Category Archives: art

Famous people. And not the Big Brother sort.

I have tickets to go see Philip Glass in concert, playing “Music in 12 parts” with his own ensemble, in two weeks, here in the UK at the Brighton Festival. Anyone who has been following this blog for any period of time will know that I’m a musician by hobby, nearly by trade (I started out as a double major at University, music + engineering, and have a few professional music recordings under my belt) and so I’m pretty excited about this in my usual geeky manner. I was chatting about the concert tonight with one of my fellow-concert-goers, and an interesting question came up. Relative to others we’ve seen, where does Glass rate in terms of the most influential, eminent, important, dare I say famous, person that either of us have seen in real life?

For a musician, Glass is definitely one of those for me. I see him as a 20th century Mozart or the like, and I’m pretty excited to see him in his 70s but still performing his own compositions. But an interesting discussion arose: my fellow conversant and I were trying to weigh seeing Glass in concert against things like meeting a Nobel-prize winning scientist. Or even just seeing them speak. I feel like there should be a points system somehow, including how important the person is in their field and how close you got… seeing Glass in concert will not be a personal experience but I suspect it will be a transformative one. An opportunity to see someone who is really a genius doing what they do live in person with a few thousand others (when the global population is billions). In a culture soaked with celebrity of the infamous sort, I’m only interested in people who have made a demonstrable contribution to history and society–no Jade Goody sightings would make my list here.

Since being in the UK, the ante has been raised for me. I personally know Sirs and Dames on a first name basis. Several of each. Which is odd. I’ve also bumped into British royals twice on the street near my office, but I don’t count that as transformative. Heck, I’ve also bumped into Stephen Hawking on the street, in his wheelchair. Which is just strange. And surreal. I have not been to see him speak, but that’s been a conscious choice. I could have.

So, readers, I ask you now: who is the most “important” person that you have seen live and in person? Concert, random meeting, whatever. Hopefully you’ll get from this post that I’m hoping they will have had some lasting influence on society, and not just be an internet celebrity of the moment. I’m interested in people who made a big contribution in whatever field they were in: music, theater, dance, science, art, whatever. I’ve been to quite a few jazz concerts, but I think Glass is still going to top that list. And I’m not sure that any of the rock-star scientist types that I’ve seen or met would quite meet that bar in terms of lasting legacy. What about you?

I Google You

I have been fairly honest, blog-style, recently in discussing the fact that I have recently discovered that my ex-husband (back in America, where I am not) just got remarried and my discovery of this information came thanks to the wonders of the internet. Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered that one of my favorite Indy Rock Star artists had recorded a song called “I Google You”:

The lyrics are here.

Said Indy Rock Star is Amanda Palmer (twitter @amandapalmer) and she is my current muscial obsession (anyone who can write lyrics like, “who needs love when there’s Southern Comfort and who needs love when the sandwiches are wicked and they know you at the Mac store” AND sing them in a catchy tune that I cannot get out of my head wins it in my book!)

The Google-y lyrics were written by her fiancee, the amazing writer Neil Gaiman (twitter @neilhimself) who happens to have a kid that works at Google. He also manages to beat out Stephen Fry in some polls of “British superstars who tweet” even though he’s spent the last few decades living near my home town of Minneapolis. It’s all so web 2.0 and so romantic. (And I’ve been sucked into it totally for the last few months but we won’t go there!)

The bottom line is as such: Amanda Palmer is awesome, and her music is worth listening to. I need to stop Google-stalking my ex-husband, although I keep writing about it because I just found out he got remarried and I even managed to score a photo of the happy couple. And Neil Gaiman is more than worth a read, although most people know that. And Amanda Palmer is awesome, and her music is worth listening to. I’ll stop now.

Dear My-Poor-Neighbors,

No, that sound you heard this evening was not actually the wail of cats being repeatedly tortured for a prolonged period of time. That was me, trying to see if I could re-discover one of my hobbies.

With my apologies, NFAH


Long-time readers of this blog will know that, aside from being a science-y type, I have long had musical aspirations on the side. This started with piano lessons, ages 5-17. There was a hiatus, ages 17-25, and then I decided to take up the violin. Half on a challenge (someone told me once that as a piano player I was not suited to do it). Half on a desire stemming from having played keys with a string orchestra in high school. Took violin lessons for four years ages 25-29, but then when I finished my PhD things slowed down again. Darned jobs and all that. I managed a year and a half of singing in a semi-pro choir when I came to England ages 31-32.5 before my job got too busy for three nights a week, and in that time recorded two “real” classical-choral CDs, which was fun. (Note to commenters who asked about my CDs on a previous post–email me and I can send you details! I believe those who asked all know my email or if not drop a comment and I’ll send you the links.) It was sort of an opportunistic thing. I sang in a choir in high school, and did musical theater, but mostly because I also played the piano for the choir and did piano accompaniment for theater stuff. I never really wanted to sing the way I wanted to play the piano, or later, the way I wanted to learn to play the violin.

But then, last week, jet-lagged and fresh off the plane from America, back all of ~20 hours, I got a mass email looking for amateurs for an orchestra. And I started drooling. Because I took up the violin in graduate school, I did not have the history with the instrument that most people, who take it up in primary school, have. I have played songs by myself and duets with my teachers. I have never played in an orchestra. And man, do I want to!

Problem number one then arose immediately. My original violin is in my parents’ basement in Minnesota. I’m here. My second (!) violin is here, but it’s electric!

There are two reasons for my having moved the electric violin to England and having left the ‘analog’ version at home. One, I live in a one-bedroom flat in a densely populated town (this is England, is there any other kind?) The “silent” violin is brilliant and much less of a guilty thing for me to play in such circumstances–what noise they hear is nothing compared to the richness of what I hear through the headphones. Two, and most peculiarly, the thing was always more comfortable for me to play compared with my “real” instrument, which I had first and for several years before I got the Yamaha. It has an integrated shoulder rest, and I even tried to buy the same brand of shoulder rest for my “real” instrument and it still did not feel as good. And my teachers hated the bow that came with my “student violin kit” and loved the bow that came with the Yamaha. (Geeky engineer in me says: Go Carbon Fibre Technology!) And let me note that mine was NOT a cheap student violin, the thing cost me a fortune and was paid for in installments when I was in grad school doing my PhD, at a time when I did not have lots of money but was still splashing out for the instrument and for lessons. ANYWAYS, I digress. I moved, I brought the electric violin with me. I played it occasionally in the first few months that I was here, but then joined the choir and got really busy. Used my digital piano a fair bit during that time to learn my alto parts, since I was a bit rusty at the singing thing, having not done much of it since high school.

(Um, yes, in addition to the violin, I also moved an 88-key digital Kawai piano to England. These things always sound reasonable in my head but when I write them on the screen they start to look funny… maybe this is not a good time to mention that in addition to the electric violin and digital piano I also brought over my Grandmother’s vintage Tenor Banjo that she played in the 1939 World’s Fair… now I really digress. There is clearly much here in the category of “a story for another day”.)

The electric violin had not been getting much use until today, when I had the chance to go to the orchestra’s first rehearsal to try and decide if there was any chance that I could join in. I got the instrument tuned up this afternoon in the most geeky manner possible (fitting, of course) using a tuning app that I have on my iPhone. (I bought the app on the recommendation of a fellow violin player at work, even though I had not been doing any violin playing. But hey, today I needed it and was so glad that I had bought it!) I played around with the violin, went to the first hour of the orchestra rehearsal, and then came back and tortured my poor neighbors with said violin for another 45 minutes. It’s really not actually “silent” although it’s much quieter than my student violin kit ever was.

The verdict: perhaps unsurprisingly, given the fact that it’s been 4.5 years since I was in lessons, my violin playing is rusty. Really rusty. Cat torture rusty. I am lacking the callouses on my fingers and the strength in my arms that I had developed when playing the thing most days. I also have to be realistic about the fact that, since I took the instrument up as an adult, I will never have the natural feel for it that a kid who started Suzuki method classes at age 3 would have. I am also realistic about the fact that I have never been the most gifted musician ever, I have been more in the mold of “hard work, practice, practice, practice” (much to the chagrin of my very gifted, plays the piano by ear, father). BUT, all of that said, I had a fun time playing the violin today, and I think I might have to do that more often. So apologies to my neighbors, the tortured cat noises are likely to continue. I may not be sufficiently gifted or practiced to join up with the orchestra now, but I’m unlikely to stop trying, and planning for next year. I may try and find a teacher here, and acquire another “real” student violin kit (and sell the one sitting in my parents’ basement gathering even more dust than my electric had been gathering in my flat here). I got a new music stand today, and it’s set up in my living room, next to the nicely tuned electric instrument in its case (until tomorrow, when I’ll have another go at the books I was playing from in my first year as a student of the instrument–that’s how far back I had to go today!) It’s just too nice to have something interesting to do at the end of a long, boring technical day spent in front of a computer, and dealing with the endless administration and paperwork associated with having a grown-up job.

Dear So-and-So, Friday the 13th edition

Dear Anish Kapoor,

You rock. The exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last weekend totally blew my mind. Too bad about the poorly behaved little kids running around unaccompanied, though. Hopefully they’re not doing too much damage to your amazing sculptures.

Glad to be an art lover, NFAH


Dear Gordon Brown,

That thing where you pandered to the xenophobes and explained your plans to cut skilled worker migration really sucked. Believe me, we net contributors to the British economy (paying taxes and with no access to public funds) are NOT the problem.

Feeling like an unwanted expat, NFAH


Dear Person from yesterday,

Just because you’re a girl doesn’t make it okay for you to be checking out my breasts the whole time I was talking to you. My eyes are about 8 inches north of where you were staring, ok?

Not sure what to wear in public anymore, NFAH


Dear Everyone,

Do pop over and wish Mid-Atlantic English a happy 40th birthday today!

I’ll be 40 before you know it, NFAH


Robert Frost

When I was on my extended trip to the US, I got to go to New Hampshire for the first time. On driving back towards Boston after the conference, I saw a sign for the Robert Frost farm, and I exclaimed, “Ah, Robert Frost” at which point my young colleague asked, “Who is that?” Frost is, in fact, my very favorite poet, mostly because I’m one of those old-school people who think poems should rhyme and Frost write beautifully lyrical poetry where the rhyming schemes are often quite complicated and interesting. While many people love and admire “The Road Not Taken” or “Acquainted with the Night” (which appears in the Amanda Palmer song Astronaut, making her even more my hero than she already was) my personal favorite has always been “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I can recite it by heart, in part because the cleverness of the rhyme helps one to remember which section comes next. So imagine my amusement when I was reading a “Get Fuzzy” anthology later in this same American trip and I came across Darby Conley’s take on it, as narrated by Bucky Katt. (Apologies for the random spam comments after the poem in that link; I simply cannot figure out a way to search for the original comic on the official Get Fuzzy archives website so this is taken from a blog!) Rhyming scheme maintained, but an, ahem, slightly different flavor to the whole thing. Regardless, it remains true, I must leave this blog and get back to work, there are plenty of “reptiles to throw before I sleep”…

Brighton beach memories

No, not Brighton Beach Memoirs, totally the wrong side of the world. I was in Brighton, UK this weekend for the Brighton Festival, which had one of my favorite modern artists, Anish Kapoor, as artistic director and featured one of my favorite jazz bands, The Dave Holland Quintet, headlining a fantastic concert. Brighton was almost too zoo-y for me to enjoy the festival, with a seemingly endless parade of girls in 4 inch skirts and 6 inch heels and their tattooed boy toys. But I managed to enjoy it just the same. Did all the things one does in a different British town, which is to eat at the same restaurants that are in your own neighborhood and shop in the same shops that are on your own high street. But oddly enough for England, the weather was uncharacteristically gorgeous and I ended up sunburnt from long walks on the beach esplanade. Not a bad bank holiday weekend, not bad at all.

Shameless plug

This is mostly for people in America, although it is possible to benefit otherwise–see note below on the evils of UK customs.

I have one of those “hadn’t spoken in years until facebook” people in my life who turns out to be quite creative. I ordered a few interesting things from her website — cool screen-printed t-shirts and kitchen towels. I love the hand-made stuff, and I love it even more when someone is brave enough to put their stuff out there to sell. I did it exactly once–I did a photographic exhibition that netted me no money and perhaps negative pride, but I’m foolish enough to have done it once so I’ll probably do it again. In the meantime, let me speak most highly of the little gifts (for self and others) that I got through this site/old friend, although I do confess that UK customs held my things ransom until I paid a five pound import tax so I recommend this as best for shipping within the US! Maybe some day I will again try to sell my wares, crocheted, photographed, or otherwise. For now I have too much job on my plate to contemplate such things but here’s to hoping for the future. And in the meantime, support the local creative types who do have the guts to put it all out there!