Archive for December, 2010

2010 has been quite the year in that greatest of man’s accomplishments: beer.  Microbrew in the USA has gone through a number of trends and currently its focus seems to be on the limited release.  In a way this is the model of wine, with yearly vintages, one-offs and seasonal offerings all priced accordingly.  These are normally sold in 22oz bottles, though there are those that come in larger, or smaller, vessels. The most impressive of the limited releases this year (at least that I tried – in no way is this post even remotely meant to be comprehensive) was from Sierra Nevada who celebrate their 30th Anniversary this year.

Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary stout

Sierra Nevada's Fritz and Ken's Stout

Sierra Nevada Organic Estate Ale

Fritz and Ken’s Stout, the first of the four 30th Anniversary beers from Sierra Nevada, was hands down my favorite new beer I’ve had this year. A collaboration between Fritz Maytag (of Anchor Fame) and Sierra’s Brewmaster this is one of the best stouts I’ve had in ages.  Kind of like a kicked up Anchor Porter, with this almost sweet stout beginning (like say Deschutes Obsidian) but then this chalky, bitter finish. I’ve never experienced anything quite like that.  The second of the four releases was Charlie, Fred and Ken’s Bock the first two being instrumental homebrewers, part of the early days of craft brewing in America. While I’m not a big fan of bock I’ve tried a fair number and wasn’t really into this one at all finding it pretty boring and not worth the premium of a limited edition beer. Jack and Ken’s Black Barleywine was the next release andwas pretty good, though I’ve had far more interesting barleywines for sure. The ‘black’ bit though is interesting, basically it had more malt than a normal b’wine so had more body and an almost smokey aspect. Worth trying IMO.  The last of the anniversary beers, Our Brewers Reserve, Grand Cru, was the second best of the four and another truly great beer, a blend of their Bigfoot Barleywine and Celebration Ale aged in Oak with a bit of their fantastic Pale Ale added for measure.  A toast to thirty years of Sierra Nevada and here’s to thirty more!

The Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary was celebrated at Brouwers (my favorite beer drinking establishment in the Seattle area) on a Monday in November with all four of these beers on tap. Of course they ended up having numerous other beers so I ended up only having the Stout and the Grand Cru. These were both if anything even better on tap – it really brought out the chalky porterness of the stout and the layers of complexity found in the Grand Cru.  Of the speciality beers they had I ended up trying their Organic Estate Ale which was served cask conditioned.  This was another limited edition they had put out this year and I’d liked this a lot in bottles; I think that Sierra Nevada is doing great stuff with their hoppier beers – they’re not gonzo hopped but are nicely bitter and well balanced. This beer on tap retained the features of the bottle but was almost creamy, really unlike anything I’ve had from a cask.

New Belgian Eric's Ale

New Belgian's Eric's Ale

My second favorite new beer from this year is Eric’s Ale from New Belgium. Sour beers are a relatively recent obsession and thanks to New Belgian’s copious amount of limited releases both in bottle and draft only plus Brouwers annual Sour Beer festival I’ve been able to try quite a few. I think this is the best tart sour beer I’ve had in a bottle and is well worth trying if you are curious about the style. I’ve had it on tap two or three different places this year as well, so its clearly around in that format which is of course the way to go. Brouwers has a great relationship with New Belgian and I’ve been able to try many of their sour experiments that were one offs or ones that may someday make it to bottle. They are also well acquitanted with the trend in the limited, or special releases and I have tried many of them, especially from the Lips of Faith series. Many of these special release, whether on draft or in bottle from this year were excellent. The Transatlantique Kriek, a hybrid sour cherry lambic initially brewed in Belgium and  then finished in Colorado is particularly worth trying as is their La Folie Sour Brown which is less tart than Eric’s Ale but sour and rich.  A series always worth checking out.

Deschutes Hop in the Dark

Deschutes Breweries Hop in the Dark

Deschutes Jubel 2010

Deschutes is among my very favorite breweries and have really led the way in the limited edition beers. Their Abyss and Dissident from last year were my favorite beers that year which I’m happy to say have also returned for this year. While not quite as exciting as those beers were this year they put out several quite interesting releases. Hop in the Dark,  I actually had tried on tap the Deschutes Brewery in Portland which made it to bottle this year. Its kind of a cross between a porter and an IPA, but not quite as malty as your average porter and not gonzo hopped. I guess officially its an overhopped “dark ale”, which of course they are claiming is a new style; a “Cascade dark ale”.  This “Cascade” style seems to mean a non IPA style with nearer to IPA level of hops.

More interesting was their Jubel 2010, which as a beer that’s released once a decade is a true rarity. The story goes that they a keg of their always fantastic Jubelale was stolen and then abandoned out in the snow overnight. Upon recovery they tried the beer out and discovered that it had basically undergone the “ice beer” process concentrating the beer and kicking up both the alcohol content and the complexity. So they try to replicate the process every decade as a celebration of the brewery. It has a sort of barelywine aspect but not quite the pedigree of a well made b’wine and frankly I’d say I prefer the standard Jubelale which is strong, and interesting yet quite quaffable.  Still very worth trying and definitely an interesting tipple.

The Reserve Series (AbyssDissident, Mirror Mirror and Black Butte XXn) as I stated earlier are among my favorite (sadly the double aged Mirror Mirror and the Bourbon barrel aged Black Buttle XXn doesn’t do much for me, which is more the pity as the source beers (Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Black Butte Porter) are among the best in their class) and Deschutes ships the bottles with a Best After date and seal the caps in wax to preserve them for aging. I’ve got a bottle in my fridge of Abyss from 2009 which is now past its best after date and I’m highly looking forward to trying out. Just waiting for 2011 to begin to crack that wax. The Dissident, after a couple of year haitus has just made it to shelves again and I highly recommend seeking it out.

Anchor Our Very Special Ale 2010

Anchor Brewing's Christmas Ale

Winter beers are a tradition of most micro-breweries and are among my favorite beers of the year.  These are usually stronger beers, a “winter warmer” as it were and the brewers really pull out the stops. Many breweries whose normal beers don’t do much for me make my favorite winter beers. But Anchor Brewing, who are to my mind the best micro-brewery in America have made for decades now the most interesting winter beer: Our Very Special Ale.  Its uses a different tree as an ingredient each year and yes some years are better then others but it’s always something to look forward to. This year’s was creamy, a bit sweet but very drinkable and a fine addition to this amazing tradition.  Times probably about up for finding this one, but grab it if you can.

Brouwers Cafe during the Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary celebration

There was of course tons more beers that I tried this year, especially draft only that I’m not including in this post.  I had lots of great things at Brouwers especially this year, trying beers from their Hardliver Barleywine, Big Wood, Sour Beer and Sierra Nevada festivals among many other trips there. No other thing makes me wish I lived in Fremont more, though I’d be a lot poorer and a lot drunker.  Visit them if you ever are in the area, I know I’ll be there as often as I can.Equally worth the mention is Bottleworks, the beer store that owns and operates Brouwers.  There is no better source for hard to find, limited edition and imported beers. Many of the tipples I tried this year were source from that great store.

While incomplete that’s at least some of the highlights from my year in beer. A good year overall with many interesting and new experiences. The limited edition beer trend is hard on the wallet but is quite rewarding.  Now time to pop a top as we start drinking into 2011.

James Turrell, Blue Pesher (1997-99)-10

For the winter holidays this year I’m visiting my family who have recently moved near Nashville, Tennessee.  Since they’ve only lived here for a couple of years now and I’ve only visited a couple of times I’m still in the process of discovering all of the various art related places in the area.  There is of course a decent amount of money in the Nashville area so there are some interesting thing, though as far as I can tell nothing purely devoted to modern and contemporary art. In fact there is often this mix of the banal with the contemporary, blatant decorative art  of varying degrees of gaudiness (they seem to adore Chihuly here) next to cutting edge contempory pieces.  So it was with some pleasure that I discovered that Cheekwood, a large mansion and estate with gardens and galleries, has a sculpture park with over a dozen contemporary pieces. Of particularly interest to myself was Blue Pesher, a James Turrell Skyspace.

James Turrell, Blue Pesher (1997-99)-1

Blue Pesher is the second Skyspace I’ve experienced the other being Light Reign at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle which I wrote about in my Atmosphere as Art post. All of the light spaces are designed to be these contemplative spaces that focuses ones awareness onto a narrow area.  Blue Pesher, and Pesher is a Hebrew word meaning “to comment upon”, shares the circular opening in the roof like Light Reign, which creates an intense singular view of a section of the sky. The rest of the space couldn’t be much more different however. First off it’s located in the woods on the grounds of the Cheekwoood mansion, buried in a hill.  You enter through metal doors (entry through doors seem to be a common feature of these spaces) and procede down a cemenet hallway to the circular room. The room is a big larger thaen Light Reign and is again all concrete with the bench along the wall being molded right into the concrete.  Light Reign is entirely wood lined (with cedar IIRC) and has a warmer more congenial atmosphere. On this cold winter day in Tennessee the cement bunker of Blue Pesher was frigid, a feature that I expect is much more welcome in the hot southern summers.

James Turrell, Blue Pesher (1997-99)-4

The center of the floor of Blue Pesher is a circular cutout filled with a fine black sand and a metal disc in the very center.  This is an interesting feature and while people clearly walked across it, to me I felt it forced to the edge, to walk around the space and not through the sand.  While it was cold to sit on the benches, it was as rewarding as it was at Light Reign. The focus on the intense blue sky (at least on this day) and the hushed atmosphere immediately draws you into the intended contemplation. This was eased on this day with a lack of visitors as I was the only on there for some time until my parents turned up.  While light is Turrell’s medium and passion for those attuned to sound the space is equality rewarding. The circular concrete walls make for a fine echo chamber and the hole in the top and the corridor entranceway seem to funnel sound in from afar.  Sitting there along in this peaceful atmosphere listening to the sound of the chill wind in barren trees, the birds that remained for the winter and a distant away babbling brook was a superlative experience. The whistle of a far away train was almost too much to bear.

James Turrell, Blue Pesher (1997-99)-6

Visually the circular opening in the roof is amazingly compelling; you can’t keep your eye off of it. I’ve been in Light Reign on cloudy and partially cloudy days and while those are quite rewarding, the piercing blue of a cloudless day seems beamed into your eyes on a tight focus.  On this day after maybe ten-fifteen minutes of contemplative gazing an areoplane flew across the aperture drawing a fine line of pollution across it (see the picture at top).  The line of white on this blue canvas was a perfect piece of minimalism.  The light from the opening also is cast on the wall, with the faint shadows of the surrounding trees and is equally captivating.  The whole space is so simple and yet so effective; I always emerge from them relaxed and energized.  I heartily recommend the experience if you are ever in the vicinity of one of these skyspaces.

James Turrell, Blue Pesher (1997-99)-11

Check out all of my photos of Blue Pesher and Light Reign in my James Turrell Flickr set.

The full rundown here.

john Cage Etudes Boreales

John Cage Etudes Boreales / Harmonies / 10’40.3″ (Wergo)

John Cage used star charts as a source of randomness most famously in Atlas Eclipcalis, Etudes Australes, the Freeman Etudes and Etudes Boreales. This is in my mind an interesting technique for achieving a goal of integrating nature into ones composition. Cage of course most famously used the I Ching as his source of randomness, which is effect but basically he was using it to pick the numbers 1-64. You generate each line on its own and there are four states: solid, open, solid changing to open or open changing to solid.  After you work out each line you generally end up with two hexagrams, the starting one and the one you end up with after you have calculated the changing lines.  From there if you are practicing the divination, or are simply looking for a randomly selected philosophical message you consult the text and the various commentaries. Now how you apply this to composition is up to the composer and Cage used many different methods to do so.  This really was Cage’s art and genius; he set up systems that could take a known range of randomness and produce highly successful results.

Excerpt from the piano part of Etudes Breales

Overlaying barlines onto star charts and using the stars as notes (with magnitude as duration of the note perhaps) is really far more random and cedes far more control from the composer.  There are a lot of stars and thus these pieces are a lot more dense.  When Cage composed these works (the 1970s) he began to tackle a number of areas of composition he’d previously avoided such as harmony and virtuosistic pieces (for non david Tudor musicians).  Etudes Boreales is an example of a virtuosistic that in this particular recording doesn’t necessarily sound so.  The piece is for ‘cello and/or piano and this disc contains both a solo ‘cello version and a version for solo ‘cello and piano.  The piano part is actually a percussion score and it is the ‘cello part has all all aspects of the sound making meticulously notated including pitch, duration, articulation, color and dynamics.

Etudes Boreales is played twice on this disc, once for a percissionist  using a piano and the second for ‘cello solo and piano solo. The first version is the percussion version and I have to say this is fantastic.  The sounds are mostly short events that come in and out of spaces of varyin lengths (though none of epic length).  The sounds come from all over: hitting of one to many keys, tapping, rubbing, hitting the body of the piano, striking, rubbing, etc the strings, using mallets on the metal frame and so on. There are sounds that are muted and sounds that overlap with other sounds, use of the pedal for sustain and decay, sounds so faint as to barely register and achingly resonant chords. The video above is the first two of the four parts of the piece performed by Mark Knoop who is the pianist on this recording, so that is very representative of the disc under discussion here and nice to see as well as hear it performed. Below is a video of Knoop playing parts three and four to allow for a complete performance to be viewed.

The second version is for two solist playing the piece simultnously: ‘cello and percussionist playing a piano.  All of the charms of the previously discussed version are present, though Knoop seems to be mixing up the gestures. The ‘cello is a perfect counterpoint to this; often played high and with skittering attacks it could be another percussionist. But the longer tones, the rich tonality of the lower register of ‘cello, when these come in, the short bursts from the piano sink into them and the interpenetrations give life to a unique soundworld that is equal parts the two instruments. The two versions of this piece on this disc are worth it alone, but it also contains four more pieces for ‘cello and piano.

He counted the number of notes in a given voice of the piece [four-part choral music by William Billings -ed.], and then used chance to select from these. Supposing there were fourteen notes in a line, chance operations might select notes one, seven, eleven, and fourteen. In such a case, Cage would take the first note from the original and extend it until the seventh note (removing all the intervening notes); all the notes from the seventh to the eleventh would be removed, leaving a silence. Then the eleventh note would be extended to the fourteenth, followed by another silence. Each of the four lines thus became a series of extended single tones and silences. This was the version that Cage settled upon:

“The cadences and everything disappeared; but the flavor remained. You can recognize it as eighteenth century music; but it’s suddenly brilliant in a new way. It is because each sound vibrates from itself, not from a theory. . . . The cadences which were the function of the theory, to make syntax and all, all of that is gone, so that you get the most marvelous overlappings.”

-James Pritchett, from his Introduction to the Music of John Cage

This disc also contains three of the 44 harmonies from Apartment House 1776 (XXVII, XXIV and XIII) which is one of Cage’s musicirucus pieces in which many different types of events can take place simultaneously: 44 Harmonies, 14 Tunes, 4 Marches and 2 Imitations. He also stipluated that you can play any fraction of these and in the case of this disc they play three of the harmonies  for  ‘cello and piano.  The entirety of  Apartment House 1776 utilizes chance operations in the form of the I Ching in contrast to the star charts of Etudes Boreales. The disc opens with XXVII and its is short beautiful piece whose spare lines come in and out, widely spaced with that rich haunting ‘cello tone in almost transparent harmony with soft piano chords. Littlle bits of almost melody come in and out and there are the occaisonal burst of activity and of course short silences. The longest of these is less soft and has these real start stop feel. As if a player begins to play a melody and part way through stops and thinks a bit and then starts up. Which considering how it was composed makes perfect sense. Again the piano is more background and they tone of the two instruments creates a nice interplay. The final of the harmonies played here, XIII (which is also the 13th track on the disc) is almost a middle ground between the two. Shorter again, with more space than either of the previous, it has the stop and start feel of the middle one but with longer space more akin to the initial tracks.  I’m not much of a fan of the full on Apartment House 1776, but I really like these harmonies played in in this gentle, spacious style.

Friedrich Gauwerky

This middle track on the disc is an excerpt of  26’1.1499′” for a String Player of which cellist Friedrich Gauwerky chose to play the first 640.3 seconds of, thus giving the piece the title of 10’40.3′ (this as per Cage’s instructions on ways one can play the piece). The earliest piece on this disc and its construction utilized a third and pre-I Ching method of randomness: imperfections in paper. This method is utilized to generate highly specific locations on the strings of the instrument which allows for the pitch to be sounded. There also seems to be instructions for noises to be made of which I haven’t found much by way of specifics for. But  Gauwerky here chooses, for at least some of them, vocalizations which frankly I find to be one of the most dated of modernist classical cliches. The little yelps and guttural exclamations always sound the same as if the intense concentration of realizing the music just doesn’t allow for enough attention to be placed on this other activity. No matter when I’ve seen or heard it done and it is a string quartet trope in particular I’ve never liked it. Thus this is I’d say the only dud track here but really it’s 10 minutes doesn’t detract from the rest of the disc at all.

Knoop and Gauwerky are both well known and respected players of a wide variety of new music, so their top notch performance here is no surprise. The recording quality is pretty amazing as well, super transparent and close miked enough to pick up even the faintest sound. I didn’t hear any sounds of performer movement or breath so it really is just the sounds of the instruments and it really fills a room nicely. I’d been looking for a version of Etudes Borealis for while and this disc coming out this year fits the bill perfectly.