Monthly Archives: June 2014

The sound of silence? It’s quiet good for you

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.
Pic: William P. Gottlieb

You know what’s the loudest noise in the world man? The loudest noise in the world is silence.”

So said Thelonius Monk.

How much time do you spend in silence each day?

Three minutes? Thirty? An hour? Not enough?

On average each of us encounters 52 noiseless minutes every day, according to a study published last week.

But that’s on average. The same survey also found that a third of us have less than a half hour’s silence a day – and one in six of us less than ten minutes.

‘That’s more like it,’ I thought to myself (silently) on reading about the study.

I don’t know exactly how much silence I encounter each day but I’d guess it’s around 30 minutes, usually late in the evening.

Even the time I spend alone – running in the morning or eating breakfast – is not silent. Traffic, the wind, background music, a boiling pan – there’s plenty of ambient sound around.

As the day passes this usually doesn’t bother me. With the exception of a construction drill or a ringing phone I don’t notice any ill effects.

A silent Loch Lomond. May 2010.

A silent Loch Lomond, May 2012.

But every couple of days my mind jerks me alert, demanding ten minutes of silent nothing. The next chance I get (which usually arrives hours later, at home that evening) I turn off my phone, laptop, sound system and just sit, embracing the quiet.

This silence principally fosters a sense of peace, a reason why it’s vital for practices like meditation.

But it’s not just the mind that benefits. Silence is good for your physical health. Absence of it (that is, the presence of noise) can lead to higher blood pressure, heart disease and heart attacks.

It’s also important for your cognitive function, specifically ‘right brain’ activities. It fosters creativity by filtering away daily sound, leaving focus and perspective.

When one focuses on silence it can – in the right circumstances – shift from being a passive absence of sound to being a presence, an active un-noise. The value of silence lies in this presence; the deeper one drifts into it the stronger the pull is.

Perhaps this is why Monk, a metropolis musician who spent many nights on stage alongside blaring brass, described silence as the loudest noise in the world.

Until your neighbour’s car alarm sounds.

_____

 

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Soba, so good, so…why not hot?

Please sir, can I have some mori soba? Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Please sir, can I have some mori soba? Pic: Clare Kleinedler

As revelations go, it was an unlikely spot in which to have one: a small suburban railway station in Toyonaka, near Osaka, Japan, at around noon on an uneventful Monday.

Retired people, mothers with children, and a couple of students moved around. Waiting on a train back to the city, and hungry for lunch, we dropped into a small café in the station’s basement.

This was how, and where, I experienced a food epiphany. It came by way of one of the most basic comestibles I’d eaten, served in a very simple fashion.

It was mori soba, a buckwheat flour noodle. It was also cold.

I’d had cold noodles before (more than once, I’m guessing, as a bleary ‘morning after the night before’ leftover in my college days) but I’d never had them like this.

The soba (above) was served not as it cooled, or at room temperature, but instead chilled. It was accompanied with tsuyu dipping sauce on the side, a cold liquid mixture of the fish broth dashi, soy sauce and mirin (a type of rice wine – at home my wife substitutes this with ginger).

Eating soba. Pic: Adolfo Farsari

Eating soba.
Pic: Adolfo Farsari

(I later found out that soba purists believe in eating the noodles without recourse to any tsuyu, a style known as hadaka – or ‘naked’ – soba. In fact it’s hard to think of food more naked than a cold, ungarnished buckwheat noodle.)

The protocol, I learned, was to dip a small amount of the soba into the tsuyu and then slurp down the dripping mixture – as noisily as you like. Then repeat until full.

And so I dipped and slurped my way to a clean plate, and half of my wife’s afterwards. It was so good I almost ignored the vegetable tempura on the side.

And so I underwent my mini-epiphany. There was something about soba.

The fact that I’d fallen for this wet gray-brown noodle – amid all the foods I encountered in Japan – made it even more interesting.

Coming from chilly northwest Europe the idea of eating cold noodles had never appealed to me beforehand. The noodles I was familiar with for always served steaming hot, as close to mouth burn territory as possible.

They were also a vehicle for whatever meat, fish or vegetables that they were served with.

All this directly contrasts with mori soba, whose only garnish was a little seasonal spring onion.

Soba salad.

Soba salad.

So why was mori soba so good? Why have I eaten it (or a chilled variant thereof, like soba salad) a couple of times a week since?

The answer: it’s rare to come across a carbohydrate that’s actually refreshing (even a lemon-laden linguine, a favourite home Italian dish, can’t quite pull it off). But mori soba is.

It’s a combination of the chilly serving temperature, the texture of the soba, the tang of the mirin and the umami of the dashi.

It was also interesting to expose my sometimes-too-conservative palate to a dish that I’d never tasted before.

Having had my new favourite noodles a half dozen times since I don’t think I’ll go back to the searing, steaming variety anytime soon.

Until, maybe, I try hot soba.

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A history of jazz (in 500 words)

Louis Armstrong, Kid Koala and Miles Davis. Pics: Library of Congress; Kristof Acke; Tom Palumbo

Louis Armstrong, Kid Koala and Miles Davis.
Pics: Library of Congress; Kristof Acke; Tom Palumbo

What is jazz?

To my ears it’s melody, movement, beat, snap, switch, sweat, dynamic and inverted and syncopated, free and indulgent and arrogant, full and fleeting.

And on the basis of all that it’s likely indefinable.

Pushed to one word though, it’s invention.

A composition can move and shift in the hands of different musicians. Of all music jazz is the genre where the furthest movement from the theme, while still, however distantly, orbiting it, is often most admired.

Basin Street Blues is one of my favourite songs, and a perfect example of this shifting evolution.

It was written by Spencer Williams in 1928, and named for Basin Street, a departed main drag in the (by 1928, cleaned up) New Orleans red light district of Storyville, where he had been raised.

The song was made famous first by Louis Armstrong and later Jack Teagarden, the latter with lyrics. Many other versions followed.

Charting the song across the generations provides as good an answer as any to the impossible question: ‘what is jazz?’

Take three versions.

Louis Armstrong – 1928


To start at the beginning, in every way. Armstrong cut his version in a period where he was, almost single-handedly, inventing ‘jazz’ as a soloist’s art form.

His performances on a number of recordings from this era are Rosetta Stone moments, solos (even at their shortest) in which you can hear the invention of something new.

Louis’ version starts eerily, with Earl Hines’ celesta, before Armstrong solos and scats. But it’s the trumpeter’s second solo (at 2.02) that’s remarkable – an ascending sequence of notes which picks up the melody and takes it up and up, transcending Basin Street and all else besides, to hold a searing high Bb, before returning to Earth for the last 16, somewhat mournful, bars.

Miles Davis – 1963


Thirty-five years later Davis turns the exuberance of Armstrong’s version on its head, moving from the stately stride of the 1928 recording to something pensive and brooding.

Gone is the overarching horn, replaced instead by the interplay of the leader’s muted trumpet, Victor Feldman’s piano and Ron Carter’s bass.

This is a lament – always elegant – for a way of life and a way of music that had long departed.

At times, as the trumpeter slips deeper in his solo (Davis’ first, lasting six minutes, is over twice the length of Armstrong’s song), we stray far from Basin Street, only to slowly resurface, pulled by Carter’s insistent bass.

Kid Koala – 2003


A natural progression. Koala takes Basin Street Blues away from single group performance, building a version with bass, banjo and beats around the melody line, in this case a scratched and slurred horn, his trademark ‘drunk trumpet’.

In contrast to Armstrong’s soloing 75 years earlier what stands out here is the low end, the beats which build in the second half of the song (from 2.13).

Koala, it seems, visualises the song as a funeral march, a fragmented second line, with banjo that closes the circle, echoing the Dixieland sound that Armstrong emerged from generations earlier.

_____

What is jazz then? It’s something that’s found throughout these three works, a form of music that encompasses creation, re- invention and subvention.

But, as Louis himself reputedly said, if you have to ask you’ll never know.

_____

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Japan is…(in pictures)

Describing Japan in 500 words is difficult.

A few weeks since I returned from my first visit I am still trying to process the sights and sounds, the hundreds of small impressions that make up the memory of my trip.

Having previously set down a take in words I figure that now it’s the turn of pictures. Here’s ten that sum up what I saw of the country over the course of a busy 12 days.

I’ll get back to Japan, sooner rather than later. These impressions are part of the reason why.

_____

10373736_10152908947622178_4745746173785539010_nThe Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is a major Shinto landmark in Kyoto. Like many such shrines it’s watched over by a fox – seen in the Shinto religion as a messenger.

_____

10334277_10152908952182178_4149215068209749102_nTen minutes from the busy Umeda commercial district of Osaka lies the river Yudo. Despite being on the cusp of a city of 2.6m people only a few runners hit the riverside running trails in the morning.

_____

10300116_10152908952012178_2493308882644777009_nFrom the Toyko subway to the famed Shinkansen to a tiny local in Kamakura we rode the rails all over. With every train on time.

_____

10308451_10152908962772178_1072611473128084820_nYamakazi single malt and dried shrimp from the 24 hour konbini store – is there a better way to end the night?

_____

10261961_10152871147301562_4664971002810964931_nWe ate big, we ate small, we ate sushi, we ate yakatori, but we always ate together. This was at an izakaya in Osaka, one of a number we visited.

_____

10380303_10152896397587178_8632450224177713798_nThe Japanese love their dogs, and their dogs must love them. The famous Hachiko landmark at Shibuya Station in Tokyo commemorates Hachiko, a Akita dog who famously turned up daily to greet his deceased master for nine years after his owner‘s death.

_____

10388120_10152871153751562_4689159811570022304_nAttention to detail is taken for granted. Whether it’s street sweeping, ticket collecting or making simple store-bought sandwiches.

_____

10369194_10152871156011562_3277657691173660722_nThere are 6,000 people per square kilometre in Tokyo. And it feels like most of them are waiting by the lights at the famed Shibuya Crossing. People, people, people: up, down, left, right, forward, back.

_____

IMG_4095Amazingly we had little sushi during our visit. An hour before we flew home we rectified this, at breakfast, at Narita Airport.

_____

10370440_10152898596932178_7926672014977243993_nThe language: I wish I could read it. But part of me wonders how I’d ever manage to comprehend the bewildering array of symbols used. Maybe one day I’ll tackle this translation.

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,