Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Come Spring





It's been an odd year.

The predicted droughts of Global Warming haven't quite materialized, though the winter rains weren't quite enough to reassure Californians. As anyone knows, the crucial factor is the Sierra snowpack, which is what feeds the dams and reservoirs that irrigate our region. 

But Spring is always a time for renewal, and the poets have to perform their task to celebrate it. 

Embarking upon my seventh decade, as, more and more, my life begins to take on a familiar shape, my memories consolidate into a design that feels, increasingly, inevitable. My genetic inheritance, my early tendencies, my upbringing--the "country of my consciousness"--all appear to coagulate around something called Curtis, which I accept or regret according to my mood.

Meeting new friends, while old ones drift away. Saving what's valuable, and cleaning out the clutter. Coming to terms. Resolving. 

Here are three new recipes from the stainless steel counter, which doubtless bear my personal stamp, though there may be bartenders somewhere in the world simultaneously duplicating them, unbeknownst to me. If I've inadvertently imitated someone else's concoction, my apologies. 

The first two were designed to be served up, the last over ice. The first two are for two drinks, the last for one.        

3 parts gin
1 part apple liqueur
1/2 part maraschino liqueur
1/2 part sugar syrup
1 part fresh lemon juice


2 parts aquavit
2 parts dry vermouth
1 part Berenjaeger liqueur
1 part limoncello
1 part lime juice


1 1/2 parts white rum
1/2 part cachaca
1/2 part banana liqueur
1/2 part lime juice


May all your Springs be rejuvenating, and all your toasts come true. 


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Bach's Italy thru the Eyes of an Hungarian Exile Jew





Bach's keyboard piece Italian Concerto (originally title Concerto in the Italian Taste), was published in 1735. 

It was conceived as an emulation or adaptation of Italian chamber music to the double-keyboard manual harpsichord. Perhaps its intensely, seductively lyrical aspect reflects the Italian spirit.   

As with many other of Bach's (and other composers in the pre-piano era) keyboard compositions, it has been successfully adapted to the modern piano repertoire, and is a concert favorite. 

I came late to it, however. I had known and played some parts of the Well-Tempered Clavier, as well as the Little Preludes and Fugues. (Don't get me wrong; I've never been more than a fascinated amateur!) 

I had heard parts of it over the years, perhaps on the radio, but until last week I hadn't heard the whole three-piece composition. 

As it happened, my first hearing was by Andras Schiff, a world-class classical concert pianist, with Hungarian roots. Schiff plays the full range of the classical canon, from Bach and Scarlatti to Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, etc. His Bach has been a specialty. The YouTube version of his recording is here

For comparison, I also listened to Glenn Gould's version, here.   

Schiff's interpretation has all of the precision and discrete voicings one wants of Bach's intricate interlacings, and captures the joy and intellectual vigor as well. His mastery of technique releases the listener from all apprehensions of uncertainty, and frees one to fly into the empyrean.  

Gould's version, in contrast, is typical of his approach, with a mathematical tempo and a slightly dogmatic approach, often emphasizing the harmonic accompaniment over the melodic line. This is an important aspect seldom brought out by typical interpreters, but it can become predictable and slightly overbearing, especially with composers other than Bach, who was clearly the genius at it. It can in Gould's hands, be made to seem as if the right hand is fluttering mindlessly above the main theme. And, of course, we have his usual humming in the background. (I suppose, with modern sound technology, this humming could be removed, though I doubt anyone would think it worth the effort.) 

Schiff has had a conflicted relationship with his native Hungary, specifically because of anti-Roma (Gypsy), anti-Semiticism, and homophobia, and this has led to his being persona non grata in that country. 

Art can transcend political, ethnic, racial and cultural barriers, but occasionally artists must choose, or go into exile, in order to endure. 

Schiff is a gift to humanity.   


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Manet's pre-Modernist Challenge


Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe [The Luncheon on the Grass 1863] is a painting by Edouard Manet [1832-1883]. It is a familiar painting, now recognized as among the most important pre-Modernist paintings. 

The history of painting over the last 500 years is a record of a succession of styles, a development both of technique and of subject matter. The gradual emancipation of the artist from the limitations of formal strictures, as well as of the range of acceptable narrative, during the 19th Century, is an account of challenge and defiance of cultural norms, with each stage setting a higher bar of permission, for those who would follow. The idea of revolution in art, is born in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, and to a large extent, we're still carrying on this struggle of resistance and renewal through invention and discovery. 

How must the public have felt, in 1863, upon first seeing this large [about 7x12 feet!] canvas at the Salon des Refuses? Clearly intended to shock, the picture is also a commentary upon classical subject matter, updating and placing it in ironic contrast to its putative historical models. 

Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe of Manet

Its immediate impression is of a sort of metaphorical tromp l'oeil, of a classical nude placed inside a contemporary setting, without any clear connections to context--rather as if a Renaissance nude from a mythic vignette had been plopped down in the middle of a Paris suburb. Nudity or semi-nudity in classical painting had long been a proper subject of painting and sculpture, but nearly always in the context of a remote reference, either from classical myth, Biblical scenes, or legend. This familiar distancing of the profane from its public allowed artists to explore raw human form without straying into obscenity or vulgarity. 

Manet's painting clearly intends that we should see this scene in just that way, as a sin against good taste and as a reaction to its classical models. The stark contrast of the cool, pale-skinned nude with the dark tones of the sylvan background, and the clothing of the two male figures, the harsh lighting and staged positioning of the limbs--all suggest defiance, and prurient disregard. There's clearly something pornographic about the presentation, as a challenge to propriety as well as to the canons of doctrinaire taste. 

Comparing Manet's version to the later one by Claude Monet--which seems tame and impressionistically calm by comparison--will give some sense of the huge contrast of intention.     


Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe of Monet [1866]

Manet's canvas functions on several levels. There's the contradiction of spatial perspective, in which a second female figure, behind the first group, seems to float in a kind of separate sphere, almost as a commentary or adjunct to the picnic. What is she doing there? What is her relation to the narrative? Is she a kind of foil for the foregrounded nude? 

Though the figures are drawn in a realistic manner, they seem stiff and posed, as if in imitation of some formal, theatrical posture. This rigidity would be normative in a lot of classical scenes, but here it seems completely out of place. We have difficulty inventing a narrative that would explain the nude's disrobing, or her presence between the two conversing men. Is her nudity a violation of her sex, or is she a projection of the aesthetic preoccupation of the figures, who seem to be stand-ins for the painter himself. Or is she just a piece of furniture in a satirical cartoon? 

It's the incongruousness of the nude's presence which determines our reaction. She clearly doesn't belong in the painting, in the same way that she doesn't belong in a real picnic in the France of the 1880's. It's like a temporal displacement, a forced enjambment of contradictory contexts. This incongruousness has more connection to later artistic movements--Surrealism or Dadaism--than to any discernible tendency of its time. The painting may seem shocking, or humorous, or defiant, but it doesn't strike one as "beautiful" or graceful or cheerful, or even melancholy or moving. It's an aesthetic statement, one intended to draw a line in the sand, either an end or a beginning, depending upon your point of view. In a way, it's more typical of how Warhol or Lichtenstein might conceptualize it, than how any critic or viewer would have in the 19th Century.   

Outside the area of the figures, the painting seems pretty sketchy, an afterthought, the brush strokes casual, even careless. This contrast between the hard clarity of the foreground figures against the pictorially drab background also underscores the sense of imposition, of a truncation of the historically separate modes. Manet seems to be emphasizing the disjunction, without making any overt attempt to connect the opposing contexts. This kind of deliberate exaggeration and disjunction has much more in common with later absurdist depictions than anything else of its time. 

Unless, of course, we are willing to apply the same Modernist or Post-Modernist criteria to earlier, classical works such as those of Giorgione, whose two pictures here are commonly accepted precursors of the Manet work, both of which display much of the same kind of accepted "techniques"--the skewed perspectives, the incongruous nudes, the staged quality of the narrative, and the sketchy metaphorical landscapes which form the backdrop of the drama. If we think in a relaxed way about these earlier efforts, it's easy to see how naive, absurd and unreal they are. That we should, on the one hand, see these 16th Century canvases as typical masterpieces employing standard mythical subject matter, while viewing the Manet as a shocking challenge, tells us much about how later developments and critical accommodations of the emancipation of art from the clich├ęs of previous dogma have altered how we view works within the progression of historical development. 

Were audiences in the 16th Century as offended by the nudity of such canvases as these by Giorgione, as audiences in the 1880's must have been by Manet's? Did they see art in the same way we now tend to do, as natural reflections of the spirit of the time, rather than as evidences of a kind of divine inspiration whose purpose was to inspire them to imagine another kind of (ideal) reality?        


The Pastoral Concert of Giorgione


La Tempesta of Giorgone

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The O.J. Simpson Psychopathic Confession





Fox News decided to bring out its old Interview with O.J. Simpson, conducted in 2006 to promote a book to have been published by HarperCollins--which was initially cancelled at the time due to the objections of the Goldman and Brown families, raising concerns about the prospect of anyone making money off the murders. 

In light of the present-day preoccupation with exploitation of women, perhaps Fox must have felt it could get some late mileage out of its old footage. Simpson received $800,000 for the book that was eventually published, though he received nothing for the Fox interview, which was suppressed until now. 

What's astonishing now, looking at the edited segments of that interview, is how cavalierly Simpson behaves, and how peculiarly he presents his version of the actual murder scene, which he refers to smirkingly as his "hypothetical version" of the murder scene. In discussing the pattern and history of abuse, leading up to the marital separation, and eventual murder, Simpson expresses glib amusement about his physical violence toward Nicole, as well as his numerous extra-marital affairs. 

Psychologically, the most telling aspect of the interview, is his impersonal reference to himself in the third person [i.e., "if I did it"], as if he were a split personality viewing the murder event as both a participant and an observer, watching himself stab Nicole, then Goldman. He describes in perfect detail and sequence how he went about the killings, obviously aware that having been acquitted of the crimes, he can't be tried again, whatever he may "confess" to later. The fact of his exoneration seems to amuse him, as if--having managed to escape justice was part of an elaborate game, one in which he would triumph over the victims, as well as the justice system--he was free at last to laugh about it. 

This flagrant, smarmy cockiness, which is everywhere evident in Simpson's demeanor and expressions during the interview, contradicts directly the expectation the audience must have had about his presumed contrition, knowing full well that, despite the racial overtones of the verdict and the subsequent crowing of African Americans afterwards, he was clearly guilty, whatever shenanigans his high-profile attorney Johnny Cochran (and the rest of the dream team) may have conducted in the courtroom.

Now that we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how malicious Simpson was, and how callous his attitude towards his own guilt, it's sad to recall how partisan the reactions to that verdict were at the time. African Americans were elated that a black man could get revenge-justice against a system they believed was rigged against them. They seemed less interested, then, in whether OJ might actually have killed his two victims, than in the possibility that he could be set free as an object-fetish of vengeance. 

What must they be thinking today, now that we've seen the murderer finally throw off his sheep's robe and laugh about the murders in full public view?  

  

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Sitting Pretty





Latest from the stainless steel counter, a new combination made exclusively from liqueurs.


2 parts sweet vermouth
2 parts Cachaca
1 part Amaretto liqueur
1 part fresh lemon juice

Swirled and served up, possibly with a garnish of orange peel.


This combination has no "straight goods" and might therefore be considered an aperitif mix. One could, I think, substitute some of the vermouth and Cachaca with golden or white rum (in a 2 to 1 to 1 to 1 to 1 formula), and this would be a somewhat stronger drink, but I don't think the taste would be altered much, or for the better. Amaretto is a powerful flavor, but seems to meld nicely with the other two ingredients.

Complex combinations can taste ambiguous. The great majority of spirits drunk around the world are taken straight. Cocktails, almost by definition, signify coordinations of flavors, bringing together proprietary products, fruit and vegetable products, with specific "goods" (traditional spirit distillations). We have at our disposal today, hundreds of varieties of goods, as well as a host of mixing ingredients--so many that no one could ever exhaust the possibilities. Some drinkers settle on one spirit, or simple combination, and never deviate from it. Others, such as myself, are restlessly trying new ideas, conjuring up unlikely marriages, imagining improbable bedfellows. 

Who would think of introducing aquavit to Chartreuse? Curiosity--rather than invention--can be the mother of . . . what? A new discovery, or a blind tasting-alley? Many of the experiments I conduct never find their way into my cocktail blogs, because they're failures. One of the hallmarks of a successful cocktail is that it will inevitably taste right from the start. Some flavors are intriguing, but don't hold up. Cloying sweetness, stingy dryness, blandness, excessive tartness, etc. 

This recipe has a decidedly complex flavor. It's smoothness may be an indication that none of its constituent components are allowed to stand out. Anyone of these--gin, vermouth, aquavit, Chartreuse--can be drunk straight; and in other combinations, they can be the dominant flavor. A lot of complex drinks--those, say, with more than 3 separate parts--strike just the right note, like a scientific formula. Makers of swords, for instance, learn to combine individual metals in the precise proportions to create strength, durability, flexibility, and the perfect tapering blade-edge. There's no question that mixing cocktails involves some of that same balancing act, though finding it is rarely attempted with the same devotion and intensity as making useful alloys.         

2 parts gin
2 parts dry vermouth
1 part aquavit
1 part yellow Chartreuse
1/2 part Barenjaeger
1 part fresh lemon juice


In the end, you must follow your own instincts. When I'm contemplating a mix, I begin either with a spirit (say, scotch), and then meditate what "spin" I might guess would twirl it in the right direction. I suspect that the venerable old Rusty Nail was invented in just way, with someone wondering how Drambuie would affect scotch. Since Drambuie is made out of scotch, it wasn't much of a leap.

I have a lot of drink mixing books, and there are dozens and dozens more out there. Most of them begin by reiterating the classic combinations with the familiar names, and then timidly suggest a few original ones of their own. Having dipped into quite a few, I now look for books that boast all new recipes, rather than repeating the tried and true. 

Here's to variety! 



Monday, February 12, 2018

Spring Training



Image result for giants logos


According to speculative reports I have read online, the San Francisco Giants' 2018 line-up is shaping up to look like this:


Andrew McCutchen RF
Joe Panik 2nd
Evan Longoria 3rd
Buster Posey C
Brandon Crawford SS
Brandon Belt 1B
Hunter Pence LF
Austin Jackson CF
Madison Bumgarner P


With the acquisition of McCutchen and Longoria in the off-season, the line-up has been beefed up with additional right-handed power, something that has been sorely lacking over the last several seasons. It is possible, of course, that Jarrett Parker or Mac Williamson may move up in the team rankings, which might change the outfield alignment. And there is always the possibility that a previously unsung platoon man may rise to the top. Pablo Sandoval is still only 30, which seems a bit early to consider his career over. Could he ever hit .300 again? Perhaps if he stopped the switch-hitting, and stuck to left-handed. 

The front-line starting pitching staff is not much different than 2017, which means we have three excellent starters, at least on paper. Can Samardzija ever live up to his potential? Can Cueto return to his 2016 form? And in the bullpen, we now have Dyson and Melancon, both of whom is a finisher. Could they perform in tandem? One as set-up, the other as closer? Matt Moore is gone (thank god), as is Matt Cain. 

What does 2018 portend? 

As always, it depends on performance. This group has loads of talent, and if they all played to potential, they'd be hard to beat. The three starters are perfectly capable of winning 18 games each. Mccutcheon, Panik, Posey, Longoria--all capable of All Star stuff. Will Belt have a breakout year? Will Pence regain his previous prowess? Can this group hit over 200 homers? Will the two closers get 45 saves? 

Question, questions.  

Friday, January 19, 2018

Who Speaks For Americans?


We live in strange times.

The Democratic Party is holding the federal government funding package in Congress hostage to the Dreamers, who constitute something like .00216718% of the population (allegedly 700,000 individuals, but probably many more uncounted). 




Meanwhile, the Republicans have thrown all their political weight behind the top 1%, to whom they just gave the largest tax break in recorded history. 




What about the other 98.99783282% of Americans?  

If we live in a country of representative government, who is actually standing up for the rights and interests of the vast majority of citizens? With each party so exclusively invested in tiny minorities, some not even actual American citizens, it does give you pause.

Who speaks for us?