Anonymous. Trois Noëls De Notre-Dame-Des-Doms d’Avignon

Today’s three pieces come from an album I bought in 1976 on the Arion label, which has since gone out of business. The album was entitled, “Antique Provencal Instruments-Trouvers and Troubadors,” and it contained about 20 or so short pieces played on period instruments. These had wonderful names like crumhorn, psaltery, rackett, sackbutt, syrinx, hurdy-gurdy and flageolet. Some of the pieces on this album were sweet, some melancholy, others quite rousing. And some were just plain old tender and cute.

The last three pieces on this album, the Three Noels of Notre Dame des Doms of Avignon are among my favorites. I have always liked bells, and that is why the first of these three, ““Nosto Damo aquesto niue” appeals to me so much.   (The album is out of print but I was able to trace “Nosto Damo” to an album that’s on Amazon Italia and if you click on this image below you can hear an excerpt of this song. Click on the arrow to the left of “Riproduci tutti gli estratti.”)

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It starts out with a simple melody played a hand-struck carillon. For me at least, bells really seem to have a mysterious, almost ethereal quality that cause an almost religious kind of resonance that I feel in my bones. This piece is therefore particularly affecting. After the bells, a solo panpipe (or syrinx) picks up the melody and repeats it. Alone, it has a haunting, bird-like quality to it, like the sad coo of a mourning dove. On the third pass, a second panpipe joins in and the two pipes play the melody one last time in unison.

The second noel, entitled, “Quand il bergié” is a bright little dance. Flutes, hurdy-gurdy, and chamaleau–a primitive clarinet with a raspy sound-play a bright melody that would set any foot-mediaeval or modern-tapping.

But it is the last noel, which really touches my heart. A little piccolo plays a twittery opening. When it stops, we hear in the background an instrument called the “rossingnol of Aubagne,” which is an earthenware water bird whistle that mimics the song of the nightingale. These two instruments play back and forth for a while, before a chorus of flutes joins in accompanied by a martial rhythm played on hand-held drums. The flutes play the original melody while the bird whistle twitters away like mad in accompaniment. These pieces were written in the 16th century and the avian tone makes me think back to an incident with a pigeon on my first trip to Paris, and my own, flighty nature.

Bird Brain

After moving into Shakespeare and Company in March of 1977, I felt myself start to blossom. How could I not?  I was young; I lived in a bookstore in Paris, across the street from Notre Dame cathedral; I was meeting stimulating people from every corner of the Earth. I had reached wannabee writer nirvana. Having come to the city of Lights as my literary forebears Hemingway, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, it wouldn’t be too long, I reckoned, before I started churning out great work of fiction. Just act like a bohemian, and the inspiration would come, and I’d start to channel my Nobel Prize-winning works.

In hindsight, I wish I had listened carefully to something that the owner of Shakespeare and Company, George Whitman, once told me. One day we were arranging a shelf of books, and I came across a box full of The Paris Review. When I asked George about it, he told me the review was founded by George Plimpton and others. It always featured interviews with living authors. I think I asked whether they had interviewed Jean-Paul Sartre and what he had said.

“They always ask the same question: ‘How do you write?’”

“Huh?” I said.

“Yes,” George said. “They always ask when the author writes, how much each day, and where. And you know what they always say? They all just write a certain amount every day. Day in and day out.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“You become a writer by writing.

But as I said, back then I thought you became a writer by living a bohemian existence. And there was no better place to do that than Shakespeare and Company. The other day, I mentioned meeting a Canadian painter about my age named David Maes. He and I became close friends rather quickly after we met. For a while, we sort of competed against one another for the affections of a German girl named Ingeborg, who was living at Shakespeare and Company. Ingeborg had a face like Ingrid Bergman, and like me was trying to turn herself into a writer. She was terribly depressive–I think she once showed me how she had burned her arms with cigarettes to punish herself. She made it plain on many occasions, after I had brought it up of course, that she was not interested in a sexual relationship with me. She was more interested in a friendship kind of like a brother and sister, which we could have been, what with our blonde hair and blue eyes.

I knew exactly what David saw in her. He had been living such a hermit-like existence, hole up in his room on the Ile de la Cite, painting all day long. Of course, Ingeborg wasn’t just anyone. She was a thoughtful, deep student of literature and philosophy. She spoke fluent English with a delightful lisp and she loved art and music as much as David and I. We often went to cafés and sat for hours, nursing a café-au-lait in the mornings or a white wine and Kir in the afternoons and sat writing in our journals or watching the crowds go by. Once she took me to the Café Sélect, which is where she told me, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir used to hang out. As a challenge to me, to see how truthful I was and whether I was capable of being intimate and trusting with her, she asked me if she could read my journal. That made my heart jump a bit, because most of the time I just wheedled and whined in my journal. But I took a deep breath and showed it to her and fidgeted a bit while she read. And when she was through and handed it back to me, there was a look in her eye, which seemed to say “God, what a disappointingly shallow person.” On another occasion, she suggested we draw each other’s portrait in our journal. That also made me cringe, because, after being a wannabe writer at that time in my life, the second thing I desperately wanted to be was an artist. But I was convinced I didn’t have the talent whereas in truth I didn’t have the training. And as with anyone who’s asked to do something on command, my nerves went to hell and I produced a pathetic sketch of Ingeborg. Again, I felt I had failed some test in her eyes.

Still, we continued to spend a good deal of time together–exploring the city, museums, and the grand monuments of Paris. I believe she was studying French somewhere in the city, and one day she returned from class all in a blue funk. On her way home, she had seen a dead pigeon lying in the middle of the street. It had been run over by about 20 cars. Seeing the free spirit of the bird splattered all over the road like that had sent her into a downward spiral. She went on about it for hours. To me her emotions seemed way out of proportion and misplaced. How could she care so much for a dead bird, and devote so much psychic and emotional energy to its death, when she could not show me even a sliver of warmth and caring? What was worse was that I tended to regard pigeons as a kind of avian vermin. They congregated in huge numbers in every public park and on every monument in Paris and shat everywhere. So Ingeborg’s emotion seemed particularly misplaced.

Reflecting now back on my motivations for hanging around Ingeborg, I am somewhat embarrassed. Of course, I was drawn to her for her intellect. She had read Sartre and Beauvoir as I had, and loved art and literature. Coming from land-locked, provincial Indiana (which, back in the 1930s, almost elected a governor who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan), I was desperately in search of a soul mate and Ingeborg fit the bill. For some reason, however, I couldn’t leave it at that. I wanted an intellectual and physical union. Unfortunately, being young and stupid, my physical desires got in the way of what I now understand as true compassion. What if I had recognized the clinical depression in her? Could I have done anything for her? I cringe now thinking of what might have happened to her. Yet, I didn’t even recognize the growing depression inside of me that overtook me 17 years later. How could I have recognized it in someone else?

We continued our dance for some weeks until one day a young man named Chris Carlsson showed up at Shakespeare and Company who completely captivated us. An American from somewhere outside Philadelphia, he’d just arrived from Denmark where he had spent a time with a friend of his parents, who had emigrated to the States from there. Chris was a sweet-natured, cute, tall, strawberry-blonde free spirit who was on his junior year abroad after going to school somewhere in California. His goal was to have as intense a time in Europe as he could with as many partners as he could. And the women fell for him. He told us how he had had an affair with the wife of his parents’ friend in Copenhagen, but the husband had so liked Chris that he had accepted it! The wife had even made him the thick, wool hooded windbreaker that he wore.

He and Ingeborg became fast friends and even I was taken with his charming manner. I seem to remember he and Ingeborg emerging one morning from the bunk bed, which was hidden from view behind a thick red velvet curtain over the stairwell and above the children’s book section at the back of the store. If I was angry, I don’t remember being so. Perhaps I had given up trying to become Ingeborg’s lover. Though at the time it did miff me a bit that she had been smitten by him, who seemed so much less serious than me. Of course, in hindsight, that is probably why she did so—I was a lugubrious twit back then-and nothing that I did would have lead her to conclude that I was anything but a bird brain.

Anonymous: Edo Lullaby

In 1976, my friend, Thom Klem, turned me onto the Nonesuch record label Explorer series (read how this happened in the story below the video).  Nonesuch specialized in gathering music from all over the globe. They basically invented the World Music genre.  One Nonesuch albums that I almost wore out was “Japan: Traditional vocal and Instrumental Music.” The songs on this album all reminded me of the Japanese samurai films I had watched a couple of years before, when PBS ran about 12 of the classic ones. Scored for five instruments-koto, biwa (a kind of upright guitar), shakuhachi, shamisen (a three string banjo-like instrument) and bells-and voice, these pieces were austere, but hauntingly beautiful and full of passion.

My favorite piece from this album is called, Edo Lullaby. It dates from the time when Tokyo was called Edo (before the 1800s). The piece starts with a mournful flute which instantly evokes for me a scene of a little bamboo pavilion by a lake at sunset. A crane walks at the water’s edge spearing fish in the reddening light. A gust of wind rustles the grove of live bamboo nearby and causes the wind chimes to tinkle. This piece captures so perfectly the quiet and contemplative feeling that nature has always evoked in me.

Download the track from Amazon: Edo Lullaby (shakuhachi, shamisen, biwa, 2 kotos, bells)

Here’s the link to the Nonesuch Reissue

Discovering the World through Food and Music

The Fall of 1976 marked my effort to live out my fantasy big time of the tortured intellectual. I had moved into a broom closet in the basement of a large apartment complex where in exchange for getting the room for free my job was to act as janitor. The superintendent of the place was a middle-aged divorce, who would shuffle out of her apartment after a hard day of drinking herself to death on the sofa watching daytime TV and yell at me for stopping the clothes dryers at night. The dryers sat right next to my sliver of a room, and paying residents would put their gym shoes in at night to dry. I often woke, heart pounding at 2:00 a.m. with the thought that the Seventh Cavalry was bearing down on me. On these little cordial visits, the super would gussy herself up by donning in a threadbare old dressing gown and furry slippers and sexily inserting a half-burned cigarette between her cracked lips. Ah, that was the life. How I kept from turning into a 20th century Raskolnikov, beats me.

Fortunately, I had lots of friends from the French House, and being recently turned 21, I would escape with them to the nearest bar or invite myself over for food and conversation. Not that I was a sponge! My friend Thom Klem lived a few blocks down the street in a quaint little bungalow that had passed from one former French House tenant to another. He shared the house with John McC*, recently returned from France and who had a passion for cooking. I would visit on Saturdays with a bottle of wine and we would sit around reading cookbooks, and they would try to recreate dishes they had eaten while living in France.

As with most crafts, in order to do a really good job you need the right tools. And Thom and John coming from fairly well off families spared little expense in acquiring whatever culinary implement a particular dish required. Luckily for them, a “fancy-assed” gourmet store had opened up in downtown Bloomington, and it was fun to be there whenever one of them brought back some new gadget. They were quite scientific about testing out and verifying which was the best garlic press, say, buying a number and comparing which one applied the most pressure, minced the cloves most thoroughly, and was the easiest to clean. Another time, John came running back with a bag of little pastry utensils-moulds, icing bags, rolling pins, parchment–which he would pull out one at a time, announce its name, and describe its proper usage. At the end he reached in and said: “And I couldn’t resist this! A butter curler!” Used, of course, for peeling off and curling thin slices of butter for garnishing.

My father always had a killer garden and usually put in about one hundred tomato plants. Mom usually canned these, but as the kids grew up and moved away–I was the youngest-there was less need for them. My father hadn’t quite adjusted yet by the time I was in college and one day, my parent visited bearing a bushel basket of tomatoes, and about a half bushel each of green peppers, eggplants, onions and zucchini. Oh and of course garlic, never lacking in a Hungarian’s house.

There was no way I could eat all of these before they would spoil, so I took them down to Thom and John’s house. They took one look at the produce and exclaimed “We’ll make ratatouille!” I had never heard of the dish, which they told me was a wonderful Mediterranean stew made precisely those vegetables. We started by slicing the eggplant and then putting the slices into salt water to draw out the moisture. While these soaked, we boiled a huge pot of water and stuck each tomato with a fork and immersed it in the water for about 30 seconds. That made it very easy to peel each one. The steam rose up and soon the windows were fogged up and the house had that wonderful smell that hits your nose when you bit into a juicy ripe tomato. To avoid bitterness, it is best to remove the seeds from the tomatoes and you do this by slicing them transversally, and then squeezing the seeds out. I protested that we were losing too much of the juice that way, but they assured me that the flesh would be juicy enough. They had fine, razor-sharp Sabatier kitchen knives and pointed out the ebony handles and how perfectly weighted they were.

That Fall, Thom had started indulging his love of what is now called World Music. He would search the “International” bins of record stores and often come home with some new treasure. For a while he was fascinated with Chinese opera, which he had first heard when he had studied in Taiwan. Another time, he bought an album of popular Egyptian orchestral music, which featured the Oud, a stringed, balalaika-type instrument, hammered dulcimers, and violins. We also bought a number of the albums in the Nonesuch explorer series. The classic of this was called the Nonesuch Explorer, which had one or two pieces from the major musical styles this company featured. On this album, which has had a big influence on film makers and musicians over the year (I’ve heard pieces quoted in Fellini Films and Joni Mitchell albums), there were a number of pieces of traditional Japanese music for shakuhachi (the bamboo flute) and Koto (a long zither). When I heard this type of music, I rushed out and bought the two albums that from which these pieces had been culled.

We probably listened to these pieces the day we made the ratatouille, though I am sure we also put on some popular French songs to celebrate the dish we were serving as well. The next step was to dry the slices of eggplant and fry them in olive oil. Leaching the water from them removes the bitterness and also stops them from soaking up gallons of oil, which they would do if you fried them untreated. We next fried the zucchini, which we had also sliced into disks about a half inch thick. Finally, we cored the green peppers and sliced them into circles along with the onions. We were ready to assemble the ingredients for cooking.

In a huge deep cooking pot, we started with a layer of tomatoes, a layer of zucchini, a layer of eggplant, onions, green peppers and a smashed clove or two of garlic. On top of these we put a number of herbes de Provence-basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, and rosemary. My mother had started cooking with herbs over the previous couple of years and I believe most of these came from our garden. It was then time to put down and season another round of layers. By the time we were done the vegetables were right up at the top and the low heat beneath the pot had already started to coax the natural juices out. We topped it up with water, covered it, and then let it stew for about two hours while we got drunk.

How can you describe the taste of a new dish which is a perfect harmony of such strong flavors as tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, parsley, rosemary, and thyme. One bite of ratatouille and I knew that I had to visit the Mediterranean when I went to France the following semester. You could just tastes the sun in this dish and smell the salt breeze of the ocean and smell the lavender and rosemary bushes baking under the cobalt-blue sky.

This song and that dish affect me that way still, some 36 years later.

Anonymous: The Play of Herod

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When my daughter, Claire, was about 12 (some 14 years ago), I put on an album that someone at my college dorm–the French House–introduced me to around 1975. It dates from the early 1960s and was a rediscovery, by the New York Pro Musica under the direction of Noah Greenberg, of a medieval piece of music called “The Play of Herod,” which had been recorded at the Cloisters in New York.

“The Play of Herod” contains some of the most beautiful choral music I know and it lifted my spirits to hear it again all these years later.

After about 15 minutes, Claire muttered “This music is so irritating,” as she reached for her “NSYNCH” album. “Can we put this on?”

“Claire,” I said, “this is the first time I’ve played this since before you were born. Can’t we just listen to what I want for a change?”

“Ugh!” said Claire.

“Claire,” said her mom. “You had all day after school to listen to your CD.”

“And dad had all day at work to listen to his music.”

The fact was that I didn’t. This disk is out of print and I only have it on an old vinyl LP. Way too big for the slot in my work computer.

“If you like this kind of music, why don’t you join a chorus?”

“Why don’t you form a pop group,” I shot back.

“Because I can’t sing.”

“But you never really tried. It’s like learning an instrument. You have to study.”

“Who wants to listen to bloody medieval music?” were her final words as she stormed out. I thought she might, because she had to study the middle ages the previous year in school and she had gotten quite interested in recreating a banquet using bake-able modeling clay. And in addition to being quite beautiful, sometimes medieval music is kind of funny.

Half the reason I probably fell in love with medieval music was the number of bizarre instruments used to produce it. They had the weirdest sounding names–crumhorns, rackets, sackbuts, cornets, snake and recorder. Some of the the double reed instruments produced sounds resembling a drunk making a protracted Bronx cheer. There was something pleasantly naïve about this type of music. Later I learned that back then musicians often improvised quite a bit, and in a way this music was much more spontaneous and real than the full blown orchtral works that became the mainstay of “serious” music.

This “Play of Herod,” by the NY Pro Musica, has since been transferred to CD so I can now listen to it finally on my computer. I own another recording by the same name, but it’s not nearly as good as the one by the New York Pro Musica, recorded in 1964 on the Decca label.

Now it’s on Youtube, and you should give it a listen, because this piece is a real forerunner to a lot of medieval groups that have now become popular, for example Anonymous 4. In the first scene, for example, there is a piece called “Angel Choir” in which sopranos sing the most ethereally beautiful pieces I have ever heard. My favorite part, however, is the opening processional in which male tenors sing of how the Magi went out on their asses carrying gold, myrrh, and frankincense to go in search of the Christ child. I still find it a moving and haunting melody. The words, however are kind of funny as they spend a lot of time describing the donkeys on which the kings ride:

“Heigh, Sir Ass, oh heigh
While he drags long carriages,
Loaded down with baggages,
He, with jaws insatiate, fodder hard doth masticate.”

I thought for sure that would have cracked up Claire, who loves animals. Maybe I should have shown her the words first.

Right now, I’m on vacation in New York City, for a month. My wife, Laura Zam is performing her new play in the NYC Fringe Festival and we’ve rented an apartment. Last Sunday, I hopped on my bike and rode up from Battery Park to the very tip top of Manhattan, some 13 miles to visit the Cloisters. It was a kind of pilgrimage to go the site of this wonderful work. I’ll devote another piece to it later. Until then, here are a few pictures from my jaunt up there.

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Download MP3s or buy CD of The Play Of Herod: A Medieval Musical Drama

Anonymous. Trois Noëls De Notre-Dame-Des-Doms d’Avignon

Today’s three pieces come from an album I bought in 1976 on the Arion label, which has since gone out of business. The album was entitled, “Antique Provencal Instruments-Trouvers and Troubadors,” and it contained about 20 or so short pieces played on period instruments. These had wonderful names like crumhorn, psaltery, rackett, sackbutt, syrinx, hurdy-gurdy and flageolet. Some of the pieces on this album were sweet, some melancholy, others quite rousing. And some were just plain old tender and cute.

The last three pieces on this album, the Three Noels of Notre Dame des Doms of Avignon are among my favorites. I have always liked bells, and that is why the first of these three, ““Nostro Damo aquesto niue” appeals to me so much.   (The album is out of print but I was able to trace “Nosto Damo” to an album that’s on Amazon Italia and if you click on this image below you can hear an excerpt of this song. Click on the arrow to the left of “Riproduci tutti gli estratti.”)

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It starts out with a simple melody played a hand-struck carillon. For me at least, bells really seem to have a mysterious, almost ethereal quality that cause an almost religious kind of resonance that I feel in my bones. This piece is therefore particularly affecting. After the bells, a solo panpipe (or syrinx) picks up the melody and repeats it. Alone, it has a haunting, bird-like quality to it, like the sad coo of a mourning dove. On the third pass, a second panpipe joins in and the two pipes play the melody one last time in unison.

The second noel, entitled, “Quand il bergié” is a bright little dance. Flutes, hurdy-gurdy, and chamaleau–a primitive clarinet with a raspy sound-play a bright melody that would set any foot-mediaeval or modern-tapping.

But it is the last noel, which really touches my heart. A little piccolo plays a twittery opening. When it stops, we hear in the background an instrument called the “rossingnol of Aubagne,” which is an earthenware water bird whistle that mimics the song of the nightingale. These two instruments play back and forth for a while, before a chorus of flutes joins in accompanied by a martial rhythm played on hand-held drums. The flutes play the original melody while the bird whistle twitters away like mad in accompaniment. These pieces were written in the 16th century and the avian tone makes me think back to an incident with a pigeon on my first trip to Paris, and my own, flighty nature.

Bird Brain

After moving into Shakespeare and Company in March of 1977, I felt myself start to blossom. How could I not?  I was young; I lived in a bookstore in Paris, across the street from Notre Dame cathedral; I was meeting stimulating people from every corner of the Earth. I had reached wannabee writer nirvana. Having come to the city of Lights as my literary forebears Hemingway, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, it wouldn’t be too long, I reckoned, before I started churning out great work of fiction. Just act like a bohemian, and the inspiration would come, and I’d start to channel my Nobel Prize-winning works.

In hindsight, I wish I had listened carefully to something that the owner of Shakespeare and Company, George Whitman, once told me. One day we were arranging a shelf of books, and I came across a box full of The Paris Review. When I asked George about it, he told me the review was founded by George Plimpton and others. It always featured interviews with living authors. I think I asked whether they had interviewed Jean-Paul Sartre and what he had said.

“They always ask the same question: ‘How do you write?’”

“Huh?” I said.

“Yes,” George said. “They always ask when the author writes, how much each day, and where. And you know what they always say? They all just write a certain amount every day. Day in and day out.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“You become a writer by writing.

But as I said, back then I thought you became a writer by living a bohemian existence. And there was no better place to do that than Shakespeare and Company. The other day, I mentioned meeting a Canadian painter about my age named David Maes. He and I became close friends rather quickly after we met. For a while, we sort of competed against one another for the affections of a German girl named Ingeborg, who was living at Shakespeare and Company. Ingeborg had a face like Ingrid Bergman, and like me was trying to turn herself into a writer. She was terribly depressive–I think she once showed me how she had burned her arms with cigarettes to punish herself. She made it plain on many occasions, after I had brought it up of course, that she was not interested in a sexual relationship with me. She was more interested in a friendship kind of like a brother and sister, which we could have been, what with our blonde hair and blue eyes.

I knew exactly what David saw in her. He had been living such a hermit-like existence, hole up in his room on the Ile de la Cite, painting all day long. Of course, Ingeborg wasn’t just anyone. She was a thoughtful, deep student of literature and philosophy. She spoke fluent English with a delightful lisp and she loved art and music as much as David and I. We often went to cafés and sat for hours, nursing a café-au-lait in the mornings or a white wine and Kir in the afternoons and sat writing in our journals or watching the crowds go by. Once she took me to the Café Sélect, which is where she told me, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir used to hang out. As a challenge to me, to see how truthful I was and whether I was capable of being intimate and trusting with her, she asked me if she could read my journal. That made my heart jump a bit, because most of the time I just wheedled and whined in my journal. But I took a deep breath and showed it to her and fidgeted a bit while she read. And when she was through and handed it back to me, there was a look in her eye, which seemed to say “God, what a disappointingly shallow person.” On another occasion, she suggested we draw each other’s portrait in our journal. That also made me cringe, because, after being a wannabe writer at that time in my life, the second thing I desperately wanted to be was an artist. But I was convinced I didn’t have the talent whereas in truth I didn’t have the training. And as with anyone who’s asked to do something on command, my nerves went to hell and I produced a pathetic sketch of Ingeborg. Again, I felt I had failed some test in her eyes.

Still, we continued to spend a good deal of time together–exploring the city, museums, and the grand monuments of Paris. I believe she was studying French somewhere in the city, and one day she returned from class all in a blue funk. On her way home, she had seen a dead pigeon lying in the middle of the street. It had been run over by about 20 cars. Seeing the free spirit of the bird splattered all over the road like that had sent her into a downward spiral. She went on about it for hours. To me her emotions seemed way out of proportion and misplaced. How could she care so much for a dead bird, and devote so much psychic and emotional energy to its death, when she could not show me even a sliver of warmth and caring? What was worse was that I tended to regard pigeons as a kind of avian vermin. They congregated in huge numbers in every public park and on every monument in Paris and shat everywhere. So Ingeborg’s emotion seemed particularly misplaced.

Reflecting now back on my motivations for hanging around Ingeborg, I am somewhat embarrassed. Of course, I was drawn to her for her intellect. She had read Sartre and Beauvoir as I had, and loved art and literature. Coming from land-locked, provincial Indiana (which, back in the 1930s, almost elected a governor who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan), I was desperately in search of a soul mate and Ingeborg fit the bill. For some reason, however, I couldn’t leave it at that. I wanted an intellectual and physical union. Unfortunately, being young and stupid, my physical desires got in the way of what I now understand as true compassion. What if I had recognized the clinical depression in her? Could I have done anything for her? I cringe now thinking of what might have happened to her. Yet, I didn’t even recognize the growing depression inside of me that overtook me 17 years later. How could I have recognized it in someone else?

We continued our dance for some weeks until one day a young man named Chris Carlsson showed up at Shakespeare and Company who completely captivated us. An American from somewhere outside Philadelphia, he’d just arrived from Denmark where he had spent a time with a friend of his parents, who had emigrated to the States from there. Chris was a sweet-natured, cute, tall, strawberry-blonde free spirit who was on his junior year abroad after going to school somewhere in California. His goal was to have as intense a time in Europe as he could with as many partners as he could. And the women fell for him. He told us how he had had an affair with the wife of his parents’ friend in Copenhagen, but the husband had so liked Chris that he had accepted it! The wife had even made him the thick, wool hooded windbreaker that he wore.

He and Ingeborg became fast friends and even I was taken with his charming manner. I seem to remember he and Ingeborg emerging one morning from the bunk bed, which was hidden from view behind a thick red velvet curtain over the stairwell and above the children’s book section at the back of the store. If I was angry, I don’t remember being so. Perhaps I had given up trying to become Ingeborg’s lover. Though at the time it did miff me a bit that she had been smitten by him, who seemed so much less serious than me. Of course, in hindsight, that is probably why she did so—I was a lugubrious twit back then-and nothing that I did would have lead her to conclude that I was anything but a bird brain.

Anonymous: Edo Lullaby

In 1976, my friend, Thom Klem, turned me onto the Nonesuch record label Explorer series (read how this happened in the story below the video).  Nonesuch specialized in gathering music from all over the globe. They basically invented the World Music genre.  One Nonesuch albums that I almost wore out was “Japan: Traditional vocal and Instrumental Music.” The songs on this album all reminded me of the Japanese samurai films I had watched a couple of years before, when PBS ran about 12 of the classic ones. Scored for five instruments-koto, biwa (a kind of upright guitar), shakuhachi, shamisen (a three string banjo-like instrument) and bells-and voice, these pieces were austere, but hauntingly beautiful and full of passion.

My favorite piece from this album is called, Edo Lullaby. It dates from the time when Tokyo was called Edo (before the 1800s). The piece starts with a mournful flute which instantly evokes for me a scene of a little bamboo pavilion by a lake at sunset. A crane walks at the water’s edge spearing fish in the reddening light. A gust of wind rustles the grove of live bamboo nearby and causes the wind chimes to tinkle. This piece captures so perfectly the quiet and contemplative feeling that nature has always evoked in me.

Download the track from Amazon: Edo Lullaby (shakuhachi, shamisen, biwa, 2 kotos, bells)

Here’s the link to the Nonesuch Reissue

Discovering the World through Food and Music

The Fall of 1976 marked my effort to live out my fantasy big time of the tortured intellectual. I had moved into a broom closet in the basement of a large apartment complex where in exchange for getting the room for free my job was to act as janitor. The superintendent of the place was a middle-aged divorce, who would shuffle out of her apartment after a hard day of drinking herself to death on the sofa watching daytime TV and yell at me for stopping the clothes dryers at night. The dryers sat right next to my sliver of a room, and paying residents would put their gym shoes in at night to dry. I often woke, heart pounding at 2:00 a.m. with the thought that the Seventh Cavalry was bearing down on me. On these little cordial visits, the super would gussy herself up by donning in a threadbare old dressing gown and furry slippers and sexily inserting a half-burned cigarette between her cracked lips. Ah, that was the life. How I kept from turning into a 20th century Raskolnikov, beats me.

Fortunately, I had lots of friends from the French House, and being recently turned 21, I would escape with them to the nearest bar or invite myself over for food and conversation. Not that I was a sponge! My friend Thom Klem lived a few blocks down the street in a quaint little bungalow that had passed from one former French House tenant to another. He shared the house with John McCord, recently returned from France and who had a passion for cooking. I would visit on Saturdays with a bottle of wine and we would sit around reading cookbooks, and they would try to recreate dishes they had eaten while living in France.

As with most crafts, in order to do a really good job you need the right tools. And Thom and John coming from fairly well off families spared little expense in acquiring whatever culinary implement a particular dish required. Luckily for them, a “fancy-assed” gourmet store had opened up in downtown Bloomington, and it was fun to be there whenever one of them brought back some new gadget. They were quite scientific about testing out and verifying which was the best garlic press, say, buying a number and comparing which one applied the most pressure, minced the cloves most thoroughly, and was the easiest to clean. Another time, John came running back with a bag of little pastry utensils-moulds, icing bags, rolling pins, parchment–which he would pull out one at a time, announce its name, and describe its proper usage. At the end he reached in and said: “And I couldn’t resist this! A butter curler!” Used, of course, for peeling off and curling thin slices of butter for garnishing.

My father always had a killer garden and usually put in about one hundred tomato plants. Mom usually canned these, but as the kids grew up and moved away–I was the youngest-there was less need for them. My father hadn’t quite adjusted yet by the time I was in college and one day, my parent visited bearing a bushel basket of tomatoes, and about a half bushel each of green peppers, eggplants, onions and zucchini. Oh and of course garlic, never lacking in a Hungarian’s house.

There was no way I could eat all of these before they would spoil, so I took them down to Thom and John’s house. They took one look at the produce and exclaimed “We’ll make ratatouille!” I had never heard of the dish, which they told me was a wonderful Mediterranean stew made precisely those vegetables. We started by slicing the eggplant and then putting the slices into salt water to draw out the moisture. While these soaked, we boiled a huge pot of water and stuck each tomato with a fork and immersed it in the water for about 30 seconds. That made it very easy to peel each one. The steam rose up and soon the windows were fogged up and the house had that wonderful smell that hits your nose when you bit into a juicy ripe tomato. To avoid bitterness, it is best to remove the seeds from the tomatoes and you do this by slicing them transversally, and then squeezing the seeds out. I protested that we were losing too much of the juice that way, but they assured me that the flesh would be juicy enough. They had fine, razor-sharp Sabatier kitchen knives and pointed out the ebony handles and how perfectly weighted they were.

That Fall, Thom had started indulging his love of what is now called World Music. He would search the “International” bins of record stores and often come home with some new treasure. For a while he was fascinated with Chinese opera, which he had first heard when he had studied in Taiwan. Another time, he bought an album of popular Egyptian orchestral music, which featured the Oud, a stringed, balalaika-type instrument, hammered dulcimers, and violins. We also bought a number of the albums in the Nonesuch explorer series. The classic of this was called the Nonesuch Explorer, which had one or two pieces from the major musical styles this company featured. On this album, which has had a big influence on film makers and musicians over the year (I’ve heard pieces quoted in Fellini Films and Joni Mitchell albums), there were a number of pieces of traditional Japanese music for shakuhachi (the bamboo flute) and Koto (a long zither). When I heard this type of music, I rushed out and bought the two albums that from which these pieces had been culled.

We probably listened to these pieces the day we made the ratatouille, though I am sure we also put on some popular French songs to celebrate the dish we were serving as well. The next step was to dry the slices of eggplant and fry them in olive oil. Leaching the water from them removes the bitterness and also stops them from soaking up gallons of oil, which they would do if you fried them untreated. We next fried the zucchini, which we had also sliced into disks about a half inch thick. Finally, we cored the green peppers and sliced them into circles along with the onions. We were ready to assemble the ingredients for cooking.

In a huge deep cooking pot, we started with a layer of tomatoes, a layer of zucchini, a layer of eggplant, onions, green peppers and a smashed clove or two of garlic. On top of these we put a number of herbes de Provence-basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, and rosemary. My mother had started cooking with herbs over the previous couple of years and I believe most of these came from our garden. It was then time to put down and season another round of layers. By the time we were done the vegetables were right up at the top and the low heat beneath the pot had already started to coax the natural juices out. We topped it up with water, covered it, and then let it stew for about two hours while we got drunk.

How can you describe the taste of a new dish which is a perfect harmony of such strong flavors as tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, parsley, rosemary, and thyme. One bite of ratatouille and I knew that I had to visit the Mediterranean when I went to France the following semester. You could just tastes the sun in this dish and smell the salt breeze of the ocean and smell the lavender and rosemary bushes baking under the cobalt-blue sky.

This song and that dish affect me that way still, some 36 years later.

Anonymous: The Play of Herod

When my daughter, Claire, was about 12 (some 14 years ago), I put on an album that someone at my college dorm–the French House–introduced me to around 1975. It dates from the early 1960s and was a rediscovery, by the New York Pro Musica under the direction of Noah Greenberg, of a medieval mystery play. It contains some of the most beautiful choral music I know and it lifted my spirits to hear it again all these years later.

After about 15 minutes, Claire muttered “This music is so irritating,” as she reached for her “NSYNCH” album. “Can we put this on?”

“Claire,” I said, “this is the first time I’ve played this since before you were born. Can’t we just listen to what I want for a change?”

“Ugh!” said Claire.

“Claire,” said her mom. “You had all day after school to listen to your CD.”

“And dad had all day at work to listen to his music.

The fact is that I didn’t. This disk is out of print and I only have it on an old vinyl LP. Way to big for the slot in my work computer.

“If you like this kind of music, why don’t you join a chorus?”

“Why don’t you form a pop group,” I shot back.

“Because I can’t sing.”

“But you never really tried. It’s like learning an instrument. You have to study.” She should know better: she spent five years learning to play the violin. But sometimes, you just can’t argue with a pre-teen.

“Who wants to listen to bloody medieval music?” were her final words as she stormed out. I thought she might, because she had to study the middle ages the previous year in school and she had gotten quite interested in recreating a banquet using bake-able modeling clay. And in addition to being quite beautiful, sometimes medieval music is kind of funny.

Half the reason I probably fell in love with medieval music was the number of bizarre instruments used to produce it. They had the weirdest sounding names–crumhorns, rackets, sackbuts, cornets, snake and recorder. Some of the the double reed instruments produced sounds resembling a drunk making a protracted Bronx cheer. There was something pleasantly naïve about this type of music. Later I learned that back then musicians often improvised quite a bit, and in a way this music was much more spontaneous and real than the full blown orchtral works that became the mainstay of “serious” music.

This Play of Herod, by the NY Pro Musica, has since been transferred to CD so I can now listen to it finally on my computer. I own another recording by the same name, but it’s not nearly as good as the one by the New York Pro Musica, recorded in 1964 on the Decca label.

I have not been able to find a performance of it on youtube, but I hope I can, because this piece is a real forerunner to a lot of medieaval groups that have now become popular, for example Anonymous 4. In the first scene, for example, there is a piece called “Angel Choir” in which sopranos sing the most ethereally beautiful pieces I have ever heard. My favorite part, however, is the opening processional in which male tenors sing of how the Magi went out on their asses carrying gold, myrrh, and frankincense to go in search of the Christ child. I still find it a moving and haunting melody. The words, however are kind of funny as they spend a lot of time describing the donkeys on which the kings ride:

“Heigh, Sir Ass, oh heigh
While he drags long carriages,
Loaded down with baggages,
He, with jaws insatiate, fodder hard doth masticate.”

I thought for sure that would have cracked up Claire, who loves animals. Maybe I should have shown her the words first.

Download MP3s or buy CD of The Play Of Herod: A Medieval Musical Drama

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