We spent this weekend in a nice village called Raspenava, in the north of Czech Republic, near the Polish border. As this sign indicates, Raspenava is only two kilometers from a village called Peklo, which unambiguously means ‘hell’ in Czech. So there it is: the road to hell.
We actually considered going because there’s a swimming pool in Peklo– you can see the icon for swimming on the sign here. However, I worried that it might be the swimming-in-lake-of-fiery-torment version and decided not to take any chances. If the icon had been printed in red, that would have been a definite giveaway…
There are only two things in my future that I look forward to with utter certainty. One is being able to communicate with my son; the other is the point in time when classical music suddenly starts to appeal to me. Naturally, there are plenty of things that I sort of happily anticipate in a general sense, but these are the only two concrete, forthcoming things that seem 100% destined to take place. And, yet, haven’t so far.
Consider this paragraph from New Yorker critic Alex Ross’ semi-recent write-up on Czech composer Antonín Dvořák:
Dvořák was no populist of naîf, as Michael Beckerman, his most perceptive American chronicler, has shown. When he set aside “classical” writing, he was really announcing his intention to rival Wagner. It’s as if he had imagined the first line of his obituary being written– the lowborn composer who gave the Germanic symphony a rustic air– and tried for a different outcome. In the end, it was not to be Dvořák reached the “broad masses” not through operas, gorgeous as some of them are, but through his symphonies, concertos, and quartets. When the rapper Ludacris sampled Dvořák, he went for the “New World” Symphony, not ‘The Devil and Kate”. Dvorak’s struggles with classical form led to his finest music: the “New World” is a narrative of cinematic vividness, in which sharply etched themes are swept up in furious episdes of development and transformation.
Taken purely as an exercise in dramaturgy, this sounds awesome. If it was simply a story, and not something that had to be listened to, I think I would appreciate it to no end. Which underscores the uncomfortable fact that classical music seems to embody so many qualities of things I enjoy (not least of all narrative and music) that it’s a mystery to me why I don’t enjoy it. The moment I pull up these New World symphonies in the iTunes store and give them a listen, they don’t sound furiously developmental and transformative to me at all. The first one sounds irritatingly anesthetizing to me, and (strangely) makes me think of a particular nervous friend of my mother. The next sounds cornily bombastic– I immediately see a conductor in my mind’s eye and he’s doing that thing that conductors do where they suddenly pretend to throw a gassy, violent tantrum to inspire the orchestra, all flapping tailcoats and flailing batons. The third is all nervous mincing and prancing. Perhaps its partly just that society has heaped so many superficial associations on the back of classical music (Eurocentric perfectibility, Mercedes ads, Baby Mozart, etc) that I can’t help but liken each composition to an artificial mannerism. But in any case, something isn’t working.
There have been moments of hope. Back in the day, my friend Joe Schactman gave me a tape of Bach’s partidas and sonatas for violin that I started looking forward to hearing as much as all the dub music and stuff I was into at that time. Alas, part of the appeal, I eventually realized, lay in the lo-fi format: on cassette, the violin had this raw, groaning sound that gave it almost a hint of drone. As soon as I re-obtained this album on CD, the remastering made it sound all icy and perfect and prissy again. I guess the degree to which I’m focussing on sonic qualities and not grasping the music in terms of compositions betrays the extent to which I don’t fully get it. At the end of the day, after all, I’m inclined to say ‘It all sounds the same to me!’, which is always a surefire indication that you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Every genre sounds ‘all the same’ when you don’t understand it.
Despite all my present resistance, there’s no doubt in my mind that something will eventually click into place and I’ll become an enthusiast. How many hppy hours of digging and delving will then follow this moment. I wonder: will it happen gradually, or will there be a Road to Damascus moment? Will it crowd out less ‘serious’ musical tastes, or will I still listen to things like Morrissey’s I Am The Quarry that possess no culturally or personally redeeming features? And, most interestingly, how will I remember the way I hear classical music now? I already have a few albums (Al Green’s Call Me being the example that jumps to mind) that I didn’t like for years and am now hugely into and can actually reconstruct in my mind’s ear (if you will) how it sounded to me when I didn’t like it. Weird if I am able to experience that sensation again, but applied to an entire genre.
Last Thursday I went to see the Norwegian singer-songwriter Hanne Hukkelberg play. I’d never heard of her before Wednesday, but she was recommended by someone, so I took a listen to her Bjorkian dirging on youtube and decided it was worth a go. She sounds a little bit like – to paraphrase my favorite throwaway line from Henry Miller – ‘a thousand heads of cauliflower wailing away in the dark’, but in a cool way. Her alliterative Nordic name reminded me momentarily of this fascinatingly lame concert poster I once spotted in Berlin for somebody called Konrad Kuechenmeister…
… but that’s not her fault.
So, anyway, we filed in at about 7:30 to see her play. Something I like about this venue, Akropolis, nearby where I live: the set times are always really, really early, so you’re often back out on the street by 10. I like this (a) because I’m old, and (b) because if the show is bad, you can still go to dinner or a bar and salvage the evening. In this case, the Norwegian Hukkelberg girl wasn’t bad… but it suffered from the overriding wimpiness– both sonic and dramatic– that mars a lot of the electronically-augmented-singer-songwriter genre. If you listen to her clips, her (impressive) voice is just a part of an engrossing landscape of whirs, clicks, beats and orchestral noises… but onstage, it’s just a woman singing along with some sequencers. When I saw my friend who recommended the gig, she hissed ‘Where is the band?‘ with great contempt. The worst part of it is that Hukkelberg would make a show of playing some instrument in every song, but it was always the most ineffectual instrument most buried in the mix. I tried to suspend judgement for the first twenty minutes, but later felt myself wearying a bit as I watched her singing away while rhythmically manipulating something that I could swear was a plain old mortar and pestle.
When I mentioned the ‘Where is the band?’ sentiment to my buddy I’d come with, he speculated, ‘Maybe the only way to make money playing in Prague is to leave your band behind.’ For the remainder of the set, I was completely distracted by imagining a custom– both financially-driven, yet also ritualistic– where the backing band is left to wait in Bad Schandau (this being German border town you go through on the train before entering the Czech Republic) while their leader travels on alone eastwards to make korunnas and roubles. Dressed identically in black suits and thin ties– like the Pretenders sans Chrissie Hynde– they idle around, kicking bottlecaps in the dusty streets and drinking Becks. One can even imagine a historical accident where Bad Schandau becomes renown for its local music thanks to all the skilled backing bands that have left there: the News mingling with the Mechanics jamming with the Waves, all while their singers are off somewhere else… sort of like the famed Army all-star band during World War Two that could boast some of the best jazz players in the country at that time.
Next, on Saturday, we went to a very different kind of musical venue– a ‘wine tasting festival’ in a small town west of Prague that combined elements of Dork Season with your average redneck American country fair. There were lots of haircuts like this:
The headlining act for this festival was none other than Michal David, legendary king of Czech 80s cheese. In the pantheon of Czech 80s pop culture, David is Corey Hart, Bruce Springsteen and Phil Collins all rolled into one hideous cultural zeitgeist/abortion. Here he is in his prime (1983), performing his breakout hit ‘Nonstop’:
This is bad enough without any context, but I feel obligated to add that ‘Nonstop’ is the Czech term for a store that’s open 24 hours. And that David released an autobiography two years ago titled ‘Život Nonstop’ (Nonstop Life). And that he’s become an apparatchik for various unsavory politicians in recent years.
Anyway, in the end, I guess neither performance was all that memorable. If I had to pick one, though, I would say I probably enjoyed Michal David slightly more, which just goes to show once again the tyranny of low expectations and unfair advantage that irony and schmaltz enjoy over things that are trying to be serious and good.
This afternoon, I scampered downtown to find a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom among Prague’s multi-language book stores. As it turned out, none of the usual suspects had it on the shelves, but I managed to track down a copy at a curious little place called The Academic Bookstore, where they wrapped up the book in paper and taped it shut (??):
Anyway, here are some of the things I saw while securing my little ‘literary parcel’:
Please do not disturb or startle this delicate creature, or we will be forced to remove the installation.*
In search of a swanky double entendre, this establishment obliviously wound up at a somewhat nauseating triple entendre.
Prague’s Saddest Building: The Kotva Shopping Centre was quite literally an international tourist sensation when it opened, in part owing to its unique honeycomb shape. Its shelves were often half-empty during the waning years of Socialism, though, and it has been since upstaged by more modern shopping malls that have the advantage of looking like they might actually be enjoyable to spend time in.
I normally don’t start clubbing in the middle of the day, but this Elektro place just looked too awesome to pass up. Until I realized what kind of ‘Elektro’ they’re talking about:
Multi-lingual signs at Tesco:
Galanterie, or haberdashery? I’ll take one of each, please.
Finally, remember when I warned about the coming of Dork Season? Well, it’s September, and here we are…
In addition to the big blog shakeup last week, I also launched a sorely-overdue update of my design portfolio site, www.danmayer.com. Please take a gander.
The previous version was so outdated that the last time I updated it, I think I fell off my dinosaur and broke my stone underpants. It still had samples of my student work from 2002-03, which was embarrassing whenever my current design students would stumble across it and you could see the thought bubble appear over their heads: Hey, how come this guy is teaching us if he still has student work in his portfolio? Not good. Anyway, that’s all behind me now.
This time around, I used a CMS platform called Cargo that I found really handy and easy to work with. How times have changed: I put together most of this site in about 24 hours…. whereas the last time I put together a portfolio site (in early 2005), it took me most of three weeks.
This weekend, the wife and I went back to the farm where we got married. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all reflections on two years of marriage to a beautiful woman on you. The reason I bring it up is just to tell you about the village restaurant we stopped at during our farmland tramping:
First, if you peer first into the distance, and then into the shadows of this photo, you can see a happy co-mingling of beers and children’s toys. This is fairly typical of Czech restaurants in general, but the connection is especially striking here because the restaurant is located in an old one-room country school house. Here’s the cheery exterior:
Inside, most of the educational props are still intact…
… including the good old Periodic Table of Elements:
(For once, the Czech language isn’t made conspicuous by its clusters of consonants and scarcity of vowels.)
I ordered the traditional classic Svíčková, which Krafty once memorably described as a ‘meat Sundae’ in his one visit so far to the Bohemian lands:
After tucking in my meat sundae, I blearily staggered back inside to peer at an inscription I’d noticed on the wall inside (vaguely discernible in one of the above photos):
The text is just a nostalgic verse about when author was a schoolboy. But what’s notable is the attribution, Jára Cimrman. Cimrman (pronounced ‘Zimmerman’, like Bob) was a fictitious inventor and educator who’s become a kind of de facto Czech national hero despite never having had existed. A Zelig who’s credited with suggesting the Panama Canal to the Americans and inventing yoghurt, among other accomplishments, Cimrman is even the subject of a museum exhibition located in the basement of the tiny replica Eiffel Tower that stands at the top of Petřin Park in Prague.
This is one of the photos at the exhibit. The caption explains that Cimrman was training police academy recruits in a new technique he’d developed for approaching an armed assailant. The idea is that the criminal supposes that the figures approaching him are actually reflections cast in a body of water, so he subsequently fires over their heads. The exhibition is filled with ridiculous stuff like this– it’s fun to take visiting friends there and see how far they make it before catching on that the whole thing is 100% made up.
Although I have never really gotten into a lot of the “traditional male” crap like cars and guns, I have been a committed sports fan for as long as I can remember. And although I abandoned my home city of Boston a decade and a half ago, and in most respects hold very little (if any) allegiance to its provincial, bean-eating ways, I have continued to support its professional sports teams even as I’ve walked in the shadow of the valley of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers in my more recent homes of NYC and LA. So I tend to view the beginning of the various sports’ seasons with excitement — it’s my opportunity to plunge, once again, into an oversimplified world of Right and Wrong, where many of the complexities and moral ambiguities of the real world melt away once my chosen gladiators step inside the lines of their field/court, and where acts of individual and team heroism and glory can be reasonably expected on a somewhat regular basis. There’s a wonderful Seamus Heaney poem called “Markings” that describes, far more articulately, what I’m getting at: how the protagonist children marked out the field with four jackets, picked the teams, “and crossed the line the called names drew between us.”
Today marks the beginning of the National Football League season, so I sat down with my morning coffee and “aimed my browser” straight for some of the standard sports sites like www.espn.com to revel in the collective excitement over the start of the season. But I ran into a disturbing problem, one that has been haunting me more and more of late: all anybody wants to write or talk about is their “fantasy leagues” — that is, an entirely distinct “game” in which people “draft” their own professional players from a mix of different teams, and then compete against other such fake “teams” based on the individual statistics compiled by the players they’ve drafted. The appeal, I suppose, is that the person gets to be his own (and lets not even bother to pretend that more than 1% of these people are women) “general manager” by “drafting” these players, and then trading them with his “fellow general managers.” But the whole thing has always really bummed me out. Partly I think it’s the way that, by reducing the games to the individual statistics of individual players, it ignores the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” aspect that often means the difference between victory and defeat, and which makes sports so particularly interesting to me. But beyond that, it seems like the craziest folly to take these overblown spectacles that are themselves utterly divorced from the real world and its problems, and then derive from that something called “fantasy.” The games themselves are already fantasy! Isn’t it enough to be a fan of your team, and watch people who have actually made careers of this (whether as players, coaches, or team-builders) try to overcome your collective rivals? Is it really necessary to create an extra layer of fakeness out of that in order to feel “in control”?
Tomorrow is the anniversary of 9/11, or Jane Mayer Day as I imagine it will be known to future generations. (Note: yes, I am proud to share my last name with a crack New Yorker staff writer with impeccable moral instincts. Much more noteworthy than John Mayer, or the Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.)
Resident truther Grandjoe walks us through some lesser-studied photos of the event:
Most people have seen images of a jet-liner striking one of twin towers and bursting into a fireball of flame. Much less familiar, but no less arresting, are images of the towers exploding into clouds of pulverized concrete. This happened 102 minutes (North Tower) and 56 minutes (South Tower) after the planes hit.
These photos show the pulverization of South Tower. In the first picture, we see the thick, dark smoke of fires caused by burning jet fuel. Then comes an explosion that turns the top of the South Tower into a kind of roman candle. Pulverized concrete rains down, and pieces of debris are flung outward (bits of the steel infrastructure?) As the explosion travels downward, the cloud of concrete elongates and looks like a cascade of waterfalls. It takes about 15 seconds for the explosion to reach ground level. At that point, the tower is no more solid than an involved column of smoke. The descent of the North Tower presents much the same spectacle.