Sunday, July 11, 2010

Suspended Beauty: Signposts of Personality in the Music of Beethoven’s Last Years

The music that Beethoven composed in the last years of his life is distinctly unlike anything else. It is strange, I think; not particularly shocking to modern ears but unsettling nonetheless, even in its most serene beauties. That it is firmly of a piece with the music of its time and place, sharing its language, presentation and basic architecture with other pieces of 19th century classical music, makes it even more so. A lot of music written since then, especially from the twentieth century, has consciously explored and pushed musical boundaries. To my ears (not a scholar’s but an attentive and thoughtful listener’s, I think) much of this music has been unpredictable but in a predictable way, if I can get away with saying that. Beethoven’s late works are unpredictable in an unpredictable way.

Beethoven was a master of development, having the priceless and rare gift for successful composition of long form music. He could take a simple four-note motif and have an entire world of forty-five minutes unfold from that meager beginning with relentless (yet surprising) logic, beauty and power (yes I am thinking of his 5th symphony as the classic example). In some of his later works, however, there was something in this gift of his that he subverted. Much of the effectiveness of good, popular music comes from the trick of creating something that surprises the listener but immediately seems as if it couldn’t have been done any other way. Whether a piece is fast or slow, loud or quiet, giant or small, much of the excitement and anticipation comes from this contrast, this ebb and flow of release and tension. Beethoven did this as well as anybody in the long history of classical music (with the likely exception of Mozart), but as he came into his later years, he pushed and pushed this tension, almost to the breaking point, except he found that there was no breaking point, just an ethereal, invisible and infinite world of notes and form in an unthought-of balance, an otherworldly suspension of beauty and form.

This is most easily seen in his slower works; I think most especially of the third movement of his ninth symphony, which comes as close as I can imagine to the music of the spheres; if I were to be so crass as to imagine a visual setting for this movement it would be the slow, monumental drift of planets and suns between and without each other, with no visible drama in the memory of any human scale of time. The notes drift from one slow, polished, majestic beauty to another without any discernible pace or expected development, free from tension and expectation, until the listener has almost forgotten that he is experiencing a piece of music that is expected to end at all, locked in the eternal orbits and gravities of something else entirely.

I’m exaggerating and simplifying things, of course, in order to make a debatable point. I have no doubt that a musical analysis could show me any number of places in the quoted movement of thematic development, of building tension and following release, of repetition and variation. I hear them too, but I don’t usually receive music in such a scholarly way, and I stand by my previously described impression as a general listener. This just shows that it is nearly impossible to describe in words the essence of why and how a piece of music moves you, why it fascinates, why it surprises, especially with a talent so potent as Beethoven’s. His late works are creations of momentous, ineffable substance.

So why am I wasting words on this at all? I’m not sure, and I suspect I’m really trying to talk more about myself than I am about music or Beethoven, to give people who will read this a glimpse into my own personality. And this brings me to the point I really wanted to make.

One of the more popular dilemmas in classical music history has been how Beethoven could have continued to create such powerful, original and sophisticated music as he descended further into the silence of his latter years. He began to lose his hearing, as far as we can tell, around 1796, when he was 26 years old, and was almost completely deaf by 1811. Many of his most famous works, and all of the works that are considered as being of his ‘late’ period were composed after this time. It must be considered that hearing is among the most essential basic tools for a musician, so how could he have continued on so capably?

To a certain extent, this is easily answered. He was already a very accomplished and brilliant musician at the time he began to lose his hearing, and of course just because you cannot hear things outside your body does not mean that there is silence within the workings of your mind. Beethoven could still imagine and create musical ideas and his musical fluency ensured that he could easily notate them accurately on paper. But as I began to listen to, and became more and more entranced by the mystery and strange character of his later works, I still wondered and marveled at his ability to grow, to explore and develop his musical talents into new worlds of such originality, of such breathtaking scope and variety, of such complete distinction from his earlier works and those of any other musician of that time or time past.

My answer, when it came, seemed obvious yet still was an insight for me of great importance and changed the way I thought about music and art, of creativity and creation and the strange link between a person, his life, his personality and the work he or she makes. Far from being unlikely that Beethoven could have composed this music in his silent years, nobody but Beethoven, in the brilliant, deep isolation that he must have slowly fallen into, battled against, and finally come to some kind of equilibrium with, could have composed it. This is music of the deepest, innermost workings of the human mind and soul, freed from the distractions of the external world and the endless, auditory relationship with reality, free to follow the buried, infinite meanderings of the life within.

Beethoven’s life is the greatest, most moving and strangest artistic journey I know of, and one of the great stories of human spirit, endeavor and perseverance. But that indelible, inexorable link between the shape of his life and the character of his music, also says something equally important about all of us, of the uniqueness of our own lives and the opportunities we have to make something of it that is totally our own. Not many of us have Beethoven’s talent, but nobody can live the life that we do, ourselves, every day of our own respective journeys.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Some Winter images from Greenwood

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Brussel Sprouts

I was a terrible eater when I was a kid.  In particular, I ate almost no vegetables at all until I went to college.  I ate tomato sauce, corn on the cob, and lettuce; that was about it.  I was always interested in food, though, and even as I started exploring the different worlds of cuisine and cooking in it took me a long time and many small steps to come to terms with most of the vegetables that I now enjoy and used to abhor.  Sometimes I wonder at my extreme pickiness contrasted with my somewhat adventurous eating now, but it also makes sense in a way: I think I just have a lot of sensitivity towards what I put in my mouth, which has slowly transformed from a source of fear to a place of interest or exploration.  Let’s not explore this psycho-babble anymore, however; what I really want to talk about are brussel sprouts. 


Brussel sprouts were one of the last vegetables to move from the ‘fear’ column into the ‘enjoy’ column, but now they are one of my very favorite things to eat.  They are one of the few vegetables that, done well, will actually distract me from whatever tasty piece of meat or starch is the primary focus of my meal.  I really like them. 


I haven’t really tried cooking them too many ways, because they are so good done very simply.  Browning/caramelizing vegetables in a black iron pan is almost always a sure shot, but brussel sprouts takes the move to another level.  I like to toss them with olive oil and salt and cook them in the pan on low-medium heat for something like a half-hour until they are mildly squishy and nicely browned with even a few crispy bits hanging out.  They get so nutty.  In fact, my other favorite way to cook them sort of takes this nuttiness inherent in these tiny cabbages and squares it: again in the cast-iron pan, toss the brussel sprouts (cut large ones in half) with a pat of butter and some salt, low-medium heat.  When they are maybe halfway there, throw in some pine nuts and let them brown up with the sprouts.  Between the caramelized sprouts, the toasted pine nuts and the browned butter, this is a dish of extreme nuttiness, and one that actually finds me making little irritating noises of pleasure to myself as I chew on them. 


On the farm, these are pretty much the last things that come into our shareroom, as we only distribute them in the last two weeks of our share (tomorrow is our last day of distribution!).  Before harvesting, we break off all of the leaves branching from the central stem, and then we clip them with long pruning shears at the base of the stalk.  We give the whole stalks out, and the actual sprouts are easily snapped off. 


I recommend that everybody go and eat some brussel sprouts. 


Peace and love.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Last Tasks

All apologies for not writing more recently!


You know that you are nearing the end of the growing season when you can count the remaining major tasks you have to complete on one, or maybe two hands.  That’s not to say that there’s not an endless array of things you could do, many of them very helpful (if not necessary in the grand scheme of things), but there are only a few things of pressing importance that really need to be done before the truly cold weather hits. 


Before things wrap up, we need to:

Finish weeding the strawberries (almost done, maybe a half hour more with a crew of 4)

Mulch the strawberries (cover the plants with hay to protect them during the winter)

Plant the garlic

Mulch the garlic

Remove the rest of the plastic mulch and drip-irrigation tape from the fields

Clean the tractor implements and store in the barn cellar

One last swipe at cover-cropping the remaining open fields once major harvesting is done


That’s really just about it, ignoring for the moment the fact that we still have harvesting to do for the last week that we are open, the one-time winter share we are offering Thanksgiving week, and a few additional sales to restaurants and local farmstands.  Soon, in a couple of weeks, my hours will drop drastically and I will be able to focus on a combination of personal creative projects, farm study and travel with my greatly expanded amount of personal time.  I will continue to put in hours at the farm throughout the off-season, and hope to learn a lot and get some interesting projects accomplished. 


Some things that I will probably work on at Appleton during the off-season:


Some kind of information database organizing farming knowledge, procedures, schedules and checklists at Appleton.

Field scheduling for next year.

Seed ordering.

Equipment maintenance. 

Budget work.

Construction projects (such as a hoop house for tomatoes) and equipment/infrastructure maintenance.


Eventually, the weather will turn a bit milder around the beginning of March and we will begin to prepare the fields with plowing and we will start to plant seeds in the greenhouse.  I am looking forward to going through another season with this year’s experience under my belt and gaining whatever perspective and wisdom that will offer, as well as learning some new skills and taking on some more responsibility.  In particular I hope to do some of the primary field preparation and plowing with the Kubota tractor and participate in harvest management once the distribution starts up again next June. 


Have a Happy Halloweed, everybody.  Peace and love to all.


Sunday, October 18, 2009


Here's streaming audio of a new song I recorded, called 'Greenwood':

Or, here's the link to download it to your computer:

Have a good day! Peace to everybody.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

It's cold...

The first trees I saw that turned to their fall colors, a line of maples bordering a little creek on Appleton Farm, have now lost all of their leaves and stand barren in the chilly October wind. As our deciduous trees shed their colorful cloaks, I am putting mine on, every day a new layer it seems. Yesterday, I wore a full set of polypropilene long-johns, t-shirt, fleece sweater, thick hooded sweatshirt, hooded rainjacket, knit wool cap, also gloves, two pairs socks, boots, work pants, rain pants, gloves, etc. It is cold! We had a genuine frost two or three times this week; one of them was almost more of a freeze than a frost, the temperature having gotten down to (or very close to) 32 during the night. I have no real problem making myself comfortable with all of those layers except for my hands, which of course need to continue working, usually with more delicacy than a pair of thick mittens can afford. So I make do with fleece fingerless, or thin leather, rubber dishwasher, or even surgical, depending on the situation. None of them keep my hands warm. Oh well.

We have pretty much lost our pepper plants, our eggplants, our green beans, our basil, and a few various other things, but surprisingly (to myself at least) most of our stuff that is still in rotation has made it through these severe temperatures intact, including tender-seeming greens like lettuce, arugula and spinach. The heartier fare, like cabbage, collards, carrots and parsnips certainly have nothing to fear from these first cold nights.

My thoughts have turned, finally and after a season of slothful weekends, to putting some food up for the winter. The bulk of this will be simple storage of vegetables that should store well fore some time, either in the pantry, the cellar, or the refrigerator. Potatoes, onions, butternut squash, shallots, sugar pumpkins, carrots, beets, celeriac. I have already started the hoarding. I have also started a bit of blanching and freezing, which I will do mostly with broccoli, cauliflower and spinach (I have already done some broccoli, as well as strawberries and basil pureed in olive oil earlier in the season).

The hard stuff, that I hope to get started on today, is the pickling. I have chosen not to do traditional canning or pickling, but just a few choice recipes of lactic fermentation, which I will describe in more detail at some future post. It is essentially a type of preserving in salt or brine that encourages microbial organisms to flourish that turn the vegetable’s sugars into lactic acid, which sours them and creates an environment preventing spoilage. The most famous recipe of this sort is for sauerkraut. Kim chi is a spicy Korean pickle of this sort. It can also be done with a traditional cucumber-type pickle, dill and all. This method of pickling preserves more nutrients, so I’ve been told, than traditional canning or pickling, and creates a fizzy brine that is supposedly good for digestion.

Anyway, we’ll see how far I get. First I have to go to the Essex Co-op and get some jars.

Peace to everybody.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Cover Cropping

The farm is in an interesting place right now; we are steadily moving into Fall, with all the things that Fall brings: cold mornings, blustery, clear afternoons, jackets and gloves, red maple leaves, fields of brown, yellow and red grasses, flying V’s of honking geese, roadside pumpkins, early nightfall and late sunrise. The air makes it feel like the farm is winding down and winter is just around the corner, and in fact we only have four more weeks of distributing produce to our shareholders. Yet in many ways we are at the very peak of production; we have never had such a variety and plenitude of good food grown and harvested in our own fields here at Appleton Farms. This last week we gave out New England Pie Pumpkin, Spaghetti Squash, a variety of decorative gourds, white potatoes, yellow onions, red onions, heads of garlic, tomatillos, summer crisp lettuce, oak leaf lettuce, green peppers, colored peppers, Italian red peppers, toscano chard, red chard, collard greens, arugula, mustard greens, tatsoi, spinach, carrots, beets, chard, globe eggplants, purple eggplant, white eggplant, fennel, turnips, daikon radishes, bok choy…I know I’m missing a couple things, and of course that’s not including the pick-your-own fields, which are on the downswing but still offering green beans, basil, parlsey, dill, cilantro, perennial herbs and cut flowers.

Besides harvesting all of this bounty, however, we are firmly engaged in a lot of end-of-season work. One of the biggest projects for this time of year is cover cropping. This is not something that we can leave off until we finish our harvest, as it will be too cold by then to ensure good germination of the cover-crop seeds. On Thursday I got a chance to do some cover-cropping and learn a bit about this very important farming practice.

Cover cropping, in short, is planting a field with some kind of crop after you are done harvesting from that field. This crop will germinate and grow in the fall and the plants and network of roots left intact in the soil over the winter. This is done for two primary reasons, to protect the soil from erosion and to retain and bind nutrients and organic matter in the soil. Many cover crops, such as peas (and other leguminous plants) are able to fix nitrogen into the soil, helping to maintain high levels of this extremely important element available to plants. Strong networks of roots and plants prevent snowmelt, rain and wind from washing away top soil and leaching nutrients below the topsoil.

Sometimes we do very large swaths of land with our biggest tractor, but on Thursday I did just a few smaller patches, maybe an acre in total, with our mid-sized tractor and a hand-seeder. First off, the finished beds need to be mowed to cut down the plants and cut up the thicker weed stems. This had already been done to the fields I was working on. Then I came in with our John Deere High Crop tractor, fitted with a discing implement, which is a set of sharp metal discs that can be lowered into the soil and rolled along to break up the soil and weed/crop refuse. Each bed usually has to be gone over a couple of times to make sure that enough good topsoil is exposed and there is not a lot thick layers of green vegetable matter on top. Then, I went along with a hand seeder filled with rye seed, and with the help of a hand crank spinning a disc underneath the bag I flung seed out in all directions while walking down a disced bed. I was probably able to cover about forty feet from left to right, or about four beds or so, at a time. Then, the seed generously applied, I went back over the beds with the disc again, just once and with the discs set quite shallow, to make sure that there was good contact between the seed and the soil, to ensure good germination.

That’s it; now I am very interested to see the results of my efforts (though I’ve already seen plenty of fields come up in either rye or oats and peas, but this was my first adventure in cover-cropping and I always have propriety feelings over my own personal efforts).

Anyway, peace to everybody.