Soon, you won't even need a liquid to get drunk. Photo: Getty
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Powdered alcohol will appeal to young drinkers, despite what the makers say

Alcohol in powdered sachet form: what could possibly go wrong?

The United States is on the verge of having powdered alcohol – in packets like Kool-aid but with the punch of a rum or vodka cocktail – on sale across the country. After much confusion, Palcohol, which has seven flavours including Cosmopolitan and “Powderita” is on hold over problems with its labelling.

There is a lot we don’t know about this form of alcohol (although a version was patented as far back as 1964), but we know enough about how many young people might receive it and the troubles that are likely to come from putting this kind of product on the market. The makers of Palcohol have defended claims that their product could be used as a sneaky way of avoiding high drinks prices in venues and that the idea came as a neat way of avoiding carrying booze after a day of physical activities. In reality, it could be used in all sorts of ways.

What we do know is that powdered alcohol will probably be particularly appealing to young people, judging from their demonstrated preference for flavoured alcohol (take alcopops for example), and alcoholic jelly. Many adults never imagined that alcoholic jelly would take off among youth, but we know from recent research that these are not only popular, but also most popular among the kids who drink the most. Powdered alcohol is also easily concealable, which will make it more feasible for people who are underage to get hold of, travel with and consume, in both liquid and food form.

Palcohol’s makers appear to have been caught off guard after the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announced approval for the product. They hastily changed marketing for their product. Their website had suggested mixing it with guacamole (for “kamikaze guacamole”), salad or other foods as part of their plans to market the product while pointing out that this does not add flavor to the dish, just alcohol.

What’s an average mixed drink?

The producers of Palcohol suggest adding five ounces of liquid to make “one average mixed drink”. It isn’t too big a leap to suggest that drinkers will experiment with adding less liquid and using multiple packets to strengthen the effects – something you can’t do with a regular bottle of drink.

When it comes to alcohol consumption in its traditional liquid form there can be a narrow margin of safety before brain stem functions like breathing, heartbeat rhythm and the gagging reflex begin to shut down when large amounts are consumed over a short space of time, as the fallout from the Neknomination craze has shown. When drinking over a two-hour time period brain stem function may be impaired for average sized men and women respectively at approximately 13 and 10 standard drink servings of alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines the threshold of low risk drinking as no more than four and three drinks in any one day and 14 and seven in any one week period for men and women respectively. The possibility of consuming multiple packets could be dangerous.

Alcohol poisoning is already on the rise: hospitalisations of 18 to 24-year-olds related to alcohol overdoses in the US increased by 67% between 1999 and 2008. The hospitalisation of 26 teens aged 14 to 18 after loading up with drink before a Whiz Khalifa concert in New York shows that alcohol is already too accessible without making it available in packets that are easy to slip into a coat, a classroom or a concert. And of course, what better way to maximise the high than to add Palcohol to beverage alcohol, for at least twice the effect?

Stealth intoxication

The manufacturers have said they only promote responsible drinking, including asking people to make sure they find out whether they can take the product into venues. But we know very little about this new vehicle of alcohol delivery: is it easily detectable when added to other drinks? Could it be used as another form of stealth intoxication in a manner similar to other drugs used to facilitate sexual assaults, for example? If the company suggest adding it to food but say it doesn’t affect taste, does this up the chances of some unsuspecting person consuming it?

Experience in multiple countries with alcopops has shown this type of product and marketing attracts young people at earlier ages, putting them at higher risk for addiction and other negative consequences than those who wait until they are older to drink.

In the US, regulation falls between a number of entities but the Treasury Department’s Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has the most power to regulate alcohol and control decisions through labelling and alcohol taxes. It is the agency that recently gave and then within days and without public explanation withdrew labelling approval for Palcohol to go on the market. It is also possible that the Food and Drug Administration could prevent Palcohol from going to market based on claims that it could be considered a food product or food additive. Given that Palcohol has never before been consumed or sold to the US public at large, it is unlikely the FDA would have considered it to be generally regarded as safe, the FDA’s standard for food safety.

The new, the cool, the tongue-in-cheek all appeal to younger people. Alcoholic powder would likely attract a similarly youthful and risk-taking customer base as did alcoholic jelly, and the result might just be more drinking, more addiction, injuries and other adverse consequences to the drinkers as well as the people around them.

The ConversationJane Binakonsky does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser