Monday, October 29, 2012

Cuban Composer Ernesto Lecuona

Cuban pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona's [1895-1963, of Basque descent] work is well-recognized around the world, in large measure due to the success of his very popular keyboard piece Malaguena. Beginning as a child prodigy, he was already composing pieces as a young teenager. He played piano in silent-movie houses to help out his family, and was giving concerts in Europe by the the early 'Twenties.   

Lecuona would go on to compose hundreds of concert and popular pieces based on Cuban inspirations. Two keyboard suites, the Danzas Cubanas, and the Danzas Afro-Cubanas, are particularly pure and concise expressions of his style, which derives from the earlier work of Albeniz, Granados--though there are caribbean flavors swirled into the mix. 

Central and South American composers inevitably fall within the Hispanic musical tradition. In the Caribbean, you have African and nativist qualities (of jazz and latin dance music) as well, all of which contribute to the special character of Cuban music, which Lecuona absorbed and incorporated into his work. 

Lecuona was unsympathetic to the Castro revolution of 1960, and emigrated to the United States, where he lived (in Florida) until he died in 1963. His will specifies that his remains are to be returned to Cuba once the Communist regime has run its course. 

As an interested amateur, I acquired the sheet music for Danzas Afro-Cubanas before I ever heard it played. The pieces are of medium difficulty, though the easier ones can be played with a little practice. Their catchy rhythms and lulling melodies are seductive and exotic. Here is a version of the whole suite played Cristiana Pegoraro on YouTube.  
Danzas Afro-Cubanas sheet music album

The Andalucia Suite, which includes Malaguena, is probably his best known music, aside from the romantic theme music Siempre en mi corazon ("Always in my Heart") played by Thomas Tirino, in Miami 2003.

In the popular imagination Lecuona is probably regarded as a cheap compromise between the seriousness of European classicism, and the dance-hall styles which predominated in the pre-revolutionary Cuba of his youth. But it is impossible to listen to the pieces in his two piano suites without acknowledging that he aspired to a higher mimetic. In America, the only wholly homegrown cultural expression is considered to be jazz. We inherited the serious music of 19th Century Europe, just as South and Central America did (though to a much lesses extent) They developed their own folk and popular music tradition, and then imported American jazz as well. 

In the American popular imagination, you have Carmen Miranda and Xavier Cugat and even Desi Arnaz churning out sad clichés on the Latin rhythm theme. But Lecuona represents the more serious side of Latin culture, which traces its roots all the way back to Moorish Spain. There's a curious melding of that strain with the island, jungle and primitivistic tropes, which can be heard in Villa-Lobos or Ponce. Lecuona essayed more ambitious forms, but perhaps with less obvious success. Here is his Rapsodia Cubana for piano and orchestra; it's swishy soft romanticism suggests the same kind of pop conciliation I refer to above. Lecuona was capable of adapting himself to many different styles, as in this version of "Two Hearts that Pass in the Night," which sounds like a soft jazzed-up supper club chestnut.   

The Suite Andalucia, which is modeled after Albeniz's Suite Espanola [1887], and Granados's 12 Spanish Dances, can be heard piecemeal, played here by Thomas Torino on YouTube:  

III Alhambra

These pieces are historical-regional evocations in exactly the same way that the Albeniz and Granados suites are. And they go a long way towards a convincing demonstration of how well the Cuban had absorbed his masters' skill. Lecuona's music is more dance-inspired, and has a little less of the dignified austerity of Castille, but the Moorish influence is unmistakeable. 

Despite what you think of Castro's Revolution, and the fifty year regime in Cuba, it goes without saying that the cultural life of that nation has stagnated. Poverty and mind-control are the enemies of creativity. Decay may seem picturesque, or nostalgically pre-post-modern, but the daily reality is not romantic. Should the U.S. have lifted its embargo on Cuba years ago? Would that have constituted some kind of capitulation, or a de facto acknowledgment of the sovereignty of a failed Communist state in our midst?

I've never been to Cuba, so I can't speak to its current mood. From all accounts, it's a tired place, a hollowed-out shell. It remains to be seen what will happen when Castro finally expires. Will it trudge on into a shabby socialist "future" or throw in the towel and welcome back the business-community? We've seen how fast third world countries can rebound, once the repression and restrictions on growth are lifted. Ironically, its economic stagnation has allowed much of the island to remain unspoiled, and there are many now who believe that a rapid return to the tourism and rigid social stratification of the pre-1960 days would be no better for its people than the strangling oppression of its failed experiment in collectivism. 

Classical, or "serious" music, thrives in an atmosphere of some prosperity. Until the middle of the 20th Century, it was the province largely of the rich and privileged, who could afford the instruments and performance spaces and could support professional musicians. It was patronage-driven. The explosion of media in the last century brought it to anyone, though its appeal was still marginal beside the great appeal of popular new generic styles. Lecuona represents a cultural milieu that died in 1960, at least in Cuba. He was a man of his time, and he worked within the prevalent traditions available to him. Had he been born in Spain, his career might have been somewhat different, but perhaps not so much. And yet we'd have missed the lovely works he did make. Great political convulsions cause equivalent changes in the arts. The Pre-revolutionist Russian musical scene was basically disbanded after WWI. The few remaining talents like Prokofiev and Shostakovich had to suffer through repeated indignities and routinely harsh censorship. 

Lecuona, like many of his countryman, emigrated to the U.S., living in artistic exile. But his work survives. And it speaks to us today, not of revolutions and hardships and conflict, but of love and joy and gently nostalgic reminiscence.      

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

You're Never Too Young - Giants Win Pennant!!!

The first live major league baseball game I ever saw was at old Seals Stadium in San Francisco, in 1958, the first year the Giants arrived from New York, August 16th, 1958, against the Chicago Cubs. The Giants would only play one more year at Seals before moving to Candlestick Park, where they persevered until the completion of China Basin in 2000. 

How do you codify the sentiment you feel about our national sport? For me, it will always be an enormous imaginative preoccupation, fed by fantasies of my own playing days as a little leaguer in the 1950's, and the subsequent decades of on-again/off-again fandom in the Bay Area. Aside from a summer or two in the midwest, where I watched a few Cub games on local television, it's always been the Giants or the A's for me. I saw the Athletics clinch the 1972 division championship at the Oakland Coliseum on September 28th, 1972. 

Why do we care if a squad of overgrown boys playing a boys game paid by some rich guy compete with other squads of overpaid overgrown boys from other metropolitan centers? Some have tried to explain it, i.e., Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer [1972]. It's one part nostalgia, one part lazy boredom, and one part misplaced civic pride. 

The story of teams is often a story of their owners, or the owners' management. They can determine the character of a team, through their choices and hiring of individual players, their affect on the playing venues. The A's were owned by Charley Finley when they arrived in Oakland. Charlie was a good businessman, but a little bit of a cheapie. He thought players were overpaid, and he ran his organization like a minor league outfit.           

When the Giants came west in 1958, Horace Stoneham had owned the team since 1936. He was a genial owner who cared as much about the game, and the players, as many of his most devoted fans did. When attendance at windy Candlestick Part fell off, he sold the team in 1976 to Bob Lurie, who eventually sold it, in 1976, to the Magowan Group, which still owns it. 

I was eating dinner out in San Francisco one auspicious night on October 26th, 2002, during the playing of the 6th game of that year's World Series, with the Giants leading the Angels three games to two. When we sat down for dinner, the Giants were leading 5-0, and we were secure in our assumption that victory was ours. When we'd finished eating, someone with a transistor radio informed us that the Angels had completed a miraculous comeback and won 6-5. The Angels went on to win game 7 and there was no joy in Mudville.  

The 2010 Championship is still fresh in everyone's mind, our ragtag company of cast-offs and fresh-faced phenoms embarrassing the Phillies in the NLCS and mowing down the powerhouse Texas Rangers in the Series. 2011 was a return to earth, with our MVP-to-be Buster Posey going down with a broken ankle, and the predictable fall-off by the journeymen (Huff, Ross, Torres, Rowand, Burrell).  

When 2012 began, no one was sure what kind of team we had. Huff, Sandoval, Posey, Crawford and Sanchez seemed set, but we had new position-players--Pagan, Cabrera, Blanco--not exactly the offensive powers we thought we needed. As the season progressed, there were serious setbacks. Brian Wilson's elbow popped, Melky was suspended for the balance of the season for doping, and Timmy lost control of his fastball (and his confidence). But there were encouraging signs. Pagan, and Posey were having career years, and the late acquisitions of Pence and Scutaro improved the offense considerably. Zito had a comeback. And Vogelsong was lights out. Meanwhile Bumgarner and Cain were solid, and our "bull-pen by committee" actually was able to overcome the loss of Wilson ("Wiiiilllllllllssssssoonnnnnnnnnn!"), with Romo blossoming into something resembling Dennis Eckersley, with a wicked "invisible" slider. Belt and Crawford made significant progress towards realizing their potential, and by the last two weeks of the season, we were walking all over the Dodgers in a runaway of the National League West. 

Who would have thought, looking at the statistics, that the Giants would match up well against either the Reds, the Braves, or the Nationals? As it turned out, of course, the Braves were eliminated, in the new one game takes all new play-off wild card system. Then St. Louis polished off the Nationals, and it was suddenly us, the Reds and St. Louis. Coming back after being down three to one against the Reds was stunning enough, but then doing the same against the Card in seven--well, it doesn't get any better than that!      

In the bottom of the ninth inning, ahead 9 to nothing, and the rain deluging Pac Bell, Marco Scutero, sensing the inevitable victory, impulsively spread his arms apart and stared up into the sprinkling rain in a celebratory gesture that reminded some people (like me) of the scene in Shawshank Redemption, where Andy Dufresne, having just crawled the length of four football fields through sewer water to freedom, tears off his prison shirt in a cleansing rainstorm and makes the same gesture towards heaven.  

The emotion was different of course. We hadn't been imprisoned. We hadn't escaped from anything. We'd just triumphed over impossible odds to get to the World Series. We'd been down, and down, and down, and down, and had picked ourselves up off the mat time after time. A couple of years ago, my old friend Mike Tormey, a retired BART worker and part-time antiquarian bookseller had told me there was "this guy" playing for Boston, named Marco Scutaro, a real gamer who knew how to play the game, was a great fielder, and a solid clutch hitter. Mike had been watching this guy his whole career, and figured him for an under-rated star. Marco ended up going to Colorado after leaving Boston, and I forgot about Mike's little observation. Then, when Brian Sabean picked him up on July 27th, I didn't remember Mike's opinion, but then I did. Of course. And as we all now know, Scutaro became the key player in our late and post-season run, hitting .362 down the stretch and taking MVP honors in the NLCS. Mike, you're a genius.  

And the Giants are playing Detroit for all the marbles beginning today. Let it rain. Let it pour. Let the sky open and the heavens descend. 

We made it.   

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Man Without a Face

American Noir movies have long been used as metaphorical vehicles for European existentialist social, political and aesthetic theory. The hard-boiled tradition in American pulp serials and later novelistic treatments of the criminal underworld achieved enormous popular success, and many of Hollywood's adaptations of this genre have been considered classic archetypes of the medium. No matter most of them were grossly improbable as plots, and often amateurishly produced. People loved them, and their continued appeal is a testimony to our fascination.       

One of the best is Dark Passage [Warner Brothers, 1947], a Bogart-Bacall vehicle based on the idea of the transformation of a man's face through plastic surgery to elude capture following a prison break from San Quentin. The screenplay, by Delmer Daves (who was also the Director), is taken directly from the novel of the same name by David Goodis--a pulp hack who later went on to script work himself.     

Daves black and white film uses many of the familiar noir affects--dim, shadowy lighting, empty streets, long perspective shots, claustrophobic interiors with Deco decor, openly sexual innuendos among characters, torchy background music, guns and violence, and a strong undercurrent of menace and jeopardy. The film has all these elements, but it's also hugely improbable, as one unlikely or impossible event follows another, and the whole seems so far from reality as to constitute a kind of cartoon. 

Bogart plays a San Francisco man who has been unfairly convicted of his wife''s murder, and sent away to San Quentin for a long hitch. As the film begins, he has just escaped inside a garbage truck exiting the prison grounds, and has jumped off the road into a culvert somewhere near Sausalito or the Marin headlands. First he's picked up by casual driver, a man who seems altogether too curious about his clothing. Bogart [Vincent Parry] waylays him, and drags his body into the bushes, when suddenly another motorist, a woman, Irene Jansen [played by Bacall] stops and tells him to get into her car. She knows who he is and intends to spirit him through a Golden Gate Bridge road-block to her apartment in San Francisco where she will hide him. In what is the film's most ingenious trick, we never see Parry's face, as the camera is put in place of the protagonist--what he sees as he moves through space becomes the camera's projection, the viewer's vantage-point. 

Catching a taxi in the night, Parry/Bogart runs into another nosey driver, who befriends him and suggests that if he's on the run, a little plastic surgery might be the best disguise, and takes him to the office of a back-alley unlicensed surgeon he knows who can perform the work. Again, the improbability of all this is underscored by the fact that the techniques of plastic surgery were really in their relative earliest stages at this time. Crude remedial repairs could be done with grafting and bone implants to help burn victims and people with disfigured faces from war injuries or birth defects, but the finished product was never good enough to mimic an original face. The "operation" here occurs in an afternoon in a small crudely appointed office space (in a barber's chair), and it's unclear what kind of anesthesia--if any--has been employed during the procedure. After the operation, we see Parry/Bogart's face for the first time, though now almost completely covered with white bandages.      

 The Surgeon and the Cabdriver

This neat dramatic trick of having the central character's actual original face concealed from us, until it can be transformed, in order to facilitate the progress of the plot, was an ingenious turn. The concept of escaping from a previous identity by changing one's physical being is a late development in western literature. Mary Shelley had posited the Frankenstein monster as the misuse of science to create a tortured monster from body parts cobbled from discarded individuals. But the idea of eluding the science of criminal detection through altered identity, or burning off one's fingertips (or prints), reached a new level with this surgical transformation trope. 

Goodis/Daves's version of modern society is a nightmare of watchers and tattlers--a little like the paranoid world portrayed in the later version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers [MGM, 1978] where no one can be trusted, and anyone might be an alien in disguise, and in the end, the aliens get everybody. The inexorable pull of the dragnet is closing in, there's no place to hide, the only exit is to capitulate or turn into something, or someone, else.        

The idea of facelessness, or a lack of personality, or of personal identity, is a familiar one in 20th Century art. In Kafka, or Camus, or Orwell, the individual is subsumed inside an alienating official non-entity status, intended to deprive him of his worth, to grind the individual down to a quotidian commonality, rendering him powerless and tractable. There is the lulling seduction of giving in, of allowing oneself to be controlled, regimented, suppressed. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [Fantasy Films, 1975], institutionalization (like prison) is a metaphor for the power structures of society, expressed through the need to punish and prod the life and creativity out of individuals through physical punishment, torture and chemical treatments. 

In Dark Passage, Parry/Bogart's only connection to the liberation of justice, or escape, is a single woman, who believes in his innocence, against all odds. Predictably, this is complicated by Irene's growing affection for Vincent, which of course clouds her judgment; would she really care of Vincent had actually killed his wife, if what she wants to do is go to bed with him? 

Parry/Bogart manages, with Irene's money, to escape to South America, where he meets up with her at the end of movie--wearing a dinner jacket, and holding an exotic tropical cocktail on a terrace overlooking a picturesque harbor. Typical Hollywood fluff.       

David Goodis was an interesting character in his own right. Growing up in Philadelphia, he was popular and successful in public school, and at Temple University he began writing for the school newspaper. Working for an ad agency, he wrote and published his first novel at only 22, and began turning out copy for the pulps (as Hammett and Chandler and others had). Enormously prolific, he published millions of words, some of it under pseudonyms. After a stint in Hollywood, Dark Passage [Julian Messner, New York] was published in 1946 and was an immediate success. Goodis returned to Hollywood where he worked under contract for several years, before returning to Philadelphia in 1950 where he lived with his parents, spending time on the urban dark side, and cranking out a string of noir paperback originals.    

Then, in 1963, ABC television began airing a series called The Fugitive, starring David Jansen. Based loosely on the events described in Goodis's Dark Passage, it was a hit for four years. In 1965, Goodis sued United Artists and ABC for half a million dollars, claiming copyright infringement. But before the case could go to trial, Goodies died in 1967 of a stroke. The case was eventually won, oddly enough, through a technicality, i.e., that the Saturday Evening Post, which had first published the story, had protected Goodis's copyright (property), and therefore the story still belonged to him (was not in the public domain). 

Actor David Janssen as TV's The Fugitive

The Fugitive was remade as a feature film starring Harrison Ford in the lead, in 1993. I don't know if the copyright issue for that production has been resolved. Goodis had no descendants, and his brother had died by the time the court case ruled in favor of the plaintiff.   

Harrison Ford as The Fugitive

Goodis's novels and his reputation quickly faded in the decades since his death, except to fans of the noir tradition in American literature and cinema. The Library of America recently republished his Noir Novels of the 1940's and 1950's--a belated recognition of his popularity in an earlier time. Authors working in the pop pulp vein were often overlooked by serious literary critics, though they often used the same narrative techniques, and had equivalent writing skills as the "serious" writers. And in some cases, their portrayal of character was truer than the "polite" versions. The novels of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and David Goodis will certainly be read and appreciated long after those of such notable figures as James Gould Cozzens, John P. Marquand, or Robert Penn Warren relegated to obscurity.        

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dog Days - Summer's Endgame

In the San Francisco Bay Area, these are our dog days. Typically we get a few weeks of "Indian Summer" in October or November--something really unheard of in other parts of the country--when there are clear, dry, warm days which may get up into the mid-80's, before Winter finally drops the curtain and the usual day-long grey overcasts descend. As global warming progresses, we're getting less and less reliable rains, and there's something ominous about the dog days. We really don't need these end of season respites, not matter how nice they may be for eating in cafés and coffee-shops, or driving to the beach.      

For the last several weeks, I've been perfecting a new drink, based on Frangelico liqueur. Frangelico is an old Italian hazelnut concoction, supposedly invented by Christian monks. It has a rich nutty taste, and is a challenging mixer, since it tends to overwhelm other flavors. After several variations, I hit upon this one, which is less perhaps a hazelnut cocktail, than simply a perfectly balanced one.   

The ingredients combination went through a number of iterations. The first versions were far too sweet, so I had to resort to minor augmentations to bring out its inherent sophistication.  This mixture produces a complex flavor, which is a good compromise between the liquor-y taste of the rye, the intense sweetness of the hazelnut, and the drier side of the citrus content.  

By proportion--

4 parts rye
1 1/2 parts Frangelico liqueur 
1 part Drambuie
1 part fresh lemon juice

--shaken and served up. It has a slightly brownish yellow tint. You could garnish it with a lemon wedge, but it wouldn't be necessary. I haven't tried it yet, but perhaps a cinnamon stick would add just a little tantalizing fillip. Another tavern-master suggested a shake of bitters, but I like the purity of this combination--I didn't want the suggestion of a Saverac.   

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Down for the Count but Still Battling - Giants in 2012

How does a franchise that loses important parts of its team during a season overcome adversity and triumph against odds? Each professional squad is composed of parts of a puzzle, which may or may not fit together to make a whole. Usually successful teams have a number of players who have superior years (or "career years"). This may be an expected outcome, or just a one or two year fluke. Sometimes, everything comes together for a team, as "stars" and journeymen all peak at once, and a dynamic season ensues. 

I've said before that all the players who arrive in baseball's major leagues were stars before they got there, or they wouldn't be there. The "worst" major league players were all immensely talented BEFORE they were "failures." What differentiates one team's performance from another's may be "intangibles"--or just the coincidence of different individuals' coordinated accidental success. Players are human beings, impossible to predict or design with much consistency. Teams are organic things, fluctuating and changing over time.   

Prior to the 2012 season, the Giants had what seemed like the team they had deliberately designed to succeed at Pac Bell Park. Brian Sabean, the eccentric GM guru, always believed in pitching, and fashioning a high calibre pitching rotation, with superior middle relievers and a lights-out closer was always his first priority. The offense would succeed by "scratching out runs"--not with power-hitting, but timely hitting, speed on the bases, and solid defense. 

In 2010, their championship year, the Giants had three excellent starting pitchers--Lincecum, Cain and Jonathan Sanchez. Wilson was the closer (with 48 saves), with Romo, Mota, Affeldt and Casilla all making important contributions out of the bull-pen. Offensively, the team was more a "power" force than a "scratching" one, with a 162 team homers (nicely spread among several hitters--Huff 26, Uribe 24, Burrell 18, Posey 18, Torres 16, Sandoval 13). 

After a down year in 2011, in which both pitching and hitting declined across the board, the team dropped Burrell, Ross, Torres, Rowand, Tejada, Keppinger, and even Carlos Beltran. The decision not to sign Beltran, in particular, seemed vexing, given the signal lack of offense in 2011. Posey went down early with his ankle injury, and Freddy Sanchez played only part of the year, succumbing to physical limitations which in retrospect probably were the beginning of the end of his career (he didn't play at all this year). 

The Giants left spring training this year with the following line-up:


with Brian Wilson as the established closer.

But as we know, things changed quickly as the year got going. Almost at once, Wilson's elbow popped and he went on the indefinite disabled list (a candidate for a third (!!) Tommy John surgery). 

Then, as I had predicted at least twice on this blog, Tim Lincecum's decline continued, as hitters began feasting on his slower fast ball, and his ERA quickly rose into double figures. If it hadn't been for Cain and Bumgarner and Vogelsong having in effect career years, Lincecum's anchor could have dragged the team into second division status. It began to feel as if every Lincecum start would turn into a rout. And no one seemed to have an answer. Timmy had gone from a dominating fireballer to a has-been in just a little less than two seasons. This kind of thing isn't unheard-of, but in his case, there had been troubling signs. The tortured delivery motion, the small frame, etc. Statistically, it all made some kind of awful sense, if you looked at the trajectory of his performance from the middle of 2010 to the first half of 2012. Still, it really hurt to see him get blasted in start after start.   

Despite these setbacks, the team was playing competitively, mostly on the strength of the hitting of new outfield acquisition Melky Carbrera, whose torrid pace led the league in average for much of the first half. He seemed the very personification of the Sabean ideal, hitting for average, with speed, and some even some power (those "gappers"). Then, quite out of the blue, it was announced that Melky had tested positive for steroids, and was suspended for the whole second half of the year. It was as if someone up there didn't like us. 

When Wilson went down, Bochy went to a "closer by committee" approach, and initially Santiago Casilla stepped up to become the new "lights out" guy. And when he faltered, there was Romo (with his wickedly deceptive slider) to take his turn. And Zito, miracle of miracles, had picked himself up off the mat and was having a comeback year, bolstering the Cain-Bumgarner-Vogelsong rotation as a true 4th man, with Lincecum as the busted wheel. 

Finally, as if this all weren't bad enough, Pablo came down with a tiny broken bone in his hand, which sidelined him for several weeks. The team had acquired a journeyman infielder, Joaquin Arias, to fill in where needed, and when called upon to plug the hole created by Pablo's absence, he stepped right up, hitting in the .270-.290 range. With the absence of Cabrera and Sandoval--and Huff, who had gone AWOL with a case of nerves--and then a minor injury while celebrating Cain's perfecto) to be replaced by the green young rookie Brandon Belt--offensively the team really looked weak on paper.    

Unbeknownst to most, Sabean had been coveting an inspirational outfield slugger by the name of Hunter Pence, an All-Star on the Astros, who had come over to the Phillies in the middle of the previous year. Sabean had tried to acquire Pence before, and when Philadelphia finally gave up on 2012, he became available.  

With the addition of Pence, it looked like we might finally have someone to "protect" Posey in the number four spot, or maybe even a true clean-up hitter. Sending Schierholtz (embittered by not getting the kind of playing time he thought he deserved) to Philadelphia opened up right field for Pence, and he was more than equal to the task, speedy and with a rocket arm. Though Pence has not hit anything like we had hoped and expected when we signed him, he's still been a force on the field and in the clubhouse, and the tantalizing left field bleachers may yet prove to be "Pence"-friendly. 

Finally, in acknowledgment of the fact that Freddy Sanchez's career is almost certainly over, the team went out and got Marco Scutaro. Two years ago, my old friend Mike Tormey told me the one man he thought any team could do to improve itself was get Scutaro. As a life-long Red Sox fan, Mike had appreciated Scutaro's clutch hitting and terrific hustle and focus. The guy had been around the bend a time or two, and knew how to contribute. Once he'd arrived, he fit right in, hitting .362 for us in 61 games, polishing off a career year with overall stats of .306, with 190 hits, 87 runs scored, 74 RBI's, and a .348 OBP. Wow. It doesn't get much better than that.    

As I speak, the Giants are preparing to take on the Cardinals in game 3 of the NLCS, with the series tied at 1-1. 

It seems unlikely, given the obstacles, the Giants can go all the way again this year. St. Louis is very strong, and their pitching can match or out-match us any day. And if Detroit, which seems poised to bump off the Yanks (who lost Jeter, and have benched A-Rod), is the opponent in the Series, that's too many mountains to climb. And yet I would certainly have said the same in 2010, when we beat Atlanta, Philadelphia, and the Rangers. Mountains are to be climbed. Strap on your ropes and pitons!   

Friday, October 12, 2012

Duke's Clothed Woman

The relationship between classical music and American jazz in the first half of the 20th century is in some respects two stories. On the one hand, jazz is seen as a separate indigenous American movement beginning along the arterial Mississippi lifeline, with cross-currents and blurrings of influence. Its initial affect on classical traditions seems minimal, and simple-minded. On the other hand, late Romantic traditions begin to break up or fragment at the very same time, as the tonal paradigm gives way to new formal explorations, but this disintegration seems to have very little to do with popular, regional New World inventions which have their beginnings in New Orleans and the Negro folk culture. 

It isn't until the 1920's that nominally "serious" composers begin to incorporate syncopations and blues-y chord changes into their otherwise straightforward approaches. At the same time, subtle adaptations are being employed by innovative popular jazz figures such as Duke Ellington, whose moody and richly-textured instrumentations of the "dark side" of blues improvisation seem to indicate an absorption  of the polytonality of late Debussy and Albeniz, or early Stravinsky and Bartok.

The American band tradition of the 1920's and 1930's was breaking up after the war, and Ellington's compositions reflected a less dense orchestrational style, and a somewhat purified musical line. His music of the late 1940's began to sound rather like chamber music, instead of dance panels. He was following his more abstract tastes into new areas. In a sense, he no longer needed external examples to suggest alternative approaches--his originality had been freed. 

His "Clothed Woman" [1947] (played here by Marco Fumo) for piano solo has been seldom heard or appreciated, surprisingly so, given its prescient abstract qualities. Its astonishing dissonances and quick-changing tempos and moods looks forward to Monk, or Parker, or Tristano, or Tyner McCoy. I first heard the piece played by Marian McPartland about 15 years ago, and I nearly elevated out of my chair.  Though framed as querulous meditation, it contains an effusive central section that is as joyful as anything he ever did in the tinselly Twenties, yet in this context--or perhaps from our much postponed vantage today--it seems touchingly nostalgic, and a resignation without remorse.

Traditional jazz is principally limited to two modes: Dionysian and Tragic (or elegaic). Clothed Woman seems to rise above this dialectic towards a synthesis which is transcendent, though unsettled. One would find it difficult to find a collateral kind of statement in the classical keyboard repertory--perhaps a Rachmaninoff prelude . . . maybe. Its free use of tempos and abrupt turns is like a series of questions and anxious moments. It's important to remember that Ellington was not an "old" man at this point; he was still in his forties, the prime, one could say, of his creative life. He was creating ambitious longer works, though without much public success, and staying viable by any means he could. This period is nicely documented with some important selections on the Night Lights Classic Jazz website on a program called "On a Turquoise Cloud: Duke Ellington After the War, 1945-47" for those interested to hear some of the ambient work he was producing at the time [click on the PLAY EPISODE button to hear it on RealPlayer]; in it we hear Ellington himself rolling it out at Carnegie Hall in 1947. 

What in the world did the audience think they were hearing!? Suddenly the foot-tapping stopped, and a darker moment intervened. Time stood still. For a few stunning intervals, we hear America's greatest jazz composer looking into the abyss, seeing the uncertainty of America's possibility while remembering the liberation of his first great triumph in the Twenties. Mercy!   

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Einstein on the Beach

There is presently on e.Bay--the familiar web-based online auction site--an auction in progress for an original ALS (Autographed letter signed) by Albert Einstein, written by him (in German) in 1954, just a few months before his death (in 1955), and addressed to one Eric B. Gutkind, a German-Jewish philosopher who apparently had mystical notions about the power and importance of Jewish cultural ideas and influence in history. He sent a copy of his book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt, to Einstein, in 1954, eliciting the response, from which the following quotation, is taken:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them.
In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision, probably as the first one. And the animistic interpretations of the religions of nature are in principle not annulled by monopolization. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.

I am not qualified to talk about higher physics, or the philosophy of religion. Like most laymen, I have casual opinions about religion, and a smattering of impressions picked up piecemeal over the years from the media and written accounts, about the significance of Einstein's researches and discoveries in the fields of theoretical and applied physics. That's a way of saying that when it comes to higher physics and the probable importance or application of Einstein's mind to "secular" (that is, non-scientific) ideas, I don't know what the heck I'm talking about. You could also, of course, say the same thing about Einstein himself. He was a man interested primarily in scientific research, and did not spend his time pondering religious questions. 

But there are much higher implications to much of what is studied and considered in scientific inquiry. For all the test-tubes, electronic devices and speculation that goes into research, there is another aspect to our attempts to understand the behavior of matter in its various dimensions. One could hardly miss that the history of man's evolving understanding of the universe is largely what drives our "religious" notions of the meaning of life, the purposes of conduct, or ultimate implication. The progress of human recorded history is the account of the chronology of that evolution of thought. Religious thought is informed by knowledge, all kinds of knowledge--some of it rational, some of it non-rational. 

Einstein's remarks above constitute a familiar skepticism about the irrationality of religious thought in history, by one for whom universal questions could best be pursued through rational inquiry (or the scientific method). He describes The Bible as a collection of pretty childish legends or superstitions, and he scolds his correspondent for pretending to make a claim of dispensation from causality otherwise accepted  to believe in Jewish monotheism. With such "walls [of pride]" man can attain a certain self-deception, and his moral efforts are not furthered by them. Einstein is taking this man to task for not acknowledging the superiority of scientific knowledge over superstition, and he sees that as a psychological disposition on the personal level. In other words, he sees religious thought as a predisposition--or weakness--in certain people. 

Nineteenth century rational philosophy rejected religious theory in favor of "scientific" analyses of history and society and knowledge. Marx believed in the power of scientific analysis to rectify some of the wrongs perpetrated upon underprivileged classes with the rise of the factory system, and saw history as a progression of stages which would flower into higher versions of human cooperation and fulfillment. We know that Marx didn't account for human intractability, and history has, if anything, followed pathways in the opposite direction from what he seems to have predicted, or where he believed it should lead.

For my own part, I've always had a semi-mystical intuition that scientists--at least those who think beyond the mathematic languages used to describe phenomena--that the highest levels of theoretical science begin to approach what are, in effect, religious ideas. When people try to describe where theoretical physics is, at this particular moment, the layman's language they use, approaches the indescribable. They are talking about concepts which either sound vague, or nonsensical, or counter-intuitive. Theoretical physics begins to sound like mysticism. I won't go into the details of string theory, or black holes, or alternative universes, or anti-matter. Most of us have heard of these things, but we have no idea how to describe them accurately, since we can't speak the language of higher physics. 

And yet Einstein, the very personification of the advanced mind who penetrated where no man had ever gone before into the mysterious code of meaning as revealed by science, rejects all religious notions of the past as fairy tales. 

Religion, like science, is composed of (a) language(s). Before science, men attempted to describe the meaning of life and the universe through the language they had, before advanced symbolic systems of representation were invented to manipulate concepts beyond the range of ordinary discourse. Much religious thought and teaching originates in pre-scientific epochs, so it is no surprise that our age, seduced by the power and complexity of scientific thought and knowledge (and technology), should find Einstein's kind of skepticism natural, and convincing. We may scorn ancient religious doctrine, spawned in the primitive context of limited knowledge, but we know that it represented a genuine effort to comprehend the world. 

Einstein took pride in his Jewish heritage, but he did not regard his ethnic (or racial) inheritance as "chosen." The only good thing was that they (the Jews) had avoided the worst "cancers" of "power" by never having possessed it! That is a kind of humility or a conviction born of mordant irony. 

Few of us share the mental acuity to follow the theorists on their voyages of discovery, or to follow the course of their dialectic. If we could, what would that tell us? There are always some of us who can think better than others. They lead. We watch or follow in astonishment or skeptical regard. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Idyll of the Split Bamboo

The Idyl of the Split Bamboo* is the title of a book on angling devoted to the making of bamboo flyfishing rods--not "poles" if you please! An idyll is, according to the dictionary, a simple descriptive work in poetry or prose that deals with rustic life or pastoral scenes or suggests a mood of peace and contentment. Flyfishing has often been described as a "pleasant pastime," a rather sedentary sport for men to engage in. Fresh water fishing once represented an important source of food, in pre-WWII America, and in many places it still does, to some degree. But that pastime has evolved into a sport, one in which the original intent--the landing or catching of fish as a food harvest--has been largely set aside in the interests of preservation and the pure pleasure of the pursuit.  

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I was first introduced to the idea of flyfishing by my stepfather Harry Faville. Following a divorce in the mid-1930's, he had embarked on a protracted sojourn across the Northern Plains and Pacific Northwest states, probably in an attempt to wash some of the bitterness out of his soul, or perhaps it was sheer escapism. He fished the head waters of the Missouri, around the Yellowstone, and eventually ended up in Washington State working as a logger while attending writing classes with Dalton Trumbo. Harry would reminisce once in a while about growing up in Wisconsin before the First World War, fishing with a bamboo flyrod. 

During the 1950's and 1960's, when I was growing up, bamboo flyrods were going out of style, to be replaced by "glass" rods, and later by "Graphite" flyrods--or glass rods augmented by graphite. Glass rods were initially much less difficult to manufacture than bamboo rods, and cost a lot less. They were considered to be the material of the future for fishing rods. People would speak reverently, on occasion, about the qualities of the old wood rods, but the old rod-building companies were slowly, inexorable, seeing their businesses close. By the start of the 1980's, only a handful of small outfits were turning them out, and the prices of their labor-intensive manufacture were rising out of reach of all but the well-to-do or the most committed devotees. 

Perhaps responding to the vague myth implanted in my imagination in childhood, and abetted by a casual reading of a few 20th Century angling authors such as Roderick Haig-Brown, Ernest Schwiebert, Robert Traver, and Arnold Gingrich, I became interested in flyfishing, albeit in a much more sophisticated way than my stepfather had decades before. One of the books I discovered in my researches on the subject was the book on bamboo fly rod making by Holden, pictured above. Holden, like a lot of typical early fishing writers, created an aura of myth around the sport; but he was also interested in the tools of the trade.

As early as the middle of the 19th century, wooden fishing rods had been made from various kinds of native hardwoods, but it soon became apparent the the demands presented--a need for great flexibility without brittleness, and strength, as well as durability--could best be met by bamboo. Bamboo's unique qualities--its hardness, stiffness, and extraordinarily tough, long, straight longitudinal fibers concentrated along the outer edges of its trunks--made it an ideal material for rod-building. As fly fishing progressed through the latter half of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th, the technique of casting, as opposed to just dropping a line into water, became increasingly emphasized. Fresh water fish feed both under the water, and on the surface, but it's necessary to put some distance between yourself and the fish in order not to spook it. In addition, as fishermen realized that imitating the food that the fish eat--the insects, mostly--required that the fisherman manipulate the "presentation" of the imitation "fly" on or in the water--and a rod with great flexibility and control was necessary to perform these tasks.

Rod technology went through various stages. Eventually, through trial and error, it was discovered that planing down thin strips of the outer edge of bamboo, and fitting these together to make hexagonal, tapered sections, was the right solution. It was discovered that the best bamboo came from the Tonkin Gulf region of the Guangdong Province in China--where it grew tall and straight, with long sections between the "dams" or nodes. This special bamboo was available to makers in the Wests until 1950, when a trade embargo on goods from China virtually wiped out the bamboo rod business, which quickly declined.  

Below, I've set out a suite of photos of the Tonkin cane, and some of the steps in the manufacture of cane rods.

A stand of bamboo

Bamboo culms lying out

A stack of cut culms (or cross sections)

A cross section of a culm 

Cross section with a check or split

Close-up of split

Cross section of halved culm with cut strips

Close-up of edge of dense longitudinal fibers

Magnification of tight fibers near skin

Detail of cross section of culm wall

Cut strips or splines ready for planing

Planing a spline inside a metal planing form

Winding the thread to secure the guide(s)

View of male and female ferrules (joint match); note the singeing from the heat process straightening at the node

To replace bamboo, makers began to experiment with plastic and plastic compounds such as graphite, boron, and these new synthetic materials can be made to very favorable specifications. But the unique characteristics of highly engineered bamboo rods remain superior in some respects. Though heavier than some graphite rods, bamboo rods can furnish the same "power" in the butt section, while retaining a gentler, more forgiving pliability in the tip section. These qualities can be measured as moments of stress and "recovery"--but I won't go into the engineering math used to express these qualities. Suffice it to say that the bamboo fibers--one of nature's miracles of design--are still superior to the synthetic versions, and many fishermen prefer them for this reason, despite their much higher expense. With the restoration of availability of bamboo, cane rods can once again be made, but there are questions about its present quality. Cane obtained "pre-embargo" was probably better in some ways. Old stocks of pre-embargo "culms" (the big long uncut poles) are highly coveted today by makers of heirloom rods. 

In the late 1970's, I got it into my head that I would try my hand at making split bamboo flyrods, in moments stolen from my regular workday routine. I thought it would be an interesting hobby, and I might actually teach myself to be a one-man manufacturer. As I eventually learned, the technology and facilities needed to accomplish that, were much more demanding than I could have imagined. I acquired steel planing forms, a heavy metal lathe, and ordered a gather of Tonkin Bamboo from a New Jersey importer. Bamboo, or cane, is not easy to work with. It splits longitudinally, and can make hellish slivers, as tough as steel needles. The measurements required to correctly "mic" ("mike") the splines--that is, to measure the widths of tapering splits (or strips) as you plane them down to required tolerances of a millimeter (!)--demand that you proceed with maddeningly small increments of shave. To understand and execute the various steps--the milling down of the tapers, the joining and gluing of the gathered matched strips, the placement of the eyelets, the varnishing, the making of the grip and reel-seat (where the reel is held to the butt of the rod)--each step required a degree of exactitude and dedication which I was incapable of mastering. So I gave up on the idea. I've just touched the surface on the technology of bamboo rod making. There's a lot of precise, intricate decision-making and elaboration which goes into the construction of a well-balanced, high performance, beautifully finished cane rod. 

But my interest in fly fishing continued. I purchased my own bamboo rods--from two highly skilled and admired makers. One from a fellow named Dennis Bailey in England, and one from Gary Howells, close to where I live in the Bay Area. Both of these makers are now dead. Howells had begun as a rod-maker for the old Winston Rod Company in San Francisco in the 1950's, and had eventually struck out on his own. Howells rods are considered among the finest, with prices to match. Great old rod making companies, such as Leonard, Edwards, Young, Payne, Garrison, Winston, Powell, are all collectors items, and there's a lively exchange for them on the used market. I never got into collecting old fishing equipment, but as a part-time rare book dealer, I always jump at the chance to acquire collectible titles in the angling field. 

Flyfishing has many aspects. There's the equipment--the rods, the lines, the reels, the artificial flies, the net, the pliers, the priest, the waders or boots, the vest, the shoes, the hat, and float-tubes and boats. Then there's the skills--casting, playing the fish and landing it, stalking, identifying naturals (what the fish are biting on). And then there're the issues of access, preservation and restoration, private versus public water, the ecosystem, etc. All of these things play out in the sport. For devotees, it can get pretty complicated. And it's not cheap. A two day trip to a faraway piece of good water can run into the thousands. Some of the less spoiled and worked-over water in the world is in remote corners of the globe: Chile and Argentina, Alaska, New Zealand, Florida. When we were in Scotland and France, I saw a few places that looked promising, but I didn't have my equipment with me, and most of the old-world beats are tied up in private estates that charge steep fees for just a few hours access. 

I must admit, to my chagrin, that I'm not a very good fisherman. I've never quite gotten the knack of casting well. I can "false" cast nicely, and if the wind's right, I can land a good short drift presentation, but making one perfect presentation at the end of a series of falsies I've never been able to master. The idea of wet fishing--that is, presenting a wet, sinking fly under water, either in drift or from a small indicator float, has never much appealed to me, and I've never caught many fish that way. For me there's nothing quite like watching a tiny dry drift over a promising "lie" (where a fish is likely to be lurking in a feeding station) and seeing it strike upwards or sip the artificial, is one of the great excitements of life.  It puts you in touch with the wildness and unpredictability of nature in a way that is not duplicated in any other outdoor sport. Fish, like all wild animals which stalk and capture their prey, don't respond in a completely rational way. They waver back and forth before attacking. They aren't "thinking" in the sense we know it, there's a shifting, intuitive, instinctual trigger that we don't yet understand, a variability which is probably a survival mechanism, a combination of caution and aggression in a teetering balance. 

Sometimes I wish I'd had the chance to do more fishing over the years since I became interested in it. Maybe I'd have become better at it, if I had. But I think I was always a bit more interested in the history and lore of the sport, than in the performance aspect. I've caught some wonderful fish over the years, and fished in some of the prettiest, classic watering holes of the West. I love it, but I'm not interested in competing with other fishermen. For me, it's never been about skills and who's hooked and landed the most, or the biggest trout. 

Sometimes, after I've landed a nice fish, a feeling of sadness or remorse comes over me. I do feel empathy for these finny souls. Here I'm tricking them into biting something they think is their food, only to be terrorized by being hooked in their mouth for a couple of minutes, pulled out into suffocating air, near death, before being despatched back into their element. Fishing is a blood sport, and for the game it's a life-and-death affair. 

Like most serious flyfishers, I don't keep the fish I hook. Catch-and-release has become the new ethic of the sport, which I fully support. It permits the fish populations to survive the heavy pressure they get from sportsmen. If there are to be any good streams to fish in the future, or any fish in them, they'll have to be protected from the hoards of people who like to eat what they catch, or mount their trophies on the wall. I'm just grateful to catch a few nice respectable trout, and savor the experience, the surroundings, and the sense of communion with nature that being out in it provides. I'm content to have this pleasure in solitude; not needing the confirmation of anyone's witness to verify my success. 

It's almost like a sacred meditation. Writers many times more poetic than I have given the sport its literature. A good "fish story" may well be a more imaginative experience than the actual event itself. Great pastimes need a little augmentation to make them come alive, to evoke something of the excitement and pleasure of the moment. At least in retrospect--recollected in tranquillity. As I age, I can still appreciate what I remember, and to share the accounts of others.                                                              

*Holden, George Parker. The Idyl of the Split-Bamboo. Cincinnati: Stewart and Kidd. First Edition 1920. [pictured above]