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.”

 

Flying

If you read this article before the live show airs, you’ll find a countdown clock on NBC’s “Peter Pan Live” website. At the moment this article was published, the countdown clock read, precisely, 6 days, 8 hours, 0 minutes and 0 seconds. In live television, countdowns matter. Every second is precisely measured.

On Thursday, December 7, at precisely 8PM, NBC will broadcast one of the most ambitious television productions ever attempted. While the world focuses on just how wonderful Brian Williams’ daughter Allison can be, how fetching the young Darling children, how cleverly Christopher Walken dances and turns into a monstrous pirate, how great a real Broadway cast can be, it’s worth a moment to consider just what these (crazy!) people will be doing for very nearly three hours, live, on national television.

Peter Pan Live! - Season 2014They’ve been planning for at least year, rehearsing for months, and spending endless hours in a 37,000 square foot soundstage in a former, and notable, manufacturing plant (Apollo’s Lunar Modules were built there). This is the largest studio space on the east coast of the United States, and, I suspect they’re overflowing from Stage 3 to add another 14,641 square feet. (A good-sized suburban house is 3,500 square feet—so picture enough space for 15 or 20 houses—that’s their workspace!) Stage 3 is 33 feet high—which is probably just high enough for Peter, Wendy, Michael and John to fly.

Apparently, there is a company that specializes in stage productions of Peter Pan. Flying by Foy, founded, appropriately, by a man whose first name was Peter. They’re the people to do the job: “With global headquarters in Las Vegas, Nevada, locations in the Eastern United States and the United Kingdom, Foy provides flying effects, Aereography® and state-of-the-art automation for Broadway shows, London’s West End, professional and not-for-profit theatres, ballet and opera companies, high school and university theatre programs, churches, theme parks, cruise ships, concert tours, industrial events, feature films and television productions worldwide.” Apparently, they’ve done quite a few productions of Peter Pan.

So, we’ve got actors flying around. Including two boys who are not yet teenagers, and two women who in their twenties.

And there’s a dog. A dog who must perform on cue, bark on cue, on live television in the midst of a phenomenally distracting production environment. Nana is very well trained, and by all counts, Nana will be fine.

Tinkerbelle adds a bit of digital puppetry to the mix. In the midst of a production that relies, in part, upon well-placed shadows, Tink adds an interesting challenge for the actors. They won’t be able to see Tink. (She’s digital, added to the live stream.) Executive Producer Neil Meron told Entertainment Weekly: “Tink is going to be computer generated and manually guided around the screen by a technician. The actors won’t be able to see her, but that technician will be able to move Tink with the actors and change her size and color to indicate what she’s feeling.”

PeterPan-NeverlandMapThere is an enormous stage set—again, think in terms of a dozen houses or more, each one a ranch-style so that everything is on a floor that measures about 120 feet by 120 feet. On that floor, the Darling family’s home will magically (mechanically, electrically, digitally) split in two to show the vista below flying Peter and the children, with an appropriate nightside townscape below. On that floor, a pirate ship that rocks back and forth, a gigantic fantastic Neverland, the Lost Boys’ home, and a vast amount of technical equipment. There will be 17 cameras—up on fake hills, hand-held roaming about getting close-ups of actors as they’re dancing (lots and lots of dancing in this production), on jibs, on pedestals, everywhere. And they must remain out of sight for two hours and forty five minutes, lest the fantasy be broken. There are two directors and many assistants and associates, stage managers, production assistants and more. Everyone has a job. The job of Glenn Weiss is to direct the television production—you know him because you’ve seen him accept more than one Tony Award while directing the Emmy Awards. You probably know the name Rob Ashford, too. Glenn WeissHe’s a theater director and choreographer with a list of impressive, and recent, credits. This extreme form of live television began with last year’s “The Sound of Music,” which was directed by Weiss (for television) and Ashford (staging). In fact, many of the people working backstage this year also worked together, in the same facility, last year. How many people? I don’t know the answer off-hand, but I would guess the number is between 200 and 300, perhaps more. Camera operators, audio engineers, lighting directors, makeup artists, wardrobe dressers, production assistants, video engineers, dancers, nurses (just in case somebody skins a knee), scenic painters, stage hands who do carpentry, stage hands who do electric, stage hands who do props, dog handlers, stage flight specialists, (no doubt: stage fright specialists, too), network executives, producers, associate producers, Tinkerbelle’s digital team (a digital designer/puppeteer and a live musician to give her voice)—and all of these people must get it right the first time. There is only the first time.

Every one of those people is acutely aware of: (a) the countdown clock, (b) the fact that no matter what happens, good/bad/otherwise, this insanity will be over in precisely 6 days, 10 hours, and 45 minutes, (c) there are thousands of things that could go wrong, but few of them will, and almost nobody will notice anyway, (d) the fact that this will happen only one time and only for less than three hours, (c) they will never experience anything so unbelievably cool in their professional lives. Until next year, when, if the announcements are true, we’ll be watching one bass, trumpeters improvising a full octave higher than the score, bassoons, copper-bottomed tympani, double-bell euphoniums, one-hundred and ten cornets and seventy-six trombones marching all over the small city of River City, Iowa, lovingly recreated in Stage 3 in Bethpage, Long Island, not too far from Hicksville.

On Wednesday evening, NBC ran a delightful “making of” hour to promote the special. Be sure to catch the videos and the energy before the pre-show promotion site goes away!

Behind the Scenes

 

 

A Thousand Moments in Time

The image is not entirely white. The paw prints — very big paw prints —are indigo, the color of the surrounding sea. Apart from the burst of white light near the sun, the sky is rendered in various shades of indigo, too. Most of the remaining ice floes are  pure white, tinged with indigo’s inky blue. The ice seems to be melting by the minute. It is no longer a solid mass. A polar bear sits on one of  larger ice floes, polar bear looks to the sky. His or her coat is faded yellow, the color of a baby chick.

That’s the second image in the new 478-page compact coffee table book by one of my favorite authors of photography books. This one handsome volume is entitled, “Photography: The Definitive Visual History,” and it’s a wonderful way to make someone very happy this holiday season ($50, but less than $40 on the internet).

The first image is very familiar: “Migrant Mother,” also called “Prairie Mother,” created in March, 1936, the heart of the Depression, by Dorothea Lange. At the time, Lange was working for the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal program that became a part of the Farm Security Administration a year later. The location: a camp of pea pickers in Niporno, California. Lange: “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn to a magnet.” The family had recently “sold the tires of their car to pay for food.” The woman in the picture’s name was Florence Owen Thompson. She knew her own name, but she couldn’t do much good with that knowledge. Thompson was a poor Native American woman, and at age 80, when she was dying of cancer, she won an appeal and received $32,000. In 1998, the “Getty Museum paid $244,500 for a print.”

Here’s the image from the U.S. Library of Congress.

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The image above is the one that became famous, but, as Ang explains, it was not the only one. “Using a Graflex camera…Lange made a total of six exposures…within a mere ten minutes or so. For each image, Lange moved in closer. The first image was wide, to show context. The final one is above. The second image below was a step along the way.

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Ang goes on to explain how the famous photo is constructed: the “careworn face,” the way the each of the older children frame their mother, the sleeping baby, so apparent in the mid-shot, so nearly absent in closely-cropped image.

Way back in the book in the section labelled “2000-Present: The Digital Age,” this is a small but striking picture of four lions. They seem to be heading directly for the photographer (his name: Chris McLellan). It was shot in 2013—last year. He used a Nikon D800E with a very wide angle lens to take the picture—and many more like it—but the camera was not in his hands. Instead, the camera was mounted on a remote control buggy, and the 18mm lens was installed in order to capture the images of the lions that it passed by, or got curious.

Chris-McLennan_buggy_011-780x520

According to Ang, “the resulting shots were viewed more than two million times within three days.”

For me, the heart of the book is the (mostly) black-and-white middle section where Robert Doisneau’s “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville,” is followed by the remarkable Zeiss 80mm Planar medium format lens (Ang mostly features photography, but also devotes some spreads to important equipment innovations, the likes of LIFE and LOOK magazine, and other parts of photography’s long story), and Andreas Feininger’s “Midtown Manhattan Seen From Weehawken, New Jersey,” and Edward Steichen’s “monumental” (a good word for the project) 1955 book and exhibit, “The Family of Man,” fashion magazines and their aesthetic, and just before the spread on the Nikon F 35mm SLR camera, a few photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt, who worked for 36 years as a LIFE magazine photojournalist. A few pages later, there is the famous quote by Lennart Nilsson:

Patience is the most important tool. Patience. Patience. Patience.”

And, Lennart’s 1965 photograph of a human fetus. “The first time he saw a fetus sucking his thumb, he was ecstatic and took a picture.” But nothing happened—the flash was broken (remember, he’s shooting inside a human body with an endoscope. The image shown below is his most famous. Sadly, the child was easier to photograph because the child was no longer alive.

Lennart-Nilsson-100

Others survived, thrived, and were photographed by Nilsson along the way.

Lennart Nilsson

This collection of Lennart Nilsson images comes from another fine book about photography, “A Child Is Born.”

Photography can take your breath away.


 

Here’s the book cover, just so you don’t pass it by when visiting your local bookseller. It’s a very special holiday gift.

Photography-History_cover

BTW: On final note. If you’re even remotely serious about digital photography, Tom Ang’s your man. He’s a wonderful teacher, and his many other books about digital photography are among the best in the industry.

 

An Old Master

Kudos to Jules Feiffer for creating, writing and illustrating a graphic novel in a fantasy space that he clearly adores. Why the kudos? Who cares that the guy is in his 80s—he tells a helluva story.

FeifferobamaOkay, more about Jules before begin. Actually, you get a fair sense of him from his 2008 cartoon for NYC’s Village Voice. I found it on Wikipedia. He won a Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning, was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Writer’s Guild of America, and he’s got his place in the Comic Book Hall of Fame. And now, he’s got this new book.

It’s called “Kill My Mother,” and I like this description: it’s a “noir-action-romance.” It’s a story dominated by powerful, smart women—a story where men are rather foolish, easily misled, or weak. The plot winds through 1940s Los Angeles, and through a World War II battle zone—it looks and feels like a cross between a graphic novel and a rough storyboard for a post war-time black-and-white film, one that has its doubts about what happened and why. In fact, it’s the sort of noir tale that works best when it makes it way through dark and ambiguous questions. Annie is the protagonist (and the gal on the cover of the book). Her dad is dead. He was a cop. Somebody killed him. She wants to know who did the deed and why. Her mother, well, Annie despises her mother, in Annie’s eyes, a coward of a woman who deserves the worst.

Feiffer bookIn theory, it’s the book that drives the story, but in practice, here, it’s the pictures. Actually, it’s the whole page, the whole well-designed, elegantly organized duotone watercolors and pen-and-ink that feel so dark, so thick with intrigue. Most of the book is rendered in sepia—not the old tones of photographs, but lively, contrasty, vaguely seedy renditions of what otherwise might have been black. The accent is usually a very pale green, the color of a Hollywood swimming pool on page, a cadaver on the next.

It’s vengeful and bluesy, jivey and filled with songs sung way too late at night by a tall woman with a long past. It’s not jokey—this is serious work by a serious creative pro whose resume is dates back before most of the people who will read this article, or that book. There’s nudity and violence, crude language and tenderness, idiotic situations that feel quite real, and a wonderful sense of place and time.

What works best for me? Just scanning every page, considering the creative decisions that a long life are capable of producing. This isn’t just a good graphic novel. It’s a late stage work by one of our twentieth, and now, twenty-first century masters. I love the way he sets up a page, brings his print characters to life on the page, uses flowing line and dabs of color to fill my head, and feed my imagination. Gosh, he’s good.

Pages-from-KMM_feiffer-4-1000-580-BPages-from-KMM_feiffer-2-1000-580 Pages-from-KMM_feiffer-1-1000in-kill-my-mother-erzaehlt-jules-feiffer-von-seiner-jugend-in-einem-amerika-dessen-werte-er-noch-nachvollziehen-konnte

 

 

 

A Digital World of Enchanted Objects

StockOrb-150x150To begin, think not about the objects, but about our desires. We want to know it all—but not all of the time. Sometimes, we just want to know whether it’s cold outside, or whether the dog has been fed. We don’t know the details, don’t really need to know the precise temperature or the moment in time when the dog’s bowl was filled with food. So instead of a thermometer, or, more intensely, a digital thermometer that reports temperature to the tenth of a degree, how about a glowing orb? Or, as author-scientist-innovator-professor David Rose describes his invention, an Ambient Orb. He writes, in his new-ish book, Enchanted Objects, “They aren’t disruptive. They have a calm presence. They don’t require you to do anything…They are there, in every room of the house with the exact information you expect from them.” So he reimagined a crystal ball that contains LEDs that change color, and report the information you need by glowing in your choice of hues. “As the colors change, you glance and know if the pollen count in the air is higher than usual.”

GlowCap-150x150Why not a jacket that hugs the wearer every time she receives a “like” on her Facebook page? (This, from one of David’s students.) Or a toothbrush that knows it is being used (and being used properly), and recognizes your good work, rewarding you with a discount at the dentist? (Oy. The gamification of dentistry! Nah, not in David’s hands. He’s smarter than that—check this out.) One of his entrepreneurial firms was hired by a big pharmaceutical firm to bring some life to the little plastic pill containers. Hoping to change the behavior of the the many patients who do not take our prescribed meds, David’s company, Vitality, changed the cap. The cap glows when you’re supposed to take a pill. Even better, the GlowCap texts you when you’ve forgotten to take a pill, and automatically sends refill messages your local pharmacy. The “adherence rate” is up to 94 percent, far better than the 71 percent achieved by a standard (boring, non-glowing, non-internet connected) vial. It’s information at a glance, again non-disruptive.

UnknownDavid’s vision of the future: whatever the device may do, it must be affordable, indestructible, easily used, and, when it makes sense, wearable. Lovable, too—his clever illustration of interactive medicine packaging are based upon faces that transform themselves. They’re happy when you’re doing the right thing, grumpy if you’re not.

I love the idea of a Conversation Portal, an expansion of the telepresence office conferencing systems that allow people in different physical places to sit at the same half-digital, half-physical conference table. It uses large screens to display flat versions of real people’s bodies so that they feel as though they’re in the room. The Conversation Portal places that concept, more or less, into an informal lunch table setting. Virtual workers—perhaps five percent of the workforce, with more to come—can enjoy human interaction during a morning coffee break.

I also like the idea of a smart bus stop. It’s a digital sign that tells you how long you will have to wait for a bus to arrive. By connecting to the bus system’s GPS system, it provides a convenient visual answer to the inevitable question, “when is the bus going to show up?” His research found that “by eliminating the uncertainty of when the bus will arrive, people become more patient—and they don’t give up on the system i if the wait is longer than fifteen minutes…This enchanted system changes the perception—and behavior—of an entire city of riders.” (In this case, San Francisco.)

DavidRose_headshot_200x200David dreams of on-demand objects, and objects that learn and respond to personal needs. Vending machines, for example, that customize their offerings based upon “a prediction of what the person will like.” He envisions “digital shadows” for objects—information associated with physical objects enhanced by digital projection.

For those who intrigued by technology, but don’t want to dig into the technical details, David has written a marvelous, positive book about a future that he is actively creating with his colleagues. Nice to get a first person account, nicer still to be in the presence of someone with such boundless enthusiasm (and smarts).

Catch David’s 2011 TED Talk, too.

 

Geri Allen: Smart and Wonderful

Geri-Allen-2-by-Dean-C.-Jones-copyGeri Allen is one of those extraordinary jazz musicians whose influence runs wide and deep, but somehow, has not become as well-known as it ought to be. She’s a pianist with a resume that begins with a serious educational foundation: a master’s degree in ethnomusicology that has served her well (easy for me to see this because I’m approaching her life’s work some 35 years into a very good story). Her professional work begins with Mary Wilson and the Supremes in the early 1980s, and Brooklyn’s M-Base movement not long after (here, she established a reputation beside Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby and other talented players). M-Base was a kind of updating of a jazz form, a structured modernist approach to improvisation. In 1988, she recorded a wonderful album entitled “Etudes” with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, followed by several more trio records with her two extraordinary (now, sadly, gone) creative partners, including Segments and Live at the Village Vanguard. (The best discography I could find appears on Wikipedia, part of a more complete story worth reading.)

UnknownThe awards began to roll in. Allen was in and out of the remaining avant-garde, which sounds much less radical now than in 1996 when she recorded “Hidden Man” with Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum. In fact, by 1999, she was sounding very comfortable in a commercial setting, recording her popular CD, The Gathering, with Wallace Roney on flugelhorn and trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Buster Williams on bass, and Lenny White on drums, and others whose names are well-known from mainstream jazz records. A 2010 record, “Flying Toward the Sound,” made it to the top of many critic’s best-of-the-year lists.

So that’s the beginning of the story. A very solid player, well-connected and well-regarded, a talented composer, comfortable in the mainstream and in the more experimental forms of jazz. Somewhat unusual to find a female musician in that role, but things are changing, and, well, it’s about time.

For much of this past summer, Ms. Allen has served as the Artistic Director of a special project at the NJPAC, New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center (and center of cultural life and city rebuilding) in Newark, New Jersey. The project is an All-Female Jazz Residency with a wonderful array of inspiring special guests including Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, Carmen Lundy on voice, and more. Ms. Allen has been Professor Allen for some time now; she is the Director of Jazz Studies for her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. She recently received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. She’s got the performance chops, the compositional excellence and nowadays, it would be fair to say that Geri Allen is one of our nation’s most distinguished jazz educators.

Photo by Dean C. Jones

Photo by Dean C. Jones

As impressive as her professional accomplishments may be, there’s nothing quite like listening. Her latest work, recorded in 2012 and released last year, takes the pianist back to her home town, Detroit, Michigan (actually, she was born in nearby Pontiac but grew up in Detroit). Grand River Avenue was the big street that she crossed when she was old enough to do so. She describes “three years of intensive training by master teachers and Detroit artists in residence” at Cass Tech, on Grand River Avenue, then one of “the nation’s premiere high schools.” The CD entitled “Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations” is the third in a trilogy that began with “Flying Toward the Sound,” and continued with “A Child is Born.” In this case, the liner notes call her work “the new classical music” and state, quite reasonably and truthfully, that the music on the CD is “an exquisitely beautiful collection” based, largely, upon the Motown spirit. There are songs by Steve Wonder (“That Girl”), Smokey Robinson (“Tears of a Clown”), and Marvin Gaye (“Save the Children,” and “Inner City Blues”) and Holland-Dozier-Holland (“Baby I Need Your Lovin’”) but this is not an album of jazz versions of Motown standards. Instead, it is an intricate meditation on the musical themes and ideas that those composers expressed long ago.

Unknown-2Geri Allen has been one of those artists that I’ve wanted to know more about. Now that I’ve written this article, now that I’ve done some concentrated listening, I’m realizing that I am just beginning to understand what she’s all about. The latest album is elegant and wonderful, soulful and reflective, sophisticated and consistently interesting, but my collection is now woefully incomplete. I have listened to the two predecessors in the trilogy, but I want them for my very own. The same is true for the work she did with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, and for the work she did in 2010 with her group, Timeline.

Another discovery. I keep falling in love. There is no better way to listen to music.

BTW: Don’t miss this NPR conversation between two beloved jazz pianists: Geri Allen and Marian McPartland.

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Studying Funny

There is a dead frog with its guts all over the place. More about this unfunny amphibian later.

HumorCode52GfQLFor now, the challenge is to figure out what’s funny, why it’s funny, how funny is constructed, what happens inside our brains when funny is happening, how funny works in different countries and why funny often misfires. Although I want to believe that this is a fascinating intellectual and scholarly pursuit, the whole idea of studying funny seems, to me, to be an odd pursuit that’s not likely to yield meaningful results. And yet, there are these two books, each with an embarrassingly unfunny cover, that have been staring at me all summer long. One puts Groucho glasses on a globe and calls itself The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny and the other has a big goofy grin with the word “Ha!” writ large with “The Science of When We Laugh and Why” down below. The former was written by a University of Colorado professor named Peter McGraw; he runs the Humor Research Lab (or, “HuRL”) and promises to be “a leading expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics.” His co-author us a free-lance writer named Joel Warner. HA! was written by Scott Weems, whose Ph.D. is in cognitive neuroscience.

Weems taught me that it’s possible to make a rat laugh. How? Tickling works pretty well—scratch its belly and a rat will emit a high pitched screech at around 50kHz (which other rats can hear, but humans cannot). If you stroke a rat, it doesn’t laugh. Young rats are more likely to laugh, and laugh bigger, and more often, than older rats. Apparently, humans are the same way. If you leave a rat alone for an extended period, then tickle him, the rat is more likely to laugh a lot.

And then, things get weird. A rat scientist named Burgdorf (I’m sure there’s a better title) inserted electrodes into each rat’s dopamine-producing center and “achieved the same result.” Then, Burgdorf taught his rats to tap a metal bar to administer the dopamine provocation on their own. Similar result. All of which leads Weems to this conclusion, “Apparently, rats aren’t so different from humans, which suggests that laughter might have been around for a very long time.”

Yeah, you’re seeing the same problem I am. It’s cool that we can make rats emit a sound by tickling them, but there’s a pretty large gap between explaining that screech—which may or may not be laughter—and, say, what Richard Pryor or Robin Williams could do on their least productive days. Or why, when I’m bored, I will try (and often succeed) in making others laugh and lose focus (I’ve been doing this since fourth grade). Or why elephant jokes are still funny.

Q: Why did the Elephant stand on the marshmallow? 
A: So she wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate.

Men and women seem to laugh at different things, at different times, in different ways. We don’t yet understand how computers might make us laugh. Research related to laughter, short-term health and longevity is inconclusive (but it couldn’t hurt). Ethic humor remains popular (throughout the world), but the 21st century’s political correctness limits its use in polite company. We’re still okay making fun of animals, and even in our enlightened world, nothing succeeds like a good poop joke:

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All in all, I didn’t learn much, but I did find out that scientists are taking an interest. That’s nice, but frankly, I’d rather watch a funny movie.

The comedy team of McGraw and Warner trekked a lot further (“two guys…19 experiments…five continents… 91,000 miles…”) but didn’t manage to cover any more ground. Studying humor is exceedingly difficult, probably because we’re not smart enough to understand what’s happening, which is why scientists come up with theory and do their thing, but the process is not much fun to watch. McGraw’s intrepid performance at a comedy club—these guys really are trying—is a flop. Their Venn diagrams are promising (one circle: “vomit in church” and the other “causing mass vomit in church” with the intersection marked, simply, “funny”). Both books tell the story of the girls in Tanzania who couldn’t stop laughing and comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s “too soon?” excuse to roll into the Aristocrats schtick shortly after NYC’s towers came down; and, sure enough, on page 81, the authors are talking about tickling rate here, too.

Their world tour is interesting, mostly for people who don’t usually follow the comedy business. This book attempts to be a global comedy road trip, and it’s interesting to visit Yoshimoto Kogyo in Japan: a comedy school that also manages 800 Japanese comedians (not sure why, but the image of 800 Japanese comedians makes me laugh). The company owns many of Japan’s comedy clubs and used to own a comedy theme park, too. There are Yoshimoto Kogyo golf balls, and instant ramen meals, too. The authors make good use of their travel budget, visiting Scandinavia where their obsession with the Danish cartoons that rattled Islam sensibility tends to overshadow the warmth and classy outrage that has been part of Danish humor since the days of Victor Borge (don’t miss this!). Humor on the Gaza Strip (conflict and humor are often linked), and in a chapter about the Amazon (where the inevitable Norman Cousins story about laughter as medicine is told, along with some notes on Patch Adams).

In the Montreal chapter—which is about the world’s largest comedy festival, the authors summarize what seems to be a list of items that didn’t require a full volume:

- Make fun of yourself before others get the chance to do so.

- Laughter is disarming. Make light of the stuff everyone’s worried about and you’ll negate its power.

- Create a safe, playful space where folks are free to laugh.

And so on.

I read these two books because I was hoping that the state of the science had greatly advanced (two books from two major publishers in the same year), but I was mostly wrong. We don’t know much more than we did before. And after thinking about that on a rainy weekend afternoon, I came to the conclusion that there is no problem in not understanding comedy. Maybe there is a point in studying it—or, at least, continuing to study laughter—but in some ways, I hope we never figure it out. I don’t think I want a science of humor. And I certainly don’t want a funny robot to be programmed into my brain to provoke dopamine provocation. Really, I’m good not knowing, I’m great knowing that Robin Williams and Victor Borge were funny, and not knowing or caring how or why that happened or how to replicate his magic.

So what about the frog? For that answer, everyone seems to refer to what E.B. White wrote in 1941:

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but

the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging

to any but the our scientific mind.”

Frog

 

 

 

 

The Art of a Fine Magazine

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

Note the “u” in “watercolour” — this is an article about an extraordinary magazine published in Europe. If I happen to show up at a well-stocked Barnes & Noble store in the U.S., I might catch the 15th issue, but so far, my success rate has been inconsistent. Yes, $15 is a lot to pay for a magazine, and no, this magazine is not printed on special paper or especially thick (about 100 pages per issue). It’s just, well, a very good magazine about a subject that interests me. It was interesting to write that sentence because I am interested in lots of different things, but this is among the few magazines (in the world, I guess) that would win that kind of recognition. (I enjoy Pastel Journal, for example, but I would rate it only “good” in comparison with The Art of Watercolour’s “very good.” As a rule, The New Yorker is very good, but most weekly issues would probably score a “good-plus” if there was such a rating.

So what makes a magazine “very” good? Of course, it’s helpful to offer an abundance of good stories and wonderful illustrations that are specifically intended to delight a very distinct target audience, in this case, the thousands of artists who call themselves “watercolourists.” The magazine assumes a relatively high level of familiarity with the medium, the artists with a national reputation, and a high level of interest in the work of many different types of watercolour artists throughout the world.

Take, for example, the recent issue #14. It begins with a report on the very first World Watercolour Competition which drew nearly 2,000 participants and 82 nationalities. Turn the page and there’s a spread about the Narbonne 2014 Watercolour Biennial (the magazine’s home base is France, so that country gets more attention that others, which makes me feel very international when I have the magazine in my hands). I love finding out about U.S. watercolor events in a French magazine—a blurb about the IWS competition coming up in May (now past), for example. Letters that matter—questions about the leading watercolour paint brand (Winsor & Newton) and whether it has changed its formulation; how to sign a painting; the Munsell color system. Serious discussion, nicely presented, far more up market and smarter than the discussions in, for example, Watercolor Artist in the U.S.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

And then, there are feature stories about artists. The warm-up is called Revelations, and several artists are featured, each with his or her own page. Turn the next page and there’s a fabulous spread, a watercolour of an old New York City apartment building complete with fireplaces and elaborate window wells, a six-page spread including an artist’s career timeline, lots of juicy images, and a demonstration, by American-born Sandra Walker. Next is a four-page spread celebrating Australian painter Ron Muller’s atmospheric landscapes, followed by the Japanese artist working en plein air in Venice. And then, the extraordinary portrait work of Stephen Scott Young, Hawaiian-born, with an extraordinarily eye and a sensitive, realistic way of painting the lives of dark-skinned people living in the Bahamas and Florida. The next profile—the profiles are worth the price of each issue—is a feature about an abstract artist named Mark Mehaffey, which includes some very useful guidance about the composition and building of a nontraditional painting. I have a friend who paints cityscapes and especially enjoys the challenge of reflections and store windows—and in this issue, there’s a feature about David Stickel, whose opening pages attest to his abilities with his nearly realistic image of the clear box Apple store on Fifth Avenue near Central Park.

I’m still going—and this is a typical issue. There’s an instructional piece by American art teacher about color harmonies, followed by another long instructional piece about getting colors right (not easy because some colors are native and some are affected by light and nearby objects, and by the way the eye perceives contrast). And then, another meaty instructional feature, again dealing with a fairly sophisticated topic in an elevated way: it’s all about shadows, light and reflection. The consideration of these tricky issues as a single idea makes the article work, but it goes further, allowing for a sidebar about color temperature and the nuances of semi-transparent surfaces. Finally, there’s yet another instructional piece on the very difficult challenges associated with all prima watercolour portraiture (that is, capturing the human face—here, a young child) created by dabbing color onto wet paper which is notoriously impossible to control without extreme practice and polished technique.

So there! I just wrote hundreds of words about a magazine. I don’t think I’ve done that before. In fact, I’m so taken with what I’ve been browsing for the past hour, I’m going to order some back issues, direct from Europe.

To close, something more from Stephen Scott Young, from his website.

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Creepy Tale in an Lovely Setting

In 1905, Grace Brown drowned in Big Moose Lake. In 2005, the Metropolitan Opera debuted an opera about what happened to her. This past weekend, just about 100 miles from the tragedy, I watched the story come back to life, at my leisure, on the shores of nearby Lake Otsego. In fact, the whole sad affair took place in Cortland (75 miles away) and Utica (40 miles away). To this day, nobody is completely sure what happened to Grace Brown, but her story is as captivating today as it was when her love letters to Chester Gillette were revealed in connection with his 1906 trial. Did Chester Gillette lure his pregnant fiancé up to the Big Moose Lake to kill her? Probably. Did he swat her with an oar and send her to the depths; or did he lose faith in his plan at the final moment and lose his wife-to-be in an unfortunate accident? Whatever happened, it was kind of cool and kind of creepy to sit through a retelling of the story not far from where the real thing captivated newspaper readers a century (or so) ago.

You may recall that journalist-novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a very fat novel called “An American Tragedy” about this unfortunate turn of events. Chester was hired by his uncle to supervise a skirt factory in Cortland, NY; got one of the worker girls pregnant and promised to marry her; captured the attention and the heart of a wealthy and pretty socialite; got himself all confused; and figured out that the best way to solve the problem was to end Grace’s life.

i-ftZBWGQ-LThe next character in what turned out to a fascinating Saturday night at the Glimmerglass Festival just north of Cooperstown NY is Tobias Picker. If you don’t know the name, you should. “An American Tragedy” is his fourth opera (and one of several he has written with Gene Scheer’s libretto—you may know Scheer from 1998’s “American Anthem”). Picker’s other operas include “Emmeline,” which is excellent and available on CD, originally a Judith (“Looking for Mr. Goodbar”) novel; “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (same Roald Dahl story that gave us the animated film); and “Dolores Claiborne”) based upon the Stephen King novel. Which is to say: Tobias Picker is writing contemporary American operas about American stories (not many people are doing this, so it’s well worth noting).

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Two wonderful women—what’s a guy to do? Keep the one with the money, and kill off the other. His downfall: he kept the working girl’s love letters.

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As for this particular performance, a good solid brava! A solid cast of about fifty performers benefitted from very articulate direction (and especially good lighting design). The production was lifted by several nice turns by Vanessa Isiguen as the most unfortunate (and richly voiced) Roberta Alden (the Grace character, renamed, and shown in the blue frock, above), a fetching Cynthia Cook as the socialite who owns the bad guy’s heart (the blonde, appropriately placed above our Grace), and an impressive final act performance by the bad guy’s God-fearing, God-loving mother, Elvira, by Patricia Schuman. I should note that Glimmerglass is well-known for a superior Young Artists program, and many of the performers in this production are among this year’s class. BTW: Lots more photos of the performance here.

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

I believe Glimmerglass is one of my favorite places to enjoy opera in the United States. The opera house (built in 1987 but still looking new) is about eight miles (and another world) north of baseball-crazy Cooperstown: peaceful, easy, civilized. The Alice Busch Opera Theater is handsome and easily navigated, a tremendous relief for the seniors who may find other opera halls far less sensibly designed. The acoustics are wonderful, the seats are comfortable,  and the dedicated musicians, performers, and staging staff do a great deal with a budget that would be a fraction of some big city companies. When the weather is hot, the exterior walls open up to cool the place down during intermission (how great it that?!).

Every summer, the  Glimmerglass Festival produces three operas and one musical. This year, I missed “Carousel” (the musical), almost managed “Madame Butterfly,” and “Ariadne in Naxos.” Next year—I vow to make plans early—the bill will be “The Magic Flute,” “Macbeth,” “Candide,” and the far more obscure, “Cato in Utica” (by Vivaldi). And I learned a very important lesson: if you are planning to go to Glimmerglass, do not assume that it’s easy to arrange for a hotel room (unless you are working well ahead of the desired date). Tickets for next year are available now—and presumably, you can arrange for a room long before next season begins.

And in case you’re curious, the name Glimmerglass comes from a James Fennimore Cooper novel involving Lake Otsego. Cooper’s father founded the town that bears the family name. It’s a beautiful place, as lush and green and perfect as a summer’s day. I’m sure Grace was thinking the same thing when she and her husband-to-be floated out on July 11, 1906. Creepy enough that I almost drove up to Big Moose Lake to see what there was to see. But I thought better of it, and spent just a bit more time hanging around Lake Otsego, probably all for the best.

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