Friday, December 15, 2017

A Window Above: I Dreamed a Dream

Song: "I Dreamed a Dream"
Composer: Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyricists: Alain Boublil (French); Herbert Kretzmer (English)
Musical: Les Misèrables
Premier: September 24, 1980, Paris

I am not a fan of music reality television.  In particular, I truly despise Simon Cowell.  As a vocal music teacher, I spend my entire working life building up students' nerve.  Few things make the average person anxious quite like the idea of singing in public and convincing even the most outwardly confident teenager to take that risk requires endless encouragement over months and years.  Then people like Simon undo all of that work in a matter of seconds.  I know he would argue he's waking his contestants up to the realities of the industry.  To hell with your industry, Simon.  Music is far too important to allow egomaniacs like you to ruin it.

Susan Boyle's first appearance on Britain's Got Talent is one of the greatest moments in television history, musical or otherwise.  If YouTube views is a measure of pop culture impact, 218 million is a damn impressive number.  The story is well-known now.  A frumpy, middle-aged Scottish woman takes the stage.  Neither the audience nor the judges are remotely shy about expressing their skepticism.  They even laugh at her choice of song.  Then she starts to sing.

Joke's over.

Astonishment quickly evolves into adoration.  The looks on the judges faces tell a whole new story.  They all know - even Simon knows - that in this moment, Susan Boyle is bigger than all of them.  Their "judgement" is immaterial.  The producers certainly appreciated the power of this triumph and have worked hard at recreating it with other contestants in the years since.  But no one can top the original.

As a teacher, I live for the Susan Boyles of the world, those kids who walk into my classroom and unexpectedly knock my socks off.  It happens - certainly not every day, but it happens.   They remind me of the privilege that is my job.

Want to know something funny?  The story of Ella Fitzgerald's first performance at the Apollo Theater is remarkably similar.  Alas, I can't find a link to a video.  But if you ever have the chance to see the excellent documentary The Savoy King, it tells the tale.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Squid Mixes: Canadian Coffee

Canadian Coffee is essentially a variation on Irish Coffee.  The recipe I used is by Charmie777 at Genius Kitchen.  It combines whiskey - I used Canadian, of course - with coffee and maple syrup as the sweetener.  The whipped cream topping is optional.  I think it's a winner for our Christmas cocktail as it is yummy and it meets everyone's dietary restrictions.  We'll just have to make cocoa separately for the kids.

The drink isn't too strong.  One doesn't even taste the whiskey, really.  Doesn't knock you out the way some of the other recipes we've tried do, either.  We tried it with regular coffee but we'll use decaf over the holidays.  I think as long as we can find a pleasant tasting one, it should be fine.

I used Vermont syrup, of course, though I'll try to track down a Quebecois product for the drink.  Blasphemous?  A little.  Don't tell my neighbors.  Here's the shocking truth, though, folks: Quebec is actually, by far, the world's largest maple syrup producer accounting for 70% of the total market.  I won't concede that they make the best syrup.  But there's no denying they make the most.

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Window Above: Perhaps Love

Song: "Perhaps Love"
Writer: John Denver
Album: Perhaps Love by Placido Domingo
Original Release: September 1981

Humility in the face of love: a potent and timeless theme in music and poetry.  John Denver wrote "Perhaps Love" as his first marriage was falling apart.  He wrote it for Placido Domingo, the opera megastar, for the latter's crossover album.  The two sang the song as a rather odd though commercially successful duet.  The song caught on when a Philadelphia station started playing it hourly because... the station owner's wife had a crush on Domingo.

I first heard the song in music class in what must have been the third grade.  I liked it a lot and, as luck would have it, my father had bought the album so I went home to listen to it some more.  I'd forgotten about it, though, until Denver included it on his acoustic album Love Again in 1997.  By then, of course, I'd also had a lot more experience with the song's subject matter and was able to appreciate it all the more.

I can't deny it.  I'm a sucker for songs like this.  Below are both versions.  I prefer John solo but the duet is fun in its way.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Squid Mixes: Alhambra Royale

This was another in our quest for a Christmas cocktail, again with the idea of offering a non-alcoholic alternative to the kids.  The Alhambra Royale combines hot chocolate with cognac.  My recipe, from The New York Bartender's Guide, includes an orange peel garnish and a whipped cream topping.  The real fun is the fact that one ignites the cognac before pouring it into the cocoa, a first for me.

The drink is nice, but strong.  Perhaps the fact that I forgot to stir after adding the cognac was a bit of a problem.  We both preferred the chai toddy.

One more Christmas candidate next week...

Friday, December 1, 2017

A Window Above: Stairway to Heaven

Song: "Stairway to Heaven"
Writers: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant
Band: Led Zeppelin
Album: Led Zeppelin IV (or whatever you would like to call it)
Original Release: November 8, 1971

There are a few songs in the rock music canon that stand apart as transcendent masterpieces.  They are the emblems of rock yet they step over a line into something completely different, a higher art form of which they are each the only example.  The two most obvious songs in this category, at least to me, are Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."  While the Beatles' catalogue practically requires its own genre, I'm not sure even their best quite matches up.

"Stairway to Heaven" is an extraordinary song for many reasons.  The haunting melody and ethereal lyrics are lovely in and of themselves.  But what makes the song a classic is the gradual build from the Renaissance-style acoustic guitar and recorders in the intro to the hard rock anthem finale.  My favorite moment is the drum entrance that kicks off the fifth verse.  Until that moment - over four minutes into the recording - you don't even notice the absence of drums.  Build is a popular device in musical composition.  Few works have achieved it so elegantly.

For all of its critical and commercial success, or perhaps because of it, "Stairway" is much mocked in popular culture.  Still, it endures.  I love this quote from Erik Davis:
"Stairway to Heaven" isn't the greatest rock song of the 1970s; it is the greatest spell of the 1970s. Think about it: we are all sick of the thing, but in some primordial way it is still number one. Everyone knows it... Even our dislike and mockery is ritualistic. The dumb parodies; the Wayne's World-inspired folklore about guitar shops demanding customers not play it; even Robert Plant's public disavowal of the song—all of these just prove the rule. "Stairway to Heaven" is not just number one. It is the One, the quintessence, the closest AOR [ed. note: Album-Oriented Rock] will ever get you to the absolute.
No song transports me back to my teenage years quite like "Stairway," recalling lying back in the beanbag chair in my bedroom.  As a music teacher, I so wish that I could bring my students to the blissful joy I felt when I first discovered it.  I kept a door-length poster of the Gandalf-esque illustration on the inner fold of the album packaging above my bed for years.  Once in the night, it fell on top of me.  I woke up terrified! 

Many have covered "Stairway" over the past (is it possible?) near half-century, but none more beautifully than the band Heart.  The following is their show-stealing tribute at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2012.  My two favorite parts of the video: the band members' obvious emotional response to the performance and Yo-Yo Ma headbanging:

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Squid Mixes: Chai Toddy

My sister has suggested that we pick a cocktail for our family gathering this Christmas.  After a too long summer, it's finally cold enough in New England to start thinking about warm drinks.  My initial thought was something along the lines of Irish Coffee but my wife suggested this chai toddy as a nice way to offer an appealing non-alcoholic alternative for the kids.

My recipe - combining chai with brandy, dark rum, heavy cream and sugar - came from Making, a knitting magazine.  The drink is certainly pleasant and it made me quite sleepy.  We might also try out a hot chocolate possibility.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: December 2017 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, December 29th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us: