A whirlwind has carried me from morning to evening. Earlier today, I took part in a panel at the National New Play Network AGM. With the Great Quarantine locking everything down, the NNPN took their AGM online, hosting it on the Zoom platform. The focus of the AGM was the question on everyone’s minds: “How can theaters become essential to their communities?” The panel I was on was called “We’ve Been Here Before: Theater & Crisis.”
Jess Hutchinson at NNPN organized the panel. I was joined by dramaturgs and theatre researchers Carrie Kaplan, Sally Ollove, and Tanya Palmer. Maestro Julie Felise Dubiner moderating. The over 300 registrants restored my confidence in the future of theatre. For 90 minutes, we laid out our visions of tomorrow’s theatre.
Now this whole Zoom format is interesting. All the panelists and the moderator can see one another on the main Zoom box. Then there is a Q&A box that fills up with attendees’ questions. Pop, pop, pop, up they come in real time. If that’s not enough, there’s also a separate chatbox buzzing with a hundred comments from all the attendees. Some saying hello to one another. Others commenting on the panelists’ conversation. Some sharing interesting footnotes.
Ever wonder what it’s like to be inside a JS Bach Invention in six parts? Each voice in the Q&A box, in the chatbox, and the panelists’ voices sung out like a musical line in theatre’s eternal song. The name of our panel was called: “We’ve Been Here Before.” I can’t help but to think that this panel has happened before–with different panelists–in the past. And I can’t help but to think that this panel, sometime in the distant future, will convene again with different panelists. To have participated in the conversation for 90 minutes is such a trill, or, I mean thrill.
Here were my introductory comments at the panel:
My name is Edwin Wong and here’s my background. I approach theatre from the perspective of a classicist. In the ancient days, they too had this moment of pandemic. In 430 BC, a plague struck Athens, wiping out a third of its population. But the playwright Sophocles confronted the situation head-on with his plague play in 429 BC, Oedipus the King. He was not afraid to challenge the Athenians’ beliefs. Theatre today can also rise to such heights if we are courageous. Laurel Bowman at the University of Victoria and David Konstan at Brown University taught me ancient Greek drama. My specialty is the theory of tragedy.
These days, I’ve set up an annual playwriting contest with Langham Court Theatre in Victoria, Canada. The Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition is the world’s largest contest for the writing of tragedy. Last year’s winning play was In Bloom by Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean. Through the competition, Langham Court offers the community a forum to explore the role of chance and the unexpected in theatre and in life. We fly in the winner for a workshop and staged reading. Langham Court is an essential part of our community because of the personal connections the competition fosters within our city of 370,000 and with playwrights around the world. I’m honoured to be working with competition manager Michael Armstrong, Langham GM Michelle Buck, and board member Keith Digby on this unique project.
The contest is based on my award-winning book on theory: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. Risk theatre is tragedy reimagined as a theatre of risk. It’s risk, and not catharsis or a collision that drives the action. Because we’re surrounded by the impact of the highly improbable, the competition invites playwrights to write plays that dramatize unintended consequences and the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. Audiences today clamour to learn more about the impact of risk. The theatre is a perfect stage to simulate risk. When theatres produce new plays based on modern theories of drama, theatres connect powerfully with community. To remember the past, we continue the conversation with the past by writing new theories and new plays.
But you say: “Who wants tragedy?—enough of tragedy, we cannot think of tragedy while living through it.” This sentiment is straight from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a story of fellow travelers exchanging stories. Whenever one of the travelers tells a tragedy, the rest of them put a stop to it. They say: “This is too sad, we insist you stop immediately!” People write to me all the time saying: “Why do you have a tragedy competition during this crisis?” But what I also see is this: people who have heard about my theory of drama based on low-probability, high-consequence events are fascinated and want to learn more. Here’s a thought. If you market a play as a tragedy, you’ll be met with disdain. But if you market a play as an exploration of risk, audiences will clamour for more. To me, tragedy and risk theatre are synonymous, the same thing. All of drama is the dramatization of risk, that’s why we have two genres: comedy to dramatize upside risk and tragedy to dramatize downside risk. But it’s not the same to audiences. And this brings me to my last point: the theatres which are essential to their communities will find creative ways to pitch their shows to audiences to pique their curiosity.
Brutal though this process of creative destruction has been, it also offers the courageous an opportunity to reshape, refine, and reimagine the theatre of tomorrow.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.
Risk theatre is going on the road to the PARTITION/ENSEMBLE conference in Montreal. It’s put on by the Canadian Association of Theatre Research (CATR) and hosted by Concordia and the Université du Québec à Montréal. There, I’ll be participating in a twelve-person seminar convened by Natalia Esling (UBC) and Bruce Barton (U of Calgary) to discuss how underrepresented and marginalized scholars and artists drawing from diverse experiences and backgrounds contribute to theatre research today. This will be a great opportunity to see how artists and scholars working on the fringes make their voices heard and to share my own experiences inaugurating the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/) with Langham Court Theatre. The conference takes place May 25-28 2020 and the seminar is titled: Articulations of Division and Unity: Re-evaluating Practices of Artistic Research.
I’m so grateful to be selected. This conference is a milestone for risk theatre, as this is the first theatre conference I’ve participated in. Though outside the comfort zone, if risk theatre is going to gain traction, I’ll need to branch out from speaking exclusively at Classics conferences (my background is in ancient Greek theatre). And, in another, first, this will be my first time in Montreal, a city so many have fallen in love with. Here’s a copy of my successful proposal to the organizers:
My name is Edwin Wong, and I’d like to tell you about how my “risk theatre” project is enriching the field of artistic research. Risk theatre is the name for my new theory of tragedy that makes risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, published in 2019, lays out the foundations of a dramatic model based on uncertainty and chance. The book has launched an international playwright competition, hosted by Langham Court Theatre in Victoria. The contest is in its second year. Over 200 playwrights from 11 countries have participated.
My voice in the theatre community may be considered to be underrepresented from a variety of perspectives. My background is not theatre, but rather Greek and Roman Studies. While studying ancient theatre at UVic and Brown, I came across theories of drama by Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, and others. Currently, I am no longer part of academia proper, but work in the field of construction as a project manager. I have a trades background as a Red Seal plumber. I approach theatre as a civilian without formal training in theatre research.
I can speak to how diversity in culture (Chinese-Canadian background), language (classical languages), and background (construction) can inform development in the field of theatre research. I am active in the local theatre scene in Victoria as founder of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (https://risktheatre.com/). I’ve given talks on risk theatre at UVic, University of Calgary, UMass Boston, the Society of Classical Studies AGM, and Okanagan College. I’ve been invited to speak at Samford University (Alabama) in March, and in a few days, I’ll be giving a presentation to a third-year drama class at UVic. The full transcript of the talk is available on my blog https://melpomeneswork.com/oedipus/. The goal of the risk theatre project is to inaugurate a new tragic age in storytelling, drama, and literature and I’ve love to share my unique story with seminar participants.
Edwin Wong is an award-winning classicist with a master’s degree from Brown University, where he concentrated in ancient theatre. He works as a project manager for PML Professional Mechanical overseeing new schools, hospitals, and condos. His book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy was published by Friesen Press in 2019 and he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright competition with Langham Court Theatre in 2018. He lives in Victoria, BC.
And here’s a copy of the Articulating Artistic Research at CATR 2020 call for seminar participants:
CALL FOR SEMINAR PARTICIPANTS
Seminar Title: Articulations of Division and Unity: Re-evaluating Practices of Artistic Research Co-Conveners: Natalia Esling (UBC) & Bruce Barton (U of Calgary)
Canadian Association of Theatre Research/Société quebécoise d’études théâtrales Conference Theme: “Partition/Ensemble” May 25th-28th, 2020 Montreal, Québec Université du Québec à Montréal & Concordia University
Focus: the focus of this gathering of the Articulating Artistic Research Seminar is on expanding awareness of, and directing attention to, traditionally marginalized or underrepresented voices whose diverse experiences and backgrounds can inevitably enrich the field of Artistic Research (AR). Part of this work involves addressing a paradox within AR—that the set of practices enabling it to transcend lines of division also often, if unintentionally, works to reinforce them. To this end, we invite proposals that query lines of separation inherent within AR and that prioritize a diversity of perspectives from a range of communities.
Issues & Goals: The aim of this seminar is to address gaps in the field of AR related to privileged perspectives/ontologies and to trouble the idea that collaborative/ensemble practices might in fact also reify certain divisions. Our goal is to tease out various assumptions inherent in practices of AR, and to more clearly understand and articulate how a focus on diversity (of cultural, language, background, and ability) can inform the development of the field.
Structure & Schedule: · A selection of no more than 12 participants will be invited to attend the seminar in accord with the above noted criteria. We will notify those accepted by February 5th, 2020. · By March 20th, 2020, all invited participants will be asked to share (electronically) with the full group an 8-page articulation of a personal Artistic Research activity that engages with the above-identified focus. (Additional criteria for these documents will be distributed to all accepted participants.) · By April 1st, 2020, co-conveners will organize participants into sub-groups. · Between April 1st and May 1st, sub-groups will be responsible for reading/experiencing each other’s work and meeting (via Skype, Zoom, telephone, or email) to engage in discussion around 2-3 thematic questions (to be proposed). · By May 1st, each sub-group will submit a 1-2-page summary of their discussion and responses, and outlining key disruptions and intersections generated through their exchange. All seminar participants are asked to read/experience these materials. · For the first 2 hours of our in-person meeting, each sub-group will present their collective ideas and responses (via traditional summary, creative/performative means and/or through a participatory activity) to inspire deeper, more focused exchange on the topic. · The final hour of the seminar will take the form of an open discussion between the seminar participants and audience members. · The entire seminar will be open to all conference attendees.
Please submit proposals (300 words) and a short bio (50 words) to Natalia Esling and Bruce Barton no later than Saturday, February 1st, 2020.
Thank you to all the organizers and sponsors of CATR 2020 for this exciting opportunity. See you in Montreal May 25-28!
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.
How far would you go to write words with power? Would you consider hypnosis? I did and here’s my story. It starts off from a most unlikely beginning. While looking into kickboxing sparring techniques, I discovered the work, life, and philosophy of Cus D’Amato, the inventor of the peek-a-boo style of boxing. Mike Tyson is his most famous pupil, but he also trained two other world champions: Floyd Patterson (the heavyweight champ between Rocky Marciano and Ali) and José Torres, all hall of famers. Smaller fighters looking to close the distance with larger fighters with longer reach would do well to watch clips of Tyson executing the peek-a-boo style. At 5’10” Tyson was a small heavyweight. But, by working the angles, he had his way against much larger opponents.
At 5’7”, I’m cannon fodder for the bigger guys at the gym, which is pretty much everyone. Watching clips of Tyson improved my game, and, as I learned more about Tyson’s life, I discovered there was more to him than the “Iron Mike” persona of the 80s and 90s. For one, he’s extremely well read. He quote Plutarch and Nietzsche with ease, and from his quotes, it’s evident that he grasps his place in history in relation to those who fought before him, from the gladiators to his contemporaries. He credits much of his character inside and outside of the ring to his foster father and trainer Cus D’Amato.
D’Amato was an extremely driven individual whose sole purpose was to find and train heavyweight boxing champions. He sacrificed all for this end. Increasingly fascinated both by Tyson and D’Amato, I picked up Tyson’s biography of D’Amato: Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus D’Amato (2017). One of the enduring lessons Tyson learned from D’Amato was that character is everything. Inside the ring, the fighter with a stronger character will prevail over an equal or even stronger opponent with less character. To make his fighters strong in their minds, D’Amato would, on a regular basis, take his fighters to the hypnotist. But this was no ordinary hypnosis where you find balance, inner peace, or a better night’s sleep. He hypnotized his fighters to hit with bad intentions.
Some want money. Some want power. To others, family’s where it’s at. There are those who live for wine and a song. For me, the highest good of life is to be remembered and not to be forgotten. It terrifies me, not the thought of dying, but the thought that after I’m gone, the world will continue as though I had never been. To be remembered, I sought a topic that could stand the test of time. I found that in the theory of tragedy and I listened to the old masters talking their theory: Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kaufmann, Szondi, and the others. To join the ancient conversation, I wrote The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. I founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition with Michael Armstrong, Michelle Buck, and Keith Digby at Langham Court Theatre (https://risktheatre.com/). I started writing these blogs, started conferencing. All so that one day in the future, I might enjoy posthumous fame. Time will tell.
For me to reach this level–to enter the canon–however, is a shot in the dark. I lack the depth of these other writers. In terms of intelligence, I would say I’m slightly above average. But I am persistent. And stubborn. The odds of entering the canon are a million to one against. I’ll take these odds. But I’ll also take every advantage that comes my way. That’s when I started thinking about hypnosis. After all, Mike Tyson was a long shot and he entered the canon.
I looked for a hypnotist and I found one: Harmony Shaw. When I first saw the name, I blinked. Wasn’t she the labour foreman for Lark Construction when we did Selkirk Place, a 230 bed care facility back in 2007? There was a photo of her on her website. Indeed, it was her. I guess in thirteen years, you can pick up one or two new skills! I gave her a call, she remembered me as well and we caught up on old times. It was meant to be. She explained how it works. We do a meet and greet session, no hypnosis. In the first session, about an hour long, clients tell her what they’re after, and she takes notes. Later, she’ll use these notes to plant subconscious cues during the actual hypnotherapy sessions.
Harmony also went through what to expect during the actual hypnotherapy session. The client reclines in a day bed and relaxes. Her job is to keep the client in between a state of sleep and waking. It’s sort of like the moments you’re drifting off to sleep or the moments in the morning where you’re conscious you’re dreaming but not quite awake. While the client is in this in-between state, she charges up the client’s subconscious with suggestions. So far so good.
But I was curious. How would this work? I asked colleagues at work. A surprising number of them had gone through or seen hypnotists in action. Apparently, schools used to hire hypnotists to entertain students during grad ceremonies. The consensus on these shows is that it appears to work on some people. But it didn’t work on the people I chatted with, who were skeptical. To them, hypnotism was some sort of scandalous parlour trick. A thing of ill-repute.
The day came for my hypnotherapy session with Harmony. Friday after work. It had been a busy Friday afternoon, so I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to get into that half-asleep half-awake state, I was so wound up. We met up, I got into the daybed and closed my eyes. The session began with her telling me: “Focus on the sound of my voice.” Then she started talking about the sound of the clock as it checked off the seconds. She told me to concentrate on the sound of her colleague in the next room, who was cleaning up. Before you knew it, I was in that half-asleep, half-awake state. Harmony asked me to signal by moving a finger that I was still awake. I did this and she got out her notes from the previous session.
It was at this point the hypnotherapy session proper started. I heard her say the things we had talked about. “You will write with bad intentions,” she said. “You will write words with power,” she said. “Your words will outlast the pyramids,” she said. The first thing I noticed was that it was sort of shocking, no, shocking isn’t the write word, it was sort of enticing and discomfiting to hear someone say your words back to you. These are all phrases I’ve thought about to myself. It was different to hear them told back to me in another person’s voice. The second thing I noticed was that it was odd to have someone talking to you in this half-asleep half-awake state. The mind is sort of floating in this in-between state. It can notice it is being talked to. It understands the meaning of the words that it hears, though some higher functions appear to be shut down. It is open to suggestion.
We’ve all been spoken to in this in-between state. The difference with hypnotherapy is that the hypnotherapist keeps you in this state. Normally, if someone’s talking to you as you’re dozing off or waking up, you’d either doze off or wake up. The difference is that the skilled hypnotherapist keeps you there. Our first session was just over an hour long. During the session, I had no sense of time. I still could feel meaning, but at a rudimentary level. Some of the higher brain functions do not appear to have been engaged. As the hour wrapped up, Harmony counted down from five and told me that I would wake up feeling refreshed. When I got up and looked at the clock, I was surprised that just over an hour had passed. It had seemed like ten minutes.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after experiencing my first session, it was just as she had described. It’s like you’re having a nap with someone talking to you. There was no magic about it, which to me, is a positive thing. The hypnotist stage acts on YouTube seem contrived, not entirely believable. This sort of hypnotherapy Harmony practised on me made sense. I could see how, if this is that Tyson experienced, it would have helped him. I think if anyone is attempting anything that challenges physical or mental limits, hypnotherapy would be something to try. Hard work and effort would get you 99% of the results. Hypnotherapy would be that boost that gets you that 1% extra.
Since the session with Harmony I’vebeen writing some presentations and some new blogs. I’ve found myself writing in a more direct and concise tone. I’ll be writing, and there’ll be a voice in the back of my mind: “Write with power, write with intention, don’t do any tricks with words when the direct approach suffices.” I don’t know if this is due to the hypnotherapy or simply that I know that I’ve done the hypnotherapy. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. I know I’ve done it, and I feel that it’s given me a mandate. And that’s good enough to take my writing to a higher level. If you’re wondering whether to try it, definitely go for it. There’s no magic to it. There’s no mind-blowing results. But it will take you that 1% higher. And for it to have that effect is pretty amazing.
I’ve been telling my friends about my hypnotism experience. Most of them have been surprised that I got hypnotized to “write with bad intentions.” “That’s wrong,” they say to me. “Writing isn’t a contest,” they say. “It’s not like boxing,” they say. But isn’t it? You’re locked in the cage with all the other writers saying the same thing. And in the end, it is a contest: only a handful will be remembered. And if you’re the one who’s remembered, you have to deliver the knockout blow to your worthy adversary. Isn’t writing and fame a heavyweight bout for the ages where every advantage counts? Am I missing something here or is it my contemporaries who are missing something?
We only live once. Keep your mind open to new ideas, especially new ideas where there is little to lose but much to gain. We owe it to ourselves to be the best we can be in each thing that we do.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.
I’ve been going to Peterec’s Kickboxing for a year and a half now. The gym’s right downtown on Fisgard. And the Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes are super convenient–my office is literally blocks away. Hey, no excuse not to go! But even so, I only manage to go, on average, twice a week. Something always seems to come up, whether it’s a meeting that goes to long or an injury. But hey, we’re past the ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra of the 80s. Rest is good. Of course, not too much rest! That would be sloth!
When I joined up, the goal was never to compete or acquire the different colour belts. I enjoy physical activity (I’ve run a marathon and done a 130km bike trek) and I wanted to see if I could toughen myself up. I’ve never been quite tough, you see. In fact, quite the opposite. Also, martial arts runs in the family. My father taught Wing Chun to police officers when he moved from Hong Kong to Canada in the late 60s. His teacher in Hong Kong was one of Bruce Lee’s instructors.
For some reason or another, I never took up Wing Chun with my father. He taught me for a couple of weeks, but, at that time in my late teens, I didn’t have the patience. Later on, I tried Tai Chi. But it was difficult for me to remember the sequence. After a few months, I moved on to other things. Kickboxing seemed different. You can start hitting the bag right away. And there’s only so many basic motions: jab, cross, hook, uppercut, leg kick, body kick, head kick, front kick, etc., (there’s also elbows and knees and other moves, but the basic moves seem manageable to a novice). In short, kickboxing seemed more accessible out of the starting gate.
I’ve been grateful for everything that Stan and the other instructors and classmates have taught me over the last year and a half. You know, when most people watch the fights, they look at how impressive fighters look when they throw devastating combos. But, when you go to the gym, you begin to understand and appreciate how impressive it is for guys to absorb the combos thrown at them. Even if a kick or punch is successfully blocked, it can hurt. During training, we hold up big thick foam shields for the training partner to kick. One time, this one kid kicked me so hard–even though I had this massive shield on my leg–that I crumpled to the ground in pain. After that, I realized how impressive fighters are for the hits that they can absorb. It’s not normal to be able to take that kind of punishment and keep going. That’s mental toughness. An insane amount of mental toughness.
There’s been a few injuries too. I ruptured a tendon in my left middle finger. The doctor had a good laugh when she saw. She said, ‘Haha, we call this mallet finger!’ And it does sort of look like the end of a hammer. The finger extends straight out, and then, on the last joint (where the fingernail is), it drops down 90 degrees. I didn’t even know it could do that. The weird thing is, it didn’t hurt at all. I didn’t even notice until I took off the boxing gloves. They put me in a finger splint for two months and then the tendon reattaches. The finger is almost straight again today.
Then there’s the tendinitis. Tendinitis in both elbows. I think it’s from making a fist and then punching the bag really hard. It’s on the days that we practise hard punches on the bags that makes it worse. It used to be that if I rested a few days it would go away. But now it’s constant. And it is a little frustrating. I can feel it when I pick up things like a dinner plate. It wakes me up sometimes at night if my arm is straight (if it’s bent it seems to be fine). But, you know, the body’s meant to be used. Doing something meaningful and rewarding with some aches and pain is better than trying to be 100% healthy and doing nothing. Life is meant to be lived.
So…the belt test. Yellow belt. The first belt. Test is next Friday. 5PM. Allow two hours says Stan. The guys that have gone through it say it’s pretty brutal, but you’ll get through it. Some people throw up during the test, but most pass. Apparently, they don’t invite students to do the test unless they have a high degree of confidence you’ll pass. We’ll be drilled on everything that we’ve done. Punches. Kicks. Blocks. Movement. Movement is a particular weakness. I’m too stiff. Rigid. It’s funny. I was doing swing dance classes last year, and my dance partners were saying the same thing about my dancing. Kickboxing, you know, isn’t that much different than dancing. In both activities, there’s a pair moving in tandem. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.
On top of the drills, there’s also different combos that will be tested. Here they are:
#1 jab, cross, jab, cross, left hook, right leg kick, slide back, snake kick
#2 jab, cross, left hook, right uppercut, cross, step through, left body kick
#3 jab, cross, step through, two left body kicks, cross, left hook, right leg kick
#4 left hook, beeline (step to right at a 45-degree angle towards partner so you’re on his left side), left hook to body, left uppercut, cross, use elbow to push partner away, step through, left head kick
This is going to be fun! Five days to go!
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.
Richard Wagner had a term for the complete synthesis of music and drama. He called it Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total art work’. I will go one up. My term is called Gesamtlebenswerk and it means ‘total life work’. It signifies the complete integration of artistry and living life.
The idea of Gesamtlebenswerk started at JS’s place after Easter brunch. We were sitting in the study debating how they should restore the Notre Dame Cathedral (which had burned down the week prior). JS is one of the premier building restoration superintendents in the city, and his natural reaction was to build it back to the original specifications of Eugène Violett-le-Duc. That’s what they did when York Minster burned in 1984. I sat on the other side of the debate, wondering if they would use this opportunity to rebuild the spire higher–even higher than any Master Builder could climb with a commemorative wreath. I love bigger and better. The Cathedral of Chartres (in 1194 and 1836) and Metz (in 1877) have provided my view a precedent as well: when rebuilding, go with the latest and greatest, not a replica.
The conversation eventually drifted to Notre Dame’s position in the pantheon of European cathedrals and then to the relationship between the building and the architect. It was at this point that either JS or L quoted the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral: “If you want to understand me, look around you (e.g. at the cathedral).” Though their recollection of the quote was slightly off (it actually reads Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around”), it got me thinking: could it be possible to integrate life, work, and vision in a unity as Wren had done? Could it be possible for an author to lose or subsume individuality into his creation of art as perfectly as Wren had done, once upon a time? This idea is what I mean by Gesamtlebenswerk. And yes, that is so cool how German allows you to stack all these nouns and adjectives together.
The traditional view advocates for a separation between author and work. The artist creates the work and sends it out into the world. At this point, the work becomes independent, as it becomes thrall to interpreters who will judge it. The work takes on an identity of its own, one formed by the interaction between the text, image, or sound and its interpreter-judges. So far, so good. But then the question arises: if a book (or painting or musical piece) is defined by its reception, what the defines its creator? In the traditional view, the creation does not define the creator. But in this Gesamtlebenswerk model, the creator subsumes his individuality into the art world through his creation. If that sounds complicated, here are some straightforward examples.
The “Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition” (what a handful, I have to shorten this name!) has been running for over a year now. I cofounded the competition with Langham Court Theatre. Whenever playwrights participate, I try to befriend them on Facebook and LinkedIn. Many of them accept my invitation. The initial goal was to project the project into social media feeds. But what’s happened is that my newsfeed from friends has been overwhelmed from the newsfeed from my new playwright friends. And, since my connection with these new Facebook friends is based on a mutual appreciation for art and theatre, it draws my own individuality into the art world. Drawn into my book’s orbit, I am become art. Oh yes, if you’re reading for the first time, the playwright competition is based on a theory of drama I wrote called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. And yes, I consider the interpretation of art–or aesthetics, as the philosophers call it–to be an art form in itself.
Here’s another example of Gesamtlebenswerk. I enrolled in match.com, a dating site, a few days ago. Usually, people write quite vague descriptions on their profiles. “I like going for walks,” “I like movies,” or “I like to travel.” This isn’t very helpful, as this is the sort of stuff everyone likes. More daring folks might be more specific, as in: “I like walks along the sand,” “I like Paris in the spring,” and so on. But here too, it’s hard to see a person’s character. And character, I think, is what people want to see.
When writing my own profile on match.com, I remembered how Wren had said “If you want to see who I am, look at what I’ve been doing.” This is the writeup I came up with. Its goal is to integrate life and the pursuit of art. Like my Facebook page, I am integrating myself with my artistic endeavours.
Hello! Here’s a little about me. My book, “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected,” has just hit the bookstores. It’s about a subject I’m really passionate about: theatre and performing arts. It was thirteen years in the writing.
I also sponsor (this is the philanthropy part) an international playwright competition at Langham Court Theatre. The competition is based on the book, which invites dramatists to dramatize and simulate risk on the stage. During the day, I’m a project manager for a construction company. During the evenings, I’m promoting my book, blogging, and managing the Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition. Did you know that, in our first year, 182 playwrights from 11 countries participated? It’s my life’s work to see how far this idea of theatre can go. I believe that we have an obligation to understand risk in today’s world, and the best way to learn about risk is to explore it on the stage.
How would my friends describe me? They would say that I’m generous, approachable, and down to earth. They would also say that I am opinionated, but they would also add I’m a good listener. They find that I’m sort of a walking contradiction. For example, I listen to both classical music and metal. If it’s one thing they would fault me on is that I like to talk quite a bit about my book and the theatre competition.
I’m looking for someone who enjoys reading and talking about the arts. Someone who feels comfortable talking about ideas and ideals. I love ideas. Someone who likes reading as much as I do. An ideal vacation would be a weekend getaway with a good book. Someone who believes that art can change the world. An introverted extrovert, if there’s such a personality type. Is there something of that in you?
Hobbies? Besides the writing, philanthropy, project managing, blogging, and promoting, there isn’t that much spare time! I do try to get out on the bicycle once in a while. Or a run around the lake (these days it’s more like a run to the lake and back again). I also try to fit in kickboxing classes at Peterecs Gym.
Gesamtlebenswerk signifies a sort of unity of being where public and private life come together. Why not have more of it? Privacy in this digital age seems to be a thing of the past. And if what you do means a great deal to you, why not publicize it, even it comes at the expense of privacy? Someone might find what you have to say most interesting!
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I love doing Melpomene’s work.
Who is, really, Nietzsche’s Overman? What do we know about his Overman, der sogennanter Übermensch? The first clue is the preposition ‘over’. The preposition may carry a sense of overlooking or passing over. The verb übersehen carries this connotation, as in “Sie hat mich auf der Party übersehen (She had ignored me at the party).” But this is not the sense in which Nietzsche uses it. He uses it more in the sense of ‘overcome’. The Overman ‘overcomes’. But what does he overcome? He overcomes man; he is ‘over’ man. Here a most interesting question arises: what does it mean to be over man?
To be over man, one does something that is hard for man to do. So then the question becomes: what is the hardest thing for a man to do? It turns out that the hardest thing is the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche calls the eternal recurrence the ‘greatest weight’ in section 341 of The Gay Science where he encapsulates the idea in the parable of the lonely demon:
The greatest weight.–What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence–even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
The point of the parable of the lonely demon is, of course, that few can withstand one life, let alone the eternal recurrence of endless lives. For evidence, look around at how quickly despair sets in. In just a few decades, many tire of being alive. To handle the greatest weight, an Overman became necessary. Man was not up to the task.
Nietzsche’s Overman is greedy. He is someone insatiate of life, someone who eats up existence. He is yes saying and life affirming. Pain and joy are children’s toys from the perspective of eternity. The Overman is the one who says: ‘I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now’. Who else can the Overman be if not Freddie Mercury?
Freddie Mercury has the life affirming spirit. He will have the pain and the joy and the small and the great. He has the force of life, which is the will to power. Only the Overman has the gall to say, ‘I want it all’ and qualify his want by saying, ‘It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth’. The nerve! Remember, the song came out in 1989, right after his AIDS diagnosis. But instead of despair, he is living it all and giving it all. He will not be crushed. It is in this sense the Overman is over man. He asks for no quarter, nor gives quarter. The universe deals him a death sentence, but he still desires to have it all, to have it again and again, time without number, such is his hunger for life. The Overman is the personification of appetite for existence. And that is why Freddie Mercury is Nietzsche’s Overman.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.
This is a review of the “Retro 15 Neo Be” speaker. It’s a drop-dead gorgeous horn-loaded and hand-made speaker by Frank Fazzalari, founder of Coherent Audio, a small Canadian speaker manufacturer operating out of Stoney Creek, Ontario. The speaker measures 22″ long x 13″ deep x 34″ high. They sit on small stands which raise them 7″ off the ground. This places the tweeter at approximately ear height for seated listeners. On the rear of the cabinet there are two ports. Rear wave resonances are tamed by lattice slats inside the cabinet rather than the more commonly seen polyfill insulation. The front baffle sounds solid when you knock on it. The sides sound less solid. And the top sounds hollow. I believe Frank has tuned the cabinet by using panels of different thicknesses. Like Audio Note speakers, these cabinets are designed to resonate. This philosophy of cabinet design contrasts with the current craze to make cabinets as inert as possible by using multiple layers of composite materials or, in some cases, aluminum enclosures.
The speakers probably weigh close to eighty pounds–one person can move them, but with difficulty. The level of woodworking, from how the terminal posts are inset into the cabinet to how the model name is stamped into the cabinet, is superb. I think of these speakers as a piece of fine furniture that happens to convert electrical into sound energy. Size and finish wise, they bear a physical resemblance to the DeVore Orangutan O/96, another lovely and well-regarded speaker.
This is the demo pair from Coherent Audio’s booth at the 2017 Toronto Audio Visual Entertainment Show, otherwise known as “TAVES.” There they were powered by a Triode Amps 2A3 setup, a captivating combination of a lower power tube amplifier with a high efficiency speaker. Since there were no local dealers, I travelled to Toronto to have a listen. Also on the listening list at TAVES were the JBL Synthesis K2 ($80,000), the GoldenEar Triton Reference ($11,000), and various speakers by PMC. PMC champions transmission line cabinets where the rear wave of the speaker goes through a tuned labyrinth. They claim that this results in deeper and more integrated bass than either sealed or ported designs. I find this approach fascinating and wanted to have a listen. The GoldenEar Triton References were appealing because their low-end has been compared to that of the legendary Mirage M3s, a speaker I lived with and enjoyed for many years. They could produce subterranean bass that energizes the room. To be able to charge up a room is great fun. And the JBL I wanted to hear because JBL is a legend and the K2 was there attempt at a state-of-the-art horn design. Unlike the speakers by Coherent, GoldenEar, and PMC, I was not planning on buying the K2s. At $80,000 it was listening only! In the end, I purchased the Coherent Retro 15 Neo Be demo pair from Frank for $11,165 (CAD), shipping included. They were 3 months old, so they were pretty much new. At the time of writing this review, I’ve enjoyed the speaker for a year. This last year I moved, so I’ve also experienced how they perform in different settings.
At the heart of the Coherent Audio Retro 15 is a modified Radian 5215 15″ Neo Coaxial Speaker. These bad boys are designed for commercial applications, boast a 700 watt AES power handling capacity (!), and retail for $1200 (CAD) each. A 3″ horn loaded driver handling the frequencies above 800 Hz is built into the dustcap of the 15″ treated paper woofer, hence the “coaxial” designation. The advantage of coaxial designs is that the low and high frequency drivers are time-aligned. Conventional speakers that have separate woofers and tweeters mounted on a panel are not time-aligned: the different frequencies arrive at the ear fractions of a second apart, smearing the presentation. Heroic crossover design can ameliorate this, but with a coaxial speaker, time alignment happens automatically. The Radian 5215s combine two great technologies. They are time-aligned. And they are, above 800 Hz, horn loaded, which makes them super efficient. With one or two watts of power, they will fill most rooms with concert hall levels of sound. On a side note, Radian is the last manufacturer who still builds and assembles all their drivers in the USA.
What modifications has Frank done to the Radian 5215? He took off the dustcap so you can see the high-frequency horn in the centre of the speaker (no grilles come with the speaker). And he discarded the Radian designed crossover with an autoformer of his own devising. You see, the 5200 series Radian drivers were designed for punishing commercial use. The crossover was designed to protect the speakers, not for audiophile sound. Sound wise, it’s like a horse-blanket. Frank’s genius was to recognize that, if he could come up with an audiophile crossover, the Radian 5215 could be the centrepiece of a world-class home loudspeaker. Traditional crossovers use resistors to match different sensitivities of low- mid, and high-frequency drivers. Autoformers match drivers of different sensitivities by multiplying impedances. Autoformers are much more expensive than resistors. They are, however, much more efficient than resistors, which dissipate the power produced by the amplifier as heat. With autoformers, the amp never has to produce this extra power since the driver appears to the amp as a higher impedance device. The “first watt” crowd will love the autoformer concept: musical purity favours simpler, lower power designs. Klipsch is another manufacturer that combines high-efficiency horns with autoformers, at least in their “Heritage” line.
Horn loudspeakers are the holy grail to me. Horns are efficient. Two or three watts of power is sufficient. No need for half-kilowatt monster amps. You have your choice of any amplifier. Single-ended triode?–check. Output transformerless OTLs?–check. Class A tube or transistor?–check. Huge Krells?–you could use these too. The horn colouration, if anything is an advantage. Commercial speakers, because efficiency is important, are invariably horn loaded. As a result, we naturally associate the sound of horns with live music. Though horns can play loud, they sound extremely pleasing at low volumes. This is true of the Coherent Retro 15s as well as the Klipsch LaScala, another horn I lived with happily for many years. They are a great late night speaker. Horns are quite different than Magnepan panels in this regard. I have owned the MG-II and, more recently, the 3.7i. I love them, but you always are reaching for the volume to turn them higher, and they just soak up the power. Not so with horns. Late night listening sessions are possible with horns. Horns take you closer to the music, as they project more direct sound towards the listener.
While both the Coherent Retro 15s and the Klipsch La Scala use horns, the sound from the Retro 15s is more refined. The La Scalas, on the other hand, tend to grab you more viscerally. Another difference between the two is that the bass driver on the La Scala is a folded horn (a type of compact horn). The bass (and low midrange) handled by the 15″ woofer on the Retro 15s is not horn loaded. As a result, the cabinet size of the Retro 15s is about half the size of the La Scala, which is massive. Both speakers seem to put out a ton of bass. But it’s different bass than the bass from the latest ported speaker designs with multiple low-end drivers such as the Mirage M3 or the GoldenEar Triton References. Those speakers can convulse rooms. The bass from the Retro 15s and the La Scalas is more airy. And since many owners of horn speakers will be using low powered tube amps based on 300B or 2A3 tubes, the bass will have the bloomy tube sound. I’ve had tubes in the past, having built single ended 300B and OTL kits (I build speakers too, which is great fun). But right now, the Coherent Retro 15s are being powered by a Devialet 120 amplifier. It’s an all-in-one design, perfect for condo living: built into one box the size of a bathroom scale is a class A/D amp, a digital-analog converter (DAC), a world-class digital preamp, and a wireless function where you stream music from your computer. No more unsightly box and wire clutter from preamps, amps, transports, and D/A converters. Yay!
Frank expressed surprise when I told him I was going to be using the Devialet with his speaker. He’s built and tuned his speaker to work with tubes. At the show, he demoed the speaker with a 2A3 tube amp. What I love about the Devialet, however, is that it is dead quiet. It is dead quiet, dead accurate, and like horn speakers, it is–being a class A/D amp–efficient. At its hottest the chassis gets up to 45 Celsius. I’ve had tube amps I could fry eggs on. You know, the ones that input 100 watts of power and deliver 2 watts to the speakers. Who needs such inefficiency anymore? I love the Devialet’s analytic and revealing sound. Tubes are fun, but their euphonic characters sometimes add a pleasant bloom to the sound that isn’t there. This bloom masks subtle sonic cues and emphasizes others. Devialets are all about control and efficiency. And yes, you can use them with horns. My Devialet 120 started off as a Devialet 110 five years ago (purchased in 2013 sight unseen). It became a 120 from a free firmware upgrade. We’ll see more and more audio manufacturers take this route in the future. This is as good as Tesla owners who wake up one morning to find they have the new ‘ludicrous’ mode update.
How to the Coherent Retro 15s compare to other horns? Just as they were more refined than the La Scalas (a speaker I’d very happily purchase again), the JBL Synthesis K2s were that much more “airy” in the top end than the Retro 15s. But whereas the Synthesis K2s are a three-way design, the Retro 15s are a time-coherent two-way design. As I get older, I favour simplicity. Two-way rules! Then there are the Tannoy Ardens, another 15″ dual concentric speaker. The Retro 15s, however, blow this legendary speaker out of the water. I auditioned a used pair (with new surrounds in great condition) driven by McIntosh electronics. Like the Retro 15s, they had a big, big, lifelike sound. Perhaps even bigger than the Retro 15s, which have a laser focus to their presentation. But the bass from the Ardens was absolutely out of control. Bloated, big, and flabby. Some may like their gigantic presentation. But, to me, they’re out of control. I’ve also heard the Avantgarde Duos, but it’s been too long to draw comparisons. I do remember that I loved the sound of these beautiful art-pieces and that the powered DSP bass was module was a great idea. They must be going for close to $25,000 (CAD) these days, so they’re out of my price range. At least right now. Maybe one day down the line though. The Avantgarde Solo was in my price range, but they sounded congested.
Here’s one feature of horns that I find very interesting. I used to live in a New York style loft condo: the upstairs is open to the downstairs. One thing that horns do that no other speaker does is that they sound very lifelike from the next room. The speakers were downstairs, and I had a home gym upstairs. When working out, when the horns were playing, it would sound like a real band was playing downstairs. When I had box speakers, it would never sound that real. And the Magnepans sounded downright wrong. It must have something to do with the radiation pattern of the sound?
Now another interesting thing about all these high-efficiency horn speakers (the Retro 15s, La Scalas, Ardens, and K2s) is that, while they seem to pump prodigious bass out of huge boxes, they don’t actually go that deep. The lot of these speakers go down to the low 40s before dropping off. Considering that conventional ported box speakers with 8 or 12 inch drivers can routinely get down to 35 Hz or lower, this doesn’t seem so impressive. Of course, conventional box speakers are much less sensitive and need to be paired with big amps to achieve this. So low bass must be one of the tradeoffs of a horn design. Here’s how the Retro 15s measured from my listening chair (roughly 12′ from the speakers). Measurements taken with Galaxy Audio Checkmate CM-140 SPL meter:
20Hz 59dB (-17dB)
25Hz 59dB (-17dB)
31.5Hz 64dB (-12dB)
40Hz 66dB (-10dB)
50Hz 68dB (-8dB)
63Hz 66dB (-10dB)
80Hz 76dB (0dB)
100Hz 75dB (-1dB)
125Hz 79dB (+3dB)
160Hz 77dB (+1dB)
200Hz 78dB (+2dB)
250Hz 80dB (+2dB)
The Retro 15s measured similarly in my previous condo:
20Hz 60dB (-24dB)
25Hz 61dB (-23dB)
31.5Hz 69dB (-15dB)
40Hz 73dB (-11dB)
50Hz 81dB (-3dB)
63Hz 87dB (+3dB)
80Hz 84dB (0dB)
100 81dB (-3dB)
125 79dB (-4dB)
160 86dB (+2dB)
200 84dB (0dB)
250 84dB (0dB)
They’re fairly flat from 50Hz and up. The 50Hz (-8dB) and 63Hz (-10dB) dips at my current place have more to do with the room than the speaker. They drop off fairly sharply in the 40s and have useable bass down to the low 30s. One thing that’s been illuminating from measuring speakers: a “big” sound isn’t the same as deep bass. A lot of box speakers (such as the Mirage M3s and the Golden Ear Triton Reference) go lower, but the horns sound much bigger. Instruments and voices sound more solid, like they occupy a real space. Box speakers have a leaner, smoother presentation. Horns are raw and elemental. One of my friends, a jazz singer, commented that these were the first speakers she could make out subtle changes in pitch and timbre in her favourite vocal recordings.
To fill in the bottom octave, I went out searching for a subwoofer. Like many of you, I’ve had subs in the past. There was a Yamaha, a B&W, and Hsu. The Hsu ULS-15, a sealed 15″, was actually quite nice. And a good deal. I’ve never been able to perfectly mate the sub to the mains, though. The ULS-15 (with wireless option!) was probably the best of the bunch (the B&W was 12″, too small), but they were matched with the Magnepan 3.7i, a brilliant and exceedingly frustrating speaker. After much research, I ordered a Rythmik FV15HP. It’s a 15″ aluminum cone self-powered dual-ported sub. It is big and it plays at -2dB at 17Hz or -6dB at 12Hz. That’s pretty impressive. I use it with one port plugged. After months of hair-pulling tuning, fidgeting with knobs and controls, and moving things around, here are the frequency measurements with the sub at the listening chair:
20Hz 77dB (+1dB)
25Hz 70dB (-6dB)
31.5Hz 71dB (-5dB)
40Hz 80dB (+4dB)
50Hz 77dB (+1dB)
63Hz 75dB (-1dB)
80Hz 76dB (0dB)
100Hz 73dB (-3dB)
125Hz 75dB (-1dB)
160Hz 81dB (+5dB)
200Hz 77dB (+1dB)
250Hz 82dB (+6dB)
Not bad! +/- 6dB across the board! Purists will inevitably poo-poo adding a sub to such a brilliant time-coherent speaker, but purists be damned! The big sub is big fun. And, every once in a while, when a recording has deep bass (Bach organ music, Andy Stott, Portishead), one is rewarded. The sub also does a good job of bringing out bass guitar lines in rock music, say Springsteen. On most music, the effect of the sub is quite subtle, certainly more subtle than the measurements suggest. Unless I were doing A/B comparisons or listening to electronic music with room shaking bass, I probably couldn’t tell if the sub were on or off. The sub is positioned in a corner behind the right speaker. The left and right speakers are placed about 4′ from back wall (measured from front baffle), so that’s just enough room to fit the sub there. The right speaker almost conceals the sub. Almost. Did I say that the sub is big? And for those of you wondering: “Why not a sealed sub?” the answer is that at my old loft-style place the sub had to energize a 15,000 cubic foot space (30’x20’x25′). Although sealed subs may be more musical, a vented sub puts out power. At my new place, it’s quite overkill. It’s coasting along at maybe 10% of its capacity. Nothing wrong with that. Power in reserve.
How do the Coherent Retro 15s compare to the Magnepan Magneplanar 3.7i? With the Coherent speakers, you’re sitting in first row, like it or not. And with the Magnepan speakers, you’re sitting 20 rows back, like it or not. With the Coherent speakers, the treble is crisp. With the Magnepan speakers, the treble is silky smooth and extends into the air. With the Coherent speakers, you can hear where the left and right speakers are. The centre image is stable and focussed. The soundstage is contained between the speakers. With the Magnepan speakers, it’s harder to heard exactly where the left and right speakers are. The centre image is diffuse. The soundstage extends far beyond the edges of the left and right speakers, and the depth is awe-inspiring. The Coherent speakers are ever-present. The Magnepan speakers are ever-distant. With the Coherent speakers, the midrange is detailed and palpable. With the Magnepan speakers, the midrange is detailed and recessed. With the Coherent speakers (without the sub), the bass is articulate and light on its feet. With the Magnepan speakers, the bass is, well, different. The Retro 15s will play all types of music: from heavy metal to Lieder and from Bruckner’s symphonies to Woody Guthrie, they will perform. Despite what some aficionados say, the Maggies do not like Motorhead. I found that, with the Maggies, I would listen more to choral and symphonic works. The Maggies are good at recreating the empty space around the instruments such as the interior space of a cathedral. But their ability to do this comes at the expense of recreating the exciting and visceral punch of rock music. With the Coherent Retro 15s, I found myself tapping my feet more often. With the 3.7i, I found myself cranking up the volume and closing my eyes more often.
Frank hasn’t been the only audiophile interested in the Radian coaxial drivers. Live Act Audio out of Germany uses the same driver in their Emotion and Reference Series of speakers. The Emotion Series employs one coaxial driver in a ported box. The Reference Series employs a single coaxial driver with multiple bass drivers. Their Live Act Series 115 (LAS 115) is the closest model to the top of the line Retro 15 from Coherent. Front instead of dual rear ports. Similar size. Full floorstander, as opposed to the Retro 15, which sits on a compact 7″ stand. But while the Retro 15 retails for $11,165 (demo model, includes delivery), the LAS 115 retails for 29,990 Euros ($45,000 CAD). I don’t even want to know how much Live Act Audio’s top of the line Live Act Series 512 costs: it employs four 12″ bass drivers with a single 12″ Radian coaxial driver in a 2 – 1 – 2 configuration. I’m sure it sounds great. And I’m sure it goes for six-figures.
Though Coherent Audio is a small Canadian company run by what seems like a husband and wife team, local audiophiles seem to have heard of their speakers. The reason may be that there is a huge (well, huge by audiophile standards) following for Tannoy dual concentric speakers. The offerings from Coherent Audio offer a very viable and attractive alternative to purchasing used Tannoy speakers. The pair of Ardens I auditioned, for example, must have been 40+ years old. They had new surrounds put in at Sound Hounds. The cabinets had been reveneered and in great shape, but nothing like the beautiful fine furniture finish Coherent offers. For example, the Ardens have wood veneer sides, but sport a plain black front baffle. The Ardens were going for $3000. I offered $2800, but the owner wanted $3000 firm. And I’m sure he got it. In a way, I’m glad he didn’t accept my offer. Now I have the mighty Coherent Retro 15s. But if he had accepted my offer, it wouldn’t have been all that bad. The nice thing about vintage is that you can enjoy the speakers for a few years, and turn around and sell them for the same price. Rob at Q-Electronic has also heard about Coherent Audio and the Radian drivers. He’s going to come by for a listen one day. And if he likes them, he’s going to build a pair for his own use at home. Radian drivers are a hidden gem in the audio world.
Here’s a photo of the speakers in the listening room:
These speakers sound great and look great. Frank is superb to deal with. My biggest worry was the shipping. But it turns out my fears were misplaced. They were professionally packaged in a box within another box. Both speakers were attached onto a single pallet and shrink wrapped. It was a joy to unpack them, as much though had gone into protecting them on their journey across Canada. I’m glad I went to TAVES 2017 to hear these speakers. Although they’re slightly off the beaten path, Frank exhibits regularly and it’s easy to find him. I’m a very satisfied customer.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.
I love my Mephistopheles story. It’s a true story. I’ve told it to a few friends. The ones who are raging atheists (most of them) are skeptical. My religious friends (the minority) find it strange, as in, “Dude, you know, that’s like weird.” So I stopped telling it. But, hell, Halloween is coming up. And, perhaps we can all agree that Halloween gives storytellers an excuse to break out their best ghost stories? If so, keep reading.
Choices, choices, choices
Let’s go back to 2014. I was finishing my last year of work before going on an indefinite sabbatical to finish writing The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. There were enough funds for one more vacation. But it’d have to be frugal. Or relative frugal. A variety of options lay on the table. First option was a guided hiking tour in the Albertan Rockies. Credit card tramping in the Rockies!–what could be better? Nice hike during the day and return to civilized hotel in the evenings. This is my style! Second option was a trip to Kiev, Ukraine. Believe it or not, they were offering round trip airfare, hotel included, starting at $1100. Of course, this was after Russia invaded Ukraine (but before the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down…). Maybe there was a modicum of danger. But for $1100 dollars all-in to Ukraine, I’ll take a few chances, no problem! Third option was a train trek across Canada. Trains have a certain lore. And you never know how a train trek really rides until you try. Choices, choices, choices.
So, on decision evening, as I was pondering the options, Journey happened to be playing on the stereo. Then the song of songs came on. You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? You know the song that runs:
Just a small town girl,
Living in a lonely world
Took the midnight train going anywhere.
Just a city boy,
Living in South Detroit
Took the midnight train going anywhere.
Never mind South Detroit would actually be in Windsor, Ontario: that’s a great line and a great song. And what is more, Steve Perry was telling me to catch the midnight train! No more decision-making required!
Not Quite Midnight Train (but close)
So here’s where the story starts. The VIA Rail line starts in Vancouver in a grand old terminal close to Chinatown, the “Pacific Central Station.” To get the best view of the Rockies, it’s an evening departure. The train was delayed several hours, so we ended up leaving closer to midnight. I had reserved a sleeper cabin. They’re the coolest things. The cabin is maybe 6′ long x 4.5′ wide x 7′ high. With a window. The bed folds up, and when it reclines, it covers the water closet and the lavatory. Which means, of course, if you get up in the middle of the night, you’ll need to fold the bed up.
Did you know that this sleep routing of ours, the one that says: “get eight hours sleep each night” is a nineteenth century phenomenon? It turns out that in the Middle Ages people slept in shorter intervals, but more frequently. How do scholars know this? Well, there’s a set of early morning prayers for 3am. So people must have been getting up to pray. Some conjecture that the body’s natural sleep cycle may be to sleep four or five hours twice a day. Because we work 8 hour shifts during the day, it’s hard to test this out. But since I was on the train, I was going to give intermittent sleeping a shot.
Sleeping on Trains
Yes, the tracks are loud. No, it was no problem going to bed. Quite easy actually. The sounds of the tracks functions like a white noise. That evening, I had a few beers with the Australian rugby team in the drinking cabin (wow, they sure can pound them back, and so can their wives). Actually, I had been sitting in the corner of the drinking cabin and one of them more or less grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said: “Some drink with us!” He was so big, I didn’t know if it was an invitation or a threat at first. And I met one of the VIA Rail conductors, M. She was a Catholic lady, originally from Quebec. But she had since found out about this magical land in BC where it’s nice all year round and was living on the islands with her family. She worked the west coast leg of the trip: from Vancouver to Winnipeg. At Winnipeg, she would get on the train going back to Vancouver. She liked her job. It meant being separated from her husband and kids, but the job also gave her a week or two free time between shifts.
After retiring to my cabin at around 11pm, I set the alarm for 3am. At 3 I would get up and read. And look out the window. And just eat in the whole train experience. For this trip, I had brought a special book to re-read by one of my favourite authors: Goethe’s Faust. Every decade or so, when I want to read the story of the good and evil that men do, the lofty heights of ambition and the wretched lows of depravity and loss of direction, I return to this play to relearn the sum of human existence. Faust, of course, is Goethe’s retelling of the old legend of the magician/scholar who makes a bet with the devil.
My favourite Faust translation is Philip Wayne’s verse translation, easily available as a Penguin edition. I also have a Norton Critical Edition with a helpful commentary: the text is not the easiest to follow. And, to round it off, I also have Kaufmann’s translation which has the German text on the facing page. All three texts came with me on the trip.
At 3am sharp the alarm woke me up. I could hear the beat of the train going over the rails. It was pitch black outside. I turned on the light and propped the pillow on the wall, and dug out Wayne’s verse translation of Faust. Now 3am is actually a great time for reading. No distractions. Quickly, I got to the part where Faust summons up the great earth spirit. And here’s where the trouble started.
I was reading the passage where Faust summons the earth spirit, and it was so powerful that I thought, to do it justice, I really out to be reading it in German. Fortunately, Kaufmann’s edition with the German text was also there. I dug this out and started reading the German lines. And while I was reading the words, they clinged and they clanged together so much like a magic spell, I thought, to reallyreally do the lines justice, I should read them out loud. Which I did. Now halfway through the passage, I started hearing a banging noise from the adjoining compartment. And since I could hear it above the sound of the tracks, it must have been some commotion.
Fearing some disaster (anyone seen Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express?–David Suchet probably has the most convincing film adaptation), I jumped up and went over to M’s cabin (my new conductor friend was staying next door). She opened the door after a few knocks and she looked white like a sheet. I was glad that she opened the door, and sort of awkwardly asked her if everything was okay. And in a sort of awkward way she nodded and said yes. At this point, I didn’t know what to say so I just said I was checking up on her because I thought I heard something. And then I said good night and excused myself. Going back to my cabin, I thought that was weird, but didn’t think too much of it. Maybe I was just hearing things–the excitement of the train had affected the nerves, perhaps? I kept reading.
The next morning, I went down to breakfast. Now breakfast (and all the other meals) aboard a train is a special treat. You’re paired with other folks at the table, and you’re all expected to tell some kind of story about your train experience. But that’s another tale. After breakfast, I went off to the next compartment to read for another hour or so before having a nap. That’s when M. approached me. She apologized for the previous night. She said that she had had a dream. I said that it must have been some dream you were having to make such a racket. And then she said that she dreamt that the devil was sucking out her soul. Now, if you ask my friends, they’ll say that I’m the last person to believe in ghosts and goblins. But even this made me feel odd. I could feel the goosebumps rising. Perhaps Goethe’s spell, in some weird way, had worked? After all, I had been reading the diabolical incantation out loud. Well M. saw my strange reaction. I hastily made something up: “I’m glad it was just a dream,” or something like that and went back to my quarters. And I thought: “Could it really be? Could there be more out there?”
After lunch, I was sitting around one of the compartments reading Faust again. M. came by to say hello (on the train people are constantly running into one another, as you can imagine). By this time, I was feeling a little self-conscious, and when she sat down for a quick chat, I made a little move to brush the book aside. You see, on the cover is a picture of Faust with the devil. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want her to see this.
But of course, every time you brush something aside, however discreetly, it unfailingly draws the other person’s eye. We exchanged some pleasantries, but during the conversation I could tell she was trying, in her own equally discreet way, to see why I was trying to conceal the book, which I had brushed off to the corner of the table and was covering with my free hand.
For the rest of the afternoon, we continued to play this cat and mouse game. Each time she came around, I’d brush the book off to the side and then she’d try to see what sort of suspicious book I was reading.
The next day, I was chatting with M. again. While we were chatting, the cook came out and joined the conversation. The whole VIA Rail crew quite enjoys being on the train, and, as a result are often in jolly spirits. Now the thing I remember the most about the cook is that, at one point–and it was almost preordained–he asked what I was reading. I said, “Faust,” and thought that was a save, since who these days still remembers the name? Out of a hundred people, if you said “Doctor Faustus,” maybe ten would remember the old tale. And if you said: “Faust,” that number drops down to single digits.
But here my luck ran out: the cook was quite familiar with Faust. “Faust,” he says, “isn’t that the guy who sold his soul to the devil? Cool!” As he said that, you could just see the blood draining from M’s face. She got up quickly and left without a word. I have no doubt in my mind that she put two and two together: her dream of the devil sucking out her soul and the guy in the next cabin reading occult texts. Luckily, the train was almost at Winnipeg, where M. would head back to Vancouver and I would continue on to Toronto.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.
A few months ago, I moved from downtown Victoria to View Royal. It’s about twenty minutes from downtown. The new place is a condo unit on the Esquimalt Harbour, high bank waterfront. It’s set back about 50′ from the water’s edge and 30′ up. There’s a trail along the harbour complete with tsunami warning signs of a walker being swept out into sea. I call this place the “global warming villa” because, soon, instead of high bank, it’s going to be low bank waterfront. But there’s some time. The City of Victoria is projecting water levels to rise just over a centimetre each year. So at 1.5 cm/year, it’s going to be six centuries before it’s low bank waterfront. I don’t know if I’ll be around that long. But, while I’m around, it’s interesting to watch all the natural patterns that happen around here.
The most interesting thing about this place is watching nature’s cycles. The Esquimalt Harbour, towards the end, is a big mud flat. And, since the global warming villa is right at the end of the harbour, you really notice the tides. At full flood, the water comes, well, within 50′ of the building. At it’s ebb, it goes out a hundred feet and all that’s left of the harbour is a ten foot stream. As you can gather, the water’s not very deep. In fact, there’s an island maybe a thousand feet out: Cole Island. When this area used to be an artillery fortress (Fort Rodd Hill is close by), the munitions would be stored on Cole Island. The local residents say that the water’s shallow enough that they’ve seen intrepid individuals walk out there. Past Cole Island the water gets much deeper. So the first of nature’s cycles you see is the ebb and flow of the tides: at any given time, you never know if you’ll see the sparkling sheen on the water or the brown flats of mud.
Now there’s also the action of the tide coming in and out itself. Sometimes the tide comes in and its hungry. If the wind’s blowing, you can get up to 6″ waves. It actually looks quite aggressive. And then there’s the wildlife. In March, when I was first out here, it was the herons. What a patient bird! The water’s shallow enough that they can walk around. And then they wait. For a long time. For fish perhaps? They’re an awkward flier, which also makes them an interesting specimen for observation. Big wing span. Not very gracious. But their patience has won me over. It’s August now, and they’ve all left, which has bummed me out. Maybe they’ll be back next year? There’s eagles, hawks, turkey vultures, and a bevy of other animals. I see raccoons venturing out into the mud flats by day, which is strange: aren’t they supposed to be nocturnal? And the swans, I am told, when their haunts around Royal Roads University (a couple of kilometres away) become overcrowded, will come up my way. But of all the creatures, nothing has captured my imagination like the herons. Until now.
The other day, I saw this bird dart out of the trees. A smallish bird, maybe a bit bigger than my fist. It hovered for about five seconds maybe twenty-five or thirty feet above the water. It didn’t hover stationary like a hummingbird, but it hovered in these five seconds within a one cubic foot space. As it zigged and zagged within this cube, you could tell from the beating of its wings that it was going all out. And then it dove headfirst, vertically into the water where it plucked out something out. And then it beelined back into the trees. What a sight, especially the precipitous vertical dive! It turns out that this fascinating little bird is a kingfisher.
It strikes me that when this kingfisher hovers and dives headlong, it fulfils its purpose. The moment must be perfect as it strives with every nerve and every muscle to plunge into the bullseye on the water’s surface. This is its defining moment where all of its powers are concentrated on one aim and goal. This is its apotheosis, if such a thing can be said. And then an interesting and important question occurred to me: what is our equivalent of the kingfisher’s moment?
What is our defining moment? Is it a feeling like the one the Pixies describe in their cover of Head On?
As soon as I get my head around you
I come around catching sparks off you
I get an electric shock from you
This secondhand living just won’t do
And the way I feel tonight
I could die and I wouldn’t mind
And there’s something going on inside
Makes you want to feel
Makes you want to try
Makes you want to blow the stars from the sky.
Have you ever felt like blowing the stars out of the sky? That’s a great great line. Even better is the supporting line: “I could die and I wouldn’t mind.” Is this what the kingfisher feels?
Or is the kingfisher’s moment lecturing before a great crowd? They’ve come to hear you, what you have to say. Their attention’s rapt and you are nervous. But as you start talking, you can feel your initial smallness grow into a larger room filling presence. That’s a sort of triumph.
Or is the kingfisher’s moment like the moment when the master sleuth Hercule Poirot exposes the murderer?
Or is the kingfisher’s moment the same as when a prize-fighter drops an adversary onto the hard canvas?
But it seems there’s one big difference between ourselves and the kingfisher. For us to define ourselves, for us to reach that culminating moment where all of our powers are concentrated on one aim, we have to pay the price. In “Death on the Nile,” Poirot sums it up well as he converses with Jacqueline on a listless evening aboard the steamer:
Jacqueline: Ah, well, one must follow one’s star.
Poirot: Love is not everything.
Jacqueline: Oh, but it is. It is. You must know that Monsieur Poirot. Surely you understand?
Poirot: It is terrible, Mademoiselle, all that I have missed in life.
But is the opposite not true of the kingfisher?–to make the dive involves no sacrifice. Rather, not to make the dive incurs a sacrifice, as perhaps a meal is lost. That’s the difference between us and the kingfisher, and thereby hangs a tale.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.
Ever heard of the term ‘bomb cyclone’ or ‘explosive bombogenesis’? Lots of people haven’t. But on January 3rd, lots of people learned what a bomb cyclone and explosive bombogenesis are. The strength of a storm depends on the air pressure: the lower the pressure, the more intense the storm. Why is this? Air is being sucked up during the storm, so the lower the pressure at ground level, the more air is being moved up. ‘Bomb cyclone’ or ‘explosive bombogenesis’ is a measure of how quickly air pressure drops. If pressure drops more than 24 millibars in 24 hours, the result is a bomb cyclone or explosive bombogenesis. Between Jan 3-4, the pressure of the Nor’easter known as winter storm Grayson that was ripping up the east coast dropped 50 millibars. The result was over a foot of snow from Virginia to New Hampshire, flooding along the coasts, wind gusts of up to 120 km/h, and arctic blasts taking the temperature down to -30C (add wind chill to this and this is the chill that goes straight into the bones. Of course, during this time I was travelling to talk at the 2018 SCS in Boston. Not a good idea.
The flight was originally scheduled to depart Victoria Wednesday evening and arrive in Boston Thursday morning. The SCS Greek tragedy panel was scheduled to convene Friday morning at 8AM, so that gave me 24hrs. Lots of time. Or so I thought. The first indication of trouble was a call from WestJet Wednesday morning. They told me Pearson and Logan airports were shutting down. They wouldn’t be able to get me into Boston until 930AM Friday. That doesn’t work. After being on hold for an hour, they were able to reroute the flight: Victoria-Seattle-Detroit-Manchester, NH. The agent had travelled from Manchester to Boston before and remembered that this was a possibility. From Manchester, I would catch a bus. But the catch was I had to leave right away. Okay, it’s a few connections, but game on! I hadn’t packed yet, but I pack light: one backpack. I threw everything in and bolted out the door. Time: just after lunch on Wednesday.
Flash forward. Now it’s early morning Thursday, January 4. Made it into Detroit. Made it into the States. Made it past the customs officer who was having serious doubts about my motives. He asked me the reason why I was travelling. I told him I was presenting at a conference. He asked which university I was affiliated with. I told him I was a free agent, this was a hobby. He asked me if I was getting paid. I said no. It turns out if you travel on your own coin to present a really interesting idea, this raises flags! He eventually let me through after logging onto the SCS website to confirm I was really speaking. I also had to show him a copy of my speech, which, fortunately, I had on me. You know, now I reflect on it, maybe my case is odd. After all, who would spend their own money to tell people about interesting ideas? Silly me!
Now in Detroit waiting for the flight to Manchester. Buses between Manchester and Boston have stopped running. So I’d have to stay overnight in Manchester and catch the first bus out on the 5th. That’s cutting it close, but it’d still get me there in time. 2 o’clock rolls around. Manchester flight delayed, delayed some more, than cancelled. Ouch! But then there are two flights into Boston at 5:36 and 7:36 that are still a go. The storm in Boston ends 7PM so by the time the planes get there from Detroit, the storm would have subsided. Delta rebooks me for the 5:36. Flash forward to 5PM. Flight to Boston delayed once, delayed twice, and then cancelled! Everything into Boston is now cancelled until Friday, January 5. Now this is looking bad to get to SCS in time. Getting bummed out. But hey, one last hope. There’s a flight at 10PM going into Providence. I’d overnight in Providence and catch the MBTA train into Boston in the morning. 40 minute ride. Easy. Flash forward. 9:30 rolls around. No plane. No flight crew. No captain. Flight’s not cancelled yet. Delayed 15 minutes. Then delayed 1/2 hour. Nobody can give any straight answers. Then cancelled. This is the point of maximum despair. Helpless. Hopeless. I email Helene Foley (who’s presiding the SCS panel) to ask whether someone can act as a surrogate presenter. At least that way the paper can see the light of day. At this point I book an airport hotel. I’ve been on the road for 36 hours. One evening sleeping at the airport or plane is okay. More than that is hard. Getting old. I check into a Knight’s Inn. When I get there, it turns out they are overbooked too.
One nice thing about getting stranded in the airport is that you talk to people you’d normally never talk to. There’s one guy, Jignesh, he’s studying computer science in Boston, going for the mighty MA. He’s from India. His goal is to make a six figure income. We get talking, he’s asking how I passed the day. I tell him I’ve been trading stocks (some dividends rolled in and I ended up buying some Brookfield preferred shares BAM.PF.D, Clearwater Seafoods CLR, and American Hotel Income Properties REIT HOT.UN). So we start talking about stocks and he tells me to go onto Youtube. It turns out before he came to the US to study computer science, Jignesh was a stock analyst for CNBC in India–there he was, in a suit and tie, analyzing stocks on Indian TV! Then there’s a lady, Yvonne. She owns a farm in Zimbabwe with her son. She’s visiting her sister in Washington. She grows corn on her farm, it’s got an automatic drip irrigation system. Also grows ginger which she’s starting to export to Europe. She had some photos. The system is more sophisticated than I thought it would be. We talk some politics. It turns out Zimbabwe was ruled by a president-dictator who had just been ousted by the military. If the new guy enacts some democratic reforms, things could go really well there. Fingers crossed for her! This is the first time I’ve heard of a ‘good’ military coup.
Now it’s 4AM presentation morning. I’m back at the Detroit airport waiting for McDonald’s to open (sausage mcmuffin and coffee) and praying that the 5AM to Boston will depart as scheduled. Jignesh and Yvonne slept at the airport, they ask me if my nerves are getting frayed. I tell them I’ve been disappointed so many times now that the feeling is one of resignation. So now 430AM rolls around, the captain and flight crew are standing around but no plane at the gate. The gate moves, then moves back. Everyone’s still standing around. 5 rolls around. Then 530. A plane shows up at the gate. The crew get in. We’re told depart at 630. 630 rolls around they say the plane’s too cold. Too cold?–get us on the damn thing! Finally we start boarding a little before 7. Once on the plane, I have a little snooze. At this point, I’m passed the point of caring. The body is just tired. It’s been close to 48 hours of travel. That’s long enough to fly around the world! Too long.
I’m not even sure when the plane gets into Boston. Almost mechanically, I jump up and run for the taxi. Lucky for me, no checked baggage! Outside, there’s snowbanks everywhere and its damn cold (the sort of cold that hits your bones), but the road crews look like they’ve pulled an all-nighter. I jump into the cab, ask him to take me to the Boston Marriott post haste. When we get there, I notice the hotel is huge! Registration for the SCS is on the fourth floor. Out of breath, I ask for directions to where my panel is (SCS is huge: 84 panels, a ton of poster sessions, an publishers exhibition hall, a live play, awards ceremonies, and private receptions spread over four days and two hotels, it’s a zoo). Luckily, the seminar room is close by. I run in there like a bat out of hell.. and hear the words of my presentation!
As I burst in, everything stops. I must have looked like a madman. 48hrs on the road. Hardly any sleep. In my big winter jacket and all my travel gear. It turns out the SCS panel had thought the flight was still delayed. They had waited until the other speakers had presented, and then were nice enough to find a surrogate presenter. But there I was. I made a joke about low-probability events (since that was the topic of the presentation and the snow bomb cyclone was certainly low-probability) and there were some chuckles and nods. A fortuitous start. I stepped up to the mike and delivered the presentation, relishing every moment of it. And though I felt beat, there was so much adrenalin, I felt the thrill of being up there. It felt like it was meant to be. This is what I live for! Though presenting isn’t theatre, there’s something very theatrical about it. Wow, what a rush! This is a campfire story for the ages!
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work on the run.