Monday, October 19, 2009

Layer Analysis

This is the season which is marked, in this part of Germany by the Zwiebelkuchen and, across the border in Alsace and Lorraine, by the quiche, and a very good season it is. For better or worse — mostly better, but let's face it, fingers have been cut and tears have been shed — the onion, Allium sepa, the lowly, bulbed, garden onion, the center of both these closely-related savory pastries, is the center of European cooking, indeed, virtually all of the world's cuisines. Sure, wheat and rye and milk, butter, and cheese and olive oil and salted cod and all manner of things that rise, rot, ripen, cure or ferment or take astonishing form or flavor when smoked, fried, baked, grilled, or boiled are each and all important. The truffle and the saffron thread, capiscum, ginger root, and the cardamom pod are miracles. But the onion provides a uniquely useful bulk and range of flavors upon which good things become better. What would Hungarian cooking, for example, be, without the countless recipes which begin: "fry a kilo of onions in lard"?

The onion is an object deserving some serious contemplation and reflection. As you peel, and slice, and dice, accidentally or purposefully allowing cell walls to open, breaking down amino acid sulphoxides and converting them into sulphenic acids, may your tears accompany the pleasure of exploring a structure of astonishing consistancy and integrity. We may joke, with ethnological wisdom, of a universe composed of elephants "all the way down", but onions really are all the way down, shoots composed of multiple, self-similar layers. I find that the appeal of this structure is less cosmological than aesthetic, and musically aesthetic in particular: works of musical depth reveal themselves to extend in time — much as each layer of the onion extends the bulk of the shoot — via rather elementary processes. This is true of form in Javanese music with the irama system uniquely relating tempo to density, or the prolongation and diminution techniques of early music or the classical tonality described by Schenker (or Stockhausen's formulas, as long as we're at it), and it's true of the self-similar structures ranging from Cage's square root form to numerous works by Tom Johnson.

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