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Ruminations on literature, art, politics, music, photography, design (architecture and landscape), wine and spirits &c.

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  • 03/13/14--17:09: Bearing Fruit

  • Peaches on a White Tablecloth

    Color has touched this fruit only in certain places, but with the greatest care.

    The shadows of the muslin are of a cool blue, like that of crockery in a humble cottage just outside of Paris. Its white has yielded to the failing light.

    They are nestled in gravity’s palm, as if just supporting them were a labor of love.

    If color alone could sustain us, these peaches would be good enough to eat.

    They are only orange by convergence of allied tints, such as the red of apples, or the yellow of lemons. But to combine these, without the proper restraint, could ruin everything.

    Roundness, globular, is light folded into itself to make a translucence.

    The half-life of any growth is a logarithm of its decay, turning sweetness into sour, green into yellow, and red, and finally brown.

    The sugars sing their special white purity along the palette of the scraping knife.

    Oxygen eats the space around them, as if hungry.

    The peaches are actually blue.

    After Cézanne

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    Everything in America eventually turns into a corporate stock fight, for the rights to exploit something that kids once got an innocent kick out of.  

    When I was a boy, it seemed that there were endless things that you could collect. There were marbles, silver dollars, steel pennies, hub caps, indian arrowheads, rocks, toy cars, shells, postage stamps, Pez dispensers, records, medals. You name it, we collected it. 

    In 1958, I was 10, in the fifth grade, and before I knew it, I was walking down to the local drugstore to buy packages of Topps Bubblegum packs each of which contained 5 current baseball "trading cards"--with real pictures of major league players, with their stats on the reverse side. The cards were numbered, issued in "series"--successively through the Summer season. 

    According to the Wikipedia entry, the hardest cards to acquire over time, were those issued at the end of the "trading" season, since interest would wain and fewer sets of the final series each year were published (or sold). That sounds logical, but during the Season, that wasn't how it worked at all.

    The first series in 1958 included many of the most desirable cards (players) in the set, and because they were the first to go off market, they were the toughest to find. By the fourth series of the Season, everyone had multiples of those, but because they were so common, they were nearly worthless. 

    "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be,"Yogi was quoted as saying, among his collection of homely chestnuts. "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." 

    Among the early cards issued, were Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Duke Snider, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle. Important players issued later might become just as sought after, but because they were on the market later, they always seemed easier to find. 

    Mickey always looked like a hayseed, but his Oakie bluff was good enough for Yankee pride

    I don't know how far I got with my collection by the end of the collecting year (in 1958), but by the end I probably had all but about a dozen of the toughest numbers. The San Francisco Giants came west in 1958, so though the cards all showed the statistics from the previous year (in New York), the team cards showed them as the San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers came west the same year to Los Angeles, so though their stats had been made in Brooklyn, their cards said Los Angeles Dodgers. 

    For baseball fans, there was no magic quite like Willie's special charisma and physical grace

    There was keen interest in all the Dodger cards that year, as much as for the Yankees, with their loaded line-up of stars. No one knew it at the time, of course, but a little-noticed young Southpaw named Sandy Koufax would, in a few short years, ascend into the limelight as perhaps the greatest pitcher in major league history, so his card wasn't worth much despite being a low #187. A young Puerto Rican outfielder named Orlando Cepeda hadn't yet played a game in the bigs by 1957, but he soon would become the Giants proud Rookie of the Year for 1958. 

    In 1958, Hank Aaron was the most complete ballplayer in the game--power, speed, average, great in the clutch; he'd go on to play another 18 years, fulfilling the promise of his youth 

    In 1958, the major leagues consisted of two divisions, the National and the American. There were eight teams in each league. The Pennant winners in each league played against each other in the World Series. There were no "play-offs" and no wild cards or also rans. With only 16 teams in the country, there was a lot of room in other places for minor league clubs. The talent was concentrated in these 16 franchises, not spread out and diluted as it is today. Any player who hoped to ascend to the majors, would have to be among the top 5 players in his minor league, or he wouldn't be noticed.    

    National League

    Chicago Cubs
    Los Angeles Dodgers
    St. Louis Cardinals
    Pittsburgh Pirates
    Cincinnati Redlegs
    Philadelphia Phillies
    Milwaukee Braves
    San Francisco Giants

    American League

    New York Yankees
    Kansas City Athletics
    Detroit Tigers
    Chicago White Sox
    Cleveland Indians
    Boston Red Sox
    Washington Senators
    Baltimore Orioles

    I remember that the players I most wanted, aside from the whole Giants team members, were the Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra cards. They were first, or early second series cards, and I'd missed  my chance to get them early, because I hadn't caught the bug until late June or early July of the year, well after they had gone out of print. The only way you could get those cards was by trading cards with other collectors. Once you had a tough card, you generally didn't try to acquire another one, so prying loose a card from someone who had one was nearly impossible. You had to give up something that the other collector didn't have, or a card he coveted which you didn't. I don't think I ever owned the Mantle card, but I did manage to wangle a Hank Aaron (the so-called "white lettered" version, which was easier to find than the "yellow lettered" one). 

    For a long time, I looked in vain for the Ed Bouchee card, which had been numbered #145. A kid I knew on my paper route claimed to own this card, and used to tease me about it. But I read now, that Ed Bouchee was charged and convicted on exposing himself to young girls, and his card was withdrawn before it was ever published, and so #145 never appeared, a permanent missing link. Poor Ed Bouchee--what a thing to be famous for.

    Collecting can become an obsession, even a kind of mental disease. Stamp companies trying to lure kids into the collecting game often mentioned that FDR had been an avid stamp collector, not mentioning that it was a sedentary pastime he'd adopted after being stricken with polio and confined to a wheelchair--not something he would naturally have chosen, since he'd been an active, physical man prior to the disease. Serious collectors are occasionally described as addicts. Our obsession with physical objects, imbued with almost magical qualities that make them seem priceless possessions, is an uniquely human phenomenon, though there are apparently some birds which will "feather their nests" with bits of tin foil or colored ribbon, as if it were decoration. Blogging, of course, can become a bad habit. 

    The collecting bug had bitten me, in 1958, and I was hooked. Reefer Madness. I longed to have a complete run of the whole set. Then one day in the early Fall of the year, my mom and I were downtown on an errand, and she had to buy some cigarettes at a dimestore counter. What should be resting on the counter by the cash register, but a box of Topps Baseball Card packs! And not only that--these were in the waxy black wrappers, the color of the first series cartons! I begged my mom to buy me a couple packs, which she did, reluctantly. Once outside the store, I tore open the packs and was overjoyed to find the new first series cards of players I'd never been able to get in stores before. This was a stash that had lain dormant for weeks behind the counter. Realizing that this was an opportunity not to be missed, I begged and begged my mother, who eventually ended up buying the whole box for me. I don't recall now what the per-pack price was--could it have been 5 cents a pack, or as much as a quarter?--almost certainly not--else she wouldn't have popped for all of them. It was a little like finding a $50 bill on the sidewalk. You just knew that chance had favored you and that it was folly to question your luck. 

    As the years passed, the card collection ended up in the basement with my other childhood effects, and I would notice it whenever I went down there. After 1974, I stopped visiting home, and I have always supposed that my brother Clark, who was 13 years younger than I, must have discovered them at some point. He eventually became an avid vintage rock music record collector, so I assume he must have realized their potential, and sold them. I still have my old world stamp album--a behemoth of about 6 inches thick--which I retrieved from home in 1973. Stamps are harder to sell on the wholesale market, so I doubt they'd have any interesting value today.

    In the 1970's and 1980's, the sports card memorabilia industry really got cranked up, with complete runs of sets like this going for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. The sports memorabilia auction scene has fed off the internet, evoking both rising and falling price spirals to all kinds of collectibles. The sports card market crashed in the '90's, but it may have come back up by now. It's not something I watch.     

    When I worked for the government, back in the early 1980's, I knew a fellow who collected baseball cards seriously. He acquired special plastic envelopes for the cards, and could quote values for all the important numbers. Later, I met a Chinese gentleman in San Francisco, who had gotten seriously into the card business, investing over $200,000 in his own edition of sports cards; but he'd gotten in just a bit too late, and had lost his shirt. Once, years later, I was at a used book sale, and someone had donated several complete boxed sets of later Topps series cards, but someone said that they were so late in the game, even complete sets weren't worth the trouble of storing or listing them for sale.

    In the 1990's, I became interested in collecting rare copies of modern (post 1900) first editions. As my interested intensified, I found myself spending the kind of money you usually reserve for big necessities, like engine overhauls or a new dress suit. It didn't take long to realize that if I wanted to collect seriously, really seriously, the best way was to become a trader, instead of just a collector. The rare book dealer I knew then, told me "collecting is for dummies, Curtis, you should become a dealer. You'll see books you never imagined you'd ever see, much less own, and you'll actually have the experience of holding and studying and appreciating them, albeit temporarily." I've never had better advice in my life.

    It wasn't long before I had become a serious used rare book dealer, a profession I pursue now more or less full-time (since 1991, when I retired after 27 years with the Federal Government). No matter how long you live, or how much you love what you own, you can't take it with you. I like to tell my customers that we're all "custodians" of our stuff; we're just taking care of it until the next generation(s) arrive(s) to relieve us of our abandoned dreams and burdens. 

    Harry "Suitcase" Simpson--so nicknamed because he was traded so often among various teams that he never needed to unpack his suitcase 

    Here's to you, Don Mossi, still alive at 85, who'd win 17 games with Detroit in 1959, eventually retiring in 1965 at age 36. What a face!

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  • 03/21/14--09:30: The Trojan Drones

  • Back in 2009, I discussed the issue of censorship in the blogosphere ["Thoughts on Blogging" -- April 8th, 2009]; and in 2010, I talked about the issue of information control, secrecy and the public media ["Assange & The Assault on Internet Exchange" -- December 14, 2010].

    In the last three years, the public's attention has been altered, largely as a result of the augmentation of scale of the computer device, towards devices that are portable, instead of tied down by weight and size to a desk. The personal computer has been transformed from a machine in situ, to a kind of advanced cell phone device--a computer on wheels. 

    The new phones are as powerful and facile in some respects as full-sized computers used to be. They can send and receive written messages (like e.mail), take pictures, surf the internet, record financial transactions with credit cards. Like the older cell phones, however, they must still be periodically re-charged.

    New so-called "social media" sites have grown up around this new technology--such as Facebook, Twitter etc.--which have capitalized on the easy interconnectivity, linking up users anywhere in the world, to sequences of text-threads  

    One major drawback of the new devices is that they aren't large enough to provide a classic QUERTY keyboard, though most have a tiny version of this which can be used in the traditional "hunt and peck" manner which people who had never memorized the typing keyboard were forced to employ. Hunting and pecking, or thumbing, is now the new mode for millions of people around the world. 

    Like any new gadget, the new cell-cum-computer phones are popular toys. Kids and grown-ups can both appreciate the novelty of making quick, efficient communications from any location, not tied down to a heavy wired device. 

    People have begun to speculate about the effects of this new revolutionary device, and how it may influence our culture. And they've begun to wonder about the implications of being constantly "connected" to vast, intricate webs of users, as well as the potential for loss of privacy and confidentiality these new gadgets create.

    Since January 2009 I've become a committed blogger, posting over 750 pieces, or essays, on a wide variety of subjects. I have no idea how many bloggers there are in the world. Two years ago, estimates were as high as 173 million, worldwide. I suppose that number much have increased since that time. I'm not sure anyone cares to know the number. 

    Blogging bears comparison to earlier kinds of written communication. You type your entries on a typewriter keyboard, and they're read on screens big enough to accommodate a "page" that can be read easily. They're then "loaded" onto the internet, where they are "received" or accessible, like a kind of permanent telegram, complete with pictures and bells & whistles (links, videos etc.). 

    Blogging programs are a kind of application. New applications, or apps, as they are now called, can be loaded on to any computer and used to connect to new spheres of access. You can do personal banking, play games and see a live-feed video of a Paris street. 

    The first thing to remember about new social media gadgets is that they are proprietary mechanical devices (machines) which are produced to make money. They aren't made available as a public service, but must be purchased by the user. In order to connect to any other entity on the world wide web, one must forfeit some personal privacy in exchange for access. 

    Cell phones are not just symbols, but invasive trojan drones of the media industry, designed to hook us up, track our behavior and movements, and analyze our habits and likes and dislikes, the more easily to target us for yet more advertising. The gathering of this data for other purposes has become a hot topic now. Do companies that service these devices, suck up data from users, store and sort and trade it (at a profit), with or without our permission, need to be regulated? Do companies have our best interests at heart? Will the government, which has now begun to spy on the vast internet network of exchange, gathering and storing up messaging data, be responsible enough not to misuse it, for political or other purposes (such as law enforcement)? 

    Back in 2010, I spoke out against the use of cell phones ["The New Generation of Inter-Com Devices -- Why They're Bad" -- June 30k, 2010], objecting to the pernicious affects upon users (and others) in public, and in private. 

    Since then, the new apps have moved the live voice off to one side, further compressing the window through which the oceanic exchange touches individual devices. In my last foray into this grey area of media ["Death of the Twinkie - Birth of the Hand-Held" -- August 11, 2013], I speculated about the possible death of the hand-held, using the impending death of the Twinkie Snack Treat as a metaphor. 

    In spite of its enormous reach, I suspect that the new Social Media sphere may be a short-lived phenomenon. Blogging was the new kid on the block, and it's still with us. A lot of people, probably mostly kids and teens and young adults, have wandered away to fritter their lives on Twitter and Facebook, but I suspect that, given the severe restraints on communications those apps impose, they may endure only as resorts to necessity. 

    Once the novelty has worn off, people will easily tire of the triviality and pointlessness of setting down a dozen or so words, and expecting friends, or strangers, to appreciate or understand the meaning of our speech. Already, communication/media wonks have begun predicting the death of Twitter and Facebook. They're already old hat. 

    People may tire of being persuaded to to constantly communicating--mostly for no purpose--but the companies and corporations who produce these devices, and the companies which run the apps which live on them, have other things in mind. What will they think of next?  

    I joined the blogging party, but I refused to titillate myself with Twitter. I figure that the kind of people who "tweet" to and "face" each other, probably aren't interested in discussing anything seriously, and so I have no regrets about not being a part of their game. Never having wanted to be a joiner, or a clubby type, I ignore their buzz as much as I can.  Every so often, someone I once blogged with, or exchanged an e.mail message with, will send me a Tweet alert, that there's a message waiting for me. 

    Anything important enough to communicate with another person deserves to be heard privately, If you need to tell the world, or your close circle of "friends" what's on your mind, I would think that limiting it to a sentence or two would be a pretty sad commentary on the state of your consciousness, and of the low esteem you hold your readers. 

    The new social media is a dumbing down of communication. People may be stupid--they usually are--but even naive, unimaginative people will quickly tire of something once the fun of discovery has passed. The very qualities which the new media demands, insures that they won't be loyal customers for long. The attention span of an ape is probably longer than someone who habitually uses Facebook or Twitter. And that is what will kill it, eventually.

    It won't be a nano-second too soon for me.  

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  • 04/02/14--12:35: Spring Reading List

  • Let's begin at the beginning. 

    Is reading a good thing for people? Our distant ancestors, who created language, must have been delighted when writing took on this novel, symbolic, signified value (as the material text), which it still has for us today. 

    Language, and the system of signs and symbols which represent it in material (and abstract) space, is mankind's chief invention, which has enabled the development of communication, thought, calculation--all the things which a systematic medium can provide. A written language is the first distinct plateau which separates civilized man from a primitive nomadic oral society, for whom all cultural memory and accreted accomplishments were fragile artifacts, always in danger of being forgotten or lost. Recorded history is a benchmark in time, before which we have little first-hand account. 

    My parents, who had grown up in the Midwest in the first half of the 20th Century, believed that the act of reading was a hygienic pastime, not merely a tool in the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, or the indulgence of a pleasurable diversion. They wanted me to acquire a comfort and familiarity with the text, that would develop into a habitual pastime. I suppose if you had asked them whether the simple act of reading, sans any connection to the nature of the text itself, was somehow a beneficial, healthy thing, they would have been puzzled; but I think, deep down, they probably believed that it was, though this would have seemed an ethically ambiguous position. Reading something wrong, to them, would probably have caused them some consternation in the formula. 

    I don't recall when reading first became a habit for me. I remember reading a book called The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, by John Fox Jr. [1903] when I was perhaps 7 or 8. I can distinctly remember a sensation of cozy containment, curled up in a chair in our small living room, in which the unfolding narrative created its own mental pathway through suspended time and imaginative space. Earlier, my parents had sat me down and made me read books to them, as a kind of training or practice. The fact of being tested and drilled in this way prevented me from getting "lost" inside the text, so it would have to wait until I was solitary and at ease, before the magic of reading finally captured me.

    Later, when I went to college, I lost this sense of reading as a recreation, having to pore over texts for meaning, regurgitation and interpretation. As early as the 11th grade in high school, I had picked up the idea of analyzing texts, and my critical sense was precocious. By the 12th grade, I was able to manipulate the meaning and significance of novels and poems and essays with ease, but this skill came with a price-tag. The more objectively I could read and interpret, the less unconscious my experience of reading became. As a young writer of poetry, I understood that the place it came from in my mind was irrational, generative, and mysterious. As I grew older, I understood that the imagination is like a muscle. But simply exercising that muscle didn't insure that what you imagined, or created, necessarily was good. The muse, unpredictable and capricious, might not smile on you, despite how hard you labored to keep it alive and in condition.  

    People who read mostly for pleasure, have the luxury of experiencing it at a level that may be denied those who must work with texts as a profession, or out of necessity. My wife almost never reads serious books, but she routinely consumes a full-length mystery or romance, at an astounding rate of 4 or 5 a week. She's able to read as naturally as breathing; it's truly second nature to her. People read at different rates, and in different ways. 

    When I read, I'm not just following a sequence of event. Reading is a savoring of the language, the grammar and word choice and turn of phrase a particular writer employs. I will often read a sentence or a paragraph over again, to completely comprehend it, or to study how it was done, or simply to ride it again. For me, the love of reading is composed of a number of different possible ways of apprehension, no one of which is useful in all texts, each of which may apply to a specific occasion. When I read a thriller, I'm looking to be swept up in a pursuit of intriguing details. When I read a critical book, I'm weighing the writer's point of view, his argument. When I'm reading poetry, I'm trying to appreciate the relationship between the sense of the words, the music and the ingenious wit, all in combination. 

    Lately, in the last decade, I've become interested in biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. I've become convinced that autobiography is a fascinating form, in large measure because of the tension which exists between what people would like others to believe about them, and what they believe in their secret hearts is the actual truth of their lives. People may think they are better than they were, or less good than they've been regarded. It's interesting to see how people deal with this dilemma--the excuses or dismissals or emphases they may place on certain key events that happened to them, or acts which they committed.

    This spring I've been reading several books at once, as usual. I happened to find a nice reading copy of Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol [1985]. Forsyth fits the profile of a typical British spy thriller author of the Cold War period. He also published The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, among other well-known examples. His books are carefully researched, and have an air of authority, and of almost slavish attention to correct detail, which tends to detract a little from the narrative pace of the story. The Fourth Protocol revolves around a Soviet plot to set off a limited (small) nuclear device at an American air base in England, as a way of manipulating the British elections (during the Thatcher years) towards a Left victory, pitting the respective British and Russian intelligence services against each other in a race to apprehend the perpetrator before doomsday. The book was published just before the "fall" of the Soviet Union, in 1991, so it may seem quite dated now in its assumption of the static East-West Bloc stand-off, which more or less was officially ended then. This status is now undergoing a reappraisal, as Russia's President Putin appears to be attempting to reassert the Russian bear's hegemony over its far-flung recent satellite republics (in the Ukraine). Forsyth employs a familiar plot technique, beginning with a series of several seemingly random events occurring simultaneously in different places, gradually drawing these distinct threads into connected alignment until the two phalanxes join in the end with the apprehension of the Soviet Spy in a small English cottage town, barely preventing the detonation of the home-made nuclear device. 

    The Fourth Protocol is interesting too as a kind of precursor of the age of terrorism which has developed over the succeeding decades. Pre-"9/11", events like this might have seemed improbable. The "fourth protocol" is the mutual agreement, contained in the Nuclear Arms Treaty of 1969-70, not to employ nuclear arms on a limited, secret basis. This protocol is violated, in the story, by a renegade Soviet Premier, who sees it as an irresistible weapon to manipulate public opinion, to weaken the Western democracies against the East. In 1985, people weren't thinking much about Arab terrorists, though the Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981) had just occurred, and young Osama bin-Laden had made his way into Afghanistan, where he was using his money to fund the mujahideen movement there, first against Russia, and later against the U.S. As America's focus shifted from the threat posed by the Soviet Union, to the Middle-Eastern Muslim extremists, many in our intelligence community continue to be concerned about the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack very much like the one sketched out by Forsyth. As the career of Forsyth's contemporary Le Carré shows, espionage genre authors have had to do some fancy foot-work to keep up with the changing complexion of world alliances and oppositions. Forsyth's novel is like a snapshot frozen in (recent) time, but with a surprisingly relevant theme.

    Adam Gopnik's The Table Comes First [2011] is a collection of linked gastronomical essays which first appeared in The New Yorker. Gopnik's been a foodie all his life, from his childhood, surprisingly. His first book, Paris to the Moon (based on his Paris Journal columns for the same magazine) didn't appear until he was 43. Though covering a range of different cooking issues and styles, Gopnik's primary theme is the dialectic between high and low cooking styles--characterized by the European (primarily French) tradition of the restaurant versus the bistro. as divergent customary styles of cuisine. This dilemma becomes ambiguous in European and American fine cuisine, in the post-War period, as new styles of preparation and presentation compete for ascendancy. Gopnik reviews the food traditions which channeled these respective approaches, taking nothing for granted, letting his personal eclectic American curiosity lead him here and there. He imagines a correspondence between himself and a turn-of-the-century cook-book writer, in which he looks through her eyes and his, at their separate respective attitudes towards food, trying to find congruences and distinctions that resolve.  

    Adam Gopnik

    Gopnik has a fine way with a phrase, and is not above waxing poetic about a taste combination that really turns him on. In the end, he seems to come down on the side of those who put pure pleasure at the center of superior cooking (and eating), rejecting both "healthy" alternatives and super-chic finery, in favor of "what works." Though he doesn't say so in as many words, he seems to be advocating an approach to gastronomy that puts the food at the center of a mandala, in which expense is only one possible attribute of the ideal. It's possible to make fabulous dishes in the privacy of one's own kitchen, if you will take the trouble to find out what's good, and go to some little trouble to obtain it. His gastronomic writing is certainly as elegant and sophisticated as any by Elizabeth David or Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, though considerably less "practical." It's not a cookbook. 

    Norman Douglas [1868-1952] is an enigma, though you would never have that impression if you only read his works, which show a side of him that would not lead you to imagine the sort of fellow he probably was in the flesh, in private. I've been reading his Looking Back: An Autobiographical Excursion [1933]. During his long life, Douglas kept a card file of people he knew or had encountered over the years, and his autobiography consists of his review of these names, one after the other, in no particular chronological order. 

    Douglas is mostly known today as the author of South Wind [1917], a fantasy novel with some frisky moral and sexual innuendos, set in Southern Italy. His other books are mostly forgotten, though holding the interest of connoisseurs of disreputable indulgence. Douglas was a bi-sexual, and a deviant one, eventually preferring young boys, and even children, as partners. His escapades led him into difficulties along the way, and he eventually found haven in Italy, with periods in England and France. For me, his chief interest is in his prose style, which is an odd combination of simplicity, casualness and elegance combined. He is interested in people, but more as types, or eccentric specimens, than as full three dimensional characters. 

    Norman Douglas in later life

    Douglas is first and foremost devoted to the good life, good food, good landscape, good houses, good travel, nice things, etc. In this book you will find passages about D.H. Lawrence, W.H. Hudson, Rupert Brooke, Frank Harris, etc., but these are less important to the overall effect than as a procession of types which parade across his memory. The point seems to be that a life devoted to notoriety, or accomplishment, for its own sake, is transparent and pointless, whereas a cultivated life accepts each individual moment, and each  incarnation of the race as an integral segment of the tapestry, none more meaningful than another, except as we choose to make it. Douglas presents an enigma of a modern man who grew up in late Victorian England (but with one foot in Germany), whose tastes and daring attitudes informed his life with a frisson of alertness. 

    Douglas came to maturity while Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and Algernon Charles Swinburne were still literary news, and by the time he died there were atom bombs, televisions, jet planes, and The Catcher in the Rye had been published.

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  • 04/20/14--19:36: The Favorite Movies Post

  • The ranking of movies is like the ranking of any media form. We live in a competitive society, in which the drive to succeed, to exceed, plays a crucial role in the democratic playground of the pursuit of happiness--wealth, notoriety and esteem.

    Movies are first a form of entertainment, but they are also a vehicle for social criticism, propaganda, or public information. Cinema is a new medium, invented at the end of the 19th Century, with the added domain of sound in the late 1920's. The technological advancements in visual, sound and special effects have occurred with some regularity over the decades, leading to the sophistication of a medium which had begun as little more than a kind of static theatre-like, two-dimensional projection process. While the mature craft of acting has changed little over the last century, movies have developed a host of processes and techniques, making them the dominant art form of the present age. Movies have been, and continue to be, the art of the future.

    While the technical side of moving pictures has progressed dramatically, it's become clear that narrative construction, and the development and portrayal of character, are still at the heart of meaningful, effective action, and that successful cinematic entertainment can't be built exclusively upon special visual or aural effects. "Action" movies may have little or no inherent, intrinsic dramatic content, if they rely on nothing but ingenious technical tricks or audacious visual surprises. A good story is still a good story, with or without cinematic sleights of hand.

    I'm not sure just why, but none of the following productions was released before 1931. So-called "silent movies" (movies without coordinated sound) which could only represent dialogue by interspersing printed screens of quotation, had many things to recommend them, within the limitations of the new medium. The slapstick comics built their tradition on clownish antics and cliff-hanging dare-devil stunts, talents which have not been improved-upon in the decades since, simply because there has not been a need to do so. "They had faces," says Gloria Swanson in the nostalgic Sunset Boulevard [1950]--one of the titles on my list--but they didn't have voices (in the silent era). When talkies came in, some players who had built their careers on visuals, suddenly became obsolete, unable to project the same dramatic quality with their voices, that they'd been able to do with their faces and bodies. For me, the Silent era exists in a kind of pre-cinematic precinct, neither theatre nor pure cinema, perhaps more of a curiosity than a fully-developed form. I can appreciate Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Lillian Gish, but their silent era work seems somehow stifled, and limited, being neither as rich as legitimate theatre, nor as streamlined as cinema with sound. Silents were a transitional curiosity; sound movies were the complete package.

    Like theatre, the first successful (sound) movies were celebrations of the emancipation of the human voice. For me, the first legitimate (sound) movie is The Front Page, released in 1931, based on the successful stage play of the same name, co-authored by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It's basically a film of a play, with almost no purely cinematic effects at all, but with plenty of crackling, witty dialogue, and dramatic tension. It's pure American energy and humor and chutzpah, and captures the brash, percolating spirit of the 1920's.

    Movies made great strides, both technically and financially, throughout the 1930's, as major production companies consolidated their organizations, becoming efficient factories turning out as many releases as they could, to meet the rapidly growing demand. Musicals, dance movies, and stagy extravaganzas blossomed quickly. Movies got longer, and with the arrival of color, more visually realistic. As a child of the 1950's, when television came into wide use, I grew up seeing countless pre-war movies from the 1930's. I can remember little of them, though they are of course very familiar when I see them now. One would think that the movies one had seen as a child would leave a lasting impression, as indeed they may have, unconsciously. But thinking about them today, I can find little to recommend them. They were mostly a kind of escapist medium from the economic hardships of the time, designed not to remind people of the truths of their lives, but to transport them to an alternative universe where reality didn't intervene.

     Hollywood's star system produced countless familiar faces, but the films they made were, by today's standards, stilted and timid efforts. The medium would have to wait until after World War II, in my view, to begin to produce films that were fully integrated cinematic works, incorporating action, acting, writing, editing, sound and cinematography together to make a whole experience. I have only six movies from the 1930's, not because there weren't countless interesting efforts in that decade, but because they didn't leave a lasting impression on me.

    The Front Page 1931
    A Day at the Races 1937

    Dead End 1937
    Ninotchka 1939
    Wizard of Oz 1939
    Gone With the Wind 1939
    Wuthering Heights 1939

    It's no surprise that Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind end up on the list, since they expanded the medium to epic proportions, and established new benchmarks for technical realism on the one hand, and magical fantasy on the other. Both were breakthroughs in creating a complete visual world. Wuthering Heights followed the romantic plot-line of the novel, going against the grain of the happy ending boy-gets-girl formula. It's also cinematically effective, using black and white to create emotional sturm und drang--a quality that would soon become preeminent during the Noir era. Ninotchka is a sentimental favorite, Garbo's last important effort, and a very entertaining comedy with political overtones that would never again be viewed in such an innocent way. Dead End combines a number of aspects--gangsterism, juvenile delinquency, economic disparity among potential mates--played out in a gritty urban setting. It was, typically, a stage play first, adapted by Lillian Hellman, but the material was already familiar to movie audiences. Plus, we get Bogart and Joel McCrea and Claire Trevor. Bogart was already a star, and this movie would propel his persona further along the "disreputable"tough-guy track. After Wizard and Gone, movies would seldom again just be filmed plays, but the war would intervene, delaying some of the fulfillment that awaited it. 

    Philadelphia Story 1940
    Rebecca 1940
    Citizen Caine 1941
    Casablanca 1942
    Double Indemnity 1944
    Gaslight 1944
    Arsenic and Old Lace 1944
    Spellbound 1945
    Notorious 1946
    Great Expectations 1946
    Beauty and the Beast 1946
    Red River 1948
    Oliver Twist 1948
    Key Largo 1948
    The Red Shoes 1948
    Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948
    Adam's Rib 1949
    On the Town 1949
    Twelve O'Clock High 1949
    Kind Hearts and Coronets 1949

    The Forties was a quirky decade, and the films reflected the eclectic expansion of themes and opportunities afforded by the increasing sophistication of the medium, while looking back towards classic narratives. It begins with Citizen Caine, which had begun production long before its release, and which is widely considered the first true finished cinematic experience, and the last of the important black and white epics. Two historical recreations--Great Expectations, Oliver Twist--are the work of David Lean, whose career would flower into the great epic adaptations of Lawrence, Zhivago, River Kwai, etc. Philadelphia Story and Adam's Rib are Hepburn at her height. Hitchcock's first great triumphs in America--Rebecca, Spellbound, and Notorious--belong here. The reaction to the terrors of world war would begin to find vehicles, in Twelve O'Clock High. Casablanca may seem more sentimental now than it did at the time, as does Gaslight, but they had Ingrid Bergman in her prime, as well as Bogart and Charles Boyer.  Treasure of the Sierra Madre is my favorite movie of all time, a tight, perfectly constructed action involving three characters, facing hardship and temptation in the Mexican outback, with unforgettable character portrayals in a realistic setting. Red River is John Wayne in his best cowboy role; was there ever a better Western? On the Town and The Red Shoes are song and dance movies with irresistible contexts, and both are so much better than the musical and dance movies of the Thirties, there's just no comparison. I'm not much for foreign flicks, but Cocteau's slightly surreal imagination made a masterpiece in Beauty and the Beast. Double Indemnity is better to my mind than The Maltese Falcon or any of the Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney hardboiled efforts, and we get gorgeous Barbara Stanwyck to boot. I've never been much into comedy, but Arsenic and Old Lace is so completely weird in its combination of spookiness, silliness, romance and madcap hijinks it belongs on everyone's list, and we get Cary Grant besides. 

    Sunset Boulevard 1950
    Asphalt Jungle 1950
    Orpheus 1950
    The Lavender Hill Mob 1951
    The Man in the White Suit 1951
    Strangers on a Train 1951
    Singin' in the Rain 1952
    Viva Zapata 1952
    High Noon 1952
    The Quiet Man 1952
    Julius Caesar 1953
    Roman Holiday 1953
    From Here to Eternity 1953
    Stalag 17 1953
    Captain's Paradise 1953
    The Wild One 1953
    Beat the Devil 1953
    Shane 1953
    Hobson's Choice 1954
    Rear Window 1954
    Sabrina 1954
    On the Waterfront 1954
    The Caine Mutiny 1954
    Dial M For Murder 1954
    La Strada 1954
    Night of the Hunter 1955
    Mister Roberts 1955
    East of Eden 1955
    Summertime 1955
    To Catch a Thief 1955
    The Lady Killers 1955
    Guys and Dolls 1955
    The Friendly Persuasion 1956
    The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956
    High Society 1956
    Giant 1956
    The Bridge on the River Kwai 1957
    Auntie Mame 1958
    Vertigo 1958
    Our Man in Havana 1959
    The Nun's Story 1959
    Some Like it Hot 1959

    The 1950's list is the longest list here. I may be dating myself, if you believe that what people like tends to mark their taste chronologically. The media environment of the 1950's was rich. There was still radio, and newspapers and magazines were thriving. When I was a boy in the Fifties, you could see two double features on a weekend afternoon for just a quarter, and the snack-bar didn't cost much either. These were Hitchcock's glory days, and I have no less than six of his efforts on my list--Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo. Hitchock's movies aren't mysteries, or thrillers, or straight dramas; they're about suspicion, foreboding that verges on dread, the unexpected, betrayal, manipulation, and class conflict. The Fifties may have seemed quiet, but rumblings of social change were in the air. The Wild One, with Marlon Brando, about a motorcycle gang terrorizing a small town, actually scared people. The war was still very much on people's minds, with From Here to Eternity, Stalag 17, The Caine Mutiny, Mister Roberts, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and dozens of others too forgettable to name. The best ones, like these, were more about human character than shooting and battle. But war movies would continue to hold their audiences for many more years. Sunset Boulevard, Asphalt Jungle, and Night of the Hunter may technically belong to the "Noir" period, but each is so uniquely conceived and executed that the moniker hardly seems to matter. We mightn't have known it, but the Western (High Noon, Shane) was on its last legs. The small, witty comedies turned out by Britain's Ealing Studios (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Ladykillers, Our Man in Havana [with the magnificent Alec Guinness]) seemed like throwbacks, again, to an earlier, stagier, era. Small, isolated masterpieces were popping up, like John Wayne's only real "straight" movie, The Quiet Man, set in an idyllic Ireland. La Strada, one of my few foreign films, almost seemed not to need dialogue. The Nun's Story, for my money the best movie Audrey Hepburn ever made, or Summertime (a Katherine Hepburn vehicle), seemed designed for their respective stars. A new young actor named James Dean--harbinger of the new teen idol craze--would flash across the sky (in East of Eden and Giant) and then suddenly burn out. The musical was also on its last legs, but High Society, Guys and Dolls, and Singin' in the Rain each is a classic of its kind. The cross-dressing comedy Some Like it Hot is a fitting end to the staid, conservative Fifties, which would give way to the promiscuous, liberated Sixties.   

    The Apartment 1960  
    Two Women 1960
    The Sundowners 1960
    The Misfits 1961
    The Hustler 1961
    One-Eyed Jacks 1961
    The Guns of Navarone 1961
    The Music Man 1962
    Lawrence of Arabia 1962
    Jules et Jim 1962
    Lolita 1962
    The Days of Wine and Roses 1962
    The Knife in the Water 1962
    Lonely Are the Brave 1962
    Tom Jones 1963
    The Servant 1963
    The List of Adrian Messenger 1963
    Hud 1963
    The Ugly American 1963
    Becket 1964
    Zorba the Greek 1964
    Topkapi 1964
    Doctor Zhivago 1965
    The Loved One 1965
    Blow-Up 1966
    The Group 1966
    The Graduate 1967
    The Thomas Crown Affair 1968
    Rosemary's Baby 1968
    2001 A Space Odyssey 1968
    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 1969

    The Sixties was a time of change in America, when the assumptions and traditions by which Americans had lived and dreamed during the Depression years, the war years, and the immediate post-war years, came into question. The anti-hero finally came into his own. In The Sundowners, The Misfits, The Hustler, One-Eyed Jacks, Lawrence of Arabia, Lolita, Lonely Are the Brave, Tom Jones, The Servant, Hud, Becket, The Graduate, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, offbeat protagonists pursue strange destinies that lead us far astray of the straight-and-narrow-path of typical middle class existence. These are complex characters, often repellent in their nature, who nevertheless draw us in, seduce us into their world. The Western morphed into weird new versions (One-Eyed Jacks, Lonely Are the Brave, Hud). These films explored America's corrupt foreign policy (The Ugly American), the exploitation of women (The Apartment), alcoholism (The Days of Wind and Roses), pedophilia (Lolita), vicarious curiosity (Blow-Up), serial murder (The List of Adrian Messenger), and psychotic co-dependency (The Servant); and there were other films, not on this list, that explored drug addiction, mental illness, and counterculture rebellion. Very few of these movies are feel-good experiences, and they often left you with a sense that the world was neither a very nice place, nor likely to get better soon. 2001 A Space Odyssey proposed a science fiction future that was not ideal at all. 

    Five Easy Pieces 1970
    The Go-Between 1970
    Little Big Man 1970
    Patton 1970
    The Last Picture Show 1971
    Deliverance 1972
    The Godfather I & II 1972-4
    Klute 1973
    The Long Goodbye 1973
    Paper Moon 1973
    The Sting 1973
    Papillon 1973
    Steelyard Blues 1973
    The Way We Were 1973
    Chinatown 1974
    Barry Lyndon 1975
    The Missouri Breaks 1976
    All the President's Men 1976
    Network 1976
    Carrie 1976
    Alien 1979
    Kramer versus Kramer 1979
    The Great Santini 1979
    Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 1979 [BBC Miniseries]

    The Seventies was also a time of general cultural confusion. The movies continued to question our values and assumptions about religion (Carrie), our political life (All the President's Men, Chinatown), our frontier myths (Little Big Man, Deliverance, The Missouri Breaks), the purpose and dangers of media (Network), even the ultimate meaning of life in the universe. The Noir paradigm continued to intrigue us (The Long Goodbye, Klute, Chinatown). But the big story of the 1970's was undoubtedly the Godfather saga, which eventually would fill out three complete installments, though the third panel of the tryptic would be pretty disappointing. In its big tapestry documenting the progress of an Italian mafia clan across two generations, American cinema returned to the ambitious dream that had not really been realized on this scale since Citizen Caine (1941). McMurtry's The Last Picture Show seemed to turn the nostalgia of the Old West into an involuted decadence. Again, it was the anti-hero who seemed to fascinate us (Little Big Man, Five Easy Pieces, The Long Goodbye, The Sting, Papillon, Barry Lyndon). Audiences can't summon movies into being, but there must be some kind of collective unconscious force that brings certain kinds of art into focus. Our identification with unlikely protagonists must have inspired the creation of stories that showed us the flip-side of the myth of success, of the frontier hero who rides into the sunset with the pretty girl and the new fortune in a land of plenty. Prostitutes and gamblers and con men; rustlers, hoodlums, seedy private eyes and investigative reporters, spies and monsters and convicts. What a ragtag group of people this bunch is.     

    Raging Bull 1980
    Ordinary People 1980
    Body Heat 1981
    My Dinner with Andre 1981
    The French Lieutenant's Woman 1981
    Brideshead Revisited 1981 [BBC Miniseries]
    The Grey Fox 1982
    Victor Victoria 1982
    Under the Volcano 1984
    Prizzi's Honor 1985
    Top Gun 1986
    Down by Law 1986
    Jean de Florette/Manon of the Springs 1986 
    Wall Street 1987
    The Untouchables 1987
    Moonstruck 1987
    The Last Emperor 1987
    Dangerous Liaisons 1988
    Dead Poets Society 1989

    In choosing which movies to put on the list, I tried to avoid putting in choices that I might have a personal obsession with, but which I can't defend as art or cinematic innovation. The 'Eighties continued to demonstrate that individual movies no longer belonged to generic traditional continuities, but tended (especially the best ones) to be isolated conceptual visions that implied no set of predictable components, like a western, or a mystery or love story. Though the Noir style persevered (Body Heat, The Untouchables), the clichés had become so self-conscious they'd been re-absorbed into the integral plots. The old studio system had its faults, but it provided a continuity of expectation which its audience was comfortable with. Small production companies come and go, some exist only to facilitate a single project. The risks are probably ten times greater for a small production, independently funded with private investment capital, than they were for the big studios. Which is why star power is still a factor, whereas the other parts of the recipe may seem less so. Small miracles like Ordinary People, or My Dinner With Andre, or The Grey Fox, or Down by Law seem very much more entertaining to me, than big over-produced blockbusters. Could a one-shot movie ever do justice to a story like Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which British television did in 11 installments?  

    Goodfellas 1990
    Henry & June 1990
    Mr. and Mrs. Bridge 1990
    Silence of the Lambs 1991
    Dracula 1992
    Glengarry Glen Ross 1992
    A River Runs Through It 1992
    Forrest Gump 1994
    The Shawshank Redemption 1994
    Sling Blade 1996
    L.A. Confidential 1997
    Wings of the Dove 1997
    Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997
    Saving Private Ryan 1998
    The Talented Mr. Ripley 1999
    The Ninth Gate 1999

    Ranking films decade by decade may seem an artificial segmentation of time. It's a convenient way to segregate a batch of efforts in any medium. We typically refer to periods of time as signifying a kind of spirit or preoccupation which is characteristic. Large events may assume an even steeper altitude on the horizon of our perspective. 2001 will always define our sense of the first few years of the new century, the 21st. The movie 2001 A Space Odyssey (in 1968) imagined the advance of science to have occurred at a much more rapid pace. Our technology hasn't kept pace with our dreams, at least in this instance. Orwell's predictions about the insidious penetration of the public and private space by technological surveillance, however, look to be coming true. Who could have imagined that it would be private industry, and the recreational interconnectivity of the Web, which would facilitate this invasiveness? 

    The death of the studio system probably led to the creation of more unique movies than would otherwise have been possible. Rather than being straight-jacketed by studios looking to repeat proven formulas, individual producers and directors were free to conceive of particular projects that interested them, and of pursuing these visions with unconventional methods. Of course, it also meant that, without the backing of a large studio, the odds were greater, and failure could sink your reputation and your opportunities for future work, though success at the box office has always been an issue for everyone in the business, especially for those in a position of authority. Despite this, excellent movies within specific genres--such as crime dramas (Goodfellas), historical costume pieces (Wings of the Dove), war movies (Saving Private Ryan), horror flicks (Dracula, Silence of the Lambs)--continued to be made. It's difficult, though, to imagine a film like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil ever having been contemplated by a major studio. 

    Readers may remark the dearth of foreign titles on this list. It seems to me that cinema is so quintessentially an American medium, that it completely overshadows foreign film efforts. No doubt the language barrier is a serious issue, here, which I will readily admit. But even great foreign directors such as Fellini, tend to see film as a non-cinematic vehicle. I can see many things to admire in French and Italian cinema, but they rarely speak to me at the level of my deepest sensibilities.  
    Given the opportunity, how many of the films I never saw over the years, would I have found to like? Usually, I can tell from a brief two-sentence résumé whether or not I'm likely to enjoy a film. Only occasionally, are my expectations thwarted, and then I end up either being completely bored, or, as with the case of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, pleasantly surprised (the only movie by Clint Eastwood that I've ever admired!). 

    Castaway 2000
    Gladiator 2000
    Frida 2002
    The Pianist 2002
    The Door in the Floor 2004
    Life of Pi 2012
    American Hustle 2013

    What is it that makes American movies great? Maybe it's ambition, the desire to make something so large that it's undeniable. Cinerama was an attempt to make such a wide picture that it would literally surround the viewer. Surround-sound was an attempt to surround the audience in sound, coming from all directions at once. 3-D movies, which made a small comeback in the 'oughts, were an attempt to put the viewing audience inside the moving picture. But the point all along has been to make an action compelling enough to hold our attention, consistently, and powerfully. Telling stories has always been the first priority. A movie like Titanic [1997] needed desperately to make a story out of a big tragic calamity, and probably barely succeeded. Events need to have a personal dimension to make them interesting to audiences, we need to feel something specific about an experience. Just showing cars crashing, or buildings crumbling, or planets colliding isn't enough. All the new technical manipulations which have come to us via the computer revolution, are as nothing compared to the effect a powerful story can have. I loved watching with pity and terror, the sinking of the Titanic in the movie version, but special effects must be properly integrated into a believable, or diverting, story-line. The modern cartoon movies are not half as effective as the early Disney cartoon movies. I have been surprised to see how pitifully the recent sci-fi movie attempts have been, despite the new technical wizardry, proving how extraneous such factors are. I'm clearly susceptible, given the listed choices, to the big blockbusting feature, but it must say something about history, or the human dilemma. 

    I'm also partial to stories which seem in some sense to be about my own personal story, which is why I respond to specific movies like Great Expectations, East of Eden, The Sundowners, Blow-Up, The Graduate, The Last Picture Show, The Way We Were, My Dinner With Andre, Dead Poets Society, Glengarry Glen Ross, A River Runs Through It, The Ninth Gate--each of which addresses some personal event in my life, or speaks through an intimate relationship of something that has formed my character. 

    In order to be thorough with this survey, I tasked myself to go through the whole list of movies on Wikipedia, decade by decade, from 1920 all the way through 2014. Try it sometime, it's an exhausting procedure! There are so many more movies than you might expect. Today, I can barely expect to see more than a handful of new releases in any given year. Usually, I end up seeing them a year or two later on Netflix, a subscription service that allows one to have three movies in your possession at one time, in a round-robbin of circulating discs. This is much the most efficient way to see movies on a regular basis, and has permitted me to see a lot of older movies that I'd not have had the chance to view.  Movies are rarely shown on commercial television anymore, and since I don't subscribe to Cable, I don't have access to the movie channels. 

    Media is changing rapidly now. What will happen when people simply stop going to see movies at movie theaters--or will they continue to do so? Movie projection halls are under pressure in the same way that physical books ("material texts") are these days. But the representation of an action, on a live stage, in a movie or a book, will continue to divert people's attention. The shared experience of viewing a movie, in public, in a dark projection room, may give way to a universal privacy. Will that alter the way we feel about, or respond to, movies? Millions of books are produced each year. Far fewer movies are made, and even fewer plays are premiered, or revived. Has technology made making movies easier, or less expensive? 

    Movies are the expression of a nation's culture. As such, the history of American cinema is a record of our likes and dislikes, our prejudices and honorable sentiments, our pride and shame, our curiosity and morbid fascination. It is our way of telling ourselves who we are, and what we think, or should think and feel, about the world. Movies have been important touchstones for my sense of the world, rehearsals of how I like to cycle and recycle my persistent interests. I have probably watched Patton, and Hobson's Choice, and Kind Hearts and Coronets, a dozen times. There are some movies, like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or Vertigo, which I have literally memorized. People before the 20th Century had no experience of movies. I'm sure Charles Dickens would have produced wonderful screenplays, had he lived in our time. Would Samuel Richardson have been a purveyor of porn? I'm sure the Medieval scholars would have been shocked, shocked to see such mischief. 

    My top ten list (the films in boldface print in the columns) could easily be extended to 20, but beyond that, I think it would become too watered down. On the other hand, a top hundred list would be very possible. 

    As we bid adieu to the public world of movie attendance, let's say a little prayer to the gods of culture, that movies will continue to be made, and to be made ambitiously, with big dreams, and big budgets. We would be much poorer without them.    

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    In the world of blogging, you can't choose your readers. At least, unless you create a restricted list of "permitted" readers, you're out here naked for anyone with an internet connection and the wherewithal to dial you up via Google with a handy URL. 

    I think most of the potential readers of this blog have no interest whatsoever in alcoholic beverages, beyond an occasional glass of wine with dinner, or a beer once in a while in a tavern. I've never been an habitual bar-fly, and have no notion of the social scene that entails. My interest in mixing cocktails is purely self-indulgent. My parents weren't big drinkers, and I've never gone in for binge drinking, or social drinking. I have tasted thousands of wines, and hundreds of scotch single malts over the years, so my palette is educated more than most people's to the pleasures and complexities of spirits and vintages. 

    But, again, I've wondered about whether to create an entirely separate blog page for these entries, in order not to scare away teetotalers, or those who simply have no interest in the subject. I'm thinking about it. In the meantime, here are five concoctions which I've not gotten around to posting until now--a backlog of sorts. All mixed by proportion, naturally. 

    French West Indies

    2 parts white rum
    2 parts coq d'Or calvados
    1 part drambuie
    1 part biscotti liqueur
    1 part lemon

    Shaken and served up.  

    Viva Cuba 

    3 parts white rum
    1 part tequila silver
    1 part key lime liqueur
    1 part coconut syrup
    1 part lemon
    3/4 part lime

    Shaken and served up. 

    The Augmented Sazerac

    4 parts Jack Daniels bourbon
    1 part Sloe Gin
    1 part fresh lemon juice
    1/3 part Pernod
    3 shakes Angustura bitters
    1/2 part sweet syrup

    This one can be made in the manner of the classic Sazerac, or swirled in ice and served up. It wants to be fairly smooth on the palate. The brand of bourbon can alter the effect of the Sazerac, obviously, but I've not felt obliged to get into the range of limiteds that line the liquor store shelves.    

    Pure Funk

    4 parts Buffalo Trace bourbon
    1 part cherry liqueur
    1 part parfait d'amour
    1 part fresh lemon juice
    Garnish with cherry if desired

    This cold be another Sazerac variation, but it's sweeter (because of the parfait d'amour). A drink with a "serious" quality that suggests female elegance. 

    Key West Wind

    4 parts white anejo tequila
    1 part blood orange liqueur
    1 part key lime liqueuer
    1 part mezcal
    1/2 part lemon juice
    1/2 part lime juice

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    We presently have a divided Supreme Court, with the balance tipping towards conservative. So it was not much of a surprise to hear that they had upheld the State of Michigan's voter initiative that struck down race-based college-level admissions. The court didn't consider the constitutionality of race-based admissions, but only upheld the right of states to decide for themselves if they wanted to have race-based admissions, opening the gate for future state-by-state challenges to preferential discrimination. At some point in the future, however, it seems very likely that the issue will again rise to the federal level of appeal, and race-based admissions policies will eventually have to be measured against a constitutional standard, applicable through the land. 

    I have always been against the idea of race-based initiatives, having seen their effects directly when I was a college student at UC Berkeley in the 1960's, and later when I worked for 27 years in a Federal Agency. In both instances, I could see plain evidence of the corruption and immorality of using race as a factor in determining qualifications for enrollment, and criteria for advancement in promotion. Blind justice requires that we don't discriminate for or against individuals solely on the basis of the color of their skin (genetic inheritance), sex or ethnic background.  

    In institutions of higher learning, the only factors that should be considered are demonstrated academic performance and potential, and associated "extra-curricular" factors such as participation in sports, music, media, etc. If we rely, however well-intentioned, upon factors such as race or ethnic background or sex to rate and measure individual applicants, we will end up diluting the quality and value of our academic standards, and of the qualifications of those who graduate. Lowering standards to measure qualification, by substituting racial preferences for academic ones, is a form of corruption which encourages and realizes inequality in a way that is clearly against the intent and principle of our democratic institutions. 

    In the past, de-facto discrimination allowed institutions to discriminate against minorities. But making public, deliberately preferential policies intended to facilitate discrimination--in order to artificially create racial "balance" or "diversity"--is even more corrupt. 

    Over the past half-century, academic institutions have been influenced to believe that an idealized concept of "diversity" enrollment is a desirable goal. Defenders of "diversity" will argue that a racially "mixed" student body is a healthier, more balanced expression of the "diversity" of the society as a whole, and that it behooves society to "right the wrongs" of centuries of past racial discrimination by facilitating "diversity" through preferences and quotas. 

    The message, however, that such selective discrimination sends to society as a whole isn't fairness, but a debasement of standards. What is a young black man or an hispanic woman to feel about him- or herself, if it is clear that their racial and ethnic backgrounds are the basis for their achieving an advantage over an "other" (i.e., white) individual? How is one kind of paternalistic (i.e., bigoted) discrimination somehow "better" than the older version? 

    Presently, the undergraduate admissions totals for UC Berkeley for the current academic year, by ethnicity, show the following:

    Ethnicity Preliminary
    American Indian 87 80
    African American 392 417
    Chicano/Latino 1,819 1,838
    Asian American 5,427 5,566
    White 3,683 3,988
    Not Given 492 576
    Subtotal-Citizens and Immigrants 11,900 12,465
    International 1,137 1,638
    TOTAL 13,037 14,103
    Subtotal-American Indian, African American, Chicano, Latino 2,298 2,335

    It's clear from this chart that Asians far outnumber any other single group (including caucasian whites). Since Asians art not, insofar as I know, a target group for affirmative preferences, it's clear that they have been able to overcome whatever deficits and/or deficiencies they may have experienced in their lives, to surmount the hierarchy of the bell-curve to achieve success in greater numbers than the competition. I suppose that if I were anti-Asian, I might find this development troubling. But since I understand that the Asian achievement is based on actual academic superiority, I find it a confirmation of the principles of equality our nation is supposed to stand for. In other words, if I were Asian, I would feel justifiably proud of my achievement, and of my inheritance. And if I were African American, and had managed to overcome whatever obstacles which I had had to confront, my success in qualifying for admission would be an untainted achievement, since California outlawed race-based admissions preferences in 1996.

    Which is better?--to succeed through an artificial preference designed to privilege one through racial preference--or to succeed through one's native ability and effort?

    Race-based admissions policies are a debased form of deliberate, discriminatory racism. They harm most those they are designed to assist, and spread corruption throughout the institutions where they are employed. They have no place in America, and should be outlawed. It will be interesting in the coming decades, to see whether we have the courage and decency to admit that, and take the necessary steps to eradicate them.    

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  • 04/25/14--09:28: Tipo plays Scarlatti

  • Maria Tipo is my latest discovery. Perhaps if I had followed my early youthful interest in the keyboard into adulthood, she'd have been a familiar name to me by this time, but I've been pulled in so many different directions. I suppose in practical terms, she'd be considered a second-tier performer, but often talented performers can become experts with a closely identified specialization, like Bach for Gould, the French Impressionists for Gieseking, or Brahms for Katchen. 

    Maria Tipo [1931- ] was born in Naples. She came to specialize in Scarlatti, Bach and Clementi. This list would suggest that Tipo is a classicist, and in one sense that would be correct. Her precision and disciplined adherence to timing and overall organization are impressive. But it's her evocation of the melodic line, and the overall lyrical structure of individual pieces that most captures my ear. 

    Scarlatti is of course essentially a composer for the harpsichord. But the modern adaptation of his pieces to the piano keyboard is by now a well-established application. Horowitz, for one, was famous for his delicate and plucky pianistic Scarlatti innovations. Scarlatti can be very difficult, especially when played as fast as he seems to have expected some his pieces should be done. The fingering has a dancing quality which challenges the pianist to hold to the melodic line while not getting bogged down in too thick a harmonic mix. Tipo tends to suppress the left hand somewhat, softening it, while emphasizing the singing quality in the right hand. 

    In my experience, a lot of Scarlatti performers will play too stiffly or hard. It takes both great ingenuity and a very subtle touch to bring out the lyricism of these pieces, without sounding too insistent. At his best, Scarlatti's [1685-1757] compositions aren't decorative or programmatic. They're much more profound--pure music, if you will. He's probably the greatest composer for the harpsichord, other than his nearly exact contemporary, Bach [1685-1750]

    Here is a collection of 18 Scarlatti Sonatas played by Maria Tipo, on YouTube, probably recorded some years ago. Tipo is Italian, so it's fitting she should be such a master of her countryman's work.

    (The "K" numbers refer to the chronological catalogue of the composer's work done by Ralph Kirkpatrick [1911-1984].) 

    0:00:00  K. 495

    0:04:16  K. 381
    0:08:48  K. 20

    0:12:00  K. 394

    0:17:12  K. 454

    0:22:02  K. 425

    0:24:52  K. 491

    0:30:43  K. 32

    0:33:15  K. 342

    0:35:21  K. 109

    0:40:30  K. 39

    0:43:21  K. 125
    0:45:45  K. 470

    0:50:38  K. 124
    0:55:57  K. 79

    0:58:16  K. 547

    1:02:35  K. 551

    1:07:42  K. 128

    Every performance of the work of a well-known composer is like seeing it for the first time. My old typography teacher, Harry Duncan, used to reiterate the old chestnut about the words being the wine, and the typography being the glass. The print holds the word(s) in a certain shape, through which we "see" them (the language), and taste it, and savor it. I wouldn't want to carry this metaphor very far, but musical interpretations have a similar kind of transparency, particularly in solo performance. It's possible to "read" the character or personality of a performer, especially if you've heard different versions with which to compare them.

    With female performers there is a tendency, perhaps, to see their versions as "softer" than a man's. Though I see some truth in this, I don't want to carry it very far. Alicia de Larrocha's interpretations of Albeniz, for instance, I find just a bit too brittle and heavy, whereas Soriano or Echaniz do better with his impressionistic evanescence. In the case of Tipo, I think she's mastered the quintessential delicacy of Scarlatti's aesthetic, while sacrificing none of its clarity or force. 

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  • 04/26/14--09:06: Great Paragraphs

  • As a unit of measure, the paragraph may be the single most important quantity in literature.

    The individual word, isolated from the context of the sentence, has limited applicability. The sentence, of varying lengths, may be as short as a single word, or as long as a paragraph, and may go on for pages. But a paragraph, as a unit--as a cluster of meaning, built out of multiple statements, all of which are directed to a unified theme--probably is the proportion that best demonstrates a writer's skill and imagination. 

    Hemingway is often cited as a writer who had mastered the art of a certain kind of writing. Coming near the beginning of Modernism, Hemingway created a literary style made out of relatively simple language, employing rhythmic repetition and specific concrete detail to make a propulsive and accessible format for his fictional stories. 

    His method by now is well-known: Short, grammatically straightforward statements, repeated phrases and words, vivid description with an impressionistic membrane of data smoothly organized, without abstraction, towards a basic, powerful effect. This piling-on of phrase upon phrase, rich in present participles (or gerunds), without commentary, has an overwhelmingly convincing quality. 

    It doesn't argue, or prod, or linger, it simply moves forward, with confident determination, towards its goal. 

    One of my favorites is the first paragraph of the short story "In Another Country", first published in his collection Men Without Women [1927]. It belongs to a cluster of pieces referred to as the Nick Adams stories, Adams being a fictional stand-in for Hemingway the narrator. They relate events in Hemingway's own life in the Midwest, growing up in the country, and later in Europe during and after World War I.        

    In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

    This paragraph is a perfect example of how Hemingway's style works. Part of its appeal is that it could be the introduction to any one of a number of possible stories. Nothing has happened. It's merely the setting of a scene. Like a lot of Hemingway's work during this period, it refers somewhat obliquely, and cynically to the progress and presence of war. It is only "the war" as far as we know, almost a generic war in the way that it refers to no specific conflict, and no issue associated with it. All we know is that the narrator (and someone else) no longer "go to it" any more. There is a fine irony in the word "any more." A war isn't something you simply "go to" like a performance, or an errand. It puts the whole concept of war in an entirely uninspiring light, without in any way specifying what war it is or what it's about. Then we just get description. It's the Fall of the year, and beginning to turn cold. 

    There are a series of synesthesic impressions--

    cold / warm

    dark / light

    heavy / empty

    stiff / windy

    which are enumerated in a verbal stream of consciousness which evokes our physical memory of the qualities he uses to create a whole canvas of feeling. The dark may come early, but the lighted streets may seem prematurely glimmering as one walks along at twilight looking in lighted shop windows. There is freshly killed game hanging outside a butcher-shop. But then, in the second clause, we get an odd detail: ". . . the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails." Clearly, the foxes aren't hanging outside the shops; they're loping around the countryside. Initially, we associate the flakes of snow, which hasn't been mentioned until this point, with the dead carcasses which are hanging from hooks (or twine) in front of the shops. But the foxes are still alive. This very vivid detail about snow in fur, and the wind which blows "their tails" is dropped into an otherwise very logical description of a twilit street scene, and yet we hardly question it. This illogical enjambment is effective precisely because it isn't explained; its logic belongs to the synesthesic association Hemingway has created in our minds. 

    Then we get "the deer hung stiff and heavy and empty." Obviously a thing cannot be heavy and empty at the same time, but the "emptiness" refers to the fact of its being life-less, stiff and cold. But then, in the same sentence, there is another non sequitur, "and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers." He doesn't say small birds flew, they blew. We don't ordinarily think of birds blowing in the wind, but we accept this subtle description without question. The detail of "the wind turn[ing] their feathers" implies a very strong wind, in which birds fluttering up have their feathers blown, involuntarily, by the force, so their feather are turned or twisted. It isn't something one often sees, but it's a telling kind of detail to describe the very brisk cold wind the narrator is only referring to tangentially. Like a lot of Hemingway description, it is a secondary condition, in which the main point is only implied by the effect. 

    Then we get the ultimate "It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains." A beautiful finality in the prosody here, the WIND came DOWN from the MOUNT-ains. It has a conclusive force that closes the paragraph off, like the premonitory thump thump thump of drums at the end of an overture to an opera. 

    The paragraph contains only 105 words. The language is simple, no word of longer than two syllables, only the most basic objects and impressions are noted: lights, streets, windows, dead carcasses, foxes, deer, birds, feathers, mountains. Through it all is woven a poetic thread of weather and the progress of walking along an urban street (Milan). 

    Has the narrator ceased to attend to the war because it is becoming colder? Or is the cold somehow a sign of the rejection of war? Clearly the dead game (deer) imply the deaths of war, but only in a symbolic way. There is a rejection of the idea of honor, or bravery, or duty, a hollowing out of the initial commitment to conflict, in favor of a non-violent life of ordinary existence. 

    In Hemingway's prose, the simplest fact, the most obvious observation is never left simply to stand for itself. In the Modernist sense, things are to be represented truly (as Hemingway would say), without reading too much into them. And in that way, Hemingway doesn't say much about the objects. Rather, it's how he handles them in the stream of the narrative that creates a larger meaning. Hemingway believed that reference was a much more powerful tool than meditation. By implying something, he could achieve more than discussing it. So that if you wanted to imply a deep resentment towards a war, you didn't talk about the war, you talked about how you actually felt, physically (through your senses), while vaguely recollecting it. This is a very masculine, laconic quality, as if the danger of overstatement were somehow unmanly, or futile. Objects, images, symbols were more powerful than "talk" or "literary" elaboration, to represent a feeling. 

    Hemingway's sensibility was adroit in managing, when most successful, to imply large statements out of small events. If a man and a woman are sitting at a café in a big European city square, they may say only a few words to one another, but we may come to understand their regard for each other, and the eventualities of their relationship, simply by what is suggested in the description of the scene. 

    This is a difficult thing to do. One is tempted to try to tell the reader what is being obviously addressed, but Hemingway rarely allows himself to do this. Adult behavior is often a record of the subtlest kinds of exchanges--a look, a bodily position, a refusal to speak--and as we mature, we need to say less about the obvious, when to do so would probably cause impatience, or even hurt. It is the undercurrent of delicate feeling that underlies all of Hemingway's work, that of the wounded sensibility which refuses to indulge in self-pity or the easy demonstration of frustration or defeat. 

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    Well, it's May 1st, and the first month of the major league season is history.

    It's way too early to make strong predictions, but a few things have already become apparent in the National League West. Here are how the standings look this morning:



















































    The Dodgers, who have packed their squad with expensive free agents, will contend, but they won't by any means be running away with the division. Arizona, which figured to compete, is presently 9-22, and even at this early date, that seems like a lot of ground to make up, especially since they're 3-15 at home (goodness!). Colorado and San Diego are harder to judge. Assuming that Tulo can stay healthy, Colorado could go on an offensive tear, and win 85 games this year. San Diego has less fire power, so I rate them as less than even to win it. Right now, I'd say that the Giants, Dodgers and Rockies will contend for the division, and they're evenly enough matched that a little streak by one player or another could decide the outcome. 

    The Dodgers lost Kershaw to injury in the first month, so their pitching has suffered. Greinke's been the ace of the staff, backed up by Hyun-jin Ryu, Don Haron and Paul Maholm. Offensively, they look scary on paper, with Puig, Gordon, Kemp, Ramirez, Gonzalez and Ethier in the line-up, but Gonzalez is the only one living up to his billing at present. I doubt that Gordon and Uribe will be hitting over .300 at season's end, and unless Kemp and Puig and Ethier pick it up, the team could be a real let-down. The logjam of Puig, Kemp, Crawford and Ethier in the outfield isn't likely to work itself out, if none of the contestants is having superior numbers. Puig has come down to earth, and Kemp still seems out of sorts. When Kershaw returns, though, the team will be hard to count out. 

    Colorado's team average is .293. Even for Coors Field, that's a frightening number. And the team's hit 38 homers. Six of the starters are hitting over .300. And Cuddyer hasn't really caught fire yet, either. The key for Colorado, as usual, will be their pitching, which each year seems to be their Achilles' Heel. Their present team ERA is 4.19, while their runs per game ratio is 5.41. At that differential, they'll win a lot of games, especially higher-scoring ones. So the question will be consistency. Unlike the Dodgers, the Rockies seem to be peaking early, but if they keep this up, it's anybody's guess. 

    The Giants, meanwhile, have been difficult to figure. With Zito finally out of the rotation (and probably due for an early retirement), we had what looked like a pretty fair group of hurlers. Bumgarner looked to be the ace, and Cain and Hudson (the team's major off-season acquisition) and Lincecum looked solid, with Vogelsong a question-mark. As expected, Lincecum's effectiveness continues to decline. His loss of velocity and control (though control seemed to be less important when he broke in) means that he routinely strikes out one per inning, but is giving up 1.44 hits per inning, with frequent home runs. In just 3+ years, he's gone from being a Cy Young pitcher to a journeyman. Bumgarner, on the other hand, until his last start, looked to win 15-18 games, still only 24 and learning. The accepted wisdom would be that he's not yet attained his promise, but this could be a crucial year for him. If he turns in a mediocre season, it might mean he'll never be more than a dream that didn't come true. Hudson, on the other hand, looks every bit as polished and skilled as he did in his best Atlanta years, pitching economically, and staying focused. Romo, now in his second year as lead reliever, is still serving up his magic invisible sliders, and should easily make 30-35 saves. 

    Before the season began, the Giants starting line-up was to have been:


    --but Scutaro's back condition flared up again, at first "temporarily" but as the weeks have dragged out, it's been hinted that it may be a lot worse, possibly even career-ending. Scutaro's great performances in 2012 and 2013 had led the team management to give him a big new contract, but things have a way of confounding the best laid plans. The team has ended up platooning at second with Brandon Hicks, Adrianza and Arias sharing duties, while spelling Pablo over at third on occasion. Hicks looks to be the lead candidate to replace Marco, but it's definitely a question mark. 

    Belt began the season on a tear, but has since fallen into a big slump. Sandoval, apparently, is feeling the pressure of his final, pre-free-agent year. Pablo is an emotional player, who feeds off of encouragement and his own free-wheeling nature; he seems lost at the plate this season, hitting at least 100 points below his usual lowest average. Pagan, returning from an injury-plagued year, is having career-numbers, and if he keeps it up, could raise the team up several notches all by himself. Pence, who also started very slowly, is coming on. Posey, usually Mr. Reliable, also slumped badly after an initial good start, but seems to be recovering. Morse, brought in to provide some much-needed fire power, hasn't disappointed, but again, it's unreasonable to expect he'll be hitting over .250 after the All Star break--which would be just fine, if he were to keep hitting homers and driving in runs. He's playing a part previously represented, for instance, by Pat Burrell (in 2010). Crawford is solid at short. 

    The team's middle relief corps of Lopez, Casilla, Machi, Affeldt and Huff is among the best in baseball. The primary question-marks, so far, are  Lincecum, Cain and Volgelsong, each of whom has had very poor outings this year. Cain's been the most disappointing, though as always, he seems routinely to be given poor support.   

    If Sandoval and Belt can shake off their early season jitters and perform at anything like their potential, the team should easily win 85 games, but that probably won't be enough to take the division. If I had to choose today, I'd bet on the Dodgers, assuming that Kershaw comes back at full strength. If he doesn't, or if the Giants hitters can come together, I'd give my home team the nod. Here's what I think it would take, in sheer numbers, for the Giants to win the division:

    Pagan        .285 - 12 homers - 90 runs scored - 35 steals
    Pence         .290 - 20 homers - 80 runs scored - 90 RBI's - 25 steals
    Posey         .285 - 20 homers - 90 RBI's
    Morse         .255 - 25 homers - 80 RBI's
    Sandoval    . 275 - 18 homers - 75 RBI's - 70 runs scored
    Belt            .275 - 20 homers - 75 RBI's 
    Hicks          .250 - 15 homers - 50 RBI's 
    Crawford    .250 - 50 RBI's   

    Bumgarner    18-15 3.12 ERA
    Hudson         16-11 2.56 ERA 
    Lincecum      12-14  3.75 ERA
    Cain               10-15  3.40 ERA
    Vogelsong     9-9  4.2 ERA
    Petit               6-2   2.94 ERA
    Affeldt           2.75 ERA 
    Casilla           2.20 ERA 
    Lopez            1.75 ERA
    Romo            36 Saves  1.67 ERA

    Looking at these numbers reminds me how unusual it is for a whole team to play at "career year" level numbers at the same time. Right now, it looks as if Sandoval and Posey might be going to end up with comparatively mediocre numbers. If that were to happen, all the other parts of the puzzle would have to work for the team to have a decent chance. 

    Is this a group of guys you'd expect to win a championship this year? On paper, they certainly have the potential. But it's all a question of timing--how a team comes together, who happens to be playing well at the right time. Neither of the Giants other two recent championship teams--in 2010 and 2012--were overwhelming teams. They did it with good pitching, and timely, scratching offenses. But with Lincecum and Cain and Vogelsong slumping, the formula can't work, unless at least two of them step up. I'd say it comes down to Cain: If he can return to his usual reliable self, our chances would brighten. 

    Will any of these players achieve these numbers? It could be that none of them do; and in that case, I'm afraid we'd do no better than third in the division. But if it all came true, we might win a 100 games. 

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  • 05/07/14--12:44: More is Less

  • As a general concept, or a fulcrum of disequilibrium, the phrase Less is More has often been used to characterize a condition in which the inherent value of a thing is greater than the sum of its total parts (or total mass). A thing can be larger, or greater in number, without any net gain in other senses. 

    According to the Wikipedia, the phase was first used in Robert Browning's poem "Andrea del Sarto" [1855]. Browning was a great poet, but I'm not interested in tracking down the meaning he intended. Later, the phrase was adopted by Mies van der Rohe as a precept for the minimalist aspect of Modern architecture, during a period that has come to be dubbed The International Style. Buildings constructed under the rubric of this style tend towards a lack of decoration, a pristine simplicity that eschews unnecessary details and elaborations. 

    But my point here isn't to delve into the complexities of architectural history, but to appropriate the phrase for a discussion of what MORE might mean to our future as a species on this planet.  

    More of anything is a simple mathematical fact. The greater the mass, the greater the number, the more there is of something. All size is relative, but relativity refers to any comparison, so anything may be greater than, or equal to, or less than, something else. Everyone understands this principle, one of the easiest relationships there is. 

    But the underlying value of more, versus less, is quite another matter. In many things, we tend to think that more of something is better. In human need, more may be the available stock or supply of something, which we may depend upon, now, or in the future. At any given time, we're likely to hear or be told that we need or should have more of something. We need food, we need living space, we need clothing and warmth and so forth. Our needs may be more or less than what is available.

    Humankind has become very efficient in uncovering and designing supplies for our needs, and even in inventing new "needs" that we didn't realize we had. We know that some needs are actual necessities, and others are not really necessities, but kinds of luxuries. Much of the progress we've seen over the last two centuries, has been driven by the perceived "needs" humankind has believed it needed, or wanted. The industrial revolution was driven by the demand for more things that we could use and consume and enjoy. 

    There is no doubt whatsoever that our human plight has improved measurably by the great gesture of industrialization and the proliferation of capital expansion and exploitation of resource over the last 200 years. Our quality of life has improved by leaps and bounds. The modern paradigm of convenience and efficiency and intercourse and synergy has transformed the world. We live at a pyramid of development unparalleled in recorded history. 

    We've come to think, as a consequence of this rapid explosion of technological advancement, that more of anything is almost by definition good. Of course, more of a bad thing is undesirable, though we may accept some residual bad effects as a consequence of what a certain good thing may bring us. 

    Until the 20th Century, the earth seemed large enough that our depredations upon it could only be minimal. As a species, we had become the most successful of our planet's life forms. There was space, and sources of food, and resources sufficiently bountiful, to justify the idea of a continuous expansion of population, and a constantly expanding exploitation of everything. We came to rely on the notion of a constantly expanding technology of manipulation and use of the environment to fuel a constant investment in more

    More people
    More food
    More energy
    More space
    More water
    More goods

    The idea that we would always need more people, and that as a consequence there would always be enough of all the things that more people would need and want, has been a central theme of modern civilization. More has been better. Capitalism has been a primary driver of the motivation for the idea of the more is better concept. Religion has joined in, looking for more. Politically, more means more votes, and more development and more taxes. Populations can even compete to outbreed each other, and thus win the race of the races. 

    In short, bigger has come to mean better, and people tend not to question the value of big and more. There have been small underground counter currents, i.e., "small is beautiful" or less is more. But in the main, modern society tends to think that more is better, no matter what the consequences. 

    But when we think of the quality of life, more of anything may have limits. There's only so much one person can consume or enjoy in a lifetime. We know that a mindless consumption is almost a kind of illness. And we know that balancing the rate of our consumption against the availability of things is a primary tool in maximizing our continuing subsistence. Times may be lean, or times may be prosperous, but we know that moderating our use or consumption is the surest way to enable us to ride out the waves of rich and poor times, whether we're talking about natural cycles, or economic ones. 

    What seems clear now, is that humankind has reached, and indeed exceeded, what we might refer to as a natural balance between available space and resource. Much of the prosperity of the modern world is sustained upon an artificial imbalance between regional habitation, and availability of food, water and energy. We would long ago have ceased to grow, as a species, had we not figured out how to grow large amounts of food, and ways to move it around at will. Our numbers would have reached something like a naturally moderate (moderated) mass, had we not chosen, almost by inertia of intention, to keep increasing our use of machines and the energy to drive them. 

    What also seems clear, is that we're finally, after a two century mad dash of development, beginning to understand the hard limits to the earth's bounty of space, water, and material resource. It's becoming clear that there isn't sufficient resource to sustain the kind of population growth we've seen over the last century and a half indefinitely. 

    And yet in the media we hardly ever hear about limits. Everyone seems to want to believe in the value of more. Latest projections of population expansion assume double digit increases, for instance, in the American Southwest, for the remainder of the present century. The current analyses of water and resource, which do not even begin to address issues of employment and quality of life, suggest that there will inevitably be draconian reductions in the numbers and kinds of things people have come to think of as baseline. 

    America as a nation was born at a time in its history when population growth, available open space, and untapped resources seemed unlimited. The idea of the quality of an individual life, as an expression of the imaginative energy and "resourcefulness" of independent thinking and work, was based on the possibility of a constantly expanding society, and a constantly expanding economy. The Founding Fathers would probably have been utterly astonished by the rapidity with which our nation settled its remaining space, and by the rapacity with which it used up natural resources and available water. And there is no doubt that this paradigm of rapid expansion is what accounts for the prosperity and quality of life Americans have come to regard as their natural birthright. 

    But the idea of more now no longer suffices to provide us with a viable vision of the future, given the unlimited expansions we've come to expect. More people is no longer necessarily a useful or a favorable outcome. The need or desire for more space and more water and more food and more energy and more jobs and more consumption--as expression of the "more" doctrine, no longer suffices as a best choice for human decision-making. 

    Size, as a measure of balanced use, is an unforgiving equation. As each additional stress is levied against the planetary limits, the consequent casualties upon quality of life increase exponentially. One man eating and drinking and defecating and growing a vegetable garden in the country, has a small measurable effect on his environment. 50 years later, this same man, living in a small suburban home, mowing his lawn and driving to work, has a larger, but still manageable impact. But multiply this man by a million, and even ten million, and then the stresses on his environment become elephantine. 

    Every initiative we hear these days is for an expansion. We must have more people, more jobs, more water, more transportation, more food, more taxes, more sewage treatment plants, more houses, more schools, more police, more social workers. As we apply the more principle, we increasingly experience more waste, more expense, more delay, less open space, and a generally declining quality of daily living. 

    At some point, we begin to realize that wanting and having and needing more and more and more--as if it were inherently a good thing--is a flawed justification, one often designed to facilitate the exploitation of the quality of life we now possess, in order to enable someone to make a quick buck, or to gain a political voting bloc. 

    Whereas what we really need, if we care about quality of life, is less. Fewer people, fewer houses, less garbage, less sewage, less traffic. Small may indeed be more beautiful, especially when we don't need to sacrifice the things we enjoy, in return for a crowded existence in which everything, being dearer because more scarce, and therefore in greater demand, is more expensive in every sense. 

    The value we place on something can perhaps never be fixed. But in the shifting mélange of priorities, we should examine each new initiative toward increase, to determine, from a purely selfish and sensible point of view, whether its ultimate outcome will result simply in crowding and inconvenience and nuisance and scarcity and conflict, rather than in an enhancement of our actual lives. 

    It may be that, in the end, or in the future, which we may but dimly perceive through the obscurity of the present, rather than more being more, more will actually be less

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  • 05/19/14--09:33: Reductivist's Bluff

  • In my last blog post, I meditated on the idea of MORE. 

    That was aimed at the contemporary paradigm of our cultural desire for expansion and proliferation, without regard to, or respect for limits in the natural world. Man may make things, change things, invent things; may increase his number. But there are real limits to expansion, of how many people may live on the earth, of how much resource remains to be used up. 

    As a habit of mind, reductivism is a tendency across various disciplines, to sift information and materials down to a common denominator. "Denominator" is a word from mathematics. The principle of fractional expression is quotient, which describes the relationship of any one thing (or portion) to the ultimate sum of its equal parts. Cut a cake into four, and each slice will represent one-fourth of the total cake. Expressed as a fraction, like this:



    The top number "numerates" the equivalent fractional value of parts of the whole, while the denominator represents the total number of parts. The denominator is like another symbol for "1" (or the whole of which the parts are made). 

    How do we express the tendency towards reductionism, or simplicity, in language?

    And in art, what is a reduction of value?

    As a habit of thought, I've always been drawn to the simplest explanation of any phenomenon. In science, or mathematics, simplicity is often regarded as the purest, and perhaps the most beautiful gist. The ultimate reduction of the meaning of phenomena is the cleanest, simplest formula. E=MC2. The delightful probability that this simple formula might capture the essential meaning of the physical properties and functional complexity of the whole universe is very attractive. 

    The least of anything is representative of its place in the whole. Scientists have always wanted to know what the ultimate material of matter is, how small its building block(s), how large the implication of its most common numerator. Faced with the complexity and vastness of the universe as we perceive it, we are awed by the challenge--to formulate this complexity into its most reduced form. To attain the ultimate reduced indivisible fractional unit of a thing.

    I once wrote in a poem "a well-made shoe is a thing of value." A poet contemporary of mine at the time pointed out to me that my sentence was redundant, that what I actually meant to say was "a well-made shoe is a thing." If I understood him correctly, he meant that a constructed object attained its thingness through the craft of its making, but that in seeking to evaluate its function, I had merely added a meaningless descriptive. In other words, the word "value" is ethically neutral, since it signifies neither good value, nor bad value. To have stated "a well-made shoe is a thing" would perhaps have pointed out the riddle of assigning a value to a neutral object, whose inherent goodness could only be related by reference to its wearer, or its maker. 

    I had of course already evaluated the shoe by calling it "well-made" but its "wellness" was by no means denoted by adding the word "value" to the sentence. Well and value are both ethical floaters, whose meaning can only be deduced by reference to other concepts or applications. A shoe is a piece of attire, and will fit and function as well as it may. Its making is a process, and may be done well or ill, depending upon one's values. Most of humanity wears shoes, but the value of shoes is not a fixed principle--there are so many kinds. 

    Is there an essential "shoe-ness" which can be used to describe all shoes, in the universe of shoes? Anything that is worn on the foot. There are probably things worn on the feet of people somewhere which do not function exactly as shoes at all. Some people wear shoes that are nothing more than socks with rubber linings on the bottom. 

    Mathematics employs abstract values which denote specific limited meanings, in an effort to be more accurate, to reduce the possible ambiguity of signs or symbols to a handy equation.

    In aesthetics, we may describe a work of art along a line of variability, from simplicity to complexity. The materials of any artistic form may vary, but the product of the performance of any artistic creation can be measured in three dimensions, in time. 

    Art, of course, isn't simply about the quest for reduction, or simplicity, but it may be. It may involve nothing more than an attempt to explore the dimensions of the frame of reference, as the early canvases of Frank Stella were:

    You could make the case that a canvas like this, though, isn't really about the expression of the limits of the frame, as much as it is about the inherent meaning of the shape or shapes of which it is composed--two opposed V's filled in with uniformly incremental lineation(s). The shapes become the frame, so there is no distinction. You could with justice say that this is a reduction of the meaning of the shape of the frame, since there is no "inside" and "outside"--not an a priori containment within which the painting exists--but a self-contained definition of its formal shape. Stella's early canvases were thought to represent attempts to exclude or "push" three-dimensional space out of the canvas, as an insistence upon its essential flatness, to insist on its flatness as a fact. Ironically, it might be seen that it is as difficult to exclude the third dimension from a canvas, as it is to build it in! It's a riddle of perception--or perhaps of artistic endeavor. 

    In my series on Minimalism in poetry, I've explored the ways in which writers may attempt to or succeed in capture/ing meaning by pairing down materials to smaller and smaller dimensions. Often, the power of such examples lies in the hidden potential the words contain, which is normally "hidden" beneath the grammar of their habitual use, and is only liberated through isolation, apart from the context of their syntactic function. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.--when seen as things in themselves--acquire a new independent distinction, though they cannot be seen as having a purely non-verbal meaning, except perhaps as visual constructions (or collages of shape). A phrase such as "driving the trailer all around" may roll around in the mouth, echo-ing suggested cognates of allied verbal sense, contained within the pattern of sounds they represent. A work of art should be--by its nature--self-sufficient. And a phrase like this might seem a perfect example, in that whatever nimbus of description and analysis we might put around or beside it, it needs nothing for its completeness, it is not reducible to its parts. All the meaning is boiled down to its essential structure. It is a reduced fraction or equation of its meaning. It is what it is.

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  • 05/23/14--10:02: Dunes

  • Sand dunes are much more complex than you might realize.

    I've spent many an hour trudging across dunes, looking for interesting photographic compositions. These three prints are from those I took in the late 1980's and early 1990's, from large format negatives. 

    Photography is about the play of light and dark, or the range of tones from totally light (or white), to totally dark (or black). Sand dunes present a palette of rich contrasting tonal range which is fascinating to the camera eye. Dunes are (like) an abstract of the logarithm of light's variation upon an undulating material reflecting surface. 

    Sand is particulate, allowing it to be moved uniformly into shapes upon the land, governed by the physics of gravity, balance, and the shifting force of the wind. Dunes are constantly unsettled, undergoing continuous alteration. The poetic metaphors for the shapes and shadows of moving dunes are highly suggestive. The sharp edges of the crests and ridges of dunes produce dramatic angles, evanescent impressions, fragile and elusive.

    Sand is composed of tiny particles of glass, broken up into nearly uniform units. It's astonishing sometimes to think that dunes are huge fields of broken glass. We usually think of broken glass as an unpleasant thing, dangerous, troubling, a nuisance to be swept up and recycled or thrown into landfills. In our new age of conservation, glass gets to be reused. Glass blowers use a very pure form of sand, melted down to make consistently clear glass, which can be tinted in any color. Green bottle of blue bottle flies seem less common around here (in the Bay Area). Maybe I don't spend as much time in places where they tend to congregate. You do find flies in dune fields, as well as small mammals, reptiles, and the occasional human.        

    There is a quality of abstraction about sand dunes. A naked dune, without any flora or fauna to impede the view, is like a mathematical equation, clear and unambiguous. A dune is like a pure formula of matter, laid out in perfect display for the mind to contemplate. Like a canvas upon which the wind sculpts waves, scallops, shoulders, smooth curling fins and sails of painted light. Photographing dunes with a large format camera, in the early morning or late afternoon light, one is right on the vivid edge of the ultimate visual pursuit, as, moving restlessly from point to point, the endlessly mutating view seduces you over and over until you discover one, almost by magic, which organizes into an exciting composition. The dunes seem designed as photographic raw material, and don't move, the way water or tree branches or people do.       

    There is a whole science of dune shapes, and of the behavior of dunes, under varying conditions of wind. There are even underwater dunes! I think people photograph dunes for the same reason that they photograph nudes. Human skin may appear as smooth and abstract as sand, and under contrast-y light conditions, may arrange into very similar kinds of abstract shapes. There are also of course nudes on dunes. The thing about sand, though, is that it tends to stick to skin, especially when it's sweaty, and there's the problem of the disturbance of smooth sand by walking into a composition. I suppose you could use a portable blower (or wind machine) to "dress up" a fashion shot. In the movie Zabriskie Point [MGM, Antonioni Director], the actors Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin roll around in the sand at Death Valley, making love and being liberated. Both these actors were amateurs. Antonioni had discovered them in his travels around the U.S., experiencing "culture shock" while looking for likely suspects to play in his movie. The two actors had an affair during the production, and ended up living in a commune in Boston. Halprin was the daughter of the Bay Area Landscape Architect Lawrence Halprin. She later was married to Dennis Hopper, and eventually ended up as a new age expressive body arts instructor at her Tamalpa Institute in Marin County, California. Such a distinguished lineage! Frechette, who'd been a bit of a flake all his young life, tried robbing a bank in 1973, a few blocks from the Boston commune, and was eventually caught and convicted, dying in prison under slightly mysterious circumstances, when a barbell he was lifting, pressed against his neck, choking him to death. What all this has to do with dunes, I don't know, but it's all true.

    A large dune field is known as an erg. That sounds like something invented by a science fiction writer to describe an alien technology. According to Wikipedia, an erg is also a unit of energy, equal to ten to the minus seven joules. A joule is a unit of energy or heat equal to the the work produced by applying the force of one newton through a distance of one metre. How we get from dunes to ergs, joules and newtons is another of the mysteries of intellectual wandering. Later today I'll be spending time at the club gym expending my ergs on the static walking machine, pushing newtons across the metered expanses of imaginary space. The more calories I burn, the more ice-cream I get to eat after dinner. One of the constants of my adult life has been Haagen-Daza coffee gelato. It's one of the few things I can count on. It never disappoints. Who gives a fig about math, anyway?

    Thank you for taking my call.  

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  • 05/26/14--11:00: Dancing the Gavotte

  • George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti were all born in the same year, 1685. That may be one of the great coincidences.  

      George Frideric Handel [1685-1759]

    We often think of the great artists and writers and thinkers as having lived and produced their works in a kind of static epoch--a time that they helped define, which has come to be associated with them. But these individuals defined their time as much as or more than it defined them. Through their genius and innovations, they brought about change, or gave crucial voice or form to the underlying tendencies of the age.

    "The age demanded," goes a line in an early poem by Ezra Pound. We think today of the spirit of a culture, or a society, as being a consequence of forces which struggle to prevail, and the writings or music or works of art either as expressions of that spirit, or as contrary challenges to a predominant power.

    Handel lived in a time before the great surges of independence which have defined the West in the succeeding two and a half centuries--in an epoch dominated by royalty and the upper classes, which could afford the leisure and expense of underwriting an art and music which suited their station in the world.

    The music of Handel will therefore, in retrospect, always be associated with the privilege and elegance of the rich classes of England, for whom he composed his works. His music may in this respect be seen as the embodiment of a corruption of the dignity of man, justified by the divine right of nobility (and the combined power of the state and church) to oppress and subdue the great mass of humankind. There is a buoyancy in Handel's music which is born aloft by the presumption of this privilege.

    That is of course the democratic or socialist interpretation of the Art of Baroque in Europe, and there is little point is disputing the essential validity of that critique. But music has often been described as the most abstract of the arts, especially when it aspires to a higher calling than the accompaniment to movement or lyric.

    We are sophisticated enough to understand that the relationship between a piece of music, and the initial pretext for its creation, are separable and may be appreciated discretely. The emotion that inspired the writing of a piece of music may increase its intensity or ingenuity, but the idea that notes--the panoply of sounds organized into a sequence of tones gathered into masses and intervals--could have only a single or specific function, is one we know is only an expedient notion.

    People today enjoy listening to Handel's Messiah oratorio, no doubt to some degree because of its religious content. It's a celebration and dramatization of Christian dogma, featuring the annunciation, passion and death, followed by the judgment and resurrection of Christ, a structure upon which Handel presents a series of musical panels. It's unlikely that anyone not knowing the details of this program would be able to deduce the meaning or significance of what is being celebrated or explained by the oratorio alone. You have to understand beforehand, what the whole work is intended to be, in order to appreciate its programmatic content, if (indeed) that were the whole point of listening to it.

    And yet, it's possible to comprehend the inspiration Handel felt through the music alone. This comprehension, or inspiration, may be too generalized to have a specific religious purpose. But the quasi-religious "feeling" we associate with so much religiously inspired music is one that has been associated with religions of all kinds for as far back as we have records or evidence.

    As a boy, I was made to attend the local Presbyterian church with family friends. My parents were not particularly religious, and disliked the whole church-going routine. But the justification was that I was supposed to form "my own opinion" of religion through direct exposure, then choose for myself, whether it was something I felt I needed in my life as an adult. Between you and me and the fly on the wall, the real purpose of this little subterfuge was to enable my parents to have uninterrupted bedroom time on Sunday mornings.

    What I did take away from my four involuntary years of Sunday school and general congregation experience was the pleasure of hearing and singing hymns. There is something soothing and even contemplative about experiencing uplifting music in the morning. There is a clear moral purpose to doing this, and there is no confusion about the basic intent of hymn-singing. It's supposed to make you feel devout and to encourage virtuous thinking, a spur to religious feeling, to give the sinners an excuse to come together and feel close.

    Even in those days, I understood I was being manipulated, but I also understood that the music itself was not intrinsically religious--it was just a tool. I understood that rock & roll, or jazz, or swing, or folk, or military, or secular classical music, were just other kinds of music, though the purpose and spirit of these other styles of music was not spiritual. It was possible to distinguish kinds of music into the various occasions with which they were associated or for which they were composed. But those associations might not always seem as strong as they were assumed to be.

    In any case, as I grew to hear and know more music, I could listen to religious music both inside and outside the context of its initial occasion. Over time, once I understood the circumstances under which a piece had been composed, I was free to accept or reject the context as I chose.

    Today, listening to a Handel orchestral piece, or any one of a number of his various concerti, I can "hear" them more as pure music, than as mere window-dressing or furniture in an historical costume-drama illustrating the cultural clichés of a particular time. Robert Creeley once derided writers of "old-fshioned" or traditionally styled poetry by saying that we no longer "dance the Gavotte" so we should not be writing sonnets and nursery rhymes as if we still did. There is some truth to that claim, enough to give it bite. But in fact we are no less able to appreciate an elegantly composed piece of music for the gavotte, or a sonnet by Shakespeare, than we are to appreciate a free-verse lyric written by William Carlos Williams.

    It is a very superficial prejudice that limits our apprehension of a work of art to the precise original spirit or pretext for which it was made. And often critics will ignore that limitation in constructing an argument for or against a particular work or artist. It is clear that Handel practiced his art under the prevailing conditions of official and privileged patronage, and that the spirit of his work fits comfortably within the terms of its occasion--as an enhancement of the niceties of polite society, elegantly decorative and effete. As a consequence of our sense of the context of his work, we are likely to see it as inextricably interwoven into the bewigged and primping pomposities of velvet and silk and powder and fans and kerchiefs and buckled shoes. It's music that belongs in such settings.

    And yet there is so much more to it than that. Any music which is directed towards the ennobling or exalting of life, or humanity, is not automatically hypocritical or beholden to class or franchise. If it is merely decorative, or merely polite, it may well be nothing more than the frill on a curtain. But if it also carries weight, or is intrinsically powerful and convincing, it can transcend this initial contingency. It is one of the crucial measures of the value of any work of art, that it transcend the limitations of its time and context. We certainly think of Bach in this sense, that his compositions rise above the styles and conveniences of their time to speak to later generations and epochs of the truth and beauty.

    Bach and Handel may have thought that the aspirations towards truth and beauty in their music were evidence of the glory of god. If god was the highest perfection they could imagine, that became their inspiration. We now think of inspiration as a mental or emotional quality quite apart from the context within which it may be thought to belong. I can distinctly recall how stuffy and even repugnant the bust of Handel seemed to me, resting atop my childhood music teacher's upright piano. It suggested pedagogical sternness, dull pretense, and a dignity which I felt both unable to emulate, and uninterested in understanding. In short, I lived in innocent ignorance. It's okay to be innocent--and even ignorance (especially of what the future may hold) may be preferable to complete knowledge.

    Take off Handel's wig, his velvet waist-coat, his white stockings, and cotton undergarments, and we have the same man, the same physical proportions as our own. Take away the polite society sitting in baroque chairs, take the musicians out of the castle hall, put them into a high school auditorium. Is the music still an encrustation upon a decadent, dying hierarchy of oppression and self-perpetuating greed?

    How shall posterity view the work of Elvis Presley? Michael Jackson? Will it be able to splice out the core musical content from the mass of cultural paraphernalia within which it once flowered? What is the distillate, the alembic? Can we hear it through the fog of presumption and prejudice and myriad preconceptions and distractions? Is to have done so an act of surgical violence, designed to eviscerate its original meaning and purpose?

    Then what is the point of Handel's dignified and deliberately sophisticated, polite and ordered musical language? Whenever I hear an orchestral piece by Handel, I am uplifted. Is this the same order of exhilaration that I was supposed to experience in the church of my childhood, or is it a purer, more generalized, or more specific, quality than the various occasions for which it was once intended?

    Whenever I take a cross-continental jet flight, during cloudy weather, I am astonished at the extraordinary feeling I experience as the fuselage glides over and through great white masses of clouds. Doubtless, there are prior associations I have in my memory bank of all the scenes and visions of skies and landscapes that are mixed together inside the nimbus of my conception of "cloud". All I can say is that these visions of passing through white cumulus formations at thousands of feet above ground, are invariably united in my mind with the flights of musical sublimation I associate with the works of Handel. 

    This association is enriched for me by the sense of an impending morality. In Handel's time, the experience of passing over or through clouds in an airplane was completely unknown. Religious notions of heaven have traditionally been constructed out of billowy clouds, as if after death, we would ascend into a heaven of cloudy weightlessness and deathless purity, symbolized by the diaphanous insubstantiality of floating water vapor. Clouds, in this sense, are symbols of death, or of immortality (if you believe in a life after death). Clouds, of course, may signify danger, or change, or even infernal forces. W.A. Auden once said that the rumor of death was like the sound of thunder at a picnic.  

    Of all the music I know, the work of Bach and Handel seems most apt to inspire me to a sense of my own potentiality in life. The music seems to be saying to me "existence is a noble opportunity, don't waste it, give thanks for the beauty and power of your feelings and knowledge, for what you've been given to know and see." The music enacts a triumph over adversity which lifts up the heart. Ordinarily, I'm not an inspired-seeming person. I think most people would describe me as cynical and rather suspicious. Inside the awareness of life's fragility and temporality is the potential for hope. I can't speak for others, but only for myself. 

    I think that dancing the gavotte might actually be fun. 

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  • 05/28/14--12:08: Immaculate Concoctions

  • Time gets shorter for each of us, that is, as we count each day from our birth forward towards an undoubted end. Does that make each moment sweeter, or more bittersweet? All we know of this life is what we get. The other side of consciousness, that dark realm of non-being which we can only imagine, awaits the return of our molecular dust to the ultimate universal dispersal. Such mordant thoughts on a pretty day!

    As we age and grow increasingly frail, how much of our thought is made out of the memory of idealized experience--the rush and pressure of young love, the ecstatic inertia of physical recreation, the delight in music and embroidered language, the comic charm, the seductive taste, the awe at phenomena? Do the young appreciate what they possess? Certainly, youth is wasted on the young. But life isn't wasted on me. I'm enjoying it as much as I can. 

    Starting with these two delightful original cocktail mixes. They haven't names yet, so they enter the world nameless and innocent of association. This first one is liltingly lyrical and gentle, and if you were blindfolded you might guess it had chocolate in it. Such is the mystery of flavor! 


    4 parts gin
    1 part apricot liqueur
    1/2 part cotton candy liqueur
    1/2 part irish mist
    1 1/2 part cream
    4 dashes Angostura bitters

    Measures by proportion. Shaken gently and served up in a snowy chilled glass.

    The second is equally mysterious in the way it masks its essential flavors of cherry, mint and elderflower. Plus the ambiguous combination of sweet lime and green lime makes it more elusive yet. Most drinkers like simple, straightforward flavor combinations, but complex ones intrigue me, which is what makes me keep experimenting. 

    4 parts gin
    1 part maraschino liqueur
    1/3 part peppermint schnapps
    1/3 part St. Germaine liqueur
    1/2 part lime
    1 part sweet lime

    Measures by proportion. Very sophisticated impression. This is an elaboration upon gin's complex herbal character. The thin air of delicate distinctions. Of fine splittings of meanings, of shaded implications. Shaken and poured into very cold frosted glasses. 

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    To the Royal Academy of Farting: GENTLEMEN,

    I Have perused your late mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in Natural Philosophy, for the ensuing year . . . that you esteem Utility an essential Point in your Enquiries, which has not always been the case with all Academies; and I conclude therefore that you have given this Question instead of a philosophical, or as the Learned express it, a physical one, because you could not at the time think of a physical one that promis'd greater Utility.

    Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.

    That the permitting of this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.

    That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.

    That so retain'd contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c. often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself.

    Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.

    My Prize Question therefore should be, To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, to be mix'd with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.  

    That this is not a chimerical Project, and altogether impossible, may appear from these Considerations. That we already have some Knowledge of Means capable of Varying that Small. He that dines on stale Flesh, especially with much Addition of Onions, shall be able to afford a Stink that no Company can tolerate; while he that has lived for some Time on Vegetables only, shall have that Breath so pure as to be insensible to the most delicate Noses; and if he can manage so as to avoid the Report, he may any where give Vent to his Griefs, unnoticed. But as there are many to whom an entire Vegetable Diet would be inconvenient, and as a little Quick-Lime thrown into a Jakes will correct the amazing Quantity of fetid Air arising from the vast Mass of putrid Matter contain'd in such Places, and render it rather pleasing to the Small, who know but that a little Powder of Lime (or some other thing equivalent) taken in our Food, or perhaps a Glass of Limewater drank at Dinner, may have the same Effect on the Air produc'd in and issuing from our Bowels? This is worth the Experiment. Certain it is also that we have the Power of changing by slight Means the Smell of another Discharge, that of our Water. A few Stems of Asparagus eaten, shall give our Urine a disagreable Odour; and a Pill of Turpentine no bigger than a Pea, shall bestow on it the pleasing Smell of Violets. And why should it be thought more impossible in Nature, to find Means of making a Perfume of our Wind than of our Water? 

    For the Encouragement of this Enquiry, (from the immortal Honour to be reasonably expected by the Inventor) let it be considered of how small Importance to Mankind, or to how small a Part of Mankind have been useful those Discoveries in Science that have heretofore made Philosophers famous. Are there twenty Men in  Europe at this Day, the happier, or even the easier, for any Knowledge they have pick-d out of Aristotle? What Comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a Man who has Whirlwinds in his Bowels! The Knowledge of of Newton's mutual Attraction of the Particles of Matter, can it afford Ease to him who is rack'd by their mutual Repulsion, and the cruel Distensions it occasions? The Pleasure arising to a few Philosophers, from seeing, a few Times in their Life, the Threads of Light untwisted, and separated by the Newtonian Prism into seven Colours, can it be compared with the Ease and Comfort every Man living might feel seven times a Day, by discharging freely the Wind from his Bowels? Especially if it be converted into a Perfume: For the Pleasures of one Sense being little inferior to those of another, instead of pleasing the Sight he might delight the Smell of those about him, & make Numbers happy, which to a benevolent Mind must afford infinite Satisfaction. The generous Soul, who now endeavours to find out whether the Friends he entertains like the best Claret or Burgundy, Champagne or Madeira, would then enquire also whether they chose Musk or Lilly, Rose or Bergamot, and provide accordingly. And surely such a Liberty of Expressing one's Scent-iments, and pleasing one another, is of infinitely more Importance to human happiness than that Liberty of the Press, or of abusing one another, which be, as Bacon expresses it, bringing Philosophy home to Mens Business and Bosoms. And I cannot but conclude, that in Comparison therewith, for universal and continual UTILITY, the Science of the Philosophers abovementioned, even with the Addition, Gentlemen, of your "Figure quelqonque" [ordinary figure] and the Figures inscrib'd in it, are, all together, scarcely worth a FART-HING. 

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    Little Sparta. Detached Sentences. Ian Hamilton Finlay. Robin Gillanders. Afterword Alec Finlay. Edinburgh, Scotland: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1998. 

    I've written about Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden, Little Sparta, previously in my post of Wednesday, June 24, 2009.  We visited Scotland in 2006, and enjoyed an afternoon visit to the garden, and a brief tea conversation with its designer, Ian, himself. 

    Finlay, who died a few months after our visit, was a poet, and thought of his gardening project as a poetic artifact, rather than a landscape design. Or perhaps it was both things, and much more. Finlay completed a number of landscape commissions, and his own property was the crucible for many of the design ideas that he used elsewhere. He wrote less poetry over time, though many of his visual works of art on paper incorporate what has traditionally been called concrete poetry--that is, poetry that expresses visual meanings through wit or visual design of words or letters. 

    This book is a collection of black and white photographs of Little Sparta, by Robin Gillanders, as well as a selection of quotations by Finlay, some of which I will quote here. Little Sparta is difficult to photograph effectively. 

    A garden is not a fixed principle, at least in Finlay's mind. It is an evolving, modulating construct, which not only changes through seasonal influence and growth, but in the eye of its maker, and the viewer (occupant). A garden may have preferred views, and preferred times of the year (at its best) which it should be seen. But it is a procession, a movement through spaces. There is really no way of representing how it feels, physically, to move through a garden. A camera cannot convey the way something smells, or the brush of a leaf against the arm, or feeling of a stone underfoot. Each person's experience of a carefully thought out garden, kinetic and processional, is unique, and cannot be conveyed in pictures or film or diagrams. 

    A garden is not an object but a process.

    This is the a priori principle of Finlay's conception. 

    Ecology is Nature-Philosophy secularized.   

    Finlay's notion was that treating a garden as a purely aesthetic or scientific phenomenon robbed it of its soul. 

    The dull necessity of weeding arises, because every healthy plant is a racist and an imperialist; every daisy (even) wishes to establish for itself an Empire on which the sun never sets. 

    The larger implication of an appreciation of nature is that the universe is not merely a basically inhospitable place, but that, under even the most propitious circumstances, it fosters competition, and that this fundamentally contentious aspect is expressed everywhere that there is life. 

    Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks. 

    What these statements alert us to is the intense and sophisticated vision that Finlay brought to his landscape projects. They can stand alone as independent critical pronouncements about landscape design, or as pure aesthetics. Taken in conjunction with his projects, they comprise a complete post-Modernist philosophy of garden design and meaning. 

    The most pleasing aspect of water--strange to say--is its flatness.

    In the whole of philosophy there is almost no weather.

    It may be worth observing that it's unlikely anyone but a poet would make these kinds of statements. Finlay moved quickly from the writing of poems, to a conceptualized view of abstract texts which are more like works of art than literature, and then on to an exploration of the thematic materializations of spatial concepts. 

    Formal gardens are (as it were) statues of Nature.

    Superior gardens are composed of Glooms and Solitudes and not of plants and trees.

    Both the garden style called 'sentimental' and the French Revolution, grew from Rousseau. The garden trellis, and the guillotine, are alike entwined with the honeysuckle of the new 'sensibility'. 

    This combination of decoration and violence is characteristic of Finlay's reading, and one we don't ordinarily associate with gardens. The competing values are surprising, especially inasmuch as we don't think of a composed space as exhibiting or containing open conflict. A decorative garden may symbolize the domination of space by privilege, but it might also offer a threatening revelation, an unexpected reminder of mortality. 

    There is more tolerance of classical gardens than of classical buildings. The former bring to mind Claude and Poussin, the latter Albert Speer. 

    Finlay has been criticized for his appropriation of certain aspects of Nazi iconography. I have never completely understood his underlying intention, but it seems to derive from conflicts that he had over the years with public authority-centres, which left ironic scars that were expressed as tamed menace (guns, submarines, military insignias etc.). It had an adolescent aspect, as if these were the naughty toys of a naughty boy--not that this was inappropriate for a quirky post-Modern artistic temperament. There's a kind of ethical translucence in being able to see Speer's gaunt fascist brutalism as a purely visual immanence, devoid of association.  Perhaps it is an assertion of the power of imagery to invoke feelings outside of assigned values. 

    It is the case with gardens as with societies. Some things require to be fixed so that others may be placed

    We are unaccustomed to read political meanings into gardens, though there is no reason why we should be. It's Finlay's genius to have thought through these kinds of implications, and to get us thinking about them. The dissociative effect of seeing written language as distinct from its assigned meaning may be the key to understanding Finlay's garden art. The natural tendency to regard organized nature as an aesthetic pleasure in situ, is turned completely upsidedown, seeing trained plantings as wild and combative in a Darwinian context, while placing loaded signs from classical antiquity and myth as not-so-sutble hints to pilgrims. It's a question whether visitors to the garden even realize what they are being shown. 

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  • 06/05/14--09:20: Mocha Faville (2000-2014)

  • Mocha was a quixotic figure in our household.

    When we first brought him home, he was just a fuzzy little white kitten, whose Siamese points hadn't begun to darken. He'd had a difficult birth--the runt of the litter of a Stockton breeder--and he'd had to be given supplemental bottle feeding before we could take possession. He was thin, and had an oddly large tail, which rode forward over his back. It looked a little silly. 

    But we soon grew to love Mocha, who developed into a real personality. His parents, appropriately named Sadie, and Big Kahoona, gave him a mixed genetic make-up. Though his paws were unusually large, and his tail was thick and dark, and his head was wide with a "bull's" ruff around the neck and shoulders, his body was otherwise thin and sleek, and his white fur, which stayed white all his life, was smooth and silk-like. He eventually developed an aversion to liquids (particularly water), which led from time to time to periods of dehydration and a reluctance to eat. During these periods, we'd have to dropper him with water, to jumpstart his hunger reflex. 

    Personality-wise, Mocha tended to be a little squirrelly. He seldom wanted to be picked up or held, but would often choose to sleep on a handy lap, as long as you didn't move around much. With our other cats, he was a good playmate, but if he lost his temper, you had to be careful with him: Once his feral instincts kicked in, he could be dangerous. But usually his gruffness masked fake courage; he would back off if faced with superior force. There was something of Don Quixote in him--he often believed he was a great menacing tiger of a cat, much as his father Big Kahoona was. But Mocha wasn't a big bruiser, so the dominant nature seemed a little absurd in him. Despite his dreams of glory, he was really a little pussy-cat most of the time.    

    When he was still not fully grown, I got the idea to have a San Francisco 49er blanket made for him. Cats usually don't like things put on them, though occasionally I have seen little jackets on domestic cats when they're outside, to keep them warm. Cats don't usually tolerate collars well either. Anyway, it took a couple of months to have this article made, and by that time, Mocha had grown about 20% larger, so he never was able to wear it.  

    Mocha had a good heart, and a kind of presence that is hard to define. Perhaps it was his wildness. Domestic cats are mixtures of wild and tame, with one or another tendency stronger from time to time. Even when Mocha was at his most docile, there was a kind of power held in check in his nature, which made him seem stronger. Certainly he believed this, even if he seldom showed it overtly. His pride was his most nobel characteristic, even though it had this quixotic aspect. "I'm one tough hombre," he seemed to be saying, even if the claim wasn't always convincing. 

    One of his little "demonstrations" of his prowess was, when running down from upstairs, at the turn of the landing, to bounce up off the wall and ricochet back down the next flight of steps. He usually did this when feeling enthusiastic, when being chased, or just out of an excess of high spirit. 

    Mocha didn't talk much, but when he did it was usually for something important. He was actually very territorial. As an indoor cat, he was attuned to outdoor noises, and would often feel that order needed to be restored, if he heard an animal or suspicious sound. He would rise up and pace deliberately around the room, emitting a low-pitched snarl or moan, as if to say "What the heck is going on out there? I'm not going to tolerate this disturbance in my area!" 

    In his birth litter, he tended to feel like an outsider, and I suppose that was true of him all his life. He would sleep and play with his companions in the house, but he never gave his full trust and loyalty either to us, or to the other cats. I thought of Mocha--or, as I called him alternately from time to time, Mochee, or Moch-er, or Moch-us, or just Moch'--as my alter-ego, a fundamentally ordinary guy who liked to fantasize about being a knight in shining armor, or the sexy boss-chief of the tribe.

    In the last few months, he'd grown more and more reluctant to eat, despite our efforts to re-hydrate him and offer the most enticing of treats, and last month a visit to the local vet revealed that his kidneys were failing, and that nothing could be done to save him. As we had with our previous casualties Lottie, and Coco, we decided to let him die at home. His decline was fairly rapid, and he died in his sleep yesterday afternoon. The photograph above, taken just a week before he died, is an inadequate likeness of the quirky little guy we lived with for 14 years. 

    I will miss his beautiful dark thick tale, carried high like a flag of joy or insouciance as he trotted around the house. I will miss his deep, mysterious eyes which seemed like windows to an ancient blood-line of hunters. I will miss his softness, and mischievous elusiveness when he wouldn't allow himself to be caught. I will miss his independence, and the wonderful gift of his friendship when he did choose to settle on my lap, or to chase a string across our big California King bedspread, or to fiddle with my pencil as he hid behind the Apple computer-screen at my work desk in the dining room. I will miss him. I will miss him a lot. 

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    This week the World Cup Soccer Matches begin in Brazil. 

    I am not a soccer fan, have never been a soccer fan, and never will be a soccer fan.

    I am an American. I like American sports. Football. Baseball. Basketball. These are sports that were invented in America. American baseball is popular in other parts of the world, and there is some exportation of basketball. But for the most part, these sports belong in America. They're part of our culture--competitive, complex, fascinating to watch and speculate about.    

    Soccer was invented abroad, and has thrived there. 

    Previously, I wrote a blog about how dull soccer is--dull to watch, anyway.

    Part of the campaign of what has become known as "globalism" is the promotion of sports that all nations can participate in. 

    The Olympics, held every four years, has often been regarded as a favorable occasion for international cooperation and friendly contention. Contestants compete in sports that otherwise have little interest in the individual nations. Only hockey seems to stir much interest, at least in America or Europe.  

    The World Cup has been around since 1930. It didn't draw much interest in the U.S. until the 1980's, when promoters began to push it in the media. Over the last three decades, interest in the sport has spread like wild-fire across the U.S.

    As I said in my previous post from October 2009--

    "The movement in America to expand soccer in the schools and professional venues is regressive. Believing, perhaps, that soccer is more fashionable and "universal" than our homegrown sports, middle-class parents and public schools have allowed soccer to shoulder aside traditional sports. Everywhere you look today, you see stripe-shirted youngsters running in circles in the grass. Hardly understanding what's happening, they spin around and dart back and forth, aimlessly, as the parents and "coaches" scream instructions to them. 

    People will say that children get more exercise playing soccer, but exercise per se has never been the main point of sport in general. And for players in childhood years, soccer participation lacks focus, as the tots wander from place to place on the field, trying to understand how to engage in the action. Because it's a game more about "position" than engagement, anticipation and accident are more important than any kind of physical skill. 

    Soccer is a ridiculous game, regressive and idiotic. Audiences typically become so frustrated and angry that fights and mob riots frequently occur (abroad). Do we really want to adopt this Old World anomaly as our national pastime? I earnestly hope not. We already have four of the best team sports in the world. We don't need soccer."

    As an opponent of globalism--and all it stands for--I would like to see soccer remain a popular sport outside of America. American sports are superior to soccer. I might even go so far as to say that advocating soccer participation in America is un-American. We should be encouraging kids to play baseball and basketball. Tackle football may be inappropriate for most kids, so I wouldn't promote it in the schools. 

    The World Cup is a boring event. Whenever I go into a tavern where there's a television showing a soccer event, I respectfully request they change the channel. If Brits and Aussies and other foreign birds want to watch these boring games, they can bloody well do it in the privacy of their own homes, or not at all. Or go back home where they'll be among their kind. 

    Enough with your stupid World Cup. 


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    Previously, I have done blogs on Albeniz, Rodrigo, Montsalvatge, Mompou, and Lecuona. But it would be inconceivable to discuss 20th Century Spanish classical music without mentioning Enriques Granados

    Like Albeniz, Granados [1867-1916] was a classical pianist, who came to maturity during the end of the 19th Century, in an era in which the grand piano-forte had come into its own as a solo instrument, and had developed its own separate tradition, dominated by a preoccupation with dramatic flourish and melodramatic display. Its great heroic figure was Franz Liszt, the Hungarian virtuoso, who composed and performed his keyboard works to rapt audiences, often in intimate settings. His approach was histrionic, meant to exploit the romantic potential excesses of music as hypnotic emotional feeling. This tradition of the keyboard luminary extended well into the 20th Century (think of Horowitz, Rubenstein, Van Cliburn, or Gould), and is still with us, though somewhat evolved. 

    Liszt's influence on the pianistic performers and composers of his time, and on subsequent generations of players can't be overemphasized. 

    In Spain, there hadn't been a strong classical music tradition, as there had been in Italy, France, and Germany. Spanish musicians and composers typically emulated the Italian, French or Viennese traditions, studying in Paris. Both Albeniz and Granados, as ambitious pianist/composers, emulated the virtuoso tradition. Their early compositions reflected this influence, and sounds to our ears today, not very original. 

    During this same period--roughly between 1880 and 1920--there was a movement towards musical nationalism throughout Europe. In Spain, this was expressed through a resurgence of interest in traditional Spanish, Gypsy and Oriental folk music styles. Albeniz and Granados combined the resources of the romantic piano-forte with adaptations of Spanish folk material to produce lively compositions, suitable not only for the keyboard, but for the guitar (Spain's national instrument). 

    These composers were consciously attempting to create a new tradition which would incorporate nativist themes and musical styles that expressed their country's flavor and character. There was nothing accidental about their campaign to establish this new tradition; it was an nothing less than a kind of declaration of independence and pride in their culture. 

    Spanish court music had more or less followed the French and Italian examples, but the new nationalism drew on the music of the people, the peasant dances, the "deep song" of Andalusia. They were lively, and passionate, and very lyrical. Later, during the 1920's and after, Spanish composers such as Falla and Rodrigo, opted to exploit both kinds of traditions, mixing folk and court styles.    


    In Granados's early piano compositions, such as the Escenas Romanticas--played here by Daniel Ligorio [1903] (you'll have to turn your sound up, the recording isn't quite loud enough)--the familiar Liszt style predominates. The material is softly romantic, and the flourishes and embellishments seem only to advertise the gently swooning quality of the inspiration. It's quite beautiful, but not particularly Spanish in its suggestiveness. On the other hand, it doesn't sound Germanic or French, either. You could say with justice, however, that the music asks to be played with indulgence. It has a late 19th Century feel to it. Granados had mastered the materials of the instrument, and clearly possessed the genius to make it speak in the new (or "old") musical language of his people. 

    Granados's reputation rests largely on the Twelve Spanish Dances, and the Goyescas (1911, named after the great early 19th Century Spanish painter Francisco Goya). The 12 dances constitute perhaps the purest realization of the Spanish "deep song" lyricism, which has become nothing less than the stereotypical essence of Spanish music. Now, a century after they were composed, they sound as inspired and inevitable as any musical signature--as dependably Spanish as Brahms is German, or Copland is American. 

    The Goyescas, though conceived as Spanish musical tableaux, are nevertheless more specifically virtuosic than the 12 dances--or for that matter, the Eight Valses Poeticos [1900], the Six Popular Spanish Songs [1915], or the Bocetos [1912]. 

    From a purely musical point of view, Granados doesn't challenge the formal frameworks of traditional forms, though rhythmically many of the pieces employ tempi and effects that are clearly and obviously Spanish. The dances, in particular, have a rhythmic liveliness and quirkiness that are exotic and energetic. Though all of the dances are relatively short, they are distilled down to their simplest essence--unlike the Goyescas which are festooned with brilliant elaborations and decorative flourishes. 

    It's always amusing to imagine what any artist might have done, had they lived longer. In Granados's case, we have an instance of an ironic and unexpected turn of fate. Returning from a successful concert tour in America in 1916, the boat that he and his wife were on was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. In the confusion of the disaster, Granados dove into the English Channel to save his wife from drowning, ultimately perishing himself (along with her) from drowning--a touching early end to a very promising career. He was only 48 when he died, virtually in the full flower of his creative life. 

    The tendency among successful pianists in those days, was to extend their composing skills into full concert pieces, or operatic efforts, since solo instrumental compositions were then considered to be a limited application of talent. We will never know whether Granados would have created more ambitious instrumental pieces, but had he lived into the 1920's and 1930's, his fame would certainly have allowed him access to larger orchestral, perhaps even operatic, venues.  

    As with the works of Albeniz, Granados's pieces lend themselves beautifully to adaptation on the Spanish guitar, since the figures and effects they employ are really guitarristic in character. Where the chords stack up too high, they can be played by two guitars in duet--an adaptation that is also used with pieces by Scarlatti, for instance, as with other the works of other non-guitar composers.

    Everyone has favorites among Granados's works. Of the Dances, I've always loved #1, #2, #4 (Villanesca), the central section of #5, #7, #10, #11. Most of these pieces are easily fingered for the guitar, and #5, especially, has been more identified with that instrument than with the piano. 

    I am also quite partial to certain of the pieces from the waltzes, and popular songs. They have an ardent, almost fatalistic quality that has always appealed to me, alternating between ecstatic, joyful release, and a fatal melancholy. If Albeniz was the impressionist, Granados is the poet of the dance, whose irresistible catchy tunes are immediately seductive and charming. 

    Granados must have been quite the figure, with his big dark eyes, handlebar mustache, and natty corduroy jackets. In some ways, he seems part of an earlier era, who lived past his time, though he was still relatively young when he died in 1916. He seems a bridge figure, between the late romantic world of Liszt, Brahms, Saint-Saens, Bruckner, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Franck, and the early Modernist figures like Stravinsky, Ives, Hindemith, Bartok, Janacek, Prokofiev, etc. Though his musical palette is relatively simple and limited, its clarity and force have little in common with the late romanticism from which he emerged. And though I doubt that he would ever have evolved into a more subtle and intellectual composer such as Falla, I'm sure he would have produced more beautiful keyboard pieces. Alas, we shall never know, as that possibility died in the frigid waves of the English Channel, another casualty of World War I. 

    YouTube furnishes a range of recordings of much of Granados's keyboard works. The simplest entry is Alicia de Larrocha's extended concert sequence here, in 19 parts, as follows:

    1-3& 4-6: Escenas Romanticas
    7-10: Bocetos
    11-15& 16-18 & 19: Cuentos de la juventud (Scenes of Childhood)

    Here she plays the Seis Piezas Sobre Cantos Populaires Espanoles

    And here she is in an early recording of the 12 Spanish Dances, from 1954. 

    And here she plays the Valses Poeticos.

    I should say that though de Larrocha was a great pianist, justly recognized and appreciated around the world, I have usually found her playing a bit too brittle and hard. Spanish music from this period is emotionally flamboyant, but de Larrocha tends towards a classicist interpretation, with little modulation or variance in emphasis. Had she lived in the 19th Century, I'm convinced she would have had a more appropriate approach to the works of this period. Nevertheless, all her recordings are competent, and communicate the gist of the scores. I would encourage anyone exploring this music to sample different performances by various players, to see if they don't agree with my assessment.


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