(Note: to go directly to the tasting report, please follow the Champagne bottle on the right.)
APPRECIATIONS: I thought to close out this year – one that has been quite strange for so many of us – with a grounding bit of grateful praise for exceptional instinct and skill in the service of artistry.
This could of course be a long list. A lot of people are doing markedly lovely work, as we know. But I think I’ll confine it to three sections of prose that pierced me delightedly, and two musical performances I still cannot quite believe were accomplished by a mere human person.
I’m looking at the storyteller/illustrator Shaun Tan’s book Creatures, which collects many of his graphic works – which some of you know – and also his written explications of his process and intuitions and contexts. If you don’t know this man’s output, it’s time to put yourself out and get to know it. The illustrations themselves are rangy and ludicrously imaginative; you’ll see echoes of Horst Buchholz’s illustrations for the “Edition Incognito” group (among whom Michael Sowa is maybe the best known), along with wafts of Edward Koren, Richard Thompson (my all time favorite) and at times even Kâthe Kollwitz.
But it is a section of prose that made me pause with happiness and appreciation. He is introducing a section of the book called Companions. He writes: “I’m interested…in weird beings who might be the perfect sounding board for private thoughts and feelings, especially those we find hard to articulate. Not to say that this would necessarily be an easy conversation. Other creatures are, like us, complex, largely unknowable, self-possessed, preoccupied with their own problems, and prone to misunderstanding, or no understanding at all. A blank leaf-shaped face, a clockwork eye, a vague silhouette among trees: each may well stare back with reciprocal bewilderment, asking What are you? In that sense we are all mutually strange. Once the foamy hubris is skimmed from our self-important, self-assured thinking, the pool beneath – that basic mystery of animalhood – is deep and abiding.”
Yes, that is just how to say it.
Let me draw your attention to two “vocal performances,” apologizing for using the queasy term “vocal performances,” because in the world of song, there are far too many “vocalists” and far too few singers. My wife wonders at my indifference to lyrics, to which my explanation is that almost no singer compels me to listen to them. Either you have the sloshed mumblers (I’m talking to you, Van Morrison) or the many excuses for vocal bravura less in service to the words and more to demonstrate that somebody took singing lessons.
If you simply wish to perform a melody then you may as well just hum. Songs in a foreign language are no less worthy because you don’t know what they’re “about.” Most songs in our own language don’t really give priority to telling the story; they’re just “vocalizing” syllables.
There is an exception in the form of my favorite “jazz” singer, Ms. Norma Winstone. For most of the past thirty years she has floated in the calm eddies of what one might term chamber-jazz. She defaults to intimacy; she isn’t a belter. She’s the perfect singer for introverts because she wraps a lyrical blanket around the two of you, and you are sure there is no one else she’s singing for – just you. All the guests have left the party. It’s just you and her. The quiet is delicious. Your throat is a little raw from all the talking over the din. You make a pot of tea and settle into the talk you’ve waited for all day. How are things? What did the doctor say? Are you feeling better about the garden? I have really missed talking with you!
In a range of tranquil recordings (for ECM, big shock, right?) she brings her purring murmur to songs you either never heard, or never know what they actually meant because they’d been “vocalized” so routinely. I’ll tell you about a song that appears on the disc Dance Without Answer. It is called “Cucurrucuco Paloma;” perhaps you remember it from the Almodovar film Talk To Her, where it creates a numinously soulful interlude amongst the (melo)dramas that surround it.
The song is simple. A woman misses her lover, and is sad. Whether he has left, or died, we do not know. The words are small vignettes of moments in her loneliness. If the song doesn’t break your heart, see the cardiologist for an EKG. And yet this achingly sad text is set to the most consoling music imaginable, a lullaby-like progression in C-major (itself the key of consolation) with ho harmonic surprises to draw your mind away from the story. Play it. You won’t need to “listen” to the words, because Winstone inhabits them so deeply you cannot help but “read” them alongside her. She is telling a story, caring and respectful of its gravity.
In the end you are somewhat disassembled. The mourning is visceral, yet the compassion – in the harmonies, in the way she sings it, in the simple fact that she wants you to see the woman’s grief, because people in grief need help, and attending abidingly and observantly is how we can give help, and we can be laid bare by misery and yet we are also creatures who will keep vigil with you, so much sadness, so much tenderness, in a song that is four minutes and seven seconds long, all the appalling beauty of being human.
I’ve liked the writer Jesse Ball ever since his amazing novel How To Set A Fire And Why, among my favorite works of fiction in the last ten years. He is considered an “absurdist,” which label is about as useful as any label is, in other words hardly useful at all. He published a book called Autoportrait this year, which is a steam of consciousness ramble tenuously attached to autobiography. It’s a perfect read-in-bed book, you can dart in and out at any point and there’ll be something marvelous you can mull over when your lights are out. I was bad; I dog-eared two passages. Bad Terry; thou shalt not deface books; books are jewels, and we should love them, even the awful ones.
This: “I feel about writing and about art that one’s gift is the size that one permits. If a person believes that the work is grudgingly done, is tortured, that every iota must be tallied and kept, then it will be so. Likewise, if one feels that the work appears like the absence of fog, and goes away again with a gentle dimming, appears, goes away, appears, goes away, that one has little to do with it and one can simply give the things one makes, handing them off to others endlessly until there is no volition or energy in the limbs – if one feels that way, then that will be so. And how much better to have it be that way, an endless gift of which you have no ownership, for which you deserve no credit.”
I joined the scrum of admirers for Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This. In its totality it is a remarkable novel, but in its pieces, in page after page, are gems after gems. Here’s one that works out of context:
“In the fifties, we would have been housewives,” her friend shrugged, sopping up a hangover with a large humble mound of ancient grains.
“In the fifties, I would have belonged to a milkshake gang and had a nickname like Ratbite,” she countered, glaring at the salad that had been served to her on a board, forking it with such violence that a cucumber skidded off and landed in her lap, where it sat looking up at her like a fresh green clock.”
Let me return to song. Here is a song that is sung as perfectly as it is possible for a person to sing a song. It appears on the soundtrack for a movie called The Guys, and it is sung by Mary Fahl. There are two arrangements; this one is track # 12. Mary Fahl has a buttery operatic alto when she singe full-throated, and an exquisite falsetto when she sings whispery.
The song is an elegy. It is sung in a hush so evanescent you might wonder whether there is actually a voice at all. It is a hard song to sing, with large leaps of interval in its melody. It has an aura of a folk-standard in its simple chiming harmonies. The first time I heard it I was wet eyed and thought I knew why. It’s a moving song, of course. But when I listened again I realized I was present to a miracle. Put simply, every choice a singer could make was made perfectly. How to phrase, where to emphasize, what tiny liberties might be taken with the melody, a sublime sense of diction (especially in vowel sounds), a perfect instinct for which notes to sing low and throaty and which to sing high and piping and whispery. It’s like a lullaby sung to a child in a room where another child is already asleep and mustn’t be awakened. I doubt it is possible to sing a song more beautifully.
Thanks for reading. Amidst all the crunch and shatter and grind and difficulty of this year and these times, I find it helps to pause a moment when someone does something in the service of loveliness. Whether vintners or writers or singers or the old man who patiently repaired my antique wristwatch, or even the neighbor with the over-the-top Christmas lights, we somehow go on, knowing all the grief we know, and still we make beauty.
Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy is passionate and intense and as improvisatory as a jazz musician who asks “Why should I play it the same way twice?” I don’t know if he’d agree that his wines are texturally demanding. He doesn’t do malo because his vineyards are in warm microclimates, and he uses MCR (must-concentrate) for his dosage because he prefers it and can use less (all things being equal, MCR conveys a greater sweetness than conventional dosage liqueur).
He tastes in depth for every wine he makes. Every wine. No consecutive wines have the same assemblage, and none have the same level of dosage. He disgorges samples six months prior to the final disgorgements and creates various dosage options, which are then tasted at the point of actual disgorgement, having had six months to assimilate in tirage. He is, in other words, a moving target, because he seems to do nothing by rote. Sometimes I like his zigs more than his zags, and lately I’ve felt him absorbing the dry-at-all-costs zeitgeist – an opinion to which he would object vociferously, and with no small justification.
That’s because he is tasting carefully and sincerely, concerned with nothing else than to make the best possible wine. But I must ask: Is it really an accident that his wines have gotten drier at the same time as all Champagnes have done the same? These things seep in, and often we don’t notice them.
He would say that his vinifications have improved since he moved from the tiny ancestral cellar in Cumières to larger quarters in Aÿ, and therefore he can work with less dosage. I would counter that this is a non sequitur. That in turn is because I am convinced that almost nobody in Champagne actually understands the purpose and function of dosage. It’s an ingredient similar to the salt you have in your kitchen, and you grok its purposes and how best to use it and you don’t obsess over it the way everyone obsesses about sugar. But this soap box of mine is sadly well-worn.
And sugar-head me will say something that will surprise my friend JB. The most remarkable wine in this lineup is a zero-dosage bottling.