January 22, 2010

Western Culture

I'll start at the middle: for the sole purpose of wordplay, I'd been planning title this entry after Henry Cow's final studio effort, Western Culture. The first of their studio records to not feature their characteristic sock cover art, the album's composition credits are split solely between organist/saxophonist Tim Hodgkinson and bassoonist Lindsay Cooper. Side A is populated with Hodgkinson's angular, mathematically dissonant works--the structure is imminently logical, but your average pair of ears will find little to recognize harmonically, melodically, or even structurally. Hodgkinson writes like he understands music on a completely intellectual level--intervals and combinations of notes on paper, every choice a deliberate logical decision. Cooper's side B, no less complex, exudes a totally different different energy. Whereas Hodgkinson understands composition, Cooper clearly feels composition in a way that no amount of learning or study can approach. Every choice in her pieces exudes class; dissonance and atonality make their appearances, but it's always organic--the ideas evolve naturally, there's an indescribable flair to the music, and we even get an occasional glimpse of--ahem--fun. Lindsay Cooper obviously grasps composition on an intuitive level in a way Tim Hodgkinson clearly doesn't.

I decided to title this post "Western Culture" because of a recent addition I made to my tea paraphernalia--a triple beam scale. I've put off getting a scale for quite a while--I feel like I've caved in to the influence of Western tea culture, which is always prodding us to add science into our tea preparation--time our tea with electronic timers, measure each serving with an electronic scale, and use precise water temperature for every tea we brew. For me, drinking tea is in many ways a rejection of these kinds of modern "necessities"--how can I relax and approach a tea on its own terms if I'm constantly fretting over parameters of mass, temperature and time? But, I do have to admit that scales can come in very handy--if I've got a 10g sample I want to split in half, if I've got a tea that cost me $3/gram and I don't want to waste any by eyeballing portions, if I'm trying to figure out how many pots' worth of a tea I have left, or if I'm portioning out pot-sized amounts like I did recently to send out samples to several people. Luckily, I managed to compromise--this scale isn't electronic, and it's got a dingy vintage vibe. I've got a friend who picks through thrift shops and it took him less than two weeks to find it after I told him I was in the market for one--$20, a nice break from $50-$60 for a newer Ohaus-style scale. One of the cool (but kind of irrelevant) things about triple beam scales is that they measure mass rather than weight, which is relative to gravity. Pretty much all electronic scales measure weight, which can actually slightly vary depending on where you are on the earth (some places actually have more or less gravity); but since triple beam scales balance a specific mass (1g, 10g, .10g) against whatever you're measuring, they're accurate regardless of gravity. Thank god! If I ever find myself preparing tea on the moon, my Welch triple beam scale will produce accurate results when all electronic scales would fail!

So, yet again, why all the talk about obscure music when this is supposed to be a tea blog? The short, unfriendly answer is "It's my blog and I can write about whatever I want to." The longer answer: After considering the scientific vs. the intuitive (gong fu, if you will) in tea preparation, I realized the title "Western Culture" is much more apt than I originally intended; the concept is mirrored in the compositions on Henry Cow's Western Culture. How much of the joy of tea appreciation is lost when we get caught up in scientific accuracy and precision in the brewing process? Conversely, can we really expect to remove all science from tea preparation and expect every pot to turn out phenomenally? I'm sure we all strike a balance between both ends of the spectrum, which is why Western Culture works so well as an album--of course, having Fred Frith on guitar and Chris Cutler on drums doesn't hurt. I'd be interested to hear how much science you use when it comes to tea preparation.


Trent said...

Speaking of obscure music... Penderecki's symphonies and Brian Eno's soundscapes pair nicely w/ tea.

Maitre_Tea said...

I pretty much use a scale for the reasons you mentioned, in particular not wasting expensive tea or getting a sense of how much tea you have left. I also weigh my "usual" amount just to see how much tea I actually use.

If you feel that your scale is too cumbersome or "Western," maybe you can try looking for those scales that Chinese herbalists use, which is a bare bones "portable" scale

Zero the Hero said...

Hi Trent,

It's been a few years since I've listened to Pinderecki...I'll have to dig something out. Eno has been on my "must buy" list for a while--are you referring to his ambient stuff?

Hey Maitre,
I agree, it's fun to fill your pot up by eyeballing it and then see just how much you actually use. Sometimes I think I'd rather not know; my 80ml yancha pot had something like 8g in it the last time I checked! I did a quick search of the scales you're talking about--they look pretty cool; I'm guessing you suspend it in the air with one hand? My friend who helped me find this scale showed me an antique Japanese medicinal scale made out of inscribed bone--max weight 1g! I don't think he quite understood what my needs were...