Friday, April 3, 2020

Stepping Back from the News

Sometimes it's a good idea to step back from the news for a while.

There will always be more. And it will rarely be good.

The other day I pulled a book called Back to the Garden off the shelf and retreated all the way back to the Paleolithic. The author, James McGregor, is a kind of expert on the relations between cities and their surrounding landscape, but he's less interested in aesthetics than in agriculture. To judge from the title, we might expect him to be offering one more serving of utopian fantasy, exploring the prehistoric past in an effort to locate precisely where human civilization went wrong, and offering advice as to how we can all return to the life of easy-going egalitarian bliss that we've lost.

The book is a lot more interesting than that. McGregor has an image in mind—he calls it First Nature—of a balanced relationship between urban and rural activities, and he suggests that we've lost sight of that balance. But in his view, our lost of perspective wasn't all that long ago. To prove his point, he reexamines almost the entire history of civilization, going all the way back to the Stone Age in search of clues about how and why changes in food production came about. And for the most part, he focuses on the most recent facts he can find, sparing us a series of repetitive lectures about the evils of modern life along the way. In fact, he first makes mention of his First Nature paradigm on the last page of the introduction, and doesn't bring it up again until almost a hundred pages later.

In the mean time, McGregor spins a series of scholarly narratives about, for example, what the archeological record at Jericho, Abu Hureyra, and Çatalhöyük tell us about how agriculture developed. He rejects the theory that centralized power and vast irrigation systems lie at the heart of the story, arguing that small-scale floodwater farming played a crucial role. Carrying the point one step farther, he asserts that our widespread misunderstanding of these things is a reflection of biases ingrained in nineteenth century historiography.
"The narrative of state formation, which was a major political preoccupation of post-Napoleonic Europe, was further linked with the origins of the coercive power of the community—that is to say, with the origins of war. For theorists imbued with the thought of that era, three distinct theoretical concerns were inextricably blended together. The history of cultivation and domestication, the rise of the nation-state, and the story of warfare are distinct, but nineteenth-century historiography joined them in a way that contemporary theorists must struggle to undo."
The archaeological record tells a different story. The agricultural revolution, far from being the product of a single culture, was an accumulation of scattered practical insights bundled into an ensemble of seeds, herds, and cultivation techniques that could be, and was, adapted to a variety of cultures and habitats.

McGregor examines, and rejects, the nutritional theories of those who argue that the introduction of grains into the diet was a mistake. He finds the Neolithic revolution to be a mixed bag. People lived longer, and the landscape could support more of them, but they also suffered more often from diseases. He also finds the evidence in support of a matriarchal culture that was shattered by violent invasion to be inconclusive at best. Once again, contemporary political concerns are being projected onto the distant past.

A third fashionable argument that McGregor finds dubious is the one that pits civilization against wilderness. He writes:
"Heretical or not, there are good reasons to reject wilderness as the poster child for biological life. This is not to reject wilderness itself but only to reject its role as stand-in for the whole of nature. If we ask ourselves whether the wilderness concept, during its two-century reign, has done a good job of standing up for the natural world, the answer has to be a resounding “No!” During that short time, more damage has been done to the landscape than ever before in human history."
And McGregor thinks he knows the reason why: the concept of wilderness was the creation, not of biologists or ecologists, but of poets and philosophers. Man has no place in wilderness, by definition. Therefore, it cannot be improved. At best, it can be preserved, untouched.

One of my favorite sections focuses on water use practices in Libya during the Roman era. In those days North Africa (along with Sicily and Egypt) was the breadbasket of the Empire. Conventional wisdom has it that the Romans abused the environment, extracting from it whatever they could get to feed its urban population, and leaving behind a desert wasteland that has never recovered.
A wadi in Libya
According to McGregor, the evidence doesn't support that view. Almost the reverse. Archeologists have found olive presses throughout North Africa. Experts estimate the annual export of oil to Rome might have approached a million liters. How was this possible? It was due to a meticulous engineering of the seasonal rainfall through the wadis, which allowed farmers to increase their yields considerably and devote some of their attention to cash crops. But it required diligence to operate the dams, catch-basins, and canals and keep them in working order. Thus the conventional scheme of intensive cultivation leading to desertification must be scrapped. McGregor writes:   
"This sequence does not fit the Libyan evidence, however. Intensive agriculture there led to soil enrichment, not depletion ... Roman North Africa did not fail in its job of producing food for the regional market. Just the opposite occurred: an international market failure brought on by invasion and fragmentation within the Roman Empire made export-based agriculture unsustainable. Political change, not environmental irresponsibility, led to the abandonment of pro­ductive infrastructure in North Africa.
I have been emphasizing here a few of the unorthodox positions that McGregor advances in the course of his ramble through history, but the greater part of the book consists of the historical material itself, which McGregor presents in a clear, studied, low-key tone that makes for easy reading. His interests range from the cave paintings of the Paleolithic to the romantic theories of Goethe and Kant, from the conflicting philosophies of Empedocles and Parmenides to the physiocratic and exchange theories of the Enlightenment.

In his analysis of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, McGregor draws our attention to the central role played by money as the medium through which the "invisible hand" does its work. We take that for granted, without considering that when the theory was formulated, it left out the world of agricultural exchange almost entirely.
"Modern economics, the “dismal science,” rests on the linked axioms that money is a means of exchange and that economic systems rely not on incalculable intrinsic values but on exchange values, established by markets. We think of these statements as noncontroversial descriptions of reality, but historically the universal use of money and the acceptance of exchange value over intrinsic value required substantial intellectual adjustment and often wrenching social change. It is no accident that the seminal eighteenth-century theorist of money was not a Frenchman but a Scot."
In light of McGregor's curious and even-tempered approach to his subjects, it should come as no surprise that his concluding remarks lack apocalyptic fervor. Having spread before us a rich tapestry of ideas and practices, it only remains to connect the dots, as it were.
"Market forces and the inexorable pressures of international com­petition are held up as the demons that drive farmers to work in ways that at least some find unwelcome. But what holds for the eco­nomics of energy production is true of farming as well. When the true costs are totaled up, the economic picture becomes strikingly different. Massive government subsidies, indirect benefits in the form of infrastructure, and protective isolation from liability and health-related costs make contemporary agriculture economically viable. The cost of addressing the obesity that modern crops create would itself be sufficient to tip the balance in favor of ecologically sound practices. Without subsidies and insulation from liability, agribusi­ness would have to be reconfigured in ways that are more responsible to land, labor, and consumers."
Ain't it the truth! Yet a more insistent advocate for change might have inserted the word "only" so that the sentence reads "ONLY massive government subsidies ... make contemporary agriculture economically viable." 
But what makes McGregor's history so interesting isn't its conclusions so much the way-stations we visit as we follow its wandering path, from Bronze Age shipbuilding techniques to rice cultivation in the Po Valley to the Marshall Plan. It's a miniature Enlightenment compendium on the order of the abbé Raynal's History of the Two Indies, inspired by a rational concept of proper practice guided by past experience and an underlying concern for justice, both social and environmental. A good deal of it touches on agriculture only obliquely.

In fact, after finishing the book, I felt that I'd hardly gotten my hands dirty, and I turned to an old essay by Wendell Berry, "The Making of a Marginal Farm," to redress the balance.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Spring Walkabouts

As our options for social outings dwindle in the face of Covid-19, we often hear it said: "You can always go out for a walk."

This is true. Days are warmer, snow is vanishing, and as an added bonus, birds are migrating up the river and across the countryside. The goldfinches are turning yellow again, and the returning robins are clucking away in absurd numbers as they flock through the neighborhood.

For anyone thinking of making an excursion farther afield, here are a few locales Hilary and I have visited in the last couple of weeks that are less than an hour from town.

Old Cedar Avenue Bridge. Less than a mile south of the Megamall and IKEA, this old highway bridge has been totally rebuilt as a pedestrian bridge. It has a large asphalt parking lot, and the low hills roundabout have been tastefully landscaped. You'll get wonderful views of the river and the various waterfowl that make use of it from the bridge, of course, and just to the west there is a long boardwalk extending out into the river. On a recent visit we saw wood ducks and shovelers at fairly close range, and sixty-odd trumpeter swans out on the ice on the far side of the river.

Trails leads in both directions along the riverbank. The one that goes east, downstream, crosses under Cedar Avenue (a bit noisy, but the birds don't seem to mind) and soon arrives at the Bass Ponds, another great location for birding and a stroll. (You can also access the Bass Ponds more directly via a parking lot on Old Shakopee Road.)

Goldfinch turning yellow
William O'Brien State Park. Located a few miles north of the quaint village of Marine-on-the-St. Croix, this park has some of the most varied terrain and vegetation, and also some of the finest hiking trails in the region. My recommendation would be to approach the park from Washington County 4, which heads east a few miles north of Hugo. It's a nice drive through the countryside, and just before you reach Marine, as the road starts to descend (and before you pass through a short concrete tunnel at a bend in the road) you'll see a gravel parking lot on the north side of the road. Park here and take the trail up the hill through the oak-and-sumac woods. Within five minutes you'll be at the highest point in the park, with spectacular views across the countryside. From here there are several nice loop-hike options, all of them well-marked on maps posted along the way, through open fields and patches of woods.

We pulled into that lot a week ago on a sunny morning. I stepped out of the car and looked up to see seven raptors kettling in the bright sun above my head. A joyous sight. Two were mature bald eagles and one was an immature red-tailed hawk. The others, I'm not so sure.

When we reached the top of the hill a few minutes later we came upon four sparkling bright bluebirds—the first of the year for us.

If you can't find this little lot, you might just as well go to the main entrance on Highway 95. The hikes are also nice from the trailhead here, though you'll be walking through a broad flat marsh for quite a while before you get to the upland loops.

Highland Park Reserve. Right in West Bloomington, the trails at this park can give you a quick sense of getting away from it all. Head east and north from the Richardson Nature Center out into the grassy fields. The trail circles around clockwise into the woods and continues on to a small nameless lake, where you might see ducks and muscrat. Take a look at the platform on the telephone pole across the lake to the south. Maybe the resident osprey has arrived again for the summer. After circling around the north side of the lake, you can climb the hill west out into another nice set of fields or swing north again through the hardwoods to the nature center and the parking lot.

Hilly terrain at Lake Maria S.P.
Lake Maria State Park. This out-of-the-way backpacking park an hour NW of town is mostly just a bunch of trails through the hilly woods, but you'll certainly escape most of the weekend dogwalkers here. And after twenty minutes in the woods (trails are well-indicated on maps and posts throughout), it might occur to you that this is why you came out here in the first place: to stretch your legs in peace and quiet. You'll begin to admire the rugged oaks and the delicate ironwood trees, whose pale, crinkling leaves fill the middle story of the woods like notes on a musical staff. Maybe you'll take a dead-end branch of the trail to example one of the three wood-heated pond-side cabins you can rent by the night.

Two cranes. Can you spot them?
Sherburne National Wildlife Area. Due west of Zimmerman on Highway 169, Sherburne covers a vast area (30,000acres) of mostly open grassland and marshes. The best hike is the Blue Hill Trail, but we usually just take the six-mile Wildlife Drive. It goes past marshes, clumps of hardwoods, aspen thickets, and open grasslands. Lots of birds to be seen here, though sandhill cranes top the list for many visitors. We took the loop two days ago and saw sixty-odd cranes, most of them flying by in flocks of eight or twelve, but others standing in the tall grass twenty feet off the road, bellowing their strange, harsh, throaty gurgle.

Carver Park. Forty minutes west of Minneapolis, Carver is a sprawling park with a variety of habitats. Our preferred starting point is at the end of Springview Drive. From here a paved walking (and biking) trail heads east past Lundsten Lake and through open fields to a nice lookout tower across the countryside. (The fields along this trail are probably the best place in the Cities for seeing bobolinks—though they haven't arrived yet.) The easy loop continues around another lake counterclockwise back to the parking lot.  Other trails head off in all directions from Lowry Nature Center. Print out a map and spend the day.

I have tried to keep the bird reports that might have accompanied this little blog to a minimum. I realize most people aren't too interested in such things. But I might mention as an aside how excited I was to see a northern shrike on the path down at Tornado Alley, just a few blocks from our house the other day, and a beautiful meadowlark at Afton State Park, singing from the top of a willow shrub.

Only birding connoisseurs would be interested to hear about the rusty blackbird we saw down at the 180th Street Slough on Thursday. You don't see one of those every day! 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Shopping Before Breakfast

I have always enjoyed those early morning trips to the supermarket. The sky is dark, the air is fresh and cold, the parking lot is mostly empty, and golden light beams out from the glass doors. You walk inside to the smell of coffee and fresh baked sweet rolls. There is a hush in the air. Everyone is going about their business, some of them only half awake.

Of course, this experience takes on a slightly different caste when you're also aware that along the way you might be contracting a fatal disease.

The other day I set out for CUB before dawn, driven by the long grocery list that had developed since the last time I went, a week ago, and encouraged by something I'd read the previous day in the New Yorker. Atul Gawande  had written about data from Singapore and Hong Kong suggesting that transmission of the corona virus was not common between individuals who spent less than fifteen minutes in one another's company.

A week ago, on my last trip to the store, everything was new. I was wondering how long the groceries I was buying would have to last, and I was also slightly disturbed that products such as rice, dried beans, and toilet paper were nowhere to be seen.  Now, back again a week later, with a larder still heavily stocked with soups, sardines, and crackers, I was beginning to get into a rhythm. 

And there were a few bags of basmati rice to be had. Yogurt, which had been unavailable a week ago, was now two for $7. And though brand-name toilet paper was still out of stock, there was an entire pallet of mediocre generic rolls sitting on the end-cap, bundled into four-packs for $.99.

By the time I got home, Hilary was starting in on a household project: recaulking the bathtub. We watched a few how-to videos, and we somehow convinced ourselves we needed some caulk remover.

"I'll go get some," I volunteered. I was enjoying being out. Maybe I was even boosting the economy. I could also visit the liquor store next door to Home Depot, then stop in at the Nodin Press office nearby and pick up a copy of a book that we'd just published.

There were plenty of people at Home Depot, but no one on the staff had heard of caulk remover. Nor did they stock such a product. 

I arrived at the liquor store twenty minutes before it opened (new hours) so I continued to the office, then sat in the drive-through line at Caribou Coffee for a latte, and even got the quiz question right: What city was F. Scott Fitzgerald born in?

Back at the liquor store I grabbed a few of the usual suspects and headed for home.

Reading through my emails a few minutes later, I came upon a link from the New York Times sent by a friend. The thrust of the article  was simplicity itself: STAY HOME.

Later, in the course of an email conversation with another friend, I mentioned that I'd been to Home Depot. She told me her neighbor works there. "She said it is astounding how many people are out shopping for non-essential items. She feels at risk of being infected by the hoards...They do need to stay open for contractors, plumbers, etc., but I don't think people that are bored or just want to do household projects should be allowed in. Just my opinion."


Later in the day, emailing with a client in Durand, Wisconsin, I asked him how things were going.

He replied: "Yes, in Wisconsin all libraries are closed. I'm the only one going in; everyone else works from home. Beloit just confirmed its first few cases so hopefully it will do what it's going to do and all will return to normal soon. How about you? Probably doesn't affect you, other than your hipster night life.  Hold off on the raves, mister!"

For now, I think I'll stick to birdwatching. There are lots of ducks passing through town these days.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Ortega y Gasset — Lao Tzu

Combing the shelves a few days ago in the midst of some extended "social distancing," I happened upon a row of aging paperbacks published by W.W. Norton, all of them bearing on the spine the name José Ortega y Gasset.

No one reads Ortega nowadays—at least no one that I know. And the titles, most of which appeared between the two world wars, have an old-fashioned and slightly generic ring: Man and People, Man and Crisis, The Modern Theme, The Dehumanization of Art, History as a System. Ortega wrote his most famous work, The Revolt of the Masses, in 1914.

Considered all in all, these titles conjure a point of view galaxies removed from the issues and perspectives that excite young people and academics today. What they fail to suggest in how wide-ranging Ortega's interests were and how comfortable he was raising basic metaphysical issues without feeling the need to explore every possible objection that we might present or burdening his thoughts with obscure and portentous terminology. Ortega often referred to philosophy as a form of noble sport, and his writings almost invariably carry a jaunty, even journalistic flair.

I ended up reading a short essay from the collection Concord and Liberty.  It carries the ambitious title "Notes on Thinking—It's Creation of the World and It's Creation of God."

According to Ortega, much of Western philosophy, building on the Greek notion of "aletheia," concerns itself with establishing convincing connections between our thoughts and the things "out there." We take that to be "thinking."

But in his view, this orientation isn't a necessity. Rather it's a choice we make about the relative importance of things. Other people, other cultures, have made different choices.

As a young man Ortega studied for quite a while in Marburg, Germany, which was then a locus of Neo-Kantian thought, which (to oversimplify) explored alleged a priori principles governing thought. He later took an interest in phenomenology, which attempted to make an end run past the problems of verification posed by the empirical approach by focusing, not on how we experience things, but on how we experience our experiences of things. By solipsistically avoiding the challenges and vagaries of the world "out there" Husserl and his students felt they had somehow purified their inquiry. Ortega may have been trained in this discipline, but he's long since outgrown it.

"The sphere of absolute reality —Husserl's reine Erlebnisse (pure experiences)—has, in spite of its juicy name, nothing to do with life; it is, strictly speaking, the opposite of life."    

Ortega eventually brings us around to the point that at different times and places, the "ground" of belief upon which individuals build their thoughts differs, and therefore, their notions  of w hat truth looks like also differs. He points to the Buddhists by way of example. Their basic belief in the immortality of the  ego, doomed to live an endless succession of lives, shapes their ideas about life and behavior. 

The Hebrews, he argues, believe in the indomitable will of God, out of which everything flows. That being the case, for them no purpose is served in investigating the static "being" of particular things. To a Jew the Greek concept of "aletheia," the discovery of hidden being, is entirely beside the point. What interests him is "emunah," the Hebrew word for truth, which is rooted in the future, and also in the notion of firmness—the truth, the firmness, of God's will. Amen. So shall it be.

In a footnote Ortega observes that Aristotle, in his effort to describe what the "substance" of a thing is, finds it necessary to concoct an entire sentence by way of naming it: "a-thing-being-what-it-was." Though a being is what it is now, Aristotle's definition refers to its durability through time.

In the space of a few pages Ortega has given us a good deal to think about. Especially the importance of time. Whether the connections he draws between the static, thing-oriented philosophy of Greece and the general aridity of modern thought are entirely valid I couldn't say, but he was certainly not alone in working to establish a more dynamic approach to describing thought and its purposes, as a means to get a handle on "life itself." Over the course of a long career as one of Europe's most eminent philosophers he  employed several concepts in turn—vital reason, trajectory, perspectivism, historical reason—to explain how thinking works and what it's for, though he developed none of these concepts to the extent that it became philosophical common coin.

(Then again, philosophers seldom take an interest in conducting exchanges in the currency of their colleagues. They'd rather mint their own.)

To my ear, most of what Ortega has to say here is true, but I found the most interesting points to follow from his acknowledgment that there is more than one set of assumptions available to us as we struggle to construct a coherent picture of our place in the world.

He mentions the Buddhists, the Hebrews, the Greeks. A few days after reading this essay, I ran across a book on the book cart at my local library, Dao De Jing: a Philosophical Translation. I had checked this book out years ago, but never took a serious look at it. (I don't think it was the very same volume; this one had a sticker indicating it was a used textbook from the University of Wisconsin / Eau Claire.)

Now, for only a dollar, I could have a second chance.

I bought it, and, struggling under the burden of a tenacious cold, I read the introduction. Brilliant! Here, I said to myself, is a description of life and an approach to experience that Ortega would have approved in every detail. First and foremost among its underlying beliefs or parameters is the rejection of the idea of "being." Second is the understanding that self and circumstances are inextricably intertwined. (Ortega: "I am myself and my circumstances.")

There is eloquence in the prose of  the translators who wrote the introduction, Roger Ames and David Hall, as they attempt to convey the unique qualities of the Chinese manuscript without falling into the many traps that common language usage in Western tongues present. Here is a typical passage from that introduction, which might have been lifted directly out of one of Ortega's essays: 
"What encourages us within a Western metaphysical tradition to separate time and space is our inclination, inherited from the Greeks, to see things in the world as fixed in their formal aspect, and thus as bounded and limited. If instead of giving ontological privilege to the formal aspect of phenomena, we were to regard them as having parity in their formal and changing aspects, we might be more like classical China in temporalizing them in light of their ceaseless transformation, and conceive of them more as “events” than as “things.” In this processual worldview, each phe­nomenon is some unique current or impulse within a temporal flow."
But Ames and Hall have an advantage over Ortega. He's trying to wrench a long-standing tradition from its path, while remaining within it. They're merely saying, "Hey, take a look at this entirely different way of approaching life and experience." They're referring, of course, to the text of the Dao De Jing. Also known as the I Ching, and the Lao Tzu.

 As for their translation itself, it strikes me as more meaningful that some of the others that I have laying around the house, but also wordier and less "poetic."

One or two examples will have to suffice. Here are a few lines from verse five, as translated by Stephen Mitchell:
The Tao doesn't take sides;
It gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn't take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

In the version from Ames and Hall, the first few lines run as follows:

The heavens and the earth are not partial to institutionalized morality.
They take things (wanwu) and treat them all as straw dogs.
Sages too are not partial to institutionalized morality.
They treat the common people as straw dogs.

In a footnote they explain that "straw dogs" refers to sacrificial objects that are treated with reference during a ceremony, but are afterwards discarded to be trodden underfoot.

Mitchell  translates the final line of this verse as simply "Hold on to the center." Ames and Hall give us a much wordier version:

It is better to safeguard what you have within
 Than to learn a great deal that so often goes nowhere.

 A second set of philosophical assumptions also came to mind as I read Ortega's essay: those of Hegel. Hegel is well-known for having remarked, "Nothing can be predicated of Being." He replaced that concept with the concept of Spirit, and a restless spirit at that, developing dialectically through time. The "things" that may interest us he construes as "objective spirit," which is to say, they're concrete deposits—institutions, works of art, historical narratives, feats of engineering—that reflect the condition of spirit at that time and nourish its further development. They are to be admired and utilized but also to be risen above as new circumstances call for new creations and iterations.

Why Hegel felt the need to attach the word "absolute" to the concept of Spirit is beyond me. That was a big mistake. 

After finishing Ortega's little essay, I was inspired to pull another book off the shelf, The Imperative of Modernity: an Intellectual Biography of José Ortega de Gasset by Rockwell Gray. It's a brilliant and eloquent work. One of the passages that really appealed to me, during my random perusal, compared Ortega to the French philosophes of the eighteenth century.
"Although much of the thematic content of Ortega’s mature philo­sophical work came from outside Spain and must be seen within the larger history of European neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, and existentialism, his early work and his lifelong concern for the con­dition of Spain cannot be understood without reference to major Spanish reformists of the later nineteenth century.
Gray adds that
 "the original model for the essay of social criticism came into Spain from the French Enlightenment and the philosophes.[They] provided the more distant historical precedent for the kind of far-ranging essay writing that Ortega was ultimately to refine in his modern Spanish prose. It is also among [them] that we find an early source of modern historicist philosophy—the assertion that man lives in time with no guarantee of a beginning or a destiny beyond this world. ..In this broader view, it is pos­sible to consider Ortega a latter-day philosopher despite his very considerable indebtedness to various German thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."
A very good point, with respect not only to Ortega's choice of themes, but also to his cheery and  accessible style. Diderot and Ortega, for example, would make a good College Bowl team.

But during these strange and difficult times, perhaps the Dao has something less intellectual but more appropriate to offer us. I just now opened the translation of Hall and Ames at random to verse eleven.
Extend your utmost emptiness as far as you can
And do your best to preserve your equilibrium.
Now as for equilibrium—this is called returning to the propensity of things,
And returning to the propensity of things is common sense.
Using common sense is acuity,
While failing to use it is to lose control.
And to try to do anything while out of control is to court disaster.

Friday, March 6, 2020

McCoy Tyner, R.I.P.

"No one — not Art Tatum, not Powell, not Monk, not Bill Evans — dropped a bomb on jazz pianists quite like McCoy Tyner. There was pre-McCoy and post-McCoy, and that was all she rote."

This line comes from a perceptive piece on McCoy that pianist Eric Iverson published on his blog, Do the M@th, a few years ago. (I have plundered it shamelessly in the notes that follow.)

I'm neither a pianist nor a musical theorist, but my interest in McCoy's music goes way back. In fact, one of my top-ten musical experiences must be the night I heard McCoy at the Cafe Extraordinaire, a store-front club in South Minneapolis that was in operation for only a few years before folding in April 1971. You won't find many references to it online or even in local jazz histories like Joined at the Hip. But I heard Joe Henderson there, and Woody Shaw, and McCoy.

I was in high school at the time, and was lucky to have a few friends who, like me, were "into" jazz. Dave took a special interest in Thelonious Monk, as I recall, and Carl's dad had been an amateur jazz trumpeter. We all listened to the local jazz station, KSJN (soon out of business) and that's how we came to know who was going to be playing at the Extraordinaire. Just our luck, Carl had recently inherited his aunt's antique green 1954 Chevy Bel Air—the model with the rounded fins. This was important, because the Cafe Extraordinaire was a good twenty miles from Mahtomedi. The other side of the world. We had figured out how to get there with a Hudson Street Atlas—there was a freeway exit nearby—but we really had no idea where we were.

In those days Mahtomedi was a village like the one Dylan Thomas describes in Under Milk Wood. And the "cafe" was a small, dark, empty storefront not far from Nicollet and Lake lined with a few rows of folding chairs.  

The cover was six dollars, cash—a fortune, when you were making ninety cents an hour mowing other people's lawns. On the night when we heard McCoy, we arrived late and ended up in the first row. There was no bandstand; I stretched out my legs and rested them on the front leg of McCoy's piano.

The sound was powerful. Everything you heard on a Coltrane album, without the need for a tenor saxophone. Swirling arpeggios, mountains of block chords that could not find rest, pounding rhythms extending up my legs from the piano.

Iverson repeats the story that "Tyner was really down and out for a few years at the end of that decade." A world-class artist playing for forty-five people in a hole-in-the-wall on Lake Street in South Minneapolis? I can see why.

What made Tyner's approach unique? It seems to me that he devised way to establish a harmonic field in which chord changes followed one another or shifted back and forth without ever suggesting any kind of resolution. Tonic and dominant didn't interest him. Drawing on these harmonies McCoy developed a series of riffs that sounded to me, back when I first heard them in high school, like whole tone runs, which once again eschewed the conventional patterns of the diatonic scale in favor of a cosmic tinkling. But McCoy produced these chords and runs with such authority that the word "tinkling" is entirely out of place. These were booming, massive, flurries that keyed you up and carried you away.

The musical vocabulary that McCoy developed sustained John Coltrane's famous musical explorations, which were based more on frenzied repetitions and variations than any kind of harmonic or structural innovation. And there are listeners even today, no doubt, who think of him as "Coltrane's pianist." I think it's fair to remark that during the 1960s, McCoy did sound more powerful and cosmic and impressive on Coltrane's albums than he did on his own, due to the added energy Coltrane brought to the table.

Yet McCoy's essential contribution to the quartet is sometimes underestimated even today. An aside McCoy once made when discussing the music of Thelonious Monk underscores the rhythmic value of his style:
“The music of Monk is strange, fleeting, and presents the peculiarity of being at one time very shifting but also very grounded, with a very sure tempo. My playing, I believe, possessed also this metronomic rhythmic accuracy….because I have a good strong left hand, John knew that he could count on this rhythmic foundation….”
But his unorthodox harmonies were no less significant. He provided the voicings for some of Coltrane's landmark recordings, and Coltrane once remarked: “Tyner plays some things on the piano, but I don’t know what they are.” 

On McCoy's more conventional early albums, there are plenty of moments when you can hear him diverging from the harmonic patterns suggested by the "standard" he happens to be playing, drifting into his personal modal style out of habit or preference. These can be jarring moments ... but interesting.

And he often resorts to an extended descending flurry of notes that we've heard many times before—his signature riff. (Then again, so does Monk.)

Iverson remarks that unlike Bud Powell or Bill Evans, two masters who use the conventional tonal system, "Tyner’s pitches seem to transcend conventional Western harmony. It is a private language of sound; it is bells and drums in a pre-colonial village; it is banging stones together at the first communal fire."

I heard McCoy a few times later in his career, at Orchestra Hall and again at the State Theater as part of a "super-trio" that included bassist Ron Carter and tenor Sonny Rollins. Both were worth attending, for sure, but neither had the intimacy or the intensity of a club performance.

I lost touch with McCoy's work in the 1970s. My early favorites among his LPs were Time for Tyner and The Real McCoy. I wouldn't mind hearing Sahara again, to see what he was doing with Sonny Fortune, a likely sympathetic collaborated on soprano sax. The only one that I purchased again as a CD was Trident, which captures something of the roiling force of his style. His later album Infinity, with Michael Brecker, which re-inaugurated the Impulse label, is high-energy and very solid.  

But there are 74 recordings listed in his discography. So, what do I know about McCoy Tyner? 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Mallards at Sundown

Yet another in a long succession of clear, beautiful days is drawing to a close. Above freezing most of the day. Staring out the window as twilight approaches, I open the book I have here with me in the den, The Limitsof Analysis by Stanley Rosen.  Page twelve.
"One cannot make sense of Platonism or Kantianism without giving an elaborate account of the functions of the intellect. This account will of course differ sharply in the two cases. [Of course] In the first case, we require a description of the intuition of the formal structure, whereas in the second, we need what Kant called as account of the "transcendental ego," that is, of the principles of subjective activity or construction which are invariant from one individual intellect to the next."
Rosen adds:
"In both cases, then, we must present an account of the subject as well as the object (or the thinker as well as the thought content.)"
But this isn't true. Not at all. When we have an intuition of beauty, for example, there is no need to describe the "formal structure" of that intuition, or what it feels like to the individual who experiences it. Anyone who has the slightest sensitivity to beauty will know what it involves, generally speaking. The challenge lies in describing the specific experience that has elicited such a feeling, and explaining what the attributes and effects are that warrant our enthusiasm and affection for it. The analysis doesn't focus on the psychology of the subject, but the character of the experience itself.

For example, when the sun sets, as it's doing now, mallards often fly back and forth across the sky in several seemingly random direction, just above the treetops, grouped in sevens and twelves and nines, and they're traveling fast. Who knows where they're going, why they're flying in opposite directions, or what affinities underlie their choice of traveling companions. Maybe they're headed for the big pond by the Honeywell plant on Winnetka Avenue. Maybe they're headed for the open water on that section of Bassett Creek that winds through the golf course, or the very small pond, surrounded by willow shrubs, just across the road from the maintenance shed on Wirth Parkway.

It doesn't matter. What's beautiful is the evening sky, interrupted from time to time by the startling appearance of these ducks, which appear much whiter than usual as they rocket past, catching the last rays of the setting sun.

I just now saw eleven of them moving north, flapping wildly. Did the mallard in the lead suddenly lift off, gripped by the desire to visit the Coon Rapids Dam, with his mate, off-spring, and various hangers-on scurrying behind?  Or was there some kind of discussion beforehand?

In any case, the zeal of these birds is remarkable, and their inexplicable movements adds both drama and mystery to the sunset hour. I'm tempted to call their presence sublime. In comparison, the flocks of crows that drift dilatorily across the neighborhood before dawn, cawing at random and almost always heading west, come across as genial slackers.  

Thursday, February 20, 2020

A Season of Music

It's far too soon to start imagining that winter is almost over, but as light returns to the morning sky, it's tempting to review a few of the musical events that helped us through the dark evenings, and also to celebrate the variety of organizations and venues that continue to bring great shows to town.

Fred Hersch 
Jazz pianist Hersch can drive and swing with the best modern trios, and has long since earned his reputation as one of the post-modern greats at the keyboard, but he's even better known as an extraordinarily thoughtful soloist whose spontaneous contrapuntal lines would often be worthy of being published as "classical" compositions. He arrived at the Dakota downtown with guitarist Julian Lage, and that worried me a little. Would the younger artist be capable of contributing to the flow consistently, fashioning an evening to compare with the one pianist Brad Mehldau and reedman Joshua Redman gave us a few years ago in the same club? The answer is an astonished yes. It was a remarkable night, with Lage's tastefully electrified licks offering a perfect foil to Hersch's rich but sometimes delicate elaborations.

The duo gave us one long set, then signed a few CDs and disappeared into the night. That's a much better option, for my money, than two short sets with a tedious intermission in between.

Duruflé Requiem
The Oratorio Society of Minnesota chorus presented a program of French sacred music in the magnificent Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis on a cold November evening. Short works by Fauré, Franck, Widor, Dupré, and Honegger made up the first half; the second was devoted to Duruflé's beloved Requiem, which I'd never heard before. Sweet and slippery French harmonies throughout, several soloists who knew how to fill the lofty interior of the basilica, and a chamber orchestra and pipe organ also helped to maintain an atmosphere of beauty, reverence, and occasionally, of awe.

JazzMN Orchestra
Billed as the Midwest's premier big band, the JazzMN Orchestra filled cavernous Chanhassan Dinner Theater with its joyous blare—which is half the fun—in a December "Christmas" concert that mostly steered clear of cloying holiday classics or spruced them up in spiffy jazz arrangements . The ensemble playing was crisp and the soloists were uniformly top-flight, with the exception of the guitarist, who perhaps had gotten a new fuzz-tone device as an early Christmas present. Vocalist Yolande Bruce, of Moore by Four, appeared on stage for a few numbers, but the band was doing just fine without her.   

Le Vent du Nord
For my money, the best slice of the Celtic music pie is the one performed by musicians from Brittany and Quebec. Irish music, even when played at breakneck speed, can fall into a yutty-tutty regularity that begins to numb the mind. French tunes in a similar vein are almost invariably more complex and interesting rhythmically, and the harmonic coloring also tends to have more variety and appeal. Whatever the case may be, Le vent du Nord took the stage at the Cedar Cultural Center intent on delivering a rousing and varied show, and under the impetus of an electric bass, a mean hurdy-gurdy, two stellar fiddlers, an accordion, and rich vocals throughout, they produced a display of music that I'm tempted to rank in my all-time top ten.

Giulio Cesare in Egitto
The Minnesota Bach Ensemble presented a concert version of excerpts from this Handel opera at Antonello Hall on a Sunday afternoon recently. I've always liked the hall, which is rich in wood paneling and so small that no seat is more than a hundred feet from the stage, behind which there are gigantic windows looking north past a few brick buildings toward the Mississippi River. The windows had been covered with white panels, alas, but the orchestra was sharp, and the three vocalists were distinctively different yet uniformly appealing. Linh Kauffman, a soprano that we've seen in several other recent productions, sang the part of Cleopatra, while the roles of Julius Caesar and Sesto were taken by two mezzos, Christina Christensen and  Spaniard Nerea Berraondo. Jacob Miller's narration strung the arias together and gave me a vague sense of what was going on, but it hardly mattered: it was mostly about the music.

We took Washington Avenue home, marveling at the big city lights beaming from buildings that used to house hardware stores and bicycle-repair shops, heated up some left-over chicken with lemon slices and oil-cured olives, turned off the lights, and dropped a few CDs into the CD-changer by Natalie Dessay, Theresa Berganza, and Lisa Saffer singing (what else?) some of Handel's Italian arias.    

Russian Renaissance
The Schubert Club has done a good job of booking unusual groups to fill out its Mix program, and Russian Renaissance is no exception. The group's instrumentation is drawn from traditional Russian folk instruments, including the triangular balalaika that we've all seen in films, the oval domra, a big button accordion, and the huge bass balalaika, which measures almost four feet on a side. The playing is energetic and precise, so much so that two years ago this quartet won the $100,000 grand prize at the M-Prize Competition, the biggest jackpot in the world of chamber music.

The concert was held in a cavernous "hall" lined with rugged exposed brick in the former Allied Van Lines building, which is located in one of the few parts of the warehouse district that still has warehouses in it.  

All of that being granted, I must admit that I left the concert with mixed feelings. The performances were tight, yes, and the play-list was varied. But too much of the program was given over to the furious diddling that produces the balalaika's trademark tremolo effect. The slower, more atmospheric pieces tended to be more satisfying. The group was adept at producing the abrupt stops and starts required to bring drama to the tangos, but it didn't dwell long enough in those languorous spaces that provide that genre's sensuous ground. I was intrigued to see compositions by famed French accordionist Richard Galliano, Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt, and Argentine bandoneon-player Astor Piazzola on the program, but in each case, the balalaika version didn't quite measure up to the originals running through my head.

It was an unusual and entertaining evening, just the same.