Monday, November 27, 2006


You know, as a birder, and as a person, I try not to play favorites. It’s a fun exercise, no doubt, and the kind of top-ten list making that starred in the novel High Fidelity can easily consume hours of idle thought. But really, I find that these favorites are in a constant state of flux, changing by the year, week, day, or minute. Often, my favorite is whatever is staring me in the face at that particular moment, which is as it should be. A few things certainly stay near the top of the list for long periods of time. For me, musicians such as the Beatles and Mozart, movies like Jaws and ET, books like The Lord of the Rings and Dune will always be near the top.

Birds are different. I have so many favorites. There are birds such as the Black-capped Chickadee, which reliably entertain me with their familiar chatter and antics at any time of year. I see them almost every time I venture outside, and they are familiar friends. There are birds like the Wood Thrush, which send a thrill through my ears and my soul when I hear one for the first time every Spring, singing with a voice at one with the heart of spring and the woods, but also speaking from just on the other side of some parallel world beyond my reach. That was a little over the top, wasn't it? And of course there are the memories or anticipations of rare thrills I get from such birds as razorbills or phalaropes.

But all of these are forgotten when the Harlequin Duck pops into view. This bird just happens to be the most entertaining little guy that I know of. Luckily, it is reliably seen here off the coast of Massachusetts from November through March. This is a tiny duck with an outlandish pattern of white dots and crescents and splashes of rufous against its compact, dark body. It spends its time on rocky shores, playing about the crashing surf just inches from the seaweed and barnacle encrusted rocks, diving for mollusks and crustaceans, poking its head in the water, and skittering about the surface, playing with others.

Here’s to the Harlequin, at least until the next bird flies by.
Pictures were taken at Halibut State Park on Cape Ann, 11-26-06.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving Pictures

Who are these people? First picture: Anne, Anna, and Mathilde. Second picture: Mathilde and Anna. Third picture: Me, windblown. Fourth picture: who knows. Fifth picture: two rowdy crows.

I may be spelling Mathilde's name wrong.
These pictures were taken in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The first four at Crane Beach. The crows were in some tree down the road.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

More Gabby Pictures

Well, the world probably has plenty of pictures of my beautiful little niece Gabriella, but I couldn't resist posting a few more. These are from Whitefish Bay, Lake of the Woods, Ontario, August 2006.
But don't forget to read my fascinating posting about Bluebeard's Castle below!

Bluebeard's Castle

I promised you Bluebeard’s Castle, didn’t I? I didn’t really intend to write about it, but I listened to this one-act opera of Bartok’s last night for the first time in many years and felt like saying something about it.

It’s an early piece of Bartok’s, written around 1910 or so, and is loosely based on an old fairy tale by Charles Perrault, Bluebeard, which concerns a murderous villain and his new young wife. He brings her home soon after they are married and forbids her to open a particular door in his castle, but of course gives her the key anyway, so…she opens it! And finds the dead bodies of his previous wives hanging on the walls. He finds out what she's done and chases her, intending to kill her, but she is rescued in the end by her brothers. A happy ending, I suppose, to a gruesome story.

Bartok’s story is similar – Bluebeard brings his wife home, where she sees there are seven locked doors. She is curious, but Bluebeard tells her they must not be opened, and makes a foreboding reference to ‘rumours’ about him. But she can’t let it go, and persuades Bluebeard to give her the keys to each room, and she opens them one by one. In the first we have a torture chamber, in the second an armory, the third, gold and jewels, the fourth, a beautiful garden, the fifth, grand vistas of Bluebeard’s lands, the sixth, a glittering fountain, and in the seventh…Bluebeard’s three former wives, but not really dead. They are living, and move about, but they don’t seem all that talkative (there are only two singing parts to the opera, Bluebeard and his wife, Judith).

What I find interesting is Bartok’s use of this story as an analogy, more or less, for a classic battle of the sexes. Though on the surface, (and clearly in the original folk tale), Judith is the heroine, Bartok’s point of view seems particularly sympathetic to Bluebeard. (Disclaimer: this is not just my own psychoanalysis; some of these thoughts were sparked by the liner notes, particularly the conductor Istvan Kertesz’s comments.) In fact, one can almost look at the story from a comical standpoint, as if it’s a modern sitcom. The guy, who just wants to love his wife and have her love him, but doesn’t really want to share too much or expose himself. He knows there are things buried in him (and in all men) which are not attractive. But his wife can’t leave him alone, she keeps pestering him to open up, which he reluctantly does, and eventually she drags out of him more than she can bear to know, and of course things end badly after that.

Now, I don’t want to analyze this too far; on the surface of things Bluebeard is a villain, and one certainly wouldn’t want to defend his crimes too much. But everything that is depicted falls very easily into metaphors for the life of a man and his relationship with the women he’s been close to, and Mr. Kertesz makes a very compelling, concise point: he says about Judith “She doesn’t want him, she just wants to open his doors.”

This brings up a lot of interest thoughts regarding relationships. All of us, I think, and maybe especially men?, have things in us which we don’t want to share, can’t share, ugly things, embarrassing things. In an ideal relationship we share as much as we can of ourselves, and are allowed to be ourselves as much as possible instead of playacting some other person, but still…there are some things better hidden, and finding that compromise with people you truly care about can be challenging. I don’t mean that we’re hiding violent crimes (in most cases) but we all put on at least slightly different faces when we are interacting with people than when we are alone, and often different faces for the different people we see. Or maybe it’s just me? It would be interesting to get a woman’s take on this story.

Regarding the music, it’s wonderful. Not yet in Bartok’s mature idiom, it has echoes of Strauss and Mahler, with a strong stamp of Bartok’s own developing personality, but it is very evocative and imaginative. The structure of the story is perfect for a series of small tone-paintings, as Judith opens each successive door to see something different. The garden brings forth a dense yet vibrant tapestry of verdant growth and birdsong, the grand vistas of Bluebeard’s estates ring with magisterial, swelling brass figures that seem to look across to the horizon, the fountain brings serene, drifting notes. When Judith becomes jealous and begins to ask Bluebeard about his former wives, you can hear a note of madness creep into her voice as she sings a thin monotone backed by dissonant strings edging against her notes.

And best of all, this is a short opera, about one hour long, and I was able to listen to the whole thing without falling asleep or letting my attention drift away!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Bartok's Fifth String Quartet

Here's a picture of me getting ready for a tramp in the woods.

No, actually, (as if I really fooled you), this is Bela Bartok getting ready for one of his groudbreaking forays into the Transylvanian countryside to collect folk music. Bartok was one of the first musicians to systematically collect, study and categorize folk music. What he heard and learned during his trips across the countryside of what used to be just Hungary and is now also Roumania and Czechoslovakia had a profound affect on the music he composed and on his thinking as a human being.

But I'm not really intending to write another biography of Bartok, as much as I think he led a fascinating life. I've been listening to a lot of his music lately, and in particular his string quartets, which are often (and justly) referred to as the 'new testament', the old testament being the quartets of Beethoven. I would like to urge anybody and everybody to give these a listen - get them out of the library if you don't already have them - especially the Fifth quartet, which is my personal favorite.

I've been trying to come up with a concise, intelligent way to describe this quartet and why I like it so much, but have been mostly failing to find the right words. It is a gentler and more austere quartet than the fourth, which may be his most well-known, but it is still full of the spiky character and strong dissonances that inhabit most of Bartok's work. Bartok himself could be spiky and dissonant by most accounts, but he was also a fierce idealist and compassionate humanist, a proud Hungarian yet universalist in his outlook, and these qualities also show in every measure of his music, and never more than in this piece. On a more specific note, if you listen to this quartet, note the five-movement structure of the piece, the affinities of the first movement for the last and the second for the fourth (the fourth movement is essentially a free variation of the second). Bartok never subscribed to any established system of composing but came up with plenty of his own.

Next stop, Bluebeard's Castle!

Monday, November 13, 2006

A Domestic Sunday in November

Hi Everybody! (Hi, Dr. Nick!)

I am very pleased to report that this afternoon I have baked the best loaf of bread, by far, that I have ever made myself. This doesn’t mean much, as I have probably baked somewhere around 6 or 7 loaves of bread in my life (not counting around 9 or 10 sweet quickbreads like banana or walnut). However, this was really a great loaf of bread, as good or even better than most high-end bakery breads that I can get. I owe it all to an article in last Wednesday’s New York Times Food Section by Mark Bittman, and I urge any and all interested parties to read it. Mr. Bittman was invited to the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York where the head baker/owner, Mr. Lahey, showed him an unusual method for baking an old-world style rustic loaf with a rich, flavorful crumb riddled with holes and a fabulously crackling crust.
Two aspects of the method are particularly noteworthy: instead of kneading the bread to develop the gluten, it relies on a long (12-18 hour) rising with a very small amount of initial yeast. This apparently develops the gluten quite satisfactorily with the added benefit of imparting great flavor from the long fermentation. The second unusual aspect is in the baking: the dough, after a secondary two-hour rising, is dropped into a preheated pot (such as a dutch oven) and covered for the first half-hour of baking, where it develops the crackling crust by baking within it’s own steam, mimicking the process of those expensive professional steam-injected ovens.
This was one of those articles that really excited me, and I immediately decided I would try it soon, but of course there was a hefty amount of doubt I had in it really working out so well. I was wrong. This was a wonderful bread. My results differed a little, I think, due to some inexperience and one small mistake. The second rising happens on a well-floured cotton towel, and I lost a bit of the dough in transferring it to the pot. I think this caused my loaf to be a bit small and a bit flatter – more like a ciabatta instead of the boule pictured in the NYTimes article. But who cares? It was a delicious ciabatta, if that’s what it was. My other little mistake, and I urge you not to do this, is that I was impatient and cut into the bread when it was still too hot and still steaming – so the interior crumb was a bit moist and gummy. It was still delicious and the texture quickly improved, mostly, but you should wait for the bread to cool down before you cut it, or at least until it’s warm and not still hot. If you can see the steam coming off of it, wait. You can easily reheat it later.
This is ideal as a dinner bread, for dipping in olive oil or spreading with butter, for sopping up sauces and throwing into soups. The crumb is too well developed with holes of all sizes to be used easily as a sandwich bread. I do look forward, however, to experimenting with mixing in some whole wheat flour and maybe some other grains and flours – flax seed, wheat germ, wheat berries – see if I can get a slightly healthier bread that I would also consider appropriate for breakfast toasting.
The article is most interesting and the recipe is very clear and easy, but here is a brief paraphrasing:
3 cups flour
1 ½ tsp salt
¼ tsp active dry yeast
Mix these well dry, then add 1 5/8 cup water – mix together thoroughly.
Put in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, leave out in a warm dry place for 12-18 hours. (I went for 16). The dough should be bubbly and inflated. Turn out onto a floured board and fold over onto itself a couple of times (do not knead). Let rest, covered, for fifteen minutes. Flour a non-textured cotton towel and put the bread onto it, sprinkle with more flour on top and cover with another towel. Let rise for two hours. 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450 degrees with a 6 quart or so dutch oven inside it. When ready, pull out the oven and throw the dough into it. Cover and bake for thirty minutes, then uncover and bake for another 20-30 minutes, until well-browned on top (the browner the better, I say). Cool on a rack before cutting into it!

Enjoy! I wish I could share it with you right now.