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.

 

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The Respect She Deserves

Perhaps it was just a whimsical idea that takes shape on vacation, when the mind is free, the ocean breeze is blowing, and a violin shop appears out of nowhere. Or maybe I really will learn to play the violin. Without any musical experience or proper knowledge, I wandered into the shop and asked a few silly questions about buying a proper violin and learning to play. The shopkeeper, who also fixes violins and other stringed instruments in a workshop above the store, was patient with me, and suggested that I read a book to learn more. He recommended a book. I bought it, read it, and found myself not much smarter than before. I put the thought of a violin aside, then focused on where we might eat dinner that night.

Exhausted from far too much driving, we completed the next day’s drive with a visit to a favorite bookstore. And there, nearly forgotten on a bottom shelf, was hardcover book with an illustration of a violin on the cover. It was not a how-to-play or how-to-buy book, but some sort of story that combined music, science, and biography. It was late, I was toting a basketful of books, and tossed American Luthier onto the pile. (And recalled that a luthier made guitars, but I was not so sure they also made violins. They do.) The subtitle was appealing: “The Art & Science of the Violin”–this was more the book I had in mind. The author is Quincy Whitney, formerly of the Boston Globe. The subject of the book: the extraordinary work of Carleen Hutchins, an extraordinary scientist and craftsperson who did nothing less than reinvent the violin (and, along the way, a family of eight violin-like instruments, including one of the coolest upright string basses the world has ever known).

From the start, it’s clear that Ms. Hutchins is an extraordinary human being. She begins as a most curious child, then a teen who can build all sorts of things, then finds her way first into science as the kind of teacher who keeps a menagerie and a small farm in her classroom, then meets the right person at the right time and begins to play the viola, then decides she’ll build one. (Her whole life is like that.)

Well, the violins we know, the ones that are played by nearly all classical violinists and nearly all contemporary fiddlers, are all based upon designs developed in the 1550s by Andrea Amati. Two generations later, grandson Niccolo Amati continued the family tradition, but lost his kin in the plague. He taught two apprentices whose work continues to define the contemporary design of violins. Both are revered: Guarneri and, of course, Stradivari. When the latter died in 1727, the art, science and craftsmanship associated with Cremona violin-making was nearly lost, but two hundred years later, a new violin-making school was begun, apparently initiated in a fit of nationalism by Benito Mussolini in 1937. Stradivari made over a thousand violins, and half of them survive.

For hundreds of years, the violin has been a standard instrument for classical musicians, and, of course, for chamber groups, chamber orchestras and symphony orchestras. The past is revered, the classic instruments are revered, and the tradition is revered. But Carleen Hutchins asked the obvious question: was it possible to improve upon a design that was five hundred years old? Working initially as a craftsperson–always in her kitchen (her home in Montclair, NJ was always her workshop)–she developed a deep understanding of the science of acoustics and surrounded herself with friends who played in chamber groups. She learned to solve problems by testing (her basement was elaborately soundproofed to allow for extremely careful measurement in the wee hours when traffic and other sounds in her suburban neighborhood were least obtrusive), then by tinkering, making the tiniest adjustments by reshaping the fine contours of the plates, sound post, and other component parts. What began with an improved viola became a family of eight violins, each one sensibly placed within a range that would be familiar as soprano, alto, tenor, contrabass, etc. What began as a personal curiosity found itself on the cover of Scientific American magazine (1962, 1981), and also, the cover of the New Yorker (1989).

A violin is not invented or perfected in a moment. It must be played, enjoyed, improved, adjusted, and sometimes, rebuilt, often over years, decades or centuries. In fact, many high quality violins are antiques that been rebuilt and rebuilt so often that little of their original material remains. Still, this is the way the culture has evolved. And that culture is not especially welcoming to an inventor with a better mousetrap. That’s why so many of Hutchins’ instruments ended up in musical instrument museums, and so few have been heard on stage in performance. Happily, there is the Hutchins Consort, and they perform on Dr. Hutchins’ instruments. You can also watch some video, however limited, including part of a documentary in progress called Second Fiddle.

For the moment, my interest in the art and science of violin is sated. Author Quincy Whitney did a terrific job in telling a complicated story about art, science, music, social trends–I devoured the book in less than 36 hours. Will my path lead to learning the violin? For the moment, I’m curious but undecided, but much smarter than I was on Saturday afternoon before the book found me.

 

Happy Jólabókaflód

I think I’ve got the accents about right, but there might be a cross on that final d. In any case, we’re talking about an Icelandic book flood that occurs this time of year. A friend reminded me with this graphic:

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There’s a sweet article about the tradition here, on Treehugger. I especially liked this quote: “The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary. They love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world… One in 10 Icelanders will publish [a book].”

If you’d like to know more, visit this NPR story from 2012.

With so many stories on the internet, I’m surprised this one has so few articles from news sources. I suppose that’s a very good reason to go to Iceland this time of year. To read books with the wholehearted encouragement of a nation of readers.

 

Something of a Retraction: Cleese letter to the U.S.

It doesn’t happen often enough, but this time, I went directly to the source. Or the person I thought was the source. Earlier this week, I actually spoke with John Cleese. He’s funny, smart and charming. And he told me that he thought the letter (below) was nicely written, and rather clever, but he did not write it. Nor did he write the other letter that’s making its way through the internet.

—–

Published on November 14, 2016

To the citizens of the United States of America, in light of your failure to elect a competent President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective today.

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II resumes monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories. Except Utah, which she does not fancy.

Your new prime minister (The Right Honourable Theresa May, MP for the 97.8% of you who have, until now, been unaware there’s a world outside your borders) will appoint a minister for America. Congress and the Senate are disbanded. A questionnaire circulated next year will determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid your transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

1. Look up “revocation” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Check “aluminium” in the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you pronounce it. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘favour’ and ‘neighbour’. Likewise you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters. Generally, you should raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. Look up “vocabulary.” Using the same twenty seven words interspersed with filler noises such as “like” and “you know” is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. Look up “interspersed.” There will be no more ‘bleeps’ in the Jerry Springer show. If you’re not old enough to cope with bad language then you should not have chat shows.

2. There is no such thing as “US English.” We’ll let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take account of the reinstated letter ‘u’.

3. You should learn to distinguish English and Australian accents. It really isn’t that hard. English accents are not limited to cockney, upper-class twit or Mancunian (Daphne in Frasier). Scottish dramas such as ‘Taggart’ will no longer be broadcast with subtitles.You must learn that there is no such place as Devonshire in England. The name of the county is “Devon.” If you persist in calling it Devonshire, all American States will become “shires” e.g. Texasshire Floridashire, Louisianashire.

4. You should relearn your original national anthem, “God Save The Queen”, but only after fully carrying out task 1.

5. You should stop playing American “football.” There’s only one kind of football. What you call American “football” is not a very good game. The 2.1% of you aware there is a world outside your borders may have noticed no one else plays “American” football. You should instead play proper football. Initially, it would be best if you played with the girls. Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which is similar to American “football”, but does not involve stopping for a rest every two seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like nancies) You should stop playing baseball. It’s not reasonable to host event called the ‘World Series’ for a game which is not played outside of America. Instead of baseball, you will be allowed to play a girls’ game called “rounders,” which is baseball without fancy team stripe, oversized gloves, collector cards or hotdogs.

6. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry guns, or anything more dangerous in public than a vegetable peeler. Because you are not sensible enough to handle potentially dangerous items, you need a permit to carry a vegetable peeler.

7. July 4th is no longer a public holiday. November 2nd will be a new national holiday. It will be called “Indecisive Day.”

8. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and it is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean. All road intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left. At the same time, you will go metric without the benefit of conversion tables. Roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.

9. Learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips. Fries aren’t French, they’re Belgian though 97.8% of you (including the guy who discovered fries while in Europe) are not aware of a country called Belgium. Potato chips are properly called “crisps.” Real chips are thick cut and fried in animal fat. The traditional accompaniment to chips is beer which should be served warm and flat.

10. The cold tasteless stuff you call beer is actually lager. Only proper British Bitter will be referred to as “beer.” Substances once known as “American Beer” will henceforth be referred to as “Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine,” except for the product of the American Budweiser company which will be called “Weak Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine.” This will allow true Budweiser (as manufactured for the last 1000 years in Pilsen, Czech Republic) to be sold without risk of confusion.

11. The UK will harmonise petrol prices (or “Gasoline,” as you will be permitted to keep calling it) for those of the former USA, adopting UK petrol prices (roughly $6/US gallon, get used to it).

12. Learn to resolve personal issues without guns, lawyers or therapists. That you need many lawyers and therapists shows you’re not adult enough to be independent. If you’re not adult enough to sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist, you’re not grown up enough to handle a gun.

13. Please tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us crazy.

14. Tax collectors from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all revenues due (backdated to 1776).

END

President, Inc.

trump-chicago
So here’s something that hasn’t happened before, at least not at this scale. The new President is a businessman, and his personal name is one of his business’s most valuable assets. He lives in Trump Tower, alongside “public figures, athletes, celebrities and other affluent sophisticates” in “one of New York’s most visited attractions.” The organization’s website publicizes 24 domestic properties including a Trump Plaza, a Trump Palace, a Trump Parc, and so on. There are 9 more international properties, and 5 more commercial properties. That’s about 40 current properties, and 32 bear his name. These properties are gorgeous–the Trump portfolio includes some of the finest real estate properties on the planet. Taking a dark view, each of these could become a target because the wealthy capitalist U.S. President’s name is on so many of them, and Federal authorities began to address this issue by adding security to the Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue today.

For this article, my concern is elsewhere.

On the one hand, we require public figures to cease involvement in private business activities, and with good reason: decisions should be made on behalf of the public good, not for private gain. This seems wise, but the bright line becomes very fuzzy because the name Trump will identify a very public asset on January 20: the President of the United States. If I want to name my company Jefferson Bank or John Kennedy Ford, could I name my new store Trump Fine Jewelry because the President’s name is now public property?

On the other hand, we’ve just elected a President whose personal name is also a very valuable brand name. If The Trump Organization is required to change its name, or, at least, remove the new President’s name from the company’s real estate properties, that would be unfair to the company’s employees, partners and shareholders. And under normal circumstances, the Trump Organization would probably prevent me from using Trump Fine Jewelry. Maybe now the rules are different.

Some of Trump’s properties are outside the U.S. What is our national comfort level with the name of our new President on a magnificent building in Panama or Turkey?

Okay, deep breath, this about to become more complicated.

How do we feel about the President’s name on more than a dozen fancy golf courses? Again, they are spectacular, and part of their alure is the Trump brand name. Remove that name and the business suffers. Keep the brand name and we’ve got a U.S. President endorsing private businesses–very upscale businesses that are inaccessible to most people because these golf courses charge high prices and serve privileged clientele. And yet, it’s not fair to penalize those businesses, those investors, those partners, those customers. Trump also manages “both of Central Park’s public skating rinks” which seems like less of a problem, and maybe the six luxurious restaurants are also of little concern (except when a tourist says, “I want to visit one of the President’s restaurants”).

President-Elect Trump has also been successful in the entertainment business. This, from his website: “Additionally, Donald J. Trump is the co-owner and Executive Producer of the “Miss Universe Pageant,” “Miss USA Pageant”, and “Miss Teen USA Pageant” in partnership with NBC.  Trump Productions recently Executive Produced the hit reality series “Pageant Place” on MTV.  Additionally, Trump Productions premiered a brand new series on MTV in 2009 based on the #1 hit UK show “Ladette to Lady.”

And there’s the President-Elect’s successful management company for fashion models: “Trump Model Management is an expression of exquisite beauty and contemporary style…With a name that symbolizes success, the agency has risen to the top of the fashion market, producing models that appear on the pages of magazines such as Vogue, on designer runways, in advertising campaigns and blockbuster movies. We take pride in scouting and developing our own talent in the stars of today and tomorrow, as well as maintaining outstanding client relations. With unsurpassed management and direction, our diverse group of managers and scouts continue to impress the world with their taste and style.”

For professors of brand marketing and Presidential law, all of this presents a fascinating puzzle. Do we just leave things alone, and allow the name of the U.S. President to become a marketing tool for Miss Universe or a few dozen real estate holdings? Do we demand that the President-elect remove his name from some or all of these properties for the run of his term, and potentially destroy businesses that employ (I’m guessing) thousands of workers? Do we make some exceptions? Or do we do as little as possible and just allow the marketplace to do as it will?

Will some of the people who now operate the Trump Organization operate the nation? Will they be allowed to continue to work with both the private company and the U.S. Government? Or must they decide, as public officials have decided for a century or more, to cease their involvement with private concerns while serving in public office? For most politicians, these questions require several meetings with lawyers and accountants. In this situation, maybe it’s that simple.

I don’t know the answers, but I hope somebody does. And if something needs to happen, I guess there’s a short deadline: ten weeks and two days from today, it’s the Trump White House.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Fresh Look at the Cable TV Business

LeVarBack in the 1970s, most Americans thought television would be free forever. There weren’t many channels—just CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, and a few independents—but that seemed sufficient—so the audience looked forward to the addition of even one additional channel to watch reruns, baseball games, or old black-and-white movies. At that time, cable television was a sluggish industry for four reasons: (1) there was no wired infrastructure, no way to connect most households  to a local cable television system; (2) the principal value of cable was improved broadcast reception, which was an issue for a relatively small number of viewers; (3) cable systems mostly served small cities and towns, so the economics of scale were absent; (4) apart from the few low-budget, hyper-local cable channels (“local origination”), there were almost no cable-only television channels, and no economic model to support the idea; and (5) almost nobody was willing to pay to watch television.

It took about twenty years, but by 1998, there were 171 cable networks, and today, there are nearly 1,000. In 1998, there were nearly 70 million households paying a monthly fee to a cable television system operator. How much? Nowadays, that’s not a figure to calculate because internet services and cable subscriptions are bundled, but if that number is $500 per year x even 50 million households (assume severe cord-cutting), that’s $25,000,000,000 per year—$25 billion, plus advertising and other services that brings the industry closer to the $40-50 billion mark. That’s several times larger than our U.S. automobile industry, several times the size of our retail industry, and about the size of our energy industry.

This will not last forever. In fact, it’s changing very quickly because cable can no longer protect the near-monopoly that it constructed for itself in the 20th century. The problem is Google, the problem is Apple, the problem is the cable industry itself that has grown fat and happy by collecting those monthly fees. The cable industry did not, could not, or didn’t bother to protect its essential territory: the TV screen. Sure, it controls the DVR, but that’s not enough. With every HBO Now, every YouTube video watched on an iPhone, the traditional cable industry is cut out of the equation.

At the recent INTX conference (no longer called “The Cable Show” or the “NCTA” for National Cable Television Association) earlier this month, the emphasis was not on program services (though there were small booths from large cable network operations like NBC Universal and Disney), but on hardware that combines the cable and internet viewing experience into a single set-top box. If you want to watch HBO, or ESPN, or YouTube, it’s all in one place. And often, that box is made by TiVO (which still sells DVRs, but was aced out of that sector by the cable operators).

If you’ve been waiting for a decent YouTube search interface on your TV set, it’s coming, thanks to cable. And if you’re liking the idea of TV Anywhere—watch the program on your TV, then switch to your tablet—that’s the new iteration of cable, too.

Mostly, cable has successfully pivoted. On the surface, we think of the cable industry as the provider of television channels, and now, some VOD services, and we pay a monthly fee for those services. But that’s not the way cable operators see the future. In order to survive, they must control your screen, and that means, they must control your internet service because internet services are becoming wireless, and that will, in time, eliminate the need for the physical cables that defined the industry a half-century ago.

When all of this got started, the cable operators walked a path laden with gold. They would enter a small city, perhaps Fort Wayne, Indiana, and make all sorts of ridiculous promises to local government officials (building schools, swimming pools, new government buildings, senior centers, and so on), and sometimes ease the way with skanky business practices and celebrity appearances (famous Warner Bros. movie stars visit the city, kiss the Mayor, and dazzle the locals so that its cable division could sweep up the local rights—the franchise—to build the local cable television system). Now, things are different. It’s not the people of River City who must be won over. It’s the blaze of battle against some of the world’s wealthiest companies, and they possess a technology advantage far beyond the reach of most cable operators. So: if they cannot compete against Google or Apple, they do the next best things: they buy their competitors (Time-Warner Cable was just sold), and they attempt to control the content (Comcast owns not only NBC Universal but now Dreamworks Animation, too).

We’ve seen this play before. Gigantic companies buy the entertainment companies, and then, those companies fall into the hands of the finance people who make decisions that drive the creative community to smaller, more entrepreneurial companies.

So where does that leave you and me? Paying $1,ooo-2,ooo per year for combined cable and internet services, with a voice-controlled remote control and some artificial intelligence to recommend programs we might enjoy. We’ll watch John Oliver tell us everything that’s wrong, and we’ll do our best to forget that he’s employed by a $30 billion company, one of the few that controls what we watch, what we see and what we know.

And so, we complete the circle. There are far better toys in our house than there were in the 1970s, but our viewing choices are still controlled by a small number of big companies. The only real difference: those big companies are much, much richer than they were fifty years ago. Meanwhile, we’re still kicking back for 30 or 40 hours a week devoting our free time to the less-than-satisfying hobby of watching television programs and commercials.

BTW: The man in the picture is LeVar Burton who starred in ABC’s original version of ROOTS in 1977, and is now co-executive producer of a new version which debts on several cable networks in this month, around the world.

 

 

 

I want to go to Provence. In 1970.

There was a secret shared, and in time, the secret was widely shared. It was beautiful. Tasty and life-affirming, too. And many of us benefit from it every day of our lives.

Before 1970–give or take a few years either way–we ate frozen and canned foods, modern conveniences for the busy family. Fresh food wasn’t on the radar (and certainly not on the Radarange). Restaurants weren’t modern, not yet focused on locavores, or for that matter, shared cuisines beyond, say, a local pizza or Chinese restaurant.

What changed? Lots of cultural norms–greater awareness, shifted sensibilities, a focus on nutrition and fresh foods. This didn’t happen magically. It may have begun, in earnest, in 1970, when several iconoclasts gathered in nearby homes in the south of France. They changed the way we think about food, and if food is life, they changed the way we think about life, too.

They were Julia and Paul Child, whose rough contours were sketched in the film Julie & Julia. And, to a lesser degree, Simone Beck, who co-wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with Julia, and whose insistence upon classic French tradition emboldened Julia to think more clearly about the real world of American moms (few American dads cooked–except outdoors). There was the travel / food / free spirited writer M.F.K. Fisher and the American food expert  James Beard, struggling through an extensive survey of our unique and sometimes inexplicable cuisine. And several others who cooked together, argued, and savory the good life that was making its way to Sonoma and Napa.

Their story is told by Ms. Fisher’s nephew, Luke Barr in a book that’s becoming quite popular. It’s called Provence, 1970, and it provided a  winter weekend’s entertainment. There are menus, and they lead into wonderful stories of friends building meals together– serious cooks experimenting and showing off for their foodie friends. It’s loose and informal, and I kept fantasizing about what it might have been like to join them, if just for a night. Few nonfiction books draw me into the story in quite this way, and it was fun to be a part of it, if only as an observer nearly fifty years later.

It’s now available in paperback, but there’s something about the hardbound edition that’s even more appealing.

Enjoy!

BTW: The complete title is “Provence, 1970: M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.” Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of NPR.

M.F.K. Fisher, clearly enjoying life.P.S.: I think I need to read more by M.F.K. Fisher. One intriguing title is a 1942 book called “How to Cook a Wolf.” I found a review of the book when it was new in the digital catacombs of The New York Times. They wrote:

Mrs. Fisher writes about food with such relish and enthusiasm that the mere reading of her books creates a clamorous appetite. She also writes with a robust sense of humor and a nice capacity for a neatly turned phrase.”

Beyond the Decisive Moment

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

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

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

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

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

sfmoma-hcb-03-near-juvisy-1938

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

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

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

american_woman-and-lenin

 

 

An Authentic, Modern Meal in Venice

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

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

FishTray

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

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

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

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

Fisherman

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

Gnocchi

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

Black-Ink-Ravioli

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

Bass

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

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

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

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

Strolling through Everyday Venice

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

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

Dog gondola

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

Santa Croce campo 2

Santa Croce campo 1

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

darker Venice from Bridge

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

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

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