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?