Friday, December 30, 2011

Dreams at Home

Whenever I'm home at my parents' house, I dream more. I'm sure I dream many dreams while I'm in my own apartment, but for whatever reason--my mind is more free, or the sounds are different in the quiet of the woods, or perhaps I sleep differently--I remember my dreams more often.

The other night I dreamt that I was teaching my usual Aural Skills class (one might call it a 'musicianship' class for those who snicker at the word 'aural'), but instead of my normal class of 15 attentive students, I had about 50. They were packed in like sardines. And instead of my normal classroom with piano and staff-lined wipeboards, I was stuck in a chemistry classroom, complete with a periodic table. Not helpful. My students continue to pour in, line the walkways between seats, fill up the doorway, and spill out into the hall. I try to teach the few students who are even paying attention, but it's hard without even a piano. My course advisor leans in the doorway to check on me, unphased, and I give him a look of death. A few students get up to leave in boredom, and most of the rest check their phones for text messages.

Thank goodness my teaching situation is far better in real life. I don't ever want to have to make up melodic phrases based on the element numbers of the noble gases.

Now I return to the quiet of home to play piano, eat some christmas cookies, and await the coming weeks of meetings and exams when classes resume.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Vassar music nostalgia

Ah, the holiday memories keep a-comin' back to me. I love nostalgia!

I recently listened to the recordings of my senior recital from undergrad, which was about seven years ago. I listened to the pieces without making judgments about the mistakes I heard. I didn't say, oh, that should have been voiced differently; I wish the clarinet had come in on that entrance. Okay, maybe I heard those things but that's not what came to mind.

What I thought was, where did those ideas come from? Thankfully they haven't stopped so far, I think I'm doing something right.

It all seemed so easy then. I got over 30 people together for rehearsals of chamber works! I'm sure some of them couldn't make it to every rehearsal, but we all lived on campus, so we're all within 15 minutes walk of each other with not much else to do but geek out about music. Gosh, if I ever get money to just give away, most of it will go to the music department at VC to thank them for letting me have so many key permissions.

Vassar was an institution rife with hidden wonders. I had access to multiple harpsichords and a portative organ! I had a key to the percussion room where I could experiment on the vibraphone all by myself, for hours. I remember that day so well, I was in heaven. I had faculty play piano on several works and I didn't have to pay them.

I wrote a piece scored for friggin' six voices, harpsichord, vibraphone, cymbals, and bongo drums! That was pretty awesome. Probably won't ever get performed again, but I am so delighted with the ideas in that piece. Never say never, I suppose.

I can hear some things in the music that I still love to work with today. Rolled chords. Using tonality in unexpected ways. Long pedal chords. Minor 9ths.

Some ideas I now know came from direct sources, perhaps a little more subconsciously buried at the time. Ryuichi Sakamoto's 'Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence' is in there. Anuna's Irish choral harmonies are in there. There's even a snippet of an Aural Skills exercise that we had to memorize for class. Wait–I remember doing that intentionally, that was clever.

I can hear my professors (especially Richard Wilson) telling me to put an eighth rest in the music here...and here. I'm thanking him now for it; he taught me more than I realized at the time.

And some of the music I have no idea where the rhythms came from and how I decided to do what I did. These are moments almost like looking at oneself in a recording and not quite recognizing your face.

Things are different now, though I'm back in school, this time as a doctoral student and not an undergrad. Access to instruments is more limited at a giant institution. Though talent is certainly better. Recordings sound crisper and are so much more easily available; I can remember having to take my recital, recorded on some undefinable size black tape, to some department on campus and have them convert it to a CD for me. Concert opportunities are probably greater. I've gotten to check off some major dream items off my list: living in Europe! Having an orchestra play my piece! But my writing time now seems somehow limited, and I am an 'adult' in the sense that I have part-time jobs, responsibilities to teach, worries about how to pay for rent during the summer (any suggestions?). I still live by the academic schedule but holiday breaks are no longer my playthings, but my time to do work.

There was a holiday semester in Scotland, singing ancient carols with a Scottish choir at some embassy (France, maybe?) and playing the harp; my year not so distantly past in Iceland, where Christmas was more about some bright lights in the window to banish the darkness, and gatherings of friends with lots of food (and drinks, of course). A snowflake-making party in Pittsburgh, PA. It's really incredible that the best memories about the holidays don't involve any commercialism. It's time for me to write my annual holiday "cover song", perhaps this year will be "Baby, It's Cold Outside" as it just dumped quite a lot of snow here in Boulder, though yesterday it was 60 degrees.

I can remember the snow falling so beautifully on a silent campus. Most of the kids had gone home for the holidays but some of the music majors had exams on the last possible time before Christmas break began. I walked to the Chapel one dark snowy night. The doors were open but the building was empty. Large silent Christmas trees (real pines!) were lit up in white twinkly lights all around the old stone building. I played Christmas songs on a grand piano, lit only by tree lights, and sang for my art gallery boss. A concert for one but beautiful moments for two.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

'Weekend' Film and Gil Sans love

Tonight I saw the new movie 'Weekend' and enjoyed its minimalist, dialogue-heavy look into the intimate weekend of two men in Britain. Highly enjoyable, and it satisfies my desires in films for 1. gay characters 2. colorful items, 3. beautiful languid shots of people looking at stuff and each other and best of all 4. elegant use of typography.

I knew right away the film would be enjoyable because of the use of nicely kerned Gil Sans! At least I'm hedging my bets that that is good old Gil Sans, known also from my old museum Mattress Factory. In light weight and medium, I believe. Lovely! It was an excellent typographic choice to fit the film, so kudos designer Sam Ashby. A great complement as well to the candid-style shots for posters by Quinnford & Scout, who seem to be counted among the gay bearded young men that I do enjoy so much. A personal message to the guys in this whole design and artistic realm: let me know if there's ever any music you need for anything, I think we could work well together...our beard powers combined.

Side note: this poster for the film Fay Grim is probably my second favorite contemporary movie poster ever, which lovingly uses the typeface DIN and it soon started my DIN obsession.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Boulder Fall

Autumn in Boulder, Colorado is beautiful! Even with a power plant in sight. A and I went to a pumpkin patch that was basically picked clean of pumpkins, but we did get to walk around in the beautiful day, see a working steam-powered tractor, and then crunch in some leaves. We found a lopsided pumpkin but still enjoyed carving it. Well, I enjoyed carving it, but made A scoop out all of the guts. It's just never been my thing.
I'm still so surprised here at how dry it is, and how infrequently it rains. In Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Boston, Iceland- almost all the places I've lived or visited, it has rained fairly frequently, and in some places, so frequently that it makes sense to carry around your umbrella with you. Here, I look at the forecast and they're rarely rain even predicted, if so, it's a tiny scattered shower.

The leaves here are mostly turning yellow; it's not the red and orange New England fall, but it's wonderfully colorful all the same. There are lots of crunchy leaves on my walk to school, so I am in a good mood to start teaching. It's even been quite warm here during the day, enough that I'm catching some rays mid-day as I eat lunch outside! Try that in Buffalo, not likely.

I've finished the percussion quartet and am moving on to a chamber commission from the Trillium ensemble in Pittsburgh- flute, clarinet, and piano. Meanwhile, I still have one percussionist to record, and filming of the percussion piece outdoors at the National Center for Atmopheric Research. Here's hoping for continued beautiful autumn weather as we head out of October and into the 'wintry' months.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sigurður Sævarsson: Missa Pacis

The Icelandic composer Sigurður Sævarsson has a new album out, and his ‘Missa Pacis’ blossoms with harmonies for choir, organ, cello, and percussion. I heard ‘Missa Pacis’ in concert with Hljómeyki choir during the ‘Dark Music Days’ music festival in early 2011; the piece was performed at Neskirkja (a church in Vesturbær) under dimly-lit altar lights, rows of candles, and a perfectly-hushed audience. Finally released as an album, the mystical mood of the live performance is faithfully recreated in recording. ‘Missa Pacis’ takes up where Sigurður’s last CD ‘Hallgrímspassia’ left off, with minimalist gestures and haunting melodies, changing and growing from one movement to the next. ‘Kyrie’ begins the work (it is a Mass, after all), and is one of the most striking pieces on the album, a Requiem-like death march. But it seems that this feeling is short-lived: the death-march fades into an overall serenity (hence 'Mass of Peace') that carries throughout the album. The ending of the ‘Hosanna’ movement sounds a little like Beethoven meets Stravinsky, executed as only an Icelander could do. The percussion often takes the place of a whole orchestra, with its large tympani and bells. If there were one thing that was lacking in ‘Missa Pacis’ it is that the instruments don’t get to show off their full potential; I wanted a solo movement for cello, some virtuosic playing for the organist. But being a work primarily for the choir, the instruments often provide splashes of color that wake up a somber chorus. The highlight of Sigurður’s CD is its strikingly beautiful sections of vocal writing, carrying the torch of the Icelandic choir tradition that goes back centuries. The Latin text throughout the work is always clearly heard and understood- very rare among works for a large ensemble. Sigurður invents moments for voices that that shine like bells, chiming in and then fading out to a near-inaudible whisper. Best of all, there are surprisingly hummable melodies, especially in the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Miserere’. I found myself singing sections of ‘Missa Pacis’ as I took a walk outside, realizing that it’s not too often that a Latin Mass gets stuck in my head on the way to 10-11.

(A portion of this review is/was slated to be published in Reykjavík Grapevine newspaper, though publishing date is still unknown. I wrote the review at the end of my Fulbright in July, and haven't seen it published yet, hence the availability here first. Should the article appear I'll of course link to that too.)

Friday, October 07, 2011

Percussion Quartet

My new work in progress is a quartet for percussion based on the 'Chinook' wind patterns of Colorado. I even met with a climatologist to get data for it! I had my first rehearsal for it today and it was quite successful. I've never written anything for a group of all non-pitched percussion before, so I was a bit nervous about getting interesting rhythms. Not to worry! I do have a *tiny* bit of pitched material in there.

These came in the mail today, the final part of what I needed for the quartet. Last year in Iceland I ordered handbells, in rainbow colors, for people to play outside. I even had them shipped overseas I wanted them so badly for a piece. The year before I ordered make-your-own music box kits and amplified them. So naturally this year I had to order something interesting, and that would be terra cotta bird whistles. They're awesome.

Monday, October 03, 2011

You Dehydrate Me Part II

Even on a grand scheme (like the solar system), it's not gonna work out. Sun here is silent and brooding, just like she always is. Luckily Earth verbalizes her feelings; good job Earth, you're really making progress.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Katy Perry Vacuum

Sometimes I really love being out of the pop-culture loop for a while, because I'll hear a song that is kind of catchy and cute, and wonder who it is, and it turns out to be some huge sensation of six months ago that I completely missed. The good thing of ignoring some trends is being able to find music amusing without being supersaturated by it everywhere. Cases in point: most of Katy Perry's existence, and cover songs from Glee. I'm thinking to myself, this is kind of a fun arrangement! Or, neato, this song sounds like a good summer song, one-song dance party time! But really, that song happened way back in May, and it's almost October. Or it happened in May of 2010 and I really missed it. I was probably on a glacier somewhere, not knowing a thing about new music besides Icelandic jazz and Eurovision. Still not really that bothered. There's always the youtubes.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday, September 16, 2011

S, M, L, XL schools

I realized the other day that I have attended four universities, all of different sizes! Small, medium, large, and extra large. And here are some size-queen thoughts about college.

Small schools like my undergrad are so great. For me at least, I like the homey feeling where most everyone you need to know, knows you back, and you get personal attention. I know it's not for everybody, but I highly recommend a small-school experience. Vassar was a great school for this. It was an arboretum, it had teeny-tiny teacher-student ratios, and on-campus housing all four years. It's also a bubble, for better or worse- sheltering students so they can learn, but then again they never get out into the surrounding community unless they really make the effort.

While at Vassar I took a semester in Edinburgh, Scotland, and studied some music at their 'state' university there. I'd call this a large school, as I never saw most other departments and felt pretty anonymous, but then I was also plopped down in a foreign country so I felt generally anonymous. Payment for class was somehow done the same way since the middle ages, where basically every single student in the university formed a giant thousand-plus person queue to hand one lady a check or a credit card. However, there was something redeeming about a university within the urban setting, you could just walk outside the music building to a café next door! And my 'meal plan' was more than generous in the nearby cafeteria, so I was able to feed some homeless people on my extra lunches.

Moving right along, I went to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, which is more like a Large School but feels like a Medium School. It was relatively self-contained, but the music/arts building was grand and I felt very important being able to learn there. The spaces I worked in and had class were also small and kept to few students, so it maintained a medium-size environment. Though I can't say the same thing for their bigger departments like computer science, where I don't know if I'd ever meet all the students in my own department.

Currently I'm in Boulder, Colorado, whose university is like the destructive goatweed that someone thought was a good idea to plant along the highway. The university is a giant-XL-supersized megalomaniac and taking over everything in its path. During some football games, there are so many people and cars and bicycles that the streets are closed and the libraries close, and I avoid campus altogether. It is almost too big to walk across (though you could do it, if you had all afternoon) and there are bus routes that cut through the campuses. I don't think I'll ever step foot in 95% of the buildings there. During the first weeks of school, the university bookstore set up temporary cash registers and a queue for book pick-up; there were 35 cashout stalls to be corralled into. But the pros of this 30K student body are in the infrastructure of the campus; there are tried-and-tested plans for transportation, dining, electronic systems that really do work for people's benefit and efficiency. I get emails for every book i check out from the library. And each department is sort of its own separate entity; I almost forget that I am not just at the College of Music but part of this city of students. Comforting as well is while many of the other students at CU are here basically just to ski and snowboard, and 'oh wait, I guess I have to take this quiz ugh'; the music students are as hard-working as ever, and are more likely than my tiny undergrad to escape out of the safe walls of campus and into the big world. And once they get out into town, they find conveniently close to campus boundaries: the marijuana dispensaries.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Orchestral recordings of works

My man Nico Muhly has a great entry on the impossibility of getting recordings from orchestras who have played composer's works. For all the composers I know out there, I know they have experienced the same frustrations! Check it out at
I had a similar experience when the Pittsburgh Symphony did a reading of my work for orchestra, Lake Mývatn. The result of the reading was that I learned a lot, but there was no possibility to take a recording home with me to share with my parents, to discuss with the other composers, or to learn from it.

The catch with the Pittsburgh Symphony is an ironic one- they make a high-quality recording of the reading session that you can go to the administrative offices and listen to, but they will not let a reading session of this nature out into the public for any means, no copies made, etc. I sort of wanted to drag my whole composition seminar to this tiny listening station and make the staff really annoyed at us all standing around listening to my piece one by one. But it's not the admin staff's fault. Like Nico said, and others have commented on, the musicians' union that creates these strongholds on music dissemination does it for the musicians' own good, and sooner or later something will/should/must change, we just have to figure out how to do it and how to make a compromise with larger rule-making organizations that govern orchestras.
Much like other composers, I'm less interested in the orchestra world now and all of its bureacraZy and more focused on writing music for real people in real places and listened to in a non-cutthroat setting. I have little desire to have my works scoffed at or eye-rolled by 60 professional musicians, some of whom care a lot about my work, but some who'd rather never play a note of music that was written after 1905.

Now that I'm a few years and projects beyond my first work for orchestra, I can evaluate what I got out of the project. I had two performances of the piece, the professional playing and the student-orchestra performance. Interestingly, probably due to more rehearsal time, the student version of my piece actually had a lot more heart, and it was the one I enjoyed hearing more. Technically imperfect, a little under tempo, but very colorful.

The Pittsburgh Symphony's version was technically precise, but a bit cold. I could set that aside and listen to the professionals play the music. But then something went horribly awry during the 'performance' of the piece. During my reading, some of the members of the double-bass section had some kind of tiff going with the composer in residence or the conductor at the time, and basically ignored his direction for 'just slightly louder than ppp' and instead played fff. This pissed the conductor (and the composer) off, and they had to stop the piece mid-performance. Then the conductor basically told the bass section they were acting like children, scolded them, gave a big sigh, and the piece started again, but lost its magic, its continuity. Still, polite golf applause at the end for a good work.

When you are a professional player, you are getting paid for playing. I expect you to treat me with some dignity as I am a lowly student who won a competition, I am a good composer! And I have my year's worth of work on the line, being played just 1.5 times for about fifteen minutes, and that's my prize. Oh, and I do get some snacks afterward, thank goodness because I was about to pass out from nervous anxiety.

I do not appreciate having my hard work being taken so lightly that performers would purposefully mis-play the music and the conductor has to stop and scold them. As much as I think the PSO is one of the best orchestras I've heard, I haven't forgotten that about that moment, and how angry I felt. Thankfully that was one hair-pulling experience around a slew of other chamber music performances that were so personal, so cared-for by the performers, that I mostly remember only the best moments. I've heard the PSO play other students' works nearly flawlessly and think sometimes, why did that moment have to happen to me? But it seems pretty inconsequential in the scope of other works and recognitions (hello, year in Iceland) that I've gotten since.

That is my rant about orchestral bureaucracy, better left for its own post and not in Nico's comment section. I'm going to go work on my percussion quartet now.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Origin of the Sun and Moon is here!

After much hard work and anticipation, my second album (actually my first solo album, the first was a duo album) has just arrived! The Origin of the Sun and Moon was written in Iceland this past year on a Fulbright Fellowship. The album is a collaboration with Mark Mangini, a writer and poet from Pittsburgh, PA. Mark sent me texts that I would use for musical inspiration, and then I sent him back sonic responses. He'd send me more text in response to that music; this went back and forth for the whole year. The album is a document of our working process as well as a diary of my year in Iceland, sounds and music I recorded on my travels, and helpful and inspiring people I met throughout the year. There are 11 tracks (well, possibly more...if you buy or download it there is definitely a surprise at the end!) and beautiful photography throughout, and Mark's texts for each piece really shine. It's crazy to see all the albums in one box, lined up together!

You can buy securely and easily online from my website HERE in regular CD format, digital download, or a fancy limited edition. You can listen to all the music online before you buy.

Or, you can even send me an email and we'll do it the old-fashioned way involving checks, mailing addresses, and homing pidgeons with tiny leg straps carrying CDs to your open windows. Don't I wish. That method of delivery would definitely be in the limited edition package if I could afford it.

At the very least, do go and 'like' my bandcamp page, which posts to your facebook.

Hope you like the music!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Some Sights around Colorado

A few things you might see if you came out to the Boulder/Denver area:

The National Center for Atmospheric Research is in Boulder, CO, and does work of all kinds on weather, climate, global warming, and obviously, the atmosphere. There is still a surpringly large amount we still don't know or understand about the atmosphere- no one is yet able to predict weather with 100% accuracy. There are these things called 'blue jets' in the sky that pilots often report seeing, giant flashes of blue laser-like light shooting out from the TOPS of clouds into outerspace, and yet little is known about them. The building for NCAR is very modernist but surprisingly sensitive to its environment. It was designed by I.M. Pei, of the Louvre 'Pyramid' fame. Inside NCAR there is the equivalent of a science museum, but it's mostly about the properties of weather. However, there is also a supercomputer inside the building that takes up a large part of the basement. That computer is Super!

In Denver, about a half-hour drive away, you can find the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. It has a great rooftop cafe and a terrace garden which is my new favorite place when I'm not back at Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory café. There is currently an art piece on the roof that shines light down into the stairwell and bounces sunlight off of a sucession of mirrors, all the way down to the basement several floors below. A complicated take on a skylight, but a beautiful study on light and reflection. (To see it work, best visit on a bright sunny day.)

There are beautiful rock formations at The Garden of the Gods, which is actually about a two-hour drive from Boulder but close to Colorado Springs and definitely worth the drive. A strange outcropping of sandstone and red rock among a lot of granite and harder rocks around it.

The top of Pike's Peak is barren and treeless, but beautiful (except for the tourists and parking lot part). But the view is still spectacular. At over 14000 feet, it will literally take your breath away. Maybe the view isn't really that great, it just feels like it when your body's not getting enough oxygen and you feel dizzy and dehydrated.

There are lots of rock collections in Boulder and Colorado- it is a geologist's dream here (except for maybe Iceland, if you are a volcanologist!). A surprisingly large amount of geodes and sparkly crystals come from Colorado!

There are also lots of ye-olde-America buildings too, some dating back to the Gold Rush, when communities near Boulder sprang up overnight. This also led to a lot of abandoned towns and many ghost towns, when the money ran out (or never materialized in the first place). I can't wait to visit some of these old remnants. For now, I see mostly tavern signs and western facades of storefronts. And lots and lots of buffalo iconography, for the famed bison of an America long ago.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

'The Origin of the Sun and Moon' in production!

Great pleasures await you (and me!) as my upcoming CD 'The Origin of the Sun and Moon' is nearly complete- and should be out by early September. I will keep you posted of course, but a sneak preview will be that the album features about 45 minutes of music written over the course of my year in Iceland, sound collages, collaborations with a Pittsburgh poet, Icelandic landscape photography, and even is going to be made in two editions: a run of the regular few hundred copies, and a limited edition with fancy poster and other secret goodies. You can also download it online, for those who don't like the physical, and prefer the ephemeral. But at the same price (sans shipping, I suppose), you might as well enjoy the hard copy and give to a friend.

Here's the cover and back as a treat, and two unused shots from the photo shoots with the fabulous artist Nicole Pietrantoni. Now I'm just waiting for the manufacturer to ship me back a few boxes, and then it will be like Christmastime in my apartment, and then in your ears!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Bedazzled Denim Jacket

A friend of mine came out to his family recently (which went very smoothly, thank goodness, and also congratulations, M!) but I was wondering for a while what their reaction might be. M grew up in a Roman Catholic family surrounded by brothers, likely giving each other noogies and wedgies and wrestling all the time. Thankfully I didn't have to deal with hyper-testosterone world, having only one younger sister (I was more likely the one tormenting her, until we grew out of it and became BFFs).
I envisioned either one of two coming-out outcomes. One, some sadness, awkward silence, plus some interjections about God, then slow acceptance. Or two, the complete opposite:

'Mom, dad, I'm gay. I'm done dating women, and I want to date dudes.'
'Oh, thank heavens. We're so happy for you! We had hoped this day would come so we bought you this bedazzled denim jacket just in case you had good news for us. I just hope it still fits.'
'Gee, thanks.'

(exeunt stage right and the whole family goes out to a disco.)

I guess it didn't go in the direction of God or the bedazzler, but I'm still glad there's love and acceptance in another American family.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Boulder, Colorado

The move has been made! I am no longer living in Iceland and I've moved out west, about 1700 miles west of my hometown, to the town of Boulder, Colorado. For those of you who read the blog for the Iceland posts, you may be disappointed that I won't be posting much more about glaciers or Icelandic grammar. But for those of you who like landscapes, pictures of travels, observations about silly hippies and elk and pine forests and weather patterns and my random comics, then you will be delighted to know that I intend to keep up with all of this.

Colorado has the most different feeling of anywhere that I've ever been in the continental United States. Today I went to the Center for Atmospheric Research (fabulous!) and there were cacti growing out in the wild. There have been heat-lightning and thunderstorms in the distance almost every night. And on a short trip up to the Rocky Mountains, I saw my first moose.

The landscapes here share a bit in common with Iceland, strangely. But the culture does not, that's for sure. Up in the highest altitudes of the mountains, above the treeline, the plant life looks remarkably similar to Iceland, with its windswept and snow-covered peaks, a fragile alpine ecosystem. The air is crisp, and both places are surprisingly arid. There are even hot springs in Colorado, just like Iceland. But up on the top of the Rockies the air is noticeably thinner! I have to drink a lot more water here, and cook with high-altitude rules. And while Iceland was full of mostly families and fashionable worldly types, in Boulder the town seems to be filled with earth-loving types, from startup company execs to hangers-on anarchist hippies and street performers, along with the 30 thousand students from the university (I suppose me included) all vying for the least rat-infested affordable apartment. While Iceland, everything happened word of mouth, Boulder happens via Craigslist. Both places are unsurprisingly exorbitantly expensive, but then you also get a lot of what you pay for in terms of stunning backyard views. I think it will be a good place for me to be, to keep working and thinking.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Overheard in Missoura

Three things heard in Missouri, the most boring state I drove across from New York to Colorado (except for St. Louis, it's cool!) with also the fattest-looking Americans. Also, this was at an Applebees, so not exactly the harbinger of fine taste.

"Do you want smoking or non?" (Didn't this stop in most states by now, at least in family restaurants?)

"Do you want your burger pink or not pink?" (I'll take medium, thanks.)

"If you're tired, you can just rest here, or maybe lay a nap." Lay a nap? New phrase!It reminds me of the Pittsburgh 'needs fixed', whence I have a moment of nostalgia for yinzers, and then we're back on the road.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Northern Iceland: Húsavík, Akureyri, and Far North

As a last hurrah, I traveled to the north of Iceland with a visiting friend from Italy who is currently living in France. And he speaks four languages. Intimidating! But luckily I'm the one who knows a little Icelandic, and can find my way around here well. We took a long drive and racked up about 2000 kilometers, saw a lot of places I had not seen before, and of the places I had seen, I'd either visited last in September about 10 months prior, or over the winter when everything was snow-covered and usually closed for tourists. So this was a lot of new experiences!

We visited Akureyri and I finally got a nice shot of the mural there (click for a larger view). It's a lovely town and I wouldn't mind spending a decent amount of time there! Sadly we only stayed for dinner, a swim, and then a short walk.

On the walk we noticed that some kids had somehow gotten themselves onto this jankety wooden raft, and had basically floated into the middle of the fjörd. Whether is was on purpose or just random I don't know, they seemed to be kind of obnoxiously goofy and nonchalant about the whole thing. But then they went through a lot of effort to paddle themselves back with some plywood paddles, and when they approached the shore, angry parents/onlookers and the police were waiting. Akureyri drama!

We drove across the fjörd in the morning and by some stroke of amazing luck, the museum I have wanted to go to for ages was actually open. Safnasafnid, or the Museum of Museums!

It houses a collection of Naive and Folk art from Iceland, a small permanent collection, research offices, a tiny café, and rotating exhibits, all in one beautiful open-plan house. The museum's mission is not so much focused on one field but to promote the creation of connections and thought between disparate fields and interests, perhaps why I love it so much. My favorites were the cabinets of curiosity- named after Renaissance-era collections of unexplained objects for perusal, the cabinets house a well-placed collection of really really random things. This particular cabinet photographed housed collections of dolls from all over the world.

Driving further west, we visited a couple places near Myvatn that I had not been to before, including sites near Krafla geothermal fields. There is a beautiful implosive crater called Stóra-Viti and several steaming lava fields and mud pits, which were bathed in beautiful weather. Strangely Stóra-Viti still had snow in it, even in the middle of July! But is has been unseasonably cold in Iceland this year (even for Iceland).

Heading then up north we stopped for the night in Húsavík and our guesthouse owners were kind enough to tell us about a free hot pot up on top of a beautiful flowery field, with a great view. I soaked it all in.

Almost too tired, but not willing to give up, we then managed to drive to the very farthest northern point of Iceland, Hraunhafnartangi. The weather was so gorgeous that it would have been a shame not to go, being so close. And if I couldn't make it to Grímsey, which crosses the arctic circle, then I am happy to be so close at this point! It is a lonely and desolate point for sure, with the midnight sun shining on a small lighthouse at the edge of the world. Nothing between here and the north pole!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fulbrighty Thoughts about Iceland

The Fulbright requests an end-of-term grant report online, which has many question and answer fields. I thought I'd share with you some working versions of my responses.

What was your project? My original proposal for the Fulbright was to create a 'multi-media installation combining live performances and found sounds gathered throughout Iceland, exploring the connections between Iceland's people and their landscape. This was a little high-falootin', and the first section about the multi-media part ended up being nearly impossible due to funding and resources. The second section was easier, as it just involved watching a lot of people and how they live in a city or in the country, and the things that people do on a day-to-day basis. Multi-media installations aside, I was still able to write and perform new works live, as well as record music which will be released shortly as a full-length album of works from Iceland. My projects also included choral works, and I had two of them performed. One piece was professionally recorded.

What did the Fulbright provide for me in general? The Fulbright afforded me the time to meet and get to know many artists and musicians, as well as the time to travel, write, read, collect materials and recordings, and experience what being a full-time artist is like. I was able to work more closely with the ProTools recording software. I discovered that Sibelius software isn't all that much better than Finale. I took a lot of pictures, made some jewelry, made some collages. I learned a lot of a new language! I interviewed many composers, I attended concerts, and participated in events. And first and foremost it was time to be able to absorb another culture and get to know its inner workings.

What kinds of public speaking did I do? I gave a series of short concerts at the National Gallery of Iceland, which allowed me to interact with visitors and guests to the gallery. I also spoke to a young girls' choir, and to my own choir of local amateur singers. I was invited to perform in an 'artist's salon' evening and met many people in the performance-art field, which was very enlightening and they were very receptive to my work. I also wrote a review article for the English-language newspaper Grapevine, about the classical music festival 'Dark Music Days'.

What about affiliations?
Unfortunately the Academy of the Arts in Iceland provided me with little assistance other than a key to access practice rooms. My requests to do a guest lecture there went unreplied, and requests to borrow equipment which is available to students was denied. This being said, other orgz (I didn't say orgz of course in the official report) were more helpful. I was able to take away many Icelandic scores from the Music Information Center at a super awesome 'composer discount'. The Music Museum of Iceland was a dark horse; they offered me lots of creative resources, gave me a long personal tour, and they even interviewed me! In the future I'd have them be my affiliate. If only I'd had discovered them months earlier in my grant!

How does one get the best access to research in Iceland?
Much information here is held in the brains of only several individuals and you have to get to know these heads of 'power'. Most work and communication is done on a personal and mouth-to-mouth basis; email is rarely used and a phone call is often essential to remind people about outstanding requests.

How did I adjust to a new culture? What were difficulties?
One of the best ways I adjusted to Icelandic culture was to join a choir shortly after moving here. It helped to have a handful of other American colleagues around to share these comments with as well. Being forced to interact in a choir also helped me adjust to a different speed of working, the long days or long nights, and the lack of communication from many professionals in my field that I had hoped would be more helpful. Most of my problems arose due to my lack of patience with the slow pace of response of Icelanders in general, music colleagues, or businesses. However, I personally grew (and learned to relax) with every trip outside of Reykjavík, seeing new things and recording new sounds. Every day there seemed to be at least one thing that I was impressed and very moved by, not ever having seen anything like this waterfall, art object, sunset, style of music, land formation, etc. before. And then without doing anything, friends popped up in unexpected places and in unexpected ways, surprising me with generosity.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Things I Will Miss About Iceland

Some random things I will miss about Iceland:

A national database of everyone's health records that can be called up in any physician's office! How nice would it be to go to any doctor's office in the US and they know what you're allergic to, what your immunizations are, and when you last visited. But nooo, I currently have to have immunization records sent from three different states to a new physician, so I can be cleared to attend graduate school. This is a huge waste of time and money.

Also related: universal health care. A no-brainer, it's just better.

Appreciation for artists and composers as a legitimate career unto itself. Nuf said.

Creamy delicious milk and dairy products, including the famous skyr. And I don't even really like yogurt much, but I love skyr.

The drunk pig logo of Bónus grocery stores. Drunk with savings, amiright?

Giant suspiciously-large apples that provide me with about three servings of fruit. I have big hands and this is a full handful for me.

Spontaneous choir singalongs on the street, even in four-part harmony.

Nationwide legalized gay marriage. The gay pride parade in Iceland, and Pride Week, is the biggest-attended festival in all of Iceland, all year. Something to be very proud about indeed.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Books read/pool addenda

Books read while in Iceland: 28
(Normally my book/novel number is about 13 per year, but you can see I had some extra time to be a bookworm.)
Some highlights:
Just Kids, by Patti Smith
Secret Historian: A biography of Samuel Steward by Justin Spring
Begin Again: A biography of John Cage, by Kenneth Silverman

Perhaps there were a trend of biographies this year, as I also read three of the '20th Century Composer' profile books by Phaidon press. I'd never really gotten into biographies before, maybe it was time to delve in!

I perused a lot of images from photo books as well, which don't quite make the cut of 'books read', but I would also say that the 'Altars' book of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the fabulous new book of artwork 'Undir Ros' by Icelandic artist Katrín Gunnlaugsdóttir were on the top of the list.

I'd also like to amend my swimming pool list, as I went for a short trip to the north of Iceland as a last hurrah, and found 1 amazing hot pot on top of a hill, and also swam in the public pool at Borgarnes, both of which I highly recommend!

Things I Won't Miss about Iceland

The last bus that runs anywhere stops running around 11pm, sometimes even 10pm. What happens when you have a dinner party? Or you are somewhere you can't walk? Or if you don't live downtown? You walk 20 kilometers home? You pay an expensive cab? Huge inconveniences, and perpetuating the necessity of car culture. Also, buses not starting to run until after 9am on a Sunday, sometimes even 10am. Sometimes I gots places to go. The mass transit generally goes to places that are convenient, just not late enough.

Breaking bottles/smashing glasses/throwing your trash on the street in a drunken stupor. The late-night dance parties are awesome, but for now, I am done with the frivolous waste of resources. Also related: while you have all the water you could ever need, the same rule doesn't apply to recyclables. I love recycling, and hate to have to throw glass/aluminum/plastics in the trash! Even in Pittsburgh I could leave bottles out on the street once a week for pick-up, and they wouldn't have to be walked several kilometers to the recycling center (which of course, the bus doesn't run to).

Thetta reddast. Sometimes it won't work out. And sometimes you gotta do something about it right here and now.

Nearly 100% white people. Somewhat related: I miss diversity in my religious freedoms too.

Not being able to find dried cranberries, and sometimes black beans! Random, right? Luckily there are all the honey nut cheerios I could ever want. Nom nom nom.

A roomful of people not speaking your native language, and you're the only one who's not getting the joke. This improved greatly over time, but would still take me a long time to become fully fluent. I am much more conscious now about making sure everyone in the room feels comfortable (and has a language in common with others, not being left out).

Buying most items for far greater than their actual cost. $28 pop CD's? Gas at 10$ a gallon?

Bottom line: Living in a place is give and take. I've learned to forget about the problems that bother me when I know I'm in it for the long haul. I realize what I love about a place, what I don't like, what I won't tolerate, what I can't live without, and how to work with what I've got to make my little personal bubble the best it can be! Next post: the flip side, things I will totally miss about Iceland, and what will eventually bring me back again.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Thorsmork, or Þórsmörk

With the help of a small employee discount from a friend's mom, I was able to travel to Thorsmork for the day and see a part of the country that's really only accessible by giant 4x4 or super jeep. It was a beautiful day for travelling...well, it was rainy on the coast but the Thorsmork area tends to have much nicer and calmer weather as it's sheltered by mountains and glaciers. There was a breeze, however, that kicked up ash clouds from nearby volcanos, familiarly called Ejafjallajökull and Grímsvötn. I'm glad the bus didn't stop here as it looked like a sandstorm on another planet. This area was basically inaccessible for about a year, with all of the ash mounds blowing around.

We took this enormous monstrosity into the park, which is about 1.5-2 hours from Reykjavík. We didn't really need such big tires...until we did. The last 30km or so were so bumpy. And the many strong and deep rivers we crossed would never be cross-able without it.

There used to be a beautiful glacial lagoon here, but now only the tongue of the glacier remains and a lot of wet quicksand-like soil. This guys, is Eyjafjallajökull! The base of the volcano that caused so much trouble last year. It looks so quiet now, mostly just dirty.

The actual park part of Thorsmork is divided into three parts, a summer-housey bit, a camping and hiking bit, and a gorge. We did two outta three, and checked out the camping bit, hiking up through a forest (one of the few very lush places in Iceland) and out to some cool-looking rocky (of course volcanic) outcroppings.

Then I wanted to check out a fairly strong river. After chatting with a nice musician from Denmark named Thorbjorn, we walked together a bit and discovered that the park people had wheeled over a cool bridge for hikers to cross the river. Brilliant!

We hiked into this beautiful green gorge called Stakkholtsgjá. The bus driver/tour guide even told us about some edible plants along the way. He was a cool guy- I asked him if he ever got tired of leading tours after working on them for over 3 years, and he said 'only sometimes'. But I think I distracted his boredom by my surprising him with speaking Icelandic, we chatted about music a little bit.

The gorge gets narrower and narrower until you finally come to its source, a waterfall hidden up underneath a rocky outcropping. You can scramble into it and see the waterfall, and it was a little tricky but totally worth it!

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

One week left in Iceland

This almost-year has gone by quickly. Or so it seems. I have just over a week left in Iceland and still there's a list of things I wanted to do and see, but many of those things will have to wait until next time. Small attempts at staying longer in Iceland didn't pan out this time, but there are now good connections made that make me think I'll be back again!

I wanted to write a few posts that summed up some of the things I've noticed over the past year, but that's sort of hard to do. Describing what it's like to live in a place for a longer period of time is difficult to encapsulate in a few sentences. And that's a good thing- I prefer thinking of a place in all its complexity, rather than getting the sugary tourist version of only a few days of all the best parts.

One of the biggest things that the Fulbright Fellowship stresses is about making connections between the US and other nations. I think one of the things I contemplate most is the comparisons and contrasts between the United States and Iceland, and what I admire (and then also perhaps find disturbing) about both nations. I came to Iceland thinking it would basically be everything good about life and culture (music! nature! universal health care!), but there are things that I end up appreciating about America that I never thought I would (fresh produce! cheap stuff! ethnic diversity!). Perhaps more on that later.

I'm particularly proud of my accomplishments in learning Icelandic and trying to use it frequently. I think I gained a respect for learning languages and now hope to brush up on those years of French that have gotten dusty! And I hope to somehow use Icelandic in the States...maybe it will work into some doctoral dissertation, or count as my second-language requirement for doctoral studies. I should be so lucky.

More soon.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Swimmin' Holes

Number of city pools and their hot pots I've swum in throughout Iceland: 10
Additional bathing areas: 2 lagoons, one geothermal river, one geothermal beach, one oceanside hot footbath, and one hotspring cave.
Times I've swam in the ocean here: 3

Degrees of said ocean: 7, 11, and 12 (Celsius, though even in Fahrenheit it's still darn cold). And then right after that I jump in the hot water by the beach, otherwise I don't think I could do it.
I hope to add a natural countryside hot pot in here before too long! As long as it's not too green and slimy, that just kinda freaks me out.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

A Man Ate a Shopping Cart

A conversation between visiting friends.
"Did you know that a man once ate a shopping cart?"
"No way. I don't believe that. Let's look it up."
"Yup, well according to the internets, his name was Michel Lotito and he apparently ate 15 shopping carts."
"That's embarrassing."

I guess eating 15 shopping carts in your life is hard to bring up in casual conversation with your parents.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Things I've Made and Ate, Summer Edition

Here are a few more non-musical, non-sight-seeing things I've made and ate lately.

J & B came for a visit and they made me a delicious polenta! I enjoy polenta but have never made it for myself, and now I know just how easy it is. And the light hitting those vegetables was just beautiful this night.

I'm continuing some jewelry work as well, it keeps me sane here. The last few things have been getting twistier and more lava-y, even more than these two examples. I think I'm going to include some more bright, possibly even fluorescent, colors soon.

I'd really like to make more things out of fish skin leather, but the market for those things is takes a special and daring person to want to wear fish skin, but the texture of it is just so cool. Perhaps it will be a hit in my upcoming location, which should be Boulder, Colorado.

I'm guessing my crowning domestic achievement whilst in Iceland will be the creation of my first sweater. I crocheted it from Icelandic lopapeysa (thick wool) yarn, without a pattern!

For not having a pattern I think think I did a decent job! I wanted something that was form-fitting and not baggy like the traditional lopapeysas are. I also wanted a shwoopy neck. I think the shoulders could have been bigger, and made the armholes bigger up at the top, which if I made another sweater I will try to remember that. But on the plus side, the sweater also makes my butt look nice. No, just kidding, I don't need any help with that! Just a good ol' contrapposto pose, borrowed from the 16th century.