts administrators can have free tickets to attend arts events, can we not provide the same advantages to artists themselves? I could, within a week if asked, provide a list of several hundred creative writers whose artistic education would be enhanced by nights at the opera and in our concert halls and theatres, myself included.

Penny Hutchinson’s tortured responses to the Ombudsman’s report demonstrate, amongst many other things, that she has no imagination. Maybe that’s what it costs you when “professional obligation” takes you out for a night on the town.

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  1. The document can still be found in Pandora, the government repository of stale, public websites: Creative Capacity +

Description of the struggle

It is true the movements can sometimes go according to a formula and this is when they are least satisfying. In their defence, though, remember how the mind works when it is alone, grinding from scene to scene. Touch me there. And now here. Then there. Tick. Tick. It is necessary, somehow, to act as though the other were present in your dream and also dreaming. You are neither completely free nor in any way constrained. Finding one who is imprisoned there is, because of that, all the more terrifying. That “one” — of which there are many forms and faces — does not see the real features of the face or form with which it is confronted, but remodels them in the image of the dream before the action began. The whole procedure is rigid and precise — it could be said ‘scientific’, ‘experimental’, ‘repeatable’ — and cannot be repeated exactly, even once, without risking boredom. Many men and women are willing to take this risk. A small variation is introduced into the action. It may not be a variation of action exactly, but a variation of the attitude with which the action is performed. I do this now, imagining that so-and-so is doing such-and-such. Does that feel better? The life of the dream and the life of the action play at endless comparison and assessment — afterwards, that is. It is destructive to bring the force of memory into the play of your movements. To be present, engaged and unselfconscious is important, and almost impossible. Desire and love compete with each other. I want it this way, and that, then this. — Or — It is this way, and that, then this. You cannot take out wanting altogether, hoping to be left with a pure action. The wish guides you toward pleasure; without desire you have no identity, your ‘I’ disappears and falls out of your body as you say …am nothing. This is the struggle and the essence of struggle. What either one wants, at different times, is to be free of this struggle, to find the moment, several moments strung together, when the struggle disappears and ease and freedom take its place. An ‘I’ announces itself in a shout, not at the end of the action but at the beginning, where it is least expected and most clear. Then, it must be said, the sense of struggle does not leave either one entirely — for without it there is no reason to proceed — but is suppressed and becomes the platform of a noisy, messy construction. Both of them talk endlessly. A rule is invented which can be more or less easily broken and replaced by another rule. Thousands of small objects and motions pile up one on top of the other. The hand goes here. “Balance it just there. It is going to fall!” The whole, stupid structure can fall in a heap of laughter and the ‘I’ must announce itself in a shout again for the construction to continue. The play proceeds in waves and froth, swelling and crashing, one disaster and joke after another, crude, violent, farcical. (The one thing it is not — when it is itself, and what it should be — is silent. Silence takes the action, by force, to a place entirely enclosed by the desire of one or other of the participants and where movement is confined by studied schedules and policies. When the struggle is silent it takes the form of the simple wish to shout, to announce the presence of meaning. — But it is precisely this sound which is forgotten by rigid desire, alone with itself in a noiseless oblivion.) (There are also modulations, musical, recuperative and quiet, in which the struggle allows a different kind of silence. It is easy to become lost. As an example, I refer you to the Aria (Cantilena) from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Villa-Lobos, where, from the beginning, voice and strings work in contrary motion but give confidence to each other, and each learns the other’s part. Voice and strings have the opportunity to speak a long melodic sentence, a sentence without words — ah — endlessly wandering and climbing and soothing. In the middle, when the music appears to have stopped, exhausted, and for a moment does, in fact, stop, both parts then discover the same text — a series of difficult, straining notes, repeated and sustained, slowly descending and then ascending — in which speaking is agony. Near the end the contrary motion of voice and strings reappears, the music expressing only the desire for release by asking the voice to sing with its mouth closed — by humming — mmmm… ) So much energy is expended in the struggle, in the falls and repetitions that are its progress, that the mind becomes drunk with chemicals released into its blood, and it is because they are drunk that each one has no fear to die. They do not know whether the struggle will fail and they will die or succeed and they will die. Knowing is the first thing to die and they are both stupid with love and desire. (…until the very end where both motions play the same, new part. The singer takes a breath before the last note and, with the teeth still closed, forces air into the head on such a note as makes the skull resonate, like a finger on the wet rim of a glass, and “ravishes human sense.” )