Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Archive for March 2012

How I Became a Hildegard von Bingen Addict

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When I was a teenager, someone introduced me to Gregorian chant. I was fascinated by its simplicity, by the strange modal sounds, and by the fact that it was difficult to find out much about it. After Vatican II in the 1960s, even the local Catholic church didn’t produce this music, and the only place I heard it was on a scratchy record that a friend’s mother had squirreled away.

I was already a devoted musician, adoring Baroque music on my flute and singing folk songs with my guitar. But when I heard this ethereal and ancient music, something in me melted.

At college, the earliest music that could be studied was Baroque, but they insisted on modern instruments and modern tuning. I was frustrated. Not only could I not study the music that spoke to me, but I couldn’t even do their music as it would have been performed when it was new.

Then someone in my theory class introduced me to a group called Steeleye Span, who performed Renaissance music, sometimes as intended, sometimes with a modern spin. I was thunderstruck. I’d performed at Renaissance Faires and played in recorder ensembles for years, but at last, someone was having FUN with the music.

That’s when I started noticing an attitude in the music department. People made proclamations, waxing didactic over the slightest dissonance or unresolved chord. They seemed to want to take all the joy out of making music, to squelch the passion. That didn’t seem right to me. Learning about what made music good shouldn’t prevent the music from being good.

So I took a jazz class. I knew nothing about jazz, wasn’t even sure that I liked jazz. But they asked us to improvise, and although there were rules, no one told us that we didn’t do it right and there was a certain joy to making music again. I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in, though. When it was my turn to solo, I tended to play these floating wisps of melodies, more contemplative than exhilarating. I enjoyed it, but I always felt that what was expected from a jazz flutist was something more extravagant and elaborate than my haunting moans. Through these sounds, I brought the baroque sensibility of an internal journey with me, and it didn’t seem like anyone else was doing that. I didn’t stick with jazz for long.

Out in the working world, I tripped over the drone. My refrigerator made a drone, the bathroom fan, elevators, leaf blowers, the distant freeway—I found drones everywhere. I’d sing against them, play my flute or recorder against them, hear them in my head on walks in the wilderness and hum into them. And there was nothing I loved more than a good echo-y cave. I’d sing into it, listening to my my own internal drone like the hum of bees. My friends listened. I didn’t know it then, but I was discovering an ancient tradition.

I began to learn that chant was everywhere, that all cultures chanted, ancient and new, that some used rhythm, some used a drone, some used neither, and some used both. My fascination grew. Somewhere along the way as I bounced from culture to culture in my exploration—and I honestly don’t remember where or when—I heard the songs of Hildegard von Bingen.

What struck me most about Hildegard was that her songs resembled my old meanderings on the flute in jazz class. There was something celebratory about both, something innocent and pure. It was a shared internal journey. I was hooked.

A few years later, I took a week-long course from the San Francisco Early Music Society’s Medieval Workshop. Several things happened there that were life-altering. The first was that someone who already knew a lot about Medieval music asked the teacher, Margriet Tindemans, how something would have been done. Margriet said the words that changed the way I felt about being a musician forever.

She said, with a big grin on her face, “I don’t know.”

It was the most freeing thing I’d ever heard. Here was an internationally known expert admitting quite comfortably that she didn’t know something. She explained that music from this period was poorly documented because music notation was in its infancy then, and so any opinion she might express would just be a guess. What a revelation!

After the pompous know-it-alls at college, I was stunned. How wonderful to be on the cutting edge of knowledge like this! How satisfying that my ignorant and bumbling guess was as likely to be correct as that of a world-wide expert!

Then, I took another class, from Karen Clark, about Hildegard’s “Ordo Virtutum.” There it was again—another expert saying that she couldn’t be certain, but that she sang it in a way that suited her. And when Karen sang Hildegard, my heart stopped a little bit.

I became a Hildegard addict at that point.

At that time, the historically informed early music performance movement was about 15 years old (it was the mid-90s). Recordings, concerts, and generally available writings about it began to be available. The invention of CDs made it easier to obtain.

I became a Hildegard glutton. More than 15 years later, I’m still stuffing myself as full of Hildegard’s music as I can.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 19, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Dastardly Nightshades

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You’ve heard the expression “deadly nightshades,” I’m sure. Well, other than the one that comes from foxgloves and is turned into digitalis/belladonna, none of them are ACTUALLY deadly. But for many of us, they aren’t at all nice.

When explorers came to the Americas, the friendly local folk gave them produce to eat, such as corn, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, and other foods that had never been seen before by Europeans. Some of these, such as corn, went down nicely, and others, such as tomatoes, caused great distress.

It’s likely that some of the distress was gastronomical, as the acids in tomatoes and peppers must have been rather exciting on the fruit-and-veggie-starved sailors’ tummies. But a lot of the distress was in achy joints.

Achy joints can be a symptom of arthritis. Arthritis takes many forms, but the one thing all the forms have in common is inflammation. Inflammation is bad, whether it takes the form of a fever, an irritated eye, an infected scratch, or an arthritic joint.  That’s why you are encouraged to take aspirin, Motrin, Tylenol, or some other anti-inflammatory analgesic, why they rush to give you penicillin when you have certain types of fever, why they prescribe topical ointments for infections, and why they recommend ice for that freshly sprained ankle.

Like injury and disease, food also causes inflammation, and for those of us who are vulnerable, nightshades are merciless culprits. No matter where you go on the globe, these foods follow us everywhere. They are devilishly hard to avoid.

Nightshades are tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers (and tobacco and digitalis, although those two are easy enough to avoid). Can you imagine Italian food without tomatoes, German food without potatoes, Chinese food without eggplants, Indian food without peppers? Me either. That’s how completely nightshades have penetrated into non-New World cultures over the last 400 years.

There are other, less visible nightshades too, like mandrake, belladonna, wolfberry, tomatillo, gooseberry, and petunia. Many of these are used in medicines, most with neurological ramifications and some with cardiac responses. The dosages are seriously controlled, though.

You have probably heard that you shouldn’t eat green potatoes. That’s because when they are old, the quantities of glycoalkaloids in potatoes, conveniently highlighted in green, are toxic. And not just to those with a nightshade allergy—they’re toxic to everyone. It’s the solanine, though, that’s in all nightshades, and that you’re trying to avoid.

Peppers contain the extra whammy of capsaicin, which makes your mouth hot when you eat them, and when extracted and expelled via aerosol, is used to deter aggressive mammals. At one point or another, you’ve probably gotten hold of a pepper that was too darned hot to eat, and after you recovered from the burning mouth and watering eyes, you might have taken to your bed with stomach troubles.

When your body has inflammation, like with fever, injury, or some other auto-immune unpleasantness (like arthritis), adding heat via your food seems like an obviously bad idea, doesn’t it? And if you eat a lot of these foods, like potatoes with your breakfast, tomatoes with your lunch, and peppers in your dinner (with a fast cigarette on a break), you are creating inflammation where there might not have been any otherwise.

So if your knees or your back or your hands and toes hurt, perhaps you should try giving up these inflammatory foods. It’ll be tough, as these foods are everywhere, but you might be pleasantly surprised by how well you feel as a result.

Tomatoes are probably the most popular nightshade. You’ll have to avoid marinara sauce, ketchup, certain salad dressings and casually tossed in slices with your salad or your pasta, pizza sauce, and most canned soups. One trick I use in restaurants to avoid a lengthy dialog with waiters, is to mention that I’m allergic to things that are red. Then, when he goes to put Thousand Island dressing on your salad, he’ll know he’s made a mistake even though tomatoes aren’t obviously part of the package.

Potatoes are relatively easy to avoid, but do check labels for potato starch. Breads and hard candies are the most common offenders here. (Rice, tapioca, and corn starches are all fine.)

Eggplants are hardly ever used in any other form than eggplants, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble avoiding these.

The tricky one to avoid is the peppers. Black peppers are from a different family, so you can have those. But both sweet peppers (bell) and spicy peppers cause problems. Cooks’ll sneak them in, stuff an olive with a pimento, sprinkle paprika on your cracker, devilled egg, or into your cheese for color, put a dash of hot sauce into your salad dressing or dip to add tang.

Sweet bell peppers are usually large enough to pick out of your food (unless they’ve been cooked in, in which case they’ve infiltrated your whole meal), but the others are much sneakier. If you’re buying processed food, you need to read the label. Even if you’ve checked the brand before, manufacturers often change their recipes without splattering it across the front of the package. Peppers are often listed near the end, as they’re often used as a colorant or flavor enhancer. When they say “spices,” they MIGHT mean salt and pepper, but they might mean something that will make you react, like paprika.

It took me about six weeks to figure out how to cook without nightshades and get them out of my system. I saw a definite improvement in my fingers and toes, but the more noticeable change took about six months. It took that long to really get nightshades out of my system and stop having little unfortunate incidents.

Now, twenty years nightshade free, I can tell that I’ve had nightshade exposure within moments of exposure because my lips tingle. I can stop eating whatever it is immediately. Your lips might not tingle, though, so don’t use that as your only safety monitor. And after this long, smells and tastes that used to tempt me to the point of insanity now smell like poison to me—and they are!

Like peanut allergies, it seems to be North Americans who suffer most from this sort of sensitivity. It’s my contention that it’s because most North Americans have emigrant blood, and depending on where your people came from, your tolerance might be low. Some cultures have ways of dealing with these sorts of imbalances, though.

For instance, Chinese medicine talks about foods and health issues in terms of hot and cold, moist and dry. Yin foods are feminine and create cold, and yang foods are masculine and create heat (nightshades are all yang). A surplus of either is thought to cause problems. Ideally, people should eat both types of food in balance.

Europeans used to believe in the humors, that an excess or deficiency of any of the four distinct fluids (melancholic black bile, bilious yellow bile, phlegmatic phlegm, and sanguine blood) could cause an imbalance in temperament or physical health. Messing with any of these could cause insanity or death. Modern medicine has debunked this theory, but like the Chinese yin/yang theory, there’s a little truth in it still.

You know the old maxim “moderation in all things?” It’s true with diet too. There’s a theory that the thing you’re most addicted to, like sugar or spicy food, is the same thing that is causing you the most health problems. It was certainly true in my case. At the time when I discovered my sensitivity to nightshades, I had a long history of pouring hot sauce on everything. Now that I’m free of those foods, I feel immeasurably better!

I propose that if you have achy joints or arthritis, you try giving up nightshades for six weeks. If you don’t feel any better—and you REALLY avoided nightshades, no cheating!—go back to eating them. But my guess is that you’ll feel better.

Oh, by the way. You’ll see lots of recommendations for capsaicin topical treatment. I recommend against those too. The warmth they generate might feel pretty good in the moment, but the inflammation won’t decrease and the long term affect is bad news.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 8, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Posted in Food

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