Friday, December 25, 2009

Foraging for mushrooms on skis

Yes, the esculent Gyromitra Gigas (Montanas) does grow near melting snowbanks in the Spring in the higher Sierran elevations.About twenty years ago, I was up at the cabin (elevation 6700 feet) in early May and there was still a great deal of skiable snow. The old logging roads were still covered and the weather was warm--in the 60s. I decided to do a solo ski tour up to a ridge and down over the other side through a valley I knew well from summer hikes that would take me down to a campground by the highway, not far from the road up to the cabins. The first part of the adventure was beautiful; the Spring snow was full of glide but slow enough to control one's descent, and the few falls I had only served to exilerate -I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt!

As I lost elevation I noticed the snow cover diminishing rapidly. I found myself walking with my skis on over dry patches of forest floor--pine needles began to adhere to my waxed ski bottoms. But this slow down in progress allowed me to gaze around and scan the forest floor which was gradually becoming more revealed. Sure enough, I spotted a trove of tan/golden "Snowbank" helvellas sprouting up next to a patch of old snow. Eureeka! This was like finding gold nuggests in a mountain stream, only better!

It was foolish of me not to realize that as I went further down in elevation I might run out of skiable snow, but the walk-bushwack down to the campground and up the road was a small price to pay for the thrill of the chase; and my quarry, a very delicious mushroom in the morel family,provided me with a sumptuous repast that night.

Although I'd have to admit I find morels the most exquisite spring fungus, the snowbank "brain" mushroom is always welcome in my basket, and they are so stunning to come across, especially while skiing.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Early Winters

Almost a foot of fresh snow this morning--and not even officially winter yet! Out on skis in the early pm along Mill Creek. Pristine and quiet, no one about save a few hardy walkers (who unwitingly mess up my carefully made track).The glide is perfect, serene. I think of past ski tours in the Sierras and in the Ringebu Vidda in Norway.I am high (naturally).
Good ski days are rare here in southern CT so when they happen, and I can get out,it's a precious gift, if only for the memories they provoke.And memory is what my music is often about. So I guess the skitur is part of the compositional process?

Where does the mushroom fit into all this? The chances of finding mushrooms while out skiing are pretty slim, but I did in fact do this once, but that's another story.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bear invasion

E mails from some of my Sierran cabin neighbors last weekend were alarming; six or seven cabins had been invaded by bears, mine among them. Fortunately these same people did some patch up work to secure broken doors and windows, so I'm hoping that the winter, now in full force in the Sierras, will not also invade the cabin.
Well, there's not much I can do about it until the Spring, unless some of my "Friends of Butchrabben" (Dan S, David R, Sam A, John A??) manage to get up there.
There was something suspicious about this incursion as by the start of December, bears up there should be IN HIBERNATION!! Don't those dumb bears know that they shouldn't be marauding around this time of year, but safe and cozy in ther dens?

It seems that wildlife all over are on the increase and there will be more and more encounters--even here in Conn where we have several flocks of Turkey's in our neighborhood, coyotes are seen and heard, foxes and racoons make regular appearances, and moose... well, they havent gotten down here yet but there have been sightings in NW Conn.

SOUNDINGS: Three thousand cheers for WNYC Radio for inaugurating Q2, its 24/7 New Music Streaming channel

They started off with a week long marathon of Steve Reich--not just his music but that of many composers and musicians who influenced, or were influenced by, him. I guess that includes me.
Q2 refers to its repertory as 500 Years of New Music. I like that latitude--but it could be broader, after all Perotin was major.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Der Schwamerl

A few postings back, when discussing Alfred Brendel's talk on "character" I raised the question of what kind of a mushroom he might be--Schubert, of course, had the nickname of "Schwamerl" which means little mushroom.A casual conversation with Dan and Kyle in Cutlers Record shop the other day reveled to me that the cover photo of Brendel on the CD I was about to buy showed him looking rather "schwamerlisch"--it was the cap which did it.
And I would have to say that his image might not unfairly be compared to that of the most noble and prized Boletus edulis, known here as King Bolete and in Germanty as Steinpilz

More on this later. In the meantime there has been a serious Bear Invasion at my cabin tht needs attention.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

!! NEW CD !!

New World records has just released "SEPTEMBER CANONS" It is available through them and Amazon or Cutlers Records in New Haven.The cover photo, as well as those in the booklet, are by Jim Bengston. The extensive notes are by Libby van Cleve. Todd Reynolds, the violinist, for whom I wrote September Canons created the electronic processing for the piece in his own studio. I am very proud of this composition, ranking it very high in my oeuvre of electronically processed insturmental works.
The second track on the CD, Peaceable Kingdom was originally composed for the LA Philharmonic New Music Group in 1990, but is here performed by members of the Yale Philharmonia under Julian Pellicano. It incorporates recordings I made in Croatia and Italy in the 80's. Woodstone was composed for the Berkeley Gamelan, an "American" gamelan built by my old friend Dan Schmidt in the spirit of Lou Harrison; it is my only essay in the genre.
The CD ends with an excerpt from The Fragility Cycles the live electronic piece I used to perform in th late seventies. It employs the Balinese flute (Gambuh), synthesizer, voice.
This CD covers a wide span of time in my compositional life--some 25years! Now I just hope the critics are kind towards it, and that it doesnt fall into the hands of that notorious reviewer for the ICO, Marcel Proost!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My own Magic Kingdom in "Disneyland"

I've never been to Disneyland (honest!) but I've now been to the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, and it really is something; it's all it's been hyped to be, inside and out.I had the transformative pleasure a week ago to sit in the hall and hear the LA Master Chorale under Grant Gershon sing my "Savage Altars." Hearing it sung by a fairly large choir was a revelation as I designed it for a chamber choir and thought it might lose clarity and focus in a bigger choral setting. But Grant's choir sings like a chamber choir, spot on you might say. It was magic.
And then, mirabile dictu, a week later I was back in the magic kingdom and heard just about the best performance ever of "Fog Tropes" under--guess who?-- the guy who made me do it, John C. Adams!
John's concert, part of the LA Phil's Green Umbrella series, had Harry Partch, Frank Zappa and me--still living! The sell out audience went wild for the Zappa stuff, and actually gave me a pretty good hand as well.
The frosting on the cake was "Alcatraz" being shown on monitors in various spaces iall over the building; you might say it permeated the atmosphere during the several weeks of this "West Coast/Left Coast" Festival. Actually, you could barely hear the music on most of the monitors, but Bengston's pictures looked pretty good. Maybe people will buy the CD in the gift shop in order to hear the music properly!
Actually, Alactraz has just been reissued for New Albion Records and has a newly printed booklet with photos of much better quality than the old booklet.
(PS I have a new CD coming out in less than a week--stay tuned)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ultimate Meal

In my zeal to let the world know about my mushroom bounty, I gave short shrift to my colleagues at Montalvo who contributed so much to the retrospective concert on Nov 21. Hats off to Julie Lazar (who started it all) and Kelly Sicut (who organized it) and Michelle (who fed us brilliantly),the young members of the Afiara Quartet who played soulfully, and of course Jim Bengston whose sublime photography over the years has inspired me more than anything or anybody. He has been my muse and my helpmate--without Jim, no Alcatraz and Eberbach, no beautiful CD covers which so perfectly illustrate my music.(Stay tuned for new CD announcement soon!)
Note in one of the above snap shots you see Jim consuming a green liquid; this is some kind of magic elixar which he alleges keeps the demons of geezerdom at bay, and is called, actually, "The Ultimate Meal." It ocurred to me that had we consumed our amanitas wrongly identified, then they too would have been an ultimate meal!!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Forbidden fruit

As the mushroom season wanes here in the East, it comes into its own in California.I arrived in Saratoga CA just a week ago, ostensibly for a concert of my music at the Montalvo Arts Center. The event went very well, thanks to the presence of old pal and collaborator Jim Bengston. We showed our visual-musico opus Alcatraz and its younger cousin, Eberbach. The Afiara Quartet was also in residence and played (beautifully) my Fog Tropes II and Evensongs. But the most excitement for me was the possibility of finding chanterelles or boletes or whatever the forest, after the first Fall rains, might offer up.
The oak and redwood forests around the Villa Montalvo have miles of trails and tempted us daily. The first morning out we stumbled across a cluster of mushrooms that I couldn't believe--the fabled "Coccora" or Amanita Calyptroderma (see above photo).This is a species that I had often looked for in my old Calif days, but in vain. This time they were all over the place.
But alas, I couldn't' find the courage to actually eat them (they are considered a prize edible in Italy where they are sold in markets in October). The genus Amanita has among its members several of the deadliest toxic species. The so-called "Destroying Angel " is among them (colorful name!).There was no question in my mind that these were coccora and not poisonous amanitas --the white "skull cap" veil remnant on the top, the color, the large sac (or volva) on the bottom etc..The illustrations in David Arora's book assured me I was right. But I just couldn't make that leap of faith.
Had I the time I would have sought out a local fungophile (such as Arora who lives in nearby Santa cruz) to positively ID them. Next time!
Saturday I said goodbye to the coccora infested sylvan climes of Montalvo and flew down to LA to hear the LA Master Chorale under Grant Gershon perform my Savage Altars in the spectacular Disney Hall. I couldn't have been happier --it was a stirring realization
It would have been a pity had I ingested amanita ocreata ("Death Caps") instead of "coccora"--I wouldn't have heard that stellar performance.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Character in Music

Alfred Brendel. a great legend in a field littered with legends, came to Yale the other night to give a talk on "Character in Music." It was mostly illustrated with examples he played from the Beethoven sonatas, with a few bits of Schoenberg thrown in.
The heart of his peroration was, quite simply, that form and structure do not explain music nor reveal its character;rather inherent character reveals form and structure, in fact. To fully appreciate music such as Beethoven's (or Schoenberg's for that matter) one must have an understanding of the affects and moods the composer expresses through his music. So, character is not to be dismissed as the province of the "amateur" (his word), but ought to have equal status with structure and form amongst the "cognoscenti."
His playing of fragments quite convincingly made his case.
My old pal John Adams touched on similar thoughts in a recent blog wherein he talks about the famous Proustian reference to a musical phrase from a fictional composer, Vinteuil.
One of the great benefits of our so called Post Modern culture is that we can talk about expressivity in music and not be scoffed at or dismissed. Music MEANS THINGS (although not "concrete" things as JA points out)
Or look at the expression on Brendel's visage above. Is it delight or sorrow? It could be either, but it is something; there is Character!

I haven't said anything about mushrooms on this post. I had thought about making a comparative study of Brendel's and Schubert's faces (Schubert, of course, is a huge composer in the Brendelian cosmos). because Schubert's friends called him schwarmerl
which means "little mushroom." I don't see much value in pursuing that path, but I must say that watching Brendel's face as he plays is almost like a movie.It is full of animation and, yes, CHARACTER. I'll think of the right mushroom later.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Big Splash at Galapagos Art Space

Above photo reveals two blewits hiding beneath autumn leaves; like the music of Ben Johnston mentioned below, they dont reveal their beauties to just anyone!

Tuesday night I ventured down to the ultra hip DUMBO district of Brooklyn to hear a performance of Holy Ghosts at the super cool Galapagos Art Space. The relaization by oboist Sarah Schram as part of the American Modern Ensemble concert was great--she played like an angel. The amplification and mix (pre-recorded tape part vs. live oboe d'amore) wasn't quite right but that's my fault for not showing up for the sound check!
The interior of the space is quite dark and there's a number of large pods with seating around large tables,; in between the pods are bridges over pools of water; in other words there are moats between the pods. I didnt know this and stepped right into the water (dark waters at that) soaking my leg up to the knee. So I made a big spash even before the concert started. Thanks to composer Spencer Topel for coming up with a dry pair of socks for me.
Composer Ben Johnston was there and his String Quartet No. 9 was given a riveting performance by members of the AME.Ben is not as well known as he should be; he is one of the few "microtonalists" who actually writes beautiful, exprerssive music using just intonation. It's sort of a miracle.To call him an American original or national treasure is not going too far. Check out the New World recording of his quartets (including #9 and the amazing "Amazing Grace" # 4)

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Devil Made Me Do It!

Above photo is of "Mutinus Elegans" or "Devil's Dipstick"

This is not a mushroom I have found around here, but its cousin, "Phallus Impudicus" ("Devil's Stinkhorn") does pop up now and again, especially in gardens. It seems that bizarre or overtly sexual analogues in nature seem to attract the "Devil's" name.
And speaking of the Devil....

Last week John Adams was here in New Haven to give two lectures at the Whitney Humanities Center. The first was a well thought out and handsomely presented exegesis of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, from a composer's point of view. Those familiar with the book will know that it is concerned with the fate of a brilliant composer, Adrian Levrkuhn, who literally sells his soul to the devil in order to attain ultimate acceptance and unparalled artistic achievement.
Besides being the story of a personal tragedy, it is also an allegory about the rise of Germam nationalism and Fascism--heavy stuff.
The second lecture was more about John's music, especially the character of Robert Oppenheimer, or Dr. Atomic in the opera of that name. Oppenheimer's sense of guilt and remorse, mixed with pride and determination (about sucessfully testing the bomb)is powerfully exemplified in the aria "Batter My Heart"A video of Gerald Finley singing the role of Oppenheimer was a crushingly intense musical statement. One almost thought John himself had made a diabolical pact. This is too good!! Does John see some of Dr Faust in himself?
I refer you to John's new blog appropriately called "HellMouth"

And John's latest orchestral essay is fiendishly hot and cool. City Noir Gustavo Dudamel (no, we won't call him "the Dude")whipped the LA Phil into a frenzy with this 30 minute symphony (it has three movements); he also calmed it down for some lovely sentimental moments, but on the whole it's pretty raucous and over the top.PBS broadcast it live and part of that is still on line at the PBS website

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lost in Russia

Today's NY Times has a strange article about how in Russia mushroom hunters often get lost and need rescuing because they space out and loose their bearings. There's a nice picture of a group of Boletes (Boletus Edulis)
Here's the link:

I got to thinking about John Cage because he once, famously, got lost in a haze while hunting mushrooms in some remore unfamiliar location--I think it was in upper Michigan.He spent the night in a tree fearing that bears might be about. A search party found him in the morning. (If this story if apocryphal, please let me know)
The above picture showing Cage in high spirits after a successful foray, reminds me of an encounter with him in Paris at the Cenre Pompidou sometime in the late seventies.
I was sitting in the bleachers watching the Merce Cunningham Dancers rehearsing--it was an open to the public event-- and I wondered if Cage was around as he often was on Cunningham tours. Just as I was about to leave through a side door, who should walk in but John himself with a nice looking, large basket in hand--much like the above pictured one. After a polite exchange of greetings, I looked down at the basket, which was covered with a white napkin, and said to him, rather knowingly, "How was the hunt? Have you found cepes? girolles?. In the Bois de Boulogne? He looked a bit puzzled and then broke into a smile and said in his familiar lilting voice,"Oh no, this is our lunch I get from the nearby "Biodynamique"--I'm afraid I don't eat mushrooms anymore--they're too "Yang" you know." Or was it "Yin"? I forget but it doesn't matter. The point is that he and Merce had been following a strict macrobiotic diet wherein mushrooms were proscribed.
A year later I ran into him in San Francisco and he told me that he had been out foraging, but I didn't ask him if he had eaten any.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

October surprise

October 18 09

Today, while descending from my walk up East Rock’s Whitney Peak, I came across a solitary mushroom, a pristine example of Clitocybe Nuda , commonly called “blewit.” It’s been cold, unseasonably so, and I wasn’t really expecting to see much fungal activity, so when I came upon this beauty it was a bit of a surprise. I do like coming across mushrooms when not actively looking for them. It seems that when one is too assiduous in the hunt, the results often can be sparse.
I remembered that blewits like cold weather, so I looked around for more, but found nothing. My solitary, pale lilac- colored mushroom (and I will eat it—it’s an excellent edible) would have to suffice as my mycological rush for the day. Its beautiful stature, delightful color and odor, and its solitariness, reminded me of something a student had brought up yesterday in a lesson.
We had been discussing the Hungarian composer, Gyorgy Kurtag, and my student said: “Oh, I remember seeing a TV film about him when I was around nine. In it he said that sometimes all you needed was one note.. I'm not sure I understood what he meant but it made a strong impression on me”

That solitary blewitt—Kurtag’s solitary perfect note!
A ways further down the path I spied a mass of white cascading down the side of a dead tree. Hericium erinaceus !! – a mushroom that doesn’t look like one. I picked it (another good edible) and proceeded down the path. I struck up a conversation with some young folks walking up, and they asked me the name of it. I couldn’t remember the common name so told them it was “Old Man of the Woods” (actually the common name of another fungus entirely). We had the perfunctory discussion about poisonous mushrooms and other related cautionary tales, and upon departing I mentioned to them that I had thought about starting a blog about mushrooms, to which one of them replied “You should call it “Old Man of the Woods” (I believe they were thinking more of me than the mushroom--incidentally, the nickname is actually “Old Man’s Beard”)

Well, I seem to have started a blog without thinking about it too much. I will try hard to avoid the pitfall of many a blogger----“blogarrhea” One of my favorite blog writers who does NOT fall into that trap is Alex Ross who appears to be putting his very entertaining and informative blog “The Rest is Noise" to rest . Not that this will take up the slack, but….?.

SOUNDINGS: Back in September I heard a rare thing on NPR—a review of contemporary “classical” music. Robert Siegel found himself “amazed” that he was so drawn into the music of Betty Olivero as played by violist Kim Kashkashian. The piece in question is “Neharot Neharot” It is a very affecting piece of music, but the entire CD is laudable; works by Tigran Mansurian and Eitan Steinberg are also “amazing.” I was especially taken by Steinberg’music. He is not a composer I have heard before, but I certainly will in the future. His “Rava Deravin” for Viola and String Quartet is really a prayer for viola with the quartet providing textures ranging from harmonic clusters (very Japanese sounding actually) to moto perpetuo sixteenth notes reminiscent of Sibelius!. Kashkashian’s playing is an uncanny transfiguration into a human vocal utterance.
Steinberg has an authentic voice; “Rava Deravin” is the real sleeper on this ECM album.