Saturday, January 31, 2009

Miscellaneous: Ice storms

I keep hearing about ice storms in Kentucky and widespread power outages. I wonder how far north the severe weather has extended? Is southern Ohio safe?

Miscellaneous: Super Bowl XLIII (2009)

It has come to my attention that tomorrow is Super Bowl day.

As that statement should make plain, it's been a long time since I paid much attention to football on a regular basis (think back to the Oakland Raiders in the days of Ken Stabler, Cliff Branch, and Fred Biletnikoff: Even then, I wasn't a Raiders loyalist, I just appreciate a fine passing game, and those guys had one). Still, I felt really out of it when I heard a couple of days ago that the Steelers would be playing the Arizona Cardinals tomorrow. Wait a minute. Isn't that the St. Louis Cardinals? And the Cardinals are a baseball team, aren't they? Well, whoever is playing and whatever sport they choose to play, I hope they have a good passing game. I'll be watching. 

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Tidbits: Fruit

Does a glass of wine count as a serving of fruit?

Books I'm Reading: Orchestration

I just finished Walter Piston's Orchestration (Norton, 1955). I can't say I absorbed it all, but I' m very impressed by Piston as a writer. Rarely does someone discuss any subject with the kind of economy and clarity he achieves in this book. I see now why it is still recommended after more than half a century. I must read more about basic music theory before going on to Piston's other two books (Harmony and Counterpoint), but I suspect they, too, will eventually make for good reading--for the intellectual exercise, if nothing else.

I've wanted to write music for decades, having first tried at college in St. Louis (1978-79). I got nowhere because I had no feedback. I couldn't hear any of my ideas. Once or twice I bullied musical friends into playing for me something I had painstakingly worked out on a recorder or in one of the music department's piano cubicles (usually no more than a measure or two), but it was hard to impose on people, and hand-written notation was so cumbersome for me that I abandoned my efforts quickly. It wasn't until 1993 that I tried again. In that year I bought my first computer, a Macintosh Centris 650, for what seems in retrospect an astounding $4,800. I took the plunge because I happened to see the machine set up in a music store connected to a digital keyboard and equipped with Performer 2.0 and a Proteus Plus orchestral synthesizer. I bought the lot. I remember the rush of excitement on first hearing massed strings coming out of the speakers. While I put the computer to good use, the rest of the equipment languished. I never wrote anything. Performer was so poorly designed for my purposes, that I gave up almost as soon as I started. 

Last August, I discovered Sibelius (not the composer--already an old friend, figuratively speaking--the software). Setting aside judgments about the quality of my earliest forays, I was writing within minutes of first launching Sibelius. While I'm now frustrated by difficulties using the program for more advanced notation (glissandi, for example) and by the quality of the playback sounds available to me, with Sibelius I can experiment and immediately hear what I've written. I push a button and the computer plays. I do more in an hour than I achieved in 30 years of vaguely thinking about composition. I find it very pleasurable to write.

I'm not much interested in writing for large ensembles. Chamber music interests me. I want to write short pieces for chamber ensemble--carefully constructed tone poems, each one an attempt to encapsulate one of the traumas that pepper life and to thereby render the trauma harmless. These encapsulations are effective as therapy to the extent that they're expressive of the underlying emotions--a powerful incentive to write something that feels genuine. My skills and my ambition are in different leagues, but I'm learning, quickly, and I know that being overambitious is a better way to get something done than is starting with circumscribed expectations. At the very least, this study will continue to make me a better listener of music. I've begun taking composition classes with Dr. Charles Sepos, known around here as a composer, radio personality, and teacher. Stay tuned.

Pun intended.

[Update: I quickly abandoned the lessons, but I continue to write music.]

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Birds I'm Watching: Robins Harassing Acorn Woodpeckers

On the way home from walking my son to school today--often the highlight of my day--I noticed a group of Robins chasing a couple of Acorn Woodpeckers and then harassing them in the upper reaches of an oak tree. I don't know what avian faux-pas prompted the censure, but it was odd to watch. Usually I see crows harassing hawks, high overhead, but I've never seen Robins doing much aggressive--although I suppose worms feel badly treated when pursued by Robins.

There have been many more Robins in the area this year than usual (perhaps reflecting unusually cold weather further north), and there have been more Acorn Woodpeckers than usual as well since this past autumn. The latter live in extended family groups. I've had the impression that a new group has been checking out the area around my house for its possible use as a home territory. That might be interesting. Perhaps they will start nesting here in the spring.

Next time you're in Santa Rosa, go to Paradise Ridge Winery, off of Fountaingrove Parkway. Go for the view from the deck, but don't miss the giant oak outside the front door of the tasting room. It's home to a large colony of Acorn Woodpeckers. It's not uncommon to see ten or 15 at once flitting through the branches. The trunk is riddled with holes, most stuffed with acorns.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Food I'm Eating: What are these?

These bright green globes are one of the most delicious olives I've ever tasted. They are called Castelvetrano olives, after their place of origin, in Sicily (near the western tip of the island, but towards the southern shore--on the opposite side from Palermo). Available recently at our local Whole Foods store and at Oliver's, up the road. These have a wonderful mild flavor. There has been some variation from batch to batch, but at their best, they have a distinctive texture--firm and meaty--yet, somehow, they manage to be rich and buttery at the same time. Delicious. I've been eating far too many of these lately.

Wines I'm Making: Rosé Label Finished

Here's a shot of the label I designed today for the 2008 Sangiovese rosé made from the vines in our backyard. The wine turned out a very pretty salmon red this year. I think it looks good with the gold capsule. The wine is delicious. Wish you could taste it.... 

Only 1.25 cases made--very limited availability, very expensive. If you have to ask, you can't afford it. Actually, it's so exclusive, it's not for sale. If you want a taste, you have to come visit.

We call our "winery" (the garage) "Clos du Tal," a play on "Clos du Val," but more than just a pun. A "clos" is a walled vineyard of the sort common in the northern Côte d'Or (the heart of Burgundy--at least from a winemaking perspective). Many of these walled vineyards in Burgundy have been owned by monasteries, and I believe the word "cloister" is related. "Tal," of course, is short for Talcroft. So, the name means "walled vineyard of the Talcrofts." As our vines happen to be planted behind a stone wall, that is quite fitting. We call the vineyard (all 32 vines) "Stone's Throw Vineyard," first, because it's a stone's throw from the house, and, second, because there are an awful lot of stones around here. We live on top of an abandoned basalt quarry. Next time you see Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, pay attention to the Santa Rosa train station. It was built with rock from what is today our front yard (the station building still stands in the old part of downtown Santa Rosa). According to Press Democrat articles, much of San Francisco was paved at one time with cobblestones made from this rock. The Hotel La Rose across the street from the old station building and a number of other notable structures in Santa Rosa were also built from the basalt quarried on this hill.  

Tidbits: John Updike--RIP

John Updike died today.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Photographs I'm Making: iPhone Camera Nudes

I spent Saturday morning working with a new model. Just experimenting, I did some shots of her with my iPhone as she moved around the studio. The low-tech faults of the phone made for some interesting images. I post one here as an example. This is not especially good. It's just one that isn't in much danger of being censored. I see possibilities here, though. Something about the images reminds me of Franz Marc--the arc-like lines, I suppose. I now look forward to an entire session of shooting iPhone nudes sometime soon.

Movies I'm Watching: Battleground and Bottle Shock

One reason I saw so many birds in the yard last Friday was that I had a day of no work, the morning of which I  spent relaxing on the sofa with a book, a pair of binoculars, and the TV remote control (remember when you had to walk over to the TV to change the channel, and there were only six channels, and you didn't have to pay for anything?). In between a few more chapters of Orchestration and watching the birds, I took in an old film called Battleground (1949; Directed by William Wellman; starring Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban, and others).

Ordinarily, I wouldn't have bothered, but Orchestration was beginning to feel very abstract--mainly because I can't hear the music on the page the way some people can--and bird watching is a slow-paced sport. Also, a quick look in Halliwell's movie guide revealed that the film had won a couple of Oscars and that it was wildly successful in its day. So, I began to wonder why I'd never heard of it. Turned out to be nothing special--which answers that question. The story of the 101st Airborne at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge has been more eloquently told. Still, it was mildly entertaining. Its showing was part of a tribute to Ricardo Montalban following his death last week. He's made better films. I'm afraid I will always remember him gesturing at a grotesque automobile made by Chrysler in the 1970s saying something about "soft Corinthian leather" which turns out to have meant nothing, really. It didn't come from Corinth and Corinth was never known for leather, as far as I know. More to the point, it wasn't even leather. It was vinyl. I remember Corinth for its canal, the view from Acrocorinth, and the well-preserved latrine in the remains of the old city, kindly brought to my attention by the Blue Guide to Greece.

Forgive me. Back to the movies. 

Last thing I saw in a theater was Bottle Shock (2008; Directed by Randall Miller; starring Alan Rickman, and others). I happen to live about a seven-minute walk from one of the best movie houses in the North Bay Area, perhaps the best--The Rialto Lakeside--across from Howarth Park in Santa Rosa. I've taken to going alone from time to time in the past year or so, thinking it a shame not to take advantage of the place more often, and drawn there also by something else--ghosts perhaps? I rather like sitting in an almost empty theater. I enjoy the space. The main reason I got out of the habit of seeing movies on the big screen was my long stay in Japan, where it was often standing room only. For standing room you had the privilege of paying the equivalent of about $20 a ticket--and that was years ago. To sit down it cost about $35. The Color Purple--released in 1985, I believe--was the last thing I saw in a Japanese movie theater. Coincidentally, I went to college in St. Louis with one of the actors in that movie, but that's another story. 

Bottle Shock was entertaining enough on the surface, but it was ruined for me by the liberties the screenplay took with the facts. The writers would have done just as well to make up a plot out of thin air--which is almost what they did. Bottle Shock purports to be the story of the famous Judgment of Paris. No, not the old Greek story you've seen depicted in paintings if you frequent art galleries, but the story of the 1976 Paris wine tasting that first opened the eyes of many to the quality California wine was beginning to attain at that time. It was done blind. Respected French judges shocked themselves and many others by choosing wines from California as the best (in both the red and white wine categories), passing over famed French wines. The filmmakers seem to have thought the true story wasn't good enough to hold an audience's attention, so they augmented, and added, and exaggerated--as they so often do. 

In a nutshell, Steven Spurrier wasn't the sourpuss portrayed by Rickman; his partner was left out of the film entirely; Spurrier didn't break down on the road and happen to be helped by one of the story's main characters; the wines weren't carried to France by accommodating strangers at the airport; the winning white wine wasn't sold off to be dumped and then rescued dramatically by the woman at the bar (in reality the winemakers understood fairly quickly what had happened to the wine--the "bottle shock"; there was no sexy blonde intern at the winery to provide the love interest (is that still required in every movie?); the tasting was in a hotel (not outdoors); and Bo Barrett didn't attend the tasting. Oh well, they tried. I guess.

If you want to know what really happened, read George M. Taber's book, The Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Wine Tasting that Revolutionized Wine (Scribner, 2006). The story needs no augmentation. 

Miscellaneous: Mac Virus Hits the Internet

In the form of news, that is. Hate to be smug, but I think it's hilarious that a computer virus believed to have affected 20,000 machines worldwide (oh my!) is news. That doesn't scare me much, it makes me glad to be a Mac user. In 15 years of using these computers, I've never seen a virus. During the six months I ran Windows at home in order to use voice recognition software that was, until recently, unavailable on the Mac, I had to re-install the system twice because of malicious software. They say Mac bugs will become more common. I hope that's not true. It would be a pity to ruin something generally so elegant. 
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