Tag: sensual

Personal Essay: Watching, Listening, Writing – Alone & Together

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Pianist Igor Levit performs on March 16, 2020 as part of the Bayerische Staatoper’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

The damage the corona virus has wrought in the cultural world is beyond imagining. There is no way to classify or quantify the losses, ones that will be felt for decades, maybe even centuries, to come. Galleries, museums, studios, open spaces, cinemas, opera houses and concert halls are shuttered, with long-planned, eagerly anticipated events and seasons cancelled; one agency has shut down so far. The harsh peals of the force majeure clause contained in many contracts echo through every vast, empty space where people should be. The global pandemic has  laid bare the extreme fragility of arts organizations and those who depend on them.

Along with extensive virtual tours, online streaming has, over roughly the past two weeks, become a way of keeping the cultural flames alive. The charming nature of many of the broadcasts affords a peek into the home life of artists, places which are, in normal times, rarely seen by many of the artists themselves. The livestreams also provide a reassuring familiarity, a reminder that the tired, anxious faces are exact mirrors of your own tired, anxious self. Artists: they’re just like us. In better times it is sometimes easy (too easy) to be fooled by the loud cheers, the five-star reviews, the breathless worship, even when we think we may know better. What’s left when there’s no audience? These videos are providing answers and some degree of comfort. It’s heartening to see Sir Antonio Pappano sitting at his very own piano, his eyes tender, his voice and halting words reflecting the shock and sadness of the times. Moments like these are so real, so human, and so needed. They are a panacea to the soul. The arts, for anyone who needs to hear it, is for everyone, anyone, for all times but especially for these times. Pappano’s genuine warmth offers a soft and reassuring embrace against harsh uncertainty.

Equally as buoying have been the multiple together-yet-apart performances by numerous orchestras, including Bamberger Symphoniker’s recent presentation of a section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. There are so many examples of this type of fellowship which have sprung up, and they are all worth watching. One of my personal favourites is a solo performance from violist Marco Misciagna, who is currently volunteering with the military corps of the Italian Red Cross (CRI). Misciagna performs outside the Southern Mobilization Centre, mask firmly in place, leaning into tonalities and, one can almost hear, breathing in and through his instrument’s strings. As an opinion piece in The Guardian noted, “When people look back on the pandemic of 2020, they will remember many things. One of them ought to be the speed with which human beings, their freedom to associate constrained, turned towards music in what may almost be described as a global prisoners’ chorus.”

Some may also perceive the recent flurry of online activity as savvy marketing, and there’s little wrong with that; they — we (if I can say that) — need every bit of arm-waving possible. Performing for a captive audience in need of inspiration, hope, distraction, diversion, and entertainment fulfill a deep-seated need for community. Choosing where and how to direct our attention, as audience members, is no easy thing (although, to be frank, my own efforts to filter out the hard-posing ingenue/influencer types have become increasingly more concentrated). To be faced with such a sweet and succulent buffet whilst facing the sometimes sour and glum realities of ever-worsening news is no small thing. Shall it be a weekly livestream from Bayerische Staatsoper or one of Waldemar Januszczak’s wonderful art documentaries? Perhaps a modern opera work from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, or a Jessica Duchen reading her great novel Ghost Variations? Maybe a dip into the Berlin Philharmonic’s vast online archive or piano sounds with Boris Giltburg and then Igor Levit? Perhaps it’s time to mop the floor and clean out the humidifiers? Maybe time to tackle that terribly overdue filing? Shall I check Twitter yet again for the latest? Dare I dip into Facebook? is it time to update both groups of students? What words of comfort and encouragement should I choose as their teacher/mentor? Is it time to check in with my many lovely senior contacts – maybe a phone call? When the hell am I going to finish (/start) that immense novel that’s been sitting on the table acting as a defacto placemat?! Cultural options (physical media collection included) have to compete with less-than-glamorous ones, but, orchestrated  in careful harmony, work to keep one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual selves humming along, and offer a reminder that the myth of individualized isolation is just that – a myth.

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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of music by Bartók and Berio on March 12, 2020. The Philharmonie Berlin is closed until April 19th but the orchestra is offering free access to online archives at its Digital Concert Hall. Photo © Stephan Rabold

Professional duties remind us of the fallacy of isolation, underscoring them with various technological notifications in bleep-bloop polyphony. Obligation can’t (and doesn’t) stop amidst pandemic, especially for those in the freelance world. Writers, like all artists working in and around the arts ecosystem, are finding themselves grappling with a sickly mixture of restlessness and terror as the fang-lined jaws of financial ruin grow ever-wider. Since January I’ve been part of a mentoring program run through the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Opera Canada magazine. This scheme, a partnership with a variety of Toronto-based arts organizations, allows emerging arts writers currently enrolled in journalism school the opportunity to see and review opera. Along with opera, students also write about productions at the National Ballet of Canada, concerts at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, presentations at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Some indeed come with theatre and dance backgrounds (or equivalencies in written coverage), a great help when covering the sprawling, integrative art form that is opera. For many, this isn’t merely a first outing in writing about the art form; it’s their very first opera experience, period. Next up (we hope) are the COC’s spring productions of Die fliegende Holländer and Aida. Lately I’ve been crossing fingers and toes at their arts (and arts writing) passion continuing; each writer I have mentored thus far has possessed very individual talents and voices. I am praying they, and their colleagues, are using at least some of these stressful days to exercise cultural curiosity and gain as much richness of exposure as the online world now affords. It’s not purely practical; surely on some level it is also medicinal. 

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Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and baritoneMichael Nagy rehearse ahead of their March 23, 2020 performance at Bayerische Staatsoper as part of the house’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

What happens to those voices now, of writers new and old? What happens to their potential readers, to audiences, to new fans, to old fans? Will they (we) get an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem? Will there even be one left to write about? Similar anxieties have surfaced for my radio documentary students. Tell your own stories! I constantly advise, This is a writing class with sound elements! When today’s first online class drew to a close, it seemed clear no one wanted to leave; there was something so reassuring about being able to see (most) everyone’s faces, hear their voices, share stories, anxieties, fears. I have to agree with historian Mary Beard’s assessment in The Times today, that “I am all in favour of exploiting online resources in teaching, but no one is going to tell me that face-to-face teaching has no advantage over the remote version. Lecturing and teaching is made special by real-time interaction.Sharing stories is more crucial than ever, whether through words, music, or body, or a skillful combination of them all. As director Kiril Serebrennikov (who knows a thing or two about isolation) wisely advises, keep a diary. I started doing just that recently, reasoning that writing (like sound and movement) is elemental to my human makeup ; whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t matter. Exercises in narcissism seem pointless and energetically wasteful, now more than ever. The act of writing – drawing, painting, cooking, baking (all things I do, more than ever) –  allow an experience, however tangential, of community, that thing we all need and crave so much right now. We’re all in the same boat, as Pappano’s expression so poignantly expressed.  It’s something many artists and organizations understand well; community is foundational to their being. 

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Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

The ever-changing waves of my own freelance life are largely made up of the elements of writing and sound, with community and isolation being their alternating sun and moon. Quarantine means facing the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves: our choices, our behaviours, our treatment of others, our home lives, our approach to our art, and how we have been fitting (or not) these multiple worlds together. Noting the particularly inspiring German response around support for freelancers has made my continentally-divided self all the more conscious of divisions within perceptions of the value and role of culture, but it’s also forced some overdue considerations of just where a writer working so plainly between worlds might fit. Maybe it is naive and arrogant to be questioning these things at such a time in history, and publicly at that – yet many artists seem to be doing similar, if social media is anything to go on. There seems to be a veritable waterfall of honesty lately, with rivulets shaded around questions of sustainability, feasibility, identity, and authenticity,  just where and how and why these things can and might (or cannot, now) spiral and spin around in viscous unity. I shrink from the title of “journalist” (I don’t consider myself one, at least not in the strictest sense), but whence the alternatives? One can’t live in the world of negative space, of “I am not”s (there is no sense trying to pitch a flag in a black hole), nor derive any sense of comfort in such non-labelled ideas, much as current conditions seem to demand as much. (The “I will not go out; I will not socialize” needs to be replaced with, “I will stay in; I will be content,” methinks.) Now there is only the promise of stability through habits new and old, and on this one must attempt nourishment. The desire to learn is ever-expanding, like warm dough in a dimly-lit oven, eventually inching beyond the tidy rim of the bowl, into a whole new space of experience, familiar and yet not.

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Where is the place, I wonder, as fists pound and knuckles grind and the dough that will eventually be loaves of oatmeal molasses bread squeaks and sighs, where is the place for writers in this vast arts ecosystem that is now being so violently clearcut? What will be left? The immediate heat of the oven feels oddly reassuring as I ask myself such things, a warmth that brushes eyelashes and brings to mind the wall of strings in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. We are all being forced into a new structure,  and we cannot ask why. There is only the experience of the present, something the best art has, and will always embrace, express, and ask of us. As Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes:

All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.

What is there now but the present? I think of the many artists so affected at this time, and I thank them all; their authenticity, courage, and commitment to their craft are more needed and appreciate than can be fathomed. There is a place for them; it is here, it is now, and it is our community, a grand joining of sound and soul and presence. Let’s tune in, together.

‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ In Berlin: “The Love Is In Me”

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Sarah Grether (Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Inner questions ran rampant during a performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) at Staatsoper Berlin this past Sunday. There was only one gazelle depicted onstage, but a veritable herd presented themselves with every moment, each one leaping with questions: what do the unborn children represent? Why do they matter? Should they symbolize something else, and if so, what?

These are the questions at the heart of this opera, and in German director Claus Guth’s production, the questions became meditations. Strauss’s 1919 opera, with libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a symbolic tale of two worlds haunted by absence – namely of that ultimate symbol of family, children, but also, it must be noted, of mothers; the “woman” of the title, the ethereal Empress (whose mother is entirely absent), seeks her “shadow” (symbolizing children) in the world of humans, specifically via a Dyer, Barak, and his Wife, otherwise her husband (The Emperor) will be turned to stone. Guth stages the piece as the dream of The Empress, a vision that awakens into the consciousness of a need for her own inner revolution —and evolution. In many ways the production is an operatic Rorschach test of sorts (with ink blots in the program too), tied to themes of culture, family, experience, lived circumstance and accumulated moments. What do we carry from our families into our adult lives? How do we reconcile being the “shadow” of another, and casting our own? What responsibility do we bear to one another, and, just as importantly, to ourselves and the expression of our needs?

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Iréne Theorin (Barak’s wife), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Wolfgang Koch (Barak). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

A co-production with Teatro Alla Scala di Milano (where it was presented in 2012) and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (staged in 2014), the award-winning presentation, first presented in Berlin in April 2017, features fantastical elements and beautiful, Expressionist-style designs by Christian Schmidt. Instead of merely presenting pretty pictures, Guth wisely uses the assorted imagery to underline Frau‘s thematic resonance, allowing one to more clearly recognize and accept human fallibility, especially within the delicate arena of relationship.  The dynamics inherent those relationships is squarely the focus, with very little romanticizing despite Strauss’s rich score; it is a world fraught with  miscommunication, dysfunction, and deeply repressed fury. The length of the work (roughly four hours, with two intermissions), combined with a very intense musicality and highly allegorical narrative, means it can be a somewhat daunting work for newcomers, but the rewards, musically and otherwise, are immense. My premiere experience seeing Die Frau ohne Schatten live at the Met in 2013 marked a major turning point — creatively, emotionally, spiritually. It started what, in retrospect, I might term my own inner revolution (and evolution), still unfolding in leaps and bounds, and will always occupy a deeply personal place where art and life meet, though five years on, I still find myself swimming in the oceans of questions it inspires.

The role of offspring, the meaning of a missing “shadow,” the length and intensity of questing for one, and, as ever, the role family plays in that quest — these questions are all very much underlined in Guth’s smart and surprisingly resonant production. I write “surprisingly” because, while I enjoy much of the so-called “Regie” style of direction, it doesn’t always move me emotionally, though I recognize emotions don’t always have to come into play in order to have a good night at the opera. His production of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in Salzburg in 2006) had some interesting ideas to be sure, but left me cold, something I felt strange about considering the warmth of Mozart’s score. Barrie Kosky’s very unique take on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (premiered at Bayreuth last year) was hailed by many for its inventiveness, yet others vowed after seeing it that they would never again return to the annual Wagner festival. So while some deeply love Regie and think it is vital in moving opera forwards, others are convinced it is destroying the sense of wonder and fantasy that is part and parcel of opera.

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Paul Lorenger (Black Gazelle/Keikobad) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Die Frau ohne Schatten as realized here challenges the latter view entirely; it is very full of wonder, very much inspired by fairytales, and very beautiful to look at. But as I wrote earlier, that opulence is not for its own hollow sake; it isn’t simply pleasing costumes and sets. The design here serves a wider purpose, and in the world of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, it is to underline the deep divides between the archetypal figures of men and women, and the healing, regenerative power of love, a love that may or may not manifest itself (in the form of physical offspring) but is experienced within one’s self, and through another second, separate self. Recognizing and accepting the division of a second self, and working toward unity (and it is work, as the opera emphasizes) is a worthy endeavor, though it comes with great risk. Our hearts might freeze in the process (or turn to stone); we might use these roads of discovery for nefarious and selfish ends; we may never be entirely free of the shaping our parents gave us. As Guth notes in the program, Keikobad (the Empress’s father) “clings to his only child — through a prison of determination — and the child does not manage to look behind the mask of power or tear it down to recognize her own emotions.”

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Sarah Grether (White Gazelle), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Michaela Schuster (The Nurse). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Equally, the role of the Nurse here is given extra prominence, opening up experiences, to paraphrase Guth’s notes, which the Empress could never reach alone, and “in this way, the nurse gives her her shadow. (She) is a catalyst, a primal form of dynamic energy, beyond all moral standards.” Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster’s vivacious performance as The Nurse was a highly charismatic portrait of ever-tightening control; while the character is certainly fascinating (and is, in my view, given rather the short end of the stick in the end), her portrayal here doesn’t attempt to gloss over the questionable power dynamics between her and the opera’s other two principle female players. Guth frequently places her standing over, above, or at the edges of a scene, arms folded, chin up, hovering, a silent dance of control and manipulation; not for nothing does she sport black wings to match the coterie of similarly-winged, top-hat-wearing gents who wield power in mysterious if highly felt ways.

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Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Burkhard Fritz (The Emperor). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel

Schuster’s Nurse, Camilla Nylund’s Empress, and Elena Pankratova as Barak’s Wife, created a powerful holy trinity that was implied via creative direction and design choices, noticeably through the contrasting use of textures: rock, glass, wood; bone, fur, skin. There are many seen and unseen forces within the realm of human relating, as Guth points out, and many of them involve an experience of the sensual which is central to an experiencing the spiritual (and vice-versa). The two here go hand-in-hand, as they should, something clearly reflected in Strauss’s luscious score, with luxurious writing for strings, percussion, and what I call low-b(l)ow sounds (basses, horns). Baritone Michael Volle, as Barak, and tenor Simon O’Neill, as the Emperor, both represent flip sides of a similar spirit (and a similar physicality certainly helps drive this point home), an archetypal male presence torn in two, silent yet mute, inert yet active. Again, Guth’s staging emphasized the multifaceted layers of intimate relations, and the quest to find, form, and notably evolve an identity within a traditional framework that frequently demands the subsuming of individual needs. The curved set housing Barak and his Wife in separate pseudo-cells at one point was a simple, powerful image, deeply symbolic and highly memorable, like so many of the moments in this multilayered production. Toward the end of the opera, the Empress proclaims that “the love is in me, and it is enough,” before being surrounded by tiny gazelles, symbols of her own self as realized in the way in which she and her husband first met: she was the delicate creature he hunted, but who became trapped himself in a web of spindly uxoriousness, a web whose holes grew bigger with the absence of a perceived symbol of love (perhaps the ultimate symbol), children.

Guth’s placing the opera within the realm of dreams (and thus the subconscious) forces one to consider not only not only the holes in own lives but the shadows that occupy them. Might we turn to stone without recognizing, nay, embracing them? The questions are in us, as Guth reminds in this production, and they are enough.

Write Round

As I walked around Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful white spirals in the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, I ducked into a special exhibition, Kandinsky At The Bauhaus, and… there it was, in all its orbular glory: Several Circles.

Like seeing the work of Klimt recently, experiencing Kandinsky in person was a deeply emotional experience. It forces a reset, a re-focus, a re-adjustment of perception, a realignment of attention, requests complete and utter presence, whispers for a magically pure blanket of silence. In the same breath, the work beckons, like a lover, to come closer, examine its velvet surfaces, its soft curves, its intricate, ovarian details, and slick, areola-like smoothness.
The Guggenheim website offers insight:

“The circle,” claimed Kandinsky, “is the synthesis of the greatest oppositions. It combines the concentric and the eccentric in a single form and in equilibrium. Of the three primary forms, it points most clearly to the fourth dimension.”

In its magnificent, lidless, concentrated, and sensually concentric presence, I sat, mouth agape, staring at its hip-swirling dance of color, form, light, and texture. The fourth dimension indeed. There are few things that take me so directly there as painting and the written word.

I write, every day, in a real, actual journal, with a real, actual pen. It seems almost quaint. In this world of iPads and iPhones and digitalthisthatandtheother, writing in a journal seems fabulously oldy-world-y, and vaguely old-fashioned. It takes more time to write than type; this forces a stewing of thoughts, a quiet, patient consideration and re-consideration, one that ultimately transforms expressions and observations and perceptions into stained, messy, occasionally wine-spilled musings that melt, all over the pages, like soft, salt-water taffy slowly expiring on the tongue. ‘Do I like how this looks on the page?‘ becomes every bit as important as, ‘What am I trying to say again?’ and I’m often surprised at how much I miss my journal the times when I go out and forget it. I don’t always use it; it’s more an observational talisman that makes me look at things -and smell them, taste them, hear them, feel them – a little more closely.
This re-discovery of the joys of physical writing happened by chance. I was sent, not long after I moved to New York, a gorgeous red moleskine journal, by a friend and favorite journalist. It was both a congratulatory gift, and, I suspect, an acknowledgement, from writer to writer, of the fierce and passionate love we hold of words -particularly the tenuous, occasionally frustrating act of bringing them to life. This act, for me, involves a full engagement with the senses. I love things I can touch, things that I can be stained by, things that leave an impression on a page, that have a smell, a taste, a certain eye-catching color. It explains why I cook. It explains why I paint. It explains a lot.
So I was delighted to attend an event celebrating the tactile -recently. Called “Objectivity”, the event was held at Eyebeam, a digital art space on the west side of Manhattan. The event was part of A vocabulary of objects, a formal Moleskine event that saw workshop participants make their very own journals. On one side of the sprawling warehouse space, a massive piece of paper had been tacked onto a broad wall that dominated one side of the room. It had a mottled projection across it; black drafting pencils had been set out to encourage attendees to add their own markings. People were riotously, joyously drawing as they balanced glasses of prosecco and chatted. I added to the markings with a few wild lilies. I didn’t see one person texting or talking on a phone – only drawing, drinking, watching, creating, and connecting.
When the projection was turned off, and the lights came on, people stared in awe at the motley collection of markings, as the lines formed their own little colonies and empires across the vast expanse of manila. It was awfully refreshing, and even beautiful, to see people so intimately connected with the sensual act of drawing and making things,, and appreciating the after-effects. Is this the power of the sensual world? Are we coming full circle, back to the tangible arts? I pondered these questions as I wandered around and saw Moleskine’s designs for iPads and other digital gadgets. I was reminded of the re-ignition of interest in vinyl recordings, and how heartened I’d been at seeing contemporary albums proudly and prominently displayed at the front of record stores. This isn’t mere nostalgia or irony -this is the scratching at a more transcendent experience through earthly means, a knock-kn0ck-knockin’ on heaven’s door through the gates of dirt and mud and bruised knuckles, sharp needles and blood on the tracks.
And so, the Moleskin event At Eyebeam was a bit of heaven, here and now in New York City, 2011, amidst the hub-bub of technology and the joy of digital connectivity. Those have a place. So do the tangible arts. Being able to draw with total strangers felt like a strong reaffirmation of the vital role of the tangible in everyday life. Even as we ostensibly move further away from experiencing daily life with our five senses, at the same time, we move closer to it, taking pensive, tip-toe steps into that “fourth dimension” Kandinsky referred to. Can we make it? Can we commit? I freely admit to being addicted to the bonbons of modern life: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Soundcloud, Linked In … blogging. But I’m circling back to sensuality, being reminded, in tiny spiraling whispers, that I never left. That fourth dimension is beckoning me, to enter, and re-enter, again and again. I want to keep walking, I’m curious what I’ll find in the middle, on the outer rings, and along the way. Stained fingers? That…and a whole lot more.
Photos: Taken from my Flickr photostream.

Tea Time

As I poured hot water over my Bewleys tea bag this morning, I thought about the art of tea-making, and how much it’s changed, or at least been simplified and degraded by the busy nature of modern life. I enjoyed a thorough education in the fine art of tea and its enjoyment yesterday afternoon at the lovely In Pursuit of Tea, on Crosby Street in Manhattan.

Housed in an inconspicuous part of Soho, IPOT specializes in fine teas and hosts regular tastings. My host, co-founder Sebastian Beckwith, graciously made the assembled a variety of teas –white, oolong, green, black, and pu-erh -in the classical style: using delicate pieces of fine china to brew, and providing dainty Oriental tasting cups for attendants. Sebastian provided a wonderful background to each tea, too, in a casual, conversational way, sharing stories about his recent travels through China and about the vanishing arts that contribute to the manufacturing of certain types of tea.

Like my last tea-tasting with Stratford, Ontario’s very own tea sommelier Karen Hartwick at Toronto’s Hart House, the experience of tasting various teas, and of sharing my observations with the assembled, transported me into an older, more deeply sensual world, one where the eyes, ears, tongue and heart work in perfect harmony. Having Led Zeppelin play in the store’s intimate environment added a sexily jagged rock and roll vibe, and provided the perfect bridge between old world and new.

A big part of the old world, Sebastian explained, is the way various teas are handled. Women who know how to treat and process certain green teas – with their own hands – are slowly dying, and they aren’t passing on their knowledge to a younger generation, not because they don’t want to, but because the younger generation isn’t interested in learning. The same processing could be done via machine, but it just isn’t the same, in either taste or experience. It would be, I observed, akin to kneading bread by hand or using the quick-rise, no-knead version. Sure, good, but… not the same. It’s a question of personal taste.
The same holds true for writing. I recently attended an event at the wonderful Eyebeam New York;. the happening was done with Moleskine, the good people behind the beloved, legendary journals, notebooks, and other fine writing accessories. In my next blog spot, I’ll be going into more detail about the nostalgia for older, more tangible forms of art. You see it reflected in the craze for vinyl records, for gardening, for home cooking. People want to experience life sensually, while holding on to (and developing) their digital identities. In fact, they’re interested in linking the two. There’s a fascinating kind of circular experience happening in popular culture.
That became achingly apparent yesterday as I inhaled the earthy, flowery aromas of infused tea leaves, listened to Robert Plant “ramble on”, chatted and laughed with other tasters, and let the buttery (or grassy, or vanilla) flavors roll around my palate. Tasting life never seemed more rich. Who knew it could fit into such a tiny cup?

Dreamy Dub

It’s the end of a long, frantic day. Turn down the lights. Pour a cup of hot tea, red wine, mulled cider. Exhale.

Images: wavy lines, coloured glass, paper stars, blue and green crayons. The smell of cardamom bread. The feel of cold ceramic against wet, bare feet. The bright dance of red oil paint across a linen canvas. The taste of maple syrup and cinnamon.

I experience all of these -and more -when I listen to “The Birth of Bellavista Nights“, the latest creation from Daniel Lanois. Filmmaker Adam Vollick‘s intuitive, Zen-like shooting masterfully captures the dreamy, thoughtful nature of this composition. I’ve always had a magical, sensual connection with art that moves me most, and this is a perfect example. If you want more, check out their live show from the Bowery Ballroom, full of the same kind of magical artistry and intuitive creativity that makes listening to this such a powerful experience.

Lanois was, and remains, a true visionary, and one of my very-favorite artists. Ahhh. That Black Dub album can’t come soon enough.

Sex On A Plate

Jennifer Iannolo really loves food.

The Culinary Media Network‘s co-founder isn’t just a lady who enjoys a good glass of wine and a steak; she’s also an informed, thoughtful food activist who clearly sees the cultural relationships that exist between food and life, or more specifically, food and sex. The New York-based Iannolo, an author, broadcaster, consultant and fiercely ambitious entrepreneur, is about to launch Sex On A Plate, an event that will leave attendees drooling in body and soul. What began as a simple observation on food turned into a bigger passion that many relate to. I mean really, food? sex? What’s not to like?

More than just a suggestive moniker, Iannolo connects various sensual experiences -sights, sounds, smells, touches, textures, tastes -with wider ideas around what good food is, and how its preparation, sharing, and enjoyment is a powerful agent for change, both inside and out.

What I love so much about this fierce, fabulous foodie is that she can so clearly understand, appreciate, and promote the sensual aspects of good food and its enjoyment, along with its connection to wider culture and women’s body images. Sex, like fat, is mainly in the brain, and it’s only through the senses that we come to truly embrace ourselves and our relationship with food with unbridled joy. Iannolo chanels that joy, and serves it up -luscious, succulent, sexy.

Where did the idea for “sex on a plate” come from?

I’ve been fortunate to spend much of my career working with the culinary greats, including chefs like Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Guy Savoy and Eric Ripert. The more time I spent observing them, getting past the “who” to find the “what,” the more I began to see that a sensual quality permeated their food. Each of them had his own unique philosophy, but the root of it was far deeper than merely feeding people -it was about making love to their senses. When eating their dishes, I began to have those food moments that would take me to another place, with nuances of flavor and texture I didn’t realize were possible.

After experiencing food in that way, I wondered where to go from there. What do you do with yourself after Alain Ducasse has prepared a special meal for you at the chef’s table? Rather than head in the hopeless direction of the food snob, I decided to go back to the roots — to the ingredients themselves: the perfect fig, the ultimate tomato. It became a quest for my senses.

As I was mulling over such things (in early 2004), I took a recreational cooking class to determine whether I wanted to cook, write or both. We were making roasted strawberries with zabaglione one night, and as I watched the custard being poured over the strawberries, I was somewhat overcome by the sight, and blurted out: “That, right there, is sex on a plate.” It set the tone for my manifesto On Food And Sensuality several weeks later, and the rest has unfolded from there.

How do you think the ideas behind Sex on a Plate fits with the foodie scene, especially online?

I’m still finding that out. I’ve got an amazing team of people working with me to plan Sex on a Plate as a series of events around the country, and we are deep in planning for Napa at the moment. There are about seven cities that have approached us to do the event, so we will take it where the food lovers will welcome it. We had planned a launch here in NYC for Valentine’s Day, but there was so much else competing for dollars and attention on that day, we decided it was best to postpone that for a quieter time, if there is such a thing in NYC.

Online, the concept seems to swing a number of ways (pardon the pun). It straddles a number of topics (I’m killing myself here), from sex to sensual indulgence to food. It started one day when I threw a #sexonaplate hash tag in a Twitter update, and it’s become a fun meme, with people posting Twitpics of fabulous desserts, perfect grilled cheese sandwiches, or whatever it is that turns their senses on. It’s one of the things I love about the idea: each of us experiences “sex on a plate” differently, so I get a kick out of seeing what it means to people.

In terms of blogging, I’ve started doing guests posts and content sharing with a couple of sex blogs, and have really ramped up my discussions on sensuality on my own blog as it relates to everything we eat, and the way in which we approach food. I love that people are engaging and talking about this, because I find that food lovers really get it, and those just discovering food want to. This makes my soul happy.

For the events themselves, how will you go about planning the menus?

This is where the events get most interesting, because in each city, I’m leaving that piece up to the chefs. I want to know what excites their senses, and I’m challenging them to wow us with those dishes and flavor combinations they might not get to put on the regular menu. They tend to get excited like kids at Christmas when I say that.

Who are the events for?

The events are for anyone who wants to have an indulgent, sensual food experience. I mean that not in the sense of overly heavy foods, but a food experience that focuses on how each taste indulges the senses through flavor, color, texture and smell. Even touch.

More importantly, I’ve decided that in each city where we do an event, a portion of the proceeds will go to the local food bank. It seems fair to balance the scales that while we’re indulging ourselves on the finest of food, that people struggling for basic survival are also taken care of. This makes my soul even happier.

How much of a subtext is there of women accepting our bodies? This feels like a theme in your “food philosophy”-ism.

Can I get a “Hell, yes?” The first line of my manifesto, On Food And Sensuality, is from Federico Fellini: “Never trust a woman who doesn’t like to eat. She’s probably lousy in bed.” Sensual appreciation extends to everything, from head to toe, inside and out, from farm to plate.

I do believe we should take good care of ourselves, and eat foods that are good for us; but in my mind, this means less about broccoli vs chocolate than it does chemicals vs no chemicals. We need to eat a little bit of everything to be satisfied as humans — we were built with the capability to enjoy pleasure, so why on earth should we deny ourselves? And I’m sorry to break it to the ladies, but Fellini’s right. I’m carrying a little extra padding, and I have yet to experience that as a hindrance for either attraction or action.

The wonderful thing about human beings is that they self-select. Be who you are, and those who like you will find you, whether it’s for friendship or romance. If you have a big butt, the men who like that will find you. Trust me. And this delights me on all fronts, because I don’t want to dine with men or women who live on lettuce and tofu. No fun.

What’s the ultimate “sex on a plate” dish for you?

Macaroni and cheese made with fusilli, mascarpone cheese, duck confit, foie gras mousse and truffle shavings. Oh my, yes.

All photography by Kelly Cline, except for head shot of Jennifer Iannolo, by Renata DeAngelis.

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