Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Looooong First Week of December

So now that we've already been to the Christmas markets in Cologne, the flight home on December 10 has been looming large in our minds. What were we to do to keep the endless waiting off our minds?

We started off by taking our first London Walk; when we arrived in Covent Garden, the city was looking festive.

Even though we know the Covent Garden area quite well, we were still shown some cool things we hadn't come across. First among them: Floral Hall,

and a balcony with a great view of the market.

We also went in the Royal Courts of Justice and the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons. We liked this place so much (especially Teriann) that we went back two days later to spend more time there.

This is the antithesis of the Imperial War Museum — rather than documenting all the energies humans have spent over the centuries killing each other, the Hunterian Museum (named after 18th-century all-purpose scientist John Hunter) documents all the energies humans have spent over the centuries learning about science and anatomy and health. Consisting of a more-interesting-than-you-would-think exhibit about the history of surgery and an unbelievably diverse collection of preserved dissections, this museum is somehow fascinating without drifting into pedantry.

And after a fairly vanilla weekend that included a choir concert and our flat Christmas party, we saw a fantastic show, La Cage Aux Folles, on Monday night — because it was our year-and-a-half anniversary.

You won't be hearing from me for a while because we're finally going home tomorrow. And the monthly photos thing won't continue (who cares what my favorite cathedrals are anyway?). So long until the new year!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Christmastime in Cologne

Last weekend, Teriann and I took a great trip to the Christmas markets in Cologne to take our minds off the interminable wait to come home.

Cologne is not a pretty city. It was almost completely flattened during WWII, so, except for the massive Dom, consists of fairly drab post-war buildings. Perhaps because of this, though, I have never seen a city get more dressed up for Christmas. Both public spaces and individual businesses were decked out in garlands, lights, and decorations. Combined with the excellent food and the friendly people, we ended up really loving our weekend there.

They even turned one of the river boats into a Christmas market.

And Teriann indulged on the local beer!

Still, there's a small part of town that survived the bombs, where buildings still lean over narrow lanes.

The pink one was our hotel, from which we could see the Rhine.

We also went the Chocolate Museum (awesome) and the Dom (actually less interesting than I anticipated).

Far and away the highlight of our weekend, though, was stumbling into Papa Joe's Biersalon, which is apparently the only place to be in Cologne. It was a raucous pub where no one spoke English and the music was provided by these two animatronic gentlemen.

The result was the most stereotypical German experience I've ever had: a sing-along to 'Rut sin die Rusen' (Red are the Roses).


See more pictures in the facebook album.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Favorite Cathedrals

One the distinguishing characteristics of Europe is, of course, the cathedrals. No city worth its salt is without one. Bear in mind that these are only my favorite five from the dozens we've visited over the last year... among them, Salisbury, St. Paul's, Notre-Dame (Paris), Stephansdom (Vienna), Basilica di San Marco (Venice), Köln, and St. Peter's (Vatican City).

5. St. Vitus's Cathedral, Prague

Sure, the audioguide is a shocking ripoff, but for sheer opulence, St. Vitus's provides constant eye candy. And situated at the top of Prague Castle, it's the dominant feature of the skyline no matter where you are in the city.

4. Strasbourg Cathedral

I wasn't prepared for how massive or intricate this cathedral is. For centuries it was the tallest building in the world, and inside, there's a beautiful organ, an astronomical clock, and a sculpture that consists of not just a person or two, but an entire landscape.

3. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Though construction began in 1883, it's still not finished. Any blurb I could write about it here would be madly insufficient. Read about it here or there are pictures here. It is hands-down the most unique cathedral — or for that matter, construction site — anywhere in the world.

2. Duomo, Florence

Aside from being one of the oldest of the world's massive churches (its dome precedes St. Peter's by almost a century), its pink, green, and white facade looks like a real-life version of the Small World ride.

1. Westminster Abbey

No, it's not the biggest; some may even argue that it's not the most opulent. And — what the heck — it's not even technically a cathedral. But it is my favorite. Because of its history, its atmosphere, and its Thanksgiving dinners, it will always be my favorite.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Shock Doctrine

Surely you remember when you first read a book that stuck out for years to come as one of your favorites; for me, they seem come in spates. For example, in the year from roughly May 2004, my literary horizons were blown open by Quinn's Ishmael, Vonnegut, Calvino, and Gilgamesh. Now, I seem to be in another period of discovery.

I wrote here earlier about Hesse's incomparable Glass Bead Game. Its beauty lies in its intellectual abstraction; it exists above the plane of lowly human troubles. So too, does Ishmael, for years my starting point and guidebook to human history. And yet, for all their insights, their intellectual concerns seem worlds away from the elbow-deep reality of the book I just finished.

It's as though someone took Hesse and Quinn's bright light of understanding and aimed it in the murky recesses of the past thirty years. The result is not always comfortable — it is, in fact, terrifying — but it is more immediate and urgently relevant than I knew a book could be. It is Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine.

I couldn't overstate how important this book is; non-partisan (Clinton and Lawrence Summers get the same scrutiny as Bush & Co.), impeccably researched, and surprisingly calm given the outrageous subject matter, it deserves to be a classic in the years to come as the definitive people's history of right now.

You may be getting a copy of this from me in the near future. Not as a Christmas present (I know you didn't ask for it), and not because I think you should vote a particular way, but just because I think everyone should be aware of this book. If you want one, tell me. If you don't want it littering your already over-crowded bookshelf, find it at your local library.

In any case, it would mean a lot to me; give it a read; I want to hear what you think.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Jurowski at the RCM

As I mentioned earlier, Vladimir Jurowski has been around College this week, preparing for the Schnittke/Prokofiev concert tonight. I just got back from it, and it was absolutely fantastic.

The Schnittke wasn't exactly my bag. It veered too wildly between camp and meandering modernism. I could tell, however, that it was being delivered forcefully; Jurowski clearly had an interpretation and exacted it from the orchestra. The second half brought better music — Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony — and the result was dynamite. It's not just that his interpretations are lucid and musical; it's that he implements them so clearly. Like the best actors who seem to become their character, he completely dissolves into the music, willing to make whatever gesture is necessary to get the sound he wants, regardless of whether that gesture might come from the standard conducting playbook. I might also add that, though I've heard the RCM orchestra several times before, this was by far the most responsive, tight, and professional performance I've heard from it.

He is, I feel safe to say, the best conductor I've ever witnessed in person. True, I've not yet seen Abbado, Barenboim, Gergiev, or a host of others, but thanks to spending a year in London I have seen Salonen (quite regularly), Tilson Thomas, Haitink, Jansons, Fischer, Zinman, and Gustavo 'the Dude' Dudamel. And for my money, Jurowski's the Dude.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Two Reminders

Two reminders of why I love London occurred just within the last week.

On Friday, I went to an open rehearsal of Michael Tilson Thomas (music director of the San Francisco Symphony) with the London Symphony Orchestra, to watch them rehearse Schubert, Mahler (a wonderful short piece I hadn't heard before: Blumine), and Berg's Three Pieces. Besides being a fantastic musical experience, which it was (given the option, I would always rather go to the final rehearsal than the performance itself), I got to see the LSO in true form. The orchestra has a reputation for treating conductors as equals and generally having an ego, but of course one never sees it at a concert. At rehearsal, though, the horn players are constantly fiddling with their iPhones and the percussionists practice Berg while the orchestra is rehearsing Schubert. Best moment of all, though: during one complex point in the Berg, MTT got excited and strayed from his clear 4- or 8-pattern. He stopped to say something, but the timpanist interrupts: "Michael, what are you beating at bar forty?" He says this... to Michael Tilson Thomas... with the entire orchestra sitting there. But of course MTT handles it like a professional: before briskly moving on with whatever he was going to say, he replies, "Well, let's find out."

And last night, after the composition concert (which went quite well, I thought), we headed down to the bar that's underneath the Recital Hall. A few people were already down there, including a few people playing pool, including... no, it can't be... it is! Vladimir Jurowski, the music director of the London Philharmonic. I should explain that he's conducting a concert with the RCM Symphony Orchestra this weekend, and he was obviously there for a rehearsal. But still, I have to admit that I'm a little proud to be studying at a school where one finds the music director of the London Philharmonic playing pool in the student bar.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Prague and Changes

Almost a month ago now, Teriann and I went to Prague with our flatmates Sarah and Bryce. It was a wonderful trip for a number of reasons — good food, good music, good company, beautiful scenery — but it also signaled some of the changes that have come across our life in London lately.

First, a few highlights of the trip. Prague is gorgeous; distinctive and photogenic.

The leaves were changing in the local park,

and the stained glass windows in St. Vitus's Cathedral were spectacular.

For more pics, here's the facebook album.

The changes, though, have been significant. When we moved here, the house consisted of two singles and three other couples. Living with other couples suited us well, as we enjoyed going out with them and generally getting into shenanigans. Over the last month, though, two of the couples have broken up, drastically changing the dynamics of the house.

One of those couples, if you haven't guessed already, is Sarah and Bryce; Prague was still a good time, but Bryce moved out shortly thereafter and I already miss him. Ed moved out as well, and I miss having his legendary craziness around too. And more singles in the house inevitably means more drama.

Don't get me wrong, we still love our house and our flatmates, but as they say, nothing stays the same.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

It has taken a long time...

...but my website is finally all-new and updated with my new music from the last year or so. Give it a look! And a listen!

Favorite Hideaways

For this month's installment of the photo series, here are some images of my favorite small town nooks and crannies scattered around the continent.

5. Eze, France

Eze is like nothing I've ever seen. It's less of a village than it is an enormous, rambling castle carved into a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. Shops are carved into nooks wherever they can fit, and the paths that serve as roads roam here and there, up and down stairs, through archways. It is, however, rather two-dimensional. You see it, it's beautiful, but then there's nothing to do. Except take the bus to Monaco or Nice, of course.

4. Colmar, France

The fairy-tale capital of half-timbered buildings, leaning walls, low beams, and narrow lanes. Despite its tiny size, it reputedly has a notable art gallery (which we didn't visit... the scenery was enough for us) and is in a region full of cool stuff to do (Strasbourg, Haut-Koensigsburg, monkey feeding, etc.).

3. Hohenschwangau, Germany

Sandwiched between two castles (including possibly the most famous one of them all, Neuschwanstein), Hohenschwangau is tough to beat. Even without them, though, this little hamlet nestles between craggy mountains, a beautiful gorge, two lakes, and thick, Bavarian forest.

2. Hallstatt, Austria

A very close second: this snowglobe of a town is wedged between a steep mountain (we never saw the top through the mist) and a flat, still lake. When you get bored of being dazzled by the town and the food, there are caves, mines, and the lake to explore.

1. Vernazza, Italy

The last word in slowing one's heart rate. I could stay here for weeks and it would probably still feel like a few minutes. Just big enough to provide modern conveniences (train station, post office, interesting shops) but small enough to immediately comprehend (one main street, a few winding narrow streets) and completely without that annoying 20th century phenomenon known as the car, Vernazza is stunning. No matter how much of the world I see in my life, it's hard to imagine this ever not being one of my favorite places on it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

October Hodgepodge

There's quite a few unrelated strains of thought coursing through me at the moment. Allow me to share:

England, My England

I've been having issues with this country lately. The first year went quite smoothly: we marveled at the healthcare system, the postal system, the transport system. Here is a nation, we thought, that has things figured out. But lately, it seems to be slowly unraveling.

Maybe it's a simple answer: the little quirks that at first I found charming have worn their charm thin over time. After all, this is the nation in which a few environmentalists were able to climb onto the — need I say it? strictly forbidden — roof of the Houses of Parliament with a very tall ladder. If you think I'm kidding, read this; can you imagine some yahoos making it to the top of the Capitol in Washington? It just wouldn't happen.

Or perhaps it is that there is tangible change afoot: the postal service is on strike, nearly every week a different rail operator union goes on strike (this week most services out of Paddington are not running or delayed), and now British Airways (who we are flying home with in December) is threatening a strike.

[Let me make something clear: these unions do not have a historical understanding of why unions were formed in the first place. Workers did not organize so that no one would ever lose their job; they were created for bargaining power to ensure their rights were upheld. Every one of these recent strikes is based not on reason or justice or even greed, only a lack of historical understanding.]

I think the main sea change, however, is that recently I have become more aware of a vein in British thought and society that is bitterly aware of their nation's decline since the Second World War. They see far more acutely than I how far downhill their rail system has slidden since privatization; they lament how their wealth built up the fledgling states of the European Union, an institution that now dwarfs them in financial and political power. Nowhere was this course of thought more blatantly exposed to me than in a film I recently saw, England, My England. Ostensibly about the life of Henry Purcell, the script seemed more bent on mourning post-imperial Britain than documenting the great composer.

I'm not saying, of course, that America — or any country — has it completely figured out. And without a doubt there is much to love and admire in the UK. Still, I feel that my sketched view of it in these past few weeks has perhaps been colored in a bit more accurately.

My Big Project

I'm working on my first actual 'big' piece of music, a piano concerto. It's based on Steven Millhauser's short story, Cathay. I'm trying to finish the first movement within the next two weeks for a competition, but it's not going smoothly. Usually I love writing music, but I have to be careful that my stress at the moment doesn't quash the overall inspiration.


For a reason unknown to myself or anyone else, I decided to read Rudolf Carnap's Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. It's not what I thought it would be, and I didn't finish it.

However, in the opening chapters, it introduces a concept advocated by Hans Driesch called entelechy (a term he adopted from Aristotle). I'll spare you the technical bits (in fact, in the book it is faulted for lack of technical bits), but in essence, Driesch said that one won't ever understand a biological organism if one examines it as a machine only. There's an unidentifiable other present, a force not currently measurable but that nonetheless separates life from death. He's not talking about God; Driesch likens it to science's early understanding (and misunderstanding) of magnetism and electrical fields.

My money's on this, actually. Though already it's an old (and I think mostly discarded) theory, I think he's right and that a few years down the road (who knows how many?) he'll be regarded as having guessed correctly — albeit with some discrepancies, of course. The history of science is full of people who, without the information or equipment we have today, guessed mostly correctly about the presence of something they did not yet understand. If anyone has any info about how this has (or hasn't) developed, I'd be both interested and grateful.

The Glass Bead Game

I finished it at last. Life-changing. Absolutely devastating. By a mile it's my favorite book of all time. Like his more famous and accessible Siddhartha, the end of the book turns toward the idea of renewal, the cycle of youth and age, and how man can achieve some semblance of immortality through passing down their ideas, discoveries, and advancements.

"With a strange, sorrowful tug at his heart he sensed the recurrence and reversal of the great experience of his youth, and at the same time had that austere feeling, at once constricting and stirring, that afternoon had set in, that youth was gone and noonday passed, that the blossom had become a fruit."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Riviera

It's mid-October, the time of year when the weather finally makes Phoenix a pleasant place. Turns out that it's about the same time of year the weather starts to make London unpleasant. So this weekend we chased the last remaining bit of summer down to the south of France.

If Ibiza is Europe's Las Vegas, than Nice and the French Riviera is Europe's Southern California. Beaches alternate with rolling hills and craggy outcroppings, creating bay after bay, and all richly carpeted with lush flora. It's the kind of place that when you step off the plane, the walkway to the terminal building is glass so you can see the pinkish resort town in the distance sweeping towards the deep blue Mediterranean. Mind you this is before you even get to the terminal building.

The coastline is dotted with dozens of towns, each with a different flavor and claim to fame (Cannes for its film festival, St. Tropez for its beach). Since we had two days, we picked out three towns: Eze, Monaco, and Nice.

Eze is really three places. East of Nice, there's a little cluster of buildings down by the ocean with a train station; up over the cliff and inland, there's a nondescript town where the bus let us off; but perched high on the peak between them is the medieval village of Eze. Eze is like nothing I've ever seen. It's less of a village than it is an enormous, rambling castle. Shops are carved into nooks wherever they can fit, and the paths that serve as roads roam here and there, up and down stairs, through archways.

After a quick bite to eat, we headed off to Monaco. At this point, I should explain that because we left London so early in the morning, we only had 2 hours of sleep the night before. So when we got to our hotel in Monaco, we were pretty exhausted. We settled in for a little nap around 3:00, I set the alarm for about 4:00, and we woke up at... 7:15. Crap.

Oh well. We set out to find dinner and found the city surprisingly empty. I know October isn't exactly the high season, but it was early October and the weather was still pretty hot. Even the area around the famed Casino wasn't too hoppin'. We eventually found a nice place to eat, but our overall impression of the city was: where are all the people?

Also, for a place so notorious as a stomping ground of the rich and famous, it's surprisingly plain. It could be any coastal town built up in the 1960s heyday of bland architecture. Oh yeah, except for those yachts in the harbor.

The next morning we took the train back to Nice, which is more colorful and has far more character. We started the day with a bit of a dud, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

Looks great, right? Well, turns out it's in a pretty lousy part of town and is, on Sunday mornings at least, closed for services.

The rest of Nice, though, is quite wonderful. There are both modern open spaces

and a great Old Town that feels more like neighbors Spain or Italy than France. Here, winding, narrow alleyways suddenly let out onto squares; in such heavy sunlight, the effects are dramatic.

My favorite thing, though, was the walk up the mountain to a park and man-made waterfall; with your back to a rushing waterfall, this is the view.

Also while on the mountain, I discovered why the view from the airport is so impressive. It's right at the edge of the bay's natural arc. I thought this photo was one of the best I had ever taken until I realized that I had framed, with exotic foliage, the Nice airport.

We spent the evening lounging, which given the laid-back attitude towards everything in this beach town, seemed a good way to while away our last few hours.

See the facebook photo album here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

London Off the Beaten Track

For October's photo series, I'd like to show you around some lesser-known places in London. Places that don't exactly have the grandeur of, say, Westminster Abbey, but that don't have the crowds or the notoriety either.

The pelicans in St. James' Park: they're not your typical ducks or geese, and the entire setting is an absolute oasis. Can you believe that this is only a few steps away from the dreary government buildings of Whitehall?

The Lido in Hyde Park is my favorite place to get lunch in London. It looks rather dreary in this February photo, but on a sunny day, a table by the water is the place to be.

The World Food Cafe in Neal's Yard, Covent Garden is a close second. Everything is vegetarian, but that doesn't stop it from being delicious!

Hampstead Heath is a massive park in northern London, but it feels further away. Over the centuries, it has been a haven for artists and writers. It's an odd mix of expansive fields and dense forests, making it easy to see why C.S. Lewis used it as his inspiration for Narnia.

The Mineral Room in Harrod's, the world's largest store, offers everything from fossils and dinosaur bones to this incredible malachite table.

The Hammersmith Bridge spans the river Thames west of town. On the nearby bank is the most British bankside imaginable: a row of pubs.

Southbank Beach. Yes, there is a beach (of sorts) right in the center of town, stretching along the south bank of the river from Royal Festival Hall all the way down to the Globe Theatre. Admittedly it's no white-sand paradise, but at low tide there are sand castle builders and the sheer oddity of standing on a beach crowded in by familiar landmarks makes it worth a look.

Oh yeah, and happy 100th post :)