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cigarette butts

There is a creeping locution that turns my teeth inside out: When one says ”Thank you,” and the answer comes back, ”Uh-huh.”

I first began noticing this a few years ago when a local TV reporter habitually responded ”Uh-huh” when the anchor thanked her at the end of a report. Every time. ”Uh-huh.” All I could think was, ”You slack-jawed cow.”

”Uh-huh” is a dismissive response, one that says, ”I don’t think enough of you to take the time and effort to form actual words in answer.”

I understand that etiquette is a fluid thing, that it changes over time and that Americans by nature tend to be somewhat informal. There is a sort of casual affability that marks us as a people; this is especially true since the end of World War II.

We are Joe and Willie in the trenches, Pogo in the swamp. We are Hemingway and Fitzgerald, not Trollope and Thackeray.

And our sense of manners is rooted not in superannuated ritual but in the democratic ease we feel with one another. So I am comfortable with the easy swagger of American speech, with its energy and its drive to the short, concise, pithy and colloquial. In a sense, American etiquette is an attempt to share that ease, to make others feel as comfortable as we do.

Manners, whether formal or casual, are a cultural means of granting the other person respect, of recognizing his existence. As such, they lubricate the engine of social intercourse.

But ”uh-huh” does no such a thing. It is a barnyard snort, an insulting spit from the back of the throat.

Certainly there are times when a formal ”you’re welcome” seems artificial. You hold a door for someone and he says ”Thanks.” ”You’re welcome” makes too big a deal out of it.

But any number of other responses can acknowledge the word and the person who spoke it. Comment on the weather or ask after his health. The exchange isn’t a real conversation, but it is recognition of someone’s right to exist on the planet.

”Uh-huh” is the verbal equivalent of crushing the person out like a cigarette butt in a grimy ashtray.


pop diva troika

Listen to any pop-music diva these days, and you hear melodies spinning every which way, like the hand-held shots in an action movie, wiggling and jiggling in a way that can give you a kind of aural queasiness, seasickness for the ear, unable to find the still point of gravity.

This style of singing has become the lingua franca for such popular music venues as American Idol and The Voice. The singer hovers around the expected note without ever having to land on it any more than an Apache helicopter touches down to disgorge the troops from its inside before soaring off into the ether once again.

This was not an issue in the past, when listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee or Dinah Shore. Whatever vocal calisthenics they indulged in were anchored to a harmonic rock that led the music to a distinct place — usually the final perfect-authentic cadence, the great dominant-tonic resolution.

But this is gone from most contemporary pop music. I don’t want to sound like an old fogey lamenting nostalgically about a golden-age past, for after all, there were good and bad singers then as there are now. But I do want to express something genuine about the progress of popular music. And to point out that in this, it follows the same pattern as that of classical music.

In his great Harvard lectures, Leonard Bernstein talked about how the history of music is the history of seeking “newer and better ambiguities.” And these ambiguities are often (though not exclusively) harmonic.

Consider the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with its famous “Tristan chord.” What key is that in? You can hardly tell, it wavers so ambiguously. But a look at it over the longer stretch of the score and you can discover an overriding structure of A-minor. The music stretches the meaning of tonality, but doesn’t leave it.

Debussy and Schoenberg, in different ways, undercut the pull and power of harmonic direction, softening up the basic tonics or dominants with extra harmonics: sixths, ninths, elevenths. The reason Debussy sounds so vague is that his harmonies are vague. His melodies remain clear as a bell, but they are built on shifting sand.

In jazz, the course of things went much the same way. Listen to Louis Armstrong, or — especially — Duke Ellington, and you hear the steam locomotive drive of the harmonic motion. Ellington built some of his most powerful music on the blues changes. They are hidden under a rich palette of tone color, but they are still there, providing a solid skeleton for the music.

But, beginning with the bop musicians, the extra partials have been once again added, to build harmonies more ambiguous and malleable. Sure, underneath it all, you can still find the basic harmonies of I Got Rhythm, but over the top, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie are playing those ninths and elevenths, letting the air out of the pneumatic drill of harmonic progression. So that, nowadays, harmonies have become mere ornament for elaborate melodies. You can ornament the tunes various ways without changing the basic tune — much like you can decorate a Christmas tree in many fashions.

When Schubert wrote a song, the melodies are unforgettable in part because they are constructed on persuasive harmonies. You cannot imagine Die Fiorelle or Erlkoenig reharmonized without also losing the melody: They are no more separable than height and width in a drawing. But take any tune from Andrew Lloyd Webber and not only can it be reharmonized with no loss to the music — whatever music there is — but it is absolutely expected that an arranger will change the harmonies. They are no more than ornament to a fixed melody. What was once the structural underpinnings of song have become merely the “changes” that we deck the song out with. The powerhouse dominant-tonic motion has been gutted.

You can hardly hear them anymore. In pop music, you hear a stepwise bass motion that plays more as a simple counterpoint to the melody, rather than a solid drill sergeant bouncing the heavy tread of root position tonics and dominants.

It isn’t that the heavy tread of Schenker analysis is the only way to organize music.

But all art exists in the play between expectation and surprise. If we expect a G7 dominant to resolve into a C-major chord, then the composer can play with that expectation and withhold the resolution, to draw out our longing for the satisfaction we will get when the final C-major is achieved. You can organize a whole symphony like this: As Bruckner’s Fifth heads slowly to a solid B-flat or — most famously — Beethoven takes us from an unsettling C-minor to a triumphant C-major in his Fifth Symphony.

But if you take away that rock on which most Western music has been built, you still need something to stretch out our longing and expectation.

It must be admitted that harmony is only one way to organize music.

Pop music has left behind the principle of its birth and begun to find new — and largely non-Western ways. Western ears have not heard so much Oriental melisma since the Arabs conquered Spain. Mariah Carey is closer to a muezzin than to a big-band singer. “Just hit the damn note,” you want to scream, but, of course, her artistry is to make us wait in anticipation of the final pitch of a note. That pitch anticipation has replaced the dissonance and resolution of harmonic tune-writing.

One style is not better than another. And I don’t mean to sound like I’m prescribing a return to the past.

But it is important to know what we have lost. The glory of 250 years of Western music is its unique experiment with harmony. We have tossed it away like a used candy wrapper.

tres riches heures seasons

When it’s summer in Vivaldi, is it winter in Piazzolla?

The Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi wrote perhaps the most popular classical music ever with his “Four Seasons,” describing the progression of the year in his home country. A popular website lists over 200 recordings.Piazzolla cuatro estaciones

Argentine tango-master Astor Piazzolla responded with his Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, a Southern Hemisphere version, at antipodes with the Mediterranean.

And when Philip Glass wrote his second violin concerto, he called it his “American Four Seasons.”

And Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu has his own Seasons, subtitled “Red and blue graphic score for live improvised percussion with tape.”

Everyone and everywhere seems to have its own “Seasons.”

But it is astonishing just how much classical music is inspired by not only seasons, but climate and weather.

There are grand oratorios, such as Haydn’s The Seasons, that take on all four quarters of the year, and there are symphonies, such as Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony, that take on a single season.

And there are depictions of thunderstorms – the overture to Rossini’s William Tell – and a host of other meteorological phoenomena: sunrise at the start of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra; moonlight in Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata; shifting, amorphous clouds in Debussy’s Nuages; even an earthquake at the end of Haydn’s Four Last Words of Christ.

There are so many nocturnes in the repertoire, that no one could list them all.

Yet, the best and most effective tone painting remains Vivaldi’s four concertos, first published in 1725 as part of the composer’s “Contest between Harmony and Invention,” 12 violin concertos that also include evocations of a storm at sea, a hunt, and even one celebrating simple pleasure.

Yet, the first four concertos of the group, popularly called “The Four Seasons” stand out for their descriptiveness.

You can hear how icy and slippery it is – arpeggiated runs make you feel like you’ve lost your step and are slipping on ice. The short trills in the bass create the constant “brrr” or shivering feel.

Vivaldi printed four sonnets, one with each season, in the score to the music, describing the scenes he painted in sound.

“Shivering, frozen in the frosty snow and biting, stinging winds,” starts the one about winter. “Running back and forth to stamp your icy feet, with your teeth chattering in the bitter chill.”

It’s hard not to picture it, hearing the shivering repeated chords at the concerto’s opening, edged with the dissonance of serial suspensions – notes held from one harmony into another.

Then, there are the barking dogs, imitated by the violas in the slow movement of the “Spring” concerto.

The “Summer” sonnet begins, “Beneath the blazing sun’s relentless heat, men and flocks are sweltering, pines are scorched. We hear the cuckoo’s voice; then the sweet songs of the turtle dove. … soft breezes stir the air.”

You can hear it all in the music: There are dancing peasants, a hail storm, the pizzicato raindrops of a cold winter rain, the swarms of gnats in the hot summer sun – Vivaldi’s pictures are as vivid as music gets.

And that can be a problem for other composers, who want to essay the same subject matter.

Among some musicians and audiences, there is a prejudice against what used to be called “program music,” that is, music meant to express extra-musical associations. But music can certainly express more than notes. Too many composers have made it explicit, from the bird calls in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony to the wind machine used to Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony.

You can’t argue about program music when a composer gives you instructions in the score. Or in the title.

Debussy’s piano prelude Des pas sur la neige (“Footsteps in the snow”) uses its harmonies to suggest the white blanketing of snow. The ostinato rhythm creates a sense of emptiness and desolation, a cold beauty through which weaves a fragmented melody that may represent the human presence of the footsteps in the snow.

It can make you shiver.

Debussy is the most meteorological of composers: You find wind, rain, snow, mist, moonlight, all in his music.

But of all the music about weather and seasons, spring predominates. There are 10 pieces of music about spring for every one about summer, fall or winter. Yet, for many, winter music holds the biggest emotional punch.

Death finds its metaphor in winter. For some, the ultimate winter music is Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise (“Winter Journey”) about a young man, jilted in love, who slowly loses his mind, ending in the 19th century version of homelessness.

The German song repertoire provides an abundance of songs on the seasons, on stormy and calm weather, outside and inside our hearts.

So, blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes. You give power to our  music and our music gives power to you.

Picking your Vivaldi

vivaldi stokowski-There are many mainstream accounts of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and most of them are pretty good. It’s hard to go wrong with the music.

-Take your pick from Isaac Stern, to Anne-Sophie Mutter to Nigel Kennedy and Sarah Chang. All good.

-But there are two extreme versions that bookend the spectrum of possibility, both excellent, and as different as can be.

-In 1967, violinist Hugh Bean recorded the concertos with Leopold Stokowski and the new Philharmonia Orchestra.

-It is the very model of historical incorrectness: an old-fashioned large symphony orchestra playing Vivaldi as if it were Mahler, thick, syrupy and lush. You simply have to hear it to believe it. Yet, it is also a beautiful recording.vivaldi alessandrini

-At the other extreme is Rinaldo Alessandrini and the Concerto Italiano, playing in historically-informed style in their 2002 CD, but with an emphasis on the music’s rhetoric rather than its beauty: Every moment described in the Vivaldi’s sonnets is separated and performed in a distinct tempo and touch, making this recording the most pictorial ever. The violas really bark, the wind cuts through your sweater.

-So, smooth and lush, or edgy and driven, two versions, both among the best available.

 

WEATHER in MUSIC

Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi – “The Four Seasons”

Astor Piazzolla – Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas or “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”

Philip Glass — Violin Concerto No. 2 “The American Four Seasons”

Toru Takemitsu — Seasons for Percussion and Tape

Joseph Haydn – The Seasons

Alexander Glazunov – The Seasons Op. 67

Piotr Tchaikovsky – The Seasons Op. 37b

Jean-Baptiste Lully – Les Saisons

John Cage – The Seasons (1947 ballet score for Merce Cunningham)

James DeMars – Piano Concerto, “The Seasons”

Charles-Valentin Alkan – Les Mois

By individual seasons

Spring

Robert Schumann – Symphony No. 1, “Spring”

Johann Strauss II – “Voices of Spring” waltz

Christian Sinding – Rustle of Spring

Edvard Grieg – To Spring

Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Ludwig van Beethoven – Violin Sonata No. 5, Op. 24, “Spring”

Richard Strauss – “Fruhling” from “Four Last Songs”

Benjamin Britten – Spring Symphony

John Knowles Paine – In Spring, symphony

Claude Debussy – “Rondes de Printemps” for orchestra, from Images

Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring

Richard Wagner – “Du bist der Lenz” from Valkyrie

William Bolcom – Spring Concertino for oboe and small orchestra

Summer

Felix Mendelssohn – Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and incidental music

Hector Berlioz – Les Nuits d’Ete, song cycle

Autumn

R. Strauss – “September” from Four Last Songs

Grieg – In Autumn, overture

Debussy – Feuilles Mortes or “Dead Leaves” from Preludes, Book II

Winter

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 1, Op. 13, “Winter Dreams”

Franz Schubert – Die Winterreise, song cycle

Wagner – “Wintersturme” aria from Valkyrie

Weather

 Thunderstorms

Beethoven – Symphony No. 6, Op. 68, “Pastoral”

Gioacchino Rossini – Overture to William Tell

Wagner – Prelude to Valkyrie

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 17, Op. 31, No. 2, “Tempest”

Wagner – Opening of Flying Dutchman

Giuseppe Verdi – Storm in Otello

Vivaldi – Concerto “La Tempesta di Mare”

Berlioz – “Royal Hunt and Storm” from Les Troyens, Act IV

Earthquake

Haydn – Four Last Words of Christ

Avalanche

Alfredo Catalani – La Wally ends with an avalanche

Sunrises

R. Strauss – opening of Thus Spake Zarathustra

Maurice Ravel – Daphnis et Chloe

Haydn – Symphony No. 6, “Morning”

Ferde Grofe – “Sunrise” from Grand Canyon Suite

Moonlight

Debussy – La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, from Preludes, Book II

Debussy – “Clair de Lune” for piano, from Suite Bergamasque

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight”

Rain

Frederic Chopin – Prelude, Op. 28, No. 10, “Raindrop”

Debussy – “Jardins sous le pluie” from Estampes for piano

Grofe – “Cloudburst” from Grand Canyon Suite

Johannes Brahms – Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 78, “Regenlied,” or “Rain Song”

Wind

Debussy – West Wind from Preludes, Book I

R. Strauss – Alpine Symphony

Alkan – “Le Vent,” from op. 39 Etudes, Comme Le Vent

Clouds

Debussy – Nuages

Franz Liszt – Nuages Gris

Snow

Leopold Mozart – Musical Sleighride

Debussy – Footsteps in the Snow from Preludes, Book I

Debussy – “The Snow is Dancing” from Children’s Corner for piano

Mist

Debussy – Brouillards from Preludes, Book II

walrus and carpenter

“I read your blog about Surrealism,” said Stuart. He had come back through town on his way home.

“It reminded me of the garage band I was in.”

“You were in a band? I didn’t know you played music,” I said.

“I never played an instrument,” he said. “I was the roadie.”

“Roadie for a garage band? Did you tour?

“Heck no. It was high school. My job was to bring the Cokes.”

“No beer?”

“I said it was high school. Drinking age was 21 back then, besides, when you’re high on weed, you want something sweet.”

It turns out, they played not in a garage, but in the basement of the home where the lead guitarist lived with his parents.

“We played very low volume, sometimes without even plugging in,” he said. “We didn’t want to disturb Sal’s folks. But that’s not why I brought it up. It’s because of our name.procol harem cover

“You wrote about rock bands using Surrealism. This was 1967 and we listened to Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Procol Harem, the Velvet Underground — it was a whole list of Surrealist wordplay.

“I remember a whole subcategory of culinary surrealism,” I said. “Moby Grape, The Electric Prune, Strawberry Alarmclock.”

“And those were just the big ones. Don’t forget the Chocolate Watchband, the Peanutbutter Conspiracy and Ultimate Spinach. And I guess we could put Captain Beefheart on that list, too.

“There was the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band — bet you don’t remember them — Blossom Toes, Bubble Puppy, Pearls Before Swine, 13th Floor Elevators, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Stone Poneys and the Monkees — not that we listened the them. Nobody did; they were too popular.”

“And your band? What did you call yourselves?”

“Well, at first we were the Buddha Fumes, but later that year, we decided that was too simple, so we changed to Unlit Booth/Breakfast Out of Context. We thought it was a great name.”

“Maybe a little unwieldy.”

“Yeah, but we really got on a kick with the slash. We made up albums we were going to record, all with great two-part names, like ‘Sudden Eyes/Velcro Sunrise’ and ‘Burlap Lapels/Unexpected Lady.’ Inagaddadavida single

“I became more involved in the band our senior year and wrote lyrics for our songs. Mostly they were covers of our favorite bands, but with my new words. It’s how I became a writer, I think. I wrote a song about my dog based on Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida with the words, ‘Ah, we gotta go feed her.’ And we did. Feed her, that is.

“We broke up after graduation. We all went to different schools, except Sal, that is. He got a job.

“But this is all prelude to this list.”

“What list is that?”

“Well, back then, we made up a list of possible names for the band, and it follows exactly what you said in the piece about Surrealism. We had all these great concepts built out of wild juxtapositions, like taking a dictionary and running it through a blender. Of course, we never heard of Surrealism then. We just knew this stuff was cool.silvertone guitars

“I found this list in an old folder from that time.”

And he pulled out a folded sheet of lined yellow legal paper, brittle at the edges, with about 20 or 25 names on it, written in faded violet ink, obviously from a fountain pen (“really, a cartridge pen,” Stuart said). The ink was illegible in a couple of places where spills had made the color spread into a bright blot. I recognized the handwriting as Stuart’s from the many letters he has written me over the years. His high-school cursive was much neater, though, than the scrawl that has evolved.

“Wax Monkeys,” it began.

“Xenon Aftertaste”

Buddha Fumes, Sudden Monkey, Jalapeno Fistula, Orlando Death Car, Sequined Monotreme. The list continued: Fog Hammer.

“There was a fraudulent PR company called ‘Frog Hammer’ in Slings and Arrows,” I said. “You know, the Canadian miniseries about actors.”

“Don’t know it,” Stuart said. “But frog hammer just makes me think of a squashed schoolroom dissection. Fog Hammer is more genuinely surreal. Soft and hard at the same time, dense and vaporous.”poster 1967

He’s probably right. The list went on:

Spit Wax

Able-bodied Saints

Red Suits and Whispers

Sound Midden

Ear Stubble

Leatherette Wilderness

Snarling Confessor

Audible Hernia

Slice of Breath

Waking the Badger

Fraternal Animism

Painted Snakes

Money Under the Hood

Ashcan libertine

Pineapple Fuqua

Gruntbunnies

“Wait,” I said. “Isn’t Pineapple Fuqua a real person? Didn’t we know him when we were kids?”

“Yeah, ‘Few-Kway.’ Ran the service station. Good name, though.

“Any of them you wanna use, go ahead,” Stuart said. “I don’t mind.”

"Object" by Meret Oppenheim, 1936

“Object” by Meret Oppenheim, 1936

Most art movements come and go. Surrealism came and stayed.

spongebobThat may be unfortunate: After all, Surrealism is not everyone’s cup of fur. But if you look around, you will see that Surrealism has become an entrenched part of American culture. It’s everywhere from pop music to TV sitcoms. It’s so pervasive, sometimes you may not even recognize it as it passes by.

SpongeBob SquarePants, for instance. Salvador Dali would have loved it.

Surrealism’s love of the weird, the incongruent and the unspeakable fuels a good deal of our popular culture. Consider such band names as Flaming Lips, Insane Clown Posse, Def Leppard, Nine Inch Nails, Guns n’ Roses.herb alpert

But it’s not just music: Only a culture that thrives on a constant diet of Surrealism could line up to buy Thai pizza or Mock Hawaiian Chile. Or be able to follow Robin Williams’ unconnected segues, or recognize the world of Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead.

It’s everywhere: Michael Jackson was a walking frappe of the surreal.

Sometimes it even happens by accident: In the old Hayden Planetarium in New York, before it was torn down to make way for the new Rose Center, there was a lit sign by the staircase that read: “Solar System and Rest Rooms.”solar system and rest rooms

Of course, Surrealism didn’t enter this country on a pop-culture visa; it got here as an ambassador of French high culture.

Surrealism began in Paris in 1924 with Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, an unreadable piece of bureaucratic writing that set forth the principles of the school. It was yet one more attempt at epater le bourgeois. But it was also a utopian art-and-political movement meant to liberate all humanity, to free civilization from its deadening habits.

Andre Breton death mask

Andre Breton death mask

Primarily, Breton wanted to free the mind from the shackles of logic, to use the imagination as freely as children or madmen, with no constraints of taste or taboo.

He believed that the unconscious mind was somehow more honest than the conscious mind, and to tap into that lower, darker level of the psyche, he prescribed dream imagery, Freudian symbolism, automatic writing and random juxtaposition.

The Surrealists took as their motto a phrase from the 19th century French poet Lautreamont, “As beautiful as the chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”

Thus was ushered in the era of droopy watches and steam locomotives chugging out of the fireplace.

The number of artists who signed on was impressive — even Picasso himself, at least tangentially.

By Australian artist Manfred Olsen, detail

By Australian artist Manfred Olsen, detail

But one can’t talk about Surrealism as a single thing, because it was not. There were as many types of Surrealism as there were Surrealist artists. And there were an army of them. Their general was Breton, who attempted to maintain control of his theory but was, in truth, herding cats. Everyone had his own version of Surrealism. Dali leapt into sexual fetishism; Ernst into automatism. Joan Miro imitated children’s art; Man Ray made clever and useless objects.

And just as French couture shows up in New York department-store knock-offs, Surrealism crossed the Atlantic, so in the 1930s and ’40s, American artists who wished to remain au courant picked up the mantra.

"Oedipus Rex" by Max Ernst, 1922

“Oedipus Rex” by Max Ernst, 1922

The ’40s also saw many of the European Surrealists cross the Atlantic to escape the war. Dali came over. Tanguy came over. Ernst even settled in Arizona. Dali became a celebrity; he starred in Life magazine.

Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali

Surrealism began its metamorphosis into mass culture.

Dali’s particular style of Surrealism became the public model for the movement and was imitated by some artists, including Federico Castellon, Reuben Kadish, Harold Lehman, Helen Lundeberg.

Flat horizons, empty spaces, body parts, puppets, shadows, eggs, skeletons — a whole retinue of increasingly tired Surrealist iconography. In America, that iconography persists aggressively in the form of tattoo and prison art, and the work of untold high school students.

But this wasn’t the end: Two more generations of Surrealism in America followed.

"Monogram" by Robert Rauschenberg

“Monogram” by Robert Rauschenberg

First came Pop Art, which often had a Surreal component — Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram, for instance, with its stuffed goat wearing a rubber tire cummerbund, or Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculpture. Even Andy Warhol’s color-quilt celebrity portraits have a Surrealist edge.

And then came psychedelia. It is through the drug-and-rock culture of the late 1960s that modern pop culture gets its Surreal DNA. Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly, psychedelic posters, LSD and flower power.psychedelic poster

“I don’t take drugs,” Dali said. “I am drugs.” That was the difference.

But to truly understand what the excitement was all about, you must understand something about art in general: One of its main duties is to refresh our perceptions. We live lives of deadening habit — driving the same commuter route daily, watching the same TV shows, ritualizing our political life so that it becomes no more thought through than a slogan on a T-shirt. Habit is the great deadener of life. Art always needs to show us something that wakes us up, makes us see the world again as if for the first time. This is what Breton meant by Surrealism. He means to grab us by the lapels and make us see the world as miraculous.

“The marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful,” he said, “in fact, only the marvelous is beautiful.”

cosmos logo

The new science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, has been a huge disappointment.

Rife with cliches, cheap-looking animation and lack of coherent structure, after its first two episodes, it is proven a shallow and glib sequel to Carl Sagan’s 1980 original, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

The problems are myriad. The animated sequences are just embarrassing; they remind one of Sunday-school Bible story videos. Graphic ideas that were original 30 years ago now seem tired and worn; if I never see another green-screen calendar standing in for the 13.8 billion years of the universe and an actor standing on Dec. 31, pointing to the last 16 seconds as all of recorded history — well, let’s just say I will survive if I never see that again. There has to be a fresher way of presenting the material. giordano bruno animation

I don’t have a problem, per se, with Neil deGrasse Tyson as presenter, except that he is given such a lame script to read. He has been a persuasive and entertaining host on many another appearance, but here, he is reduced to being a hired-gun presenter, reading someone else’s words. One of the primary strengths of the original series was that it was Sagan’s words, his ideas and his idiosyncrasies that gave the series such strength and authority. tyson 2

You have to look long and hard deep into the credits to even discover who wrote this new series. The surprise is that the script is by Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan and astrophysicist Steven Soter, both of whom collaborated with Sagan on the first series. It is astonishing that the original was so personal and this sequel so deadeningly impersonal.

The second episode of the sequel was marginally better than the first, so maybe the series will get better as it goes along, although I doubt it. There is a serious flaw in its conception.

Television has a marvelous history of documentary series, beginning — by most people’s reckoning — with Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View, from 1969. That series set the parameters for those that followed: Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973), Alistair Cooke’s America: A Personal History of the United States (1972), Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New (1980),  and, of course, Sagan’s Cosmos (1980).

There were others, too. Jonathan Miller’s The Body in Question (1978), Phillip Morrison’s The Ring of Truth: An Inquiry into How We Know What We Know (1987), David Attenborough’s Life on Earth (1979). What makes each of these series memorable is that they are told through a presenter who has personal knowledge of what he is talking about, and more than that, has a point of view.

Whether it is Hughes, looking like a pugnacious longshoreman, or Cooke looking exactly not like a longshoreman, they each ooze personality from every pore. Neil deGrasse Tyson has personality, too. But the earlier presenters had more than personality: They had something to say.

Many documentaries — and most so-called contemporary documentary series on cable TV channels — present either a dumbed-down version of the accepted wisdom, the handed-down story, or else an “objective” and impersonal “encyclopedia-entry” regurgitation of factoids.

There are different ways of being objective. Frederick Wiseman gives us long documentary films with no narration at all — just immediate immersion into his subject, leaving us to figure it all out. Or, like the PBS series, Frontline, give us a clear narrative, read in the Voice of Doom timbre of Will Lyman — the most distinctive and recognizable faceless voice since John Facenda telling us of the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.

And at least one great television documentary series has come from this objective school: The World at War, the 1973 Thames Television series created by Jeremy Isaacs and narrated by Laurence Olivier. For that, the enormity of its subject seemed to require a certain distance.

But most of the great and memorable educational series have come through the sensibility of a single presenter — Clark’s take on European art, Bronowski on science or Martin Scorsese on film.

It is important to recognize that it is not the personality of the presenter so much as it is that important word: sensibility. It is not the knowledge that the host conveys as his relationship to the knowledge, the connections between things, the understanding. As Albert Einstein said, “When I need a fact, I can look it up.” It isn’t facts we need but the appreciation of our ineluctable relation to those facts. Sensibility is fact filtered through the human mind. It is where poetry comes from and it is poetry that is missing in the new series. sagan with dandelion

Just one example: In the original Cosmos series, the “spaceship of the imagination” that Sagan offers us comes in the form of a starburst, or, as it later turns out, the fluffy starburst achene of a dandelion. In the final episode, Sagan speaks to us directly on a rocky seashore and picks up a tiny white seedhead and lets it fly with the breeze, and we are shocked into the recognition that the spaceship of the imagination is a metaphor — the small achene and the immense starburst are micro and macro version of the same thing — that the earthly weed from our front lawns and the burning starry dynamo in the machinery of night are one and the same substance.

As William Blake put it: “Infinity in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.”spaceship tyson

In contrast, the new Cosmos has us riding in what looks like a giant letter opener, shiny as chromium steel and just as hard and impersonal — it is a symbol of technology, not science. Sagan would never confuse the two.

It tells us how advanced have become the tools of computer graphics and their ability to create the illusion of reflections on a moving surface. We may admire the software that produced the visuals, but we are hardly edified by them.

One other comparison: Tyson in the new series tries to inject a bit of himself in the opening episode, telling us how when he was 17, he met Carl Sagan and how much it meant to him as a young man interested in astronomy. It is the one moment of authenticity in the otherwise stumbling artificiality of the show.

The injection of the personal has often been a tactic used in documentaries. But compare Tyson’s moment of authenticity with Jacob Bronowski in the episode of The Ascent of Man in which he discusses the impossibility of certainty in science. At the end, he stand at the edge of a pond in the Auschwitz death camp and defends science as the best we can know in our own fallibility, and the evils visited upon us by certainty.

“This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”

He bends down and puts his fist in the muck, drawing up a handful.

“I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

It is the difference between the trivial and the profound.

So, in response to the banality of the new, lesser Cosmos, we should look back at some of the best that television has given us, and the people who have something to say who have stood in front of the cameras to express their connection to the world they live in, to share their sense of attachment and their fresh words, so lacking in glibness and cant.

These are my nominees for the five best television documentary series ever produced.The five best

Civilisation: A Personal View (1969) — Sir Kenneth Clark provides a heartbreaking overview of European art and civilization in a series that is a much better, more nuanced view of its subject than you probably remember. If you recall it as Clark, with the British public-school back-palate drawl, talking about the “great masterpieces” as if he were an Oxfordian tour bus guide, you will be in for a surprise: His view is much more subtle than that. He makes a serious attempt to discover just what civilization might be, and uses the past 500 years of European history to make his discovery.

The Ascent of Man (1973) — Mathematician Jacob Bronowski reacted to Clark’s view of civilization, deciding it placed too much emphasis in art and not enough on science, so he attempted to do the job. With his unfortunate 1970’s fashion sense and a slight lisp, he could sometimes sound a bit pompous, but the content of his cosmopolitan mind was a tremendous gift to anyone willing to listen.

The Shock of the New (1980) — Art critic Robert Hughes tried to make sense of Modernism in art, and gave us many profound insights, including the uncomfortable relationship of Surrealism and Fascism. Hughes can be confrontational and pugilistic, but unlike most art critics, whose prose is often no more digestible than an old mattress, he wrote with grace, wit and memorability.

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) — Astronomer Carl Sagan made the universe personal, gave us a way in to a subject usually obscured in the jungle foliage of higher mathematics. What is surprising, more than 30 years on, is just how much he got right. Yes, you can make fun of “billions and billions,” but the truth is, there are billions of billions out there.

The World at War (1973) — The exception that proves the rule, this 26-episode series combines archival film footage with meaningful interviews with surviving participants from all sides. Written and produced by Jeremy Isaacs, it comes with the voice-over of Sir Laurence Olivier, using his most serious and least thespianic narrative powers. This is a triumph of direct and unmannered documentation.

It should be a hallmark of television literacy to have seen all of these series.

The BEST of the REST

Can you name these presenters? Answers below

Can you name these presenters? Answers below

Since it is the presenter (a very British term, but more accurate than “narrator,” “host” or “emcee”) that makes the series, one should look for any programs by

Michael Wood, whose boyish enthusiasm brought us In Search of the Trojan War, In Search of the Dark Ages, The Story of India and many more. He is best when the material is his own; when he is just a hired gun, as in the Art of the Western World, he is entertaining, but less engaging.

Michael Palin, the former Monty Python stalwart, who has become the best travel presenter ever. He began doing shows on railroad trains, but hit his stride with Around the World in 80 Days, in which he met the challenge of Phileas Fogg. He followed that series with Pole to Pole, Full Circle with Michael Palin, Sahara, Himalaya and Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure.

Ian Wright, a cherubic and outgoing Englishman with a Suffolk born glottal stop, he is a frequent presenter of Lonely Planet travelogs. No one joins in with whatever local population, or with less self-consciousness than Wright. You want him to be your permanent travel partner.

Martin Scorsese, the current reigning king of movie directors, has to be the best informed historian of film ever, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things cinematic and always and engaged and engaging way of speaking about his passion. He has made two series about films that are a must: A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, and My Voyage to Italy, in which he does the same thing for the classic Italian films he grew up with.

Leonard Bernstein, who can be more annoying than anyone else on my list, with his stentorian voice and oracular pronouncements, is nevertheless a great teacher who can disclose the secrets of classical music even to the uninitiated, as long as they are willing to pay attention. His series of Harvard lectures, The Unanswered Question, is one of the best discussions of the changing history of classical music out there, even if you have to put up with a dose of Chomskian linguistics.

Sister Wendy Beckett, who can also be annoying, is nevertheless one of the most patient and thorough observers of the narrative content of Renaissance and Baroque paintings. If Modernism has made us condescending to subject matter in art, this English nun reawakens us to the subtlety and power of that content.

Simon Schama, the polymath, has given us series on The History of Britain and The Power of Art, which looks with some detail at eight artists and eight paintings. He can be snide and sometimes sounds like an English public school don, but he has a good sense of humor. His newest series, The Story of the Jews, begins this week on PBS.

There are others, too. James Burke, Bettany Hughes, Niall Ferguson. The BBC especially, is ripe with presenters.

Can you name these presenters? Answers below

Can you name these presenters? Answers below

But the king of all of them, largely unmentioned until now, but only because he deserves the Big Finish, is the greatest presenter of all, David Attenborough. For more than 60 years, he has been presenting nature programs for the BBC and has written and presented some of the best documentary series ever made. In fact, of the Top 20 TV documentary series listed on IMDb, Attenborough created 10 of them.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough

No one is more genuine on screen, nor more cosmopolitan in approach, or more knowledgeable about his subject or more personable than Attenborough. A list of his accomplishments takes up 16 pages on Wikipedia. He has made the definitive series of programs about life on the planet five times, each one better than the last, beginning with Life on Earth in 1979, The Living Planet in 1984, The Trials of Life in 1990, Planet Earth in 2006, and Life in 2009. That doesn’t count Blue Planet (2001), The Life of Birds (1998), The Life of Mammals (2002). In 2013, at the age of 86, he gave us Africa.planet earth cover

The quality of these series, the many others, and the scores of one-offs — not to mention that as head of programing at the BBC, he greenlighted such classics as Civilisation, Ascent of Man and Alistair Cooke’s America —  makes Attenborough not just a hero, but a god. At least a divi filius.

He is a paragon of humanistic awareness, curiosity and fairness, and has not, to my knowledge, ever in his life uttered a cliche. I’ve never seen anyone more present in the world. If he is not awarded some sort of Nobel Prize for his life work, the universe will have to be declared deficient.

Presenter mugs: Top photo, top row (L-R): Alistair Cooke, Bettany Hughes, Jacob Bronowski, David Attenborough, Clive James. Middle row: Edward Herrmann, James Burke, Ian Wright, David Suzuki, Kate Humble. Bottom row: Ludovic Kennedy, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Miller, Kenneth Clark, Fiona Bruce.

Bottom photo, top row: Michael Palin, Michio Kaku, Niall Ferguson, Morgan Freeman, Michael Wood. Middle row: Simon Schama, Peter Coyote, Robert Hughes, Carl Sagan, Sigourney Weaver. Bottom row: Sister Wendy Beckett, Trevor McMillan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Will Lyman, Terry Jones. 

George Leonard Herter

George Leonard Herter

The British have their eccentrics, but America has crackpots.

There is something quaint about the Englishman wearing a cutaway and top hat in the Sahara sun, or refusing to read any book unless its author’s name begins with the letter “A”. But the American version of this tendency usually comes out in something more oracular: Americans create new religions and build temples out of bottlecaps. And they are obsessed with peculiar certainty that nobody has got history correctly except themselves. herters catalog

One of the great American crackpots wrote cookbooks. George Leonard Herter built one of the nation’s great outfitting businesses, in Waseca, Minn. His fortune was founded on shotgun cartridges and duck calls. But his lasting place in history comes from the books he wrote, most notably, the Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, and it is not for the faint of heart.

In what other cookbook would you find the claim: ”The Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ, was very fond of spinach”?

Herter goes on to say, ”This is as well a known fact in Nazareth today as it was 19 centuries ago. Her favorite music was that of the crude bagpipes of that time, and this is a well-known fact.” bull cook cover

He then proceeds to give us her recipe for spinach, which, he says, was the only thing she ate in the stable where Jesus was born.

No, this is not a religious book. Other ”historical” claims include, ”Sauerbraten was invented by Charlemagne,” and that St. Thomas Aquinas was so fat, ”He simply sawed out a half circle in his eating table so that his stomach could fit comfortably into the sawed out section.”

He tells us that Johannes Kepler’s work on astronomy has long since been forgotten, ”but his creating liverwurst will never be forgotten.”

He has Bat Masterson’s recipe for prairie dog, Marie Antoinette’s recipe, not for cake, but for trout. He says Joan of Arc was responsible for the invention of pate de foie gras.

His standard recipe runs something like this: ”No one knows how to bake a potato anymore. I’ll tell you how to bake a potato.”

It is clear from the presentation that Herter is not trying to be funny. He is dead serious. As when he opens the book with this: how to live with a bitch

”For your convenience, I will start with meats, fish, eggs, soups and sauces, sandwiches, vegetables, the art of French frying, desserts, how to dress game, how to properly sharpen a knife, how to make wines and beer, how to make French soap, what to do in case of hydrogen or cobalt bomb attack. Keeping as much in alphabetical order as possible.”

Of course, the index is not in alphabetical order.

Herter wrote a number of books; among the more notable were How to Live With a Bitch and The Truth About Hunting in Today’s Africa and How to Go on a Safari for $690.00 (“Baboons are simply too small for leopard bait”).

I can’t vouch for any Bull Cook recipes. Most seem to involve a “well-buttered slice of bread” and some ground beef fried in even more butter. But I can say that Herter seems to have two entertaining obsessions that make up the bulk of the book, and its sequels, volumes 2 and 3. truth about hunting

He expresses the absolute certainty of the crackpot when he tells us his version of history:

“Napoleon Bonaparte always remained a great mama’s boy.”

“Napoleon not only liked green beans very well, but believed that they helped to produce more sperm in male humans. As he was always a man who played the ladies frequently, this was just as important to him as winning wars.”

Napoleon shows up frequently in the book. So does Cleopatra. Let Herter explain ancient Roman Egypt for you.

According to Herter’s version of ancient history, Cleopatra tired of Marc Anthony and tricked him into killing himself.

“Cleopatra went over to where Mark Anthony lay and made sure that he was dead. She then sent a messenger to Octavian telling the good news and asking him to come over for the weekend. Octavian did come over to visit her as he well remembered her charms when she lived in Rome. She did her best to charm him in every way possible and he was willing. Cleopatra was now thirty-nine and had produced five children. They did not have girdles in those days, nor uplift brassieres. She had widened out and her famous bosom had sagged considerably. The old charm simply was not there. Octavian decided that the younger models were more to his liking and told her she better get out of Egypt and he did not want to see her in Italy either. Octavian made Egypt a part of the Roman Empire. The Roman Legion, now that the fighting was over, had a well-earned vacation putting Italian blood into Egypt. It is still very much there today. They actually changed the appearance of the Egyptians to a very Italian look which they still have today. Cleopatra was just in the way. Octavian had one of his men pay a servant to poison her. Her record proved she was not the type to kill herself for anything or anyone. Besides, there were no asps anywhere near the town she was in. If she did have an asp and let it bite in one of her breasts as the fable goes, it would not have killed her anyway. A woman’s breast is mostly fat and it is one of the places where the bite of any poisonous snake has little effect.”

There follows a recipe for “Watermelon Pickles Cleopatra.”

He is a fountain of prejudices, and has no doubts about his opinions.

“Henry the VIII actually never amounted to anything and would not have made a good ditchdigger. The only thing that he ever did to to his credit was to highly endorse the kidneys made by Elizabeth Grant, one of his many cooks.”

He knows with dead certainty how Genghis Kahn liked his steaks prepared and how Gregor Mendel cooked his eggs. And according to Herter, it is not his banditry or gunslinging for which Billy the Kid will be remembered by posterity, but for his recipe for cornmeal pancakes.

“Here is his own recipe which will long outlive Billy’s memory.”

Herter’s other obsession is sex, and most specifically, women’s breasts. The second volume of the Bull Cook is full of bad black-and-white reproductions of famous paintings of the nude, and his historical commentary often features descriptions of famous cleavages of the past.

He tells us that Cleopatra “was said to have the longest, most pointed breasts in all the world. The movie actresses that have tried to play Cleopatra from time to time never qualified on this point.”

“Greek women have always been known for their unusually well-developed breasts. They have always felt that bare breasts gave them more grace and beauty and that exposing breasts was not at all immodest.”

“In those days, if you didn’t have breasts worth showing, you were really in trouble. A flat chested pendulent breasted woman just did not have a chance in life.

Lucrezia Borgia by Bartolomeo Veneto

Lucrezia Borgia by Bartolomeo Veneto

In another place, he reprints a portrait by Bartolomeo Veneto (and misattributing it as he does so) and tell us:

“Lucrezia Borgia, well-known poisoner, painted by Veneziano in 1520. By this time, it was popular to wear dresses with one breast exposed and the breast nicely rouged. As you can well see, this style did nothing for Lucrezia as she had nothing special to show.”

He has a chapter titled: “Bare Breasts and Food In the United States.” In it and passim, he describes various topless establishments, comparing those in Paris with those in Las Vegas. Vegas wins, by his reckoning.

“For my part I enjoy eating very much. I do not like to look at female breasts while I am eating as I like to concentrate on my food. There is a time and place for everything and I prefer exposed female breasts in a bedroom, a tepee or a clean cave.”

It isn’t only breasts, though.

“Michelangelo learned to paint and sculpture sexual organs probably better than anyone that ever lived. He never learned to use his own properly, however, and was a homosexual.”

And he has a way of combining his questionable grasp on history with his prurience:

“Charles the II of England was born in 1630 and died Feb. 6 in 1685. He married the beautiful Portuguese woman, Catherine of Braganza who brought Bombay, India and Tangier to England as part of her dowry. Those were the days when getting married could really get you something. He never had any legitimate children as Catherine was just plain scared of pushing out a child through so small a space. She became an early expert and exponent on birth control.”

There is more than an undercurrent of bigotry in him. While he exults American Indians (not always reliably: “Pizza pies were of course, unknown as these too are of American Indian origin.”), and recounts many instances where white America has raped and pillaged the Indians, he holds many questionable ideas about women and other races.

In that section on Michelangelo, for instance, he says: “Michelangelo’s statue of David shows what can be done with a piece of marble. As far as showing what David might have looked like, it is a masterpiece of errors. David was a  Jew and undoubtedly had the high cheekbones and nose of a Jew. This figure is strictly Anglo-Saxon in appearance, not even Roman.”

Lady Hamilton as the Cumean Sibyl by Vigee-Lebrun

Lady Hamilton as the Cumean Sibyl by Vigee-Lebrun

On a section (see below) spent with Horatio Nelson and his mistress Lady Hamilton, he includes a portrait of the woman, misspelling the name of the artist (Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun) and in his caption tells us something about his opinion of women.

“The portrait was painted by Madam Vigee-Ledrun , one of the few good women artists the world has ever known. Women because of the effect of menstruation upon them, rarely can become even fair painters.”

Not to mention his take on Joan of Arc: “Never underestimate the strength and courage of a woman that is really mad at you.”

Among his other obsessions are nuclear war and art.

“Red pepper good for radiation and upset stomachs”

“We always have the money to buy good soap in this country and women folk look down on such menial tasks as making soap these days. An H bomb strike in this country would change the whole picture.”

“I never have  been an admirer of the paintings of Matisse but I always thought his cooking was excellent.” What follows is a recipe for “Beans Matisse.”

I could go on all day giving you quotes from the Bull Cook.

“Joshua 10:13 in about 1451 years before Christ says that the sun stood still in heaven and did not go down for the space of one day. This caused Indian Mexico to become dark.”

Or:

“Mozart was a man that believed just putting a lady on her back was not at all enough. Seducing an actress was a game with him that had to be done properly or not at all. He wined and dined his amours very well before getting down to any serious romancing. His dessert I like far better than his music and his orange wine is a classic. Here are his original recipes.”

Not to mention:

Eggs “are best eaten in a well ventilated room.”

Or:

“Never drink coffee right after eating peppered fried eggs or soft-boiled eggs.”

The combination of sex and history, scrambled, fried and soft-boiled can be enjoyed in his version of the life and appetites of Lord Horatio Nelson:

“Horatio Nelson was a fragile, very sensitive man nearly always in poor health. He was not at all good looking and women shunned him.”

“In the West Indies, on March 11, 1787, he made the greatest blunder of his life. He was more or less trapped into marrying Frances Nesbit, the widow of a doctor Nevis. Nelson had simply spent too many years on the seas with only men to look at and the prospect of having any nude woman looked like a catch to him.”

“Emma Lyon was born on May 12, 1765 … She grew up to be a lively, robust, big-breasted beauty that attracted any normal man.”

“Emma had a way with men, which consisted mainly of taking off her clothes. During Nelson’s battle of the Nile she obtained valuable information for Nelson. When Nelson returned from the campaign of the Nile to Naples, Emma arranged to meet him in her bedroom with nothing on but a string of pearls. Nelson’s wife had turned out to be a cold unenthusiastic bed partner and Emma, the vivacious, warm, bubbling prostitute was a welcome change.”

“I have always admired Horatio Nelson. He was not much physically or mentally, but he was an honest, hard-working man. He never cared what anyone thought or said about him. He liked Emma because she was a good bed partner and a light-hearted, depression chaser around the house.

“Horatio Nelson was not much of an eater as he had a bad stomach. His favorite food was a sandwich which he ate both on ship and shore. Here is his original recipe.”

It is a kind of onion sandwich on well-buttered bread. “Eat with a bottle of strong beer,” Herter recommends.

“This is a truly great sandwich befitting a truly great man and besides, it burps beautifully.”