Saturday, March 20, 2010

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Rosa Mutabilis Chinensis, Salvia "Point Sal Spreader"

Rosa mutabilis chinensis--mutable Chinese rose--this plant is called, and it's well named. The buds are a rusty dull red. The flowers open a pinkish-red and then fade almost to white through shades of pink and cream.

Does anyone still use the language of flowers? There was a time when people communicated with flowers--or so we are told. How many people today know what the flowers are supposed to mean? The rose, perhaps, has more meanings than any other flower, usually depending on its color: Red for passion and romantic love; pink for somewhat less ardent love; white for virtue and chastity; yellow given as a token of friendship cherished, friendship longed for. What then would be the meaning of inconstant Rosa mutabilis? I do not know.

Rosa mutabilis first bloomed here on April 15 last year. This year, the first bud opened on March 19, yesterday. A year, according to this rose, was therefore only 338 days--by far the shortest year any plant in the garden has so far calculated. Impatient rose.

First blooms today on Salvia leucophylla "Point Sal Spreader." This has proved an extremely reliable large salvia. It has survived our droughty summers with little coddling (almost none) and has been happy at temperatures as low as 23 degrees F. The foliage generally stays fresh looking except at the very end of the long, hot summer. The delicate lavender flowers contrast nicely with the fuzzy bluish leaves.

Salvia leucophylla first bloomed on April 4 in 2009. A year according to this plant was 350 days--another comparatively short year. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Movies I'm Watching: Sunrise

Yesterday, I finally got around to watching the silent classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (it's usually shorn of the subtitle) in its entirety and without interruption (1927, directed by F. W. Murnau). This was the Hollywood debut of director Murnau who is probably best known today for Nosferatu (1922). Sunrise won three Academy Awards at the first Academy Awards ceremony, in 1929, for films made in 1927/28. (Best Actress for Janet Gaynor, Cinematography, and Most Unique, Worthy, and Artistic Production, a category that later disappeared.

My interest in the film stems from a connection with the cinematographer, Karl Struss, who I came to know of by a circuitous route: I have a philatelic cover flown on one of the first Pan Am flights across the Pacific in the 1930s that was made by Struss and signed by him with a fountain pen in a bold, black hand. I picked it up years ago in a Tokyo junk shop. I noticed the same signature on a reproduction of one of his early photographs one day browsing the Internet. It wasn't until I did a little research that I made some connections and realized that my Karl Struss, the photographer by that name, and the Academy Award-winning cinematographer were one and the same person. It seems Struss was a stamp collector.

He was considered among the best cinematographers of the late silent and early talky period, although Struss worked through the end of the 1950s. He was nominated for the Academy Award for cinematography three more times: in 1931/32 (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), in 1932/33 (Sign of the Cross), and in 1941 (Aloma of the South Seas). Later he filmed Limelight and The Great Dictator for Charlie Chaplin, several of the Tarzan movies, and the original (1958) version of The Fly.

The Man in Sunrise (the character is simply called The Man) is played by George O' Brien (who happens to look like a cross between Dustin Hoffman and Jon Hamm). He is strongly attracted to and tempted by a pretty, dynamic woman visiting the countryside (The Woman from the City). He contemplates drowning his wife, selling his farm, and absconding with this temptress, but it's a plan hatched by the city woman, and, despite The Man's attraction to her, he seems to have no heart for the idea from the outset; we understand that he loves his wife. Still, he attempts to go through with the murder, rowing his wife out to the deep part of a lake, only to find himself incapable. The Wife, naturally, is horrified when she guesses his intent.

The remainder of the film centers on the events of a day and evening in the city after The Wife runs in horror from her husband--bolting from the boat the moment he's rowed it back to dry land--and hops a tramcar into town to escape him, having well understood what he contemplated. He follows, catches up with her, and eventually convinces her his actions were the result of a brief spell of insanity caused by the guiles of the city woman. They reconcile and end up enjoying a date in town lasting late into the night, like young lovers again. To get home, they decide to sail back over the lake in which The Man had intended to commit the murder. A storm suddenly comes up as they cross the water, and their small vessel capsizes. Believing his wife is lost, The Man drags himself on shore, crazed with anger at The Woman from the City whom he believes ultimately responsible. He has nearly strangled the woman when we learn The Wife has, in fact, survived and been pulled from the water by a search party. At sunrise, as a new day dawns, we see the man and his wife together again and the shamed Woman from the City leaving the countryside in a cart. The characters are generic--called simply "The Man," "The Wife," "The Woman from the City." The emphasis is on the universal rather than on character development, the plot is stark--good and evil drawn in black and white, and the acting is overwrought by today's standards, but Sunrise remains interesting.

It is easy to see why Sunrise got the awards it did. It pushes the technological barriers of its day, making excellent use of crane shots; long, slow dolly shots; and montages and superimposed images, frequently in scenes of reverie, rapture, or emotional stress. These last are extraordinary given that they had to be done manually, in-camera. I was impressed also by the lighting and the exposure that gives the entire picture a quality very evocative of still photography of the period--somewhat dark by today's standards but with beautiful, creamy, soft highlights almost never allowed to blow out, and with an extraordinary tonal range. We get glimpses of the German expressionist style in the sparsely decorated and sometimes oddly distorted interior sets that seem in keeping with the simplicity of the plot and the characters, and in swirling, misty night scenes, but not all is gloomy and there are some very funny scenes--the pig chase, the photographer's studio, and, perhaps most memorably, the sequence with the obliging man trying to help a lady with a dress strap that keeps falling down. Considering the time that has passed, Sunrise has held up rather well.

Miscellaneous: My New Cocktail Debuts--Sonoma Dry Sour

The cocktail I invented one day last year, inspired by Mad Men, has made its official debut, at the Zig Zag Café, in Seattle, mixed by the Zig Zag's Master Bartender, Murray Stenson, my recipe having been delivered to him by hand last night by Louis Broome, Seattle playwright of note, and my first-ever college roommate. Facebook had a hand in organizing the debut: I met up with Louis again only a few months ago (via Facebook) for the first time since 1979 and learned that he had become a cocktail enthusiast in the interim. Louis went way out of his way to get it right, stopping off to pick up some pink Murray River flake salt and a Meyer lemon to be sure all the proper ingredients were available. Thanks Louis!

I call it a Sonoma Dry Sour. I won't divulge the recipe here, but if you have a favorite bartender, let me know.  I'll send the recipe to any bar you name if you agree to order it there and give it a try (and tell me what you think--even if you don't like it). Or you can hand deliver the recipe, as Louis did. Surely you know an artist at the bar in your fine city that might like to add it to their repertoire? Feel free to pass this post on to any of your friends that appreciate cocktails or link to it from any appropriate site. This is partly an experiment in tracking the dissemination of the recipe.

Photo by Louis Broome.

[Update at the end of 2011: I laugh at my own naiveté here. For a better drink I've invented since this, see my December 2011 post on the Fertile Eve.]

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Books I'm Reading: Four Essays on Liberty

I just finished Four Essays on Liberty, by Isaiah Berlin, a collection of his essays on liberty (obviously) with a long introduction (longer than at least one of the collected essays) refuting criticisms of his positions. The edition I read is ancient (Oxford University Press, 1969), and falling apart, but has that used bookstore smell about it that I love.

Very enjoyable, but hard work. The prose is lucid and deliciously dense, but therefore demanding of great concentration. This is the kind of book that requires multiple readings to digest. Highlights were the essays on determinism and John Stuart Mill. Berlin pretty neatly demolishes determinism and makes a cogent case for human free will. The Mill essay put Mill's thinking into some semblance of perspective for me--ignorant me. The essay on positive and negative notions of liberty was also interesting and what initially attracted me to the book, which I purchased years ago in Tokyo. It only took me about 15 years to get around to it.... Recommended (if you enjoy this sort of thing).

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Lithodora Diffusa, Halimiocistus sahucii

First blooms today (March 18) on Halimiocistus sahuciiWhen in full bloom, the plant is so profusely covered with flowers that the foliage is barely visible. Today, there is only one pioneering blossom on the plant. It will be at least a week before the flowers really start to take off. Still, it's nice to see even one. Sahucii is a very low grower. It stays within a few inches of the ground. It's excellent for covering bare areas that don't get a lot of water (drought tolerant once established). The sahucii flowers are an almost translucent white. Last year, Halimiocistus sahucii bloomed on April 2 here. A year according to this plant was therefore 350 days.

First blooms yesterday (March 17) on Lithodora diffusa (photo below), a pretty ground cover plant with blue star-shaped flowers. It does fairly well in our dry summers, but appreciates more water than it often gets. As a result, it seems to be happiest in partial shade.

I have no record of the first blooms in 2009, so I can't add this to my botanical calendar, but I record the 2010 first bloom date for use next year.

Music I'm Writing: String Quartet No. 5 (revised)

I've tweaked my String Quartet No. 5 a bit. I'll probably do more to it, but I'm in a bit of a lull right now as far as composing goes. I'm at the limit of my ability to get the notation software I use (Sibelius 6) to score and play what's in my head, and at the point where I need feedback from live musicians--which is a difficult thing to arrange.

So far I've worked entirely in isolation, teaching myself as I go. It's not Beethoven, but I'm pleased with it, considering that at this time last year I had composed virtually nothing. If you listen, remember that this is a dumbed down (MP3) version of an electronically generated performance. I trust it would sound better with live performers.... Link good until March 25.

Colin Talcroft String Quartet No. 5

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Miscellaneous: Interesting Concept

Here's an interesting concept. Create a marketplace for...whatever. The only condition is that every transaction is to be valued at five dollars. It's called Fiverr.

Fiverr is still in beta, it seems. I had problems--I tried to join, but the site has failed to deliver the confirmation e-mail required to complete registration. So, I can't try this out yet. Still, it seems like a great idea. There are plenty of things I'd happily do for five dollars. What would you do?  Fiverr.

[Update: I eventually found the mail in my spam folder. I've put up my first gigs--offering to answer any wine-related question for $5, and offering to recommend bird watching hotspots in Sonoma County for $5. We'll see if I get any response.]

Wines I'm Drinking: Wine Sale at Grocery Outlet and Gift Card Giveaway

A few weeks back I reviewed a number of wines in these pages that I purchased at Grocery Outlet. The people at Grocery Outlet headquarters in Berkeley happened to see the reviews and they recently asked me to be part of a team of guest bloggers reviewing wines from the store ahead of an upcoming wine sale--one of the two big wine sales they hold each year.

I normally like to keep my distance from retailers and wineries when I write about wine. In this case, however, I've accepted a $50 gift card to buy wine at the store to review as part of the company's promotion of the sale (20% off all wine from March 30 to April 3). I also get to give away a $50 Grocery Outlet gift card to one of my readers. It could be you.

I accepted this trade-off because they told me I could say anything I liked, good or bad (which I would have done anyway) and because they even said I could take the money and run--that is, they admitted I might not buy wine with the card or review wine at all (but I will). So, the card came with no strings, and, frankly, it's nice once in a while to get something in return for all the work that an active blog entails. So, thank you Grocery Outlet.

Look forward to a series of reviews of bargain wines at Grocery Outlet in the week ahead of the sale (March 22-26) and to the gift card giveaway (details to be posted soon). With warmer weather looming, I plan to try mostly white wines and rosé, looking for underpriced gems.

(See more wine reviews by clicking the "Wines I'm Drinking" label in the bar at right.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tidbits: Tattoo-less Ladies

If things continue like this, before long ladies with no tattoos will be all the rage in circus freak shows.

Art I'm Looking At: Found Art (March 16, 2010)

On the playground at my son's school there are trees planted in openings in the blacktop that are filled with perforated bricks. The playground markings go right over the bricks in some places. This caught my eye recently.

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Tulipa clusiana

First blooms today on the pretty yellow and rust-red species tulip Tulipa clusiana. Most of these were eaten by squirrels a few years back. That prompted me to plant a lot of daffodils, as they are poisonous and the squirrels ignore them.

Of about 300 Tulipa bakeri bulbs we had, about 30 are left (see previous post), and most of the clusiana bulbs are gone, too, but a few clumps survive here and there around the garden. The brick red is on the outside of the petals. It's visible only before the flowers open or when they close up for the night. The interiors are yellow. This and bakeri have proven the most dependable of the species tulips  here in Northern California. I don't have a record of their first bloom last year, so can't add this one to my botanical calendar--until next year.

Plants I'm Growing: Spring in Full Swing

A series of warmer days (although it's been cold at night) and a break from the rain has brought many plants in the yard into full bloom. Shown here are Tulipa bakeri ("Lilac Wonder"), a species tulip rather than a Dutch hybrid. Plants like these are the ancestors of what most people think of as a tulip today; daffodils; and the little Santa Rosa plum tree that went in last year as a pollinator for the pluots.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Music I'm Listening To: Brahms Violin Concerto

Having just heard the Lazic piano transcription of the Brahms Violin Concerto (see my recent post on the subject), I listened today to a few of the records I have of the piece (yes, vinyl)--such as the Erica Morini recording on Westminster (WST 14037) pictured here and a Jascha Heifetz recording (RCA Red Seal LM-1903). Neither is dated, but I'm guessing the Morini is from about 1959--in my experience, the threshold year for modern sound; it's in stereo and it sounds quite full--and that the Heifetz recording is probably a few years older. I found dates on various websites that put them in that period, but couldn't find anything definitive. I was surprised to find auction results for the Morini recording at more than $100. This is one of many records I bought for a dollar or two at the used record stores in Columbus, Ohio in the early 1980s. Remember Mole's Records on High Street? (I think it was above Bernie's Bagels.) The Morini recording is from one of the stranger periods in LP cover design--when it was fashionable to adorn record jackets with photographs of objects that had little or no relationship to the music. Photographs of the performers must have been considered immodest at the time.

I had come back from a year in Japan not long before I bought this record. I had become a regular drinker of ice coffee, which was (and is) extremely popular in Japan, but the idea hadn't made much headway in Columbus yet; I had to teach the people at Bernie's how to make ice coffee by pouring hot coffee over a knife blade (to help dissipate the heat) and into a large glass of ice. Things have changed a bit since then. I still have trouble grasping the fact that 1980 is 30 years ago. 

But I digress. I still like both recordings, and it's almost fun now to have to turn the record over somewhere in the middle. I even find the occasional scratches and pops somehow comforting, although I despised the distraction in the days before CDs, when a perfectly noiseless recording was virtually impossible. Now that it is possible, the noise on old records doesn't bother me any more. 

Reading the liner notes to the Westminster release there was one interesting tidbit: The Violin Concerto, in three movements, was originally conceived in four, but Brahms threw out the two short middle movements he originally wrote and replaced them with the Adagio we now know as the middle movement. The liner essay (by Irving Kolodin) notes that parts of the discarded movements were later used in the second piano concerto Brahms wrote. Lazic's idea of converting the violin solo into a piano solo begins to seem less far fetched than it did at first.

Last time I heard anything about Erica Morini it was news that her beloved violin, the "Davidoff" Stradivarius (1727), had been stolen shortly before she died in 2005, at the age of 91. I wonder if they ever recovered it?

[Update: I did a little searching. As far as I can tell, the violin is still missing, but I notice that it's now referred to as the "Davidoff-Morini." That seems fitting; she owned it for nearly 75 years.]  

Plants I'm Growing: Cistus Salvifolius, "Snow Fountain" Weeping Cherry

First blossoms today on the "Snow Fountain" weeping cherry on the side of the house. Warmer weather has coaxed out just a few flowers, but soon the entire tree will be covered in white. In 2009, the plant bloomed on March 23. Thus, a year according to this plant was 356 days.

A single blossom opened on one of the prostrate rock roses (Cistus salivifolius) today as well. That seems very early. Only one bud has opened. Most of the buds don't even look fully formed. I suspect it will be several weeks before this plant is really in bloom, but, for the purposes of my botanical calendar, I record the first blossom today. The plant bloomed on April 2 in 2009. A year according to this plant was thus 346 days.
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