Photo Credit: Anna Barbera
In this column, we’ve explored the sacred and the profane—from a song cycle of Psalms composed by Dvořák and performed by Elyse Anne Kakacek to a spoken-word recording reimagining the character of Salome. What’s missing? A good meal.
In this installment of Off the Beaten Track, the off-menu special is “In Appetizing Portions,” a newly released five-part song cycle composed by Fritz Myers with lyrics by Clare Drobot. The recording features Myers on electric guitar, Angie Tanning on violin, and soprano Samantha Britt singing the food-obsessed central character. Together, these artists use their gifts to create a tasty plate of free-range sound, unbound from the piano and voice tradition.
This long-simmering cycle premiered in 2012 at The Tank in New York City, after which the artists worked on the album as time and geography allowed. Nine years later, we’re presented with an example of how art song continues to expand in the 21st century and, along with it, chamber music. “In Appetizing Portions” serves up satisfying fare for art song aficionados while simultaneously presenting an amuse-bouche for the curious, for whom 19th-century works might fall flat like a dry souffle.
“The musical challenge of this piece, both in its creation and performance is the instrumentation,” Myers stated in the album’s press release. “The three voices form a triangle of sorts; each side essential in supporting the others as the piece tumbles end over end. Every movement introduces a musical element that doesn’t appear in the others in an attempt to underscore the frustration, ecstasy, monotony, discomfort, and vulnerability experienced by the character; each reaching a climax or anti-climax reflective of those emotions. Above all, IAP is chamber music. It could be performed at a dinner party to provoke or delight or in a variety of other contexts by a trio of musicians relying on one another to weave their threads into something greater.”
Drobot added, “The text for IAP was built as an exploration of character through food. I was really drawn to the idea of food as luxury and a means to explore status. The character is trying to prove her worth by creating this elaborate dinner party and amidst the stress and anxiety loses the essence of cooking. That food is a means to bring people together.”
I’m aligned with the lyricist; I see everything she speaks of and more. In my encounter with the character, I don’t think she lost just the essence of cooking but also her sense of self. I believe the character’s identity disappeared morsel by morsel long before we meet her scrambling around the Upper East Side of Manhattan in search of ingredients for a high-stakes dinner party, a get-together crafted to impress her mother-in-law. Food and the character’s use of it for pleasure or to impress crosses the border between reveling in the joy of food and pathological obsession.
PART I: The Search for the Perfect Ingredients
Part I of the cycle, “Fred,” takes its name from the ethical butcher the character visits first on her frenetic race for the perfect ingredients. The piece’s perpetual motion and relentless drive illustrate the anxiety present within the character as she fusses over obtaining the right Stilton, the best veal, and the ever-so hard-to-find heirloom tomatoes she believes will wow her in-law. Samantha Britt’s voice carries with it the sense of obsession I mentioned earlier, and the vocal line is mostly syllabic, adding to the turbulent sense of worry.
Myers supports Britt on guitar, grounding the character’s hectic shopping spree with a calming foundation. Still, Tanning’s dissonant jabs on the violin interrupt like intrusive thoughts that question whether she’s good enough for her husband’s mother. As we’ll soon discover, food played a crucial role in winning over her hubby’s heart, so it only makes sense that the character believes she can achieve similar success via the same means.
“Fred” ends with a long suspension, signaling to me that the ado isn’t just about the dinner party. I envision the character embarking on similar missions in a never-ending quest for the ingredients that make up the most elusive dish, validation outside the realm of food.
PART II: An Erotic Encounter with a Donut
Sex’s connection with food is strong. Innocent fruit and vegetable emojis have taken on lascivious connotations. With that in mind, should it surprise us when Part II of the cycle, “A Caloric Devotion,” features an eroticized cream-filled donut?
Tanning’s violin line is more languid, of course, and heavily applied reverb transports us away from the rushing about town and into the character’s consciousness as she reminisces about her first encounter with her future husband, who at the time witnessed his future bride’s encounter with fried dough. The character knows the “classically handsome” man is sitting behind her, but she’s so into the donut, she supposedly pays him little mind—or does she? Perhaps it’s all a show, and if so, the episode illustrates her using food as a means to an end.
In case you think I’m exaggerating, look at the text. “I bit in,” she repeats three times. “All that cream, so unctuous.” This, too, she repeats. She tells us that a small groan rises from her throat until the pleasure explodes. The words, “Oh God!” are sung above the staff and held, leaving little doubt about the donut’s magic. In the afterglow, as the characters’ gazes meet, the man asks, “Have you always loved donuts?”
Beneath the eroticism of the text, Myers uses his guitar as a drone that creates a luscious soundscape while Tanning sets a constant pulse that speeds up as the climax draws closer with every bite.
PART III: A Dumpling is a Dumpling Except When It’s Not…
With “Dumplings,” perhaps we’re back in the present. I couldn’t tell because there’s no mention of the things the character purchased in “Fred” to make the dumplings—maybe she had already acquired these. Who knows? The key aspect is that she’s having a conversation with herself in which she expounds on the many ways the humble food is prepared. She speaks of the ordinary ingredients that form the wrapper, the various fillings, and that they can be steamed or fried; it’s an odd cooking show in that regard. I picture the character, making her dumplings, happy in the food-filled world of her making while repeating at various points that “a dumpling is a dumpling except…” The vibe? She’s losing her grip on reality.
The music is chaotic, and this is quality remains loosely in check with a new musical element performed by Tanning. It’s a repeated single note played pizzicato. The monotonous drip-like plucks color the piece with a shade of madness. When Tanning isn’t sending out morse code-like dot-dot-dots, she’s bowing dissonant broken chords that strike like lightning before easing into short-lived legato passages. Myers keeps a steady flow beneath the vocal line, grounding both Britt and the listener.
PART IV: Ethical Consumption
“Moral Obligation” is the most lyrical piece, with more legato vocal lines than in any previous tracks. The guitar and violin play in unison, and Britt uses dynamics and vocal nuance to express a sense of guilt, sorrow, and self-reflection about what she consumes. No matter how organic, free-range, or ethically raised her choice of animal protein may be, she works to assuage her conscience by reminding herself, for instance, that “ducks aren’t human,” to justify the twice-daily force-feeding. The production of foie gras isn’t all that bad; she figures because the grain mash “just slides down their throats.”
While she considers the ethics of her gourmet lifestyle, she doesn’t want to overthink things. Doing so might ruin the pleasure, much like dirtying her hands by hunting, fishing, and butchering that which she cooks and puts in front of herself and others at the table. These things she labels as “crass” before stating firmly that she prefers her meals “in appetizing portions,” sanitized from the ugliness.
I consider “Moral Obligation” the character’s most lucid reflection in the song cycle. It’s a topic many of us have thought about and wrestled with, making it far more relatable than the character’s donut fantasy, though my brushstroke may be too broad in that regard.
PART V: A Desire to Escape
The lushest piece of the five is also the last song in the cycle. “Float” features Tanning’s violin overdubbed to create a richer, fuller sound. The text reveals a certain self-awareness of the protagonist’s peculiar relationship with comestibles. Her inner monologue expresses a desire to escape, but she wants her freedom to come through food like everything in her world. She wants to bathe in chocolate, swim through gazpacho, and float to a place of peace. If she could hover over the kitchen, and separate herself from the anxious mania that drives her to find validation from her mother-in-law via a lavish dinner party, then everything will be in its right place.
But then things go off the rails when she speaks of smearing her face with aloe and having all the moisture sucked from her skin and feel her face grow taut. This she desires to do to stop her mind from spinning. The dumpling theme returns, and she wishes to be encased and “fold herself into a layer of potato gratin or burrow inside the pork roulade.”
Beyond validation, there’s a yearning for escape and renewal. The chocolate bath the character envisions is a baptism of sorts; one that facilitates her rebirth as the coating dries and cracks, and she emerges anew, perhaps with a shopping list in hand.