Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cage the Harmonist

One of the most telling anecdotes John Cage relates is the story of how Schoenberg warned him that if his ear for Harmony didn't improve he'd spend the rest of his life banging his head on an impenetrable wall,
andCage's acceptance of that reality.His feeling for Harmony simply did not exist or if it did, had no role in his composing.

I think that on a higher plane, however, Cage was indeed a

A new biography has recently appeared (Kenneth
Silverman Begin Again ) and has been widely reviewed, most notably by John Adams in the NY Times and Alex Ross in a lengthy piece in the New Yorker. According to Adams, a veritable "Cage Industry " has arisen in academia. I'm not sure I see evidence of that but the Cageian mystique certainly lives on, some 18 years after his death. There are already several good books on Cage (Kyle Gann's short but incisive one on 4'33" is my favorite) but the new one is more comprehensive; it clocks in at well over 400 pages. And there are still areas of his life and music not examined that thoroughly.

The main thing that I got from the book was the unrelenting dedication Cage had to his creative process; he was, in a word, hyper-industrious. The act of "composing" for him was his life and despite the fact hat he traveled widely and was always showing up at this festival or that, he was only truly content when at home working. This applies to all periods of his life. He just wrote and wrote, and always followed some scheme, pattern or process..

The other thing that
Silverman brings out is Cage's assiduous attention to details and correctness in the interpretation of his music. It is often thought that his cavalier attitude to the traditional building blocks of music, leaving such details to chance-generated processes, would allow free-wheeling improvisation in performance. Once he had arrived AT CERTAIN PROCEDURES, HE DEEMED IT PARAMOUNT TO ADHERE TO THEM--NO MONKEYING AROUND as the NY Phil players did for their infamous "performance" of Atlas Eclipticalis in 1968.
Oddly, I think, he was both a free wheeling spirit, allowing any and all sounds or events into his musical world, and a stickler to detail and the rules. A paradox? Perhaps.
One of the more amusing and astonishing adventures in Cage's life
occurred in 1959 while he was living briefly in Italy. He became a contestant on a popular TV quiz show called "Lascia o Raddoppio (Leave or Double). The idea was that a person's expert knowledge of a single subject would be subject to more and more difficult questions as the prize money doubled; missing a question would result in falling back to nothing. This was similar to the American quiz show, The 64 Thousand Dollar Question.
Th show was extremely popular and Cage became a celebrity in Italy over night. The final question, which won him five million Lire, asked him to identity all the white spored mushrooms in an authoritative book
called Studies in American Fungi by George Atkinson. He not only knew the answers but rattled them out in alphabetical order! Clearly he had done his homework, and I suspect, he had something of a photographic memory.
The penultimate question asked him to identify a picture of one species and elaborate on various aspects--spore color, size of spore in microns etc..
Silverman erroneously identifies the mushroom as "Bacillus tomentosis which, upon investigation, turns out to be a mishearing of Suillus tomentosis! (see picture above) Alright, Silverman is neither a musicologist nor a mycologist! But what happened to fact checking?
John Cage died in 1992 at the age of 79. I remember quite vividly what I did that day. I was in Maine with family on vacation and heard the news on the local classical music station. I was shocked because John Cage was not the sort of person you expected to die, so I went out by myself on my bike looking for mushrooms--it seemed the proper thing to do. I found a beautiful cache of
Dentinum repandum. When I returned from my foray I sat down and wrote a spontaneous improvisatory "remembrance" of Cage. It was printed in the Fall issue of the ISAM Newsletter.
The great divide in Cage's music has always been a point of contention and controversy. There are many who admire the early percussion works and prepared piano studies but eschew completely the body of work based on indeterminacy, and I suppose there are some whose taste and admiration go in the opposite direction..
I see his life as one of great harmony Here is what I wrote at the end of the essay:

"Cage's contribution to new music before his leap into indeterminacy around 1950 was enough to gain him a place in the Pantheon. The percussion music, prepared piano and works such as the string quartet and the
Seasons comprise a very original and impressive collection. Even though he turned his back on that way of composing, the works still exist and he did not disown them.
Perhaps this music represents a forcing or pushing principal, the Yang part of his life, whereas the later work is a more yielding acceptance of the way things are--the Yin side. So there would seem to be a great harmony in his life, even if our ears don't always hear it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dobranoc, Henryk

A beautiful Indian Summer afternoon. As I walked down the path from top of Whitney Peak-- carefully, as the fallen leaves have now accumulated, hiding rocks and roots which cold send one sprawling-- I wasn't even looking for mushrooms. Despite the warm weather and recent rain, I knew the season for mushroom foraging was over.
A few days ago we heard that Henryk Gorecki, the great Polish composer, had died at the ge of 76 in his native city, Katowice. I wondered as I walked if Gorecki had been a mushroom hunter. I knew that he lived part of the time in a chalet in the Tatras mountains, not far from his childhood home (Supposedly paid for with the royalties he received from his big "hit," the Third Symphony --over a million copies sold!), and it seemed to me he would have been the type. In Poland, apparently, everyone hunts mushrooms, especially in the mountains. Why would he be any different?
So I thought about Gorecki and his music on my walk, but I didn't listen to his music on my iPod. Instead I listened in my memory-- especially the amazing, inexorable eight part canon in the Third Symphony. When I got home I put on the recording of "Good Night" one of his more austere pieces,and one that could truly be called "minimal". Dawn Upshaw's shrill (in the good sense ) declaiming of the famous lines from Hamlet sent a chill up my spine.

Good Night, Henryk, flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Both Gorecki and Arvo Paert composed music in the late seventies that spurred the so called "Holy Minimalist" school. This could be a misnomer but they did start something. A considerable group of Eastern European composers writing in a new, simpler, deeply spiritual manner grew up in their wake. Tormis, Kancheli, Silvestrov, Martynov, Sumera, etc to name a few at random.
One composer from Slovakia that I have recently discovered is Vladimir Godar. A CD of his music has come out on ECM (where else?). Even though his music might occasionally remind you of Paert or Gorecki it has a distinctive sound and his voice is unique. Especially noteworthy is his Slovakian Stabat Mater --Stala Matka --which is built around the astonishing, brooding alto voice of Iva Bittova

Monday, October 25, 2010


One week ago I was in Scotland for a three day festival-- mostly in Glasgow, but also a day in lovely Edinburgh. As you can see from the photo of the festival poster, I was last but not least. They put on three pieces--Fog Tropes, Alcatraz and Orphic Memories; the last played by the stellar Scottish Chamber Orchestra --it was a really good performance under the guiding hands (he doesnt use a stick!) of Baldur Bronnimann

The festival was simply called "MINIMAL," and featured music by most of the usual suspects.
I used to be adverse to the all too facile use of this sobriquet--the "M" word--and would rail against its indiscriminate use in musical taxonomy. But now I don't care anymore; it is what it is, and once these labels catch on, people get use to them and that's that.
I could argue that early Steve Reich (Violin Phase for example) is actually Minimalism as an "aesthetic," but early Adams (Shaker Loops for example) is actually Minimalism as a "style."
But I won't, because the time has come to leave these distinctions to the nit picker musicologists who will need fodder for their mills
But in one area there an undisputed legitimate use of the word Minimal--the mushroom scene.
There has been nothing, not even a minimal flowering of fungi to speak of. When I returned fom my Scottish trip I scoured the woods of East Rock park and found nothing but a bunch of old King Stropharias, not worth bothering with.
This year there are no Honey mushrooms, no Bi color boletes, no black trumpets.--none of the usual Fall species one would expect to find. Not even agaricus campestris on lawns.

The only mushrooms I have found recently has been a cluster of "honeys" (armilleriella melea) growing at the base of an oak tree in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Park. It was a healthy looking cluster but I didn't harvest them, for where was I going to cook them up? in my hotel room?
Also, "honeys" can be surpsingly bitter or acrid in some areas (something to do with the tree they are growing on--they are lignacious), so why take a chance? I remember that in San Francisco honeys growing in eucalyptus groves always had an off, camphor like taste.I ate them anyway--stupidly.
So, this has been a truly Minimal season for mushrooms. I am almost tempted to rename my blog "The Minimalist Mycophage"

Thursday, September 23, 2010


The other day while walking thrugh the woods and ritualistically keeping an eye out for mushrooms--indeed I knew there wasn't anything to be found due to the dry summer--it struck me that the ritual itself is the purpose; its a self justifying activity.
This led me to re- think the idea of ritual in my music, both in the music itself and in the composing of it.
I suppose this thought was spurred on by an interview I did with the Dutch radio for an upcoming concert of Kingdom Come in Amsterdam ( Oc t. 1 if you are interested) in the concert house known as "Muziekgebouw aan t'IJ")
Click here to see the video
There's so much to say about ritual in music that it tires me just to think about it.
Some other time.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Today is the 9th anniversary of the unthinkable abomination which has come to be known by its numbers--9/11.
Several years after that day my friend Jim Bengston suggested I compose a work that would somehow communicate something about that horrible day. At first I was reluctant, thinking how could I possibly say what hasn't been said, move people with my music to anything approaching consolation or lamentation?
I also knew that plenty of other composers had expressed their feelings about this event and who needed another? The wonderful John Adams piece, The Transmigration of Souls was underway and I had heard parts of it. But I remember, in the several days afterwards, what did we hear in the way of high toned consolatory music? The Brahms Requiem!! That old warhorse (a noble steed, never the less) just didn't do it for me. It and the Verdi Requiem and the Mozart of course always seem to be trotted out when calamity strikes.
So I wrote my own humble contribution and it turned out to be a pretty good piece. I also think the "meanings" behind the music are pretty clear.
I've not made a big deal about it being my "9-11 Piece", even shying away from that association at times. But now I think I'd like the world to know how much it really is about all the configurations of grief, regret, anger etc. that went through my brain in those several weeks of the aftermath.
So if you haven't heard September Canons, follow this link to my web site where its available for listening. It's played to exquisite perfection by violinist Todd Reynolds who also set up the electronics.
(click on "From the Vault" to access)

Thank you Jim for making this possible.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Now I know where they have all gone to !!

My European correspondents have clued me in to the mystery of the "lost fungi" of 2010. They have turned up in record numbers in Italy, German and Norway!
News articles from Italian and British papers (the Guardian among them) tell of some twenty mushroom pickers in Italy who have perished while on the hunt, but not from eating poisonous ones; no far stupider than that--from falling off cliffs and slippery slopes while prowling in the dark with miners lights trying to outsmart each other. Apparently this years bumper crop has encouraged more "amateurs" to seek out the prized boletes.
My friend Jim recently reports having a great meal at a restaurant in Weimar Germany where a generous helping of steinpilz (boletes to us) garnished the rack of lamb. The chef, pleased to hear of their delight, invited them into the kitchen where he displayed some 30 pounds of perfect specimens JUST GATHERED THAT MORNING IN THE LOCAL WOODS!!
And yesterday, in Oslo, in their local woods, my friends retrieved a bounty of various species (see picture above) All this makes me insanely jealous of course.
So all the summer mushrooms of Connecticut seem to have migrated to the old country.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Where are the chanterelles of yesteryear?

Usually, by mid-August, I have found several flowerings of the golden, delicious chanterelle, in spots known to produce faithfully year in and out.But this year,only a pittance, and those, old and rubbery (although still tasty).
I had put off writing a new posting until a good cache had been found--something to write about!!
But, sadly, this posting is about the absence of mushrooms.
I suppose it might have been the searing heat of July that closed down the summer's
fungal florescence, but who is to know? It's always been a mysterious science, understanding what causes the underground mycellium to shoot up their fruit.But I am an optimist and can see myself in another week coming home with a basketful of the critters.We have had some cool, rainy days.
Chanterelles are-- morels aside-- the best, the most pronounced in flavor. They have an aroma unique, rather reminiscent of apricots. You can find them in some gourmet stores but they are usually old and dried out, hardly worth their exorbitant price.
They are relatively easy to identify and often can be found in abundance.

Chanterelles are found all over but seem to thrive in more northerly climes (but in California they love the coastal oak habitat). In the birch and spruce forest of Scandinavia and the Baltic states, they can be found in profusion, and there is a certain mystique around them in those countries--folk tales abound about mushrooms throughout the northern European lands.

One of the better known composers of Estonia, Lepo Sumera, who sadly died in 2000 at only fifty, admits of a spiritual connection to the native fungi of his home land (see his picure above) and has written a MUSHROOM CANTATA!! The text of this remarkable work consists of the Latin names of his favorite mushrooms .
Sumera wrote: "I came into a closer contact with mushrooms and their inner life in 1977" Think about that! The inner life of mushrooms. You might wonder if he was influenced by Cage, but I doubt it, as in the seventies Estonia was part of the Soviet Union where artistic currents from the West were severely surpressed. The style of his choral writing is often quite innovative, although at times it sounds a little hokey, too reminiscent of early Stravinsky and even Karl Orff! But for the most part the choral music on this CD, sung by the estimable Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir unbder Tonu Kaljuste, is compelling and beautifully dark.
(I just realized I made a bad pun above!)
Another choral work of his on the same BIS CD that I also find compelling is,in English, THOUGH YOUR HOMELAND MAY BE IN DARK FOR LONG.
If Lepo were alive today, he'd most likely be spending some time out in the late, darkening summer forests of Estonia, hunting for "Seene." I'll be thinking of him as I contemplate "the inner life of mushrooms" on my next foray (soon!)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mountain Morels

The morel season is really a personal odyssey. If I am restrained here in New England, it lasts a few scant weeks in mid May, but this year I managed to get out to the Sierra Nevada in mid June where the snows were not entirely gone. Here and there around my cabin, elevation 6500 Ft., remnants of old snow banks made driving up the road an adventure.
In the western montane region of North America, morels tend towards the dark side, that is to say, instead of the tan-yellow of the Eastern variety, they are camouflaged in black and brown hues, looking very much like the small pine cones that litter the forest floor.In a word, they are very hard to see, and you can easily walk right by them or, worse, ON them.
The steep slope behind my cabin reaches up to the cabin of my friend John, and over the course of several days, I traversed it frequently; almost every time I found a morel or two. By the third day maybe a dozen were collected, and eaten. The incidences of morels scattered out over time and space reminded me of the music of Morton Feldman where events, made special by their scarcity, can grab your ear and assume a kind of gravitas.Yes, I know that mushroom analogies ought to be reserved for John Cage, but I find the resemblance to the music of his cohort more apt.

And another thing-- the harder you look, scouring the forest floor with eagle eyes, the less you find. You have to have a relaxed, open visual field, alert to what you seek, but not too rigidly focused. Again this reminds me of some of Feldman's music: don't listen too hard!

SOUNDINGS: Listening casually to the new Nonesuch CD of "Alarm Will Sound" Arhythmia I find the hidden gems (or morels?) in this sea of off-kilter motor driven vessels of high energy pulsation to be the transcriptions of Conlon Nancarrow. Now there was a true maverick who still boogies.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Les Morilles du Chacal

This video speaks volumes about the excitement of stalking the elusive morel. Make sure your audio is turned up

I dont know who M. Chacall might be, but if I were in his shoes in that verdant bed of lurking "morilles" I'd be cackling away too . One senses a certain "joie" in "la chasse" that equals if not surpasses that of the actual harvest.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fungal fantasies May fullfillment

After a long hard winter, my annual Spring time trek up to limestone country was not unsuccessful. After the false promises of the escaped specie (see last post) I had some trepidation regarding the annual morel fruitings. About two weeks ago I was delighted to come across several excellent examples of the noble fungus. I didn't find many but those I did were perfect. Sometimes quality trumps quantity. My yield after a full day in the woods? Only three, but they were all the better for their scarcity. And we enjoyed them with white wine butter sauce on our free range chicken breasts. Each bite was a symphony--although one by Webern, not Mahler-- or maybe Feldman is a better analogy. But their authenticity was beyond question--the real McCoy indeed.

I wonder if morels were ubiquitous we'd love them as much. I hear that in the mid West they harvest them by the bushel and then do outrageous, grievous harm to them in the kitchen; breaded and deep fried!!

I have, in some years, found more than a handful--maybe 20-30--but I can't say we enjoyed them any more for their abundance. On the whole, less is more.
And here come the compositional analogue....but, no, it doesn't need to be said, does it?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Semi-Authentic ?

Walking n East Rock Park the other day, keeping my eyes loosely peeled for morels --they never grow around here, where the soil is very acidic, but you have to keep alert as you never know--I stumbled across a large fruiting of wine red mushrooms in a patch of wood chips under a tall tulip tree. It took me a few minutes to scan through my fungus memory bank, and then I remembered--Stropharia rugosoannulata the so called "King Stropharia"This is an escaped species, believed to be native to Europe but not here. They are widelty cultivated in Europe and maybe here but Ive never seen them for sale
They sprout in the Spring and love woodchips and other garden mulch. Edible and not bad, but not one of the best. Yet they are impressive with their dark wine color and clustered myriads. I consider them to be "semi-authentic." And I know I could make a musical allusion here but I won't-- there's just too many examples of the semi authentic.

But to return to the unalloyed authentic, Louis Andriessen's monumental DE STAAT was resurrected last Monday at Zankel Hall under the guiding hand of John Adams (who also graced us with his own "Son of Chamber Symphony" and Stravinsky's "Concerto for Piano and Winds" -Jeremy Denk was the pianist. It was an amazing concert. I was spell bound, entranced, completely sucked into the glorious brass and woodwind sonorities of Louie's masterpiece. For me, de Staat towers over most music in the latter part of the last century. Its a kind of music that you could say was "invented" as much as it was composed.The enthusiasm of the young musicians of the Carnegie Hall "Academy" (ACJW) was palpable; this is young music and it has finally found its audience and its musicians
Louis is one of the authentic originals of our time.Three cheers to Maestro Adams for his advocacy and skillful rendering of a very subtle piece actually. And please note in the picture of Andriessen above his wielding of a pencil.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Authenticity II-Mondrian's Brush

Last week the iconic Polish composer Penderecki came to Yale and conducted an orchestra concert of his own works, both old and new."Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 Strings" held me spell bound; I was astonished at the originality of this 50 year old example of "Sonorism," a style that Penderecki literally invented. The other pieces were of more recent vintage and easily fell into the catch all category of Post Modernism. I suppose Threnody must be considered a perfect example of modernism; but wait! --there's more to it than that; its a genuinely heartfelt work of music emanating from within. It's authentic without question.
When you hear it, or just look at the score with all its graphic notation devices and strange symbols, you know its Penderecki. Sure, there have been scads of similar pieces using all those "extended" techniques pumped out by other composers anxious to hop on the bandwagon, but there is something about this piece--it has his touch, it has been painted with his brush.

Morton Feldman tells the story of Mondrian’s brush: Someone suggested to the Dutch artist that since his color fields were solid blocks of pure color, who not use spray paint to save time and energy? So Mondrian did, but the results were unsatisfactory; the paintings weren’t Mondrians. What was missing was the brush. Likewise, Feldman used a pencil for composition and never other means; his pencil is like Mondrian's brush.
Of course the analogue is that much of our digital technology mimics “hand” created scores, so in a way we are using spray paint!
Our anxiety is more abstract, less to do with the mechanics or craft, more to do with one’s identity. It’s so easy now to be an artist, a composer, but the paradox is that it’s actually harder.
We are still at the mercy of technology, but we suffer the illusion that everything is now possible-—we believe it but still we dream of that infinite realm of possibilities just waiting around the corner.
Feldman wrote: “One never has an identity, as an artist, but in a vague way remembers oneself in that role.”
So, one must be immersed in one’s own history to know one’s true identity—it can never be taken for granted. Maybe the word “authenticity” is the key to all this.
One ought to seek the “authentic” in one’s art and, in seeking it, remembers one’s identity.
That’s why Memory in art is so important-—the two are almost synonymous.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Recently, my lovely wife, Veronica, announced her menu for an upcoming dinner party; the main course would be a butterflied leg of lamb stuffed with WILD MUSHROOMS.As the event will take place in mid May I assumed that the mushrooms would be morels foraged by me. I warned her that my fungal forays sometimes failed to produce much. "Oh, I wasn't planning on your gritty mushrooms; I'll get them at Nicas" (our local "gourmet" market).
"If it's actual wild mushroom you want, you wont find them there" I said. All those so called "wild" ones are cultivated, although occasionally there might be a pile of soggy old chanterelles flown in from Asia or South Africa and priced beyond any reasoned buyer's purse.The shitakes, cremini, porto bellos, oysters, are all frequently mislabeled "wild"--in restaurants as well as stores.
In other words, they are unauthentic.
In France and Italy, in the "off" season you will often find real wild mushrooms that have been dried and these can be quite good if prepared properly.In some ways they are bet er than fresh as the flavors tend to be more concentrated. In the picture above, taken in January at a market in Nice, France, you can see "cepes" (boletes or porcini), "morilles" (morels) and "oronges" (Caesar's mushrooms, similar to the coccoras I found in California last November)
I've never tried "oronges sechees" but I can vouch for dried morels--they are strongly perfumed and keep their form after being re-hydrated and cooked; and of course, dried porcini are wonderful in risotti and pasta--you don't need many to impart a real flavor and aroma of the earth.

And there's something about AUTHENTICITY in music that this wild mushroom issue illuminates.It boggles the mind to come across composers now a days who still slavishly follow the "Indeterminate" Cagean point of view (I don't'call it a style or aesthetic) and compose with conceptual ideas which may translate into some kind of music, although usually not.A case in point recently came to my attention; this music (and I shan't mention the culprit's name) seemed to have all the right identifiers to be deemed part of the 70's avant garde which dealt in static, repetitive, minimalistic and chance procedures, as well as arbitrary mathematical schemes that generated notes and rhythms. He obviously owed a lot to Cage and Feldman if not Reich and Riley.
This was sonic randomness, wherein the composer could stand back and feign indifference to the actual sound world he had unleashed, as if it had nothing to do with him--the Cagean idea of eliminating personality from composition.
This "music" came not from within but from outside, delineating ideas that he had absorbed almost as text book examples of what experimental music of that era was like. It sported "cleverness" but lacked authenticity. Period.
This music struck me as hollow, not from a true source of artistic "realness." But then again, searching for the Real is often a thankless task. Sometimes to find the Authentic you have to forage in the woods.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Rites of Spring (soon!)

I noticed snow drops and crocus emergent in my neighbors yard this afternoon, and I thought that in only two months I will be out in the woods snuzzleing around in the leaf litter searching for the elusive MOREL!
But thats still a long time off--mustn't get too excited.
there's something wonderful about seasonal food--produce of short duration that you long for throughout the year and can only get for a few weeks maybe. Strawberries for example (no, not the fat ones from California that come in mid winter--worthless! I mean the local small guys that fruit in May and June only for a few weeks. And asparagus- the skinny green ones that always grace out Eastertide plates,
how about shad roe or the actual fish?
Can you imagine a dish of poached shad with asparagus and morels??

It's not that we haven't enjoyed some recent mushroom culinary adventures. Veronica brought back from a trip to Trieste, a jar of wild mushrooms from Slovenia, preserved in some kind of pickle. The label in Slovenian reads:


From what I can make out from a Croatian dictionary (Slovenian is close to Serbo-Croatian) it simply means "Forest Mushrooms in Vinegar." As to the species, it looks like there were a few boletes in the mix, but the others I couldn't identify. They are quite tasty eaten as is, but I thought they might enhance a pizza rather well, and they did, although the vinegar does stand out as the forward flavor. In Italy you can get mushroom "under oil" ("sott'olio") without the acidic "aceto" and these, while expensive, are quite good.

For most wild mushrooms, drying is the best preservation, but the oil immersion works well too; freezing is not good, usually resulting in a sodden mush.
In San Francisco, back in the day, I used to forage for "slippery jacks" out in the far reaches of the city hard by the old Sutro Baths and Seal Rocks--Lincoln Park I think it was called. There were several species of Suillus, a relative of the bolete. to be found there. These slimy topped mushrooms were quite tasty once you pealed off the slippery cap. The local Russians (there was an old colony of Russians out there in the outer Richmond) could often be seen foraging; I asked on older lady how they were prepared in traditional Russian cookery and she directed me to a delicatessen nearby where i found slippery jacks pickled and put up in jars. Naturally I purchased a large jar but I found them to be, well, a bit slimy--but I ate them all anyhow, although no one else did.
BTW, the pizza I made last night with the pickled Slovenes, was quite tasty although it looked to be a chaotic disaster--I had a bit of trouble getting the oil drenched dough into shape and into the oven in one piece. My pizza dough making chops are a bit rusty to say he least.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Shutter Island: Addendum

If anyone has seen the movie, I'd be curious to hear your opinion, especially as to the efficacy of the soundtrack

Monday, February 22, 2010


Sitting in the movie theater last Friday, nervously waiting for the familiar fog horn blasts which announce the beginning of my old chestnut "Fog Tropes" I had some apprehension as I knew my music would start the actual movie, Shutter Island starring Leonardo di Caprio, but I had no idea what would appear on the screen.
Well, Leo and his US Marshal pal, Mark Ruffalo, are on a small ferry boat in choppy seas heading out to their island destination, and the music syncs up nicely with the image (Leo is leaning over the bow--a not so subtle allusion to Titanic?), and suddenly cuts to him violently vomiting in the head--Fog Tropes continues with the French horns and trombones weighing in.

So my musical debut in a major Hollywood film, seen and heard by millions, accompanies one of the biggest stars tossing his cookies. Great.

But it does get better; there's a couple of more cues where the mood is set quite well by the music--not just Fog Tropes but "Prelude: The Bay" from "Alcatraz"
If you see this quite unique film (critical opinion is about evenly split--you either love it or hate it) you'll also hear music by Penderecki, Ligeti, Cage, Scelsi and a host of others. The most ominous affect is garnered from Penderecki's Third Symphony "Passacaglia" which barks out in a sort of anunciatory way at least four times in the film's course.
All this music was assembled by Scorsese confidant Robbie Robinson, formerly of "The Band."I have to say, it works for the most part--The ultimate re-mix approach to film scoring.

They say the film was shot in Massachusetts, but the outdoor scenes on the rugged island with its pine forest and verdant cliffs remind me more of Maine; I imagined that a good bounty of chanterelles might be lurking in those woods (Maine in the early Fall is great for mushrooms).Too bad Mark and Leo didnt have time to do some foraging (or maybe they did?) Perhaps when the DVD comes out with its "Behind the Scenes" doc we'll see the cast out in their spare time prowling around those cliffs and mossy copses in pursuit of the golden beauties--after all, Scorsese and diCaprio with their Italian heritages ought to be fanciers of funghi selvaggi.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


No snow for us today in New England (although they are getting inundated further south in DC) but it's very cold and windy. Good weather for staying home, but I ventured out into the frigid world taking my usual route up to Whitney Peak. Too cold a day for Schubert on the iPod. Sibelius somehow seemed more appropriate.

En Saga--one of Sibbe's lesser known tone poems but one of my favorites. its all about inexorable forward movement and retreat-or more a kind of stasis or slow motion. I think. But oh how wonderful it is to have music like that in one's ears just when one needs it! It complements the icy weather to a T and kept me moving. It got me thinking about the saturation of our society now, sonic saturation that is. Supposedly a hallmark of Post Modernism. It's so easy to have any music where or whenever!! I think the twenty-somethings just take this for granted and why not?) But I can remember back in the 80s when portable music became feasible how miraculous it could be. I remember my first visit to Venice when I walked through San Marco with the antiphonal sounds of Gabrielli on my headphone, and in the"Frari" Basilica I listened to Monteverdi's Magnificat, and out on the lagoon on the vaporetto, the slow movement of Mahler's 5th just as it was in Visconti's marvelous film of "Death in Venice."

And today I thought of another Thomas Mann book, one I've been reading in fact-- The Magic Mountain. Hans Castorp, the protagonist, becomes enamoured and possessive of the new Gramophone the Kurhaus has acquired (this is pre WW I remember). It's like a miracle to him; he stays up late into the night listening to his favorite records which he treats like sacred objects; he can't get enough of it. Mann's description of the amazement and wonder this musical machine inspired in its early days is one of my favorite parts of the lengthy novel. While he doesn't directly talk about it, the idea of the commodification of music is the underlying theme.
For me, listening to music while out walking or driving is still special in that I choose to do it only when I want to, which isn't all that often. But I think for many young people its part of life-- the soundtracks of their lives are habitually running.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Postmodern Mushrooms

I am teaching a course called "Post Modernism in Music of the last 30 years" (or something to that effect)
When I mention this to people they often ask me flat out,
"What is it?"
"Well, I don't rightly know for sure," is what I usually mumble.
"I think the idea of the class is to find out."
PM, whatever it is, seems to be a necessity, a way of getting out from under the suffocating blanket of Modernism, or at least the "high" kind with all its ideological trappings and high falutin language.Modernism in music seems to me to have been just plain wrong, a seriously wrong direction.
BUT, there are some excellent composers in the early experimental days of Modernism--early Schoenberg, Webern Varese, Cowell, Ives, Ruggles et al. With them the idea was to "sound "modern" at any cost, structure and formality being relatively less important. Of course, with later Modernism, structure, process and form became all important.

Just as Modernism is not a "style" but more of an aesthetic inclination, a cultural context, so it is with PM, which will, I think, be remembered as a general cultural trend, a "correction," if you will.

The more obtuse and serious purveyors of "theory" see PM in a much broader way--it is a "condition." And we are all living in it, so in a way all music, all art for that matter, being practiced now is, by default, PM

So, mushrooms themselves cannot be PM, but one's attitude towards them, use of them, general relationship to them, could be PM where the grand narrative of fungi, the scientific taxonmomic ordering of species is no longer relevant.But in this context,let the consumer beware!

But what would John Cage think about that, and it reminds me that no one seems to know if Cage himself was a Modernist or Post Modernist. I think He was very PM, but his music (whatever that is) is not--it is in fact quite Modernist.

But why, you may ask, is the mushroom illustrated above "postmodern? It might be because it's called, in the vernacular, "Old Man of the Woods," and I can relate to that. BTW, Strobilomyces floccopus is edible, and I have tried it, but I don't recommend it; its rather insipid as I recall.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Trompettes des Morts

While I am shoveling out the latest white precipitation, my West Coast fungal friends are gleefully harvesting oodles of "black chanterelles or "trompettes des morts" as they are inexplicably called --(ok, they are black/ gray and have a certain haunted look.) They are also called Horns of Plenty derived from the latin name Craterellus Cornucopioides. To add insult to injury they send me a picture of the latest haul. Disgusting!

We East coast mushroom fanciers have to live vicariously in the frosty months. In California these dusky guys can be found in large quantities under live oak and laurel and since they dry well, can be stored for later consumption. We do do get them here, in August, and last year I collected quite a few and dried them. To reconstitute all you need do is soak then for 5-10 minutes and they are ready for the saute pan, or the risotto pot, or the pasta sauce--whatever!
So my California friends needn't feel guilty about the picture--I have my own stash of trompettes sechees.

But wait! Merde!! A search into the larder reveals an empty jar--there's none left! All I can find in that dark cupboard is a bunch of dried wood ears (auricularia sp.) or tree fungus as the Chinese call them, and these not foraged but purchased in the local Asian food market. I put a handful to soak and later that night I find them ballooned up to three times their original size--quite a show. But they are tough, and practically devoid of flavor;the Chinese consider them a "texture" food. They are crunchy, good in soups and reportedly full of healthful things.

Indeed, there are all kinds of amazing claims made about the health benefits of fungi, and some of them may be true.Those made about reishi (ganoderms sp.) which is a "conk" growing on dead pines or firs in New England are particularly interesting and the subject of serious research.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

White Music/ Gray Mushroom

I sat in a cold, dimly lit Anglican church last night and listened to 500 year old music by Taverner, Jenkins and Tallis sung by the Yale Schola Canotorun.My favorite was the Western Wind Mass by John Taverner.There is very little harmonic tension in this music, it all flows along so perfectly. I think of it as "white" music because there is little timbral coloring. Its like a black and white print; there is shading and it can be subtle but color?--no.
The purity of the voices served the music very well and I have to say Simon Carrington, the guest conductor, who was the director of this ensemble the last five years or so, really accomplished something at Yale.(Full disclosure:Simon conducted my "Savage Altars" with the group last year, smashingly well).

Speaking of choral music, I heard a little bit of Valentine Silvestrov's "The Creed"(on ECM records) sung by the Kiev Chamber Choir on NPR All Things Considerd (they actually are still reviewing classical CDs!) He uses the natural resonance and echos of what must be a large cathedral in a very remarkable, compositional way. He blends the harmonies by using the slow decaying residues. Its a technique of which I am jealous!BTW,on the same program there's also a rather nice review of my new CD here.

But what's with the mushroom above partnering with Simon C? Well, I was blathering on about the grisette (amanita vaginata) in my last post but I forgot to illustrate it. But I realize no that it's not really such beautiful mushroom afterall--I mean, it does have a sort of slender elegance but I think its cousin, the cocora, lovelier.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Der Lindenbaum and a Spurious Morel!

Took a nice walk up to Whitney Peak this afternoon; little snow left but lots of mud.Listening to Winterreise again--most appropriate. When "Der Lindenbaum"appeared in my headphones I stopped dead in my tracks, for only last night I had been perusing Thomas Mann's monumental novel, The Magic Mountain. I had skipped to the very end of the book wherein he quotes from the Schubert lied. Hans Castorp, the hero of the novel (although he's no real hero by any stretch)is seen as a soldier in WWI traipsing across a muddy, sodden battlefield in Flanders, rifle and bayonet in hand, and he can be heard singing snippets of this most famous song, so ingrained into Germanic culture that it is often thought to be a folk song.

"Upon it's bark I've carved there
So many words of love--

And all its branches rustled,
As if they called to me--"

But what does any of this have to o with mushrooms? (Stay on topic, dude!) One of the leading characters in the Magic Mountain is a doctor at the sanatorium where all the "action"-- such as it is in this amazingly narrative-less book-- takes place.Dr. Krokowski likes to give lectures to his captive audience of invalids and happens to be talking about mushroom, and succeeds in shocking some of his female auditors with a peroration on "one fungus famous since antiquity for its form and the powers ascribed to it--a morel, its Latin name ending in the adjective impudicus, its form reminiscent of love..." Of course, phallus impudicus (unlike Mann, I don't shy away from using the first part of its name) is not a morel at all! Its common name is "stinkhorn" and I wrote of it's cousin in an earlier blog (see Nov. 2, 2009)

These are astonishing fungi to watch as they seem to emerge and expand into their embarrassingly suggestive form rather quickly. Over the period of a day if you keep you eye on it, your can see this emergence. They do smell bad and attract flies (indeed, that's how they disperse their spores).
Mushroom taxonomy can be quite racy, and not just on the male side. One of the beautiful, and quite edible, amanitas is amanita vaginata sometimes known as the grisette.Its name refers to the prominent vulva like sac which caresses its lower stem. It's a popular edible in France.This is the only amanita I have ever eaten.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


The other day we got a nice 2-3 inches of fresh snow--not enough to ski on, but enticing for a walk down the hill to the post office.I usually don't listen to music while out walking, but there are exceptions. I had just read Alex Ross's review of the Schubert Winterreise/Samuel Beckett conflation in New York, and it struck me that Schubert's winter journey might be appropriate listening for my peregrination.
Matthias Goerne's beautiful and intensely probing recording was a perfect companion for my little "reise." Schubert uses minimal gestures and motives to bring out the profound affects of the poetry; there's a barebones,immediacy to this music. Benjamin Britten, a big Schubert fan, once said that looking at the first page of the song cycle can be daunting--"there seems to be nothing on the page."

Many of the songs have a persistent movement, a built-in rhythm that propels the "action" along-- its not always a walking tempo, but it's always moving, moving; even the very slow, static songs (for example "Im Dorfe") seem to have a built in pulsation. One feels this all the more if walking while listening, which I highly recommend.

But generally I don't find listening to music while walking --whether for pleasure, exercise or mere transport-- a very good idea.But this seems to go against the grain here on the Yale campus where easily half the students walking to and fro are listening to the sound tracks to their lives.

Back in the 80's when "Walkman"s became popular, and portable music consumption became more and more apparent, I used to wonder what people were listening to. It seemed unfair to me that someone would be walking down the street absorbed in a private music that only they could hear--well if not exactly unfair, it seemed to be anti-social! Of course, the alternative was the cacophonous belchings of the boom box, which in a public space were marauders--to my ears at least.
I suppose the preponderance of "private listening" which has become so normative is but another manifestation of the Post-Modern condition.Thanks to the iPod and other gadgets of its ilk, we now have the possibility of constant music of any type available to us, for a walk, an airplane ride, a bike ride, a dull lecture, lunch, dinner.
I'm still curious about what people are listening to. Isn't there some hi-tech device now that lets you eavesdrop into the ear buds of unsuspecting passers by?

But what, you may ask, would Franz Schubert have listened to on his iPod whilst traipsing around the wooded hills and dales outside of Vienna? Probably nothing, because what we know of his composing habits indicates that he was always composing in his head--how else could he have written those hundreds of lieder?