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Iceland, Part I

When I was in 7th grade, our social studies teacher, Mrs. Weller, assigned each student in the class a country in the Western hemisphere. Naturally, most of my classmates had Latin American countries, but my assigned country was Iceland. We each had to research our country (remember the CIA World Factbook?), and we did various in-class activities like lining up in order of GDP per capita (Iceland was something of an outlier). The project culminated in a proposal for a business located in our assigned country. It had to make sense in the context of our country, and I think we had to research the local infrastructure and figure out how we were going to get our company off the ground. I recall a lot of ice cream shops in Central America, but I decided to found a whale and bird watching boat tour company. Ever since that middle school project, I had wanted to visit Iceland, though that ambition faded into the background as the years went by.

Ten years ago, my friend Dustin introduced me to the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, of which I’ve been a casual fan ever since. I saw Árstíðir’s viral video of their singing the 13th-century Icelandic hymn “Heyr himna smiður” in a German train station, and I quite like their music too. In grad school, I’m sure I had to read at least one syntax paper by an Icelandic linguist, but I remember basically nothing about it. And a year or so ago I heard Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s choral composition “Heyr þu oss himnum a” on Minnesota Public Radio and thought it was gorgeous. But I wasn’t expecting to visit Iceland anytime soon until, earlier this year, my parents invited my brother and me to go with them in August.

The trip was planned before the Delta variant surge, and I’m not sure I would recommend international travel right now. But we went on our vacation, and we were fortunate, and the trip was amazing.

Approaching Iceland from the air

We flew out of Minneapolis on a Wednesday evening and landed at Keflavík International Airport at 6:30am on Thursday, flying in over the lacy Icelandic coastline. We took a bus to a bus terminal in Reykjavík, where we met Valur, a friend of a friend and one of the former proprietors of the guesthouse where we would be staying (my parents had stayed there on a previous trip to Iceland). Valur was renting us his car, since rental cars proved to be a very hot commodity in Iceland this summer. We made the short drive to the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse, in the valley called Mosfellsdalur.

Social Icelandic sheep at the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse

After a nap and a light lunch, we drove to Þingvellir National Park, on the lake Þingvallavatn (vatn = lake). The park lies in a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of 2.5cm a year. There is a fault or ridge called Almannagjá (also described as a canyon or ravine) that actually makes it feel like the earth is cleft here.

The rift at Þingvellir

Icelandic law proclaims Þingvellir “a protected national shrine of all Icelanders,” as it was here that the Alþingi, Iceland’s ancient parliament (and indeed the name of its current parliament), met. 

Þingvallakirkja

We walked down and across the meadow through which streams of the Öxará river snaked, toward the 19th-century church Þingvallakirkja and the nearby farmhouse, two of whose five gables constitute the summer residence of the Prime Minister. Both buildings are white with green trim.

Þingvellir

We wandered among some further pools with clear blue water and then headed back up toward the Lögberg, or Law Rock, now marked with an Icelandic flag. This was where the Alþingi met and where the Lawspeaker recited the law from memory, one third of it each summer.

Drekkingarhylur

We continued along the path past the Drekkingarhylur, or Drowning Pool, where over the centuries 18 women were drowned for various crimes. Further on, we climbed up to see Öxarárfoss, a waterfall where the Öxará river flows over the Almannagjá.

From Þingvellir, we drove to Laugarvatn, a little town on the eponymous lake. We were going to have dinner at Lindin, a restaurant there, but we arrived early, so we walked from the lakeside restaurant’s deck toward the water. Here we stumbled upon Vígðalaug, the Blessed Pool, a hot spring-fed pool used for baptisms when Iceland adopted Christianity in 1000 (people didn’t want to be baptized in cold water!). The six bier stones (Líkasteinar) nearby are associated with the last Catholic bishop of Iceland, Jón Arason, and his sons, who were beheaded when Lutheranism was being imposed by Denmark and whose bodies were washed in the pool.

Vígðalaug

Although the sun was shining, it certainly wasn’t hot, so I was surprised to see a windsurfer on the lake, as well as some swimmers farther off. But then I dipped my hand in the water on the beach and realized it was warm; Laugarvatn has hot springs.

Our first dinner in Iceland, and every subsequent meal we ate a restaurant, was delicious. Fish and lamb dishes (including fish and meat soup) dominate menus, and potatoes abound too.

My Arctic char at Lindin

The next morning, we went on a short walk from the guesthouse, greeting the sheep and horses on our way out. (Driving around Iceland, you see many, many horses and sheep, though the latter are usually only in trios or small groups, never flocks, as they roam free in the summer. Cows are rarer but do appear on occasion.) We walked over to Mosfellskirkja, the local church. As we were leaving, a raven was perched on its roof cawing.

Steaming mudpots in the Geysir area

We drove past Þingvallavatn again and on to the Geysir complex, which is well-outfitted for the plentiful tourists like us. We ate excellent sandwiches and cake in the cafeteria and then crossed the road to see the geothermal sights. A thin stream trickled along the path, with periodic signs indicating that the water’s temperature was between 80° and 100° Celsius. Plumes of steam emanated from mudpots, some of which were actually bubbling like cauldrons over the fire.

The geyser Strokkur, in between eruptions

We reached Strokkur, a geyser that’s currently like the Old Faithful of Iceland because it erupts, fountaining water and steam, every 6-8 minutes or so (at least while we were there). Tourists lined up along a rope barrier, phones held at the ready for the next blast. At least once we saw Strokkur erupt twice in quick succession, with the second eruption like an extra hiccup.

A pool

We climbed further up toward other pools. This area feels a lot like parts of Yellowstone, with pools of clear water, blue at their deepest points and rust and white around their lichenous edges. The ground underwater seems to open up into caverns. There was one milky blue steaming pot, though. Up the slope, Alaskan lupines (not a native plant) lined the path, and there were a few purple flowers still in bloom.

A lupine

We walked downhill to reach Geysir, the original geyser, whose pool has a larger surface area than Strokkur’s. Geysir was steaming, but nowadays it’s dormant, so no eruption. The landscape of this whole geothermal area is a little bit unearthly, especially with white steam drifting eerily out of holes in the ground. It’s beautiful and fascinating.

Geysir, the original geyser

Next, we drove to Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, on the Hvítá (White River). From the parking lot, we got our first glimpse of a glacier in the distance. It’s hard for me to identify which one because Iceland has a number of huge glaciers which have named offshoots. We took the path toward the waterfall. It was a sunny day again, the blue sky strewn with fluffy clouds, and in the distance, we could see a patch of rainbow. Then we drew closer and saw the massive waterfall in its deep canyon. The rainbows were spectacular. A gravel path led alongside the canyon toward the upper falls, and part of it was dampened by the heavy mist sprayed up by the huge lower falls.

Gullfoss

From Gullfoss, we drove to Eyrarbakki, a fishing village on the southern coast of Iceland, where we had an early dinner at Rauða Húsið (The Red House–most of the restaurants we ate in looked like houses from the outside, in fact). The restaurant specializes in humar, translated as lobster, but more precisely the Norway lobster (or langoustine). We almost all had the “uplifted” lobster tails, where they prise the meat out of the shell and serve it on top.

My uplifted lobster tails at Rauða Húsið

After dinner, we checked out the “beach,” which was not very beachy, but we saw some washed-up seaweed and a small black crab (dead) on the asphalt.

The next day was Saturday, and we spent it driving to and around the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. We took the tunnel under the Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord) and the bridge over Borgarfjörður, in the mist. We headed first for Stykkishólmur to eat lunch at Narfeyrarstofa, a restaurant which serves local seafood including scallops and blue mussels. It was here that we first encountered Iceland’s unexpected enthusiasm for Doritos; my brother’s fish and chips breading included finely crushed Doritos.

Me and my local scallops with sweet potato and Icelandic barley at Narfeyrarstofa (notice the sheepskin behind me)

After lunch, we walked around the Stykkishólmur harbor and along the causeway to the basalt island Súgandisey. We climbed a steep staircase to the grassy top of the island, where there was an old windlass (I think) once used for hauling kerosene up for the lighthouse. From Súgandisey, we could take in the views of Breiðafjörður and its islands. We could also walk up to the short red lighthouse.

Stykkishólmur harbor with Súgandisey in the background

From Stykkishólmur, we followed the road along the Snæfellsnes coast, passing through tiny towns. We stopped to see Kirkjufell, or Church Mountain, near the town of Grundarfjörður. Kirkjufell is a dramatic, horizontally striated mountain that juts up at the edge of the sea (apparently it was a filming location for Game of Thrones). 

Kirkjufell

Further down the highway, we got out to look at Snæfellsjökull (jökull = glacier), the volcano and glacier at the end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. There was a flock of elegant Arctic terns flying and screeching on the side of the road. I think I can guess why their name in Icelandic is kría.

Arctic terns in flight

Apparently some people consider Snæfellsjökull one of the world’s spiritual or energy centers. I can’t really speak to that, but our guide on our inland trip a couple of days later told us she feels a very strange energy there.

We curved around the tip of the peninsula and began heading south and southeast. I was paging through the Lonely Planet guidebook, and I noticed the entry on Djúpalónssandur, a black sand beach with rock formations just 2km off the road we were on. I asked if we could go there, and we did! The road toward the coast wasn’t really wide enough for two cars, but at the end of it was a packed parking lot, tour busses, and bathrooms. It was a short walk past a lava field, a blue pool, and a rock arch, with views of Snæfellsjökull to the north, to the stony beach strewn with rusted debris from the 1948 wreck of a British fishing trawler. The guidebook stated that the rock formations here included an elf church and a Kerling, or troll woman, but I never figured out where the elf church was. Djúpalónssandur was pebblier than I expected for a black “sand” beach, but it was picturesque, and it was fun watching the small waves crash on the smoothed rocks that reached the shore.

Djúpalónssandur

Our next stop was Hellnar, on the coast, where there was a hillside café serving cake, among other things. We walked downhill and clambered across rounded stones in shades from pale gray to black toward the Baðstofa sea cave. The cliffs on either side of the open-topped chamber featured incredible rock formations made up of layers or plates of gray stone in different thicknesses that collectively swooped and curved like ocean waves. The sea cave was filled with nesting seagulls and rang with their cries. There was water at the bottom of it, and a hole in the ceiling opened onto the sky and let in the light. It was an amazing spot.

The Baðstofa sea cave at Hellnar

We started up the trail that led from Hellnar to Arnarstapi, the next coastal fishing village. The path led through another lava field; all the Icelandic lava fields we saw consisted of a rubble of dark rocks covered with gray-green moss. There were views of Snæfellsjökull and the knob-topped mountain Stapafell, as well as of sea cliffs and rocky islands dotted with birds. On one of these, my brother and I spotted two birds whose black backs and white stomachs immediately made me think of penguins, but of course they couldn’t be penguins. We thought they were puffins, but on our last day in Iceland, we saw actual puffins, and these birds had looked much larger. Now I wonder if they might’ve been lesser auks, also known as razorbills. In Arnarstapi, we saw the statue of Barður the troll (who was actually half human, one quarter giant, and one quarter troll), who has his own saga.

Walking from Hellnar to Arnarstapi

Continued in Part II!

Conservation of Shadows

I’m still reading collections of short fiction, and the latest one I finished was Yoon Ha Lee’s Conservation of Shadows. I bought Lee’s first novel, Ninefox Gambit, from Small World Books in Venice a few years ago and really liked it. I’ve also read the next book in the Machineries of Empire trilogy, Raven Stratagem, and I regret that I’ve yet to read the third book, Revenant Gun. But the first two installments were enough to make me a Yoon Ha Lee fan, so when I saw Conservation of Shadows on Isabelle’s bookshelf, I knew I wanted to read it.

The short story collection is introduced by Aliette de Bodard, another SFF author I’m a fan of despite having only read a short story or two of hers. (I keep meaning to read some of her longer work. Also, fun fact: I have a trunked novel from before I’d heard of de Bodard in which the main character’s young cousin is named Aliette. I found the name in a French baby names book.)

Conservation of Shadows begins with “Ghostweight,” whose worldbuilding reminded me a bit of the Machineries of Empire trilogy. I read this story slowly. Recently I described Theodora Goss’s In the Forest of Forgetting as not being cerebral or demanding (which was not in any way intended as a slight). Well, I find at least some of Yoon Ha Lee’s stories if not cerebral then certainly demanding. “Ghostweight” was one of those. But the payoff. The ending blew me away. Was every story in the collection going to be this breathtakingly good?!

Then I read the second story, “The Shadow Postulates,” and loved it. I decided after that one that I needed to buy my own copy of the book.

I enjoyed the desert wasteland setting motif in “The Bones of Giants” (is this a motif? I’m trying and failing to put my finger on something I feel this story has in common with some other settings, such as the one in Moira Young’s Dust Lands trilogy). I liked that the protagonists of “Swanwatch” and “The Unstrung Zither” were musician-composers, since I often can’t help writing about music myself. Lee seems to have a thing for guns, and also math (of course), but also language! There were so many references to structural properties of language that were done so well that I kept wondering if Lee had a degree in linguistics as well as in mathematics. Or at the very least some kind of background. In reading interviews, I discovered he has a past as a conlanger, so that explains a lot. I have this urge to say more about the linguistics in Conservation of Shadows; we’ll see if that happen.

I appreciated all the Asian-inspired worldbulding, from the obvious, foregrounded, and central to the more subtle and understated. While I could recognize fictional cognates of Korea, China, and Japan, I learned more about Lee’s inspiration (one naval battle in particular) by reading the story notes, which I also found delightful. In another interview, Lee said he always enjoyed learning more about the author and the story from such notes, so he decided to include his own. This reader liked flipping to the end of the book to read the notes after each story!

Finally, I savored Lee’s excellent writing, which inspired me as I read since I’m currently novel drafting harder than I have in a long time (yay, confinement?) and everything I’m spewing onto the digital page feels like it’s horrible written. So it’s good to read some actual quality writing to remind myself what it looks like, take note of how it’s done, and reassure myself that I will fix the terrible writing in revisions.

The Powers of Music

I’ve long enjoyed reading restaurant reviews and recipe articles in The New York Times’ food section, but since much of the world began locking down, there have been no Hungry City reviews of New York’s under-the-radar ethnic food joints or measured evaluations by Pete Wells. Instead, I keep stumbling upon Sam Sifton’s What to Cook newsletter, whose tone of late I feel can be summed up by sometimes you just want to eat meatballs/mac and cheese/insert comfort food here, and you know what, that’s okay, just go ahead and do it. Actually, maybe that goes for all the current food coverage.

Anyway. You thought this post was about music. Sifton has also been appending some non-food recommendations to his newsletters, and on Sunday he asked his readers to please read Alex Ross’s article in The New Yorker on grieving and Brahms. I dutifully clicked on the link (was I procrastinating? I mean, what do you think I was doing reading The New York Times food section in the first place?), and I was intrigued by the subhead about the “enormous sadness” “that glows with understanding” in Brahms. I’m not particularly into Brahms, but as I read the article I had a vague recollection that I liked his first symphony. I started listening to a recording of it, and while I recognized snatches of the first movement, it wasn’t until I got to the fourth movement that I thought, Ah, yes, this. I remembered that grand, noble theme, and I thought I’d studied the symphony in music listening (could we have only paid attention to the fourth movement?!).

While I was taken by Ross’s characterization of Bach as “music’s supreme companion of extreme distress” and Brahms as “the great poet of the ambiguous, in-between, nameless emotions” (including “pervasive wistfulness”), my favorite parts of his article were his quotes from Philip Kennicott’s book Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning (which sounds intriguing too). The first was “I bristle at the idea that music is consoling or has healing power,” and when I read it, I thought, But wait, music is totally consoling! After all, hadn’t I turned to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 when Osmo Vänskä resigned as director of the Minnesota Orchestra during the 2013 musicians’ lockout and on the morning after the 2016 U.S. presidential election?

But the next quote was, “Music, if anything, makes us raw, more susceptible to pain, nostalgia, and memory.” And this resonated. I don’t think it’s either/or: music can both console and make us more vulnerable, awakening and amplifying latent emotions. It can do one or the other and probably both together. Likely there’s some argument to be made about how music consoles precisely by “guid[ing us] through the complexity of [our] feelings,” as Ross put it.

Something made me remember MILCK‘s EP This Is Not The End and how I’d liked it, and so after Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 I went back to listen to it. I’m listening to it as I write this post too. I don’t know enough about Music These Days to know what genre MILCK sings (okay, Wikipedia says “pop,” which is what I would’ve guessed if pressed), but she’s best known for her song “Quiet,” which has a special place in my heart. I’m capricious in my non-classical (and non-folk/trad) musical tastes, and it usually takes special circumstances for me to like something in the pop/rock sphere. In MILCK’s case, those special circumstances exist (I mean, I saw her on a panel). Most of the time, I’d probably say a bit cynically that the reason pop songs seem to speak to your exact feelings and situation is because their lyrics are so vague as to be applicable to practically any situation, but honestly, when it works, it really does work. Some of the songs on This Is Not The End do that for me, and others I like for other reasons (like maybe they remind me of someone else). Maybe something music does is give us space to settle into complex feelings.

Dangerous Instruments

Last Friday I went to the opening reception of the Stewart Gallery exhibit “Dangerous Instruments.” The Stewart Gallery, run by the Grinnell Area Arts Council, is inside the old Stewart library, now the Grinnell Arts Center, next door to the post office. The Arts Council runs all sorts of interesting activities that would probably be worth checking out. There’s even a pipe band. As in Scottish bagpipes. Am I missing my chance to realize my childhood ambition of learning to play the bagpipes? (Am I also missing my chance to learn to play viola da gamba through the Collegium Musicum?)

I digress.

“Dangerous Instruments” featured the creations of Eric McIntyre, hornist, composer, professor of music, and conductor of the Grinnell College orchestra. He built his musical instruments-cum-works of art from excavated pianos, horn bells, saw blades, axe heads, used munitions, bedpans, pitchforks, a tractor fuel pump, a mailbox, gun barrels, and more. Many of them were beautiful (with a certain rustic-ness) and elegant, and some of them literally had teeth.

A Dangerous Piano

The reception was crowded, and I think there was good representation from the ranks of the college orchestra. Gallery visitors were invited to play many of the instruments (gently), using little metal implements, beaters of various types, or giant washers. I tapped tentatively at a few things myself.

The Schlüsselspiel, one of the more melodious instruments

Around 7:00pm, the artist gave a little talk introducing all of his instruments and explaining how he’d made them. He goes to auctions to buy things like the equipment from an old sawmill. He performed on some of the instruments or demonstrated the kinds of sounds they could make. He seemed really interested in different types of resonances and showing how you could pluck or strum the tines of a pitchfork. He’d made a bow out of an old lightning rod and some bicycle part and used it to bow his “mailbox bass.” Honestly, I was not always particularly taken with the sounds these instruments made; they weren’t very musical to me (though I guess music is in the ear of the beholder). But other instruments had more delightful surprises: suspended wrenches and axe heads make surprisingly sweet bell-like sounds.

He also performed on some of the instruments, playing a Saint-Saëns romance on a horn with a bedpan for a bell and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on a double-belled horn built with the double barrels from an old rifle. He’d composed a piece for horn and these three motorized saw blade-and-bullet casings instruments, each of which made a perpetual tinkling sound.

Change Ringing in Boston and Northampton

This blog is 6 years old today, which means it’s my birthday! Anyway, on to the bells.

My fall break in Massachusetts was not entirely devoted to visiting bookstores. I flew into Boston on Saturday evening and spent the night with a close high school friend and her husband. On Sunday morning, I joined Leland and the Boston band for my first close encounter with change ringing. Here’s my non-ringer’s explanation for non-ringers: change ringing is ringing church tower bells with ropes, one ringer to a bell. Change ringing is not melodic, so the ringers aren’t playing a tune. Rather, the bells are rung in different orders/permutations. There are named patterns that consist of a specific set of permutations. Ringers learn these patterns, called methods, so when the conductor calls out a particular method, they know what their bell is supposed to do. It’s physical, mathematical, and very English. I thought I had some esoteric hobbies, but change ringing (like lined-out hymnody!) makes shape note singing look mainstream.

Church of the Advent

On Sunday morning, I first walked through Back Bay to the Church of the Advent. The sidewalks were paved in red brick, and the front steps of most townhouses were festively decorated for autumn/Halloween, with pumpkins and gourds galore (also, you know, the odd fresh grave in a little front garden). Advent is an Episcopalian/Anglican church, and from what I could glean it’s about as close as you can get to Catholic without recognizing the Pope. Veeery high church. When Leland and his partner, also a ringer, arrived, we ascended the narrow spiral staircase to an anteroom that gave onto the ringing room beyond. There were lots of signs about when to be quiet.

We were there for service ringing, that is, bell ringing as the current service was getting out, so the ringers had to wait for the right moment. Then they went into the ringing room; I was invited to come in too, as long as I did not touch or go near any ropes. The first thing the band had to do was ring the tower bells up (so their mouths were up; this is their rest position when ringers are actively using the bells). After this, I went back to the anteroom while different sets of ringers rang different methods on the bells. I picked up some change ringing jargon over the course of the morning (some of which I may get wrong in this post), but I have to admit that all the methods sounded the same to me. It’s kind of beautiful to watch, though, without even seeing the bells: the ringers’ movements are very fluid, and it all looks like this somewhat hypnotizing human machine.

Simon the church cat

After about twenty minutes of ringing, we went downstairs and around the corner for the fellowship hour. Advent has a resident church cat, Simon, who was very sweet! Possibly because he could butter people into sharing treats from the table with him.

Next we walked to Old North Church, of Paul Revere fame (he rang the same bells that the Boston band still rings!), for more service ringing. The ringing room of Old North felt a bit more rustic (all wood and brick), and I perched on the staircase that led to the upper stories of the tower to watch. When the bells rang, the whole tower thrummed. A few methods in, Leland and I went through the door at the top of my steps, climbed another staircase, and then climbed a sort of stair-ladder hybrid to a platform just overlooking the bells. From here, with ear protection, we watched the bells swing up and down as the ringers below handled the ropes for the next pattern.

The bells of Old North

The band rang at Old North for about an hour, and then we all had lunch at the Boston Public Market. I went back to my friend’s place to pick up my stuff and took the T to Cambridge to meet up with Leland again. At his partner’s apartment, we had tea, and then they brought out a set of handbells to try to teach me to ring some changes. The actual ringing technique is different from the technique I’m accustomed to from ringing in handbell choirs; there are two strokes, the way there are with tower bells. This was a little awkward, but much more difficult was trying to ring permutations. They’d given me the two bells that rang “symmetrically,” which was supposed to make the task easier, but as soon as the changes began, I found myself completely lost. It was like my brain had hit a wall; it was actually kind of impressive. We switched from six bells to five, and with only one bell, I was able to keep up a bit better, thinking to myself something like, This time through I ring in position one, this time through in position two…

Soon after the handbell ringing, Leland and I drove to Northampton, where on Monday evening I would get one more dose of change ringing in the tower of Smith College. The tower is not as pretty on the outside and not as atmospheric on the inside as the towers in Boston, but you do get to climb a ladder to reach the ringing room. The group here silenced the bells and rang using a simulator (that is, they were ringing the muted bells, and a computer played bell sounds synchronized to their strokes, because apparently not everyone around the tower loves listening to bell practice). I watched and listened for a bit (Leland gave me some things to keep my ear out for, which made the methods more intelligible), and then Leland gave me a lesson in handling a bell. Conclusion: it’s hard! And that’s just one part of change ringing because then there are all the methods to learn!

Smith tower ringing room (upwards leads to the bells)

Later, I started poking around the shelves underneath the benches against the brick walls of the ringing room. There were stacks of books about ringing. Leland suggested one with anecdotes from the history of change ringing. There was a whole section on women and change ringing, including a rather hilarious excerpt from a letter or somesuch in which the writer said that the tower was one of the few places where men could experience friendship with each other, and with the presence of a woman it just wasn’t the same, so couldn’t women leave men this one thing?

When Leland first explained change ringing to me, years ago, he said that in his experience, when you first encounter it, “either you get it and it instantly seems like the most enjoyable activity imaginable or you don’t and it just sounds totally weird.” I think I rather regrettably fall into the latter category, but I’m glad at least to have seen and heard actual change ringing and to have stood in a tower watching Paul Revere’s bells sound at my feet.

 

Charles Baxter@Grinnell

The same day I drove back to Iowa after the Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention, I went to a Writers@Grinnell event with Charles Baxter, another Minnesotan author who went to Macalester back in the day. It was billed as a roundtable, like with Danez Smith, but it actually turned out to be a craft lecture, a talk genre apparently well known to MFA students, but not to me.

The topic of the lecture was the request moment, which I guess is what it sounds like: a moment in a story when someone asks a character to do something. It makes sense to me that such a moment could be revealing. There’s the content of the request, the requestee’s reaction and response, what it means that the requester feels able/entitled/obliged to make the request, the meaning attached to the response (proof of loyalty, affection, etc.), and so on. Baxter said people often talk about the importance of what characters want, but he’s also interested in transferred desire, that is, when characters do things because other characters want them to.

Some memorable quotes from the lecture:

  • “I can’t go back to being the person I was–that’s what it means to be undone.” I believe this was just in reference to the power of stories to undo us.
  • “Don’t ever ask anybody how much that person loves you”–he pronounced this a terrible idea.
  • “Literature often doesn’t work through simple desires and fears because life doesn’t.”
  • “Often aftermaths are more interesting than violence that precedes them.” This was related to Alice Munro’s short story “Child’s Play.”

The part of the lecture that made the biggest impression on me, though, was a startling coincidence. Baxter incorporated musical examples into his talk. The first was Ralph Vaughn Williams’s orchestral setting of Poem 32 from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The second, he said, was a traditional ballad that exemplified how a request moment can also be a prohibition (i.e. don’t do this). He said it was called “The Silver Dagger” and asked if anyone knew it. I half raised my hand, but I think he saw me, because he said, “One person.” Maybe somebody else raised their hand too? I knew exactly why it exemplified a prohibition because it begins, “Don’t sing love songs.” Baxter proceeded to recite the entire text, which I knew, and then he played us a recording of the song. But the weirdest part is that a few hours earlier, I’d sung “The Silver Dagger” while driving on an Iowa highway, and it’s not a song I sing that often these days. I’ve talked about liking Solas’s version before, which is different from the version he played us. That was the one I was singing earlier that day.

The 30th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention

This past weekend I drove up to the Twin Cities for the 30th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention. I’ve managed to attend this convention a couple of times in grad school–last year with Isabelle, in 2014 when Sparkers came out–thanks to UCLA’s late start to the academic year, but it’s certainly easier to drive up from Iowa than to fly from California. I didn’t know it was the 30th annual singing until I arrived. Turns out the first Minnesota convention took place the year I was born!

The first day, we sang at Olivet Congregational Church in St. Paul, not far from St. Sahag’s, home of my local shape note singing the year I lived in the Summit-University neighborhood. I also vaguely recalled having gone to an English country dance at Olivet UCC that year, and Midge, a fellow singer and dancer and one of the convention’s co-chairs, confirmed that the Playford ball was held there. I led 203 Florida in the morning.

During the breaks, I caught up with Ivy, a fellow linguist now in the Twin Cities. We first met as prospective students at UCLA. I also met an ethnomusicologist who came to the convention from Winnipeg but who lived in Georgia for a year and a half studying the language and the music! Where else do you meet Georgian music singers than at the Sacred Harp convention, I guess. I also “networked” with other Iowa singers; there are a number of us scattered throughout the state. There aren’t any regular singings very close to me, but at least there’s an all-day in the spring to look forward to.

Local singer Claudia had put together a mini-exhibit of six old shape note tunebooks which were on display Saturday morning in the church library. The oldest was a copy of The Easy Instructor from 1816, I believe. There were also two books in German (or bilingual in English and German), printed in Fraktur! One of them was Die Franklin Harmonie. I didn’t know shape note tunebooks in other languages existed; these were apparently used by the Pennsylvania Dutch. As I was looking at the books, another singer noticed my name tag said Grinnell, and she told me she used to hitchhike to Grinnell, passing through Austin, MN, to visit her best friend, who studied at the college.

Shape notes and Fraktur! (Excuse the shadow…)

On Sunday, we sang at The Landing, on the Minnesota River. Last year, I was there with Isabelle. At the end of lunch and at the following break, the ethnomusicologist, Midge and her husband (both Georgian singing aficionados, who’ve visited the country multiple times and who brought Zedashe to the Twin Cities), one other singer, and I attempted to sing a Mravalzhamier we all knew. It was rocky, but it was still lovely to at least try some Georgian polyphony at the convention!

I led 296 Sardinia, in the afternoon. At the end of the day, the co-chairs, as is customary, invited out-of-town singers to invite everyone to major singings in their parts of the country. A singer from Kentucky, who I knew I’d seen before, made such an announcement, and in it he mentioned the opportunity to experience an Old Regular Baptists’ service with lined-out hymnody. Somebody else said that alone was worth the trip. I had never heard of such a thing and wasn’t even sure I’d heard right until I looked it up later. I’m still not totally clear what lined-out hymnody is, but Wikipedia tries to explain. Shape note seems positively mainstream compared to this.

After the convention was over, I wandered around The Landing a little bit, like we had last year. I walked past the schoolhouse and around behind the barn to see if the cows we’d seen last year were in the enclosure, but instead of cows I found three sheep!

Hello, Grinnell!

Last week, I announced I was leaving Los Angeles. Where am I now? Grinnell, Iowa! I’m a post-doctoral fellow at Grinnell College. I’ll be teaching linguistics, reacquainting myself with the Midwest, and discovering small town life in rural Iowa. Funnily enough, I visited Grinnell in high school, applied for college, and was admitted, but I chose to go somewhere else. Now here I am as a teacher!

All of my musical instruments made it with me!

Agave Baroque, Etc.

Summer is here! What have I been up to since spring break, besides defending my dissertation? Well, I can safely say I’ve finished my doctorate; I graduate tomorrow! I also went to the LA Times Festival of Books and YALLWEST, which were fun, but I wonder whether I’m starting to get author paneled out… I went on a couple of top secret trips to the Upper Midwest; sooner or later the outcome of those trips is likely to become clear.

In between said trips, Isabelle and I went to a wonderful concert at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, which is part of UCLA but is located in the West Adams neighborhood. The Clark houses a rare book and manuscript collection and hosts UCLA’s Center for 17th- & 18th-Century Studies’ chamber music concert series. We had actually been to the library before, for a performance combining piano pieces and personal storytelling. This time, the performers were Agave Baroque, a San Francisco-based ensemble, and the countertenor Reginald Mobley. Apparently it was the first time a singer had ever participated in this concert series.

The Clark Library (check out that theorbo!)

The program was devoted almost exclusively to the extended Bach family. I’m a big Baroque music fan, so I enjoyed the whole concert, but I was especially excited for the penultimate piece, the chaconne “Mein Freund ist mein” from the cantata Meine Freundin, du bist schön by Johann Christoph Bach. I had stumbled upon this piece on Youtube, searching for music by J. C. Bach, as one does, and I loved it. (Amusingly, for the title of the cantata Google Translate gives “my girlfriend you are beautiful.”) I should’ve realized sooner the text was from the Song of Songs. The organist told us the cantata had been composed for a Bach family wedding, but it was a Lutheran wedding, so the piece was in G minor. In any case, it was as wonderful as I’d hoped to hear the chaconne performed live. I was surprised to understand some German I had never caught before, just listening to a recording.

The title given in the program for the final piece, also by J. C. Bach, wasn’t familiar to me. It was “Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben” (Google Translate: “it’s over with my life now”). The organist said the song was about death, but it was happy (can anyone say shape note?). As soon as Reginald Mobley began to sing, though, I recognized the piece, which I knew as “Welt, gute Nacht.” It’s very beautiful and soothing, and I was delighted to hear it performed live too.

The next evening, I got to see Rachel Hartman (of whom I am unabashedly a fan) and Fran Wilde at Children’s Book World, the bookstores where I held my Los Angeles release parties. I’d enjoyed Fran Wilde’s Updraft, and she was touring for her newest book, an MG novel with a protagonist named Eleanor! She also had a stamp of a witch ball, which she was using in signing books. It was lovely to see Rachel in person for the second time and catch up a little. She was promoting her extraordinary Tess of the Road.

At the end of May, Isabelle and I went to the LA Zine Fest at the historic Helms Bakery in Culver City (the official baker of the 1932 Olympic Games). We discovered some new-to-us zinesters, saw artist Maggie Chiang in the flesh, ran into Jackie Lam, whom we knew from the West LA Burrito Project, and donated some zines to other branches of the LA Public Library.

Speaking of zines and the public library, last Sunday we went back to the zine workshop at the West Los Angeles Regional Library. I kept working on my latest zine, which I hope to finish and reveal soon, and we found that some of our previous zines were now on shelves in the library’s collection!

Borrego Palm Canyon and the Rest of Spring Break

On our second day in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we hiked the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. There were plenty of people, and the trail was awash in desert flowers. The clouds of blooms were mainly shades of yellow and purple (desert dandelion, Parrish’s poppies, phacelia), with greenery and smatterings of other colors thrown in. The trail was pretty easy for a long stretch. Mountainsides jutted up sharply on either side of us, but far away on one side. There were streams (or maybe just one stream) flowing with cold water, and we had to cross all of these, usually on stepping stones or a log bridge. Closer to the palm oasis that was the endpoint of the trail, the path grew steeper and rockier in places.

Two kinds of phacelia?

A pretty blue flower

The oasis itself was a circle of California fan palms, the only native California palm tree. It was deliciously cool in the shade. Nearby, a shallow stream was flowing, and it seemed you could wade up it to find a waterfall. This sounded lovely, but a bunch of people had just arrived, so we opted to start the hike back. We stumbled upon some more ghost flowers along the trail, but alas, we didn’t meet any bighorn sheep.

Apricot mallow, I think

Stream from the trail, with ocotillos on the far hillside

On the drive back from the state park, we saw along the freeway near Lake Elsinore (lately overwhelmed by superbloom seekers) the hillsides coated in orange California poppies that are the signature of this year’s superbloom. The flowers do make impressive patches of color.

Back in Los Angeles, we visited the Getty Museum, where the illuminated manuscripts exhibit was Artful Words: Calligraphy in Illuminated Manuscripts. As usual, I tried to read the French texts. There was an amusing legend to an illustration in The Visions of the Knight Tondal: “The Good But Not Very Good Are Nourished by a Fountain”. Sounds like Not Very Good is good enough, then? This particular exhibit featured a lot of pages from books of music, which I’m a big fan of.

We also made our usual pilgrimage to The Huntington. In the Chinese garden, there was a performance underway in my eponymous pavilion: Gao Hejia was playing the guzheng.

The Chinese garden (notice the egret among the water lilies behind the rock)

Bird!

On the final day of our vacation, we visited the Getty Villa.

The Getty Villa, modeled on the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum

Inscription in what the exhibit called Palmyran Aramaic and what I think might be the Palmyrene alphabet–in any case, it’s beautiful!