January 27, 2007

Sestina d'Inverno

I first met this poem of Anthony Hecht's in a high school English class (Hecht formerly taught English at the U. of R. — go Yellowjackets!). Honestly, anyone who doesn't like snow should quit their whining and go live somewhere else. Some of us are trying to enjoy this weather!

Here in this bleak city of Rochester,
Where there are twenty-seven words for "snow,"
Not all of them polite, the wayward mind
Basks in some Yucatan of its own making,
Some coppery, sleek lagoon, or cinnamon island
Alive with lemon tints and burnished natives,

And O that we were there. But here the natives
Of this grey, sunless city of Rochester
Have sown whole mines of salt about their land
(Bare ruined Carthage that it is) while snow
Comes down as if The Flood were in the making.
Yet on that ocean Marvell called the mind

An ark sets forth which is itself the mind,
Bound for some pungent green, some shore whose natives
Blend coriander, cayenne, mint in making
Roasts that would gladden the Earl of Rochester
With sinfulness, and melt a polar snow.
It might be well to remember that an island

Was blessed heaven once, more than an island,
The grand, utopian dream of a noble mind.
In that kind climate the mere thought of snow
Was but a wedding cake; the youthful natives,
Unable to conceive of Rochester,
Made love, and were acrobatic in the making.

Dream as we may, there is far more to making
Do than some wistful reverie of an island,
Especially now when hope lies with the Rochester
Gas and Electric Co., which doesn't mind
Such profitable weather, while the natives
Sink, like Pompeians, under a world of snow.

The one thing indisputable here is snow,
The single verity of heaven's making,
Deeply indifferent to the dreams of the natives,
And the torn hoarding-posters of some island.
Under our igloo skies the frozen mind
Holds to one truth: it is grey, and called Rochester.

No island fantasy survives Rochester,
Where to the natives destiny is snow
That is neither to our mind nor of our making.

January 22, 2007

Raise your hand if...

Composers are accustomed to the question of "What kind of music do you write?" Pianists have probably gotten this one a few times:
"I'm a musician."
"What do you play?"
"Oh. I could never do two things at the same time."

January 16, 2007

Delayed Reaction

My multi-week odyssey to find a brick-and-mortar store with a copy of Ys to sell me came to a close yesterday. The album is no revolution or revelation, just ("just") very honest and well put together. The symbolism (or would it be allegory?) is rather heavy, but the core is a confessional treatment of a romance. I'm still waiting for my decoder ring to arrive in the mail, but the music is very affecting, clear in its own way.

I don't buy into the criticisms of Newsom's singing. She sounds very in control of her instrument, carefully choosing when it cracks and flutters. She's able to conjure a sound which I can only compare to a squeaking rubber balloon, but for some reason sounds quite beautiful to my ears.

The main thing I was left wondering about after my first listen was the album's extreme "consonance." Her words are mellifluous and consistently rhymed, the orchestral backings are always lush. It's a choice, but I'd be curious to hear some of the songs with a little more grit .


DJA requests that we abolish the use of the adjective "pretentious" in our critical discourse. I agree, and myself would add "twee" to that list. I can't read about Belle & Sebastian's latest without getting hit in the face by this one. It's certainly apropos for much hipster-friendly music, but can we nip this one in the bud?


I feel I should toss in a few words on why I bothered reacting to an album that's already been heavily lauded and desired. I'm usually suspicious of reviews that appear too soon after a new product enters the marketplace. They feel too attached to the PR mechanism of the vendor. In the rush to get the first review on the block, publications are just handing out free publicity. I'd prefer that critics take as long as they want to publish a piece, even passing on something if they don't feel like anything should be said. If I "have" to know how good something is as soon as it's available, I'll buy it myself (or make friends with someone who feels that same need). When we live in a society that's trying to sell us something at every street corner, do we really need to contribute to the problem?

January 09, 2007


Love is the newest release by "The Beatles," rather, the newest officially sanctioned release of Beatles material. In case you haven't already heard what it's about, it's a set of Beatles-on-Beatles mash-up action performed by George Martin & Son. The album got a good consideration in strictly musical terms by AllMusic, so I'll direct you there if you want the standard review.

As their reviewer says, the juxtapositions are pretty tame. The main interest in Love isn't the new relationships, but the restored quality of the source material. Us younguns know the Beatles primarily through the shoddy remaster jobs of their albums which date to the early years of the CD. A good song's a good song no matter how rough the recording is. However, a band that spent so much time in the studio is going to get shortchanged by technology that takes a giant step backwards from their original working conditions.

Something about hearing the masters handled with such care makes the songs sound fresh again. The vocals in general were the main event for me. The expressive nuances can be heard more clearly, the madrigal-y quality of the backing vocals get a lot more attention. "Help" becomes intense, "I Am the Walrus" is shocking and weird instead of well-worn.

This album prompts a tricky question: what does it take for a piece of music to be "new?" What kind of status do recordings have as musical artifacts? I can't say I've gotten a lot of listens out of this one (the songs are ultimately well-worn with me), but the initial impact was significant. The quality of sound made its own statement. There was something new-enough in that experience for me.

Yuk yuk yuk

Peter Garland - Jornada Del Muerto/The View from Vulture Peak

This moment occurs at the top of the very last page of a 30'-ish multi-movement piece, Peter Garland's Jornada Del Muerto (piano solo). If you're going to wander through the desert for the while, I guess it behooves you to come away from the experience with a healthy sense of humor...

January 03, 2007

RSS Feed

I was playing with the tags feature in the new version of Blogger, which has caused some older posts to float to the top of my RSS feed. Apologies for any confusions.

Being Serious

One of the best parts of school vacation is spending time reading cookbooks. Reading a recipe is a lot like score reading. You're looking at instructions for performance, not the work itself. Like score reading, when you do it enough, you start to get a sense of what a recipe will taste like without having to prepare the dish. Also like score reading, while you may get the gist of the flavors, it's no substitute for actually eating.

I'm currently browsing through the book based on the French Laundry. High dining, to say the least. Not something I'll do every night, but it shares some secrets that will work with more pedestrian fare. One thing this book does well is communicate Thomas Keller's attitude towards food and cooking:
Unlike meat and poultry, fish is not regulated for quality and it's not inspected, which is why quality ranges are huge. How can you know when fish wasn't handled right? Was it dumped on the boat, is it bruised and beaten up? How was it caught—did it drown in a net, its gills filling with water, its flesh becoming waterlogged? Once caught, was it properly iced?. . . Our fish is packed in ice or seaweed and stored in our walk-in cooler in the same position it swims—not haphazardly, and not on its side. The flesh is too easily damaged. This is what I mean by treating your products with respect.

Not only does he ask all the questions, but it's essential for him to know all the answers. However, he's no Alton Brown-style food scientist. Alton will get a costumed cohort when he wants to describe the different cuts of meat from an animal. Keller rolls up his sleeves:

One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit. I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning, and butchering, and then the cooking. The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits.

It's not that he thinks it would be fun to do, he considers it part of his personal education. Interestingly, the book is pretty low on arrogance. He seems constantly determined to make the best food he can. Talking about how great he is would just take time away from that.

Finally, Keller's thoughts on "performance practice":

These recipes, although exact documents of the way food is prepared at the French Laundry, are only guidelines. You're not going to be able to duplicate the dish that I made. You may create something that in composition resembles what I made, but more important—and this is my greatest hope—you're going to create something that you have deep respect and feelings and passions for. And you know what? It's going to be more satisfying than anything I could ever make for you.