OCTOBER 18th 2018 — The photo is from IceCon 2018, between panel discussions at Culture House Iðnó in Reykjavík (early October), but it made me think of theater.
Theater is special. There is a magic to it. This post is a small tribute to that.
From the heavy curtains to the wonderfully worn, scratched stage floors, to the costumes and props, makeup and music, light and shadow, real people and things in physical space sharing an experience that will always be new, never exactly the same, and of course the amazing, intoxicating smell that many theaters have, theater engages all the senses and involves us as human beings in a beautiful world of art.
I support the idea that parents should let children discover this magic in one way or another at a young age.
Some things in life simply make for warmer and often — not always, but often — more empathetic souls. And theater is one of those things.
OCTOBER 2nd 2018 — There’s a fresh wind blowing. Some corner has been turned. I don’t know why or how. But that’s the feeling.
I was thinking this with some wonder on my way to the grocery store, and next thing I knew, this book, THE UNASHAMED ACCOMPANIST (1984) by Gerald Moore, fell in my lap — I found it on the free book exchange rack at the nearby shopping center.
Gerald Moore is a pianist whose work I got to know in the early 2000s when I acquired a collection of back issues of BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE, the cover CDs of which featured full, quality performances of classical music. He played on some of them.
(I still have that collection of magazines and CDs. I packed them and only a small number of other important things into plastic storage boxes and asked my parents to keep them for me back in Finland.)
I also remembered an interview with him from those issues. And the thing is, he was already active in the 1920s, so I’m currently coming across his name in the back issues of THE GRAMOPHONE I’m now reading.
To paraphrase from memory one of my favorite writers: We respect serendipity around here. I’ll share the exact quote in a later entry when I come across it again.
Or, for another paraphrase of the general thought, when two meaningful events occur in such close succession, it means something.
Somehow, the things we need seem to find us sooner or later, wherever we go. At least, as long as we follow our hearts. No matter how strange or difficult the road.
P.S. “There’s a fresh wind blowing in THE WILD SHORE,” is what Ursula K. Le Guin said of Kim Stanley Robinson’s debut novel, which I only just realized was published the same year as THE UNASHAMED ACCOMPANIST. Mister Robinson is the only living science fiction author whose work I read.
SEPTEMBER 24th 2018 — The third issue of THE GRAMOPHONE bears the cover date August 1923.
Reverend Edmund H. Fellowes, Doctor of Music, contributes a one-page article on English Renaissance composer William Byrd to mark the 300th anniversary of his death. This was a time when music from times this far in the past was only starting to be recorded, and its admirers therefore treasured every new release.
Few of these early recordings of Byrd are on Spotify, but four that are are mentioned in the reviews section. All played on the harpsichord by Violet Gordon-Woodhouse:
“ROWLAND OR LORD WILLOBIE’S WELCOME HOME”, FVB. 160.
“THE QUEENE’S ALMAN”, FVB. 171.
“GALIARDA”, FVB. 255.
“EARLE OF OXFORD’S MARCHE”, FVB. 259.
See this earlier post in this “Let’s read” series for a photo of Ms. Gordon-Woodhouse. She did a lot to increase the popularity of the harpsichord and awareness of its importance in the history of music.
I have to mention one more Byrd song cited in this issue, though the recording is not on Spotify, because it has such a great title: “WHY DO I USE MY PAPER, INK, AND PEN?” Most great composers also had great senses of humor. Bach composed a COFFEE CANTATA.
An aside: These back issues of nearly a century ago (at the time of writing this) are treasures. But they are also relics. For example, the N word appears in this issue.
As someone with an academic background (the unwelcome effects of which I have long worked to shed), I am personally not shocked by such things — because anyone who has done any reading of old texts has seen this type of language in old texts all too often. But it is good to realize times have changed since then.
That said, I assume an intelligent readership, so I won’t be climbing on any soapboxes or wasting space commenting further on matters like this. But I did not want to sweep this under the carpet.
Francis Brett Young in an article called “At Random”:
“A little time since, I was asked to contribute to a symposium on a question raised in America […]: whether the cinematograph had not rendered the novel superfluous. The question seemed to me a silly one, for it disregarded one of the fundamental functions of the novelist, which is the achievement of verbal beauty, with all its suggestions, in prose.”
“Z.” rues the loss of a record:
“I only had an opportunity of playing the last-mentioned record once, when the interpretation made a great impression on me, and I am sorry to say that the disc has disappeared from my review shelves. Perhaps my colleague, Mr. J. Caskett, was so much pleased with it that he has literally devoured it, or it may be that he sat on it by accident and buried the fragments in the garden without daring to confess his crime.”
I miss this kind of relaxed, conversational style in publications like THE GRAMOPHONE (these days minus the definite article). Also, digital music — much as I deeply appreciate it and its availability — means no such anecdotes or musings could come about anymore, except with the hardy souls who never abandoned physical media.
Another flight of fancy from “Z.”:
“Much is lost if they are not played with the loudest needle, and although the scratch is not unduly in evidence, so exquisite is this music that I have never felt such bitterness against chemists for not being able to do what they ought to be able to do. If I were a despot, I would summon before me the leading chemists of the day; I would immure them in a completely equipped laboratory, and I would give them two years to eliminate the scratch from gramophone records. The penalty for failure should be imprisonment for the term of their life in a cell lit by acetylene gas and covered with encaustic tiles. Here they should spend the rest of their unnatural lives, listening day and night to the strains of a cheap gramophone playing on a scratchy record ‘I’M FOR EVER BLOWING BUBBLES’. Their food should be sent in to them from the Eustace Miles restaurant in Chandos Street; their lightest reading should be Freud, Jung, and Ernest Jones; and doubtless, if I really were a despot, I should be able to devise all sorts of additional horrors, which in my present state of limited power I have neither space nor time to enumerate.”
He did well enough already. Eccentric digressions like this in these vintage issues often make me smile. They are very human, and more of human life and of humanity comes through when writers are allowed real freedom of thought and expression, and the luxury of enough space. Something has been lost since these days, at least when it comes to most music journalism.
Less charmingly, “Z.” strays from the eccentric to the crude with this:
“Not that I crave to hear the words of what is one of the most tiresome songs ever written, and one that by some curious misfortune of mine second-rate sopranos always choose to sing whenever I go to a concert in Italy. I nearly committed sopranocidio by throwing a lemon squash at the last woman I heard sing it.”
Hardly gracious or gentlemanly.
So while I admire some aspects of these older approaches to music journalism, things like this occasionally cool these warm feelings.
Back along more amusing lines, “Z.” again of a record:
“I thought that it was a really good record; but, alas, with each succeeding performance it becomes more tinny, and if I play it much more I shall be able to preserve tomatoes in it.”
Frank Swinnerton comments on the limitations of the day’s recording technology:
“The gramophone cannot yet reproduce the letter ‘S’. It cannot yet render satisfactorily the full volume of an orchestra or the pure tone of the pianoforte. Always the orchestra has a tinny vibration — a dwarfing of the original; nearly always the piano has many notes — particularly loud notes — resembling the banjo. Pang, pang, pang… Strings are still the most satisfactory instruments for mechanical reproduction.”
A recording already mentioned in this “Let’s read” series and available on Spotify:
Norman Allin singing Albert Ketèlbey’s Shakespeare setting “BLOW, BLOW, THOU WINTER WIND”. “Z.” says it “can be used for frightening cats.” I like this composer’s orchestral pieces more, though.
In the “Gramophone Societies’ Reports” (yes, people used to gather together to listen to music on the gramophone), Ernest Baker of The South-East London (Recorded) Music Society comments on Wagner’s music:
“It covers the whole gamut of musical emotion; it has such amazing descriptive power and is so full of pure musical beauties. We have the music of the sea, of fire, the air, love, life, and death — all painted by a master-hand upon an immense canvas.”
All this reminds me of Iceland as well.
An article called “A Decca Romance” tells the story of a portable Decca gramophone that a British battalion hauled around in “a large clothes basket” in World War I. Everyone brought back records when on leave, in England or Paris, for example, and records were also ordered by post.
“Strange homes that old Decca has had, up and down the villages of France, in ruined houses, in huts, in tents, in transport lines.”
After the war was over:
“It was put up for a raffle in the village, and no less a sum than five pounds was raised for the Benevolent Fund of the battalion’s Old Comrades’ Association, while the man who won it for one shilling is not grumbling at his bargain. Long may it flourish in its new home!”
Wagner pieces or extracts mentioned in this issue with some relevance to Icelandic sagas (though none of the recordings mentioned is on Spotify), cited again here for their evocative titles (Wotan = Óðinn / Odin):
“Forging Songs” / “Siegfried Forges the Broken Sword”
“Mime’s Treachery to Siegfried”
“Siegfried Follows the Forest Bird”
“Brünnhilde Hails the Radiant Sun”
“Brünnhilde Recalls Her Valkyrie Days”
“Introduction: Wotan Invokes Erda”
“Siegfried’s Ascent to the Valkyrie Rock”
“Brünnhilde Yields to Siegfried”
Plus the related composition, not part of the opera:
GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG (TWILIGHT OF THE GODS)
“The Parting of Brünnhilde and Siegfried”
“Hagen Meditates Revenge”
“Gunther and Gutrune Welcome Siegfried”
“Prelude: The Rhinemaidens Scene”
“Brünnhilde Kindles the Funeral Pyre”
Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 3 — August 1923”:
This issue is available as part of the magazine’s digital archive, which every subscriber (a month or a year, digital or print+digital) gets access to.
SEPTEMBER 20th 2018 — Ray Bradbury loved cinema and cinematic storytelling all his life.
From trips to the movies with a beloved family member when he was a boy, he fell in love with the form and it never ended.
Two characteristics permeate all his writing: all of it is lyrical — he had the soul of a poet and that’s why he’s one of my favorite writers — and much of it is powerfully sensual. It engages all the senses.
He said one could film any of his stories by simply turning each sentence or paragraph into a shot. All the information was there, he said, in his writing: what to show and when and how.
From 1985 to 1992 the world enjoyed his TV series THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER. It was filmed on location in many countries: Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and France.
Ray personally scripted every episode and proved his profound and natural understanding of how to tell a story in this form. His work for the series is a model of what to do and not do in scripting film and television.
(I prefer saying just “film” from now on. These are mini-movies in all but name.)
Scenes are allowed to unfold without drowning everything under too much dialogue. Just enough is said and not said. Sights, sounds, and yes, through the power of his work and that of his collaborators, also smells, tastes, and tactile experiences come through.
Iceland is to me Bradbury country and more like the remembered land of my childhood than anywhere else I have been as an adult. Magic is still possible here. The elements have power, like in his stories. The wind has a presence unlike anywhere else. There is the sea, there are mountains and waterfalls, and dark nights and summer cottages in pristine nature.
Stories live here and are respected. As is poetry. As is music. I write this in a snug bedroom with a great big bed and a slanting ceiling of the kind that through some geometrical alchemy seems to fire the imaginations of all creative people. I wish more than anything that I could really share all this.
In any case, Iceland is a great place to watch THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER. I also did so in Paris last winter, and before that in Finland. As an adult, and long ago, first in childhood.
“Marionettes, Inc.” (1985), directed by Paul Lynch (who also directed many episodes of the STAR TREK spin-offs), is not among my favorite episodes. I felt casting James Coco (1930–1987) as the protagonist was not the best choice.
But like all these episodes, this one too affords many incidental delights. Here are some of them.
This and every other episode of THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER is available as part of a DVD box set. Despite nearly VHS-quality video, it comes with my warmest recommendation.
SEPTEMBER 20th 2018 — When I first visited Iceland in 2016, my hosts showed me many places, among them the southwestern tip of Iceland and of Reykjanes (“Smoky Cape”) Peninsula, a memorial site for geirfuglinn, the great auk. Eldey (“Fire Island”), where the last great auks were killed in the 19th century, can be seen 16 kilometers off the shore.
Other than the one above, I currently have no access to the photos I took at this particular place, but following my earlier post where I mentioned the great auk, Thomas Bouakache Trosborg in the Facebook group “International Students at the University of Iceland” kindly offered the photos below to share here.
Thank you for sharing these photos, Thomas!
The remains of the last male great auk were found in Brussels in 2017, as reported by ICELAND MONITOR:
SEPTEMBER 16th 2018 — As part of the course Inngangur að sögu Íslands (“Introduction to the History of Iceland”) by Markús Þ. Þórhallsson, we visited The Settlement Exhibition on the Friday of the first week of classes.
The building was constructed around the remains of a viking longhouse excavated in central Reykjavík in 2001.
SEPTEMBER 15th 2018 — My studies in Icelandic as a Second Language at the University of Iceland started with an orientation week in the penultimate week of August 2018. The first day was beautiful and sunny, warm but not too warm.
I was especially impressed by the warmth radiated by the head of the program, Professor Jón Karl Helgason (“Jón Karl, Helgi’s son”). He spoke softly and with a glint of humor, starting his introductory talk with a photo of his newborn son. He told us this was going to be our competition for the coming year — he expects us to match or exceed the progress of the young one.
This warmth is something I have rarely felt in the presence of Finnish teachers, but in Iceland it is not uncommon. Many Icelanders know how to bring warmth to a whole room, as Jón Karl did. It made the place feel welcoming and supremely safe. Whereas in Finland, in my experience, it is more common for rooms to have a constant low-level tension. It makes a huge difference.
But I don’t mean to put down Finns, who can have fine qualities of their own. And I have been fortunate enough to have studied under several exceptional ones.
During a break I found my way to the canteen, where I ate healthily: vegetable balls in curry pineapple sauce with pasta and salad, with a vitamin drink.
Other orientation week activities included a guided tour of the campus, hotdogs and soda in the open air, and of course a student party at the on-campus Stúdentakjallarinn (“The Student Cellar”) — with free bjór (beer).
As we were told during a later visit to the Settlement Museum, beer has long been important in Iceland. In the old days, no feast would have been possible without it, and feasts were very important community-strengthening events.
I headed home in the evening to my apartment in Kópavogur (“Seal Pup Bay”), feeling it had been a good start.
I would soon be moving much closer to the university, however. But that’s a different story.