Acoustical Magic

I was doubtful. My listening room, which is also my office, has all sorts of odd angles, so any sort of acoustic panel treatment would be based upon best guesses. You see, sound from loudspeakers has a tendency to bounce off all sorts of surfaces, and not just once. It bounces off the carpeted floor, but it’s also absorbed by the carpet. So we have — and every room has — a combination of reflective surfaces and surfaces that absorb sound. Mine was more complicated because the room sits under an angled roof, so the area above the stereo system and speakers, and the area above the listening area are both ceilings that come down at about a 40 percent angle. Then, there’s the unpredictable carve-outs for two window dormers, one behind each loudspeaker, and two more carve-outs, one on each side of the listening area — one for the entranceway and the other for a tiny windowed cove filled with a wooden rocking chair. And, then, there are lots of books and records and shelves and two closet doors. Any attempt to measure all of this and predict the sound patterns is folly.

And yet, somehow, everything sounds pretty good. Very good, in fact. Not because we got lucky, but because several skillful technicians assessed the room several decades ago, and got everything right. Well, almost everything. The missing piece has always been the long wall behind the listening position. The lingering question has been whether to add an acoustic treatment — soft panels — to absorb some of the reflecting sound behind my head. Associated with that question — would the addition of panels deaden the room, resulting in less reflectance, but also, less of a lifelike sonic presentation.

One way to find out. Try it. Obsess by staring aimlessly at websites that explain everything without resulting in my actually understanding anything at all. I kept reading, kept researching, but ultimately, I needed to experiment with sound panels in my listening space. I looked at lots of websites, but the one that seemed most accessible and the most, well, professional in its presentation, was a Florida company called Acoustimac.

Their acoustic panels come in lots of sizes, and you can custom-order any size you want. I started by thinking about 12-inch squares, and I figured I would space them an inch or two apart. The whole area is about 15 feet long, or so, so I started thinking in terms of, say, 12 panels across and maybe 3 panels down for a total of 36 panels. Then, I started thinking about the amount of work that would involve, and decided not to build a matrix of smaller squares (though I did have some cool plans for a range of colors, as I will explain below).

Ultimately, it made much for sense to go for just two panels, each one two feet high and four feet long. Big difference from my original plan. I asked the company whether I should go for the two-inch thick panels or the one-inch thick panels, and I went with their suggestion for the two-inchers. Now, the question of color and fabric. Lots of options, but for my purposes, the standard DMD canvas was fine, and I paid $5 more for beveled edges on each panel.

It’s easy to get lost in the options: photographs, graphics, abstract art — whatever you want to see on the panels, they can make it. After pasting samples of dozens of solid colors on my wall — it’s behind my computer, and I did not want to choose anything distracting — I chose blue.

They shipped two panels. I thought it would be easy to connect them to the wall. I was wrong. This is beyond my skill level. Why? Well, they’re not heavy, but they are bulky, and they need to land perfectly straight, not hang like a picture frame. The way this is done is with French brackets that sort-of slide into one another. All of this required a professional installer, and, as it turned out, their special laser beam because (who knew?), my walls are not exactly even. Once they figured it out, mounting came easily.

Special thanks to Jason Bobb and the Soundvision team for excellent work on the installation.

Once installed, everything was easy. With fingers crossed, we turned on the stereo, and hoped we would not hear a newly-created mess. Would the vocals sound crisp and alive? Would the bass be unenthusiastic? Would the… you get the idea. Was all of this a good idea or a bad idea, or no idea at all because we should have left things as they have been (for decades)?

Actually, it was kind-of perfect. More or less, we moved any distracting reverberation away from that back wall, so the performers all took their proper places on the sound stage in front of us — in sort of a 3D pattern around the front of the room, not just from the loudspeakers, but as a real presence with greater focus and clarity (which was pretty great before). Somehow, it worked, first time out. It sounds terrific and now, I’m recommending this bit of sonic experimentation to anyone who is serious about listening to two-channel stereo recordings. Fascinating and fun. And, of course, always helpful to be surrounded by professionals — both on the Acoustimac side and also from Soundvision for installation.

Post-Script: After I learned about acoustic paneling, I started to notice it everywhere. Two of the many examples shown on the Acoustimac website are below:

Galax, Floyd and Other Crooked Places

A little more than ten years ago, I read an article about music in Southwestern Virginia. About two months ago, I found it again, but this time, I decided do more than read and file the article in my “someday” folder. I decided to go, and see what The Crooked Road was all about.

Had I known, I would have first picked up Joe Wilson’s excellent and truly helpful book, A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail. And I would have paid more attention to Barry Mazor’s book, Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, sent to me for review in 2015. As I traveled, I caught up along the way, learned a lot, listened to a lot of wonderful music, figured out some of the history, and met some wonderful people along the way.

Let me begin at something approximating the beginning. Or what I thought was the beginning. Target: Bristol, which may be in Virginia and may be in Tennessee, depending upon where you happen to be standing at the time. Bristol calls itself “The Birthplace of Country Music”–but it’s not. It is one of the places where Ralph Peer, then a producer and A&R man, visited in the 1920s when he realized there was untapped opportunity in recording, and releasing, records made by, and for, local populations. Initially, he worked for Okeh Records, then for Victor, then for RCA Victor after RCA acquired the smaller label. (Nowadays, all of this is owned by SONY, but, remarkably, Peer’s own successor company (peer music, founded in 1928) remains independent, and a major force in the music industry. More about that in a moment.)

Bristol is about as far you can go heading west in Virginia before running into Tennessee. It’s near North Carolina, and an hour south of the part of Kentucky that was recently devastated by flooding. A few blocks from the warehouse where Ralph Peer and his recording engineer set up their portable, traveling studio, there’s a museum that tells the local story. Even better, you can drive about 40 minutes up the road to pay homage to The Carter Family, who recorded at the famous Victor Bristol sessions in 1927. The site is called the Carter Fold. The hillside location includes a one-room museum (previously the family-owned grocery store), and a lively amphitheater. That’s where they hold the annual memorial concert—with an ample, active dance floor. The distinction between old-time and bluegrass music isn’t always clear, but who cares? Spending an afternoon watching, and listening to local, live music is a wonderfully satisfying experience—this is the real thing, not a studio production, but music that’s been made around here for a century or more. Featured: Crooked Road Ramblers, Whitetop Mountain Band, and Hogslop String Band. All terrific. All captured on CDs that I now own. Along with a well-regarded Carter Family book, a biography of a complicated family that includes June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, Roseanne Cash, and the fire chief who is married to a family member and helped me extract my car from a muddy parking lot.

It’s not easy to figure out where this mountain music began because it probably started in a lot of places in Virginia, West Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Texas, and lots of other places. Sitting and listening in and around Galax, home to a prestigious annual fiddle festival, and to The Blue Ridge Music Center, where the midday breezeway concert might feature the Fisher Peak Timber Rattlers. It’s fun to watch them because they are talented performers in a small and informal venue, but also because they bring the Music Center’s terrific museum to life. (Unfortunately, we missed The Steep Canyon Rangers in the adjacent outdoor theater—with local BBQ—the night before.)

We couldn’t stay all afternoon. We were on our way to Floyd. This is one of many towns, villages, hamlets with a regular weekly community jam session. (To learn about many other community get-togethers, check The Crooked Mile book.) The Floyd Country Store is busy from Friday night (starts after 10pm, goes on well past midnight), Saturday afternoon, Sunday afternoon, and more. The weekly jamboree—with plenty of dancing—is the big deal. We caught the Sunday afternoon show. Relaxed, informal, fun, players of all ages, each one choosing the next number, endless improvisations, lots of love.

Floyd is a one traffic light town (in fact, the traffic light is the only one in the entire county), and the store is a community gathering place. There’s a lovely little cafe (try the apple or key lime pie), a candy store from barrels, of course), and a gift shop. Two doors down, there’s a good brick oven pizza place with, yes, another busy performance stage. After the community jam, the store re-arranged the chairs, and we watched another band—High Fidelity, with an orientation toward bluegrass old time gospel—evocative of an earlier era, but completely fresh and modern. That night, the crowd was a bit thinner than usual because Fries, Virginia was running another popular music festival, Galax was starting its big summer event the very next day, and Clifftop, in nearby West Virginia, was just winding down.

I could easily spend an entire summer meandering from one place to another, just listening, taking pictures of old farm buildings and mountain landscapes, getting to know each local community and the people who live there. It’s tempting to look around and make assumptions about people’s lives, to discount modern times, but that’s unreasonable. The history is rich, and very much alive, but the 21st century is as much a part of life in Damascus or Independence, Virginia as it is in Chicago.

Which brings us back to Ralph Peer, and now, his son, also named Ralph. Dad brought roots music to a much larger audience. He started with blues (then called race music), then mountain / hillbilly music (including an early popular act called the Hill Billies, from these parts). Then, as variously music publisher and manager, for the Carters, Jimmie Rodgers, but that’s just the beginning. He published and produced Mexican and Latin music—working closely with Walt Disney, who became a personal friend. Lots of Latin music was featured in Disney films, MGM musicals, and other mid-century Hollywood features, with Ralph Peer’s handiwork evident through. Peer’s story includes Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Louis Armstrong, The Rolling Stones, classical composer Charles Ives, and many more contemporary artists. The company’s current work includes Lizzo, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Sofia Reyes… the list goes on and on.

Driving The Crooked Road means driving through stunning mountain scenery, hardscrabble farms, fast food sprawl, crossroads with tumbledown buildings and possibly the only gas station for many miles, no place to eat lunch and spectacular farm-to-table cafes in out-of-the-way places. One Confederate flag in 500 miles of roads. Lots of Baptist churches. People of all ages enjoying the music. Family farms, double-wide trailers, some places with no cellular service, people who could not be more helpful to a stranger in need. People who volunteer because the music matters, so they spend all day lending a hand to the current generation of Carters, keeping the legacy alive. The occasional entrepreneur, too, who sees big opportunities in this music, as Ralph Peer did 95 years ago. As he dreams of what could be, I want to stay close to this story.

Creating a Prime Time Television Series

Kelly Edwards is an executive, producer and a writer who knows how to do that. In fact, you know here work: Girlfriends, Clueless, Malcolm in the Middle, and more. Her new book is called The Executive Chair: A Writer’s Guide to TV Series Development. It is published by Michael Wiese Productions, which is, hands down, the very best publisher of books about the making of movies. The book is only about 140 pages long, so you might think about as a private lunch with Kelly, not a textbook, though it serves that purpose, too.

She begins by explaining how the industry is organized–the role of, say, the Senior Vice President vs. the role of an Executive Vice President, who does those job, and how they work their way up from Assistant to Manager to Director to Vice President, and so on. She explains how the year works: shows are developed by the networks during Development Season, which runs from July to November. Pilots are produced from January through May. Series pick up orders happen in May–but not always. This is the entertainment business, after all, and rules are constantly being broken. Still, it is helpful to understand how things normally operate. She explains how the cable networks operate on a different schedule, and how streaming follows its own rules, too.

Most important, she explains how the executive’s mind works–not just seeking any show, but a show that will fill a specific time slot, for example. A show that will pull a scheduled prime time evening out of the doldrums. A show to pair with a hit series to build a stronger schedule. Netflix may not be thinking the same way networks do–it’s not aiming for a particular demographic so much as a “taste cluster.”

She jumps over to a chapter on breaking into the industry–which is nearly impossible, but someone, everybody who works in the industry has done it, and, if you follow her instructions, you can, too. She recommends internships, volunteering, and other good ideas. I would add: doing your own projects, meeting people along the way, especially in major markets where those people are likely to recommend you for a job in the industry. (This doesn’t work so well in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but it can work very well in Seattle or Chicago, and, of course, in Los Angeles–but don’t forget Miami, Vancouver, Atlanta, and other 21st century production centers.)

The heart of the book is a chapter called “Your Game Plan.” Now, you really are a writer, a serious writer, but you need a break. How many scripts do you write on spec (speculatively)? Do you try to demonstrate that you can write in lots of different genres, or do you choose one lane? How do you tell your own story in a way that executives, producers and other writers will pay attention–and recommend you for a gig?

The adjacent chapter is about pitching. This is a difficult process to understand because it seems so subjective. Kelly breaks it down. For example, you should know what the executive has bought in the past, and why. You should know the reference points–by now, you should be very familiar with the series that executives often reference in their wants and their criticisms. Homicide, but also How I Met Your Mother; Mad Men, but also Dawson’s Creek and Ally McBeal. The Handmaid’s Tale and The Queen’s Gambit, but also Ugly Betty and The Twilight Zone. If you’re going to write for television, you must watch a lot of television–and nowadays, a lot of YouTube, and a lot of old shows on a lot of different streaming services, too.

She talks about how to behave during a pitch meeting. She talks about the difference between having a good idea and being able to deliver an actual script, and a series of scripts, on time, in ways that match the buyer’s needs. A tight pitch should run twenty minutes. “Tops.” Also: reading the room, reading executive body language. Lots to consider besides the idea itself.

Also, how to actually write the pilot script. For example, limit the settings; open with a bang…

And then, there are the inevitable notes from the executive team. How you handle those notes may be critical to your success as a writer.

Finally, what happens if you actually sell the script…what happens next?

This is a very solid book about a difficult profession. If you’re going down this path, or you know someone with the dream, it is essential reading. And equally essential re-reading, especially the night before your first big pitch.

Sunday in the Park with James (and Stephen, but Mostly James)

When Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters sang “Move On” for the very last time, I was in the audience. There were tears on stage, tears in the aisles. It was their last performance in the lead roles of a most unusual Broadway musical, Sunday in the Park with George. The first act of the musical tells the story of impressionist painter George Seurat and the women who figures so prominently in the famous painting, the one with the parasol, walking a pet monkey.

On June 12, 1982, James Lapine met Stephen Sondheim for the first time. By that time, Sondheim’s credits included eleven Broadway shows including Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Lapine had written and directed two plays and one musical, March of the Falsettos, but it was one of the plays, Twelve Dreams, that Sondheim had seen and liked. At that time, Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along was perceived as a flop, and the Broadway legend was considering a new career, designing videogames. Lapine was a former graphic artist and designer. Instead of following tradition–building a musical from the foundation of a story, a book, a biography–Lapine started with a series of images.

Sondheim: “I thought, this guy is so avant-garde. The way you find a musical idea is, you pick a book up; you read the book; you say, that would make a good musical; you get a producer; he buys it; and then you write it. The idea of coming in with a lot of disparate photographs and showing them on the floor and saying, “Does any of this strike your fancy?”–I thought, I’m the wrong generation for this guy; I’m just the wrong generation. I’m so traditional.”

Over the next few months, Lapine and Sondheim began to meet once a week. Lapine started writing. Sondheim completed the first song (the opening number, if I understand the book correctly.) By the following June, in 1983, there was enough material to run through a first act, at least in a workshop form. Lots of pieces missing, but the structure of the first act was beginning to take shape.

And here, before casting begins, before Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters and the music, design, costume teams arrive on the scene, we ought to pause and take stock.

“Before I read this book, I classified Sunday in the Park with George as one of many wonderful Stephen Sondheim musicals, but that’s a strange way to think about the work. In fact, it was James Lapine who wrote and directed the story, and put it together from scratch. Mostly, the actors hated the process because it took shape in a somewhat disorganized workshop. The production may have been clear, at least in some abstract sense, in Lapine’s head, but it wasn’t at all clear for the actors. “An audience was coming and watching a completely unfinished piece. All kinds of things weren’t written for my character, explained Mandy Patinkin, who played the lead character, George Seurat. And still, the majority of what I had to do was say noting, just draw, sit on the stage, say “I’ve got to finish the hat,” walk to another part of the stage, and say something else. I was in quite a state.”

Certainly, the title and the conception of the show–Putting It All Together–suggests the way that Seurat painted, not with strokes and outlines, but with dots. The dots don’t form a picture until the do. And then, the picture is magnificent.

It’s always interesting to learn about the making of a Broadway show from the individual perspective of those who contributed pieces and parts. For example, Scenic Designer Tony Straiges explains, “We had to figure out the rake of the stage to give the painting a certain perspective in the final tableau. We never did get the rake that would have looked the best because the actors would have gone crazy–it would have been too steep. So , our rake was a half-inch to a foot, an incline that actors could work with.”

Details matter. “Having players with the ability to change instruments within a few bars allows variations of color,” explains orchestrator Michael Starobin. “Because Sondheim stylized the song, ‘Beautiful,’ with a Ravel-like accompaniment, the use of a harp seemed like it might be called for. That was my first time using one, and I learned the often-ignored fact that a harp is not a piano and cannot be scored like one…(We chose to) use a French Horn for brass. Actually two French Horns: a regular F-one and a high-D horn, which, when you press a certain button, gives you high notes. We needed that for the final calls at the end of each act. I earned a reputation for not knowing how to write for French Horn because what I wrote was way out of range of the regular horn and very hard to play…When it worked it was great, but…I held my breath at the end of every show when a sub was on…We choose to use a trumpet in the original cast recording.”

On most shows, professionals do their jobs, solve problems, learn a few things along the way. On this particular show, Lapine was the student who learned the most, in part because he had never done anything remotely like this before, in part because of Sondheim’s stature and his constant need to provide what a partner would reasonably expect, in part because this was a most unusual show because it was based upon images and a light story, and and in part because it was so unusual for Broadway. When everybody behind the scenes learns a lot–saying things like, “I learned more on that show than…”–it’s an indication of something happening that’s outside of the routine.

It’s also an indicator that not everything is going to work. Sunday in the Park with George won a Pulitzer Prize, and it certainly appears on the list of forever favorite Broadway shows for many fans (myself included). But the second act still feels as though it ought to return to Playwrights Horizons for more workshopping. Both Lapine and Sondheim are responsible, of course, as this structure was a decision they made together. Early on, they decided that the second act would look at what happened after the painting, but the choice of situating that concept in the midst of a vaguely satirical view of the contemporary art world seems obvious, too on-the-nose, and ultimately loopy. I shudder when I hear the term “Chromolume Machine,” but I melt when I listen to Mandy and Bernadette sing, “Move On.” I love the opening number of the second act, which begins with the lyric, “It’s hot up here…” and goes on, full-cast, in the painting, where they were when the first act ended, with no place to go.

And so, a suggestion…James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim are still alive and well, still active, still capable. Wouldn’t it be fun–and unique in a way that’s consistent with this show’s history–to go back into writing and workshop, and rebuild the second act? Clearly, just about everyone involved with the show was interested enough to tell their stories to Lapine for this book. And they’ve all endured questions about why the second act plays as it does. Let’s get Bernadette and Mandy and the whole crew together again and make things right.

It’s been long enough. And we don’t have much longer. In the play, the future is 1984. Forty years on, maybe things look different.

More Than One History

Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam during their 1955 trial

So here’s the problem. When we talk about history, we usually refer to one particular story, and one particular point of view. In 2021, that’s woefully inadequate, but the additional material makes history nearly impossible to teach within the confines of a well-organized school curriculum. In 2015, TIME Magazine wrote about “25 Moments That Changed America.” When I browsed the article, I wanted to know more about all of those moments. For example, one paragraph in the article is entitled, “Emmett Till Is Murdered (Aug. 28, 1955)” It’s easy to list the basic facts, and some of them are probably true, but there’s a lot we still don’t know about the story, the people involved, and precisely what happened in and immediately outside Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi. And in order to understand the story and its related circumstances, we ought to know more about Carolyn Bryant, and her husband Roy, and Roy’s half-brother, John W. Milam, and the other people involved. It’s a dreadful story, but its importance is diminished when it is simplified. And yet, that’s precisely what teachers must do because they are not likely to spend a full week on the Emmett Till story. As a result, it’s just one more story, one more starting point for the Civil Rights movement in the United States, one more thing for students to remember until the test passes, one more distant memory that’s mostly forgotten when the school year ends.

Here in 2021, we’re attempting to add context to achieve a more truthful, more complete telling of history. In the case of a new book called FOUR HUNDRED SOULS: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, I don’t recall reading anything about Emmett Till, and I don’t see his name in the index. That doesn’t mean his story is not important. Instead, it suggests that there are just too many stories to tell–and the editors determined that 395 pages of storytelling was as much as even the most interested readers could bear. And so, we’re reminded about just how selective the teaching of history will always be.

This version of history takes it slow, and keeps things fairly simple: there’s a brief essay about a particular era, event, trend, group or person, each written by a notable historian or cultural expert, and each one is a well-presented article. For the first hundred or two hundred pages, it’s a mosaic, a puzzle with pieces more and less familiar. We begin in the era of 1619-1624 with “Arrival” by Nikole Hannah-Jones (her own book about the 1619 project is forthcoming in November; her own story is now part of the narrative as she chose to work at Howard University, an HSBC, instead of the University of North Carolina after some discomfort related to the tenure process). She talks about the ship, The White Lion, which takes its place in history beside The Mayflower. I’m interested; I want to know more. A student might be curious, too. How much time should a teacher devote to these ships and a comparison between them? Context…we need to return to Africa to begin the story. Now, we’re in the remnants of African kingdoms and the kidnapping of Mandinka, Wolof, Pual, Hausa and other people from the remnants of the Ghana, Mail and Songhay kingdoms. Now, I’m beginning to realize how little I know. I have heard of these tribes–if that’s the correct term–but I don’t know much about them. And I know something about the Europeans who perpetrated those kidnappings, but my details are flimsy. And I need a map. Not one map, but an animated magical map that allows me to hear the words, see the eyes and the faces of the people involved–not groups of people but individuals who fought with their lives, who thought so little of the locals as to treat them as goods to be traded and sold.

Quickly, the location shifts to the American colonies, and the kidnapped people are forced to do labor without little if any meaningful compensation. They are deprived of rights, but they form families, and build new lives. There are slave markets, slave codes, slave rebellions. This part of the story is not often told, not in much detail beyond abusive and sexually active slaveholders and unfair practices. There were full lives here, and we get a glimpse, but again, I want more. I want an entire book, historical fiction where historical fact is unavailable, about the lives of these people and how they interacted within the confines of the plantation, the town, the state, the nation.

But we need to keep moving. We touch upon the sometimes-unexpected, such as a few pages about “Queer Sexuality” by Kiese Laymon, but by the halfway mark, the Civil War is over, and a few pages later, we’re on to Plessy v. Ferguson. Twenty pages later, we’re celebrating the Harlem Renaissance. Argh! We need to slow this down! I’m grabbing bits and pieces of a story that must go deeper and wider.

And then, I think of myself, in a parallel life, as a high school Social Studies teacher, who desperately wants the students to know and understand these stories. I now have a spectacular resource in my hands by some of the best-credentialed historical storytellers in the whole U.S.A., but the tool is insufficient to the task.

There is the generally accepted history of the United States of America, but it includes only a small portion of what I’ve read in this book. And there are emerging stories that also need to be told–the Japanese perspective on the World War II internment camps, for example–and the perspectives of those in power who were so uncertain about the decisions they were making, and the exploitative practices of non-Japanese who took over their neighbors’ farms, homes and businesses without compensation. And then, there’s this whole other story–which also needs to be told–about the people who came from Africa, not from Europe, and lived an entirely different reality during the 400 years of U.S. history. And then, there is the story of the people who lived here in the first place, the ones that the Europeans massacred in various ways, hundreds of tribal groups whose parallel lives over these same 400 years are no less significant.

I want to know the whole story, or as much of it as possible, but when I read an excellent survey, a community history as good and solid and inspired and sad and uplifting as this one, I see a challenge. How do we teach our children, or how do they learn, about the complicated story of the past 400 years? Do some of them choose a single path, say, through African American history to the exclusion of Japanese American history? Or do we take bits and bytes of the African and American stories, but ignore the Vietnamese or Cuban stories? Or do we attempt to tell all of the stories–pouring so much information down the throats of our poor students that they are bound to remember nothing at all, and pray for the history lessons to end? Or, do we guide them in some other way? Do we opt for “yes, we sometimes mistreat some people,” which reduces every story to an unimportant bump in the road? Or do we encourage some other approach, one that allows a student, or several students, to collectively study and tell the story of Emmett Till so it can be shared with others, not only in their own class or their own school, but with other students around the world–and the adults, too? That’s the deep dark secret here–children are beginning to learn history with context and connection, but adults were never taught that way. This book is a start, and for a few thousand adults who buy and read the book, it’s a step in the right direction. But I want much more.

A Clever New Easel

As the warmer weather approaches in my part of the world, I like to spend the occasional afternoon painting–not with wet paints, but with a portable collection of pastels. I carry them in a backpack, along with charcoal, a small Leatherman multi-tool, a sheet of sanded paper taped to a lightweight piece of masonite, and a few other supplies.

A portable easel completes the portable setup–that, and a small table or other surface to support a flat box of pastels. So far, the best solution has been a French Easel. There are two types of French Easel–one is smaller, lighter and a bit less stable. The other is larger, but it’s heavier, and a bit of a bundle when carrying the backpack. FYI, a French easel combines a wooden box and drawer with a foldable wooden tripod.

Many artists now use a photographer’s tripod to support a pochade–a small wooden box that contains paints, supplies and an upright surface to support the canvas, or, as with my setup, the masonite-paper combination. This is a good idea, but the emphasis is always on the box, not on the surface. By shifting emphasis from box to painting area, a tiny company called LederEasel has developed something fresh and new.

To begin, you will need a sturdy tripod, and you’ll need to make certain that the legs are sufficiently long to bring the painting surface up to, roughly, your shoulders. The tripod’s “maximum height,” often listed in the internet specifications, ought to be about as high as your nose. Tripods are built with a center mast that rises above the legs, but it’s less sturdy under real world conditions of wind and aggressively drawing onto the surface. There are hundreds of tripods available. As a starting place, I would check on Benro, a manufacturer that offers reasonable prices, good built quality, durability, and a wide range of options. You’ll want a “ball head” on the top of the tripod, which allows adjustments in many possible directions.

Back to LederEasel. It comes in two pieces that attach to the tripod. The top piece is a block of wood with several durable metal fasteners. When slotted, twisted, and unscrewed into place, this perpendicular holds the top of the canvas or drawing surface. A similar bottom piece, also made of wood and metal, secures at the bottom, and supports the canvas or drawing surface. The two pieces connect, essentially creating H turned 90 degrees.

On the first warm day of the season, I took my tripod, in a bag, and a LederEasel, in another bag (provided), and set the whole thing up, for the first time, in less than five minutes (this is about as long as it takes me to set up my French easel). The setup is elegant, well-thought-out, and works very well.

There are two holes drilled into the bottom piece, and two metal dowels provided. When the dowels are inserted into the holes, they provide a reasonably secure ledge for a large flat box of pastels, essentially a desk. I’ve written about the Easel Butler in the past–this is a similar idea.

This is a young company, but they’ve already developed their first accessory: the Easel Caddy, which includes a pair of metal rings and a cloth brush bag that attaches to a brush separator via several velcro tabs. This is not as well-considered: the metal rings should be two connectible pieces so they are able to fit into the bag, and the brush bag, although clever, is a bit cumbersome. Still, they do work in the field.

This is a new invention, so I am sure comments and criticisms are welcome. I noticed that the LederEasel was not completely stable on the tripod, but I was able to correct the problem in the field with materials I found in the LederEasel bag. Each of the wood pieces comes with a small velcro strap. By connecting two straps together (via their velcro connectors), then looping them to connect the bottom wooden piece to the tripod’s center mast, I was able to correct the instability.

One condition would be invisible to acrylic or oil painters, but problematic for pastel painters. For pastel, the drawing surface must be slightly angled so the top is closer to the artist; this allows the pastel dust to fall on the ground, not on the painting. The way the LederEasel is constructed, and the way it sits on the easel, it is difficult to angle the drawing surface. I was able to make an adequate adjustment, but further flexibility is certainly desireable for pastel painters in the field.

This is a good product from a good supplier, and I wish them the best of success.

After I published the article, Ed Leder, who designed and sells the easel, offered these useful comments and clarifications:

I would like to add a few comments in response to your review written about my LederEasel products.

The issue of not being able to tilt a canvas or panel so the top is closer to the painter is a limitation of using a ball head tripod attachment and not a design flaw of the easel. There is a limit to the degree of tilt built into ball heads so this type may not be best suited for the pastel painter. A pan and tilt tripod will allow for side to side and up-down adjustability greater than 90 degrees to the ground plane which will resolve the issue for vertical tilting. After providing Howard the setup for his review I made a small addition that was not included at that time. The connection where the two tubes are joined together had a small amount of play so I added a rubber O-ring between the mating parts ( they break down for compact storage and are held together by a spring button) which has eliminated any movement when the tubes are joined.

The EaselCaddy came about after receiving requests for a compact fixture to hold brushes and thinner that would work in addition to my easel setup. The bag that the LederEasel comes in was not meant to accommodate anything more as it was the only product at the time. Now that I have the EaselCaddy added to my products, I intend to enlarge the bag in a future order for those that wish to store/carry everything in one place.

There are a few steps in setting up the EaselCaddy but once assembled, one shouldn’t need to do it again. The materials used to keep it lightweight and compact dictated the design and assembly choices I made. Further information can be found on my website and I post a few tips and how-to’s on Instagram which address questions I receive.I appreciate my products being mentioned on this site and hope those interested in painting are inspired by this report.


Ed Leder

This Is All Wrong!

We should not wait for a 16 year old to travel across the ocean in a small boat in order to be heard.

We should allow our local, state, national, international and business leaders to make terrible decisions that cause global catastrophe.

We are not paying attention to a crisis. Our news mostly ignores the most important story on earth. Our schools teach it in a haphazard way, if at all. Our parents, our elders do not understand what is happening so they cannot and do not share the wisdom they do not possess.

So it falls to Greta Thunberg, and now, millions of children inspired by her, to sacrifice precious childhood and adolescence because adults have failed their generation.

Let’s not become distracted. Let’s focus on what Greta is telling us. Let’s support the next generation instead of destroying their future.

Please pay attention. We’re all busy, but that excuse is no longer an acceptable response. Doing nothing is unacceptable.

Spending five minutes with Greta is the most important thing you can do right now. And if you have already seen her brief statement to the U.N., make sure to share this with someone who may be distracted by less important issues. This one matters.


He, and They, but Mostly, Babe

There is always a longer story. Often, more than one. Pull one strand and three stories become visible.

The first one begins begins in 1890 when Arthur Stanley Jefferson is born into a noted theatrical family in Ulverston, a market town in Cumbria, which is located north of England’s second largest city, Manchester. The family controlled the Metropole Theatre in Glasgow. Before he was 16 years old, the boy was occasionally performing onstage. By the time he was twenty, the young actor was understudying for an actor he would always admire, Charlie Chaplin. An American tour followed, and he decided to relocate. Soon, he was making movies with the first of what would become many wives. By 1925–by now, he was 35 years old–he was calling himself Stan Laurel, and working as a writer/director for Hal Roach Studios (also known for the Our Gang comedies). Hardly famous, Stan Laurel’s involvement in dozens of films (all two-reelers, each about 20 minutes long), with a long resume of stage performance, with a distinct talent for comedy, might have taken him a long way as he matured along with the growing business of motion pictures. We’ll pick up on that story shortly.

The second story begins two years after Stan Laurel was born, in 1892, this time in Harlem, Georgia, then in Milledgeville, not far from Macon. Again, a show business family of sorts. Norvell Hardy sang locally, and operated a movie theater. By age 21, he (most often, “Babe,” less often “Oliver”) was working in Florida for Lubin Motion Pictures (one of the largest early movie companies) as a production and script assistant. A year later, Oliver Hardy made his first film, and more than 200 short films followed. When Florida’s film industry failed, he and his wife (again, many wives in Babe’s story, too), and ended up at the Hal Roach studio.

When Hal Roach puts the two actors together, the third story begins in 1927 with two-reelers. Laurel & Hardy are among the few silent film stars who built even-more-successful careers in full-length features with sound. Stan is in his glory as head writer and creative lead–he develops the gags, and simply falls in love with the popular confection known as Laurel & Hardy. Babe is more of a talented actor who enjoys the lifestyle–including gambling, women, and so on–but when he on set, he is the consummate professional.

Both live a life consumed by failed relationships with women, and money issues (both closely related). They are among Hollywood’s biggest stars, but they are contract players with little economic leverage. Each lives with his own demons.

At times, they are not sure whether they even like one another, but there is no question about whether they love one another. The story of Laurel & Hardy is the story of one of the great 20th century friendships, often tested by the ups and downs of a career that continued into the 1950s.

That’s when the end of the third story picks up, not in real life, but as a motion picture. It’s called Stan & Ollie (2018). This chapter begins while Laurel & Hardy are at the peak of their creative endeavors at the Roach studio, and provides several winning examples of the two making movies. There are hints of financial troubles and struggles with producer Hal Roach, and these advance the plot to a less-than-stellar start of a tour of England in the 1953. As they wait for a British movie producer (“Miffin,” often called “Muffin” by these silly guys) to green light a feature based upon Robin Hood (which is never made), they tour to modest audiences that are only partially filled. It’s depressing, a too-close look at what happens after a star is no longer a star. Still, the show must go on, even if it requires free promotional appearances to get their names out (most people seem to think they’ve retired, but they cannot because past divorce settlements must be paid). Somehow, the promo dates turn things around, and suddenly, they are filling the biggest theaters. But Ollie’s health is beginning to fail.

shareThe magic of Stan & Ollie is presented with ideal timing and winning personality by John C. Reilly (in a fat suit), and British comedian Steve Coogan (with a bit of prosthetic as well, most to shape his chin). They do marvelous work with several of the funniest bits, including a “double door” routine at an onstage railroad station that demonstrates Stan’s spectacular control over coming timing.

Along the way, we gain some insight into Stan’s creative mind, his insecurities about his relationship with Babe, the decisions never made or made for the wrong reasons, the wives, the financial mess he keeps getting himself into (as Babe does the same), the stormy relationship with Hal Roach, who seems to be getting rich on the backs of their work. And then, it ends. Babe dies. Stan continues writing scripts for Laurel & Hardy in a Los Angeles apartment because he cannot imagine any better way to spend his days.

Every good show business story demands a fair amount of imaginative leeway. So, too, is the case with he. Who’s “he?” He is Stan Laurel, unsure what remains of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, and the young man who was once nearly on par with the great Charlie Chaplin. He is Stan Laurel who never could convince Babe to leave the Roach studio so they could set up their studio and make the fortune to which they were so deeply entitled. He is a sad man who experienced so much happiness, fame, and if not fortune, so much pleasure during the heights of his creative activities. He made magic.

s-l640He is the title of a novel–not a biography, but a novel that seems a lot like a biography but allows itself ample opportunity to explore what Stan was probably thinking and why. At first, author John Connolly’s idea for a book seems too ambitious, too flaky, too far removed from reality, too close to reality. And then, half the book is passed. Embellished by moving images of Steve Coogan portraying Stan Laurel, illuminated by watching Harold Lloyd, Chaplin and especially Buster Keaton on YouTube (another opportunity for none of them to get paid for their work), Stan takes shape as more than part of a famous show business duo. He becomes a whole person, powerful in his way, and deeply wounded, too.

The wound runs deep. There is resentment–why could Chaplin succeed in ways that he could not–why was Roach so unfair–how did Laurel & Hardy lose their careers–how did they manage to go so low as to play to small unfilled houses in 1953–but in the end, none of that stays in his mind for too long. When he looks out the window, and watches the ocean–he does that a lot in his later years, at least according to Connolly, he thinks only of Babe.

They were swell together.

And he wants nothing more than to work a gag with Babe for eternity.




Protected: PRE-PUB: The Human Side of Globalization

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

A Parisian History in Color

sennelier_couvertureIn Paris, on the Quai Voltaire, amidst antique dealers of the highest order, along the left bank of the Seine, directly across the river from the famous Louvre museum, there is a shop.

Sennelier-Interieur-In 1887, or, perhaps, 1888, the shop was nearly bankrupt. With the sale, former shop owner M. Prevost, makes dreams come true. The new owner, Gustave Sennelier, always hoped to own a shop where he could manufacture and sell his own artist’s pigments. And so, the shop became known by the sign visible to all of Paris, Sennelier: Couleurs Pour Artistes.

This was an especially exciting time to be selling colors and working with artists in Paris. The impressionists enjoyed their first successful group show in Paris in 1886.  Painters were experimenting with color and light, trying new formulas and new ideas, and often relied upon the good advice of the chemists who were emerging as colorists. (Previously, pigments were sold in pharmacies as a sideline; art supply stores were still a relatively new idea.) As chemistry and art intertwine, artists now regarded as legend were working professionals who purchased their supplies from Sennelier. Cezanne was one of many in Paris who frequented the shop; others included Pierre Bonnard, Robert Delauney, and Pablo Picasso.

Seeking new products and new opportunities, Sennelier’s pigments found popular use for batik (the pigmentation of decorative fabrics), painting on porcelain, and in new formulations for artists, including, for example, new oil pastels. “Picasso adopted it immediately. He asked for it in 48 colors of which–Picasso’s grey period required it–10 were shades of grey, a heresy in the age of colors.” Artists used the new oil pastels to start an oil painting, allowing the fluidity and ease of sketching onto the canvas. Then, the painting would be completed in a classical oil painting style.

facade-quai-GFThe Sennelier family has passed knowledge, chemistry, color sense and business sense from generation to generation. In a sense, the new book, Sennelier: A History in Color by Pascale Richard, is a family biography. As with the Parisian landscape, the family is part of a bolder story: the powerful relationship between science (chemistry) and a tremendous assortment of artistic accomplishments. The book is filled with full-page images of Jackson Pollack paintings and store shelves filled with pigments; photos of antique paint tubes and pastel drawings by Edgar Degas; spectacular old city scape photos of the old shop and inside the old lab and photos of the shop today, a place that hasn’t changed much in a century. If you are planning a visit to the Louvre, do find the time to cross the Seine, make the left turn, follow the classic old buildings until you reach number 3 Quai Voltaire. At the least, you will buy a notebook or a sketchbook (Picasso bought lots of them), and perhaps you will be persuaded to buy a set of Sennelier pastels, which are among the finest in the world, or oils or watercolors, or artist’s pads. You can buy some, or even most, of this merchandise in many U.S. art supply stores, but it’s not the same experience. There is magic in the old shop, magic that is so loving transported into book format.


Daniel Greene is one of my favorite artists. Click on the picture to explore his spectacular work.

It is a joy filled story: the idea of bringing Sennelier products to the U.S., the magic of those pastels in the hands of a great contemporary artist. Daniel Greene is such an artist, and his two-page spread of Manhattan’s Franklin Street subway station is a wonder. So, too, are the simple photos of the neatly-ordered tortillons in a century-0ld drawer in the old shop.

For about ten years, I have so enjoyed using Sennelier pastels. The freshness and depth of their color makes every painting special. When I have a Sennelier pastel in my hand, I sense that there is legend there. I visited the shop in Paris, and sensed some of the history, but it was difficult to understand how the story fit together. When I started reading the book, I loved the combination of new and vintage photographs, art and artists at work, and the story told in both French and English blocks of prose. About a third of the way through the book, I realized that I was grinning. And I wondered about the last time I had grinned my way through the reading of an entire book.

Several years ago, NPR did a wonderful story about the Sennelier shop. Listen to it here.

Even better, I think, is the photo essay and commentary on the blog A Painter in Paris. The photo below should encourage you to visit both the blog and the store. Enjoy!


%d bloggers like this: