The Friday Symposium: A Cocktail for the End of Time

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished …

Revelation 10:1-2, 5-7 (KJV)

Our good friend Luke!!! has suffered through some sleepless nights of late, worried about the potential atomic consequences of events unfolding in the Ukraine. This one is for him.

Stalag VIII-A was as far from paradise as one could get in 1940, a dark and dreary German prisoner-of-war camp. By 1940, the better part of 50,000 French and Belgian prisoners were being housed in barracks originally intended to hold only 15,000. The prisoners were malnourished and unprotected from the cold, having been stripped of their clothing by their Nazi captors.

Into this hell on earth arrived a 30-something French conscript named Olivier Messiaen, already a noted composer and whose deep Catholic faith animated his music to a degree not seen since J.S. Bach sought to express his own Lutheran ideals in tones. Messiaen was not unknown to the cultured German officers, who provided the composer with pencils and music paper. So Messiaen, cold and starving, began to pray. The result was one of the more remarkable compositions in music history.

Inspired by the above quote from the Book of Revelation, Messiaen dedicated his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) to the Angel of the Apocalypse. Born amidst the horrors of war, the immediacy of famine and frost, Messiaen’s music is the antithesis of what we would anticipate. No bombast here. Messiaen is instead concerned with moving rhythm out of time and space itself. And what emerges from his music isn’t despair, but rather transcendence.

Messiaen’s time in this blog will come in due course and I will have a lot to say about this remarkable composition. But not today: For this Friday–with Armageddon ever present in our news cycle–I can think of no more appropriate music.

Olivier Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps:

Is there a cocktail for the end of time? Well, sort of. The Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster is the stuff of legend. As reported by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the cocktail was invented by Zaphod Beeblebrox, one-time President of the Galaxy. The Guide states: “The best drink in existence is the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, the effect of which is like having your brains smashed out with a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.” If the Apocalypse is truly upon us, this is the cocktail I want.

There is only one small catch. The ingredients are a bit tough to come by. Ol’ Janx Spirit, water from the seas of Santraginus V, Arcturan Mega-gin, Fallian marsh gas, etc. are just not exactly available in my local liquor store (or, in fact, exactly real). So to recreate this recipe in the real world, I will take inspiration from the Guide liberally.

Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (as adapted for Earth)

  • 1oz clarified lemon juice
  • 2oz Beefeater gin (chilled in freezer)
  • 1/2oz Goldschlager
  • 1/2oz Everclear
  • splash tonic water
  • 2 dashes mint bitters
  • olive to garnish

Combine clarified lemon juice, gin, Goldschlager, Everclear, bitters and shake well. Pour into glass with one large ice cube. Top with a splash of tonic water with a single olive to garnish. Do not consume more than one of these, unless you are a thirty ton mega elephant with bronchial pneumonia. (Don’t look at me, I didn’t make the rules.)

Bonus Recipe:

After creating the above, I consulted with The Godfather who is responsible for the “clarified” instruction above. After saying that was the only thing he would change, he set about changing virtually everything else. So, for the first time, an “improved” version:

Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (as adapted for Earth, improved version)

  • 1oz clarified lemon juice
  • 2oz Beefeater gin
  • 1/2oz Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash moonshine
  • 1/2oz Yellow Chartreuse
  • 1/2 tab Alka Seltzer
  • 2 dashes mint bitters
  • dash of edible gold leaf flakes
  • lemon peel stuffed olive

Combine clarified lemon juice, gin, moonshine, chartreuse, bitters and shake well. Pour into a cocktail glass and add Alka Seltzer. Sprinkle gold leaf on top and add single olive to garnish. Do not consume more than one of these (see above).

The Friday Symposium: Collapse the Light Into Earth

At some point in the 1980s or early 1990s, rock musicians began to abandon functional harmony–the idea of building music around a tonic chord or key. Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana is a good example of this. Drawing on a wide range of inspirations, such as The Pixies and Sonic Youth, Niravana began charting a decidedly atonal future for rock music in which harmonic tension and resolution would be abandoned. Of course, classical composers got there first, nearly 100 years earlier, but it would be a fool’s errand to argue that Cobain and his grungy peers were studying scores by Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg or other 20th century composers. Most of them were barely music literate and were simply writing what sounded angsty and non-commercial to them.

Around the time that Nirvana was blowing up, in England, a young progressive guitarist and songwriter was beginning to chart his own path. Steven Wilson and his band Porcupine Tree began life solidly in the space-progressive world first charted by Pink Floyd. Wilson wears his influences–Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, most prominently among others–on his sleeve, often leading critics to declare his music to be derivative. That’s unfair. Brahms’ First Symphony sounds so much like Beethoven that it is routinely referred to still as Beethoven’s 10th. Today, Porcupine Tree inhabits a space best described as progressive-metal, which if you are imagining Metallica performing albums like Selling England by the Pound, you are not too far off from the truth.

As it happens, Porcupine Tree is one of the Professor’s favorite bands, so when the opportunity arose to see them live with him, I jumped at the chance. Porcupine Tree are a hard band to connect to, especially if you jump around their catalogue instead of listening to complete albums. I had a hunch that a live show might help me find their groove a bit more efficiently. It did, which isn’t to say that I came away entirely sold on the band–especially in its current prog-metal phase.

Having immersed myself in Beethoven over the last several weeks, it was easy to pick up on Porcupine Tree’s obsessively repeating rhythms and riffs. I even heard what I thought were polyrhythmic sections, but listening again to the studio versions I determined that I was wrong–instead of two truly independent rhythms, the band is quite skilled at disguising variations of a rhythm over a 4-5 bars, after which you get what appears to be rhythmic resolution, but in fact was never truly clashing to begin with. Wilson also veers into atonal composition at times, producing strange chord progressions that bend your ear while, as a singer, using chromatic progressions that further distance his music from any sort of obvious tonal center.

That said, I think the band is at their best when they mix things up, either by retreating back to Meddle-like space-prog (The Moon Touches Your Shoulder) or by incorporating pseudo-polyrhythms to break up the ever-repeating riffs that sometimes can border on monotony. Personally, I welcome Wilson’s rare returns to a more functional harmony in his singing (Piano Lesson–an homage of sorts to late 90s Brit Pop).

While Wilson’s jazz and classical influences permeate his solo efforts (for example, Deform to Form a Star), his efforts to do so within the confines of Porcupine Tree appear to be more limited. That said, from time to time a few of these interesting Conversations peak out from the gloom, most notably this Philip Glass-inspired piano introduction.

Porcupine Tree, Sentimental

Philip Glass, String Quartet No. 2, IV. Quarter Note = 160

Philip Glass, Mad Rush:

At the close of the concert, Wilson remarked that Porcupine Tree isn’t the sort of band that has that one song that they have to play at every concert. And then they played the one song they have to play at every concert (Trains). It’s a good tune and clearly one of their very best, but I actually prefer another song on that album, which they also played last Friday night. For a band that embraces the dark and morose side of life, the lyrics are almost uplifting, as is the spare music that backs Wilson’s line.

I won’t shiver in the cold

I won’t let the shadows take their toll

I won’t cover my head in the dark

And I wont forget you when we part.

I won’t heal given time

I won’t try to change your mind

I won’t feel better in the cold light of day

But I wouldn’t stop you if you wanted to stay

Collapse the light into earth.

Steven Wilson

As autumn approaches, here is a cocktail worthy of that song, along with a playlist of some of the Porcupine Tree songs that I’ve come to appreciated over the last week.

Collapse the Light Into Earth

  • 1oz Laird’s Apple Brandy Bottled-in-Bond
  • 3/4oz lemon juice
  • 1/2oz honey simple syrup (1:1 ratio)
  • Champagne
  • Grated nutmeg

Combine brandy, lemon juice and syrup and shake well to combine. Strain into a coupe, top with Champagne and grate fresh nutmeg over the top.

The Friday Symposium: Music and Cocktails for the Last Days of Summer

The last days of summer don’t mean as much as they used to these days. While some, no doubt, will board their last train back to the City on Monday afternoon, or otherwise brave the traffic and the dreaded LIE, come Tuesday morning I will still find myself seated here, 100 miles from the office I’ve visted only a handful of times since March 2020.

Yet the pending finality of the silly season calls for music that its light, somewhat trivial, and rebellious all at once. Which got me to thinking about Cecilia Bartoli, unquestionably one of the great mezzos of her age, but whose fear of flying (and, perhaps, smaller voice) has too long kept her from singing in the US consistently. Her 2006 album, Opera Proibita, fits the bill in both respects.

Opera Proibita features music that had been banned in the 18th century in Rome by the Church, fearing (perhaps with just cause) that the opera houses were dens of corruption and immorality. The album features some of the best known hits of Baroque opera–just the perfect thing for a late summer’s evening.

The album also happens to be one of my wife’s favorite, so I thought I would pair it with her favorite cocktail–The Little Grey Lady. Vanishing few people have heard of this drink, but I can’t take credit for it–I found the recipe in a magazine several years ago. It is a lighter and altogether more refreshing riff on The Last Word, a classic cocktail built on four equal parts and which will no doubt feature later on in this blog. I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t like this drink.

Quick story. We used to go frequently to Nick and Toni’s, the famed East Hampton restaurant, when the great Kevin Grillo manned the bar. One night, I asked Kevin to make The Little Grey Lady for us, only to find that, of the four components of the cocktail, he only had one (the lemon juice) and he even lacked the bitters that give cocktail its distinctive grey/pink hue. Eventually we found some substitutes and renamed the cocktail The Maidstone Mist (as the cocktail is named for the pink/grey hue of the fog that sometimes settles over Martha’s Vineyard). In any event, here’s the recipie.

The Little Grey Lady

  • 1 oz Plymouth gin (do not substitute a London Dry gin, which throws the favors off)
  • 1 oz Cocchi Americano (you can substitute Lillet Blanc, although it is not as good)
  • 1 oz St. Germain (we now use St. Elder if you can find it)
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • healthy dash of Peychaud’s Bitters

Shake well and serve in a coupe with a twist of lemon.

The Friday Symposium: Thomas Tallis and White Châteauneuf-du-Pape

On this edition of the Friday Symposium, we go even further back in music history to motets composed by Thomas Tallis. One of my Desert Island Discs is certainly the Tallis Scholars’ recording of Spem in Alium, along with other Tallis compositions.

One of the most complex and ethereal compositions of its or any other age, there is one pairing that seems appropriate and just happens to be a fantastic late summer wine. While the red wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are more plentiful, the few white wines the region produces are among the best in France (and, thus, the world). Like its red counterpart, white CDP is typically made from a blend of grapes, a combination of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, Clairette Rose, Grenache Gris, Picardan Blanc, Piquepoul Blanc and Piquepoul Gris. The actual blend and the proportions thereof are left entirely to the winemaker.

The La Fagotière Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is one of my favorites. Fermented in stainless steel, it exhibits none of the secondary oak flavors that typically get in the way of white wines. It is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Picquepoul Blanc, bringing peach armoas and citrus flavors to the fore. Unlike many CDPs, this is made to drink on the younger side and the 2018s can be found fairly easily for about $40 a bottle. A bit on the expensive side, but just a perfect match for the Tallis.

The Friday Symposium: Bach and The Martini

Leave it to academia to turn something wonderful into something dreadful. When most people hear the world “symposium” today, they think of a bunch of talking heads sitting on a podium massaging their own egos. In the Ancient World, however, a symposium was decidedly more fun–after all, the word symposium is derived from the Greek “symposio”, which means “drinking together.” A symposium, in Ancient Rome, was therefore a drinking party where wine and music flowed together. So when Our Friend from Boston requested a paring of music and drinks in this blog, my mind turned to the original meaning of symposium. I will also note that this idea was in part stolen from The Friday Belt, which was one of the best features of what was probably my favorite blog ever.

The first drink, of course, has to be the Martini. It is one of the first and one of the best, an icon that is bracingly refreshing in summer as it is the literal representation of winter in a glass. No drink brings as much history and atmospherics to the table. And once you know how to make one, the riffs on the formula are nearly endless.

Let’s start with what a Martini is not. It is not made with vodka. It is not simply chilled gin in a glass. It is a cocktail and thus made from a combination of ingredients, one of which is dry vermouth. I love vermouth and take my “dry Martinis” quite wet by modern standards. Julia Child was fond of the Reverse Martini (two parts vermouth to one part gin). Audrey Saunders brought back the Fifty-Fifty Martini. But the classic is and will always be three parts gin to one part vermouth, which is what I drink. Finally, a Martini, like every cocktail that is made solely from spirits, should stirred, not shaken. There is little more depressing in life than ordering a Martini and getting ice chips floating at the top of the glass. In this regard, this classic scene from The Thin Man (first scene in the montage), was complely wrong. Incidentally, the glass used by Nick Charles in these films is now known as the Nick and Nora glass, which is as an ideal vessel for a Martini and nearly any other variation of it.

A Martini, like most cocktails, should be small, no more than four ounces total. Bars love these swimming pool masquerading as cocktail glasses, but really that is just a vehicle for a warm drink. A Martini should be silky smooth in texture, bracing in flavor, and icy cold in temperature. A perfectly made Martini is a thing of beauty; a poorly made Martini is the cocktail served in hell.

Today’s Martini drinker is faced with an endless set of gin and vermouth combinations. The classic, Beefeater and Martini & Rossi, is a classic for a reason. A more upscale version, The Botanist and Channing Daughters VerVino Variation 1, amps up the flavor considerably. For those who do not like juniper-flavored gins, Plymouth and Perucchi Bianco make for a nice pairing. As for the other more popular premium gins, I do not like Tanqueray in a Martini (a G&T is an entirely different story) and I do not like Bombay, either in its original or sapphire versions, altogether. My favorite is decidely middle of the road: Broker’s and Dolin Dry. Three to one, stirred, with a dash of orange bitters and olives thank you very much. Both will make less of a dent in your wallet than any of the others mentioned here.

Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin are similarly bracing, brilliant when perfectly executed and unlistenable when they are not. Today’s recording is Nathan Milstein’s. His performance is cold perfection of technique, the heat of which only emerges after you’ve had a few.

The classic “Dry” Martini is not, however, the original version. It is, in fact, a riff on the original recipie–The Martinez. The Martinez is made with equal parts Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth, to which a teaspon of maraschino liqueur and a few dashes of orange bitters are added before stirring into a coupe garnished with a twist of lemon. It is altogether a solid drink, even if the Dry version we know today was a clear improvement.

Just like the hipster bartenders who have resurrected the Martinez, period instrument performers have sought to improve on Milstein’s classic recording, bringing historically informed instruments, bows, and techniques to the table, all in an effort to get closer to Bach’s ideal. Like these recreated Old Tom gins, period instrument recordings of Bach’s sonatas and partitas are interesting but can’t really match Milstein’s peerless classic. But both the drink and these new recordings have their fans. Thomas Zehetmair, in his more recent recording of these works, gets closer to that ideal than most. Perhaps a Martinez for that one.