BEVERAGES & MUSIC

15 Mar

by Veronika Krausas

One of the things that always fascinates me is comparing music to food! This weekend I lectured at Disney Hall for the LA Phil’s concert that included the delightfully poetic 5 Elements by contemporary composer Qigang Chen, Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, and Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben. It was a fantastic concert, conducted by Edo De Waart, the Dutch conductor who is currently Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Music Director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

The reason I bring up the idea of comparing music with food or, more specifically, beverages, is that a few years ago I picked up an interesting book “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” by Tom Standage.

Since the LA Phil’s concert spanned three different musical stylistic periods I wonder if these works can somehow be explained in terms of Standage’s ‘liquid’ classification system?

In his book Standage traces the history of the world through beverages: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola. He starts with the rise of farming, when surplus grain was saved and sometimes fermented into beer. Then, was the time of the Greeks who took grapes and made wine. Next, Arabic scientists experimented with distillation and produced spirits, the ideal transportable drink for long voyages of exploration. The next liquid that spread from Arabia to Europe was coffee, for the Age of Reason. The British industrial revolution followed, with tea being in the foreground. And, finally, the rise of American capitalism is mirrored in the history of Coca-Cola, one of the 20th century’s most mass-produced global commodities!

Although the Age of Reason started in the 17th century, its spirit of rational inquiry spread into the mainstream of Western thought over the next two centuries, culminating in the movement called the Enlightenment. It was at this time that coffee houses had established themselves as the political, social, and philosophical hubs of society. Standage called the coffee houses “the internet cafes” of their time – not only centers for commerce but intellectual thought! Coffee, as we all very much appreciate, gives sharpness and clarity of thought. Versus drinking wine or beer, which was common at that time, because it was safer than the often unsanitary water. This is the time of Beethoven, a known daily coffee drinker. Could we look at Beethoven as the COFFEE composer? Someone whose great sharpness and clarity forged new ideas from old?

While Beethoven’s piano concerto formally stays within a very classical tradition, he has some very careful and sneaky harmonic interconnections with the key areas in his piece that certainly required great clarity of thought. Also, his position was avant-garde for his time in that he deliberately wrote difficult music, requiring greater intellect and sharpness on the part of both performers and listeners.

Strauss would be associated with tea. At first this seems a little strange, he was from Germany after all and who in Germany (land of beer and Jägermeister) drinks tea? But if we think about the idea of expansion it may make a little more sense. From the mid 18th century, England was expanding its sphere and colonization was the norm. Tea, initially imported from China, spread throughout England and the world and became the most widely consumed beverage on Earth after water. Standage writes that the “story of tea is the story of imperialism, industrialization, and world domination.” So, in this arena of imperialism and world domination we have Strauss – both he and his music are HUGE – huge personality, huge pieces, huge forces, and huge orchestrations. Ein Heldenleben is epic, a 50-minute tone poem. It’s like a big pot of black tea that gets steeped for 50 minutes to really let all the tannins and flavors get everywhere. Also, when we consider this work autobiographic, then Strauss, the hero, is the imperial power, striving for musical domination! After all, he was not only a composer but also a conductor. So I’ll make him the TEA Composer.

This brings us the 20th century’s beverage that had its beginning in Leeds in 1767. Joseph Priestly, an English clergyman and scientist, became fascinated with the carbon dioxide gas that bubbled from the fermentation vats. At that time it was called “FIXED AIR”. This was the birth of our carbonated drinks. The rise of Coke or sodas corresponds with the huge industrialization, commercialization, and globalization of the 20th century. Sometimes a little pessimistically, we associate mediocrity with art or music that has those kinds of terms attached.

However, this globalization phenomena is the cross-fertilization of cultures and aesthetics to a degree that hasn’t existed in history before. The upside is that our ‘soda’ generation has allowed for the wonderful possibility of stylistic plurality (a term I’m borrowing from Leonard Meyer, the music theorist). The perfect example is 5 Elements by Chen! I realize he’s Chinese and you may ask why not make him the TEA guy, but his work so beautifully combines Chinese aesthetics and sounds with a Western musical harmonic world. His music is about stylistic plurality (a term I’m borrowing from musical theorist Leonard Meyer). We hear an eastern-sounding melody, Messiaen-like chords, washes of sound that evoke Debussy, gestures of notes that remind us of Ligeti, swelling ‘western orchestral strings, at times very traditional harmonies and, at other times, it’s something that’s much more adventurous even delightfully crunchy.

I’d like to use that lovely 18th-century term for carbonated water – FIXED AIR – and say that Chen’s 20th-century piece is the FIXED AIR, the soda that bubbles through our ears, while Beethoven’s concerto is a good strong cup of coffee, and Strauss’s tone poem is the finishing tea, perhaps Earl Grey (is that the most royal tea and domineering tea)? Next I’ll figure out the beer, wine and spirits!

vroom

PS:  I just ordered Standage’s new book from 2009, “Edible History of Humanity” … can’t wait to start comparing music and food!!!!

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