Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Judd Greenstein, Alex Ross, Julia Cameron

Just a couple quotes that I've found recently in reading which are nice little tidbits for my own compositional life:

On the compositional process, from an interview with the esteemed Judd Greenstein. I had a piece of mine premiered on a concert that his work was in as well, in Brooklyn. My piece was okay. His was pretty awesome...

"If you do something three times, in your head you've actually probably done it a hundred times, and most of those different ways that you tried to work out the rhythm or the harmony never made it in, but, god, do we really have to do this a third time because haven't we done this enough already? Well, no. In the context of the actual piece, we haven't, but in your brain you've done it way more than enough and so that's a challenge.

I need to want things to stay in play longer than they actually do. I want to be disappointed anytime something stops happening. If something changes, I want to make sure that the thing that happens is even more engaging, for whatever reason, than the thing that has just left."

I've done this so many times in my own work, and then regretted not repeating something, because it changed too quickly.

From writer Alex Ross, on new music, particularly about the composer George Fredrich Haas, who I know nothing about, but will inviestigate ASAP!
"Perhaps audiences are finally beginning to approach twentieth-century music with the same open-mindedness that they have long accorded twentieth-century painting."

My only comment to this is, well, we are now in the 21st-century, in fact about 11 years into it, and folks are finally warming up to music written 40 years ago. But I suppose that's good. If Ross senses a trend into audiences finally enjoying this kind of music-making and artful performance, then that may bode well for me as an 'established' musician later in life. I guess it takes the masses a long time to warm up to new ideas (ahem...civil marriage, cough cough...).

And finally, from Julia Cameron's 'The Artist's Way', which makes me feel a lot less guilty about having beacoup de temp to myself on this Fulbright. It makes me think more and more that it is time well-spent on growing and thinking, reading and writing, pondering new ways of working.

"One of the great misconceptions about artistic life is that it entails great swathes of aimlessness. The truth is that a creative life involves great swathes of attention. Attention is a way to connect and survive."

Bad Hostel Art

Here are a couple quick sketches I made of some great/horrible art in the hostels I've stayed in around the country. Disclaimer: I don't claim to be accurate in scale or even three-point perspective. And one picture is technically a 'still life' of two lamps on the table. But those lamps just had a certain '70's-design charm that they were almost as great/horrible as the needlepoint sailor; they just had to be given a small tribute.

New Music Wednesdays at Listasafn Íslands

Today ended my four mini-concert stint at Listasafn Íslands, and I must say I have never been so pleasantly surprised at the results of a small event. Well, even these small, intimate concerts had a fair amount of prep work, as I wanted to have special guests for most of the concerts.

Two of the concerts featured Magnús Trygvason Elíassen on drums. He's amazing, I hope to work together again. We did two pieces together, one almost freely improvised, and one more traditional pop song. Here is the best recording of 'Dust', the free improv piece, that we got from the live concerts.

Two of the concerts also featured Luciano Becerra, a singer and musician from Argentina, who lives in Iceland. He sings in my choir and has a beautiful clear voice.

This last concert was packed with special guests; Hörður Torfason sang a song he crafted many years ago, and I rearranged his guitar part for piano, in my own particular style. He sang and his crisp tenor rang through the museum. There is a clarity in his singing that so effortlessly reveals texts. No wonder he has released 22 albums of his songs.

I also performed a workshop of a piece that Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir and I are working on for an outdoor spring performance. She spoke Icelandic texts while I played and sang. The work is full of color imagery and we tried to dress colorfully appropriately.

One of the most moving performances was by Karítur Íslands, a young girls' choir. Several of the girls sang a song that I wrote when I first moved to Iceland. The poem was written by a 12-year old girl, and is simple but moving. The girl is now around 30, and she didn't think she's be able to come to the concert, but she surprised me by being there! I hope she didn't freak out when I gave her a hug, I wasn't prepared. The performance was also hauntingly magical. Here is the recording of the rehearsal, the piano is a little loud but that's what I get for only bringing one stereo mic.

One of the reasons I wanted to take time and live in Iceland was that I thought my music would be better appreciated here. I'm certainly inspired by being here, and I have lots of time to think and listen to music here. Perhaps it's in my particular musical styles, or that I pick certain themes or demeanor about working, that I hoped my works would resonate with Icelanders, on par or more than with American audiences. I think this may indeed be the case. I have gotten a lot of positive feedback here from relatively larger audiences than I've had in the States, and for works that most people would consider 'classical' or 'experimental'. It's great to see everyday people show up to concerts to which they don't even know what to expect. This is a great sign; it gives me a little extra boost that I'm making good decisions, and continue to be happy here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Grey Hairs Cometh

It was inevitable. And the time is now. My first grey hair has multiplied.
The first one was/is in my beard. You can't even quite see it most of the time, it blends in with the other sort-of-blonde hairs I have.

But let's take a close-up.

Nope, definitely not blonde. It has a funny texture to it- it almost points directly out sometimes, pointing like a finger mocking me from the inside of my body.

There's another hair I spotted on my head, and this one has a little curl to it.

I even spotted one on my shorter-trimmed side-head hairs.

I know there are some on the back of my head, but those don't exist in my mind yet because I haven't seen them. Obviously if I can't see it, it doesn't exist! Just like the atom. Or possibly also evolution. Or anything that I can't Google.

Well, I joke as if it's a crisis but really I'm actually quite fine with the grey hairs. I am looking forward to a really sexy speckly beard full of them. And having grey hairs reminds me of two things. One, that I still have lots of hair left! And my default look of the future is sure to please: robust beard with crazy glasses. And Two, every hair I do lose on my scalp gets re-rooted onto my back and chest; I pretend that it's a system that my body is using to keep itself in stasis. My hairs formerly on my scalp are emigrating to a new country (apparently called 'Shoulderland') and they notice along the way that they have some new grey buddies who are along for the ride.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Detox Hotel, Car Accident

This past weekend was a whirlwind of activity.
I had lunch and coffee with a great Icelandic musician named Hilmar Örn Agnarsson, formerly of the punk band Þeyr, and currently a multi-choir director and all-around happy, intelligent, and helpful person.
He played the bass in þeyr, and thus got to wear a cool hat and glasses.

Thru Hilmar, literally several hours later, I was invited to play a gig out in Keflavík by a man named Ragnar, who used to be the 'mayor' of sorts of the þingvellir/Gullfoss/Geysir area. Now, he's the co-owner of a Detox Hotel/Spa out by the Airport, along with an Iceland celebrity, Jónina Ben. Ragnar wanted me to play some live music at the Hotel this weekend in exchange for some free healthy meals and a night in a comfy hotel, hot tub, massages, etc. I said, what the hell. Jónina picked me up and I found out she was the person to bring aerobics to Iceland in the 70's/80's. That's pretty great. These are her fancy exercise balls.

I played a few songs at the detox place, where people come from around the world to stay for two weeks and eat only fruits and vegetables, lose some weight, exercise, and get pampered. I had some weird meals and a breakfast that included sweet potatoes, onions, and carrot juice with garlic and beets. No sugars, no shampoo, no chemicals anywhere, and for sure no chocolate. But I did feel refreshed when I was done. Or maybe it was from getting a massage by a hot Russian named Sebastian.

I thought I'd be in for a strange weekend when I saw my room, not much to see here.

But then the room turned out to have a very soft big bed. And I ended up having some of the best chats I've had here, finding out about Ragnar's time as 'mayor', his bringing cool musicians to Iceland to work with Hilmar Örn, and all the escapades that are involved when one works on large music projects. Also, I danced a traditional dance with some people from the Faroe Islands. And, went to Keflavík for the first time and ate some delicious dinner that was full of wonderful things like sugars and carbs, completely the opposite of my detox-hotel stay, and those carbs were amazing.

But on the way back to Reykjavík, Ragnar and I were the first car to respond to a pretty bad car accident on the road, involving 10 people. It was probably the worst accident I've witnessed in my life. I obviously didn't take pictures while it was happening, but I tried to get a quick snapshot of the two cars on the side of the road after help had arrived.

One car slid on some ice, striking another on its side, and there were two cars full of screaming children and a very bad-looking mom in the driver's seat. She was covered in blood, windows smashed, and the jaws of life later needed to come and get her out of the car. Ragnar was a complete live-saver, on the phone with a nurse and calling the ambulance, and talking to the injured woman, keeping her alert and calming the situation. I stayed with the kids by the side of the road and gave a couple hugs as everyone waited, shaking and scared. Ragnar and I left after the ambulances got there, and before the TV crews arrived...not the way I wanted to get on television. Later I read everyone was taken to the hospital but no one was seriously injured. Let's not repeat that event again here, shall we?

I also met two of Ragnar's friends at the Kjarvalsstaðir museum, and they might help me promote my music a bit. One of them had a very interesting day-job, currently importing socks from France, and also working with the American-French alliance here in Iceland. That's kind of bizarrely fascinating. I want some French socks!

Then, I went to a play-party with Hilmar Örn, which was really difficult to translate, but I'm glad I went. The evening was a sort of one-woman play-lecture about humor and health, including a lot of jokes. It was all in Icelandic, most of it colloquialisms, and I got about 25% of it. I did meet another composer my age, though, and got a free box of chocolate cookies, so the evening really turned out for the better. I was finally able to verbalize, (in Icelandic!), that I am in sort of a difficult place with my language acquisition, where I don't understand everything, but don't want to use English all the time just because it's the easy way out. It's sort of like being in between two languages- one you don't want to have to use, and one you can't quite use fully.

Hilmar also invited me to a rehearsal of his girls' chorus, which I may be writing music for, and they may sing one of my songs next week at Listasafn Íslands for my last concert there in this little music series. But that didn't happen within the weekend, so maybe I'll tell about that another day.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Meeting of the Worlds: Parents in Iceland

Worlds collided this past week when my parents came to Iceland. I was glad they were so enthusiastic about their trip, even though half the time one of the three of us was queasy or tired, and the other half of the time the weather was too bitterly cold and windy to really have any fun in. They also brought me magazines from home, lots of hugs, and music notation software. And wine, from the duty-free. Bless them.

The 'rents were surprisingly adventurous on their visit here, and I was happy that they were still interested in taking road trips considering that once you got to the sights, most of the dramatic views in Iceland look so different than the summery, green pictures of the tour books. But no less astonishing! I took them around the traditional Golden Circle, with Geysir, Gullfoss, þingvellir. Everything was windswept, icy, and frozen.

We also went around to Reykholt, Hraunfossar, and Barnafoss, which I had last seen only in the fall. The sights are still totally stunning in the winter- monochromatic, sometimes like black-and-white photos. The waters from Barnafoss are even more milky blue in the winter from all the glacial runoff.

Even Deildartungahver looked quite stunning in the winter- frost on one side of the hot spring, and red rocks on the other, with blue sky and green moss. Four quandrants of color and textures, y'all!

I had never been down on the Reykjanes Peninsula (excepting the Blue Lagoon) and it was totally beautiful; we stopped at Kleifarvatn, a very calm, still lake which is dropping at a rate of about 1cm per day due to volcanic activity in the area. It's also a supposed home to a sea monster. That sea monster better get out to the ocean soon before he's left with a puddle.

We saw Séltún, or Krýsuvík, which is a geothermal site that looks like hot springs, but is in fact the remnants of a geothermal bore-hole that exploded inexplicably a few years ago, and left in its wake a bubbling pit.

The area around Krýsuvík is also one of the best I've seen so far for the rolling, slightly mossy lava fields that could easily be homes for the elves.

I enjoy using the Icelandic skills I've gained to sort of show off for my parents- even though half of the things I say are gramatically incorrect. Still, I can order fish dishes for them or get a taxi and have a little chat, and I don't have to use English. The cute receptionist at the Blue Lagoon and I had a nice Icelandic moment while my parents had a 'huh?' moment. I helped explain the process of Icelandic showers to the parents, and we had a rejuvenating swim in hot waters while the freezing air icicled up our hair.

At the end of my parents' stay, I had my second concert at Listasafn Íslands, or the national Art Museum. It went really well, a short lunchtime concert featuring special guests- in this case, Magnús Trygvason Eliassen and Luciano Becerra. The program was a mixed but well-balanced bag of piano solos and piano with drums. In Luciano's case, he sang 'Amarilli mia Bella' by Cacchini and I made an interior-piano plucked-string arrangement of the piece. I sang a brief song about leaves falling, and cooincidentally, all my pages blew off the piano. Luckily I had most of it memorized. I also had fellow Fulbrighters come and videotape, and some staff of the American Embassy came to listen. How fancy. I was glad my parents got to witness all of it. It was great to see them and I'm sad to see them go, but I've got more work and fun to do here which is already keeping me busy.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Music for One

One of the sometimes-frustrating parts of being a random foreign composer in another country may turn out to be one of the best reasons I am here.

In the last four months, I haven't been able to actually make working with many people materialize. It's not like I haven't met anybody. I've met three symphony players, three composers, the program director of the symphony, a drummer, a pop violinist, several fine artists, and a lot of community choir singers. I'm impressed with that! But making plans with any of those people and actually making a recording has been much more difficult than I anticipated. Optimistically, my 2011 plan is to not worry 'bout that crap anymore, and just see what happens naturally.

Much to my surprise, I seem to manage to be making some interesting things on my own, and with the people I do know who step forward to help. I started in September making some simple piano works, and then used recorded sounds around the country to make some sound-collages. Before I knew it, I had some interesting new pieces with spoken texts in different languages, whale noises, pianos, organs, and nature sounds! (If you can see the music clip below, click the link to my blog or website, where you should be able to hear them there.)

I think the only other electronically-manipulated works I'd ever done were two exercises in college. Being in Iceland gives me a change to experiment with sounds in my own way, and to take time to explore what I think might be interesting about them. I didn't expect to have such little contact with sheet music when writing these works! But the process still involves a lot of decision-making about combining sounds, timing, dynamics, form, textures- so many of the decisions I normally make in chamber music. Here's a sample of a sound-collage I like to call a Quick Tour of Iceland. Sounds from around the country in four minutes or less.

One project I am loving more and more is an ongoing collaboration with Pittsburgh writer Mark Mangini. He sends me texts that are inspired by music that I write, and I send him back music based on his latest texts. It's correspondence-based, but so far doesn't use the old-fashioned Postal Service/Pósturinn. This is a clip of a current work.

I've written a couple choral pieces, and they are in Icelandic! This also gives me a chance to try and set texts in another language, which I think I've only done once in high school (that was a long time ago). There are a lot of differences to think about! Syllable-setting, stress of certain words, which word to accentuate, &c. I'm hoping something gets sung here, but I could probably take them back to the States and do something with them as well. 'Cept I'd probably have to create an Iceland-pronunciation guide to accompany the sheet music.

I also wrote a piece for Irish artist Rhona Byrne, for a project called 'Friday Morning Balcony'. My piece will be released in a limited-edition audio-book/box in which different artists' sound pieces can be played from different sides of the box.

Not so bad for having one sort-of-broken laptop, one portable microphone, and basic ProTools. The quality of the sound in all the works might be varied, but such is the nature of working for five minutes in a graveyard here, ten minutes in a church there, maybe even a minute in a cave over yonder. I'm hoping that some mixing and mastering genius will be able to take care of smoothing out the various room sounds.

I'm about at the halfway point now, and though things are very different musically than what I thought they'd be, I'm looking forward to continuing!

I'm planning on releasing an album of the works with Mark Mangini in late summer, possibly including other Iceland works as well- do look ahead for that!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Gleðilegt Nýtt Ár/Happy New Year

Happy New Year from Reykjavík, where everything is sparklier than the rest of the world.

New Years' celebrations here seem to last for a week! This is just what happened last night.

I went to a bonfire down by the seacoast. It was enormous. It was a giant pile of all the wood that's being trashed, and a sort of philosophical 'throwing away' of all the bad mental junk that accumulates in one's life.

That's a perfect tie-in to my goal for 2011- not quite a resolution, but my goal is to stop worrying about goals! Seriously, I always obsess about what's coming next that I sometimes don't get to enjoy the process of getting there. I'm hoping that whatever happens in the next year happens more organically, and that I will try to enjoy the results of my normal hard work and times in Iceland.
Back to the bonfire, where the whole damn thing was doused with some gasoline and up she went.

I went to my friend's mother's apartment to watch the annual TV show that mocks the year's events in Iceland, in a sort of SNL style. There were a lot of jokes involving 'Inspired By Iceland', the clever marketing campaign to get tourists to come back to Iceland after the volcanic eruption. We lit some sparklers and then it was off to the main event.

The view of a gazillion Icelanders lighting off thousands of fireworks is a sight not to be missed. Thankfully the kids watching have protective eyewear. There is no company that lights a show from a particular place- instead, the whole city is ablaze with individuals setting off their own fireworks.

My friends brought some champagne, some sparklers, and we joined in the fun!

Next in the evening (yes, there's more) was a drink at the Danish Pub, where we met some random Welsh people who just decided on a whim to come to Iceland for New Years because they Googled 'Top 10 Things to Do for New Years' and 'Go to Iceland' was apparently Number 1. I met up with other friends after that for a drink in a fancy loft apartment, then to end the evening and settle in to one place, I attended a fabulous party at Barbara and Trúno, the two gay bars in the city. The crowd was good and there were thankfully few screaming teenagers, and I got to dance to some hot jams. Before i knew it I was pretty drunkxorz and it was near 5am. Time for bed, indeed. Now that the next day has passed and I wasn't completely useless or hungover, I can say that the New Years in Iceland was totally worth it! Fits right into my 2011 goal of enjoying every bit of it fully.