Monday, January 26, 2009

Soup To Nuts

I have for some years been reading both Margaret Drabble and the late Iris Murdoch quite dedicatedly (about a dozen books each) and have juxtaposed them in my mind as the Beatles and Rolling Stones (respectively) of British letters of the past half century. This comparison doesn't hold up on a number of levels (e.g. the 20 year discrepancy in their ages, partly mitigated by Drabble's first novel having appeared only 9 years after Murdoch's), but I'm sticking to it. (Sometime, I'll get around to recent Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, Murdoch's coeval from the post-WWI baby boom, and fit her into the equation too.)

In any event, Drabble (the principal subject of this blog's debut post) is the sunnier of the two, even when she is taking on weighty and difficult themes. Murdoch's obsession (I think that is not overstating) with the destructive but irresistible lure of infidelity and its attendant demons, jealousy, envy, rage and despair (did I leave anything out?) dominates her work. I have just finished 1978's The Sea, The Sea which was no exception. It also falls into the subcategory of "rather creepy middle-aged male narrators" that she had already developed in The Black Prince and A Word Child. These protagonists, with a not-so-subtle hint of Humbert, tend to be distinctly unreliable. The Black Prince 's Bradley Pearson is the most Nabokovian – in The Sea… the implication seems to be more that no one reports honestly in matters of sex and love.

The Sea…'s Charles Arrowby has certain other compulsive habits in his narration (he is ostensibly writing memoirs), one of which is the excessively punctilious placement of single quotes (inverted commas, to our UK friends) around any word or phrase that is remotely vernacular or even just metaphoric. Another is recounting in some detail each of his meals, prepared in a style jestingly called "gastronomic mysticism" by one of the other characters but actually, by current standards, quite admirable in their use of simple, fresh, predominantly plant-based ingredients.

As a tribute to Iris Murdoch and the unlovely Arrowby, I report my last few dinners: Saturday, I sautéed shallots and garlic, added steamed rainbow Swiss chard and some Great Northern beans to the pan, fried up two links (cut in half-inch segments) of chicken sausage, and mixed it all up with a pot of brown rice. Sunday's goal was to wash only one pot as much as anything else, so I boiled Fontina and prosciutto ravioli, threw in a handful of green peas and topped it with shredded Asiago. This evening, despairing of the fact that all the brands of sausage at the nearby market that tout their ethical, ecological and health attributes are made from chicken, I bought pork sausage with sage (no doubt engineered in unthinkable squalor), cooked it thoroughly, browned some onion and beet greens, and had it all over rigatoni. The beets themselves (from which the greens were taken) roasted in the oven for 45 minutes, wrapped in foil sachets with olive oil, salt and pepper - the first of three went with the dinner, the other two will enliven tomorrow's lunch.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

First Editions

There is a plainly a bit of class hierarchy among thrift stops - the charity with which a given store is aligned, the inevitable connection between its neighborhood and who donates and shops there and so on. So it is not so noteworthy that I was in a Brooklyn Heights Housing Works rather than the 135 St Harlem Goodwill when I came upon a rather lavish 12-LP collection of 20th century orchestral music, commissioned, recorded and released by the Louisville Orchestra in their 1954-55 season. [What's always irked me is you don't find rare free jazz or even much in the way of good gospel or salsa in the Harlem thrift stores - it's the same old battered Judy Collins records as everywhere else - some sort of conspiracy?]

The Louisville Symphony, though quite long-established, may still not have quite pulled itself into the top 10 U.S. orchestras as measured by however they measure these things, but its decision, taken around 1950, to champion the music of living American composers and start a record label to broadcast it has remained a claim to fame.

The set I bought is packaged in the manner that the phrase "record album" was coined to describe - two boxes with half a dozen paper sleeves bound together on the left, with a vinyl record in each, so you page through to make your selection. The program notes are on separate 12-inch squares of paper, inserted loose into the front of each box.

The actual music - well no one I know including me listens through 24 LP sides of mid-20th century orchestral music in any kind of hurry. The immense diversity of humanity and its artistic production does get a bit overwhelming at times like this. I read through wikipedia articles on relatively obscure composers like Paul Creston and Halsey Stevens, seeking connections with things I know more about and, to be honest, struggling a bit to find anything very compelling in their music. There's lots of sturm und drang: trumpet blare, tympani thunder, contrasting pastoral flute segments, neither cacophonously dissonant but nor, even when they are categorized as neo-romantic, is there much memorable melody to latch on to. Long rich lives - Pulitzer prizes, distinguished careers teaching at USC, writing definitive biographies of Bartok, spouses and children - well, I already said it's a big world.

It is interesting to me that Creston taught composition to the somewhat better known John Corigliano who in turn taught Nico Muhly, who has diversified his own composing with some marvelous string arrangements for the likes of Will Oldham and Björk. Muhly's arrangements on "Cursed Sleep" from Will Oldham's The Letting Go have single-handedly earned my admiration. Between his pop music connections and savviness with regard to myspace and blog use, getting himself interviewed by Pitchfork etc, Muhly stands some chance of bringing this sort of music back to a wider audience. (Note to self: see Carnegie Hall premiere in March?)

So far, the bigger names in this collection, and the ones whose pieces I feel more likely to return to, are Henry Cowell and Alan Hovhaness, who can both be loosely considered in the tradition of "maverick" American 20th century composers (throw in Harry Partch and call Charles Ives their forefather while we're at it), characterized in varying measures by a kind of deliberate experimentation far beyond the modernism of the Second Viennese School, inventing their own instruments and a tendency to bring some mysticism to bear on their aesthetic, yet never rejecting compositional values so firmly as John Cage or the Fluxus composers. Cowell invented the world's first electronic drum machine, pioneered the use of tone clusters on the piano (at times the performer might need to use a whole hand or forearm to strike a large set of notes), was a handsome young man and confused me for a couple of teenage years by having no connection to my favorite avant-garde rock band Henry Cow. And, his first composition teacher was Pete Seeger's father!

Monday, January 19, 2009


My bandmates in Escape By Ostrich and I typically go out to eat after rehearsing and not infrequently end up at Duke's on East 19th Street in Manhattan. The restaurant is one of a pair, and it is one of the unfairnesses of life that a moderately successful restaurateur will open a second instance of his or her successful venture, only to have it immediately labeled a "chain" and lose credibility with the likes of me. Duke's retains some of its claim to down-home Southern cooking authenticity by contrast with the velvet-rope horrorshows that are its neighbors around the corner on Park Avenue South. We could perhaps have a similar dining experience further downtown at Acme Bar and Grill or the Great Jones Café, but this is a custom that predates my involvement in the band, it saves Willie Klein from having to take a cab home with his violin, and so we stick to it.

One evening at Duke's, Chris Nelson (bon vivant and multi-instrumentalist, who I once tried to label "the nearest thing to a genius you can run into on East 12th street at 9 am when you are both late for work" in a Time Out NY piece about The Scene Is Now, only to have it cut as superfluous [I will double-parenthetically embed the fact that I was not yet in any band with him at that point]) decided to order some out-of-the-ordinary, yet classic cocktail. We settled (the matter being a group decision) on the Singapore Sling, known to me at least, and I presumed everyone else, as a reference in Joni Mitchell's song "BarandGrill" from 1972's wonderful For The Roses. In the song, she romanticizes working class American life, evocatively if not necessarily accurately; in retrospect, the couplet "none of the crazy you get/from too much choice" is intriguing - the American working class now seems most driven to distraction of anyone by excess choice.

In any event, the waitress had not heard of the Singapore Sling nor had the bartender any idea how to make one. Chris probably settled on the more familiar Manhattan, leaving me to wonder "is our children learning" and why aren't their 9th grade English teachers introducing them to Joni Mitchell (as mine did). I also went home to consult my copy of Charles Schumann's 1997 American Bar. This book is amusing, in part because it was written by a German of the sort (not to miss an opportunity for sweeping cultural generalization) who guards classic American culture more rigorously than we do. As such, he makes clear his book is "not…the usual thousand-and-one cocktail recipes" (he limits himself to 500 or so classics), is not afraid to decry as a "bungler" any barkeep who would allow his guests to combine cocktails willy-nilly, and so on. Glancing at the prefatory material, it is never quite clear why his title includes the word "American" unless it goes without saying that cocktail culture is quintessentially American. The Singapore Sling itself, though, is more the product of Anglo-Asian colonial culture, said to have been invented at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore - hence it was probably known to Joni Mitchell's waitresses as a remnant or cousin of 1950s Tiki Culture exoticism.

There is, you won't be surprised to hear, some debate about the exact components of the Singapore Sling but I like Schumann's asceticism and will give you his formulation.

¾ - 1 oz lemon juice
¼ oz sugar syrup
1 barspoon powdered sugar
1 ½ oz gin
¼ - ¾ oz cherry brandy

You shake up the first four ingredients, pour them in a Collins glass which is then filled with soda, leaving room for the brandy to be added last.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

No Higher Resolution Available

You may or may not live in a world where the phrase "rare Finnish prog folk" causes an immediate Pavlovian click on the "download" link, but if you do, you may already know about Scapa Flow's sole release Uuteen Aikaan. Its 1980 date is only one of the factors destining the group to obscurity, progressive rock having largely given way to new wave rock by then, and Googling subsequent activity by the group members (keyboardist Eero-Pekka Kolehmainen seems to have been busiest) is confounded by the relatively small inventory from which Finnish names are drawn.

In any event, I could certainly have stood on the bus next to any of them in my 1978 half-year in Helsinki. Singer Pia-Maria Noponen had some subsequent association with a band called Threshold, who also boast a connection with the somewhat more famous (as Finnish synthesizer players go) Esa Kotilainen. He emerged from the actually quite significant groups Tasavallen Presidentti and Wigwam (as we approach consensual reality, my copy of the U.S. release of the latter's Tombstone Valentine has a big blurb of praise from Lester Bangs on the cover), and launched a series of occasional solo records (that continues to this day) with 1977's Ajatuslapsi. I purchased that within a few months of its release in a quite serviceable record store located among a set of underground shops in Helsinki's central train station (Eliel Saarinen's apotheosis of 1919 modernist architecture), which in turn reminds me of the exemplary Latin record shop that once stood in New York’s Times Square Station (its replacement has lost a lot of the sabor of the original).

Not to let free association take us away from Scapa Flow altogether, though you should also take a moment to read about the geographical feature from which the group name is taken. The record is a fine mix of flute, keyboards, guitar, male and female vocals, plus rhythm section, quite polished in the manner of Mellow Candle (though they are a bit too revered in the 70s progressive-folk canon to admit too close a comparison) - without raising expectations too high, it is worth a few listens, though not transcending a genre that history has firmly consigned to its margins.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Farsings of Farses

After a vigorous evening of running around Brooklyn in 10° air (seeing Adam & Dave's Bloodline at Bar Matchless - one compelling song out of the four I heard; trotting over to the larger, yet somehow more intimate Glasslands for The Pictish Trail, another fine Fence collective performer, with Viking Moses; maintaining the farsing spirit with a 2am second dinner of top-notch falafel at North 7th Street’s Oasis), the following late morning called for something milder. At the top of the stack, Now Make We Merthe, is a 1968 collection of "medieval carols" on the semi-legendary Argo record label. The title of this entry makes its appearance in the liner notes, where it makes sense in context, and the collection is still in print on CD, so information about it is not hard to come by.

Glancing over the expected instrument credits (psaltery, lute and the like), my attention was caught by the "heckelphone." This, interestingly, reveals itself to be not an "early music" instrument at all, but an innovation by the German instrument making Heckel family in 1904, from when it has been used by composers as (relatively) diverse as Richard Strauss, Edgard Varèse and Paul Hindemith. There are no more than 100 heckelphone players in the world (corresponding with the number of instruments that actually exist), and my heart leapt as I found (via wikipedia) that the early 21st century cultural compass has room for a North American Heckelphone Society whose inaugural meeting was in 2001 at the determinedly ecumenical Riverside Church.

How the heckelphone was chosen for this recording is anyone’s guess but presumably more purist arrangements would have called for a couple of the more characteristically medieval double-reed shawm (which came in many sizes), and the heckelphone offered a match with the higher register oboe that neither the cor anglais nor bassoon could quite provide.

The wikipedia heckelphone entry mentions that of 150 ever made, only 100 are known to still exist. Though time is never kind to exquisitely crafted obscurities, I fell into a more specific speculation. Having spent the afternoon reading W.G. Sebald’s quietly devasting Austerlitz which very slowly reveals itself to be about the fate of a Czech Jewish family in the 1940s, I began to envision the heckelphones of Mitteleuropäische Jewish musicians not so much smashed in pogroms, as moldering past the point of salvage in the meticulously cataloged SS warehouses that held the possessions of the "evacuated."

The world being now so stuffed with ubiquitously available information and resources, I was hardly surprised but certainly impressed by this photo blog which follows the itinerary of Sebald’s books, mainly by the Borgesian trick of retaking the photographs with which the narratives themselves are punctuated - I tip my hat!