Thursday, June 25, 2015

Canoeing the Kickapoo

Some people claim that the Kickapoo River, which meanders through the rolling countryside of southwestern Wisconsin, is the oldest river in the world. (The New River in West Virginia is also in the running, along with a nameless river in Antarctica.) In any case, it's been cutting its way through the sediments of the region for roughly 500 million years. Geologists estimate that the Grand Canyon, by way of contrast, could not be more than 70 million years old.

Of course, the Kickapoo is not nearly so grand as the Colorado. In many places it's hardly more than fifteen feet wide, and its pace tends to be gentle as it wends its way past farms and pastures, woods and small cliffs. (After a few hundred million years, even a river gets tired.)  People in search of adventure take two-week rafting trips down the Colorado. People in search of relaxation take three-hour tubing trips down the Kickapoo, drinking beer the whole way down.

We "did" a stretch in early May, before the summer hordes arrived. During our four-hour descent we met only one other group - a party of young men taking a break on a mid-river sandbar. It was more common to come upon fly fisherman standing on the banks, especially during the early part of the trip. The current was moderate, the paddling was easy and often all but unnecessary.

The logistics are simple. There are five outfitters in Ontario, a small riverside town a half-hour southeast of the freeway exit in Sparta. We went with Titanic Rentals, simply because it was further away from the highway and perhaps needed the business. The owner was a man of few words. "The water level is low for this time of year, but it will be fine," he said. He handed us two life jackets and two paddles. One size fits all.

"The canoes are down by the river," he said. "Pick one you like and get going." He had trips of varying lengths on offer, from two to six hours, though they all cost the same amount: $30 per canoe, including a shuttle back to your car. We chose a four-hour trip—we'd arrived after lunch. The bridges downstream were numbered and the man assured us that the Titanic bus, a tired-looking blue jalopy parked out front, would be waiting for us at the parking lot near bridge 5 at the appointed time.

It was a muggy Spring afternoon with a veil of haze in the air. On our short stroll to the riverside we could see evidence of the summer mayhem we were avoiding: perhaps a hundred red canoes stacked three high on trailers parked out in a nearby field. Down at the beach there were eight identical keel-less Old Town canoes made of what seemed to be bright red rubber, lying on their sides against one another.   

Two young boys were fishing for sunnies on the beach with their mother. They reeled in their lines as we dragged a canoe to the shore and clambered in. We chatted briefly with the woman as we departed.

"This is your first time down the river?"

"We've never been within a hundred miles of this place."

"You're going to love it," she said. And we did.

The most distinctive aspect of the river, at least in this section, is the geology. For much of the distance we traversed, one bank was defined by handsome, often moss-covered cliffs. Sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right. I guess these are the sediments on the basis of which the Kickapoo lays claim to its advanced age. 

But we were also impressed by the wildlife. In the course of our four-hour descent we came upon two minks at very close range, also two woodchucks and a muskrat. A pair of spotted sandpipers could often be seen a hundred-odd feet ahead, flying on around the next corner as we approached.

This led to the one dispute of the afternoon. Hilary was convinced that the same sandpipers were leading us along throughout the entire seven miles we paddled. It seemed to me that we spooked at least twenty separate pairs along the way. 

We arrived at the parking lot a good forty-five minutes early. (Better early than late, I guess.) While we waited, we tracked down a blue-winged warbler that was wheezing away in the aspens nearby. The bus arrived on time, and empty. We were the only canoeists on the return trip. The owner was driving. On the way back to the car we chatted with his wife, a soft-spoken woman who told us all about her immigrant ancestors from Denmark.

 If you're planning to do this stretch of the river, it might be a good idea to reserve a campsite at nearby Wildcat Mountain State Park. In the morning you can hike up through the hemlock woods to the top of Mt Pisgah and look out across the countryside you paddled through the day before.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

La Rondine - Times Two

Puccini is the world's most popular opera composer, but also, strange to say, a little underrated. The two are probably related.  It seems hard to believe that music we enjoy so much could actually be that "good."

Verdi is enormously entertaining, yet grave. Mozart is seriously entertaining, yet suitably "classical." Wagner's relentless portentousness finally wins us over.  But Puccini had the misfortune to be enormously entertaining, yet romantic. His greatest operas—Tosca, La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, and Turandot—share an intensity that some have described as sadistic. La Rondine is nothing of the kind. It's a romance, pure and simple, and a good choice for the Skylark Opera Company of St. Paul, which has hitherto devoted itself largely to operettas.

We went on a hot Sunday afternoon. The theater at Concordia University is only thirteen rows deep. The opera was sung in English, which was a mixed blessing: Italian sounds better, and subtitles would have been helpful even in the English version.

We sat in the back row ($15 cheaper) but could hear everything just fine. The man sitting next to us had neither a computer at home nor a subscription to the Star-Tribune. He got his arts news from a free tabloid called  Vita-Min that's recently been discontinued. He had arrived at the theater by bus. (Bless his heart.)  I think he went away disappointed. It wasn't Sondheim. You couldn't tell what people were saying. The music was shifty, there weren't that many good "tunes."

We loved it. In the role of Magda, Cecilia Violetta Lopez was superb. I later came across a review of her performance as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata in the Washington Post that's worth repeating.

"Lopez is as compelling a Violetta as I’ve seen. As the consumptive courtesan who, for the purest of reasons, is compelled to relinquish her true love, only ultimately to die in his arms, Lopez managed to infuse every gesture, even in her most consumptive paroxysms, with suggestive sexuality. Her voice, big and rich over its entire range, is remarkably agile for its size and as focused when she sings quietly as it is when she just lets it go. Her “Sempre Libera” was as convincingly radiant and joyful as her “Addio del Passato” was sad and wistful."

We're very lucky to have had her here in Saint Paul, performing on an intimate stage. (Hilary and I are lucky to have shown up, thanks to Carol Jackson's recommendation.) In La Rondine she plays a role similar to that of Violetta, though Puccini had a hard time coming up with an ending that suited him. He rewrote it several times.

I guess Puccini's music is like a drug, because it puts you in a mood to have more of it. Back home, it's only six p.m., and Hilary finds a complete performance of La Rondine on YouTube (for educational TV) in Italian, with Spanish subtitles. Of course, we watch.

Now, don't get me wrong. the Skylark production was very good. But we've jumped to a different level here. Puccini's operas benefit from volume, and lavishness. He was obsessive about the theatrical element: how did the scene work? And here the gushiness for which he's famous is far more pronounced.

 In this version Magda (Ainhoa Arteta) can sing ... and she looks like Jessica Lange. Ruggero (Marcus Haddock) sounds Italian, rather than Chinese. (In the Skylark production, Won Whi Choi sang gallantly and inhabited the role of the bumpkin Ruggiero convincingly, but had troubles with diction.)  And the Italian language flows.

The third act of La Rondine has always been a little weak. We know this is not going to work out. But it was more than a little disconcerting to see Ramboldo showing up on the beach, after Lisette and Prunier had just arrived.  Highly implausible. And it was heartless of Ruggiero to reject Magda, just when she needed him most.

No, Puccini's first ending—the one the Skylark did—is better. Magda knows that a "fallen woman" like her is unfit to appear before Ruggiero's mother. Goodbye Ruggiero. Back to Ramboldo. Oh, well. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Northern Spark

Northern Spark is an all-night urban party that takes place every summer and we're all invited. So many events are running throughout the night that it's virtually impossible to get a bead on the goings-on. The event organizers have prepared a website making it easier to read descriptions of the activities and create an individualized schedule, but the descriptions tend to be outlandish or incomprehensible. 

Your best bet is to identify a few must-see events, and beyond that, decide which parts of town appeal to you. So many guests were expected this year that a number of "rooms" were prepared in several parts of the city: The Walker Art Center, The Mill Ruins riverfront, the University of Minnesota's East Bank campus, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, to name a few.

Our plan was to meet some friends at the Mill Ruins, see the local opera company briefly, and then wander the building, where twenty or thirty exhibits and activities were to take place. Stop two would be the U of M Mall, where various tents had been set up and a gamelan orchestra would be performing throughout the night in Northrup Auditorium.

We arrived at the Spark, cheery and well fed, from our niece's graduation party in Woodbury, and were surprised to find a parking spot on Washington Avenue only a few blocks from the Mill Ruins. Well, it was only eight o'clock: we were early. 

At nine we were allowed to enter the roofless confines of the ruins, where revelers had paid $60 to get an early start on the drinking and eating. (Hilary and I had just finished off an order of fish ($8) from the Anchor Fish and Chips food truck on the street just outside.)

Members of the Mill City Opera began to belt out arias from Puccini, Verdi, and Delibes from the catwalk thirty feet above the ground, but it was hard to hear them above the chattering of the multitudes who had just been listening to the electrified sounds of Adam Levy and the Professors.

Inside the building we met up with another musical event—Instant Composer: Mad-libbed Music. An assortment of musicians were on hand—violin, bass clarinet, keyboard, drums, tenor sax, nine in all—to perform music in the style dictated by anyone who felt the inclination to sit down at the computer kiosk and fill in the blanks: What mood, what instrumentation, what pace, what duration? 

The music was entirely improvised, needless to say. There were precious few melodies to be heard, but the sounds were rhythmic and interesting, and the concepts involved, projected on a screen so the musicians could find out what they were supposed to play, were also visible to the audience, who could decide for themselves: Did this piece fit the requirements? At the very least, it was a fun place to grab a table, buy a beer, and relax—although the mood chosen by listeners was seldom "relaxed."

Several choirs were performing upstairs, but it seemed odd to see them singing their hearts out within the confines of an old mill, badly lit and with the rough-hewn limestone walls encroaching on every side. Bad acoustics, and nobody listening.  

When we reached the eight floor, we found ourselves in the offices of Meyer, Sheer, and Rockcastle, one of Minnesota's premier architectural firms. There were at least twenty desks covered with huge drawings, many of them half rolled-up, though the lights weren't on and the desks had been shoved together to keep people from snooping around. In any case, most of us were up there to ogle the view out across the Mississippi River toward the Stone Arch Bridge.

Back on the street, our friends got some food and we sat on the steps in front of the Guthrie Theater, just taking in the passing scene. Nordstrom's department store had sponsored a booth where you could stand with your girlfriend (or boyfriend, or grandmother) and have a giant selfie taken that would be projected a few minutes later high up on the surface of a grain elevator nearby, with the word NORDSTRUMS written in large letters across the top and bottom. By now it was pitch dark, and fame is fleeting, and why not join in the fun? (But we didn't.)

We probably should have wandered out onto the Stone Arch Bridge to see the photos of Syrian refugees, but we opted to jump in a car and drive across the river to the U of M campus (where our friends knew of obscure parking spots very close to Northrup Auditorium) to hear the Schubert Club's gamelan orchestra. You could listen for minutes, or hours. It would seem the same. It was great.

There were other artsy activities going on in Northrup. You could fold little pinwheels out of origami paper, or turn a photograph of yourself (which they would take)  into a Chuck Close digital rendering using a computer, a pencil, and a big piece of tracing paper.

Out on the Northrup Plaza there was a booth where you could sample water from three different municipalities to see how water quality differed even within the metro area. Plenty of idealistic young students were on hand to explain the niceties of water resources to you if you got the bug.

You could also follow the labyrinthine pathways within a heavily sheeted booth to meet up with an oracle. But I walked in one side and came out the other without ever meeting up with the gal. Perhaps that, too, is a sign?

Down on the mall itself we enjoyed standing barefoot under an illuminated pyramid to gather in its power. (Spending five minutes under that shape, I'm sure I extended my lifespan by five years and won't have to shave for a month.) We also listened to a band at the nearby Wiseman Museum, which I enjoyed even though I couldn't understand a word the vocalist said.

Out on the terrace, we watched as, a hundred feet below us, some art students poured molten lead into a mold of the Mississippi River. Another group on the Washington Avenue bridge was doing a dance. But each dancer was dancing to a different tune and beat, using ear buds and an iPod. It looked crazy. It looked pointless. But it was pretty clear the dancers were having fun.

But isn't it fun just to be out on campus at midnight? On our way back to the car, I was reminded that the last time I'd been on that stretch of campus turf, I was a recent high school graduate, on my way to an interview with Professor David LeBerge, hoping to get into his honors class in psychology. I got in. But looking back on it now, from a distance of forty years, I suspect it was less because of anything I said during the interview than because I had succeeded in finding the man's office.  

Our friends drove us back downtown and deposited us near our car. They returned to the Mill Ruins to revisit one or two of the events we'd bypassed earlier, and we went home, with the sounds of Indonesian gongs, desultory rock bands, and throngs of happy youths ringing in our ears.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come?

History is such a confusing and inexhaustible muddle, we're always on the lookout for "turning points" to serve as landmarks along the way. Wars and their aftermath are especially dramatic and revealing. Borders change, venerable states disappear, to be replaced by others which, before long, are likely to seem a little arbitrary themselves.

We ask, Why is the world like it is? Whence did these troubles arise? The answers seem to come from previous conflicts, unsatisfactorily resolved, or revolutions unfulfilled. Entrenched interests—the autocrats, the military, the capitalists, the apparatchiks, the one percent—are always claiming privilege, dragging their feet, resisting the tide of creativity and development.

On the opposite side of the coin, we tend to be impressed by those individuals who challenge assumptions, push the envelope, and break out of the mold, exercising their creativity to forge new and revolutionary paths, so that, as they say on the movie trailers, things were never the same, AGAIN. 

I'm laying on the clich├ęs a little heavy, I know. But I have never quite understood why people tend to be suspicious of "progress" yet thrilled by "revolution." Maybe it's just the bourgeois in me, but it strikes me that the term "revolutionary" is value-neutral if not entirely bogus. It's a style statement more than a serious appraisal of merit. This fact may be underscored by the oxymoronic notion of "permanent revolution," which means, basically, "We have no ideas, but if you try to challenge us, you're toast."

Though the rhetoric is often the same in the worlds of art and culture, there are fewer guillotines and death camps involved, and things in general are more anodyne. Revolutionary artists, like revolutionary activists and thinkers, challenge assumptions, push the envelope, and break out of the mold, exercising their creativity to forge new and revolutionary paths, so that things will never be the same, AGAIN.

Picasso once famously remarked that creation involves destruction, and for the artist that may be true. But as new forms of art emerge, the old ones remain accessible to us. We can relish the novelty and zing of the new, while continuing to enjoy aspects of expression in older works that have fallen by the wayside to make way for new visions and excesses.

Ornette Coleman, the groundbreaking alto saxophonist who died recently, offers a classic instance of how new and "revolutionary" styles expand while also constricting an idiom. No one who heard Ornette play back in the late 1950s could fail to notice that his approach was "different" from the styles then popular. 

Regardless of their flavor, hard bop, West Coast jazz, chamber jazz, and Big Band involved improvisation following the harmonic rigors of a series of chord changes dictated by the tune. Ornette wasn't so interested in "playing the changes," as this method was called. He preferred to string together snippets of music--free-flowing motifs and riffs--over a rhythm section that had freed itself from the tyranny of chord progressions. The pianist was no longer welcome. 

And he was very good at sustaining this mode of improvisation for extended periods. It has even been observed that Coleman's seemingly endless melodic lines intimated, if they didn't actually establish, harmonic fields that his band-mates, and especially bassist Charlie Haden, were able to work within and flesh out on the fly, as it were. Coleman hadn't abandoned "the changes" so much as he'd liberated them from the familiar lengths and patterns that listeners commonly recognized.  

It was a fresh, new sound. But was it the shape of jazz to come? Not really.

The 1950s were a great time for "listening" jazz, as opposed to the "dancing" jazz of the Big Bands, which was on the wane. Many of the performers whose names are familiar to us today rose to prominence during that era. I'm thinking of Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Pepper, Dave Brubeck, Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Desmond, Sonny Stitt, and Jackie McLean, to name a few.

In the early 1960s, musicians who were no longer satisfied with straight-ahead jazz opened three new veins of exploration. Coleman's was one. Miles Davis's complex experiments in modal jazz were another. And John Coltrane's more ecstatic and chant-like religious performances a third. Later in the decade another "school" exemplified by the Art Ensemble of Chicago developed a following.

Alongside these new and revolutionary approaches, plenty of standard small-group jazz was still being performed, though it was gradually being driven out of the clubs by rock and roll. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Ornette didn't liberate anyone from anything. What he did was develop a new approach to improvisation that took its place alongside other traditions, some new, others long-standing. Though his open, cheerful style undoubtedly influenced many musicians of his and succeeding generations, relatively few followed his path, probably because, in abandoning regularized harmonic patterns, Coleman had significantly reduced the opportunities for coherent expression.

I had an "Ornette" phase, though it didn't last long. Even today, I think I could whistle the first three or four minutes of his song "Dee Dee" from Live at the Golden Circle Stockholm, volume 1 (1965) from memory. Trouble was—at least for me—all of his songs sounded like that, and after three or four minutes, I'd had enough.

Most jazz musicians today would have little trouble delivering an extended solo based on "Body and Soul," a song written in 1930. How many would be able to keep Ornette's "Lonely Woman" or "Folk Tale" afloat? Or would want to?

Anyone who's interested in Ornette's later career, which was hardly less unorthodox than his early prime, can listen to selected tunes with judicious commentary in a recent Guardian article, Six of the Best. Ornette was a cool dude with a mind of his own, and some of his musical theories are so far out they might actually be true.

I was going to give another listen to Live at the Golden Circle, in honor of Ornette's passing, but I don't have a turntable hooked up just now. So I decided instead to put on Motion, a classic Lee Konitz album from 1961. It resembles the early Ornette albums in format—long, intricate, and ceaselessly inventive alto saxophone solos riding over a piano-less rhythm section. But look at the richness of the material Konitz has to work with! "I Remember You," "All of Me," "You'd be So Nice to Come Home To," "I'll Remember April" ...

I also booked two tickets to the Charles Lloyd show on July 1. Honoring great artists posthumously is fine and fitting. Better, perhaps, to see them when they're still making the rounds.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Tom Stoppard - The Hard Problem

Tom Stoppard is well-known as a playwright of ideas. He's woven such things as rock and roll, Russian history, and existential philosophy into the dialog of his plays, while doing a pretty good job of keeping his scripts buoyant and his tone slightly racy. But it would perhaps be more accurate to say that Stoppard writes plays about people who have ideas. The ideas involved are seldom resolved and sometimes not even examined much in the course of a given drama. They often serve merely as decorative elements, giving his often brainy characters something to banter about while the machinations of the plot grind on.

The success of Stoppard's productions depends to a large degree on how closely the fields of banter at which his characters excel dovetails with the action. In Arcadia, the fields are rich—landscape gardening and Romantic poetry—and the interactions between ideas and events genuine and illuminating. In Stoppard's newest play, The Hard Problem, which finished its run recently at the National Theater in London, stimulating banter abounds, but the subjects are less interesting and their application to events on stage more strained.

The milieu in which Stoppard has chosen to set The Hard Problem is neurobiology. The question around which the drama is based, at least according to the marketing campaign, is this: "If there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness?" But the characters in the play have nothing much to say about that subject. The drama actually focuses on (spoiler alert) a bright and attractive young woman named Hilary who gave up a child for adoption as a teenager, and is now nursing a variety of sorrows as a result of it. She enters the world of nuerobiology largely as a coincidence. Much of the drama turns on conflicts between that reductive world and Hilary's more fertile and probing intellect.

In The Real Thing, one of Stoppard's previous plays, a playwright is accused by his wife of giving short shrift to the female character in order to display his own wit. That is certainly the case in The Hard Problem. Hilary's tutor (and soon-to-be lover, as the play begins) Spike, delivers long speeches about evolutionary science, and how a mother will behave so as to maximize her offspring's chances of survival. But Hilary is a mother, and little of what Spike is saying rings true to her.

Later on, Hilary's rival for a position at a small and prestigious think tank, a man named Amal, who has already received a slew of academic distinctions, delivers long speeches about how computers have surpassed the human brain. Hilary has the superior insight. "I wonder what a computer is thinking when he's just waiting for his chess opponent to make a move." But she isn't given much stage-time to elaborate it.

In short, there is little genuine dialogue between points of view, and as the play develops across half a decade, we begin to wonder why Hilary continues to hang around with such arrogant jerks.

A major subplot of The Hard Problem deals with hedge funds. The owner of the think tank Hilary works at makes his living outguessing his colleagues and scamming the markets with the help of behavioral research his institute produces. Amal takes a job with the firm, but makes the mistake of publishing a paper about over-valuation of the market. His observations happen to be true—but the paper threatens to undermine his boss's plans to sell the market short.

The play receives an enormous boost from Olivia Vinhall, who, in the part of Hilary, exudes vulnerability and wonderment, sorrow and goodness. Perhaps Stoppard recognized that the meat of the play consists in a battle not of words but of personalities, the most appealing of whom is driven by serious but inarticulable questions rooted in awareness and emotion, rather than easy answers rooted in fashionable but reductive scientific theories.

The Hard Problem runs a hundred minutes without intermission, and the time goes by in a flash. (I saw it in a simulcast at St. Anthony Main.) That's good news. But I look forward to the sequel, during which Hilary moves to New York to study philosophy at NYU, gets a proper boyfriend, and starts an avant garde theater group to explore the spiritual dimension of human interactions across genders and generations. Maybe Stoppard himself would agree to giving a guest lecture?