Hello, Dial M. I hope, as a summer substitutes, Ralph and I entertain as well as Jonathan and Phil. No promises.
A little about myself: I consider myself a cook, composer, and musicologist—in that order. Course work often gets in the way of those first two things, so now that school is out and summer is here, I’m looking forward to much cooking and much composing.
At the top of my summer reading list is a book by the gonzo-gastronome Anthony Bourdain, “A Cook’s Tour.” The book follows Bourdain’s trip around the world to find the culinary Holy Grail—the “perfect meal.” I’ve read Bourdain’s other books (he also writes crime fiction!) and found that his culinary insight lends itself rather well to thinking about music. For example, in the introduction to our “Cook’s Tour,” Bourdain recognizes that a meal is not just a matter of ingredients and their preparation:
Of course, I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one. I knew how important factors other than technique or rare ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen at a dinner table. Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life. I mean, let’s face it: When you’re eating simple barbecue under a palm tree, and you feel the sand between your toes, samba music is playing softly in the background, waves are lapping at the short a few yards off, a gentle breeze is cooling the sweat on the back of your neck at the hairline, and looking across the table, past the column of empty Red Stripes at the dreamy expression on your companion’s face, you realize that in half an hour you’re probably going to be having sex on clean white hotel sheets, that grilled chicken leg suddenly tastes a hell of a lot better.
Bourdain here gets at something I like. Rarely are food and music enjoyed and remembered outside their context. Two identically prepared dishes are not really the same, even though they are the same—they are eaten at different times in different places by different people. Likewise, a symphony is different for each member of the audience.
Every music experience I remember is remembered not as just an aural event, but as an event in a specific place and time. Chopin’s nocturnes are what I listened to as I fell asleep as an eleven-year old. New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band is what I fist heard when I started my love affair with Woody Allen’s movies. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is what played on the stereo of my family’s van as we drove cross country to camp at Yosemite National Park.
One memory is particularly special to me. This memory explains my obsession with Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. I had listened to the piece a few times throughout my college years, but it wasn’t until my the spring of my senior year that I really heard the piece. That term, Dartmouth College hosted a New Music Festival with Jim Tenney as guest of honor. I helped produce the festival in various quiet ways, including chauffeuring Tenney back and forth to the airport. The memory took place on that return trip to the Manchester airport.
We hummed along in the silver jeep, through cold roads past ancient pines which limped under the heavy ice as snowsmoke drifted across the highway—dawn on a typical New Hampshire spring day. Tenney asked that I bring along some CDs for the car ride. After a few minutes of awkward silence, I slid the ECM recording into the CD player, the disc still cold from being left by the window in anticipation the night before.
None of us said a word as the chords rolled out and filled
the vehicle. We sat and just listened. I was at once excited and reflective.
The festival was a momentous occasion for me and over the nearly-hour long
listening I tried to process all that had happened over the last few days. The
chords rolled over us once again and the piece finished. We sat quiet, interrupted
only by the whir of the CD player as it ejected the disc.
After some time, Tenney mused, "hmm—now whenever I listen to that I cannot help but think of the snowy hills of New Hampshire."
I was overjoyed. To think that I had made an impression on the man I respect so greatly was unfathomable. I silently thought to myself, "And now I will never listen to that piece without thinking of you."
And I haven’t. He died only a little while later. I am still young and still in silent awe. Awed that I managed to meet with Tenney before his passing and awed that somehow I changed the way he listened to a piece of music. And so when I listen to that work, I don’t just hear Reich’s composition. I hear the silent, snowy hills of New Hampshire, I heard the excitement of my last year in college, and I hear the glow in Tenney’s eyes as we drove towards our first and final goodbye.
And no one else hears this work the same way as I do. Or any work, for that matter. And no meal will taste the same to two people, while it is eaten or when it is remembered.