A Fresh Look at Classical Music

When I write “classical music,” you probably think Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, or maybe Chopin, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky. Bach died in 1750, Mozart in 1791, Beethoven in 1827, Chopin in 1849, Brahms in 1893, and Tchaikovsky in 1897. If you think in more modern terms, there’s Igor Stravinsky (d. 1971), and two musical buddies, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (both d. 1990). Will we ever see another famous classical composer? Or is all of this old news, overtaken by the expense of orchestras, the greying (whiting?) of the audience, the popularity of crossover music or orchestras playing Star Wars in concert, or the popularity of song-based (as opposed to album-based) streaming services?9780520283152

Yes. But. Classical music has been dying for centuries. If you’re seeking the new Beethoven, you’re on the wrong path. If you’re wondering how new ideas and new technologies have energized and blurred the definition of classical music, I’ve got a book for you. It was recommended by Alex Ross, whose own book, The Rest Is Noise, is probably the best book about 20th century music. Tim Rutherford-Johnson is a journalist, formerly the contemporary music editor at both Grove Music Online and The Oxford Dictionary of Music, so his background is solid.Tim begins After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 before the breaking of the 21st century, and manages to place music in the micro-context of the times: this is a history book filled with very recent history, covering just short of thirty years.

Some of the contemporary composers’ names may be familiar. John Adams writes instrumental music and operas; you may be familiar with Shaker Loops, or Nixon in China. John Luther Adams has become quite famous for Become Ocean. (I am curious about his music, and will likely devote a full article to his work next year.) Thomas Adès is a British composer who has become quite popular. John Corigliano is both a popular conductor and a composer, perhaps best known for his post-2001 tribute, Of Rage and Remembrance. Philip Glass and Steve Reich pioneered a new approach to classical music in the second half of the 20th century. Reich’s experimentation with combinations of sounds and music influenced lots of 21st century musicians (his influence is so widespread, and so much a part of contemporary culture, many modern musicians don’t quite realize that their music ties back to his work). These legendary 20th century  innovators are roughly the same age–an astonishing 81/82 years old.

Henryk Gòrecki passed in 2010, but his Symphony 3, recorded by David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta, with vocals by Dawn Upshaw, has been a tremendous commercial success. Its appeal overlaps the work of Arvo Pärt, also in his eighties, whose contemplative recordings with ECM New Series, and other labels, resulted in the Vice article, “How a 78-Year-Old Estonian Composer Became the Hottest Thing in Music.” This past weekend, The New York Times published a somewhat similar article about György Kurtág from Romania, who is now 92. He finally finished his first opera, based upon the Samuel Beckett play, Endgame.

Add John Tavener (d. 2013) to the list, too.

Obvious question: are all of the new classical composers dead, or in their 80s or 90s? Nah, they’re just the ones who have enjoyed the last gasps of the recorded compact disc format. And there isn’t an easy way to promote a streaming thing, so you’re going to need to look beyond records to learn about the next-gen classical music. Or read the good advice provided by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. For example…

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

There’s the Kronos Quartet, a popular group that has long experimented with modern classical compositions, often in combination with music from many different parts of the world. In 2015, they released One Earth, One People, One Love: Kronos Plays Terry Riley (another contemporary classical composer from the 20th century), but their catalog includes work with or by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (Azerbaijan), Sigur Rós (Iceland), Osvaldo Golijov (Argentina), Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (Denmark), Witold Lutoslawski (Poland), the familiar Henryk Gòrecki (Poland–they play on several of his most popular recordings), and also Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Thelonius Monk.

There’s Mark Turnage, who wrote a provocative, but accessible, opera called Anna Nicole (Smith–a former Playboy model “equally notorious for her surgically enhanced body and her marriage to a a billionaire sixty-three years her senior”). According to Tim, Turnage is “a brash yet accessible talent.” It debuted at London’s Covent Garden with Led Zepellin’s John Paul Jones in the band.

We are just beginning Tim’s tour. As music becomes less place-based, in part due to technology and in part due to a desire to perform in new ways, he considers The Silk Road Ensemble’s concerts which “blend Western and non-Western, art and vernacular” as the musicians play traditional (native) and nontraditional instruments– it is “built on the principles of cultural exchange, learning and understanding… more like a jazz group than an orchestra).

Messing with the expected is central to new ways of thinking about music. For example,, “(Brian) Ferneyhough’s more recent music disrupts the pathways of memory, overloading, thwarting, or redirecting them. Incipits [1996], for violin and small ensemble, for example, is composed of several separate “beginnings,” which draw the listener into a set of expectations they must keep having to drop and reboot [a musical parallel to Italo Calvino’s novel, If one a winter’s night a traveler). Memory here is activated, only to wiped clean.”

I found the two sections about “Loss” and “Recovery” especially interesting. Loss introduces the work of John Luther Adams in connection with “evocations of the landscape, the English and Latin names of birds and plants, poems in two Native American languages…Adams has sought to render aspects of the Alaskan wildness, drawing attention to specific places and their need for protection.” (The work is a “quasi-opera” called Earth and the Great Weather.) In Recovery, he describes the work of Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh which “identifies a space between past and present, traditional and contemporary, and Asian and Western…Because it exists in gaps–deliberately not fixed to anything, the music of Ali-Zadeh, Kanchelli, and other composers of the former Soviet Union proved able to slip between stylistic boundaries…”

Of course, I could go on, but my curiosity is now well ahead of my listening experience. I need to catch up, to slide away from emails and websites so I can spend more time attending to the music that is being made all around me. This is made somewhat more complicated by my current (and growing) interest in music that precedes Bach, Beethoven and the rest–as I begin an exploration of a remarkable early music group from England called The Sixteen, whose CDs should arrive any day now.

As I look forward, I also look back. Inevitably, I stumble into strong connections between the present, the future and the deep past. That’s what I love about music discovery.

And it is endless.

Advertisements

Most Americans Won’t Vote Next Week–But You Can Change That!

In theory, Americans know a lot about how we elect our leaders. In practice, we may not. Returning to basics, here’s a quick rundown on what we need to know for Tuesday.

I’m hoping you will forward this information to every American who may or may not vote in next week’s election:

  • We are voting for every seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (435 seats).
  • We are voting for 1 in 3 seats in the U.S. Senate (35 of 100 seats).
  • We are voting for 2 in 3 state governors (36 of 50 governors).

Clearly, this is not a minor election. At best, about half of Americans will vote, and half will not. However, voters are not equally distributed among age groups (these numbers are based upon the actual results of the most recent mid-term election, in 2014):

  • 1 in 2 voters over age 60+ did not vote
  • 2 in 3 voters age 30-44 did not vote
  • 5 in 6 voters age 18-29 did not vote

If you care deeply about the future of the United States, your job is straightforward and simple.

Pass this blog post along to everyone you know, and ask them to please vote in this election. This goes double for people who are in the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s, triple for those in their 30s and 40s–but the most important thing you can do is to motivate people under 30 years to set the course of the nation for the next 2 years or more.

Please share.

 

Source of voting info: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/08/01/are-young-voters-going-to-sway-the-midterms-new-data-show-thats-not-very-likely/?utm_term=.62c73e888ecf

Begin with a Single Step

“Hiking in the tropics is not everyone’s cup of mango juice. Here, humidity, sweat, jungles, mud, mosquitoes, and the possibility of meeting creatures ranging from jaguars to the venomous fer-de-lance viper are all part of the fun of attempting to cross Panama from its border with Colombia to its border with Costa Rica.” – TransPanama Trail, Panama

“Wallabies hop through the tall grass. A burrawong grasps a backpack zipper in his beak and starts to undo it. A snake slithers by: there’s a 100 percent chance it’s venomous.” — Overland Track, Australia

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that recreational mountain hiking was born in the Alps. Once the shroud of medieval superstition was lifted, the mountains exerted an almost magical pull on scientists and adventurers alike…. Some of the routes and passes have been used as corridors of transportation since the Middle ages, and even before, when they allowed people from one valley to cross over into the next.” — The Haute Route, France and Switzerland

“It is a network of trails, a funnel of routes that leads to the Cathedral…where a daily mass announces and celebrates the pilgrims who flow in, sometimes at a rate of thousands a day.” — Camino de Santiago de Compostela, Spain

“The view from Mackinnon Pass is certainly up there in ‘the finest walk in the world’ category. If, that is, you get a chance to see the snow-covered peaks and the hovering clouds that create their patchwork of light and shadow…Waist-high water flooding the trail and waterfalls blowing sideways may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the sheer power of the experience eclipses so many others. It’s the kind of adventure that sticks with you, years later, when you are spinning stories and mining memories. — Milford Track, New Zealand

Maybe it’s possible to everywhere you want to go in a single lifetime. Certainly, there is no shortage of great walks, pleasant strolls, and world-class hikes at our disposal. Getting there costs money, and it’s not as if you can limit your adventure to a day (often a week, or a month, is insufficient), but most of the great hikes of the world are free. Some require reservations because the routes can become overloaded, but only during peak season, which, of course, varies depending upon where you are in the world.

Karen Berger is one of the lucky people–she has hiked nearly 20,000 miles “including thru-hikes of America’s triple crown (Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide). And now, I think of myself as one of the lucky people, too (armchair division) because I’ve studied the pictures and read her inviting prose in a terrific not-quite-coffee-table book published with the American Hiking Society. It’s called Great Hiking Trails of the World–and I love the sub-title: “80 Trails, 75,000 Miles, 38 Countries, 6 Continents.”

More than two dozen of the hikes are in the United States (which is a bit disappointing because I would have liked to see more in South America, Africa, and Asia). There are nine in England, Scotland and Wales, and someday, I hope to walk at least a few of them. The dream is the walk from northern to southern Europe, just because the transverse looks kind of cool, but the most interesting candidate is probably the Pyrenees High Route, one of the few wilderness courses in Europe.

As much as I enjoyed reading what Karen wrote, it’s the photographs that draw me in. The book is about the size of a vinyl record album cover, and most of the images are full-page (or two-page spreads), so the flowery valley and the distant mountains and the thick clouds on Sweden’s Kungsleden are full of life, and the cliffs of the Wales Coast Path are very much as I remembered them in real life. That path will soon be connected with the England Coastal Path, and together they’ll keep a hiker busy for 3,670 miles. If you’re hiking 2 miles per hour, that’s 1,835 hours–basically, a full year’s walk should you decide to devote a year of your life to nothing but hiking. Most people are day hikers, perhaps devoting a few days or as much as a week to a really good walk. (In case you’re curious, The Appalachian Trail publishes historical stats on its website–long hikes are gaining popularity).

Overall, this is a wonderful book about adventure–but it’s accessible, enjoyable and easily appreciated by anyone who dreams of where they might go someday. For that reason, I’ll nominate Great Hiking Trails of the World as one of the best ideas for a holiday gift this year. Second best gift: take somebody on a really long, spectacular hike. Maybe next year.

Behold the Bookstore

“The store was often empty for a couple of hours at a time, and then, when somebody did come in, it would be to ask about a book remembered from the Sunday-school library, or a grandmother’s bookcase, or left behind twenty years ago in a foreign hotel. The title was usually forgotten, but the person would tell me the story….Then, they would leave without a glance at the riches around them….A few people did explain in gratitude, said what a glorious addition to the town. They would browse for a half an hour, an hour, before spending seventy-five cents.”

The words were written by Alice Munro and published in a novella called The Albanian Virgin” by the New Yorker magazine in 1994. They came to mind because Penelope Fitzgerald’s brief 1978 novel about an unwanted bookshop, The Bookshop, was recently released in as a film starring Emily Mortimer (familiar to US audiences from her role in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom series).

Roaming around Manhattan yesterday, and wandering into a wonderful neighborhood shop called The Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side. It was a pleasant place to spend an hour, and spend money on two books (one about architecture for me, one about birds as a gift). Perhaps pleasant is the wrong word. It was an irresistible place to spend an hour because the books were fetchingly arranged to capture my imagination.

The role of the contemporary bookstore isn’t very different from its role a century ago. It’s a fine place to explore ideas and stories, to examine the cover art and the typography, to physically handle the books and enjoy their new-ness. Certainly, Amazon has changed the plumbing, but the relationship between book and consumer, and book and reader, would be familiar to Dickens, or for that matter, Mao (who once was a bookseller).

I know that because of Jorge Carrión, who published a book last year called Bookshops: A Reader’s History, a product best enjoyed when and if purchased from a local bookseller. It’s fun to travel the world with Carrión, and to travel through history, too. There is no true beginning to the journey, but the author contemplates the importance of the great library at Alexandria as a kind of starting place for available collections of printed works. He’s unsure whether Librarie Kauffmann in Athens is still in business, but he tells the story anyway: it grew from a book stall selling second-hand goods, then became the center of thought, literacy and enlightenment for French speaking families, scholars, and intellectuals in Athens in the 20th century. He describes it as “one of those bookshops to get a stamp on your imaginary bookshop passport.”

William Thackery probably shopped at 1 Trinity Street in Cambridge, a site that has sold books for about 600 years, but necessarily to the public. In Krakow, there’s Matras, which used to be called Gebether and Wolf, and it dates back to the 1610, though not with an entirely continuous history. P&G Wells is probably the oldest bookstore in England–this Winchester shop can show you receipts dating back to 1729. Click on the picture to visit their modern website.

History is well-captured in this September 26, 1786 bit from Goethe, written in his journal published as Italian Journey:

“I had entered a bookshop which, in Italy, is a peculiar place. The books are all in stitched covers, and at any time of the day, you can find good company int he shop. Everyone who is in any way connected with literature–secular clergy, nobility, artists–drop in. You ask for a book, browse in it, or take part in a conversation as the occasional arises. There were about a half dozen people there when I entered, and when I asked for the work of Palladio, they all focused their attention on me. While the proprietor was looking for the book, they spoke highly of it and gave me all kinds of information about the original edition and the reprint. They were all acquainted with the work, and with the merits of the author.”

What fun–it’s easy to imagine finding myself in the very same situation.

There is now an assortment of books about bookstores on my home shelves. One illustrates favorite bookstore facades in pen-and-ink and watercolor. Another describes favorite booksellers with stories about the stores and the people who inhabit them. I haven’t started to list or photograph bookstores that happen along the way as I travel, but Aqua Alta in Venice would certainly deserve a mention because you can climb a pile of books for a look at the adjacent canal. Scrivener’s in Derbyshire is probably worth a trip to England just to browse a few tens of thousands of volumes, but that should probably be scheduled to coincide with a day or a week in Hay-en-Wye, in Wales, which is an entire town devoted to bookshops and things literary. It’s now one of several book towns around the world. And yes, there is a book about these book towns–I very nearly bought it yesterday at The Corner Bookstore–and for course it’s called Book Towns. Someday, because I am now reading far too many books and articles about books and the places where you can bu them–I will visit Argentina. That’s because Jorge Carrión, and others, have told me about a spectacular old movie theater that is now a bookstore called Ateneo. Between now and my visit, I will need to learn to read Spanish, but that won’t stop me from browsing.

A Founding Father, Less Famous

If his name is mentioned in a history book, he’s often overshadowed by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and perhaps even John Jay. Certainly, his image would be much more clear if he was the subject of a Broadway musical, and indeed, an enterprising composer and storytelling would find a great deal of strong raw material in Without Precedent, an extraordinarily compelling biography of Chief Justice Joh Marshall written with clarity and impact by a University of California law professor, John Richard Paul.

9780525533276He wasn’t a rich man, and he wasn’t a well-educated man. “Marshall grew up in a two-room log cabin shared with fourteen siblings on the hardscrabble frontier of Virginia. His only formal education consisted of one year of grammar school and six weeks of law school.” And yet–this is the part that would make a terrific Broadway musical, or perhaps even an opera–Marshall becomes a military officer, influential attorney of local and then national renown, a diplomat to France, a congressman, U.S. Secretary of State, the biographer of George Washington, and eventually, the first really effective chief justice of the new United States of America (John Jay was the first, but the high court was just beginning to take shape; he was followed by one short-termer whose nomination went unapproved, and another, who was also operating in the early days of our judicial system).

As Chief Justice, Marshall kept his justices close (they all lived together), and ran a most agreeable, remarkably non-contentious court through friendship and a model of positive social interaction.  This congenial group firmly established the Supreme Court as the arbiter of laws in the young nation, a way of working that continues today.”From 1801 to 1835, the Court issued more than one thousand decisions–nearly all unanimous–and about half that number were written by Marshall. No other chief justice comes close to that record, and no Supreme Court before or since has issued even a majority of its decisions unanimously. Marshall was not President John Adams’ first choice for the job.

The tale begins in the dark days of the American Revolution, when our forces were hopelessly untrained, unfed and unable to perform as the fighting force necessary to gain independence. Marshall was twenty one years old, and remarkably upbeat given the pathetic circumstances. That’s what caught the eye of the new military leader from Prussia, Baron von Steuben, and soon after, Lafayette, Washington and Hamilton, too. He already knew Jefferson, a family relation (from the wealthy side of the family), who makes his first appearance in the Marshall story while ineffectively running Virginia as its governor (Jefferson does not do well in this book; the author is critical of his distracted approach to public service).

Marshall becomes a small town lawyer–at the time, Richmond Town (now Richmond) had recently become the state capital, but it was an exceedingly small place. He marries well, and becomes a member of the House of Delegates, a Virginia legislative body. He is the model social networker, joining every significant organization, building his reputation by inviting people to his home (which doubled as his law office) for relaxed dinners. He lived in that house for a long time–decades, in fact–in part because his beloved wife Polly struggled with health issues for much of her adult life.

There is so much story to tell, and this essay can do little more than introduce the man, the book and the author with the strongest possible encouragement to read up on John Marshall. I’ve read a lot of books about American history, founding fathers, and the early nation to identify when a new volume is unique and valuable. This one wins on both counts because the material is so central to the development of the nation and our approach to governance, and because the stories told are not the same stories that appear in dozens of other books about the founders. Instead, this seems to be fresh, or, at least, generally unfamiliar or, at least, new to me. It’s helpful that the biographer’s keen interest in providing a clear picture of Justice Marshall is equal to my own curiosity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fun Begins in York

When times were rotten, New York City was nicknamed “Fun City”–a dark commentary on the nightmare of garbage strikes, teacher walkouts, and a financial meltdown. Even in its most hopeless years, New York’s challenges pale in comparison with York, a far smaller and far older place that provided Fun City with its formal name.

The fun begins in York about 10,000 years ago. The Romans showed up about 2,000 years ago–certainly by 71 AD–and you can walk the Roman wall that once guarded the city today. It’s a very pleasant walk on a summer’s day, complete with engaging city views, small cafes, and pretty places to take selfies (admittedly, only parts are original; some are newer, circa 1200 or so, and others, newer still circa 1800-1900). By 875 AD, York was a Viking stronghold–a very large cache of Viking goodies from as far off as Afghanistan can now be found in the British Museum, the result of a York excavation for a new shopping area. Here, we find the roots of York’s current name–the Vikings called their kingdom Jorvik, since corrupted to provide both York and New York their Danish-rooted names.

After the Vikings, York weathered a less distinguished period. One of the worst episodes: the burning of Jews supposedly under government protection in the 1100s–an old castle is still on the site. By 1300, York was both an important government and trading center for England, and remained so until the 1500s. You can walk the streets and see medieval buildings–not unlike walking the world of Harry Potter (celebrated by several souvenir shops).

All of this (except Potter, of course) took place well before anybody even considered the idea of New Amsterdam (founded 1625), or New York (renamed 1664). To celebrate the old days, I visited York with the sole expectation of attending a really excellent Early Music Festival, now held annually each July.

This year’s featured players included The Sixteen (arguably the finest early music vocal group in the world today), and the majestic Gallicantus (a vocal group) in concert with the Rose Consort of Viols (an instrumental group). The latter two performed in an old parish church called St Michael le Belfrey Church (circa 1525) with marvelous acoustics and an equally appealing visual character. The music of Gallicantus celebrated Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and William Lawes (1602-1643), but I was most taken by a contemporary work in the old style by Judith Bingham (b. 1952) called “A Requiem for Mr. William Lawes.” Like so much early music (the term more or less refers to music preceding Bach, Vivaldi, etc.), this is vocal music that reaches directly into the soul, with astonishing countertenors (here David Allsopp and Mark Chambers) singing music that would later become the job of women. The sheer joy of listening to these wonderful musicians would have been sufficient, but the addition of a viol consort–not violins, not violas, as the musicians explained in a private interview, but viols that come up through a different strand of music history and were reproduced from paintings and other scant visual history).

Equally impressive: a Saturday afternoon concert called Revolting Women! featuring music composed by what was likely a small population of female composers from the era. The best was composed by a woman now recalled only by her pseudonym, Mrs Philharmonica, presumably from about 1715. Other names, bound to be unfamiliar, but worth researching, include Isabella Leonarda (1665-1729) and Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729). Their work was much enriched by the formidable professor, historian and superior violinist, Lucy Russell, whose name may be familiar from her work with the extraordinary Fitzwilliam String Quarter (which is known for more traditional classical repertoire).

Much as I adore good concerts in old churches, a warm summer day in York offers far too much fun to remain indoors for long. I was disappointed because my schedule would not allow me to attend Richard III at, of all things, a 1000-seat pop-up Shakespeare Rose Theater in the center of town (complete with a shopping and food arcade contemporary to the era). I also had limited time to fully explore Bloom!, a flower festival staged at what seemed to be a hundred places around town. Good used bookstores captured my attention, along with long walks along the river, and the inevitable Betty’s, a 1919 tea shop with wonderful food and spectacular pastries to enjoy along with fine tea service. (In fact, I escaped to nearby Harrogate, where I enjoyed both a lunch at Betty’s and also a walk around the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) Harlow Carr gardens, an easy local train ride from classic York train station). Given more time, I would have explored the interior of York Minster, a large and delightfully old cathedral as well–but the lines were long, the schedule a bit restrictive for my 48-hour visit. Including the nearby countryside (moors, Jane Austen, etc.), I would certainly allow at least 72 hours to explore the area, and you’d likely find plenty to do for even four or five days in the York and Yorkshire area (mostly easily reached by train, certainly easily reached by car or even day bus tours).

What have I missed? The quiet pub where the World Cup semi-final victory for England was celebrated in a most dignified manner. The streets outside where everyone’s cheeks (probably both kinds) were painted with tiny English soccer flags, where people sang, loudly with with tremendous dancing exuberance, about how the Cup was “coming home.” Nearly every pub in town was pounding with energy and music–including, inexplicably, “Take Me Home Country Roads” and other boisterous (?) John Denver tunes to which every Brit seemed to know every word; the medley ended with the British (?) classic, “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” All great fun!

Food: very nice classy seafood to be found in Loch Fyne, which is not far from the old church headquarters of National Centre for Early Music (where many concerts are staged throughout the year). Just outside the city walls and down a few blocks, I stayed at the Mount Royal, a good old-style British hotel, perhaps more like an expanded inn, with a very nice outdoor garden and very comfortable rooms with ample space to stretch out. Good respite, very accommodating staff, and lovely to be able to take breakfast (and other meals) outside at leisure before re-entering, well, what turned out to be fun city in the truest sense of the words.

Do take the time to visit York. It’s just a few hours from London. It’s an easy train ride from Manchester, Liverpool and other cities in England, all worth visiting. And the next time I manage a visit, I want to wander the countryside (note to self: allow lots more time to explore this part of the world because it is beautiful, richly historic, and crazy fun).

 

 

The Tiger, The Hedgehog, and The Grand Decoration

The tiger is George’s Clemenceau, great friend of hedgehog Claude Monet, who turns out to be the last of the impressionists. The story picks up long after Monet had moved to his lovely garden home in Giverny, about halfway upriver from Paris on the way to Rouen. And may recall Rouen because that’s home to the ancient cathedral that Monet painted more than thirty times under all sorts of light. Monet was that kind of artist—obsessive, meticulous, perfectly happy to spend endless hours interpreting the London fog or wheat stacks (similar to hay stracks) not far from his home in the country. When author Ross King picks up Monet’s story, the artist is less enthusiastic about travel, but eager to serve and take healthy part in a lavish lunch before touring the beautiful Giverny garden, visiting the pond and lily pads, or showing off his latest work, most often very large paintings. By now, Monet is far more active than many men his age, still active enough to build a new studio adjacent to the house and fill it with new paintings. Cataracts and other health problems make seeing, and therefore painting with the specific colors he requires, a terrifying challenge. And there is a Great War on the horizon, so his life’s work may be destroyed by the German forces already notorious for precisely this sort of mayhem.

He is also an extraordinarily difficult, insecure, proud man who feels that he must do more for France, provided that doing more is possible on his own exacting terms.

Caught in the middle of what always seems to be a dramatic mess is his faithful friend George’s Clemenceau, who happens to be the nation’s top politician, the man who runs France’s war effort, and is, for much of the book, the only person in the world who can control (and at times, even speak to) the artist.

And so begins the tale of Monet’s oversized, overwrought, absolutely spectacular series of giant water lily paintings—and the custom-redesigned building, The Orangerie, their central Paris home. It is a struggle to the death… the extreme uncertainty that amonet’s temperament, and eyesight, would remain in good working order until the grand decoration, as he called the collective works, were complete.

It’s easy to marvel at Monet’s paintings, but the difficulty he endured in bringing these paintings to life, protecting his work and his artistic soul, and stubbornly insisting that the work be displayed in a very particular way is awesome in the true sense of the word. Is this the craziness and crankiness of an older man who knows the end is near? It would be difficult to argue against that assessment. But here we are, more than a century later, visiting Paris and enjoying the artist’s work in precisely the way he wished, and it’s not easy to claim that his approach was wrong. At the time, sure he was difficult. In the long term, perhaps he was right. And there’s a lesson in there somewhere, not for all, but certainly for some creative professionals. some of the time. Perhaps stubbornness is under-rated.

Author Ross King is both experienced and skillful in recounting the stories of great artists in their prime. One of his best titles is Brunelleschi’s Dome, another in the “is he a madman, or is he a genius?” genre that he handles so well. The best-selling Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is a story that has been told in motion picture form–The Agony and the Ecstacy–but his treatment of the material is especially vivid. High marks to Leonardo and The Last Supper, too.

(You should certainly spend time at The Orangerie’s website. It includes a wonderful history, and a virtual tour so you can see all of the great decoration paintings.)

 

 

 

Give the Gift of Power (and Light)

Sure, you could buy friends and family member an Amazon gift card, or a pair of gloves, but it’s fun to think beyond the obvious. Here’s a fresh idea:

Get a Yeti

Sure, Yeti has done an amazing job with their line of pricy coolers that now seem to be available in a great many retail stores. They’re terrific for camping trips, tailgating, and long car trips. However, that’s not the Yeti I mean. I suppose it might be interesting to give someone an abominable snowman, which is the origin of the term Yeti. What I mean is the kind of Yeti that’s made by Goal Zero, a company that specializes in portable power.

The front panel looks a bit complicated, but that’s because the Yeti does a lot of different things. Basically, you’re looking at a big battery that can power all sorts of things. Model 1000, which costs about $1,300, is new for this season. You charge the battery by either plugging it into an AC outlet (18 hours for a full charge), or attaching a set of solar panels, also made by Goal Zero, available separately (in a variety of sizes and capacities). When you need the power, you discharge the battery in a number of different ways: you can recharge a laptop computer more than fifteen times, or a mid-sized LCD television about a dozen times, or your smart phone more than fifty times, or any combination. On this particular model, there are two AC outlets for output, five USB slots, and a 12-volt (car charger), and more. The Yeti 1000 weighs about 40 pounds.

You can spend less money for a lighter, simpler Yeti: the 12-pound Model 150 costs about $200, and you can use it charge a laptop once or twice, or a smart phone about ten times. There is one AC output and there are two USB outlets. There are seven different models; if you are considering a purchase, aim higher than your current needs.

Go Smaller

When I traveled this summer, I insisted upon reliable portable power for my flashlight, tablet and smart phone, but I wasn’t about to carry a Yeti. Fortunately, Goal Zero offers a nifty small battery and charger that makes an ideal gift. No AC power, but the USB system is very well designed. I especially like the Venture 70 Recharger because it will charge a tablet once or twice, or a phone a half dozen times. And, it comes with a built-in (very bright) flashlight. The USB cables frame the device and never get lost. You can charge the device via an AC/USB combination overnight. The Venture 70 costs $150, and you can add a Nomad 20 portable Solar Panel for another $200. The combination allows you to operate, and recharge, just about anywhere. A smaller version, the $99 Venture 30, can be purchased as part of a pre-packaged kit.

For the car

I’ve got my eyes on a combination flashlight, solar panel and floodlight called the Goal Zero Torch 250. I feel more secure because the light can be lit by hand crank, an increasingly popular option for flashlights used in vehicles (crank it for a minute and get two minutes of light). I like the built-in solar panel: it’s modest, and it requires 24 hours of sunlight to fully charge. This clever, well-built device is priced right at $80.

Get a Flashlight

If you haven’t shopped for a flashlight in a while, you may be surprised. I was. Today’s flashlights are high-tech, high power devices that cost $100 or more–and provide a remarkable amount of light. I’ve had good luck with LEDLenser, a German company now controlled by Oregon-based Leatherman, which makes pocket multi-tools. I especially like the model P7-2, which costs $70. It operates on three AAA batteries, and if you press the special button, it will provide 320 lumens–a great deal of light if you are, for example, walking a dog at night. It’s small enough to fit into your hand, or into a purse (or a man bag). I tried some of LEDLenser’s lesser lights because they’re smaller, lighter and less expensive, but I’ve come back around to the P7.2. There are options for flashlights that operate with button batteries, and also flashlights that can be recharged via USB. Lots of options here.

LEDLenser competes in a crowded field, but I like their products and I prefer shopping on their website. Nitecore and Fenix are among the quality competitors. And if you would like to do some serious research about innovative flashlights and features, here’s the place to go.

Painting Outdoors

Technically, the correct term is “en plein air,” which means, more or less, “in the open air” when translated into English from the original French. For the experienced artist, plein air painting means spending the day outside, regardless of the weather, bugs, access to bathrooms, lugging heavy or messy gear, trying to concentrate while passers-by stop to tell you all about how their great niece used to be able to draw but met this guy and things didn’t work out but she’s still a really good artist even though she doesn’t draw as often as she used to and then wonders whether the girl drew, painted, or did something else entirely.

I love to paint outdoors. In fact, I strongly prefer painting outside to painting indoors, even though my easel and other gear is heavy (I paint with pastels, which weigh a lot when you carry too many of them, as I do), but I’ve never been quite sure whether I’m doing things properly. I don’t want to bother other artists who are, clearly, more experienced and more talented than I will ever be. So I muddle along.

Fortunately, the former editor of Plein Air magazine, who was, for many years, the editor of American Artist magazine, has written a very helpful (and inspirational) book entitled The Art of Plein Air Painting: An Essential Guide to the Materials, Concepts and Techniques for Painting Outdoors. His name is M. Stephen Doherty, and he is doing a wonderful job as the print version of a trusted teacher.

Willingness to paint outdoors requires more than straightforward skills. It requires a real desire to be part of the place that you’re painting. It’s a mindset, an attitude, a combination of willingness to be flexible and a desire to capture the light and sensibility that you cannot quite find by referring to a photograph. That’s why the book begins not with a discussion of portable easels (that comes later), but with an insightful illustrated essay posing as Chapter 1: “Why Paint Outdoors?” He focuses on the mental game and also shows himself in the game, on the street, easel set up just beside a construction site so he can get just the right view, messy paint-covered sweatshirt and slight scowl and all. He ponders how much of the work needs to be done outdoors–if you finish up indoors, which is often tempting if the weather or other conditions aren’t ideal–does a plein air painting retain its plein air status if it’s only 20 or 30 percent painted outdoors? How about 70 or 80 percent? No matter. If you do any of the work outdoors, Doherty says it counts.

The book’s emphasis is on oil painting–and that makes sense because most people who paint outside tend to work in oils. But he does take the time to address the needs of those who work in watercolor (which is difficult inside and even more difficult in the field), pastels, acrylics, and so on.

As with most books of this sort, there are profiles of artists that the author admires, and lessons to be learned from each of them. There are also good large photographs of many types of plein air paintings, useful both for inspiration and also for studying technique. I like to see a good history chapter, too, in part because it’s fun to consider myself part of a longer tradition that once included John Constable, and Jean-Baptiste Corot, and best of all, painters who were part of the majestic Hudson River School.

There are bits about drawing outdoors–I wish there was a lot more of that. There is plenty of good guidance about choosing locations, finding the best spot, knowing your physical limits, simplifying what you see so you don’t get lost in details. I wish there was more about patience–after a few hours of painting outdoors, the fatigue is always a factor, and I never know quite when to give it up for the day.

Most of all, though, there are pictures. Lots of pictures that were painted outside. Remember: Doherty was a long-time editor of one of the world’s finest magazines about art. He knows how to choose images, and that’s probably the book’s greatest strength. It is a joy to meander through the pages, browse, stop for deeper study, then move on to well-written commentary about most topics that plein air artists rarely see in book form.

Nice job!

Joseph McGurl is one of many superb artists included in The Art of Plein Air Painting. Click on the image to see more of McGurl’s work.

 

 

The Other Sam (The Record Man)

For many years, the very best place on planet earth to shop for LPs (or, if you prefer, records), was Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada. As it happens, Yonge (pronounced “Young”) is one of the world’s longest streets, but that’s not why I visited as often as possible. There were two very large record stores on Yonge Street around Gould and Dundas Streets — A&A Records, and my multi-floor, multi-building favorite, the flagship store for what became a 140-store chain, Sam the Record Man. The stores are long gone. And that’s why I was so surprised to see an advertisement on the mobile phone provided by my hotel in Hong Kong–an advertisement that encouraged me to visit–who else?–Sam the Record Man in Hong Kong. My curiosity got the better of me, so I devoted an afternoon abroad to unravel the mystery.

I found Sam’s place in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, a few blocks from the very large and modern Times Square mall (which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with NYC’s Times Square). But this version of Sam’s was not a giant record store at all. It wasn’t even a storefront. It was located on the fifth floor of a nondescript old office building, and Sam is not Sam at all. His name is James Tang. And he is a very smart guy who cares a lot about recorded music. That’s why he opened what may be the world’s first record museum.

And no, I didn’t understand what that means, either. Briefly, here’s the theory. Just as the original version of, say, Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, or Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night are available for public inspection at museums, so too should be the original versions of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Carlos Kleiber’s recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies 5 and 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic (which many critics include on their top ten list of all time best). But these master tapes are not available to the general public–decades after they were created, they are locked away in the vaults of large corporations. Sam/James believes that’s the wrong thing to do. But that’s the just the beginning.

After some tea and conversation, he asked me if I’d like to listen to some music. I never say no to that type of offer. So we begin to listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and it sounds just wonderful. Better than any recording of the song I have ever heard, and not by a small margin. He explains that I am listening to a studio master tape. Voices are alive, instruments sound instinctively right, the mix holds each sound in its own distinctive space. In short, I feel as though I am in the studio with The Beatles.

He then asks me to listen to another rendition of the same recording. This time, I’m listening to a very clean vinyl copy, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as the first recording. We go through various renditions, one on reel-to-reel tape, another on cassette tape, and more. We keep returning to the master tape, and there is no question that these renditions sound very different from one another. Then, we try some classical music, some jazz, and other pieces. The effect is more and less pronounced, but the pattern is clear, and I am absolutely certain that the differences are profound. But why?

He offers what I believe to be a very good explanation. First, he explains why the tape recordings sound better than the records or CDs. James shows me the first of several charts.

From the start, James explains that the ratings are completely subjective, but the more I listen, the more I respect both his ability to appreciate sound quality and his ability to place a reasonable numerical rating to describe the experience. Pegging the master at 100 percent, the reel-to-reel version sounded excellent, but the master sounded better. I experienced something similar when listening to the ultra-high-end systems, powered by the best professional reel-to-reel recorders with second generation master tapes (the original are in a private vault) at VPI, maker of superior turntables. And, despite my misgivings, I had to agree that cassette tapes really did sound a lot better than the CDs (he rates them at 50-55% vs. 30%; I cannot rate my experiences with this level of precision, but the difference was profound).

Where does vinyl fit into the matrix? Yeah, there’s a problem with vinyl. You see, vinyl is not struck from a master tape. Instead, the master tape goes through several steps before a consumer LP becomes available.

The process begins with the master tape, but the metal stamper used to make the vinyl record is already second generation (“grandson” to the master tape), and the first pressing of the consumer record is the third generation, or great grandson. To James’s ears, you’re hearing less than half of the sound, and sound quality, that you would hear on the master tape. And that’s with a first pressing, under ideal conditions, listening to product from a record label that took the time and spent the money to get things right. Of course, most record companies don’t, or did not, lavish so much attention, which is why even the best used vinyl recordings from the golden age (say, 1960s and early 1970s before the oil crisis) don’t score much more than a 40 percent.

How about newer vinyl? You know, 180 gram special pressings worth $30 or $40 or more? To James’s thinking–and I keep hearing this from others I respect–you are better off buying a used version of the original record. Or, much better, tracking down a collectible first pressing from one of the labels that did lavish the necessary attention (say, Japan Toshiba’s Red Vinyl line from 1958-1974), and you may be very pleased with what you hear (on a very good two-channel stereo system).

James does sell the very highest quality collectibles in his shop, and for some people, that’s just plain heaven. For the rest of us, James initially sounds like he has taken an interesting theory a bit too far, but then, you listen. First you listen to the music, then you listen to James, then you listen to the music again and begin to realize that what he says makes a whole lot of sense. And then you realize that two or three hours of your time in Hong Kong isn’t nearly enough because he is so hospitable, so passionate, and so much the believer that you become one, too.

I have not stopped wondering whether, somehow, it would be possible to listen to the master tapes of the recordings I love. Sure, I’m happy with my growing collection of vinyl (typically used, typically in very good shape, typically $4 or so per disc, typically pressed in the UK or Germany under the good to very conditions), but James insists that there is more enjoyment on those master tapes, and I am fairly certain that he’s right.

The question, which is, for him, a quest, is how to gain the opportunity to listen to those master tapes. He is one man fighting the good fight, but he’s not doing to do it alone.

If you visit Hong Kong, do contact James Tang and ask for a tour of his museum and a demonstration of what I heard. I believe you, too, will become a believer.

There is lots and lots and lots more on his website.

 

%d bloggers like this: