Friday, May 29, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Free Improv

Joy is adding hops whenever your kid thinks it'd be fun.

For a length of time I'm reluctant to calculate for fears I'll have to confront quantitative evidence of just how single-minded (and old*) I am, I've been damned near certain my life would be spent as a musician. How exactly, on the other hand, has been a more nebulous decision. There have been numerous iterations defining musicianship over the years [Um, hello - DJ? What the hell was I thinking?], but one constant has remained. Regardless of what was going to define "being a musician", it was bound to reflect the dominant aspect of improvisation. Whether as a guitarist or a composer or an electronic musician or an arranger (or even as a what the hell was I thinking man that's a lot of expensive gear DJ) there has always been a need to incorporate the element of spontaneous musical composition, because ostensibly, it's only when you loosen the reins and allow the truth of the moment to materialize that you can really embrace the livingness of the art form. In the Shona music of Zimbabwe, for instance, regardless of the fact that musicians play known pieces with names and moods associated with them, they often lack specific beginnings and ends as they see the act of performing akin to making a telephone connection to the spiritual world, and that effect of simply "tapping in", much like turning on a tv in mid-show and turning it off just as arbitrarily, along with a degree of a jazz-like spontaneous interpretation, reflects an ethos that embraces the notion of music as a separate animate entity that we have access to and through which we can communicate our emotions, amplified and transmuted. That "it's there if you're listening for it" approach to creating musical sound can lend to a fascinating viewpoint on what level of control one feels they ever truly have over the creation of their own musical art.

Even musicians trained in the most rigid Western classical traditions respect and acknowledge the discrete variations between various performances and aim for - even under the auspices of cohesively following the written instructions of the composer and/or how they're being translated by a conductor - a performance that transcends the printed page, referring to successful interpretations in terms of being alive, of their emotional resonance, and of their ability to "communicate". And outside of that rarefied sphere of purpose-driven musicianship, in the world of popular, blues, jazz, even now including dance and electronic music, the idea of improvisation as a method whereby a musician can actively exploit the use of time as medium and sound as materials to unveil music that already exists, but which simply needs to be tapped into in order to be brought to light, is such commonly understood routine that discussions over what truly defines improvisation are often eclipsed by the more immediately gratifying discussions over how to do it successfully.

The prevailing argument states that there's no such thing as true spontaneity in improvisation. Any music made on the spot is going to be influenced by so many mitigating factors - previous performance experience, muscle memory, preconceived notions about stylistic guidelines, imitative gestures, unconscious mimicry - that outside of a tiny circle of free improvisers who've made it their guiding discipline to try to divorce themselves from those binding detractions and play from a purely ascended level not unlike a state of trance, all improvised music is pre-composed to some certain degree. Where that line is drawn (not to mention how broad or thick or porous or opaque that line is), between what defines a piece of music and what elements of it have been spontaneously manipulated is where the discussion of improvisation - particularly from the point of view of the composer - becomes richly rewarding, far beyond the talk of "who takes a solo when" or "what scale should I use", breathing life into music by opening the door to the chaotic nature of possibility and potential.

It's near certain that my evolving philosophy on the creation of music has rewired the rest of my brain to the extent that it affects the way I approach pretty much anything that comes up in a given day, with understandably mixed results (let us never again speak of the savory French toast experiment). It should come as no surprise, then, that brewing in this house incorporates a good level of improvisation, for good and for bad, and which brings us to the topic of today's Fermentation Friday. Simply said, the thing that brings me the most joy and the most pain is one and the same: the fact that I can't get through a single brewing session, whether it's in the composing of the recipe or the methods used during the brew to last-minute deviations in hopping to fermentation temperature changes to bottling, kegging, or conditioning choices, it's become quite clear that I'm anything but the type who "leaves nothing to chance". That's all I leave it to, most of the time. And you know what? The beer turns out pretty good. Near disasters provide opportunities to get quickly creative, and unintentional moments of brilliance can make an entire session memorable. Ad-libbed triple decoction? Pain. Spontaneous mini-decoction? Joy. Cutting short a boil time without considering full wort evaporation rates? Pain. Deciding to extend a boil for an extra hour because the weather's nice? Joy. In the end, though, my tolerance for pain is pretty low. Which is why we do so much homebrewing around here: It really is quite simply a joy.

Here's tonight's recipe. I'll post back if anything changes.

* Additional criteria of concern: Adding a power carpentry tool to my Amazon wish list alongside completely unironic enjoyment of the piano music of Handel.

Many thanks to Ted at Ted's Homebrew Journal for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Absence makes the hops grow fronder

It's heartening to know that despite my absence over the past month, Pfiff! readership has continued to clip along at a reasonably regular pace. Likewise, it's heartening to see that despite my inattention in the garden lately, the hops are diligently following their own course of nature by whatever means available.

We'll be returning to quasi-normalcy soon.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Session #27 - Tyranny Undercover

Not the same. But easier than trying to make it from scratch.
There's no denying the truth behind the old saying about best laid plans, which is precisely how someone could find themselves in a situation like this, on a drizzly morning in May, staring at a dust-ridden bottle of Torani Amer and a folder full of unsent email drafts, wondering how these self-imposed writing deadlines can arrive so unexpectedly, and how those once grand statutory visions are often reduced, by necessity and  panic, to hardscrabble dirt and mud golems imbued with the hot breath of its composer's hope that it too might live and walk and keep momentum going for just another day. It's all the more shameful when the gifts all seem to align themselves in a row - gifts of the cocktail persuasion! - offering up easy riches in the form of a puckish topic, affable co-conspirators, and the burblings of some potentially avant mixology. It's all past potential now, though, and truly, it isn't even morning by the time this sentence has been typed, another interruption likely on the horizon (how prescient, now that this bit is being typed nearly 12 hours past its inception, that light drizzle having been replaced by a whipping downpour, and my thoughts squarely with those slogging their way into the deep end abyss of Boonville to pitch their muddy tents) and odds even that the publish button below won't even get clicked, despite, as I said, the best laid plans. Certain folks will have to stow their cabinet of tinctural curiosities for a later date, curtains drawn back over the mysteries of the unrealized, and the wings of rootless fantasy clipped and grounded. What could have been, isn't. Let's make us a drink, shall we?

So even though it's already been done, both here (and even before) and now already in this month's Session, we're going to keep it simple with this very brief reflection on a little drink called the Picon bière. The recipe, if you want to call it that, isn't much to speak of. But as our host this month is a neighbor of sorts, he deserves a little more. It was three or four years ago, in the redwood enshrouded grand Victorian dining room of the Lark Creek Inn, an arguably classic dining establishment crippled and shuttered by economic woes, those weird tendrils of financial panic that've traveled even up into the toniest, most insusceptible neighborhoods, a restaurant doomed to soon be resurrected as "affordable", or heaven forbid, something more ghastly like "family friendly". They had - and I hope this doesn't change - a serious, adult, fantastic bar. And it was here that I had the most unlikely of cocktails offered to me before dinner one night, as our waiter recognized my middling response to their beer list (and as for why I was glancing over their beer list, I probably wouldn't have even ordered a beer in an establishment like this, wrought of good, heathful digestifs and aperitifs and punishingly delicious whiskeys, but it's a habit - I always look at beer menus, because there are often surprises, sweet buried treasures cellared away by one discriminating chef who knows that no matter what the others think, his poached sole goes better with that Moinette than any of the wine they've got gathering dust down there) and offered to make me a cocktail made of their Urquell and a dash of Amer Picon. Little did I know how much I'd love it. Littller did I know how much I'd regret making its acquaintance when I discovered that true Amer bitters were entirely unavailable in this country and that the few bottles they'd had on hand in the bar had made their way back across the Atlantic in somebody's luggage. Granted, there are instructions on how to replicate that magical ingredient in the solace of your own home, but they're frankly not much simpler than building an ultralight aircraft in your garage and using it to fly across the North Pole to pick up a bottle of the authentic item. So we have this: From the people who brought you the the flavor du jour in your trendsetting latte, Torani's very own Amer mixer. It tastes only vaguely correct. But it will do.
Mia's working on taking over the photg job here.

Blended with a continental lager, this cocktail makes sense, as the flabby taste impression that old, ship-worn and light-struck bottles leaves little to be excited about, the strange, orangy, botanical, somewhat vegetal elixir of the Picon carrying the drink into a nearly Campari-esque realm, with a gut-stirring astringency and a snap of old fashioned, resuscitative, rejuvenated medicinal edginess. The florals of the hops are accentuated. Front end bitterness is restored. Weird hints of woodsy, rooty, dirty darkness lurk on the edges. But there's as little traditional lager in this house as there is true Amer Picon. And that's how we arrived here, with a bottle of the already lively and wicked Lagunitas Undercover Shutdown ale, a beer that hardly calls for adulterating, being spiked with a splash of Torani's finest 78 proof bitter buddy. In a satanically crimson body it comes off like chugging on a jar of homemade marmalade, a pungent whack of orange sweetness, all fringed in a pithy bitterness that somewhat masks the dangerous level of alcohol. Would I mix one up again? Maybe. But does it compare to that sun-sprayed June afternoon in Graton years ago when a bottle of the stuff disappeared into cup after cup of shabby homebrewed "kõlsch" as our friends wedding spun on around us? No, but that's a whole other story.
And as much as I'm usually not afraid of embarking on increasingly embedded diversionary topics, now it's not even Friday anymore. But it's still raining. Does this really count as a Session post now, being as late as it is? No matter, Mia would be sad if I didn't take the opportunity to show off her new shoes.

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. This month's party is being hosted by Joe of Beer at Joe's. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide. You can also follow folks' entries on twitter by searching for posts marked with the #thesession hashtag.