Friday, May 8, 2015

Max Richter's Mercy

Max Richter's a new kind of post-Modern composer. 

"Fusion" was a term coined a few decades ago to characterize the marriage of musical styles, rejecting the traditional divisions between classical, pop, jazz, folk, ethnic--in favor of hybrid compositions which were not clearly classifiable into one of those genres. 

Richter is a contemporary composer who essays a number of different styles, applied to various venues. His works range from straight concert pieces, to movie scores, stage, ballet, and even pop collaborations with small groups. I've listened to a number of his works on YouTube, and though I can't say I like them all, they display a facility which is impressive. Making a living as a composer has never been easy, so musicians like Richter are forced to live by their wits. 

All that aside, here's beautiful piece of his, considered "minimal" as a result of its modest lyrical range and brevity, entitled Mercy.  It could be something that Schumann might have composed, or Fauré, or even Delius, yet it's somehow too "clean" for them. I think of it simply as pure music. It could be the middle section of a sonata for violin and piano, or the lyric for the slow section of a symphony. I'm not sure why, but it suggests to me a kind of elegy, say, for the dead of the Holocaust. A piece as beautiful as this comes directly from the heart.

Violin: Hilary Hahn
Piano: Cory Smythe  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Paris Air Show of 1922

In a dream, I am in an old mansion basement, feverishly scrounging through boxes of old pamphlets, on a table, as other collectors and dealers are doing likewise at my side, when I happen upon an old booklet, bound in limp green leatherette, showing a picture of a bi-plane tilted up in flight. The pilot, his head encased in a form-fitting leather cap, and large goggles, is seen waving from the cockpit towards the viewer. Across the top of the cover, it reads, in darker green, “S O U V E N I R – Paris Air Show 1922.” In the dream, I wake up and go downstairs to the computer to see if there really was a Paris Air Show in 1922, and to my surprise, there was! Later, I “really” wake up and come downstairs to see if there really was a Paris Air Show in 1922, thinking if there really was one, that would be some kind of wonderful coincidence, since air show pamphlets, and aviation generally, aren’t subjects that I've ever dealt in as a book trader.

I discover that the Paris Air Show (or “Salon”), the world’s oldest and largest, originally was begun in 1909. There was a Paris Air Show in 1921, but I can’t find a record of one in 1922. In the seventh (1921) show, a prototype of the so-called French Breguet 19, based on a World War I light bomber, powered by a Bugatti engine, was first shown. A new design of the same craft flew in March 1922, but it doesn’t say where. It was the model for the French Army’s Aéronautique Militaire from September 1923 on. It was used in the Greco-Italian War, in World War II, primarily as a reconnaissance aircraft. It was used by a number of European countries, as well as some in the Western Hemisphere.

Breguet 19 

Did I once see such a booklet, or did I conjure one up in my dream? The obsessive book scout in me is perfectly capable of inventing such an object. I go back to bed, hoping to return to the scene I have created in my imagination. Perhaps I am fantasizing that I can bring the imaginary pamphlet back from the dreamworld into the real one. Or perhaps I am simply enjoying the experience of having made something up that has a probable counterpart in the real world. Thus, my writing this account--a prosepoem of the dream--is a partial realization of that desire.  

My unconscious is sending me a message, whose secret meaning I may never be able to decode. This vicarious desire—expressed as a vague longing in the murky semi-consciousness between sleeping and waking--that my experience in the imagination might actually have happened--is like a dream come true. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Transit Tropique

With the drought era upon us in the Southwest, our thoughts turn to refreshment. Much of the thinking about cocktails revolves around tropical fruits in warm climates, as an antidote to overheated bodies and  intense thirst. Alcohol, of course, tends to dehydrate rather than slake the thirst that inspires its consumption. Nevertheless, there's nothing quite like a well-made cocktail, frosty with chill, served on a hot afternoon, after work or play.

Coconuts and bananas and limes all are coded as tropical, and rum is the equatorial goods of choice, anywhere around the globe, except perhaps in Mexico, where tequila is king. And of course you could make this combination using tequila as well, perhaps with the addition of barrel-aged tequila in place of the 150 rum. 

Rum punches usually begin with a fruit drink, squeezed fresh or from "concentrate" (i.e., reconstituted from the residue of mashed whole unsorted fruit). You can begin with melon or citrus or root beer or any soft drink you can think of, to which you add liberal amounts of some brand or type of rum, and then keep pouring in lesser amounts of other flavor elements. Pineapple is another important component  of tropical drinks. And of course you can drop in skins or wedges or gratings of citrus, or any fragment of fresh fruit you choose. Punches are often made in large bowls, so they can be ladled out at parties or gatherings, and additional ingredients can be added as desired during the festivities. 

One of my big gripes with many taverns is that they tend to feature cocktails that are basically fruit drinks with just a teaspoon of goods added. This is primarily to save on ingredients, while soft-pedaling the strength of the concoctions to customers who either wouldn't know what a real cocktail tasted like, or simply don't want strong drinks, like offering champagne to people whose experience of wines is limited to church. Whenever I see a "house" drink that starts off with orange drink or lemon juice, I politely ask to build my own drink from what's on hand. Often this will elicit protests, or stammering confusion, since they won't know how to charge you for the richer mix you've ordered, and in any case they're trained to discourage requests which involve making actual cocktails (instead of cool-aid). 

Imagine yourself out on the veranda in a pleasant, slightly creaky Southern mansion, say, in Savannah, late in the afternoon of a warm Summer day, and this drink really comes into its own.

There's a lovely movie song to accompany this scene, which comes via Hollywood--In Adam's Rib (1949), in which David Wayne sings his little unfinished ballad, Farewell Amanda, where the word veranda finds its perfect place in history as the rhyme-word to Amanda.      

3 parts white rum
1/2 part 150 rum
1 1/5 parts Midori
1/2 part creme de bananae
1/2 part coconut syrup
1/2 part lime
1/2 part lemon

The recipe by proportion, shaken hard with cracked ice and served up. 

Be mellow, y'all. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Invisible Shutter - Dater's Hands on Glass

Judy Dater is a West Coast photographer who's concentrated on portraiture and feminism. Themes of masking and disclosure appear frequently in her work. She sees photography as a provocative act, and her pictures often seem deliberately troubling or disruptive. 

The image below, which I thought to comment on, I was surprised to discover, is the first photo on her website here


Despite the intention in Dater's work, I'd like to consider this image as a distinct, separate occasion, apart from the place it may hold in the sequence or context of her other work. I think it's a powerful image, though part of its power seems to be a little gimmicky. 

The natural assumption is that this is a photograph taken from inside an automobile, against the backdrop of the arid desert country of the American Southwest. It's an "idea" photograph, a conceptual still life that is more about the implications of its set-up, than any purely pictorial interest in the frame. It isn't a candid shot, a moment stolen from the accidental tapestry of happenstance. The landscape in the background is blurry, because the point of the picture is the two hands wrapped around the window-glass. The background suggests a remote point in the outback, and the occasion is presumably somewhere along the road where the vehicle has been parked. A window like this probably belongs to an SUV, or other utility vehicle, since ordinary passenger cars don't have sliding or side-moving windows. Of course, this could be a "staged" shot, simply a plate of glass the photographer set up for the exposure, since we don't have any frame, no reference for what the glass is attached to. It's even possible the shot is taken from inside a house or other structure. But none of this speculation really matters to the meaning of the image.

All photography consists of a conceptual window. The window needn't be rectangular. Lenses, after all, are circular, and circular imagery is nothing new. And there are round windows too. But the metaphor still applies. Looking through the ground glass of a camera is the same as looking through a window. Seeing through a lens is what seeing is: Our eyes are lenses, focused towards the rear of our eyeball's inner lining, a sensitive field of receptors which transmits the visual data to our brain via the optic nerve. The camera lens is an eye. No matter what we see, we see through a translucent interposed membrane. Clear window glass affords the same visual facility which the eye, or the camera lens does. Transparent glass lets light and color through, but blocks matter. Glass is a brittle solid, crystalline in structure, which fractures or shears along its weakest integration. 

The hands in the photograph seem to be pulling the glass to the right, but of course the hands may simply be holding on, not pulling. The hands tell us that half the photographic rectangle is behind a sheet of glass, while the other half isn't. Metaphorically speaking, the hands are pulling the glass back from the viewer's field of vision. But the sense of revelation is only symbolic, since the glass is clear enough that were the hands not there, we could be fooled into thinking we were looking only through the camera lens, not through another "layer" of clear glass. The edge of the glass is a dark line in the middle of the photo, which--except for the hands--would not allow us to perceive the glass as glass. We know the hands are holding glass, because we can see the compressed skin of the palms and fingertips on the opposite surface side. 

What exactly does the picture tell us? Are the hands trying to pull the invisible translucence of glass aside, like a curtain revealing a clearer, truer reality behind? Do the hands symbolize some kind of victimization or confinement, like prisoners or refugees trapped inside a compound or container? Are the hands a kind of wretched, horrific striving for release, or freedom? 

What is most striking about the image is the tension that is set up between the view we have, and the meaning of the hands "pulling" the picture's symbolic "curtain" aside. There's no visual queue to clarify what we're supposed to think about the meaning of the image, so it floats in a speculative limbo, neither comforting or threatening. It's a meditation on the meaning of disclosure and permission, what it means to be permitted to see. There's also the irony of translucency, reminding us that what we think we're seeing may not be as "clear" as we are given to know. If the hands belong to the photographer, the message might be a desire to show, to demonstrate, to reveal. To remove boundaries and interpositions from our vision, to free us to perceive the truths right in front of our eyes.

"Unscrew the locks from the doors !
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs !"
                                                                   --Walt Whitman

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

John Wimberley - Time Traveler with a Lens

The idea that the way we feel about a work of art, is as important as what the work may be said to mean, is a post-Modern critical notion--the idea that the reader, or viewer of a work can determine both the meaning and significance of the work, or that they are (each is), in effect (a) participant(s) in a process whose reality is never just one-sided, but a shared phenomenon, is anti-Platonic. Works of art, as this sense imagines it, do not exist in a pure state of eternal durability, but actually change based on the way we see them or think of them. Ultimately, they may be forgotten and neglected, disposed of. Works of art may "live" only so long as they are perceived, and appreciated. Once they no longer are, they cease to exist--they're no longer in the pure realm of spiritual eternity. 

I've never thought of photography as a spiritual art, but occasionally it does occur to me that photographs may aspire to a condition of solemnity or reverence which we associate with religious feeling. The problem with religious notions of artistic meaning and value is that they inevitably devolve into formulaic interpretations related to the iconography of any specific faith. All faiths may be said to share a focus upon the divine, the eternal, the immutable; but beyond that, it isn't easy to make useful generalities about the religious applications of meaning to art. 

Much of the art of past centuries has been deliberately conceived within religious contexts. In our time, so-called "profane" or secular art has been in the ascendancy, generally since the beginning the Enlightenment (the Renaissance) in Europe. Critical theory over the last two centuries has preoccupied itself with building justifications and interpretations which are essentially non-religious in character. Beginning in the 20th Century, in the West, artists and scholars have begun to explore and examine the relationship between certain Eastern religious systems of thought and worship, and their artistic expressions. In the West, many artists now claim Buddhism or Zen Buddhism as inspiration. It's become a kind of commonplace for artists to claim an Eastern religious sense in their work and lives. 

Previously, I've commented on the work of Minor White, and Paul Caponigro, both artists who explicitly refer to the mystic spiritual element in their work. These two influential photographers explain their work in terms of extra-formal themes, and how a rational, deliberate intention is only one component of a process that has mystical, involuntary, even passive elements, of subjects and occasions "choosing" the photographer, of being "moved" by unseen forces or spirits to act. The part that craft and knowledge and intention play in such a process is obvious. It's the extra-rational dimension which is claimed as crucial. 

Cathedral Gorge 1984

I first encountered the work of John Wimberley in galleries during the late 1980's. He hadn't published any books at that time, and his reputation was rather "underground." What was clear was that Wimberley had a powerful vision, a studied view of large-scale landscape, though in most respects his subject matter was no different than many of the well-known West Coast landscape photographers. It was how he saw this subject matter that made his work different. It was "big" in the same way that Adams's or Baer's is, but it was more narrowly focused on certain telling details--the position of an odd cloud shape in the distance, the unresolved tension between ambient element in the composition, the eccentric angle or diverting angle emphasizing an abstract form. It was clearly an attempt to revive the aspect of intention in photography, not merely as a kind of passive awe at nature's grandeur, but as an act of deliberate recognition. The images weren't attempts to foreground an ecological ideal, or an elegiac ode to lost opportunities, or an evocation of an earlier nostalgic past. 

On the other hand, they weren't coded abstractions meant to signify "koans" or touchstones of spiritual potency, the way Minor Whites often seem to be--or so I've believe. 

What we do see, primarily in Wimberley's work, is the evidence of geology, and weather, and occasionally, the meek evidence of man's impact on the landscape.

Three earlier works seem to be emblematic of Wimberley's approach. 

 Leda's Landscape 1984

Descending Angel 1981

Stone and Sky 1979
Though these images have probably now become rather generic in their approach, at the time they seemed quite novel and innovative. Technically impressive in their clarity and formal construction. Contrasting textures and shapes which imply meaning without insisting upon themselves--moments stolen from accident and opportunity. 

In Leda's Landscape, does the large oval rock on the left symbolize one of Leda's eggs, from the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan? Is the dark crevice in the distance the beak of a bird? And what is the meaning of the cloud shape placed suggestively upon that point? 

The Black Shadow 1980

As connoisseurs of the image, we are free to deduce whatever meaning we choose from a given image. Since the photographer has not chosen to title the work with a narrative queue, we have no hint what its ultimate significance is. With dune imagery, I often find myself working within a dialectical range of "hot" and "cold" for light and dark, though certain kinds of temperature may be darker where hotter. Is it a "black hole"--from the astronomical realm? What do black holes say? A mysterious concavity which draws us inward towards an unknown eventuality? Will we disappear into a bottomless void? Or are these speculations all beside the point?

Bitter Ridge #16 2005

Images which foreground the over-arching scale of natural structure are usually seen as signifying nature's power over man. I love pictures like this, which suggest a delicate balance of great forces held in check, subject to geologic time and coincidence. The great face of rock, streaked with the layered depositions which predate our genetic evolution, is like a Rosetta Stone whose ultimate message is locked inside a language which we haven't yet deciphered. Its gaunt presence is monumental--but monument to what?

Race Track Valley 1981

My first impression--as a photographer, looking at this image as a potential in the field--is that it's a happy occasion. Clouds like this are uncommon, though they may hang around longer than billowing cumulus do. In dry country, they often undergo very gradual transformation, and permit the set-up of a favorable foreground. Attaining this vantage may have been difficult or easy--but the difficulty, no matter how problematic--isn't the point. We aren't impressed with the effort, only with the phenomenon.  As with many of Wimberley's compositions, there's a play of textures and effects. The cloud formations, which suggest a school of hammerhead sharks, or a field of wild flowers, or perhaps a host of angels (take your pick, or invent your own metaphor), contrast effectively with the yawning stretch of gradient between the vantage and the horizon line. It reminds me a little of some of William Clift's landscapes. Also, the gravity of the earth's downward slant pulls against the upward lift of the cloud shapes, trailing their tails beneath them--contending visual forces in a barren scene without much evidence of life.  

 The Golden Triangle 1987

Many of these images benefit from larger scale reproduction. So I would encourage anyone reading this blog to click on the images and expand them to the limits of your screen to see what I'm getting at. 

   Landscape for Two Ravens 1995

Unlike Brett Weston, whose work I have always felt strongly about, Wimberley isn't simply looking for "elegant gorp." His sense of landscape is much more purposeful and connotative. He sees correspondences between abstractions in earth, plant matter, and cloud forms--and the messages which he feels conveyed through his imagination. These messages may not be shared by the viewer, but perhaps that isn't necessary. The mere suggestiveness of his images may be enough to carry the burden of a meaning.

Recently, he's been on a quest to capture images of Native American petro-glyphs throughout the Great Basin territory. Though I respect the project, I question the relationship between the specific glyphs and the landscape compositions that foreground them. It seems to me a kind of gratuitous pretext. On the other hand, it can be very haunting to imagine a man, perhaps two or three or even five hundred or more years ago, standing at the exact spot, scratching away on a rock-face, seeing essentially the same unspoiled, and somewhat desolate, view we can capture with our cameras. The evidence of that intention is as permanent as anything that distant character might have imagined. What would he have thought of the photographer, with his big view camera perched on a wooden tripod, peering out from under the focusing dark-cloth? A time-traveler from another planet?

All images used with permission of the photographer. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jeopardy and the Nanny Society

On March 21st, 2015, at 6 PM in the evening, a section of seaside cliff along the Point Reyes National Seashore coast trail broke off, precipitating (a word I always remember Thornton Wilder used to describe the party of unlucky souls who perished in the foot-bridge tragedy that generates his famous narrative called The Bridge of San Luis Rey) two hikers down with the collapsing rock rubble 60 feet below. One of them died, the other was seriously injured. Signs had been posted at the trail head warning hikers not to take this route, due to a large fissure that had appeared in the cliff just a few days before. 

Last Sunday (March 29, 2015), the San Francisco Chronicle's outdoor recreation editor-columnist Tom Stienstra published a story about the incident. 

The odds of being born, according to one legend, are the same as if you were to throw a life ring on the open ocean, and at that exact moment, a blind sea tortoise poked its head through the ring. The odds of dying, on the other hand, are 100 percent. Each day in between, since it's a miracle you're alive in the first place, should be treated as a blessing. Considering the events of last week--the catastrophe at Point Reyes and the arrival of spring--it might be a good idea to dump your "should list" and do what sets you free to travel, explore, hike, bike, fish, camp, boat, or stalk and photograph wildlife. . . . There are so many warning signs when there is no immediate danger that many understand why several hundred people ignored the warnings at Point Reyes and ventured out to the bluff at Arch Rock. But then, even if you do everything right, follow every rule, your number can come up. . . . The reality is that it is a miracle, no matter what your age, that you are around . . . . spend each of your days wisely--doing what you love.  

Reading between the lines, you can see that Stienstra isn't recommending that we disregard warning signs designed to protect you, but on the other hand, he isn't recommending that you lock yourself in your house and never venture out, lest you fall prey to some unexpected accident. 

Odds-makers like to calculate what the risks are in any part of life. Life isn't a gamble, but calculating risk is only human, and many of the decisions we make in life are based on such calculations. Every day I go driving, I undertake what I regard as calculating the odds--of a child running in front of my car from a side street, say, or a cop tearing after a call at 30 miles over the speed limit, or someone cruising through a stop-sign while texting and broadsiding me. I've been in my share of accidents, none of which have been my fault (when I was driving). But we all know that we take our lives in our hands, as the saying goes, every time we go driving, especially on highways and turnpikes. 

Society always tends to over-react to unexpected and unlikely tragedies. Airline crashes (like the one that just took place in Switzerland), terrorist bombings, random shootings, mountain-climbing mishaps, swimming pool drownings, mountain-lion attacks, and of course, the suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge. Inevitably, after each reported incident, we hear calls for more safety measures, more restrictive access, tighter controls, more barriers, and more elaborate rules to govern our behavior for our own good

There are some people who seem particularly prone to advocating greater control over human behavior. Governments are always wary of the risk of being held responsible for, and therefore liable for, accidents and "preventable" acts of nature or human waywardness. Private interests are no less aware of the dangers of being held accountable. We live in a litigious world in which anyone, at the drop of a hat, is likely to sue another individual, or a company, or a government agency, for damages suffered through some supposed failure of duty or vigilance. 

The idea that people must be protected from the hazards of life has evolved into a separate segment of the law, called risk assessment. Lawyers and professional sociologists advise insurance companies about how to gauge the probabilities of valid claims against policies. We try to control risk in residential real estate insurance by hiring geologists, structural engineers, arborists, fire experts, and even psychologists to provide reports about the likelihood of claims against coverage. 

The idea that life is so dangerous that we must all be safe-guarded against it is a very modern notion. You might think that it's because we value human life--regard it as so precious--that we tremble at the thought of anyone suffering any injury, no matter how slight. Or that we cringe with fear at the notion that anyone--even ordinary citizens--might be responsible--just because we share in the greater implication of belonging to society--a city, a state, or a nation--for the jeopardy of any one of its members, or even visitors or tourists from some other place. 

But is society really responsible for accidents that are so rare, and so unlikely, that the odds are staggeringly tiny? Odds are, according to one source, that you could fly once a day for 4 million years before succumbing to a fatal air crash. In fact, 95.7% of passengers involved in air crashes survive. Whereas, odds are one in 5000 that you may die in a car crash. Or, 1 in 3.1 million that you will be killed in a shark attack. The point of these statistics isn't to calculate risk assessment, to safeguard your pocket book, let alone your personal safety. 

The underlying point is that most risk is random, and can't be controlled or managed out of existence. Refusing to ride in automobiles, or in planes, or in trains, because of safety concerns isn't completely irrational. Caution is a prudent component of the rational mind. But the notion that everyone must be ruled by a vast network of strict limits, or enclosed in a harnessing safety web,  for our own good,  is one of the popular illusions of our culture. 

Reasonable people accept reasonable limits to freedom, in exchange for being held individually responsible for their own protection. If, as a pedestrian, you choose to barge into moving traffic, you're voluntarily choosing to place yourself in jeopardy. If you take a jet flight from San Francisco to New York, you're putting your safety into the hands of an airline company, its mechanics, pilots, and the airport traffic system personnel. It's a considered risk, which most accept. 

Anyone walking on a cliff overlooking the ocean, accepts that there is a chance, however slim, that a part of the earth at that edge, may crumble. A large crack in the cliff's edge may be a warning sign, but such occurrences aren't predictable. Earth movements can be speculated, as earthquakes are; but it's doubtful that humankind's empirical science will ever be able accurately to foretell the odds of earthquakes or landslides. 

People are often stupid, but when calculating risk, we need to remember that, as precious (and improbable) as being born is, the risk of falling victim to unlikely occurrences is inherent in life itself. We can't prevent people from doing stupid things, and we can't prevent all accidents from happening. If people want to kill themselves, or to live on the edge,  they will find a way. For the rest of us, prudent precautions make sense.  

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Candy Cane

3 parts golden rum
2 parts cream
1 part lemon
3/4 part praline liqueur
3/4 part créme de noyeux (almond)
1/2 part Frangelico (hazelnut) liqueur

Not much to say about this one, only that it's a fatally seductive preparation, guaranteed to lift your spirits and assuage your ills. With addition of the praline flavor, there are hints of the Deep South, perhaps New Orleans, though I doubt this drink has ever been mixed there. Like all the other concoctions featured on this blog, it's my own invention--I never consult the literature of mixology in devising my combinations.