Pumpkin Spice Proust

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HarpingOn

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Halloween. The Upper West Side is seemingly flooded with Minions, race-car drivers, bandits, cowboys, and a meddle of Star Wars and Pixar characters. Mama Leia was spotted on 67th and Columbus pushing Yoda and Anakin in a double stroller, while Woody and Buzz Lightyear were running away from their exhausted candy sac-toting father. I confess I somewhat envy these children as my own Halloween costumes weren’t exactly exercises in autonomy, self-expression, or even good old-fashioned American commercialization. For instance, I remember revealing myself to my Kindergarten colleagues dressed up as an Argentinian Gaucho. Niche? Absolutely. Simply dressing up your son as a cowboy was a bit too pedestrian for my mother.

Third grade? I couldn’t go to the church Halloween party as Julius Caesar, but instead had to impersonate Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. Apparently Caesar’s penchant for imperialism, incest and infanticide rendered him an inappropriate figure to appear at a Baptist Church function. Either way, logistics were an issue, as my bright purple toga prevented me from roller-skating around the church gymnasium like the other kids. Heaven forbid an emperor merely wheel around his subjects in a plebian tunic.

Fourth grade took the cake. I was placed in grandmother’s care (catastrophic error). While I was indeed granted my wish to dress up as the Phantom of the Opera (because this 9 year old was going through a Sarah Brightman phase in his young life), like most things with my grandmother, it came at a price. The mask and cape were purchased, but also a portable cassette player and a karaoke tape of “Music of the Night” to perform for members of my grandmother’s Sunday school class. Trick-or-treating consisted of being driven around the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky for three or four hours to sing for the accumulation of a grand total of ten pieces of Halloween candy. These ten pieces were then inspected at my grandparents’ kitchen table with a magnifying glass and checked for holes and punctures in case they were poisoned (my grandmother was a little neurotic). Only then was I was allowed to consume one a day, on the condition that I had brushed my teeth twice already on said day. Needless to say, that was the last time I dressed up for Halloween.

As kids we’re naturally unaware of the bigger picture surrounding Halloween, autumn, seasonal change. I didn’t think too hard about the cost of my costumes, whether I looked completely idiotic or offensive, and I certainly didn’t think about the calorie count of my candy. Meteorology wasn’t at the front of my mind either; the change in weather was just a chance to jump in a pile of leaves and eat pumpkin pie. As I got older, more and more I started thinking about the arrival of autumn, the nebulous idea of “change,” the doom of colder weather, putting on the winter weight, and impending reality that I’ll have to start practicing Christmas music before too long. As I pick up a ghost shaped chocolate or grab a slice of pumpkin bread from the coffee shop, the taste doesn’t remind me of costumes or trick-or-treating. Most days, it just reminds me that if I’m not careful, my visits to the gym will be less a luxury and more a pressing necessity.

The idea that food carries associations with experiences isn’t novel. Food is the same as anything else that helps us remember – like pictures, smells and even songs. Lately, grocery shoppers have been able to bask in all their autumnal nostalgia with the ascent of the pumpkin spice plague. Be it curry, ravioli, almond milk, potato chips, hummus, scones, protein bars, polenta, peanut butter, kefir, Muesli or tofu stir-fry, Trader Joe’s has done an excellent job at reminding us all that indeed fall is here, lest we forget. Where it gets interesting is the glaring paradox that if we could actually recapture what four simple spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves) evoke, then it’s possible that we wouldn’t need to consume so many different pumpkin commodities. Quite the contrary, we would be simply content to just get another freaking pumpkin pie. Obviously that would be a lot less fun – what’s the point of having memories if we can’t remember them, play with them, manipulate them, even with something so mundane as a pack of ravioli?

No author was craftier with the elevation of the mundane than Marcel Proust. In Search of Lost Time is an entire literary work about how the human experience is encapsulated in our memories, so much so that the lines between the mundane and the significant are not only unclear, but almost invisible.

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

This paragraph in Swann’s Way, the first installment in Proust’s magnum opus is often considered the “gateway” passage, seemingly encapsulating the manner in which our sensibilities can warp our involuntary memories, and visa versa, even in doing something so simple as eating a cookie.

Last Wednesday, I felt as if I had four separate run-ins with Proust, making me think about what it means to remember a piece of music. My morning began with a class at Juilliard on the genre of the string quartet in the twentieth century, taught by Dr. Kendall Briggs. Having spent several weeks on Debussy and Ravel, we were recently fast-forwarded to the music of Henri Dutilleux, in particular his most famous work, Ainsi La Nuit. We learned very quickly that his work for string quartet is not so much structured around the notion of occurrence and recurrence, but of event and recognition. What’s so elusive about it is that the “event” in question is not a melody, or even a specific harmony, but a “feeling” that one gets from the overtones of the first chord of the piece.

The chord, while sounding fairly complex, is simply a sandwich of three sets of two notes, each spaced five notes away from one another. Dr. Briggs had us all sit down at a piano and play it over and over to see what it “felt” like – indeed, the chord has some mystical quality to it that makes you remember with more than one of your senses. It’s as if your spine starts to tingle.

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The chord comes back at various points in the piece, sometimes in ways you can tell, and sometimes in ways you can’t. But the real kicker is that the chord changes and shifts over the course of the piece, so by the end you get the same sensation as you had at the start of the piece, though the harmony has changed. Just as in Proust, our memories are not our own property, and things aren’t always as we remember them, though they may give us a familiar sensation. Something happens in the meantime – namely, life – that alters our ability for “accurate” recognition.

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A couple of hours later, students in Dr. Joel Sachs’ performance practicum heard a performance of Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano. While Dutilleux openly acknowledged the influence of Proust’s writing upon his music, Ives’ sonata somehow offers an even more Proustian meditation, if possible. Like lots of Ives’ music, the entire sonata is based on American folktunes, specifically hymns. The opening movement Autumn begins with a fragment of the old American hymn “My Shepherd will Supply My Need,” a paraphrase of Psalm 23, with an emphasis on the notion of provision.

The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;
Oh, may Thy house be my abode and all my work be praise;
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come;
No more a stranger nor a guest, but like a child at home.

It starts quietly, but builds up in a frenzy, reflecting the harvest rush to gather and store what the past six months has been spent growing. It’s somewhat contrary to the images we normally have of rural New England in the autumn, the rustling of leaves, or some idyllic quietude. For Ives, he struggles really to recreate all the sensations of fall in Connecticut as accurately as possible, from the most quiet to the most frenetic, all with four simple notes from the beginning of the hymn.

Unlike Dutilleux, Ives really goes for the gut and chooses something totally explicit to build his Sonata around. While known as a WASP-y Yale educated insurance tycoon, Ives’ upbringing in rural Connecticut exposed him to a world far removed from insurance offices of urban America or the neo-Gothic buildings of the Ivy Leagues. In his constant resorting to folk tunes and hymns, there’s a tangible hankering to return to that with which he was brought up, his mornings in church, his afternoons in the countryside, the sounds of his father’s brass bands. While perhaps less familiar to us now, American hymnody was a pervasive part of American musical culture for so long, that at the time Ives wrote this piece, it’s unlikely the reference would have been lost so readily as it is now. And yet Ives at the same time chooses to be elusive with the fragment, going backwards and forwards from the sad to the confused to the joyful, as if to jumble the reference he so carefully chose. But like Proust’s madeleines, the sounds of songs and human voices can change when removed from their context – remembering isn’t the same as experiencing, and the convergence of the two in real time can be complex. In In Search for Lost Time, the narrator’s first encounter with the modern telephone is perhaps an even better illustration of the problems of memory and evocation, as he speaks to his ailing grandmother.

I heard that voice which I mistakenly thought I knew so well; for always until then, every time that my grandmother had talked to me, I had been accustomed to follow what she said on the open score of her face, in which the eyes figured so largely; but her voice itself I was hearing this afternoon for the first time. And because that voice appeared to me to have altered in its proportions from the moment that it was a whole, and reached me thus alone and without the accompaniment of her face and features, I discovered for the first time how sweet that voice was . . . It was sweet, but also how sad it was, first of all on account of its very sweetness, a sweetness drained almost – more than any but a few human voices can ever have been – of every element of hardness, of resistance to others, of selfishness! Fragile by reason of its delicacy, it seemed constantly on the verge of breaking, of expiring in a pure flow of tears; then, too, having it alone beside me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed in it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime.

No matter how we try, life never really repeats itself, though the feeling or emotional weight of recurrence can be heavier than we think we can bear.

Much like reading Proust, you get started down a rabbit hole when you start thinking too hard about all this. Just as I see pumpkin spice pumpkinny pumpkin everywhere I go in the city, I started seeing the Proustian memory game in all of my scores. As musicians we’re taught to look for substantial building blocks like themes, subjects, counter-subjects, recapitulations, and other terms you might hear thrown around in AP Music Theory classes in high school. But if you start thinking in terms of what you can remember about a piece, or what the listener might latch on to, these foundational structures seal the deal. For instance, when you walk into a big gothic building, do you notice the brick work? Or the ornamentation, or the different styles of room, the paintings, the acoustic, or simply the sensation of being somewhere expansive?

Over coffee on Wednesday, I was clearing up some markings in my scores, fingering and cues, etc. And as I started listening to the pieces in my head and looked at the scores, I got the sensation that I was thinking about the structure all wrong. That is, I was thinking about it how I “ought” to think about it and not so much in terms of how it’ll come off to the listener, or how it might have come off to the composer when it was written.

Of the more curious works of Dietrich Buxtehude, his setting of the Te Deum looks like a row of notes on the page, seemingly endless, aimless and antiquated. But in coming back to the idea that pieces of music or even sections within them signify something outside themselves, be it in the past or even the present, I started to see how the first few pages of the Te Deum were a miniature time warp in their own way (as if looking at Buxtehude at a coffee shop on Columbus Avenue wasn’t time-travelly enough already).

There’s this wandering opening section, that is seemingly pointless or unrelated to the rest of the piece. It’s as if it’s merely an improvised introduction, setting the key and mood for the piece, one of gravity to reflect words of a hymn in praise of a grand omnipotence. It’s almost exactly like the music of Girolamo Frescobaldi, a kind of wacky Italian keyboardist who proposed an idea that music should always sound as if it was natural and improvised, permitting performers to take his toccatas at any speed they chose and even change the order of the sections of a piece to suit their taste.

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But as I turned the page in Buxtehude, the style changes completely. It seemingly reverts to the style of Buxtehude’s teacher’s teacher, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, who mastered the art of creating incredibly complex music with only two lines of music, called a bicinium. Even if you’re not familiar with the styles, there’s a sensation that the music has jumped from the expressive to the stoic, from something vibrant to something medieval – the right hand is odd and angular, as if its trying to imitate some antiquated fiddle as it meanders around this plainsong chant.

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But like a kaleidoscope, it gradually starts to change. Buxtehude adds in a third voice using his feet, while keeping the academic interplay of two voices going on overhead. The bicinium ends seamlessly, and you get something like a tricinium – a form that doesn’t really exist.

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Before you know it, the organ is blasting in 8 voices, with as many stops as the wind supply of the instrument will sustain, including playing multiple voices at once with your feet.

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I admit I was stumped by all of this for while. What did all these sections have to do with each other? They’re so different and strange that it felt like a clumsy collage. That’s when I remembered to look back at the bottom of the second page: in the final four bars, Buxtehude seemingly combined all of the elements that had come before into a single texture. The order of the notes was like Sweelinck, but their delivery was like Frescobaldi, all the while scintillating over a loud and low pedal note, indicative of the enormous section to come. It’s an exercise in memory for the listener – taking a lot disparate experiences and sounds and mediating their meaning into a single moment, a middle point of reckoning.

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The case for arguing that Buxtehude did any of this consciously is slim, admittedly. But that’s not really the point – at times we have to start thinking about what’s going on once it leaves his hands and gets into ours. There’s nothing wrong with signposting, with picking out what we like, what signifies some sense of structure. We have to be open-minded to consider that it’s not always where we’re going to expect it, and that we may not even expect it all. It’s possible to remember things without realizing it!

They reminded me that it was my fate to pursue only phantoms, creatures whose reality existed to a great extent in my imagination; for there are people – and this had been my case since youth – for whom all the things that have a fixed value, assessable by others, fortune, success, high positions, do not count; what they must have is phantoms. They sacrifice all the rest, devote all their efforts, make everything else subservient to the pursuit of some phantom. But this soon fades away; then they run after another only to return later on to the first.

Like my Halloween costume when I was nine, one can always be in search of a phantom with the various experiences and memories in our lives. If nothing in our lives were elusive, we’d get bored so, so quickly. I think it’s why so many people have frankly gotten bored with the election recently: there is no hope, no mystery, no sense of anything to come – just a vast abyss of stark anti-ironic reality that we’re stuck with it all. For me music has fantastic way of bringing out elusive ideas, even countering the mundane, the obvious and temptation to just pack it in accept it all at face value. If you think about, my Buxtehude score is itself is a paradox, at once taking up space in my backpack, but not coming to fruition until it starts taking up time when I perform it. It is itself a phantom through which to find more phantoms both in its pages, or to even to remember the nine year old Phantom of Opera who rode around with his grandmother on Halloween.

2 Comments

  1. Phyllis Adams says

    Hey there! Just thought you might want to know that a recent percussion alumni of Juilliard has been named one of the up and coming cooks/ author of cookbook “Molly on the Range”! Molly Yeh! Her dad is John Yeh, Assistant Principal Clarinet of the Chicago Symphony … he and Monty were at Aspen together for several summers in high school and Ben and Molly were best friends for the first 5 years of his life. Check her out! She’s been mentioned in every major publication that involves food!

    Like

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