Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Who are we?

Probably the weirdest thing about the pandemic [for musicians, I mean] is the lack (OK, COMPLETE DISAPPEARANCE) of performance opportunities.  Yes, you can perform streaming online, etc (and outdoors, maybe with the right set up and people who can support the situation technically) - but honestly, the whole draw for (apology for the apostrophes) 'collaborative folk' was the idea of performing with others.  Like, Live*.   

This month, I've had to opt out of my choral gig (private school), because singing and Covid 19 don't go well together (ultimately, a personal decision).  I still do have my church gig, where circumstances are very distanced and safe/non-choral.  But wow, is it jarring emotionally to be so musically separated from my usual "normal'.  I haven't done a show since February.  I have no future concerts planned (not really), and everything feels like I'm planning from week to week.  

I've compensated with other activities (i.e. more experiments in the kitchen/trying out recipes/baking, my dogs are ECSTATIC about how many hours I can devote to them, and I'm developing a backyard gardening/landscaping scheme, etc).  But the hardest thing, overall, is not connecting with people on a musical level.  I think I'm trying to say, the pandemic screws with many things, but for a musician - we almost lose the sense of who we are.  Practicing is more of a chore when there's no performance in sight.  How do we spend our evenings when we aren't in rehearsals?  

Ultimately - I know everything will be fine (and wow, do I know a lot more about baking now).  Compare life to the last pandemic, I believe it was around 1918 - at least now we have the internet, Kindle, Zoom and countless musical score resources online available for practicing ... things could be worse.  But musicians (performers, conductors, educators, etc) are mourning the loss of musical connections and the sense of self we found in them.  May 'normal life' return soon.  

In the meantime, I'm trying Ina Garten's Cheddar Biscuits next ...

*It's just not the same otherwise.  And really feels kind of pointless, tbh.  Sorry.  Not trying to be a buzzkill.  Just sayin'.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Groups Singing About Food (or The Choral Food One)

I admit that I tend to fall down rabbit holes (like Alice, I suppose).  I start looking into something that interests me and get sucked in, deep (much like Doctoral students and pop culture fanatics).  For example, who knew there is a stunning amount of pieces written for choirs about food?  I've put together a Sampler Plate* of the ones I enjoyed the most**: a gastronomic journey trekking through a multitude of dishes and cultures.

In a sense, Coffee IS a food group, so of course we start with J.S. Bach's miniature comic opera, the Coffee Cantata (BWV 211).  It is about a young woman named Aria who loves coffee, and  her disgruntled father's attempts to ban her from the drink. Here's a snippet showing her devotion:

Father sir, but do not be so harsh! 
If I couldn't, three times a day, 
be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee, 
in my anguish I will turn into 
a shriveled-up roast goat, 
Ah!  How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee, 
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

Eventually, the father agrees she can have three cups of coffee a day and writes it into her marriage contract (prenup stipulations have come a long way since 1735).  I actually found two other riffs on this idea, Peter Tiefenbach's Cappuccino Cantata (AKA The Lonely Barista) and Lee Barrow's Latte Cantate.  Each treatment is unique: Tiefenbach recasts the daughter as a lonely barista caught in a love triangle with her manager and a frequent customer, while Barrow updates Bach's cantata with more modern references and, um, weed. [No recordings of either, I'm afraid - comment below if you find any.]

Cooking and baking gets featured in "Punching the Dough", arranged by Alice Parker (lyrics).  In this piece, a (rather exasperated) pioneer wife compares her culinary tasks to the work of men ('While you're punching the cattle, I'm punching the dough"), pointing out her equally hard work in the kitchen.  Another song about kneading and baking (and the actual baker) is Colombian folk song, Maquerúle (lyrics translation), arr. by Julián Gómez-Giraldo.  The chorus encourages the baker to "knead the bread, Maquerúle, work it out, work the bread with your hands, sweat it out".  Focusing more on the enjoyment of baked goods is Theodore Lucas's "Bagels and Biscuits", a lighthearted a capella ode to brunch.  Yes, there is also jam.       

For the soup course, there are multiple options.  If you want something spicy, try "Chili Con Carne" (lyrics) by Anders Edenroth, a very rhythmic a capella piece celebrating the Mexican dish.  If you prefer the cuisine of the Dominican Republic, check out "La Sopa de Isabel" (lyrics) by Francisco Nuñez, an upbeat merengue about "the potato soup, a soup so tasty no one would leave it".  In Haitian cuisine, one of its most popular meals is the focus of "Tchaka"(lyrics), an a capella piece arranged by Sydney Guillaume (based on the poem by Gabriel T. Guillaume).  It's an incredibly exciting piece about stew, with Haitian Creole Text.  Rounding out this category are the well known "Beautiful Soup" from the Alice in Wonderland choruses by Irving Fine (with a wickedly difficult piano part, btw) and the lesser known "Good Fish Chowder" by James Fankhauser.  

We have a large crop of selections for the vegetable course, as well.  John Muehleisen has written two choral sets entitled "Eat Your Vegetables".  Set one has three songs featuring zucchini, a carrot (apparently a human carrot as well), and some kind of pep-rally like chant about rutabagas.  Set two (harder to find, btw) has three songs which include a tribute to eggplants, to Brussels sprouts and also (intriguingly titled "March of the Stalks") to celery.  Potato fans will enjoy Anna-Mari Kahara's Finnish song, "Laulu perunoiden kiehuessa", which translates to "Song while the Potatoes Boil". A joyous song, Kahara's piece revels in the celebration of life and singing. Cabbage lovers will enjoy Mack Wilberg's hoedown, "Bile Them Cabbage Down".

I've created another category for people whose emotions have entangled their food with their significant other. A foodie definitely authored the text to Paul Carey's "Mashed Potato/Love Poem" : "If ever I had to choose between you and a third helping of mashed potato, (whipped lightly with a fork not whisked, and a little pool of butter melting in the middle ...). I think I'd choose the mashed potato. But I'd choose you next." We find similar torn emotions in Steven Sametz's "Y Berenjenas con Queso" (And Eggplant with Cheese), a wonderful renaissance-style setting about a gourmand agonizing over whom/what has captured his heart: the beautiful Inez, ham or eggplant with cheese. A piece combining pop culture, the love of food and the love of its cook, is Paul Crabtree's "Marge, You Make the Best Pork Chops". Brief yet powerful, in this piece you can hear Homer Simson's true worship and devotion to both the woman and the pork chop. There's a lovely jazz lilt in Paris Rutherford's choral arrangement of "Gravy Waltz" (lyrics), where a man appreciates both his woman and her cooking. The story of original sin gets a different retelling in Carey's "Eve's Confession", the poem by Diane Lockward. Alas, Eve's inner battle - her loyalty divided between her husband and an (well, his) apple fritter - eventually ends with guilt and nary a crumb left.

I've grouped the next three pieces in the laziest way possible: they are all large works about food, and they were hard to research.  However, I could not leave out PDQ Bach's Grand Oratorio, "The Seasonings", which is utterly ridiculous in the best possible way (he actually utilizes kazoos and a 'tromboon' - a bassoon/trombone hybrid "with all the disadvantages of both").  There was also Bob Chilcott's a capella set, "Fragments from His Dish" (six choral pieces on the theme of food) which uses diverse texts (Pepys' diary, Christmas Day 1666; the Newcastle Chronicle from 1770, etc) and is supposed to be funny and witty.  And then there is Jean Françaix's "Ode à la Gastronomie", a 12 voice a capella choral work whose text uses a famous book (Physiology of Taste, Jean Brillat-Savarin) as a starting point and gets surreal from there. Apparently within the piece are onomatopoeic word-play (kitchen noises), gastronomic puns and a discussion of the erotic properties of the black truffle (but I couldn't find lyric translations ANYWHERE, and I'm relying on other people's comments).

In the choral settings of Cab Calloway's "Everybody Eats When They Come to My House", a showcase of hospitality and the enjoyment of food, we find a wonderful summary for this (rather extensive) rabbit hole dive.  To conclude*** this foodfest, listen to the "Banquet Fugue" by John Rutter, a rather adorable piece that ends with a realistic belch.  It's lyrics are full of onomatopoeia words about eating:

Guzzle guzzle guzzle, munch munch, gobble gobble,
Chomp, pass the salt and the pepper and the mustard 
and vinegar and the bread
Munch munch, chomp chomp, gobble gobble
There's a fly in my soup! 
Slurp slurp slurp
Well, it won't drink much sir!
Fetch the doctor, I'm feeling rather strange.
Guzzle guzzle - munch munch - chomp chomp - gobble gobble

*Sorry, I'll limit the puns as much as possible

**Like before, parameters for musical choices were mainly 'stuff I like' and music had to actually BE about the food/recipe, not just use the word 'food' (i.e. 'Italian Salad' has nothing to do with salad, nor is 'Musical Risotto' remotely about creamy rice).  Additionally, I eliminated most pieces that didn't have sheet music and recordings, or that were less complicated composition wise (no snobbery, I'm just more interested in harder music.  Wait, there's snobbery.).

***Actually, I still have some honorable mentions (they made me laugh for some reason):

Best Swedish Chef imitation:  El Hambo by Jaakko Mantyjarvi
Best use of the phrase "Cheese, the ambassadors of peace":  Carmina Ricotta, Eric Barnes
Best use of the phrase "Give me chocolate, or give me death":  Bittersweet Tango, Eric Barnes
Best corruption of Pachelbel:  Taco Bell Canon
Just because:  Such a Nice Brisket!, Jack Curtis Dubowsky

Monday, August 10, 2020

Quarentinewhile ...

Some collaborative piano geekery for you:

Covid19 has caused a lot of things (i.e. increased levels of anxiety and backyard vegetable gardening) and also launched a new trend: baking.  Nationwide, since March 2020, thousands of banana breads, vats of frothy sourdough starters and stacks of cakes have appeared.  Stress-baking, our new favorite way to kill time (some people invest more time than others).  Further proof (no pun intended*) of the trend was the widespread disappearance of flour and yeast from grocery stores for 3 months.  Stockpiling is another new hobby this year, apparently.   

I also have spent waaay too much time in the kitchen, and am primarily thankful that I haven't grated off my thumb yet (pianist, remember?).  Not that performing is much of an option these days - most musicians are presently muzzled, so to speak.  Live performances, any group singing or similar interactions are not the safest thing: Zoom, live streaming and outside performances from a distance are our unsatisfying alternatives.  Small wonder that 'comfort meals' are so popular now.  

Occasionally, culinary thoughts wander into the music realm - consider how recital programming is often discussed in terms of meal planning.  Other times, gastronomy veers directly into music scores** (or flat out T-bones the Mack truck that is opera in this case).  For example, Lee Hoiby's one-act opera Bon Appétit!, pairs the sung text of a cookbook written by master chef Julia Child with a small chamber orchestra. The mezzo has to sing and bake simultaneously (its kind of like watching an operatic Rachel Ray episode). For those who'd prefer not to fling frosting onstage, there is no actual cooking in Leonard Bernstein's song cycle, La Bonne Cuisine (lyrics). There's still plenty of drama in the four French recipes: from the pressing urgency of the 'plum pudding' to the demanding 'rabbit in a hurry', the cycle is a great vehicle for both performers to channel their inner Gordon Ramsay. 

Some operas and songs favor specific dishes instead of list ingredients. Seymour Barab's one-act opera [parody], "La Pizza con Funghi" (Mushroom Pie) centers around Countess Formaggio attempting to kill her husband with poisonous mushrooms. Less homicidal but equally funny is William Bolcom's "Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise"(lyrics). Its a hysterical romp that pokes fun at potlucks, the disturbing cooking trends of the 70s, and Ladies' Club norms. The "Ice Cream Sextet" from Weill's Street Scene also deserves a shout out (or a scream, I suppose). The strangest one in this category is Gabriel Kahane's "If Anyone Knows..."(Timestamp 1:58)(lyrics) from his song cycle "Craigslistlieder". I challenge you to find any other song about sandwich relish.

I was rather stunned to discover not one, but two song cycles about sentient vegetables. Daron Hagen's song cycle, "Vegetable Verselets"(lyrics) portrays a narcissist cucumber, militant corn, betrothed celery and more. Sure to make you cough loudly and knock several times on your fridge door before you open it from now on, is Danika Loren's "The Sex Life of Vegetables". You'll never look at your crisper drawer the same way again. Fruit has also received some attention in art song, like in Lori Laitman's song set, "Plums", which discuss the enjoyment (and theft) of ripe plums. Laitman also composed "Refrigerator", poem penned by Thomas Lux, a steamy ode to Maraschino cherries that is full of unrequited longing. Sadly, the only other time I've encountered fruit on a recital program was a song cycle by "Joseph Cantaloupe"***.

I'll end**** with the most eerily prophetic song yet, seemingly written to directly address Covid19: Pasatieri's "Overweight, Overwrought, Over You" (lyrics).


*I really tried to leave out obvious food pun references in this blog. Unused, for example, are the phrases 'food for thought', 'stirred/whipped/cooked up', 'half-baked', 'embroiled', 'on the rise', 'don't trifle with', 'has soured', 'the time is ripe', 'spills the beans' ... someone give me a medal.

**Parameters for musical choices were mainly 'stuff I like', but also the music had to actually discuss food on some level other than just using the word (for example, "If Music Be the Food of Love" isn't about food) 

***Just in case you didn't know, the composer's name is Joseph Canteloube

****Of course this isn't the end.  I've discovered a ridiculous amount of food-related music.

Further info left out due to lack of space/interest, but still worth mentioning:

Steve Cohen, La Pizza del Destino 

Jack Beeson, To a Sinister Potato (text by Peter Viereck)

Daron HagenThe Poetry of Sausages: Morcilla

Sergei Prokofiev, The Love for Three Oranges

Peter Tiefenbach, "Chansons de Mon Placard" or "Songs From My Cupboard" (subjects: seaweed, cornstarch, steak spice and Aspirin)