Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Mozart Weekend

It's not often you get to hear two Mozart operas "live" in a single weekend. When one of them is the seldom performed opera seria  Idomedeo, and the Saint Paul Chanber Orchestra happens to be performing Mozart's 41st symphony on the same weekend, you've got a genuine, if fortuitous, Mozart festival on your hands.

Reading Alfred Einstein's A Short History of Music during my college days, I was surprised that he devoted so much of the book  to opera. Over the years I've warmed to the genre. Well, opera isn't a genre, better to call it a universe.  Monteverdi's operas don't sound much like Mozart's, and Wagner's don't much resemble those of his close contemporary Verdi, much less the operas of Britten or Berg.

I cut my teeth on Don Giovanni, Otello, Carmen, and a few other classics. Then bel canto. Puccini and the verists came later, and opera seria last of all. Nowadays I thoroughly enjoy those early, static works based on mythological themes,  and I seek out opportunities to watch not only Handel's Italian operas and the few Gluck works that are still being performed, but whatever obscure opera from that era happens to be in town. Our own local troupe, Consortium Carrissimi, recently did Il Tirinto, an obscure opera by Bernardo Pasquini.  It was a knock-out. 

Mozart's Idomedeo is one of the last of that breed, and historians tell us that he broke the mold in the process of composing it, removing repetitive sections and shortening arias to heighten the dramatic effect. The result is a robust piece of musical theater, sui generis.

Yet the plot is nothing special.  Indomedeo, returning to Crete from the Trojan War, averts a storm at sea by vowing to sacrifice the first person he sees after landing safely to the sea god Neptune. Who should he meet up with on the beach but his son, Idamante. Idamante already has trouble on his hands—he's fallen in love with Ilia, one of the captives brought home to Crete from Troy, to the dismay of Electra, who's been doting on him for quite a while. While Idomedeo dithers, reluctant to specify whom he's going to have to sacrifice, a plague scours the island.

These awkward situations produce a succession of arias, noble and plaintive by turns, which is what we came to hear. Though the soloists were students, they were advanced vocal students, and they sounded fine to me. As did the orchestra. The choral interludes offered a welcome change of pace. I can hardly think of a better way to spend three hours.

I saw a woman across the aisle with a legal pad in her lap, and I couldn't resist asking her what she was up to. Critiquing the performance?  Turns out it was Lara Bolton,  a voice coach associated with the production (and also the Minnesota Opera, Source Song Festival, etc.).

"Which cast member are you related to?" she asked me.

"Nobody," I replied. "We just came to see the performance."

She wasn't shocked, but she was surprised. "Really? I wish more people would come out for these events."

The audience was indeed sparse. And the event had been featured in the Star-Tribune!  

 The Marriage of Figaro was a different story. Though the tickets were more expensive by a power of ten, the place was packed.  Of course, the opera is one of the most popular in the repertoire. Unlike the slightly staid and formal Indomedeo, Figaro is full of hijinks, intrigue, exuberance, and mistaken identities, often silly, occasionally tender or sinister, but also crossing over the line freely into farce.

To my mind, everything in this production worked, from the sets and staging to the individual characterizations and the on-stage logistics. There is so much going on that the challenge lies in preserving the humanity and good sense of the characters. The Count Almaviva that we saw was a conniving rake—there's no escaping that side of his character—but his lecherous instincts were less vicious than in some productions. By the same token, Cherubino's adolescent libidinousness was not so jazzed up as it sometimes is, and this, too, is a good thing. He reminded us that love is a good and natural and almost innocent thing, whatever dishonorable and devious paths it might eventually take.

In contrast, the recent production of Figaro at the Met was hypercharged to the point of feverish excess, and the revolving stage only added to the dismal effect. I saw it twice—once a simulcast at a cineplex in Brooklin Center and later on public television; both times I left at intermission. It was as if everyone had grown bored with the music, or forgotten what it was about.

The Minnesota Opera's production had just the right tone,  The revolving facades worked. The lighting of the candles worked. The countesses arias were sublime, and the trios and quartets, during which every character is saying something different, were electrifying. The only criticism I would have is that the supertitles were too brief and rudimentary to give a nuanced sense of what was being said.

I found the machinations of the last act incomprehensible, and quit trying to figure out who was trying to seduce or impersonate whom in the shadows of the Count's garden. All's well that ends well. Time to settle back and enjoy the music.

I hope I'm not giving away too much of the plot.    

Thursday, November 16, 2017

November - National Poetry Month

National poetry month? I know what you're going to say. Fake news!

In fact, I'm simply making a modest proposal that poetry month be shifted from April, when there's already a good deal of poetry in the air, to November, when we could actually use a few blasts of it from the printed page.

New books of poetry appear in significant numbers at this time of year, their authors (and publishers) hoping for sales from shoppers looking for something light and relatively inexpensive to get for Aunt Tillie, who is never going to make her way through the new biography of U.S. Grant, though she might enjoy the new Sharon Chmielarz collection, little eternities.  

I'm not trying to suggest that poetry is invariably sweet, frivolous, and inconsequential. More often people complain that poetry is unnecessarily difficult and bewildering. I would argue that whatever else it is, poetry is of the essence of life. It is never theoretical, never political, always actual. Description becomes speech, thought becomes drama. The unstated punch-line of every poem is something on the order of "Well I'll be darned!" or "Who would have thought it?"

There are times, however, when the latent drama of poetry is difficult to summons. The words lie flat, the rhythm eludes us, we're wondering what the "point" is. November is also a time of poetry readings, as authors set up events to promote their new works.

Hilary and I attended several last week. On Monday Michael Dennis Browne read at Magers & Quinn from Chimes, his new collection of shorter poems. "I am a happy man tonight," he said, and it was easy to see why. His children were there, including his son, who flew in from California as a surprise. There were old friends like Louis Jenkins and Norita Dittberner-Jax, and new collaborators like composer David Evan Thomas and Nodin Press publisher Norton Stillman.

Michael told us stories about his father and mother—stories you won't find in the book. The poems in the collection are drawn from every phase in his career, and Michael was clearly relishing the return journey, though he also read one more recent bitter-sweet poem in which he imagines his family sitting around the fire at the cabin once he's gone.

A few days later we stopped in at Common Good Books to hear a trio of poets: Joyce Sutphen, Tim Nolan, and Sharon Chmielarz, read from their books. Their styles could not have been more different. Joyce has a twinkly eye and a slow, soft delivery, Tim used the blunt comedic approach to good effect, and Sharon reminded me of my senior high English teacher, Mrs. Deutsch, a tall and stern but kindly woman whose insights into literature went far beyond anything we could comprehend.

Poems about cats, envelopes of time, shit, a yellow tea cup, an uncooperative alarm clock.  A good mix. We ran into Mike Hazard and his wife, Tressa, on the street before the reading and had a pleasant chat. (Mike took the photo of Joyce Sutphen you see below.)

I get the impression that most of the people who attend these events know the artists on stage as friends, teachers, fellow-travelers, but that's not a bad thing. Rather, it's a community get-together, made more interesting by the fact that the specific attendees who show up differ from event to event. To me, the important thing is to hear the words given a face and a voice, embodied in a delivery. New Critics be damned, the tone of the accompanying banter also adds to the effect.

When we got home from the event, I took Mike's book, The World Is Not Altogether Bad, and read a few poems to Hilary while she chopped some onions for the frozen pizza. 

We spent a few days at a cabin on the south shore of Lake Superior recently, and while we were there I was reminded that decades ago I wrote a poem about the nearby village of Port Wing. When we got home I scoured the basement "archives" and found it before long, in the midst of other scraps of juvenilia. I was inspired by the discovery to assemble a collection of my own work—thirty poems in forty years. I formatted the ones that seemed half-decent into a little book that will be available on Amazon soon. (Oh, goody!) The rest I dumped into the trash.

The last line of the port wing poem always bothered me, and it still does. Wrong rhythm, wrong effect. If you can think of an alternative please let me know soon, before I go ahead and approve the proof.

Here it is:

Port Wing

A stark white church near a wet highway.
The wooden floor of a grocery.
Whitefish wrapped in butcher-paper.
A squat, fieldstone bungalow.

Acres of pasture, dotted with homes.
A pine belt. Tourist cabins—For Sale.
Reeds, a bridge, a cluster of glamourless
Boats; a fisherman, reeling in.

At Port Wing, a red berry or a
Flock of cedar waxwings in a tree
Takes on a quality of madness...
endless waves against the levee.  

Friday, November 3, 2017

Minneapolis: Top Ten World City?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal ranked Minneapolis among the top ten travel destinations in the world. Amazing. We were planning a trip to the Greek islands, but decided to stay home and save the money.

Readers in the Twin Cities immediately made light of a Top Ten list that included not only Minneapolis but also Kuelap, Peru, and the Faroe Islands, which have no trees and specialize in whale blubber. But we ought to keep in mind that people in Kuelap are saying the same thing in reverse: "So what if we appear in a list that also includes ... Minneapolis? Where is that, anyway?" 

The article focuses on Minneapolis's trendy food scene, of which I have no knowledge. I used to work in the warehouse district on the north loop, where many new restaurants have sprung up amid the condo conversions and new construction, but in those days fine dining options were limited to Cuzzy's and Archie's Bunker.

The Journal made a point of excluding St. Paul from its litany of praises. That's stupid. Minneapolis and St. Paul are parts of a single conurbation consisting of a conglomeration of neighborhoods widely differing in atmosphere.

(Click map for a larger view)
In the interests of promoting world brotherhood, sisterhood, and general fellow-feeling,  I thought it might be useful to mention a few affordable neighborhood spots that Hilary and I visited this year, in case visitors from Madagascar and Dundee grow tired of the obligatory valet parking at the flashy new dining hotspots downtown and decide to venture out into the workaday parts of the city.

The focus here is on lunch, Happy Hour, easy parking, outdoor seating, and general ambiance. Food? Yes, the food tends to be good.


1) Draft Horse: The building is located in a vacant lot, and was formerly a stable for Grain Belt Brewery. It has a nice terrace, and you can often park right across the street. It sits next door to the Food Building, home to Red Table Meat Co. and Baker's Field Flour & Bread. Hence the charcuterie platter is pretty good, though I'm also a fan of the root vegetable salad. And the house-made chips.

Charcuterie board at Draft Horse
2) Café Alma: The word Yuppie comes to mind when you enter this lively café, which has lots of light and a long exposed brick wall. I can recall a whitefish tartine with fried egg that's no longer on the menu. I ought to try to lamb burger.

3) Hazel's: The perfect breakfast café, way up on 26th and Johnson, family-run Hazel's moved into the neighborhood after several decades way out in Alexandria.

4) Ginger Hop: A Thai place with an paneled, English-pub style bar on one side, a calm, spacious restaurant space on the other, and a more-than-decent Happy Hour.

5) Eli's: A triangular bar/cafe at the bend in East Hennepin Avenue with a black-and-white linoleum floor and an excellent menu.


6) Ward 6: It sits on a rise overlooking St. Paul, but looking out from the terrace you could easily be in Milwaukee or Detroit. It might be the best neighborhood place in the Cities, but it's a long ways from my neighborhood, and  I've only been there twice, so it's hard to say.

7) Delicata: A small but stylish service-counter place in a residential neighborhood between Como Park and the fairgrounds with distinctive pizzas and snacks.

8) St. Paul Grill: I revived my long-dormant hovering skills at the bar of this downtown institution and snagged a table for four during the MPR 50th Anniversary block party. The $14 martini knocked me for a loop, but the tremendous burger returned me to fine form for the Dessa concert going on outside.

9) Finnish Bistro: Lying in the heart of the St. Anthony Park neighborhood, it's the perfect place for a robust sandwich or some flaky pastry at a sidewalk table on a sunny Sunday morning. Ask anyone.

Sandcastle, on Lake Nokomis

11) Sand Castle: A picturesque café by the beach, featuring tacos, pulled pork sandwiches, and hot dogs garnished with tiny sweet/hot peppers. Enjoy your lunch while watching people trying to enjoy themselves on rented paddleboards out on the lake.

10) Soberfish: This Thai-sushi place on East Franklin has nice interior spaces, an interesting clientele, and a good Happy Hour—the ideal stop before a recital at nearby Ferguson Hall on the West Bank.

12) Fika: Herring and beets and gravlax and pickled onions and dill and all things Scandinavian, prepared with skill and presented with elán in the lobby of the American Swedish Institute.

13) It's Greek to Me: Here the outdoor garden patio is the thing, with gurgling fountains drowning out the traffic noise from Lyndale Avenue, just beyond the wrought iron grate.


14) Irving and Lake: A relaxing, unpretentious restaurant/bar in an increasingly hoity-toity part of town, it's a good place to enjoy a Happy Hour before attending a reading at nearby Magers & Quinn.

The lamb hash at Harriet Brasserie
15) Harriet Brasserie: Located in a former firehouse tucked on a side-street in the Upton neighborhood, this very small restaurant must rely on neighborhood walk-ins, since there's little on-street parking nearby. The lamb hash, with soft-poached egg, carrots, celery, sweet potatoes, corn, onions, mint dressing, and hollandaise sauce, is memorable. 

The wood-fired pizza at Sparks
 16) Sparks: Sequestered in the mysterious Bryn Mawr neighborhood, this mellow café devoted to wood oven cooking is on the way to nowhere, but the Happy Hour pizzas have an interesting cornmeal-tinged crust. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

No Accounting for Taste

I tend to avoid library book sales. Too many temptations. Too much jostling. But now that my primary source of books, the Ridgedale Library de-aquisition shop, has been closed down to accommodate a huge remodeling project, the rivulet of enticing volumes entering the house has become a mere trickle at best.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. In any case, I sometimes pay full price for a book, for example The Scandinavians by Thomas Ferguson. I have also been known to order a specific book used, once it's been out for a few years and the price has dropped, for example Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias. Then again, I more than occasionally pull a book off the shelves to read that I bought years ago, for example Stendhal's The Red and the Black. And I often check books out of the library, for example Ange Mlinko's recent book of poems, Distant Mandate.

In any case, it was entirely by chance that we happened by the Golden Valley Library the other day to return a few books and came upon its annual sale. The pricing was simple: $5 for a shopping bag of books, any size or binding. Who could resist?

We came away with a single bag, prudently, and it wasn't even full. Here are the items I now remember.

The Road to Delphi—Michael Wood
A history of oracles, including the famous one at Delphi.

On the Natural History of DestructionW.S. Sebald
Essays by the German master about bombing during WWII, I think.

The Appointment—Herta Müller
She won the Nobel Prize; maybe she's good.

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma QueenMary Norris
I read it; I reviewed it; now I own it.

Arthur PennRobin Wood
On the title page Igmar Bergman is quoted as saying, "Arthur Penn is one of the world's great directors." He was perhaps the most interesting, and certainly one of the most renowned, film directors working in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s. His memorable string includes The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, Alice's Restaurant, Little Big Man, Night Moves, and Missouri Breaks, a vastly underrated Western starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. I could easily see this little hardcover (six inches square) sitting on the shelf next to a film bio of the same dimensions I already own called Hawks on Hawks.

GauchosAldo Sessa
Another little hardcover, this one full of color photos. I can see now that it isn't worth much.

To the LighthouseVirginia Woolf
I have never succeeded in finishing a book by Virginia Woolf. I have a yellowing mass-market-sized copy of this one in the basement. Maybe the trade format will help me as I row out to the lighthouse?

A Postmodern ReaderNatoli and Hutcheon
Why would anyone want to buy a textbook of a phony and out-of-date intellectual fashion? Well, I might learn something, and once I do, I might change my view completely.

The Third Reich—Roberto Bolaño
I have never liked this Chilean novelist. Let's give him another shot.

A trio of novelsMaguib Mahfouz
I'll never go to Cairo. This may be a close as I get.

Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore—Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone
This is a chatty, lightweight account of a married couple who loves books, bookstores, bookfairs, libraries, and the people one meets at such places. Written in the first-person plural.

The Book of Kells
A small but  full-color paperback sampling of this classic.

A Reunion of Trees: The discovery of exotic plants and their introduction into North American and Europan landscapes—Stephern Spongberg
The subtitle says it all.

Taste: The secret meaning of things—Stephen Bayley
This British oversized paperback has a silly subtitle, but it looks interesting. Never having heard of Bayley, I googled his name and came up with a quote of his from an article in the Spectator:
"Terence Conran’s great achievement, although he does not perhaps see it this way, was to elevate design from an activity to a commodity. It was no longer something artisans did — whittling a stick, for example — but something that consumers could acquire. It was about fine things enjoyed by civilised folk. It was all about moral certainties and aestheticised hedonism."
Thumbing through the book later here at home, I came to the conclusion that there is little point in writing a history of taste. A history of art? Certainly. It would focus on work that has endured because it's beautiful. A history of styles? Of course. It would chronicle various movements, trends, and approaches to making art or designing elements of material culture such as the Rococo, Romanesque, and steamboat gothic, focusing on whatever has been truly novel, distinctive, or influential. (These two strands of history are usually explored at the same time, though they aren't quite the same thing, and the strands are seldom isolated.) But the word "taste" refers to the discernment with which an individual reacts to and makes use of various aspects of culture. In every era, some people have good taste, while others have bad taste. (It's always someone else.) And there's no way to write a history about that.
The salient point, I guess, is that Bayley's book, and others like it, focus not on art but on design. He is more interested in how a room is typically furnished during a certain era than on the most significant works of art or most brilliant design solutions the era produced. Thus, in the opening pages, he contrasts the taste exhibited in rooms furnished by Sigmund Freud, Nancy Mitford, and Walter Gropius, describing the first as "somber academism," the second as "snobbish antiquarian glamour," and the third as "a monument to functionalism and the machine aesthetic." 

To my mind, Freud's is far and away the most appealing of the three. Books are never somber, and the objects d'art on display in the glass cases against the wall in Freud's office appear to be pre-Columbian rarities rather than porcelain figurines from the eighteenth century. Gropius's office (which Bayley loves) strikes me as deadly and uninteresting. Dedicated to a severe and doctrinary  "style," It lacks nuance and character. Perhaps Freud would have called it "anal."

Looking up from the screen, I catch a glimpse of my own office style, which might fall under the rubric of "eclectic" or "shabby genteel," If it could he said to have a style at all. This expression--shabby genteel--dates back to Dickens' London and probably farther. Dickens wrote an entire essay about the concept, which you can read here. In our day, when gentility has largely lost its meaning, shabby genteel might almost be a synonym for "middle-class bohemian."

I see a birchbark basket made by an Ojibwe woman from the Mille Lacs Reservation (it holds the credit cards I seldom use, including one from every grocery store chain in California); a faux Talavera mug from Mexico containing quite a few pens that don't write; a Dutch painting of some fruit, artist unknown; and a reproduction of a Madonna and Child by Bellini (Yes, but which Bellini? Giovannir or Gentile?) 

The lamp (and dismal lampshade) belonged to my mother's parents. Here they are. (That's my mom, with her pants legs rolled up, next to grandpa. It might be the late 40s.)

In the office photo, a wooden table that my dad's grandparents might have brought over from Sweden is just out of view to the left. More recent Scandinavian design is represented by the scissors with the orange handles sticking out of the mug (Fiskars) and the white coffee mug on top of the manuscript (Littala). 

(Incidentally, the man who designed that mug, Harri Koskinen, was born in Karstula, Finland, in 1970. His web bio reports that Harry "strives to find solutions that are innovative for both the consumer and producer. He works with companies like Artek, Danese, Finlandia Vodka Worldwide, Issey Miyake, Montina, Muji, Genelec, O luce, Venini and Woodnotes." He received the Compasso d’Oro Award, one of Europe's most prestigious design awards,  in 2004.)

The "desk" itself is an old door resting on a file cabinet and a piece of discarded furniture from the defunct Bookmen warehouse.

A few of the authors I work with have come over to the house to sit beside me at the computer as we make corrections or fiddle with a cover. One poet, as she was leaving, couldn't help remarking, "Your house is so ... austere—in a nice way." That's not a word I would ever have chosen to describe it, but I think I know what she means. Our house dates from the late forties, when heavy oak buffets and thick woodwork were no longer in style. A dining room addition with a twelve-foot ceiling, set at a 45 degree angle from the kitchen, gives the back of the house a distinctly "modern" feel. To me the entire spread, which is dominated by floor-to-ceiling windows, seems light and yet earthy, like a Japanese temple made of wood and paper stuck off in the woods somewhere.

Bayley's book will be fun to peruse, but I fear there's going to be something missing. I came upon this passage on page 12, where he describes the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury's Letter Concerning Design (1714) as typical of the trend to associate "taste" with judgment. He writes:
 "It was published just as critical discernment was about to become an intellectual sport. The Letter was written when art had been separ­ated from its didactic and divine purposes and was well on the way to becoming a consumer product. At this moment taste did not have any particular values: it was only identified as a part of the human apparatus of discernment; you either had it or you didn’t and there was no question of ‘good’ or ‘bad’."
On the face of it, this is simply untrue. In those days, if you had "taste" in was ipso facto good taste. That's what the word referred to. If you were "without taste" you had bad or indiscriminate taste, not worth mentioning. Shaftesbury's signal contribution to philosophy was to suggest that our aesthetic sense and our moral sense are similar. They rely on discerning balance and proportion and are driven by both intellect and heart, though the values they seek out—beauty and goodness—are not the same.
Bayley writes, "When man replaced God as the chief object of study, it was inevitable that the idea of beauty deriving from divine inspiration was replaced by a more secular, even materialistic, notion of aesthetic satisfaction." He seems to see consumerism everywhere in modern life, failing to sufficiently acknowledge that among the vast array of choices now available to us, some will always have more value--be more beautiful or utilitarian--than others.  

Monday, October 23, 2017

Halcyon Days

The word for these golden fall days is "halcyon." The colors of the changing leaves are magnificent, and the temperature is perfect—low sixties creeping improbably into the seventies from time to time, with cool nights and bright stars.

Yes, but how are we to respond? Each moment is perfection in itself. Why do anything? But we must do something. It's the definition of poetry: the intensification and exaltation of experience.

I'm not a poet. So I spent the day Thursday repairing and regrading the window well behind the magnificent yew bushes just outside our living room windows. All the while, I was thinking to myself, "I should be reading Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici." But first things first.

I dug out five inches of soil from the well while lying on my stomach behind the bushes, and replaced it with two bags of cherry stone pebbles, wondering as I did so if anyone really appreciates how beautiful cherry stone pebbles are. I used the excavated dirt to shape the drainage away from the house, topped that with a sheet of landscape fabric and a few bags of cyprus mulch, and had a lightning flash of intuition that sent me back to Home Depot to buy a five foot piece of drain pipe to extend the nearby downspout out beyond the roots of the shrubs into the yard.

The weather on Friday was so inviting that Hilary and I drove down to Rice Lake State Park, one of the least celebrated parks in the state, but a mere ninety minutes from the Twin Cities. We camped, we hiked the perimeter of the park, past golden leaves and cattails rustling in the gusty wind. We ate chips and dip for dinner, washed it down with a bit of bad sauvignon blanc, then looked up at the brilliant stars beyond the branches of the naked branches overhead, faintly lit by flickering campfire light. The Orionid Meteor Show was at its peak...but we saw nothing along those lines.

The next morning I was awoken by a flash of lighting—or the headlights of a car passing by on the gravel loop road around the campsite. Thunder a few seconds later, then the rain arrived. Ten flurried minutes later we were packed up and in the car, only half soaked ourselves, headed for Owatonna in the dark with the smell of wet manure coursing through our nostrils.

We ate breakfast at The Kitchen in downtown Owatonna, bought a pumpkin in the dark at the farmers' market in the town square, and stopped for another cup of coffee at a place called Goodbye Blue Monday Coffee House in downtown Northfield.

The place was bubbling with activity. A large group of men sat around a long table near the front window. Closer to us, five young women were discussing an event they had all attended the previous evening, though I never gleaned what it was. The street outside was still fairly dark, but the long  warm room inside was well-lit, colorful, and filled with animated chatter—a sort of ideal vision of funky intellectual stimulation and collegial gemütlichkeit

I was only a little disappointed to discover that the women behind me were discussing, not Hegelian dialectic or even the novels of Doris Lessing, but their pets. One of them was trying to find someone, without quite asking outright, who would agree to give her "million dollar cat" shots twice a day while she was gone on a four-day trip to Madison.  (There were no takers.)

Northfield was hosting its annual art crawl that morning. (Before we left the house I had printed out a map pinpointing the participating galleries and studios.) But the event wasn't set to open until ten, and by that time, we were back home again, sitting comfortably in front of another fire. It was still drizzling, but not a single drop had penetrated the window well in the basement.

In the midst of this pleasant hygge (pronounced "hoo-ga," I'm told), I turned, finally, to Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne, the English essayist whom I had been eager to get a handle on for some time.
[Music] unties the ligaments of my frame, takes me to pieces, dilates me out of myself, and by degrees, mee thinks, resolves me into heaven.
Yes, music. I fetched my 12-CD collection of the keyboard works of William Byrd, a composer Browne himself might have listened to. Upon first listen, years ago, I got the impression that this set was actually composed of a single CD reproduced 12 times. I am now convinced that a harpsichord doesn't sound exactly like a virginal or a muselar. There's a good deal of exploring still to do here.
I love to lose myself in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an "o altitudo." 'Tis my solitary recreation tp pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity, with Incarnation and Resurection. I can answer all the objections of Satan, and my rebellious reason, with that odd resolution I learned from Tertullian, "Certum est quia impossible est."
Browne is sometimes thought of as an English Montaigne, but that French skeptic fueled his reflections on Horace and Ovid, while Browne seems more concerned to reconcile Christian doctrine with human reason, or at least to conjecture how much of experience lies beyond reason's purview. 

The two writers share an easy command of prose, always curious, often bemused, never strident. Browne is credited with adding more than a hundred new words to the English language that are still in use. Quite a few of his neologisms have since vanished from the lexicon, too, hence the need for the lengthy but easy-to-use set of notes in the back, which help us to figure what, for example, dissentaneous and improperations mean.   

One of Browne's favorite words is indifference, which he uses to describe, not the attitude we might have toward an idea or thing, but a point or issue itself that is not so important as to demand our assent. An indifference is a position that we can take or leave to suit our whimsy, or suspend judgment on altogether, entertaining it, as it were, without embracing it wholeheartedly--the way that we vacuously enjoy a halcyon afternoon in front of the fire, well knowing that a long string of less agreeable days lies ahead.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Thelonious Monk at 100

The hundredth anniversary of the birth of Thelonious Monk was widely celebrated in the press. Didn't you see the article by Ethan Iverson, jazz scholar and pianist for The Bad Plus, in the New Yorker? Iverson posted a more casual and extensive series of articles on his website, do the m@th, including an annotated discography.

Monk's music is well-loved by musicians—Iverson observes that more than sixty of his compositions are still in the jazz repertoire—and his personality is well-loved by journalists. He was the ultimate "cool cat," with dark glasses, pointy goatee, funny hats, and strange habits, such as, for example, dancing in circles while his band mates were soloing. The jury is out as to whether Monk was schizophrenic, autistic, or just plain weird. If you get a chance to see the documentary film Straight, No Chaser, take a look and decide for yourself. 

Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy spent some time in Monk's band, and he wrote down some of Monk's words of advice, underlining the key phrases:

Just because you're not a drummer doesn't mean you don't have to keep time.

Stop playing all those weird notes, play the melody.

You've got to dig it to dig it, you dig?

Let's lift the bandstand!

Don't play the piano part. I'm playing that.

The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.

Don't play everything. What you don't play can be more important than what you do play.

They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.

A genius is the one most like himself.

As for the music, the best way to become familiar with that is to listen to it, hence the importance of the discography. Iverson's is so inclusive as to be forbidding, but it's useful as a point of reference.

Years ago, a friend of mine who was just trying to get into jazz bought Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music. He hated it so much he gave it to me, unasked.

I didn't like it much, either. Iverson remarks: "As a set, these have the weakest performances in the Monk canon." I guess that explains it.

Monk's piano style isn't difficult to describe: lots of clinkers, discords, repeated poundy chords and downward whole tone runs. On the other hand, Monk has written some of the most lovely melodies in the jazz canon. " 'Round Midnight" is probably the most often-recorded jazz tune of the last half-century. Other classics include "Ruby, My Dear," "Pannonica," "Ask Me Now," and "Reflections." Monk also penned a large number of mid-tempo tunes that are staples of the jazz repertoire. These include "Four in One," "Nutty," "Blue Monk," "Monk's Dream," "Tinkle, Tinkle," "Hackensack," "Well, You Needn't," "In Walked Bud," and "Straight, No Chaser."

I've heard these tunes a thousand times, performed in a variety of instrumental settings, and I recognize them as Monk tunes immediately, though I couldn't put names to most of them. I used to spend a lot of time listening to the two-CD set of solo Monk recordings on Columbia, on which originals and standards are interspersed. As a result, I'm likely to identify "Sweet and Lovely," a popular song from 1931, or "Dinah," as Monk tunes, too. He infuses them with tinges of Monkish gravity, and reminds us that the originality of his musical world might draw as much from the "stride" era from which it emerged  as it does from the "bebop" he helped to create.

The common wisdom is that once Monk appeared on the cover of Time magazine and signed with Columbia, the quality of his recordings declined a little. Nevertheless, the neophyte could do worse than to pick up a copy of  Straight, No Chaser or Monk's Dream or Underground. Along with Monk Alone: the Complete Solo Recordings 1962-1968.

Throughout Monk's career other musicians found it a challenge to solo in front of his unorthodox piano phrasing. Then again, many performers have recorded albums with their own bands devoted exclusively to Monk's tunes, and several of these have become classics, too. Let me recommend Steve Lacy's Reflections (1958), Carmen McRae Sings Monk (1990), Sonny Fortune's Four in One (1994), and Fred Hersch's solo piano offering Thelonious (1997).

In a recent article devoted to Monk's career, Hersch remarked:

Monk’s works, some of them cryptic and difficult and others just plain fun, are designed as springboards for improvisation. Everything he wrote fits in a book of around a hundred pages—compare that to the volumes of work by Mozart, Bach or Beethoven! Yet his canonic compositions, which are subjected to reimaginings in almost every music style, still retain their essential “Monkishness.” His tightly constructed themes and challenging harmonic progressions take years to master.

Some of Monk's compositions are hardly more than rhythmic chants supporting brief and childlike melodies. But then the rhythms shift, the melody drops (or gains) a note, and things take on an entirely new harmonic perspective. Yes, "springboards for improvisation," but also catchy in themselves. Two of my favorites along these lines are the minimalist "Evidence" (check out the version by Lacy and Don Cherry here) and the relentless "Locomotion." (Listen here.) 

On the other end of the spectrum is the haunting "Round Midnight," which helped transform Miles Davis into a superstar. Here's a recording of Monk doing a solo rendition of that tune near the end of his career, in 1969.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Taking the Day Off

There are days in the life of a free lancer when he's just waiting for things: new chapter files, PDFs filled with proofer marks, images, proofs from the printer.  Why not take the day off?

It seems sensible enough. And besides, there are always quite a few things that need to be done around the house: mow the lawn, change a light bulb. Most important of all, perhaps, is to deal with those glorious tomatoes we brought home from the farmers' market on Sunday morning.

I had gotten an email from my friend Michel--a far better cook than me--mostly a photo of the spectacular tomatoes he'd gotten at the farmer's market. In response I sent him an old photo of my own.

"This is the perfect morning to head downtown," I wrote. "Here are a few heirloom tomatoes from our garden--the last two!"

The following email exchange ensued:

Michel: "Those look beautiful!"

Me: "And tasty!  But this morning I am thinking of leeks and squash with ground almonds. And I am literally stepping out the door as I write this. If you can recall how big my desk-top computer is, you will be able to imagine how difficult this is!"

Michel: "I find myself in a euphoric state when I go to the farmers market during the week when it's not busy and pick up bags of produce for a few dollars. I come home, lay them out of my table and want to take pictures of them or paint them, immortalize them...cook them."

It was, indeed, a remarkable morning. The air was so fresh and cool that as we approached the stalls I said to Hilary, "I feel like I'm at the beach!"  We bought so many things that we decided to carry our purchases back to the car and return for a second look around. At the very least, we still needed to pick up a bunch of cut flowers.

In the end, we brought home three robust bunches of leeks ($4 total); a nice basket of six tomatoes ($3); two huge red bell peppers, misshapen but firm ($1 total); a butternut squash; an acorn squash; a basket of potatoes ($3); some fairly tough-looking green beans ($2.50); a bunch of fresh basil the size of a bride's bouquet ($1.50); and some fresh dill ($1) which was worth the price for the aroma alone.

The next day I used up half of the leeks and all the potatoes making a batch of the best potato-leek soup I've ever tasted. 

We didn't have much of a chance to eat it, however. We'd been invited to Norton Stillman's annual Sukkoth party. (If we'd gone to the framers' market a half-hour later, we would have run into him buying a big bag of corn on the cob.)

I always enjoy these parties, which are like a book convention, only smaller, and you know a lot more of the people. I relish the opportunity to reconnect with authors I got to know pretty well while working with them on their books, only to lose sight of them later. Sharon Chmielarz, Kate Dayton, Norita Dittberner-Jax, and Margaret Hasse spring immediately to mind. They were all there—thoughtful, kind, and generous souls one and all.

Margie's husband, Dave, told me he was winnowing his vast collection of classical music CDs.

"When should I come over?" I replied, eagerly.

A few old friends from the Bookmen years are also likely to be there. Brett Waldman and I discussed the best places to buy fresh fish in Bayfield, where he loves to sail; he recommended a shop I've seen but never ventured into. And I had a good time with Bill Kaufmann reminiscing about shipping issues way back when, and the pleasures of lunch-time touch football.

Author John Coy complimented me once again on the fonts I used on a reprint of his book Vroomaloom Zoom back in 2010. "Ah, yes,  I replied, "Croomby and Babelfish. I don't get much of an opportunity to use either of those nowadays." John and I got around to talking about the Portuguese empire, and when his wife, Fiona, joined us, we discussed  the interview she did with essayist Geoff Dyer a few years back at the downtown library. (Once again, lost in the past.)

A few minutes later, Tom Pope was telling me about a book he's working on comparing psychology as it's variously conceived by dramatists and psychologists. "You ought to read Philosophy as Dramatic Theory by the Spanish philosopher Julien Marias," I said.

"Who?" He replied. And he strode off to find a piece of paper and a pen.

Norton had grilled seven planks of salmon for the event, and there were pots of ratatouille, bowls of pesto and spinach dip, corn on the cob, and three kinds of apple crisp at least. Freya Manfred had brought one, Michael Keisaw Moore a second. No one seemed to know who had brought the third.

That event occupied our evening, and it wasn't until the next day that a bit more of the soup got eaten. But we'd been invited to a small retirement gathering that night for a friend at Ginger Hop. They have a good happy hour there. We filled up on spring rolls, calamari, and Jackie Chan burgers, and Sheila told us about various things her co-workers had given her at her retirement party, including a bottle of single malt scotch. We had soon hatched a plan for a Halloween poker game, with everyone arriving in kilts, drinking scotch, and watching Jackie Chan's masterpiece, Rush Hour, together.  

It might not have been the high point of the evening when I raised the question: "Why doesn't anyone read Stendhal's The Red and the Black anymore?"

Having raised the question, I felt it was incumbent upon me to re-read some of the book again myself. And when we got home I made my way through the first three chapters in a new translation by Burton Raffel. I enjoyed them, though it occurred to me that if a new translation had been published recently, it was absurd to consider the book a forgotten classic.

All the while, the potato soup was doing just fine in the fridge. But by the next morning, the dill was shot, the basil had lost its glisten, and the tomatoes were starting to show their age—a few brownish patches on the skins. I was going to make spaghetti sauce and had gotten the onions going on the stove, but when I started to cut up the tomatoes it struck me that after removing the blemishes, they still looked (and tasted) quite good. Why turn them into a ho-hum pan of sauce?

The result of this dramatic about-face was a bowl of tomato-basil-garlic topping for toasted bread, commonly known as bruschetta, and also a bowl of pepperoni siciliana. (The word bruschetta actually refers to the bread, not the tomato topping. I have a hunch there's an etymological connection between that word and the English word brusque, though I've never investigated.)

It's a never-ending story. The butternut squash will go with the leeks in a melange, baked with heavy cream and topped with chopped almonds....The sun will continue to strike the dew on the grass, later there will be frost, you'll be able to see your breath. Orion will return, and the day will come when darkness arrives at four in the afternoon. You will look down from the freeway overpass to see that the farmers' market, brightly lit under the snow-covered canopies, is filled with evergreen trees.

But not yet.