Friday, October 31, 2008

Die Platte, die mein Leben veränderte

Die Zeit
has a weekly feature called, "The Album That Changed my Life." This past week's contributor wrote about John Coltrane's milestone, A Love Supreme. It's a great album and it might have changed my life too, but it didn't, because my life was already busy being changed by McCoy Tyner's Expansions. Mr. Tyner was the pianist in Coltrane's quartet when the Love Supreme recording was cut in 1964, so I'm not far off. Expansions was released in 1968 and I probably heard it for the first time in 1970 or so. It was a time in my life when I was pretty malleable and some days my life got changed twice before breakfast. Still, McCoy Tyner's album really was an important puzzle piece for me and I was musing about it this morning as I noticed that on the same page as the Coltrane tribute, there was a review of a new CD by McCoy Tyner: Guitars.

American jazz performers have often found a broader audience on this side of the Atlantic than at home, and it still seems to be the case. One of the performers on Tyner's new CD, John Scofield, will be touring in Europe this winter and I'd like to see him at one of the smaller venues in December. It's been forty years, but I think I might be ready to finally bring the incident with the apple core on Middlebrook Farm Road to a close.

In 1968 I was attending Wilton Jr. High School and Mr. Scofield was driving Bus 22, which brought me there each weekday morning. I tended to sit toward the back of the bus and often got into a certain amount of mischief with a group of like-minded delinquents. There were intense interrogations after the incident in question, but we never gave up the jerk (Eric Steinleicht) who actually threw the apple. I saw John Scofield perform at the Village Gate in 1978, but somehow the time wasn't right. Meeting now on neutral ground in Germany, maybe we can put this thing to rest.

McCoy Tyner's Expansions probably isn't as great an album as A Love Supreme, but my exposure to jazz was random and no one provided me with a hierarchy for listening. So I heard A Love Supreme for the first time performed by John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana on a collaborative album titled Love, Devotion and Surrender recorded in 1973 while they were both were devotees of guru Sri Chinmoy. Chinmoy was running an organic bakery at the time on the north edge of Wilton (I'm not making this up) and I bought a loaf of bread or two from him. But if Carlos ever drove a school bus, it was never my route. And in the long run, the experiences that form us don't have to be the most culturally significant. What I learned from Expansions I might just as well have learned from John Coltrane, but the important thing is that I learned it. I'd like to think that John Scofield might have similar feelings about his time as a junior high school bus driver. It could be that kids like Eric Steinleicht and me are the reason he finally got his ass in gear and got that first gig with Miles Davis.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


When I was a bartender in Westport, Connecticut, I had no special interest in Germany. I worked in an Irish bar called the Tin Whistle Cafe, and if I had a connection to any European country, it would probably have been to my ancestral homeland, Ireland. We sold a fair amount of Guinness at the Whistle, and Irish issues were discussed among some of the regulars. In a way, the job was just an extension of my years at Our Lady of Fatima School, where all the nuns were Irish-American with fabulous Boston accents. One Irish issue I followed in the papers each year was the controversy in New York about gay and lesbian participation in the St. Patrick's Day parade. There was usually a joke about it going around the bar. I'm following a similar controversy in Germany right now that centers on the new mosque proposed for Köln. The intriguing part of this juxtaposition for me is that during the intervening 25 years, my decision to leave the field of mixology for academia has limited my contact with this kind of news.

Yes, I follow the big stuff on KUSU, a National Public Radio affiliate. (And I'm doing a little victory dance right now that I'm not in Utah listening to the deadly dull pledge drive.) But listening is not READING. I love to read a good newspaper and feel there is no substitute. It's a paradox that as a Universitätsprofessor, I can't find the time to read a daily paper. When I tended bar, I picked up all the papers on my way into work and laid them on the bar for customers to read at lunchtime. The Whistle was primarily a nightclub bar, with live music and a fairly young crowd. But during the day, when I worked, it served lunch to a small group of regulars and imported and domestic beer to a slightly larger crowd for happy hour. It was the sort of place where Paul Newman could come in for a quiet lunch and not be disturbed. It was the sort of place where even the bartender wasn't often disturbed. Most days I read the New York Times cover to cover, scanned the Daily News comics and checked the headline on the Post from across the room to test my eyesight.

Here in Essen, I again have the time to enjoy a good newspaper and I've gotten a subscription to Die Zeit. It's an excellent paper and it reminds me of the old days in Westport. They've got a great story in this week's edition about the opening of a new mosque in Duisburg, a city neighboring Essen to the west. The remarkable part of the story is how things are going in Duisburg compared to Köln. A new mosque is also proposed in Köln, but there the new building is being met with an intense controversy. The right wing group, Pro Köln, has organized protests and conservative and neo-fascist groups around Europe are using the mosque as a rallying point. In contrast, the Duisburg mosque has been built and will open today with little protest. The prime mover in the building process has been a woman, Zülfiye Kaykin, and the new mosque is poised to be the center of a vibrant Turkish community in this Ruhrgebiet city that is often called Istanbul am Rhein. One can only hope that the project in Köln will be as successful in the long run.

In the days when I was tending bar, I also did the crossword puzzle every day, often working with one or two of my more literate patrons. The Times puzzle gets harder as the week goes by, but in 100 weeks, it could never get as hard as the Zeit crossword is for me. The conventions of American crossword puzzles, taught to me over the years by my father, (who had a system of doing the Times puzzle with three different colored pens) are not the same as the conventions in Germany. I can't get even the simplest of clues and don't understand why other people bother, since the words don't really mesh in a big grid. I guess there are some aspects of an adopted culture that will always remain foreign.

Essen prepares for the Weihnachtsmarkt: Burgplatz Ferriswheel

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hilarious Nazi Gags

This past week I was in Berlin working for the Fulbright Kommision. They had me interviewing German students who have applied for a stipend to travel to the U.S. and study at an American university. It was interesting to me to compare and contrast my experience this time with the first time I did this in 1994. We were in Bonn back then and Berlin wasn't yet the Hauptstadt. And I was struck by how many of the students we interviewed brought up the Nazi past and how they would deal with it as they traveled in America.

No students brought that topic to the discussion this time around and it seems to be right in sync with the renewed interest in German cooking and a willingness to fly the German flag. It's hard to be sure about cause and effect, but I feel this is related to a willingness to deal with the nazi issue in a humorous way. Take this short film for example. It started showing as a kind of mock public service announcement in theaters about 7-8 years ago. For those of you who speak no German, I think you'll find the sight gags still make it worth while. If you can follow the commentary, it's even funnier.

Dani Levy, director of Alles auf Zucker, did a Hitler comedy recently named, Mein Führer. I've never seen it, but I am familiar with the Kitler site. It features photographs of cats (Kätze) that look like Adolf Hitler. It's not strictly speaking a "German" website, but it's well known in Germany. I spent some time there and was amazed at how strong the resemblances are. I'm reading Art Spiegelmann's Maus at the moment and one of the conventions that he uses throughout the book is to portray the different nationalities as animals. The Poles are pigs, the Jews are mice and the Germans cats. On the front cover of most editions is a drawing of Hitler as a cat and it may have planted a seed in the people who got the Kitler website up and running.

Overall, it seems like a healthy thing that the nazi topic, and Hitler in particular, are finally loosing some of their taboo. I've heard it said that we'll know when the World War II era is really over, when a child born in Germany is given the name Adolf. I don't know if it's happened, but if not yet, it can't be too far off.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Spaziergang with Thore

The weather has been fabulous this past week and I had the pleasure a stroll with my new buddy, Thore. We spent the morning in Werden, visiting the Post, several bakeries (no one had Maisbrötchen!) and buying tickets for an upcoming trip to Berlin. We also walked along the Ruhr for a distance and I have to say, I've rarely had the pleasure of better company. Thore can make a sort of humming sound while we walk and as his stroller rolls over the cobbles, his voice sounds a little like an outboard motor. He also attracts the attention of passers-by and going in and out of the Post, people were falling all over themselves to hold the doors for us. He's got a mom and dad and they tend to monopolize his time, but I'm hoping we can get together more in the coming year.

Deutsche Oper am Rhein

People-watching is, on average, much better in the city than in a smaller town. It seems in a smaller community there is a weaker need to define yourself as "other." I imagine most people recognize their own individuality more easily in a smaller community. Whatever the reason, just watching the world go by can be a fascinating occupation in a place like the Ruhrgebiet.

We were at the opera in Düsseldorf this past weekend. The production was a rarely performed piece by Richard Strauss in which all the main characters are first killed and then resurrected over the course of the next two hours or so. Current American cinema has a bad reputation because it always has to give us the "happy ending," but Hollywood has nothing on the opera. We all know the scene in recent American films, in which, typically, the male lead is forced to proclaim his undying love for the female lead in a public place: the more onlookers the better. In the opera, characters have to proclaim their love in the same sort of way, but in the one we saw, Die Frau ohne Schatten, the audience includes supernatural beings and both parties are dripping blood. It doesn't get much more dramatic.

The people-watching at the opera was great too. The audience is better-heeled than the crowd around the bahnhof, but you get the same kind of extremes. I'm pretty sure I saw a Nehru jacket being worn by one patron. Haircolor, jewelry, shoes... I felt as though I should have had a check list the way birders do. But my best sighting, the equivalent of an ivory-billed woodpecker so to speak, came on the train on the way to Düsseldorf. I sat across from a young couple who had obviously spent a lot of time getting ready for the evening. She was Dolly Parton meets Nina Hagen. A red check gingham blouse and a thin sliver of what looked like PVC pipe lodged in a dramatically gauged out ear. From one point of view, she looked as though she would have been comfortable at one of my mom's bridge parties. Then you notice the two tiny silver balls hanging from her nose and you want to offer her your handkerchief. He was a cross between, maybe, James Dean and Vince Price. White t-shirt, tight jeans, but a big belt buckle with a skull on it. They were probably on their way to a disco, but I couldn't help thinking about them as the opera cast came out for their twentieth or thirtieth bow. At some level, my traveling companions and the world of opera or maybe just the world of "high" art have in common a love of the dramatic and neither is overly concerned with restraint or good taste. And both provide wonderful entertainment.

Friday, October 10, 2008


We took a short trip east this week, stopping for a while in Frankfurt an der Oder and Berlin. Frankfurt Oder is a small city in the former East Germany, right on the Polish border. As a point of reference, there is a series of documentary films about a group of people from the town of Golzow (1) that might ring a bell with some readers. Golzow is not far from Frankfurt an der Oder. Of course, if you haven’t seen the films, this won’t help much. You can google it or it could be there is still an atlas laying around somewhere.

Anyhow, Frankfurt an der Oder is a nice city and a little time capsule of the German Democratic Republic. The renovations began in a lot of the former eastern cities before the ink was dry on the reunification documents, but some are not progressing as fast as others. Frankfurt is a little behind and it’s still possible to see some not-yet-renovated pre-war architecture, as well as some good examples of the soviet era stuff. When I was growing up, we were told that these people were the among the most evil on the planet. Now I find they’ve mostly got little teddy bears collecting East German dust on almost every free square centimeter of their homes, many with little signs around their necks that say, “Ich liebe dich!”

And unlike John Kerry, we didn’t forget Poland. We walked across the short bridge and spent a day there. It turns out that you can still buy a decent apple in a store these days, and you only need go as far as Poland. We got a bag of crisp, tart, juicy apples for 2 or 300 zloty. We also stopped for lunch. My Polish isn’t as good as my Czech, and I don’t speak any Czech. So instead of ginger ale, we wound up with two very large Polish beers. 0,5 liters, to be exact. We made the best of it and got ourselves across the bridge again to Germany without incident.

Berlin was fabulous. We saw The Great Dictator at the Babylon, Berlin’s last great silent film era movie theater. Also paid our respects at Senefelder Platz to the discoverer of the lithographic process, walked by the site of Käthe Kollwitz’s home and managed to avoid going into any museums for over three days. Still, it’s nice to be home in Essen again.
(1) Named, in fact, The Children of Golzow; it’s very much like the amazing group of films by Michael Apted often called the “Up Series.”

Friday, October 3, 2008


Nineteenth century painters went through a pretty rigorous training that focused mostly on process. Even in the generation that brought us Impressionism, almost all artists spent many years at an Academy that had them drawing plaster casts in preparation for live models and drawing live models until they were ready to use paint. In the generation that followed them, artists who came to painting with little formal training were not completely uncommon: Paul Gauguin and Van Gogh are a couple that come to mind. Their success, and the rhetoric of the Expressionists in Germany and Austria, signaled a fundamental change in the way our culture thought about Art and the shock-waves of that change are still resonating in the academic training of artists.

Painters today are loath to discuss technical processes. Questions that deal with the "How" of painting make them uncomfortable and I'm at least partially in agreement with an attitude toward painting that doesn't emphasize the importance of technique. It's not an attitude you'll find as prevalent among photographers, potters or printmakers. There are lots of reasons for this difference, not the least of which is the lack of a means of quantifying information about painting. A potter can tell his or her students to fire their work to cone 10 and a printmaker can time the etching of a stone with a stop watch. But all measuring in painting is done by feel, guess or "the vibe." Another reason painters are reluctant to talk about how they do their work, is society's current confusion of artists with clergy. (Hence all the black clothing at openings.) If we reveal the "secrets" of our mystical force, we might loose a little of our power.

But while I can see the mystical side of being an artist, I also feel there's a side to the artist that's got a lot of overlap with a good plumber. I don't like to emphasize it too much, but I'm actually quite comfortable talking about "how" to paint. But because not everyone feels that way, I'm not always sure where certain common processes got started.
Take the process of underpainting. When I was in school, a number of my instructors encouraged us to use a method of underpainting that involved putting thin layers of very luminous transparent color down as a first step to block out major shapes. Rembrandt used a similar process, but without the high intensity colors. He used burnt sienna and focused on value rather than hue in his underpaintings.

Rembrandt's method was popular for a couple of centuries at least, but someone must have begun the change to higher intensity underpainting. I doubt if it would have been any of the Impressionist painters. They tended to work rapidly with very opaque paint. I've seen a lot of incomplete works by Impressionists, and it doesn't seem as though they used underpainting at all, or at least not consistently. My guess is it would have been a painter like Bonnard who got the ball rolling. His work is built up with many layers and the surface is a complex mixture of transparent, translucent and opaque passages. What is certain, is that by the 1970's in the US, very well know painters like Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud were using this method, and I was taught it when I was in college.

In the photos above, showing the paintings that I'm working on now, you can see the evolution of the surface and image from the very bright underpainting colors that I begin with, to the quieter colors that tend to dominate my finished work. The underpainting process makes every color a mixture of several different hues that blend optically. It gives the painting a complexity and depth that I prefer, as opposed to a flat, shallow surface. It's like the difference between natural hair color and a bad dye job. Bad dye jobs are very chic in some circles today, as are flat shallow paintings, but I'm staying with my natural hair color and still prefer a painting surface with depth.