Wednesday, December 22, 2010

We Need a Little Christmas

I am a sucker for Christmas music. The stuff — especially the old recordings I heard every year as a child — just makes me melt. But this year, while driving home in a particularly melancholy (okay — cranky) mood, a verse of We Need a Little Christmas struck me.

For I've grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older,
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder,
I need a little Christmas now.


For such a peppy, carefree tune (which I will always associate with my Grandma), these are dark sentiments. Suddenly the "need" in the title seems a little gritty. If I follow this thread to its cynical end, the whole reason we throw ourselves at the Christmas season is because regular life is so lousy.

I don't always spend my time souring over the back-handed good wishes in Christmas music, though. In fact, because I am a creature of habit, I'll continue to enjoy and revel in everything Christmas, thank you very much, cheery music and all. It's just that without a bit of melancholy for perspective, happiness is just ignorance.

So with (or perhaps in spite of) all the perspective I can muster, I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas: be nicer than you would be, happier than you should be, and thankful for the opportunity to do so.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hello Again, America

Part of why my transition to American life has been less than smooth probably has to do with politics. A small part, yes, but there's no use in denying that I am a political animal.

Obama's election roughly coincided with me leaving the country, and though I always kept an eye on U.S. news, there's a difference between looking in when you choose and being immersed in it. In my naivety, I thought the U.S. had gotten a little more, well, sensible. We elected a Constitutional Law professor rather than a journalism major without a passport, for example. The public was squarely against the ongoing war in Iraq. I thought things, broadly speaking, had calmed down from the ultra-partisan, bitter, angry mood that characterized the Bush years — a mood that, both in Washington and living rooms, made reasonable discussion about political issues impossible.

Boy was I wrong.

I was airlifted into a jungle of Tea Parties, Rallies (both for sanity and against), and onslaughts of negative, largely untrue campaign ads. The stench of anti-incumbent fervor was as thick in the air as in 2008. Once again, it was impossible (is impossible) to actually discuss issues — like the healthcare reform bill — because stakes had already been immovably planted. And by God if someone had planted their stake across the turf from yours, that's it. No discussion. No debate. Just negativity, and snide gotchas based on grossly untrue assumptions and exaggerations.

I'm not opposed to betraying my bias — this is a blog, not a news outlet — but I am opposed to ideology clouding reason, judgment, and discussion. I'm not so much worried about politeness as I am about closed-mindedness.

So the Republicans were swept into power. They are going to use the skills they demonstrated in the last decade to bring the deficit under control (See? No one cares to remember who started digging the deficit). They are going to re-examine healthcare reform. They are going to use the skills they demonstrated in the last decade to bring unemployment down (See? No one cares to remember under whose watch all those jobs were outsourced).

Fine. I think that compromise is by and large a force for good in politics (and just about everything else in life). If something is actually a good idea, everyone should agree, right? Yes... except when petty, partisan politics gets in the way of real progress.

But I digress; my main intention here is to relay two conversations about Europe I've had lately with people of vastly different backgrounds, perspectives, and — you guessed it — political affiliations. Please put that last bit aside for the moment, though, because which party someone supports is secondary to their way of thinking, and that's what I'm after.

First, a friend told me, "Gosh, you must be glad to be back in America." I asked what he meant, and his response was simple: "After being over there in Europe for two years and seeing what they deal with, it must feel good to be back in the States." No evidence, no argument. Just: America is superior. I was tempted to press him for more, but it's never polite to talk about politics, is it? (see above) so I let him off the hook.

Because I know him and his background as a business owner, I'll go ahead and make a guess: "It must be nice not to have your earnings and everything you buy taxed at such an exorbitant rate." Just in case this isn't what he meant, I've heard this sentiment echoed by others, so I feel safe in saying that this is a view shared by many Americans.

The other conversation, however, was with someone in the classical music industry (as I may be one of these days) who spends a month or two every year in Europe. He complained about the lack of government support for the arts. "The fine arts are worth a 1% sales tax to every Arizonan and to every American. The correction is necessary because our economy has not developed in a way that rewards artists. In bygone centuries it did, but no longer."

The first view is essentially capitalistic, the second, socialist. We have been well-trained to regard the first term with positive and the second with negative connotations. Such connotations aren't of much practical use, though.

At their cores, both ideas are predicated upon ugly concepts: capitalism in its purest form leads to a kind of feudalism. Very few ultra-wealthy, many poor. Socialism in its purest form takes incentive away from creation, from ingenuity, and from personal skill and achievement. Neither is an enticing model of civilization. It's the blend of the two that makes society work.

Roads, firefighters, and national defense are all socialist in nature; anything that is governmental whatsoever goes against pure capitalism. So almost no one thinks that eradicating all traces of socialism is a good idea (except, you know, those fun-loving anarchists), and no one thinks ridding the planet of capitalism will work either.

What we argue about — what we fight and claw each other about — is what the right mix is. Should healthcare be socialized or not? What is the right balance of welfare that reduces crime and the homeless population but maintains incentive for people to get back to work? Sure, there are issues out there that don't fall in this category, but I think you'll find that most of them do: for what issues should there be few shareholders (as in a company) and for what issues should every member of society be a shareholder (as in government)?

People fall over the spectrum: I know a Dutch man who is frustrated with what he considers the 'nanny state' in his country and how it leads people to not work to their full potential. Similar concerns are common in the UK: the government just reformed some policies, for example, by which someone would make less money by getting a job.

It is my opinion, though, that the U.S. has far more to learn from Europe than vice versa. As someone who payed for my healthcare with taxes for the last two years, I have to tell people who are afraid of it (which more often than not means they don't understand it) that it's not a bad thing. The U.S. healthcare system is viewed as barbaric (and rightly so) across the Atlantic: how could someone's medical care depend on how much money they have? And being able to attend concerts, exhibitions, and culture of every kind for little or no money is due in no small part to government support of the arts. Americans marvel at such things on vacation (I heard it constantly: "All these museums, free!") but call it wasteful at home.

The truth is that on many fronts — transport, justice, foreign relations, quality of life — a nation is measured by its government because the government represents all its people, not the privileged few in the board room. Should we choose to invest in that government — in the people — everyone will share in the rewards; and those who choose to invest in the privileged few better hope they're lucky enough to be one of the privileged few.

Europeans have taken this more to heart than Americans (perhaps because they endured centuries of feudalism), and I think their balance of capitalism and socialism is operating better than ours at the moment. In fact, I've only been back a little more than two months now, and O how I miss the place!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Steinbeck's Time

I'm back stateside, and on an American lit. kick to mark my (inconspicuous) return. First up is Steinbeck's East of Eden, a book I wanted to read well before Oprah told me to — Steinbeck is one of my all-time favorites.

I've been hunting around for a universal theory of time perception for the last few years; that is, ever since time slowed to a standstill when I moved to London. And I think I found it in — of all the unlikely places — East of Eden. Near the beginning of chapter 7:

"Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatsoever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that's the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it.— Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Soaking It Up

Strangely, I don't feel like I'm going to move back across the ocean in the morning. I went through a period of being saddened — and oddly worried — by the move, but the closer it gets, the more accepting I am of it.

This has to be at least in part due to our exploits in the city lately: in just two weeks we've rampaged through two Shakespeare plays at the Globe, La Bête, The Woman in Black, and eight concerts at the Proms. Yes: rampaged. And we've been checking off our list of London things-to-do-and-see with equal abandon. One laundry list is enough for one post methinks, but suffice it to say that we've been doing our best to get out and enjoy it while we can.

So long, London. See you again soon, I hope.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Julia Fischer

This afternoon, I rather unexpectedly had one of my most affecting concert experiences ever: the violinist Julia Fischer playing an Ysaÿe solo sonata and the Franck sonata.

I almost didn't get in; though it was a short concert starting at 1 p.m., Cadogan Hall was full to the brim; I was deep in the returns queue and only three people behind me got in.

I've been a fan of Julia Fischer for years: her recording of Brahms' concerto was enough to make me a follower, and I've seen her play live once before — as soloist with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe playing Mendelssohn's concerto. I'm enough of a fan to have wanted to go despite the program (Ysaÿe and Franck aren't typically my sort of thing). But this was a solo recital, where I'd really be able to hear her play, close, and without orchestra.

I expected an outstanding performance, but what raised this concert from outstanding to memorable was the brief, mid-concert interview she gave. Because the concert was part of the BBC Proms, a presenter (the concert was broadcast live) asked her a few questions between the two pieces.

One question involved the flood of recordings available today — including the useful glutton, YouTube — and how they compare to the early recordings made by turn-of-the-century violinists. Julia explained that the early recordings often sound so different from those of today "simply because they didn't have the possibility of YouTube; they couldn't listen to all the other colleagues... They played in their own style with their own ideas."

The simple concept struck me. Musicians playing in their own way because it's what they wanted and what they thought their audience wanted. None of the obsessively self-conscious comparison of recordings performers subject themselves to these days. Surely they must have listened to other violinists and their teachers, but the whole culture about the 'correct' way to approach a piece may not have existed then — certainly not to the point it does now.

(That can only be a positive thing: look, for example, at the wild diversity in musical styles being written in the first half of the 20th century. In contrast, history has shown us more recently that 'taste police' have turned out to at best narrow-minded and at worst oppressive.)

She's not saying the technology isn't beneficial, she's advocating independent thinking. Welcome words to my newly-graduated ears.

She went on to discuss one particular way the changing times had altered interpretation: "Today we are trained to be very rhythmical in style, and at that time not necessarily everyone had a metronome at the age of five... so of course the playing was much freer. And there is a certain difference between being rhythmical and playing like a metronome, which is actually not playing in rhythm."

There's a bit of new music phobia (you know the sort I mean: "Any deviation from the tempo is an error!") dashed. I've fretted for years about the propensity for modern composers to spell out even the tiniest change in metronome marking for the performer. In my view, either they'll understand the music and interpret it or they won't.

Finally, she spoke about the Franck sonata she was about to play, a very well-known and often-performed piece. "It's a dangerous thing to believe that just because something is well-known, you have to make it sound special." Amen to that; if you see a musical with a well-known song, chances are that song will be tortuously 'individual'.

And then she said something that hit home to me not just as a musician or conductor, but as a composer: "Trying to do something completely different from everybody else is as bad as doing it exactly the same as everybody else."

As she spoke, I felt like someone was picking at the knot of musical neuroses and paranoias the College planted, unraveling its tangled threads into orderly, observable thoughts. Perhaps this has only exposed my own niggles and worries rather than detailing the outstanding music I was lucky enough to hear. But the two are inseparable: her comments got to the heart of what I've been trying to digest of late, and I was left somehow unguarded, open, receptive.

The whole experience was overwhelming in the best way. To find a performer who really thinks about music is rare enough, but it comes through in her playing. Her interpretations are mature, perfectly paced, and never showy; she can be confident as well as vulnerable. I haven't found deeper, more meaningful performances anywhere.

Her performance of the Franck was, predictably, outstanding. I say predictably because I already knew it would come from a genuine artistic impulse. She said before she began:

"Even if you know it, I hope you will enjoy it anyway."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Musical Happenings of Late

A few nuggets of musical happenings of late:

I got my first commission on Friday — a proud rite of passage for any composer. Mine may have come later than some, but it certainly helps to fill the post-study void. The new work, commissioned by the Festival Chorus in South London, will be premiered next July.

Also, an old piece of mine, Well, I Was Watching TV on April 29, 2004... will be performed at the Society of Composers National Conference in South Carolina in November. It's the only piece I've written for jazz big band, and I still consider it one of my favorites. You can listen to an excerpt of it here.

And finally, Teriann and I had another unusual London experience last night when we went to see Partial Gathering play in the Old Vic Tunnels. The venue, only recently opened, is a Victorian brick cavern beneath the tracks of Waterloo station, and as you might imagine is completely immersive. Dark, creaking, rumbling, and musty-smelling, the space is fascinating in its own right, but they put on quite a show. Ruaidhri and Corentin are friends from my oh-so-recent time at the Royal College, but they're turning into contemporary electronic stars of sorts. The best thing about these guys — apart from their hair, of course — is how honest and unfussy their music is; they say what they mean to, and boldly. Pleased to have met you, lads.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Second Anniversary Trip

I've been putting this off. I've been procrastinating. Partly because this, recounting our last venture out to Europe before we come home, is slightly bittersweet, and partly because I haven't been looking forward to the task of selecting — out of our roughly 400 photos of the weekend — the best ones to post here. They're all incredible. You'll see what I mean.

I suppose that now that two months have passed, though — our trip was in early June — I should face it.

Our destination was Bled, Slovenia. Slovenia was, until 1992, a Soviet satellite, and pretty much everyone I talked to back in Phoenix said, "Umm... where's that?" It is nestled in the corner made by Italy and Austria, and, though a small country, has both beautiful Adriatic coastline and the southern edge of the Alps.

This latter part was where we visited: Bled sits just where the Julian Alps flatten out.



It's not hard to see that this was recently Soviet territory: neighboring towns we saw from the train looked gray and unpromising, and much of the architecture is drab and square (although, to be fair, that may have been more a fault of the 60s and 70s in general). What is remarkable, though, is the rebirth going on in Bled itself. Everywhere, people are determined to make the most out of what was a lousy situation. The plain, concrete hotels on the lakeside all sport fledgling crawlers whose vines half-cover the grayness. It's effective, and a far more elegant solution than wrecking everything and building from scratch. New buildings, on the other hand, are built with taste, quality, and an eye for detail. If only Britain invested the same level of attention and taste in its new buildings.

And the people are kind — which always influences how you feel about a place.

All this would make a very nice holiday destination, but what pushes it over the top — and drew us there — was the outstanding natural beauty. And an excellent place to take it in was our first stop, Bled Castle, perched on a cliff over the lake.




They were having their annual 'Medieval Days' festival, which basically entailed some sword-fighting, some archery, and a whole lot of dressing up.



But the best thing about the castle was the view.



The lake is peaceful and calm, and is ringed by a wide, comfy footpath. It's not terribly long, but it takes ages because you have to stop constantly to take pictures!

Along this journey, we rented a rowboat and rowed out to the island for a closer look.






Easily one of the best traveling days I've ever had. And it was only the first.

The next day, we rented bikes and took a ride through the countryside to Vintgar Gorge.





It was incredible; I've seen murkier water in aquariums.



I can't imagine a better way to spend our anniversary. Mmmm lunch.



One last word about Bled: the food. It was not only really good (since it's so close to both, you can get proper Italian food and proper German food), it's really cheap. A glass of wine with dinner costs four or five pounds in London. In Bled? One Euro. One. In fact, the prices for just about everything around town are just right. The restaurants are really nice, but no one dresses up in them. It's laid back because everyone else there has been out hiking too. What a great town.



The airport we flew into was across the Austrian border in Klagenfurt, so on our way back out, we stopped to have a look around. Klagenfurt is home of one of Europe's largest model parks, Minimundus. There were elaborate models of most of the continent's landmarks, and we enjoyed seeing our previous travels in miniature. Like our previous year's anniversary trip: Neuschwanstein.



Teriann with the Tower of London.



Klagenfurt is also near the second of Mahler's three composing huts. We saw his first one last September, which was on open, grassy bank by a vast lake. This one, however, where he wrote his Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies, was tucked away in dense forest. Only a few hundred yards from another lake, the trees were so thick you couldn't tell it was there at all. It was quiet and secluded.



And just down the hill, his villa on the Wörther See.



The things I'll miss about Europe.

Bittersweet? Mixed feelings? Yes. But there's no doubt that the glass is half full.



Have a look at the many other photos in the facebook album.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Layers: Inception

I've seen Christopher Nolan's Inception twice now. How rare and wonderful a thing nowadays is a movie you can't completely understand on the first viewing.

By the way, I've been very careful, and there are no spoilers ahead.


After seeing it the first time, I was left with a couple of reservations about the film. The plot itself isn't particularly convoluted, but there was something vaguely unsatisfying that I couldn't put my finger on. Yes the music isn't quite right and I could edit out five to ten minutes of pointless gun-fighting scenes (this film actually would have been better with a smaller budget), but that wasn't it.

I couldn't get the film out of my head for a week and a half, so with a few theories in mind, I saw it once more to sort it out. As I watched again, I realized that what I was confirming wasn't the basics of the plot — as I said, it's reasonably straightforward — but the presence of another layer cleverly built in.

Layers are, for me, the most satisfying thing in art. It's why I'm less intrigued by painting and sculpture than by literature, music, and film. In Bach, Brahms, Adams, or Schwartz, in Dickens, McEwan, Kaufman, and Hitchcock, layers mean all sorts of different things, but always enrich the end product.

Someone could watch it once and understand (most of) the plot and have an enjoyable ride, but I would argue there's a deeper level to the film that only rewards those who do a little digging.

That — cinematic Bach in the age of one-layer pop tunes — is truly satisfying.

Saturday

I just finished reading Ian McEwan's recent novel, Saturday. McEwan is one of my favorite writers, but that opinion is founded on admittedly little. Before this, I'd only read Enduring Love, which was good enough to seal his place on my future reading list, and Amsterdam, which was, to be kind, very weak. I haven't even gotten yet to the novel considered by many to be his best: Atonement.

But Saturday, I'm happy to report, is terrific. Better, if anything, than Enduring Love. He is better than anyone else I've read at detailing the inner workings of the mind, of slowing down the blur of mixed-up thoughts that rush by at machine-like speed to a more human, understandable pace. In so doing, he achieves that near-impossible feat of squeezing thoughts into syntax and grammar without harming or altering them in the process. (An unfortunate byproduct of this is that when time resumes its speed and the action in the plot moves along, it does so clumsily. He's clearly more at home with writing from the inside, and I think the best McEwan novel possible would perhaps take the space of only minutes or seconds and contain no plot whatsoever.)

So why am I writing about it? I read plenty of books that I like or dislike, and to mention them all here would be as dreary for me as for you.

Because while art is littered with works shining lights into every nook of the past and trying desperately to imagine every possibility of the future, there are precious few books — or artworks of any medium — that illuminate the present. Shock Doctrine, which I wrote about here some months ago, was one, but as the old saying goes, if you want the truth, read fiction.

Saturday is, at its very best, an elaborate and detailed snapshot of what life in this time is like, what life in London is like, and how the conflicting forces of technology and humanity play out — in one's mind and in society. There are passages that feel like he's written my thoughts with greater clarity than I can think them, and I'm very grateful that he has.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Six Weeks

Well, at long, long last, a decision. Teriann and I will be moving back to Phoenix — home sweet home — on August 31.

I was bursting with anticipation, but now I'm overflowing with mixed feelings. To be sure, I'll be elated to be home. There are too many people I haven't seen in too long, and I'm eager to get on the right side of our cash-flow. Here's an unlikely statement: I can't wait to start working. But there are people who I'll dearly miss here in London. And let's face it, leaving the most vibrant, culturally rich — in a word, best — city in the world (I feel no remorse in calling it so) is bound to be difficult. We are bracing ourselves for reverse culture shock.

In fact, if there's one challenge ahead that truly worries me (and mind you there are no shortages of challenges), it's to find a way to avoid merely existing. I want to keep pushing — from a career point of view as well as artistically and personally — and I want nothing more than to bask in the comfort of home without losing sight — or reach — of this.

And another minor event occurred since I wrote here last: I graduated from the Royal College of Music. Below are fellow composers Franco (Mexican), Camilo (Columbian), Huw (Australian), and some lousy American.



On the steps between the College and the Royal Albert Hall.



So now when people ask me why I'm in London, I can no longer say I'm studying. Now I'm just plain old unemployed.

This new prospect of a time limit, however, has lit a fire under us: we've been tearing around London making sure we see everything we want to before we no longer have the opportunity to stroll into one of the world's great museums for free.

One highlight was the Wallace Collection, a hidden gem of a place. One part stately old house, two parts museum, we especially liked the room full of paintings by Canaletto and this emerald green room. Expect our living area to look like this in the coming years!



And today we had a terrific day seeing two essentials: the Museum of London and the galleries of the British Library.

The latter holds everything from the earliest known sources of the New Testament to Beatles lyrics scrawled on the back of birthday cards in one relatively small space. It's worth a trip to London just to see the contents of that room. And the Museum of London details the story of the city from prehistory to the Great Fire of 1666 with astonishing depth and interest (the newly opened recent-history exhibits leave much to be desired — if you're visiting, plan to spend the bulk of your time on the first floor).

Despite all the history and tradition though, there's always something new, something happening. In Trafalgar Square, for instance, statues occupy three plinths in the square, but the fourth plinth changes every so often. At the moment, it's a gigantic ship in a bottle.



What a city, eh?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Waiting

It's hard to know which Sondheim lyric to believe. In A Little Night Music, he tells us it's "bad for the heart." And yet, Mrs. Lovett persuades Sweeney Todd that "good things come to those who can... wait."

A pall of uncertainty about jobs (or the lack thereof) has been hanging over my head for uncomfortably long now. Do pardon my silence here, as I have had other fingernails to gnaw.

Life has trundled on, however. Teriann and I took a fantastic trip to Slovenia to celebrate our second anniversary (more on that soon, of course) and this weekend was an excellent Fourth of July weekend. We spent Saturday night with the flatmates (the usual shenanigans ensued, of course) and Sunday evening at the Abbey with Graeme and other assorted Americans (mostly clergy, but one gentleman who builds sets for West End musicals).

And I graduate on Friday, a milestone that does not seem nearly as significant as I would have guessed. My last one felt like an event, a rite of passage; this feels more like a ceremony.

I sincerely hope that I have better news to report when I write here again. This blog has somewhat unexpectedly turned into a litany of travel blurbs rather than what I intended: a place to air my esoteric and ponderous views about music, culture, and whatever else happens to pop in my mind. Recent topics that have been spared this prolonged scrutiny include the world-cup-vuvuzela-madness (I'm completely hooked — Teriann and I are talking about going to the 2014 Cup in Rio), my layman's theory of time (it's really just movement, whether it's light or gravity or walking), and the 1-year anniversary of Adam's trip to visit us (I miss you, bro... I'll never watch Wimbledon the same).

In the meantime, then, here's to looking ahead.

101 Hits the Road Part Two: Wales

Months ago, everyone in our house was gathered around the TV (lazying around on a Sunday, no doubt) when a travel show had a program on about a new sport gaining popularity in Wales: coasteering. Unanimously, we decided we had to go try it, and we finally got it organized for the last weekend of May.

We stayed in the pretty little town of Betws-y-Coed,



which, despite the above photo (taken in the morning) is quite a bit livelier than other small, primarily tourist-oriented towns we've been through. The forest around the town makes it seem even smaller — it's essentially one main drag — but even out in the Welsh forest there was a minibus taxi available to take the 9 of us around for a night out in neighboring towns.

Unfortunately, we don't yet have the photos of coasteering itself. Digital cameras have made us completely helpless at converting our disposable, waterproof camera (which uses an ancient artifact known as film) into photographs viewable by the naked eye or indeed, the computer. So for the moment, suffice it to say that it was both terrifying and brilliant, and that I'll post pictures and such here when I get them.

We also visited a ruined castle (Wales is positively littered with them) and took a really enjoyable walk around a lake in the mountains behind town.




And, like our other May journey, it was made unforgettable by our incredible flatties. I've started to worry about missing these folks when we get back to the states.



Have a look at the facebook album here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

101 Hits The Road Part One: Stockholm

In true Tom and Teriann fashion, we took a trip at the beginning of last month that we had neither the time nor the money for. In our defense, we planned it (and paid for it) last year, when we didn't think finding jobs would be an issue. And it wasn't even our idea: all our flatmates decided to do a trip for the bank holiday weekend. How could we resist?

First impression: what a beautiful city.




We enjoy the simple pleasures in traveling. Like climbing on lions (just like Trafalgar Square — only smaller),



and rummaging through copper-filled antique shops.



Sweden (and Scandinavia in general) is consistently ranked as having the world's top quality of life, so I suppose I had myself primed to see it through rose-colored glasses. And true, once we spent more time walking around more of the city I found that like any other city it has less-beautiful areas. But still, look at this church:



It's St. Jacob's, on the main square, now primarily used as a concert venue. They take their crests very seriously — check out the size and detail.



The main event of our first day was a visit to the Vasa, an old ship with an incredible story. Sunk an hour into its maiden voyage in 1628, the Vasa was raised from the bed of Stockholm harbor in 1961.




Because the water in the harbor is brackish (a mix of salt and fresh), it was impossibly well-preserved. The detail still on the ship after three centuries underwater beggars belief.



Strangely, it is an amazing sight both because of its age (incredible to think that people built such magnificent ships so long ago) and because of the very modern engineering feat it represents. There was a model of this incredible process that happened nearly 50 years ago.



The museum was filled with models, actually, including an enormous model of the Vasa as it would have appeared fully rigged for its maiden voyage that was an impressive work of art in its own right. Another of my favorites was this model of life aboard the ship (the sailors fighting in the upper right corner are chuckle-worthy at minimum).



They could have just raised an old ship out of the ocean and I would have been impressed, but the supplementing exhibits were really well done. There was stuff about life on the sea in 1628, stuff about the various items (and, unfortunately, people) found on board in 1961, and stuff about the mind-boggling process of displaying and looking after such a cumbersome and unprecedented piece of history. A one-of-a-kind experience, to be sure; I couldn't recommend it highly enough.

Also planned for the weekend was an overnight cruise. On this:



I had never been on a cruise before, so I was stoked! I felt like a little kid on board. The buffet dinner was hands-down the best buffet I've ever had (which I suppose isn't that much of an accomplishment, but still: there was caviar and ostrich) and we spent the night having a good old singalong with the guitar player in the on-board pub.

The best thing about the boat, though, was the view. As it took us out of the city (and practically halfway to Finland), the homes on the banks became fewer and further in between.




And after dinner, there was only wilderness.



What is most important (and most difficult) to convey here is that what really made the weekend come alive was our flatmates. Our big group made even the mundane parts of the trip fun. Pictures are far more effective than my writing can be to that end: have a look at the facebook album.

All in all, a magical weekend.

Wrapping Up

Graduate school is essentially finished. The graduation ceremony isn't until July, but I turned in the last of my work last Thursday night and am already enjoying writing music without disdainful academia looking over my shoulder.

But the future is far from clear: I always thought that coming home would be a dose of certainty and stability, but at the moment, the job issue is making it almost as daunting as London was two years ago. When will I be able to start teaching? Will I be able to get a job at the Bang right away? Will I make time to do all the things I want to and be able to avoid an artistic rut?

I'm full of heavy questions at the moment. Perhaps the one I should most be concerned with is: when am I coming home?

Monday, May 31, 2010

The In-Laws Week Three: Bonus Time in London

The week of April 19 was a crazy one. Louie and Suzanne were stuck with us for another week due to volcanic ash (I think we were happier about them staying than they were!), but I was really busy: school was back in session. So while they took a second look around in the British Museum and other places, I was writing or in rehearsal. Still, I managed to come along to a few things here and there.

On Thursday we went on a London walk of the City. In case I haven't explained this before, most of what people consider to be London is actually Westminster, just west of the 'proper' capital City of London. The City, as it's called, is now London's financial district, which means Teriann and I are relatively unfamiliar with it, but it's also the oldest and most historic part of London, which makes it an interesting walk.

Leadenhall Market was very nice,



and Londoners first got hooked on coffee in a little alley nearby.



In 1652, there weren't numbered addresses as we think of them today, but signs or pictures above each shop that would identify them to people who couldn't read. You see what I mean, though: history is thick on the ground.

The Guildhall is an old (and surprisingly German-styled) building now sandwiched in between modern glass insurance buildings. It is itself built near the site of the old Roman amphitheatre, whose outline is now the public square in front of it.




We'll be going back soon to see the exhibition about the amphitheatre — we didn't have time on the day, though.

During their first week in London, we had gone to Windsor Castle, home of Her Majesty Queen Superfluous, but because she was holding a superfluous State posh dinner, it was all closed up except for Queen Mary's doll house. Fascinating though the doll house was (check out those model cars!),



it wasn't really what we had come to see, so we went back for another visit during our extra week. The castle turned out to be worth the extra trip: fantastic and overwhelming (and a head-scratching use of public funds for a nation so profoundly in debt). We couldn't take our own photos inside, but the grounds were spectacular.




This just happened to be on St. George's Day, England's national day, so there was much patriotic singing and merriment at the local pub.



Okay, I guess there's not singing in the picture, but trust me... there was merriment! Just beyond those windows, there was a crowd of old Brits proudly singing/shouting "Ruuuuuuule Britannia! Britaaaaannia ruuuuuules the waaaaaaves!"

The next night, Teriann and Suzanne went to see Billy Elliot, but Louie and I went for something a little more gentlemanly: snooker.

Neither one of us had ever played snooker, but we were both basically hooked because the World Championships were on TV throughout April. So basically every night, we were watching snooker matches, and we were keen to have a go.



Look at the size of the table! I'm in the picture below... somewhere.



I lost, of course. Louie is a pool shark after all.

On their last night, the Suns were playing early enough in Phoenix for us to watch it in London. The only trouble was that only one place in town was showing it: the renowned American expat hangout, The Sports Cafe. Turns out Americans really do have bad taste: it's the worst bar I've ever been in: smelly, loud, rather-be-elsewhere staff — all that and more. Or less? Oh well... couldn't dampen our spirits — we had a great trip.