31 March 2011

I'm still alive!

The fact that I haven't written anything in a good long time here pains me. Unfortunately, today is not the day I bring you anything particularly brilliant (although that duck is quite mesmerizing, isn't he?). However, Internet, rest assured that I am alive and well - and in the process of finalizing what I'll be up to next year, to boot.

17 March 2011

No Musical Missed Connections through Sceneroller

My mother usually has me read over the posts of her blog before she publishes them (good blogging practice!). In general the articles - on Web 2.0 projects, tech conferences, business books, etc... - are relatively removed from my field of vision and my field of work (although an entrepreneur is entrepreneur, no matter the business, and many tenets of startup projects hold true for musicians). But her most recent post is very much on my turf. Sceneroller, a sort of musical family-tree and connections mapping website, is not centered in classical music, but its growing multi-layer database is a fascinating and potentially very useful tool for anyone interested in the music scene and its history. As such, I've stolen my mother's interesting post from Grade A Entrepreneurs to post here:

Sceneroller is a social music discovery site of a different breed, and a phenomenal complement to the innumerable sites and blogs dedicated to bands and artists, as well as music delivery networks such as Pandora or Soundcloud, orDeezer in Europe. It expresses something that has rarely been captured: the social nature of the music scene. Sceneroller starts the collaborative writing and graphing of the history of local music scenes that connect bands, people, venues and gigs!

The project began with the Che Underground blog that depicts the San Diego underground rock’n'roll scene of the 1980s, where Sceneroller’s co-founder,Matthew Rothenberg, explored his own musical youth. Of the multiple bands that existed back then, only a few were visible online in historical records, and most had disappeared completely, while memories of tunes, thrill, and dramas still linger in the minds of the regulars involved in that scene – and influence newer generations. Albeit ephemeral in nature, music builds lasting bonds – so much so that three years later, the Che Underground site welcomes 16,000 visitors/month and has resurrected most of the San Diego scene. While working at it, Matthew, Jason Brownell and Jonathan Goldin (the other co-founders ofSceneroller) experienced the limitations of the linear blog format, narrated by one voice, and, where people can contribute, but are still dependent on an author. What came out of the blog was a desire from users to explore the scene in any direction they wanted. As a result, the founders of Sceneroller decided to better reflect the tribal world of music by also mapping the interconnections between bands, musicians, venues, and gigs (which they, in turn added to Che Underground) and let users participate in this encyclopedia at whatever level they could. As I looked randomly, I came across this map, showing the complex interconnections of a San Diego band that was active between 1984 and 1987, The Morlocks.


Bands are represented as blue planets that contain members (red stars) who can be musicians, people from the crew, and even fans. They perform in venues (green rectangles), which are themselves containers for gigs (yellow triangles). This approach addresses the limitations of standard family trees and enables readers to see how bands are related through shared musicians and gigs, and their audience within venues. By enabling users to navigate non-linearly,Sceneroller reveals connections that we may not even think of – and that the participants of those bands themselves may have been unaware of.

Sceneroller shows the long tail of the countless bands that never got signed to anything, got signed to independent labels or even to major labels, but never really made it — a sweet spot that basically corresponds to the music scene as we all know and enjoy it even if we attend the shows of famous bands now and then. The unknown or not-so-famous bands can last for years, even decades, either because their musicians have a day-job or made surviving from hand-to-mouth their lifestyle. But more importantly, they create the breeding ground from which a small minority ends up blossoming, where they honed their skills, or got their inspiration. Kurt Cobain, for instance, was a roadie (and remained a big fan) of The Melvins who started in 1983 and still exist 28 years later… And Scenerollerwill also be a catalyst for musicians to meet again, much like with the Che Underground prototype: “We had a reunion concert in May 2009 in San Diego,” says Matthew emotionally. “We hadn’t gotten together in 26 years.”

Manual Scan

As I am exploring this extraordinary product, I can’t help thinking that Matthew, by recapturing the ceremonial aspect of the music scene and its surprising intricacies, is doing on a different register something that is somewhat reminiscent of what his father, the extraordinary American poet Jerome Rothenberg did with his ethnopoetics. Small or short-lived, larger or long-lasting (such as Manual Scan whose two main players started to play together in 1976), these unsung bands have framed the largest part of our music oral culture, whose structure and idioms result from the interactions of musicians, people, and places over time.

Sceneroller is in the making (still in Beta), and the company is fixing bugs or interface details. Graphing the music scene is a huge enterprise, so do not expect to find everything you are looking for. Don’t be pissed but, instead, contribute! You will undoubtedly already find gems that will make you smile: Roger McNamee, for example, or the indirect relationship between Siouxie and the Banshees and The Flowers of Romance via Budgie who played for The Slits withPalmolive … So help others discover such gems! For example, “the map of The Morlocks,” Matthew insists, “is based entirely on input from registered users. ANYONE can help curate music history as long as they’re registered. For us, the participatory nature of Sceneroller echoes the do-it-yourself ethos of local music scenes themselves. This is a digital version of the sort of conversation we all had in our respective music scenes when they first happened!”

Today, Sceneroller starts with rock’n'roll, simply because the founders are rock’n'roll musicians, and reaches back 1949 as the earliest date, but as Matthew puts it “There is no reason why this should be limited. I want jazz musicians to start to tell their story because I want to be open.” And then, Matthew added Philippe Kahn right under my eyes!

14 March 2011

Cornmeal pudding

At this point of my living in the United States, I am seldom in situations where I crave a sort of food that is impossible to find. A big part of this is the change that has occurred in the past decade or so in the American supermarket landscape. When we moved here, my mother and I kept running in to nasty food-related surprises. Admittedly, this was partially our fault, as we expected the stocks of basic California supermarkets, rather than specialty gourmet shops, to offer up cheeses and breads in a fashion comparable to their French counterparts. Sometimes, it was a simple problem of miscommunication. For example: in France, milk typically comes in entier (whole), demi-écrémé (partially skimmed) and écrémé/maigre (skim). So, in a misguided attempt to translate American milk packaging, we naturally bought half & half. As neither of us were big milk drinkers, it took us years to figure out this meant half cream, half milk...

But how the times have changed! I've fallen in love with American cheeses - especially with New York and New England creameries churning out a veritable panoply of incredible specimens. Beautiful loaves of bread are no longer rare finds. I even find many of the charcuterie offerings I once missed dearly. Still, a few foods, mostly pre-packaged brands, continue to elude me. While chocolate pudding is a delicious thing indeed, I miss square containers of Danettes au chocolat, or, lately, individually-sized semolina puddings with chocolate sauce. With this in mind, I set out to recreate a similar dessert with what I had on hand in pantry. The result was not a particularly accurate copy, but it did have a similarly smooth thickness in its consistency, and made for a very quick and comforting weeknight dessert.

Cornmeal pudding
(makes 4 to 6 servings)

2 cups milk
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsps dark rum
2 tsps orange zest
1/4 tsp cinnamon

In a heavy saucepan dissolve the sugar into the milk at medium heat. Bring to a simmer and add in the cornmeal and salt, whisking regularly.

Zest about a quarter of an orange and add it to the mixture along with the rum and cinnamon. Alternately, you can choose to spice (or not spice) the thickening pudding any way you'd like: 2 tbsp of brandy, 2 pods of cardamon, 1 tbsp of vanilla or 1 tsp or almond extract, etc...

After a few minutes, the thickened cornmeal will start to bubble on the bottom of the pan and "jump." Make sure to keep stirring at this point to avoid burning the pudding, which should be thick enough to stay trapped in the whisk - if so, you're done!

Transfer either directly to individual ramequins or a larger serving bowl. Serve either cold or warm, with fresh or dried fruit. Or, top the pudding with melted chocolate or caramel. The possibilities are endless!

12 March 2011

Braised cabbage with lardons and hazelnuts

I'm a big cabbage fan, but I recognize that not everyone adores the stuff. With St. Patrick's Day coming up, images of soggy cabbage leaves smelling of wet socks are undoubtedly being conjured up for many by the window displays. But cabbage need not be such a watery affaire! Here is a rather more sensuous take on the vegetable, with plenty of richness from bacon and hazelnuts, and sweetness from onion and red wine.

Braised cabbage with lardons and hazelnuts
(Makes 3 to 4 side servings)

2 thick slices bacon
1 sweet onion
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/2 head green cabbage
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 hazelnuts
salt and pepper

Cut into small pieces the bacon slices and begin to cook them over medium heat in a thick-bottomed skillet (cast iron is my choice), letting the fat melt. Meanwhile, halve and cut the onion into thin strips. Once the bacon grease has melted to some extent, add the onion, salt and nutmeg, and let it brown and soften, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Julienne the cabbage thinly. Bring the pan to a high heat. When the onion is beginning to caramelize, add the shredded cabbage. Braise it, stirring often in order to avoid burning.

Coarsely chop or break up the hazelnuts and add them to the skillet. Add the red wine. Lower the heat again to medium-low. Add salt and pepper. Cover the pan with a lid or tin foil. Let simmer until soft and browned, about 10 to 15 minutes.

06 March 2011

Dreary days

There's been a fair amount of radio silence in these parts lately. Perhaps I have been very busy, you may think. But, alas, I have no particularly good excuse for overlooking my scrapbook. In fact, it has been my relative absence of activity that has been the real culprit.

I am currently in between projects - or perhaps more appropriately, objectives. Having recently finished a round of auditions, I have not quite started working on my next venture. And, although I continue to have plans of what I want to achieve in my practice and in lessons or coachings, I've had a hard time mustering up the driving force to execute them this past week. I work; I analyze. But the better part of me is not quite there.

Ennui by Walter Richard Sickert, ca. 1914, Tate Collection.

It's a disappointing place to be in: At some point in their development, musicians learn to practice. Something shifts in our approach, understanding and/or capacities that transforms the chore we used to have to do because of external forces (a watchful parent, the threats of a teacher, an approaching concert) into an interesting opportunity to explore. Practicing becomes not simply a hateful means to more glorious endeavors, but an attractive end unto itself (at least some days). I myself have only found the confidence to truly enjoy working alone within the past two or three years. I used to be terrified that I wouldn't manage to recreate any of the sounds that I had achieved in lessons or, worse still, that I would botch my hard-earned new skills by practicing improperly. But, as basic technique became easier and even automatic, I realized I could not only practice as a means of staving off technical decay but as a way to progress on my own terms. I could trust myself to dig into the puzzle unsupervised.

Practice sessions that are focused and productive are energizing and exciting. The importance of a session's concrete goals (mastering a tricky passage, learning a piece, etc...) may even become secondary to the engrossing act of doing - creating and expanding in the moment. On the other hand, too many lackluster sessions are disheartening indeed. You can't help but wonder if you really enjoy what you're doing at all, what the point is.

Of course, this is normal, and in any field of interest or work. There are bound to be humdrum days. But there are also exhilarating days, assuming you are following a path you really do love (I recognize not everyone is in that comfy boat, unfortunately). Maybe you need to shift something in your approach. Maybe you need some form of new, external inspiration. Or maybe you just need to wait it out. As for my own enthusiasm troubles, I'm not too particularly worried - after all, there are flowers starting to appear in Prospect Park.