Helping Hands

There is one main bus service in Sydney, which connects the main areas, but all the other small unimportant suburbs use smaller private bus services. I normally use the main state run bus service, but occasionally when I have to go to my field site- which is a park, really- I have to take one of these smaller bus services. The problem is that hardly anyone uses these buses, except for school children and old people who presumably can’t or don’t want to drive anymore. These bus services constantly grumble about “transporting air”, referring to the fact that at any given time, the buses are more likely to be empty than not. I can bear witness to that, every time I board one of these buses, there’s at most 10 people, and the number goes up a bit on Thursdays, which is when the old people get their pension payment.

But these smaller buses often go through the small suburbs and which means that usually the passengers know each other, and there’s a sense of community about travelling in them. People greet each other by name, they exchange a few words with the driver, exchange gossip, etc etc, a phenomenon that is never encountered on the busier State buses. After a couple of days of travelling, I could recognize regulars myself and even got an odd nod of recognition. The bus drivers themselves behave differently. While the State Transport bus drivers wouldn’t dream of holding the door open for one more second than necessary, or hesitate at the stop even if they see you racing for the bus, the local bus drivers frequently wait for people to get on. And if it means making an unscheduled stop in front of some old person’s house just to save them the trouble of walking a few steps, so be it. And since most of the regulars were old, it wasn’t hard to notice their problems. Like getting off the bus. Like carrying around shopping bags.

So it was no surprise to me to see the Helping Hands make an appearance in this community. The Helping Hands is still an experimental device, but its already revitalized this community. I tried to find out how they worked, but what little i could find was not very clear, so I don’t know how they work exactly. Basically it consists of a ribbon like structure that can be worn around the waist. On the free end, there’s a hand like structure. There are two types, one with four prongs and the other with three, but other than that, they are identical. Both the prongs have a rubberised grip. When the Hand is active the ribbon is unwrapped from the waist, and the ribbon becomes stiff but flexible. The person with the Hand usually has a headset of sorts that is used to direct the movement of the Hand. I reckon it works something along the lines of that bionic arm that was in the news recently, but I believe this is far more experimental and radical.

I saw the Hand in action quite a few times, and its brilliant, people who previously would have taken ages to even disembark from the bus started using the Hand to balance themselves and get down easily. One guy was famous for using the Hand to hold and turn pages of his book during the trip. I spoke to him once, I think it was after the media and the schoolkids started calling them “tails” or even monkeys. The kids used to make mocking comments all the time, sometimes even within the earshot of their targets, and it always bothered me. I asked one of the old men if it bothered him. He said that it used to in the beginning, but considering the new lease of life that the Hand has given him, he simply didn’t care anymore. He also told me that he’d once scared the living daylights out of a particularly annoying brat by grabbing his leg with the Hand. I observed all the different and inventive ways the Hand was used by those who really needed it, and it never ceased to amaze me. But my field work ended soon after that conversation and I kind of drifted off.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I had an opportunity to go back to the park where i worked and took the old familiar bus route. But to my surprise, nobody seemed to using the Hands anymore…apparently the trial wasn’t as successful as the makers wanted, and the experiment had been abandoned. Still, life goes on. It always does.

The Cimbalom, revisited

When I last met Lucy, she insisted that I attend the July concert, because it was supposed to be The Big One. I assured her I would, but even then I had no idea just how big it would be. This would be the third concert that I had listened to Lucy Voronov’s music. I wrote about the first time I heard, -indeed heard of,- the cimbalom in this post, and I was looking forward to this concert.

When I was but a wee child growing up in Bangalore, I used to sneak out of the house and go to the National College’s Auditorium. The auditorium was just in front of our house, and it was often the venue of all manner of concerts. Back then, when India and Russia was still pretty good friends, the auditorium played host to one of the concerts of the Russian Festival. The following is one of my earliest memories, so bear with me as I try to recall what must be the first Russian music that I’d ever heard. I couldn’t enter the actual auditorium, and I watched the whole concert from the window. I don’t remember the concert in any great detail, but what I do remember is that the singer did this crazy babbling number, fitting Russian words or even gibberish, to the tune of a Mozart piece – The Turkish March. That the tune had stayed in my head for all these years was suddenly and dramatically brought home to me by Lucy’s recreation of the same song accompanied the guitar and the cello. Though Lucy claimed no responsibility for the particular piece, it was breathtaking, and she brought back memories that I did not even know that I still retained.

There were two parts in the concert organized by the Café Carnivale people. The first half consisted of a series of pieces that Lucy played accompanied by a diverse set of performers with an eclectic mix of instruments. I’ll talk about this in more detail later, but for now, I’ll just mention that there were pieces performed in collaboration with Larissa Burak (she plays the Ukranian Bandura, and sings as well); Stephen Lalor on classical Guitar; Anatoli Torjinski on Cello and a student of Lucy’s (whose name I can’t remember) on the piano. The second half of the concert was with the Sydney Balalaika Ensemble, featuring a whole slew of instruments including the domra, the double bass balalaika, the accordion-like-thing which had a different name, the guitar and of course the cimbalom as centrepiece.

The balalaika ensemble was awesome. Again, some of the music triggered memories. These were songs that I had heard long back, and they’d remained in my head somehow. A great deal is made of the power of smells to trigger memories, but I reckon a song can have pretty much the same effect. D. told me that the folk songs reminded her of her childhood, of a time when her father, who was a bit of a russo-phile, used to play these songs to entertain her. The highlight of the ensemble was clearly the singer Sophia Cece, who came up to the stage dressed like some exotic bird of paradise, with a voice to match. She enthralled the crowd every time she sang. It was a masterful performance, and the entire ensemble played with passion and life, each one clearly enjoying themselves. Their most recent CD is called Mail Troika, and can be purchased at their website.
I am a relative newcomer to world music, and as such, my opinions are more driven by gut feeling rather than years of study. With this disclaimer, I’d like to reiterate my stand that the most exciting part of listening to world music is the cross cultural fertilizations that seems to be happening all over the place. For example, I was intrigued to learn that Cuban music, which was heavily influenced by the music brought over across the sea by Africans, is now influencing music in Mali. This sort of transglobal collaborations is always exciting and when done well produces the greatest listening treats. A very good example is Ry Cooder, who has been devoting considerable energy in collaborating with musicians from all over the world. His album with Ali Farka Toure, Talking Timbuktu, is amazing.

Back to Lucy Voronov. The highlight of the evening, for me, was her inventiveness and her energy. She played a traditional Irish jig on the cimbalom, accompanied by Larissa Burak on the Ukranian Bandura. There were a series of songs designed to explore the cimbalom in different settings from jazz to piano. The pieces accompanied by the guitar and the cello were downright amazing. She kept going from strength to strength before ending with that highly entertaining version of Mozart’s Turkish March. Lucy’s star is on the rise and I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.

Mocha Din and the Cosmic Boogers

We first heard about Mocha Din and the Cosmic boogers at the Sydney Writers festival. I had inadvertently attended a talk organized by the SWF- I say inadvertently because I went to the talk only because it was a reading by Neil Gaiman, to top it all it was held in the Uni, rather than some inaccessible venue in the middle of the City. The talk was very good, Gaiman is an excellent speaker, and he had us all enthralled during the reading of a short story from his yet to be published book, a collection of short stories called “Fragile Things”, as well as a poem called “The days the saucers came”. He enjoyed the talk- he called it very different, so I assume it must have been interesting for him as well. Anyway, the talk was but one of millions hosted by the Sydney Writers Festival, and the bulk of those were held near the Rocks area of downtown Sydney.

It seemed rather silly to talk about Mocha Din and the Cosmic boogers when the main event was the Sydney Writers Festival, or even the Mexican Film Festival that we went to later, but such are the ways of this world. A sudden flash, a quick insight, a shared secret, and you are quickly on the way to some unplanned destinations. The making of patterns is a noble task, and as long as the patterns are interesting, there is no blame in following them. It didn’t take much to set us off on this path: just a glimpse of Mocha Din and the Cosmic Boogers huddled around a coffee table, and we were caught in a new world.

Mocha Din and the Cosmic Boogers first burst onto the music scene in the last couple of years, and they were everybody’s best kept secret, but a secret that you couldn’t help revealing to your best friend. Their popularity spread through word of mouth alone. You might think that this was a bit anachronistic, especially in this information age that we live in. But you’d be wrong; it was just that the medium had changed. Emails, sms, and phone calls essentially ensured that Mocha Din went viral, to the extent that every performance would be mobbed just a few moments before it actually started even if the performance itself was a closely kept secret. But we didn’t know all of this, it was only after we stumbled across a very rare hand crafted CD by the group and a few painful hours spent trawling the Internet was I able to come up with a bit of a backstory.


The CD turned out to be the first ever release of Mocha Din and the Cosmic Boogers’ music (intriguingly titled as CD#8). The cover featured a photograph of a face being attacked by a strand of light, and it is said that the band found their name when they came across this photo. Mocha Din is supposed to be a great believer in the power of serendipity and I quote from an interview (an interview by the way that was not only not official, but rather stolen from him in the guise of sharing a light for his cigarette on a rainy Sydney evening. This too has added to the myth behind the band)-“There are signs all around us. What makes them symbols, instead, is by our recognition that these signs are important to our lives”. It can be easily argued that the image that lent such power to the band’s name, has also influenced the music in directions that was entirely different from what they were used to up to now.

Mocha Din and the Cosmic boogers play a genre of music that is very hard to describe. Electro-folk? Ethnic subversive funk? Techno soul? It’s very hard to place this music in any particular state, mainly because the music invariably involves not only a meeting of states or styles, but instead a virtual collision. Instruments that do not have any business being played together not only play together but also merge and weave musical magic in incomparable ways. I am left a bit bemused by their first CD, and it is hard to review something so ground breaking that there is really no basis for comparison. One must take refuge in metaphors, and even these sound hollow after a while. One can talk about meteors or underwater volcanoes till the cows come home, but surely describing something that can only vaguely be captured in words is almost futile.

So in the end we only have statistics. There are 8 ‘songs’. They are on average 8 mins long. There are 4 people in the band. Mocha Din favours the harmonica, but of course, nothing is simple about this group, so the harmonica is heavily modified. The rest of the band does not even have pseudonyms. They have lots of guest musicians, but all the music is written by the core group. The CD is sparse on details other than song names, which are in no language I can identify. Even the dedicated fan following at the usenet groups have no clue what the songs mean, and it is believed that several amateur linguists have tried but failed to identify the language. But in any case, the name of the songs is really no indication of the songs themselves, which wanders all over the musical landscape of our times.

I would like to recommend this CD, but I’m not even sure that you can find it. One of these days, I’ll upload samples of the CD onto the web, and maybe it will finally elevate the profile of a band that deserves to be heard by all.

The Stink Incident

Several weeks ago, I started nursing the possibility that my house could be haunted. It’s an old house, old enough to have cracks in the walls and a general resigned air about it. Our ex-neighbours briefly mentioned, in passing, that the previous tenant wasn’t the most sociable of people and had left the house suddenly. Every night I hear the strangest assortment of creaks and groans. Over the last month or so, I have been able to rationalize away the sounds: ranging from the clicks of the water heater to the muffled groans of the fridge. It doesn’t help that walls are very thin, and it took me a long time to get accustomed to the fact that just because I hear footsteps on the stairs, it doesn’t mean that there’s a person walking about in this house. At night, the sounds are very clear, and I’ve mentally ascribed every night time roof sound to the work of possums. Because the house is just a few meters away from a national park, we are constantly subjected to possum visitations. There’s a young one that drops into the garden every night, chewing on any greenery it can find. What was once a nice creeper draped over the fence is now merely a bunch of chewed sticks thrusting themselves into the air. Anyway, the possums don’t restrict themselves to gardening, they also conduct elaborate surveys and races across the rooftops.

After a couple of months of this, I got used to the sounds of the house and decided that even if the house was haunted it must be a rather benevolent spirit. That is, till the stink started. It began suddenly, bam- one day no stink, the next day a putrefying odour spread through the room. I’m rather good at tracking odours to their source, but this time, it was not so easy. It came from the general closet area of the room and seemed almost restricted to one spot in midair. I sniffed at everything in the closet, from suitcases to shoes to even the wall of the closet. The smell was there, but it never got stronger or weaker. I conducted some removal experiments,- taking the stuff out of the closet one by one to see if the stink changed. No difference. Checked if something had gotten between the holder and the light bulb and thus fried itself to death. Nope. It smelled like a cross between a dead rat and a bucket full of two month old wet clothes, and it was beginning to annoy the hell out of me. I checked if it was somehow coming from outside, brought into the room by a freak wind and the unusual angle of entry meant that it created a highly localized self organizing mini-cyclone of stink. Fat chance. Science had failed me. There was absolutely no logical reason for the stink, and when logic fails, one must always skip to the most complicated extreme explanation, an explanation that is equally hard to prove. The house was playing host to some special stinky entity. There, that was it. Maybe it was time to bring in a spiritual stink remover, or at the very least, call the landlord.

But life goes on, and in an effort to bring some amount of normalcy to our lives, we organized a party. S. was graduating, and it was as good an excuse as any to have a party. Mercifully the stink seemed to know its place and didn’t venture too far beyond the room, so we were spared the onerous task of trying to mask the stink with a complementary odour (I still have olfactory nightmares of trying, once upon a time, to mask a dead rat’s smell with jasmine fragrance. The two just do not go well together, let me assure you). But luckily for us, help was at hand. One of the guests got one whiff of the smell and declared that it must be a rat in the attic. Small problem: we didn’t even have an attic. Or did we? The guest pointed us to a part of the roof, and lo and behold: there was a trapdoor. I’ve been in this house for at-least 6 months, and I’d never even seen the trapdoor, much less suspected its existence.

That night, after all the guests had departed, and after I was sufficiently inebriated to venture into the unknown without much thought of exactly what to expect, I clambered up the hole in the roof. The moment I stuck my head up the trapdoor, I realized that the source of the stink was up there. I had only a small book-light, and even with its feeble light, I could clearly make out the Stink Entity. I fully expected to find a rat or a cat or something, but I was clearly unprepared to discover that the stink was emanating from a HUGE possum. It was MASSIVE, the size of a terrier or a retriever. It lay just approximately over the closet. I shone the light on it, and was most disheartened to see black goo seeping out of it. This was going to be a massive problem. I couldn’t get closer to it, because already the stench was threatening to overpower me, and I didn’t want to add puke to the list of bad smells. Finally inspiration struck. I used a broom handle to maneuver the carcass into a cardboard box. In the process, I happened to notice that while one side of the possum’s face was intact, the other side had sort of disintegrated. It still remains a very vivid image…and quite a bit disconcerting to find that the animal had its face rotted away. I used a scarf as a mask, and several energetic moments later, the possum was in the box. I packed it tight with newspapers and plastic bags, and handed the whole package down the trapdoor for safe disposal.

The irony is: just that morning, I thought that the smell was getting weaker. We were only getting used to it.

Cafe Carnivale

My interest in world music , as they call it, is quite recent. For a long time, I used to listen only to Western music, and more specifically, the kind of rock that didn’t jar on the ears. I used to listen to the odd Santana and The Gypsy Kings, but by and large, non-english music was quite on the periphery. All this changed over the last couple of years. First, my interest in spanish, music, especially latino music increased like crazy, influenced in no small part by the latino crowd I found myself hanging out with in Israel, and I soon found myself possessing more music in languages I didn’t know than in the ones I did.

But it’s only recently that World Music has become a big part of my life. I find that as long as I know what music I need for a particular mood, I don’t even care what the lyrics say. In Carnatic classical music, there is a concept known as Bhava. It literally means emotion, and it refers to the certain mood or emotion that is evoked by the piece. Some mornings, I need a very calm atmosphere around the house, and so I pull out Ry Cooder and Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt’s collaborative effort, A meeting by the River, or even that old workhorse, The Buena Vista Social Club. If I need a bit of cheerful music, the latinos are always there. If you listen to music based on mood, you hardly ever need to know the lyrics.

By and large, if you get over the fact that you don’t know what the hell they’re singing about, it opens up a whole world of music. Suddenly music from anywhere in the world becomes accessible. But just because I don’t mind the fact that I don’t know what’s happening doesn’t mean that I automatically like it. Over the last year or so, I have discovered, and dare I say, refined my tastes, so that I have a better idea of what I like and dislike. I am enthralled by fusion, I love the idea of cross cultural chaos. Take a traditional folk melody, twist it with a modern instrument, and add a bit of fusion. For example, last month I went to a festival of South American music, and there was this Andean band from Peru, and for one of the songs, they’d invited over a didgeridoo player. I can’t think of two music traditions more distinct.

All this has been a lengthy preamble to the Cafe Carnivale. For the year or so I have been aware of this organisation that hosts World Music concerts in the city. I came across them through a flyer that appeared in the campus. Since then I have been planning and dreaming of going to one of their concerts. It didn’t even matter which concert, I just wanted to go hear the music I loved being played live. I have a very high tolerance for live music, even if the band sucks, it’s sort of ok if I see them live. Growing up in Bangalore, there are not many places you can go to in order to listen to live music. Especially outside the main classical tradition. But the Cafe Carnivale venues were in an unfamiliar part of the city and besides I never could manage to convince anyone to go with me. Who want to travel for more than an hour on buses just to see some band sing in a language that they don’t even understand? A couple of times, I decided to go, only to be told that there were no tickets available, and once I even landed at the doorstep to find out that I was too late. In effect, the Cafe Carnivale concerts seemed to be jinxed for me. But all that was destined to change.

Last week,, I picked up the new season flyer from the Uni, and yesterday, I decided that I would give it a go. Come what may, I would attend a concert. And the concert was by Lucy Voronov and the Transylvaniacs. I convinced A. to come along with me, so maybe he’s the good luck charm, for we got to the show well in time, and they had tickets to boot. On the way to the show, I read the flyer, and it claimed that Lucy Voronov was a cimbalom player. I’d never heard of the cimbalom before, and it added a touch of anticipation, it’s not everyday that you come across a strange and exotic sounding instrument.

It was exotic, but it didn’t sound exotic. As we took our seats, we saw that the center of the stage was occupied by a trapezium shaped table, and there were microphones pointing at it. In the dim light it wasn’t possible to see the strings, but we spent some time arguing whether the trapezium was the instrument. When Lucy came on, and the lights brightened, it was obvious. She sat in front of the table and started playing. She used two curved hammers to hit the strings on the instruments, and it immediately reminded me of the Santur. Of course the Santur is a familiar instrument to me, I have whiled away many a sleepless night listening to Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, who adapted the Persian/Iraqi instrument to play Hindustani Classical Music. But this was way different in the way it sounded. Let me put it this way: as soon as I heard it, I realized that the cimbalom must be related to the Santur, but the sounds were quite different. Later research, courtesy Wikipedia, assured me that I was not mistaken in the resemblance.

Lucy was fantastic. She played with an energy that was fascinating to watch, her fingers flying all among the strings like that of a demented typist, and ever so often she did a curious dance like movement with her hands, which only served to accentuate the performance. She played with her instrument, in every sense of the term: she made the strings produce different sounds depending on how she hit the strings with the curved hammer, or by plucking the strings or by sliding the base of the hammer along the strings. Most of the performance was solo, but for two pieces she invited this guy, I’ve forgotten his name now [UPDATE: It was accomplished Australian composer and a multi-instrumentalist performer Stephen Lalor- see Lucy’s comments below!!] , to accompany her with a guitar. The effect was mesmerizing. Till now I was enchanted with her playing, but by just adding another instrument, the effect increased manifold. Lucy’s performance was flawless, she even dealt with broken strings with aplomb, just mentioning now and then how many strings she had left.

Extended applause later, she left the stage and the Transylvaniacs took the stage. I was under the impression that Lucy would perform along with the Transylvaniacs, but I was mistaken,- they were a completely different band. They had two violinists, a singer, a double bass player and cimbalon player, but this was a different version of the cimbalom- it was a Hungarian cimbalom, and sounded quite different. This band sounded uneasy together, and though they played a variety of tunes from Central and Eastern Europe, mainly Hungarian and Romanian, and everything in between, I felt that they really didn’t come together. In some parts of the some songs, suddenly they would come together and my foot would start tapping uncontrollably, but mostly, I was less than overwhelmed. I think, that while recreating folk songs is a good and noble task, a 21st century audience in the city needs something more. Just pure folk music divorced from its habitat just does not cut it for me. They needed some amount of cross cultural fertilization, if you ask me. And as if to prove my point, the last song featured a collaboration between Lucy and the Transylvaniacs. There were two cimbaloms, and they assured the audience that the two came from completely different traditions. If I may be so bold, I reckon that while Lucy went for the High Art end of the scale, the Transylvaniacs went for the Low Art end. And the moment they started playing together, it was pure magic. Lucy’s cimbalom took centre stage, but at no point did it overwhelm the rest of the band, and vice versa. It was the most delightful performance, the best was indeed left for last. Not even the fact that one of the hammers flew out of Lucy’s hand shook her aplomb, she just continued with a spare hammer. In the end, my conviction grew that all you need is a little bit extra, just a little bit of pushing the envelope, to create fantastic new music suitable for the increasingly interconnected world.

The Map

Like a rite of passage that must be undertaken by anyone who visits or lives in Sydney, and especially for one who is not of Sydney, a visit to the Opera house kept looming over me. I knew that eventually I would go there, but I was content with seeing the Opera house from a distance, usually from the bus as it crossed the Harbour bridge. I felt that the iconic status of the Opera house was such that one didn’t even need to go up close to it. It’s not like the Eiffel tower, which at least gives you a good view of the surrounding city, and the prices for a concert are not exactly easy on a student’s stipend. I remember going up the steps of the opera house more than a year after I got here, and being not as impressed as I expected. I guess that since there are so few things that are truly symbolic of Australia, and all the charm of the Opera house has been drained out of it merely by being bombarded by images and souvenirs all over the place. I read with interest the battles over the construction of the opera house, and the disputes with the designers and the bad acoustics because of a drastically altered interior design, but it was more of a detached interest rather than an active one. But a couple of weeks back, I was idly looking through the listings in the newspaper –I go through performance listings, vicariously attending the events in the city through reviews and such- and I came across an ad for a performance by Tan Dun. His name didn’t ring a bell, but the ad mentioned that he’d done the soundtrack for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. I’d bought a tape of said movie long back, and the music had helped me while away many an insomnia riddled night. That was good enough for me: the Opera house would finally be visited by me. The performance I would visit was called “The Map”

A digression, now. I have always been interested in maps: my strongest subject in school after English was Geography. I liked making maps and was/am good at reading maps, especially during my stint with the Scouts or on various trekking expeditions in the Himalayas. But of late, my just simmering interest in maps has turned into a full blaze. I am just short of being obsessed. I can pinpoint this to my discovery of the field of psychogeography, which in turn was triggered by the book “The Songlines”, by Bruce Chatwin. I read the book, liked it very much and as I searched the internet for more information about the Songlines, I came across psychogeography. Basically, there are lots of people doing very cool mind bending things with maps and such, and to cut a long story short, I ended up writing an article about it for a local newspaper in Bangalore. Since then, I have followed my interest in maps intermittently, through websites, and google and books. But never through music, at least not until now.

Tan Dun’s The Map was couple of firsts for me. It was the first time I was going to the Opera House. It was the first time I was attending a western music concert. I’d attended one sort of western classical concert in the past (I wrote about it here), but it was more of a fusion thing rather than a pure western classical concert. However Tan Dun’s music can hardly be considered as a traditional western classical piece. For one, the first part of the evening was called “Paper concerto- for paper percussion and orchestra”, and it did have paper ‘instruments’. There were three paper performers, and they played a series of paper articles ranging from huge swaths of paper that hung from the ceiling, paper fans and umbrellas, and even plain pieces of paper that very used in a variety of ways to make noises –crumpling noises, tearing noises, blowing through the paper to make a high pitched whistling noise- all sorts of noises. If I was mildly nonplussed, D. was even more so. She assured me that Tan Dun broke traditions with impunity, and pointed out that placing violinists among the audience was not only irregular but also bizarre. The second part of the evening was even more different. The programme assured us that Tan Dun can be viewed as a practitioner of the ‘Total art work’, where he strives for a synthesis of sight, sound and drama. To this end, he uses multimedia in conjunction with the symphony. The Map sought to juxtapose ancient Chinese ritualistic music and folk art from Tan Dun’s native province of Hunan in China with a more modern exploration of the tunes and emotions with the symphony. It was surreal to see the musicians respond to the melodies generated from a man blowing through a leaf, or play along with the sounds of stones clacking together. Paper made an appearance too, but it was not as explicit as the earlier piece. Each section of The Map, attempted to showcase a different aspect of the rituals and music of an ancient time, and in a sense bring a representation of those melodies and rhythms to the modern world. It’s only now, as I’m writing these words, I realize that the Map was aptly named. It was a representation, an abstract form of an ancient time. And by translating the old tunes into a form that is likely to be appreciated by modern audiences, Tan Dun is ensuring that the rhythms still have their day in the air.

The essential question in my mind at the end of the performance was-‘ yes, I get the idea, but does it work? Is the music as satisfying as the idea?’ And this is where I have my doubts. There were certain parts of the performance that really sounded cool, and sent shivers down my spine etc etc., but in the end, the ideas took over the music, and music without a melody is alien to my ears. Of course, I could be approaching this in a completely naïve way, especially considering that my knowledge of western classical music is next to nothing. However, the concert gave me a glimpse into another world, an absolutely esoteric world, where music can be woven out of as mundane objects as paper and stone and leaves, and that while the map is not the territory, it is still a guide.

christmas at the beach

It was a most atypical christmas, in many ways. First, I’ve never actually been in the thick of christmas celebrations, on account of me not being christian for a start. Plus I’ve had a few passing encounters with christmas at other peoples’ houses, but it was always a tangential thing. In Israel, the holy land, christmas is not even a holiday, and all the action happens near and in the palestinian territory. Last year, I was in the lab. I was in the lab this year as well, but only for a short time, just enough to feed some birds I’m taking care of, which is a post all by itself. But Diana was spending her first christmas away from home, and insisted on doing SOMETHING, so we had a small party/celebration in the house that we were taking care of for a friend of a friend. The only reason we were house-sitting was that this house was a ten minute walk away from the beach. The beach at Bondi. The favourite destination of Australians during christmas week. Despite the lingering tension in the air due to the riots the previous week,- indeed, we saw groups of police officers patrolling the streets and the beach- we decided to make it a christmas at the beach. Christmas is usually associated with snow, and not hot sun and deliciously cold sea water. I always avoided going into the pacific ocean, but this time I decided to brave it and spent 15-20 mins in freezing water, so cold that all my hair stood on end even underwater. In the sky above, a biplane lazily wrote cryptic messages, while a lifeguard told off kids for trying to swim in areas clearly delineated as not swimming areas. The meal we had was vegetarian. Gasp. None of the others had ever been subjected to such a blatant indignity, especially at Christmas time, but X cooked a really cool meal that more than made up for any burnt animal.