Good For You

The night before Thanksgiving, I walked into the no-frills liquor store.  Maybe you know it; it sits near 88th and Broadway and lends its merchandise no illusion of glamour, its patrons no solace of disguise.  Rows of bottles climb up utility shelves to a dismal ceiling, and every last dust particle adhering to every last bargain Chianti is visible in the remorseless fluorescent gleam.  Aesthetically, it is so much closer to a hardware store than a wine shop, and if you really must know, the point of all this verbose pseudo-Dickensian scene-setting is that I was quite surprised, while pondering a Wine Spectator blurb, to hear the strains of Rachmaninoff’s Suite for Two Pianos.

I tried to concentrate on selecting a wine to bring to the Thanksgiving Feast.  It was impossible.  The two pianists on the radio had become implacable demons in the back of my head, and the wine blurbs blurred into a haze of chocolate-currant overtones and melodies with far-too-obvious orgasms.  Just as I was asking myself, in manufactured outrage, how Rachmaninoff in his earnestness could manage to screw up even the orgasm (musically speaking), the shop owner walked in the door, and said to the guy at the counter …

“What?  Ya got the opera on now?”

His tone was wry, mocking, redolent of rye breads in Long Island diners on desperate Saturday afternoons.  Especially—may I add?—the word “opera” amid his sentence came in for particular opprobrium, a kind of harsh bridge-and-tunnel emphasis, as if it were a sour chunk of verbiage amid the fruit salad of his thought, or a flat tire on the Garden State Parkway.  I tuned my ears reluctantly back to the radio, to make sure I had not misheard … but no … no voices were to be distinguished:  just the two pounding pianists, and the ongoing, repetitive search of Rachmaninoff for something profound to say.

There was a 30-ish fellow standing at the cash register (Yankees cap, sweatpants) and he shrugged.  He could not explain the opera on the radio.  I looked back at the owner, whom I now regarded as a sort of genius.  How on Earth did he manage to identify it as “opera,” despite the complete lack of the human voice?

“Well, it’s good for ya, good for the brain,” the owner said.
“Yeah, well, too late for me,” said cash register.
“You can’t hear anything any more?”
“Nah, my brain’s burned out, since college.”
“So why you listening to this?”
“Hell if I know.”

Alright, I said to myself, I’m outta here.  I didn’t know why I was listening to all this, either.  It was as depressing as an empty can of generic cranberry sauce.  I smacked my wines in front of the cash register—who knows what wines they were at this point—and paid and fled.

But of course as I walked home up Broadway, I couldn’t help digesting what I’d heard.  If you start from the premise:

Classical music equals opera.

And you add the further supposition:

Opera/classical is a mental vitamin; it is “good for you.”  (It is useless if you drank too much in college?)

It seemed to me fairly clear the next logical deduction was:

Classical music is broccoli.

Yes, baby, yes. The Broccolization of Classical Music had been going on for some time, I suddenly realized in retroactive historical insight which certainly deserves the next MacArthur Genius Grant.  You might say classical music is often over-esteemed; and broccoli is almost always over-steamed!   Its leafy tops tend to soak up a lot of liquid—in the same way that Classical Music seems to soak up a lot of tradition!  I rest my case.  If only we had known a bit earlier, we could have stopped this rampant Broccolization, or slowed it, with public service announcements, a cooperative effort between the ASOL and the Broccoli Council.

All this thought of soggy stalks made me crave sharp pixels.  When I got home, I turned my TV to its most reliable HD channel:  PBS.  And there, of course, was André Rieu.  (André on PBS is as ubiquitous as Huang Ruo press releases in my email inbox.)  Oh, André!  I watched for a little while, sank into vegetal despair, and realized another great law, to set beside the last:

1)  Classical Music is Opera is Broccoli in the Eyes of the World.
2)  André Rieu is the Absolute Zero of Cool.

I don’t presume to say that I am any great cool cat.

I have been, on lengthy occasions, as great a nerd as anyone should ever be.

But I propose that these André Rieu telecasts, complete with phone banks and PBS pledge drive emcees, are the least cool thing ever created.  I mean, look at those ornate, gold-coated music stands, and the campy, pillowy outfits; look at his hair, for God’s sake (then look away, or you will go blind); watch the camera pan over some woman’s eyes as she leans on her boyfriend’s shoulder, brimming with tears at a saccharine arrangement of “Memories;” look at the fonts, etcetera, etcetera!  Drink it in, the complete absence of cool.  Swim in this black hole of hip.

And the painful thing for me, of course, watching all this, my eyes thrown back in bewilderment, is knowing that I am attached to André in some way.  He and I are plying the same trade.  In the eyes of much of the world, we are both broccoli.  I reached out, mentally, to my broccoli brother, I sent out leafy tendrils of tender embrace, before recoiling in horror.  My mental state at this point could possibly be represented by the following chart:rieubroccolichart.jpg… which is the stuff of nightmares.  My kinship with André tormented me; I found these thoughts eerily echoed at a comedic website entitled Deadbeat:

…Who is [Andre Rieu]?  Who isn’t Andre Rieu? Me, I hear you saying, I’m quite sure I’m not Andre Rieu. But how sure are you?

Not as sure as I’d like to be!  Culinarily, the André solution to Broccolization is to dump cheese on the broccoli.  Now, as you put more cheese on broccoli, the more delicious it becomes, but simultaneously, and proportionally, the less cool it becomes.  (The closer it gets to Peoria and the farther from the olive oil coasts.)  If I may merge culinary and calculus terminologies, I believe André represents the absolute limit of broccoli as cheese approaches infinity.  It is not possible to get cheesier than him, as it is not possible to go faster than the speed of light.  I believe this formulation deserves yet another MacArthur Genius Grant (is it possible to get two?).  But why do I find this limit so appalling, when people in the audience seem so happy and musically enthused?  I want music to be good but not “good for you,” I want music to be fun but not frivolous, I want total emotional involvement but maybe not too much, I want music to joke without demeaning itself or others, I want the concert to be serious but not Serious, I want people to want to suffer, oh who knows what I want, I want it all, I want classical music to go beyond broccoli, to Japanese eggplant, or sesame leaf, hell, the whole produce section, preferably prewashed and prepped by some patient sous chef of the soul, and ready for delectable consumption, and clearly, judging from the length of this post, I will do anything to avoid all the practicing I really really really should be doing.

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28 Comments

  1. Posted December 5, 2008 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    If Andre Rieu is the absolute limit of broccoli as cheese approaches infinity, what does that make Andrew Lloyd Webber? The maximum volume of marshmallow allowed before the dessert ceases to be called Sweet Potatoes? The limit of medicine as the number of spoonfuls of sugar approaches infinity?

    Very enjoyable post!

  2. Posted December 5, 2008 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    What a fabulous post! I guess for some people classical music really is a foreign language…

    Reminded me of this post too:
    http://www.robertpeake.com/archives/297-National-Poetry-Month-Means-Time-to-Take-Your-Vitamins.html

  3. Posted December 5, 2008 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Terrific to see a new post!
    Cheesy brocc indeed!

    The heirarchy of needs as I see it:
    Air
    Food
    Sleep
    Love
    Inspiration

    I’m sure that for musicians who basically live on love and air, that any hope of food AT ALL, is a good thing.
    For the vast masses, green-giant cheeze-whiz on frozen brocc will at least sustain their chewing muscles until taste buds possibly develop!
    Always the problem from a chef point of view.
    Jen

  4. Erika
    Posted December 5, 2008 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    1) My cat left the room as soon as I started the Rieu video.
    2) Is there a way to rebrand classical music as broccoli rabe? Broccoli rabe is way cool.

    Awesome post!

  5. DW
    Posted December 5, 2008 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Oh Jerjer, you have outdone yourself. How is it I have never heard of Andre Rieu before? Best. Clip. Ever. I’m calling the MacArthur people now.

  6. ahjooma
    Posted December 6, 2008 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    Your post made me laugh out loud – especially
    the broccoli diagram.
    Thanks.
    People have different tastes,
    but I think most people appreciate
    sincerity and talent no matter what the
    genre is.

  7. Posted December 6, 2008 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    That’s cute and all…but what about you? Are you blogging, or are you going to be the Dave Berry of NYC pianists?

    I personally wouldn’t mind just knowing what you go through, and how you feel about it, feeling free to comment on the musical issues of your day as well.

    A family member, when he was younger, would avoid all serious thought (keeping in mind while younger, still an adult) or discussion by turning immediately to snarky humor. We won’t be bored, it’s ok to tell us how your day went, Rieu or cruciferous brassicaceae aside.

  8. sean
    Posted December 6, 2008 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    my god your brilliant

  9. Posted December 7, 2008 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t help but be struck by the welcome message on Rieu’s site:

    “Welcome! Here you can read personal messages from me. I will send them to you via my gsm from wherever I happen to be, so you will know exactly where I am, what I am doing, and so forth.”

    “My gsm.” Mygsm?

    Perhaps this strange yet suggestive conflagration of letters can inspire your next piece of writing…Rachmaninoff, anyone?

  10. Emily
    Posted December 7, 2008 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    That YouTube clip is something else. It’s like a Lawrence Welk-ian barnyard/nativity motif dripping in gooey, orange Velveeta. The goat madly scratching himself? That pretty much says it all. It’s soooo hideously bad, it’s actually (almost) pleasurable.

  11. l'enfante terrible
    Posted December 7, 2008 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    As one who hearts both Lawrence Welk and Liberace without irony (he makes me weep, dammit), I would contend that it’s not the quotient of cheese, it’s the quality.

    And btw, the Maize Association would like to express outrage at the moral insult of its omission from acknowledgment in your description of this Most Exalted Potentate of the Velveetic Sheen….

  12. Macster
    Posted December 8, 2008 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    The whole reason classical music is cool is because liquor store clerks don’t like it. The essence of cool is that it is a scarce commodity – there can only be 10-12 “cool” kids in any high school, and chances are, everybody else there, those who will be clerking in liquor stores later, do not like those kids.

  13. Maura
    Posted December 8, 2008 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    “I want music to be good but not “good for you,” I want music to be fun but not frivolous, I want total emotional involvement but maybe not too much, I want music to joke without demeaning itself or others, I want the concert to be serious but not Serious…”

    I agree whole-heartedly. That’s one of the reasons I love what Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has done with the chamber orchestra she’s started directing this year – it’s engaging, appealing and fun, without shirking on the musical merit.

  14. Posted December 8, 2008 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Alas, hasn’t “The Broccolization of Classical Music” been going on under right underneath our noses for quite some time now? -And I’m not referring to the sometimes off-putting odor of broccoli (while it’s in the midst of being usually roasted in a 450 degree oven for 20 minutes after being liberally doused with olive oil, sliced cloves of garlic and red chili flakes) in relation to the audience member sitting next to you who happens to have bathed in Chanel No. 5. Or not bathed at all.

    Broccoli is one of those classic, if not the classic “I don’t like it! I won’t eat it!” foods of most people’s childhoods. As one grows older and is exposed to other types of food and cuisines, and passes through their “culinary adolescence”, most – alas, not all – come out on the other side no longer trying to hide those green florets under a pile of mashed potatoes, stealthily placing them in a napkin, or feeding them to the family (or other family’s) dog. Doesn’t Classical Music, for the most part, follow the same route of Appreciation and Consumption? And just how would the substitution of Hollandaise in place of melted Velveeta play into this equation?

    In any case, at least “Broccolization” seems to have a better “ring” to it than “Brussel-Sproutsization”, “Spinachization” or “Asparagusization”.

  15. Posted December 8, 2008 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Alas, hasn’t “The Broccolization of Classical Music” been going on under right underneath our noses for quite some time now? -And I’m not referring to the sometimes off-putting odor of broccoli (while it’s in the midst of being usually roasted in a 450 degree oven for 20 minutes after being liberally doused with olive oil, sliced cloves of garlic and red chili flakes) in relation to the audience member sitting next to you who happens to have bathed in Chanel No. 5. Or not bathed at all.

    Broccoli is one of those classic, if not the classic “I don’t like it! I won’t eat it!” foods of most people’s childhoods. As one grows older and is exposed to other types of food and cuisines, and passes through their “culinary adolescence”, most – alas, not all – come out on the other side no longer trying to hide those green florets under a pile of mashed potatoes, stealthily placing them in a napkin, or feeding them to the family (or other family’s) dog. Doesn’t Classical Music, for the most part, follow the same route of Appreciation and Consumption? And just how would the substitution of Hollandaise in place of melted Velveeta play into this equation?

    In any case, at least “Broccolization” seems to have a better “ring” to it than “Brussel-Sproutsization”, “Spinachization” or “Asparagusization”.

  16. Sarah
    Posted December 8, 2008 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    My local PBS station piles on the Andre Rieu/Three Tenors/Iris Tenors crap on the main channel. Met Operas, Richard Tucker Gala? On the HD channel. I refuse to fork over more money to Comcast. So PBS doesn’t get it my money either. Instead, I go to live performances here in the Twin Cities (you were here almost a year ago on a HORRIBLY cold night which didn’t keep lots of us from being in the audience). But aside from this, I cannot BELIEVE the variety of vegetables in the music pyramid, and I want to jump into the entire salad bar. The more I listen, the more I find. This happy search is going to last until my last day, I think.

  17. Posted December 9, 2008 at 2:53 am | Permalink

    Brahms-fortified cereal is “gut for you,” too (it probably goes well with broccoli):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKgBdrsqvjs

    There is so much disturbing about this, it’s kind of hard to know where to start…

  18. Janet
    Posted December 10, 2008 at 1:23 am | Permalink
  19. Posted December 10, 2008 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Well, of course Denk equals Rieu, as we already know Golijov equals Abba:

    Overheard

    Just to share another point of Rieu despondence (and I say this without further comment, as–I hasten to add–simply a private citizen): Did you know that Andre Rieu appears on Soundscan’s “core” classical music charts?

  20. Michael
    Posted December 11, 2008 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I’d heard of Andre Rieu, and knew what to avoid – this is the first thing I’d ever seen, and man, it makes Lawrence Welk look like Count Basie.

    Watching those musicians, I think, poor souls. You need the dough. You’re pretending with such force of will you might die on the spot. I can almost forgive them. But him. He is the one with the power to stop it. Instead he creates it.

    Your analysis of the situation is spot on: there is no area under that curve. You suffocate on cheese.

  21. Posted December 12, 2008 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    In re PBS fund raisers, I hope you are all detoxing with the Roy Orbison

  22. Priscilla
    Posted December 14, 2008 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Funny, shortly after reading this I got an email for an André Rieu presale at The Prudential Center..the man is everywhere.

  23. Jeep Gerhard
    Posted December 16, 2008 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    One of the main reasons i’ve always loved broccoli (and real music) is because people like Poppy Bush hate it so. Enjoyed the velveeta.
    JG

  24. Dzyvla
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    And I’m READING your post instead of practicing :P Can’t bring myself to watch the video though. Can I get through my entire life without witnessing this schmaltz? I’m on a mission ;)
    Cheese is to Broccoli as Andre Rieu is to Classical Music. Brilliant!

  25. cbj smith
    Posted December 23, 2008 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    “Clssical music is broccoli.” Priceless. One for the books, for sure.

    About the video:

    Wow.

    First of all, it is immediately obvious that everyone is lip-synching (or finger-synching, whatever the word is for instrumentalists.) Also that the band playing is much larger than the one we see. As for the performance, well, they certainly have that Viennese swing feel down, don’t they? 8-) Although the clarinetist actually does a pretty creditable job, and the trumpet player has a beautiful sound, if not the best jazz feel. For a more authentic version of the same tune, try

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYBuzVFZ8mg

    which is the Duke Ellington Orchestra, not Louis Armstrong as the title would have you believe.

  26. Joshua
    Posted January 3, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy! You’re obsessed with Sesame Leaf!

  27. Melissa
    Posted January 12, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Wow- you do deserve a genius grant! Where can I nominate you? Your blog is also postponing my own practicing, so it is doubly delicious. (I wonder if Velveeta or Broccoli goes better with Glinka?)

  28. Ben
    Posted August 15, 2010 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    Rachmaninoff is a musical genius, one of the greatest pianist/composers, to walk this earth. Don’t crap on his reputation.

    God Bless You Rachmaninoff.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Jeremy Denk, Andre Reiu, and Calculus. Posted on August 6, 2010 by Sascha Richey One of my favorite internet discoveries this year is the blog Think Denk, written by pianist Jeremy Denk. His analyses of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, the Goldberg Variations and a collection of other pieces are a real treat. He writes wonderfully about everything from munchies, to divey Aurora Pho joints, to Theodore Adorno. My favorite writing of his concerns Dutch violinist Andre Rieu. (for whom the Dutch people have yet to apologize) Denk decides that in his struggle to comprehend this artist of infinite tack, he must use higher mat…. […]

  2. […] things, food. (Not an original thought: others have written interestingly on the subject, including this clever, amusing piece by Jeremy Denk on music vs. broccoli.) Children like different foods from adults, don’t they? […]

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