Tuesday, December 10, 2013

André Lurton, vignoble

Autour d'une bouteille avec André Lurton
by André Lurton with Gilles Berdin
ISBN 978-2-35639-039-4
Bordeaux : Elytis, c2010.

ANDRÉ LURTON, born 1924, is a French winemaker and winery owner,” states the English-language Wikipedia. Curiously there seems to be no page for him at French-language Wikipedia, and this little book, nicely edited from seven conversations between Lurton and the French wine journalist Gilles Berdin (b. 1962), indicates that there certainly should be.

Before turning to Lurton himself, a few words on Berdin’s intentions are in order. This is one of a series of eleven such books introducing significant personalities in the world of French winemaking to their audience. (So far only one has appeared in English: Conversations Over a Bottle With Denis Dubourdieu.) Berdin describes his intent:
“These conversations, which are not biographies, result from the observation that there are extraordinary people in our landscape of French wine; a most diverse, amazing, exciting group: the owners, winemakers, cellar masters, and tasters. It seemed urgent to collect their words, especially if, as some fear, the vignoble is increasingly passing into the hands of what we call “les institutionnels: " banks, insurance companies, multinationals, investment companies.
I want all these enthusiasts to share their passion and experience, and transmit some of their memory to future generations: their knowledge, their skills, their emotions ...
As the charm of conversation lies in its imperfections, digressions, repetitions, silences, contradictions, onomatopoeia, paradoxes, laughter ... I'll open their words as is, without settling, aeration or dressing them up in a decanter. ”

(My translation.)

So the book, while short, is charmingly discursive. It does have a logical structure, though, basically chronological; and it begins, notwithstanding Berdin’s apology, with a bit of biography.

Lurton’s mother, née Denise Recapet, died in 1934 when Lurton was only nine years old. His father, who worked for a British commercial group, never remarried, and it was his mother’s parents who were apparently most influential in the boy’s upbringing. The grandfather, Léonce Recapet (1858-1943), must have been an imposing presence in the boy’s life. Léonce took up his own father’s distilling business after his four years of military service — he must have seen the Franco-Prussian War — and built it into a considerable success; then went on into the wine industry, buying his own Château Bonnet in 1897, later adding other properties.

Lurton saw service himself, of course, during World War II and the German occupation; some of the most moving pages in this book describe the difficulty of those days, and then of the actual battle he saw after the return of the Free French, when he fought the retreating Germans in eastern France.

The first fifty pages bring us from these biographical accounts — scanty but suggestive of the influences that molded the man — to the years after demobilization, lean years of returning to normal. The grandfather was gone, and he worked alongside his father until an uncle helped him take own his place in the vignoble, at Château Bonnet. He learned to be not only a vineyardist but a farmer as well, raising corn and potatoes, providing for a young family, as he’d married shortly after the war.

Succeeding conversations provide insight into the Bordeaux vinification methods as they slowly evolved in the years after the war, from relatively haphazard production to much more carefully calculated techniques. There are marvelous pages on the complex regulations concerning real estate, appellations controllées acreages, and financing: French readers will follow these pages more closely, but we Americans find here hints at the baroque intricacies of the French bureaucratic mind, which trains the French to master subtlety and patience.

Lurton discusses degustation, the tasting of wine; its vocabulary; its variability from one expert to the next. He discusses screw-caps, which he favors for white wines. He discusses the problems of press reviews. There are a couple of delicious pages on the subject of Robert Parker, the American writer whose ratings have so greatly influenced the production and marketing of wine in its international market. Berdin asks if Lurton thinks Parker has truly influenced methods of wine-production:

Lurton: Oh yes! Everybody wanted to make Parker’s wine. Where it had the most influence, though, was on the techniques of sampling. (He laughs.) … Each time he comes [to the vignoble], a couple of weeks or a month before there’s a tripotage in the cellars to prepare the samples. There’s a visit to this cave, that barrique… he knows about it, but there’s nothing he can do.

Lurton has things to say about regulation: he has little patience for the labeling laws, or for the current concern for safety and security in general. “The media are partly responsible for this propensity to fear everything.” And then there are his observations of journalists: “I’ve rarely met an informed or an objective journalist… it’s extraordinary how inept they can be, what stupidities and errors they can write… there are many who know nothing at all about a probem and who want to try to discuss it.”

Lurton emerges as an opinionated, hands-on veteran of the long and fascinating transition from the last decades of traditional winemaking, through the interruption of World War II, through the emergence of scholarly and theoretical approaches to the art, through the political and corporate domination of its industrialization, always with a pragmatic and, it must be said, often surprisingly patient long view of his metier.

He’s unhappy with the world as he finds it now, globalized and regulated by bureaucrats; but then what reasonable man over sixty is not. “France is a unique country which can do fantastic things,” he summarizes, on the closing page, “but which always criticizes itself, destroying itself. That’s what worries me for my children and grandchildren. But I hope they’ve had a minimum of training not to go too far wrong and to dare to act, to have some dynamism…

"A rich laborer, feeling his death coming on, gathered his children together, and said to them…”
[He laughs…] “Work; take pains; that’s the approach that misses least!” (Travaillez, prenez de la peine: c'est le fonds qui manque le moins! )

Ultimately these conversations over a bottle with André Lurton suggest the possibility there will always be a few wise old men (and women too), who have known hunger and hard work, who aren't fooled by fashion; and that that's enough to get humanity through a rough patch and back to basics. I'll lift a glass to that!

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Einstein, Poincaré, and the drift toward Relativity

Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps: Empires of Time. By Peter Galison. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003.

MOM ALWAYS LISTENED to a radio program on weekday mornings — some kind of news commentary, I think it was. It came on at nine o'clock sharp, and always began with the stentorious announcement that "It's High Noon In New York." Hearing that, I'd always look at our clock, which would read something between 8:45 and a few minutes past nine. It always fascinated me, this difference in times. I knew that anything said on the radio must be true, especially if it came from far away, yet my brain told me that it was nine o'clock, though our clock was rarely so sure.

Local time, Daylight Savings Time, Standard Time. Growing up in the country even a kid was aware of all these things, with that dim awareness kids have of such things. Except for school days, time was measured by sun and stomach: but school required promptness, and you wouldn't want to get there too early but you couldn't be late, and it was, oh, a good forty-minute walk.

These uncertainties prevailed even among urban adults until well into the 19th century. In spite of its title, chosen I think more for merchandising than for accuracy, Peter Galison's book is about the history of the synchonization of clocks in the Western World — as that history affected the gradual emergence of Einstein's theory of relativity, it is true. A photograph in this sometimes maddening book shows the Tower of the Island, in Geneva, which about 1880 had three prominent  clocks indicating the time(s): 10:13 here in Geneva, 9:58 in Paris; 10:18 in Bern. Six years later two of the clocks had been taken down, as time was now sychornized all the way from Paris to Bern, and beyond.

The problem, of course, is that the earth rotates on its axis (which is on the whole a very good thing). I look up at noon: the sun's as high as it will climb today, though probably in the southern sky. In New York, though, that happened three hours ago. 

There were a number of reasons the 19th century wanted to standardize time and synchronize clocks. It was a logical concomitant of the Industrial Revolution, of the Enlightenment. And therefore its history is grounded in that of England and France. Galison's hero, in this book, is certainly Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), the French polymath, graduate of the École Polytechnique, that quintessentially French institution born of the Revolution.

One forgets the essentially Rational nature of the Revolution, which replaced the superstition- and religion-obsessed Monarchy (which was positioned on  the Great Chain of Being, leading between the lowest worm and God,  just below God Himself) with a Republic grounded in the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. One of the major points was to replace arbitrary verities emanating from divine revelation or regal whim with equally arbitrary verities determined by groups of scientist-philosophers. The Metric System, for example, was developed by the Polytechnique, for the practtical reason of facilitating trade throughout the nation through standared weights and measures: a bolt of cloth woven in Nîmes should be measured the same as one woven in, say, Paris. 

(Another factor: the importance of bringing every corner of the nation under the administration of a central authority in Paris. The history of local-versus-capital tension is long, complex, and fascinating.)

Galison's story is significant and absorbing, but his editors and publisher have not done him many favors. There are odd lapses in grammar and even odd errors — in one case, for example, a confusion of starting and ending positions in an account of signaling between positions. The book is rich with detail, ranging from Poincaré's forensic investigation of a coal-mine explosion to the survey of meridians in Africa and the Andes. The poltics of scientific research would be a rich enough subject for a history all its own, and Galison valiantly brings it in, as well as the comic-opera argument between England and France over the decimalization of time measurement (France lost) and their joint research into the precise distance between the Greenwich meridian and that of Paris (England seems to have yielded). 

Galison's study is a chapter in the history of ideas, and a measure of the difficulty of writing such a chapter is itself a central aspect of his book. Early on, he describes the nature of this complexity, calling it "critical opalescence." He is so fond of the metaphor, and the reader needs so much to keep it in mind, that it's worth a long quote to show his method:

Imagine an ocean covered by a confined atmosphere of water vapor. When this world is hot enough, the water evaporates; when the vapor cools, it condenses and rains down into the ocean. But if the pressure and heat are such that, as the water expands, the vapor is compressed, eventually the liquid and gas approach the same density. As that critical point nears, something quite extraordinary occurs. Water and vapor no longer remain stable; instead, all through this world, pockets of liquid and vapor begin to flash back and forth between the two phases, from vapor to liquid, from liquid to vapor—from tiny clusters of molecules to volumes nearly the size of the planet. At this critical point, light of different wavelengths begins reflecting off drops of different sizes—purple off smaller drops, red off larger ones. Soon, light is bouncing off at every possible wavelength. Every color of the visible spectrum is reflected as if from mother-of-pearl. Such wildly fluctuating phase changes reflect light with what is known as critical opalescence. 
This is the metaphor we need for coordinated time. Once in a great while a scientific-technological shift occurs that cannot be understood in the cleanly separated domains of technology, science, or philosophy. The coordination of time in the half-century following 1860 simply does not sublime in a slow, even-paced process from the technological field upward into the more rarified realms of science and philosophy. Nor did ideas of time synchronization originate in a pure realm of thought and then condense into the objects and actions of machines and factories. In its fluctuations back and forth between the abstract and the concrete, in its variegated scales, time coordination emerges in the volatile phase changes of critical opalescence.
(Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps, pp. 39-40)

Galison's discussion traces the development of time standardization and coordination through a fascinating period, the century-plus leading from the French Revolution (1789) to the publication of Einstein's first papers on time and space — in the history of ideas, from the disastrous triumph of Rationalism to the cubist fragmentation of Relativity; from the displacement of divine and regal authority by that of republican committees to the eventual triumph (or disaster) of unbridled democratic individualism and the provisional, negotiable structures that follow.

The only hope for truth or certainty, given the "critical opalescence" of the philosophical, political, and even scientific landmarks along this historical path, lies in some kind of reasoned abstraction defining an intellectual framework within which to negotiate the numbers assignable to the objects we contemplate: time, distance, justice, value, administration. It's too much to hope for a clear presentation of this problem, let alone a clear discussion of the concepts and illuminations brought to the party by such minds as Poincaré and Einstein — and a number of others mentioned in passing in Galison's book. 

I wish he'd had better copy editing. I wish someone had asked him to resolve repetitions, to clarify arguments, to provide timelines. I wish the index were more detailed. But I thank him for giving us a book worth setting next to Ken Alder's The Measure of All Things, and for including copious notes and drawings and photos and an extensive bibliography. Written toward a popular audience, it's a book worth keeping and ruminating over. 

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Remembering Judy Rodgers

WE HAVE LOST another major presence — in our extended family, in our profession, in our community. Judy Rodgers, who was always so focussed, intelligent, committed, and fine in every way, died yesterday, only 57 years old, after a particularly nasty year dealing with a late-discovered cancer.

Judy was the age of our oldest daughter, and she lived a couple of years with her; she came young to "our" restaurant; she lived in our house one summer while we were away; she traveled a few weeks with us another summer, when we took lodgings together for a couple of hot weeks in Firenze.

I have always loved her, though we saw little of her after our move to the country. I've always thought of her as a honorary daughter and a friend. Now of course I regret the missed opportunities to spend more time with her: but like most restaurateurs who happen to have families she was either at work or at home, and we didn't like to distract her at work, or intrude on precious time with her family.

Judy somehow managed to merge or mediate France and Missouri, Stanford and Berkeley. Here's what I mean: she was born in St. Louis Missouri into a family not particularly interested in food. She spent a year as an exchange student in Roanne where she happened to be placed in the home of Jean Troisgros, one of the great three-star chefs in France, co-proprietor of Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne.

She majored in art history at Stanford, but hung out at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Alice Waters recognized her gifts and her skills quickly and put her in charge of lunches there.

She spent a few weeks in our house on Curtis Street, while we were in France and Italy; there she read virtually all our cookbooks, cover to cover.

In my mind's eye I see a photo Lindsey took in Chiomonte, the Italian Alpine village her father was born in: she's standing in the road, gesturing exuberantly to Lindsey's distant cousin Ernesto and Rosa.

I see her on the staircase in our Pensione Orchidea in Firenze, flaming red hair, very short miniskirt, color everywhere. She and Lindsey had been spending another day in museums and galleries. (I'd been at my desk.)

I see her in the house she and Peter shared with Thérèse and Eric: one or two of our overflow prints or posters are on the walls, but the most striking decor is the dozens of pairs of shoes, hanging by their high heels from the picture molding around the tops of the walls in the living and dining rooms.

She was tall and lanky, lanternjawed, beautiful in a Katherine Hepburny way. She introduced us to Dan McCleary, whose huge painting of a menacing wolf hung for years in her Zuni Café. She knew books, paintings, cooks and cooking.

I remember the Crawfish Dinner she put on at the Union Hotel in Benicia: as we pulled up to park I saw an escapee scuttling down the sidewalk toward the bay. Let him go, Judy said, He's earned a reprieve.

I remember the street dinner she arranged outside Zuni. We ate at temporary tables on the alley on a balmy night, and a soprano sang opera arias from a window in the second story.

I remember the duck dinners at Zuni, repeating things she'd learned from her mentor Pepette Arbulo in her restaurant in the Landes. She used all of the duck, and duck went into all of the meal, which ended with merveilles, pastries fried in duck fat. (On the last day of the duck marathon, when nearly everything had been eaten, we feasted on roasted duck bones. Delicious.)

Judy was what we used to call, in days more innocent of correctness, a man's woman: a woman who was anyone's equal, who knew that her place in the world was precisely wherever the hell she wanted it to be. I think of her and Catherine Brandel and Marion Cunningham and Barbara Tropp, gone all of them now; it would be nice to think they're at a case of Champagne in a very special Elysian Fields.

There are a lot of touching tributes to Judy online at the moment: here and here and very usefully here, where I found the photo I've used here, and where another shows her in front of the oven Eric built for her at Zuni.

I particularly like David Lebovitz's tribute here. He mentions celery and anchovies as an example of the specificity of her work; and he recalls her clogs and her cotton skirt billowing out as she turns quickly to face her kitchen. She was always both deft and certain, her hair and skirts always seemed airy and light-hearted yet her address to work or conversation or friendship seemed always direct and crisp and right on target. She was graceful though lanky. She was demanding and perfectionist and suffered no fools, but loyal and generous with her friendship.

She was a magnificent woman, dedicated to la nourriture, scholarly and practical, zesty and forthright.

Her best memorial will probably always be her superb book, The Zuni Café Cookbook (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002). When we brought our copy home I immediately made her Caesar salad from it, and the result tasted exactly like a Caesar salad at Zuni. Her writing is engaging, clear, enthusiastic, and persuasive. The book was given the James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year in 2003; Zuni was named Outstanding Restaurant in the country; and the following year she was named Outstanding Chef of the year.

And now she's gone, and there's nothing to be done but be thankful for having known her, and for the generosity of her work. Next time we're in town we'll have a Martini at the bar at Zuni, and maybe some anchovies and celery, or dates and Parmesan. She'll be there, of course; but it won't be quite the same.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Turrell, Francis, Hockney

James Turrell: A Retrospective. Through April 6, 2014.
David Hockney: Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos, 2011. Through January 20, 2014.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
5905 Wilshire Boulevard Los Angeles; 323 857-6000
Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections. Through January 5, 2014.
Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E Union St, Pasadena, California; (626) 568-3665.
WE FINALLY MANAGED to catch the James Turrell show last week while we were in Los Angeles. We'd tried to see it in September, but discovered it was expensive, and you had to book a time. This time we were prepared: we booked a convenient hour for the visit, and bought a year's membership in LACMA, which got us in free — and will get us in free to other exhibitions over the next year.

I have to confess to mixed feelings about Turrell's work. I was fascinated, years ago, when someone described to me a piece he'd made for the legendary Baron Panza: a special telescope tracked the full moon, sending its image down a polished Lucite tube which split into four tubes, each leading to a disc in a rectangular network of discs in a ceiling, above which, in a dining room, a table stood, each of its polished Lucite legs carrying the image to the table's surface, where the four full moons then appeared as optical inlays in the glass surface. 

Astounding! A work of art worthy of Raymond Roussel. Of course I don't know if it ever actually existed; but it hardly matters; one can see it perfectly in one's mind. And it is just so that I "see" Turrell's magnum opus, Roden Crater, an ancient volcanic crater north of Flagstaff, Arizona, where over the last thirty years or so the artist has been perfecting and installing a network of galleries, tunnels, windows and openings all of which are designed to mediate the viewer and the cosmos.

I visited Roden Crater a number of years ago, shortly after Turrell had bought it and begun the preliminary work of "perfecting" its contours. At the time this seemed to me a shame: one had only to walk to the rim, then down the pumicey surface of the extinct crater toward its center, to understand man's relationship to cosmos. The Arizona desert can have a magic reddish-ochre glow; the ineffable blue of the sky overhead becomes solid, forbidding, magisterial; and space, color, light, and one's physicality — one's posture and breathing — all merge into a contemplation and an awareness of infinite space, form, and weight. 

To finance his work Turrell took to making prints of his working drawings, and a number of them are on view in the LACMA exhibition. More importantly, he has made a number of installation pieces. I liked a number of the corner pieces, in which geometrical shapes seem to be projected onto the adjacent walls in a corner, their single, blinding color fields tricking the eye into seeing dimensionality that isn't really physically there.

Other pieces are huge expanses of a single color, generally unarticulated but in at least one case subtly  mottled. We sat on a bench to contemplate a few of them for several minutes: gradually you wear out your eye's receptors to that particular color, and it fades, going a curious lavender grey, but also lifting away from the plane it physically occupies and coming nearer the viewer.

There are two particularly important pieces here, but we skipped them: one involves entering a sphere in which one's completely shut off from external reality, as if in an MRI chamber, in order to be overwhelmed by Turrell's optical magic. This seemed just a bit too claustrophobic to us; besides,participation in it was sold out for the remainder of the exhibition.

The other was a large piece, a room really, which one enters in one's stocking feet, to contemplate light and color at the edge, it seems, of a yawning abyss which suggests the Cosmos itself. This does in fact work quite dramatically and viscerally, but we'd seen it at the Venice Biennale a couple of years ago, and didn't want to repeat the experience on this visit.

ALSO AT LACMA we were able to take in a a number of David Hockne'y's Cubist videos, odd films made with an array of eight or nine cameras mounted to a rack fixed to a car driven slowly through the English countryside Hockney's visited in the last few years to record the changing seasons — not only in video: also in paint, drawing, and printmaking.

If Turrell's work and vision seems touchingly Sublime-yet-innocent, Hockney's, to me, seems touchingly aspirational-for-historical-importance. Both artists seem consumed with staking a place in history, and being remembered for their discoveries and their work. Both are undoubtedly disciplined, gifted, and productive; but ultimately each seems to have been laboring at something that's obvious, that need only be mentioned for its conceptual effect to be made known. They remind me again of something Gertrude Stein once said: "If it can be done, why do it." Once the discovery is revealed, why repeat the demonstration.

Sam Francis, Sketch for Chase Manhattan Bank Mural [Study for Chase Mural]

[Untitled Sketch], 1959. Gouache on paper, 21 x 99 1/4 inches. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Gift of the artist and the Sam Francis Art Museum, Inc. 93.29. Artwork © Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

IN PASADENA WE SAW a retrospective of paintings by Sam Francis, and it was immediately obvious that he foreshadowed, in these canvases full of space and brilliant color, the effects Hockney and Turrell have worked at. But Francis was of an earlier generation, content merely to paint. He was introduced to painting as a therapy, while he was flat on his back for months at a time, suffering from spinal tuberculosis, looking at the white ceiling of a hospital room. I've always thought the threads of color streaking across his often otherwise empty canvases had something to do with the spots and threads you see behind your closed eyelids.

In Francis, as in Turrell, the effects of light and color seem internal as much as external; and when things really work — as they nearly always do in Turrell, but only perhaps half the time in these paintings of Francis's — internal and external merge. Or, perhaps, the distinction between them is transcended. In any case the viewer loses his sense of individuality; ego dissolves; the fact and awareness of one's individual being is dissolved in a sudden realization that it's the light and color that surround one that contains the energy and life in which, submerged, we're allowed to participate.

But Sam Francis was an Abstract Expressionist, and his best canvases have a darting, pulsing, almost violent energy that animates them with a muscularity quite lacking in Turrell and Hockney. One contemplates Hockney. and meditates in front of Turrell; one dances with Francis. There's nothing like looking at one of these big, vibrant paintings with one eye, quickly walking backward away from it at an angle, then crossing in front of it, always with the eye fixed on the painting. You're engaged by these things, they call and sing. To see the three exhibitions on adjacent days is a rare opportunity to experience an immense range of visual pleasure, but also to understand, intellectually, the inevitable 20th-century process leading from the art of painting to the art of pure light.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Et in Arcadia ego

WELL, JUST DOWN THE ROAD from Arcadia, in Monrovia. California, not Liberia, thank Hermes. We are here to see the fall season of A Noise Within, the repertory company whose plays we've attended for ten or twelve years now — convenient, since in four days we can see three plays.

Along the way of course we take in a few restaurant meals, which I describe at my other blog Eating Every Day; and a few museum shows — I'll get to the James Turrell and Sam Francis retrospectives in another post here.

First, though, the plays. Thursday night we saw Ferenc Molnár's The Guardsman (1910), a well-made play on the old theme of a man testing his wife's fidelity by flirting with her in disguise — a device made a tiny bit more probable since the husband is, after all, a professional actor.

This is material for farce, but in this production, translated by Frank Marcus, intelligently directged by Michael Michetti, and pointedly acted by Freddy Douglas (the Actor), Elyse Mirto (the Actress), and Robertson Dean (the Critic), the play made surprising reaches toward the speculative, sometimes philosophcal drama of a Pirandello. 

Douglas opened the play acting very broadly indeed, and I expected the play to be merely broad comedy. I was struck by the care and finesse that went into the dramatic curve of the performance, which moved effortlessly, seductively, toward a conclusion that leaves the audience and even, I think, the cast) quite up in the air, unresolved. Of course you don't see this play without thinking of the Mozart-da Ponte Così fan tutte, where the disguised-lover-testing-fidelity idea is actually doubled, and Don Antonio takes the role of Molnár's Critic (and the soubrette maid gets a much richer part).

Così, too, plays to mixed response. Beethoven famously though it too immoral to be allowed a production.  But the point of these plays is the equivocal nature of Ethics itself when brought to the service of Moralism. Any sting operation presents an ethical quandary, and the victim of any sting operation can plead Not-Quite-Proven simply by questioning the propriety of the enforcer having been deceitful himself. If virtue is its own reward — since to reward virtue is to bribe it — so to test virtue is to engage a procedure that inevitably punishes itself: any sting, growing out of deceit, can only falsify its own finding.

There's a second layer of complexity in The Guardsman, which is a play written for the theater. There, the other night, we saw actors play the role of actors who were playing roles; and tan ultimate question, actually investigaged aloud by the audience and cast in a talkback after the production, is, where does make-believe start, where does it stop? It's a serious squestion, because it raises the ultimate question of what Theater is, societally, for.

NEXT WE SAW a fine performance of Samuel Beckett's very hard play Endgame, with company co-artistic director Geoff Elliott directing and taking the lead role of Hamm; Jeremy Rabb as Clov, and Mitchell Edmonds and Jill Hill  in the garbage cans as Nagg and Nell.

I call it a hard play because itt is, well, stony, flinty. It's not difficult to understand. As Beckett once wrote, No symbols where none intended. Hamm is blind, old, decrepit, motionless in his chair, apparently dying. Clov tends to him, as one's life must attend to its approaching end. The play can seem almost unbearably bleak: hopelessness is often thought Beckett's chief subject. And indeed he wrote Endgame partly, I think, as an externalization, on the stage and in public, of the transactions in his three great novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, novels so reductive in spite of their length and so bleak in spite of their almost decoratively Baroque word-spinning that they were found very few readers.

Endgame lacks the popularity of Waiting for Godot, which is Chaplinesque in contrast to Endgame's Keatonism. But the language is superb. At the beginning of the performance I was concerned: Elliott seemed mannered, stilted. But the play proceeded just as The Guardsman had, moving from an opening — well, an opening gambit, I suppose — quickly into a middle game of great strength and intelligence and not a little grace. 

It's hard to find much to say about the play. I once loved Beckett's work, and nearly every poem, novel and play of his are still on the bookshelf in my study — way up high, since the books are arranged by author; so high as to be easily neglected. For a while Beckett seemed to have beome datedd, so logically does he proceed from the anxieties of World War II, the Bomb, Existentialism. Now, of course, in this century that threatens in so many ways to be even worse than the previous one, he demands our attention again. He's the Shakesperian Fool to today's demented despots. I wish I could see this Endgame again, and I wish our elected leaders and their assistants could be made to watch it over and over.

IWRITE THIS FRESH from seeing Noise Within's third play of the fall season, Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre — a play I'd never seen before. It's one of the four late Romances, with The Tempest, A Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline (the last-named having been produced here last season). These plays extend Shakespeare's oeuvre out of the Elizabethan renaissance toward the Baroque; I think they look forward to Corneille (whose L'Illusion was produced here a year or so ago) and further, even, toward Gozzi, for example (whose Il re cervo was done here, as King Stag, quite a few seasons back).

At the talkback one of the first questions came from a man behind me who sounded a little out of sorts: Why have you chosen to perform this play? Pericles was the most popular of Shakespeare's plays during his lifetime, but has fallen into disfavor and has rarely been performed in my lifetime. The playwright is associated with his greatest hits: Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, perhaps As You Like It; A Midsummer Night's Dream; maybe Hamlet and Macbeth. Those are the Shakespeare the crowds want to see: but Shakespeare wants to be Shakespeare, and branch out, evolve, even though the result is in a direction seeminly at odds with the better-known corpus.

One objection to these late romances has been their unbelievability. They depend on sudden rages, incest, redemptions, coincidence, chance natural cataclysms. Pericles begins with a hero who discovers a father-daughter incestuous relationship, and who can believe that? Later, it shows a young virgin abducted and sold into sexual slavery, and who can believe that? Yet in recent years these stories have become commonplace. No matter how theatrical and arbitrary his plots — most of them stolen from sources much older, of course — Shakespeare seems unable to escape contemporary relevance.

Asked, after the play, how she would sum it up, the director said that she thinks of it as a man's journey toward grace. In spite of every calamity, Pericles finds resolution. Wife and daughter, each long thought dead, are returned to him. Perseverance is rewarded. 

  • A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd. Pasadena, California
  • Thursday, November 21, 2013

    Robert Erickson: the quartets

    I HAVE BEEN remiss in not recording a few observations here about the four compositions for string quartet by Robert Erickson. I feel a little odd posting them, as I am definitely parti pris. I studied composition with Bob, a bit, back in the middle 1960s. I suspect I partly owed it to him that I was hired as music director at KPFA in 1964: he'd occupied the position ten years earlier, was on the KPFA Board of Directors for a few years, and chose my two predecessors in the position.

    Then, in the late 1980s, I wrote a biography of Erickson, with a survey of his music. Thinking Sound Music was published in 1995 by Fallen Leaf Press, and is still in print, now distributed in paperback, cloth, and as an e-book by Scarecrow Press. 

    Furthermore, the Del Sol Quartet, who have been commissioned to record all four works for New World Records, invited me to sit in on rehearsals for the performance they gave last Sunday in Berkeley. I can hardly pretend any objectivity in my response to that concert.

    But I've convinced myself that it would be unfair to Bob and the Quartet to withhold that response, so here it is. I thought they really got into the scores, found out how to make them their own, and put the pieces across far more persuasively than I would have believed possible. I've heard them played by other performers, and thought that performance powerful and interesting: but Del Sol went further, finding a logical and utterly musical progression from the earliest to the latest, connecting Erickson's quartet thinking to Berg and Schoenberg but more importantly to his own time as new musical values were being defined and developed by the avant garde.

    The First Quartet was composed in 1950, shortly after or perhaps partly during a composition seminar the 33-year-old composer had taken at UC Berkeley with Roger Sessions. It has always struck me as rebarbative, intellectual, a bit labored; clearly referring to Berg's Quartet Op. 1 but also to late Beethoven, full of imitation and  thematic transformations of small melodic motives. 

    The Second, composed at UC Berkeley six years later, when Erickson was briefly on the music faculty there, represents a big step forward but is still clearly in the academic modern style for the most part. Late in the piece, though, the first violin is given an extended solo clearly reaching toward a different kind of music. I was reminded, hearing Del Sol play this piece Sunday, that Beethoven similarly reaches toward a more transcendant kind of music in his late quartets. Erickson's Second Quartet doesn't do more than state the idea; he returns to earth after that solo. But each member of the Quartet relates as a highly individuated soloist to his or her part, connecting Erickson to Ives and, I think, in an odd way, Elliott Carter, while still integrating the independent and individual vision to the combined context of the four instruments. 

    In 1985, nearly twenty years later, Erickson returned to the medium in two final pieces for quartet, Solstice and Corfu. During those tweenty years he had explored writing virtuoso solo pieces, assembling tape-music scores, composing game structures, and further devloping his keen ear for both timbres and structural embodiments of sound. All that blossoms in these two final works for string quartet, which are rooted in drones, recurring tonal bases, octaves and fifthes, but which soar out of those roots in hypnotic melodic writing, melismatic and fanciful, often recalling Arabic music.

    Somehow the Del Sol Quartet made a logical and persuasive case for these four pieces presenting an integrated, connected statement, beginning with the mid-20th century fascination with the relationships of melodic motives and their manipulation, ending with late-20th-century iminimalism and mysticism. Two extraordinarily ethical disciplines combined to make this happen: Erickson's intelligence and creative discipline and Del Sol's attentive and very skilful adaptation of the music to their instruments. The dynamic range was huge, the rhythms and tempi exact and careful, the phrasing expressive. I was tremendously impressed, and look forward to the release next year of their recording.

    Friday, November 08, 2013

    Diebenkorn; Erickson

    Eastside Road, November 8, 2013—
    I PROMISED NOT to write this month, I know, but I'd be remiss not to mention two Bay Area events worth considering. Diebkorn collage

    The College of Marin is showing a beautifully installed little exhibition of a number of works on paper by Richard Diebenkorn, many of them previously not exhibited publicly: gouaches, drawings, and collages both abstract and figurative, mostly from the late 1950s and early 1960s but a few from later in his life. The work is absorbing, of course, and the gallery invites comfortable, relaxed, sustained viewing: plenty of natural light, room to step back, see several pieces at once, or step in for very close examination. I can't recommend this show highly enough.

    • College of Marin Fine Arts Gallery,
    835 College Avenue, Kentfield, California
    September 30 – November 14, 2013
    Gallery Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

    LAST NIGHT WE HEARD the Del Sol String Quartet play Robert Erickson's last quartet, Corfu, an expansive, eventful, ultimately very serene single-movement piece full of drones and hockets, Arabic melisma, Mahlerish introspection, and Erickson's own unique immersion in sounds. The quartet then discussed their view of the music, what it "means" to them and how they approach its performance; and they asked members of the audience to participate in the discussion.

    Also participating was the artist Kimetha Vanderveen, who showed a number of small panels painted in deeply glowing pastel colors whose surfaces were rubbed and layered, investing them with a contemplative energy inspired, as she told us, by Erickson's music.

    And then the Del Sol generously repeated their performance of Corfu, finding even more energy, more serenity in the work. Erickson would have been pleased with this performance, I know.

    This was at the Center for New Music, a casual storefront room with good acoustics right downtown in San Francisco (and close to a good casual eatery, Show Dogs). Best of all, though: the Del Sol is preparing all four of Erickson's quartets for recording, and will present all four in concert in Berkeley's Hillside Club in a couple of weeks. I can vouch for the considerable commitment they have to the music, the care with which they're preparing it, and the skill and musicality of their performance, and I wouldn't miss this concert. Beware the webpage linked here, which contains some misleading dates and misleadingly presented information: the correct location and dates are:

    • The Berkeley Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar Street, Berkeley, California; information: 510-845-1350;
    Sunday 17 November 2013 at 7:00pm

    Thursday, October 31, 2013

    Take some time off!

    THERE ARE OTHER THINGS to be said: another novel of Frederic Tuten's just read (Tallien: A Brief Romance, which made me think of Georges Perec's W, or the Memory of Childhood more than once. The Met "live-in-theater" production of Shostakovich's opera Nose, which in spite of William Kentridge's mise-en-scene, or perhaps because of it, seemed less diverting to me than the production seen last January in Rome, and reported here. (Search it if you like in the little box up at the left.)

    Mark di Suvero's marvelous sculpture at Crissy Field. The fabulous road across the mountains from Buttonwillow to Ojai. The big exhibition of Richard Diebenkorn's Berkeley paintings.

    And in the next month, a show of paintings by the late Kenjilo Nanao; a hearing of Robert Erickson's marvelous string quartet Corfu, and three plays to be seen down in Pasadena: The Guardsman, Endgame, and Pericles.

    But this next month is November, and I've decided to dedicate it to a completely different project. So let's all take a break, and I'll be back December 1, maybe with a cursory retrospective catch-up.

    Music in space

    Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 4.52.52 PM.pngLAST SATURDAY WE HEARD Lisa Bielawa’s Crissy Broadcast, the San Francisco variant of a piece she wrote for performance at Berlin’s old Tempelhof Airfield last May. Crissy Field, on the north shore of the Presidio, is a retired airstrip, like Tempelhof, but considerably smaller, and grass instead of tarmac, and it would have been fascinating to have been able to compare the performances, but budgets are small around here, and I’m no longer paid to cover such events. (Nor have I ever been to Berlin; nor do I want to go there.)

    Bielawa chose the title [Airfield] Broadcast for its allusion not to radio or television but to the sowing of seed, as it is broadcast — strewn broadly and evenly — across a field, whether from machine or hand. (I remember with pleasure striding across the plowed and harrowed damp field, a bucket in my left hand, dipping my right hand into the grain, then strewing it, palm up, grain flying out between index finger and thumb. There are so many subtle controls in that hand, affecting the amount and pattern of the distribution, and what a blend of sight, smell, touch, even sound…)

    The San Francisco installation was (as I understand it; I've done no real research) produced with the collusion of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and other — perhaps many other — ensembles. The first person I met when we arrived on the scene, a little before ten o'clock, was Roy Malan, the principal violinist with the SFCMP. He was there leading a sizable contingent of musicians from I forget what high school; and it turned out many SFCMP stalwarts were doing the same.

    Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 5.31.10 PM.pngThere was Willie Winant, for example, leading musicians from St. Mary's, including a snare drummer who turned out to be the son of acquaintances of ours, with whom we lunched after the performance. A little later I ran across Peter Josheff, clarinetist with the contemporary ensemble Earplay.

    The various ensembles ranged from small rather cohesive groups, like Winant's percussion ensemble, to full orchestras like Malan's. Toward the end of the hour I came upon an a capella chorus. In Berlin there were apparently even pianos, hauled around on motorized luggage carriers; but I saw no pianos, or harps or pipe organs or kettledrums, at Crissy Field: the grass worked well enough for lightweight biplanes at the time of World War One, but I doubt it would stand up to Steinways.

    When I ran into Roy he was fiddling with an improvised lyre he'd mounted at the scroll end of his violin — tape of some sort holding a clothespin. As a band musician in my youth I remember all our wind instruments were fitted with such things. Only the flutists, their instruments sticking out sideways from the face, had to invest in special equipment: an armband with a couple of buckles to tighten it over the left forearm carried the lyre. We played from little sheets of music hardly bigger than a file card, but of course we were only playing Sousa marches or the like, with lots of repeat signs in them.
    Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 5.32.14 PM.png
    Here at Crissy Field the flute players had helpers, as you see here at the right of the photo; or in some rather endearing cases they played from parts that had been taped to the backs of musicians standing in front of them.

    The parts, and the evidence that came to my ears, suggested that Crissy Broadcast is composed of a number of musical cells, short structural units, which are repeated a variable number of times, and are separated by silences apparently measured by the clock. I saw a number of leaders consulting wrist-watches, then signaling their ensembles before beginning to conduct.

    I was told that the spatial distribution, which at first seemed set up more or less imprecisely but evidently according to a preconceived plan, was then affected by scored instructions for the musicians to walk a given number of paces, in a given direction.

    Like many others in the audience I was so intent on photographing, maintaining silence, and enjoying the sounds and the atmosphere, that I found it impossible to observe the entire effect as a unit. If I were more disciplined I'd have gone to the composer's discussion of the event, after that morning performance, and then to the repeat performance in the late afternoon: but other pleasures interfered.

    What did Crissy Broadcast sound like? To me, perhaps influenced by knowing of its German origin, it sounded a little Germanic. The preponderance of wind instruments (since after all string instruments don't make sounds that carry nearly as well out of doors) and percussion, and the repeated short "melodicles," as Lou Harrison calls these tunelets, brought to mind, for whatever reason, the music Kurt Weill provided for Bertolt Brecht's plays. Maybe Hindemith's gebrauchmusik is in the mix, too.

    I also thought of Douglas Leedy's Exhibition Music, composed in 1965 for a backyard reception for, as I recall, people connected somehow with the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. (You can hear Exhibition Music streaming online.) Leedy was writing in the spirit of Erik Satie's musique d'ameublement (furniture music), the first of which, composed in 1917, was in fact intended to be performed pour l'arrivée des invités (grande réception) - À jouer dans un vestibule (for the arrival of the guests (grand reception) - to be played in a vestibule).

    But Bielawa's score is not in that spirit, I think. She, or someone writing for her on the website publicizing the event, refers to the work as "a massive, spatialized symphony involving more than 800 professional, student and amateur musicians, including orchestras, bands, and experimental new music groups," and that description brings to mind Charles Ives's Universe Symphony worked on from 1911 or so to 1928, when Ives stopped composing. I'm not sure I'd attach the word "symphony" to what I heard at Crissy Field on Saturday; to me the word suggests something both more determined as composition and more resolved in performance.

    (I realize that etymologically the word simply means "sounds together," and there certainly were many sounds sounding simultaneously; but the word has accumulated some linguistic meaning, and it always seems unfortunate when words are dulled, deliberately or not.)

    Instead, Crissy Broadcast seems to me to fall into a different category, if indeed there are enough such pieces to form a category: it is landscape music. Not background music to cover awkward pauses (or generalized chatter) in a social context, but music meant to accompany the theater that is landscape when it is observed or experienced for esthetic purpose.

    One of the most pleasant aspects of Crissy Field is its generosity in admitting ambient sounds, and the San Francisco location was generous in providing them: occasional fog horns; the sound of the elevated highway that formed its southern backdrop; the lapping of the bay on the beach, if you were close enough and attentive enough to hear it. And, of course, occasional muted talk, though the audience seemed to me to be unexpectedly quiet and respectful. And, once or twice, a dog, barking in the distance.

    The weather was glorious: a thin fog was lifting throughout the performance, veiling the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, as if it were politely retiring in order to allow Mark di Suvero center stage, through the dozen or so marvelous huge steel sculptures of his currently installed at Crissy Field. I'm told that Saturday afternoon was cooler and windier, and Sunday noon downright cold and miserable. I'm glad we went when we did.

    I made an eight-minute video, strolling among the musicians, shortly after they began playing. You can see it here; and searching YouTube for "Crissy Broadcast" will turn up clips others have sent in as well.

    Friday, October 25, 2013


    The recent Congressional breakdown over funding the government suggests that today’s social “warfare” is not between Christians and Muslims, as at the time of the Crusades; or Catholics and Protestants, as during the Hundred Years War, or between white people and black people, as during slavery and the Jim Crow period following Abolition. It is not between Democrats and Republicans; not even between the rich and the poor. It is between, not to mince words, communitarians and sociopaths.

    Communitarians consider

    the connection between the individual and the community. While the 'community' may be a family unit, it is usually understood in the wider sense of interactions between a community of people in a geographical location, or who have a shared history or interest.[1] Communitarian philosophy is derived from the assumption that individuality is a product of community relationships rather than only individual traits.
    [Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communitarianism]

    Sociopaths exhibit

    a pervasive pattern of disregard for, or violation of, the rights of others. There may be an impoverished moral sense or conscience and a history of crime, legal problems, impulsive and aggressive behavior.
    [Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antisocial_personality_disorder]

    Wikipedia cites definitions of sociopathic behavior as stated by the American Psychiatric Association:

    A) There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three or more of the following:
    1 failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
    2 deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
    3 impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
    4 irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
    5 reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
    6 consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
    7 lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another;

    [American Psychiatric Association (2000). "Diagnostic criteria for 301.7 Antisocial Personality Disorder". BehaveNet. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Retrieved 8 July 2013]
    This definition pertains to individual behavior, and goes on to stipulate that

    B) The individual is at least age 18 years.
    C) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
    D) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.

    But, oddly, sociopaths, like anarchists, are able to transcend their presumed near-total loathing for community and band together in sociopathic groups, dedicated to opposition to other social groups. Sociopathy is becoming institutionalized within ad hoc associations like the Tea Party.

    Worse, because more insidious, sociopathic “values” like the seven characteristics listed by the APA are beginning to characterize official behavior, ranging from the presidential decision to assassinate suspected terrorists (and the inevitable innocent bystander) to a recent incident in my own local city, where police shot and killed an eighth-grader who was carrying a (borrowed) “toy” rifle.

    According to the newspaper account, the toy is manufactured and distributed for use in indoor facilities where properly trained and armored participants shoot at one another for “sport.” Further, the weapon is deliberately made to resemble a military assault weapon, with the double result that it is apparently very popular among practitioners of the “sport,” and quite confusing to the police.

    What kind of society provides facilities for the sport of pretend warfare? What kind of culture leads parents to believe this is healthy sport for their children? What kind of government encourages its police to fire first, investigate later? In my view, a sociopathic society.

    The beast thrashes, tail in mouth, attempting to devour itself.

    Sunday, October 20, 2013

    The Dutch-American historical connection

    From the vault: this was written last January, but for some reason never posted to the blog. It still seems to the point.
    YESTERDAY I READ A BOOK confirming and explaining the connection I've long felt exists between Netherlands and the United States — a common mentality, you might say, a societal posture differentiating them from other nations. Not all other nations, perhaps; and not entirely: but a special orientation enabling a societal organization — "political," in fact — that underlies the social responsibilities enabling a social contract, written or not.
    The book is in fact a pair of short essays by Geert Mak and Russell Shorto, 1609, The Forgotten history of Hudson, Amsterdam, and New York, published in 2009 in a handsome bilingual edition by the Henry Hudson 400 Foundation. Hudson arrived in New York harbor on his ship the Half Moon in 1609; the book was published as part of the events celebrating the 400th anniversary of that event.
    Hudson was English, not Dutch, but he sailed on a commission from the Dutch East India Company, who hoped he would find a short route to Japan and China by sailing along the north Russian coast where the long summer days, it was thought, might melt the polar ice. He was four centuries too soon for that, as we know now, and before rounding the north cape of Norway turned back, crossed the Atlantic, and sailed to what is now Virginia to visit his friend John Smith in the colony there; then looked into first the Delaware river, then what's now the Hudson, hoping for a passage through the North American continent to the Sea of Japan.
    (Not as ridiculous as it seems today, Shorto points out. At the time most navigators and cartographers thought that Ptolemy's ancient estimate of the size of the earth was correct; this would have placed Japan about where Ohio is.)
    Hudson sailed up his river as far as present-day Albany before the river proved entirely fresh water, not salt, dashing that hope. But he explored the banks, and reported back to the Company that the fields were fertile and well-supplied with game. Before long the Dutch were sending colonists to stake out their own territory north of England's doomed Roanoke colony, and New York was Nieuw Amsterdam until 1664, when the English finally claimed the city at gunpoint.
    By then the city had begun to develop qualities that characterize it still, qualities that early set it apart, Shorto writes, from "Boston, Hartford, or any other city in English North America." And what were those qualities? "Free trade and an immigrant culture," the features that enabled Amsterdam's rise in the late 16th and the 17th century as the most important, richest trading city in the world. The shipping companies were owned by a Dutch innovation, stock companies, not a monarchy; risk was shared as were returns; and the co-operation this necessitated was underwritten by a relatively liberal, tolerant view of differing social values.
    Amsterdam, with its busy seaport, had already been attracting refugees from the religious wars in Germany and France, and the suppression of the Jews in Spain. "In an age of religious strife, it was almost universally held that a nation should be of one people and one faith," Shorto writes.
    Intolerance was thus official policy in England, Spain, France… but not in the Dutch nation. There, tolerance became a topic of political and religious debate. Tolerance was adopted as a policy — not as a grand ideal, but as a way to deal with the mixed character of the population.
    The Union of Utrecht, for example, declared as early as 1579 that "each person shall remain free, especially in his religion, and that no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion."
    As a result, Shorto argues, the Dutch colony in New York was a mixture of ethnic and religious strains from the beginning, approaching common problems and decisions in the spirit of common consent. "Even as early as the 17th century," Mak writes,
    the Dutch had an uncontrollable inclination to assemble and to "polder" or debate until consensus is reached. This inclination based on the collective decision-making they were accustomed to as they worked together to reclaim their wetlands… Everything revolved around the art of persuasion, convincing others through debate.
    The technique has its drawbacks, of course: it requires an educated, articulate, and probably fairly small body of discussants; and it takes time to arrive at its consensus. But it's a commendable procedure, and no doubt served as a model to the "Founding Fathers" as they themselves debated the form of the new government to follow the American Revolution.

    Thursday, October 17, 2013

    Staff of Life

    Eastside Road, October 16, 2013—
    NEARLY TWENTY-FIVE years ago, in 1989, the noted home baker, teacher, and cookbook author Marion Cunningham, who was based in the San Francisco Bay Area, used to get together with Amy Pressman, who had a bakery in Pasadena at the time, to
    spend hours discussing various baking ideas, problems, and techniques. Eventually they decided that if they learned so much about baking from their casual meetings, other bakers would appreciate the opportunity to discuss the pleasures and mysteries of baking, too.
    I quote that from the website of the Bakers Dozen, the organization that grew out of their conversations a few months later. I often refer to this as my wife's "professional organization," as almost everyone knows what such a thing is, but that's misleading: one of the marvelous things about the group is that included from the very start amateurs — "home bakers" — as well as professionals.

    We have belonged to the group, Lindsey and I, from the beginning. I am hardly even a home baker, though for a few years I did bake our daily bread, which I suppose qualifies me a little bit for membership, beyond my other, more important qualification, as the Lovely Little Husband of a woman who after all was named Pastry Chef of the Year back when she was still in the traces at Chez Panisse.

    I have always been struck by the curious, perhaps unique combination of generosity and discipline that characterizes so many of the bakers I have known. Whether working at savory or sweet, bread or pastry, the baker must be focussed and attentive. Success depends on discipline and repetition. One thinks of the typical pastry chef as being a bit of a control freak, and indeed meticulous care for detail is central to success in the field. Temperature and proportion require extreme care, particularly in a commercial bakery or restaurant where consistency is important, perhaps even crucial.

    But every baker knows that one's ability to control goes only so far. The weather; irregularities in commercial supplies; even fluctuations in room temperature or humidity can influence the outcome of any day's work. The baker, like the baseball player, lives at the cusp of control and circumstance. Perhaps this contributes to qualities I've often noticed in bakers, if not perhaps baseball players: a certain humility, a cheerful degree of resignation; a wonderful combination of generosity and frugality; an enthusiastic commitment to their work. I come away from every meeting of the Bakers Dozen with renewed optimism about humanity because of the evidence it provides of these qualities.

    Craig Ponsford addressing the Bakers Dozen

    This week we were particularly interested in a presentation by Craig Ponsford, the California baker who famously won the gold medal at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris in 1996, an event as epochal as the celebrated breakthrough of California wines twenty years earlier at the "judgment of Paris."

    At the time, Ponsford was a founding partner in Artisan Bakers, a bread bakery he'd opened in Sonoma, California, one of a number of bakeries which had opened in the Bay Area in the wake of Steve Sullivan's Acme Bakery, which had pioneered the great second generation of Bay Area breads. (Larraburu and Toscana, much larger commercial bakeries, had established the first.)

    Although he and Artisan parted company a while back, Ponsford is still an active baker. You can buy his breads in San Rafael at Ponsford's Place, usually on weekends. This is undoubtedly a boon to locals, but it seems to me Ponsford's really significant contribution to the art of baking, these days, is through his work in consulting to millers, and publicizing their own work.

    No matter how competent the baker, it will always be the flour that makes the bread, and Ponsford is currently hard at work spreading the word about flour. This is particularly significant now, when there is so much talk about gluten and its digestibility in the human diet. The flour we have all been fed, whether in home-baked bread, bread baked in small local bakeries, or good old Cellophane-wrapped sliced white sandwich bread, has for the last century or so been the product of huge corporate millers.

    These mills indulged and encouraged the popular taste for white flours and breads. According to Ponsford, over a century ago a process was developed which "tempered" wheat grain, softening it in water to encourage it to sprout just enough to make it easier to remove the outer husk that protects the pure white endosperm. This was done to simplify the production of pure white flour, but it accelerates the kernel's development of gluten. Since the tempering process was quickly adopted by most industrial millers, today's flours contain a higher gluten content, as can be seen in industrially baked breads.

    The human digestive tract evolved to find nourishment in grains — more accurately, I suppose, grains and humans evolved together, grains profiting from human agriculture to flourish in ever newer climes and soils, humans profiting from grain's adaptability and ease of portability and storage. But the grain we evolved with was whole: not bran, not endosperm, not germ: the entire grain.

    Ponsford explained that flour, like sugar and even milk, is processed industrially by separating it as soon as possible to its simplest states. Bran, germ, and endosperm are separated; industrial "whole-wheat" flour is simply bleached white flour with a certain amount of germ and bran mixed back in. Similarly, brown sugar is refined white sugar with molasses mixed back in; "whole" milk is non-fat milk with butterfat mixed back in.

    When I was a kid we ate three kinds of bread: the usual American industrial sliced bread, also known as "balloon bread" or, by synecdoche, "Wonder bread"; "French" bread, usually Franco-American, still baked in Santa Rosa, our local city; and homemade bread, for which my mother used I don't know what commercial flour, probably General Mills. She used her own yeast-based starter, kept on a kitchen windowsill where it often smelled unpleasant, and I remember the slow progress of her bread from a light, fluffy loaf, full of holes, through a brief period when it seemed to be like "normal" bread, to a final stage when it became impossibly dense and chewy.

    The French bread was usually sliced, spread with margarine, sprinkled with garlic salt, and warmed in the oven, and I thought it was a treat.

    The commercial sliced balloon bread was another matter. I usually ate it by nibbling off the crust all round the slice, then folding the remaining white slice in half, folding that in half again, compressing the result between the palms of my hands, and repeating the process. The result was a leathery slightly sour-tasting thing, more or less dark depending on the state of my hands. It wasn't very tasty, but it was better than sliced bread. It was of course the result of otherwise unameliorated gluten.
    PONSFORD CURRENTLY CONSULTS to Community Grains, a company in Woodland, California, which finds responsibly grown grains and mills them in a traditional (i.e., pre-tempering) manner. The resulting flours (and polenta) are whole-grain: the entire kernel is ground all at once, without separating germ, bran, and endosperm. The resulting flours, Ponsford says, are more readily digested than those resulting from conventional industrial milling, because — this is my explanation, not his — they are in better balance: properties of gluten which can cause digestive problems are offset by properties in other parts of the grain which interact with the gluten.

    Of course support for this conclusion is largely deductive so far: I don't know to what extent scientific procedures have been brought to the investigation. But there's no question that diseases now widespread in "developed countries" have dietary correlations: diabetes, obesity, and intestinal disorders obviously so; and that there's a demonstrable correlation between the appearance and increase of these diseases and the further reliance, in the areas in which they appear, on industrialized production of flours and sugars.

    bread.jpgPonsford told me that it was Community Grains, up in Woodland, that had milled the wheat recently harvestedd by our friends Andrea Crawford and Robert Dedlow, the proprietors of Kenter Canyon Farms. Andrea was a gardener and forager for Chez Panisse many years ago, before the couple relocated to Southern California to raise produce for the restaurant-and-carriage trade there. Andrea has long been an enthusiastic home baker, and when they had the opportunity to plant fifty acres of flat, fertile Central California coastal-influenced farmland near Hollister, they decided to plant wheat.

    In the meantime Andrea had been developing her own recipes and methods. Last May we had lunch at their house, in the hills above Glendale, and were impressed with the results — though at the time she was using commercial flour, as their own harvest hadn't yet come in.

    But last week she was able to sell her own bread, and their own grain and flours, at the Santa Monica and Hollywood markets. The bread at the top of this blog post is hers, bought last Sunday morning in Hollywood and keeping well into this week. The texture is even, the crust pleasantly chewy, the flavor well focussed, with that intensity that comes from well-proofed dough.

    I'm glad to see her bread on the market, and glad to see it getting the attention it deserves in the Los Angeles Times (where it was written about by no less a figure than David Karp, who maintains the "market watch" column at that newspaper. We know him (my first-person-plural is not editorial: it always includes Lindsey) as the Fruit Detective, a man of immense erudition and enthusiasm; I'm glad to see him extend this from orchards to wheatfields.

    California used to produce a large percentage of the nation's wheat, before economies of scale encouraged relocation to the plains states. The area around Woodland, in Yolo county, used to be wheatfields; my grandfather, who was born in Geyserville in 1883, remembered living there on the family farm in the 1890s, and watching the huge teams of horses drawing combines across the fields, and, soon enough, massive steam-engines replacing the teams.

    Here in Sonoma county our friend Lou Preston (Preston of Dry Creek), who makes a mean loaf of bread in his Alan Scott-inspired wood-fired oven, is also growing wheat on his biodynamic farm. In cold weather we cook our "bog-man cereal" using his wheat, which we buy at the farm. There is no shortage of serious bakers of bread hereabouts, Ceres knows: and, of course, we have our own commercial bakeries in Healdsburg, of which our favorite is naturally the Downtown Bakery and Creamery, which Lindsey and our daughter Thérèse founded with co-founder and present owner Kathleen Stewart back in 1987. Downtown Bakery & Creamery supplies our daily bread, though we enjoy Lou's, and Joe Ortiz's bread at Gayle's Bakery down in Capitola, and of course Steve Sullivan's bread at Acme (many of us think of him as the founding father of the bread revival hereabouts), and, now, Andrea's, when we're in Los Angeles.

    But all this has made me think it's time for me to put my hand back in — particularly with the availability of local flours. Lou sells his flour, and there's a couple of pounds in the pantry. Maybe I'll get back to work.

    Monday, October 14, 2013

    Einstein, again

    Eastside Road, October 14, 2013—
    WHY WOULD ANYONE in his right mind spend hundreds of dollars and travel thousand of miles to see Einstein on the Beach four times in eighteen months — unless it were one of the great moments in the century of art from, let's say Symbolism to Postmodernism?

    So there we were again, two nights ago, in center seats in the fourth row of the balcony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles's Music Center, sitting among an enthusiastic and attentive audience for the most part. (I wasn't able to see how the higher-priced section downstairs looked: I'm told there were empty seats.)

    We saw the premiere (not counting an earlier preview) of the current traveling production of the Robert Wilson-Philip Glass-Lucinda Childs opera in Montpellier in March 2012; I wrote about that here and here. A year ago we saw it in Berkeley, as I mentioned here.

    Then in January of this year we flew to Amsterdam, as I mentioned here. At the time we'd planned that trip, the Amsterdam performances were thought to be the final performances on the tour, but subsequent bookings were signed for Hong Kong, Melbourne, and this month's in Los Angeles. Perhaps the tour will go on forever: I almost hope so.

    In each of the last three dates we've made with Einstein we've introduced friends and/or family to the opera, making it a double-date of sorts. I feel it almost an obligation to introduce others to this event, for a number of reasons, all of which I've already written about, over and over. I think I finally said it best in the most recent post, after the Amsterdam performance, when I tried to deal with
    the question "Well, what is the opera about? In a nutshell, it's about the Twentieth Century, the historical process from steam trains like those Einstein rode in his youth, when he profited from the experience to analogize his theories on the relativity of time for popular understanding, to the age of the space ship.

    But I almost completely gave up on commenting on the main thing the opera is about, which is Theater. As the ancient Greek plays are about cosmic things, examining human dilemmas in cosmic contexts, so are Robert Wilson's. The opera is about Theater, and Time; and it uses theatrical time, and plenty of it — over four hours, in which the audience is free to roam if necessary — to examine those two notions.
    Having already written so much on the opera itself, I'll just comment on a few impressions from Saturday night's viewing. The Los Angeles installation of this traveling production seemed faster to me, though my companion assures me the running time was almost exactly what it's been before. Time seemed to pass more quickly: the opera seemed, well, defter. The sound seemed richer, too. The wonderful saxophone solo under Act IV scene 1, the "Building" scene, was counterpointed with percussion I'd not noticed earlier, and with a flute more prominent than I'd remembered.

    Of course one of the things we'd already noticed in these repeated participations at Einstein is precisely that: the changing impressions the production makes as one gains familiarity with it. It's so rich and complex that many events or moments or sounds become evident, on repeated viewing/hearing, that were very likely there all along, and simply sidelined, as it were, by one's attention having been fixed elsewhere. That, of course, is one of the things the opera is "about."

    Another thing about the Los Angeles production: the lighting seemed subtler, richer (that word again), even more effective. There were more colors, and many of them were more delicate. The band of light ending Act III scene one — the second of the two extended dance scenes — was particularly affecting, bringing James Turrell to mind — a particularly appropriate quality in Los Angeles.

    Even the dramatic content of the show seemed affected by the geographical culture of its locaton. The second trial scene, which seemed so Kafkaesque in Amsterdam, passed by almost as entertainment in Los Angeles. So, too, the first trial scene, with its dialect spoof of feminism, borrowed the movie-and-TV context to become less potentially objectionable, more simply diverting.

    I've reproduced here — a Los Angeles Opera spokeswoman invited me to lift it from their website — Wilson's drawing which serves as a non-verbal aide-memoire to the opera's structure. It repays attention, I think, as the structure is fascinating: three scenes (Train, Trial, Space Machine) repeated across four acts which are separated by "knee play" entr'actes. So the opera presents the idea of Relativity (encapsuled in the famous train analogy, showing that time passes differently for the passenger on a train than for a stationary observer of the train); then the effects or the expressions of relativistic concepts on social or political situations which imperfectly confront them; then the aspirations of 20th-century humanity to harness those concepts to technology which might lead them out of the century and its oppressions.

    Plenty to think about here. It would be so interesting to spend a weekend in the country with the friends and family we've introduced to Einstein, talking about it. That, I think, would be the best possible form of criticism: conversation in repose, following experience in intensity.

    Tuesday, October 08, 2013

    Home is Here

    Home is Here. By Sidney Meller. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941.
    Eastside Road, October 6, 2013—
    I POSTED HERE the other day — well, a month ago, I see now; time does get past me — some comments on a novel by my favorite English teacher, Sid Meller, a man who taught me what to look for in novels, and who encouraged me in my own juvenilia. Meller's first novel, Roots in the Sky, was a "chronicle novel," rather a sprawling one brought to rather a sudden and arbitrary conclusion aided by a sudden street accident. The narrative hung on the immigrant orthodox Jewish subculture in San Francisco, from say 1910 into Prohibition.

    I recently read Meller's second (and last) novel, a more successful book to my mind, written I suppose in the late 1930s, perhaps as late as 1940. It is another novel about an immigrant family, but more the opposite corrective to the earlier novel than its similar. Unlike Rabbi Drobnen in Roots in the Sky, the Alano Dorelli is eager to assimilate, or at least to take his place in the thriving, upwardly mobile milieu he finds on Telegraph Hill just after the 1906 earthquake.

    It takes a year or two and perhaps forty pages for his wife Lucia to arrive from the shores of Lake Como, and she is never as sanguine as her husband about leaving the traditions and the simplicity of their earlier paisano life — but by the book's end it is she who has beat yankee exploitation and crass politics, leaving him finally respectful of her reluctant determination.

    The plot hinges on her quarrel with the owner of the sandstone quarry whose scar still shows on the eastern and southern flanks of the Hill. One house after another has tumbled into its maw as his operations have continued, following his father's and grandfather's work stretching back to the Gold Rush days. Much of the novel concerns the different responses to the problem among the Italian, Spanish, and Irish immigrants forming a sometimes uneasy community.

    As in his earlier novel, Meller also investigates the differing visions of the younger generation, the first-generation Americans, as they respond to changing social and technological conditions and to the sometimes fixed, sometimes bewilderedly floundering doings of their parents.

    A site on the always surprising Internet has yielded four reviews of Home is Here. I particularly liked that of Henry C. Tracy, published in Common Ground:
    …it is in Lucia's mind and spirit that the drama of this finely-wrought book emerges and moves toward a climax—a spirit often weak and fluctuating, a mind often foolish but essentially sound. It is her night school teacher, a bit stilted but wise, who tells her that "America is becoming."
      No author has better told the inside story of neighborhood groups of new Americans from Lombardy, Genoa, Sicily, Grenada, with some Irish and Yankee stock intermingled, sinking differences in he American way…
    Home is Here is aware of the more skeptical, perhaps even cynical views of America in such books as The Grapes of Wrath, but takes a completely different view of things, preferring challenge to problem, enterprise to despair. I remember Meller assigning Modernist titles in his class on the novel — it was here I first read Joyce — but he included Robert Nathan's One More Spring as well. Home is Here would have made a fine Frank Capra movie, though I don't see Henry Fonda as Alano.

    World War II changed everything, of course; the ease and the fun and the grass-roots power available even in hard times, through the simple efforts of a people forced to rely on themselves, gave way to the stress and distractions in a society controlled by faceless corporate forces. The novel is long out of print, but copies are available at online used-book sites. It will strike many contemporary readers as quaint, I suppose, but its quiet optimism and good humor are qualities we'd do well to recover in the social and political climate of today's America.

    Sunday, October 06, 2013

    Buried Child

    Buried Child. By Sam Shepard, directed by Loretta Greco. San Francisco: The Magic Theater; seen September 27, 2013.
    Eastside Road, October 6, 2013—
    WE CLOSED OUT last week's three-play marathon in a venue we haven't visited for years, the veteran Magic Theater in San Francisco's Fort Mason. John Lion founded the company in 1967, according to the Wikipedia article I'm consulting, in the old Steppenwolf bar down on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. I remember seeing at least one of Michael McClure's "Gargoyle Cartoon" there, but Lion moved the company to San Francisco in the early 1970s, finally settling in the present location in the middle of that decade.

    McClure was a (or the ) resident artist at the Magic for eleven years, giving the company a unique blend of poetry, sometimes violent energy, and what I think of as an anti-intellectual philosophy. I have often wished for an opportunity to study a number of his plays, in performance of course, in a single season, but he seems to have fallen out of favor locally, and I make do with vague memories of The Blossom, or Billy the Kid; The Beard; the Gargoyle Cartoons of course; Gorf; and Josephine The Mouse Singer.

    At about the time the Magic moved into its current Fort Mason digs, the already notable American playwright Sam Shepard succeeded McClure in residence. Both men were born in the midwest; both were Californians by the time they were twenty or so; both have keen ears for the vernacular and a healthy respect for the meat of human experience as well as the brain. They make a fascinating pair; come to think of it, a McClure-Shepard festival would be another fascinating experience.

    (Wouldn't it be marvelous if the Bay Area's rich theater community — rich in all but money, alas — could join forces to mount such events!)

    I think we have seen only one other Shepard play: Fool for Love, which was splendidly performed in May 2012 by the community Main Stage West in Sebastopol and subsequently repeated at the Imaginists in Santa Rosa. Fool for Love premiered at the Magic in 1983; Buried Child had appeared five years earlier and is, to my mind, a less successful piece — because less resolved, a result of its greater complexity and ambition.

    Some of the play's irresoluteness may be the result of its writing. Shepard revised the script for its 1995 revival in Chicago, and Robert Hurwitt has stated the Magic Theater production used that revision; but the Magic itself calls this a "Legacy Revival" celebrating the playwright's 70th birthday (November 5) and Magic's own role in premiering so much of his work. I haven't read the play; I don't know if there is, or can be, a definitive state of the script.

    In any case we saw Buried Child in the context of two other plays, as the previous two posts here indicate, and that context had much to do, I think, with the powerful immediacy of Shepard's script even in what seemed to me an unevenly directed production. Rod Gnapp was compelling as Dodge, the surly, bitter, authoritative, dying father of a mythically dysfunctional farm family somewhere in the American heartland. But his presence was so strong, so central to the production, that other members of the cast, capable as they were, too often moved on the margins.

    Shepard invites the problem. Halie, Dodge's wife (Denise Balthrop Cassidy), enters through several minutes of lines spoken offstage. Bradley (Patrick Kelly Jones), the amputee son, spends much of his time lying on the couch, arm across his face. Tilden (James Wagner), the other son, makes his most effective contributions to the drama offstage.

    By contrast, Vince (Patrick Alparone), Dodge's errant grandson, making an unforseen visit with his girl friend Shelly (Elaina Garrity), hold the center of the stage, insisting on a present reality, forcing it into the decaying monochrome of this household of suppressed emotion.

    Jane Ann Crum's program notes on the play enlarge on the nature of the theatrical reality in Shepard's construct:
    One of the primary differences in Shepherd's [sic] dramaturgy is what could be called tears in the fabric of reality.
    Other critics have commented on the Shepard esthetic as being an expression of Postmodernism: but in fact Buried Child seems to me to be a perfectly logical and foreseeable continuation of the curve of realistic drama from Ibsen and Shaw through O'Neill and Williams to Shepard and Stoppard. Yes, there are rents and tears in the fabric of reality; we have come to find these flaws more real than the imagined and manufactured reality of the fabric, which maintains its integrity only when external realities are ignored.

    The arresting moments in Shepard recall those in Shakespeare, who is so fascinated by the irrational events which like Epicurus's swerves define, distort, and impel the forces and trajectories we humans so desperately want to be rational and orderly. It was profoundly shocking to be confronted with the buried child of Shepard's play, a day after having dealt with Leontes' figurative burial of his own.

    Too, Vince and Shelly — quite strongly performed here — recalled Clyde and Bonnie, seen only two days before, living on a disorienting cusp of inner and external realities, torn between context and the moment. (They also recall May and Eddie, if Fool for Love. As there are only so many plots — seven, many pretend — so there are probably only a small number of characters.)

    One thing is clear to me, after these three nights of theater: Shepard's work, necessarily imperfect though it may be on the stage where it is consigned to its public moment, is deep with undertones and rich in scope, a significant development in American literature and world stage.