September 30, 2007

"Second Verse, Unlike the First!"

Category: Music — Cranky @

Imagine that you are walking down the street when you see something that you’ve never seen before. Perhaps you’ve come across a chicken juggling bowling balls, a polar bear playing an excellent game of pool, or a federal liberal candidate being open and honest. As improbable as these situations may be, you would have no problems explaining what you’ve seen to somebody else. You would probably use complete sentences to do so.

We improvise with language all the time. We know what words belong together, and how to link them properly. It’s so ingrained within us that we seldom lapse into broken language, no matter what we’re trying to say.

In just the same way musical improvisation comes into being. Music is a beautiful language, and to hear true musicians improvise can be a truly captivating experience. Jazz is the home of musical improvisation, and the grand masters are incredible. Such a concert is never the same from one night to the next. A great many blues and rock artists also find themselves taking their performances in new directions on the spur of the moment.

Led Zeppelin would sometimes stretch their concerts out far beyond their intended duration, following wherever the improvisation would take them. In 2003, they released a live DVD and a 3 CD set called “How the West Was Won” that showcased the incredible power of their performances. When I watch the DVD I am overwhelmed.

That mastery of the language of music is always in the back of my mind when I play guitar. I lust after it, like a teenager after a swimsuit model. I’ll frequently tune in to a satellite music station and play along for hours, no matter what comes on, because the way to that talent has two paths – education and practice. Both paths must be taken. So I study jazz chords and fingering structures, I play scales endlessly, and I improvise over top of anything.

Once the language begins to emerge from the theory, one can leave the role of musical mechanic behind. It’s not enough to only play notes other people have already arranged. We each have our own voice, and the music that we create will never be quite like that of anybody else, even when our influences show through.

When a band jams, they’re having a conversation, and it’s always different. Sometimes people are lucky enough to be listening.


September 25, 2007

A Little Slice of Asian Culture

Category: Life — Cranky @

This past Saturday I went shopping at a busy store in the middle of our small Chinatown looking for spices that would allow me to try to make a spicy Bún bò Hu, or Vietnamese soup. The quest has taken me weeks because the restaurants in which I enjoy this dish steadfastly refuse to elaborate on their particular method of making it.

I’ve been to this market several times in the past, but this is the first time I went in an afternoon on the weekend. There were many people of Asian descent, but there were also many others from a diverse range of nationalities and economic backgrounds. Transients and businessmen were side by side.

As always, I was struck by the massive cultural differences that exist. This store was very “oriental”, for lack of a better term. Everywhere I looked I could see wildly colourful products with logos that I could not read, and spices whose purpose I could not infer. In the meat and fish cases were items on prominent display that one would have to seek out in a traditional North American market, things like pork hocks, salted fish and cuts of meat with thick layers of fat still attached. People were shouting their orders at the workers behind the counters, and although they seldom acknowledged the order directly it would appear, complete and correct, in front of the buyer in short order. There seemed to be no effort to control the flow – no numbers to take, no lines to ensure everybody got their turn… but it worked nonetheless.

There were many vegetables that I simply couldn’t identify, and the noodle selection was astounding. Hundreds of dried items including mushrooms of all sorts were wrapped in plastic bags. I love stores like this because I always come across something new to me. This time it was dried peas dusted with wasabe, and some spicy sardines from china. When I opened the sardines I found that they were cooked and partially dried. They were also delicious.

I saw confrontation as well. A man was holding up a piece of fruit and speaking crossly with a stock boy, who was responding in kind. I can’t say what language they were speaking, but after a short time I could tell that they were arguing about whether the piece of fruit was in good condition. Finally the worker took a tag, wrote something on it, and stuck it to the fruit. My guess would be that he marked it down. Arguing seemed to be a necessary part of doing business in this store.

As a Caucasian in North America I grew up with a certain expectation of personal space. This expectation was not shared by others in the market. The aisles were narrow and crowded. In the checkout line a little oriental woman turned and began yelling at her children, which startled me greatly because she was yelling inches from my face. Everywhere I looked people were pressed up against one another, and it was clearly normal. The space we give each other at even the busiest of checkout lines in a Safeway or Superstore seems like acres in comparison.

The hum of activity that permeated the place made it seem hectic, yet oddly comforting. Instead of feeling distanced and isolated, I felt like a participant in the vast tide of humanity. Don’t get me wrong – I like my personal space. I wasn’t uncomfortable with it’s disappearance, though, for a short period of time.

In this world of increasing globalization our cultures will continue to merge. If we keep our minds open we can revel in these new experiences.


September 14, 2007

Fates of the Famous VIII

Category: Entertainment — Cranky @

Little Orphan Annie

When Little Orphan Annie was killed by her erstwhile protector, Oliver Warbucks, naturally people were shocked. The details of the slaughter, however, have been overshadowed by the events that followed, which would prove to be significant to a small but thriving community of aficionados.

Daddy Warbucks began with the traditional removal of her feet. These were allowed to boil for 5 minutes, at which time a large portion of lemon grass, bruised and finely chopped, was added. The boiling continued for ten more minutes, and the fat was skimmed constantly. Then the feet were removed, and, in a move that surprised everybody, Oliver cracked her femur into several sections to reveal the marrow inside, and boiled them for 10 minutes. This non-traditional step is now recognized internationally as a pivotal one.

The broth was then strained, and a mixture of sugar, sea salt, pepper, and Vietnamese nuoc nam was added. A generous portion of Annie’s rump was removed and frozen for twenty minutes, allowing it to be sliced very thinly and cleanly. A portion of her tricep was also added to the mix. Then a thin strip of meat was removed from the inside of her chest cavity. It was diced, browned in a skillet, and soaked in a spicy chili sauce.

Once the last of the meat was added to the broth, Thai holy basil, fresh mint, and cilantro were tossed in, and a sprinkling of lime juice was added. Finally, in a stroke of near genius, a generous dollop of shrimp paste was introduced. The temperature was lowered, the pot was covered, and it was allowed to simmer for nearly four hours.

Annie’s fingers, stripped of skin and de-boned, were very heavily spiced, fried, and arranged in a careful circle on a bed of her famous red hair. A sublime sauce of oregano and pepper was provided for dipping. Oliver eschewed the serving of the eyes, calling the practice vulgar and disgusting. Finally, freshly cooked angel hair pasta was added to the pot only moments before the dinner was served to a table of guests hand-picked for the occasion.

When a review of the meal appeared in Cannibalism Weekly shortly thereafter, Oliver Warbucks took his rightful place in the pantheon of culinary pioneers. Today his delicate combination of western presentation and traditional Asian spices can be found in the kitchen of any aspiring cannibalistic chef.