Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Axis of Idiocy

The General Director of Toronto’s new opera house, Richard Bradshaw, has made it quite clear that the Canadian Opera Company “didn’t want to build a compromise”. Unfortunately nothing suggests the uniform conformity of democratic decision making more powerfully than its utterly uninspiring moniker, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Anyhow, credit where credit’s due – the authorities have at least spent some effort and more than a little money trying to achieve the best possible acoustic result; or at least, to ensure that the hall is properly insulated against external noise, which is not quite the same thing.

Unfortunately for Mr Bradshaw, the design of modern concert auditoria is predicated on compromise. The old-fashioned shoebox shape is widely regarded as a classic design and the most likely to render the finest acoustic. But the problem with halls such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is that a few good seats command the ideal position consigning the rest of the audience to an evening of neck-craning and ear-straining.

The design (Soundspace Design, Fisher Dachs Associates) and construction (Diamond & Schmitt architects) has not met with unbridled enthusiasm. Christopher Hume writing in the Toronto Star describes a utilitarian construction designed by acousticians as “a machine for performing opera” continuing with some bitterness to condemn the hall’s architectural design as a mediocre monument for the city.

He may well be correct – I’ve not been to Toronto to find out – but that the authorities have for once valued acoustics and considered sound above visual aesthetic considerations is, I would venture, refreshingly laudable.

An altogether more encouragingly optimistic article by David MacFarlane in Saturday’s Globe and Mail asks why anyone who has no interest in opera should give two hoots about this new development? His inspiring, cogent and anecdotal answer not only tells Toronto’s public why it should be proud of The Four Seasons, but turns out also to be an astonishingly convincing critique of commercialised contemporary civilisation.

Civilisation, he says, should not pander to ignorance but should instead encourage curiosity rather than depend on

“a balanced exchange of information from someone who knows something to someone else who already knows the same thing. That, if I'm not mistaken, is the axis of idiocy on which a good deal of contemporary life is already based. That is reality TV.

Civilization is about another kind of exchange — from someone who either knows a lot about something or is very good at it, to someone who doesn't know as much, or is nowhere near as good but who is either interested enough to learn or curious enough to become interested; who is, in other words, alive.

The ideal consumer, I sometimes think, would be deceased enough to stay permanently within his or her demographic, but alive enough to still be spending money. As markets get more and more narrowly focused, anything that appears to be outside the confines of a target audience — anything that might arouse something as uncontained as curiosity or as broadly based as learning — is either deleted or explained to death. And as the media increasingly surrenders to the commercial demand to level the relationship between those who send out information and those who receive it, those of us who enjoy the serendipity of general interest, and who depend on the expertise of others to point the way to knowledge or pleasure, or even, perish the thought, to wisdom, look elsewhere for sustenance.

“The one responsibility a city has is the encouragement of the possibility of excellence.”


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