Beyond the Decisive Moment

Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson was one of the great photographers of the 20th century. Best known as a prolific street photographer (for whom color was a commercial concession, not an aesthetic option), HCB’s life story is no less compelling than his lifetime of images. His career and personal commitments were well-described last year at an extensive exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Happily, the exhibition has been packaged as a coffee table book by Clément Chéroux and published by Thames & Hudson. It’s expensive ($75) and it’s worth the money, in part because Mr. Chéroux curated the 2014 exhibition.

Students of photography associated HCB with “the decisive moment. Just as Martin Luther King (okay, “MLK”)’s life work far exceeds the brief period of his “I Have a Dream” speech, Cartier-Bresson’s infatuation with the precise instant when a photograph ought to be made is only part of an expansive range of artistic and journalist expression.

Born in 1908, Cartier-Bresson grew up in a comfortable Parisian household; the family owned a large cotton and thread manufacturing company. 1908 was also the year that, in England, Robert Baden-Powell published “Scouting for Boys” to support his new progressive approach to education known as the Boy Scouts. The organization’s combination of an active life for boys, with ample freedom and discipline, was a good match. At age 14, as a Scout, Henri began to experiment with photography, but only as  hobby. The family’s plan for Henri was all business—he was sent to the best schools so he could, sometime, lead the large family business. Of course, things didn’t work out as planned. Instead, with the blessings of his family, he studied art. Mostly cubism. Which he found “boring” because it was “too systematic.” He preferred the more expansive world view offered by surrealism. In October, 1930, by now free from both his formal education and military service, Cartier-Bresson followed Europeans curious about “the Dark Continent.” He spent nearly a year in Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, the French Sudan, Togo, and along the Niger River, he photographed children on the streets and people at work—avoiding the exotic and tribal imagery, just focusing on the day-to-day. Over the next few years, his casual interest in travel photography became a passion, then, a career. He traveled to, and photographed street activities in, Paris, Marseilles, Milan, Florence, Sienna, Trieste, Madrid, various parts of Mexico, and more.

Along the way, he learned by copying the styles of Eugene Atget (streets of Paris, store windows); European photographers intrigued by the geometry of city life (mostly); the golden section that is key to classic composition; various less-than-compressible surrealistic sketches and distortions. In time, he worked out his own style. Before he turned 30, he had created enough distinctive images to display his work in a successful exhibition.

The story becomes more interesting as HCB moves from travel photography and street work (often one and the same) to work with a more specific purpose: often, related to his attachment to the ideals of Communism. Stories of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini, and the utter transformation of Europe are among the best stories—supported by some of the best images—in this book. He becomes concerned about poverty and tells his visual stories so they will provoke attention. He attends to the facial expression and behavior of crowds, often ignoring (and needing to caption) just what they are looking at. He documents free time—a relatively new idea in 1938 France, at least for the working class—and this is probably my favorite selection of his work. For example, a Sunday on the banks of the Seine from that year:

sfmoma-hcb-03-near-juvisy-1938

In truth, what I love about this book is the arc of the creative story. It begins with a smart teenager who decides he likes art and photography better than college and business, who grows up quickly as he travels and makes stunning pictures. Then, he finds his political and social conscience, and plays a very active role, using his photography as a very effective tool. Then, he realizes that his political affiliations will become a career problem, so he co-founds Magnum, a journalistic photo agency with Robert Capa and several other extraordinary photojournalists, and becomes one of LIFE magazine’s active contributors. Then, he explores topics that interest him: the growing connection between people and machines (a project for the IBM of the 1960s, for example), icons of power (very powerful—and decidedly odd—image of a giant Lenin in front of the Winter Palace in Leningrad as a man and his small child stroll in the foreground), and the ways that crowds behave. And then, in this 60s, he begins to slow down, to take images that are more focused on the feeling than the moment. And he begins to draw, picking up on something he loved to do as a child. He visits art museums, and spends hours sketching great works. He takes pictures of the family with his legendary Leicas. It’s a lovely life story, wonderfully punctuated by his pencil on paper self portraits from 1987 and 1992. One of the better free bios on the web is here. And there are a lot of smaller books filled with specific HCB projects that you can find on Goodreads, along with the compendium Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and His World, also from Thames & Hudson.

Henri-Cartier Bresson was born in August, 1908 and died in August, 2004—he lived, and documented, the better part of a century. And nobody did it better.

On the left, a picture of an American woman in 1947. On the right, “Giant Effigy of Lenin” from 1973.

american_woman-and-lenin

 

 

More Thoughts on Digital Book Publishing

Sometimes—but not often enough—I attend a conference that really gets me thinking. That’s what happened earlier this month when I attended Digital Book World in Manhattan.

In session after session, the elephant remained in the room. Fundamentally, books are physical objects, sometimes treasured, certainly thought to be more valuable than other forms of mass merchandise because they contain ideas intended to linger in the home or office for many years, and, perhaps, a lifetime. In this regard, the physical books that we buy at a local independent bookstore, or from a bricks-and-mortar Barnes & Noble store, or from Amazon, are vastly different from the pillows that we buy from the Bed, Bath and Beyond. We associate books with stories, characters, important events, the people who recommended particular volumes, the rainy afternoon spent reading, and so on.

At the same time, books filled with text are easily digitized, and, unlike most merchandise, they can be delivered almost instantly to any connected device. These devices also serve as a reader. So books are suitable for digital distribution as files. As technology advances, books with pictures pose no less of a technology challenge. As evidenced by speakers at this particular conference, some publishers, authors and producers are attempting to transform some aspects of some books into interactive and social media.

More or less, traditional book publishing follows rules. The book is written by an author who receives either a flat fee or the promise of royalties based upon the number of books sold (some authors also receive an advance against royalties, which is a measure of the publisher’s commitment to the project). The publisher’s staff chooses its titles and authors with care, then assigns expert copy editors and other staff to the process of moving manuscript to printed book. Various marketing, distribution, warehousing, logistics and trucking companies make the business go. Physical bookstores sell books, and so do digital bookstores. Maybe 2/3 of Americans buy books, but most buy fewer than five books per year.

With digital publishing, the rules don’t apply—and for so many reasons. For example, publishers need not limit the number of titles they publish for any practical reason—there is no scarcity of shelf space. (They may limit releases due to marketing considerations, but that’s another story altogether.) Of course, bookstores are helpful parts of the marketing and distribution system, but they are no longer mandatory—Amazon ships just about any book, next day.

Still, the roadmap is fragmented. Healthy experimentation seems like the best thing to do. And so, there’s a working session at the Digital Book Conference about book trailers (kind of like movie trailers, but they’re selling books), and another about whether HTML5 is the magic bullet that will ease book production burdens, and another about subscriptions for eBooks (like Netflix: all you can read for about $100 per year, sometimes less). Maybe the solution is a game format—to engage readers who already love the characters. Maybe it’s all about brands—that’s been the key to success in so many genres, including mystery, romance, young adult, etc. No, the answer isn’t traditional at all. Instead, the focus ought to be on search engine optimization and digital means of discovery—people will find books the same way they find out about other things, on Google! Maybe authors don’t need publishers as much as they did in the past: think about indie bands and their schism with record labels. Certainly, data analysis is the key to growth—if you know who your customers are (exceedingly difficult with individual buyers of books on paper, far more practical if the merchandise is digital). Is it unreasonable for Amazon and Apple to control the digital business by essentially duopolizing both the players and the file formats? Should there be another open format and should that format be supported by an industry that promises to thrive on  independence? Maybe global thinking is the key—publish for a worldwide audience because there are so many more people outside the U.S. than inside it.

What are the answers? Gosh! There are no clear answers. Not only is every reader and every bookstore unique, every book is unique, too. The first book by a new author could be a blockbuster and the followup could be a dud. An author who makes his mark on YouTube or Kindle could become the next transmedia sensation. An Young Adult book could (and often does) become a hit among older readers. Just as hipsters rediscovered vinyl records, they might continue to propel indie bookstores as the next big thing (though readers 18-30 are notoriously challenging customers).

What do I love about this discussion? Just about everything. There’s the intrigue of large vs. small companies, comfortable analog behaviors that stubbornly won’t go away, the big bad Amazon that’s “destroying” the book business as those of us who complain love the deep discounts and free shipping, the inevitability of the end of the bookstore that’s been inevitable for as long as anyone can remember. The fact that I am writing about books on a computer’s screen so you can read about books on an iPad—without spilling any ink at all. It’s screwy, it’s fun, it’s a business that can and does move in a hundred directions at once. And that’s why I find this industry, in some ways, even more interesting that television, software, or the other dozen industries I deal with every day.

 

The Isaacson Paradox

isaacsonWalter Isaacson is one of the smarter people in the media industry. As a keynote speaker for this past week’s Digital Book World conference, he talked about the limitations of his most recent book, The Innovators. (You probably know him as the author of the spectacularly successful biography of Steve Jobs.) Nowadays, he’s the leader of the Aspen Institute, the latest in a series of senior roles that include, for example, the chairmanship of CNN and the various old and new media roles at TIME Magazine. Frustrated by the lack of innovation in the slow-moving book business, he encouraged the audience to think beyond the printed volume and its close relative, the eBook filled with the same words and ideas.

Fresh from a deep investigation into media and technology innovation, Isaacson told the story of Dan Bricklin, inventor of the spreadsheet, whose innovation story deserved more space and more attention than Isaacson’s innovation book could reasonably provide. Bricklin told Isaacson the story, and Isaacson was appropriately fascinated. Somehow, Isaacson wanted to extend the conversation with Bricklin, open the book (the whole concept of a book) up to to a broader discussion so that other innovators could tell their stories, and readers could gain a much broader, deeper, more nuanced understanding of the subject matter that so fascinates Isaacson. A book should be more than a book, it should be the beginning of a conversation, an interactive gateway to more information, a means to connect interested parties. Books don’t do that, but given the available technology and associated behaviors of the digital generation, maybe they ought to do more than they do today.

I like the way Walter Isaacson tells a story. I like to watch and listen to him on stage, and I enjoy reading his books. I enjoyed reading his biography about Einstein, and I know that I will read his book about Ben Franklin in 2015 (I bought it for my wife, as a birthday gift when it was new in 2004—so many books, so little time!). There aren’t many biographers or historians I would place next to David McCullough, but Isaacson is one of them. He is one of America’s finest authors.

Walter, you just published 560 words about innovators. You’ve made sense of the science and divergent thinking pursued by Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Tim Berners-Lee and other technology heroes. The story is neither simple nor easy to tell, but you’ve managed to put the pieces together in a very appealing package that I can buy for 20 bucks (hardcover), or 10 bucks (Kindle). Two words for you: good job!

Seriously, you do a terrific job with every book. That’s why we buy your books. You’re a reliably strong author who finds just the right details, composes just the right stories, paints a coherent picture, and provides a satisfying experience. Not many people do the job as well as you do, but plenty of people try, and some come pretty close.

At the risk of typecasting, and at the greater risk of being accused of being stuck in the 20th (or 19th) century, I’m really happy with your work. If I want to know more about Albert Einstein and his world, I can pick up Ronald Clark’s biography, or read the scientist’s own books. If you suggest another book, or perhaps a documentary or a good museum, I’ll jot it down and follow it up. I don’t need or want an expanded version of “The Innovators.” I’m sure you’ve collected far more information than you could possibly corral into a single book, and if you feel there’s a follow-on book, I’m sure you’ll write it and I’m equally certain that it will become a best seller, too. But I would prefer that you moved on, as I will do. I’ve gotten a good and healthy dose of the innovators’ story. I want you to write another great book that illuminates a part of life that I don’t know I want to know more about. I’m sure you’ve got a list of a dozen new ideas for next books. You’re going to be 63 years old in March—and your pace tends to be a new book every 2-4 years (let’s say 3). Keep writing until your 93rd birthday, and we can look forward to perhaps 10 more Walter Isaacson books.

Better for you to explore the wild new worlds of digital publishing and invent some new forms? Sure, go ahead, but do not stop writing books, and don’t slow things down too much. We need more Walter Isaacson books.

So there’s the paradox. Although Isaacson is eloquent about the future, his great value to society is in the present (in fact, telling stories about the past). And if he spends too much time on the future, we lose something wonderful about the present and the past, which diminishes the future.

Same idea, different words: Mr. Isaacson is one of the best hopes in the publishing industry for credible, popular new directions for books. On the other, we simply want him to be a wonderful author. If the author’s job is to tell a great story, does it make more sense to mess with the medium or master the message? Or to just keep doing and allow the road to lead where it may?

Reinforcing the paradox: on the first day of Digital Book World, I learned about the new interactive exploration application that children’s author/illustrator David Wiesner is going to release through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s called “SPOT,” and I plan to write about it soon. Why am I so excited about a new interactive venture from one of our best children’s authors, but so conflicted about how I hope Mr. Isaacson will spend his next thirty years? ‘Tis a paradox.

 

The New Rectangle

The old rectangle turned out to be a pretty good idea. Take a stack of papers, imprint each one, on both sides, with words and pictures, bind it all up, and sell it at a reasonable price. Printed books for children date back about 500 years (a fine article from a January 1888 of The Atlantic tells the story of the early years). Today, children’s books account for 37 percent of all books sold in the United States. In survey after survey, reading books shows up as a top activity for children from one to ten or eleven years old. About 70 percent of children in this age group read books for pleasure—compared with about 20 percent of adults. For most American children, reading books is a wonderful part of childhood.

By age 14, many children find other ways to occupy their time. Out-of-date mandatory school readings don’t help matters—“A Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are dubious “must reads” for 21st century middle schoolers. Is the answer a newer rectangle? Perhaps a new style of novel with some sort of built-in social network? A book on an iPad with snazzy interactive features?

Roughly 1 in 5 books sold in the United States is an eBook. Parents are interested in seeing their children read—so they buy lots of books, encourage literacy at every opportunity, and justify investments in iPads because these devices could encourage children to read more books, and spend more time reading. For some parents, that may seem reasonable, but 66 percent of teenagers read for pleasure–and they strongly prefer printed books!

And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether traditional books offer one type of experience, and iBooks / eBooks / digital books provide another. (The usual argument: when home video became popular, the movie theaters did not go out of business.) I love the idea of reading a non-fiction book and AFTER my time with the book ends, I love to do a bit more research to learn more about the concepts that the author failed to discuss in detail. Do I need all of that in one digital package? Not really—I am fine reading the book in my comfy leather chair, then meandering over to the computer, or picking up the iPad, to learn more. But that’s a very narrow interpretation of what a digital book experience might be.

scaled_OM-BookBeginnerCollection1-Screen0-w997L-(255,255,255)-iPad.jpgFor example, maybe a digital book is not a book at all, but a kind of game. Scholastic, a leader in a teen (YA, or Young Adult) fiction publishes a new book in each series at four-month intervals. The publisher wants to maintain a relationship with the reader, and the reader wants to continue to connect with the author and the characters. So what’s in-between, what happens during those (empty) months between reading one book and the publication of the next one in the series? And at what point does the experience (a game, a social community) overtake the book? NEVER! — or so says a Scholastic multimedia producer working in that interstitial space. The book is the thing; everything else is secondary. In fact, I don’t believe him—I think that may be true for some books, but the clever souls at Scholastic are very likely to come up with a compelling between-the-books experience that eventually overshadows the book itself.

And what of the attics of the future? Your child—a grandpa with a dusty old attic in 2085—ought to have a carton filled with Rick Riordan stories and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” that he can pass on to the young ones. He ought not mumble through some lame excuse about how every one of his favorite books was digital, and how those books were zapped from the cloud during the great digital storm of 2042.

So do we leave it there? Children’s books ought to be printed and saved, placed on library shelves and in attic boxes for the ages? Not when there’s a new rectangle! Imagine a book that makes sounds and flashes pictures on command, that builds a bridge to the imagination in a way that enhances the experience of a parent reading a book to a very young child (or, an older one). Gee, this must be done carefully! We want to retain so much that is special and unique about the old ways—the ways that we have perfected over hundreds of years, and really managed to get right during the past fifty or one hundred—and yet, we’re raising a digitally native population. So far, 58 percent of children enjoy daily access to a tablet (often, an iPad). Much of what will be invented has been invented—at least until there is a massive new injection of innovation. Today’s tablet probably resembles the tablet of 2018, but it might be smaller, thinner, more flexible. What we have now is a reasonably stable rectangle. But what to do, for children, within its four digital walls?

Last week, I spent a day pondering this issue with a few hundred people in the children’s book publishing industry at a conference called Digital Book World—the special section being entitled LaunchKIDS. Mostly, it was populated by people who work within the old rectangles, but remain curious about the new. Here and there, we learned about newer ones. Blloon (yes, it is spelled correctly) is encouraging people 18-34 (typically, less bookish than other populations) to subscribe to their service by using the number of pages read as a kind of currency (consumers pay for a certain number of pages, and engage in social activities to earn more). Google wants to “massively transform” the space (Google seems to say that about everything it sees or smells). Amazon is trying to make sense of analog vs. digital books, comparing the paradigm to hardcover vs. softcover books, for example.

Of course, there are no easy long-term answers. Except one. Kids like books. And parents like to buy books for their kids. So far, that doesn’t seem to be changing very much at all.

The four most popular children’s books (based upon Amazon’s sales—bookstore sales may vary).

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And, a popular Scholastic books into multimedia project, Spirit Animals.

Spirit Animals

 

A New Discovery: Curiosity Stream

For many people, two of the most powerful words in the English language are “discovery” and “curiosity.” In fact, John Hendricks combined the two words to title his 2013 biography, “A Curious Discovery.” Now that he is no longer associated with the cable network that he founded—The Discovery Channel—Hendricks is launching a new venture, Curiosity Stream. Just as The Discovery Channel (now, simply “Discovery”) was precisely the right idea for a young cable television industry in 1985, Curiosity Stream sets the standard for special interest subscription ad-free video-on-demand in 2015. With HBO, CBS News and other new “SVOD” services available for an emerging marketplace.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_01_RobotsA monthly subscription fee buys access to a library of short- and long-form programs in four general categories: science, technology, civilization and the human spirit. Some programs are produced by Curiosity Studios—mostly, these are short-form interviews with scientists and other experts, often illustrated with animation. At the start, many of the long-form programs will come from TVO (that’s TVOntario, one of the best non-fiction producers in Canada), Japan’s NHK, France’s ZED, and of course, the BBC Worldwide. With two or three years, the service anticipates 2-3,000 titles; this year, subscribers will have access to about half that number of programs. Happily, John recognizes the challenges associated with VOD navigation, and I’m hoping to see Curiosity Stream reinvent the visual interface so that their programs are easy to find.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_04_MadagascarThe assortment of programs being assembled for the March 18, 2015 launch. Many are reminiscent of what The Discovery Channel used to be—before its prime time schedule began to resemble other cable channels (“Naked and Afraid,” etc.). Among the titles announced so far: “The Nano Revolution,” “Simon Schama: Shakespeare and Us,” “The Age of Robots,” “Destination Pluto,” and “Scotland: Rome’s Last Frontier.” There will be 4K programming, too—UltraHD for those who own the newer high-resolution TV sets—including a newly commissioned project called “Big Picture Earth” by the filmmaker responsible for “Sunrise Earth.”

For a look at Curiosity Stream’s demo site, click on the image above.

For a look at Curiosity Stream’s demo site, click on the image above.

Hendricks and his team are deeply experienced in the acquisition, production, and marketing of these types of programs—so this is a startup with a high likelihood of success. The intelligence of their marketing model impressed me, and made me wonder why others don’t approach the market in the same way. For $2.99 per 01_BBC_02_Earthmonth, you can watch in standard resolution—a terrific on-ramp for viewers who are either new to SVOD or are more likely to be fairly light users, at least the start. At this price, it’s almost a trial subscription with an easy upsell to 720 HD resolution at $3.99 per month (which is all that most people probably need right now). For those with more extravagant viewing habits, 1080 HD resolution costs $5.99 per month; the 4K Ultra HD service costs $9.99 per month (but at the start, there won’t be a lot of 4K programming available—still, some is far more than most other services offer today).

When I first read about the service—it was just announced—I reached out to John Hendricks and his team. Mostly, we talked about strategy. The program acquisition and production strategy is firmly rooted in international cable deals. The right deal spreads the risk among several programmers and distributors. For 04_ZED_02_Nanoexample, let’s assume that a high quality outdoor production costs about $750K to produce. If one company foots the bill, their programming budget only goes so far. But if Curiosity, for example, puts in $250K to control North American rights, and finds two partners, perhaps one in Asia and another in Europe, and each of them also puts in $250K for their respective territories, then nobody is out of pocket for more than $250K. Rights beyond North America, Europe and Asia provide additional revenue, which is typically shared by the funding producers. This “split exploitation” concept has been around since the 198os, and it works. In the SVOD marketplace, there will be many opportunities for future exploitation, which makes the venture progressively more profitable, and steadily increases the programming budgets, which generate more and better programming, and more subscribers… the circle continues to grow.

JohnHendricks_HeadshotUnlike Ted Turner, whose approach to cable was mass market (TBS, TNT, and very broad-based news with CNN), Hendricks has always focused on nonfiction, documentaries, outdoors and reality (in the best sense, and also with many programming ventures way down market—Discovery owns TLC, so you can thank him for “Honey Boo Boo”). The point: he knows how to play the game, understands how to segment the market. His first pass: a three-bucket breakdown that includes (a) historically light TV viewers, the 1 in 8 of us, the 17 million U.S. households for whom TV is not a big part of daily life; (b) the connected world of perhaps 100 million cable and satellite homes, the ones that often complain that “there’s nothing good on TV” where he hopes to capture about 10 million households; and the rising 4K market, which he projects at 10 million households total and perhaps 5 million subscribers to Curiosity. By playing a more upmarket game from the start—he’s betting that there are enough documentary, adventure, curious viewers willing to pay at least a few dollars per month to see what Curiosity offers and to support what would seem to be a very promising future.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_06_AngkorCould he be defeated by Netflix hiring a former Discovery executive assigned to buying up lots of rights to Curiosity / Discovery -type programming from the short list of global suppliers? Sure, but it’s not likely that Netflix will zero-in on the nonfiction programs that Curiosity Stream plans to acquire. The nuanced understanding of programming for, and marketing to, this particular audience is not something that Netflix can easily replicate. Hulu probably won’t go there, and neither will Amazon. YouTube is interested in other aspects of the business, so it’s likely that John and his team will be able to build the same kind of success that they enjoyed with Discovery.

In some respects, John Hendricks is a smart guy who found the right long-term niche. Broadening the view, I suppose it’s possible that TCM will offer a similar service—a movie archive with a greater emphasis on old movies than Netflix or Amazon may offer. The days of exploiting an old Hanna-Barbera library (one of the foundation blocks of Cartoon Network in its infancy) are over, but I suppose an SVOD animation service might be able to support itself. Old TV shows are currently experiencing a nostalgic burst with over-the-air channels exploiting old libraries—I now record “Naked City” and sometimes waste a half-hour watching “F-Troop” on MyTV, or similar programs on Antenna and its competitors. Not much SVOD opportunity there. Sports wants to be live—so after-the-fact viewing of sports events doesn’t provide much marketplace power for SSVOD (sports subscription VOD?). Weather, news – same problem; neither is good SVOD product. Children’s programming works, and I’m sure some combination of Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and PBS Kids will fight it out in a battle for market share—a newcomer would find it difficult to acquire sufficient product in this brand-obssessed (“Dora the Explorer,” etc. marketplace), but the BBC’s CBeebies might move in that direction. History never found a large enough audience to sustain historical programming, so it became a popular mass appeal network. Food Network doesn’t focus enough recipe programs any more, and their competition series aren’t likely to generate large numbers of individual subscriptions. Clever marketing schemes aside, most other cable networks are mass appeal, or broad appeal, so they’re probably better as cable networks with some VOD than full-scale SVOD services. I think there’s some potential in BBC America—their airtime is focused on mass appeal but the BBC library—even discounting for rights limitations—is probably large enough to succeed in SVOD. Comedy Central has potential, but Curiosity Stream trumps comedy because it benefits from a higher degree of program scarcity (there’s no shortage of comedy product available). I certainly wouldn’t discount the potential of a music channel’s success on SVOD—perhaps from MTV, BET, or a country music source.

Which is to say: I think Curiosity Stream has chosen its niche wisely; packaged and priced its product slightly ahead of the market; that it benefits from the right visionary and management team; that is it among a short list of non-movie / non-sports programming franchises where 4K truly enhances the viewing experience; and that it promises some terrific viewing experiences now sorely missed. The idea of a truly global, any-platform, anywhere service in this programming space is extremely appealing. In short, I think Curiosity Stream is the right idea for a clearly defined audience that is probably underserved and ready to pay a reasonable monthly fee for the privilege of watching high quality non-fiction programming from around the world.

 

An Authentic, Modern Meal in Venice

Venice is a small city overrun not with cars, but with tourists. It is a charming place to stroll, romantic in the dark alleys of the  night, a bit spooky when a rat crosses the path (the place is filled with canals and infrastructure that pre-dates Columbus), charming in so many ways. Venetian cuisine differs from traditional Italian cuisine—this is not the place where you will find fried breaded meats in tomato sauce covered with mozzarella cheese. Instead, it is a place where fish dominates, and cuisines have been shaped by constant trade with the far east, the near east, northern Africa and the rest of Europe. You’d never know it to walk into just any restaurant in touristy San Marco, but I headed to the edge of town to enjoy a proper meal of Venetian specialties prepared by a gloriously obsessive restauranteur whose past history includes years as a session musician (a bassist) in the recording studios of Paris, GP Cremonini.

My meal began with fish. Not one fish. Lots of small crudo (raw) pieces of fish that resembled, but did not taste like sushi.

FishTray

On the upper left, that’s salmon covered by stracciatella and alfalfa sprouts. I savored the red snapper—number two on the top—but I could not figure out what the green flavor might be—it turned out to be a very fresh lime, a delightful companion. The strawberry rests on a morsel of sea bass, and it’s followed by a piece of sea bream with a bit of fresh mint. The second row begins with sea bass and wild fennel, then swordfish with a slender stick of vanilla, and finally, that’s passion fruit relish on amberjack. There were eight fish—the one that I ate before I took the picture was tuna with a bit of citrus, probably orange. Overall, a wonderful introduction to the region’s fresh fish, and a clever way to present their flavors in a fresh and inviting way. But there’s more to the story…consider the level of commitment to ingredients, the experimentation to find just the right combination. That’s the obsession that plays out with nearly 200 food suppliers to Riveria. GP had spent much of the day meeting with his grappa supplier, and talked to me about the herb gardener whose tiny backyard garden is the best in the region. He cares a great deal about the food. We’ll see what comes next.

Scallop-SaladIt’s a salad with the obvious fresh greens and toasted scallops, smaller than the ones we find in the U.S., and a bit saltier, too. There are bits of a local bacon, too, which enhances the salty favor. The sauce is a red pepper puree, which adds the necessary sweetness to balance the salty flavor. Bit of polenta toast complete the dish.

Along the way, wine with the early courses—but in time, I felt I ought to focus on the food, so I slowed down. I started with a Bianco Secco from Quintarelli, then moved on to a more robust unfiltered white wine called Sassia from Angiolini Maule. “Only the grape, you’re tasting only the grape,” GP explained and instructed me about the importance of simplicity in this wine and in his whole approach to food. Unadorned, wonderful, carefully selected ingredients are his secret, and Venice and the Veneto region is superb place to find them. But it takes a great deal of time to find these ingredients, to get the mixes right, to train the staff to do things differently. For the first six months, the staff struggled to understand GP’s unorthodox approach and his combinations of flavors, and his working style, but in time, they came to understand what he was doing, and why it was important to both preserve and update the Venetian traditions. This was decidedly different from the routines at other area restaurants where they had worked, so it took time. It was great fun to understand the backstory and enjoy the highly-evolved meals. There are nineteen tables here, and 173 suppliers—“one for the bread flour, another for the mozzarella,, for the polenta.” Everything is done properly, nothing is rushed. It is the way that GP and his partner want to run their business.

On the previous night, I had sampled Sior with local sardines, and they were tasty, but not extraordinary. Here, the dish of Venice’s fisherman—preserved fish with onions—took on a different character. The key was the scampi—the word translates as our langostini, not as an Italian restaurant’s garlicky butter sauce for shrimp—“one is a scampo, more than one is scampi,” GP explained. He went on, “this is a very traditional dish, with any available fish. Sailors would take it to sea. Here, we prepare it at least a day in advance.” With thin slices of fresh apple.

Fisherman

The next dish was my favorite. Gnocchi, but a gnocchi unlike any I have tasted before. This is pasta made with potato flour, but most preparations tend to be heavy, thick and gummy. Riviera’s gnocchi was light and airy, and as prepared with a thin basil pesto with crackling fresh broccoli and bits of sea bass and small tomatoes, it was the kind of dream dish that one hopes to encounter in a superior restaurant.

Gnocchi

I’m beginning to fill up. Our strategy of small dishes was working well—until the gnocchi showed up. I ate all of it, and that curtailed my ability to try another half-dozen courses (good reason for a second visit). Still, there were two more dishes that I was destined to try. The first was a single large ravioli colored by squid ink and filled with scallop. You’ll excuse me—I took a first bite before I remembered to snap the picture. The dish is called cappallechi, and the tomatoes are called detereno. The sauce is lovely, but I don’t recall why I loved it so (my notes are limited to “lovely sauce.”

Black-Ink-Ravioli

We’re still going. Next and last among the mains is a sea bass with a pool of pumpkin sauce. There are tiny poppy seeds on the side of the fish to add punch and texture. The salty slivers of fresh artichoke complement the mild fish flavor.

Bass

Time for dessert. A lineup of five small portions, each one special in its way. Once again, I’m impressed by the care and creativity associated with so many different presentations. Here, the lineup includes a hazelnut mousse, then the best sachertorte I have ever tasted (noting that my time in Venice was followed by a short week in Vienna), a cream puff with a bit of strawberry, a pannacotta (texture of flan but a vastly different sweet flavor), and a tiny tiramisu with fresh espresso dust. Not pretentious—just simple preparations made by a very skillful baker and pastry chef.Dessert-Row

And just when I thought the meal was ending, another small taste of sweets to complete an extraordinary session. The biscuits were standard issue, but oh those little chocolate balls! Cold and alcoholic (rum), with coconut overtones, they’re called puncetti, and I wish I could find or make them at home. What a nice way to end a meal.

GP invited me to sample a deeply personal, thoroughly modern excursion through traditional Venetian dishes. The meal came with more than a few friendly conversations and background stories, making it that much more special. Riviera is not standard tourist fare, and it requires willingness to walk perhaps fifteen minutes beyond the tourist section, but the restaurant is part of a larger story. Venice is sacrificing its authentic past, its artisanal approach to the arts, because tourists expect less. Here, it is reasonable to expect more, and to engage in a conversation about the Venice of the 21st century.

Here’s how to find it. Be sure to reserve—everything in Venice becomes busy when the tourists arrive.

Strolling through Everyday Venice

The day began, as it should this time of year, with a stroll through the ancient streets of Venice: the paths along the canals (“fondamenta”), under the occasional tunnel to somewhere or nowhere (“sottoportego”), and, of course, over the many tiny bridges (“ponte”).

On one particular ponte that I could never find again (many look alike), there is a border collie and a man who likes to dress in New York Yankees sweats. I never got the dog’s name but I will always remember his wonderfully obsessive behavior. When he spotted an oncoming gondola, he would stick his head through the ponte’s iron work, stare for a moment, then race over to the other side of the ponte (not more than two meters) to watch the gondola emerge out from under the bridge and out the other side. He did this over and over and over again, and enjoyed it every time. I suspect he does this every day of his doggie life. Here’s a picture, just as the process begins.

Dog gondola

220px-CaffeflorianJust keep walking. Morning tea at the Florian, an old and not especially crowded coffee house (the first two weeks of December, nobody is in town, so I had the place to myself). It’s a landmark on the Piazza San Marco, and has been since the 1720s, when the Turkish invaders introduced coffee to the city. Casanova, Proust and Dickens hung out there, and now, so have I. The place is gorgeous, inside and out. I enjoy my $15 tea—it’s served in a clear teapot with a blooming cluster of leaves that open up as the tea brews. I contemplate the pigeons on the far side of the square—and the San Marco Basilica which seems to need a good cleaning. The treasured mosaics do not sparkle in the sunny day. They are obscured, in part, by inevitable scaffolding. The place is surrounded by expensive Fifth Avenue fashion shops, and Italian brands (Loriblu, for example, with splendidly silly crystalline boots in the window). Time to move on to more interesting surroundings. I keep walking. Time for lunch. Closed on Sundays (today is Thursday), the place to go is Dal Moro’s, which is not so hard to find if you simply follow the calles (alleyways) and trust your instinct that this tiny storefront really is around the corner. And there it is, perhaps the finest pasta in all of Venice. The pasta comes with an urging to eat it hot, but there is no place to sit down. One eats the pasta standing up, as this couple is doing. Pasta CoupleWe chat for a bit, then I move on to a favorite campo in the Santa Croce area of town. It’s square dominated by a very old church called San Giacomo dell’Orio, and it dates back to 1225 (“Tradition says that the church
was founded in 555, but the first documented reference dates it to 1089.”) The bell tower (“campanile”) was last repaired in the 1300s. I love this campo for several reasons, all related to a sense of real life for real Venetians—there are only about fifty thousand of them who actually live in the city, and it is here that I was able to watch children on scooters, dogs out for their daily walk (and tie-up to a post while the owner picks up supplies at a local market), great gelato down the main street, wonderful pastries and soup at Majer nearby, aging women gossiping about everyone they know. Every day I was in Venice, I spent at least an hour just sitting and watching life go by. On this particular day, I sketched for a while, then just sat back and took it all in. Somehow, this seemed like a better way to spend the afternoon than staring the art that the Venetians had stolen from other countries when they had the power to do so. It fills the museums, and there would be time, in a day or two, to fully absorb myself in the gold-leafed grandeur.

Santa Croce campo 2

Santa Croce campo 1

The day is beginning to wind down—or, at least, the sunlight is beginning to fade away. That happens around 430PM this time of year, but so much of Venice sees so little sun (small alleys and enclosed campos), it’s only about 4PM, but it seems to be getting dark. I keep walking, and sure enough, by the time I reach the bridge to dell’Accademia, the Grand Canal is fading to a deep blue.

darker Venice from Bridge

I wander around the Dorsoduro—another of Venice’s districts—and poke around the shops. There are shops everywhere, and most of the them sell tourist stuff. I keep an eye out for the work of craftsmen, or, at least, local artisans (most of what is sold in Venice’s shops is made in China—an odd historical turnabout). Somewhere along the way—Venice being so confusing, it’s difficult to recall which shop is in which district and which day the visit occurred—I found a local print shop with its own old-time Heidelberg press, asked far too many questions, and left with a satchel full of bookmarks and a lovely three-color print of the Grand Canal made on the shop’s printing press by the two men who own and operate it. I wish there was more of that in Venice, but the economics and the government policies tend to discourage local enterprise. Still, it can be found, if one takes the time, does the research, asks the questions, and, gets lucky.

Walking along the watery edge of the Dorsodoro, I watched cruise ships in a dredged waterway that was too small for their bulk, and wondered about the Las Vegas style hotel building across the way. I found out that the odd Stucky building had been a wheat mill (Mr. Stucky became Venice’s richest citizen before he was murdered—so much drama!) Sure enough, the place is now a Hilton hotel. I was walking along the Giudecca canal (“guidecca” was the name of the island where undesirables where kept—the word refers to those who are judged). I was headed for dinner at Rivera, an upscale restaurant that serves a modern version of traditional Venetian cuisine. Stay tuned…

Night at the Operas

If I had arrived several weeks earlier, I might have seen “La Traviata” or perhaps “Simon Boccanegra,” but I was only to be in Venice for a few days, and there was no opera scheduled at Teatro La Fenice. I was happy to settle for a Diego Matheuz conducting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony—just to spend an evening listening to music in one of Europe’s most extraordinary concert halls. Unfortunately, Matheuz did not perform because there was a general strike on Friday. I did, however, manage to attend a Saturday night performance of a contemporary work. More on that later.

DSC01491loc-grande-guerra-page-001-344x1024Why did I care about this particular theater? The history, mostly. And the way it looks on the inside. Just being there, even if there isn’t the same there that was there before. This is the opera house where Verdi’s “La Traviata” made its debut. Same for “Simon Boccanegra,” where Maria Callas became a star. It is, or was, a remarkable place in the history of music. Why the dancing verbs? Because the place has a history that’s as crazy as any opera plot. Originally built as the San Benedetto Theatre in the 1730s, it burned down in 1774, and was rebuilt as Teatro La Fenice (“Fenice” translates as “phoenix”) to begin anew in 1792. Immediately, there was squabbles, the theater survived and by early 1800s, it was a world-class venue, mounting operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, the big names in Italy at that time. In 1836, it burned down again, and was quickly rebuilt a year or so later. That’s when Verdi started writing operas for La Fenice, including “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata,” which debuted there. So began a century and a half of magic—until 1996, when two electricians burned it to the ground. Remarkably, engineers had measured the theater’s acoustics only two months before, so the theater was rebuilt sounding much the same as its predecessor.

DSC01752That’s the theater that I visited, the 1,000 seat theater that hosted the premiere of “La grande guerra (vista con gli occhi di un bambino)” – a tale for men’s chorussopranonarrator and instruments with music by Claudio Ambrosini, featuring Sonia Visentin (soprano), Sandro Cappelletto (narrator), Matteo Liva (piano), Alberto Perenzin (trumpet), Giulio Somma (percussion), Coenobium Vocale (Maria Dal Bianco, choirmaster ). The title translates as: “The Great War (as seen through the eyes of a child”). The instrumentation was carefully chosen: the soprano Visentin represents the voices of the mothers and sisters and aunts who bore unceasing sorrow as they lived their short lives. The child, who wrote the World War I diaries, is manifest in the percussion work of a twelve-year-old musician who masterfully handled the xylophone, tympani and other instruments. The men’s choir—rather flawless in their relentless soldiering on through the era’s music—represent the soldiers. Capalletto’s narration tied everything together in the words of the child. So painful, so affecting. So frustrating—I wanted to understand every word, but I could only understand some of what was being said and sung.

DSC01772It was a beautiful performance in a beautiful place. But it was not my only engagement for the evening. Fearful of seeing no music in Venice, I also booked a seat at the tourist-oriented Musica a Palazzo, just a few dark alleyways, a campo (plaza), and several bridges away from the opera house. I raced over in the dark to catch the final act of an intimate staging of the story in an old mansion–the last Barbaggio family member died in 1804).  Each act is staged in a different room of the mansion. I arrived in time for Violetta to die in her bedroom, the men in her life beside her, three performers singing their hearts out for perhaps a hundred people with the accompaniment of a quartet (violin, viola, cello, piano). The intimacy of the performance, and the the familiar strangeness of the setting in the old mansion, turns out to be a delightful for a tourist to spend an evening in Venice—but you must be willing to buy into the schtick. The audience seemed to delight in doing just that.

DSC01499The contrast was fun to contemplate. On the one hand, a classic old opera house rebuilt from its own ashes less than twenty years ago presenting material from World War I in a 21st century setting. On the other, an old mansion dating back two centuries— Ca’Barbagio presenting an opera that debuted at La Fenice in 1853 for 21st century tourists visiting an old city of just 50,000 permanent residents whose long decline probably began more than 500 years ago. Today, the city exists mostly for its history and tourism—more than 20 million people visit Venice every year. I was lucky enough to spend my time at La Fenice sitting next to a local woman, Mirella, whose love for La Fenice has less to do with classic old operas and more to do with the many contemporary works, like those by Ambrosini, for this is, after all, her neighborhood music house.

Ellen Rocks On

I am beginning to read what Ellen Willis wrote. Some of it is familiar, but I lost track of her sometime last in the last century. She wrote about the counter culture, and, apparently, continued on that path long after everyone else had moved on. Willisimage_mini was an extraordinarily clear thinker about things that matter. That clarity, and her passion, and her just-plain-good writing are the reasons why I will spend the winter reading every one of about fifty articles and essays in a book that her daughter Nona put together. It’s called “The Essential Ellen Willis.” I’m guessing you won’t find it in many bookstores despite the best efforts of the University of Minnesota Press, but it’s certainly available online. For someone who enjoys smart writing with more than a small dose of social conscience, it’s an ideal holiday choice.

Lots and lots of interesting material about Ellen on this Tumblr page.

Lots and lots of interesting material about Ellen on this Tumblr page. To go there, click on the picture.

Who was she? Ellen Willis was born in 1941 and died in 2006. She was the first rock critic for The New Yorker, a columnist who wrote regularly for the Village Voice, and an educator at New York University (she founded the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program). She was a feminist, and an authentic, long-term voice for what was, in the 1960s and 1970s, a movement, and became, in the 1980s and 1990s, a reasoned approach to social outrage. Her daughter Nona, who caused Willis such consternation about her own feminist place as a mother, is the protagonist in one of this book’s best articles, a Voice column entitled “The Diaper Manifesto.” Grown up, Nona Willis Aronowitz is a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, an author, and, now, the compiler and editor of her mom’s best stuff. (This is the second effort: the first collected Willis’s rock articles and criticism in a book called “Out of the Vinyl Depths” from the same publisher.)

I wasn’t sure where to start navigating 536 pages of a writer’s collected work, so I started with an article about Bob Dylan that she wrote for Cheetah in 1967. Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” was a new release, nearly two years after his serious motorcycle accident. It’s been nearly fifty (!) years since she wrote the article. She starts at the beginning, assessing the emerging folk music scene and his place in it:

When Bob Dylan first showed up at Gerde’s [Folk City] in the spring of 1961, fresh skinned and baby faced, and wearing a school boy’s corduroy hat, the manager asked him for proof of age. He was nineteen only recently arrived in New York. Skinny, nervous, manic, the bohemian patina of jeans and boots, scruffy hair, hip jargon and hitchhiking mileage barely settled on nice Bobby Zimmerman, he has been trying to catch on at the coffeehouses. His material and style were a cud of half-digested influences: Guthrie-cum-Elliot, Blind Lemon Jefferson-cum-Leadbelly-cum-Van Ronk, the hillbilly sounds of Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers; the rock-and-roll of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. He was constantly writing new songs. Onstage, he varied poignancy with clownishness. His interpretations of traditional songs—especially blues—were pretentious, and his harsh, flat voice kept slipping over the edge of plaintiveness into strident self-pity. But he shone as a comedian, charming audiences with Charlie Chaplin routines, playing with his hair and his cap, burlesquing his own mannerism and simply enjoying himself.”

From July, 1986’s “The Diaper Manifesto,” which begins with Willis exploring her conflicted feelings about hiring someone to care for her child so that she can continue to write…

Before I had a child, I had lots of opinions on the subject. Two years afterward, some of them have stuck with me: I’m still convinced that staying home full-time with a healthy, rambuctious kid would turn me into squirrel food, that child care should be as much men’s job as women’s, that communal child rearing in some form holds the most hope of resolving the collision between adults’ and children’s needs, as well as the emotional cannibalism of the nuclear family. But for the most part, figuring out what kind of care best meets my daughter’s needs has been—continues to be—a processing of disentangling prejudice from experience.”

Progress is made.

“In the end, we hired a Haitian woman who, as a friend drily put it, ‘fit the demographic profile for the job’ and quickly put to shame all my stereotypes. Without the benefit of higher education, middle class choices, or green card, Philomese had all the psychological smarts I could ask for and tended to the baby with love and imagination…Quite aside from our own needs as working parents, Nona was clearly better off having an intimate daily relationship with another adult.”

From September 2009, outrage and clear thinking about the drug war:

According to the drug warriors, I and my ilk are personally responsible not only for the death of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix but for the crack crisis. Taken literally,, this is scurrilous nonsense: the counterculture never looked kindly on hard drugs, and the age of crack is a product not of the 60s but of Reaganism. Yet there’s a sense in which I do feel responsible. Cultural radicals are committed to extending freedom, and that commitment, by its nature, is dangerous. It encourages people to take risks, some of them foolish or worse….If I support the struggle for freedom, I can’t disclaim responsibility for its costs. I can only argue that the cost of suppressing freedom are, in the end, far higher. All wars are hell. The question is which ones are worth fighting.”

 

Just Plain Folk

It’s a mighty long time ago. Her music might have been forgotten. Some songs, she wrote. Others, she collected, mostly in Kentucky and the Appalachians that were so close to her soul. You know some of the songs, if not by name, then by melody or chorus, perhaps from a long-ago campfire or maybe on an album recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary or Pete Seeger. Right now, I’m listening to Jean Ritchie singing in the Great Hall in Manhattan’s Cooper Union, recorded by WNYC in 1985. She’s singing with Oscar Brand, who was about as famous as she was, and perhaps as talented.

Jean Ritchie, from the Encyclopedia of Appalachia.

Jean Ritchie, from the Encyclopedia of Appalachia.

On December 8, Jean Ritchie will be 92 years old. In her lifetime, she has been an activist, a folk singer, a song collector, a Fulbright scholar, an extraordinary dulcimer player (with the lightest touch), and a recipient of The National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship, our nation’s highest honor for a folk artist.

Her music is magical. The rounds on the last song on a new 2-CD tribute entitled “Dear Jean” testifies to it—“Twilight A-Stealing” is sung by “The Ritchie Nieces” in Berea, Kentucky, where Jean Ritchie now resides. Particularly the first part, when the harmonies are rich and timeless.

In fact, this is a family celebration, but Richie’s family goes way beyond her kinfolk. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1946, she found a job at NYC’s Henry Street Settlement, and used her family’s music to help the Settlement’s troubled children. Soon, she was performing in Greenwich Village’s coffee houses, and became part of the folk music phenomenon that grew there in the 1950s. She recorded several LPs for Jac Holzman’s new Elektra Records. As was common practice at the time, her songs were recorded by other folk singers and folk groups. This 2-CD set feels like a continuation of that tradition—a sense reinforced by Judy Collins (in very fine voice) singing “One I Love” with long-time folk guitar player Eric Weissberg at her side. The set opens with Suzy Boguss, John McCutcheon and Tim O’Brien on lead vocals, singing “Black Waters” with Kathy Mattea singing harmony; the remarkable Stuart Duncan (of Goat Rodeo fame) on fiddle.

Perhaps more typical, more vintage, more classic Ritchie is Molly Andrews, a traditional singer who comes naturally to this kind of material, as on “Now is the Cool of the Day” with a sweet viola da gamba accompaniment from Tina Chancy.

“Shady Grove” is a traditional song closely associated with Ritchie, and it’s played here, based upon the “Richie family version,” by Sparky and Rhonda Rucker. What fun to learn about these musicians? (Rhonda plays a fine harmonica; I like Sparky’s voice, similar to what I enjoy hearing in Taj Mahal.) Looking them up on the internet…hey these guys are connected to Ronstadt Generations (Linda’s brother and other relations), also proponents of traditional music.

Another song that’s bound to tug at the heart, “My Dear Companion,” is a classic harmonizing folk duet about lost love. The intertwined voices: Cathy Fink and Marcy Marzer (14 Grammy nominations, famous for singing to babies—and the rest of us). They’ve been at the folk and bluegrass game for a long time. The years of experience wear so very well.

It’s fun to listen to the popular bluegrass voices of The Bankesters singing harmony beside Alison Brown on banjo and guitar as Dale Ann Bradley nails “Go Dig My Grave” with warm compassion. Bradley is one of bluegrass’s finest vocalists—winner of the IBMA’s best female vocalist award for 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012.

UnknownYou may recognize “Blue Diamond Mines,” or may think it sounds familiar (the chorus is similar to to “In the Pines,” a . It’s a bluesy bluegrass tune performed by Riki Schneyer with a wonderful quiver in her voice.

Children’s songs are part of the American folk music tradition. They tend to be pure and innocent, or downright silly. “The Bluebird” is an example of the former, sung by John McCutcheon accompanied by his own banjo. “Take time for dreamin’ on a summer’s day… count your blessings with a bluebird’s song…”

Kathy Mattea gets one of the fun songs to sing—the musical equivalent of calling a square dance—recorded live with plenty of energy. Nice fiddle work by Steve Peavy, and fiddling by Eamonn O’Rourke. Better still is the slow-starting, pick-up-the-beat, start-a-chanting “Let the Sun Shine Down on Me,” a reverie that causes many an audience to dance and stomp in utter joy. The recording feels as though a dozen people are making music together, but it’s just a foursome: Kim and Reggie Harris, who do such a great job at folk festivals, accompanied only by percussion (Steve McAlpine and Charlie Pilzer).

 

 

 

 

 

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