Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hip and Well Read

It is no secret that performances attended via advance tickets and weeks of anticipation are often less exciting than those attended on the spur of the moment. As such, the AC/DC show at the Meadowlands center in New Jersey (we'll omit the name of whatever corporation currently owns the arena) on July 31, tickets purchased that day at 5 pm, was more exciting than the one 10 months earlier at Madison Square Garden.

Similarly (though of course there are always other factors) not having been aware that Japan's Yura Yura Teikoku were playing at the Music Hall of Williamsburg until that day (9/18/09) certainly contributed to what an unexpectedly awesome show it proved to be. I have heard a handful of their records but those never had quite the impact as some of their more stylistically highly focused contemporaries (High Rise), so I went with medium expectations and left feeling it was one of the best performances I'd seen in my life (up there with The Ex at CBGB in 1992 and other such obscurities). Set and setting being what they are, I may not succeed in conveying much of the excitement, but I'd urge anyone to see them anytime.

There is a certain loosely defined Japanese power trio aesthetic of the past few decades, many of whose practitioners I have managed to see (the aforementioned High Rise plus Fushitsusha, Minimokoto, Green Milk From the Planet Orange, Overhang Party et al.). Yura Yura Teikoku are on that spectrum, but some of their most thrilling moments were not the psychedelic noise-guitar freakouts but the motorik extended two-chord trance-inducing segments, reminiscent of course of Germany's Neu and some of their latter-day inheritors (e.g. Washington D.C.'s Unrest). At times the guitarist abandoned his instrument and accompanied his keening tenor vocals solely with a pair of maracas, while the rhythm section maintained a tightly wound skeleton. A bass-player of unwavering patience is required to make this kind of thing work, which it did.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Catafalque and Quincunx

For me and my friends, and presumably others of that approximate generation, an essential part of the mid-70s/mid-teenage quasi-counterculture canon was the illustrated writing of Edward Gorey. Though we may have sensed his linguistically extravagant, at times absurdist, mock-horror was perhaps not precisely a lost continent from the map of early 19th century Gothic literature, I’m not sure we quite realized he was living and writing in New York City at the same time Television and the Patti Smith Group were playing at C.B.G.B. – at the very least he seemed to be some obscure and chronologically displaced pre-War New Englander like H.P. Lovecraft.

In any event, Gorey’s love of arcane words continued to intrigue me for many years as I gradually found out what they all meant, but I somehow missed the derivation of "Amphigorey", with which he titled a pair of collections of his work. Lazily conflating the prefix "amphi-" (meaning "both" or "double") with "anthology" and thinking it a portmanteau word with no other reference, I was surprised recently to find the French word “amphigouri” in the pages of Le Rouge et Le Noir and accepted my Larousse de Poche’s gloss of it as “gibberish”. A week or so later, I immediately stumbled upon it again, in an English translation of Raymond Queneau’s Witch Grass. Thinking the translator might have allowed herself a bit of liberty, I turned to the O.E.D., to find that “amphigouri” and “amphigory” are both accepted in English usage. The derivation is uncertain but perhaps related to “category” and “allegory”.

As for Queneau, his French title is Chiendent (dogtooth). Though "Witch Grass" may be the North American plant name for the exact species which that French name refers to (Dichanthelium boreale), it seems like the pun or multiple meanings of the title could have been echoed in translation with a little less botanical fidelity. How about "Hound's tongue", of the genus Cynoglossum, part of a family which includes wild comfrey, a Native American medicinal plant of uncertain relationship to the old World comfrey (Symphytum officinale), or "horehound" (brothels are a persistent theme in the book), a folk term for a flowering plant of the Lamiaceae family, which includes mint?

Monday, June 1, 2009


On a recent fine May midday, I set out to walk a pleasant two miles to Mazzotti Music to pick up a fixed guitar amp and found the usual plethora of books that seem to line my path everywhere. To begin with, a street giveaway carton yielded up four volumes of legendary early 70s Detroit ghetto naturalist Donald Goines. Whether I need to read all four remains to be seen - Daddy Cool went down fast like the kind of snack food that leaves you feeling a bit queasy.

A block party in Park Slope provided an exemplar of a somewhat different African-American literary aesthetic, Wanda Coleman, whose Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986 was published by Black Sparrow Press, so you know (if you are familiar with their work) what a distinctive look the book has. Coleman's curriculum vita (I see from the credits) includes a stint with Anna Halprin's Dancers' Workshop, so you might further connect the dots with having seen Daria Martin's Minotaur, a film of a Halprin-choreographed duet, when it was showing at The New Museum earlier this spring.

Strolling around street fairs in Brooklyn, I have found, gives you a reasonable chance of seeing The Gowanus Wildcats; Saturday was my second sighting. They are a drill team (not step dancers, as they always remind you), 10 early teenage girls from a public housing project, whose level of precision is perhaps more folk art than West Point, but all the more engaging for it (here's a segment).

Finally, guitar amplifier retrieved and bánh mì sandwich consumed, I headed off to the Cake Shop for an evening of what Time Out sort of touted as hipster metal. I got there in time for Darsombra, a one-man band from Baltimore. With 8-string bass, guitar, a vocal mike and about 30 effects pedals, Brian Daniloski (barefoot on his own Persian rug) creates huge throbbing waves of winedark sound that could pretty much pass for electronic music without the little bit of doom-metal subculture trappings. The set was perfectly paced and timed – quite exciting.

Philadelphia's Stinking Lizaveta followed – I have seen them a handful of times and felt respectful but never quite enthralled. On this occasion, whatever those inhibitions were got thrown to the wind and I felt, at least for the duration of their set, like they were the best band I'd ever seen, a form of selective amnesia that often affects for me some subset of a particularly good show, but doesn't always sustain itself to coming home and writing about it. Seismic exuberance, raw power...I fear I will cheapen my transcendent experience with rock critic hyphenations (instrumental prog-metal-skronk etc) but comparisons abound with all sorts of things from Return To Forever's epoch-defining Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy to Quebec's Voivod and everyone there knew they had seen something remarkable.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Devil In De-Tails

I stopped by Williamsburg's excellent bookstore Spoonbill & Sugartown a couple of evenings ago, picking up Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe and E.H. Gombrich's A Little History Of The World. Gombrich is, of course, principally known for The Story Of Art from 1950 but his Little History was never translated and published in English until its posthumous appearance in 2005.

It was intended as a book for children, originally published in German in 1936 as part of a series of "Wissenschaft für Kinder" and its tone is a bit coy but I suspect there will be insights and helpful summaries to be had for adults as well. It reminds me of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's The Number Devil, a fanciful presentation of some basic mathematics for children. The store, already a regular stop on my city rounds, went up a notch in my estimation when one of the staff mentioned he had attended and enjoyed an Escape By Ostrich show a couple of months ago.

This particular evening I was en route to see Tyvek and Cause Co-Motion, both of whom were as good as I have ever seen them. In complimenting drummer Josh Feldman on Cause Co's brisk and propulsive set, I employed some sort of locomotive image but their somewhat minimalist, lo-fi aesthetic begs a slightly different metaphor - let's say they are the musical equivalent of the coolest Go-Kart you've ever seen.

At this point in history, almost all rock bands are plainly operating in reference to and/or opposition to some existing sub-genre, set of aesthetic constraints, and so on - some renew them more convincingly than others. The opening band on this occasion, Imaginary Icons, come out of a late 70s UK post-punk tradition that they don't transcend quite as effectively as Tyvek and Cause Co-Motion do their respective jumping-off points, but they put on a fine performance with a bunch of good songs - I'd see them again.

Detroit's Tyvek occupy a more garage-y part of the lo-fi spectrum. Every time I see them, the line-up is slightly different - this time with only one bass-player and drummer (both roles have been duplicated on other occasions) but an electric organ added, the sound was thick and focused. No one in the room (and I may well have been the oldest person there, excepting The Homosexuals' Bruno Wizard) could possibly have seen the Velvet Underground in their prime, but I can't imagine this was any less compelling and certainly can't be compared to any experience that could be had sitting at home listening to records, however revered.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What Are You Listening To Lately?

Regrettably, few questions make me draw a complete blank more effectively than "what have you been listening to?" despite, or because of, the fact that I am listening to music more or less constantly and probably hear one or more new-to-me records a day. Perhaps trying to write some of it down will yield some useful results.

I know I listened to The War On Drugs' Wagonwheel Blues today – hardly more than an hour ago, and I enjoyed it just as thoroughly, more even, than every other time I have heard it. Adam Granduciel's unabashedly Dylan-esque lyrics and delivery duke it out with a wall of psychedelic-tinged acoustic and electric guitar, wheezing Al Kooper-ish organ and so on – a sonic rush that's kind of new and old at the same time. Much more exhilarating than the new Dylan album, though that has its keepable moments as well.
One of my favorite spots on Wagonwheel Blues is 3/4ths of the way through the 10-minute delirium of "Show Me The Coast" where the wide-screen sounding stereo mix suddenly collapses to mono and is slowly restored to stereo over the next half minute – subtle and hardly a footnote to the whole record but that spot (and the whole song) delights me every time.

Today and yesterday and the day before, I listened to copious chunks of this 17-CD Music of Islam collection. Too much to try to summarize it all but one of the high points I've gotten to so far is "Volume 5: 'Aissaoua Sufi Ceremony", recorded in Marrakesh, particularly the 40-minute long "Dikra Rebbania" which I'm guessing (based on musical intensity) is some kind of climactic point in the ceremony. Searching on the title phrase itself doesn't yield much other than links to the recording.

Without making any attempt to thoroughly bolster the claim, and very briefly acknowledging my own connection with the label, I don't think Chicago's Drag City Records puts out anything that is not good. Particularly high in my rotation of recent months have been the past two records by Bill Callahan (who you once knew as Smog), Woke On A Whaleheart and Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. The latter gives perhaps a bit too much leeway to his more somnolent side, but the last 4 (of 9) songs have kept me thoroughly happy on their own. The closer "Faith/Void" (multivalent reference for you rock historians) is 9 minutes of subtly stunning repetitive bliss. Despite its ostensibly anti-religious message (the principal lyric is "It's time to put God away"), it is quite reminiscent of one of those rambling mid-70s Van Morrison mystic epics whose spirituality it echoes and simultaneously rejects.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Fisherman and The Jinni

It seems like the Cultural History section of a bookstore could contain almost anything – in practice, books about food and tattooing seem to predominate. I went through three of Mark Kurlansky's books (on the former subject) in pretty quick succession some months ago, beginning with Cod which I'd recommend to anyone as succinct and fascinating. The only problem with these semi-pop histories is they give one a lot of slightly glib and very repeatable "facts" that roll right off the tongue in subsequent conversation (the Basques arrived in the New World before Columbus but kept the source of their huge catches of fish a secret, and so on) without really rigorous footnoting. Additionally, they tend to see much of human history through their single lens. Nonetheless, persuasive and well worth reading.

In Salt even more so than in Cod, he purports to explain vast swathes of human endeavor in terms of the pursuit of a single commodity, one which is at least a fundamental enough item that the argument seems convincing. One thing I enjoy about history of this sort is when it takes for granted that you already know certain things or can pick them up by inference without a great deal of tangential explanation. For example, the chapters on China left me feeling I had a better grip on the succession of dynasties than any number of less successful attempts to read an entire book on Chinese history.

Even aside from what an enjoyable writer Kurlansky is, and how you feel about food writing in general (and oysters in particular), The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell is as engaging a history of New York City as any I have read. Also both this book in its picture of New York and Salt with regard to England make it quite clear how the story of pollution and destruction of the environment in the course of food production is by no means a problem that just appeared in the last half century.

Finally, last week I picked up Heather Rogers' Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage which completes the story of the cycle of production and consumption. It also combines a perfectly paced history of its subject with an inescapably alarmed conclusion about what we have brought ourselves to. Along the way (and this book is quite carefully footnoted), she eludicates some remarkable aspects of her subject. I particularly liked the story of "the invention of litter", part of a concerted campaign by an industry front group called KAB (Keep America Beautiful) to shift the blame for pollution onto individuals and away from the corporations who were (and are), by an enormous margin, the principal cause of the problem. KAB's productions include an early 60s "educational" film narrated by Ronald Reagan and those mawkish 70s television ads in which an American Indian sheds a single tear over a despoiled landscape.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Memories and Memoirs

Not to give them a swelled head or anything, but The New York Review of Books' NYRB Classics imprint is pretty consistently stunning – I feel greedy just surveying the list, of which I have a dozen or so.

One of their more modest publications is John Williams' Stoner, an almost unbearably sad story of a mid-Western academic, a professor of literature at a fictionalized version of the University of Missouri at Columbia who lives through the first 2/3rds of the 20th century. Raised by dirt-poor farmers who never appear to understand his pursuit of literature, he only manages intermittently to communicate his transforming love for it to anyone else, his career itself largely running aground on the shoals of academic politics. He marries badly and the marriage in turn generates a sole unhappy child. His deathbed scene where he fails to reconnect with his now alcoholic grown daughter is particularly devastating and I turned from this to Point To Point Navigation, the second volume of Gore Vidal's memoirs, hoping for a bit of wit and uplift, only to find the first 80 pages of that almost exclusively describing (and who can blame him?) the relatively recent death of his partner of 50 years, Howard Austen. Yet Vidal certainly doesn't regret a thing and John Williams asks us to think twice or three times about what constitutes a successful or unsuccessful life. Happiness, if you needed reminding, seems to come at best in flashes.

If you are going to read Vidal's memoirs (and you should certainly consider it), start with Palimpsest, the earlier volume, which follows a more conventional autobiographical chronology and structure through the first 39 years of his life. Picking up thereafter, Point To Point Navigation is rather loose and rambling and repeats a lot from the earlier book. The death of Howard Austen is in many ways its focus, but I didn't come away feeling that I knew him at all ("knowing" only in the sense that one can know anyone solely through reading someone else's description, of course). In addition to the recursive narration, hardly any chapter is more than three pages long, a device that mostly suits the fragmentary nature of the memoirs, yet seems even odder towards the end where a more sustained sequence (which is actually mostly long quotes from other people's biographical writings about Gore) is broken up arbitrarily by the chapter divisions. I'm plainly not selling this book too hard; read the collected essays United States (1952-1992), then Palimpsest then borrow this from someone and get through it quickly, wishing Vidal himself enough years for a third volume.

In Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (first mentioned yesterday), he discusses the error of people who believe memoirs to be absolutely factual retellings of some ostensibly raw experience, unmediated by literary shape. There's no reason to believe Nabokov, the master of the unreliable narrator, would make such a mistake and, as such, his Speak, Memory scarcely needs to be approached differently than any of his fiction. It's a quick read and anyone looking to extend the experience might consider the two-part autobiography of Anthony Burgess Little Wilson and Big God and You've Had Your Time, Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess.

I suppose anyone who lives long enough to write two volumes of memoirs is likely to experience enough of the slings and arrows of time passing to make it hard to avoid a few sad stories. British playwright Alan Bennett's two largely autobiographical volumes, Writing Home and Untold Stories, came out when he was 60 and 71 respectively. In the interval he had time to be diagnosed with and recover from cancer, the recounting of which slightly sobers the tone of the second volume, though he manages to be characteristically funny nonetheless. Writing Home is a frequently hilarious and at times brilliant collection of essays, literary criticism, diary excerpts and other short writing. One of its most moving and fascinating segments is a series of entries recounting the story of a more or less insane old woman who had nowhere to live but a small van type of automobile (one that didn't actually run) whom Bennett, through a combination of charity and inertia that I suspect we can all recognize, allowed to have her vehicle towed into his tiny London front garden, and live there for the last 15 years of her life.

My delight in Bennett's writing also served to make me embarrassed that I'd scarcely heard of him, though I recognize film titles like The Madness of King George and The Secret Policeman's Ball. Most recently, his play The History Boys ran on Broadway for half of 2006 to considerable acclaim, forcing me (though I did not see it) to reconsider my rule that no play called "Anything Boys" is worth seeing - perhaps I can still hold the line at the spelling "Boyz". Other "firmly in the zeitgeist" sightings include his early 60s satirical revue "Beyond the Fringe" being mentioned in Stephen Davis's history of The Rolling Stones, Old Gods Almost Dead, as a cultural event of parallel significance to Muddy Waters' 1958 tour of the UK with the Chris Barber jazz band.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Silk Road

Robert Byron's The Road To Oxiana is a funny and casually erudite travel diary, covering 10 months of travel in Persia and Afghanistan. The 1930s, from this distance at least, feels like the last time you could go somewhere in Asia and find its culture not yet Westernized, plus there was still an aristocratic class with the money and free time to meander around the globe, with all the positive and negative results of amateur exploration. The actual writing of the book is odd and varied and quite modernist. Paul Fussell, in his introduction, says the book is to travel writing what Ulysses is to the novel and The Wasteland is to poetry - a pretty heady claim! Byron was specifically in pursuit of certain kinds of Islamic architecture and art that were relatively underrated at the time by the European academic world (have a look at all the photos on this page to get an idea of what he was after).

Having, in a sense, read The Road To Oxiana on Paul Fussell's say-so, I was also reminded of his book The Great War and Modern Memory because the PG Six Band has occasionally covered Fleetwood Mac's "Dust" whose lyrics (despite the lack of credits on the LP sleeve) were adapted from Rupert Brooke, a poet who is usually mentioned in the same breath as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen as one of the quintessential literary figures of World War I. Fussell's book is about the literary culture that grew up around the war and posits its profound impact on 20th century literary consciousness, particularly the almost inevitable predominance of irony as the only way to bridge the gap between the high-minded and neatly structured ideals of war that the British brought with them out of the comparatively peaceful 19th century and the indiscriminate, brutal and often pointless slaughter that was the reality. Also for those (like me) who feel woefully ignorant of the bare facts of WWI (Passchendaele, Somme, Ypres - at best one knows that one doesn't know the significance of these), you can pick up a lot of basic history along with your analysis of sonnets.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The British Prime Ministers Series of Winter 2009

I have been posting book reviews on the GoodReads social-networking site for about two years. I suspect they are read by no more than half a dozen people, nor could this blog claim a much higher readership, yet I have occasionally been faintly troubled - suppose it is not the same half a dozen people?. Not wanting anyone to miss these mots, I debated reposting some of that writing here, aware also that redundance and excessive cross-posting is bad internet manners. Finally GoodReads itself has somewhat solved the problem by a recent stylesheet change in which the reviews started appearing in a transparent popup window such that the underlying text now renders them illegible (and I always suspected the popup site design was a deterrent to reading them to begin with). So, exonerated of all charges of laziness, in fact performing a veritable public service by restoring my carefully crafted word-science to the notice of a select public, I commence.

I picked up Lytton Strachey's appealingly slender biography of Queen Victoria last fall at my favorite Upper West Side dollar book stall. I wasn't sure what to expect but the opening pages seemed like a hilariously gossipy approach to royal biography, yet in fine literary style, and I found myself zooming through. Summing up after finishing, "gossipy" is not quite the term, lest one encompass it in the same breath with Andrew Morton and the like, but I gather that Strachey's somewhat irreverent style set a new standard for biography that is still admired and emulated. You already know that he was one of the Bloomsbury Group with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster et al. and his Eminent Victorians in some ways defined the modern notion of the "Victorian" age. This biography is consistently engaging and I'll recommend it to anyone who wants to know a bit more about 19th century British history (or who hasn't yet realized that they do).

It reminded me of a stack of rather weightier "tomes" on the subject that I pulled out of a dumpster at a posh UWS palace across the street from that bookstore where the old-time artistic and intellectual tenantry has been steadily yielding to financiers who don't read! - you can't even find The Economist in their recycle bins, it's all Country Living. Strachey's dozen page portraits of the predominant political figures of the time (Robert Peel, Gladstone, Disraeli) inspired further investigations, starting with a biography of Gladstone. I also start pursuing these lines of inquiry to satisfy my curiosities about sometimes rather fleeting pop culture references (conveniently there's an earlier entry here on this topic): for example, the English Prime Ministers of the 19th century, particularly Gladstone and Disraeli, are hugely significant (in highly fictionalized representations) in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy (the early 21st fantasy masterpiece you should move on to after completing Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy), so I have for some time wished I knew more about them.

Sir Philip Magnus' Gladstone: A Biography was my starting point and it proved to be an excellent use of a few days - constantly referring to wikipedia for clarifications like "Who was Bismarck?", "who fought the Crimean War and why?" and so on, went on a long way to dispelling my general sense of ignorance with regard to 19th century European history. It was, however, long, and the similarly chunky Asquith by Roy Jenkins is languishing on the coffee table with a mere 150 page bite taken out of it. The years of his premiership aside (which I never actually got to), Asquith is part of an interesting and historically noteworthy lineage – his descendants (by birth or marriage) include actress Helena Bonham-Carter and novelist Emma Tennant.

Benjamin Disraeli (who was both novelist and Prime Minister) is very much the bête noire of Gladstone's biography, but I thought reading one of his novels (Sybil, or The Two Nations) might provide more pleasure and interesting insight than adding yet another unfinished biography to my list. One of Disraeli's oft-commented upon "qualifications" for office was his ability to flatter Queen Victoria; the rapturous description in here of the Virgin Queen's ascent to the throne amidst tweeting birds seems almost a caricature of such flattery. As literature, Disraeli's novels have been challenged by the test of time - huge undigested chunks of his theories of history alternate with the plot, improbable characters come up conveniently to explain things in long monologues, but this was also well-written and funny enough of the time. The Two Nations of the title are the rich and the poor - Sybil herself is one of those impossibly virtuous and graceful Victorian novel heroines. As the daughter of an artisan, her nascent romance with the second son of an aristocratic family would seem to be impossible because of the class divide, but rather than their ultimate union being achieved by the exact democratizing social upheaval which is the ostensible theme of the book, it turns that her family actually are of the aristocracy, having been swindled out of their hereditary lands, a deceit that ultimately comes to light. So the happy ending, such as it is, more reaffirms the existing social order than anything else. This contradiction is, I believe, characteristic of Disraeli's slightly muddled set of beliefs and opportunistic approach to making his way in politics at the time he wrote it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Soup To Nuts

I have for some years been reading both Margaret Drabble and the late Iris Murdoch quite dedicatedly (about a dozen books each) and have juxtaposed them in my mind as the Beatles and Rolling Stones (respectively) of British letters of the past half century. This comparison doesn't hold up on a number of levels (e.g. the 20 year discrepancy in their ages, partly mitigated by Drabble's first novel having appeared only 9 years after Murdoch's), but I'm sticking to it. (Sometime, I'll get around to recent Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, Murdoch's coeval from the post-WWI baby boom, and fit her into the equation too.)

In any event, Drabble (the principal subject of this blog's debut post) is the sunnier of the two, even when she is taking on weighty and difficult themes. Murdoch's obsession (I think that is not overstating) with the destructive but irresistible lure of infidelity and its attendant demons, jealousy, envy, rage and despair (did I leave anything out?) dominates her work. I have just finished 1978's The Sea, The Sea which was no exception. It also falls into the subcategory of "rather creepy middle-aged male narrators" that she had already developed in The Black Prince and A Word Child. These protagonists, with a not-so-subtle hint of Humbert, tend to be distinctly unreliable. The Black Prince 's Bradley Pearson is the most Nabokovian – in The Sea… the implication seems to be more that no one reports honestly in matters of sex and love.

The Sea…'s Charles Arrowby has certain other compulsive habits in his narration (he is ostensibly writing memoirs), one of which is the excessively punctilious placement of single quotes (inverted commas, to our UK friends) around any word or phrase that is remotely vernacular or even just metaphoric. Another is recounting in some detail each of his meals, prepared in a style jestingly called "gastronomic mysticism" by one of the other characters but actually, by current standards, quite admirable in their use of simple, fresh, predominantly plant-based ingredients.

As a tribute to Iris Murdoch and the unlovely Arrowby, I report my last few dinners: Saturday, I sautéed shallots and garlic, added steamed rainbow Swiss chard and some Great Northern beans to the pan, fried up two links (cut in half-inch segments) of chicken sausage, and mixed it all up with a pot of brown rice. Sunday's goal was to wash only one pot as much as anything else, so I boiled Fontina and prosciutto ravioli, threw in a handful of green peas and topped it with shredded Asiago. This evening, despairing of the fact that all the brands of sausage at the nearby market that tout their ethical, ecological and health attributes are made from chicken, I bought pork sausage with sage (no doubt engineered in unthinkable squalor), cooked it thoroughly, browned some onion and beet greens, and had it all over rigatoni. The beets themselves (from which the greens were taken) roasted in the oven for 45 minutes, wrapped in foil sachets with olive oil, salt and pepper - the first of three went with the dinner, the other two will enliven tomorrow's lunch.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

First Editions

There is a plainly a bit of class hierarchy among thrift stops - the charity with which a given store is aligned, the inevitable connection between its neighborhood and who donates and shops there and so on. So it is not so noteworthy that I was in a Brooklyn Heights Housing Works rather than the 135 St Harlem Goodwill when I came upon a rather lavish 12-LP collection of 20th century orchestral music, commissioned, recorded and released by the Louisville Orchestra in their 1954-55 season. [What's always irked me is you don't find rare free jazz or even much in the way of good gospel or salsa in the Harlem thrift stores - it's the same old battered Judy Collins records as everywhere else - some sort of conspiracy?]

The Louisville Symphony, though quite long-established, may still not have quite pulled itself into the top 10 U.S. orchestras as measured by however they measure these things, but its decision, taken around 1950, to champion the music of living American composers and start a record label to broadcast it has remained a claim to fame.

The set I bought is packaged in the manner that the phrase "record album" was coined to describe - two boxes with half a dozen paper sleeves bound together on the left, with a vinyl record in each, so you page through to make your selection. The program notes are on separate 12-inch squares of paper, inserted loose into the front of each box.

The actual music - well no one I know including me listens through 24 LP sides of mid-20th century orchestral music in any kind of hurry. The immense diversity of humanity and its artistic production does get a bit overwhelming at times like this. I read through wikipedia articles on relatively obscure composers like Paul Creston and Halsey Stevens, seeking connections with things I know more about and, to be honest, struggling a bit to find anything very compelling in their music. There's lots of sturm und drang: trumpet blare, tympani thunder, contrasting pastoral flute segments, neither cacophonously dissonant but nor, even when they are categorized as neo-romantic, is there much memorable melody to latch on to. Long rich lives - Pulitzer prizes, distinguished careers teaching at USC, writing definitive biographies of Bartok, spouses and children - well, I already said it's a big world.

It is interesting to me that Creston taught composition to the somewhat better known John Corigliano who in turn taught Nico Muhly, who has diversified his own composing with some marvelous string arrangements for the likes of Will Oldham and Björk. Muhly's arrangements on "Cursed Sleep" from Will Oldham's The Letting Go have single-handedly earned my admiration. Between his pop music connections and savviness with regard to myspace and blog use, getting himself interviewed by Pitchfork etc, Muhly stands some chance of bringing this sort of music back to a wider audience. (Note to self: see Carnegie Hall premiere in March?)

So far, the bigger names in this collection, and the ones whose pieces I feel more likely to return to, are Henry Cowell and Alan Hovhaness, who can both be loosely considered in the tradition of "maverick" American 20th century composers (throw in Harry Partch and call Charles Ives their forefather while we're at it), characterized in varying measures by a kind of deliberate experimentation far beyond the modernism of the Second Viennese School, inventing their own instruments and a tendency to bring some mysticism to bear on their aesthetic, yet never rejecting compositional values so firmly as John Cage or the Fluxus composers. Cowell invented the world's first electronic drum machine, pioneered the use of tone clusters on the piano (at times the performer might need to use a whole hand or forearm to strike a large set of notes), was a handsome young man and confused me for a couple of teenage years by having no connection to my favorite avant-garde rock band Henry Cow. And, his first composition teacher was Pete Seeger's father!

Monday, January 19, 2009


My bandmates in Escape By Ostrich and I typically go out to eat after rehearsing and not infrequently end up at Duke's on East 19th Street in Manhattan. The restaurant is one of a pair, and it is one of the unfairnesses of life that a moderately successful restaurateur will open a second instance of his or her successful venture, only to have it immediately labeled a "chain" and lose credibility with the likes of me. Duke's retains some of its claim to down-home Southern cooking authenticity by contrast with the velvet-rope horrorshows that are its neighbors around the corner on Park Avenue South. We could perhaps have a similar dining experience further downtown at Acme Bar and Grill or the Great Jones Café, but this is a custom that predates my involvement in the band, it saves Willie Klein from having to take a cab home with his violin, and so we stick to it.

One evening at Duke's, Chris Nelson (bon vivant and multi-instrumentalist, who I once tried to label "the nearest thing to a genius you can run into on East 12th street at 9 am when you are both late for work" in a Time Out NY piece about The Scene Is Now, only to have it cut as superfluous [I will double-parenthetically embed the fact that I was not yet in any band with him at that point]) decided to order some out-of-the-ordinary, yet classic cocktail. We settled (the matter being a group decision) on the Singapore Sling, known to me at least, and I presumed everyone else, as a reference in Joni Mitchell's song "BarandGrill" from 1972's wonderful For The Roses. In the song, she romanticizes working class American life, evocatively if not necessarily accurately; in retrospect, the couplet "none of the crazy you get/from too much choice" is intriguing - the American working class now seems most driven to distraction of anyone by excess choice.

In any event, the waitress had not heard of the Singapore Sling nor had the bartender any idea how to make one. Chris probably settled on the more familiar Manhattan, leaving me to wonder "is our children learning" and why aren't their 9th grade English teachers introducing them to Joni Mitchell (as mine did). I also went home to consult my copy of Charles Schumann's 1997 American Bar. This book is amusing, in part because it was written by a German of the sort (not to miss an opportunity for sweeping cultural generalization) who guards classic American culture more rigorously than we do. As such, he makes clear his book is "not…the usual thousand-and-one cocktail recipes" (he limits himself to 500 or so classics), is not afraid to decry as a "bungler" any barkeep who would allow his guests to combine cocktails willy-nilly, and so on. Glancing at the prefatory material, it is never quite clear why his title includes the word "American" unless it goes without saying that cocktail culture is quintessentially American. The Singapore Sling itself, though, is more the product of Anglo-Asian colonial culture, said to have been invented at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore - hence it was probably known to Joni Mitchell's waitresses as a remnant or cousin of 1950s Tiki Culture exoticism.

There is, you won't be surprised to hear, some debate about the exact components of the Singapore Sling but I like Schumann's asceticism and will give you his formulation.

¾ - 1 oz lemon juice
¼ oz sugar syrup
1 barspoon powdered sugar
1 ½ oz gin
¼ - ¾ oz cherry brandy

You shake up the first four ingredients, pour them in a Collins glass which is then filled with soda, leaving room for the brandy to be added last.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

No Higher Resolution Available

You may or may not live in a world where the phrase "rare Finnish prog folk" causes an immediate Pavlovian click on the "download" link, but if you do, you may already know about Scapa Flow's sole release Uuteen Aikaan. Its 1980 date is only one of the factors destining the group to obscurity, progressive rock having largely given way to new wave rock by then, and Googling subsequent activity by the group members (keyboardist Eero-Pekka Kolehmainen seems to have been busiest) is confounded by the relatively small inventory from which Finnish names are drawn.

In any event, I could certainly have stood on the bus next to any of them in my 1978 half-year in Helsinki. Singer Pia-Maria Noponen had some subsequent association with a band called Threshold, who also boast a connection with the somewhat more famous (as Finnish synthesizer players go) Esa Kotilainen. He emerged from the actually quite significant groups Tasavallen Presidentti and Wigwam (as we approach consensual reality, my copy of the U.S. release of the latter's Tombstone Valentine has a big blurb of praise from Lester Bangs on the cover), and launched a series of occasional solo records (that continues to this day) with 1977's Ajatuslapsi. I purchased that within a few months of its release in a quite serviceable record store located among a set of underground shops in Helsinki's central train station (Eliel Saarinen's apotheosis of 1919 modernist architecture), which in turn reminds me of the exemplary Latin record shop that once stood in New York’s Times Square Station (its replacement has lost a lot of the sabor of the original).

Not to let free association take us away from Scapa Flow altogether, though you should also take a moment to read about the geographical feature from which the group name is taken. The record is a fine mix of flute, keyboards, guitar, male and female vocals, plus rhythm section, quite polished in the manner of Mellow Candle (though they are a bit too revered in the 70s progressive-folk canon to admit too close a comparison) - without raising expectations too high, it is worth a few listens, though not transcending a genre that history has firmly consigned to its margins.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Farsings of Farses

After a vigorous evening of running around Brooklyn in 10° air (seeing Adam & Dave's Bloodline at Bar Matchless - one compelling song out of the four I heard; trotting over to the larger, yet somehow more intimate Glasslands for The Pictish Trail, another fine Fence collective performer, with Viking Moses; maintaining the farsing spirit with a 2am second dinner of top-notch falafel at North 7th Street’s Oasis), the following late morning called for something milder. At the top of the stack, Now Make We Merthe, is a 1968 collection of "medieval carols" on the semi-legendary Argo record label. The title of this entry makes its appearance in the liner notes, where it makes sense in context, and the collection is still in print on CD, so information about it is not hard to come by.

Glancing over the expected instrument credits (psaltery, lute and the like), my attention was caught by the "heckelphone." This, interestingly, reveals itself to be not an "early music" instrument at all, but an innovation by the German instrument making Heckel family in 1904, from when it has been used by composers as (relatively) diverse as Richard Strauss, Edgard Varèse and Paul Hindemith. There are no more than 100 heckelphone players in the world (corresponding with the number of instruments that actually exist), and my heart leapt as I found (via wikipedia) that the early 21st century cultural compass has room for a North American Heckelphone Society whose inaugural meeting was in 2001 at the determinedly ecumenical Riverside Church.

How the heckelphone was chosen for this recording is anyone’s guess but presumably more purist arrangements would have called for a couple of the more characteristically medieval double-reed shawm (which came in many sizes), and the heckelphone offered a match with the higher register oboe that neither the cor anglais nor bassoon could quite provide.

The wikipedia heckelphone entry mentions that of 150 ever made, only 100 are known to still exist. Though time is never kind to exquisitely crafted obscurities, I fell into a more specific speculation. Having spent the afternoon reading W.G. Sebald’s quietly devasting Austerlitz which very slowly reveals itself to be about the fate of a Czech Jewish family in the 1940s, I began to envision the heckelphones of Mitteleuropäische Jewish musicians not so much smashed in pogroms, as moldering past the point of salvage in the meticulously cataloged SS warehouses that held the possessions of the "evacuated."

The world being now so stuffed with ubiquitously available information and resources, I was hardly surprised but certainly impressed by this photo blog which follows the itinerary of Sebald’s books, mainly by the Borgesian trick of retaking the photographs with which the narratives themselves are punctuated - I tip my hat!