Archive | 2013

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Welcome to Microcosm

Posted on 02 December 2013 by Jun Yin

Welcome to Microcosm, where we bring biological concepts to life!

I never thought that I would be the one. When I met her for the first time, that nanosecond, I thought of the mantra taught to us in training camp. To use that intensely personal weapon, unique to each of us, against a future enemy who would challenge us individually. That the balance of the whole world would fall into the tiny hands of one of us, who would grow beyond our wildest imagination to combat this great evil, I could not comprehend. I was a naive effector among billions of my peers, all trained from birth for this one task. I never thought it would be me.

Answer (in binary ASCII): 010101000010110101100011011001010110110001101100

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The Longing:

Posted on 28 November 2013 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

The unique style of French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) made him one of the few composers who really stood out. In fact, most would credit Debussy with founding an entire era of music. While studying at the Conservatoire de Paris, Debussy shocked his music theory professors with harmonic writing that defied long-valued traditions established since the time of Bach. His policy was: “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.” And that was just the beginning of his daring creativity. Under his gradual influence, French classical music entered a new age: a world infused with vague melodies, bizarre chords, and dreamy atmospheres. Acting like a musical counterpart to the newest trends of painting that were also taking root in France at the time, it came to be known as “Impressionism”.

For Debussy, most of this new style was expressed through the piano. His first major published piano work was the beloved Suite bergamasque (1890), which he began writing while still a student. Though modern and innovative, it was nevertheless an early piece by Debussy, and for a large part still looked back to the courtly and civilized dance forms of France in the Baroque times. This can be readily observed in the first, second, and last movements, respectively called Prélude, Menuet, and Passepied. All three contained the melodic and rhythmic clarity typical of late 17th/early 18th century France, and the Menuet and Passepied were both named explicitly after traditional French dances.

But the third movement, “Clair de Lune” (“Moonlight”), is exceptional. From the beginning one can tell that it is different from the others. Today, it is one of the most well-known classical masterworks, and has undergone countless arrangements and appearances in popular media. In short, “Clair de Lune” was very much ahead of even Debussy’s own time; it was as if he was possessed by his future self as he was composing it. In “Clair de Lune”, Debussy probably stole a glimpse of what he would later become, the man who would revolutionize classical music. It is permeated throughout by Impressionism, almost completely devoid of the organization and predictability exhibited in Classicism and Romanticism. Rather, the piece is left behind, like a dream, shrouded in an air of mystery.

It is, however, one of the most blissful mysteries ever conceived. The graceful opening melody is filled with an inexpressible sense of longing. We experience a scene of lovers sitting on the beach, mesmerized by the sight of the full moon as it bathes them in its gleaming radiance. And when they perceive the moon casting its heavenly reflection upon the face of the ocean, their yearning for each other becomes deeper and deeper. The cool summer night air brushes gently against their faces, and the ocean begins to rise. The waves arrive, softly at first, then gradually grows in intensity. At last the ocean reaches its climax, and their passions are fully aroused as the waters splash desperately against the silky white sand. Then, slowly, the waves die down, but the wind can still be felt. That disappears too, leaving them alone with the moon in a most intimate embrace. The waves sneak by briefly and playfully for a last visit. And finally, as the moon itself retreats behind the clouds, all is tranquil and calm.


Suite bergamasque: “Clair de Lune”

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The Passionate:

Posted on 14 October 2013 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

The orchestral writing of Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), all of which set in the context of a composition for piano and orchestra, has often been criticized as “lacking”. Opponents attack his style of directing most of the spotlight at the piano while the orchestra serves as a “mere background”. But such radical departure from convention is exactly what breathes life into the Polish composer’s timeless masterpieces for piano and orchestra.

Chopin was always an innovator, never ceasing to create something new. He possessed a remarkable gift for the piano, and from a young age carried an obsessive desire to invent his own style of music. Even in his earliest works, such as the Variations on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano” (written at age 17) and the first études for piano (written at age 19), the unique qualities of Chopin’s music were already beginning to manifest. Indeed, it was as if he was born for the piano, and the piano invented for him. Never had piano music in its history witnessed such inventiveness of ornamentations and cadenzas. Never had any pianist produced such subtle nuances from the pedal. And never had the Romantic spirit been more fiery and passionate. At the age of 20, Chopin completed his two Piano Concerti and presented them to the Polish audience. It was the last concert that he would ever perform in his motherland, but the power and national pride that the two works expressed would leave behind an impression in the hearts of his fellow countrymen forever.

The two Piano Concerti by Chopin are milestones in the literature of piano music. In them, Chopin formulated an entirely novel pianistic language, demonstrating the full potential of the instrument. At the same time, he laid down the foundation for his compositional career. The forms and structures employed in the Piano Concerti would foreshadow many of his later, even more renowned pieces, such as nocturnes, scherzi, and mazurkas. The First Piano Concerto featured here contains a potluck of preludes, ballades, scherzi, nocturnes, impromptus, and dance forms. It is a composition for piano and orchestra in three movements, and is an epitome of the Romantic passion, permeated from beginning to end by a ceaseless aspiration to live life to the fullest.

The first movement is a merciless typhoon. The Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) exhibited by the orchestral opening sends shockwaves right down to our cores before we have even had the time to prepare our minds for the music. But this is just the beginning. After several minutes of roaring and howling, it softens down and gives way to the piano, which finally awakens from its slumber. Now, Chopin shows the world what the instrument can really do. Without hesitation the piano reveals itself, unleashing melody after melody of inconceivable beauty that leaves the listener speechless. Its countless ornamentations and elaborations, accompanied quietly by orchestra, are unprecedented and magical beyond comprehension. The first movement centers on the contrast between two themes, one melancholy and the other hopeful, with occasional interjections of fiery ardor. Finally, it consummates in a relentless coda that drives it to a furious conclusion.

The second movement provides a dramatic contrast to the first. It is a serenade, a pastoral idyll. The listener lies in a boundless field, and about her there is only peace, sunshine, and the sweet, fresh scent of flowers. What a perfect dream! How she wishes that it would never end. The delicate piano melody plays on, and the serene accompaniment by muted strings is like a cool summer breeze, gently and playfully dancing across her face. What loving caress, timeless and ethereal… A light rain drops by briefly, then the sun comes out again. How entranced is she, that she does not even know when the dream has quietly left her in the darkness of the night. And in her ecstasy and bewilderment, she finally comes to grasp what had happened. Ah! It was only a dream…

Having experienced the romantic melancholy of the first movement and the blissful reverie of the second, we now hear the finale arriving joyously on the scene. Its thematic content is derived from the krakowiak, a lively Polish dance form with syncopated rhythms. Once again, two opposing musical ideas are presented side by side, the first energetic and flirtatious, and the second grounded and reserved. But regardless of the melodic or rhythmic quality, the piano is in almost ceaseless motion. Indeed, this movement showcases the piano as an unrelenting racehorse, containing some of the most difficult and brilliant passages ever written for the instrument. Its energy cannot be quenched, and with the momentum of sheer resolution it gallops jubilantly to the finish.


Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor, Op. 11

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The Haunting:

Posted on 23 September 2013 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

The image chosen for this essay is a black-and-white reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s 1880-1886 painting Isle of the Dead. Böcklin was a Romantic Symbolist painter whose works often portrayed the grotesque and the fantastical, and the Isle of the Dead was an epitome of such style. This painting was the source of inspiration for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s (1873-1843) tone poem Isle of the Dead, scored for the symphony orchestra. In 1907, the Russian composer had the opportunity to view the black-and-white version of Böcklin’s painting, and immediately the music came to him. Perhaps the deathly atmosphere of the art paralleled his own tendency to write music of a dissonant and haunting nature. As much as we would like to speculate, not even the composer himself understood how he was so readily inspired: “When it came, how it began—how can I say? It came up within me, was entertained, written down.”

Rachmaninoff began working on the composition in January 1909 and finished it in April of the same year. The music does not offer many clear melodies, and serves more to paint a mood than as a lyrical composition.

The piece begins in a hushed manner, portraying a boat quietly rowing across the River Styx on its way to the Underworld. Its softness is deceiving, hiding the interplay of instrumental parts which is actually immensely complex. An unbearable eeriness is created by the low register of the orchestra, making these few measures feel like an eternity as we are held in suspense, expecting something horrifying to appear. We also notice that the piece makes use of an irregular rhythm, consisting of five beats in each measure which produces a gently swinging sensation as the boat rows. These five beats are divided into groups of twos and threes, and it is not always predictable which grouping will occur next, adding to the mysteriousness of the mood. At the same time the music exhibits a sense of sadness and regret, as if the passenger is in a deep state of lamentation. What exactly happened in his life? How did he die?

Even at this point we hear fragments of the Dies Irae, an invocation from the Mass for the Dead. It is introduced by the bass clarinet, and will be picked up by other instruments as the piece progresses. It haunts us, constantly reminding us that we are in the world not of the living, but of the dead. The intensity of the sound gradually builds up as we approach the island. As the island comes into view, sadness turns to hope as the passenger knows that he will finally rest in peace. But the suspense is not over. The music continues to gain power, slowly and steadily, until we arrive at last on the shores of the Underworld to the roar of a terrifying climax.

But to the passenger, this is not terror, but ecstasy! The orchestra rejoices with him jubilantly as he steps onto his eternal resting place. Now that he has been dropped off, the music returns to our perspective. What a demonic place! What horror! A searing lightning bolt along with an ear-splitting thunder rush toward us. The Dies Irae, the symbol of death, becomes more audible and more pressing. We can endure no longer. We desperately want to leave the island.

So we leave. And as we breathe our sighs of relief, the music once again becomes quiet. The boat rows away from the isle of the dead to the sound of the opening of the piece, which returns to let us know that we will eventually have to row back to the island. Indeed, the nature of the closing is that of a timeless, never-ending cycle. The next passenger is waiting for us on the other side of the river…


Isle of the Dead, Op. 29

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The Music of Heaven

Posted on 01 June 2013 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

Heaven is one of those concepts that cannot be described in words; only through deeply inspired spiritual imagery can one even begin to evoke a picture of it. So powerful is the human desire to seek Heaven that whether one is religious or non-religious, one will be profoundly touched by the thought of Heaven sometime during the course of a lifetime. Such was the fate of the classical composers, individuals who devoted their lives to expressing the inexpressible. In discussing classical music written to bring Heaven to humanity, three masterworks immediately come to mind: Messiah by Handel, Symphony no. 9 by Beethoven, and the Dante Symphony by Liszt. Interestingly, while Handel and Liszt were openly Christian, Beethoven did not consider himself religious. But nevertheless, he eventually fell under the sway of the Eternal Glory, the power of which cannot be resisted. Continue Reading

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An interview with Dr. Donald Levy

Posted on 13 May 2013 by Kyle Pangka (Meds 2016)

Dr. Donald Levy is the chief of emergency medicine at Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital. Until recently, most of my ideas about emergency medicine came from news reports and television shows like “ER”. This was a chance to get a true perspective on working in emergency medicine. Needless to say, I was more than excited for the interview.

My first impression of Dr. Levy was that he was humble. Throughout the interview he took care to mention the role his team had in his work and highlighted the importance of teamwork in the emergency department.

The purpose of these interviews is to get to know local physicians in Windsor: In other words, we want you to get a glimpse of who they are and what they do! Continue Reading

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Food Products are Made with…

Posted on 10 May 2013 by Angela Smith (Meds 2016)

We are all subject to advertising and companies use this to their advantage. Advertising has an effect on children as early as the age of 2, most of which is focused on building brand recognition by using logos, slogans, and cartoon characters to create lifelong consumers of their product (1). And it works. Research shows children who view fast food commercials are twice as likely to consume it (2). Businesses focus just as heavily on manufacturing customers as they do manufacturing the goods they sell. Canada has the Food and Drugs Acts which prohibits food labelling, packaging, selling, or advertising that is false, misleading or deceptive to consumers. The Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act provides a uniform method for all manufacturers to comply with so consumers can make informed food and beverage choices. Of these “allowed terms” many are still misleading to consumers. Let’s take a look at a few of them…  Continue Reading

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Women Composers in Classical Music

Posted on 03 May 2013 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

The role of women composers in the evolution of classical music is often underappreciated. The reason is obvious: classical music spanned a period in history when women did not possess many rights and freedoms. During this time it was generally seen as unorthodox for a woman to compose. Though the Feminist Movement began as early as the mid-19th century, the first eight decades were dominated mostly by the activities of the Suffragettes, whose main goal was to promote feminine equity with regards to voting. Gender equality in employment, family care, arts, culture, and other areas of everyday life did not hit the scene until the 1940s and 1950s (second period). However, ideas surrounding this concept had already been circulating long before they became reality. While advocacy consisted mostly of writing and literature, its manifestation in other forms of expression is easy to disregard, probably because they are so much more difficult to understand.  Continue Reading

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Witty Concerti

Posted on 25 March 2013 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

1948…the year when the world almost lost three of 20th century’s greatest composers to the power-hungry wrath of politics. The entire Soviet Union watched as Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian, and Dmitri Shostakovich one by one made their way to the platform and apologized to the people for producing corrupt and abominable music that contaminated the goodness of humanity. They had just been condemned by the Communist government for the “formalism” characteristic of their works. The punishment was brutal humiliation. Perhaps none was affected more profoundly than Khachaturian, who later said of the event: “Those were tragic days for me… I was clouted on the head so unjustly. My repenting speech…was insincere. I was crushed, destroyed. I seriously considered changing professions.” Continue Reading

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The Hidden Beauty of Ugly Music

Posted on 08 March 2013 by Hao Li (Meds 2016)

Why do I love classical music so much?

When I was little my mom told me that while I was still in her womb, she played records of classical music to me. After I was born my parents encouraged me to listen to voluminous amounts of classical music. They desired to bring me up with an ear for what they perceived as “nice music”. And that is what I thought of classical music initially, “nice music”. The first classical CD that I recall ever listening to was that of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, I was four at the time. I also remember my experience of hearing Beethoven’s Für Elise for the first time, and how I was so deeply mesmerized by the sound of it. Though I was only five, as the timeless, ethereal melody entered into my soul I knew that I was entranced. Snared. In love.

My formal training in music began in the same year in the form of piano lessons. For the next few years, these lessons would continuously reinforce my already hardened preconceptions of classical music, that of it being “nice music”, beautiful to listen to whether you were young or old, boy or girl, good or bad... Indeed, my first pianistic ambitions were to somehow learn to play Beethoven’s Für Elise and Moonlight Sonata before I die. (I thought that girls would like me if I could play these pieces in front of them, I was very naïve at the time.) Somehow I did eventually learn to play Beethoven’s Für Elise and Moonlight Sonata, but while the girls flocked to me, I felt more musically unsatisfied than ever. By this time I had acquired enough musical knowledge to realize that classical music consisted of more than just Beethoven (not that Beethoven’s music was not profound). I needed to explore further.

Thus from the courtly formalities of Mozart and Beethoven I moved on to the tragic poetry of Chopin, to the mysterious harmonies of Debussy, to the erotic passions of Rachmaninoff. Yet, still I was not satisfied, and asked myself: why should you restrain yourself to the piano when there is an entire world of other instruments out there? I then became obsessed with orchestral music. Ultimately I was crazy enough to try and teach myself to sing opera, and met only limited success. Even that is an overstatement, for I was certain that some of my friends were so irritated by my singing that they were prepared to terminate our friendship.

Sometime during this feverish journey I opened my mind to the music of Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and other colleagues. I didn’t like them at first, so I tried to shut them out. Only later did I realize that it was too late. Once the door had been opened, it could not be locked again. I had let the monsters in, permanently, and now I had to live with them. But miraculously the creatures that terrified me the most I fell in love with. And they were horrible creatures! I often see their brutal shadows, their bloodthirsty eyes, their barred teeth, from behind which comes chilling shrills that never end. They torture me by day with these unbearable cries, and at night they return in my darkest nightmares. But somehow I cannot resist them. I continue to long for their deathly embrace, and let them rape me and slaughter me in whatever way they see fit. To me they represent the unlimited possibilities of classical music, a genre that will never see bounds. When it is beautiful, it is relaxing. But when it is ugly, it is divine! When classical music shows its other side, that when it is not “nice music”, we see all our flaws, vices, and sins stare back at us, and we fall with our faces flat against the ground in utmost shame. Ugly music is created from the darkness within us, and in that respect it is truly the light that shines into the innermost corners of our souls.

Can classical music really sound ugly? you ask. Well, yes it can. And with the coming of spring, a perfect example comes to mind. We shall compare and contrast Schumann’s Spring Symphony with Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. One represents the epitome of classical music that everyone knows and takes delight in, and the other, a sickening, unspeakable abomination.

Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Symphony no. 1 “Spring” (composed 1841) was designed to be a gem of pure ecstasy. Interestingly, it was composed shortly after Schumann’s marriage, for which he fought for many bitter years, to the extent of launching litigations against his now father-in-law. Was the symphony an expression of his long-sought love? We do not have any evidence of that unfortunately, as much as we would like to speculate. But in any case, from the opening trumpet calls which proclaim the arrival of spring, we are immersed in a fresh, green world. After being greeted by a shower of butterflies and birdsongs in the first movement, we sit back while being serenaded with a soothing, pastoral idyll in the second movement. The third movement jolts us to our feet with a vigorous country dance, and in the finale, we wave our farewells to spring, knowing that it will never die, always to return.


Compare this with Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) representation of spring, which is less optimistic. In fact, it is horrendous, so much that it sparked a riot at its premier. From the first note of The Rite of Spring (composed 1913), Stravinsky’s signature ballet, we find complete chaos. Brutal rhythms and outbursts abound, such as near the end of Adoration of the Earth when the village boys get into a fight. Part two, entitled The Sacrifice, is even more diabolical. We see maidens of the village dancing mystically in a circle, awaiting one of them to be chosen as the sacrifice to the god of spring, who must be appeased so that spring would not disappear forever. As the Chosen One is singled out in the center of the circle, the other girls rejoice wildly, perhaps even insultingly, at their unbelievable fortune. And finally, with a last demonic burst of strength, the Chosen One dances until she is completely spent, collapsing in death. Just how do you make sense of this madness? One must appreciate that just as spring makes all things anew, Stravinsky’s ballet reveals our most primitive instincts and behaviours, and in that it is beautiful. And can anyone replace the notes with other notes and still achieve the same effects? I say not. The notes were destined for their purpose, and in that they are beautiful. And if you are looking for a more contemporary insight into their beauty, Leonard Bernstein (composer of West Side Story) once randomly exclaimed this while rehearsing The Rite of Spring with his orchestra: “Don’t you get it? This music is all about sex!” (I) (II) (III)


We now return to my opening question: Why do I love classical music so much? I love classical music because when it is “nice” it sounds beautiful, and when it is “ugly” it still sounds beautiful. Classical music is like an oasis at the edge of a cliff. When I was little I lived quietly and peacefully in the middle of the oasis, never daring to venture to the edge and peer down. But when I finally did, looking into the bowels of the abyss, my mentality was changed forever, and I was enlightened. For instance, Schumann’s and Stravinsky’s contrasting portrayals of spring taught me an important lesson. Yes, spring is gorgeous; at this time of the year everything is in full bloom. But spring is more than just flowers and birds and meadows. It offers a glimpse into our very humanity, providing a view of what it means to be us.

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