Saturday, September 28, 2013

Music and Terroir and David Byrne

“Terroir” is a concept that is talked about a lot in the wine world, and means many different things for many different people.  The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that terroir encompasses all the elements that go into winemaking that a winemaker cannot control.  In other words, the soil and the microclimate (weather, drainage, elevation, etc.) in which the grapes grow.  Therefore, wines that are “terroir-driven” are expressive of the place in which they are made, and a wine that has the distinct mark of its winemaker (this might manifest itself in tons of oakiness or over-extraction) is less so. 

I really like this concept, in theory and in practice, and I think the idea of terroir is something that extends beyond wine into other disciplines.  David Byrne makes an amazing case for terroir in music in the opening chapter of his new book, “How Music Works.”  Of course, he doesn’t actually reference “terroir” but that’s immediately what came to my mind.

I’m a huge David Byrne fan and I finally got around to buying his book now that they have released the paperback edition.  So far, the book is incredible—I highly recommend you pick up a copy.  The opening chapter is called “Creation in Reverse,” and he begins by debunking the myth of a musician being spontaneously inspired.  He writes, “The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form.  Or that the rock and roll singer is driven by desire and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds—nothing more, nothing less.  This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path to creation is almost 180 degrees from this model.  I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit pre-existing formats.”

As an example he points out that the physical qualities of the club CBGB (the legendary New York venue where the Talking Heads, along with so many other important New York punk bands, got their start) were ideal for performing and listening to the kind of music that was being played there.  He references the lack of reverberation due to the clutter and irregular shape of the room, which was ideal for the Talking Heads’ groove-oriented music.  He also talks about the club’s intimacy: the small size of the club allowed audience members to appreciate physical gestures from the performers. 

He then goes on to discuss the differences between African music and Western music of the middle ages, and their respective venues.  He suggests that the percussive music of Africa is ideally performed outdoors where there is no reverberation and rhythmic complexity won’t be lost.  Conversely, he notes that this music would sound terrible in a Cathedral, and points out that music with shifting keys or dissonance would sound like a “sonic pileup” in a highly reverberant gothic cathedral*.  This, he suggests, is why the music that was performed in those cathedrals was instead modal and “slowly evolving,” creating an “otherworldy ambience,” that played to the strengths of the highly reverberant space.

He provides a number of other examples, including how singing style shifted with the advent of the microphone, how rock bands’ style became simpler and statelier to accommodate arena and stadium performances, and even how bird song changes based on the bird’s environment. 

Another way of describing this would be to say that musicians create music for the context in which their music is performed or heard, not in a vacuum, or not simply from internal inspiration.  They create music that, like wine, is an expression of place.  Their context, whether it is a rock club or a cathedral, informs the work and is accountable for the work’s success.  Similarly, great wine makers create “in reverse,” from the terroir up, simply guiding the grape along in it’s natural process to becoming wine.  When a winemaker interjects their own agenda or personality into the wine making process, like a banjo in a gothic cathedral, it can jeopardize the success of the endeavor. 

As a final thought, Byrne writes, “Genius—the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work—seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context.  When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well.  When the right thing is in the right place we are moved.”

While on the subject of terroir I’d like to talk about this wine:

2011 Domaine du Closel Anjou Rouge

This wine is 100% Cabernet Franc from Savennieres in the Loire Valley and was $20 at Astor Wines.  The color is a nice inky dark purple.  Right after opening it was all fruit and one dimensional, and while it was tasty I was a bit disappointed in its lack of complexity.  But after some time in the glass, the wine made a complete 180.  It definitely still had a berried fruity character to it, but it was overshadowed by all these great earthy components that began to show.  There was a forest, pine, mint kind of thing happening, as well as a really interesting herbal vegetal layer, all underlined by this persistent mineral zing (interestingly, not something I’ve found in very many red wines). 

What was really amazing was how well all these elements came together.  I’ve had other Loire cab francs, the Catherine and Pierre Breton “Trinch” comes to mind, that are very funky and bizarre (in a good way) but this wine, while very complex, was harmonious, pure, and elegant: a definite crowd pleaser. 

This wine also gave me one of my first “Aha!” terroir moments.  While drinking it I had a sort of déjà vu to another wine but I couldn’t figure out which one.  I hadn’t been drinking other Cab Franc based wines recently, or anything even remotely similar for that matter.  Finally, I realized it was the 2012 Clos Des Briords I had had a few days earlier.  This wine is a white wine from nearby Muscadet, also in the Loire Valley (for the record it’s a phenomenal wine).  It’s pretty cool that two wines, one red one white, from two different producers, made of two different grapes with two very distinct flavor profiles can still show something very specific and perceptible in common.  I think it had something to do with the mineral component in both wines. It’d be interesting to find out if these two wines are grown in the same type of soils.  I don’t know for sure but I’d be willing to bet that they are…

And what better food to celebrate terroir than mushrooms?! 

Found these dried morels and chanterelles at Choice Greene in Clinton Hill.  They were embarrassingly expensive but having never tried either of these mushrooms I decided to splurge (I own one pair of jeans yet I’ll spend $20 on mushrooms?  I may need to reconsider my priorities a bit…).

Reconstituted the mushrooms and made a mushroom stock…

…which I then used to make a mushroom, red wine, Parmesan and sage risotto.

The risotto turned out pretty nicely, if I do say so myself.  The mushrooms were spectacular, and I think using mushroom stock for the risotto really made the dish.  It was like a savory, meaty, dirt explosion.  The dish worked well with the Closel Anjou Rouge as well, but after the fact I realized this dish was just screaming for red Burgundy. Sadly, good Burgundy is hard to find in the $20 range.  Any recommendations for good affordable Burgundy? 


*I actually saw David Byrne perform at Carnegie Hall (a highly reverberant symphony hall type room) about 5 years ago with his “Here Lies Love” project which was a sort of concept disco opera about the life of Imelda Marcos he wrote in collaboration with Fatboy Slim.  The music was heavily disco influenced and was great but I have to admit the space did not do the music justice.  I found the room was too boomy and the groove was lost.  David Byrne actually writes in the book, “I’ve played at Carnegie Hall a couple of times, and it can work, but it is far from ideal.  I wouldn’t play that music there again.”  The music was great, and the concert was still very enjoyable, but it was definitely a testament to the importance of considering the ideal venue for a performance.  Here’s a song from that project:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

In Praise of NYC Radio

It’s not something I do often, but on the rare occasion that I drive in New York, particularly at night, I love listening to the radio. 

Because I am a musician, and because I play the double bass (not very airplane friendly), I spend a lot of time on long drives.    For the medium-long distance trips, I’m often the one who drives with the gear while other band members fly.  I think I’ve driven to Chicago and back roughly 4 million times now. 

If you’ve never done it, the drive between Chicago and New York is a lot of truck stops, a lot of corn, and a lot of flat.  About 15 hours worth to be exact.  And the soundtrack to this lovely jaunt through the American heartland is a lot of pop country, a lot of top 40, and a lot of Christian rock. 

I actually don’t mind this music so much.  It’s truly artful how people can write and produce music that is so digestible, so unobtrusive, but also catchy and memorable.  And on a long boring drive, this music helps to induce a sort of sedative, narcotic, trance-like state.  It’s like the musical equivalent of eating Pringles: it’s satisfying in the short-term and easy to consume absent-mindedly, but can make you sick in large quantities.  And I don’t mean this pejoratively. I actually really like Pringles. 

But by the time you reach Manhattan, all the junk food and gasoline fumes and Katy Perry have left you in a comatose state, your brain function at a dangerously low level.  Your body and mind are desperate for nourishment.  And then you come out of the Holland tunnel and New York City in all of its New York City-ness hits you like a ton of bricks.  Or rather like a shot of adrenaline through the breastplate, like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction...

Your central nervous system seizes as you are attacked with more culture, life, filth and vibrancy than your atrophied brain can even begin to process.  But as you cross the Manhattan bridge into Brooklyn, and you look at that amazingly beautiful view of lower Manhattan, things begin to calm down a bit and you remember how much you love this place, and how glad you are you don’t live in western Pennsylvania…

Perfectly in step with your shifting state of mind, the radio changes as well.   All of a sudden there are dozens of different stations to choose from in dozens of different languages.  On any given night you can hear Hip Hop, Bachata, Brazilian music, indie rock, Cuban/Puerto Rican music, punk, Chinese pop music, Korean pop music, decent jazz programming, talk radio shows about local politics; I’ve even heard metal shows late at night, real metal too--serious, cool, brutal stuff.  I’ve driven a lot all over the country and I can pretty confidently say that there is nothing like this anywhere else, at least in my experience.  Sure, there are certain good shows or good stations in certain cities, but nowhere I’ve been has anywhere near this amount of diversity or cultural richness on the radio.   New Orleans comes close, but even there the radio is very New Orleans-centric—their music just happens to be really diverse and interesting.  And outside of those certain cities like New Orleans, the programming in the rest of the country, let’s say 85% of it, is almost completely homogenized. 

As I get home to Brooklyn, I always look forward to hearing the shortwave pirate radio stations that play West Indian dance music at night.  The music is cool, but I mostly just love that these radio stations exist.  The fact that unlicensed illegally broadcast stations can stay on the air in one of the biggest and “greatest” cities in the world boggles the mind and lifts the spirit (at least for me, I’m sure the F.C.C. feels differently).  These stations remind me of the delis and bodegas you can still find all over New York.  In the face of the corporate homogenization that is taking over the country, in small towns and major cities alike, these dinky, dirty, poorly stocked delis, with crappy coffee and cheap turkey sandwiches can still exist and thrive, in all types of neighborhoods, simply because that’s how we do it here.  They look like this:

I know people who have lived in New York for decades will tell me that it’s is nothing like what it used to be, and even in the relatively short time I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the city change a lot. But to me, the shortwave radio stations in Flatbush and Bed Stuy and the bodegas and delis all over the city signify something about New York—that it is still wild, still a bit lawless.  I feel like this can’t be said for most of the other big, thriving, major cities, at least in America, and it’s one of the many reasons I like this place so damn much. 

So anyway, with a deli sandwich (turkey, lettuce, tomato, mustard, mayo, provolone on a roll) in hand, and boom station on your radio dial ( ), I’d like to toast this great city.

And New Yorkers! Remember to listen to your radio!  I guarantee you’ll hear something special and new every time you do.


Disclaimer 1: I know I’m making some pretty bold statements, but it’s all based solely on my experiences.  I would love to hear about other cities with good, interesting, diverse radio programming.  

Disclaimer 2: I didn't mention NPR because it is broadcast so widely across the country, but it is one of the most consistent sources of great programming on the radio, and it is a national treasure.  

Disclaimer 3: I was half kidding when I characterized delis as "dinky, dirty and poorly stocked" with "crappy coffee and cheap turkey sandwiches."  While many are lousy (and I do find the lousiness kinda of lovable), some are amazing sources of great affordable food.  Also I'm talking about corner bodega type delis not your Katz's or Carnegie delis...  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Falanghina and the Sensitive Layman

People sometimes ask me for advice on how to get into jazz.  Leaving the “what is jazz” debate for another day, I find this question a little funny because, in many ways, I think jazz is pretty easy to get into.  All the biggest names (Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, etc.) are generally some of the best-recorded examples of the music.  This definitely isn’t the case for most other types of music.  A google search of “country music artists” yields a disproportionate number of young pop country crossover artists like Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, or Blake Shelton.  Regardless of whether you think this music is good or not, you definitely can’t claim it is a complete representation of the country music canon.

I’ll be the first to admit that some jazz is esoteric, heady, and prohibitive but you don’t have to dig very deep to find “Ella and Louis” or “Charlie Parker With Strings,” which are both recordings I think anyone with ears could enjoy, or at the very least understand.  I think people feel that jazz is unapproachable because of a stigma that jazz is a music that requires some scholarly knowledge of the techniques and the history before it can be enjoyed.  This is mostly absurd.

Good music does not require prior knowledge to be understood or enjoyed.  If you need proof, listen to basically anything by Louis Armstrong.  Armstrong’s music, in my opinion, is as sophisticated as that of any other jazz musician, but I can’t imagine anyone finding it unapproachable (which is especially remarkable because some of it is almost 100 years old now!).  What makes any art “great” is never technique alone.  However, I do think that learning about the techniques and the history of a music, while not a prerequisite, can enrich the listener’s experience.  Which is why when someone asks me, “what should I check out if I want to get into jazz?” I send them this video. 

Obviously the video’s a little dated, but if you can get through the schticky intro and the slightly weird interview style (definitely some brotherly tension there…), the things Bill Evans has to say, and the demonstrations he gives, are just about the best practical introduction to jazz you can get anywhere.  But don’t just take my word for it—if you want to learn about jazz or art or music in general, and you have 45 minutes, you should really watch this.

Bill Evans says in the opening segment, “I do not agree that the laymen’s opinion is less of a valid judgment of music than that of the professional musician.  In fact, I would often rely more on the judgment of the sensitive layman than that of a professional since the professional, because of his constant involvement with the mechanics of music, must fight to preserve the naiveté that the layman already possesses.”

So far my approach to learning about wine (and I may be going about this the complete wrong way) is educated guesswork.  I read about wines, and I try to learn what to expect from specific varietals, regions, vintages, etc.  When I try different wines I have an idea of what to expect and I try to take note of when a wine either meets these expectations or diverges from them.  It’s similar to the process I use to identify a recording: this is a piano trio record and it sounds like Red Garland and the bassist is definitely Paul Chambers, so the drummer is probably Art Taylor.  But wines often don’t fit into neat little boxes, and this for me is the fun of it. 

I had a Falanghina the other night that had me completely flummoxed.  I had never had a Falanghina and I really knew nothing about the grape going into it.  The wine was unlike anything I’d ever had, and without any frame of reference I started floundering.  At first I thought it was oaky, but then I realized it wasn’t really vanilla-y or very buttery, just rich.  One minute I found it fruity, and the next I found it earthy and mineral, and then eventually I couldn’t identify anything about it.  This was an example where the wine failed to fit into any of the categories I had created in my mind.  My knowledge (which is, admittedly, limited) failed me, and it was awesome. 

A friend of mine who loves wine but wouldn’t claim to know much about it joined me for dinner, and as I was silently freaking about this wine she effortlessly pointed out that it smelled like pine needles, and she was totally right.  From there, the wine slowly started to make sense to me.  This is a perfect example of the perceptiveness of the “sensitive layman,” and a reminder why it’s important to fight to preserve one’s naiveté, especially when tasting wine. 
Here’s the wine I’m talking about:

2011 Cantine Astroni “Falangos” Falanghina

Falanghina is a white grape grown in the Campania region of Italy.  This wine is from Campi Flegrei an active volcano area west of Naples and the soils are made up largely of volcanic ash.  As I said before, my first impression of this wine was that it was oaky, but after some time I realized that that was probably just because of its richness and golden color.  It was a bit cloudy too—could there be skin contact?  There were grassy piney aromas, as well as tropical fruit. The wine was slightly effervescent when opened and had a subtle, almost spicy minerality on the palate without being very acidic.  I almost want to say that it was like a sauvignon blanc in terms of flavor profile but with the body of a California Chardonnay, if that makes sense at all.  The wine was a little rich for my tastes, and I wouldn’t have minded a little more acidity, but it was very interesting and I clearly had a lot to say about it.  And at $15 dollars, it’s definitely an excellent bargain, especially if you’re into richer, fuller bodied white wines. 

It went really nicely with a spaghetti alle vongole and a salad of late summer tomatoes. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

West Africa, Eastern France

Most people I know listen to music in intense bursts.  They will find a record or song they love and then listen it to it obsessively, until they either get tired of it or find something else to replace it.  This includes musicians and non-musicians, and I think it’s a beautiful way to listen because you are always listening to music that you really care about.

I’ve never been like this.  I would call myself more of a grazer.  I really enjoy hearing new music and I can get enjoyment out of listening to just about anything.   For that reason, I’m always seeking out different music from musicians I’ve never heard, or new recordings by musicians I already know and love, and I never stay put in one place too long.  However I do occasionally get fixated, and when I do it’s pretty bad.  It happened with the dirty projectors a couple years ago, it happened with that Kendrick Lamar album, it happened with Caetano Veloso and now it’s happened again…

Ghana Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Ghanaian Blues, 1968-81

I discovered this great compilation accidentally while searching for Dr. K Giyasi on spotify.  I had read about him somewhere and, like those of many African artists, his recordings are difficult to find.  But the search is often incredibly rewarding.  I was immediately blown away by this comp.

The music is not traditional highlife, but is the product of the cross-pollination of West African music like highlife and American Rock, Funk and Soul that would have been heard by African artists in the late 60’s and 70’s.  The instrumentation on many these tracks is evidence of the American influence with distorted electric guitars, synthesizers and James Brown-esque horn sections, but the incredibly sophisticated and deeply danceable rhythms are unmistakably West African.

Here’s one of my favorite tracks:

Hedzoleh Soundz are perhaps most famous for their collaboration with South African crossover star Hugh Masekela, but until I found this comp I had never heard their music.  

For me, this is good as music gets.  It has everything.  It is incredibly sophisticated and complex rhythmically, but earthy and grooving at the same time.  The music is raw and emotional, particularly the vocal performance.  The arrangement is perfect with the call and response vocal sections and the guitar interludes shaping the track.  And it has unmistakable ‘vibe.’  Maybe it’s something about the recording itself but it’s one of those tracks that you put on and the room seems to change in color slightly.  There is something magical about it.  I must have listened to this track 50 times since discovering it. 

It can be difficult to get into music that is from a culture foreign from your own, but if you are willing to go out of your comfort zone, I can’t recommend this track highly enough.  Give it a few listens and keep an open mind, and I think you’ll find this incredibly rewarding.

I’ve been similarly fixated on the idiosyncratic and delicious wines of the Jura region in eastern France.  I first tried a Jura wine at a tasting at Chambers Street Wines.  The wine was the 2004 Domaine de Saint-Pierre Arbois Savagnin.  It was funky, savory, kind of sherry-like and generally weird.  But delicious.  I had to leave for a gig right after the tasting but I caved and went back afterwards (which, embarrassingly, was completely out of the way) and bought a bottle. 

After doing some research, I realized I have come to Jura wines a little late in the game.  They seemed to have been pretty under the radar for a while, but now are well known, and getting pricier.  And sadly the Houillon-Overnoy wines, which are considered by many the gold standard for Jura wines, and which were formerly easy to find and affordable in New York, are now basically impossible to find, especially at a reasonable price. 

But there are great Jura wines to be had, and even if they aren’t under the radar anymore, they’re still just plain awesome:

2004 Domaine de Saint-Pierre Arbois Savagnin

This wine is made “sous-voile” (under veil) which means that the wine that evaporates from the barrels isn’t topped off, and instead a layer of yeast separates the wine from the oxygen in the barrel.  This most likely explains the sherry-like savory, nuttiness of the wine, which is definitely what struck me first.  But the wine also has really nice green apple and citrus fruit to it, as well as impressive acidity.  My first taste was pretty shocking but after some time in the glass, and especially on day two, the wine really comes together into a honeyed, elegant, well-balanced wine.  Very complex, a little bizarre, but ultimately delicious…

Had this with a chickpea curry dish.  I’ll admit this was a very haphazard pairing because I got home late and this was the only food I had in the house, and the only wine I had open, but it actually worked surprisingly well.  Who knew?

***Addendum: This wine also went amazingly with a BLT the next day 

2012 Domaine Tissot Arbois Poulsard Vielles Vignes

Poulsard, like savagnin, is one of the grapes the Jura is known for, and I’ve never heard of it being grown anywhere else.  This was the first poulsard I’ve ever had and it completely blew me away.  The wine is very light red in color, almost pink, like a dark rose.  The nose was very floral, but also with some red fruit, and an earthy savoriness I couldn’t pin down.  After opening there was also a chlorine-y smell, like the locker room of a public pool, but it was subtle and actually very pleasant. In case that freaks you out, it disappeared after about an hour open, but I was loving it while it lasted (could this quality be indicative of "reduction?" I've read about poulsards being "reductive" when opened, but I haven't had the tasting experience to be able to confidently identify reduction).  The wine is delicate, but also surprisingly intense.  It’s delicious but also challenging.  Its the kind of wine that is as complex as you want it to be--I could see non-wine drinkers at a barbecue or a party enjoying this wine just as much as a very serious wine nerd would. 

Drank this wine at a pretty fancy small-plate type restaurant for my birthday, and it went amazingly well with everything we had (scallops, duck, summer vegetables).  I could see this, despite its weirdness, being an extremely versatile food wine.  I think this would appeal most to white wine drinkers, or people who like red burgundy, or anyone interested in a wine that is left of center, but also incredibly drinkable and delicious--that’s always what I’m looking for anyway. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

First Post!

Welcome to “a blog about wine and music

With this blog I will discuss some of the wines I’ve been trying, and music I’ve been listening to.
Before we jump to any conclusions about what kind of blog this is, let me be clear about what I don’t want this to be…

I have no intention of making music and wine “pairings.”   Do not expect to read anything about how the blueberry notes in a so-and-so Napa Cab go perfectly with Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue,’ or about the best roses to drink while listening to Rick Ross (actually, on second thought, that sounds kind of awesome...).   I will do my best to avoid cutesiness, and instead to try to make something that is both a serious ‘wine blog’ and a serious ‘music blog.’ 

But why music and wine together?  Why not one or the other?  Why not two separate blogs?

For me, there are many good reasons for making this music/wine blog bundle package:

  1. There are already plenty of music blogs, and plenty of wine blogs.  And I see no reason for bringing another one of these into the world.  However, for those like me, who love both wine and music this could be something a little different than the abundance of blogs on either subject already available to them.  And for those only interested in one or the other, let’s say the music lover who doesn’t know much or care about wine, the wine component could provide a fresh perspective on music and perhaps also pique the music nerd’s interest in exploring wine.
  2. Wine and music are both things that can provide inspiration, pleasure, and intrigue.  Many wine lovers I’ve met are also passionate about music, and vice versa.  To me this makes perfect sense.  They are both pleasurable but also intellectually stimulating.  With music and wine you get as much back as you are willing to put in.  You could study either one for a lifetime without ever having a complete mastery of the subject, but learning a little bit more each day with every record, or every bottle, or every glass is fulfillment enough.  For me all the greatest things in life are like this.  
  3. Finally, I have a selfish reason.  I want to have a wine blog, but I am in no way a wine expert.  I am a professional musician, and music teacher and I’ve been studying, practicing, teaching and playing music for most of my life.  I feel very comfortable talking about and assessing music in an objective way, and I feel like what I have to say about music might be worth reading.  But any authority I might have talking about music, I definitely don’t have for wine.  Wine is a relatively new passion of mine but a very serious one.  I have become totally obsessed with wine, spending all my free time going to tastings, reading wikipedia articles about obscure Italian varietals and grazing NYC wine shop shelves for hours at a time.  You can ask my girlfriend, she’ll tell you I’ve gone completely off the deep end.  I think this blog will be a good outlet for me (and for the sanity of those around me), and writing about wine and music side by side will hopefully help me further develop my understanding of both subjects. 

Anyway, no matter the reason, this is happening.  And what better way to toast my maiden voyage into the blogosphere than with a bottle of bubbly?  And there really is nothing better than great champagne, right?…except perhaps a badass sparkling wine from Burgundy for $20!

Tripoz Cremant de Bourgogne Nature Brut

This Cremant is from the certified organic and biodynamic vineyards of Celine and Laurent Tripoz in Loche.  The wine is 100% chardonnay and bottled with no dosage (dosage is a process used in making champagne or other bottle-fermented sparkling wines by which sediment is removed and replaced, usually, with a mixture of wine and sugar).  The result is a bone-dry sparkler, with bright fresh green apple and citrus aromas.  The wine is exceptionally balanced with substantial acidity, and subtle minerality.  The mouthfeel is creamy and decadent.  This wine is an incredible value, and damn good regardless of price.   Thanks to the awesome staff at Chambers Street Wines (far and away my favorite wine store in NYC, or anywhere else) for the recommendation. 

I can only hope my future posts are about wine as delicious as this!