Written in January 2013 when Elise was nine years old
Tonight was an experiment. I asked Elise to accompany me to a Piano Spheres concert featuring pianist Vicki Ray at The Colburn School. It was a school night and the concert started at 8pm, her usual bedtime. On top of that, the Piano Spheres concerts are themselves experimental in nature, offering a collaboration of composers and musicians in contemporary music. She was a good sport about getting dressed up and going downtown, excited to see the town all lit up and the places where I work.
When we got to the school, the person at the box office recognized me from the LA Philharmonic concert of the week before. Elise was very impressed that someone would know who I was. She even asked me if I was famous...uh, no dear, except maybe in my mind. When we walked into the hall she wanted to sit in the third row center. I was a little apprehensive, but went along with it. Elise hasn't had much formal concert experience and I'm a stickler for concert etiquette, but I thought since this was an experiment, why not?
The first piece was written by Chinary Ung, for piano, cello and violin. All the players wore a wireless headset microphone to intone fragments of speech in a language definitely not English. Thick layers of instrumental sound including piano work inside the instrument prevailed along with whistling from the players as well. Elise was a little uncomfortable after her initial curiosity gave way. "That sounds like a fictional language, Dad" and then, "I'm not sure I like this", but she sat through it quietly and applauded at the finish.
The second piece was for solo piano, quite beautiful in its unusual harmony, a contemporary haiku. Vicki played it beautifully and it was very evocative of the title, Flowing Water Caress Fallen Petals. Elise didn't respond to the tone poem aspect and started to fidget slightly. I think it was settling in that the whole concert would be similar and she wasn't necessarily thrilled that she wasn't connecting with it.
The third piece was titled, Rad, played by two players on electronic keyboards. The instruments seemed to be tuned microtonally, sometimes producing a quasi-gamelan effect. It was an extremely difficult piece to play and to listen to. The players wore a small earpiece and my guess is that they were listening to a click track to keep them together. Occasionally they would play with elbows and forearms, but much of it was filled with fast flying notes, at times sounding like rapid-fire conversation between two cartoon characters. I pointed this out quietly to Elise, who by this time would have none of it and was quietly whining about going home and not being able to listen to much more.
I can't say that I blamed her, for it was very difficult, even for a musician accustomed to playing new music. We left at intermission, and had a discussion in the car about how important it is for artists to break new barriers, to always push and experiment. I told her how proud I was of her for coming with me and listening, for her excellent behavior and how important it is to experience everything we can whether we end up liking it or not.
It was a night of experiments.
When I was growing up, my father worked for the Prudential Insurance Company as a salesman. It was a time when your insurance agent would visit to collect the monthly premium for policies and have a chat over coffee. He’d hear the neighborhood gossip, who was getting married, who just had a new son or daughter, and thus get new leads for business. He was good at it, being an amiable people-person and he was honest, unlike others in the trade at the time. People trusted him to sell them a life insurance policy commensurate with their family’s needs and ability to afford the premium. I remember him making weekly or monthly visits to customers to collect a premium of a quarter or even a nickel. Each customer was given the same courtesy and friendly shoulder to lean on.
He was also a labor organizer, a representative of the agents in the union local. I grew up hearing about actions, grievances, steward reports and changes the company was making in the workaday world of its salesmen that would affect their lives and livelihood. He was aggressive in his principles for his fellow workers, but always fair. He realized that there had to be a give-and-take between company and worker. As soon as I was old enough to use a typewriter, he enlisted me to type his union reports. Though barely old enough to understand what was really going on in these documents, I absorbed the gist of this age-old push-pull relationship.
The neighborhood where I lived in Buffalo, New York was mostly blue collar; first generation sons of German, Italian and Polish immigrants, part of the great Ellis Island wave from the turn of the last century. Buffalo was an industrial town with an unmatched location on Lake Erie. The once-great steel companies had factories and forgeries there, along with the American auto manufacturers. Work was plentiful and the unions made sure that workers were being treated fairly.
This is what unions have always been about, treating workers fairly. Unions gave workers a voice, it wasn’t a take-it-or-leave-it proposition as coal miners had seen in the mid-South; company towns that economically entrapped and suffocated the very people it relied on, along with some of the most dangerous working conditions that any American has ever had to endure.
At various times throughout our country’s modern history, unions have had a bad rap. Companies have cried that workers’ demands were choking the economic life out of them, demands were exorbitant, that the very idea of a union was anti-American. To paraphrase Sean Mitchell of the LA Times writing in 2007 about the threat of a Hollywood writer’s strike as viewed through the prism of the writers’ experiences in the 1930s, “…as if unions and the whole idea of collective bargaining were anathema to the American way of life…that having all those workers working under one banner would mean the creation of ‘a workers soviet’”. The very idea is absolutely ridiculous.
I remember hearing complaints about special concessions and “perks” given to auto and steel workers, the number of paid minor holidays, paid birthdays and the like. No one ever stopped to ask the reason why workers were able to get these “extras” and saw the union members as spoiled brats. Well, sometimes companies weren’t willing to give decent pay raises, so workers took what they could by other means during negotiations.
Today, many of the things that looked like perks are gone due to the changing nature of America’s work, outsourcing and the march of time on economies in general, but the persistent view that unions are greedy and disingenuous in their dealings with companies and non-union workers remains. Many of these views were formed early in the twentieth century, when the work world was a rough and tumble place, trying to find its way in transition from an agrarian to a newly industrialized society. Long gone are practices like “featherbedding” and other perceived abuses.
Unions, more than ever, want and need to work together with companies and governments (no matter what you’ve been reading or listening to lately), because in the end, despite their differences, desperately need each other. Workers need jobs and benefits, and companies need workers, happy workers, to run them. The aggressive and hyperbolic nature of anti-union vitriol, both from government and industry, does no one any good and much harm to the lower and middle classes that form the vast majority of both our labor pool and the economic backbone of our country.
The recent standoff in Wisconsin between the state’s government and its workers, shows what can happen if this wrong-headed view of present-day unions is taken too far. Workers need unions as a buffer between them and their employers. Rare is the company who always looks out for the best interests of their employees, without the need for mediation, especially when that company happens to be publicly traded and is constantly striving to please their shareholders with the bottom line.
Unions make for happier and healthier workers, happy workers buy more of America’s products, healthy workers have less sick days and are better equipped to make the company they work for more successful. It’s a cycle that makes a lot of sense and one that shouldn’t be overlooked, even in these dire times of cost-cutting.
I think my friends in the old neighborhood would agree.
I’ve been reading and thinking about a lot of things lately, trying to put ideas together for new essays and finish ones already started both on paper (okay, on the screen) and in my mind. There’s just so much on my mindplate and they’re all making relentless attempts to be heard. The quote from Ray Bradbury that I titled Preface was designed as an introduction to a larger piece that I’m working on. This week a few more ideas were unsurfaced as I read David Lipsky’s account of traveling with David Foster Wallace on a book tour, which in turn led me back to Jonathan Franzen’s much talked about essay for Harper’s about the decline of reading and the novel itself. The recent news that Amazon sold more eBooks than hardcovers also begged to be added to the mix, analyzed, talked about and judged.
So while the last tracks for that particular tune are being recorded and awaiting final mixdown (what a metaphor!), I wanted to share my summer reading list (what a segue!). I don’t know how you feel about it but I love to see what others are reading. Sneaking peeks at coffee shops or anywhere around town, it’s good to see people with a book. At least here in Pasadena the difference is noticeable compared to the omnipresent three-ring tome with brass binding posts hymnal from the Church of Our Lady of the Perpetual Screenplay that is so widely venerated in my previous hangtown of Studio City/Sherman Oaks/The Valley.
My list is always an eclectic fuel mixture that is heavy on nonfiction, but something tells me that fiction is in my future. Make that a lot of fiction. But for the time being let’s get started and see what’s on my bedside table, affectionately heretofore referred to as The Stack*.
I mentioned David Lipsky’s book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a tour-de-force of a 1996 interview lasting one week as Lipsky traveled with Wallace on the Infinite Jest tour, the 1,000+ page novel that heralded Wallace as the new voice in American fiction. Wallace is at once brilliant, insecure, brilliant, hilarious, paranoid, competitive, brilliant and disturbed like the thousand delicate nerve endings he keeps referring to. I’ve never read Infinite Jest but I plan to someday soon. A book like that takes a serious commitment from a reader and that’s one of the many discussions that take place throughout the course of the book, including how fame and expectations affect a writer’s ability to produce good work. Originally planned to be contemporaneously published in Rolling Stone, the piece never ran and is now presented in its nearly unedited entirety, including David’s asides to his dogs. There are a lot of gems here and some terrific insight from Wallace as well as a look inside the head of a brilliant guy who tragically ended his life in 2008.
Edgar Degas by Bernd Growe is one of those beautifully produced little books published by Taschen that sell for $10. The printing and reproductions are wonderfully rich, if small, and are among the finest small guides to artists available. The ballet oils and pastels are here as well as several view-from-the-orchestra-pit paintings. Is there anything more exquisite than Degas? Recently, I spent an afternoon at the Norton Simon Museum here in Pasadena among their healthy collection of Degas works…transportation and transformation all within a few short hours.
Jonathan Franzen’s novel, The Corrections, a National Book Award winner from 2001 sits patiently at page 126 awaiting my reengagement. I’m very rarely drawn so heavily into fiction, but this one has its talons in me and won’t let go. Only life itself has pulled me away for a few weeks. Franzen’s essays for The New Yorker and other magazines are unmatched in subject and style, as witnessed by his latest New Yorker piece on the slaughter of songbirds in Europe. His collection, How To Be Alone, is in reread rotation here as well.
The catalog for the Frederick H. Evans show at The Getty is anxious to be cracked open. Evans was a pioneer in platinum printing with large format cameras and the show was comprehensive in its scope. If you read my previous piece, need I say more?
George Seurat – The Drawings is another art book that takes my breath away. How does one scribble with crayon on paper with almost no line and conjure up a whole world of light and shadow, fooling our mind into seeing detail where there is none, doing it so intimately and effortlessly as to appear casual yet bring us to tears as it reverberates in our souls?
Reporting At Wit’s End – Tales from The New Yorker by St. Clair McKelway is an anthology of his work for the magazine from the 1930s to the 1960s. He wrote about crime and criminals, scammers, counterfeiters and the fringes of “normal” society, a New York of another time. I’ve only read the introduction by Adam Gopnik so far, but it already has me hungry for the eighteen pieces inside.
There’s a bunch of other stuff on The Stack as well, books on printmaking and related techniques like chine colle, one on antique packaging, a new book from Gerald Klickstein on practicing, performance and wellness, another of interviews with singers and conductors working in opera today (Pierre Boulez hates orchestra subs! Who knew?). A week or two ago there was Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists and a book on Baroque painting in Bologna.
My wife has always said that I’m the gatekeeper of useless information, but that’s what happens when you’re bitten by the reading bug, a lifetime of reading and referrals that begat this which begat that and spiral onward. If only I could wean myself from FaceBook and do some real work. But that’s a subject for another day.
* I stole this name from another blogger but can’t find the reference anymore, so I have appropriated its use for descriptive purposes all in the spirit of full disclosure.
This past week as I prepared to print several new photographs in platinum/palladium, those noblest of elemental metals, I didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary. A year and a half ago, I put a lot of time into not only learning the ins and outs of the process but also the crafting of large size negatives, both digitally and the traditional method requiring long hours in the darkroom.
You see, platinum printing is a contact process. You need a negative the same size as your final image and it needs to have certain properties in order to create a rich print, but that’s only the beginning. The prints are made on beautifully tactile watercolor or printmaking paper. Because such paper is manufactured acid-free for archival longevity, it contains carbonates that raise the pH of the paper into the alkaline end of the scale. This alkaline pH doesn’t get along with the platinum/palladium emulsion, which is by nature slightly acidic, and all sorts of maladies ensue ranging from washed-out images to mottled, blotchy prints. Soaking the paper in a relatively benign dilute acid bath for several minutes and drying it overnight usually ensures success.
By now you’re probably saying, “Doesn’t he know that there are digital cameras and inkjet printers that would save him a lot of time?” Well…yes, but there’s nothing like the fun (my definition) of slopping, I mean, brushing emulsion on paper. You’re making light-sensitive paper by hand and it’s as analog a process as can be especially in today’s speed-of-light existence, no pun intended.
After the paper dries, you slap the negative in place and expose in the sun or a UV exposure unit for a few minutes, take the paper out and pour hot developer over it all at once. The image comes up immediately in beautiful rich tones. After a few clearing baths to rid the paper of excess salts, the print is washed and laid out to dry. It’s as close to magic as anything can be.
Once you’ve done this a few hundred times you start getting the hang of it (Malcolm Gladwell says that 10,000 hours is needed to become an expert in a field) and you can count on getting reliable results despite the huge number of variables inherent in a hand process like this.
Until…something goes wrong.
Well, it happened. Just as I was looking forward to making many new prints (while my girls were out-of-state visiting family for the week), I started getting results that didn’t match the quality of the prints I had been making for the past year. I checked my chemistry, the exposure unit, the brush…even the humidity, but it takes a lot of time to isolate the problem by changing just one variable at a time. Each iteration seems endless…mix chemicals, coat paper, wait for it to dry, humidify paper, expose, develop, clear, wash, dry.
I finally tracked the problem down to the paper, an all too common occurrence among platinum printers. Manufacturers change formulas without notice and although the changes don’t matter much to watercolor artists and printmakers, people like me who are dependent upon a precarious set of conditions are thrown into the abyss.
It got me thinking about how much life is like a platinum print. We settle into a groove, going about our daily routine, learning and loving, making it better, keeping our heads down and going for it. Then something comes along to uproot the balance we’ve struck and our lives need to be reevaluated, reordered, reconsidered. Sorting through can take a while but hopefully we’ll come out the other side stronger, confident and ready for more. Here’s to that hope for all of us…
I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.
- Ray Bradbury, The Paris Review, Spring 2010
Last week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played Peter Lieberson’s beautiful piece, Neruda Songs, a setting of five sonnets by Pablo Neruda written in 2005 for his wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Lorraine passed away in July, 2006 from breast cancer, but in her too-short career accomplished so much and became one of the most brilliant voices we’ve ever had the chance to hear. I wrote a small piece upon her death, which summed up the loss that so many felt when she died.
I remember seeing the look on Esa-Pekka’s face just before one of our first rehearsals for John Adams’ El Nino in March, 2003. He had just had a run-through with Lorraine in his dressing room and his normally unflappable demeanor was replaced by a gushing look of amazement as he confided backstage to several players, “I’ve just had the most amazing concert in my room.”
Esa-Pekka and the orchestra premiered Neruda Songs in May, 2005 with Lorraine singing and Peter participating in an onstage conversation with EP regarding the piece and Peter’s inspiration for it. Although I didn’t play Neruda Songs that night (there is no part for my instrument in the orchestration) I was onstage to play excerpts from Stravinsky’s Agon, which Peter cited as an influence.
Peter’s father was Goddard Lieberson, the long-time president of Columbia Records who signed so many artists to that label and built it into a powerhouse of its time. During his conversation, Peter recounted that while growing up the house was always full of musical luminaries for visits and dinner. Shortly after Stravinsky had immigrated to this country, Goddard sent an invitation. He was so very concerned with the composer’s well-being in America that he gifted him that evening with a rather large book, the voluminous Tax Code of the United States. The maestro accepted the gift quite graciously as any guest would. Several weeks later when Goddard was speaking to Stravinsky on the phone, he asked him if he had enjoyed the book. Igor replied, “Yes, and I cried on every page.”
I’ve taken a hiatus during these last two months to relax, readjust and focus. I think it’s good for artists to recharge their batteries every now and then, let things fall where they may and take time to reflect. Breathe here…
As I may have mentioned here before, I’m a dedicated photographer who uses film almost exclusively, prints in the darkroom and use various 19th Century historical processes to produce my final images. Yep, it’s all very geeky but it allows me to combine a love of visual arts with the technical side of my nature, plus I get to have the biggest chemistry set a kid could ever dream of.
After a few years and many hours of darkroom toil, I’m happy to announce that I’m participating in my first ever gallery show at the Elias Gallery in Whittier, California along with a group of incredible local photographer/printers who have been most encouraging and supportive. I have four prints in the show, two platinum/palladium and two gelatin silver lith prints, chosen by the show’s curator, Domenico Foschi.
Domenico Foschi is an Italian-born photographer living in southern California whom I met on the internet in a photography forum. His images were dreamlike and evocative. When I first saw his prints in person at two different shows I knew I had found someone with great vision and articulate skills to bring the image to life on paper. When the opportunity arose to buy one of his prints, I was thrilled to meet him in person and spend time talking, but what surprised me most was his openness and generosity. He was more interested in seeing and talking about my nascent work than telling me about his. It was a great hour and I came away so inspired, one of those rare moments that make you want to work harder to achieve your goals.
The gallery exhibition is currently open, with a reception scheduled for May 8.
6736 Greenleaf Avenue
Whittier, CA 90601
Photographs by Domenico Foschi, Matthew Blais, Tori Nelson, Vinny Walsh, Patti Lemke and Paul Viapiano.
Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.
You can email me here.