THE GOD OF WAR PLAYS THE TROMBONE
Last Saturday afternoon I was working in the kitchen, cooking up a meal for the family. This was a good Saturday in the kitchen. We all had the night off, which means I did not have to rush together a dinner. Even on a relaxed kitchen outing like this, I still push that finely honed stainless steel at breakneck speed through every vegetable I have to prep. I peel, slice and dice as fast as my 40 years of practice will move my hands. I have to focus all that practice into the frame of the cutting board so every blurred pass of the blade will cut each piece the same size, without losing a drop of blood or a tip of a finger nail.
For me, to get the greatest speed out of my instrument of creation, to synchronize the hands precisely with the eyes and focus the brain through the whirling hurricane of creative thoughts in the chef brainy box, the proper music is required.
It is not always the same type of music that makes this happen. It really depends on what mood I am in. If the birds are singing in trees full of fresh leaves and the flowers are on their way to budding, then Revel’s LaValse is the inspiration. You would think that a frenetic piece like that would further scatter the thought of a mind that is already flying back and forth with cross referencing or hauling up flavors and texture combinations from the deepest depths of imagination and experience, but somehow it works. Maybe Murices’ genius for pulling all the divergent sounds and rhymes of 65 musicians into a precisely woven, and incredibly rich audio fabric does the same for me.
When the crows are calling in the bear arms of the winter oak and brooding clouds like charcoaled cotton wander overhead in a cold wind that rattles the brittle stalks of the wildflowers outside my window, Holst’s The Planets wield the inspiration needed. “Mars” in particular.
Suddenly, the room was filled with the old Gustave, moving massive blocks of heavy sounds and plodding rhymes. Sound and rhythm brooding with dark, destructive intent. Slowly the music fills with a rally cry that bring the instruments into a single purpose. Like an army preparing for battle.
Now my mind had transformed that singular purpose into a Roman legion lining up shield to shield on the edge of a battleground. Beneath the raised standards, red togas are rippling in the wind, helmets and spear tips gleaming in the sun. Five thousand warriors, the best trained, fed and armed of the ancient world, stand at the threshold of their enemy’s destruction. Centurions commanding the cohorts give the order to advance and the battle begins.
Like the legions, I line up all the fuliginous, stoic winter tubers, the darkly fragrant greens and vibrant flavor bombs from those warmer climates of the southern hemisphere.
I am getting pumped.
For a split second I think to look over at the iPhone screen. The music is blaring, the Roman legion marching heroically through my head and I expect to see that same army on the screen. How could I not? The image is so vivid in my mind, the emotion of it all is filling every ounce of my being.
But I don’t!
Instead, I see a line of bookish looking guys in spotless, pressed tuxedos, fondling French horns and futzing around with trombones as they study, almost quizzically, pages of sheet music.
They are the furthest thing from Roman warriors.
The only things close to weapons are their musical instruments, and the closest things to shields are their flimsy black music stands. The ‘legion commander’ is a short, pudgy oldster propped up on a podium instead of a majestic white stead. He’s not brandishing a gleaming gladius, that conquered the ancient world, but a little wooden stick. He is waving it as if he is experiencing some form of Tourette’s or he’s fighting off a pack of attaching mosquitoes.
Oh boy, the focus is waning now.
But a split second later I am utterly amazed, and back on track. Much to my relief, I have found the extraordinary in the ordinary.
I have fully realized the power of music to transport our minds to other places. Of course, I have been aware of this since I was a child. But today’s timing made this thought occur like an epiphany. It also has kept my enthusiasm in focus and in high gear for the task at hand.
I have listened to Holst’s The Planets twenty, thirty times and been caught up in the emotion and imagery but never considered what was going on here. That a shy, bespeckled English trombone instructor, employed by an all-girls high school, could conjure up in my mind Julius Caesar’s legions marching off to victory at the Battle of Alesia. He did this without one written word, no actors in costumes shouting out dramatic line in front of DeMillesq staging or expensive CGI.
Nope, did it all with sounds.
And some additional nuttiness to go along with this is the sheet music.
Someone hands me a novel. I read it and I understand it. I experience what the characters are going through and imagine the scenes the action takes place in. I hear the dialog and sense the underlying theme because someone is explaining all of it with words. Words are familiar; we use them every day.
Someone hands me sheet music and I don’t have a clue as to what they are trying to get across to me. How much larger of a clue would a musician have since he would have to read all the other parts then try to put them together in his head to find out what the composer wants to convey to them. But run it through brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion, and the military glory of Rome is right there in the room with you.
The power of music – the power of written music. Small miracles, are they not?
By the time I thought all this through, the first movement is over.
Can’t let the focus diminish. Have to stay sharp so I can wield the blade at speeds only trained chefs and practiced kitchen amigos name Javier, Jose or Luis can attain.
Mars gets cued up from the beginning one more time and a few bars into it I am flying through brunoise, chiffinode and julienne like the well-oiled prep machine I once was.
Boy, that feels great!
Next, I get the deep green Swiss chard simmering with the liquid smoke and bay leaves as the julienne Yukon Golds take on that roasty brown in the hot oven. Venus, the bringer of peace, fills the kitchen with calm as the aromas build like a spirit of tranquility.
Now I grab the Orvieto from the fridge, pop the cork and splash it into the fine stemware. Mercury the winged messenger arises up from the glass and delivers that delicate floral bouquet that brings a smile to my lips.
But no time to drink. The garlic, extra virgin olive oil from Sicily, with all its robust and vegetal character, is popping hot in the sauté pan.
Have to keep working.
I fast forward to Jupiter. As the music speeds along like a joyous rollicking ride, I throw the ingredients into the hot oil; turning and tossing them in the pan with a deft flip of my hand. The music builds, settles, and builds again, and awesome smells come and go. The shapes and colors in the pan swirl and tumble through the air, as I work them. They are restless whirling carnival colors in a Mardi Gras parade.
In this space of time I am transformed into the chef god of culinary creation! A radiant, eternal, maker of art out of simple sustenance gathered from nature’s bounty spread across the globe.
Like Holst, I will move minds to other places without a word.
A quick taste of wine, a whitism from a family member passing by, another flip of the pan to make the boisterous parade dance down another block and I wish I could live in this moment for a thousand life times.
Sadly, I cannot.
I am not the immortal god of coquus I imagined myself to be for that moment. Just an ex-chef reliving those awesome days of creating in my restaurant kitchen.
Regardless, I am grateful I experienced this magical space in time as deeply as I did.
God is good, happy cooking!
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