The great auk and Fire Island

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Admiring the sea view with a friend on my first visit to Iceland. Late 2016, Reykjanes.

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.

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The stone statue commemorating the last great auk. This and the following photos by Thomas Bouakache Trosborg.
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Iceland has documented and annotated numerous sites with durable information plaques like this.
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Eldey in the distance, to the southwest of this most southwestern point of Iceland.
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Information plaque about the fateful (for the great auk) island.

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:

https://icelandmonitor.mbl.is/news/news/2017/08/19/the_last_male_great_auk_has_been_found/

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The Settlement Exhibition, Reykjavík

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Landnámssýningin (“The Settlement Exhibition”) in downtown Reykjavík, late August 2018. The flightless bird pictured at bottom right is the great auk. The last known members of this species died in June 1844 on the island of Eldey (“Fire Island”). Cause of death? Strangulation. By Icelandic sailors.

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.

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The actual longhouse. It was inhabited from about 930 to 1000, so from very close to the beginning of larger-scale settlement of Iceland. But apparently vikings were not the first to try to establish a foothold in Iceland. It seems Gaelic monks got here first — or if not first, at least before. But if I recall correctly something heard during a lecture, history does not tell us what became of them. They just kind of disappeared off the pages of history once the vikings arrived, though it is not difficult to at least theorize what happened.
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Bilingual signs. Iceland is highly bilingual with English. As more than one Icelander has pointed out to us, it can be difficult to get Icelanders to speak just Icelandic to you, since they can be eager to practice their often already considerable English skills. But it dismays me whenever I hear someone from another country fortunate enough to live here express lack of interest in learning any Icelandic. To me that is disrespectful and closed-minded.
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Ancient stone tools. Stone is also a widely used construction material in Iceland, often employed to impressive effect. The reason is logical: Iceland has little in the way of trees. Once there were more forested areas, but those disappeared when the wood was used up for various purposes. But even then, most likely the wooded areas comprised very low-growing birches. Hence a well-known joke here: What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up. No rotten tomatoes, please, we heard it from Icelanders themselves!
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A panoramic display running around the wall, showing the view from this place as it existed in the old days, with animated sections showing some typical activities of the times. No really old thatched cottages survive for the obvious reason that they are naturally biodegradable.
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An interactive table display of the longhouse, with popup menus opened, scrolled through, and closed by hand movements above the surface of the table.

1st day of school

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Veröld (“World”) on the University of Iceland campus. This building — “hús Vigdísar” (“house of Vigdís”) — was founded in honor of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir (“Vigdís, Finnbogi’s daughter”), the first democratically directly elected female president in the world. She was president of Iceland from 1980 to 1996. Whereas my own country of birth, Finland, was the first, in 1906, to give women full political rights, i.e. the right to vote as well as run for office. But Finland got its first female president, Tarja Halonen, only in the year 2000. She left office in 2012.

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.

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Orientation event “The Keys to Success at the University of Iceland”.

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.

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The menu at the student canteen Háma (“Gobble”) on my first day.

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.

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First meal at my new “home away from home”.

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.

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Landsbókasafn Íslands — Háskólabókasafn (“National Library of Iceland — University Library”) is the largest library in Iceland, with over a million items, including valuable manuscripts. So valuable that the library is surrounded by an actual moat. The building took 16 years to finish and opened in 1994.

I headed home in the evening to my apartment in Kópavogur (“Seal Pup Bay”), feeling it had been a good start.

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Aðalbygging (“Main Building”) at night. University of Iceland, late August 2018.

I would soon be moving much closer to the university, however. But that’s a different story.

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A cool jazz trio jammed at Stúdentakjallarinn at the close of the first orientation day.

Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 1 — April 1923

 

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1st page of the 1st issue of THE GRAMOPHONE (now over a thousand issues young), Apr. 1923. From the digital archive.

SEPTEMBER 9th 2018 — This entry inaugurates a tradition I plan to follow in the future:

The following of a number of threads like this, with the intention to see where they lead and what light they throw upon my special interests in life. This is far from the only “Let’s” series I have in mind.

THE GRAMOPHONE magazine was founded in Great Britain in 1923 by Compton Mackenzie, novelist, critic, actor, and gardener, along with London editor Christopher Stone. For many decades it covered all music released on record, unlike today, when it is solely dedicated to classical music.

This earlier orientation means it is quite a comprehensive bible to music of all genres released in those several decades. Combined with Spotify, it makes for a wonderful resource and guide into the music of times past.

Let’s see where the first issue takes us. You can find all these back issues as part of the digital archive available at least on iOS and other platforms as well. As a dedicated Apple user these days, I do most things in iOS.

A word of caution, however: I will be commenting only upon pieces of music that interest me at the particular time that I write my entries. There is a lot of more than worthy music that I will pass by. I just want to comment on some.

* * *

The time is April 1923.

One thing that these classic issues have to offer is a use of English now largely lost. While there are attitudes that will justly strike a modern reader as awful and harsh, there are also graces and subtleties that no modern publication can offer. The use of language is often rich and luxurious.

Of all the recordings mentioned in this issue, it would be hard not to place at the top the one by violinists Kreisler and Zimbalist of Bach’s CONCERTO FOR TWO VIOLINS. This can be found on Spotify in three parts: I. VIVACE. II. LARGO. III. ALLEGRO. This is music with a guilelessness perhaps almost wholly unfamiliar to most modern musicmakers.

Chopin’s NOCTURNE NO. 19 IN E MINOR, Op. 72 No. 1, played by pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch, is referenced. This wonderful piece is also available on Spotify.

Let’s learn some music theory:

E minor means that the piece is in the key of E minor. That means it follows the modern minor scale, which works like this (every half step is a step towards the next key on the piano keyboard, whether a black or white key, and every whole step is two steps on the piano keyboard, whether black or white keys):

Starting from the root note, in this case E, it follows this pattern ascending up the scale:

E, whole step (F#), half step (G), whole step (A), whole step (B), half step (C), whole step (D), whole step (E), arriving at another E.

Every minor scale in modern music follows this same pattern of whole and half steps.

So the only difference between modern minor scales is which root note they start from. The relationship between the notes of the scale is exactly the same in all minor scales. The same is true of all major scales, but I will come to that later.

In this way you can construct any modern minor scale in any key. You simply pick the root note (any white or black key on the piano or other similar keyboard) and follow this pattern of steps:

root W H W W H W W

You can also start on any of the black keys, and sharps and flats are added to the basic note names as needed.

A sharp is simply the next note above, whether a black or white key, from the default form of the note, and a flat is simply the next note below, again whether a black or white key.

Thus C# or C sharp is the black key between C and D, and Cb or C flat is the white note below C — in other words, B. Pairs like Cb and B, which actually refer to the selfsame note, are called enharmonic notes.

But enough theory for now. To conclude, the Chopin NOCTURNE IN E MINOR is called that because it takes E as its root and fundamental note and is in the minor key, so it uses primarily the seven notes of the E minor scale (or eight if you count the E above also).

Few of the early Wagner records mentioned in these early issues are on Spotify. Perhaps needless to say, Wagner dipped for his RING cycle into the well of myths first or only written down in Iceland — the Eddic sagas.

But though these are not on Spotify, I want to cite here the titles — evocative on their own — given for some Wagner recordings in this issue. In the following, Wotan = Óðinn / Odin.

 

DAS RHEINGOLD (THE RHINEGOLD)

“Alberich steals the gold: The dawn over Valhalla”

“The descent to Nibelheim: Capture of Alberich”

“The entry of the gods into Valhalla”

 

DIE WALKÜRE (THE VALKYRIE)

“Prelude: Siegmund seeks shelter from the storm (Act I)”

“Siegmund sees the sword hilt in the tree”

“Siegmund greets the spring night”

“Siegmund draws out his sword”

“Introduction: Brünnhilde’s battle cry”

“Wotan warns Brünnhilde not to disobey”

“Brünnhilde foretells Siegmund’s death”

“Introduction: Ride of the Valkyries”

“Brünnhilde gives Sieglinde the broken sword”

“Brünnhilde implores the protection of fire”

“Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde”

“Wotan kisses Brünnhilde into a deep slumber”

“The rock is surrounded by fire: Finale of opera”

Still on the subject of Iceland:

  • “A Review of the First Quarter of 1923” by the Editor mentions “THE SONG OF THE VIKING GUEST” sung by Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin (p. 16). This early cylinder recording is available on Spotify. The song is from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera SADKO (premiered in Moscow in 1898).
  • The Zonophone ad in this issue (p. VI) lists singer Foster Richardson, with orchestra, performing Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “THE VIKING SONG”. This, however, is not on Spotify.

Also mentioned in this Zonophone ad, as well as in the Editor’s review of the first quarter (p. 16), is the lovely Elizabethan song, “DRINK TO ME ONLY WITH THINE EYES”, recorded for example by Johnny Cash in much later days.


Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 1 — April 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.

What do you do?

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Tjörnin (“The Pond”), a lake in central Reykjavík by the University of Iceland campus, Sept. 2018.

SEPTEMBER 8th 2018 — What do you do when life closes doors on you?

When it is no longer possible to express to someone what in your heart you wish to express? When you can no longer give what you would with your heart wish to give?

If you are creatively oriented, you may try to pour the feeling and warmth into your work. Beauty and love and sincere feeling are things this world can never have too much of.

Maybe someone who really needs it will find it and make it through another day or dark, dark night.

Art can be the greatest leap of faith of all, taken blind and deaf, with no reasonable hope of an echo back. A message in a bottle, hopefully carrying meaning or unexpected help.

Welcome

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Faxaflói (Faxa Bay), with waters of the Atlantic, northwest Reykjavík, Aug. 2018.

SEPTEMBER 8th 2018 — I came to Iceland to escape from a life I had outgrown and to run towards beauty and meaning.

My first visit to Iceland in 2016, for six very special weeks, left an indelible mark on me. Iceland and Icelanders captured my heart.

I started learning from them what was missing from my life.

I learned that the most beautiful things in life are human warmth and family and friendship and caring. Icelanders have these values in their hearts. They have to, living in one of the harsher climates on this earth.

I grew to love that climate too. The wind and the rain, and the occasional moments of sunlight and rainbows, have a way of cleansing your soul of unnecessary perplexities that other countries foster.

And I learned that more than anything else I want in this life to share my life with a special someone and to start a family with them. I am alone, understand, but this is my dream. There can be nothing more beautiful in this life than giving a child a good, safe childhood and start in life.

And it was driven for good into my soul, even more than before, that art and creativity in all their forms are things I need and want to have in my life as much as possible.

So I came to Iceland and started formally studying Icelandic so I could live in the most special place on earth — a land of youth and beauty and a land where childhood is still possible, Bradbury country and my own remembered childhood country (though that was elsewhere and the feeling no longer exists there, but does here), where the magic has not been driven away — and I came to create music and stories and poetry, some of them in Icelandic.

I hope to one day find what I am looking for. I followed my heart here and even though as I write this I have experienced a terrible personal blow, I have to try to keep going. In this blog I will talk about all the things I am doing and pursuing, especially creatively.

I wanted to put my dreams into words, so the rough winds of the moment wouldn’t sweep them away into eternity. And perhaps someone will read them one day.

Is there enough magic out there in the moonlight, a character in FIELD OF DREAMS asks, to make that dream come true?