Hanging out at the far end of the Plaza Hotel in Monterey a few minutes ago, I espied a few dozen white folding chairs on the small beach, mostly occupied, a few photographers milling about, and a stream of blue tulle stretched between a couple of multi-colored plastic wind wheels stuck in the kelp strewn sand. I got there just in time to see a hefty guy in a short sleeved blue shirt and white shades escorting a buxom bride in full white regalia down the sandy stairs. There was a young man in black shirt and tie right on the high tide mark, tiny waves lapping the shore inches from his feet, playing Pachelbel’s Canon on fuzz guitar, repeatedly missing notes. A guy in a Mohawk and shades looked on, while an attractive young woman nursed. The preacher, garbed in a casual, short-sleeved white un-tucked shirt read the vows while sidestepping a small rogue wave, evoking chuckles, as kayakers traversed the stairs a few feet away. Scuba divers inched into the cold water nearby. After all, it’s California.
I’ve always been fond of diners. Miss Florence Diner (Flo’s), Florence (Northampton), Massachusetts; Miss Bellows Falls Diner, Bellows Falls, Vermont; Empire Diner, Chelsea, Manhattan. Earthy Americana, unpretentious, local. Denny’s was invariably a place my friends and I would ridicule, a restaurant that, I suppose, symbolized the worst of the American diet, but also the Corporatization of Breakfast. I’m old enough to remember when the American Breakfast meant something. But I digress.
Having failed to shop for groceries yesterday, I found myself in the unenviable position of being breakfastless. I’m one of those people who needs to eat immediately upon arising, and am pretty useless until I’ve fed myself. I don’t know of any place in Monterey to get a cheap breakfast. Do such places still exist? When I lived in downtown Cincinnati, there was a hole in the wall down a gritty side street that offered a breakfast of two eggs, toast, and coffee (bottomless) for $.99. I’m afraid those days are over. But I’m not quite prepared for the Grand Slam.
Generally, I hew pretty close to the philosophy that has made America great, that of supporting small, independent businesses. But I was lusting after a steaming plate of scrambled eggs, home fries and a colossal glass of juice, and I figured I could get a cheap, or at least relatively cheap, breakfast at Denny’s.
I’ve eaten at Denny’s twice in my life; once, appropriately, in the dead of night, and once, when I had an insane craving for mashed potatoes and gravy. I’m not proud of myself.
I figured I would be clever, order a couple of sides, and get out cheaply, so I enjoined the waiter to fetch me two scrambled eggs, hash browns and a large juice, half orange, half grapefruit. Weakening with malnourishment, not unlike Knut Hamsun’s starving writer hero in “Hunger,” the anticipation was delicious and intoxicating, mythic.
As I sat, companionless, in my diminutive booth, I became aware of the sounds around me, a symphony of clattering dishes, conversation, a child’s cry, laughter. I noticed the others in the restaurant: A couple of couples and a child sharing a booth; a large, Mexican (?) family; an old man, sitting alone; an odd-looking young man, his face a miasma of pimples; a middle aged couple, expressionless, sitting across from each other, perhaps only their newspapers separating them. I espied the Econolodge across the street, a long green and blue wooden structure. A woman emerged onto the balcony, looking around, and a flood of memories rushed in: all the travels of childhood, the seemingly eternal journeying of my life, my love of motel rooms, the smell of the linen, the pool, the cheap perfumed soap.
Why was I so enamored of restaurants? I had always loved “eating out.” As a kid, I remember seeing a truck that proclaimed in bold, black Helvetica, “EAT OUT OFTEN.” That became my credo. I would beg my parents to take us out to eat after church, using every trick at my disposal to con them into a lunch out. Once in a while it worked.
I suppose a restaurant symbolizes community, a place where people come together for one of the most basic of all human activities. It is a Communion of sorts, even if the Grand Slam Breakfast doesn’t promise Eternal Life.
I stared at the menu. Lots of Slams. Original Pancake Puppies. Moon Over My Hammy. The menu is brilliantly designed to stuff you so full that you can’t possibly think, let alone move. I stuck to my original intention, and simply ordered the eggs and hash browns. The aroma of the food around me was causing me to swoon.
The iced water and large juice arrived, late, in green plastic Coke glasses, followed by the eggs and potatoes. I have to say, the food was pretty good. Basic, but wholesome, and it felt good to eat. I kept glancing over at the attractive woman across the room, checking out the other diners, gazing out the window, letting my mind roam and roam and roam. I felt mildly guilty for eating unborn chickens, and imagined, or tried not to imagine, how their parents had been treated at the factory prison farms where they were doing life. I made a bad joke to myself about eating free-range potatoes.
When the check arrived, I was shocked that it exceeded ten dollars. So much for my budget. I paid the bill, dropped a couple of bucks on the table, and, satisfied, walked out into the gray streets of Monterey, ready to face the morning.
Departing from my normative café behavior, I made a B-line for the InterContinental Hotel (just a short schlep up Cannery Row from the Monterey Plaza Hotel), navigating a derelict sea of lollygagging tourists. It’s a warm, swanky postmodern affair, festooned with video art and engaging sculpture, and informally-trendily furnished. The lounge, where I have temporarily installed my personhood, is crisply divided into a three-dimensional grid of expansive beams, and wide columns faced in tasteful, subtle off-white wallpaper, and studded with minimalist rectangular-solid sconces. The lighting fixtures are composed of a translucent synthetic that marvelously impersonates linen, with another translucent box inside, illuminated by a single light. The ceiling is an open grid consisting of rows of oak strips, separated by spacers, snugged between the wide, white beams, and punctuated by large doughnut-shaped lamps that hang from thin wires. The lamps are translucent plastic on the inside, and crimped, corrugated aluminum with tiny holes on the outside. Small, high-intensity lights on two-foot rods jut down at regular intervals. Eighteen-inch off-white marble tiles define the floor, punctuated by ten-by-twelve sections of flush carpet, decorated with wavy brown & aqua lines against a bluish background, which articulate the seating areas. A wall of windows, clad in white aluminum, floor-to-ceiling, looks out onto a weathered wood patio populated by natural teak Smith & Hawken chairs and tables, two wire-caged fire pits, a fence of wood and wire grid, and the Monterey Bay. On the wall opposite the glass is a long, wavy relief sculpture of three-inch dark-stained, metal-impersonating wood strips protruding from the wall, resembling an abstract drawing of hills and sea. The squarish overstuffed chairs are clothed in earth tones, from ochre-olive to dark chocolate; some sport wood trim. The couches are peopled with square pillows, featuring designs of six-sided gray/green geometric forms against a darker moss background. Each seating area is composed of a couch and chairs around low wooden tables, finely polished. On one end of the rectangular room is a large fireplace, set into a wall relief that resembles square stones in dark umber. On the mantle is a sculpture made of horizontal, bare tree or driftwood branches. Higher wooden tables stand behind the couches, sporting squarish modern lamps and simple round, modern earth-toned vases, devoid of flowers. On one table, a large white vase with white branches looms; on another, an open bowl of stubby, dark branches cradles transparent glass balls. The gentle guitar and piano music soothes me, despite my aversion to such music. The light is diffuse, owing, in part, to the fog that blankets the Bay beyond. Before me is a clear glass goblet of iced tea, and a metal pitcher with condensation on its slightly bulging lower extremity. It is cold and good.
As I am fond of saying, “The Ocean has sustained us for millennia. Time to return the favor.” Time is running out for our beloved Earth. I ricochet between despair and hope. What sustains me is knowing that I am doing (nearly) everything I can, on a daily basis, to protect what is sacred to me.
• I use as little water as possible.
• I rarely use paper towels or napkins.
• I don’t buy stuff I don’t need.
• I pick up trash, including toxic cigarette butts and, especially, plastic.
• I bring my own bags to the store, & never use plastic bags.
• I bring my own cup, plate, flat ware, and cloth napkin wherever I go.
• I make an effort to buy locally grown produce.
• I use public transportation. I haven’t completely given up driving, but I don’t have a car, and I’ve discovered that I can get around pretty well on the bus.
• I talk to people wherever I go, to remind myself, and them, to be more ecologically aware.
• I walk.
If you have a car, you can drive less, never let your car idle, steer clear of the drive-thru, etc. When you walk, you get healthier, lose weight, see more cool stuff (like flowers) and build community. And you feel less guilt. I promise.
Recycling is a myth perpetrated by the very people who want you to buy their plastic crap. Don’t buy bottled water; it’s toxic, expensive and burdens the oceans.
So, turn off the TV, renounce the mall, get out into Nature, and make a solemn vow that you will devote yourself to protecting the only Earth we have. Every moment – and every act – counts. LOVE the Earth.
“… to make divine things human and human things divine; such is Bach, the greatest and purest moment in music of all time.” ~ Pablo Casals
The 73rd season of the Carmel Bach Festival began its final day this morning with a brief concert of the music of Haydn and Mozart. The annual two-week festival features music of Bach and his musical legacy. The July 14th concert featured renowned cellist Raphael Wallfisch performing the complete cycle of the six Suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. The suite is remarkable achievement, and a benchmark in writing for the cello. In addition to music of Bach, the Festival featured music of Monteverdi, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, some contemporary works, films, and other events.
This morning’s concert began with the Symphony No. 8, Le Soir, by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), a work in four movements. (Most of Haydn’s symphonies have acquired various nicknames, some appropriate, over the years.) Haydn, one of the sunniest of the great composers, creates a delightful mood, and the ensemble playing and virtuosity of the musicians were exquisite.
The second piece on the hour-long program was Ein musikalischer Spass (A Musical Joke), K. 522 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Mozart was a known jokester (the sign of great intelligence!); those of us who are more dilettantes than musical geniuses, got the more obvious of the musical jokes.
Mozart was born just six years after Bach died, and some believe that he was the incarnation, or at least the musical incarnation, of J.S. Bach. Mozart thoroughly incorporated Bach’s lessons, and was fully capable of writing a great fugue when it was called for.
The final piece on the program was Mozart’s Rondo In D Major for Horn, K. 514, for five violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, two oboes, bassoon and two French horns. It was written for the shopkeeper and horn player Johann Leutgeb, the butt of Mozart’s mischievous humor. David Gordon provided Mozart’s sarcastic narration, which is generally left out of performances and recordings of the piece, which lent a delightful finale to an hour of light-hearted music.
Steve Shimek, of Monterey Coastkeeper (www.montereycoastkeeper.org) was the most recent presenter at the monthly Center for Ocean Solutions (Twitter: @ocean solutions) Policy Seminar in Monterey. Shimek is the founder of the Otter Project (Twitter: TheOtterProject). It was a gorgeous day in Monterey,and the sea lions just outside the door provided appropriate ambience.
Shimek referred to the otter as “the Panda of the coast,” since they are perhaps the cutest non-human residents, making it relatively easy to raise money for their protection. According to Shimek (and others), The Southern Sea Otter population is in a “precipitous” decline. The focus of Shimek’s talk Thursday was the legal battle to protect the sea otters from the No Otter Zone. He says the Otter Project swore they would never do litigation, but it has lately become necessary. In twelve years, The Otter Project has had only six lawyers, and gone to court twice. They don’t want to be “painted as litiginous.” The goal of the Otter Project is to promote the rapid recovery of the otter population of the California coast.
The otters’ range extends from Alaska to the middle of the Baja California peninsula. In the “pre-exploitation” (c. 1740) era, otters were abundant along the coast. As a humorous aside, Shimek reported that one theory as to why the otters don’t populate areas further south is speculation that in warm water they would “sink.”
In the late 17th Century, otters along the coast were hunted nearly to extinction. Otter pelts were highly valued for use as winter clothing. Compared to the human head, which contains between 100-200,000 hairs per square inch (for some of us), otters have some one million hairs per square inch, making their fur perhaps the most beautiful and lush of any animal. This furry coat protects the otters from the cold waters of the California coast.
In the 19th Century, there were remnant populations at various places along the coast. Otters were thought by many to be extinct, until the construction of coastal Route 1 commenced after 1919. “People had pretty much forgotten about the otters.” Fifty otters were discovered at Bixby Creek (under the now-famous Bixby Bridge, Route 1). There are now some 2700-2800 along the coast, something, Shimek says, is “something to be proud of.”
Today, otters can be seen as far south as Orange County, and as far north as Point Reyes, California, famous as a hauling out point for the massive Elephant Seals. Shimek reports that many otters in the spring count this year have been found dead on the beach.
Why are the otters dying? Shimek showed an image of a kid’s drawing of otters, and said that kids believe it is because of garbage and pollution. No doubt, the kids are right, but that is not the whole story. Some of the many reasons otters are dying are shark bites, emaciation, lack of parental care, neonatal mortality, infectious disease (38.5%), protozoal encephalitis, bacterial infections and old age. Pollutants, including PCBs, PBDE (compounds used as flame retardants), PFOS (a key ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard and fire-fighting foams), manganese (a naturally occurring element, also found in batteries), cobalt (a highly toxic metal found in tiny amounts in vitamin B12) and butylin, also affect the health of the otter populations. The loading of contaminants, which collect in the animals’ livers, is much higher in California than in Washington, Alaska and other areas where the otters are found.
Essentially, otters are swimming in a “sea of diseases.” All sea animals are threatened by plastics in the Ocean, as well as a myriad of pollutants. Other threats to the otters are oil and gas exploration, bycatch (caught in fishing nets) and the diminution of their natural habitats because of development.
The global system of Marine Protected Areas, some 5,000, comprise 8% of the ocean’s surface, and are part of a grand vision of marine reserves. In 1977, the Ecological Society of America (Twitter: @ESA_org) listed the Southern Sea Otter as “threatened.” In 1980, The Marine Mammal Commission concluded that transplanting sea otters from their current range would reduce the threat of extirpation (being completely destroyed) in the event of an oil spill. In 1982, the USFWS put in place a “recovery plan,” calling for the relocation of otter populations.
In 1982, The USFWS decided to create a new population at San Nicolas Island, the most remote of California’s beautiful Channel Islands, off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara. The shellfish fishing industry opposed the move, fearing that the otters, who feast on sea urchins, would deplete urchin populations, cutting into their profits. This is not a problem for small fishing operations, but rather for fleets of twelve to fifteen boats. Also opposed to the relocation was Big Oil (Western States Petroleum), who did not want cute, “fuzzy” critters in their waters.
In November of 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-625, authorizing the transplantation of otters to special zones. The ostensible goal was to create a viable population around San Nicolas Island within a year. After three years, if the population moved away, or there was a significant decrease in population, or the otters all died, the program would be deemed a failure. Of the 140 otters relocated, 74 “disappeared off the face of the earth [no carcasses found],” according to Shimek. Twenty-eight were found in the management zone. He says that “as of yesterday,” there were about forty otters out there, not the 150 expected.
In 1986-87, a “No Otter Zone” was created, from Point Conception to the Mexican border. (The ancient Chumash people of the region may have seen Point Conception as the “Western Gate,” through which the souls of the dead could pass between the mortal world and the heavenly paradise of Similaqsa.)
In the winter of 1997, 100 otters migrated, en masse, into the No Otter Zone. In 2000, pups were born in the Zone. Fishing groups filed a lawsuit to have the otters removed, claiming that the otters would deplete stocks of abalone, lobster, etc. Fish & Wildlife refused.
Various special interests have found ways of skirting the protections the law afford the otters, and so, Shimek says, legal action is necessary for their protection.
Fishermen don’t want the otters competing for stocks, and the Navy, who operate “big maneuvers” in the Channel Islands, don’t want “charismatic, endangered species swimming around down there.” There have been reports of strafing of rafts of otters, and also intentional shooting of otters in the area.
So, the fate of Southern Sea Otter populations remains uncertain. Otters face a huge variety of threats. Fortunately, they have Steve Shimek on their side.
I was walking down Drake toward Café La Strada, in Monterey, a little while ago, and saw two women staring and pointing, so, of course, I stopped and looked. On the Mexican tile roof across the street, a drama was playing out. A baby gull was out of the nest, and being harassed by a Jay. Naturally, I started taking pictures, and the three of us watched with alarm as the fledgling started sliding down the rounded tiles toward the edge, the Jay continuing to dive bomb it. Finally the baby bird slipped off the edge, while the mother watched from the nest, bounced off the lower tile roof, and dropped to the concrete.
I walked over, followed by the two women, to see if it was OK. It was obviously stunned, and barely moving. I called 911 to see if I could get a number for animal rescue. They put me through to a bewildered Harbormaster, who took my number and called back a few minutes later with the number for the SPCA. The lesbian couple and I talked, studied the bird, fretting over it. One of the women, probably in her 30s, shaded the tan & black-speckled bird with her shadow. The bird started moving, pushing itself up, and eventually found some cool shade under a planter.
Sean, from the SPCA Wildlife Rescue squad, drove by in his shiny silver Toyota truck, and I met him and led him over to the animal. He gently picked it up, explaining that Jays typically will harass any animal that is not a Jay. He said that gull chicks fall regularly, and seemed to think he would be just fine.
The women and I parted, friends, after I did a little impromptu psychotherapy with one of them, who had to leave her partner and baby girl in Texas. As I was walking away, I saw Sean looking for a place to lean a ladder. They usually try to put the animals back in the nest, to “give the mother another chance at parenting.” I suggested maybe she could use some counseling.
The whole event lasted only about a half hour, but it brought four people together for a precious few moments, saving a life together.
Hillocks washed in sunset light. Glorious yellowing clouds outline distant hills. Vineyards, row upon row, snake across the undulating landscape. Suddenly, green fields. Straight railroad tracks sculpt a hillside, once round, now a straight cliff. Oil derricks decorate the hay-colored hills like kinetic sculpture. The furry sun dips behind the mountains. The landscape stretches in all directions. Clouds darken, pinken. Green-black trees decorate the low hills. A black field gets a mechanical shower.
Where is the joy that, generations ago, I imagine, washed over the hills like this sunset light? The joy is the light; the light is life. A huge, dilapidated green barn shades a single cow. What is she thinking?
Was there a time before these dipping wires were strung across paradise? The only straight line is the highway. White men did this. Lined with big, straight sticks, once trees, the highway leads nowhere.
A sign for Pinnacles Monument. Canal Street. RV parking. Topo Ranch Event Center, like a stadium, a godless warehouse. Denny’s. A Valero station (Valero loves us so much, they want to destroy California by gutting our clean air laws.)
God loved us so much, he showered us with this limitless Beauty. He hates us so much He will force us to watch while it is raped and tortured. Maybe there is a next world where we can live in this endless Beauty…
Can’t you understand why we would want to believe? Can you endure the thought that we have to watch this horror and then be consigned to oblivion?
Meanwhile, the pink and orange clouds surround the hills in an unbroken, jagged line, the bright red taillights break the new darkness like insects. I am silent. She is silent. The road goes on forever.
[Author’s Note: I have been working on this blog post for weeks, or, more precisely, not working on it. As with so many things in my life, I have made a larger project of it than is perhaps warranted, so, looming over me, it has become something that seems unfinishable. So, it is my ‘Unfinished Symphony,’ but on a slightly less grand scale than that famous Schubert trifle. I have struggled and not struggled to find a way to describe the undescribable, in this case the spectacular tour de force of 20th century composition, George Crumb’s masterly, emotional, poignant, jaw-dropping work, “Black Angels,” inspired by the horror of the Vietnam War. In this time of this generations mass-murder epic in Iraq (etc.), the work has a particular poignancy, besides being a lot of fun to watch in performance. I seem to have lost the best photo I took at the concert, but will use another one. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. pj]
I first heard of the Kronos Quartet while working at my first job in radio, WGBH in Boston, the largest NPR station in the country. The year was 1980. I had just returned from Saskatoon, where I fell into radio at the University of Saskatchewan’s CJUS. It was exciting to be operating the board at ‘GBH, playing tapes, doing weather reports and “music fills.” I got a call from a mysterious listener, who claimed to be a well-known local music critic. “Do you know George Crumb?” he asked. I confessed my ignorance. I went into the large record library across the hall, and scoured the stacks for some Crumb. I found an LP with a bland blue cover, a CRI (Composers Recording Institute) record of the Kronos Quartet playing music of George Crumb. I dropped the needle to sample the recording, and cued it up for the next gap between taped recordings.
I was mesmerized by the quartet. I felt very hip discovering Crumb’s music, and, over the next ten years, I championed his work by playing it on the air. I also championed the Kronos Quartet, whose repertoire has ranged from modern string quartets to African music (Pieces of Africa, 1992) to rock and avant-garde pieces. One of my favorite cuts was a rendition, for string quartet, of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” complete with string “feedback” at the end. For some reason, I never got to see the quartet live. That was remedied last Friday night.
The Sunset Center is a beautiful complex of buildings near downtown Carmel, comprised of an arts center, photography center and an auditorium that once served as a gymnasium in the recently refurbished school.
Kronos, based in San Francisco, is composed of violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler. They have greatly expanded the range of the string quartet, and added non-Western instruments to their performances. They have long-standing collaborations with some fo the great contemporary composers, including Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Henryk Gorecki and many others. They have performed with Inuit throat singers, Mexican rockers and Tom Waits.
I felt a great anticipation, watching the black stage, waiting for the performance. The lights slowly dimmed, with only faint light illuminating the music stands. The cellist stole onto the stage, and began playing, before the audience had a chance applaud. This was a nice touch, which allowed for an unbroken mood. He played a simple, rhythmic phrase over and over, eventually playing along with a tape of cello music. After a few minutes, the other quartet members walked quietly onstage and took their places. There were drums, gongs, and strange-looking instruments around them.
Here’s how the composer, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh describes her composition, Mugam Sayagi (1993):
“Kronos encouraged me to use the Azeri musical tradition of Mugami – a secret language used in the 16th century to disguise emotions discouraged in Islam. Through Mugami, the ecstatic longing of a man for a woman could be expressed as the love of God.
“It begins as a meditation, in darkness, only the cello is lit, trying to wake the world with the call to prayer. The cello is the composer’s voice – a woman. Nothing changes, and you don’t believe it can. It goes on and on, then suddenly, it explodes, in a flash! Concealed passion breaks out in wild dancing, or in virtuosic cadenzas. The violin plays an unbounded song of love where the soul flies high into the sky. It’s a competition among them all – who can be more perfect? Then come the finale, and an end. The cello is alone again, intoning the sunset prayer. The sound of the triangle echoes a myriad of stars.”
Bryce Dessner (b. 1976) is a composer, guitarist and curator from New York. He is guitarist for the rock band, The National, and has worked with Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, Philip Glass and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, among other musical and visual artists.
Dessner says of his composition, Aheym (2009): “David Harrington asked me to write a piece for Kronos Quartet for a performance in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. I live just two blocks from the park and spend many a morning running around it. The park for me symbolizes much of what I love about New York, especially the stunning diversity of Brooklyn with its myriad cultures and communities. My father’s family, Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, also lived near the park for many years in the 1940s and ‘50s before moving to Queens. In discussing the new piece, David proposed to perform the work in Brooklyn, and then to retrace the journey of my grandparents and perform it in Lodz, Poland, a city where my great-grandparents lived and through which my grandmother passed on her voyage to America. ‘Aheym means ‘homeward’ in Yiddish, and this piece is written as a musical evocation of the idea of flight and passage.”
Next on the program was a work by Indian composer Ram Narayan (b. 1927), Raga Mishra Bhairavi: Alap (arr. by Kronos). Narayan is one of the world’s most revered masters of the sarangi, the bowed string instrument from northern India renowned for its vocal expressiveness, and played as part of the performance.
The final piece on the first part of the program was a piece by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebbaov (b. 1970), …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… (2007). The composer writes: “The Balkans, with its multitude of cultural and religious identities, has had a troubled history of ethnic intolerance… our grandparents’ stories… we heard firsthand. After several devastating ethnic wars in the 1990s we entered a new century, this time each of us knowing in person someone who perished. …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… is inspired by old and religious music from the region, whose insistent rhythms and harmonies create a sense of inevitability, a ritual trance with an obsessive, dark energy.” The piece is hauntingly beautiful, incorporating ethnic Balkan instruments such as the gusle (a bowed stringed instrument) and tapan (a large double-headed drum). “It is a way to piece together our identities fractured by centuries of intolerance, and to reach out and celebrate the land so rich in its diversity, the land that would be ashen, empty, sallow, if any one of us, all so different, weren’t there.”
Walking out of the auditorium into the cool night air was refreshing and exhilarating. The dimly lit courtyard was lovely and peaceful.
The stage was reset with black boxes covered with black cloths, an array of instruments across the stage. There were four microphones on stands spaced across the stage, with two violins, a viola and a cello hanging from the ceiling, about 5 feet from the stage floor. The performers walked on stage dressed in matching black outfits and gently took down their instruments, poised for action.
Crumb is known for dramatic staging. Years ago, I saw a performance (my wife, a classical musician, insisted that you don’t “see” a concert) in an all-white Robert Graves building, a seminary in Connecticut, of Crumb’s Vox Balinae (Voice of the Whale), where the musicians dressed in black, wearing white masks.
Black Angels is a dramatic work, and the staging and lighting were nearly as dramatic. At one point, two of the musicians solemnly climbed up behind the large black boxes and dramatically removed a black cloth, under which were two sets of crystal glasses, lit from beneath (which eerily lit their faces), and drew their bows across the rims of the glasses, producing an otherworldly, high-pitched music, reminiscent of the old glass harmonica.
The “glass harp,” or “hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica,” dates to the Renaissance, and is typically a series of glass goblets with varying amounts of water, which determines the pitch. More than a hundred composers wrote for the delicate instrument, including Mozart, Beethoven and Richard Strauss, and Ben Franklin invented a mechanized version of the instrument. You’ve probably made your own version of the instrument by rubbing your finger around a crystal wine glass at dinner.
The performace embodied what great performances generally embody: drama, beauty and transcendence.
Leaving the concert hall, I felt transformed, in some mysterious way, as I re-entered the world. Nothing mysterious, really; it’s called Art.
I grew up (mostly) in the East, and the only time I saw seals in the wild was under the Chatham (Cape Cod) pier, bobbing for chum. So when I got to California for the first time, a few years back, and looked up and saw a pack of Harbor Seals staring warily at me from their rocky perch in the wild surf zone, well, I was pretty blown away.
My first encounter with Sea Lions was my next trip west, at the Santa Cruz wharf. I stood in awe of the monstrous beasts, bellowing from the lower deck. I watched them for good long time, snapping a few photos. I even called my friend in Massachusetts and held my iPhone up so he could hear the wild sounds of the oversized lummoxes.
Eventually, I learned the difference between seals and sea lions (all pinnipeds). “Trained seals,” as in circus performers, are actually sea lions, distinguished by their large front flippers, which they use to walk clumsily around. Harbor Seals, which look more like over-stuffed sausages, have small front flippers, and have to awkwardly drag themselves about. Underwater, they are Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but on the beach… well, it’s more like the Keystone Cops.
The local sea lions usually chill on the breakwater at the end of Coast Guard Pier in Monterey, blanketing the rocks, flopped sloppily over each other, bickering and snarling. The noise can get pretty out of hand. And the smell. Oy!
The breakwater has been silent for the last few months, as the brown bombers headed north for the big buffet, eateries like San Francisco and Oregon. But today, as I was walking back to Café La Strada from downtown, I heard – and smelled – the beasts quite clearly. There they were, hundreds of them, their brown bodies draped across the brown rocks, twisting and stretching, yapping and groaning and growling. I guess the Harbor Seals fled to quieter, more sedate rocky shores. They probably felt the way the Mexicans felt along the same rocky shore when pasty Europeans arrived in hordes and started snarling and fighting and just generally taking over. Perhaps the seals have emigrated to the more refined and peaceful hamlet of Pacific Grove.
In any case, it was great to see the Sea Lions back in the harbor. I was wondering why they took up residence right next to the bike path, rather than the slightly more private pier. Then again, on the pier, they had to endure the whale watching boats slithering past, speakers blaring.
I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged woman next to me, also eyeing the jumpy brown lumps. We traded some pinnipedian lore, and I took a pierload of photos. She told me that, for some reason, a local fisherman would go out to the pier and spray water on the animals and they would slither into the cold, blue water. Eventually, all he had to do was hold the hose up, and the sea lions would make like a water park and slide. So, maybe they figured when they returned from their northern sojourn, they would hang out by the tourists. I imagine they felt it was better to be shot at by a camera than by a hose.