Thursday, October 12, 2006
I stopped by Busboys & Poets on Monday, largely because I needed a place to sit and read for a while. I haven't stopped by the Cafe since I stopped working there except to pick up my last two paychecks, so I've been going to Tryst a lot (too much) and I felt like a change of scenery.

Not trusting their espresso (I've become a complete espresso snob in the last year, it's terrible) I ordered a cup of coffee... and I have to say I was both surprised and impressed.

I don't know if the coffee there is actually that good, really, or if it's just that I've been... what's the opposite of spoiled? I've become accustomed to getting really lousy, overroasted crap-tasting coffee from places trying to immitate Charbucks. Last week I was caught in DuPont Circle during a miserable cold rain, so I went into Cosi to warm up (and do some reading... have I mentioned I read too much?). I got a small cup of coffee, and couldn't drink more than two or three sips. It was swill. OK, maybe I'm not just an espresso snob... no, this is not snobbery: the stuff was worse than the pigslop my high school cafeteria served!

But back to the positive. I drank the hell outta that BB&P coffee, marveling at the fact I could taste the complex coffee bean flavor, and not just the generically bittersweet roast. Maybe they really do serve brilliant coffee there, but I have to suspect it was more than a little to do with the unexpected joy of a good old fashioned light roast, bright and beany in my mug.

I think it was when I was learning Music History back in the summer of '93 that I first came up with the idea of Jumping the Asymptote. The Romantic period, starting with Beethoven's later works and building up to the birth of Modernism in the early 20th century, was largely about moving away from a tonal center. Composers got more and more adventurous, stretching the boundaries of tonality, getting closer and closer to the point where tonality would cease altogether, but never actually crossing that line. Pushing the boundaries was exciting, jumping outside of them would be tennis without a net.

Then came Berg and Webern and Schoenberg. They saw music getting closer and closer to this line and decided that the destiny of music was to cross it. So this they did, producing first atonal music, then the dogmatic serialism that sucked all remaining sign of life from symphonic music, leaving it the museum-relic mummy hooked to public-funding life support that it is today.

Of course, there was an eventual backlash. Minimalism, serialism made aggressively tonal ("In C" anybody?) was one salvo. John Cage's music-as-chaos/chaos-as-music aesthetic fought back against serialism's ossifying formalism. But it all seemed to come to late, as the popular ear turned to jazz and, later, rock and roll and even hip-hop.

In any case, I accuse Charbucks and its immitators of the same crime as the atonal composers: Jumping the Asymptote.

The American tradition of coffee is all about light roast: the bright breakfast blend, highly caffeinated, as a morning pick-me-up. Darker roasts, as suggested by their names (French Roast, Neapolitan, etc.) are more associated with the continental tradition, and thus come preloaded with old world mystique and sophisticated cachet. While the squares drank their Maxwell House robusta crap, the coffee intelligentsia drank dark, rich exotic blends. The darker, the more... more... je ne sai quoi.

Darker... up to a certain point. Because beyond that point you have burnt beans! But some joker in Seattle decided to hop right on over that asymptote. And millions of Americans have followed right along, as if "Pierrot Lunaire" had become a Top 40 hit. This is great for the chain and its investors, by the way, because if the beans are charred beyond recognition, one can save money using grossly inferior stock and nobody will be able to taste the difference... but once again I digress.

And this has really all been one long digression from my main point, which is that for all its talk of "letting the coffee speak for itself," the Third Wave always seems to me like a simple case of American Coffee Tradition striking back. The humble, bright light roast of days gone by is asserting itself against the oversteppings of encroaching European-ness, and doing so by cloaking itself in a new esotericism. Only time will tell, I suppose, whether Murky and its allies are a rear-guard or a vanguard-- minimalism or jazz...
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