Composing music, living with wasps, and relishing Rainier cherries

July 13, 2020 Washington State Magazine Season 1 Episode 1
Composing music, living with wasps, and relishing Rainier cherries
Show Notes Transcript

Composer and Washington State University music professor Greg Yasinitsky hears a band in his head when he's creating music. In the premiere episode of Washington State Magazine's podcast, Yasinitsky dives into the art and craft of composition...and why writing music for kids requires special attention. 
Also in this episode: 

  • Megan Asche, a WSU entomology doctoral student, wants us to better understand--and be less fearful of--those frequent barbecue visitors, wasps and yellowjackets. 
  • Rainier cherries, developed at Washington State in 1952, offer a delectable summer treat. WSU Executive Chef Jamie Callison serves up some ways to enjoy them in your meals.

Read more about WSU's music studio, wasp research, and Rainier cherries.

Support the show

Want more great WSU stories? Follow Washington State Magazine:

How do you like the magazine podcast? What WSU stories do you want to hear? Let us know.

Give to the magazine

[Wasps buzzing]


Megan Asche: The reason why we have problems with wasps during the summer is because they don't have any food. So they're looking for anything they can possibly get. And that includes your picnic. It also includes things like your garbage cans, your dog food, your cat food, anything that they can get a hold of that seems remotely like a consumable to them.


[Jazz music: Viewscapes theme]


Larry Clark: Welcome to Viewscapes--stories from Washington State Magazine, connecting you to Washington State University, the state and the world. Hi, I'm Larry Clark, editor of the magazine. In this episode, we'll talk music with composer and musician Greg Yasinitsky, take wing with wasp researcher Megan Asche, and enjoy a bowl of cherries with executive chef Jamie Callison.


[Jazz music interlude]


Greg Yasinitsky: I mean, the easiest way to describe this: um, my mother used to ask me, you know, she said, how do you compose anyway? What do you do? And I said, well, it's like, there's a, there's a band in my head. It was playing. And I write down what they're playing. And she said, you hear a band in your head? Do you hear voices, too?




Brian Clark: That's Greg Yasinitsky. He's known to his colleagues and students as Yaz. Rhymes with jazz. Yaz is a saxophonist, composer, and professor at Washington State University. I'm Brian Clark, writer at Washington State Magazine and I talked recently with Yaz about writing and performing music. Yaz has written tons of scores for professional soloists, ensembles, bands, and orchestras, but he also writes for students. And, as we'll hear, that requires some special thought. One thing all of his compositions have in common is that even with computers, everything is written basically by hand and all those parts have to line up just so.


Greg Yasinitsky: I mean, I view music as an art obviously, but it's also a craft, and the craft part of it fascinates me. I mean, to make sure you've got all those parts for this, maybe you’ve got a 50-piece symphony orchestra that the accent on beat one in bar 14 is the same in every one of those parts. And that there's not one of them that's mistransposed or you didn't leave an eighth rest out of one bar. So, you know, I mean, that is time consuming. It's very meticulous, busy, detail-oriented kind of stuff. 


Brian Clark: Take writing for students, for kids just learning to play an instrument.


Greg Yasinitsky: So we've been talking about this when you write for the trombone section, there's certain notes you have to leave out. Why? Because the kids can't reach that far. [Sure.] So they push out the slide that can only go to here. So those other notes that are down there, they can't play those. [Laughter] Right? You can write them. They won't be able to, [They just are not physically able to do it. Their arms aren't long enough.] So, you know, same thing if you're writing a piece for young pianos, their hands are only so big. [Yeah.] Right? So you can't have chords with big stretches. There's all this, you know, that's all this sort of practical aspect to it.


Brian Clark: And the crazy thing is a middle C isn't a middle C on every instrument. I mean, it is, but well, it just isn't. For some reason to do with the way instruments used to be made, a C as in cat on a piano is a D as in dog on a tenor sax. Go figure. Anyway, transposing for different instruments is a pain, but an essential detail that must be kept track of.


Greg Yasinitsky: If you have an E flat, that's a good example. You have to write a C for the alto saxophone, or you won't get an E flat. Well, that's kind of goofy. I mean, why would you have to do that? That's a big question that why, why is there any transposition at all? The Rubik's cube to get it all to work. It sounds complicated, but it's fun.


Brian Clark: It’s also really fun to play music in an ensemble live. Just listen to these guys. 


[Instrumental jazz music]


They're having a blast. And I can totally relate to this because I've played music live and boy, have I missed plenty of notes.


Greg Yasinitsky: There's an element of danger. You know, I think which is what makes listening to live music exciting. You know, when it gets above a certain point, no matter who the trumpet player is, no matter how famous they are, no matter how great they are, they're probably going to miss those notes. Sometimes not, you know, maybe that's the thing that separates them, that they rarely miss them.


Brian Clark: But on Yaz’s instrument, the tenor sax…


Greg Yasinitsky: If I press this note and blow, I'm going to get a certain note. If it were like on the piano, if I press this key down, I'm going to get that note. That's less certain for brass players, which makes it fun for them to play. It makes it exciting for us to hear.


Brian Clark: Now here's Yaz in WSU’s digital recording studio overdubbing a solo for his newest album of big band jazz. 


[Jazz music] 


Rachel Webber: It's summer, and the wasps are out. And that has us wondering, what's the difference between yellow jackets, hornets and paper wasps? And what are they doing crashing your barbecues?


Megan Asche: That’s a really good question. So here in Eastern Washington, we have two species of paper wasp, and those are Polistes dominula, the European paper wasp.


Rachel Webber: I'm Rachel Webber, a writer at Washington State University. That's Megan Asche, a PhD student in entomology. We talked to her about the lives of wasps and her research to help humans and wasps live more harmoniously.


Megan Asche: We also have Polistes orifer, which is our native species, which looks really, really similar. 


Rachel Webber:These two species share something in common. They fly with their landing gear down.


Megan Asche: When you look at a paper wasp, their bodies are somewhat narrow, almost delicate. And when they fly their little back legs are dangling. It kind of looks like kind of a lazy flight, like kind of slow, kind of like meandering.


Rachel Webber: The female wasps have such delicate waists. They can really only eat nectar or crushed up bugs. 


Megan Asche: Babies actually have little chewing little mouth parts. They can actually eat whole insects. So when you see a wasp fly off with a whole bug, [Rachel Webber: or maybe some barbecue chicken], she's taking it to a baby that will eat that so it can get big and become an adult. 


Rachel Webber: And at the end of summer, wasp populations are at their peak, there are hundreds, if not thousands of mouths to feed. 


Megan Asche: At that period of time, especially here in Eastern Washington, we have almost no flowers blooming. So all those little tiny insects they would be feeding their babies, they don't have any food. And since they don't have any food, there isn't any tiny insects around. So they're looking for anything they can possibly get. And that includes your picnic. It also includes things like your garbage can, your dog food, your cat food, anything that they can. 


Rachel Webber: While paper wasps are the ones you'll usually see in summer, there are also other members of the Vespidae family out and about. 


Megan Asche: When you see a yellowjacket, yellowjackets are kind of short and thick and they fly very quickly. Hornets are considered kind of like their, their body types of very similar to a yellow jacket, but they're larger.


Rachel Webber: And for a twist, bald-faced hornets in Washington state are usually black and white wasps. There were no true hornets in Washington until the giant Asian hornet showed up late last year. Whether it's a paper wasp, hornet, or yellowjacket, all of these wasps have something in common. And it's part of the reason that Megan is so curious about them. 


Megan Asche: Yeah. So really the difference between paper wasps and yellowjackets and hornets, they're all in the same, um, insect family group, which is Vespidae, but they're in separate genuses. So they've just been a sub categories and they're all social. So they all have Queens. They all have workers and they produce male seasonally. 


Rachel Webber: Yes, even the hornets that decapitate honeybee heads have the social structure and answer to a queen. It is the social aspect of paper wasps that motivates Asche to spend her days caring for them in her research lab at WSU Pullman. 


Megan Asche: So I think a lot of people would think that it's kind of like a nature documentary you might see about ants, where they're always like raiding each other and they're killing each other. And they're always very warlike or at least that's how it's always depicted video. The wasps totally chill. Like they, they cuddle, they eat together. They, they do a little bit of like dominant stuff where like maybe the, like the big, the big wasp in the cage is like, ‘Oh, I'm more important than you. I take your food,’ but it's not violent, like they don't kill each other or hurt each other in any way. 


Rachel Webber: The project she's currently working on is funded by the Department of Defense. The end goal: develop set traps that will deter wasps from air traffic control towers. 


Megan Asche: The time of the year when the wasps were trying to reproduce, so the nests have created new queens and they've created males, and they're trying to find each other so they can mate, these wasps are attracted to tall structures. So the tallest building, the tallest tree, the tallest whatever in an area, the wasps will go there to congregate. And in the case of an Air Force base, the tallest structure is an air control tower. So they become pest insects at Air Force bases. 


Rachel Webber: Asche's working on a few new ideas to help manage the wasps at air control towers. 


Megan Asche: Are there new and unique ways of trapping specifically paper wasps that would work better than something like a cylindrical trap and something that would be more targeted than just spraying them with pesticides. So what we're looking to do is figure out how quickly can these animals learn. If I expose a wasp for very, very short period of time, only 24 hours, to unique odor that they've never experienced before, but have them associated with their food, can I then make them attracted to that odor? So could we potentially set up a baiting station where they're going to a place getting snacks, and then we turn it into a trap that catches them.


Rachel Webber: While better traps may help people better coexist with wasps. Asche said the generally wasps are pretty docile creatures. 


Megan Asche: On all the trips I've been on so far, I have never been stung. I wear protective clothing. I wear the bee jacket and the gloves and long pants and work boots. However, a lot of that has to do with the fact that they're really kind of scaredy cat.


Rachel Webber: Perhaps wasps and human beings have a bit in common after all. We want to eat, take care of the kids, socialize and go about our day without any trouble. Oh, and the next time you run into a wasp and you aren't sure if with Washington's most common paper wasp or a yellowjacket, just take a look at its antennae.


Megan Asche: Yellowjackets have black antenna and the paper wasps have yellow antenna. 


Rachel Webber: That is if you're fast enough to catch a glimpse before they take off. Megan Asche is also an avid insect photographer and editor of American Entomology’s publication, Through the Loupe. You can get a closer look at some of her work at


[Jazz music interlude]


Adriana Janovich: Rainier cherries are named for Mount Rainier. And one could make the case that both are splendid symbols of the state of Washington. Rainier cherries are particularly special to WSU. They were developed at the university’s research station at Prosser in 1952. A USDA breeder had been looking to create a new Bing variety that would help extend the cherry season. He crossbred Bings with Van cherries that carried a recessive gene. The result was yellow-hued fruit with a pink-to-red blush. The appeal of those contrasting colors is just one of the reasons people pay a premium for Rainier cherries. I'm Adriana Janovich, associate editor at Washington State Magazine, and I'm here with Jamie Callison, executive chef at the Washington State University School of Hospitality Business Management. Jamie, how would you describe their flavor and their texture?


Jamie Callison: Right? I think the Rainier is unique because it has that, um, it's sweet, but it doesn't, it's not overly sweet. The sweetness isn't overpowering. And I like that about the cherry where somebody, you know, you get in some of the Bing cherries, and it's, it's kind of a punch in the face, which I love Bing cherries. Um, so I really like it. I like using it with multiple different other cherries too, cause it kind of balances them out.


Adriana Janovich: I've read the best way to enjoy them is raw. Does it matter to you if they are raw or cooked?


Jamie Callison: It does. So the Rainier changes color pretty dramatically when you cook it. And also when you freeze it too. So, you know, we love to buy cherries and freeze them so we who can use them all year round and use local cherries. And the Rainiers have a tendency to turn brown. Um, so sometimes we will cook some in a sauce. Um, it kind of gives you, it gives you get the Rainier flavor and then we'll strain out that sauce. But that sauce is usually also cooked with, um, Bing cherries and pie cherries, a combination, um, because the Rainier cherries by themselves in the sauce, the color, or anytime you cook them, they kind of get an off-brown color. So I think more. And so if we make a fruit compote, we'll actually fold in raw Rainier cherries at the end and it kind of gives it the great texture, the crunch, and then it also gives it the beautiful color of the Rainier.


Adriana Janovich: Beside the compote. How else do you like to, um, prepare them or serve them?


Jamie Callison: Well, I love like a, um, a fresh cherry salad for duck is really good. You know, you get, you get a little acidity in there too. So game is really good. Uh, venison, a cherry compote with venison is absolutely amazing. Um, pork would be really good too. I mean, you can use a little, um, Madeira or something or even port. It would be really good to make a nice, so it could be a sauce for some, some sort of protein that has a lot of, um, any kind of gamey protein would be really good. I don't know, lamb, I probably wouldn't use it for, there's just something about the texture and the flavor of lamb. I don't think would go well, but game and, and pork. And it'd be really nice as a compote on there. But again, just a fresh salad, you know. You can put it in a mixed green salad too, would be really good. Um, some almonds or hazelnuts from the Pacific Northwest. Um, so there's a lot of different, uh, ways to them. 


Adriana Janovich: What greens would you use in a salad like that? I was thinking spinach, but maybe something else?


Jamie Callison: Spinach would be given maybe even like, um, arugula that wasn't overly harsh would be really good. And maybe a combination of spinach and arugula. I like using arugula. Of course I love arugula, but a lot of times it's, it's really, it's almost too peppery. So I'm using that with mixed greens and other lettuces kind of combined, especially right now go to the farmer's market and you know, this time of year going to the farmer's market and there's so many different kinds of greens. If you can do a blend of all these local greens together it’s amazing.


[Jazz music interlude]


Larry Clark: That was Adriana Janovich and chef Jamie Callison talking about the glories of Rainier cherries here on Viewscapes, a monthly podcast from Washington State Magazine. Our theme music was written by Greg Yasinitsky. For more WSU stories, videos, and photos, visit