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The Angels' Share - 073109

Makers of whiskey (and of whisky), makers of wine, and makers of other spiritous beverages that age in barrels all know that a certain portion of their production will be lost through evaporation, vanishing into air as if sipped by invisible supernatural beings.  That disappearing portion is known as "The Angel's Share."  The particular angel involved is likely to be the happily tipsy one who adorns the facade of the Cathedral at Reims, in Champagne:


I keep track of numerous weblogs using Google Reader, and I recently began to use Reader's "Share" function for items that I particularly liked, or wanted to remember, but that weren't necessarily fodder for a full post of my own.  Those who are so inclined can follow those shared items here, and the true zealots can subscribe to them via Reader or any other RSS tool.  Beginning with this post, I hope to collect them semi-regularly here, under the title of "The Angels' Share."

Here, then, in no particular order, are some of the items that caught my eye over the past week or two:

  • At 3QuarksDaily, Elatia Harris goes on at deserved length on James Ensor, in connection with the huge retrospective now on show at MOMA.  (Huge, but missing one key item we southern Californians have kept for ourselves.)

Speaking of Italy, look who's in Rome and sending back photos both fascinating and (literally) Fascist:

And to conclude, via the m john harrison blog, a masterful display of unconventional guitar technique, not involving rats:


Pilgrims Always Coming Home

Mercury and calypso
Figure 1 -- Mercury arrives to inform the nymph Calypso that the nominees for his namesake Award will include her favorite band.  Also that she needs to send packing that Odysseus dude with whom she's been hanging these past seven years.


If you are sympathetic, as I sometimes am and also sometimes am not, to the Lawrence Lessig model of intellectual property in which invented characters, once invented, become fair game for "fair use" in terms of being retold and remolded by others, then the case of Odysseus/Ulysses should be one of your Exhibits "A".  His tale -- especially the tale of his long road home -- has been not so much told as retold over and over for millennia, with modifications in emphasis as the latest teller prefers.

Even in his two Homeric versions, Odysseus differs from himself: the Odysseus of the Iliad is more purely a military strategist and fighting man, while the Odysseus of the Odyssey brings his legendary cleverness to bear with a heightened display of individual will as, with Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, he tries his darnedest simply to get Home.  

In the ensuing centuries, others have had their way with the clever king, making of him whatever their own eras and predilections dictate: from Sophocles to Dante and Shakespeare, to Tennyson (more than once), and on to Cavafy (who never mentions the hero by name) and Wallace Stevens, among many others (*cough* James Joyce *cough*), post-Homeric artists have reused and transformed Mr. O'Dysseus in whatever manner their fancies have pleased.

The latest example of the wily Ithacan's malleability comes on Twice Born Men, the second album from the superlative Sweet Billy Pilgrim.  My enthusiasm for this band is well known by now, beginning with this 2005 post, which led to my declaring the band's first album my very favorite of 2006.  Twice Born Men, released earlier this year on David Sylvian's SamadhiSound label (buy it here!) is a beautiful and fully realized work that bids fair to be my personal favorite of 2009.  It has just been equipped with all manner of credibility by being an unexpected, but wildly deserving, pick for the Short List for this year's Mercury Prize.  (It will almost certainly not win, but that is simply a consequence of there being no Justice in the world.)

The Odysseus connection comes in the song I would select as first among equals on Twice Born Men: "Kalypso."  The song can be taken as a soliloquy of Odysseus himself, after seven years in pleasurable exile as lover/prisoner of the nymph Kalypso, seeking leave to leave and to return to home and hearth and Penelope in his island kingdom.  Or, with no effort at all, it can be taken as the plea of most any man of any era who is looking to be ordered back to the straight and narrow, to be saved from his own weakness and affirmatively kicked to the curb by his temptations.

SamadhiSound recently released a video to accompany "Kalypso," created by longtime Sylvian collaborator Yuka Fujii.  Fujii writes of this piece:

I have been haunted by this song ‘Kalypso’ since I found myself looking out at the Atlantic Ocean from my hotel window whilst I was listening to it on a recent trip and it inspired me to create some images for the track which feature in this music movie.  4 months after I first started shooting I still love to listen to the track along with the rest of the album. The rich layers of musical and non-musical sounds crafted by these talented musicians invites us to set sail on its waves with its shadows of the mundane and the aesthetic, the mortal and immortal.
(The reference to "non-musical sounds" is worth highlighting: the instrumentation on "Kalypso" includes a tuned dishwasher.  Can you spot it?)

Lovely, to say the least.  In Twice Born Men, Tim Elsenburg (writer, vocals, guitar, harmonium, harmonica), with Anthony Bishop(bass, the SBP trademark banjo, cymbal and backing vocals) and Alistair Harner(drums, clarinet, loops and backing vocals) have created -- in Tim's garden shed -- another richly melancholic and woundedly optimistic bit of modified rapture on earth.  Life is better for this. 

Figure 2 -- Odysseus and Calypso by Max Beckmann (1943), Kunsthalle, Hamburg


The Qualities of Merce


Choreographer Merce Cunningham died last night in Manhattan at the age of 90.  Writing for the NY Times, Alastair Macaulay offers this high praise:  

In his final years he became almost routinely hailed as the world’s greatest living choreographer. For many, he had been simply the greatest living artist since Samuel Beckett.

Cunningham moved in, and was the last surviving member of, the very-New York artistic circle that moved around John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, et al.  He was an inveterate collaborator with composers and designers in many media throughout his career.  In the past 20 years, he experimented frequently with the use of computers as tools for choreography and to provide imagery and design environments for dance.  Here, a brief excerpt from what Macaulay terms "the single most sensational dance choreographed by anyone in the 1990s", 1999's "Biped," with score by Gavin Bryars:  

Merce Cunningham - Biped

Beyond their regular artistic collaborations, Cunningham and John Cage were life companion for nearly fifty years prior to the composer's own death in 1992.  That being the case, the most appropriate memorial gesture for Cunningham may be to observe 4'33" of silence:


 Photo: Image from "Biped," via Merce Cunningham Dance Company.


Conjugate Your Way to Total Fitness

Hieronymous Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things - Gluttony (1485)

Others have noted Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker article-disguised-as-a-book-review, "XXXL: Why are Americans fat?", but they have not noted that the piece fails to reveal the true answer to the question posed in its title.  I will reveal that answer below, but first some random notes on Ms. Kolbert's essay.

Ms. Kolbert discloses, inadvertently, that official studies may actually underestimate the true percentage of overweight individuals in the general population.  She describes the official standard in these studies in such a way — "a woman who is five feet tall would count as overweight if she was more than a hundred and forty pounds, and a man who is six feet tall if he weighed more than two hundred and four pounds" — that it strikes me that we may be "defining 'overweight' down" by fair margin.  Six feet and 204 pounds, unless those pounds are primarily muscle, certainly seems more severe than merely "overweight."  Not outright "obese," perhaps, but certainly "significantly" overweight by my estimation.  (I'm six foot myself, and rather less than 204 pounds, and my missus will be happy to tell you that I still qualify as at least somewhat "overweight."  And she would not be wrong.  But enough about me: what do I think this is, some sort of blog?)

I do recommend the New Yorker piece for its store of intriguing anecdotal evidence, such as this one, to explain how we got this way:

In the early nineteen-sixties, a man named David Wallerstein was running a chain of movie theatres in the Midwest and wondering how to boost popcorn sales.  Wallerstein had already tried matinée pricing and two-for-one specials, but to no avail. . . .  [O]ne night the answer came to him: jumbo-sized boxes.  Once Wallerstein introduced the bigger boxes, popcorn sales at his theatres soared, and so did those of another high-margin item, soda. 
A decade later, Wallerstein had retired from the movie business and was serving on McDonald’s board of directors when the chain confronted a similar problem.  Customers were purchasing a burger and perhaps a soft drink or a bag of fries, and then leaving.  How could they be persuaded to buy more?  Wallerstein’s suggestion — a bigger bag of fries — was greeted skeptically by the company’s founder, Ray Kroc. Kroc pointed out that if people wanted more fries they could always order a second bag. 
'But Ray,' Wallerstein is reputed to have said, 'they don’t want to eat two bags — they don’t want to look like a glutton.'  Eventually, Kroc let himself be convinced; the rest, as they say, is supersizing.
In the words of those svelte reasoners Tweedledum and Tweedledee: "That's Logic."  One bag, even if it contains as much as two bags, is still just one bag, which makes it all all right.

Writing at the Atlantic, Derek Thompson links Kolbert and reduces it all to a combination of price and "elasticity of appetite."  Food prices overall have gone down in recent decades, with fast fatty foods declining the furthest and, well, fastest.  Meanwhile, we humans are structured such that if it's there to eat, we tend to keep on eating it whether or no we have already eaten Enough.

I propose, however, that Thompson too has missed the true cause of our ballooning citizenry, even though he reproduces The Chart in which All is Revealed.  That chart, which comes from a May 5 post by Katherine Rampel on the New York Times' "Economix" weblog, compares the populations of various nations by cross-referencing the time (minutes per day) that the average citizen spends eating against the percentage of the national population that is overweight.  Ms. Rampel suggests that "Slow Food" enthusiasts may be on to something, as countries in which the populace spends more time eating — presumably taking in similar quantities, but at a more leisurely pace — are to some extent also the countries with a less pressing weight problem.

I draw a different conclusion, and I am at a loss to understand why no one else seems to have cottoned to it.  Here is Ms. Rampel's chart.  What is most noticeable about the weight-gainin' nations of the world?

NYT foodfat

Yes, that's right: with the exception of Mexico, an obvious statistical outlier, the overweight populace is heavily concentrated in countries whose principal language is English.  The US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand: we're rounder because we're always rollin', and we're rollin' because, by jingo, We Speak English!  

How to explain Canada's combination of superfast dining with more constrained waistlines?  Clearly it results from the counterweight, so to speak, of having an entire province speaking French!  

So forget Bally's, forget 24-Hour Fitness, forget Weight Watchers, and forget Jenny Craig.  The answer to the nation's weight problem more likely lies with Berlitz and Rosetta Stone.  Write the President and your representatives now, and demand immediate action: a constitutional amendment and individual mandate compelling each of us to be learning and speaking nothing but Esperanto by 2015.  Thank you.


Comparisons Are Odorous
(Sonnet 18 Gets a Once Over, Twice Over)

Sonnet xviii

At a young and impressionable age, probably around the time it was published in 1963, I acquired a copy of Bennett Cerf's Houseful of Laughter, an anthology of humorous pieces by such masters of the genre as Thurber, Benchley, and Perelman.  It was through that collection that I first discovered poet and humorist Richard Armour, who was represented by a long excerpt from his parodic history of the United States, It All Started with Columbus.  Armour was a long time favorite of mine, largely because he indulged his gift and inclination for puns whenever the occasion presented.

Another of Armour's books was Punctured Poems: Famous First and Infamous Second Lines, in which (as his title suggests) he would take the Famous First Line of a poem and attach to it a risible second line.  I no longer have my copy of the book, but I can recall three examples.  

  • John Milton:

When I consider how my light is spent
I'm glad that utilities come with the rent.

  • Walt Whitman:

I sing of myself and praise myself
My picture's in the hallway, my bust's on the shelf.

  • And the actual subject of this post, William Shakespeare's Sonnet XVIII:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?  
Hot?  Sweaty?  Fly infested?

On April 1, 2005, in the days before that date became the exclusive province of Blawg Review, I took a whack at Sonnet XVIII by reducing it to a PowerPoint slideshow.  I gave it no further thought until the good folk at the Catalan literary blog blocs de lletres, who have produced a series of video adaptations of poems in many languages, made Sonnet XVIII their latest selection.  

Here it is, in their pleasing if conventional version:

Sonet XVIII, de William Shakespeare
from blocsdelletres on Vimeo.

This languid pastoral served me as a call to action.  I had been thinking for some time that it would be a bit of a lark to transfer that old PowerPoint version of mine to video, with appropriate narration, and to repost it here.  And that is what I have done.  

Here then, con vox et musica, is the return of Sonnet XVIII -- The PowerPoint

Thou and a Summer's Day [Sonnet XVIII - The PowerPoint]
from George Wallace on Vimeo.


Illustration: Photo of handmade limited edition of Sonnet XVIII (edition of 25), by De Walden Press.


Monsieur Would Enjoy the Chateau Python-Lalande, Perhaps, or the Spambolle-Moosigny?


I did not have the benefit of this Cable Television thing of which I have heard so much at the time this was originally broadcast in 2004. John Cleese -- in a helpful and beneficent vein unimagined by such Cleese avatars as Basil Fawlty -- Explains It All For You in the matter of Grapes and the Beverages for Which They Give Their All.  Basics galore: if you already know these things, you can share it with your friends who do not and they can thank you, and perhaps buy you a bottle of something tasty to show their gratitude.

I like this particularly because most of the time is spent among the wines and vines of Santa Barbara County, which are always deserving of attention.  Proper respect is paid to pinot noir, but not to the exclusion of other nearly-as-good things.


hulu -- John Cleese's "Wine for the Confused" 


Excellent Birds

the last dinosaur is the duo of Jamie Cameron and Luke Hayden, sometimes with friends, recording music the old fashioned way with multi-track analog tape machines and no computers.  They are in the process of putting an album together and while they're about it have been posting videos to accompany their new songs.  Here, they accompany the Budd-like ambience of "Gusts of Wind Blowing in Different Directions" with frankly mesmerizing footage of starlings flocking before settling to roost in the twilit southwest of Scotland.  (The original film, with natural sound, can be found here.)

Our post title, meanwhile, references Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel, from Nam June Paik's "Good Morning Mr. Orwell," the rather self-important international satellite broadcast/installation of January 1, 1984, acknowledging the moment when that ominous year metamorphosed from Frightful Future to Promising Present en route to becoming the Pedestrian Past.  Few things age so quickly as the avant-garde.


In Which American Music is Performed by Various Canadians, Englishmen and, in Some Few Exceptional Cases, by Certifiably Actual Americans

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.

For the Fourth of July, some American Music, beginning with as credible a pair of rock'n'roll Brits as one could desire -- Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson -- performing Hunter's "American Music," a song I must confess I would never have heard of but for the Google as I was putting this post together:

But today is America's holiday, so we must not let our former colonizers have the last word.  We need to turn to someone closer to home, someone who but for not being an American would certainly Be An American.  I refer of course to the great Neil Young, who continues against all odds to Rock in this our Flawed, but ne'ertheless Free, World:

Hold! Enough of these foreigners!  (And no, that's not a cue to insert a Foreigner clip, although this one is rather amusing.)  

Let's conclude this post with the real "American Music", from The Blasters, circa 1985, when the band still included both Alvin brothers.  Direct from the Middle of America -- Champaign, Illinois -- and direct from the original Farm Aid concert, The Blasters!

"They wanna hear that sound, live from the U.S.A."  Indeed they do, as do we all.

A fine Fourth to each of you! Feel Free!