wet earth

Making a Good Impression

When Alissa Bell left her L.A. corporate job in the fall of 2010 and returned home to San Benancio Canyon, she was guided by a very specific mantra: be creative.  She started a blog in which she explored some of her favorite topics: fashion, gardening, cooking, design.  She took a creative writing class at MPC.  Most of all, she thought about paper.  Before long, she was studying letterpress printing at the San Francisco Center for the Book, meeting with Napa master printer Glen Bower, and searching for a press of her own.

Today, Alissa Bell Press occupies a small warehouse space near the Marina airport.  Her letterpress, a 1919 Chandler & Price built in Cleveland, sits next to a California jobcase containing slim wooden drawers of letters, waiting to be arranged into words.  Though only in business a few months, Bell is already busy printing wedding invitations and business cards for people who want to send a specific message: this is important.

Letterpress printing speaks to the ancient belief that words have not only meaning, but substance.  When you hold in your hand a piece of paper and you can see the words printed on it in three dimensions and can move your finger across the words and feel them as something real, the words take on a weight and value that is both literal and symbolic.  As more and more of our reading and writing happens on screens—screens in which our words seem to float, untethered, easily erased—it’s not surprising that the art of letterpress printing is undergoing a rejuvenation.

Bell enjoys the meeting of old and new technologies in letterpress printing.  In addition to using the traditional letters in her California jobcase, she also works with a company in New York to design custom-made handset designs for more contemporary or individualized styles.  She also has fun with color.  “I can mix any color in the rainbow,” she says.  “It’s really fun to play with colors and stay as custom-designed as possible.”

Bell investigated numerous paper sources before settling on a small paper mill in Holyoke, Massachusetts.  “In yumminess it’s just a little yummier,” she says.  I watch her print a wedding announcement card in cool silvery ink, first with a light impression, then a second one with a slightly heavier imprint.  The contrast is striking.  In studying printmaking, Bell learned that traditionally the ink would lie gently on the page, “like a kiss,” she says.  Today, many people are looking for a heavier impression, which highlights the handmade, unique quality of letterpress printing.

“I love giving people tools to communicate,” she says.  “I love paper, envelopes, sending mail, getting mail, magazines, all of it!”  When Bell was a girl, her mother made sure that she and her sisters always sent thank-you notes for gifts.  “I wish more people wrote letters today,” she says.  “It’s a lost art.”  She hopes one day to create a website that will be a resource for letter-writing.

For now, she is focused on her press.  “There’s definitely a learning curve,” she says.  “It’s a one-woman show.  I mess up and I just have to be okay with that.”  Bell says that the MPC creative writing class (which is where I met her) was a big step.  “It was my first writing class ever, and I felt vulnerable putting my work out there.  But I was able to get over that and share my work and be happy with it.”  Her favorite part of the job?  “I love working with clients,” she says, “helping them make their vision a reality.  And I love being alone in the studio, working on prints and listening to podcasts and feeding peanut butter to Barley the dog.”  Sounds to me like what life can be when you say be creative to yourself, and then just do it.

Molto Energico

Kevin Puts called the piece he wrote for the Eroica Piano Trio “Trio Sinfonia” to reflect its orchestral spirit.  “I do enjoy writing for orchestra,” he told me in a recent phone conversation.  “I like the big sounds.  There are so many possibilities, so many combinations of instruments.”

The more intimate genre of chamber music is a kind of musical conversation between distinct instrumental voices, but in “Trio Sinfonia,” which the Eroica will perform in Carmel this Friday, Puts focused on producing, or orchestrating, specific sounds or textures by combining two or three instruments.  He says that while writing chamber music is a refreshing break from orchestral bigness, it’s also really hard.  “Writing good chamber music is so difficult,” he says.  “You can’t hide behind effects.”

The titles of the four movements of “Trio Sinfonia”—Overture - Risoluto; Scherzo - Presto enigmatico; Lento - Meditativo; Finale - Allegro molto energico—evoke the emotional intensity Puts is not afraid to create in his music.  Puts wrote “Trio Sinfonia” with the Eroica Piano Trio in mind.  “They’re a very dynamic group with a lot of energy,” he says.  “This piece contains lyrical, romantic melodies they can really dig into.”

In 2007, the Miró Quartet premiered Puts’s “Credo,” a stunning work for string quartet commissioned by Chamber Music Monterey Bay.  The success of that work—a best-selling, award-winning recording and multiple performances around the world—led to another commission, for CMMB’s Arc of Life project.

“My connection with Chamber Music Monterey Bay feels really good,” Puts says.  “I feel a real kinship, a relationship of musical understanding.  I know that if I give my best effort, it will be taken seriously.  CMMB is a creative home for me.”

This fall, local audiences will have the opportunity to hear Puts's Arc of Life premiere, written for piano trio and clarinet.  He is currently working on the piece, which like all the Arc of Life commissions is inspired by the Bill Viola video installation “Going Forth by Day.”  (In April, the Daedalus Quartet will premiere the first Arc of Life piece, “White Water,” by Joan Tower.)

Last year, Puts’s beautiful first opera, “Silent Night,” was premiered by the Minnesota Opera.  I’m not surprised when he tells me that writing opera feels natural to him; in so much of his work, there is an open-hearted feeling of spaciousness and storytelling.

If there’s a story in “Trio Sinfonia,” however, it is Puts’s abiding musical connection to Beethoven.  The symphonic form, the C-minor key signature, the strong motivic presence—listen for it especially in the First Movement, he says—all these point to a strong feeling for a composer who is more than just an inspiration.  “I’m always thinking of Beethoven,” he says.

Eroica Piano Trio, Friday, March 23, at 8:00 p.m., at Sunset Center in Carmel, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay.

The Life of Death

A lecture at MPC this week treats the subject of death as it appears in folklore and fairy tales.  Here is the announcement:

Who is your favorite fairy tale character? Cinderella? Little Red Riding Hood? The Frog Prince? Anyone for Godfather Death?

There are thousands of characters to choose from, of course, popular, celebrated heroes of our childhood, starring in Disney films and countless illustrated story books. But there are other, lesser known characters from folklore and fairy tales dating back to the Middle Ages, and Death is certainly among the most compelling.

Death has been called the greatest taboo of the twentieth century. In modern society, we seem to do our best to shelter ourselves from death, dying, and the dead. Our loved ones die in hospitals and are taken to funeral “homes.” Gone are the days of the parlor viewing and the wake. Death is not a subject for the modern, civilized mind to ponder directly. But it has not always been this way.

Our ancestors frequently witnessed the deaths of animals and people alike. Death was a part of everyday life and, therefore, it was an important part of folklore, myth, and fairy tales.

As Midori Snyder puts it, we re-create Death in folk tale figures “who allow us to personalize our contact with death long enough to confront it, to argue with it, to pit our wits against it . . . and perhaps, if we are lucky, to finally make peace with it.” This lecture will explore the concept of Death as subject and star of folklore and fairytales, sharing examples from the ancient world through to our contemporary tradition, and exploring what can be gained from inviting Death back into the story of our lives.

Lecture by Laura Courtney Headley, “Death in Folklore and Fairytales: Meet Godfather Death,” Wednesday, March 21, in Lecture Forum 103, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.  The lecture is free, but a $1.00 parking permit is required; parking permit machines (quarters only) are located in each parking lot.