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Marathon Rerun

from Wednesday, August13th of the year2008.

So I am watching a marathon rerun of what I think is last season’s Topp Chef, and am watching the finale: a showdown between this boy Ilan who must, at this point, be my age, and this total nightmare called Marcel. Ilan, it seems, specializes in Spanish-inspired dishes. Fine. He has a nicely shaped head and seems to be nice to his friends. I like him. This other dude is mad irritating. You know when people have just a bad vibe.? People like that turn up at such places as: College & also Realitý TV. There was a boy who lived near me freshman year who had the dueling affectations of baby-talk and ostentatiously poor hygiene; does anybody else remember that Hot Topic’d-out heifer on The Real World who quat the show because she was “too punk rock” for it? And also she was scared of, like, large ships or something? I used to think that it was required to be polite to these people, but I have since learned that the best thing to do when somebody totally freaks you out is to just tip on out of there and leave them be; they’re like sick animals who might bite you as soon as accept your kindness. Anyway, the Other Dude hearts on some Molecular Gastronomy, which is one of these totally fascinating new developments in food.

Molecular Gastronomy is essentially the space where chemistry and cooking interact, or, more specifically, an explicit acknowledgement of the fact that there is an overlap. Molecular Gastronomy plays on turning texture on its head, so, you can end up with, for instance, a slice of foie gras transformed into the shape of an udon noodle, or, a cauliflower purée rendered meringue-solid by the addition of a chemical. It’s actually totally awesome when done right; one of my favorite restaurants in Christendom, WD-50, is the few places pulling it off in New York with consistent aplomb and deliciousness. So it is terrifying to watch this douchey guy on TV be really into it.

I feel the same way, though, about self-avowed Minimalist Composers. I love minimalism; it is my emotional summer home (Anglican choral music being the winter residence). I get very, very anxious when people confess to using minimalist techniques because I suspect that the technique is leading the emotions rather than the emotions requiring the technique. The internet is filled with people who are very quick to acknowledge their stylistic allegiances, as if style is a political party; I always thought style was the process by which you judiciously (and daringly and provocatively) apply the fabrics that best suit the body that you have been given.

When done right, molecular gastronomy can be unspeakably evocative. There is a drink at WD-50 which consists of tequila, dried thai long chilis, and smoked pear juice, which all sounds too cool for school, until you taste it. I got the tiniest sip down and was immediately reminded of the smell of an censer a friend of my mother had sent me when I was a child: it was a little pueblo house with a couple of poncho-clad figurines standing out front of it; this same friend later wrote a book in which she analyzed gruesome fin-de-siècle crime scene photographs of mutilated bodies in Paris; all of these memories were immediately available to me on first sip.

Minimal composition, for me, should aspire to evoke similarly specific emotions; whereas Romantic music appeals to the Jungian journeys we “all” supposedly can relate to (the home, the woods, the lover, the villain), minimal music, for me, is unspecific in origin but specific and very personal in destination. You take six pitches, and oscillate between them in some sort of pattern, and one person in the audience remembers playing a broken pump organ, and another remembers a childhood spent playing underneath high-tension electric wires.

When on the road, I like to start playing shows with this piece called Twitchy Organs., which is a cycle of six pitches that can be played by any combination of musicians. Mainly, it’s an experiment in seeing how I react to it; while the other musicians play the pitches in order but not in time with each other, I start playing a specific melody that can happen at any speed that works around the notes. I had a very specific idea in mind when I wrote this piece, which is a very high-tech train station in the middle of the countryside, almost entirely unpopulated. I’m not sure if I’ve been to this train station ““ I think as a kid, I went to a train station in suburban Bern wot had LED displays and a low, electrical hum; there are regional rail stations in Parisian suburbs that share, I think, the same emotional content ““ but I know that it’s a specific idea. However, under no circumstances do I want Twitchy Organs. to mean that same thing to anybody else; that’s why it’s not called This One Time I May Or May Not Have Gone To A Railway Station up in Switzerland that was Very Beautiful for Reasons Mysterious.. Ideally, somebody will listen to it and remember a very specific, very difficult to pin-down memory, and that, for me, will be a success.

One of the things I used to always struggle with with the masterpieces of classical minimal composition is the resistance, on the part of the composers, to suggest narratives. I’m sure that was particularly frustrating in the 1960’s and 70’s, when they were being written, but for me, the pieces (I’m thinking specifically of Music for Eighteen Musicians and Music in Twelve Parts.) now suggest the time in my life when I first heard them: the Reich in high school, sitting on the floor, and the Glass in Freshman year in college, on a discman, taking the N train slowly down Broadway and getting out early to be able to finish the piece while walking the rest of the distance. Mm, Music in Twelve Parts.

Last night I had an amazing language experience. I ate with B”” and T”” at Gemma which is the surprisingly delicious restaurant in the Bowery Hotel at 3rd street. As we got dessert, the runner put it down and said, “this is a chocolate cake with an escoop of vanilla ice cream.” I am obsessed with this idea of knowing the grammatical rule that the indefinite article in English works like that (a + consonant noun/an + vowel (or h) noun) but still maintaining the Spanish-language inflected idea that the letter S has to be prefaced by a vowel.

t’s random list time! But this time all questions? How come my iPhone can speak Chinese now but can’t make the Icelandic letters eth (ð) and thorn (þ)? What happens to these people who win Top Chef or who lose Top Chef? Where Marcel at? Where Ílan at? Was Salman Rushdie married to Padma Lakshmi when he got his eyes de-hooded? Can cook people still call that kind of strainer a “Chinois” or is it too racist? Speaking of which, did everybody take note of the Spanish Basketball Team? I haven’t seen a single Olympic this year and it doesn’t look good for seeing any in the future.

Finally, the people over at Parterre Box have finally gotten a hold of me, you have to read the comments, they are amazing, ranging from the curious to the outright mean (“Has anyone else listened to excerpts from his MotherTongue album on YouTube? What crap. Composing an opera for the Met? Talk about having greatness thrust upon one.”) I wonder what is even up from Mothertongue on YouTube! Or did they mean iTunes? This kind of attention is pretty wild; I feel like these people know more what this piece is going to sound like than I do. Maybe I’ll just give them a little peek to calm their nerves: it’s going to be good! See the embedded: it looks like music, it’ll sound like music, and it will be ravishing. I hope.


  • Christopher Wilson
    August 13th, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks for the very thoughtful and entertaining blog, Nico. I always look forward to reading it. Those are interesting insights about how Minimalism can evoke different (and very personal) experiences in each listener. Those are always my favorite works of art — ones that carry some element of mystery, that summon up fragments of forgotten memories and help to reinforce a rich interior life. My partner and I are looking forward to seeing your show at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA next week — and we’re really excited to hear about the Met opera commission (via Just received my copy of Mothertongue in the mail today and will listen to it tonight, in preparation for next week’s concert. Now I want to try WD-50!

    Best wishes,

    Christopher Wilson
    Alexandria, VA

  • ill cut those boys.

  • Yeah, no pressure.

    Hey did you finish it yet?

    How about now.

  • Well, nothing like the mothertongues of bitter old asexual opera queens to bring the warm feelings of joy and happiness to the world!

    Maybe somewhere in your opera you can write a role for a greek chorus of this claque (“don’t hit send, little boy, don’t hit send!”) that is ultimately mowed down by machine gun fire from one of the columbine kids. Talk about sending a ‘positive’ message from the world of ‘classical’ music.

    Anyhow, it really is nice to see the whiff of sodomy that always seems to hover over Anglican choral music coming into full blossom with your opera. I can’t wait—-this is going to be good!

  • It’s so bizarre to have something like a taste or a smell evoke such poignant and specific memories. It’s very exciting whenever it happens. It happened to me with a bottle of laundry detergent once.

  • small world. Your mothers New Mexico based friend wrote the essay for my partne book of photographs.

  • And I thought the theater was mean.

  • I am interested in the way you tie molecular gastronomy to minimalism. I always considered it the opposite—fancy science and all—but it sounds as though when it’s done right it taps into our weird wells of sense memory. This gives me a new respect for Grant Achatz here in Chicago. I mean, I already thought it’s pretty neat that he now has to cook with his nose, but I also thought he sounded sort of lame when I read that he burns hay to suggest autumn or whatever. But you have helped me see that his food is an unlikely example of the minimalist’s gesture: distilling something very complex to make a whole that transcends the sum of its parts.

    But it seems like so many get it wrong—and not just Marcel, but chefs who are otherwise great. I went to a food conference last year where Charlie Trotter gave a demonstration of shiny things for molecular gastronomists where he made trout ice cream with a pacojet. It was VILE. I guess when you play to the gimmick—defying people’s expectations—it’s novelty instead of art. And it damn sure ain’t good eats.

    But I find it even more interesting that you like Ilan on Top Chef. Did you see that episode where he egged on another contestant to hold down Marcel and shave his head? (Alas, the latter phase of that plan was unsuccessful.) Ilan is, like, the Mayor of Doucheville.

  • Concert tonight at the Triple Door! Young Folke will be coming.

  • Thanks for another great post – I’m just catching up on the older ones now. Interesting way of thinking about minimal/romantic differences, relating it to Jungian journeys. You may be interested in Paul Schrader’s ‘Transcendental Style in Film’ where he discusses sparse vs. abundant means in Ozu, Dreyer, and Bresson, but he doesn’t make that ‘story’ connection – he stays on the an individual’s emotional experience.

    Looking forward to your SF show. Marco Benevento is in town as well, Sunday-Wednesday: Invasion of the New Yorkers!

  • escoop! you made my day with that one!

  • Whilst in town: the William Byrd Festival is on now here in Portland, including two events tomorrow:
    Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 11:00 A.M.
    “Ye sacred muses: Music for Viols and Voices–an Illustrated Recital” given by David Trendell, King’s College, London, with Karl Blume, Tuesday Kingsbury & Ann Wetherell, accompanied by the Festival Consort. at St. Stephen’s Church.
    7:30 P.M, Solemn Latin Mass featuring Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, Cantores in Ecclesia, directed by Richard Marlow, Trinity College, Cambridge, Chant sung by the Children’s Choir of Cantores in Ecclesia, directed by Dean Applegate
    St. Stephen’s Church. The Byrd fest website is

  • just wondering if you like the music of Valentin Sivestrov? I am listening to his ‘post scriptum’ with Vadim Sacharov on piano.

  • Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

  • i think i need to return to wd-50, the one time i’ve been there i was so underwhelmed! it was the evening we landed in nyc and my gf + i were v tired + so maybe that’s what it was. or maybe i’m just old fashioned and want to be able to actually identify the ingredients that i’m eating…

  • Hey Nico.

    Thanks for being awesome.


  • Minimalism is always an interesting course of conversation as one has to question what the actually borders are…

    Currently in vogue in the dance music side of the world is what is known as minimal techno. The status of sounds is far more open. But the sounds themselves are more round, creating a warmth and vibration on a soul level rather than one of heady intellectualism. Is it minimal?

    And what about my youth? I grew up in Northern Wisconsin, on five acres. There was a lot of lawn to mow between the rural orchards and side yards of that haunted 70’s split level ranch.

    I sang endless songs to the tonal roar of a riding lawn mower. Is that minimal? When there is just one solid note and you build your voice around it?

    Songs in the Key of Riding Lawn Mower?