Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dublin Christmas, Whole Lotta Craic

I spent about a week in Dublin, not doing any work, but instead catching up on ideas about art, capturing the christmas spirit, reading, walking, but mostly drinking a lot.

My friends' apartment is amazing, for one thing. I had my own room, with a balcony, and it was snowing like crazy! Mark and Rhona threw a party for me as well, and many of the Irish artists I met from Mattress Factory Museum were there. We partied down until the wee hours of the morning, and made mini-pizzas to munch on.

I took a tour of Temple Bar area, where a lot of the touristy Dublin things are but where Rhona's studio is located as well. It looks as fun as I imagined, and totally different from my own working space, i.e. one IKEA desk, tiny keyboard, and a box of jewelry supplies-- hers is an artist's shop brimming with potential, AND room to dance around. I was delighted to see our Coaster Choir project on beautiful laminated sheets, and my face conducting in a catalogue of her work!

I met up with Rhona's family for Christmas Day proper. They live in Sutton, which is near Howth, the peninsula-like formation on the coast of Dublin. Little did I know that a taxi would take me across the bay, where I saw snow-covered palm trees and sandy beaches covered in this frosty/foamy ice. Apparently in the 1970's, someone brought a bunch of palm trees to Ireland from some tropical region, planted them, and they've been hardy enough to stick around. It was so unusual to see palm trees when I was expecting, I don't know, ivy and pine trees, but then add to that a bunch of mansions and villa-like homes in pink, yellow, and blue, and this is like the Miami rendition of Dublin. Top it off with a heavy covering of snow and it was something unreal. The freshwater of snow and ice was mixing with the foam of saltwater ocean, and making these strange little puffy ice piles along the coast.

Further down the peninsula was Howth Head, a lookout point with lighthouse and some beautiful (if very slushy) trails. Howth Head is redundant really, seeing how the word 'Howth' comes from Old Norse (hövuð), meaning head. Same word in Icelandic, basically. So it's really 'Head Head'. I digress. The views are stunning.

Christmas was delightful and full of family. Fairly stressfree for me, and lots of food, and lots and lots of wine. Also, fancy tables! But unfussy guests, which is the perfect combination. Most of the rest of christmas was spent hovering around the children and watching their cute and sort of stylish Peppa Pig cartoons.

The city of Dublin was also beautiful, and I went out for many a pint. We passed by this building and I liked the blue LED lights with the old Georgian architecture.

Time in Dublin was wrapping up quickly. With Christmas craziness out of the way, I went to the National Gallery and saw some works that I've definitely seen in art history classes before. They had a gorgeous Caravaggio, which was apparently hidden in some storage area of a Jewish building for centuries, until a restorer unearthed it. I also got to briefly stop into St. Patrick's Church, which is so gosh dern old I can't quite comprehend it. My map said it was built in the late 1100's. You can definitely feel some energies inside of it- if not souls, God, spirits, whatever, then at least the memories of 500-year-old flags, fluttering in tatters from the rafters, and thrones with helmets and swords next to the altar.

This time, with planes landing on time, I had a real day in London and could be myself. I had a delightful lunch with Lucinda and saw her gallery of music photography. I went to a leather shop, and the largest HMV record store. However, their appallingly small selection of contemporary classical (in the wake of rows and rows of Bach and Mozart) might deserve a post all in itself. I'll give them that it was just days after the Christmas hordes ransack all the stores, but in general Not Pleasing. I'll just go back to buying my music directly from artists and know, the old-fashioned way.

Some graffiti I walked by in a tunnel; the blurring wasn't intentional, I was just walking and didn't stop to take the picture but I kind of like the motion of it. There were probably five or six graffiti artists working in the tunnel when I walked through, all doin' their thing without the police invading.

I also got to see the London Eye, and the Tate Modern, both of which had not been built when I was in London last in 1999. And that was even in high school, which almost doesn't count as real life. The most spectacular thing there was Ai Weiwei's massive installation of sunflower seeds. Millions upon millions of them were handcrafted--handpainted by Chinese artisans, and made of porcelain, poured out on the Tate floor. Visitors could originally walk on it, but concerns were raised about the toxicity of dust from the porcelain crunching, so now you can just walk up to the seeds and stare in awe.

I walked across the modern Millennium Bridge with the hordes of tourists, and felt happy to be going back to Iceland. Where I'm sort of a tourist, but at least I'm not surrounded by loud American teenagers all day. London is an amazing place where you can do about anything and acquire just about anything, but the pace and the crowds and the waiting on the underground is all just a bit too large-scale for me. I liked the scale of Dublin better, and the openness of all the friendly people there. And of course, the delicious Guinness.

Thus ends the quick tour of good times in Dublin, a day in London, and I'm back to Reykjavík, ready to work for a couple days. Oh wait, there's New Years. Maybe I should just keep celebrating.

Christmas Travel Saga

Posts have been scant lately as I took a week out of Iceland to go to Dublin, Ireland for the holidays! I'm thinking I'll separate the travel stories into one post, and then actual fun times into another post. So Here begins the Travel Saga. Ferðasaga, if you will.

First of all, I should have realized that traveling to a different country for the holidays would involve some kind of travel disaster somewhere along the line. The devil appeared in the form of an apocalyptic-like Heathrow airport with thousands of stranded passengers during one of the worst snowstorms that Britain and Ireland has ever had. Thankfully, I was not one of the many people who were forced to sleep outside of the airport, as in "the outdoors", in temporary white tents set up for stranded people. It felt awfully cattle-like. The airport literally had no space to house everyone. Lots of temporary pillows and sleeping mats everywhere. Angry parents yelling at staff members, while crying children look on in horror. Staff members under a lot of stress as it's not their fault but they have to bear the brunt of arguments as best they can. Some poor people from places like Singapore had their flights canceled three days in a row, and couldn't get a hotel, so they just have to wait in the airport every day, checking to see if their one flight to Singapore will be running. Pretty terrible. We humans are no match against the 5 tons of snow that fell on each of Heathrow's hundreds of plane stanchions, which all had to be dug out. And Buffalo, New York this is not: Heathrow is not as prepared as my hometown would be, where rescue teams would likely soon come barreling through in some giant tractor-snowplows with chains on them, and soon the pathways would be clear.

My flight to Dublin was postponed. Then delayed. Then it was canceled, as it was Dublin airport that had closed. I was luckily to get a standby flight the next morning at 5:30am, but it meant having to travel two hours by underground to a friend's flat, sleep for two hours, and then take two night buses for two hours to get back to the airport at 5am. Thank goodness L in London was kind enough to house me and feed me, I was kind of a mess and appreciated a hug. We looked for train tickets, to get to a ferry to Dublin, in case the plane would be canceled. All sold out. What about that random other train to the south of England, and then the train from Cork? Sold out. What about the other airports? Sold out. There was literally no way for me to get to Ireland from London unless this standby flight came through.

When I got to the airport, it hadn't even opened yet! There were queues outside of the airport, hundreds of people long. It was also a mess. There was a random guy with a tiny megaphone shouting to everyone things like 'Berlin! Anyone for Berlin #55? Step forward!! Don't push!' and then everyone going to Berlin would RUN into the airport like a Black Friday sale at Walmart.

I made it into the airport just in time for my flight...and them right as we were supposed to board, the flight to Dublin was postponed about an hour. But magically, through some stroke of Christmas brilliance, we landed in Dublin, just before Dublin airport closed yet again.

The sun was just rising on a snowy, brilliantly white Irish airport. The Paper Bag Theme from American Beauty was totally playing on the airplane speaker system. Everyone else on the plane was clapping with joy and the pilot said 'I bet a lot of you are happy to be here, happy christmas'. I lost it and cried a little bit o'joy. But my tears were not unwarranted. This was the scene as we exited the plane. Kind of surprised we could land at all.

Dublin was a snowy wonderland, and I even got to spend a fun day in London, which made all the frustration more worth it. London is also huge, and makes Reykjavík seem like a little po-dunk, one-horse town. (see the next post about all the actual things I did during the holiday, and not just travel stories.)

There are a couple funny tidbits too, in all of this. Much to my surprise, no airport security stopped me or asked questions about the sex toys that I had bought for Icelandic friends. You just can't get that stuff in Iceland. Nor did anyone stop me about the leather gear which I may or may not have bought for myself (merry christmas, ho ho ho to me). I was fully expecting to have a 'what's THIS' moment with the security people. Instead they stopped me about my Kindle. I forgot that it's got a little hard drive in it, a tiny computer.

Also in security-land, I had to open my bag at a random security check after picking up my luggage in Iceland. The security guard thought he saw some food in my bag, so asked to open it. But my bookbag was stuffed to the max with clothes, ready to burst. As I attempted unzipping the bag, I said 'I think this might explode!'

The guard looked at me so seriously and said, 'Let's hope not'.

Awkward Silence.

I tried to backstep. 'No, not like that! I meant I have so much stuff in here.' My figure of speech was lost in translation, apparently. The security guy found what he was looking for- a box of Irish tea that I was given for Christmas. Nothing to worry about.

I left the airport and was on my way back to Reykjavík for a long sleep and return to the quieter beauty of my Icelandic home.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Iceland National Symphony

Let me just give a little kudos to the Sinfóníuhjlómsveit Íslands for a second, or the Iceland National Symphony. This is the little orchestra that does giant things. Iceland doesn't have a Philharmonic, so the options for playing orchestral music are limited to this one group, but when looking at their concert season, you wouldn't guess that these were all the same group.

SÍ is also in a unique place that they allot several slots for performances each year to local composers. There used to be a rule about playing a certain percentage of national works each year, though this may have relaxed a bit. It might seem strange to have this constraint in programming, but

Much due to the constructive and forward-thinking director of programming Árni Heimir Ingolfsson, and choosing a variety of conductors throughout the year, the symphony has several programming categories, from 'classics' to 'kids' to 'contemporary', usually varied from week to week. This fall I heard 'Porgy and Bess', Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, and Ravel's 'Tombeau de Couperin'. This spring I'm looking forward to a hugely diverse program including Pendereski's 'Threnody', Steve Reich's 'Drumming', Ligeti 'Atmospheres' and several concerts featuring mostly Icelandic composers. Having a tradition of performing local composers also seems to keep some fresh music mixed in with Classical and Romantic-era works. And for me on the Fulbright, it is a vital part of my listening to the 'sonic landscape' of the country. (Fancy, eh? Sonic landscape? I might have to use that one again.)

When playing several live (and videotaped) concerts with the chamber pop band Hjaltalín, the orchestra put down their instruments at one point to clap several rhythms in one piece. This sounds like no big deal, right? Try getting another major-city orchestra to even do something like a single hand-clap, or a foot-stomp. Getting the orchestra to whisper, shout, speak text an extended technique? NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE. I wouldn't be surprised to read that most orchestras in the US have written in their union contracts that a violinist must only play his violin and may only play it one way, and may be under no obligation to do things like lower himself to the point of a silly rhythmic clap. Col legno battuto, well, you're pushing it, mister.

My point is that SÍ doesn't seem to conform to anyone's conceptions of what they can and cannot do as a group. Thank goodness! Their sound really benefits from it. Here is an orchestra that is personal, a bit experimental, and yet also delivers solid interpretations of classics for my hungry ears.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Winter Observations in Iceland

Here are a few random things I have observed about Iceland in the winter time.

I am surprisingly not as tired as I thought I would be. In fact, I am weirdly not at all tired when I should be, because it is so dark so much of the time that it messes a bit with your internal clock. I am a bit restless in bed, and then sleep in late, a vicious cycle. What with the sunrise at nearly 11:30am, it's a surreal experience to wake up at 9am and it is still dark for a couple hours, then you have lunch, and it gets dark soon after.

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are awesome and make for much holiday amusement and a delightful change from a fatty Santa. There are 13 Santas in Iceland, and each one is traditionally a trouble-maker, though now many of them have adopted Western Ways and give children small gifts for being good instead of doing sneaky things like plugging up the chimney, or eating all the sausages, or gobbling up the skyr. Jólasveinarnir also come out of hiding one per day, 13 days before Christmas. Their hideout is the mysterious Dimmuborgir, which I visited in late September.

I did not know about the existence of the Christmas Cat, or Jólakotturinn, nor Grýla! They are also holiday traditions here- the Christmas cat will steal children away unless at least one knitted good is given to a child for the holidays. You don't want to mess with that cat. Likewise Grýla, who will also steal children, is a scary-ass hag who is fabled to have long tails coming out of her backside, and the tails have bags strapped to them in which she hides 100 children per bag. Frightening. Nothing you'd ever see in America, even in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

I recently heard that about 90% of Iceland's published books come out during the holidays. The people here are well-read, or so it appears; at least they buy a lot of poetry and give it to others, who knows if it sits on the nightstand unread. There are even displays of new books that pop up at the grocery stores- I think in the States we would more likely see piles of cheap toys and DVDs. Iceland has plenty of those too but the books seem a little more respectable.

This Christmas I hardly did anything for gifts, but the things I did do I made almost completely myself. I bought one item for my parents and two souvenirs for relatives at local shops, but everything else was hand-crafted. It cost about as much to ship home the gifts as it did to buy all of them, but I think my family will appreciate them.

Also, where are the gays. It's been a few months in Iceland and I have yet to really meet any gay men my age. I've met teenagers, and middle-aged men. Are the 28-year-olds hibernating for the winter? Gone abroad? Some I know are already married, seeing how marriage often happens at younger ages here, and you can get gay married and it is no big thang (our prime minister is lesbian). But I go out on weekends to a club and everyone looks all stylish, I can't pick out the gays from straights, the society is so integrated. Eurochic style is a godsend, and a curse.

Finally, Iceland in winter is a place that one can go out wearing a custom-designed cape made from a sleeping bag (the designer Andrea Sisson made me a long-lusted-after cape, it's very warm and even has snaps and beautiful sewn folds) and in Reykjavík, no one bats an eyelash. It's like, oh, I have one of those too, no big whoop. 'Cept mine has a sleeve.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Kangaroo Sousaphone

A friend asked me to draw a kangaroo playing a sousaphone, just for grins. I didn't have the internet at the time so I drew everything from memory...or sort of. An actual kangaroo has a tail in the correct position, and an actual sousaphone doesn't look like it was made by Dr. Seuss. But my version is still very important.

Darkest Days in Reykjavík

We are nearing the darkest days of the year in Reykjavík; there will be two more weeks of increasing darkness until the Winter Equinox. Then slowly, the reversal begins, back to brighter days, and the frenetic activity of summer.

When I first moved here in September, things outside looked pretty much like they did back in New York State. It was bright and cheery when I woke up at 9am, and then dark around 9pm, pretty much like autumn. This picture was around the beginning of October.

Come November, I started to say, wow, this sun is quite low in the sky, and everything is golden-hued from sideways lighting. You can absolutely feel the shortening light, which at its peak, decreases by about 6 minutes every day.

Now in December, there is less light lost per day, but it's just basically grey out a lot. If it's cloudy, then it's even dimmer. When it's sunny I like to run out and stare at the briefly-appearing ball of light, just to say I saw it that day. The sun doesn't climb high enough in the sky to really melt even the frost on the sidewalks, so if the temperature stays below freezing, the sidewalks could stay slippery for a whole week.

To some, it sounds depressing, which it could be, especially for people working- they go to work when it's dark, sit in an office for most of the day, and leave when it's dark- one might never see the sun all week unless to go out for a lunch break. But because of my schedule here (or lack thereof), I can go out for a walk, do some exercises, go to the pool; having this kind of change in daylight is really quite magical. Time really does move differently this time of year; people are sleepier, they have more parties at home, they might be a little quieter.

Today the sun officially rises at 11:01am and sets at 3:37pm.
This is a shot of my bedroom this morning at 10:45 in the morning! It be dark.

And this is a shot of my bedroom at full daylight, around 1 in the afternoon.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for my early afternoon nap. Yawn..

Monday, December 06, 2010

Choir Concert

I survived singing in my first choir concert in Iceland, congrats to me. The choir is not a professional one, which is new to me, but everyone loves being in the choir so the atmosphere is quite festive (and certainly not competitive, like some divas like to make it so in the States). It's more like social club, with a lot of singing in between coffee breaks. I'm not a very loud singer, but it is nice to feel like I can help out the bass section with the music, as it's usually very sight-readable for me. Not to toot my own horn or anything but music is sort of, like, you know, mon field d'expertise. The giant challenge for me is that all the choir rehearsals are in Icelandic, which is great for my retention of the language, and the choir director is very clear in his direction, so I almost always know what's happening either musically or through his clear Icelandic speaking. Most of the other choir members are also very patient with me when I try to chat with them in their language, which makes me feel less self-conscious.

This concert featured Dvorak's Mass in D major (with organ), a couple different 'O Come O Come Emmanuel's, and a sneak-attack 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring' as an encore. This piece and one of the 'O Come' works were in Icelandic; what an interesting experience to sing a song you know quite well in a translation that only makes half-sense. Thankfully Icelandic is very phonetic. There aren't any crazy exceptions to speaking rules like in English. (How stupid that we have words like 'through' and 'trough' and 'dough' which all have similarly-spelled endings but sound totally different. Dis iz DUM.) In Icelandic there are the ways that letters are put together and the rules of how you say them, and thankfully that's really without exception.

The choir sounded better than I expected. Things shaped up a lot in the 24 hours prior to the concert, i.e. 'panic time'. There were a couple moments of lock-in that I thought were quite resonant. But still, there were parts that I wish could have been in tune, entrances that didn't make it. There was one part I thought would be a total train wreck but luckily we just started that particular movement over again just two seconds after it began. The director was scolding people for not looking up from their music and said something interesting, that 'the people looking at their music the most, they read the notes the least'. Something which I never had thought about before-- if you are in a choir and don't read music very well, it would probably benefit you more to just listen to the people around you and basically memorizing the music than be chained to your part that only makes half-sense.

After the concert, there was much rejoicing. There was a lovely round of toasts at a dinner/drinks party, and everyone got tipsy and huggy and thankful and guitars appeared and songs spontaneously began, and I think that was one of the loveliest times I've seen here in Iceland, everyone congratulating each other on their hard work, and lots of glass-clinking. (Skál!)

The choir director also asked me if I might fill in for a random 1st-bass in a small all-male choir who will perform a couple songs at an Advent concert. What a dramatic change from SATB! I've never been surrounded by so many booming resonant voices before in TTBBBB. All the guys knew their music well by now, so it was me trying to keep up with sight-reading hand-written Icelandic lyrics to Christmas carols and barbershop arrangements of Jingle Bells. It was also really funny/great to sing songs in English with non-English speakers; I would generalize that most Icelanders over 30 speak English with British accent, but most younger people speak with an American accent (blame the cast of 'Friends' and American TV for this).

I'm enjoying all the Christmas-fest that's been happening around here, including a bunch of choir concerts, parties, decorating, and twinkly lights everywhere. With the sun so low in the sky during the day and limited day light, this holiday time is nice way to feel warm and cozy and forget about the winter blues. For now...we'll see how I feel in still-gloomy March.

In only two weeks I take a flight to Dublin for Christmas to spend time with some fantastic artist friends. I'm looking forward to even more new places to see. Here's a toast to a bit more Vitamin D in my daylight! Skál.

(photo: Kór Neskirkju on Facebook, from April, a few months before I joined.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ó Jólatré, Ó Jólatré

There was a Christmastree-lighting ceremony in Austurvöllur Square yesterday, a lovely way to warm up a cold frosty day. The tree was an annual gift from Norway, as Iceland doesn't even have trees this big; how nice of Norway to think of us! The mayor said a few funny words about christmas trees in Moominworld (or at least that's the parts I could understand), and the countdown began. Obviously a countdown in Icelandic!

I'll get a shot of the tree later, but I was more interested in the band playing and all the children on top of their parents' shoulders.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

First Guests Guinea Pigs

I had my first guests pay me a visit in Iceland this past week; A&S came over the Thanksgiving (or as I like to say Spanksgiving) weekend. As we don't celebrate Thanksgiving in Iceland, turkey and cranberry sauce was not easily obtained, but I made a nice lamb stew with mashed potatoes, and a berry jelly stood in for cranberries.

I was glad A&S were my first guests as they're very relaxed about staying; they could see things, or they could just hang out. They could go off on their own, or we could shop together. I was also able to test out things like the Golden Circle trip, and certain activities on certain days, and see what worked best and what to change for the parents' visit in January, and then for future guests as well!

Here are some good things I learned or reinforced regarding having guests.

1. When your guests arrive, force them to take a nap. It seems like a horrible idea after all that flying, you finally get to your destination, and then you have to try and go back to sleep, but it was such a good idea to recharge the batteries and reset one's clocks to Icelandic time without too much jetlag. The sun is so low and limited in the winter that at 11:00 in the morning you feel like you should just be waking up anyway, so that was convenient.

2. Snacks. Always good to have on hand for long walks or waiting for the bus.

3. Down time for the host. Very important! I got to send S&A out on adventures and that made my time with them more fun. Plus, Reykjavík is so small that unlike pushing someone out the door in Boston or New York, you could basically find your way back without a map, or just by walking along the seacoast trails.

4. General plan versus spontaneous. I liked having a general idea about what to do on certain days, and let guests decide what would be good for them. I knew one day should be spent to rent a car, for example, so we traveled around the tourist sites. And look at some of the amazing things we saw in just one day!

kerið, gullfoss, and þingvellir are represented here, all covered in a beautiful sparkly frost.

I wasn't hot about horseback riding, in fact I was quite skeptical (see said skeptical face below). But the gals really wanted to spend their other big day on this, and they offered to pay for me, and whaddyaknow I actually had a great time! My horse Högni was super cool. The sunset light was amazing. We stopped and took a break and I took a picture of the farmdog.

The biggest bummer is that I was sore the next day in me'shoulders and me'hipz, but a goodhot tub soak fixed that. It didn't fix my chafed asscheeks, though. Still working on that. Next time, perhaps a soft layer of thermal underwear under the jeans, protecting the plenitude of hair down there.

5. Duty free Saviors. Buying liquor and wine at the Duty-free saves me and my guests a lot of money, being able to have wine with dinner, or before going out. And so much cheaper than wine here in the city.

6. Sleep. Go to bed early, it is totally worth it. Then, party late one night to take in the Icelandic weekend. Also totally worth it.

7. Surprises. I do like surprising people with a great view, or perhaps an unusual food feast. If something doesn't work out, like the several times that a store/church/venue was closed, we could be pleasantly surprised by the spontaneity of something else random around the corner. I did not expect these incredible views at Geldinganes, a peninsula/island outside of the city center, but the timing was great and S got to take a million pictures with her fancycam. These are just from my crapcam.

Thanks to visitors, I got to see so many things I wouldn't really see being here and doing my day-to-day activities. I stopped into a lot of shops, ate at new places, cooked foods for more people than just myself. I got to have my friends wear my new jewelry creations out on the town. And I began to feel more at home here than I had felt up to now. A great feeling. Takk fyrir komuna, ameríksur vinir minir!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Aural Fixation, Motivic Obsession

I've been writing music since about 1997. I've thankfully saved my journals and notes so I can see what I was doing back in the 'early days' (thankfully my eighth-note beams now face the correct direction) even if I'm still so young in the field, compositionally speaking. If I do a little generalizing, I can even see the motives, or small ideas of music, that I love/d using each year, and see how they change over time.

When I write or first start sketching out ideas for a piece, I find myself drawn to certain chords, certain rhythms. People say that particular turns of melody or line pinpoint a 'Nathan Hall' style, though I don't always see them right when I'm writing a work. What makes a person/composer/writer drawn to these particular sounds? Is it just feeling comfortable with something familiar? Or is there something about a particular resonance of a sound in a particular space at a certain time in one's life that connects to something stronger? Perhaps a little of both.

We all have sounds that are attached to our memory, like a photo album of sound history. The train whistle of one's childhood, the sounds of New York City on your first sight-seeing trip to The Big City. But perhaps even the most basic qualities of musical chords and tones can have emotional attachment to one's feelings, too. As a composer I probably nerd out more about it than some people, but I can definitely picture what I was writing in a particular place and time. I can remember writing holiday music as an undergrad in an empty chapel surrounded by pine trees, and only a Gmaj7-Dmaj7 comes to mind. I think of playing in the Vassar practice rooms and immediately I hear interior piano and sostenudo pedal.

In the 90's, in my first pieces, I tried writing something 'edgy' with major 7th chords. I know, daring, right? Well, coming from Catholic Church choir tradition and popular music hits from the 1940's Piano Collection, a B-flat-major-7 chord was a big deal. I milked them for all they were worth.

Around the time of the start of undergrad, I was way into parallel fifths of all kinds. Stacked into minor 7th chords. Scaling the walls of C major-minor, rockin' out to the Beatles.

I also loved the successive notes F#-G#-A-E-C#. I have no idea why. But those turn up in lots of pieces and doodles. (I'm still a big fan of this pattern.)

This transformed itself into about two years in college where I could not stop playing an Em7 chord every time I'd get a piano. I'd play it in different registers. I'd play it as stacked fifths. I'd play it on two different organ manuals. All Em7, all the time.

I think of my time in Scotland and I hear the neighbors' screeching through the paper thin walls...and me listening to James MacMillan on headphones, thinking, I need to write something aleatoric.

In the master's program, I loved experimenting with closely (or not-closely) related tonalities: C minor and E major, D-flat major and B-flat minor. Alternating back and forth between F minor + D minor; G# minor and Cmajor7 helped me get started on ideas for quite a few pieces.

Here in Iceland I find myself drawn to the same kinds of things I would play in my Scotland months. Perhaps this isn't unexpected considering similar weather, circumstances, and emotions, being in a different culture. I'm trying to explore even shorter sounds here, more silences, more contrasts. Four-note patterns with minimal accompaniment, trying to do more with less, and really trying to hear what two notes sound like together. Here I've also found myself playing one particular chord over and over again- it sounds really good in this church I sometimes practice in. It seems to keep me grounded, it's nice and low. Perhaps there's a hidden unconscious agenda just waiting to be explored.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Icelandic Language Acquisition

I’ve taken about 3 out of five weeks of an intensive Icelandic course at the Mimir language school. I highly recommend. I have class for two hours a day, four days a week, and all the other students in the class are working professionals (I don’t know how they have the time, as I’m the exception to the rule with a lax schedule, but they make it work even with jobs and babies and normal-people lives.)

I had taken about 15 or 16 private hour-long lessons with a teacher in Pittsburgh, which has turned out to be totally invaluable advance-planning on my part. When I came into the class, I entered at Level 3 (of 5 total levels) and wasn’t sure if the class would be too advanced for me. Turns out it’s pretty much just the right place, with some of the ten or so students having more practical speaking skills, but I have more patience and am willing to speak and make mistakes when a lot of people are more hesitant. Also, the lessons are completely in Icelandic! Questions are asked in Icelandic and answered without English.

I’m also willing to play children’s games in the name of language-learning. We’ve also had about four different teachers, which you’d think would be disruptive, but in a way it helps because they all have different ways of speaking and teaching, and it’s good for my comprehension. The funniest/funnest teacher was actually a substitute for one day, but that's mostly because he was my age, gay, made jokes about cocaine, talked about phonetics, and he was very cute. But he was also married. Þvi miður. (sorry/too bad/bummer/we’re sold out). The regular teacher is Hofi, and she gets bonus points because she gives good praise when you get something right. I always appreciate some positive reinforcement.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly how to quantify what I’ve learned. Every day we work on verbs, learn more words, practice speaking and reading. Even in the first week I found myself being able to understand ever-so-slightly more of everyday Icelandic. My Icelandic colleagues noticed the difference in my comprehension of what they say. I feel like I know more words in choir rehearsals; I can speak a bit more conversationally with other singers and they don’t always automatically revert to English. Though of course, if I want to say anything beyond things such as ‘I went to the concert! It was fun. I bought an eraser at the mall. This soprano is a little crazy.’, I’m still lost.

I was particularly proud of myself yesterday when I went to the library to ask for help finding the original Icelandic versions of some translated poems. Using only Icelandic, I spoke with one librarian who referred me to a certain Einar on the fifth floor, who sent me back down to the second floor, where he met me and we worked on finding the books together. And then he said I was speaking very well! (Which I’m sure means ‘totally butchering everything but good effort!’) I was happy nonetheless.

Here is an amazingly random sample list of words the teachers have pointed out. You know I love lists.

most fun: skemmtilegast
in addition/quite: frekar
decision: ákveðin
possibility: möguleiki
grassy picnic: lautférð
I’m used to it: Ég er vön þvi
balcony: svalir/svölum
shelter/peace & quiet: næði
lesson learned: boðskapur
midwife: ljósmóðir (a beautiful word, translates to ‘light mother’. Helps those babies see the light!)
wrinkles: hrukkur
contacts: lensur
obvious, clearly: grenilega
packaged (meats): pakkning
pencil: blýantur
timber: í viðarlit
half-price discount: helminginn
driver’s license: bilpróf
early: snemma
probably: huganlega
polka-dotted: doppótar
mystery/riddle: ráðgáta
(to be on a) crack high: krakkaður
to scratch myself: að klóra mér
genius: snilluður

There you go. Gjörið svo vel.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Things I've Made and Ate (So Far)

Sometimes the creative musical urge just doesn't strike me. I have all this time here to work on music, but it's often hard to work without the same resources I'm used to. (I should remind myself that just reading and listening to music and writing while I'm here is work!) I thankfully have access to pianos most of the time, but do have to work around other people practicing, church schedules, my Icelandic class schedule, etc. At home I've been working on manipulating recordings and improvisations from the computer, but I also have no money to pay performers to play anything, so I'm finding ways to work on pieces for voices, piano, natural sounds. Thank goodness for willing friends who will speak in other languages into my one lonely microphone, or make a chorus of whale noises for me (as was the case this weekend).

So, when my grand plan for the day to sketch out some choral ideas becomes foiled, or when my brand-new computer decides to become incompatible with all of my older software programs, or when the one book I'd like to find in the library doesn't exist, at least I'm able to distract myself a bit by cooking, or whipping up some new design creations. I've been crocheting a bit more again, using lava stones, some sea glass, and this great wool thread from the town of Vík. I've been cooking a lot of fish, and trying to make nice meals on my limited budget. And one day I even paid a visit to Nicole's print shop and tried out a printing press, which was really fun and certainly out of my usual everyday. Here are some of the random things I've made here thus far, in no particular order.

-Prints from the printmakers' studio in Reykjavík, made by embossing my wire designs and adding ink and marker to the printing plates.

-Necklace with lava beads

-This was a fish cacciatore with haddock, and an olive tapenade. I usually make this with chicken but I think I liked the fish better, what a nice surprise.

-This was an Icelandic Antipasto of sorts! Also included hangiáalegg, very smoky lamb leg, which was not my favorite, but I tried it. I do like having smoked salmon in the mix.

-A Beef vegetable soup. I was quite impressed with myself on this one, it was pretty delicious.

-I also successfully crocheted sterling wire together with wool, so you get a sort of warm and fuzzy necklace with a shiny silver sparkle.

To top it off, I finally made myself a circular neck scarf, which I've been wanting for some time but hadn't figured out how to taper in the shape so I wouldn't just be wearing a cylinder (that won't keep out the wind at all). Now I can wear it with another shirt, with a dressy outfit, or pull it over my head like a giant lampshade, or like a dog with a surgical cone around his neck. Obviously I am the life of the party when this happens.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Thought Progression about Bears

Just a quick visual layout of something that might go through my head when I'm not thinking about getting out of the November wind or practicing how to say 'I forgot my socks' in Icelandic. A pleasant diversion from sight-seeing and composing. And so true, inoright?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Two-Month Marker, Kjötsúpudagurinn

This marks the two-month spot for me living in Iceland! Having lived only in the US but for a three-month stint in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2001, I find myself comparing my time here to my UK semester and thinking a bit about culture shock. Though I'm older and wiser now (sort of), a lot of the same experiences have occurred. The first month was the 'OMG' month. "I can't believe I'm here. Everything is amazing. Everyone is amazing. I need to see All the Things!!" and then the second month is Cultural Mishaps and Why Can't I Accomplish Anything Today. It took me a month and a half here to get an appointment to meet with someone for ten minutes. I got frustrated one weekend night by not having somewhere to go, but then realize after pacing around that I could also just read a book and not feel bad about staying in and enjoying my priceless free time here.

Then, as if by magic, my third month felt in Scotland felt like 'Gosh This is Not Bad' and Maybe I Could Live Here One Day. I remember singing in a magical concert with a choir, listening to my first James MacMillan work, and having other college friends visit from abroad. I wrote a really nice piece of music. Then it was time to go back to the States and re-adjust all over again.

Nerd moment! Studies have shown it is completely predictable how I will feel, using this Handy Homesickness Trajectory (more fascinating information from its source here).

The things which are irritating now (see paragraph below) will probably get better in the next month. And then if all goes well I will have lots of nice artsy friends, and won't even know how I could possibly not be in Iceland right now.

So, today I got scolded for using a glass drinking-glass instead of the styrofoam cups, which are down the hall in the "student coffee room you understand já?", and the lady's voice, while calm, seemed to emit 'I don't really care for you in my country, you unilingual immigrant'. I'm projecting a little more of my frustration into the situation being only the first week of language classes and not knowing my way around the building, but still. Guy just wants some water, and he'll even wash the glass when he's done.

For people whose second language is not English, I can see that it's much harder learning and growing into Icelandic language and culture than say, Americans (though we come with our own baggage, like Jersey Shore). I can't imagine how difficult it is to learn Icelandic when your only other language is something like Thai or Urdu; you don't even have English as a backup plan. I speak English with equal parts of thankfulness and regret. English is unfortunately the world-dominating language but one of my friends calls it "idiot-proof", which is a bit true- you can say what you want in only a few words, and you can butcher English to pieces but you still get your point across. In Icelandic it's a bit more old-fashioned, like 9th-century old-fashioned. Something I love about the language too.

Like I said, the things that are frustrating now are definitely going to get better. For example, there will be more days like this one recently, when I was lucky enough to go to a downtown festival marking the first day of winter, Kjötsúpadagurinn. Meat Soup Day. Many local business give out free bowls of traditional lamb stew to passers by on the street, and there are live musicians and performers. The townspeople form long lines for hot steamy soup, full of delicious carrots, a turnip-like veggie, and lamb, with lots of thyme. A great way to mark the first day of winter, which is done with much less hoorah than the first day of summer, but nonetheless celebratory.

There was also this fabulous lady giving some fun facts about the city to passers-by and a tour group; I only caught a few words of what she was saying but it's really all about the outfit anyway.

I also took the chance of a rare sunny crisp day to see the Einar Jónsson museum; he was Iceland's first sculptor, mostly active in the 30's, and he built himself this amazing castle-like museum on an empty lava hill outside of the city, with a beautiful apartment on the top floor. The apartment itself was incredible, with a spiral staircase, little rooms with lots of shelves, and preserved the way it looked in the '30's.

Little did Einar realize that the city would swell around him, so now his Dracula-like home is smack in the middle of the city with Hallgrimskirkja right next door.

Still makes a beautiful location, though. And with his type of sculpture, fixed somewhere between Expressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau, I was unusually moved by his work and will definitely visit again. There's a garden outside that is open to visitors for free (the museum costs 500 isk and is only open on weekends).

Now that I'm getting more settled in to my new city, I'm going to take my Einar Jónsson moments, soak them up as much as possible, and work my way back up the U curve.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Icelandic Lesson: Multiple Meanings

Here's a few things I've learned about everyday Icelandic, in my very basic introductions to speaking and listening to people, that perhaps you should know when visiting. (I could be wrong on some of them, of course, so don't quote me- I start my Icelandic Level 3 class on Monday so I'm eager to get speaking more again, but then again, there's so much they don't teach you in textbooks.)

Hvað Segir þú, also spelled 'Hvað segirðu'; usually sounds more like 'Kvsayatheuh' all blurred together. This can mean so many things but it seems to depend on context. It means literally, 'What say you', or 'How are You', but it can also mean 'What Did You Say/Say That Again', 'Wha?', and my favorite, 'You Don't Say!'.

Bara, the amazing word for 'only' or 'just', but also thrown around like candy, as easily as Americans use 'like' or 'um'. See also: hérna, which conveniently also means 'here', but now means 'like' or 'um'. I think also sko fits into this category.

Takk fyrir síðast. An amazing sentence that doesn't have any similar use in English, but I love using it when appropriate. Literally means, 'Thanks for the last time I saw you!' Great for maintaining friendships and reminding someone what fun it was when you last went bowling/sang songs/got drunk together and made out/bought hot dogs a month ago together.

Ha. Said only with downward inflection. A good tool when you didn't quite hear something and you want it repeated. Has nothing to do with laughter.

Near Inaudible Inward-breathing Já: Yes, but said breathing IN instead of spoken out loud! I didn't hear this for a good two or three weeks but now I hear it from people all the time, like a little too often. I think it's a 'yes' that's more like a 'uh-huh' or a 'yup', than a 'yes, of course/definitely'. But then again there is also jájájájájá (x infinity), which I also love.

Keyrum í gekk. Great phrase for going on a trip, when you're excited to leave. Colloquially translates to: 'let's drive this shit!'

Monday, October 18, 2010

Flight to Ireland, Dvořák errors

Today I was offered a reasonably-priced, tiny but beautiful one-bedroom apartment to myself, downtown Reykjavík! I'll probably be moving into it very soon. I also booked a flight to Ireland for Christmas, which set me back a pretty penny but will likely be amazing and beautiful and totally worth it. I thought about paying the same price to go home for Christmas but the family's visiting me a couple weeks later anyway, and I didn't want to get culture shock from being back in America and having to go back to Iceland shortly after.
I also finally met with the head of composition at the Academy of the Arts today, who offered me a potential master class lecture in the spring as well as a performance of an electronic music piece on his winter music festival. I'm riding high on good news!

But then I look at the Dvořák Mass we're singing in choir and notice the typesetting errors, and I get a little sad, my rollercoaster has peaked. I know it's a free score online and all, but do you have to pay the price of bad typesetting just to get some public domain music for a choir? Come on. My own compositions don't look perfectly typeset by any stretch of the imagination, but my Sax Octet or piece for folk trio and crotales is not in the classical canon. (Yet. Maybe then it will look really good on paper.)
This example below is forgivable. You forgot to drag the slur up, no bigs.

This one's a little weird, though. There's a ghost tie going nowhere, the notes don't seem spaced correctly within the measure, the top tie isn't high enough, and the bottom slur going through the half note just bugs me.

Bigger, meatier, maestoso-er:

This one, all the dynamics are under the staff with the text, instead of dynamics above the voices and lyrics below. You also get hairpins stabbing the dynamic markings, and a crescendo that leans upward. Reach for the sky, forte!

But the worst offender is below.

How can you possibly sing these syllables when they're set like this? I practically have to rewrite my part. The choir has had to ask questions about missing syllables, which I can understand if there's a mistake or two but this is just a little silly. Writing it as 'con-sub-stan-ti-a-lem', you know exactly what shapes your mouth should make on each note. I'm still working on my pronunciation of the syllables 'nsu', 'bsta', and 'nti'. I'll get it eventually.