Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Fiddling for a contradance

February 1, 2009

Friday night my classmates and I played for a contradance in South Strafford, VT, and it was an absolute blast!  It was the culmination of a series of music classes given by an accordionist named Jeremiah McLane, and the dance followed a public dinner given by the active locavore food group.  Dinner consisted of all New England ingredients, and consisted of shepard’s pie, roasted vegetables, Waldorf salad, fresh rolls, sweet cider, and bread pudding with custard and berry sauce.  The downstairs room of Barrett Hall was packed, and the food was really good. It felt old fashioned and modern all at once – it seems as if at least that part of Vermont has attained a sufficient critical mass of crunchy people to rediscover the sort of social structure that dominated in a pre-TV era.

Afterward the dance started upstairs.  The band was nine people: three fiddles, two accordions, a flute, a hammered dulcimer, a guitar, and a keyboard.  Having never played for such an event before (besides sitting in as a minor contributor to Flagstaff’s “Just Desserts” dance band and chocolate appreciation society), I was a bit nervous, but had brought some bottles of this fall’s cider and passed it around to help settle the nerves.  There was a lot of fiddling around with the sound system – Jeremiah who plays in several bands once remarked that a musician is fated to spend a third of his time messing around with the sound system, and another third playing with crummy sound.  It was the first time I’d dealt with monitors, which make for a strange experience – you hear yourself playing and it sounds sort of like it’s coming from your instrument, only much louder.  The sound guy tries to put an appropriate combination of all the instruments into the monitor mix; what I heard was mostly the three fiddles and the rhythm (guitar and keyboard) without much flute or accordion, but it was perfectly sufficient – there have been times in practices where I was sandwiched between accordions, and had the strange experience of playing loudly and hearing my fiddle make accordion sounds.

Anyway, the sound guys did a great job, and we started in to play.  We had a few sets of reels, a couple sets of jigs, an a set each of polkas and marches, as well as a couple of waltzes to end the first and second halves of the dance.  Playing contradance music is challenging, at least for an amateur of modest ability such as myself – the nature of the dancing is that the tunes must be played up to a certain tempo to be enjoyable, and especially for the notey-er reels it sometimes feels like hanging on for dear life.  But one we got a few sets into the dance and I realized I wasn’t going to crash completely, I relaxed a bit and found that I was having a lot of fun.  It seemed the perfect number of instruments and ability balance for my level of skill – there were times when the others carying the melody seemed to get in trouble and I could hear myself coming through clearly from out in the hall, giving me the thrilling-but-nerve-wracking feeling that I was carrying the melody torch over Sue and Rob’s reliable rhythm; other times I lost the thread of the tune or wasn’t sure we whether we were going to A or B, and was comforted to hear my companions carrying the melody staunchly forward.  Overall there were a couple thin spots but we never had a train wreck as a band, and my correspondants in the audience (Alexis, our friends Joshua and Kelsey, and well-wishers from our Thursday night music get-togethers) reported that the music was solidly danceable.  My fingers though tired never cramped to the point where I couldn’t carry some reasonable approximation of the tune.  Jeremiah was directing and would call out various melody instruments to be featured with the rest dropped out; I got a turn through one of my favorites, an infectiously manic French-Canadian reel that opens with a two-measure syncopated broadside and contrasts nicely in the beginning of the B part with three nice long descending notes useful for catching ones’ breath.  In the heat of the moment I had the impression that I pulled off a satisfactory if workmanlike rendition and kept more or less to the beat; I’m looking forward to hearing the disk that the sound guys cut to see how a more objective memory fares.

Anyway, it was a blast, and I want to do it some more.  As I understand it there is no shortage of minor dance events that are looking for a band that won’t charge much (or anything), and that the greater challenge is keeping the members of a large band focused and practicing.   For journeymen musicians such as ourselves there is strength in numbers and a 9-member band is none too many; the holy grail would be to attain a sufficient level of skill that 3-5 people could reliably carry a dance; obviously it would also be easier to find times when everyone could get together for practice.


Home again, really good bean burgers

June 15, 2008

After 8 weeks in Portland, we are back home in NH, and it’s good to be home.  Portland is a great place, very scenic and bikeable, at once big enough to have real city character (unlike Flagstaff, where we used to live) but with a much homier feel than Boston (where we lived before that).  The waterfront and Old Port districts are fun, and there are a lot of young people in town.  Ships and trains came and went, giving a real sense of commerce and vitality.  I could walk to the bus that goes to Boston (useful when I go there once a week for work), walk to a hardware store and any number of restaurants, and walk or bike to several groceries.

We arrived home to find the remaining lawn almost high enough to harvest for hay; I beat it back with the mower so that the laundry on the line wouldn’t dangle in the grass.  I also did some weeding; the squash, corn, and beans are up, and the potatoes are almost ready to flower.  The tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants don’t look so good; a friend was keeping them while we were out of town and we transplanted them the one weekend we were back, so they never got hardened off.  Most of the maters look like they will make it through, and I will get peppers and eggplants at the garden store to replace the fallen.

The first cabbage and broccoli transplants are starting to get some size, and the first lettuce was ready to harvest, so I picked a bunch to go with dinner.  That got me in a cooking mood, so I started a big batch of the usual Sherwood Inn multigrain bread I’ve described here before, and I made some bean burgers.  These are really good, so I’ll post the recipe here.  We pretty much never buy frozen veggie burgers at the grocery anymore; these are tons better and more substantial, and probably a fifth of the cost.  I’ll give a double recipe, which makes 18 or 20; enough to freeze a big tub for microwaving on a whim – the amount of work is not much more to make a passel of them all at once.

Alexis’ Favorite Bean Burgers (not sure where the recipe is from, and we’ve modified it somewhat)

  • 2 big onions – chop finely
  • 4 tbs oil – as much or as little as you want.  Heat in a frying pan, sauté till translucent
  • 6 cloves of garlic, minced (maybe 2 tbs?)
  • 2 tbs chili powder
  • 1.5 tbs cumin
  • 1-2 c grated carrots (I usually use 2 big ones; it makes a substantial difference to use a fine grater, with maybe 2mm openings, so the carrots act like reinforcement rather than weak points in the burgers)
  • 2 tbs tamari
  • 4 tbs ketchup – add these ingredients after a while and cook for a while longer
  • 4 cups of cooked black beans – I do these in the pressure cooker; substantially cheaper than buying in a can and they aren’t salted.  You don’t want salted beans if you can help it, since the ketchup and tamari have plenty.  It helps if the beans are cool/cold to start, to avoid cooking the egg too soon.  I mix the beans with the cooked up onion mush using the kitchenaid, then add
  • 2 eggs (omit for vegan, they won’t hold together as well but will still taste fine)
  • 4 cups regular rolled oats – mix till the eggs and oats are good and mushy.  You want to adjust the amount of bean liquid you include so that the mix seems just a bit too wet; as the oats hydrate it will stiffen up
  • After it sets 10 or 20 mins, form into burgers (of whatever size you like) and cook in a frying pan with a little oil over medium low heat (30% on our stove).  Cook until nicely browned on each side; maybe 5-7 mins per side.

I really like these bean burgers, they are super convenient once you make them, and everything in them can be grown in New England (except cumin maybe, and olive oil is tasty).  Last night I turned a quarter of my bread batch into buns, and we had the bean burgers on warm whole grain buns with sharp cheese and lettuce from the garden.  At the grocery I had noticed that they were starting to have local fresh strawberries, so I bought some rhubarb and made a big 12″ strawberry rhubarb pie with the last of the berries I froze from the organic pick-your-own place over in Vermont last year.  In a week or so it will be time to go picking again.

I also learned a new waltz on the fiddle, a really beautiful, harmonious Swedish tune called Josefin’s.  It’s in the Waltz Book 3, or you can get it on  I also have been picking around with the mandolin a bit; since it’s tuned the same as a fiddle I figure it will only be about half as hard to learn as another instrument.  This afternoon I went for a walk up the hill across the road from our house; it was a perfect early summer day in the 70s with a light breeze; you could almost smell the trees photosynthesizing, and imagine that all was right with the world.  At the top is the remnants of an old granite quarry, which if one is in a philosophic frame of mind offers a quiet commentary on the works of man.

Midnight on the water

September 30, 2007

[note: Midnight on the water is the name of a fiddle tune, a waltz by Luke Thomasson.]

Ela (a friend from college) turned 32 this last weekend, and to celebrate she invited a bunch of folks to camp out on an island in Squam Lake, about an hour from where I live. Alexis was at the hospital and couldn’t make it, and I had a bunch of things to take care of on Sunday, but the weather looked good so I decided to join them for the day on Saturday. There were ten other people, and everyone else was canoeing, but the forecast was for a nice breeze, so I took the sixteen foot lapstrake dory that Joshua and I built some years ago. When I arrived at the put-in there was a ripping northerly breeze with whitecaps on the lake. There’s a nice little boat ramp and a canoe/kayak rental concession at the Squam Lakes Association, with a shallow inlet that opens out into the south shore of the lake near the west end. We loaded some firewood and food in the dory, and I rowed out to the opening, dropped in the rudder, and raised the sail. Since I was single-handing, I sailed her with just the main, so she had a bit more weather helm than usual, but nothing ridiculous. The canoes followed me out, and together we headed upwind for the far side of the lake. I tacked and jibed in among the other boats in the lighter breeze as we worked our way towards the island, about two miles distant, then we headed out across a short stretch of open water to the lake. At one point I passed a line to one of the canoes and pulled them for part of the downwind run, and then I fell behind as the wind slackened in a slot between the island and its neighbor.

The island was perhaps 10 acres with three or four campsites on it, and everyone pitched camp; then we basked in the sun for a while. The wind was still good, so I took three others out for a sail around a neighboring island; with the jib raised we moved along nicely, pounding through the whitecaps on the upwind leg and driving powerfully on a broad reach. On towards sunset the wind was abating and I knew the moon would be bright, so I stuck around for dinner, cider, and conversation. At some point I realized that everyone around the fire was married – one of those moments when the vague mental finger pointing at the timeline of life shifts noticeably to the right. Ela was the person who lent me a spare fiddle, five or six years ago when I was first interested in learning, and we both brought instruments, so we scraped out some jigs, reels, and waltzes together by the campfire, another occasion to realize how far things have come.

The moon rose, and the fire died down a bit, and it was time to go, so I studied the lake chart, packed up my fiddle, and bid farewell. I raised the sail and lashed it up to the mast with the mainsheet, and rowed out northward, through the gap between the islands, and back into the wind, which had come a bit westerly and moderated to a comfortable level. Campfires flickered on the islands, the moon sparkled on the lake surface, and Chocorua rose up to the northwest. Once clear of the islands I pointed upwind, unshipped the oars, and loosed the sail, paying off briefly on the port tack. I had picked out landmarks at dusk; a headland on the south shore and a hill just west of the landing point, and I could make out the hill but not the headland. With the moon I could make out the direction of the ripples on the water, and with that and the wind on my cheek I kept her full and tried to sense the speed of the boat by the sound and the bubbles passing over the stern. As soon as I had my way I came about and headed eastward, aided by a buoy with a strobe about a mile distant. The wind was cool and the stars made it seem cooler, but the challenge of sailing in the dark kept me warm enough. A few puffs had me up on the windward rail, but nothing that made me doubt my sanity or think of slacking the sheet. After some time on the starboard tack I could make out the loom of the headland – I could see that I would not make it on that tack, which meant the wind had shifted further westerly. I was about even with the strobe by then, so I took a board out into the middle of the lake toward the light, and soon I could make out the small island that it marked. Another couple of tacks took me further along the shore, with the island and the light well astern. The wind which had held nicely to that point fell away to the point where it was difficult to tell if I was pinching, and it was after eleven, so rather than beat around in the dying breeze I bound up the main again with the help of my headlamp, unshipped the rudder and raised the board, and rowed toward the gap in the trees that marked the inlet.

The wind died away to nothing, and I ghosted in between the rocks into flat water. The lily pads guided me along the channel to the ramp, where I winched the dory back onto the trailer and headed for home, arriving a bit after 1 AM. The day could not have been more perfect, with friends, food, music, and an incredible moonlight sail – one of those times that bring the thrill of life close up in the chest.

In other news

June 17, 2007

A few other odds and ends:

The trees are coming along nicely. Everything has leafed out (the peaches were a bit slow) and looks pretty healthy. We lost a few of the sugar maples (not sure why) but the others look happy. Emily took a string trimmer inside the fence a few days back and beat back the grass which is coming up quickly.

When Joanna was up we painted the trunks of the new trees to ward off borers. Per Fedco instruction, we mixed interior white latex paint with wallboard joint compound, and painted the resulting yogurt-like stuff on the trunks. Apparently the bugs don’t like chewing through gypsum, and it has the added effect of showing the holes more obviously if they do get through.

Back in Lebanon, I’ve got a decent small garden going maybe 20 feet square. It was hard going to cut the sod into foot-square chunks with a round-point shovel and flipping them over, but the soil underneath looked good. Our neighbor used to own the house we’re renting, and he said he improved the lawn at one point by bringing in some silt from the rock plant down by the river. One of Alexis’ classmates stables a horse at a nearby farm, and she invited me to get some manure, so I went down there and loaded up a ton or so of well rotted horse manure which I spread on top. The neighbor lent me a nice old snapper rototiller which I used to incorporate the manure and lighten things up. I’ve got tomatoes, corn, eggplants, peppers, broccoli, summer squash, and basil going, as well as an earlier bed with chard, beets, lettuce, and bok choy. I’m not expecting a huge amount out of it, but it’s fun to watch it grow.

I’ve also been playing more fiddle, mostly because of a Sunday afternoon contradance music class that a guy named Jeremiah McLane has been organizing over in Vermont. I’ve been playing on Thursday evenings with some of the same folks as well, and we’re improving. Last night we had our first “gig”; we played waltzes for a group of about 8 old-timers and random hippies in a little restored schoolhouse in Thetford, VT. There were four of us – me on fiddle, a clarinet, a guitar, and a cello. I don’t think we sounded professional exactly, but we played and they danced, so I expect it was something of a success. Definitely good incentive to keep practicing.

Alexis takes her first big licensing exam on Wednesday; when she passes she will officially be half of an MD – pretty exciting. She’s been studying hard for the last three weeks or so. After that she starts her rotations with Family Medicine. So far it’s a pretty quiet summer planned; we’ll probably get up to Maine a few times, but no plans to go west so far, though the folks will.