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Shots are like a bullet or a bad man


Here I am, sipping Armagnac and pondering speed. My balloon, with a couple of inches of tawny nectar swirling within, will take me an hour to empty. Each swallow will be a little different, as the spirit opens like a flower to the welcoming air; bouquet and flavour expand and evolve, from butterscotch, to caramel, to orange blossom. 
This brandy – a 1979 Castarède, since you ask – first encountered oxygen over 30 years ago, after distillation, while sitting in an oak barrel waiting to mature. The reunion, like any good one, is both bitter-sweet and fruitful and I, the drinker, get to enjoy its rich development without 
doing any of the work.
No one in their right mind would down an Armagnac in one. But then, isn’t the point of speed-drinking to escape one’s right mind? Like most people who were ever students (and a fair few who weren’t), I have downed shooters, dropped small glasses into pints and slurped up the overflow, layered spirits over the back of a teaspoon, then lit and necked the results. After my 21st birthday party, my friends and I all walked round for days 
with circles on our palms, like members of some sinister secret society, thanks to someone’s grand notion of lighting sambuca slammers, then clapping a hand over them, shaking and . . . well, you get the idea. 
Granted, all that was long ago, pretty infrequent even then, and the most potent ingredient in any of these heathen practices was peer pressure. Still, downing shots is just a distillation of a common failing: the tendency to do most things, including drink, too quickly. It’s odd, when you slow down enough to think about it. Most countries call their strongest spirits some variation on “water of life”: eau de vie in France (Armagnac is technically one of these); whisky, from uisge beatha, water of life, in Gaelic. 
Life without water, of one kind or another, is impossible. As it is, it often needs sweetening, softening or diluting – but speeding up? Anyone old enough to drink legally knows it goes too fast as it is. 
I blame the cowboys. I grew up on the westerns of John Ford, Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks. Many of these films can be read as anxious investigations of modern masculinity: who has the potency to conquer the Wild West? Whose bullet will embed itself in the right place to ensure the future? In all this pseudo-Freudian angsting about whose is the biggest weapon, one element went unquestioned: men drank. They drank whiskey, straight down, out of tiny glasses. Sipping was nearly as womanly a pursuit as sewing. Teetotalism was unacceptable: in The Fastest Gun Alive, Glenn Ford pretends to be a non-drinker so no one will realise he’s a sharpshooter and it works. 
Final frontier
Drunkenness wasn’t ideal either among wild men carrying loaded weapons, but if speed is of the essence then it makes a certain kind of sense to swallow your liquor fast; and if drinking at all is a dangerous pursuit in those circumstances, well, that dance along the cliff edge is what shots are really all about. (Perhaps that’s why they’re called shots.) It’s a frontier practice, as surely as savouring an aged drink, in the kind of glass that would have shattered at the first rock on the wagon trail, is a celebration of civilisation. 
Oh, I’m not saying we don’t all need a quick hit now and then from something that, like a bullet or a bad man, has only one thing to offer: the sour clang of tequila, the jolt of vodka, the sweet slap of a B52. But in general, when life is no longer short and nasty, drinks need not be, either. The shot should go the way of the Wild West.
Nina Caplan is the New Statesman’s drink critic

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis