Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Thanksgiving Memory

Last Thanksgiving I was in Rome, gorging on pasta and gelato, receiving a “ciao bella” every time I turned around, and exploring cathedrals and museums to my heart’s content. One particularly striking memory from that trip comes back to me: I finished my tour of the sun-drenched Coliseum, waved at a gladiator, and made my way down the brick street to a plaza in front of an art museum. It was just about sunset in late November, and even Rome gets a little chilly in winter evenings, so I hugged my jacket closer to me and watched the medley of tourists and locals strike poses and snap photos. Idly looking around, I spied a somewhat hidden stairway leading up a hill behind the museum, and I took it upon myself to discover where it went. Leaving behind the bleating libertines, I ascended the staircase, stepped onto the patio…...and felt my equilibrium nearly vanish as Rome, breathing the brilliant streams of the setting sun into her ancient lungs, stunned my vision. She was on fire – buildings’ old skins shimmered with the long-lost glow of youth; rivers of color flowed into the skyline, the earth, the people walking down on the street, caressing them with color like a dancer flinging multi-hued saris onto her spectators; the orange sun was huge in the palette of the sky, and it seemed so close and welcoming that I wanted to embrace it, or have it embrace me. But what really brought me to the brink was the flock of birds making their primordial patterns across the sky, their small black forms cutting sharp fractals against the saturated wash. They swooped and rippled and turned all as one, and I couldn’t take my eyes off their completely synchronized dance. I must have sat there over an hour, feeling the chill of the evening creep its way into my skin, listening to the faraway voices of the people below me. Finally, long after the birds settled into their nests for the night, I slowly made my way through the narrow streets of Rome back to my hotel, feeling transformed, yet not knowing in what way.

During the remaining few days I had in Rome I returned to that spot at around the same time every evening, but I never had the mesmerizing experience that I did upon discovering it for the first time. The colors weren’t as brilliant, or the birds weren’t dancing, so it wasn’t the same. That one evening was truly a unique memory to cherish. A memory to be thankful for. What memories are you thankful for?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Eating at Serious Pie is a Classy Adventure

Serious Pie is not your typical pizza joint. When I entered its cozy ambiance after getting pummeled by yesterday’s deranged windstorm, I felt like Frodo returning to his hobbit-home after saving Middle Earth and enduring all sorts of cruel trials instigated by Peter Jackson. Fire crackled, soft lights glowed, earthy smells tempted, and gentle music flowed. I was ready to forget all about that evil windstorm and poor Frodo getting bundled up in narcotic she-spider saliva.

At my communal table, where I sat beside a married couple visiting from Anchorage, I enjoyed a light, tasty feast. First I had the Tuscan kale with pine nuts and parmesan – with a surprise burst of citrus to boot! – while listening to my tablemates regale me with stories of man-eating polar bears and -100° temps. Middle Earth indeed; just venture to Alaska! For my happy hour mini-pie I chose the delicata squash, roasted garlic, and gorgonzola lucifero pizza simply because I had to try “Lucifer’s gorgonzola”. Oh man, that crust was crisp, that squash was creamy, and that cheese added just the right tang. A far cry from the greasy vittles of Pizza Hut. Other creative options you can explore to satisfy your upscale pizza cravings include Yukon potato and rosemary, chanterelle mushrooms and truffle cheese, and pumpkin, pork belly, and pistachio. I will never be able to tolerate Elven bread again after these sumptuous morsels.

That was all good, but the dessert truly ruled: olive oil cake topped with spiced apples and soft whip, surrounded by jewels of bright red cranberries. It was the perfect windy autumn day desert. The cake was moist, and the cranberries were tart explosives ricocheting around in my mouth. My palette was so enraptured, I was seriously tempted to publicly lick my plate. Instead, I said goodbye (good riddance?) to my tablemates and received the odd – and slightly offensive – recommendation that I apply for a job at BP. Since the guy worked for an oil company in Alaska, I didn’t tell him what I really thought of that little piece of advice, but between us, I’d rather face the Eye of Sauron.

And one pizza joint to rule them all!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Vampire Milongas and Silent Readings

The first time I entered Salon Canning in Buenos Aires, I experienced the uncanny sensation of feeling like I had been instantly transported to an elitist vampire milonga (a tango dance) in the early twentieth-century, where coven members gathered to lure unsuspecting tourists into a den of chilling fantasy. Turning and staring as one unit when any homo sapiens entered the club, they danced with such eerie, preternatural grace it was almost unsettling to watch. Violins and bandoneons screeched stale music over hushed voices, sliding shoes, and sharp taps of stilettos. The mood was haughty, the air thick, and I just wanted to run the other direction – a legitimate self-preservation response to entering a vampire lair.

At Sorrento Hotel’s Silent Reading Night, I experienced a similar sensation of being transported – only this time I teleported to an elegant Old World gathering where society’s most distinguished elite convened to pore over Tennyson or Wordsworth. Well-tempered Baroque music glided through the fire-lit room, easing all manner of stress built up during the hectic day, as the pretty serving-girl brought tea, or scotch for the stronger palettes. A genteel affair reeking with haughtiness. What would happen, I wondered, if I set my cup down too loudly, or started vigorously chewing gum, or sounded a barbaric yawp? I was half-tempted to do it, just to see their reactions!

Like I felt in that pompous milonga in Buenos Aires, it was all a bit too sterile, too staged and elitist for me to really feel comfortable. I’m with Walt Whitman, who said, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable”. Give me the salty throng of La Viruta (another milonga); give me entranced spectators waving their bodies as musicians let their souls bodysurf over upstretched arms; give me the epic roar of live electronic musicians summoning absolute wizardry before my eyes. Those are the experiences I truly love.

I do, however, also enjoy the occasional vampire milonga or silent reading night – after all, there are worse ways to spend an evening.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ryuichi Sakamoto: An Evening With A Master

Never have the orbits of classical music and electropop collided so elegantly as in the brain of Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose passions spill from his soul onto the keys of his electric Disklavier Yamaha (electric to enable him to play duets with himself on his compositions for two pianos). As a member of Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto was a pioneer of the electronic music movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but his enormous talent stretched far beyond those early synthpop days. A modern-day Renaissance Man, Sakamoto’s artistic styles range from the Kraftwerkian electronica of Yellow Magic Orchestra, to Debussy-inspired solo piano pieces, to massive orchestral works, to hauntingly beautiful soundtracks (including Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; Little Buddha; and Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor).

In Sakamoto’s oeuvre there is something for everyone’s taste, but his solo piano pieces are the most deeply moving works of his canon. With the calm assurance of a Jedi Master, silver-haired Sakamoto conveys his depth and skill by utilizing simplicity, rather than complications. Instead of twisting melodies into over-wrought contortions, he leaves them whole, pure, largely unadorned, so that their beauty slowly expands in the soul and sprouts indelible roots. He understands that electrifying a listener’s spirit can be done delicately, exquisitely, and slowly. Listen to “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” and “Bibo No Aozora”; let them gently swirl down your basilar membranes to enthrall your essence with lush sound and emotion.

Sakamoto is also an environmental activist: he founded more-trees.org, and is currently pioneering “green tours” which offset massive carbon emissions by planting trees. His most current album, Out Of Noise, combines sounds of the natural world with startlingly new ways of coaxing sound from a piano. For example, the first piece of the concert I saw started with chirping crickets and gurgling water, over which Sakamoto layered the gently cacophonic reverberations he produced by strumming and plucking the piano strings themselves (instead of hitting the keys). With the lid completely off the piano, at first it seemed naked, with Sakamoto transgressing its private quarters like a boozy courtier lifting a woman’s petticoats. However, the reverence Sakamoto showed toward the bare strings turned the act into something much more intimate and moving – a humble encounter, rather than a violation. In this way, Sakamoto demonstrated humans’ varying relationship to nature, showing that it can be healing and gracious instead of careless.

Sakamoto has collaborated with Fennesz (listen to “Haru”) and Alva Noto (“Berlin” made me finally understand Debussy’s quote, “Music is the space between the notes”), among many others. Listen to his music and know that you’re being transported more deeply into your soul by the able hands of a true master.