Thursday, March 24, 2011

Aspics of Shostakovich

I was in my early thirties when I first encountered anything served in aspic.

I had gotten a job doing revisions to a large symphonic piece for orchestra and jazz ensemble by the composer John Green.  He was better known as Johnny Green.  Every day for about a month I'd trudge over to Beverly Hills to work in his music library housed in a backyard outbuilding.  Occasionally I was invited to the main house for formal lunch, usually prepared by the composer himself.

One day lunch included a salad with some sort of vegetable floating in jello.  I had no idea what it was. John's secretary helpfully informed me that this was "aspic".   I was not impressed with my first encounter with aspic - although I tried hard to sound like I was.

Today, while reading Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov), I read a passage about aspic (on page 30).  Given my mental association of composers with aspic I could not help but have a desire to share Shostakovich's comments.  I'm pretty sure they have lost something in translation.
A man dies and they want to serve him up to posterity.  Serve him, so to speak, trussed up for our dear descendants at the table.  So that they, napkin tucked under chin and armed with knife and fork, can dig in to the freshly deceased.

The deceased, as you know, have the inconvenient habit of cooling off too slowly; they're burning hot.  So they are turned into aspics by pouring memories over them - the best form of gelatin.

And since deceased greats are also too large, they are cut down.  The nose, say, is served separately, or the tongue.  You need less gelatin that way.  And that's how you get yesterday's classic as freshly cooked tongue in aspic.  With a side dish of hoofs, from the horse he used to ride.

I'm trying to remember the people I knew without the gelatin.  I don't pour aspic over them, I'm not trying to turn them into a tasty dish.  I know that a tasty dish is easier to swallow and easier to digest.  You know where it ends up.

A page later this paragraph seems to better explain what Shostakovich means:
It's so unfair.  People suffered, worked, thought.  So much wisdom, so much talent.  And they're forgotten as soon as they die.  We must do everything possible to keep their memories alive, because we will be treated in the same way ourselves.  How we treat the memory of others is how our memory will be treated.  We must remember, no matter how hard it is.
In light of some of the historical events of Shostakovich's life (notably the Great War and the Stalinist Purges), the need to remember those who were killed or simply disappeared would have been a duty of the highest importance.

Here's an interesting article about Johnny Green where I found the picture of Johnny's Oscar ceremony badge which identifies him as "Musical Director and Shmuck".  He was a super-talented, super-loquacious, super-egotistical fellow who always wore a carnation and most likely would have enjoyed wearing a badge marking him as a shmuck.  He once told me that if he had been Italian his name would have been Giovanni Verdi.

The book Testimony suffers from a certain controversy about the authenticity of the great composer's memoirs.  I won't know for sure until I finish the book, but I don't think the dispute will do anything to challenge the book's overall insight into what life was like for a world-class Soviet composer.

The L.A. Philharmonic is producing a series of concerts devoted to composer Thomas Adès called Aspects of Adès which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with Aspics of Shostakovich.

Tags in Aspic: . . . . . . . . .

1 comment :

Peter (the other) said...

Well that was a lovely weaving of anecdotes in aspic. I had to think of one of my first participations in the annual ASCAP meeting in Beverly Hills (circa late 70s). A small group riding in the parking structure elevator, one party asks an elder member of another party "aren't you Johnny Green?", which Green affirmed. I, in sudden flabbergast at the idea that I was in the same elevator as the man who wrote Body and Soul, I Cover the Waterfront and Out of Nowhere (songs that had been part of my repertoire for years and I had imagine that Green long dead), blurted "No, I don't believe it!" Although a gush of admiration, Green took it literally and glared daggers at me as I wilted into a corner.

He cooked for you (you lucky devil ;-) )

(why is my bladder so over active, all of a sudden?)