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?