MGWCC #234

crossword 4:29
meta DNF 

hello, and welcome to episode #234 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Compose Yourself!”. once again, i’m sitting down to blog a meta i haven’t solved yet. often, i get the needed insight in the process of blogging; let’s hope it works again. anyway, last week, we had to name a famous american; this week, matt challenges us to name a famous European, past or present. what are the theme answers? well, there were six long answers in the grid:

  • {Common marsh bird} AMERICAN BITTERN. bittern? not familiar with it.
  • {Where the Australian Open final is contested} ROD LAVER ARENA.
  • {All around the globe} NEAR AND FAR.
  • {Disney character voiced by Wilmer Valderrama} is apparently someone named HANDY MANNY. never heard of this before.
  • {East River area} SPANISH HARLEM.
  • {Another name for pearl pasta} ISRAELI COUSCOUS.

so, what’s going on here? the first thing i tried to do was something involving a composer, because of the title. most of the famous composers are european, so that makes some sense. i don’t really know why, but i tried to pick out the letters from the theme answers that correspond to scale notes (A-G). here’s what you get:


well, that’s not thrilling. lots of A’s and E’s, but that’s to be expected since, you know, english has lots of vowels. it doesn’t look like any kind of familiar melody, which is kind of what i was hoping for. in fact they each contain at least one A, and except for ISRAELI COUSCOUS they each contain at least two A’s. but that’s not incredibly exciting either.

next thing to try: initials. AB RLA NAF HM SH IC. does that look like anything? nope.

next: we have AMERICAN SPANISH ISRAELI. that’s three nationalities. but ROD NEAR HANDY? not so much. in fact, AMERICAN ROD NEAR HANDY SPANISH ISRAELI is a sensical phrase, although it doesn’t mean much to me.

is there anything that can be done with those three nationalities? i noticed that sitting right above AMERICAN in the grid is america’s northern neighbor CANADA… and sitting above ISRAELI is israel’s northern neighbor, LEBanon. of course, neither of those countries is european—but spain is. there’s no hint of france (or, um, andorra) abutting SPANISH in the grid, so maybe that’s a hint that we’re looking for somebody french.

what does that leave us? ROD LAVER ARENA, NEAR AND FAR, HANDY MANNY. so far we’ve only been using the first halves. that’s probably all we’re going to use (although if that’s the case, i kind of wonder why matt chose BITTERN among all the AMERICAN _______ choices, instead of EXPRESS or BUFFALO or CULTURE or HISTORY or EMBASSY or countless other more familiar possibilities). so we’re looking at which famous french person (there aren’t any famous andorrans!) might be suggested by ROD, NEAR, and HANDY. in fact, perhaps we’ve already used NEAR as a hint to look at the neighboring entries/countries. or, really, given that we’re now looking at CANADA and LEB as theme answers also, maybe NEAR AND FAR and HANDY MANNY aren’t theme answers at all, just 10-letter fill answers. so, um, ROD? or ROD LAVER? the french equivalent of ROD LAVER ARENA is stade roland garros, where the french open final is held. but if the answer matt wants is roland garros, why would the title be “Compose Yourself!”? garros was a decorated WWI flying ace—a war hero, not a tennis player or (relevantly) anything to do with composing. that said, this does seem like a pretty promising line of inquiry, and were it not for the title, i’d submit garros and defend it as a reasonable answer.

okay, what else could “compose yourself” mean? i’m thinking of kangaroo words, the subject of at least one NYT sunday theme (and an ACPT puzzle #7 in recent memory): words that contain their own definitions in sequenced (but not necessarily consecutive) letters, like pRecipitAtIoN containing RAIN. but, well, i don’t see anything like that going on here.

okay, what if we’re not supposed to look at ROD LAVER ARENA in its entirety, but just ROD? does ROD + french suggest anybody? i’m still a bit fixated on composers, but i can’t help but notice that a rod is a stick, and the french word for “stick” is baton. so perhaps a famous french conductor? the one that comes to mind is pierre boulez—and he’s also a composer. but this is a fairly tenuous connection, and a good meta should have a better “aha” moment than just “name a french conductor because baton is kind of like rod”.

what about ROD + NEAR + HANDY + french? uh, translating those words gives us roughly barre + pres + mobile. that doesn’t really call to mind a famous french person. i’m idly noting that NEAR and HANDY are synonyms, but i don’t think that helps.

oh hey, there’s one more country in the grid: RSA at 7a, the republic of south africa. i don’t think it has anything to do with the meta.

oh well, i guess it’s almost noon and i have nothing better to send in than roland garros. so i’ll do that but i am not very confident about it. let me know in the comments about what i missed!

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55 Responses to MGWCC #234

  1. Mark N says:

    Talk about eleventh-hour solves… It’s BRAHMS! On to week 5!

  2. Andy says:


  3. Paul Coulter says:

    I was surprised to see the low success rate, especially among our leaders. Then again, I didn’t prove so sharp last week, myself. For me, this was of Week Two difficulty, made easier by Matt’s giveaway title. What else could Compose Yourself suggest – the inventor of a sedative? I spent a minute on the obvious red herring of nationalities mentioned either in the entry or the clue. “All around the globe” semi-counted, but it quickly fell apart with Handy Manny, unless you happen to be a football fan of a certain age. I refer to the other Valderrama, Colombian star Carlos of the wild yellow Afro. However, I’ve learned that with Matt’s metas, you’re almost certainly on the wrong track if you have to stretch. Then looking for a composer, I immediately saw the familiar anagrams of Harlem/Mahler and Israeli/Salieri. Over the years, these have appeared many times in the world of Cryptics and I’ve used both when setting puzzles. Even had the anagrams not jumped out at me, anagramming is always on my list of What would Joon do?/What else should I try? techniques. Then backfilling, it was easy to see the others – bittern/Britten, Laver/Ravel, near/Arne, handy/Haydn. I’m not Pete Muller, and don’t listen much to longhair music, but the names are very recognizeable to any crossword enthusiast. Of these, I thought Arne/near was nicely hidden.

  4. Giovanni P. says:

    Anagrams? Oh wow, didn’t even enter into my mind to anagram some of the words, or even use NEAR AND FAR or HANDY MANNY.

    So were the countries on the tops of ISRAELI and AMERICAN distractions?

    I fear what Week 5 will bring. Not that it matters for me.

    • Matt says:

      I noticed them (CANADA and USA in MEDUSA) after the fact but didn’t change. Maybe subconsciously I dug the red herring aspect of it.

      • Giovanni P. says:

        Well, it feels like it added a lot of static to the meta. I ended up focusing on those rather than the anagrams. Not to mention RSA, KAN, as well as the ones you mentioned.

  5. Matt says:

    66 correct answers this week. Note that the nationalities red herring wasn’t done on purpose — AMERICAN BITTERN is your only 15-letter option for “Britten” and then you’ve got ISRAELI COUSCOUS to offset it, and then A RAGE IN HARLEM and HARLEM SHUFFLE weren’t fitting so I used SPANISH HARLEM.

  6. Bob Kerfuffle says:

    I actually noticed that BITTERN was an anagram of BRITTEN, but never saw the others, didn’t pursue that line of reasoning, and didn’t send in any answer.

  7. bob says:

    So the trick was to anagram a random word from each of the theme answers into a famous composer (two of which I am unfamiliar and a third only aware of from crosswordese), and then acrostic them to a seventh composer?
    That was too much for me.

  8. Dave C says:

    dang, so close and yet so far. I discounted NEARANDFAR and HANDYMANNY because there were no countries in the answer – well, RODLAVERARENA doesn’t either, but “Australian” is in the clue (yes, it’s a continent). That was my undoing, as I easily should have seen Haydn after I found Britten, Ravel, Mahler and Salieri.

    Chose Britten from the 4, since his name is so similar to where he was born (Britain). Thought there was some offbeat correlation to “Compose Yourself”.

  9. Jeff Chen says:

    Perhaps with a million Jeffs typing away at a million computers for a million millenia, I might have come up with the answer. Rats! I was nowhere even close.

    This was only week four? (shudder)

  10. Bruce S. says:

    I don’t feel so bad. Never would have gotten this. I was convinced that the 4 theme answers were AMERICANBITTERN, SPANISHHARLEM, ISRAELICOUSCOUS and RODLAVERARENA. the first three obviously matched in nationality/word and RODLAVER didn’t but its clue had Australian in it so I figured that was the hint. I was searching the clues of the other three and even spent a good half hour trying to anagram RODLAVERARENA into something of the form nationality/word. I know so little about music, that of the anagrams needed I only know ARNE and HAYDN, so I doubt I would have spotted them.

    • Bruce S. says:

      and I just realized that the entries ARNE and HADYN come from are the two entries I wasn’t even considering since they had no nationalities. That pushes the possibility that I ever would have gotten it right down there nestled up to zero. Good one Matt.

  11. Mutman says:

    Argh! I was never close at grokking the meta, but I did see that you could construct BRAHMS from a letter, in order, from each theme answer. I was trying to find crosses to justify it, but never got further on that — nothing made sense. So I went with Ravel, when I ‘saw’ it in Rod Laver and also because of the Bo Derek reference nearby (from the [bad] movie ’10’, featuring Ravel).

    Also, BRITTEN and ARNE are not in my classical classical collection, as they are not that familiar to me. But I guess anagramming BEETHOVEN or BACH would have been pretty tricky.

    • Chris P. says:

      I completely lucked into the answer by doing what you described, Mutman, and what joon attempted in his write-up: I found the letters B-R-A-H-M-S in order in the initials of the long answers. I see now that the real meta was much more sophisticated. A fantastic puzzle!

  12. John says:

    Yeah, don’t know most of those composers and you’d have to in order to get anagrams – too many choices. Knowing the name “Britten” was likely key – I don’t.

    I also wasn’t looking at nearandfar or handymanny – how many times have answers with 3 different lengths all counted as meta-related? The nationalities seemed key and i got lost there.

  13. Blanche says:

    Wow, double whammy. Anagrams, every one of which resulted in a possible answer to the puzzle, and THEN the meta. Brilliant puzzle, and a humbling experience for a music teacher.

  14. This meta killed! (my weekend)

  15. abide says:

    Never heard of Britten but I guess Bach and Beethoven weren’t possible. I had some intuition that it was a six-letter composer, but there were quite a few to choose from: Brahms, Chopin, Handel, Wagner, Mahler, Mozart, etc. I guessed Mozart but now feel dumb for not looking at the common letters: Brahms is the only one you could spell out without grokking the anagrams.

  16. Noam D. Elkies says:

    Darn, and I just noted in another context that ISRAELI anagrams to SALIERI…

  17. Noam D. Elkies says:

    [I thought it was a word-origins puzzle, somehow suggested by “near and far”: “Arena” from Latin (not Strine), “Harlem” from Dutch (not Spain), “Couscous” from Arabic (not Israel), “Bittern” maybe from French (but not American English).]

  18. klew archer says:

    I figured past and present might mean they had been a European and then became one again. I ran with the nationality thing and the Compose thing and came up with ROMAN, which at least identies a city of origin if not a nationality and means “novel” in French, which I guess one can say is composed , to which I added the name of a certain film director who was born and now resides in Europe after having been in the US for a while. My logic was completely wrong and I knew it was wrong, but I still need to share it with you.

  19. Dan Seidman says:

    I noticed that the same six-letter string, VERARE, appeared in both a theme answer clue (East River area) and a theme answer (Rod Laver Arena). Shows how far off I was. I was figuring there were just four theme answers, since 13 to 10 seemed a more logical breakpoint than 10 to 9, so I guessed Bach.

  20. ===Dan says:

    I was thwarted by all the countries. Of the four longest answers, only ROD LAVER ARENA didn’t have a country. So I figured this European might have a name in a similar form to the other clues, with a musical connection. It was four minutes to noon. I went with Ozzy Osbourne, with no hope that it would be correct.

  21. mike w says:

    I was similar to Dave C. I found Britten, Ravel, Mahler, and Salieri this morning. I went with Mozart – Salieri’s rival, Ravel’s last words, great influence on the other two. Agree with Dave C. that I should have seen Haydn hiding, but never heard of Arne. Thanks again to Matt for a fun puzzle!

  22. Tyler says:

    The countries were a nasty red herring for sure, whether intentional or not.

    I solved the puzzle on Friday and got the meta at around 8:45 PM PST last night, so this definitely reaffirmed my resolve to solve the crossword as soon as possible. Am I the only one who fruitlessly tried to connect WC HANDY (an AMERICAN composer) to the meta?

  23. klew archer says:

    Didn’t see the ARNE anagram in the grid, but am certainly familiar with him, since he wrote “Rule, Britannia” and has been in the NYT xword 70 times in the Shortz era, where I always confuse the spelling of his name with the Italian river ARNO.

  24. *David* says:

    I tried lots of the methods mentioned here including anagramming but I tried the entire phrase. Typically when I can’t make heads or tails of a meta it comes down to anagramming. I should’ve pursued it a bit more. I thought the meta was going to have alternate answers since it said past or present so I figured the answer would be a political/religious figure and the composing was referring to your answer.

  25. Wayne says:

    BITTERN in the grid seemed too deliberate. If I’d known the name Britten, maybe I would have gotten a toehold.

    I wasn’t entirely sure which entries were theme answers. (The 4 longest acrosses, all six long 6 acrosses? What about the two long downs?) Last week, I thought the asterisks made the meta too easy. I would have welcomed them this week.

    Anyway, I feel beaten fair and square. This was definitely gettable since the search space was so glaringly pointed to by the title.

  26. Scott says:

    I never even came close!

  27. Ann Reneris says:

    Could it be bittern B, arena A, couscous C, Harlem H = Bach ???

    • Wouldn’t that actually be BAHC?

      • Charles Montpetit says:

        Since Ann’s solution only requires anagramming BAHC (instead of six words!), I for one think it’s just as elegant as Matt’s — not that I got either. If it comes down to a vote, I say Ann should at least get partial props from Matt (if she actually submitted it as her answer, that is).

        • Dan Katz says:

          I also submitted BACH based on the same reasoning, but I knew it was most likely wrong (and I completely disagree that it’s “just as elegant” as the correct answer, which uses more content from the theme entries and doesn’t have an arbitrary reordering of components).

          Add me to the list of folks who saw four entries with nationalities (in the answer or clue) and subsequently discarded the two shorter acrosses. Despite the similarity of the final answer, I was nowhere close.

  28. J B says:

    I was really thrown off by the demonyms. I spent a lot of time looking for a composer with a name name that could be composed from “couscous.”

    I got lucky guessing “Brahms” based on the three composers I had found (Brittern (never heard of him), Ravel, Mahler). Never heard of Arne and didn’t notice Haydn.

  29. Too many red herrings in this one did me in. I was sure that the AMERICAN/AUSTRALIAN/SPANISH/ISRAELI was part of the theme. The CANADA on top of AMERICAN and the LEB on top of ISRAELI distracted me but I dismissed that as a coincidence.

    The 4 pinwheel answers meeting in the middle (NEAR AND FAR, HANDY MANNY, ST BERNARD, and DEAN’S LIST) I thought might have been part of the meta — 3/4 have common first names in them (MANNY, BERNARD, DEAN), but that didn’t lead anywhere, and they all have the letters A, N, and D in them in some order. But anagramming them to “X AND Y” pairs didn’t work (aaargh, I thought of anagramming but I anagrammed the wrong things!).

  30. MountainManZach says:

    Damn! I got too hung up on Rod Laver. He’s one of 4 guys to have a career grand slam. Joining him: Andre Agassi (AMERICAN), Rafael Nadal (SPANISH) and Roger Federer (I thought the alluded-to European). The only problem was there was no ISRAELI Grand Slammer. So close.

  31. CY Hollander says:

    On the subject of red herrings, I too was misled by AMERICAN/SPANISH/ISRAELI, but the first words of those answers had more than demonymity in common. Each of those words is also redundant, in the sense that their answer would be valid even if they were dropped. A BITTERN is a common marsh bird, HARLEM is an East River area, and COUSCOUS is pearl pasta (as much as ISRAELI COUSCOUS is, anyway).

    ROD LAVER ARENA didn’t fit very well with that commonality, so I suspected I was off the track, but this meta was pretty well out of my wheelhouse anyway.

  32. Pam says:

    I wanted it to be Vincent Van Gough because he painted/composed a picture of himself after he cut off his EAR which was the word in dead center of the puzzle. Forget all those long theme answers, I couldn’t make them mean anything. I did not submit any answer this week. Wish I could hit the fast forward button to december 7th.

  33. Jim says:

    No one’s mentioned 21A. I thought it might be a literal hint with “aroma” translating from Italian to “in Rome” and then somehow to be used with all the geography-related answers. Never got anywhere with that.

  34. Ben Bass says:

    I suck. Congrats to those who got it.

  35. Bwouns says:

    My red herring was slightly different than everyone else’s. Not specific to nationalities. I noticed that three of the clues for fill words could also clue the beginning of three of the theme entries.
    14a – Its currency is the dollar (CANADA/AMERICA)
    40a – Fishing need (HOOK/ROD)
    52A – Country on the Med. (LEB/ISR)
    So I spent a lot of time looking for a clue that could be answered with (SPA/SPAN/SPANISH)
    I was so sure I was on to something that I didn’t even consider going in a different direction.

  36. Patrick L says:

    If I was a little hard on Matt last week, it’s because I’m spoiled by puzzles like this one. My complaint last week was that there weren’t any hidden treasures in the grid or clues. This week Matt managed to hide 7 composers’ names right under our noses – if that’s not meta-construction at its finest, I don’t know what is. I know the star ratings on this blog are a limited sample, but I wish the ratings were higher this week. I might have made a small deduction for Arne, who is not in the same tier as the other composers – but apparently he is familiar enough to crossword solvers.

    Brahms is my favorite composer and I traditionally immerse myself in his music (particularly the German Requiem) during the holiday season. Those who have studied Brahms probably know of his love of balance and symmetry, and his ability to construct and unify larger forms with smaller motifs. I think Brahms himself would have liked this meta. I certainly did. Fünf Sterne!

  37. Abby says:

    I found Salieri in trying to anagram things, but I couldn’t get anything out of all the leading words. Saw “Ravel”, but it seemed too arbitrary to just use any word. I also couldn’t decide how many theme words were there were. The natioknality thing threw me too, but I was trying to ignore it because (unless you used the one in the clue), Rod Laver Arena wasn’t going to be parallel.

    I knew I should’ve stuck with anagrams of the words, but it did not seem clean enough, and I know from experience that you can go way wrong anagramming in these- I’ve done it before.

    I ended up taking anagramming the first letters of the last words of the longest entries to get BACH. Didn’t seem quite right for so late in the month, but it was clean and yielded a composer. If it hadn’t, I’d probably have gone back to anagramming the words themselves. :-(

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