Friday, December 21, 2012

Some thoughts

Back in August I was visiting Ryan for a few days at Tanglewood in between summer festivals and got a call from a violinist I knew from Yale.  She was looking for someone to perform two pieces as a soloist with an ensemble she leads in some concerts in Connecticut in December.  I was so honored and excited to be asked to work with some of the most talented musicians I know, people who did their graduate work at Yale and Juilliard while I was doing my undergrad.  I only hoped that nothing would get in the way of the performances and that it wasn't all a dream!  

There were some difficulties in arranging the logistical details: both concerts were offered free of charge to the public and only the second was part of a regular concert series that was offering the ensemble--a relatively large one, with 13 total players--a modest fee.  Katie, the ensemble's leader, explained that she and the other musicians largely did this as a labor of love and that there likely wasn't enough money going around to pay for my travel expenses.  After both of us fruitlessly searched for applicable travel grants, I wrote to the dean of my school to see if he had any other suggestions.  Thanks to the incredibly supportive administration, I wound up applying for and receiving a grant from the Student Opportunity Fund, which paid for my flight and other transportation costs and made the trip possible.  

Katie and I decided to program Handel's beautiful motet Silete Venti alongside a piece the ensemble was premiering, a setting of 10 African-American spirituals from an 1896 publication the composer arranged for string orchestra and harpsichord.  I had performed the Handel before, on my recital in the spring, and I have been in love with the piece since my early years of college so I was very excited about having the opportunity to sing it again.  I was admittedly a little nervous about performing spirituals, though, as it's a genre with which I'm relatively unfamiliar and I was consequently concerned that I wouldn't be able to do them justice.  It does seem strange and sad to feel more culturally connected to, say, operas written in Italy 400 years ago than more recent songs from my own country, but I suppose my trepidation comes from being the recipient of so much privilege and worrying that people who do identify with this music will find me somehow disingenuous in my performance of it.  I was somewhat comforted by the composer's own musical predilections ("standard" english pronunciation, classical technique) and also by his treatment of the songs, which were both harmonically interesting and also incorporated rhythms and extended technique in the ensemble to approximate traditional African music.  I also do firmly believe that all of us--no matter our race, ethnic background, class, age, income level, you name it--feel pain and suffering, joy and elation.  It is impossible to discount someone else's life experience as somehow lacking because A) you have no idea what goes on inside their head and B) we are all capable of empathy, and if we weren't, art (in all its myriad forms) wouldn't exist.  So, as I prepared for these concerts in Connecticut I tried to do some research about the various songs and did my best to stay true to their original intention but also anchor them in my own experience.  

I traveled down to New York after a whirlwind of graduate school recordings and applications, classes, and the last New Music Ensemble performance of Unsuk Chin's Akrostichon-Wortspiel and had a great first day of rehearsals with the composer and ensemble.  It was such an unbelievable joy to work with this immensely talented and responsive group of musicians.  There's nothing quite like finding other people who also deeply care about the music you're performing and who are so professional, respectful, and focused--but also creative and curious and open to new ideas.  I really can't articulate well enough what an honor it was to be able to work with such fantastic players.  But really, none of this was a surprise: I knew that it would be like this four months ago when Katie asked me about participating in these performances.

On Friday morning I was able to attend a dress rehearsal of the new production of The Barber of Seville at the Met (opera) thanks to a generous friend from Yale.  Afterward I met up with my dad (also in town for a conference and the performances) to rest a little before rehearsal in the evening, and that's when I heard about the shooting in Newtown.  In a pattern repeating all too often these days, the news unfolded first in a nebulous haze and then, as the weekend progressed, more and more sickening clarity.  Though I wasn't performing in Newton, Connecticut is small enough that everyone was reeling from the shooting.  The Saturday concert in Hamden began with a moment of silence for the victims.  As I sat backstage, listening to the first piece on the program (Corelli's Christmas Concerto), I couldn't help but wonder what I had done to deserve to be surrounded by such unadulterated beauty.  Sometimes going into music seems like the most overwhelmingly selfish choice I could make: I depend on the generosity of other people to support my quixotic pursuit when the money that makes all of this possible could be going to so many other worthy causes, and when even I could be doing something so much more tangibly productive with my mind and body.  Then come these moments of clarity, when I realize that perhaps I truly am able to make some sort of difference, that perhaps I am blessed with music because eventually words and medical care and legislation and whatever social safeguards we employ to prevent such tragedies are not enough.  We need art because it allows us empathy, to express and to absorb what words alone are insufficient to convey.

In the light of these events, singing the spirituals--music transcending years and years of institutionalized violence, music created to help a people rise above dehumanizing slavery with hope--was very fitting.  Attending the first concert was also a group of homeless men staying at the church hosting the event, many of whom were African-American.  As I began to sing, I realized that perhaps what they, and what all of us, needed to hear was not someone who came from their own experience, but someone who wanted to honor it.  I will never know what it is like to suffer racism, to come from a background which is not my own, and I pray that I will never know the pain of losing a child, a sister, a brother, a mother, a father, to senseless violence.  What I do know is that I am capable of fighting prejudice, ignorance, and evil with--as hokey as it may sound--the truth, beauty, and love with which I hope to imbue all music I sing.  I remain humbled by the opportunity to try to help begin the healing process, to try to reach out to strangers and to brighten their lives or to bring them some small amount of peace and solace and, above all, belief in the greater good of humanity.  And I remain humbled by the power of sound, of notes written down hundreds and hundreds of years ago to remain not only relevant but necessary in our lives today.

I wish you all a joyful holiday season.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving bread

Happy Thanksgiving!  And look at that!  It's almost one month after my last post!  How time does fly...

Really, it's been crazy, crazy busy.  This past weekend Ryan and I performed in the school's fall opera production, which means the previous week was filled with daily rehearsals.  We had one day "off" on Sunday to recover and prepare for coming week.  Monday was a busy day of classes (and a happy meeting with a friend from college, in town to look at schools).  Tuesday was class and the New Music Ensemble concert at the Canadian Opera Company, also filmed for a TV broadcast, which thankfully went very well!  Yesterday was a meeting with the man coming in to asses the school for the Canadian Heritage Fund, who then also observed my lesson.  And then finally I had the afternoon off!  Holy mackerel!  It feels like it has been ages since that happened (and let's not even think about the rest of the week...).  So Ryan and I made vegetarian stuffing for dinner (homemade sourdough with mushrooms, celery, leeks, chestnuts, and apples--recipe below) along with a salad with pomegranate seeds (the pomegranate was given to me by Rubana at Economy Fruit).  I also put together another batch of bread to retard in the fridge overnight and to bake today.  Per the request of one of my classmates, I measured the ingredients in volume in addition to weight so that I could make a version of the recipe for people who don't have a scale (though investing in a kitchen scale is probably a good idea if you're going to be doing a lot of bread baking because it makes measuring really easy and largely reduces the large margin of error found in volume measurements).

One loaf made last week.
So here is Susan's recipe for Norwich Sourdough from her blog Wild Yeast, adapted for volume measurements and with my little addenda.

Two big loaves, or 10 mini loaves (which is what I made today), or one loaf plus a pizza, or... you get the picture.  It's a lot.

Mixing -- 5 minutes
Autolyse -- 30 minutes
First fermentation -- 2.5 hours

If you're baking that day, then you divide/rest/shape
And then you proof -- 2.5 hours
And then you bake -- 30 minutes max

If you're not baking that day, I've been (in a probably incredibly unorthodox move) just transferring the dough directly to a container, usually a big tupperware, to retard for up to two days.  Then I form the loaves as quickly as possible before throwing them in the oven.  I've found that the sour flavor really improves after the two days in the fridge.

900 g white flour  -- or 6 cups
120 g whole wheat flour -- or 1 cup
600 g water at about 74F -- or 3 cups
360 g mature starter -- or 1 3/4 cups (which in my case is about half white and half wheat)
23 g salt -- or 2 tbsp
cornmeal for dusting

Method (for a completely handmade, no mixer 'cause I don't have one, bread):
Mix the flours, water, and starter until just combined, which usually I'm not quite strong enough to do with a big wooden spoon, so usually I just use my hands.
Let the dough rest (autolyse) for 30 minutes.
Add the salt and mix until the dough reaches a medium level of gluten development.  (Her pictures are really nice, so check them out.)  I usually wind up sort of pulling the dough between my hands until it actually stretches.  In the beginning it sort of breaks and won't stretch very well, but then as the gluten develops you can stretch it farther apart.
Transfer the dough to an oiled container (I usually just oil the bowl I mixed it in).
Ferment at room temperature (72F – 76F) for 2.5 hours, with folds (again nice instructions here, but basically you just stretch and then fold up) at approximately 50 and 100 minutes.
At this point I sort of deviate from Susan's instructions.  If I'm baking that day, I might shape one half of the bread into a ball, which I'll place on a piece of parchment paper dusted with cornmeal.  Otherwise I'll take my nicely oiled ball, find a big tupperware container, and dump the whole thing inside.  Make sure there's some room for it to expand because it will keep growing.  And then I put it in the fridge and wait a day or two.  I've found that 48 hours in the fridge results in a really nice and sour bread.

When I'm about ready to bake, I preheat the oven to 475 and put in the vessel I'm using for a cloche along with a baking tray (I don't own a bread stone, but I hear those are great).  Thanks to Susan's website, I recently started using this technique instead of trying to make steam in the whole oven.  First of all it's a lot safer.  Second of all it basically doesn't require any equipment (except the cloche).  Third of all it actually works. 

So what is this cloche thing?  Basically it's a heat-proof vessel like a big ceramic casserole or something that you can turn upside down and create a seal with a baking sheet.  You can also purchase a real one, or apparently make one out of a flower pot (instructions on her website), but really a deep ceramic baking dish seems to work perfectly.  The cloche traps the moisture that's already inside of the bread, allowing the dough to rise much more and ultimately creating a better crust.  You bake for 12 minutes or so with the cloche over the bread and then remove it for the last part of the baking.  Easy peasy.  No trays of boiling hot water or squirt guns or whatever.  No giant steam cloud threatening to cook you to death like a squishy lobster.  

So, you set the oven to 475, put in your big ceramic pot and your tray for baking the bread.  When the oven reaches the proper temperature, take a piece of parchment paper and dust it with your cornmeal.  Take your dough out of the fridge and quickly and gently shape (pat, coax) it into a size that will fit underneath your cloche.  Using a sharp knife, cut two long slashes into the dough.  It sometimes helps me to oil the knife blade a little first.  Then, I usually take the baking tray out of the oven and put it on the stove; transfer my dough to the baking tray using the parchment paper; and then take the cloche out of the oven and invert it over my piece of dough.  Then the whole thing goes back in the oven and you set the timer for 12 minutes and turn down the oven to 450.  After 12 minutes, carefully remove the cloche.  Mine's a little hard to grip, so yours might be too.  Just don't burn yourself.  And then keep baking until the bread is brown and done looking.  Depending on the size of the loaf and the temperature of the oven, this might be another 10-20 minutes.  And it's as easy as that!

And what will I be doing with my 10 mini loaves of bread?  I'm bringing them to a few of the people I'm really thankful for here in Toronto, including Rubana at Economy Fruit and my teachers and administrators at school.  It is sad not to be able to take the day to celebrate with my friends and family the way I have growing up, and I would especially like to be able to personally contribute to the storm clean up effort in New York, but I figure that I can at least do this small thing to give thanks for my innumerable blessings and the bounty that is in my life.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Garret Girl's Kitchen Spooktacular: Bones, bones, bones!

Just in time for halloween, I bring you this blog post about eating bones!  So, please be forewarned if you think this is a subject that might make you upset (there are pictures).

I was under the weather for two weeks just recently, felled by this nasty bug everyone in Toronto seems to have gotten (some virus I've dubbed "the plague"). It wasn't anywhere near as terrible as influenza or mono, but it was a quite nasty cold that ended with laryngitis and left me struggling to get up the stairs. Plus, I'm not usually sick for that long!

Probably related to this, on Sunday I suddenly had a craving for roasted marrow bones. I had them for the first time back in May, I think, at Prune, a restaurant in New York City where I dined with my Aunt KS. They were served with a parsley and caper salad and a small dish of sel gris as well as little bits of toast. They were also really, really delicious.

Now, I imagine that this might be a turn-off to some of you, vegetarians and omnivores alike. Given the way we generally consume meat in America/Canada/the West, the concept of bones is a little different (though I'd think much more "familiar" than some organs).  Ryan says it makes him think I'm going to cut off his leg and eat it.  Ya never know, I guess...  Still, there are a few reasons why I think they might be an interesting foray for those of you who do eat meat.

I constantly think about, and second-guess, my own desire (and perceived need) to eat meat. It's not something I feel morally justified in doing, though I also notice myself feeling more energized and "healthier" after I eat a moderate amount of meat--particularly red meat. I also feel satiated for longer periods of time and do not crave simple carbohydrates. However, I eat meat, especially red meat, very infrequently. Aside from the obvious ethical problems with raising inhumanely and then killing sentient beings for food, cattle--particularly industrially-raised cattle--are enormously bad for the environment and contribute to the failure of antibiotics and the rise of drug-resistant bacterial strains.

So, part of what I try to do when I eat meat is to be conscious of the choices I'm making as a consumer (i.e. eating meat infrequently but trying to purchase more ethically-raised animals when I do) and to use the meat I purchase in a respectful and thoughtful manner. This is somewhat easier when it's chicken (after eating the meat I can use the bones for stock) and a little more difficult when I'm purchasing a part of an animal (such as a cow) and know I'm not prepared to deal with all of it. Perhaps this just makes me a self-deluding hypocrite, but I do hope that eating the bones is one way of trying to be a bit more "nose-to-tail" even if I'm not brave enough for stomach, feet, noses, or the other sobering items available in many shops in our neighborhood.

Another plus is that bones aren't very expensive. I guess most people give them to dogs rather than eating them, though they're also great for soup stock (both straight from the freezer and also post-roasting and marrow-eating, which is why I put my "empty" bones back in there). All in all, though, it means that you can purchase better quality bones without setting yourself back too far. I got mine from the local Italian butcher, Gasparro's Meat Market (or, as their website says, "Vince Gasparro's Qaulity Meats"). One of the sons pulled two big bones from the freezer in the back and the father cut them into small, 2-3 inch segments using his giant saw. [I meanwhile tried to surreptitiously inspect their hands for small warts (I heard in my microbiology class at Yale that butchers are usually infected with papilloma virus; you can read more about it here), all to no avail.] A big bag of them cost me ten dollars. I slung it into my bike basket and then stopped by Economy Fruit for a cornucopia of delights, all for the tune of six buckaroos.

Paulie is the "No Groceries Left Behind" inspector. 


At home, I preheated the oven to 450 degrees and set a few bone segments standing upright in a pie dish. When the oven was hot, I put them inside and roasted them for about 30 minutes until the marrow was bubbling and the bones were light brown. Most of the recipes I've seen call for about 20 minutes of roasting and some recommend 350 degrees. I don't know if this is because some bones are frozen and some are not, but I have to say that my method seemed to work just fine. It seems like it might be a little messier if the bones were warmer, plus I'm storing my extra bones in the freezer and it's just easier not to have to thaw them first.


Meanwhile I cooked up some onions and mushrooms, adding a little lemon and a lot of parsley for some extra flavor. It seems that a parsley salad is a traditional pairing with marrow bones, but I thought my method was pretty tasty too. Because marrow is so rich (i.e. it is mostly fat), it helps to have something lighter and a little acidic to help cut through and lighten the flavor. I also toasted some of my homemade whole-wheat-and-spent-grain bread and sliced up some cucumber... et voilà!  You spread the marrow on the toast and you're set to go.  I found a knife and a spoon worked just fine for extracting the marrow, though of course you can use a marrow spoon if you're so accoutered (are you allowed to use that word with cutlery?).  And what does it taste like?  The coordinator for the pre-college program at school said it tastes like "meaty butter."  I guess that makes sense.  It's a little bit gelatinous, it's a little bit meaty.  It's not really like butter, though.  It's just different.  And tasty.

A somewhat unappetizing photo, I'm afraid--but I promise it was scrumptious!

Now, the nutritional benefits (and dangers) of marrow are somewhat disputed. What seems abundantly clear is that the bones are full of fat. Marrow was a food of choice for our scavenging paleolithic ancestors, namely because it is... full of fat! And when you're a scavenging cave person, something like marrow is a ticket to survival. However, I am not a cave person. (Sort of, anyway; I do live in a basement.) Proper nutritional analysis of marrow does seem to be lacking. I read that the fat isn't saturated, so that's a plus. Some places on the internet say that it's a wonderful source of all these things you need, like vitamin K and iron, and will solve all your problems; some places say it's a source of fat, which makes you fat. I say this:

Bone marrow is delicious.

Bone marrow makes me feel really good after I eat it: satiated but not over-full or greasy, and with lots of energy for hours. I ate the bones yesterday for a good-sized late lunch and didn't eat dinner or any dessert because I was full and energized all evening. And I didn't just sit around! I speed-walked to the post office and back, rode my bike to school (second trip of the day), had opera rehearsal in which I was running around, waltzing, and generally working up a sweat for a few hours, and then I rode my bike home and did homework.

It's surely not a good choice for every day eating, but then I don't think any kind of meat ever should be.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Giving Thanks

Sometimes it feels hard to believe that I've already been in Toronto for more than a year, yet here I am passing milestones for the second time: labour day, the first day of school, Nuit Blanche, and now Canadian Thanksgiving.  I still find that this latter event (celebrated this weekend, with the official holiday falling today) comes at an odd time in the calendar year, being used to American Thanksgiving, but after the past week it seemed like the stars had aligned to remind me to be grateful for my many blessings.

It's not that the past few days have really been horrible; in fact, many wonderful things happened to counterbalance the bad.  And even the negatives, when viewed contextually, have a bright side.  Two family members took ill, but thankfully--though the mishaps or diseases are serious--they seem like they will recover fully.  Some of the other misadventures seem perplexing, but even these frustrations have been assuaged by opportunities which may turn out to be more beneficial in the end, both in terms of career and also in terms of my personal growth, than what I had originally hoped might transpire.  Funny how our desires may indeed be less salubrious than our response when we feel they are thwarted...  Finally, it's just good to remember how blessed I am to have such friends and family and music in my life, and that even when some of these things seem to have gone awry, the reason I notice is because I am lucky to have them there in the first place.  It's hard to complain about that.

The festive dining room.
Comrade M cooked and baked an excellent Thanksgiving dinner, per usual.  The turkey was divine, the stuffing scrumptious, the kale salad refreshing, the sweet potatoes creamy, the vegetarian option ironically to-die-for, and the mashed potatoes fluffed to a T.  And the desserts... all I can say is that the pumpkin pie should become a standard.  It's amazing!  And the apple and cherry rustic tart, baked in a cast iron pan and with a ginger cookie topping, was as delicious as it was beautiful.

Boiling potatoes
Kale for the salad 
Pumpkin pie
Apple and cherry tart
With fewer people this year (i.e. just one extra) there was less to prepare and thus less for me to do--except, of course, borrow Comrade M's nice work camera and take pictures of everything!  Comrade M used some of my homemade bread for the stuffing, something I baked last weekend with spent grain from Ryan's brewing, but I hadn't even been planning to cook anything myself until I found an email from Smitten Kitchen in my inbox with a recipe for pumpkin cinnamon rolls.  Now with something like a recipe for pumpkin cinnamon rolls, you'd think there would be little to improve upon--and of course since I only made the recipe once, it's hard to tell if I improved anything.  So instead we will say that I did some characteristic fiddling and made the following adjustments:

  • Rather than using active dry yeast, I substituted my very own wild yeast sourdough starter.  (I've been growing it for the past week and this was my first experiment.)  I wound up using 1/2 cup of sourdough starter to replace the yeast called for in the recipe.  Consequently (and also due to the oven being occupied by the bird) I also allowed the buns to rise for several hours rather than the time she calls for.  I can't really tell if the sourdough starter influenced the flavor, especially due to the following point...
  • ... which is that rather than using brown sugar (since I had run out) I replaced the 1/4 c brown sugar in the dough with 1/4 c molasses.  This yields a strong molasses flavor, which I like but which perhaps overpowers the pumpkin and other flavors.  Ryan likes it, though.  I might stick to brown sugar next time to see how it compares.
  • Rather than just brushing the rolled-out dough with the butter (these are by no means healthy), I also added a layer of pumpkin puree.  Ryan and I roasted our own pumpkin (he had an extra one lying around after making a pumpkin beer a few weeks ago) and we had/have a lot left over.
  • I also added a few tablespoons of pumpkin puree to the cream cheese frosting rather than adding milk to change the consistency (and ultimately used two times the amount of cream cheese because I found it too sweet with two cups of powdered sugar).  In retrospect I would have just halved the amount of sugar since the recipe yields a ton of frosting no matter how much cream cheese you include.  I guess I'll have to freeze the leftovers for the next several time I make these cinnamon buns...
  • I also sprinkled the buns with pepitas before baking, though if/when I make these again I'd also include the seeds inside of the rolls.  I just didn't think of it until I had finished.
Rising rolls
Finished rolls with some glaze
And some without
Now it's Monday and Comrade M and I are embarking on a painting project.  First up?  The dining room, in "semolina" yellow.  It already looks beautifully bright and sunny!  I'm so excited.  

In the works...
Meanwhile, Ryan was concentrating on his latest batch of beer (this time with a holiday twist).

Monday, September 17, 2012

One man's trash

I spoke to many people when I was trying to decide which school to attend for this degree, soliciting opinions about teachers and facilities, about the merits of staying in America or moving to another country, about anything anyone had to offer.  An overwhelming majority of those spoke rapturously about Toronto: "If I could live anywhere in the world, it would be there!" "Such a nice city!" "You'll love it!"

I have to confess that my opinion after one year is almost... "meh."

Toronto is nice enough, for sure.  Maybe--most likely--it's that I don't like cities.  Maybe it's that I don't live in a particularly beautiful neighborhood (sorry, neighborhood).  Maybe it's that I don't have a bus pass.  Maybe it's that the city is so spread out, the subway service is so minimal, and the traffic is so bad that getting from point A to point B seems even more daunting.  Maybe it's that the sun sets at about 4:30 PM all the overcast, grey-brown winter long, and I live in a basement.

Despite these misgivings, there are things I really do like about this city--especially now, with the long, sunlit evenings and green trees.  This neighborhood is actually kind of pretty at the moment: gardens are blooming, houses seem cleaner and less littered with trash, people sit out on their porches and watch others go by.  The weather is so nice (except when it's pouring rain) that I am happy to hop on my bike any moment and ride away.  Riding is a joy now, and I love using my legs to get around.  The longer ours of sunlight make me feel safer, too, both when riding my bike and generally being out in the city (let's ignore the man in my neighborhood who's been grabbing people at night).  I've finally had the time to explore some areas of Toronto that had been out of reach, either due to time or weather.  There's the West Toronto Railpath just a few blocks from my house.  It's sort of like a smaller, less-cool version of the High Line, but it's nice all the same. I've finally been to High Park, the large city park a little bit like a smaller, less-cool version of Central Park.  There are new places opening up in my neighborhood, coffee shops and restaurants, as it gentrifies.  And, of course, there's my favorite place of all (except for school): Economy Fruit!

But really what I wanted to write about in this post is the somewhat unique practice of giving things away that seems so integral to Toronto.  Instead of taking their unwanted belongings en masse to thrift stores, many people leave them outside their houses (especially, it seems, in my neighborhood).  I know they do this all around the world.  Montreal is known for September 1st, when many people change apartments, and the city apparently becomes one giant free bin.  I'm sure that other cities have their own traditions; even in Davis some of us would go collect things the UCD students were giving away or leaving for trash.  Still, in Toronto it seems like it's a way of life.  Sometimes it's something big (furniture) and sometimes it's a box of small things.  Sometimes it's stuff you really don't want (used mattresses) and sometimes it's exactly what you've been looking for.  Most of our place seems to be furnished with found objects.  A few days ago, the Comrades brought home a bookshelf that some people had left down the street.  It fits perfectly in the living room.  Ryan and I found a beautiful white armoire with golden handles that now serves as our pantry.  Comrade M found a big teal-blue desk/table back in June, replacing a less-satisfactory table that had been in the craft room for sewing, when she was out for a run.  She got a friend to bring it home, but we didn't have a chair to fit.  I had a rehearsal at a friend's house a few days ago and when leaving I noticed a wooden blue chair sitting on someone's front yard.  I couldn't take it with me to school but returned later in the afternoon to check if it was still there.  Sure enough it was, so I brought it home, cleaned it up, and put it in the craft room.  When I sent Comrade M to see the surprise she didn't even notice it at first because the color matches so perfectly.  The list goes on and on: cast iron pans, a weird piece of art, a microwave, a newer microwave to replace the old microwave, a toaster oven, a panini press, a nice metal basket that holds our fruit, a book I'd wanted to read, a dish to hold coins, a pink lamp, a toy piano I gave to the neighbors with young children...

Every few days, something new will show up.  If you wait long enough, it seems that the things you've wanted most will appear.  It reminds me of a story I once read, though I can't remember where.  In it, a journeying man comes to a place where the people are poor in possessions but not in spirit.  They set up nets in the stream and collect everything that comes to them, sorting and piling and holding for future use what they cannot value immediately.  Sure enough, the stream always seems to deliver what they're looking for: not just because they need it, but also because they know how to see value in what others toss aside.  It's not quite like that here, but some of the same principles apply.  Every time I pick something up, I feel grateful that someone else left it for me to find.  It makes me wonder about its story, about why it was discarded and about what replaced it.  (Usually these items are worn but not broken.)  Ultimately it makes me think about what I don't need, and what of my possessions someone else could use.

So, to those who have shared with me, thank you!  I hope to someday give you something of value.

... and I thought that you readers might be interested in checking out my new website!

Sunday, September 2, 2012


It seems that all of a sudden many of my friends, ones who are only slightly older, are having babies or getting married.  I'm not sure I can count how many have tied the knot or started hoarding pacifiers just this summer, though that could also be due to the difficulty I have counting... once I reach a certain point I just start saying numbers out loud which may or may not have anything to do with the preceding digit.  I wonder if this is related to my difficulty walking up and down stairs? Does anyone else get stuck in the middle?  Or perhaps that's a discussion best saved for another day...

Anyway, a friend of mine recently announced she was pregnant, so after being really excited, and then some thinking and exploring and cooing over the cuteness of little tiny things (Ryan had to save me by sending me pictures of ugly babies to counteract their charm) I decided on a free dress pattern from the blog Made by Rae.  She had originally designed something for a small newborn, but another blogger (Amber) resized it for a 2T-3T.  Now, everyone tells me that new parents consistently receive clothing for their newborns, who subsequently outgrow them and then they are faced with naked children or have to go shopping or something.  Thus I am always advised to get clothing that's a little bigger.  What confuses me is that everyone always says that parents have too much newborn clothing--so isn't everyone giving them clothing for the next year?  Who out there is causing the glut in newborn onsies?  Anyway, I decided to go for the 2T-3T because what if it's a really big baby?  What if they already have 500 little tiny shirts and little tiny dresses and little tiny booties and little tiny hats and sweaters?  Ooohh... focus... focus... (I almost got stuck in the Baby Gap I visited for inspiration--all those super adorable pea-pod patterned tiny garments?  Who could resist?)

I already had the fabric because I'd gone to Jo-Ann's while at home in California and picked up some bits and pieces during their July 4th sale, some of which was just perfect for a little child.  What I lacked  was a selection of notions for binding or piping, but I figured I could easily make those myself with another coordinating fabric.

After reading over the patterns I decided I liked them a lot, but that it would be that much cuter (and not that much harder) to make it completely reversible.  I also added a wider band of material at the waist to join the bodice and skirt rather than deal with piping, and then added that as binding for the bottom hem.

So, my instructions for the "fully-reversible-not-so-itty-bitty dress" are as follows:

Print and construct your super easy pattern, either for the 2T-3T or for the newborn.  Also, you might want to download your instructions from Made by Rae (only found on the newborn pattern), though I'll provide my own here.  But I'm not used to writing instructions, so perhaps they'll be a little opaque.

Cut out four sets of the bodice, two in each color you plan to use.  (For cutting purposes you may be interested to know that the bodice is symmetrical on the vertical axis.)  If you want to cut everything now, you can also cut two pieces of fabric that are 36 x 15 for the skirt.  I actually did mine in four 15 x 18.5 pieces and pieced them together because of the pattern and size of my fabric, but really what you need are two big rectangles that are about 36 x 15.  You'll also need three strips of a contrasting fabric.  Two are twice the width of the bodice (the long flat edge) long and three inches wide.  The other is a long strip of 36 by 3 inches.

My cutting station, the floor (I did vacuum first).

Let's start with the bodice.  Make pairs with one of each color.  Pin right sides together and sew the curvy edge of the bodice, from armpit over the sleeve ties and neck to the other armpit, with 1/4 inch seams.  Turn and press each pair.  Then, to attach the "front" to the "back" of the chest part of the bodice, sew like fabric to like fabric, right sides together, along the sides (the short straight edges).

You can see the bodice turned inside-out here, with pins to sew the two fabrics together.  When you flip it right side out (and press), you'll have...
Ta da! Finished bodice! What's hard to see in this picture is that the inside and 
outside parts of the bodice aren't attached together so you can slip the skirt inside.  
That's why the last step was important!

Next, we'll work on the skirt.  Take your giant rectangles and sew a 1/2 inch seam along the side of each.  Press the seams open.  Then, fit them together, right sides out, and pin along the top/waist edge.  Since it's currently just a giant rectangle we want to put in some gathers to make it fit the bodice.  With the sewing machine making the largest stitches possible and with the tension on its loosest, sew one seam 1/4 inch from the top of the skirt.  When you're done, carefully tie together the threads from one end of the seam and then take one thread from the other end, pulling gently until the skirt gathers to the same size as the bodice.  

See those easy-peasy gathers up at the top of the picture?

At this point I start diverging from the Made by Rae pattern.  See, I didn't have any piping and I wanted  to make my dress reversible, so I figured that a band of fabric around the waist, concealing the join, would help.  I used the pattern for the bodice to measure out the length of a strip wide enough to go around the entire dress (so two bodice widths) and cut it three inches wide.  Then I made another for the other side of the dress.  I then folded each so that the two edges joined down the middle, pinned, and pressed it to stay.  See the photo of one above.

Next, I wanted to attach them to the bodice.  So, unfolding one side, I pinned it to be ready to sew along the crease (just like attaching binding tape!).  Sew like this on both sides of your bodice, being careful not to sew your bodice together.

After you're done you'll want to press the seams away from each other on both sides, as in the picture above.  

Now, there's probably a better way of attaching the skirt to the bodice that involves no visible seams, but I was feeling a little unsure of myself and the whole reversible thing, so I simply folded the bodice so it was right side out, matching the skirt fabric with the bodice fabric as I desired, and carefully inserted and pinned the skirt between the two layers of bodice fabric.  Then I sewed close to the edge along the bottom of the waist band and then along the top (about 1/8 inch).  

And now the dress is almost done!  The only thing remaining is a hem for the bottom.  I wanted to have it bound in the same fabric I used for the waist, so I took my strip of 36 x 3 inch fabric and turned it into wide binding tape.  (Which means I folded it in half and pressed, and then folded each edge in toward the center to fold it in quarters lengthwise.)  I then pinned and sewed just like regular ol' binding tape.  (For a tutorial on binding tape see this link, also featured on my last blog post, but know that I didn't bother with making it actual bias tape, so it's just a regular strip of fabric.)

Sewing away, with the other side of the skirt featured.

And that, my friends, is it.  So easy!  And hopefully it will fit my beautiful friends' beautiful baby... in a couple of years!  (Maybe it was weird to make something so big?)

Side one and...

... side two!

I did this over one evening and one morning, with probably about 2.5 hours of work each time.  Part of what took so long was deciding on the fabrics and figuring out what I wanted to do with the pattern, so it might not take so long if you were all decided ahead of time.  I had originally wanted to use another yellow for the skirt on side #2 and have a blue top, but unfortunately the pattern with the animals showed through on the other side of the fabric and you could consequently see it through any of my lighter colored fabrics.  I hadn't wanted to pick a dark color because I'm worried it might create some problems when doing laundry, but hopefully that won't prove to be the case!  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A tart by request

I was having fun coming up with slightly off-color titles for this post about the rosewater tart pictured in my last blog entry, but then I felt terrible about reinforcing the subjugation of women... so, my apologies, and here is a link to a New York Times discussion about legalizing prostitution which you should all read.

And now back to fruit pastries!

Way back in July, some girls from school came over and we had a big feast of... well... fried chicken... and other things.  (See, there's this new fried chicken place in my neighborhood.  One day Comrade MM saw a famous rapper going there with his family, so we figured if it was good enough for a famous person and his family, it would be good enough for us.  And it was pretty tasty, though fried chicken is really a once-every-few-years kind of thing.)  Anyway, I decided to make this tart I'd seen in the New York Times for dessert since it sounded delicious and there were lots of berries on sale at the supermarket.

Here's a link to Melissa Clark's description of her recipe; you can find a link to the recipe itself on the left: (her photo is also really beautiful)

In her introduction she says though berry tarts are traditional and delicious, she never makes them because they are so clichée.  Well, I never make them because I think that pastry cream is weird and usually doesn't taste very good.  I like pie, but tart is just usually too sweet and squishy for me.  However, the rose flavor just sounded too good to pass up.  If we grew roses here I would have just steeped my own rose petals, as Ms. Clark suggests, but we don't.  I found some rosewater at the local organic food store, though, and it was quite inexpensive.

Since I made only a few changes to the original recipe, I've copied it here in her own format and then added my little tweaks.  Most of my changes were to make the cream a little less sweet and a little more rosey.  I'll put my comments about the success of the recipe at the end.


1 hour 30 minutes, plus chilling and cooling.  Tart shell must chill for 4 hours, plus time after baking, and the pastry cream for an hour, so beware that this recipe takes some time to put together.

For the tart shell

  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup raw almonds (or almonds of another form if you so prefer)
  • 1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • Grated zest of 1 lime (or lemon)
  • Pinch salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold and cubed
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten

For the pastry cream

  • 2-3 tablespoons of rosewater, to taste (M. Clark calls for 1/2 tsp, so I'd recommend beginning with a small amount in case mine--though very fragrant--is somehow lacking and then adding generously after you discover it doesn't taste like roses)
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 1 to 2 pints berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, you name it.)
  • Lime juice to taste (or lemon)


1. For the crust, place 1/4 cup flour and the almonds in a food processor. Run until the almonds are finely ground, about 1 minute. Pulse in remaining one and a quarter cups flour, sugar, lime zest and salt.

2. Add the butter and pulse until a coarse meal forms. Add the egg and pulse until the dough comes together. Press dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill for 4 hours or up to a week.

3. To make the cream, pour milk into a heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and stir in the rosewater.

4. In a medium bowl, whisk flour and sugar. Slowly whisk in the hot milk. Return mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture just starts to boil, 1 to 2 minutes.

5. In a large bowl, whisk yolks until pale and thick. Whisking constantly, pour the hot milk mixture into the yolks. Return the mixture to the saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until custard is thick and smooth (170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer). Add lime juice to taste (I found it to be too sweet).  Do not let the mixture boil. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve if it looks chunky.  It may not; I don't think I strained mine in the end because it seemed smooth, plus straining custards/curds is somewhat irritating. Chill 1 hour before using or up to 5 days.

6. To bake the tart crust, first preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Roll the dough out between two sheets of plastic/waxed paper to a 3/8-inch thickness (it's very fragile).  Do not roll too thin!  Remove plastic/waxed paper and line a 9-inch tart pan with the dough; chill for 30 minutes.

7. Line the tart shell with foil and fill with baking weights/a slightly smaller pie tin. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the foil and weights. Continue baking, uncovered, for 5 to 10 more minutes, until pale golden. Allow tart shell to cool completely before filling.

8. Spoon chilled pastry cream into cooled tart shell. Arrange berries over the top of the tart. Ms. Clark says to serve within 2 hours for the best texture; I found it to be just fine a day later.

So.  I thought that this was generally delicious, especially after I tweaked the recipe to suit my tastes.  Aside from adding a lot more rosewater than Ms. Clark indicates (about six times as much) I also decided to use lime instead of lemon.  I like fruit salads with lime, and I thought it might make for a more complex flavor than the more expected lemon.  Unfortunately I think I made my crust too thin, and it was ultimately too crispy for the consistency of the filling; next time I'd make sure to both roll it out thicker and bake it for a shorter period of time.  All these issues are really quite easy to overcome, so my one serious reservation is the number of egg yolks required.  It's not so much from a health standpoint, since one only eats so much dessert at a time anyway, as a practicality/what-will-I-do-with-five-egg-whites standpoint.  A whopper batch of macarons?  I like those, but recipes usually call for three egg whites and that already makes a large number of delicate, time-consuming cookies.  Meringue?  I hate that, so not for me.  Maybe an egg white omelet, for those who like such things?  At any rate, it's a recipe that requires both a fair amount of time to prepare and also a modicum of planning to use up the egg whites.  On the plus side, it's not a difficult recipe and the results are really beautiful and different, and would be well suited both to an afternoon tea and maybe even a dinner of Indian food (or, in my experience, fried chicken).  It's also light enough to work well in the summer but complex and creamy enough to lend itself to heavier food later in the season.  So perhaps I will give it a whirl later on this year--we shall see!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Apron Tutorial

Whoa there, Nellie! Where has the summer gone? I wrote this post back in mid-July, intending to publish it after I gave the present that is described below... but then I forgot... I guess I was busy at Orford and then Lake George, and then I plumb forgot. But never fear--I shall post this tutorial and then shortly one for the cutest little baby dress you ever did see, which I made just since coming home after my long peregrinations, and maybe that will be enough to get me back in the swing of things.

So, here goes!
The finished apron with the spoils of apricot picking.

Recently it was Comrade MM's birthday. When I was home in California I was trying to find her a birthday present, but I couldn't come up with anything that seemed right. I did remember her admiring an apron a little while back, though, and she has been spending even more time than ever in the kitchen, cooking up a storm, so I thought that I might be able to make one for her.

I did my customary search for free internet patterns and came up with this one for a "retro/vintage-style" apron. I really liked it, but thought that it might be a little bit involved for the amount of time I had at home. Still, the pattern and tutorial seem really easy to follow and the product is super cute! Someday... Anyway, that afternoon I poked around the Davis SPCA thrift store, hoping I might find an interesting garment to modify into a cute apron. I only had a few minutes before they closed so I only had time to pick out a blouse. That evening I went up to Jo-Ann's, shirt in tow, to try to find some complementary fabric. I purchased two yards of a green ruffle, some extra wide double fold binding tape, and 3/4 yard of a twill-like heavier weight fabric.

I had initially planned to double the fabric for the apron skirt in order to make it sufficiently heavy duty, but the fabric was heavy enough already that I decided to cut it in half, making it 3/4 yard wide and a half bolt high. If I had chosen a lighter weight material I think I would have doubled it. Using my colorful binding tape I put a border on the sides and bottom of the skirt. For some really helpful tips on how to do the corners, see this tutorial.

Look at that nice corner!

Next, I determined the length of shirt material I wanted based on my approximation of MM's height and the placement of the darts from the shirt. I decided to keep the shirt doubled up, sewing the front and back together, in order to give it enough heft. I cut off the bottom of the shirt with a few inches to spare and used the iron to mark the desired hem (about a half inch). I next removed the sleeves using a seam ripper and cut off the top of the shirt in a straight line a few inches below the shoulder so that it would hit above the bust. I then straightened the edges of the shirt, folding in the seams until there was a relatively straight line from the waist up. I pinned and ironed everything and then sewed down the sides of the shirt to keep the front and back together, leaving about a half inch at the bottom in which to insert the skirt.

In order to make sure that the apron skirt would be roomy enough when worn, I wanted to give it some gathers. Using my machine set on the lowest tension and widest stitch size I sewed two parallel lines over the unadorned top part of the skirt. Then, I knotted together the two bobbin (bottom) threads on one side and gently pulled the bobbin threads from the other direction until it reached the appropriate width. I wanted the skirt to be almost the same width as the bottom of my shirt, with a few inches on either side of straight fabric to extend the skirt a little wider. Positioning the skirt so it was centered to the shirt and inserted between the front and back, I sewed the sandwich together, tacking the edges with some vertical stitches (to keep the gathers from coming apart). I then opened up the two inches of material I left on either side to extend and prepared to sew the ruffles on top.

I had purchased this pre-made green ruffle that was attached to binding tape but didn't have a use for the binding tape material, so I wound up sewing two parallel lines with a contrasting thread, one to close the tape and the other along the preexisting seam, from one end of the two yards of tape to the other, including over the front of my apron. Later I hand-tacked the extended side of the skirt to the ruffle so that it would all lay flat and no stitches would show.

Requisite hand stitching.

The only thing remaining was the top! I remembered I had a ruffle from a skirt I modified a few years ago, so I cut off a piece long enough to run along the top, folding the edge back behind the ruffles to hide it. I also took the remaining piece of binding tape, sewing it shut as I had with the ruffle, to use as the neck strap. Not knowing how long to make it, I left it very large; Comrade MM will just need to a tie a knot to make it the correct length. Like the skirt, I inserted the top ruffle and the neck strap ends (being careful not to twist the material) in between the two layers of shirting and then sewed one seam to close the sandwich. Because of the placement of the button on the shirt I was not able to sew completely across the front; I later went back and handsewed that little segment.

Last, but not least, I wanted to have a pocket. I think what had inspired me most about this entire project was the idea to have a pocket made out of a sleeve. So, taking one of the sleeves I removed earlier, I cut it to a hand's length and, after ironing the seams, I pinned it to the skirt to attach. Because I used a blouse, I was able to unbutton the sleeve and open it wide enough to sew along what became the back of the pocket, and then sew on top of the other three sides. I made sure to reinforce the upper corners.

The sleeve-pocket.

Et voila! That's it! It was so much fun I made another one that someone among you readers will be getting for Christmas. At least I hope she reads it! And if she doesn't, it will be even more of a surprise...

Next up, a suuuuuuper cute and easy baby dress!

But first, a really beautiful rosewater tart (also made by me, perhaps with recipe to follow. It's easy but requires a lot of eggs):

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Update, part two

Here follows an update to what I started yesterday. Perhaps this sort of diary doesn't make for such an interesting read (I find it a little boring myself), so I'll try to finish quickly.

After the concert at the AGO, I participated in the school's next New Music Ensemble concert. This one took place at school in Mazzoleni Hall, one of the two concert halls on the property aside from Koerner. In addition to reprising the Saariaho work from the COC Amphitheatre concert I premiered a piece by composer So Jeong Ahn called COOL!. It was scored for voice, flute, horn, viola, bass, percussion, and electronics and was a setting of Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "We Real Cool."

Here's a photo of her from Encyclopedia Britannica.

If you go to this website you can hear her talk about and then read the poem. It's pretty delightful.

We worked with Ms. Ahn individually over the course of the semester. The first meeting consisted of a lot of improvisation on my part, experimenting with sounds and textures that were often tangentially related to the text, and each time we met we continued to work to get the material exactly as she wanted it. While I've performed works with electronic components before, especially Anna Lindemann's compositions, I'd never done anything that was as dependent on the live interaction of the performer and the electronics system. In this situation, all of us had a small microphone attached to some part of our instrument (mine was by my mouth, as you might expect). The microphone picked up my sound and fed it to an interface, which was attached to my computer and to an amplifier. Then, when I depressed a pedal, it passed through a filter controlled by program called Live-Elektronik Patch (I think it's a German program) and then out of the amplifier. At different points in our scores we had indications to depress (and release) the pedals and to press a space bar changing the filter that would modify the sound. The one downside to performing with electronics, at least in our setup in a broad semi-circle across the stage, was that it was hard to hear what the ensemble sounded like as a whole because of the position of the amplifiers. However, I think that the piece had a good reception! The experience was quite interesting and it was a delight to work with Ms. Ahn, who is very creative and kind.

At the beginning of finals week the school set up mock auditions for those of us in the Artist Diploma program. For our half-hour auditions we prepared five arias and brought in the typical audition package of headshot, CV, and so forth. After we sang the panel, composed of people representing different facets of the musical scene, gave us verbal feedback about the audition. Though I never find auditions to be the highlight of my musical experience, it was so helpful to have the chance to go into this sort of situation with the same sort of nerves and worries that one might in any other audition and then to have immediate input about both successes and shortcomings. I'm so glad that we had this opportunity.

The following days were filled with final "exams" (actually concerts) and preparations for my recital, plus staving off whatever chest cold was getting me down with some oil of oregano. That stuff works, let me tell you! My recital was the following Sunday. I learned a lot from preparing this program, particularly about the amount of time and effort it takes to organize a large ensemble, which I needed for the Handel motet Silete Venti that I performed as the second half of the concert. Now that it is over, I wish I could do it again! It is always hard to put so much work into something and only have one chance to do it--but I guess that's what the future is for. I'm already cooking up ideas for the next one...

And now I'm getting ready for the summer. I leave on Tuesday to go down to New York and I'll be returning to Toronto in early June for the Tafelmusik summer program.

But, I leave you with this photo as a parting memento:
Paulie (who is by now freed from his cone) and I posing as the Virgin of Guadeloupe and the infant Christ. I hope that I shall flesh out (heh) this into a series over the summer! Stay tuned...

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sigh... it has been so long that I updated my blog that not only have I forgotten much of what has occurred--and that which I remember would certainly take up more than just one blog post--but the entire blog interface has changed and now everything looks different and confusing. Such are the ways of the world.

 What has happened? Well, Calisto went up, for one! Many things changed from my initial description of the project, but the end product was just as beautiful as I would have hoped. Well, almost--they never were able to make the "fountain" spew "water" (a.k.a. dry ice fog) long enough to last through my aria about it. But one can always quibble! In all seriousness, though, getting to work on this opera was a fascinating experience. I thought about this opera and the various characters so much, but as an individual mind with freedom to apply my own prejudices to everything. When you bring an opera to life with a company, everyone enters with their own discrete opinions. Perhaps it's a bit as if everyone begins as a sphere, but as time goes on and you begin to understand your fellow cast members the edges of your beliefs begin to blur, melding with others, expanding and contracting, until it all fits together like a puzzle. I do love performing, and dressing up in my costume, and sitting in hair and makeup, and waiting backstage, but I also love the work of being in your rehearsal skirt for six hours on a Saturday and of imagining everything and trying and probing and poking and stripping away until everything makes sense.

And eventually it looks like this:

Photo Credit Nicola Betts

I was really lucky that many of my family members came to see the opera: my father, grandmother, mother, aunt, uncle, and cousin! What I didn't fully anticipate was how exhausted and busy I would be. It didn't help that I had an audition (for Tafelmusik's summer program) the morning after the final Calisto performance, or that we were still in school, or that I had a million other things I was supposed to be doing. I wish that I had more time to spend with my family and with the friends that came to see the opera. It's really neat to be able to perform for people you know, to remember that they are in the audience, and a real luxury given that I am so far away from home. This was the first time my mom had ever seen me in a staged production.

The week after the opera we had more visitors: Ryan's family and the composer John Harbison. Ryan gave a recital at the COC's Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre that Thursday, performing Mr. Harbison's two piano sonatas. The night before, he came over for dinner and I made two different kinds of curry which went with one of Ryan's beers. I didn't get the chance to spend much time with Ryan's family, though, because I was busy with a master class that Friday and a different concert on Saturday night. The next week both of us returned to the COC for another concert, this one with the GGS New Music Ensemble. Ryan was playing the orchestral piano part in this beautiful Saariaho violin concerto and I was singing a piece of hers for voice and harp called "Il Pleut." Initially written for voice and piano and utilizing the entire span of the piano's range in the single line of a slowly descending chromatic scale, it's not exactly the most luscious concoction you could imagine. Preparing the work with the harpist, Emily, was an exercise in patience. It took time to let the piece, which is sparse like the cold and wet day it describes, develop its own meaning. I think, though, in the end it was beautiful and different.

I can't really recall what happened after that. Ryan and I performed at Schubert's "Viola" at the Art Gallery of Ontario during an afternoon of performances by GGS students. Neither of us had visited the museum before, which we found to be quite beautiful and large. The AGO and the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) both feature older buildings updated by modern architects. I've written about how I feel the ROM's renovation was less successful, but the parts of the AGO that I've seen were quite beautiful. We were situated in the central court, which is mostly the old building but is intersected by a winding wooden staircase. Stained a warm orange-golden color, walking up the staircase almost feels like being in a slot canyon.

I think I'll leave it at that and sign off for now. On Tuesday I go down to New York for a performance at the beginning of June, so hopefully I'll have the chance to write more soon.

Oh! Now I remember: another New Music Ensemble concert, mock auditions, final "exams," and, of course, my recital. And that doesn't even cover all the baking I've done. Well, another day.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Last week marked the beginning of staging for La Calisto. It was our second week of "break" from school (the previous week was when I was in New York performing Theory of Flight), but it would be more accurate to say it was our second week without classes, as 273 Bloor St. West has been bustling with activity, from the orchestra concert with Leon Fleisher as conductor and soloist to the auditions for next year's students to our week of rehearsals.

These rehearsals are much like what I experienced when working with Yale Opera. We begin by reviewing each act with with a read- and then sing-through, attended by our Italian diction coach, as well as the usual crew: the director, music director, répétiteur/other music director, stage manager, and two assistant stage managers. Then we move into staging. Those needed for the scenes in question are called for a several hour block. Rehearsal props approximate those that will be used on stage, including full skirts (which means that all of the ladies playing ladies are robed in these candy-pink polyester taffeta concoctions). We're rehearsing in one of the smaller performance spaces in the building, Conservatory Theatre (yes, Canadians spell things strangely) and the outlines of the set are taped onto the floor. The performances will be in Koerner Hall, which you can see here in a photo I stole from the internet:

A pyramid of steps (a ziggurat, if you will--there's fifth grade coming in handy!) will be built in the center of the stage and turned on an angle. Sheets of cloth will be hanging from the ceiling, designed to evoke trees, upon which lights and images can be projected. We'll be in Edwardian garb. I haven't seen my costume yet, but when we were measured the other day a few students saw some of the sketches. I've heard that Mercury will be in a driving outfit and Jove will be in a tuxedo, and Diana has a riding/hunting outfit. In my mind, this makes Calisto and the other nymphs a little like the Gibson girls below--independent to a degree but still hemmed in by society--but I guess I'll see soon enough. Oh yeah, and then there's the bear costume. No word on that either!

And, true to the original executors of this opera who spent a sizable chunk of their budget creating a real fountain with real water on their 1651 stage, it seems as if there will be some stunning magic. I don't want to spoil the effects for those of you coming or get in trouble for revealing such things beforehand (I don't know that I would, but I'd rather avoid it), so perhaps they shall wait until later. Since we're not in the space yet, it's all in my imagination anyway! And it really is funny how far that will take you. After a couple of days rehearsing with the taped outlines in Conservatory Theatre, the steps began to feel real, and when I see the space in my mind, it is in 3-D. I was wondering if I were just a little too enthusiastic about this whole endeavor when the person playing Diana mentioned to me that she sees them that way too. Guess we're all going a little crazy!

While we're "on stage" working, even at this early juncture, we rely on a whole host of people on the other side of the room. Two people are playing continuo, the director is directing us, the stage manager is writing everything that we're doing down on little sticky notes that are positioned and repositioned any time something changes, and the assistant stage managers are I think doing the same thing, plus carrying out other tasks and making everything happen. They're perhaps a little like unicorns: they possess magical properties of amelioration and healing, but you never see them at work because you're too busy pretending to drink out of an imaginary fountain. Well, perhaps that analogy was stretched a little, but the gist of it is that putting on a stage production requires an enormous amount of work, much of which is behind-the-scenes and is deserving of at least as much applause as the folks on stage with flapping mouths.

My favorite part about the staging process is the act of uncovering the character. No matter how hard I try to explore all the nooks and crannies when studying and preparing a role, new surprises emerge when they step onstage. All of a sudden, patterns of words take on new significance, perhaps certain phrases that I felt pointed to action are now more lethargic: new impulses are discovered. It feels a little like what I imagine sculpting to be--you start with a block of stone and, slowly but surely, the figure emerges. It's so much fun. This director's style involves both freedom for the actor but also incorporates (at least here) a fair bit of physical comedy and/or specific physical gestures, which require exact timing, so often we'll begin by feeling our way into a scene and then continue by sharpening and refining edges.

Thus far we've made it almost to the end of the second act. Classes start up again tomorrow so we'll be relegated to evenings two days a week and Saturdays again, though I think all of us would rather remain immersed in staging. I know I would! That and voice lessons and I think I'd be happy forever.

And when I haven't been in rehearsal, things have been sometimes chaotic at home. On Friday, I wasn't called in for 10 am rehearsal for the first time all week, so I decided to make bread (a pain de mie). It was a dreary, sleeting day and I had just put the loaves in the oven and went outside to take out the trash and recycling from the basement before eating lunch when... the door was locked! And I was locked out! And the bread was in the oven! And the cat was inside! And I had to be at rehearsal at 2:30! And I didn't have any money or my cell phone! Luckily I was wearing shoes and a neighbor I'd met once before was home; she was able to help me get Comrade MM's phone number, who told me to take the taxi to her workplace where she gave me her keys and taxi fare, and I was able to get home just at 2:00 to see the house safe, the bread perhaps salvageable for croutons, and the cat alive. Though I did slip when I was running inside to get some more money for the taxi and bruised my hip and hand. And I didn't have time to eat lunch and I was so hungry. It was a long, long day.

And in the meantime, Our Paulie of Many Diseases (at one point diagnosed as a bacterial infection, yeast infection, roundworm, and ringworm) has donned a cone of shame. It seems he doesn't have ringworm but the verdict is out on the cause of his suffering (perhaps a food allergy? ear mites, if the last culture was faulty?), so he has to wear a cone until he gets better. He is rather miserable about it.

Here he is on my bed, surrounded by the detritus of yesterday and looking rather morose:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Adventures of the Bird Spirit

Last week I traveled to Hamilton, NY, home of Colgate University's Ho Tung Visualization Laboratory, a planetarium (see below), to perform Anna Lindemann's Theory of Flight. Anna is one of my friends from Yale and also one of the most inspiring and creative people that I know. She was in my residential college and a year or two ahead of me in school. We sang together in the Yale Glee Club my freshman year and collaborated on another project, Bird Brain.
Here is the Dalai Lama visiting the planetarium! I'm not sure what the date of the photo is, but I think it's a few years back though relatively recently.

Perhaps you have heard me talk about this piece before; I performed in the premier last year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (see the photo I stole from the internet):

The story of Theory of Flight can be found on Anna's website (along with a video of our original performance and many photographs), but I'll try to sum it up here too.
First of all, the question of genre: What is it?
I'm not sure how to answer that question, still--though I think this is a good thing. Theory of Flight has two characters, a scientist named Alida and a Bird Spirit. The scientist (played by Anna) only speaks; the Bird Spirit (played by yours truly) only sings. It is a staged work. In addition, there are two sets of animations: one which serves the purpose of a chalkboard (albeit the most beautifully-designed chalkboard you've ever seen) and another which serves as both focal point and backdrop in the scenes featuring the Bird Spirit. The animations were made using both stop-motion and computer programs. The accompaniment to my singing is all electronic and is executed with Synful, a synthesizer (I think that's what you'd call it, anyway). Anna wrote and created and made all of these things, plus collaborated with her cousin Ky on the costumes.
Now that we've straightened that out, What happens?
Again, perhaps a little difficult to say. Essentially, the scientist Alida becomes obsessed with achieving flight in non-avian species (namely herself). Over the course of the drama, she falls deeper and deeper into this obsession, eventually amputating her arms and--through the help of science--growing wings. All of this is presented under the guise of a lecture series; we see Alida at three different points along this trajectory. Interrupting all of these lectures are appearances by the Bird Spirit, who sings arias which are related to material from the lectures. Alida is able to grow wings from her amputated arms but these are not powerful enough to let her fly, and it is only through intervention by the Bird Spirit that she is able to achieve her goal.
In the first production, the space at RPI (shown below) featured a rigging system.

At the end, Anna was literally able to fly, making smaller arcing leaps and finally a long flight across the stage while I was singing a final aria. The new location being a planetarium, it did not feature any rigging. So, a lot of this past week was spent thinking about the meaning of the ending. Would Alida really fly? How does the Bird Spirit feel about this? How much of this is in Alida's mind? And vice versa?

A photo from the first performance. Alida is attached to the rigging and wearing the wings given to her by the Bird Spirit.

Eventually it became clear that the best way to be a convincing Bird Spirit was to have a separate storyline from Anna/Alida. In my Bird Spirit mind, I was a scientist of some sort myself. Alida was my subject in an experiment and the intercalary arias (sung in English) were therefore not Alida's dreams but the Bird Spirit's way of influencing my test subject. Planting the idea of using an axolotl blastema as a means to introduce embryonic avian genes was not so much divine intervention (as Alida might think) as a further step in the experimental process. Eventually the Bird Spirit realizes--partially from wisdom and partially from jealousy--that her experiment has gone awry. Perhaps the Bird Spirit was hoping for company in her lonely life, but eventually found the introduction of another powerful figure into bird-dom too threatening. Perhaps Alida actually does represent a far greater danger to birds in her new half-bird state. If we are to ascribe human emotions to the Bird Spirit, it is most likely the former masquerading as the latter. Regardless of the reason, the Bird Spirit decides to ostracize Alida. In this iteration, the final aria (sung in bird speak) is not a celebration of Alida's successes but an affirmation of the Bird Spirit's bird-ness and also a cautionary tale: did you learn so little from Icarus' attempts? Beware lest you too fall from great heights.

The three performances went quite well (and were very well-attended), but Anna and I were a little flummoxed by the audience's somewhat bemused receptions to the first two shows. There are parts of Theory of Flight that are funny, but the first two audiences were very subdued. The third performance was our best despite some technological glitches, largely because there was so much positive energy coming from the other side of the room! At first we were worried that the community of Hamilton wasn't used to something so different, but in the end it seemed that it was a combination of factors: a large number of younger children in the audience (who tolerated the show quite well but probably didn't get much of the science) and also the afternoon performance times. The last performance was on Saturday evening and was followed by a Flying Feast, an edible, bird-themed reception designed and concocted by Ellie Markovitch and Rose Mitchell. Thanks to the appreciative audience, the Saturday night show felt more spontaneous than any of the others. At the Flying Feast we were able to talk to some of the attendees, many of whom seemed so excited by the mix of media and disciplines. Several of the professors expressed either delight at seeing scientists talk to artists (an art professor) or were impressed by the ability of artists to discuss important scientific processes (a science professor). It's always gratifying when you have a performance that seems as if it will stick in someone's mind for a while.

Anna was able to get a grant from Colgate to put on three performances of Theory of Flight along with a Flying Feast and to pay for the sundries of transportation, lodging, food, and fee for all involved (including the tech crew, made of Colgate students, operating all of the confusing computers and lights). One of Anna's friends, a luminous person named Emma who often wears amazing pants and is talented in so many ways that perhaps it is enough to say that she is luminous, was the director of the RPI show, but she could not come to this performance. So, we were joined by a friend of Emma and Anna's and another Yalie, yet another luminous individual who is also playwright and actor but is named Alex. I think Anna has a knack for meeting interesting people. Anyway, Alex and I stayed at Holcomb's Bed and Breakfast, a friendly establishment run by the loquacious and gracious Karen. It was such a luxury to have the opportunity to drop my daily cares and to be able to focus on the task at hand. I had been worried about taking the gig because I only had this one week off from school this semester and thought I might need the chance to recuperate. In the end, I think that this trip was both more rejuvenating and relaxing than a week at home could have been. Instead of sitting by myself in a practice room, I was working on character development for the Bird Spirit and thinking about how it might apply to Calisto. Instead of just worrying about my ribs and support while staring at a mirror and poking my sides (which I also did at the B&B), Alex gave us warm-up acting exercises that quite often dealt with some of the same issues we constantly ponder as singers. It was also wonderful to be in a little town with bright stars and deer and quiet nights. And, as always, it was a gift to get to work with Anna and, for the first time, Alex, and to meet new, friendly faces in a new place. It's stuff like this that makes me miss Yale.

And now back to work. I returned on Sunday, continued to brush up on Calisto on Monday, and started our week of intensive staging rehearsals today. Also, as a postlude to my bike saga: today I brought it in to a bike store near my house, Sweet Pete's, where it was fixed by an affable and competent mechanic, for free, in a few minutes.

But I shall close with a few photographs:

A ladybug found in my room one snowy morning. I put it in a plant inside because I thought it might be too cold outside.

The farm literally next door (fresh eggs for breakfast!)

Some plants in the field across/up the street/creek.