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Let me start by saying this: my first week in London has been one of the most eventful and incredible weeks of my life.
Writing this blog was very difficult. I didn’t really know where exactly to start because so much has happened already. The hours seem to pass very quickly and slowly all at the same time here. The phrase, “time flies when you’re having fun” doesn’t even begin to describe how incredible this city and all it has to offer is. I guess I’ll start from the beginning…
The day I arrived in London; January 10th, 2010, it was snowing. Even though I had been awake for the entire flight over, I was far too excited from being in a new country and seeing it covered in my favorite form of precipitation to be slowed down and sleepy from jet lag. The bus that drove us from Heathrow airport to our town house called Metrogate on Queen’s Gate Terrace took us through the white hills and fields that made up some of the less populated parts of greater London. The first observation that I made upon seeing England, and especially London, is that most of the buildings here are old. Very, very old. From the aged but sturdy wooden fences establishing the boundaries of the pastures on the ends of the city limits to the very chimneys atop the countless stone chiseled houses in downtown London, everything seems to be utterly drenched in history (and rain water, for that matter). London is much attached to everything that has happened within it; and little plaques and statues mark outstanding moments in time or the accomplishments of some it’s most famous residents. For example, there is a plaque nearby Metrogate that identifies one of the houses as having once been the home of Virginia Woolf. T.S. Elliot also only lived a few blocks away from us over in Kensington, apparently. Barely even having moved in to our residences in Metrogate, our group leader, Dave, challenged us to get out and find him and his wife, Kathy, downtown in a pub near Trafalgar square (downtown London, similar to Pioneer Square for all you Portland readers out there). Being completely new to the city, we all traveled in a group to make sure that none of us would get lost (or at least all get lost together) on the first night. Luckily for all of us, we all caught the right bus, got off at the right stop and made it to a small pub called “The Old Shades.” As we were walking toward the pub, a brilliant light started to shine through the fog in the distance on the skyline. It took me a little while to realize that the light was coming from the source none other than the infamous clock tower, Big Ben. It was absolutely magical. For dinner, most of us felt we had to be extra-curious about British food, so, as a result, almost everyone at the table ordered fish and chips. I’m almost certain that we cleaned their kitchen out of cod. After a lovely dinner, Dave led all of us back through a quicker mode of public transportation: the Tube. The Tube is the underground railway system for London, and my goodness it is extensive. However, for how comprehensive it is in relation to the city, it really is very easy to use and is especially friendly to people who don’t know the city very well. I’m proud to say that I haven’t been lost in London…yet. After we all arrived at Metrogate once again, after an extremely long day, all of us shuffled our way to our beds and curled up for a long and jet lagged induced night of sleep.
The following day helped us become much more acquainted with London’s geography. We were given a tour of the main parts of the city on a bus by a man who seemed to know just about everything about the history of every building we passed. That day, we saw Buckingham Palace, London Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral and many other large and impressive buildings in the West End and London’s famous financial district. After the bus tour was over, we were given a personal walking tour by the same man through an area that was really close to Metrogate. He took us in a large loop through Kensington High Street, the Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and all the way back to Metrogate House. The Kensington Gardens are absolutely beautiful, especially when covered in snow. Something you all should know about London (something that might put some people off) is that the city is very…well, grey. Not a dull and empty grey, though, but a full and iridescent grey. Like a gray one might find on a tarnished silver plate that holds cultural traditions or keeps family secrets. This fog enrobes the city in an elegant layer of watery silk, giving it cool, refreshing and heavy air. A fog such as this was floating around Kensington Gardens on this day. As we crossed the lake near the middle of the gardens, it looked as if we had all wandered into an impressionistic painting with little flecks of color coming from the birds on the bank chasing people in hopes of being fed scraps of bread. After our tour, some of my friends and I had enjoyed the pub last night so much that we went off in search of another one. We figured that the sooner we get familiar with the city the better: why not explore on day two? All of us decided on a small pub called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street that seemed to have a history of famous people who preferred to drink there including such names as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens and, oddly enough, Mark Twain. The pub wasn’t terribly hard to find, but it was at the end of a small alleyway. Upon entering, it became very evident to all of us that this place, like the majority of the rest of London, was very old. Creaky wooden floors, sawdust and low lighting were enough to catapult me back 300 or 400 years. Pubs and pub food is something that I am really going to miss when I go back to the states. These places are specifically built around socializing, good drinks and great food. And, to set the record straight, for all of the stereotypes about how horrible English food is, I haven’t had a bad dish yet. Along with a tall glass of a local stout, I had an excellent steak and ale pie with chips (french fries) that night. After our delicious and filling dinner, we felt that we wanted to explore London a bit more. From there on, we went on a 2 hour walk all the way to Trafalgar square, and from there we tried to make our way over to Piccadilly Circus. It wasn’t too hard to find. For those of you who don’t know what Piccadilly Circus looks like, it looks remarkably similar to Times Square in New York. After covering so much of London in one night, we were all thoroughly exhausted. From there we ventured home and to our beds.
As hard as this may be to believe for all of us, we actually are here for school. Yes, the main focuses of our academic work here will be music, theatre and art, but they will still be through classes, nonetheless. After our massive day of touring London was our first day of class. The classes we will be taking here will be a theatre class built around the unique and gigantic theatre scene in London, a music history class that will help us to understand all of the concerts we will see and how these epic pieces of music transformed music for all the composers and performers to follow them, an art class that is field trip based and will show us the incredible architecture of the city along with the best of classic and modern art that London has to offer, and a class on British culture and politics to help us make heads and tails of all the news and major events we might come in contact with while we are here. It’s a huge curriculum, and the only way we are going to get the most out of what we are going to be taught is to get out into London and experience all of the art, music, theatre and people for ourselves. Our classes have set up a gigantic selection of each discipline for us to experience over the next 3-4 months. I can hardly wait to see what they have in store for us.
Almost every night this week has been spent going to some music, theatre, or art event in London. I have probably crammed more theatre and music into this single week than I have in a single semester back in Portland. The first show that I saw in London was a brilliant revival of a Tom Stoppard play called Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. The premise revolves around a man who seems to be sane who has been placed in a mental hospital because of his resistance against the communist government of Soviet Russia. In the hospital he is “cell” mates with a man who actually is crazy who believes he has an orchestra trapped within his mind. To represent the musicality of his condition, the cast is joined by an 80 piece orchestra on stage. The music weaved in and out creating a mix of soundtrack and soundscape-like accompaniment throughout the show. The second show I saw came from the heart of the West End. West End theatre companies are not unlike Hollywood. Shows in the West End are big, showy, shiny, epic and often musicals. This particular show was called War Horse. It told the story of the unbreakable bond between a boy his horse who he raised since colt-hood. After the horse, named Joey, is sold into the army to assist in the fight against the Germans in World War I, the boy, Albert, vows to stop at nothing to bring his horse back safely. While I wasn’t reduced to a blubbering mess like quite a bit of the audience by the play’s trite plot progression and conclusion, I did feel that the play had one incredible saving grace: its puppetry. All of the horses on stage were portrayed by a team of skilled puppeteers. With three puppet-masters to a horse (one for the back legs, one for the front and one for the head) the horses came to life with every ear-twitch, hoof plod and deep breath. After a few minutes of seeing these massive puppets on stage, the puppeteers seemed to vanish and I felt as if there were real horses on stage. It was one of the most incredible instances of stagecraft that I have seen in a very long time. The third show that I saw, called Öper Öpis (title meaning Somewhere Someone), and was by far the strangest. Hailing from Norway, this peculiar theatre company journeyed to London to kick off the annual Mime festival. The play was mostly non-verbal and relied mostly on loaded body language, heavy symbolism and incredible circus dance/movement vocabulary to get its points across. On a stage that teetered and shifted in the direction of where the weight led it (almost like a four sided teeter totter) the performers slid and tumbled and scuffled along dancing strangely to the live music from a DJ in the far left hand corner of the stage. The DJ collected a menagerie of sounds from all of the action happening on stage and transformed it through his equipment and looping machine into a follow-able tune and beat that conducted the movement of the performers. It was an example of ultimate synergy. As for the theme of the play, if you asked me “what was it about?,” I wouldn’t be able to tell you. This was my first experience with especially bizarre theatre, and I doubt that it will be my last during my time here. I hope that I will be able to look at these odd productions through a new lens by the time I leave and be able to dissect the complicated meaning within them.
Not only was this a week for theatre, it was also a week for music. My first concert here in London town was none other than an a cappella concert, only this time I was not seeing a collegiate group. This time around I had the pleasure of witnessing one of the best a cappella groups in the world perform: The Swingle Singers. This group has been a pioneer for the musical and performance genre bringing vocal arrangements and beat-boxing to a whole new level. Their repertoire covers astoundingly vast ground. From classical to jazz. From folk to tango. From popular and mainstream music to underground indie artists from all over the world. For a group of a humble 8 outstanding musicians, their size is almost ridiculously deceptive. They have the fullest sounds out of any vocal group I have ever heard perform live in my life. The concert began with a pitch perfect and sweeping rendition of Nick Drake’s song “River Man” and had an absolutely exquisite cover of Björk’s song “Unravel near the end. Here is a link to a recording of “Unravel” that you absolutely must hear.
While you are away
My heart comes undone
In a ball of yarn
The devil collects it
With a grin
In a ball of yarn
He’ll never return it
So when you come back
We’ll have to make new love
He’ll never return it
When you come back
We’ll have to make new love
For as much of an a cappella geek that I am, this concert completely blew my mind. It changed the way I perceive the power of the human voice and exactly what it is capable of. The second concert I was able to see this week was much different than a choral concert. It was just our luck that the East Coast Indie band, Vampire Weekend, just released their new album “Contra” earlier this year and decided to give a free concert at a venue called the Sommerset House. The venue was an outdoor plaza (cold)and had an ice rink right in the middle of it (even colder) and unfortunately, the band came on half an hour late (freezing). It turns out the Vampire Weekend has a lot of good energy live. I was able to enjoy the concert from almost at the very back of the venue. I’m not terribly familiar with the band, but I do know that from what I have heard, they have a pretty fun sound. It was strange hearing American accents again and listening to live summery music with snow still on the ground, though…
On Saturday, I and some friends attended a workshop put on by both the Swingle Singers and another group called VOCES8. With these two groups, we were given some tips on proper vocal techniques, improvisational skills/exercises and were given an introductory crash course on how to beat-box. After the workshop, all of us headed over to St. Columba’s Presbyterian Church for a group event centered around learning how to do Scottish dancing. To be fairly honest, almost everyone was absolutely terrified of this event at first. All but one of us knew how to do these dances, and the idea of fumbling around on a dance floor with about 200 strangers with a traditional dinner of haggis didn’t sound like our idea of a pleasant evening. However, what followed that evening was one of the best times I have ever been proven wrong in my entire life. This was quite possibly my favorite night in London so far. The dances turned out to be much less complicated than I had anticipated and were very easy to pick up. I ended up dancing almost every single dance that night. Through skipping madly in circles with up seven other strangers, waltzing all over the dance floor and weaving around several dance partners, I found a strange sense of deep happiness of being connected to a strong and living tradition. It was extremely fulfilling to participate in such a rich community in such a care-free and exciting way. Everyone was so helpful in helping me learn what to do next and by the end of the evening I had learned a few extra traditional steps of my own. I might seek this out more during my time here. And for the record, haggis is DELICIOUS. Imagine meatloaf, with flavor. Oh, and whiskey too…(of course).
To say that I love it here would be an understatement. I can already see that there are so many opportunities for me to change as an artist, performer, world citizen and as a person here, and the semester is just starting to get warmed up. What is in store for me? All I know is that I am on the edge of some gigantic and overwhelmingly positive change in my life and I am ready for it to swallow me whole. I feel ready for you, London.
Till next time,
Musical present of the week:
A new favorite artist of mine. Enjoy.