Tuesday, April 25, 2006

fiesta night

Yee-haw! Catherine and I may be in Vienna, but San Antonio's in the middle of its biggest party of the year, Fiesta. This is the third Fiesta we've missed in three years, but who's complaining? Last year we were sipping coffee fresh from the plantation and riding horses through the mountains of Panama, and the year before we were on an island paradise in the Andaman sea.

Anyway, tonight's Protag Jazz Party on KRTU 91.7 FM is something we taped live a few weeks ago, knowing I'd be gone: an all-Fiesta-music program. We weren't sure, going into it, what that would mean, but as it turned out we kicked off with Tito Puente's immortal party tune "Oye Como Va," then went on to play some swingy Willie Nelson and some original Protagonists salsa, plus "I'm an Old Cowhand," a moody take on "They Call The Wind Mariah," and a Latino "San Antonio Rose."

The funny thing is that we hadn't even known exactly what kind of show it would be: we'd originally figured on centering the night around some of the city's great young jazz pianists, but couldn't get them all together on the same night. So, that's later. Meanwhile, a few minutes before we went onstage, one of us suggested that the show would be in late April, so how about a Fiesta show? Well, thar ya have it. We just flew by the seat of our pants the whole way, and wound up having some real fun in the process. And there's some real music, too: the wide swing on that Willie tune, Darren's funky beat on the Tito tune, Greg's cosmic solo on "Mariah." I love playing with these guys.

And it's all online. Enjoy Fiesta Night.

Monday, April 24, 2006

catharsis in vienna

There are many things they don't tell you about what happens when you grow up. You assume, for instance, that unsightly teenage blemishes are just that, and that when you get older they'll go away. Not so. I haven't had a zitless day since about ninth grade. Fortunately, I don't get the type of pimples that scar your face and mar how you look. They're always pretty small and inconsequential.

Catherine lives up to her Greek name by being an especially enthusiastic zit-popper. To be fair, it's not as much about catharsis, purification, with her (though the experience of having one's pimples popped pretty much follows every single element of Plato's definition of catharsis) as it is about fascination with the body. Ear wax, hair roots, it's all fair game with her.

This morning, as we lolled in bed sipping the Viennese light streaming through our big old windows, she popped so many zits on my forehead that she counted them. Forty-one. Slightly painful, in a pinpricky way, but who could deny her such obvious pleasure? Forty-one.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

three quarter time

Walking around town, humming various waltzes to myself and to Catherine, I often conflate them: after the A section of Blue Danube, I sing the B section of the Waltz of the Flowers, from Nutcracker. Last night, I transitioned into the weird, folky bagpipe-like beginning of the bridge from the grand mazurka from Coppelia, one of my favorite ballets.

That got me to thinking that there's something about three-four time that you might not know: not everything that's in three-four is a waltz. Lots of styles of music are in three-four time but are nowhere near a waltz, and even the dancy ones could be some other form.

Strictly speaking, a waltz is a medium-quick dance with a strong boom-chick-chick, that got popular in the late 1800s. Blue Danube is one, the Waltz of the Flowers is one. Waltzes usually have several sections, each with its own melody, so that the entire thing is like a medley of tunes, some choppy, some sweeping, some gentle, some grand.

Then there's the minuet, one of the older fashionable dances, popular in Mozart's time and before. It's slower and more courtly and formal. It's a more typically songy song, with just an A section and a B section, though later on composers messed with it and stretched it all out of shape.

A mazurka is a big, dramatic Polish dance, with a heavy emphasis on the second beat or the third beat, giving it a real down-up feel. It generally feels more robust and hearty — if a waltz is champagne, a mazurka is beer.

A polonaise is slower and more solemn. Chopin did a lot of mazurkas and polonaises for piano.

Lots of jazz happens in three-four, but when you say "jazz waltz" you mean it features that doo-deep, doo-deep rhythm that splits the three beats into two equal parts, thus giving you a cool syncopation.

So. Now you know.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

zanoni and zanoni

Catherine and I have now eaten at Zanoni and Zanoni a couple of times since we've been here in Vienna. Z&Z serves superb ice cream. They have probably twenty flavors, including a lemon ice cream that's a masterwork: zippy, incisive lemon with a little bit of cloy, creamy creamy texture, a perfect aftertaste. Their Heidelbeere is good too — that's blueberry, fine-grained and only just sweet enough. We sit outside under the heated canopy and watch the city walk by on cobblestone streets, and live a life in every lick.

We also wonder why on earth other people don't make ice cream like this. The gourmet stuff you get elsewhere is either too icey or too creamy. Marble Slab ice cream is a globby Russian-style delight, but it achieves nothing like the exquisite balance of Z&Z. Is some secret recipe? Or is it simply a failure of nerve elsewhere? We've also applied this question to other areas of life in this beautiful town: why on earth wouldn't you build every new building to look like the ones we see here? Is it just that expensive these days? Certainly not: Trump tower could easily afford to look this beautiful, but doesn't. Meanwhile, molded concrete is molded concrete. You might as well mold it into a pleasing shape as into a blank box. Actually, this is something that Texas highway designers have somehow caught onto recently, with pleasant results. Why not catch it on all over?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

roses from the south

Strauss has been running through my brain lately. We had a tragic near-Strauss experience, missing Rosenkavalier by only a couple of hours on our first real day here. Drat! With or without Richard, though, Johann would no doubt have been dominating us. (Incidentally, Johann Sr and Johann Jr are both infinitely more hummable than Richard: just try humming the waltz from Rosenkavalier without any help. Can't do it, can you? I get a few ba-dee-deeee, ba-de-deeeees in there, and I'm completely stranded. Face it. Richard is great for monumental space odysseys — everyone can hum him there — but he's no good on the dance floor.)

The other day, I cranked up Roses from the South on our iPod as a Viennese aubade, blaring tinnily from our headphones. I know every note of it like an old dance partner. Catherine, having grown up in a classical family (it was years before she realized with a shock, at a friend's house, that not all parents listen to exclusively classical music and that, therefore, pop isn't only for kids), knows most of its themes as well.

When Jeff Walker and I were college roommates, he was raiding my music collection, as roommates do, when he saw something labelled "Party Music." He was amused, but not at all surprised, to hear ninety minutes of waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles, from great old records like Arthur Fiedler's Champagne, Roses, and Bonbons (sadly unreleased on CD). To me, that music is the music of partying. Some of my earliest memories of social events in my childhood home are of tree-tall grownups, glamorously dressed and perfumed — my own parents transfigured — chatting and clinking to those very pieces of music.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


Catherine and I are enjoying our first days in Vienna, Austria. We'll be here to see the spring in, eat roast chestnuts, hear concerts — including what should be the Easter of a lifetime — and in general enjoy ourselves. Do check in on us from time to time. Auf wiederschauen, baby!

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

new miller book

I'm doing some editing on the next issue of Communique Journal. There's one essay in particular, a book excerpt by Donald Miller, that expresses really well something I've often thought. Here's a sneak peek at the Easter edition:

It strikes me, even as I type this, how distant our formulaic methodology is from the artful narrative of Scripture. It makes you wonder whether we can even get to the truth. It makes you wonder if all our time spent making lists would be better spent painting or writing or singing or learning to speak stories. Sometimes I feel as though the church has a kind of pity for Scripture, always having to come behind it and explain everything, put everything into actionable steps, acronyms, and hidden secrets.

My life is a story. I feel this blood slipping through my veins and these chemicals in my brain telling me I am hungry or lonely, sad or angry, in love or despondent. And I don't feel that a list could ever explain the complexity of all this beauty, all this sun and moon, this smell of coming rain, the beautiful mysteries of women, the truck-like complexity of men. It seems nearly heresy to explain the gospel of Jesus, this message an infinitely complex God has delivered to an infinitely complex humanity, in bullet points.