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Midnight Rice April 19, 2010

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[I’m back from a long productive hiatus. In the next post, I will return to my causerie on the Leda myth]

Olive oil, hot pan, day-old brown rice. While the rice is frying, chop a scallion, mince a green chile. Toss into the pan and let sizzle. Push greens to the perimeter, and finely scramble an egg in the center. When the slivers of egg are almost cooked, pour half a can of (San Marzano) whole tomatoes with juice. Season with a dash of cinnamon, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir and crush tomatoes with wooden spoon. When most of the liquid evaporates, dish piping hot. Garnish with any remaining scallions. Great for breakfast or a midnight snack. Cooking time: 10 min.

I came up with the above recipe–an Asian-Mexican-Italian fusion–from the flotsam in my fridge, but would have never been able to do it on my own had I not discovered Nigella Lawson. Nigella is Britain’s answer to Rachael Ray—and Tim Burton’s model for the White Queen in his recent reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, and it is easy to see why. She’s gorgeous, she’s greedy, and she has just a smidge of crazy; she keeps a hammer in the same place she keeps her whisk and spoons. She doesn’t spare the fat or calories. She has a masters degree in Medieval and Modern Language, and it shows in a sensuous—some might say porny—vocabulary that she delivers with a knowing wink and flirtatious flip: “I love the clattery batter”; “a brazen blush on each pale cheek” (white peaches in syrup); “I’m going to concertina the toast [tortilla strips] and eggs together so that I have toast in my eggs” (Mexican scrambled eggs); “you want to see all these lovely confetti shards of chile flecking the black rice” and “I love how these grey mottled prawns turn into these fat coral curls” (black rice with shrimp and Vietnamese dressing); “a tumbling layer of raspberries, all crimson madness and fabulous” (dark chocolate pavlova); She’s the first television cook that I’ve seen prepare Vietnamese nước mắm the way my mom does it, and while her menu offerings may not be the most authentic, they are inventive, easy to make, and oh so delectable.


Detective Work January 5, 2010

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A dictionary is the true offender in Corneliu Porumbiou’s latest feature, Police, Adjective (2009)

I’ve been enjoying a short streak of recent detective films. Over winter break, I saw Sherlock Holmes and Police, Adjective while catching up with old friends. I remember watching as a kid the animated series, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, in which, as the souvenir DVD puts it, “a defrosted Holmes teams up with a robotic Watson and a female inspector Lestrade to stop the criminal rampage of Moriarty’s clone.” It’s as awesomely ridiculous as it sounds. So Ritchie’s film, with its testosterone-enhanced formula of fisticuffs and forbidden arts, doesn’t strike me as being that sacrilegious, though I do think that giving the title sleuth psychic powers does defeat the purpose of the genre. I won’t dwell any further on Sherlock, which has had its ample share of reviews. Its understated contemporary from Romania, on the other hand, could use some more press.

Corneliu’s Porumbiou’s Police, Adjective is the arthouse antithesis of Sherlock Holmes. There is no violence, sex, or special effects to draw in viewers—there may not even be a crime. Nonetheless, the film has captured numerous prizes at film festivals across the world including the 2009 Cannes. If not by the lure of the chase, by what?

Police unfolds against a featureless setting of a suburb in post-totalitarian Romania. Its hero is a young narc named Cristi (Dragos Bucur), on watch for a sixteen year old boy suspected of smoking pot. Cristi’s superiors, the hangovers of a more repressive regime, want to close the case with a sting operation, but the idea of arresting a child does not sit well with Cristi. The impasse between the individual and the state is, of course, nothing new. What distinguishes Police from other films is the way it presents that quandary, not through the ritual exaggeration of inner torment or outer violence, but as the title suggests, through clever dialogue exposing the contradictory meanings and ends of language. (more…)

New Years Eve: No Party for Hardy December 29, 2009

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Of the three poems which Thomas Hardy penned for the occasion of the New Year (“The Darkling Thrush” [1900]  and “At the Entering of the New Year” [1918] are the other two), “New Years Eve” is the one poem that the Academy of American Poets does not want you reading this holiday season, so unseasonal is its agnosticism:

New Years Eve (1906)

"I have finished another year,' said God,
    'In grey, green, white, and brown;
I have strewn the leaf upon the sod,
Sealed up the worm within the clod,
    And let the last sun down.'

'And what's the good of it?' I said,
    'What reasons made you call
From formless void this earth we tread,
When nine-and-ninety can be read
    Why nought should be at all?

'Yea, Sire: why shaped you us, "who in
    This tabernacle groan"—
If ever a joy be found herein,
Such joy no man had wished to win
    If he had ever known!'

Then he: 'My labours—logicless—
    You may explain; not I:
Sense-sealed I have wrought, without a guess
That I evolved a Consciousness
    To ask for reasons why.

'Strange that ephemeral creatures who
    By my own ordering are,
Should see the shortness of my view,
Use ethic tests I never knew,
    Or made provisions for!'

He sank to raptness as of yore,
    And opening New Year's Day
Wove it by rote as theretofore,
And went on working evermore
    In his *unweeting way.

            — Thomas Hardy

*unweeting: unknowing

Was Hardy a killjoy? Perhaps. As a young boy, he would lie outdoors, a straw hat over his face, wondering why all the other children were so eager to become adults. Like the star characters of his novels, Hardy long suspected that the odds were stacked against his favor, that human existence was a cruel game played by higher-ups. He found little satisfaction in both his personal and professional life—his wife had some choice words to say about him in her diary, before passing away—and when charges of obscenity were too much to bear, he quietly turned to verse. (more…)

The People United: Variation III December 1, 2009

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The People United: Variation III.  Thanksgiving Break.

It all begins here: PTU Theme

“Off the Hook” November 30, 2009

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We what the land folks loves to cook
Under the sea we…

The People United: Variation II October 20, 2009

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The People United Will Never Be Defeated: Variation 2. Notes next week.

It all begins here: The People United: Theme

The People United: Variation I October 1, 2009

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The People United Will Never Be Defeated: Variation 1.

“Please do not unplug the humidifier…” That’s more or less what the white square on the piano reads. I’m pretty sure I left my music at home, because judging from the tucked shirt, I must have been teaching that day.

Continued from The People United: Theme

So, how do you start a variation cycle about the desire for socialist revolution? “Weaving, delicate but firm,” reads the instructions to the performer. That explains the incessant and caressing crossing of the hands. The theme is still discernible, but it has been atomized so that certain notes appear to jump up or down an orbital; we never hear more than one note at a time (monophony). And yet, despite the sparsity of this movement, the music bounces across all seven registers of the keyboard in under a minute flat.

Variation I (0:06)

Variation I (0:06)

Notes, though, aren’t the only thing that can be woven, and as the composer demonstrates, you can also “braid” different patterns of articulation, i.e. the way one attacks the notes. Four kinds of attack are featured here: legato (smooth), staccato (detached), tenuto (sustained), and accento (accented). Neither species of articulation, of course, is unusual by itself, but together, they conspire to turn this otherwise simple movement into a hand-eye coordination nightmare; the unpredictable accents certainly preserve something of the defiant attitude of the theme.

It’s quite possible that Rzewsky had Webern in mind here, since the latter also wrote a set of piano variations that tends towards the same kind of atomization. Yet in Webern’s variations, the movements come together through serial operations and though the residual echoes of strange and naked intervals. The interest of this variation, however, lies in the means rather than the effects. Pixellating the theme to its barest outlines, this variation uses that economy to dramatize the material extremes of the instrument.

Go to The People United: Variation II

The People United: The Pied Pianist September 25, 2009

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Pianos don’t travel well. That’s why we have Mason and Hamlin, but no Pied Pianist. But with Web 2.0, anyone can now be a digital troubadour. Of course, we take our act to the web for different reasons. Some want fame, exposure, a record contract. Others are just looking for a sympathetic niche or coterie audience out there. In my case, I simply miss that feeling of accomplishment after connecting with a work of music so well you can perform it in concert. After sweating in practice, nothing compares to that high I used to experience, when I could run the course from start to finish in competition or in the company of friends and family.

Which brings me to the starting line of Frederick Rzewski’s pianistic marathon, a piece I’ll probably never finish, yet one whose technical demands will keep me occupied, and whose symbolic dimension, I think, will keep me keeping at it. The People United Will Never Be Defeated: 36 Variations on a Chilean Song has a title that makes it impossible to separate aesthetics and politics. The source on which the variations are based is the protest anthem, ¡El Pueblo Jamas Sera Jamas Vencido! by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayun, and through supplementary quotations of other popular political songs, The People throws its support to socialist movements past and present. The outlines of this cultural struggle emerge in the score through playing directions such as “with determination,” “recklessly,” “in a militant manner,” “optimistically.” At certain points, the pianist is called upon to whistle in reflection and in a moment recalling John Cage’s 4’11”, slam the piano lid shut. Yet if this work were intended as propaganda, why make the message so complex?

If there’s any musical work as encyclopedic in style as Ulysses is in literature, this is it. The occasion informing this piece is the coming together of conservatory-trained and folk musicians under the Unidad Popular coalition in the Chilean nation during the seventies just before Pinochet came to power. In tribute to this cultural moment, Rzewski aims at a synthesis of diverse musical practices both “popular” and “avant-garde.”

Admittedly, the classical tradition predominates here. Critics have compared the work to the Goldberg Variations on the basis that the final movement reprises the original theme (even though the same could be said of Beethoven’s Op. 109), and several variations (No. 3, for example) are indeed canonic in form. The architectonic structure to which every movement is subordinated also bears the strong impress of composers like Webern, Boulez, and Stockhausen. The thirty-six variations break down into six major cycles, each with six stages: “1) simple events; 2) rhythms; 3) melodies; 4) counterpoints; 5) harmonies…” The sixth stage of each cycle recapitulates material from the previous five, so that each of the variations in the sixth cycle reprises its five corresponding sister variations.

Yet strong currents of popular musics keep the variations from spiraling out of the orbit of the intelligible. The rhythmic writing lends the variations a catchiness that is absent in the music of Rzewski’s fellow experimentalists. Several of the variations recall the phase music of Terry Riley and Steve Reich; others, early rock; others, still, reflect Rzewsky’s experience as a jazz improviser and the osmosis of Latin American folk music into New York. Only by some strange feat of alchemy are all of these elements successfully negotiated within the texture of the whole.

From start to finish, The People United takes about hour to perform, but a single-sitting performance is not at all my goal. No, I’ll leave that to the Ursula Oppens’ and Frederick Rzewski’s and the Stephen Drury’s of the piano world. I’m content right now to work piecemeal from one variation to the next, even if it takes me several years, posting a renditions and reflections and swapping them for improved versions at each leg of my musical odyssey in which I wear the closest thing I have to particolored shirts (my teaching attire) and see how many different pianos I can get my hands on.

Despite their technical demands, the variations are short, so that unlike with a piece with infrequent divisions, I can feel l am making progress. In the future, I suppose it would be possible to string together a number of such recording sessions to produce a complete, however imperfect, set. So with determination, I give you Rzewski’s theme (“With determination”).

Go to The People United: Variation I

The People United: Theme September 14, 2009

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The theme to Frederick Rzewski’s stirring set of piano variations. Liner notes next week.

Go to The People United: Variation I.

ENGL 98R August 27, 2009

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This made me smile

At the Harvard COOP

This made my day.