Jon Wash’s Campus Journal
A pretty big highlight this week was our trip to Stratford upon Avon. This town is the birthplace of Shakespeare, and most things there are devoted to him and his work. We visited his birthplace, his grave and also toured some of the houses that his children lived in. It was pretty little town and I really enjoyed just wandering around and seeing all of the old buildings. After going to a pub for dinner all of us went to a very modern take on “King Leer.” I was impressed by the performances of the actors and the set brought many strange ideas of the play out. Set in a strange, warehouse-like environment that deteriorated as the play progressed and complete with really impressive feats of stage technology (such as a thunderstorm with rain over Lear during one of his monologues), the play really showed off the possibilities of how far the envelope could be pushed in regards to interpretation and stagecraft. I would really like to see it again to see if I could take it all in.
This was definitely a great week for theatre. First, this week I made my way over to the National Theatre to see a lecture by Allison Chitty, a really famous stage designer, along with an exhibition about her work. It was fascinating to hear her approaches to design and I loved seeing all of the models for her sets. Many of them looked frightfully intricate and extremely strange. I would LOVE to see a show designed by her. After the lecture I ended up seeing a show at the National called “The Habit of Art,” a new play that delves into the lives of Thomas Auden and Benjamin Britten. It was a very interesting play complete with a set within a set and actors playing actors. It was very funny and was acted very well. The second theatre event I went to this week was a bit more of an experience than a show. I went to this project called “SHUNT,” which is a collaboration of London artists, theatrical performers and musicians that collaborate to create an incredibly strange and unique experience in an abandoned tube stop. To find it, you need to venture through the London Bridge tube stop to find a little brown door in a brick wall (a little sketchy, right?). When I went inside it was very dark and there was a lot of low lighting. It felt a bit like a haunted house. The first show I saw was a production by a group called the Sugarbeast Circus. It was really intriguing and creepy at the same time and centered around an animal trainer for an Indian circus that leaves mysteriously. The other show that I saw was REALLY strange. It was more of a performance art piece than a show. People dressed in clothing that could give Lady GaGa a run for her money were gathered at a table speaking a nonsense language, would get up, move about randomly, meet up in a circle somewhere in the room, and then, well…phonate. They weren’t really screaming, or singing either. There wasn’t a tonal structure but they were still creating strange noises making extremely dissonant sound textures. It was…strange. My favorite thing about SHUNT that night was probably the environment with all of the interactive art pieces. There was an amazing “instrument” featured there that was a collection of beams of light that had heat sensors in them. When you put your hand through them or walked through them, a spotlight somewhere in the room would shine randomly and it would play a note. People were lighting up the hallway and creating pentatonic chords all night. It was pretty great.
This was also a pretty great week for music. I got to see a concert done by the London Symphony Orchestra featuring pieces from West Side Story, a (unfortunately, not so great) performance of Rhapsody in Blue and a Rachmaninov Symphony. It was an ok concert, but it just couldn’t compare to the one I had seen earlier in the week. I had the, possibly once in a lifetime pleasure, to hear the Vienna Philharmonic perform. For the concert that the group went to see, we heard them perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It was UNBELIEVABLE. They also did a great performance of some of the Hungarian Dances for the encore.
Another thing that I did this week was go to the ballet for the first time. It isn’t something that I normally do, but I figured that I needed to try new things, so off I went to Covent Garden. The ballet I saw was a collection of three pieces by separate choreographers. The first was a very modern ballet that seemed to reflect a lot of frustration with modern society and the separation that is brought upon by technology. The second was definitely the most traditional of the three and danced out the details of an unhappy love story to music by Prokofiev. The third piece, however, was definitely my favorite. It was a piece done to original music by Max Richter (one of my favorite composers) and followed a storyline of (what I believed to be) fleeting interactions among strangers. The choreography was absolutely beautiful and I loved hearing new material from a composer that I really love. It was a lovely evening. Lucky for all of you, the ballet is actually free for you to watch on YouTube! Here are the links to it! Hope you enjoy it.
Till next time,
Musical present of the week:
First off, I have to tell you, I have recently viewed the best play I have ever seen. Allow me to elaborate.
There is a play currently on at the Apollo Theatre called Jerusalem. It is about a man named Johnny “Rooster” Byron who lives in an old trailer in the middle of the woods in rural England with a wild and mysterious past. At his disposal is a legion of young ragamuffins, rabble-rousers and party animals who are constantly hounding him to give them alcohol and drugs. Drama ensues when Mr. Byron finds an eviction notice on his door and when an angry father begins to look for his lost daughter near his home. The man who plays Johnny Byron is Mark Rylance and he has given the most incredible acting performance I have ever seen in my life. He wasn’t acting. It was almost as if I was watching something really happening on stage. The script is also fabulous. Incorporating absolutely hilarious text with open ended conclusions and rapid fire dialogue, I was completely captivated for the whole 3 hours of the show. I was utterly blown away by this piece of theatre. The other show I saw this week was very different. Written by a Scottish playwright, Knives in Hens took place in a space that was no bigger than my dorm room. I could have touched the actors I was so close. I was impressed by the use of the small space but I had a lot of trouble understanding the thick Scottish accents that were being used by the actors.
This was also an interesting week for music. Earlier in the week the group attended an event being put on by the London Handel Festival. Our specific performance was of the oratorio Belshazzar and was performed on period instruments and featured two countertenor singing roles. I didn’t know that men could sing that high and I was impressed by their ability. The second big music thing I went to this week was a performance at the Barbican Centre featuring a choir that a friend of mine is in! For his internship he is currently singing in the City of London Choir and he had to perform with them a piece called “The Glorious Moment,” by Beethoven. It was a very good concert and we were all happy to know someone in the ensemble, and we hyped up his “fame” quite a bit.
This week was also a good week for food. I made another visit to Portobello Road and had just about as much fun the second time as I did the first. This time I got food from a German food stand and a Ghanaian food stand. Both were absolutely fantastic, especially the Ghanaian food. Then the following day I went to Chinatown with a group of friends and got some pretty good dim sum. Dim sum is one of my favorite kinds of food because it gives you the opportunity to try so many different things at the same time.
Well, until my next post,
Musical present of the week:
An old favourite.
Hey there guys,
The highlight of this week was when we all traveled to St. Ives. It was a long train ride (6 hours) to make it out the tip toe of the island on the west side in Cornwall, but it was absolutely worth it. St. Ives is known for being a beautiful small sea town with a high artist population. The weather was perfect when we arrived, sun shining and all. The first big activity of the day was travelling to the Tate St. Ives, a big art gallery that overlooked the sea. We saw the work of local artists there and also some more famous pieces (including one by Picasso!). After the gallery many of us went straight for the ocean. A couple of friends and I went rock scrambling. It was wonderful to be near the ocean. I had missed it so much. For dinner, a group of us decided to eat at The Sloop Inn, a pub that was built in the 1300’s where I had really good seafood and fell in love with Cornish cider. We visited a few more pubs that night before returning to the hostel where a bunch of us watched Blues Brothers until the early hours of the morning. It was a pretty great night. When we woke up, a few of us went out to find a bakery for breakfast. We ended up finding one that specialized in scones. We all got a few and ate them with strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream. It was SO good. We headed back to London after breakfast. I would love to return to St. Ives sometime soon in the future.
Once again, I can say that I’ve seen some pretty amazing theatre this week including a sequel to Macbeth done by the same writer for Midsummer, an opera that made me like opera for the first time called Lucia di Lammermoor, an amazing production of a play called ENRON and a production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. Out of all of them, ENRON was definitely my favorite. It was fascinating to see a play about America on the British stage about recent American history. Complete with genius staging, a very smart script and many references to the Bush administration, September 11th and the economic recession, it made for a very strange and reflective evening for me as an American growing up in this generation.
Another really amazing thing that happened this week was that our group visited Westminster Abbey. This is an incredible place and if any of you out there reading this ever go to London, I highly recommend that you go there. Not only is the space really old and beautiful, it is completely soaked in history; it is under your very feet when you are there. Literally. The Abbey is crammed with graves of almost every famous person to come out of the history of the United Kingdom. From Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and Henry Purcell to Laurence Olivier, Benjamin Britten and Winston Churchill, the church is a testament to every human that has made Britain famous. It is an incredible and humbling experience to see and think about all of the amazing people who have come from Britain. I would love to attend a service there.
Well, another week, another post. This one will happen soon.
Musical present of the week:
About a minute in, this song has one of the most incredible string riffs I have ever heard.
Hello again! It appears that I’ve quite a bit of catch up to do. So, here goes…
Quite a bit has happened since my last post. I would apologize for not posting as often as I should, but so much happens here, it just gets so easy to get lost in how wonderful it is to be here. Well, first order of business, I guess: what have I seen?
Well, theatre has played quite a huge role recently. I have seen so many shows at this point that I really am starting feel that I can make powerful decisions on what I like, don’t like and what I think I could potentially use for thesis. The incredible amount of art, music and theatre that I am going to here is really helping me to get to know myself, and helping get a sense for what I think I need and want to create. I can honestly say that I am starting to feel that I have the potential to have a unique and valuable creative mind.
Anyway, the shows I’ll discuss for this post have been pretty good. I’ve seen things ranging from major West End musicals to small Fringe productions to brand new productions from up and coming playwrights starting make a splash on the London theatre scene; all of which have been very exciting. The first show I saw was a production of a relatively new show by a popular UK playwright named David Grieg called Midsummer. It was held at a place called the SOHO theatre in a very small and intimate space. The stage was strangely complicated and cluttered filled with a multitude of things that made me curious to see how they were going to be used in the show. My favorite thing about Midsummer was how funny it was. Until then, we hadn’t seen a show in London that was very funny and for quite a few moments in the first half of the play I found myself struggling for breath from laughter. The play is centered around a man and a woman in Edinburgh who appear to have nothing in common except for how unsatisfied they are with their lives, and grow together over the course of the play after a one night stand. I thought that the play had many wonderful moments amid the at times trite story-line and musical accompaniment, and overall I really enjoyed it. I think that I should perhaps look into some more plays written by David Grieg. Another Fringe shows that I saw that week was a strange dance and theatre compilation piece that examined people when their own survival or the survival of a loved one is placed in jeopardy called Breathing Irregular. It hopped from storylines such as a family helping a father having a stroke, a woman having a baby alone at home, a husband helping his wife who is choking, etc. It was a fairly intense show (that, luckily for my sake, ended happily) and I was really fascinated by the director’s impeccable observation and recreation of human body language. I thought that it was a very successful piece. Other Fringe shows I saw that week included a funny Oscar Wilde adaptation play called Arthur Savile’s Crime (full of blinding wit and ironic comparisons) and a more modern piece by playwright Neil LaBute called The Shape of Things (a play that is actually being done for the senior projects this season!) which was about the costs and motives of changing someone’s life.
Talking about this much theatre brings me to an amazing day that I had during this particular day: the day I experience THEATRE OVERLOAD. Yes, it’s possible. The day started with an incredible group tour of the esteemed Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. It was a humbling experience to be in such a huge theatre and artistic venue. Convent Garden is such a huge venue that it is able to revolve around 10 productions all during the same season. We got to see everything from the auditorium to the ACRE of stage space (yes, you read right, AN ACRE), the shop, costume storage and backstage. Aside from any of our backgrounds, the content stunted all of our artistic imagination. We were even able to sit in and watch a snippet of a ballet rehearsal for the theatre’s sell out production of Romeo and Juliet. I can’t wait to actually see a production here. After the tour (as if it weren’t awesome enough) all of us headed back to an equally huge and historically valuable venue in London: the Royal Albert Hall. Dave, our group leader, had scored us matinee tickets to see Cirque du Soleil’s touring show, Varekai. I was very familiar with the show and had actually seen it live before when it came to Portland. I was equally impressed by the INCREDIBLE artistry, skill and execution of the acts by all the artists. The set was also just as breathtaking as I remembered it; designed to take you into an otherworldly forest complete with tall metal poles that performers climbed atop of and swung back and forth on and a rickety spiral staircase that took the cast to the very ceiling of the immense hall. Artists emerged from holes in the floor, out of the darkness, flew above your head dressed in peyote inspired costumes. It was a barrage of color and heart-stopping feats of gymnastics. While I do believe that the show has suffered from touring for so long, both on the fronts of retaining an already abstract storyline and keeping high quality vocalists, I still think that it still retains much of its original magic. I have been quite attached to Cirque du Soleil since I was a child, and I think I always will be. In short, I still loved the performance. As if Cirque wasn’t already an assault on the senses, to top the day off, I headed over to the Lyceum Theatre in the West End to see The Lion King. I liked the show, but was a bit unimpressed with the lead singers (except for the actors who played Rafiki and Nala who were fantastic). I think that, like Varekai, the show has suffered from playing for so long and that the casts have been done over so many times that some of the acting and music was a bit stale. I also knew that I was going to a show that was designed to be extremely accessible and would have many elements of, how do I go about saying this…cheesiness. Oh well, I didn’t go particularly for the music or the storyline. The reason I wanted to see it was because it had been transformed by one of my favorite directors, Julie Taymor. I loved all of the infusions of Africa into the story and the set was absolutely gorgeous. My favorite scenes included the dance of the lionesses, the opening procession and all of the unique puppetry involved to bring a strangely new but familiar landscape to life. It was a fascinating night of theatre, but by the end of it I was completely WORN OUT. What a day.
On the music front, this also offered some surprises this week. The group went to a fantastic performance at the Barbican Centre by the infamous New York Philharmonic. They did pieces by Hayden, John Adams, Schubert and finished off with a piece by Berg. I enjoyed the concert, but what I really took away from it was a fascination with the work of John Adams. I think that I am going to look more into him in the future. However, the music highlight of the evening was easily a concert I went to in Shepherds Bush near the end of the week. A friend and I went to go see a band that both of us really like called The Low Anthem. They are a folk/blue-grass/old American music group from Rhode Island. I knew that I was going to enjoy the concert, but I was blown away even more than I thought I was going to be. They played all of my favorite songs by them (including an astoundingly beautiful rendition of my favorite song of theirs called “Oh My God Charlie Darwin). Something remarkable that can be said about every member of The Low Anthem is that all of them play an astounding variety of instruments. All of them hopped from the drums, to guitars, to vocals to bass and a huge assortment of strange instruments and sound makers in between. Ranging from beautiful ballads to barn burners to old American folk tunes and spirituals and even a soundscape constructed from cell phone speakerphone distortion made by the audience (it sounded like thousands of electronic crickets) it was one of my favorite musical experiences in London yet, and was one of the best concerts I have ever been to.
Another exciting thing that happened this week was that a good friend of mine visited me and some of my roommates from her own study abroad program in Strasbourg, France. It was lovely to see her again and catch up on the amazing things that had been happening to all of us since the end of last semester at LC. Me and my roommates did our best to take her to as many fantastic things we could in London and some of the highlights included cooking up a storm in Metrogate (with such amazing dishes as gumbo, burritos and the chocolatiest cookies ever made), taking her to a huge Sunday service at St. Paul’s Cathedral and seeing Wicked in the West End!
Well, that’s all for now. Until the next post. Which should be…soon…I hope…
Musical present of the week:
A beautiful song and a beautiful music video.
Quite a bit has happened since I last posted. One of the biggest highlights since my last post was the group trip to York. We had to get up at 6:30 in the morning to make the early morning train; I felt like I was back in middle school again. It was pretty exciting to get outside of London for a bit. While there is so much in London, it was nice to be outside the city limits for once and finally get a glimpse of the beautiful English countryside and the small towns that inhabit it. Upon finally arriving in York around midday, it was shocking how different it was from London. Both of the cities are very old, bit the oldness in York seemed much more present and alive. York was a huge Roman stronghold in during the time it was occupied by the massive empire, and little bits and pieces of that time still remain within the city along with the incredible landmarks that showed that York has played a gigantic role in the history of England. There are several ruins that line city blocks and have little plazas all to themselves. One might find the ruins of a castle, then walk a block over and be confronted by a Starbucks. The clash of ancient culture and modernity in York is utterly fascinating. The two biggest landmarks in the city are easily the wall and Yorkminster. The wall, which used to outline the entire perimeter of the city in medieval times is still standing and is actually quite an efficient route for getting around town if you don’t want to wait to cross streets. Going down the very thin walkways on the wall, it felt to me as if I were in the middle of a historical film about wars in old England. The wall even still has small holes for archers to peek out and shoot arrows from. The wall also gives you a grand view of the city. From the wall (and almost everywhere else, for that matter) one can also see the town’s gigantic cathedral: Yorkminster. It towers above all other buildings in the city and often announces its presence through the ringing of its loud, deep and very old bells. I found myself completely lost and infatuated with the city’s oldness and beautiful connections to its past.
It just so happens that on the day we ventured to York, we arrived on a national holiday. Upon arriving, our group leader informed us that today just happened to be the anniversary of the coronation of the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II and that there was to be a large ceremony in town today and that we would be able to sit in on these ceremonies if we wished to. All we needed to do was follow the crowds. It wasn’t hard. After making our way through the packed, tiny streets, we found ourselves in a square where a royal brass band was playing away, all dressed in formal garb. After a few tunes, they began to march toward the park and we followed. We followed them to the park and got ourselves prime viewing for the main event: the 21 canon salute. Everything was done in a meticulous military fashion. Soldiers carried out their orders from their superiors jerkily and quickly, loaded the guns, and after a loud and clear “FIRE,” each canon went off with a flash of red light and the resounding sound not unlike that of a thunderclap. 21 times the canons sounded off over the river, and when they were done, the soldiers were met with thunderous applause. We left the ceremony afterwards to meet up with the rest of the group, get lunch and then begin our tour of York. The tour was fairly extensive. We traveled all around the city, scaled the wall, wandered through the main shopping area called the Shambles (I swear to you that the people from Warner Brothers used the Shambles as the model for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films) and then wrapped everything up at Yorkminster. Our tour of the church was a little long but was filmed with a lot of really interesting history. Yorkminster is an incredibly beautiful building. The ceilings are high and the stained glass windows are elaborate. Something that struck me about Yorkminster was how different it felt from all of the other cathedrals I had seen in London. Perhaps it was because we were in northern England, but the design of everything seemed, well, colder. There was not nearly as much gold in Yorkminster than there was in many of the other cathedrals I have been in so far. Everything was in an elegant shade of gray and there were countless windows that allowed for the cathedral to be filled with natural and gentle light. It seemed more solemn, darker and older than any other religious space I had been in prior.
After our grand tour, a group of friends and I headed back to the Shambles to check out some of the shops we had passed earlier. The Shambles used to be a meat market, and the architecture of the building was designed around both displaying meat and keeping the sun out of the alleyway to make sure that the meat didn’t go back as quickly. Each building had a bench that came out into the sidewalk and some of the shops even veered away from the walls that kept them strictly vertical and jutted all the way into the street, causing much of the street to in shadow. During our small excursion, we explored a couple souvenir shops, a record store, and then stumbled into a small chocolate shop where we got the best hot chocolate I have ever had. It was perfect on that day since it was absolutely freezing outside. After exploring the Shambles, a couple of us decided to check out an Evensong at Yorkminster. We entered the church again at around 5:00 PM and were lucky enough to get seats directly behind the choir. The echo in the church was absolutely breathtaking and I was extremely impressed by the singers. It was a bit of a revival for me of how much I love vocal music. It also made me miss singing very very much. I hope to go to many more Evensongs while I am here. After the Evensong was over, the group seemed pretty hungry, so we went in search of a pub, and my goodness did we find one. With a great atmosphere, great British food (hoorah for sticky toffee pudding) and surprisingly low prices (I got a full meal and a drink for under a fiver; this would be unheard of in London), we had a lovely night, all of us returning to our beds pleasantly tipsy to our beds.
The following day, all of us made our way to another large English city: Birmingham. I didn’t like Birmingham nearly as much as I liked York since it was far more urban. We didn’t stay too long in Birmingham since we only headed over to see a single concert. Our group had gotten tickets to see one of the best brass bands in the world, the Black Dyke Band. This band was extremely precise, showy and LOUD. I was in the back row of the balcony and there were still some times when I felt that if they pushed just a LITTLE bit harder, they would risk deafening me. It was an extremely entertaining and impressive concert featuring many pieces that showed off the power and glory of the instruments that these people had dedicated their lives to. Some of the musicianship that night was nothing short of astonishing. After the concert, we were all pretty worn out from such a wonderful evening. We all headed back to London and went to bed. I wouldn’t mind going back to York in the future. I could see myself living there. It’s such a beautiful city.
Song of the day:
This week was the first start of my volunteer project! And what a project it is. It turns out that the person I met with last week ended up getting me to help out some people moving recording equipment and soundboards. My first day helping out was the second to last day in January, and I have to admit, I was a little bit nervous. My main contact, Paul, gave me instructions to find the first recording studio that I was to make a stop at: “go to this place that looks like a really old run down pub that isn’t actually a pub way on this street you’ve never heard of out in Eastern London, knock twice and then ask for a man named Eddie.” Sketchy much? Just a little bit. Regardless of the odd instructions, everything turned out alright. I found the “pub” just fine and the people there recognized me as soon as I dropped the names of the people who sent me. Little did I know that underneath what seemed to be a derelict building was actually a professional recording studio. Over the course of the day, I learned that some of the biggest projects happen in places you would never expect. Many of the most prolific and important recording studios in London appear to only be houses on the outside. You would have to know that it was an actual recording studio to recognize it. Anyway, what my project for the day entailed was moving a bunch of monitors and theatrical sound boards from two recording studios to a warehouse all the way out in Pulborough in southern England. I visited studios that recorded the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and many other huge names in music along with transporting sound boards that had been used in the original productions of “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” It was a pretty fantastic day and I learned so much about popular music history. I can’t believe that this is what my work is. I can hardly wait to report next week!
As for music stuff I have seen this week, it really is all across the board. I saw a free Los Campesinos! concert for the release of their new album and also got the privilege to see the New York Philharmonic perform at the Barbican Centre. They played pieces by Hayden, Adams, Schubert and ended the program with Berg. It was a pretty good concert and I was blown away by the musicianship. The highlight of the concert for me, however, was the piece by Adams called “The Wound Dresser.” This had a vocalist whom I had actually attended a master class with last year. His name was Thomas Hampson and he was absolutely fantastic. I can’t really say that until now I have heard a vocal performance that actually scared me. The sheer volume of his voice at times shocked me and the way he used many of his words actually caused me to have goosebumps a few times. It was a great performance.
Theatre stuff this week was pretty good as well. On Monday , I saw a production of a Harold Pinter play called The Caretaker at Trafalgar Studios. The story follows and old man who is taken in to a strange man’s flat in London after getting him out of a bar fight. As the story progresses, we meet the man’s brother, who also seems to occupy the flat. Throughout the play as the audience learns more about the characters, and the state of their sanity (or insanity, as some might argue), the play starts to make you consider who is telling you the truth, and who’s point of view is one of reality. While all three actors were excellent, the show featured an incredible performance from Jonathon Pryce as the old man. The second show I saw this week was a far cry from psychological drama. At the Soho Theatre, the group saw a production called Midsummer, an intelligent and extremely funny romantic comedy set in Edinburgh. Two people down on their luck have a chance encounter and end up being intertwined in each other’s less than satisfactory lives, and through one night of luck, chemistry and 15,000 pounds, fall in love and begin to pursue the lives that they wished to lead all along. Does it sound cheesy? Yes. But it was surprisingly well executed, and I haven’t laughed at a production harder here yet. I would highly recommend the play.
Sorry about not posting last week, but things here are really busy. The post for week four should be up by tomorrow. Keep an eye out!
Musical present of the week: Los Campesinos!
What else would I have given you?
What another amazing week in England! This next week was spent doing a variety of amazing things, but the things I feel I can really take away from this week is that I have really started to develop a mental map of the city and I am starting to understand what I really like and what I don’t: artistically, that is.
To kick things off, I will say again that the London Underground is an incredible form of public transportation. Once you know how to navigate it, you can get almost anywhere within the city. I have been doing quite a bit of exploring on my own and with the whole London group for class. A really cool thing that our theatre teacher, Philip, has been doing with us is that he takes us for theatrical tours around certain parts of London. So far, we have had two of these eventful mornings. The first of these tours brought us to the more northern part of London to read bits and pieces of plays written about the places we were walking through. Some of the places we walked by were the sites of very old markets, such as the Smithfield meat market, and more sacred places near St. Paul’s Cathedral. Everyone participated in the readings, but making sense of the scripts ended up being a little more difficult than I thought. Most of the text was in Middle English, and I tripped over oddly placed consonants and combinations of vowels that I had never seen before, as did most everyone else. It became very evident who was an English major and had taken Geoffrey Chaucer classes in the group. The second outing took us to places that were much more centered around Shakespeare, his writings and places that his plays became public. We even got to see the banqueting hall where Twelfth Night premiered and the Globe Theatre! Other places that I have explored this past week on my own have been places such as Denmark Street, Camden Market and Brick Lane. Denmark Street is a musical street. Almost every shop in the area is dedicated to selling musical instruments, musical scores or musical memorabilia. Camden Market is a bit of a hodgepodge of sorts. One of my friends described it as a combination of Saturday Market in Portland and Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. Sounds pretty accurate so far. If there is anything you might want to purchase from legitimate (or not so legitimate) sources, Camden Market is the place you would want to go. People from all walks of life come here and create an explosion of fashion, merchandise, food, music, art and smut. The third location, Brick Lane, was recommended to me by several people as a place to go to if I wanted to find really good and cheap ethnic food. The day I visited I ended up getting some pretty good curry. I definitely intend to go back and explore this place in much more detail.
Another field trip that we took in the past week was to a British cultural hub. Our visit to Westminster Abbey and The Houses of Parliament was humbling, fantastic, overwhelming and left me a bit awestruck. Something that America that doesn’t have is an extremely old history. Nothing connected to our history is too much older than 300 years. To me, Westminster was a testament to everything English and all the great things that the country has done as a culture. Its religion, legends, great figures and great moments in history were illustrated and brought to life through frescoes, tapestries, inlaid mosaics, dated inscriptions and countless statues. I have also never seen more gold in my entire life. The throne was essentially a wall of gold with a velvet throne protruding from it. Another thing that struck me while visiting Westminster was that the English are much more concerned with preserving things than Americans are. The English have kept Westminster not only just a national landmark, but it is also one of the centers for their government. Parliament, consisting of the House of Lords and the House of Commons meet there to discuss, pass and reject laws. The architecture of the rooms and their processes of passing laws have not undergone much change for hundreds of years. People are concerned with keeping things in the past respected and relevant. Not only is the interior of Westminster breathtaking, the outside is also quite a site. Long vertical lines start from the ground, intertwine amongst stained glass windows and then seem to shoot off, almost like rockets, all the way up toward heaven in the form of grand spires. Also connected to Westminster is the iconic Big Ben. It was a foggy day (like any other day) and Big Ben loomed in distance as we walked around the great cathedral. It is possible to spend a day in one room in Westminster and not absorb all of the details along with the symbolism and cultural implications that come along with them.
This week was a pretty incredible week for theatre. I saw a smattering of small time and big time shows this week. The first of which was the West End hit and innovative puppet show, Avenue Q. This show was hilarious, absolutely irreverent, honest and very entertaining. It was really strange to see a play that was set in America, especially New York City. For me, the most entertaining part of the show was watching the British actors tackle American accents. Most of them were successful, except for the lead. He would ease in to his British accent, realize that he had dropped his American one, then attempt to recover by finding a strange and unintelligible combination of the two, making his speech gobbledygook for about two second before getting back on track. The second show I saw this week was a combination of Henry Purcell’s opera, “The Fairy Queen” and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream called Dream. The focus of the show was to highlight student designers, resulting in the audience travelling around the theatre from the loft, to the audience, the house, the green room and the main stage to take us into 8 different worlds constructed from the same material. It was a strange and at times a really innovative experience. I saw some things I had never seen in a set before and might have even given me some new ideas for thesis! The third show I saw was later that evening called A Yorkshire Tragedy which I saw in a pub. The story followed a man who chose to try and kill his family instead of seeing his children suffer by losing the family land and what was left of the money that the family owned. He was mostly successful, but failed to kill one son and his wife. It was a very dark play, but was very well acted. Since the theatre was in a pub, it was a very small space and the action was right in front of you. This play reminded me of the power that live theatre has. The final show I saw this week was by far my favorite. I got the INCREDIBLE chance to see a spectacular production of Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett featuring Sir Ian McKellan as Estragon. It might safe to say that seeing Ian McKellan in this role was the best live performance I have ever seen on stage. I was completely captivated by him and all of the actors on stage. As a result of this, I feel like I have so much further to go as an actor, but I also feel like I have seen the envelope of live performance pushed. I might even see the show again. In short, I loved it. Oh, and to top it all off, I got to meet him afterward. Yes, I met Sir Ian McKellan. I thanked him for his performance and then he signed my ticket. WOW.
This was also an incredible week for music! Classical music, that is. The big concerts I saw this week spanned a huge amount of time, style and technique. The whole group had the enormous pleasure of seeing the Philharmonia Orchestra play at the Royal Festival Hall last Thursday. They played Mozart’s Piano Concert #20 and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. This was, by far, the most incredible orchestral ensemble performance I have ever been to. The piano concerto was light and fantastic, but for me the highlight of the evening was the symphony by Mahler. As symphonies go, this one is pretty huge. 70 minutes. 5 movements. 1 grand piece of music. For me, the most exquisite movement was #4. Written as a love letter to the composer’s wife, it was delicate, unpredictable and exquisite. It is rare to hear a piece of music that felt as alive as this felt.
Here is a recording of the 4th movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69ctu9RG6Y0
The second concert I went to was at the Barbican Centre and featured the BBC Orchestra. They played a piece by a modern French composer named Dutilleux, Ravel and Stravinsky. The performances of Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G” and Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” were definitely my favorites of the evening. The second movement of the Piano Concerto was played beautifully by a very skilled pianist named Angela West, and has caused me to look into much more Ravel. As for the “Firebird Suite,” it was a pleasure to hear the piece live for the first time.
For the final field trip this week, we journeyed the farthest we have ever been outside of the city. I’m sure that we were still in greater London, but we were by no means in the city. The destination of this trip was Hampton Court: a palace of King Henry VIII. Like everything in England, the palace was very old, ornate and completely packed with history. The place was absolutely huge and it was difficult to fathom that it was only meant to house three royal people. We traveled through the private apartments of King Henry VIII and the nobles William and Mary who were housed within the same palace. The walls were covered in paintings and tapestries along with countless frescoes on the ceilings. We also got a tour of the kitchens, which were gigantic. My favorite part of the palace, however, was the grounds and the gardens. A perfect place to take a walk or a run in, I traveled by many statues and mazes made out of the shrubbery and grass. While everything was cut to a certain shape and constrained to fit a design, I did feel that there were elements of natural symmetry being used in the garden. It was a very different image from the one I had in my head of what a proper English garden would have looked like. There were also birds everywhere, especially copious amounts of ducks and swans. After touring the gardens, I went back into the square with the clock tower, and was intersected by a historical actor. He rounded up most of the men in the area and told us that were being summoned by the “king.” I didn’t really know what to do, so I just followed along. He took us into a part of the palace that I hadn’t seen before and knocked on the wall. The wall then opened up into a secret room where I saw someone on a throne acting as King Henry VIII. It turns out that I was randomly chosen to be a part of his council to give him advice whether to marry Katherine Parr. Great. If there is one thing that I know I can’t do in theatre, its improvisation. There was a lot of “yes, your Grace,” and “a wise decision, my liege,” being said on my part. In short, I was a bit terrified. After we had come up with a satisfactory amount of questions, Katherine Parr was brought in and was interrogated with our questions. Luckily for her, she passed the test. It was a pretty incredible experience seeing the palace and was another fantastic view into England’s incredible history.
More exciting news to add to this blog, I might have a volunteer position lined up at a theatre soon! Thanks to a great friend and her generous family, I might have a chance to help a professional theatre out! We’ll see how this turns out; hoping for the best.
Until next week,
Musical present of the week:
Oh, Neko Case, why do I love you so much?
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.
Hey guys. It’s been a while.
I hope that all of you had a wonderful holiday season. Winter break for me this year was very strange. I felt as if I was in a liminal space, in between one stage of my life and the next; the calm before the storm. Almost all of break was spent me enjoying time during the holidays with my family and preparing to embark on one of the biggest adventures of my life so far. After a year of applications, interviews, acceptance letters, paperwork, visa processes, meetings and a comprehensive week of packing, I am finally on my way to go to London for my second foreign exchange program. Tomorrow I will board a plane at 1:10 in the afternoon and 16 hours later I will arrive on the other side of the world. I have heard that one of the quickest ways to get to England from the US west coast is to go through the cold north. Perhaps I will be able to see the northern lights from my small airplane window seat. I really hope I can. I have always wanted to see them.
Tonight was my official last night in the states. I bade good-bye to my sister and grandparents in North Bend and headed up to Portland. Upon arriving, we quickly checked into the hotel and went straight to a restaurant called The Farm Café that we had made reservations at. There we were joined by a group of some of my close friends. It was a lovely evening filled with amazing food, laughter and wonderful company.
Two of my friends had already been on the London program and had some great tips about certain pubs, restaurants and theatres to go to. By the time the evening was over, I felt that I had had the perfect send off. Now for a good night’s rest for the long day tomorrow.
You’ll hear from me soon (from across the pond),
Song of the week: one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands.
What a week. Everything is really starting to kick into high gear. Final papers are starting to be due! Final tests to study for! Creative projects to start! PERFORMANCES! I am barely keeping up with everything, but I just keep telling myself to take everything one day at a time.
I hope all of you had a lovely Thanksgiving! I certainly did. I went home, as I usually do to spend the holiday with my family in North Bend. Going back home is always a strange experience for any college student. You notice how things in your town have changed, how the people have changed, and most importantly, how YOU have changed. The holidays at my house haven’t changed much. My family has a tradition of growing most of everything for the Thanksgiving feast and is harvested early on Thanksgiving morning. Potatoes are dug out of the garden, squash are picked from our patches and we go on an extensive chanterelle mushroom hunt in the woods surrounding our house. After preparing all of the dishes we are responsible for, we travel over the bridge into town and go to my grandparent’s house, where they have made the turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. It was a lovely meal and gave me and my family an excellent opportunity to catch up on everything that I have been doing.
Taking out the turkey!
My sister Galen being…well, Galen…
Making buttercrunch for Christmas!
The rest of Thanksgiving break was spent doing little bits of homework and catching up with old friends who were in town. I felt much more relaxed by the end of the break and felt ready to come back to Portland and race across the finish line of the semester, but until then, I have a week of writing and performing and tests to take care of.
Wish me luck!
Musical present of the week: