Saturday, December 10, 2011

A pianist, a bassoonist, and a soprano take Georg Friedrich Haas to Niagara Falls...

(An image of the Toronto Christmas parade a few weeks ago.)

Oh oh oh. (Ho ho ho?) It sure has been a while. I vacillate between wanting to update this blog every few days and forgetting about it for weeks. I think many things have happened recently, though I typically have forgotten most of them. We celebrated American Thanksgiving here a few weeks ago, on the Sunday after normal Thanksgiving. It was strange to be here and to know that everyone in the States was gathering for big meals and family while we were in classes, as usual. Luckily--thankfully--the Comrades upstairs joined us in a feast a few days later. I bought a free-ranged, Mennonite-raised chicken from Gasparro's meat market and made a dizzying array of dishes including: the roasted chicken (simple, with herbs), polenta stuffing (both vegetarian and with meat), a warm cabbage salad with pomegranate, a mushroom bread pudding (for the vegetarian entree), and two kinds of desserts (an apple-pear pie with a cheddar cheese crust and almond/chocolate macarons). Ryan made some mashed potatoes and Comrade MM made a delicious "sexy squash soup" and really fantastic Brussels sprouts, both from recipes in the New York Times. My recipes came from Gourmet magazine; though I changed most of them heavily I think they're all very interesting and you may enjoy clicking the links above to see them for yourselves. The bread I used in the bread pudding was also home-made and has been quite a hit recently--it's the one from a few posts back that we ate with soup. This is my third time making this recipe, and I've been changing it up with a few other additions/substitutions including wheat berries, sunflower seeds, oats, molasses, yogurt, lower-fat milk, etc., as well as making loaves instead of rolls.

(Ye olde Canadian Christmas tractor? It reminded me of Davis.)

Originally I'd thought I'd write a post about Christmas in Canada. It seems to come awfully early here, though perhaps I was largely sheltered from the holiday marketing in New Haven, Connecticut. There was is little in the way of big-box retail downtown, within student reach, and I was so busy that I guess I avoided it. Here, though, it smacks you in the face on November 1st. It felt a little forced in the beginning, but now that we're actually midway through December all of the lights and decorations are beautiful. There are a number of lit-up houses on our street and of course the department stores and malls all have lots of displays. Many of the corner groceries sell Christmas trees and wreathes, so the air is perfumed when you ride by. Ryan and I went to the Distillery District last weekend to have dinner and discovered that it is turned into a Weihnachts festival, complete with Weihnachtswurst and little wooden stands selling little gifts. It was rather lovely, though cold. In fact, winter seems to have finally arrived--today was positively (negatively?) frigid! It has also snowed a few times over the past few weeks, though nothing has stayed for long. My voice teacher, Monica Whicher, gave a beautiful recital last weekend of holiday music with harp (a bit like the album I recently recorded). It was wonderful (and instructive) to watch and hear her sing. She has a commanding stage presence in that she invites you into the space she creates and holds you rapt from beginning to end. I was very glad I had the opportunity to see her perform.

We've also had a smattering of excellent master class artists recently, most notably Sir Roger Norrington. Perhaps some more musings on him later, as what he had to say about period performance practice--particularly vibrato--was very interesting, but I think I would like to move on to the joke which I began in the title.

It is not so much a joke as real life, as Ryan, a bassoonist friend from The GGS, and I did take Mr. Haas to Niagara Falls. But it was a funny, somewhat surreal experience which I shall recount here:

After a few mishaps with the renting of the car (the bassoonist doesn't have a license but wanted to use his credit card, and the two names had to match; Ryan was to drive but doesn't have a credit card; and I arrived to help them out of the mess by officially renting the car myself) that put us a bit late to pick up Mr. Haas, we were on our way. He is extremely soft-spoken (and for those of you who don't know, he's an Austrian-born spectralist composer best known for the piece "in vain" which the New Music Ensemble performed a few days ago and which occurs, in parts, in complete darkness) and kind. His English is good, though he worries it is not good enough. He is always able to make himself understood, though, and I had fun talking to him a bit in German. He was happy to talk about his music and about his inspirations, though he seemed more animated when we started discussing Death Valley.

As a side note: when my dad and I were in the Southwest this summer we realized that about 80-90% of the people we encountered similarly exploring the Great Outdoors were either French or German. A bit of a mystery, I guess. How do you explain a bunch of Germans in southeastern Utah? Is it because the Euro is stronger than the dollar? Why aren't they in New York? Haas explained that it was his first time in a desert, ever. Perhaps we are too quick to dismiss the profound (and unique) natural beauty of our own country, even when we are enjoying it. Recalling the German landscape, and perhaps even the Romantic ideals of nature, it does make more sense that they would want to see our country. Anyway, I digress...

The day was overcast and cold and the trip relatively uneventful. We arrived in Niagara Falls City, a garish strip of blinking lights and towering hotels advertising breakfast specials. It's hard to imagine an uglier city, except maybe Las Vegas. They're rather similar. There are a lot of casinos and such. But, just as we passed an Alpine-themed restaurant advertising a $1.99 breakfast special and covered with murals of people in Lederhosen (closed, but up for sale!), I caught a glimpse of the falls. And they really are beautiful. I'm sure because we were there with a composer I was more attuned to the sounds they made than I might have been otherwise. Standing above the falls, the crashing sound of the water is not very strong. The sound of the river as it flows along is full of higher-pitched, gentle sloshings in counterpoint with the rumble from way down below. The volume of the water and depth and breadth of the falls is incredible. I know there are bigger ones out there (Victoria Falls, Iguazu Falls, probably others), but I haven't seen them. Haas pointed out that it is hard to train your eyes on one particular spot on the falls: you want to keep following the water, making that continuous glissando that appears in so many of his works. It was a little like being in a stationary car when a truck is pulling forward. Though you're immobile, you feel like you're going backward. In the same way, the water made you feel as if you were shrinking and the falls were growing. A little Alice-in-Wonderland-esque.

We walked around them for a while and eventually decided to try to make it to the other side of the gorge, America! So we walked to a bridge which had a little building with a funny little turnstile and a 50 cent toll. After collecting the proper change, we all pushed through and walked across the bridge. On the other side we passed through customs and I was finally in America after so many months! How exciting! I called home! On the other side of the gorge you can walk along the falls and the river, and over a series of bridges, to traverse the span of the island and falls. When we finished exploring it was almost nightfall (and very cold) so we looked for somewhere to eat. Nothing gave. There was a pitiful Christmas market, like in the Distillery, but on a Wednesday no one was out and about save ourselves and a few hardy vendors. Eventually we reached a giant casino, bedecked in stained glass and architecturally rather similar to a mega-church from the 1970s. Slightly creepy. Across the street: a TGI Fridays. Ryan and I had never been and Haas was hungry, so we went in. There literally wasn't a single vegetarian item on the menu, though they accommodated Ryan's request for a vegetarian pasta without question. Mr. Haas, luckily, seemed very happy with his steak (he is German, after all... and then I remembered the meals I had in Regensburg which, despite my efforts to the contrary while ordering, always seemed to result in a boiled hotdog floating forlornly in a soup tureen).

He very generously treated us to dinner in America and we traipsed back in the cold, over the bridge, through Canadian customs, and back along the river. By then the falls were illuminated in colored lights. Perhaps it was only in contrast to the beacons of consumerism--the giant guitar of the Hard Rock Cafe, the flashing signs and neon lights--but they were actually somewhat beautiful. It was nicer when, just as we were leaving, the lights became just white and the brilliance of the cascading water was illuminated further. In the huge plume of mist that results from the falling water in the Canadian falls the lights created circles of rainbows which seemed more like nebulae, images from the Hubble Space Telescope, than anything else.

The next night was the first performance of "in vain." I had heard slips and snatches, bits here and there, but not the whole piece. The effect was incredible. I haven't had an experience like that for a long time, probably not since hearing El NiƱo live at Carnegie Hall a few Decembers ago. There were moments of extreme beauty despite all the microtones grating against each other, something that usually gives me a headache. Because we often categorize those sounds as "noise" rather than music, parts of the piece were distinctly non-human and sounded more like machines than anything I'd heard in a concert hall. I had one strong mental image of an airplane flying happily through an Alpine meadow. Not a real airplane, but one which was native to that clime. I don't know why. The parts of the piece that were to be played in complete darkness were wonderful. I don't always like the dark. I'm not afraid of it, but with my bad eyes I think I value the light even more than I might otherwise. I especially love the sun now, when sunset comes so early. Anyway, I wasn't sure if the whole "pitch black" thing would come across as a gimmick. When the first period of blackness came, I was actually more frustrated that they hadn't achieved a true blackout. The exit signs were covered but light seeped around the edges, and the person controlling the light cues in the box was apparently inattentive and some light entered from there. I closed my eyes against the distractions and listened. In many ways it felt like a more true concert experience than what I normally enjoy. My mind often wanders, which I don't feel to be a detriment, but sometimes it wanders to inconsequential things and I begin to watch people. With a blackout, you are both alone with the orchestra and together with the other darkened bodies, but you are free to listen in a sort of stillness that comes from this sensory deprivation. The second blackout section is interrupted by flashes of light which become stronger and last longer as the piece progresses. These too were strangely powerful, another form of percussion. They were also very beautiful. You do not want the blackness to end, to be returned forcibly to the humdrum of people and clothing and faces and instruments and walls and chairs. I was so grateful for the opportunity to meet Mr. Haas, to see Niagara, and to experience his music.

Finally, here is a link to some beautiful pictures (and a little information) about one of my favorite types of squid.

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