Horiatiki Salata

Current Obsession No. 6

I write this week to obsess on salads. Greek salad, specifically, the kind they call the horiatiki, or village salad. As a vehicle for variation, it is unparalleled. Simple, with a few essential ingredients – tomato, cucumber, green pepper, onion, feta, olive oil – and some optional garnishes, its rock solid structure allows it to serve equally well as a meal or as a side dish. I’m reflecting on the horiatiki right now from a balcony overlooking the hills around Vytina, Greece, in the small town where my wife’s grandfather was born, famous for its pine forests, to which we have pilgrimaged annually since the early nineties.

Last night we had a beautiful meal at a village taverna – some grilled pork with fried potatoes, a greens pie with delicious filo, and of course horiatiki. This one had sharp onions, sweet red tomatoes, and no olives but plenty of local oregano, a spice that’s not always included. On the side were grilled slices of bread drizzled with oil and peppered with oregano. But the killer ingredient was the feta, which was extra tangy, smooth, and very salty, quite particular. We asked where it was from, and the taverna owner said his mother makes it. We asked if we could buy some, to which he just laughed and thanked us. Then at the end of the meal a little bag of feta was suddenly there in our midst, and made its way onto our afternoon salad the next day.

A week earlier, I’d voyaged to Vytina with my father-in-law and his brother. They needed to vote in regional elections and I wanted my first horiatiki of the trip, so I took the two-hour ride. We went to a different taverna not 200 feet from the other. The horiatiki was totally different, and also lovely. Soft, white onions that had been soaked in water longer to remove their edge, extra sweet tomatoes, and – much to everyone’s surprise – a yellow cheese called graviera instead of feta. In my world, this is nothing short of heresy, but the waiter explained that the cook – his mom – refused on principle to cook with feta. I was skeptical but it was delicious, adding a slightly different primary overtone to the top end of the dish. This is what I love about horiatiki – two restaurants a few blocks apart, two totally different concepts of the salad. Go from one town to another and they’re even more different, reflecting local and seasonal flavors with uncommon immediacy. There are nearly infinite horiatiki in Greece. But it is a recipe to be respected, not modernized or hipsterfied. The variations are more to do with the taste of the ingredients than introduction of weird or unexpected ones. No reason to mess with it – just a straight up horiatiki is a thing of splendor.

In between these recent sessions, I ate several horiatiki in Lefokastro, a seaside village in the northeast, where I was pleasantly surprised to find pickled seaweed in my salad. It turns out to be a standard element there, adding another set of perspectives and jibing perfectly with the grilled fish and squid to follow. Gave me a chance to dig in with a chunk of soft bread – the bread here is soft to allow for just this activity – and make papara. That’s the word they have for when you dip bread in the drippings or the excess oil at the bottom of the bowl. We’re really a lesser society in the U.S., I think, for not having the concept of papara.

Hilma af Klint

Current Obsession No. 5


Simple question: why did Hilma af Klint’s show at the Guggenheim, which just closed, do so well?

By all rights and by any standard of measure, it should have, of course, but that doesn’t always mean it does. According to the museum’s director, Richard Armstrong, the Swedish artist’s exhibition was the best attended in the Guggenheim’s eight decade history. More, apparently, than “The Art of the Motorcycle,” even. It was such a hit that they extended open hours until 8pm for the last week of its four-month run to accommodate the crowds. And this for an artist who was largely unknown to American audiences, never having had a major retrospective on these shores, who, when she was still alive and painting requested that her work not be shown publicly until twenty years after she died.


I learned this and many other facts from artist and af Klint expert Josiah McElheny. A small group of us was lucky enough to tour the exhibition with Josiah, who has been involved in the painter’s legacy almost since people started paying her any mind, and who contributed to the show’s catalog. I’d already seen the show once, but it absolutely flabbergasted me round two. It was a show that deserved to be experienced multiple times, and the second visit was very different than the first. We went on the closing weekend, so there were huge lines and lots of people. But the work was still quite visible; the museum managed the hordes reasonably well, never admitting so many that it became a problem.

In the large, open room off the rotunda, hung a series of ten gigantic paintings that are, probably, her most important contribution: The Largest Ten. These were completed very rapidly, under the direction of spiritual beings known to Hilma and her cohort as the High Masters. Imagine a young Swedish woman seized by the need to paint these massive works – abstract paintings at a time when abstraction was not yet a concept. Josiah downplayed the question of whether or not she was the first abstract painter. She was guided by somewhat different concerns than many secular Modernists. And it’s true that the question of primacy is maybe just a distraction from bigger questions. But it’s still worth marveling at the date 1906 for these monsters, with their biomorphism, color-coded meanings, and made-up language, and then project back to 1896 for her earliest automatic drawings. Ahead of the curve? Nah, no curve there. No road, no dirt path – she was making it up, paving as she drove. Or the High Masters were. In any case, Hilma heard their call when nobody else seemed to. And they told her to make abstract paintings a few years before Kandinsky, Arthur Dove, or even the great Midwestern abstractionist Manierre Dawson, who is ritually omitted from history books for reasons of region, rather than gender.


Which takes us to the point. The more important question than primacy is simply why, given that Hilma af Klint’s work has been known about by curators and historians for more than 30 years, has she been excluded from the canon? She was nowhere to be found in the recent Inventing Abstraction exhibition at MoMA. How is that possible? Perhaps this helps us explain the popularity of the show. Sure, seen outside of the context of their creation, in simple formal terms they’re beautiful, playful, and colorful, and they’re embedded in a killer narrative of spiritualism and mystery. What’s not to like? But beyond the sensuality and storytelling, af Klint’s paintings seem to have touched on a nerve, maybe the same one that made Wonder Woman a surprise blockbuster – a desire for corrections to the sins of historical omission that have kept women innovators out of the limelight. Here, in big, bold artworks, is an alternate history, an accurate history, displayed, appropriately enough, in a museum founded by a woman, Hilla Rebay, who was herself an abstract artist. Or, as she wanted it to be known, a “non-objective” artist. If the art world in the era of Modernism had been run by women, perhaps we’d be using that term, rather than “abstract,” which is less specific and arguably more confusing.

Hats off to Hilla and Hilma for starting to set things straight.

A Pair of Poets

Current Obsession No. 4


Two wild-child members of their distinct generations. Two very different writers for whom language was a passionate operation. Michael McClure is the elder, born in Kansas fifteen years before Frank Stanford arrived in Mississippi, and he has now outlived his younger colleague by more than four decades. (Stanford committed suicide in 1978, just shy of 30 years old.) I’m currently reading and rereading McClure’s Ghost Tantras, as goo-ga a book as 1964 might have seen, a kind of roaring, sputtering ur-text of hum/animal utterance. Standard English mutates into all-caps nonsense, sound-joy meant to be savored aloud, simple horny exuberance oozed into writing. In 99 playful, sensuous proclamations one hears McClure as he morphs from being a central figure of the Beats through star-status as a hippie-whisperer, then mogrified into another entity altogether, something like the adrift character in Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog – continuously moving between categories (male/female, human/beast/plant/mineral/gas), notating these constant transformations with an aim, as he puts it, to create “a poetry of pure beauty and energy that does not mimic but joins and exhorts reality and states the daily higher vision.” It can be goofy, kid-like, dated, or idiotic, but I love it for its unbridled positivity. Here’s what “Ghost Tantra 85” looks like:

stooon grahh drahhr toomowr thown yeee bleesh nathoor coop stile peehn blash n’rooor
gahhr grahh gahoooor roooh grahhr
the brown silver grass-leaves in trillions – rustle
and move as fur of a vast breerth.
– The green spruce are hugging
ascending to a laughing leap.
Time & space whistle together where we
are non-mammalian
and our gahroon molecular voices yearn.
Brah theee ah hoool y’rahh thahr! Thoo!

On YouTube, there’s a beautiful little excerpt from a film called Abstract Alchemists of the Flesh, in which McClure reads some of the Tantras to animals at the San Francisco Zoo. My copy of Ghost Tantras, by the way, once belonged to Julian Beck, director of the Living Theatre; its title page bears his inscription. Cover by Wallace Berman.

Stanford is just about the diametric opposite of McClure. Where McClure is spontaneous and appears not to edit his spiraling love screed (see the pristine manuscript page reprinted as a frontispiece), Stanford is taut, making every word count, whittling everything down to lethal sharpness. In the unpublished The Last Panther in the Ozarks, excerpted in the compendium What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, one finds the poem “To Find Directions,” with its single directive line: Go to the graveyard. (Is it too much to say that they’ve lived their lives like they wrote, McClure continuing unabated, Stanford cutting his short, the ultimate edit?) In these poems, beauty lies in wait in bleak, terse lines about death and memory, sex and death, death and minnows, lots of death, ghosts, but not ghost tantras, couched in realistic observation, backlit aura, told with the swagger of a rocker. They’re prose poems, stories or scenarios, sometimes mediations based in his homeland in the American south, often working people poems, poems of poverty and sadness with glints of reverie that do not last.

The Arkansas Prison System

Is like a lyric poem
with seven basic themes
first the cottonpicker
dragging behind it a wagon of testicles
a pair of pliers which can fill in
for a cross in a pinch
then there is the warm pond
between the maiden’s thighs
next we have some friends
of yours and mine
who shall be with us always
Pablo the artist
the pubis of the moon
Pablo the cellist
panther of silence
Pablo the poet
the point of no return
and in case of emergency
the seventh and final theme
of this systematic poem
is the systematic way
death undresses in front of you

Come back to this page for new Current Obsessions each week. You can also follow @johnccorbett on Instagram

Open Mike Eagle, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

Current Obsession No. 3

Occasionally, a package from filmmaker Brian Ashby arrives in my mailbox at home. Inevitably, inside I find a mix CD wrapped up carefully in some protective material. I am remiss in that I rarely return the volley, much as I mean to. (Note to self: send Brian some fucking mixes.) I so appreciate these little gifts, often timed to coincide with some turn of season or loved/loathed holiday, because Brian turns me on to music I have yet to discover. I’m not sure where he looks, since I’m always looking myself, and he never fails to find something that has escaped my attention. I think he notices things differently than I do. Probably he has fewer blinders. That’s the best way to search – without preconception.

At the beginning of the winter, I got a mix that started with a song I didn’t recognize, “Happy Wasteland Day.” I listened, as I always do with Ashby mixes, in my car, and was immediately taken with the unfamiliar sound: dry snare drum backbeat and cool guitar riff versus squishy analog synthosaurus. This is normal/It’s normal now/(They said) it’s normal/It’s normal/It’s normal now, intones Open Mike Eagle, the maker of this galvanic music, checking reality in an unreal moment. When the king is a garbage person/I might want to lie down and die/Power down all my darkest urges/Keep my personal crown up high. “Happy Wasteland Day” is the track I’d nominate as the anthem of our current state of affairs. It’s so tender and at the same time so brutal. But the tenderness vanquishes the brutality. Here’s a rap that builds to a pique of anger, calling for action. Protesting I lost my sign/Standing up ‘cause they crossed my line/Gathered folks and they caught my vibe/If it wasn’t for y’all I woulda lost my mind. And he says, very simply and elegantly: Tell the garbage king: We don’t respect your crown. What an apropos image, the garbage king – believes in nothing but trash, flies the flag of expedience without regard for humanity, just gathering piles and piles of crap, relishing a future lived out at the junkyard. One day without violence/Can we get one day without fear, asks Open Mike Eagle, wondering aloud whether that’s too much to ask. Can we get one day they don’t try us/Just like one day the whole year? Now I have the 2017 CD on which this track lives, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream – mandatory, y’all! – and OME’s fantastic recent follow-up EP, What Happens When I Try To Relax. All of it, total obsession, ongoing. Because it’s normal/It’s normal now.

Come back to this page for new Current Obsessions each week. You can also follow @johnccorbett on Instagram

"Space Is a Diamond," live in Pittsburgh

lucia-tint copy.jpg

Current Obsession No. 2

For many years, I’ve been listening to the same recording of “Space Is a Diamond,” an outrageous composition for solo trumpet, and last month I finally got to hear it performed live. Hal Rammel turned me on to Lucia Dlugozsewski back in 2000, the year he wrote notes for a CD dedicated to her music on CRI, also the same year she passed away. Dlugoszewski is hardly a household name – tough name to pronounce, perhaps part of the reason – even amongst connoisseurs of contemporary music. She studied with Varése and was a celebrated figure in new music circles in NYC starting in the late fifties. Dlugoszewski designed instruments for her compositions, much like Harry Partch, including the sound ladder, a wooden construction with slats of different lengths arranged in parallel along a perpendicular axis at the side, open on the other side, not unlike a composite version of Hans Reichel’s daxophone. Josiah McElheny, Jim Dempsey and I were determined to feature Dlugoszewski in our room at the Carnegie International 2018, but the instruments had been missing for a couple of decades. It took some sleuthing, but we managed to find them and included a couple of sound ladders and some unusual shakers she’d made, along with a great piece of ephemera from a legendary performance at the Five Spot in 1958 – a gig flyer that doubled as the music’s score! As the grand finale for our Carnegie room, which we titled after it, we presented “Space Is a Diamond,” performed by Peter Evans. It’s basically an impossible work to play, so virtuosic it’s deeply alienating, but also super beautiful – harsh held notes burst into cascades of little tones, brilliantly shot into the universe like pinwheel fireworks. Speaking with Evans at dinner afterwards, I noted that his version was different right out of the gate from the best known recordings, the only two ever released, made by Gerard Schwartz in 1972 and again for the CRI release in 2000. Peter told me there’s latitude in the score and at the last moment he decided to play the heart stopping opening with a different texture, not Schwartz’s straight tones. Good call, Dr. Evans.

Come back to this page for new Current Obsessions each week. You can also follow @johnccorbett on Instagram

Don Cherry's photo booth excursion

Current Obsession No. 1

I recently had the great fortune to visit the family home of Moki and Don Cherry in southern Sweden, in preparation for a show of Moki’s work at Corbett vs. Dempsey. It’s an old red schoolhouse at the crossroads of a couple of wee country lanes – in the States we’d call them “rural routes” – that the two of them transformed in 1970 into the headquarters of the Organic Music Society. To say it was mind blowing would be like calling a tsunami “choppy.” It was beyond. Beyond beyond. Part of the two afternoons we spent going through archival materials included a trawl through a huge cache of Don Cherry’s photographs – mostly those of the trumpeter himself, a handful of others including a beautiful portrait I’d never seen before of Eric Dolphy. Exhaustively working our way through them, we came upon a photo-booth strip with four images of Cherry. In the top panel, sporting a sparkly skull-cap, he was super relaxed, looking straight ahead; panel two, Cherry was wide-eyed, looking up and to the right; in the third panel, he looked hard to the right; and in the last one he glanced hard to the left. In itself, it’s a cousin to another photo-booth strip we found, a three-panel job, in which he looked straight, to the right, and to the left.

But in the prior strip there’s another figure who – this is the only way to describe it – photo-bombs his session. I looked closely at the tiny figure in the background, who looked back directly at the lens, and thought I recognized him: Peter Brötzmann. Fresh-faced, with a slight grin, he’s in perfect focus. So, I thought, this must be from 1966, when Cherry had invited the young enfant terrible of Wuppertal to play with him in Paris. I know of no other photos from those concerts. Then something else dawned on me: it was in Paris that Don Cherry gave Brötzmann his nickname, the one he would two years later adopt as the title of his monumental LP, Machine Gun. Here is a tiny shred of evidence from that brief instant, in a pile of photographs. Later that day, we found one more piece of crossing between the expatriate American and the German, a poster for Cherry’s band with Karl Berger, Jacques Thollot, and Kent Carter, the New York Total Music Company. The poster comes from a concert in Aachen in May 1968, and I’d bet a lot of money it was designed by Brötzmann. Think of this: May of ’68, that fateful passage in European history, six months before the first of what would be many festivals under a strikingly similar name in Berlin, the Total Music Meeting, which commenced in November. Coincidence? I don’t imagine it was. But an intrepid Instagram pal set me straight on the photographs: it’s not Brötzmann, it’s Berger. The two men looked quite alike in the period, before the saxophonist grew out his full beard and put on some weight. In the same set of photos we found two more photo booth images, one in which Cherry completes the sequence that Berger had interrupted – eyes forward, to the right, and to the left. And one very beautiful set with a young Eagle-Eye. A big smile with daddy Don.

Come back to this page for new Current Obsessions each week. You can also follow @johnccorbett on Instagram