Saturday, November 2, 2019

Music I'm Listening to: Jacob Nissly and The San Francisco Symphony

After the concert: The composer, conductor, and soloist
I attended the October 18 performance of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. I had intended to write about it sooner, but, with the fire scare and blackouts that began on October 23, I've been unable to until today. Guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru led the orchestra in a world premiere performance of Losing Earth, a percussion concerto commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony from composer Adam Schoenberg.  After intermission, the orchestra played Lili Boulanger's D'un Matin de Printemps, of 1918, a San Francisco Symphony first performance. That was followed by Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrated by Ravel). The Symphony's own Jacob Nissly was soloist in Losing Earth.

Two pieces entirely unfamiliar, one quite the opposite. It always astounds me that soloists can, without a score, remember their part when playing a concerto on one instrument, much less on an array of percussion instruments. Nissly must have played more than a dozen instruments, mostly on the stage, but he entered with his instruments strapped to his body, as if playing in a marching band. As always, it's hard to say much about an unfamiliar piece with any precision. It takes multiple hearings to really get to know a piece of music, but I enjoyed the varied textures of the Schoenberg piece, some of which were quite striking, notably the sound of the rotating cymbals that rather dramatically ended the piece. Likewise the short, impressionist tone poem by Boulanger, whose story I had never heard before.

Pictures at an Exhibition, is, of course, very familiar, but I had never heard it live before. It's one of those pieces of music that is as much fun to watch as it to listen to, as all sections of the orchestra have a lot to do throughout and have moments where they are featured as well. As always, the San Francisco Symphony woodwinds were strong but Mark Inoue and the trumpets were particularly brilliant, I thought. Coincidentally, the Santa Rosa Symphony concert I will attend tonight, while it features a banjo concerto, also includes Ravel's orchestrated version of Pictures at an Exhibition.

Books I'm Reading: The Battle of Britain: Dowding and the First Victory, 1940

John Ray's The Battle of Britain: Dowding and the First Victory, 1940 (1994) is not about the Battle of Britain per se but about its leading figure, Hugh Dowding, Commander in Chief of Fighter Command, and issues of command and leadership in the RAF during the battle.

Although he had essentially won the battle by the end of September 1940, thwarting Hitler's plans to bring Britain to the negotiating table by achieving air superiority over Britain and then threatening an invasion, Dowding was dismissed from his position by November 1940 for failing to respond to changing circumstances. While Ray takes a mostly chronological approach, details of the actual fighting become mostly peripheral with the author instead focusing on how members of the RAF command structure, including the Air Ministry and Churchill's War Cabinet, interacted. Much of the interpersonal drama and the differences of opinion about strategy and tactics appear to have had their roots in the experiences of the lead actors during the previous world war, many of whom had been WWI fighter pilots.

The discussion revolves around disagreements about how best to counter German bomber raids over London, other major cities, and the air bases that hosted the Hurricanes and Spitfires that were, in fact, mostly successful in breaking up German daylight attacks. Dowding was perceived as a stubborn supporter of using no more than one or two squadrons together in a group, while others pushed for use of much larger groupings, or "big wings" of fighters. This controversy was news to me, but, apparently it has been much discussed by historians of the battle over the years, and this book assumes the reader already knows at least the outlines of the background history. The author appears to present new evidence objectively to argue that Dowding was not treated as badly as some sources have argued and that ultimately he was pushed out not so much because of the Big Wing controversy as because Churchill—at first a staunch supporter of Dowding—was eventually persuaded that new ideas were required at Fighter Command, especially new ideas for countering the night bombing the Germans had turned to, causing many civilian casualties. An interesting read, although it might be disappointing to a reader expecting the book to be an account of the battle itself. I read this book, sometimes by candlelight, during the blackouts associated with the wildfires here in Sonoma County in late October 2019.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Wines I'm Making: 2019 Cabernet pressed, 2018 Sangiovese and Cabernet bottled

On October 21, I took advantage of an unexpected day off to press the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc, ending up with 11.5 gallons of pressed wine, which will eventually translate into about 55 bottles of finished wine. This year's Sangiovese had already been pressed for rosé (five gallons, or 25 bottles).

I also finally got the 2018 Sangiovese and Cabernet bottled.
2018 was unusual in that I made no rosé from the Sangiovese (I was so busy that, by the time I got to pressing the grapes last year, they had already taken on too much color to be a rosé, so I let them develop into a full-on red). This will be an opportunity to see how these grapes do as a red wine. We ended up with 29 bottles of 2018 Cabernet, 17 bottles of 2018 Sangiovese, a very small yield. 2019 was the biggest in many years because of a combination of factors. Our neighbor removed small trees shading the vines the year before and they got better light and air as a result. That and a new method of sulfur spraying (dusting rather than spraying) prevented nearly all mildew loss. We also suffered comparatively little damage from critters.



Art I'm Making: Untitled Collage No. 215 (Santa Rosa)

My pace of working has slowed greatly this year. I've made about one new collage a month in 2019, while I was making about one a week the year before. Quality is, of course, more important than quantity, but the more you make, the more you evolve, and it felt good to be working at what felt like a steady and sustainable pace. Changes in my work schedule and a certain feeling that I needed a break have been factors, but did have some new work to show during Art Trails this year, which ended last weekend.

This is a piece from April, but one I haven't posted here before. Untitled Collage No. 215 (Santa Rosa). Acrylic on paper, acrylic monotype, graphite, collage. Image size 28.3 x 36.9cm (10.9 x 14.8in). Matted to 20 x 24 inches. Signed on the mat. Signed and dated on the reverse.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Wines Im Making: Harvest 2019

We picked our grapes this year on Saturday, October 5, which is a pretty typical date. We usually harvest in the first week of October. We took in 77.42 pounds of Sangiovese and 155.54 pounds of Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc, which is rather more than usual because this year we suffered very little damage from raccoons and other critters, losing only seven or eight clusters of low-hanging fruit, and losing virtually nothing to mildew--a first. It made a huge difference to dust the grapes with sulfur rather than spraying them. It is a far easier method and it works much better. That will be the plan in the future. These are perhaps the healthiest-looking grapes we've ever harvested.

The Cabernet must tested at 23.25 brix and a pH of 3.38, which is close to ideal. The Sangiovese tested at 20.25 brix and a pH of 3.7, a trifle low on the brix side, but we usually make rosé from these grapes, so that's well within the range I'm looking for. I added 230 grams of corn sugar to bump up the brix about a degree, as I did last year. After 18 hours on the skins, I pressed the grapes, (the grapes were crushed at about 4PM on the 5th, pressed at about noon on the 6th). Ten gallons of must yielded five gallons of pressed juice. On the evening of the 6th, I added yeast, this year using the Prise de Mousse variety again, as I did last year, although I've usually used the Epernay II yeast in the past. The yeast doesn't seem to alter the flavor that much. I've had good results with both. The grapes were so healthy looking I did not add sulfite to the Sangiovese must. I lightly sulfited the Cabernet, as that must will soak for a couple of days before it starts to undergo fermentation. So far, off to a good start. Next task--bottle and label last year's wise.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Books I'm reading: Violin Virtuosos

I picked up this slim (120-page) volume at a recent San Francisco Symphony performance, in the Symphony store. Violin Virtuosos (Back Stage Books, 2000) is a collection of short essays about 11 top violinists: Joshua Bell, Leila Josefowicz, Joseph Silverstein, Jorja Fleezanis, Victoria Mullova, Mark Kaplan, Chee-Yun, Christian Tetzlaff, Hilary Hahn, Vadim Repin, and Kung-wha Chung. Quite a range. Some of these are mostly solo performers, a couple are concertmasters. Some are younger, some are older. Some are men, some are women. I have heard a number of them perform live: Bell, Josefowicz, Chee-Yun, Tetzlaff, Hahn, and Chung. I've met several of them at after-concert signings (Bell, Josfowicz, Chee-Yun, Hahn, and Chung). I've even had dinner with one of them—Kyung Wha Chung, in Tokyo, years ago. Others I had never even heard of (Fleezanis and Kaplan). So, it was a rounded introduction to a cast of some of the best living violinists.

As this was published in 2000, much has changed since the essays were written. Hilary Hahn, for example, was only 21 at the time and had just released only her third CD (today her discography includes more than 20 discs). Josefowicz was relatively new to the scene. Bell, on the cover, looks like a little boy. These are interesting snapshots and interesting for the variety of experience of the various artists discussed. I especially enjoyed the little blurbs for each violinist that tells not only what kind of instrument they play but even what brand of strings they use. Violin Virtuosos is bried, but worth the small amount of time it takes to read.

Music I'm Listening To: Start of the 2019-2020 Season

After the performance, a tired MTT
I attended the September 13 performance of the San Francisco Symphony, my first concert of the 2019-2020 season. MTT conducted Mahler's Symphony No. 6. It was the only piece on the program, played straight through without intermission. It must have been exhausting for the performers.

As I've noted here before, I generally don't care for MTT as a conductor, as, in my experience, he often seems aloof and unengaged in the music. Mahler has been the exception. This is the second time I've heard him conduct a live performance of one of the Mahler Symphonies, having heard him at the helm for Symphony No. 5 in March last year. That was a breathtaking performance.

While I enjoyed this latest concert, it wasn't quite as exciting. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I thought the third movement a little uncertain in places and thought the tempo variations in the second were a bit too exaggerated. That said, the orchestra members played well (as they virtually always do), the first movement seemed perfect and the finale was fun to watch.

I've always wondered how they do the hammer blows toward the end of the piece. A large wooden structure with a small platform on top was built high behind the percussion session for this performance making it accessible from the front row of the balcony seats behind the stage (which were empty, which is unusual). A member of the percussion team appeared for each of the blows above the wooden platform wielding a large wooden sledgehammer. He looked rather menacing and a bit surreal. It must be hard to time the blow, given how heavy the hammer seemed, but he got it right. As in the case of the March performance. The orchestra was seated in the antiphonal arrangement.

The Santa Rosa Symphony season opens tomorrow, October 5. I'll be doing backstage photography for the symphony again this year. Garrick Ohlsson will be playing the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 and Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra is also on the program.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Wines I'm Making: Harvest 2019—Not Quite Yet

Thinking our backyard grapes might be ready to harvest, I did my first full testing of their ripeness today. A sample from the Cabernet vines showed brix at 23.5, which is very close to ideal (24 brix is where I normally like to pick), but with the pH a bit on the low side (pH 3.34). PH squared x brix = 262, which, according to Jeff Cox's From Vines to Wines (Storey Books, 1999), means they are ready for picking (the goal by this measure is 260 for a red wine), but the seeds in many of the grapes are still a touch green and another week on the vines will be perfect, I suspect. The problem is the raccoons—or whatever it is that steals grapes in the night. Ideal ripeness has to be balanced against potential animal losses. Happily, this year, almost none of the grapes will be lost to mildew, so I feel like waiting another week is the way to go. Thus, harvest 2019 is projected for October 5.

The Sangiovese, from which we normally make rosé (and last year used to make a little sparking wine, even), tested at only 19 brix and a pH of 3.31—on the low side (pH squared x brix = 208, again, within the acceptable range, according to Cox's measure (for whites and rosé 200 is the goal), but I think we can get a little more ripeness). I like to pick the Sangiovese for rosé at 22 brix. Although 19 brix would probably be just right for sparkling wine, I'm not equipped with enough of the right kind of bottles to make the whole Sangiovese harvest into sparkling wine, so I will wait to pick the Sangiovese as well. Today, I will check the integrity of the nets and make sure the electric fence is working and hope the animals are deterred as much as possible....

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Art Trails 2019

ART TRAILS 2019: Art Trails is approaching. I'll be showing new work again this year in my home during the two middle weekends of October from 10:00AM to 5:00PM all four days. If you're in the area, come by and see what I've been up to. This year, I'm studio No. 18. Preview show opening is this Friday, September 27 from 6:00PM to 9:00PM at The Sebastopol Center for the Arts, Sebastopol, CA. Otober 12-13 and October 19-20.

Wines I'm Maknig: 2019 Grapes Coming Along Nicely

Until about four days ago, the grapes in our little backyard vineyard were in perfect condition, with no losses. The new method of spraying with sulfur has been a great success. There is virtually no mildew on the grapes at all this year--a first. We had had no animal damage either until a few nights ago when I began to notice clusters stripped of fruit here and there. This happens every year, despite the netting and the electric fence around the grapes. Single-grape testing has suggested the Cabernet is already at about 23 brix and the Sangiovese at about 21 brix, both close to being ready to harvest. If the critter damage begins to accelerate, I may be forced to harvest sooner rather than later. Ideally, I'd like to let the fruit hang another ten days or so. We'll see....

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Art I'm Making: Untitled Collage No. 214 (Santa Rosa)

After an intense period of collage-making that lasted almost five years, from the middle of 2014 to the end of 2018, I've been in a lull lately, my time taken up by practicalities such as making a living, and with the urge to create collages somewhat dampened by a feeling that it's time for something new. A period of work on cyanotypes ended (for the time being--I will get back to cyanotype) in frustration; cyanotype is a trickier process than one is often led to believe.

That said, I've not been entirely inactive in 2019. Here is Untitled Collage No. 215 (Santa Rosa), made back in February. I'd neglected to post it here. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monotype, found paper (handwritten music), collage. 27.8 x 37.3cm (10.8 x 14.8in). Matted to 20 x 24 inches. Signed on the mat. Signed and dated on the reverse.

With the 2019 Art Trails open studio event looming (October 12–13 and 19–20), I've been working a bit again in the past few weeks. More to come soon....

To see more of my collage work and some of my abstract photography, visit my website at: https://ctalcroft.wixsite.com/collage-site

Friday, September 6, 2019

Books I'm Reading: Freedom Evolves

Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves (Penguin, 2003) is an engaging if rather challenging read. It's the sort of book you need to read several times to really absorb the arguments--that view more a reflection of defects in my intellect, I imagine, than defects in the author's arguments or the clarity of the writing.

Dennett looks at questions of free will and determinism, asking whether free will can exist in a deterministic world. His answer is essentially yes. He suggests human beings are unique in having evolved minds that give us free will and make us moral beings (without any need for religion, by the way).

Among the more interesting notions presented is the idea that it's possible to imagine a completely deterministic world that has randomness built into it. A lot to consider here, but too much  undigested (by me) to write much of a review. This is mostly intended as a note to myself that I attempted this one.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Wines I'm Making: Grapes Netted (August 12, 2019)

This year, I treated the grapes against mildew by dusting them with sulfur rather than wetting the sulfur powder and spraying them. Now, weeks after applying sulfur dust, I can report that dusting seems to work much better than spraying. Usually, by this time of the season, the grapes that are most shaded in our little vineyard are already showing some damage from mildew. In bad years, I've lost as much as 20% of the Sangiovese to mildew. Right now there is virtually no mildew on the grapes, which is wonderful. Removal of the trees behind the vineyard that were in my neighbor's yard has helped and this year I did not put up the reed fencing on the back fence that we usually have there, so I think they are getting more light and air as well, which helps against the mildew. In any case, the grapes are looking very good.

The berries are just beginning to turn color. I finished netting them against the raccoons yesterday. The next task will be to water them for the first time this season. I typically water at the end of July, the end of August and the end of September, although, I suspect they could be completely dry farmed now. That said, the Sangiovese shows signs of water stress well before the Cabernet. They need a little drink. There's a complication this year. I put down weed cloth under the vines this spring for the first time, to try to make the job of weeding the vineyard easier. It's worked very well, but, now, when I turn on the irrigation, the water mostly beads up on top of the cloth. I'm not confident it's getting into the soil. I'll probably have to go out and cut holes where the drippers drip.

Music I'm Listening to: Reorganizing a CD Collection (August 2019)

This is what happens when you start to reorganize your CD collection. For quite a while I've been thinking about how best to organize a CD collection that is mostly classical, but one spanning from Gregorian chant to contemporary music by living composers and including not only classical but also world music, Japanese pop music, rock music, blues, and jazz.

I've decided on the following: First, the classical--these chronologically roughly by death date of composer, divided by composer and within each composer by type of music, with chamber music, concertos, and symphonies each getting a separate section. Within classical, I've recognized sections for organ music, for guitar music, and for strongly national music. For example, I have a section that's mostly late 19th and early 20th century French music, with works by Debussy, Ravel, Frank, Poulenc, Milhaud, Satie and the like. I have a Spanish music section as well.

Then, at the end of the chronological classical section, I've grouped all classical CDs that are collections by artist or some other criteria (by instrument, or period--anything that's a mixture of pieces). Following these are three sections of classical vocal music--one for full operas and opera aria collections, one for art songs, and then one for choral music. Within art songs (and sections generally), I've made sections for individual artists if I have a significant number of CDs featuring one artist. In art songs, for example, Elly Ameling gets her own section. I have a Radu Lupu section, a Kyung-wha Chung section, a Melvyn Tan section, etc. Following the vocal music. I have my world music section. This includes everything from the Nenes (an Okinawan vocal group) to Mary O'hara (Irish harp), to gamelan music, and flamenco. Flamenco gets its own section. 

Next I have a jazz section (within this a Monk section and a Jackie McLean section), then a blues section (divided roughly into modern Chicago-style blues and Delta blues), and then the pop music, with the pop divided into Western pop and Japanese pop. It's now much easier to find things. I'm revisiting my entire CD and LP connection....

This seems to work. How do you organize your CDS or LPs?

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Books I'm Reading: Godforsaken Grapes

The grapes author Jason Wilson discusses in his Godforsaken Grapes (Abrams Press, 2018) have not been forsaken by god, but by people. Wilson attempts to introduce the reader to some of the more interesting obscure varieties from around the world, but he has room to discuss only a small number. There are said to be as many as 10,000 known grape varieties in the world (although that may actually mean 10,000 known grape names, as many of the common, long-cultivated and widely distributed varieties have numerous synonyms: Pinot Noir apparently has more than 300 used around the world). In contrast, the back-cover blurb of the book suggests there are 1,400 grape varieties in the world, but that number seems far too low. Precisely how many there are probably is impossible to know and any number offered up will depend on choices about what constitutes a distinct variety; the wine grape vine (mostly Vitis vinifera) is notoriously prone to mutation, and where you draw boundaries will necessarily affect the number you end up with.

However many varieties there are, about two dozen of them account for nearly all of the wine made in the world. I would guess that Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Gamay, Grenache, Carignan, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Zinfandel, among red grapes, and Airén, Trebbiano, Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewürtraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, Viognier, and the Muscat family among whites would account for most of it.

These grapes have dominated the world of wine for different reasons. Some have been cultivated for many centuries and have persisted because of their inherent quality—grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling, for example. Others have been widely planted and persisted more because of habit or convenience (they happen to do well in a particular set of difficult conditions) or because they can be consumed in vast quantities in making base wines for distillation—Airén and Trebbiano come to mind. According to online sources, there are about 840,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in the world (the world's most commonly planted wine grape), accounting for about 5% of all grapes planted for wine production. The grape varieties Wilson discusses sometime exist in a single vineyard of no more than a few acres and nowhere else on Earth. Increasingly, rare varieties and the wine they make, are gaining attention among younger, less tradition-bound sommeliers, Wilson tells us, which has encouraged at least some growers to identify, preserve, and expand plantings of obscure varieties, some on the verge of extinction.

To chronicle all known grape varieties would require a project of encyclopedic proportions.* Wilson is necessarily selective even among the narrowed-down choice presented by grapes that might be considered obscure and forgotten. Any reasonably serious wine drinker will immediately be able to draw up a quick mental list of obscure varieties that don't even get a mention—and not all the grapes he discusses will be unfamiliar to readers with even a casual interest in wine. For example, there is a chapter on Grüner Veltliner, which has become quite trendy in the US of late and is not especially obscure in the areas where it is widely grown, most importantly in Austria and Hungary;  but choices had to be made. Here and in several other places in the book Wilson takes the opportunity to point out how confusing and insane grape naming can be by noting that there is also a Roter Veltliner, a Frühroter Veltliner, and a Brauner Veltliner—none of which are related to Grüner Veltliner at all. And remember those 300-plus synonyms for Pinot Noir.

That said, each of the sections introduces grape varieties that mostly are obscure—Altesse, Diolinoire, Hondarrabi Zuri, Juhfark, Ramisco, Timorasso, and the like—in a kind of travelogue style through accounts of visits to some of the growers and winemakers that nurture such rarities. Along the way, there is a fair amount of discussion about the economics of producing these varieties, particularly about how a comparatively recent obsession with the rare among well-heeled wine drinkers and sommeliers has supported the revival of more than a few. More often than not, however, a respect for place and tradition and a sense of duty to future generations seems to motivate the growers who work to keep little-known wine grape varieties from slipping into oblivion. Reading this book left me grateful, as many of them sound well worth exploring. Recommended.

*One of the most comprehensive attempts, the 1,242-page Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including their Origins and Flavours, by Jose Vouillamoz, Jancis Robinson, and Julia Harding, as the title suggests, covers less than 1,400.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Organic Fertilizer Bounty

Thanks to an amazing homemade organic fertilizer I learned about from a neighbor (who attributes it to a farmer in Wyoming with a YouTube video), our garden this year is producing an overwhelming amount of food. Summer squash, zucchini, Japanese turnips, green beans, bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, cayenne peppers, Fresno peppers, Italian horn peppers, lemon cucumbers, peaches..... Soon eggplant and tomatoes will start coming as well.

Very easy to make this fertilizer, which has only three ingredients: Alfalfa pellets, blackstrap molasses, and fish emulsion. Feed stores generally have the pellets. A big bag will last all year. Any good garden store will have the fish emulsion (should be marked 5-1-1 or very close to that). The molasses (unsulphured) is available online. The one-gallon jug of the molasses and the fish emulsion I bought are not even half empty and I started this regimen in April.

Put one pound of the pellets in the bottom of a five-gallon bucket (I've found that a one-liter measure filled to the brim with pellets is about a pound). Put about a gallon of water in and let the pellets soak up the water and swell up. There should be enough water that you're left with a soupy mixture with liquid, not mush. After a few hours, or overnight, add 150ml each of the fish emulsion and the blackstrap molasses (about 2l3 of a cup maybe. Measurements don't have to be exact). Stir well and let sit for a couple of hours.

This I dilute again for use, putting one gallon of the mixture into a five-gallon watering can--so, diluting 1:4. It sounds more complicated than it is. Once you've done it a couple of times, it's quite easy. Apply once or twice a week. As plants start to flower and produce fruit, I add an organic guano-based 0-4-3 fertilizer to the mix called HDK (25ml/five gallons) easily available from the cannabis hydroponics stores if you live in a cannabis-legal state. This all-organic mixture works wonders!

Friday, June 28, 2019

Wines I'm Making: Grapes Sulfur Dusted, June 2019

For the first time in the 16 years I've been making wine from our backyard grapes, this year I'm treating the vines against mildew using a duster rather than a sprayer. It consumes more sulfur powder than the sprayer, but being lightweight, it's much easier and faster to use than the sprayer. The question is whether the fine sulfur dust works as well to prevent mildew.

Actually, spraying the grapes has never been as effective as I would like. Using the sprayer, the sulfur doesn't stick very well; most of it runs off. The powder seems to adhere better, but it's so fine it's hard to tell. So far, everything looks good, helped by the very cool spring and early summer we had this year (with one, short, extremely hot three-day period an exception). Mildew likes things warm and damp. Late rain kept things comparatively damp, but it was never especially warm and damp. We'll see how the sulfur dusting performs as the season progresses. This was the second dusting so far this year.

[Now, weeks later (mid-August), I can report that dusting with the sulfur seems to work much better than the spraying. Usually, by this time of the season, the grapes that are most shaded in our little vineyard are already showing some damage from mildew. In bad years, I've lost as much as 20% of the Sangiovese to mildew. Right now there is virtually no mildew on the grapes, which is wonderful.]

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Rain: Last night (June 19, 2019) We Had 0.2 Inches of Rain

Strangely, it rained last night and into the early morning. Very unusual at this time of year. We had 0.2 inches of new precipitation in the rain gauge last night, bringing our total for the 2018-2019 rain year to 37.50 inches at my location in northeast Santa Rosa.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Books I'm Reading: Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

This was a surprisingly pleasurable read. Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, subtitled: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone (edited by Jenni Ferrari-Alder, Riverhead Books, 2007) is one of those books that's been in my library for years; I can no longer remember when or where I acquired it. It may have been one of those left behind by my father. But I wish I had read this collection of 26 essays about solo cooking and eating alone sooner.

The essays are independent. Some include recipes (always for one), some do not. They can be read in any order, I imagine, but I found the stories had a certain cumulative effect; by the end of the book, I felt like I'd had a moving lesson in the way human beings respond at the intersection of food and solitude—solitude sometimes welcome, sometimes not. This is as much (or more) about being alone than it is about food.

Some of the names were familiar—M. F. K. Fisher, Nora Efron, Mary Cantwell, and Haruki Murakami, for example—most were not.  The writing is somewhat variable. Although good on the whole, one or two of the selections seemed a trifle unnecessarily vulgar to me—but there are real gems here, too. I think my favorite is the essay about asparagus by Phoebe Nobles. I don't want to spoil the fun, so I will say nothing about it except that it had me laughing out loud, which was a touch embarrassing as I read it sitting at the counter of the Pangloss wine bar in the town of Sonoma after a day of work driving wine tasters around the Sonoma wine country.

If I had to complain about anything, it would be the lack of an index. It might be necessary to re-read the book to find a recipe again or a particularly pleasurable paragraph, but this is a quibble; I might re-read it again soon anyway. Recommended.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Rain: Unusually Heavy Rain Late in the Season

It began raining on May 16, and really raining. It's unusual to get much rain in May at all—very unusual to have an actual storm come through. It rained most of today, May 17, and more rain is expected into next week. It's been cold and windy, more like December than mid-May. The rain gauge showed about half an inch this afternoon, but I had put the gauge away for the season and so missed most of the first day's precipitation, which I'd guess was at least another half inch, maybe more. I will update the total once the storm has passed us by.

[Update: As of this morning, May 21, we have had 1.65 inches of new rain, not counting the half inch or so I missed recording. That brings our total for the 2018-2019 rain year to 38.95 inches—or about 39.5 inches, assuming I missed about half an inch. I hope the rain is over for the year now. It's been a very long, very cold, very wet spring.]
 
[We had more rain on May26-27, adding 0.45 inches to the total for the 2018-2019 rain year. It looks like this, finally, will be the last for the year. It's been so wet and cold this spring that some of the plants in the garden had started to rot. Sunshine will be very welcome. The total at my northeast Santa Rosa location stands at 39.95 inches, which is on the high side of normal. Average annual rainfall in Santa Rosa is a little over 36 inches. Substantial rain this late in the spring is rare. Perhaps we will have a somewhat less threatening fire season in 2019. I hope so.] 

Monday, May 13, 2019

Books I'm Reading: My Name Escapes Me

Penguin asked Alec Guiness to keep a diary for a little over a year in the middle of the1990s. My Name Escapes Me (Penguin 1996) was the result. It's an idiosyncratic collection of daily jottings that, as the author himself puts it, reveal his "phobias, irritations, prejudices, childishness, and frivolity" (although he's a little hard on himself; he doesn't come across as terribly prejudiced, childish, or frivolous). It is mostly a dryly observed record of what Guinness was up to in 1995, by which time he had mostly retired from acting.

Apparently, he was an art lover. There are a number of pages about paintings he wished he could own. There is a fair amount of travel. There is a great deal of dining with friends and reminiscing about the theater and film. While Guinness drops names left and right, you never get the feeling he's doing it to impress. He simply knew many well known actors and actresses (although a fair number of the early British stage actors mentioned were unfamiliar to me).

Always intelligent, often quite funny (I especially enjoyed the several remarks that reveal he deeply regretted his connection to Star Wars). Not a challenging read, but entertaining and worth the time.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Wines I'm Making: 2019 Spring Shoot Thinning and First Sulfur Spraying Done (May 4, 2019)

A Cabernet vine before thinning
Yesterday I finished the biggest spring chore in our little vineyard of 34 vines. I thinned the excess growth from the vines, which will put out dozens of unnecessary shoots if left unchecked. I then sprayed with sulfur, which is a mildew preventative. The rows look neat and ready for the upcoming growing season—although the longest shoots are already 18 inches or longer. This is the second season since the neighbor behind us thinned out the trees that were shading the vines. They look stronger again and I think they will yield more fruit than they have in many years. I look forward to a nice crop this year if the mildew and the critters can be held at bay.

A Cabernet vine after shoot thinning
After sulfur spraying

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Books I'm Reading: Gorgon


Generally, I find little to complain about when reading anything published by Penguin, and this is a quibble, I suppose, but Gorgon, by Peter D. Ward (Penguin, 2004), once finished, seemed somewhat deceptively titled. The rather long subtitle (The Monsters That Ruled the Planet Before Dinosaurs and How They Died in the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History) might better have been something like “Deciphering the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History” as the book focuses not on the animals per se but on the author’s involvement in work in South Africa researching the great Permian extinction (an earlier and more pervasive extinction than the better known and much later Cretaceous–Tertiary mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago; the Permian extinction occurred about 250 million years ago). While fossilized gorgons and other animals play a role in the story as chronological markers, the book tells us little about what these creatures were like—failing to satisfy expectations raised by the title and by text on the back cover of the book. I also noted six or seven typographical errors, which is quite unusual in a Penguin publication. Penguin texts are generally perfect in a typographical sense.

The book is worth reading nevertheless—for its examination of the causes of the Permian extinction—including a new (at the time of publication) theory to explain it—and for its look at some of the men and women who endure hardship in remote places to try to find answers to questions about the biological history of our planet. At the same time, it includes some nicely wrought descriptions of South Africa’s Karoo desert region and of the political and social climate of South Africa shortly after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of Apartheid in the country he later presided over.

Research by Ward and others seems to point to a number of important conclusions. First, it refutes the idea that the Permian extinction was slow and gradual (until lately, a widely accepted notion). At the same time, the data seem to refute the idea that it was primarily the result of a massive meteor impact, now the generally accepted explanation for the later Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction. Ward lays out a theory suggesting that the mass extinction was caused by a rapid increase in atmospheric temperature and carbon dioxide and an attendant decline in oxygen levels, these changes the results of a number of factors, which may have included an asteroid impact, although not one big enough to have been responsible for the extinction on its own.

He suggests that the survival and later flourishing of the dinosaurs can be explained by pre-existing adaptations in precursor species that allowed them to acquire oxygen more efficiently than competitors, and this is consistent with the idea that birds (with similar adaptations: mainly complex lung systems with ancillary airsacs that extend even into hollow bones in some parts of the body) are the descendants of certain types of dinosaur. Essentially, he believes the Permian extinction reflects a wholesale failure of life on Earth to survive a sudden increase in heat coupled with a decline in available oxygen. He closes the book asking whether the period of abnormally low oxygen beginning around the time of the Permian extinction might have implications for the development of other adaptations—namely live birth and warm-bloodedness. I have yet to encounter any subsequent material that discusses these ideas (this book is already 15 years old, and based on research done as much as 25 years ago), so it’s hard for me to judge the reception they have found. I would be interested to learn what further evidence the scientific community has turned up (or not) since Ward’s conclusions were advanced.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Miscellaneous: Fire at Notre Dame de Paris

Tragedy in Paris, at the cathedral, but it sounds like the bulk of the structure is unharmed and the damaged portions can be rebuilt. Here's to the hope that that is true.

Shown is "Notre Dame, Paris—Grim Guardian" circa 1930, by Warren R. Laity, my grandfather. Silver-gelatin print. Image size: 9 x 13 inches. My grandfather was a photographer beginning to get an international reputation just as he tragically died of complications during minor surgery at the age of 46, in 1936. We have about 60 of his exhibition prints, mostly of European architectural subjects, as that was his specialty. Many of them are plastered on the back with exhibition stickers from all over Europe and the US. This image has exhibition stickers on the reverse from New York and Budapest.

He taught art history at a women's college in NJ that later became part of Rutgers. On his summers off, he did classes on transatlantic cruise liners to pay his way to Europe for research. He also spent a couple of summers (1922 and 1923) traveling around Europe by motorcycle and photographing while writing articles for the Harley-Davidson magazine.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Miscellaneous: Goobye Milo (April 14, 2019)

Luck seemed to be with us yesterday when a swarm of bees obligingly moved into one of our empty bee hives. Today, luck abandoned us. I was awakened by a phone call from animal control--our cat Milo, hit by a car. Apparently paralyzed from the waist down and with severe internal injuries, he didn't make it. Very hard to put an animal down. Doesn't seem right to have a life or death decision over another creature, but the vet said he wouldn't make it through the day.

He was half-feral, would never stay at home, often seemed ungrateful, and he was sometimes cantakerous, but I will miss him. He was a handsome dark tabby with a broken tail, a rescue cat from the pound who, when he did come home and hang out with us, had a funny way of rolling around on the sun-warmed concrete of the driveway, showing his belly as if he wanted it stroked. Attempt to pet him there, and he'd usually try to bite. But I'll miss him.

We dug him a grand, flower-filled grave in a quiet place in the garden. I'll miss him.

Milo, in happier days, sleeping on the warm hood of one of our cars

Miscellaneous: Swarm moves in (April 13, 2019)

The last few days, a number of bees had been checking out one of our two empty beehives in the back garden. I was hoping it might be a scouting party for a swarm looking for a new home. And yesterday the air was full of bees and a large clump quickly formed on the alighting board in front of one of the hives.

We haven't had bees for two seasons. It will be nice to have bees again. I hope they become established and find their new home comfortable. Right now they seem to be cleaning things up, pushing dead earwigs and other debris out the front door. A new hive start has gotten so expensive now (I've heard as much as about $180), that a free swarm is a real gift. When I started keeping bees, in 2001, a hive start cost about $35.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Rain: Will it Never End?

Yes, we need rain. Rain this late in the season is a good thing, as it means it will take longer than usual for the summer months to completely parch the landscape, and it may mean comparatively low fire danger for longer than usual. That said, it's been so dismal and cool this spring that I'm really ready for some sun. It's been raining off and on the last couple of days and it's raining now. It's supposed to rain off and on for the next couple of days....

Since last reporting, we've had 1.15 inches of new precipitation, which brings our total to 37.30 inches so far in the 2018-2019 rain year at my location, which is  a little above normal. Other sites have had more than 38 inches so far. The historical average for April 4 in Santa Rosa is 32.43 inches.

[Update: As of April 12, it's turned sunny finally and little rain is forecast for some time now. Perhaps the bulk of our rain this year is now behind us.]

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Music I'm Listening To: Gil Shaham, Christian Tetzlaff, and Elena Urioste

Gil Shaham after the concert
Three recent concerts, two in San Francisco, one in Santa Rosa. I attended the February 8 performance of the SF Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. On the program were Steven Mackey's
Portals, Scenes and Celebrations (a Symphony commission and world premiere), Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. Gil Shaham was soloist in the Prokofiev. This is a belated report. I can't say I remember the first piece at all, which shouldn't really count against it, but, by definition, it wasn't memorable. Shaham was his usual, highly competent self. MTT's rendition of the Tchaikovsky was on the slow side but quite enjoyable. It was particularly fun to see the substantial pizzicato sections live. This is a very familiar piece of music but not one I'd seen in person before.

Christian Tetzlaff takes a bow
On March 15, I was at Davies Symphony Hall again, this time to hear Christian Tetzlaff play Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3. He played some unfamiliar cadenzas, which added interest. Also on the program were Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin and Sibelius's Symphony No. 2. MTT conducted. Although I generally find MTT bland, I must admit he does the very late romantic stuff well. I very much enjoyed his handling of the Sibelius. So, that's twice that I've found him really engaged and putting a distinctive stamp on the music—this and a recent performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony

Violinist Elena Urioste
The following day, it was the Santa Rosa Symphony at the Green Music Center under the baton of Conductor Emeritus Jeffrey Kahane. On the program were Gershwin's An American in Paris in its original version (as Gershwin orchestrated it), Barber's Violin Concerto, and Copland's Symphony No. 3. Elena Urioste was the soloist in the Barber concerto. I was impressed by Urioste's performance and she was very gracious backstage. It was fun to see Kahane again, too. The Gershwin in the original orchestration sounded rather different than the version we're used to, which, according to Kahane, was cleaned up substantially by a Hollywood orchestrator. Gershwin apparently had little experience writing for full orchestra at the time. The Copland is not a favorite. It's rather ponderous, but it's interesting to hear the sections of Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) that were written into the symphony, which followed Fanfare by a year or two.

SR Symphony Conductor Emeritus Jeffrey Kahane

Art I'm Looking At: The Art Wall at Shige Sushi Closes (April 2019)


The Art Wall at Shige Sushi is no more. The restaurant owners have decided to permanently close the Cotati location to focus on their new location in Sonoma. It was a really fun four-plus years. As curator, I feel like I was able to show a great deal of really good local art in that time. I sincerely thank everyone who helped to make The Art Wall possible.

The first show was in December and January 2014-2015. Only one person came to the opening reception. It was pouring with rain, no one had heard of the place (except as a restaurant) and it was right before Christmas. In the end, that was a good thing. There would have been room for no more. We held the reception while the restaurant was open—a mistake in such a small space. I quickly learned to have the receptions on Mondays, when the restaurant was closed. I will always be grateful to Claude Smith and Sherrie Parker for agreeing to participate in the first show.

I curated 26 shows of 8 weeks each with a couple of exceptions—one was six weeks, one ten weeks. I showed the work of 28 artists, 27 living, one deceased (Lewis Bodecker). There were 23 solo shows, three group shows (collage work by Claude Smith, Sherrie Parker, and me; Lisa Beerntsen and Deborah Salomon had a show together, and we did a show of contemporary photography that included work by nine artists). Of the 23 solo artists, 17 or 74% were women. Several artists participated in more than one show, including Janis Crystal Lipzin, Sherrie Parker, Claude Smith, and Deborah Salomon.

We sold at least one piece in (or as a result of) seven of the shows, not including work I bought myself. Including that, we sold at least one piece in 11, or 42% of the shows. Katie McCann sold the most in one show, with three of her collages going to an enthusiastic collector. The most expensive piece sold was a piece in Sherrie Lovler’s show, which sold for over $800. As I took only a 25% commission on sales, The Art Wall at Shige Sushi was not a profitable venture in monetary terms. It would not have been possible at all if the owners at Shige Sushi had not allowed me to use the space at no cost. It was profitable in terms of other, more important things. 

Please join us next Monday, April 8, 2019 for a final closing party from 6:00PM to 9:00PM. Everyone's invited. If you never made it to one of our shows, this will be your last chance. Wine and beer will be provided, but please bring a little something to eat to share with friends. Pot luck. Bring your own bottle, too, if you care to. But come, even if you come empty-handed. I'd really like to personally thank everyone who was involved—the artists and the art lovers—with making The Art Wall at Shige Sushi a success.

The photo above shows postcards for each of the 26 shows I curated, in chronological order.
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