Monday, 28 March 2011

Another one for my pile of Mostly Unlearned Life Lessons (MULL): don't cycle to concerts. The first time I cycled to a concert which was more than a few minutes away it was during my undergrad in Montreal, and I cycled to Lachine with my trombone. Of course, it started to rain, and I played Verdi's Requiem not only cold and wet, but as that particular bike had no mudguards, with a thick brown stripe running along my back from my neck to my buttocks. Yey for sitting down to play.

The next time was here in Basel, a beautiful sunny June day and I'd cleverly left my trombone there after the dress rehearsal the day before and biked around 50km over a mountain pass to get to a concert of Schütz. It was a lovely ride indeed, but I cannot remember being more exhausted by concert time, and I remember not enjoying it very much because of that.

Nevertheless, not long after I cycled to Marienstein, a monastery on a hilltop in the countryside near Basel, also on a lovely sunny day. This trip was quite successful - short enough that my breathing was very good and yet not too long that I was exhausted. Maybe this is why I still try. I do remember a frustrating moment, though, coming up to the bass of the hill and being passed by my colleagues in a car. I was the smug one of course, but at that point I did dearly want them to stop the car and put my trombone in the trunk (UK:boot), which they didn't. Suddenly this missed opportunity magically doubled the weight of my instrument as I proceeded up to the top...

Yesterday I left an hour earlier than I technically needed to to get to rehearsal on time, in Rheinfelden, 17 or 19 km from Basel depending which scenic route you take. I was slightly wary because I'd only repaired my bike the day before, plugging up an inner tube with rubber cement and tape which oddly seemed to work better than a patch kit. Just in case, I brought along lots more glue and other random bike tools, water, a banana, trombone, concert clothes, music stand etc. etc. etc. and we're off!

But when I lost my chain while gearing down to stop for the first time, I remembered that the limiters weren't in quite the right place. Do I have time to get off and adjust them? It's quite a flat ride and the front gears work fine, I just have to remember not to gear down so far in the back. I debated.

As I was debating, I came up on an intersection and instinctively geared down, at which point the gear shift went so far as to get caught in the spokes, tearing the back wheel off the bike and bending that crucial bit of frame that holds everything together. I managed to get off rather than be thrown off - yey! But big picture: Shiiitt! I stared the carnage of my back wheel. Ctrl+Z! Arghh! I didn't cry, but it's locked up now (I hope) where the incident happened and I'll bring it to a bike coop today where Nate will have a go at bending things back - I do hope it works!

Hands black from handling the chain, I considered myself very lucky that this had happened right beside a tram stop and hopped on, catching the next train to rehearsal. Thanks to my buffer time I wasn't late, but the grease never quite came off before the concert. Fortunately the audience doesn't see the palms of the trombonists in the back row.

The concert went quite well, if I may say. Tuba Mirum never fails to terrify me, but I found myself pleasantly amused at the fact that right before it started I was shaking like a leaf. I took great big breaths and it all went quite well. At the end of the concert, the tenor soloist (with whom I only get a very short duet) gave me his massive bouquet of yellow and orange flowers. They're very cheery in my living room now and the best thing is, I wouldn't have been able to bring them home if I'd been there by bike.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

I've taken a bit of a break from blog writing, but with half an hour before going to sit by the Rhine and soak up the last of this week's glorious spring sun, I'll try to write as much as I can about this extremely busy time. Suddenly, after a relatively quiet winter, March has been abuzz with concerts. To avoid waiting around inordinately for the train to get to and from Saul two weeks ago, I rented a car, which meant that on Saturday morning Caroline and I could hop in and disappear into the heart of the Black Forest, where no trains go, and do a little hike.

I remembered from a drive into Todmoos a stretch of road with a rushing stream and cliffsides, so we headed there. At a very old bridge (and traces of an old road into the forest, there was a car park and trailhead - typical Black Forest convenience.

Caroline at the Old Bridge

In this picture it looks rather wintry still, but the moss and the rushing stream made the air extraordinarily fresh and sweet, and reminded me of my mid-May walks in the Adirondack mountains of New York State.

Rushing stream and moss

Unfortunately, we missed the turnoff for the great big view that we'd headed up to see and wound up at a crossroads instead. Just about to head back, we wandered over to the edge of the woodland intersection and peered over. They do seem awefully close, but with all that snow those can't really be anything but Alps...

where's the view - oh, hello!

I was supposed to head to Bordeaux on the Basel Bordeaux flight on the Sunday and take the train to Toulouse from there, but Saul's late arrival into my diary meant changing it to a Monday flight from Geneva - overall a more complicated way of traveling but Toulouse is one of those places that's just not easy to get to. Being there on Sunday night meant that I was around for Morgenstraich, the opening event of Fasnacht (Swiss Carnival).

Oddly enough, in Basel we celebrate Carnival a week into Lent rather than before it. Why? To piss off the pope, of course. I'm not a huge fan of the whole event - parades of hideously loud and out of tune trombone bands well into the night, confetti everywhere, oranges being thrown at your head, and the stench of too much drunkenness. BUT...I do like Morgenstraich, which happens before any of the rest.

Before, in this case, means 4 am. At 3:42 I arose from my bed and wandered over to Claraplatz where the revelers were gathering. They'd already lit their laterns by the time I got there, and were getting into position, adjusting masks, and generally getting very excited.

buzz at 3:57

excitement at 3:58

At precisely 4:00, the bells of the Clarakirche started to ring and all the lights went out, leaving the whole square dark except for the lanterns. Interrupting the fourth stroke of the bell, the piccolo bands began, each of the four or five around me showing off their best tune, and then seconds later the drums started their slow, piercing strokes. I made a little recording on my camera, but I've not posted it because what got my heart unexpectedly racing was not the aural, but the visceral sound of it all. When the other watchers stepped into the street to follow a band down an old 14th-century, I found myself carried along too, until I broke out of it and headed back home. I was back in bed by 4:12. An excellent half hour.

Lantern light

The next day, after a drive to Geneva, I flew to Bordeaux, which is a nice place but not as pretty as I thought it would be. I was pleased, though, that at 10:30 pm I managed to satisfy my sudden craving for Steak & Frites. The next morning I wandered around, and as I approached the city centre, I realized that I'd been rather unfair in comparing European and Canadian cities, tending to compare the old parts of the former with the billboard-laden suburbs of the latter. Bordeaux suburbs were also not very nice, but the inner city was not any prettier than Montreal, Quebec, or even parts of Ottawa. So there.


Toulouse was great fun, and after I got over the fact that it was great fun and calmed down enough to realize how spectacularly beautiful the music was, it was even better. You can call me up to play Monteverdi with Concerto Palatino and Cantus Cölln any day.

There was no time for tourism of course, but we did have an excellent lunch in one of the little restaurants above the market in the centre. From our window we could see this shop:

Obsessive Kitchen Trouble

I was supposed to have the next weekend off, but due to the illness of a colleague, I wound up heading to Fribourg (home of Vacherin Fondue) to play Schütz all weekend with Les Cornets Noirs. It was my first time playing with them and I was rather nervous until I realized that if I let myself enjoy every phrase I wasn't nervous anymore and played much better. This is around the 85th time I've had this epiphany in the course of a concert - why don't I remember? The odd thing is that even the very sad bit I felt joy in making as heart-wrenching as possible.

On the other hand, one of the many insightful things I've heard this week watching Youtube interviews of Stephen Fry (a natural extension of becoming slightly addicted to QI), is that some people actually believe that humans can't feel two emotions at the same time, which is daft. Stephen Fry has become a spokesperson for manic depression, very eloquently explaining in the course of various interviews and one documentary how it manifests itself, telling his own story as well as those of other people and giving insight into the state of medical research in tackling it.

It's all seemed a bit a propos this week, which is an understated way of saying that the coming of a gorgeous sunny spring full of flowers and blossoms, while lovely, has made my head go a bit haywire. How lucky I am, then, to have a live recording of a Concerto Caledonia concert in December called 'Revenge of the Folksingers'. It's a disarmingly simple-sounding collection of songs old and new which had the effect to make my life seem suddenly not so complicated. Ah... It will work for you too, I promise. You might have to wait 'til June though to buy the album, or if you're really lucky, they're doing the concert again here.

Half an hour has passed, and some friends are waiting for me by the Rhine to watch the sunset.

In Friboug: le cornet est semblable à l'éclat d'un
rayon de soleil, qui paroist
dans l'ombre ou dans les ténèbres
- Marin Mersenne
(Harmonie Universelle, c1636)

Saturday, 12 March 2011

I've had the pleasure of working with some very good conductors recently, and the last few days have made me realize just how lucky I am. To any aspiring conductors out there, I have a few top tips from the back row of the orchestra.

Ten Top Tips for Choral Conductors

1. When planning a rehearsal involving people from out of town, look at the train schedules. Please don't end the rehearsal six minutes before the hourly train leaves.

2. In pieces of standard repertoire where no set changes are necessary, runthroughs are appropriate for the dress rehearsal only and don't qualify as "rehearsal". Rather, if you have four 3-hour rehearsals, break them down into pieces where the choir is needed, pieces where the soloists are needed, and then again to those which use full orchestra and those which use only the strings. You can also rehearse tutti before the break and then let people go and catch the train, but for crying out loud, don't let the trumpets and trombones sit there for three hours to play the first and last pieces and 4-6 pieces in between when the concert has 87 in total.

3. When we at the back don't catch your mumbling to the front row of string players and don't play because we don't know where you are, please don't just plow on. We do quite enjoy taking part in those 6-8 movements where we do have something written.

4. If the brass don't play in the Big Brass Movement (BBM), they might not have parsed where we were since our parts just say 58-64 TACET and don't give any helpful hints of how long they are and which ones run into each other. (Or perhaps they were tired from having missed the train the night before and getting home at 1 am instead of 23:30?) Just stop. Give them a chance. Check out whether they're actually holding their instruments before you start the piece. It looks very bad when conductors don't appear to notice or care and now their only chance to play through it is in the concert.

5. Rather than just look crossly at your choir when they miss an entry, try looking at them encouragingly before their entry. If you breathe with them it helps them too.

6. If you want the orchestra to look at you, look at the orchestra more than once per page - don't bury your head in the score. Don't just look at the cute viola player.

7. Rather than look crossly at your choir for sounding afraid, look at them and mouth the text with them when they have something to sing.

8. If you've not rehearsed things properly in the 12 hours you've allotted and when you start the rehearsal late, then you've no right to extend the dress rehearsal beyond 10:30 or to cut the break down to five minutes. We trombonists need the break to play a bit or our instruments get cold.

9. Sending the tempi by email attachment a month before the rehearsal doesn't let you off the hook for sloppy conducting.

10. Try to look like you're enjoying yourself now and again - you chose the piece!

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Back in Basel after an early morning yesterday. Having only brought along a scholarly article for which I had no brain whatsoever, the plane ride promised to be excruciatingly boring until I found a little red book with the words "Don't Panic" written across the cover in the seat pocket in front of me. I have now crossed the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy off my reading list, where it's been sitting (possibly even reclining) for over half my life.

Now, if you're a loyal follower of my blog, you'll remember that back in the summer exactly the same thing happened to me and I proclaimed that I'd learned my lesson to bring along light reading and not just scholarly articles when I travel. Erratum: No, I haven't learned it yet. Indeed, on the train from Aberdeen to Edinburgh I read up all about acedia in early christian monastic communities. Many monks considered it not to be a natural illness, that is, due to the imbalance of humours, but rather to the presence of a demon which could be shrugged off by various mental gymnastics. Reminds me quite a lot of the debate over antidepressant drugs versus cognitive behavioural therapy as therapies for modern-day listlessness.

Last night I had the cheering thought that whereas the Swiss fascination with Scotland (and there is one) seems to me to be a detached fascination, like how I think of Japan, in Canada there are lots and lots of people who are absolutely pining for the lochs, and in quite a similar way to which I might also were I to move back there. Humm. Then I had another cheering thought, that a lot of Scottish traditional music isn't actually any older than the settling of Canada and what's now New England, meaning that its traditions are much more firmly rooted there than I'd previously reckoned. A quick web search turned up that in Ottawa and Montreal, one can continue one's canntaireachd lessons (perhaps also buy a chanter and learn some pibroch), attend Burns suppers and whisky tastings, and get one's fill of country dancing. Growing up in Ottawa, which was settled predominantly by the Irish, traditional music and dancing seemed to weave its way into all sorts of celebrations in my youth, but having moved away before I was allowed into a pub, I reckon I missed a lot of it.

One promising looking pub-based club, the Montreal Scottish and Celtic Culture Meetup Group, adds "Curling for Dummies" to the above-mentioned list, but I am turned off by their homepage, on which is posted the following:

"Q. Who can join?
A. Anyone Scottish or with Scottish ancestry. Celts (Welsh, Irish, Manx and Bretons) are also more than welcome welcome to come along and add to the craic."

Well, there you go. How about people who simply like it there? It's not that I don't qualify, I'm very likely 1/64th on my Mother's Father's Father's Father's Father's Father's side. As shown in this copy of the 1891 Ontario census, while my great-great-great-grandfather, Hugh Wilson, was born in Ontario (that's what the O is for), he identified himself with an ethnic origin that makes me think perhaps his father came from Scotland:

1881 Census for Cornwall Ontario
(click to enlarge)

Or, perhaps, like his son George, who named his son Leslie Campbell Wilson, Hugh's father simply identified with being Scottish and still wasn't born there - Canada didn't exist until 1867 after all - making me at the most Quasihemidemisemiscottish. Nevertheless, I fit their criterion, so why am I complaining? It's because having a blood requirement reminds me too much of Third Reich Fascism and therefore gives me the heebeejeebees. Also because it's bogus. Nice to know where to go for haggis in Montreal though.

Then I moved onto the question of kayaking: while I knew that in Canada, for a mere few weeks' pay, it's easy to sign up for a kayak tour somewhere interesting, it seems that there are indeed also kayak clubs where one can go to pool sessions and on trips without completely breaking the bank. Apparently the Lachine rapids just by Montreal are a haven for whitewater enthusiasts...oooh....

Discovering online all these things I'd never known about does make me wonder, as I weigh Glasgow versus Montreal as a place to begin (and hopefully finish) a Ph.D., if having lived away for seven years might make me see Canada with very different eyes indeed.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Back in the Princes St. Backpackers Hostel in Edinburgh, where I so far have room N all to myself. It's two floors above room S, where Helen and I stayed in January, so hopefully the raucous of the club below won't bother too much.

It's been another exhausting week, this time in Aberdeen attending a conference on musicians' networks around 1600. Lots of Philips and Sweelinck, stories of Catholic spy networks and of how music traveled swiftly all about Europe hundreds of years before the Internet. Besides the talks and concerts, there's been a lot of socializing too, and keeping in shape on trombone enough that Monday's Saul rehearsal doesn't hit too hard. Will be nice to get back to playing again...

I haven't had a performance-free week, though: I got roped into singing the top part of a famous piece by Caccini, Amarilli mia bella, substituting for a student soprano who had fallen ill. I thought it would be a simple matter of reading it, polishing it a bit, and performing it... By the third rehearsal, having also led the second and half of the third, I asked for some my conference fee back. It would have been a huge amount of time to still have to pay when I missed some talks and other events because of it. And then there was a fourth rehearsal too (at which point still some singers couldn't sing their parts (!)), so I felt quite justified.

This morning's talks had a quite nice atmosphere, being conducted in King's College Chapel:

Outside, a statue of a Lion and a Unicorn at the entrance to the University reminded me vividly of a dream I had recently about trying to decide where to live. There was a Lion in search of a Unicorn and it found Frank Zappa instead.

There was also this coat of arms stuck to the side of the chapel. Both unicorns look quite sad compared to the one above, but the one on the right looks absolutely pathetic.

So, um, what's the bent horn about?

Today I began to feel melancholic about leaving Scotland, but
just as I was settling into a wistful mood, Caroline and Ralph whisked me away to the beaches of Balmedie, where Frauke, Helen and I visited the Dunes but a month ago.

My Footsteps

Caroline and Ralph looking out to sea

She sells sea shells by the sea shore
(I can think of a better business plan)

Stones surfing sand swells

Now, the sea isn't a very good cure for melancholy (no, no, no) but as we were driving back, I saw a fish & chips shop: "Stop the car!" It did hit the spot, but was also a reminder that they do soul food very well here. And music. And hospitality. And barley products. And it's lovely to be so close to nature. And their history is very rich. Anyway. Not getting up at 6 tomorrow to get a flight back home is very tempting at the moment - I'd better get to bed to give myself half a chance.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

It's been a lovely weekend in and around Glasgow. On Saturday morning, Alison and I went to the farmer's market to eat eggs benedict at the Rio Café (yum), to buy some bream, dressed crab and venison burgers at the local farmers' market (yum yum), and to visit the new Cottonrake Catering, where there is nothing that doesn't tempt, and where baker Stefan has decided to name a pie after their very first customer.

Things of Beauty

Laden with delicious items, Alison and I headed for the hills. Ben Lomond is a Munro about an hour drive from Glasgow, looming over the shores of Loch Lomond. It's got a gentler "tourist" path on its south side, but we opted for the more rugged and steep option 'round the back for the way up.

Alison in a Sunbeam

As we neared the top, it seemed that our view would depend on luck - some half hours the sky was blue and sunny, but at other times the summit was enveloped in cloud or even blowing snow. The wind became wilder as we approached the top, but fortunately it was blowing us onto the mountain and not off of it!

Sky and Archipelego of Loch Lomond

When we came to snowfields, we had but to follow the footsteps of the people before us. This one provided a bit of anticipation:

Path to the Sky

Picking one's way down the icy slopes was evidently not for everyone - when that seemed the only option, some hikers seem to have found an alternative.


Near the top the rocks came in all shapes and sizes, made more dramatic by the light and the shadows:

Old Man of the Mountain

We were quite lucky with the weather at the top! We had gotten (UK: got) a late start - we reached the peak as the sun was already beginning to set and experienced something which apparently never happens: having the entire summit to ourselves.


The hike down was a bit more trying. Not far from the top, the clouds gathered in and we were hit by a snow squall. Horizontal icy flakes bombarded our right sides as we picked our way down the rocks. Ten minutes later, it was clear skies again. Proper Mountain Weather.

Clear Sky and Alison dusted in snow

I was using my poles and trying to find alternate paths on the spongy grass to save my knees, going carefully and extremely slowly. We hiked in twilight for two hours before getting out the headlamp (at which point I had to stick more to the rocky path and the muscles around my left knee winced at every step). But there was little to complain about: the path was good and the sky only cleared more, so that by the time we were heading down the last stretches of path, we could see above us the whole Milky Way, the Pleiades, and Orion shining brightly right above the glow of Glasgow in the distance.

We got back to the city just in time to nip into the shop and buy a bottle of celebratory Benromach (a speyside) one minute before the Scottish 10 pm curfew on store alcohol sales came into effect. Whew! Then a few hot chips from the fish & chip shop gave us the strength and comfort to cook up the venison burgers. David McGuinness came 'round and we drank whisky and listened to first edits of the impending Concerto Caledonia album well past midnight.

Yesterday was more relaxed, and a good thing too, because neither of us were comfortable with moving much. The knee that's been giving me trouble all week felt oddly better than usual - perhaps I managed to make my muscles do the shock-absorbtion work after all. Or perhaps it was going off coffee the days before - it affects the tendons in my wrists so why not my knees? We dropped in on Alison's Dad and then brought round our bakery delights to the family of Barnaby Brown, who generously invited us to join them for high tea (which over here means a full on supper). After 5-year old Sebastian was finished providing excellent entertainment and went off to bed, the evening degenerated into Barnaby and I singing canntaireachd from an 1814 facsimile. Alison sang us a drone until she got sick of it and downloaded a shruti box app onto her iphone. Hmm...perhaps I should invest in iTambura myself.

Back home, I got an 11 pm first viola da gamba lesson on an original Richard Meares bass viol from 1677.

For full canntaireachd immersion, Alison and I dropped in again on Barnaby today, this time at the RSAMD where he was rehearsing with Talitha Mackenzie. We were left with the giggles at Talitha's impression of a classical singer singing a Gaelic work song, obliterating its feel and function completely by singing it up the octave. Then we were left completely awestruck at her rendition of a pibroch learned from archival recordings and invigoratingly accurate in its impression of bagpipe virtuosity.

Then to Tchai Ovna, at the end of the endangered Otago Lane, where surrounded by shisha smokers we drank excellent chai and I said goodbye to the city of Glasgow. I don't know when I'll be back.

Now I'm full of French toast at Frauke's place in Aberdeen, waiting for this conference to kick off. I was welcomed last night with plates of cured venison, ham, pigeon and duck and crab patés, goat cheese and black olive pizza, not to mention an excellent selection of Scottish cheeses and some nice wine.

Upon checking my email, I discovered I've been accepted to give a paper at the upcoming MedRen conference in Barcelona in July. Yey!