Category Archives: music

A Very English Adventure

I was back in the Brighton area this weekend, for the arts festival that I’ve now visited three times. The first year I went, I saw jazz and sculpture. Last year it was modern music and AfroBeat. This year it was classical chamber music. All fun. As a former serious musician, I love to see live music, and I don’t do it often enough in my own town. So the now-annual Brighton trip is an excuse to spend a few days immersing myself in concerts and related things, to re-visit a town I really quite like (and now know my way around) and to tour around a bit of the English Countryside, which I–as a non-driving (when in England) person–don’t get to do much. I always be sure to convince at least one friend to join me for the weekend, and said person has to either have a car or rent a car in order for the trip to work.

The first big adventure this year was a piano concert at Glyndebourne. I have to admit, when I booked the tickets I did not even notice it was NOT in Brighton, as it was part of the festival and I was going gaga over the performer. It was Leif Ove Andsnes, who is one of (IMHO) the best pianists in the world right now. He is also Norwegian, which triggers my geeky “I’m Norwegian too” side. And the first time I saw him play, it was the Grieg piano concerto, which was my high school graduation piano lessons piece. So I had to go see him, even if I had no idea what a Glyndebourne was. Well, I was schooled. It turns out that Glyndebourne is a full-scale professional opera house that is entirely on private property–it was built by the wealthy-and-eccentric owners of a country estate in the 1930s. The current incarnation is world-class and holds well over a thousand, and it just sits in the middle of the house along with restaurants, gardens, sculptures of world-quality art, and other oddities. The tickets said “opens at noon for picnicking” but I did not know where to even begin with that, so had lunch in town and then went out with my friends in their hatchback vehicle, they parked in the grass space in the parking lot, and we wandered around. So apparently because this is private property, it’s only on concert days that you can just tour around and look at the gardens and the sculptures and the like. And the place was jam-packed with picnickers of an elaborate sort that I had never seen before. Almost no one was sitting on blankets on the ground eating chips out of a packet. No. Not only did they have lawn chairs, but tables with table cloths, wine and glass goblets, elaborate picnic baskets that held proper plates and real silverware (not plastic) and really exotic picnic food. Note to self: must up the level of picnickery when in England. Whew.

The concert was, as I had hoped, amazing even though I was suffering from elaborate-picnic-envy. Somehow, again without realizing it, I had tickets in the third row on the “good side” for a piano player, so the views were amazing (as was the music). So a good day. Back to Brighton, right? We went out to the car, and realized much to our chagrin that because it was parked on grass on a slight down-hill gradient, and the grass was a bit damp, the thing would not back up and the wheels were just spinning on the grass. There was an enormous SUV parked directly in front of us, else we could have just pulled through the slot and drove off. After about 15 minutes of waiting, no SUV owner had yet arrived to save us, and the driver was getting pretty antsy. I was very much against the “just get out and push the car” idea, especially when it was floated that I as the smallest should drive and the larger driver should get out and push. I could just see myself getting disoriented and doing something wrong so as to pin my friend against the SUV and require emergency medical care in the middle of nowhere, when the car park was flooded with cars trying to LEAVE the estate. So we left the driver in the car and I and another small female got out to push. This was immediately noticed by a middle-aged British man getting into a car in the next row, and he came running over to help, along with his gray-haired wife in her floral dress.

We did it. We managed to free the car, and I with my American accent thanked the nice couple profusely for helping us out of a bind. They made some hilarious comments about how useless that (German) car brand was and how they would never have travelled anywhere in such a heap. I kept my composure long enough to get into the car, but once we drove off I couldn’t stop laughing; the entire situation was so ridiculous as to be almost unbelievable. American girl with a few nice Brits, pushing a German car uphill through wet grass after a Norwegian pianist played a concert at a world-class opera house on a private English countryside estate. Seriously, you cannot make this sh*t up.

Walk on…

I live North and a bit East of London. Today I had a work thing in Southampton, which is South and West of London (for the uninitiated). I looked at the train details last week, all looked sensible: 45 minute train into London, cross London on the Tube, 70 minutes from London on the train to Southampton. A perfect day trip. Except there was a little warning sign on the details on the National Rail website. I clicked on it. “Notice of possible industrial action affecting tube service on November 2-3” Oh Crap. I normally don’t have to go through London central all that often, especially since I take a car service to Heathrow these days. So maybe I go into London or cross it every month or two. And this time, I was going to get to witness a totally European public services strike.

Not a thing I could do; this meeting had been planned back at the beginning of the year, more than six months ago. I spoke to one of my colleagues who insisted that it wouldn’t be too bad to catch a taxi across town, especially mid-day when most people were at work. For the record, she was wrong. I made it into north London and went to stand in the taxi queue. Where I was still standing, 35 minutes later, chatting with the nice bloke in front of me who was in the same predicament–we both needed to get to other rail stations in the city. When it was finally my turn, I got into the taxi… where the traffic then caused the trip to be almost another 25 minutes. I made a train heading south, texted my meeting person to say I was indeed on the way, if a little later than I had hoped. And I took out my trusty iPhone and checked how far it actually had been between the two stations.

It was only 2.4 miles. I was gutted. I don’t know central London all that well, and it hadn’t really occurred to me until then that it would have been much faster for me to walk. Lesson learned for the return trip. So after my 3.5 lovely and hopefully useful hours in Southampton, it was back on the train to London. I arrived just before 7 pm, and the place was absolutely teeming with pedestrians. Apparently we all had the same idea. Fortunately it was neither raining nor freezing, and further fortunately I just had my small computer bag with my light-weight laptop in it so it was not too much extra effort to carry. Fortunately also, I walk to work most of the time and so I was wearing, as I normally am, flat shoes with rubber soles even though I was dressed up for the meeting.

In the end it was not a bad walk, and in fact was about the distance between my flat and work so I’m quite happy to travel that far by foot. I am gradually learning that if I need to get somewhere within England and it’s less than 3 or 4 miles, the only way to guarantee you will actually arrive on time is to walk. (I called for a taxi from my flat one morning, after moving to my lovely place 2.3 miles from work, and ended up getting out half-way and walking.) Important lesson. Buses get stuck in traffic. Taxis get stuck in traffic. I am not in London, but the vagaries of the public transport and Tube systems mean that you cannot guarantee an arrival time no matter where in England you are unless you have total control of the situation.

In the midst of my cross-London hike this evening, I got to witness some European-style pedestrian “road rage”, once when a man was beating the side of an empty, out of service, bus and screaming profanities, and once when a man was beating the side of an empty, out of service, taxi cab who was blocking the road at the pedestrian crossing. Good times.

I made it home. Today. A mere 12 hours after I left. Four and a bit hours to travel what Google tells me is 150 miles (so in an American Interstate mindset 2.5 hours), 3.5 hours at my meetings in Southampton and another four and a bit hours to get home. It was a long day. And I’ve learned an important lesson.

Scenes from China, part 1

I returned last night, feeling a bit sick after the very long day (flight plus trip back from Heathrow landed me at home at 2:30 am China time after having been up since 6 am China time). The trip was amazing and I don’t really know where to begin. I have over 1500 digital photographs to sort through, not to mention souvenirs, laundry, and oh yes a full-time job to return to. There are so many stories I could fill pages and pages, but I’m going to skip the blow-by-blow travelogue and try and report a few snippets in the form of scenes that captured for me the essence of my China experience.

The scene: The back of a Beijing taxi-cab. My sister and I had just left our hotel for the night (sleeper) train from Beijing to Nanjing. The cab driver spoke no English, but my sister was chatting with him in Chinese. He seemed to like her, given the views I had of his crinkled up smiling eyes in the rearview mirror. (NB this was about a 50-50 crapshoot with cab drivers, some seemed happy to have us in their vehicles and chatted with my sister in Chinese in a very friendly fashion, and some seemed very resentful–perhaps at us being foreigners? Hard to tell.) After some small talk he asked if we minded if he put some music on. My sister said “no, of course not” and some Italian opera started to play. The cab driver sang along a bit, and asked my sister why she was not singing and she responded that she didn’t know the words. The song ended and “Unchained Melody” came on. Bingo. This one we could do, and we started to sing along, timidly at first but growing in volume as we heard the driver singing along too. At one point, we were stopped at a red light and my sister and I looked over into the cab sitting at the light next to us, and we were being stared at by the driver and passengers alike. Music, the universal language, had brought together three people with no single common spoken language, and we were all animatedly singing at the top of our lungs. I could not look at my sister or I would have busted out laughing. I will also never be able to hear that song again with a straight face. The song ended and the three of us–my sister, me and the Chinese cab driver–burst into a round of spontaneous applause. He turned to my sister and said “Our time together is too short, we are nearly at the station.” We arrived at the station all singing Celine Dion’s “My Heart will Go On” from Titanic.


I cannot get this out of my head, and I fully blame Kat (she sent me the link yesterday). What a commentary on America by a Brit (she’s Welsh, for the record)!

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.

Ten years ago I…

This whole 2010 thing is freaking me out a bit. I mean, I’m heading less than gracefully towards middle age. Or who knows where I’m going. I keep thinking about how different things are in 2010 compared with 2000, which makes me realize I have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA where I’ll be in 2020. For example:

  • In 2000, I was married, living in a 3BR house that I owned with my husband. We had a dog, a car and an SUV (to help fill three car garage) and all the other trappings of a suburban existence (lawnmowers, snowblowers, etc. to also help fill the three car garage) . In 2010 I am divorced and living in a work-subsidized 1BR flat and I have neither pets nor vehicles.
  • In 2000, the only foreign country I had visited was Canada. In 2010, I live in Europe and have travelled extensively in Europe, Asia and Australia.
  • In 2000, I had a Master of Science degree and was a full time student. In 2010 I have a nearly 5-year old PhD and a full time job.
  • In 2000, I had four living grandparents. In 2010, I have one but she’s a spunky nonagenarian.
  • In 2000, I used dial up internet for email and web access at home. There was no Twitter, Facebook, or Blog in my life. In 2010, I mostly use wireless broadband to access social media and web 2.0 content, although sometimes I tweet or post a blog from my iPhone.
  • In 2000, I was a PC. In 2010, I’m a Mac.
  • In 2000, I was not a great cook and I sometimes made bread in a bread-machine from a just-add-water mix. In 2010, I am an improving and enthusiastic cook, and I make homemade bread on a whim many weeks, without having to take out a cookbook or actually measure much of anything.
  • In 2000, I had never recorded a CD. In 2010, I have two professional recordings on my CV, although I’m no longer finding myself with the time to do music at that level (but I hope to get back to doing at least something musical sometime soon).
  • In 2000, I only had a point and shoot camera. In 2010, I have both analog and digital SLRs but neither has been getting much use lately (darned job again!).
  • In 2000, I wore size (American) 6 jeans. In 2010, I don’t.
  • In 2000, I had never been to Texas. In 2010, that is still true, but I’m heading there tomorrow!
  • in 2000, I had never tasted single malt Scotch. In 2010, I rang in the New Year with a wee dram of Balvenie Double Wood, my current favorite.
  • In 2000, I owned a CD player and a VCR. In 2010, I play music over the Bose speakers on my iMac when home, and over an iPod with noise canceling headphones when on the road. Movies are DVDs or downloads/streaming over the internet.
  • In 2000, I wore contacts sometimes. In 2010, I wear glasses exclusively. (Not bifocals yet; I’m sure that’s coming in this decade, though!)
  • In 2000, I bought books. In 2010, I buy eBooks. (Hooray for the Christmas Kindle!)
  • In 2000, I did not know most of the people who are likely to read and comment on this little reflection. In 2010, I’m a very lucky expat blogger!

So admittedly many of these changes have been in more than just my world: technology has moved on, society has moved on, the world is a different place after a decade. But it does sure make me aware of how little I can predict about where I’ll be, what I’ll be doing, and what life will look like more generally in another decade!

Best wishes to everyone for the new year, and feel free to leave your own “In 2000 I … but in 2010 I …” in the comments! I’d love to know what big changes others have found in their lives over this first decade of the new millennium!

I need a costume for Hallowe’en

I have the most random of Hallowe’en plans, which is that I’m going to a party at the Australian embassy in Paris. Yep. That’s me; Ms. International. But it’s going to be hard to top the costumed performance of my sister last weekend. She lives in China, as some of you may know, and she has a bit of a ‘Mando-pop’ obsession. As do I, now that she’s been feeding me things to listen to. I love music that’s good no matter what the genre, and some Mando-pop certainly qualifies (Leehom anyone?)

Over the weekend, my dear sis went to a concert for the band ‘Sodagreen’ in Shanghai and apparently managed to attract more than just a bit of attention.



Now I can highly recommend Sodagreen as a band, as silly as the name sounds, it’s some of the most innovative music I’ve heard in a while–combining pop music with classical themes, and I’m hooked. Yes, I’m hooked on Chinese pop music. Welcome to expat life. It’s a bit random and global. But you can see the whole lime green hair thing. So then we have my sister at the concert:



These images were taken from a Chinese chat website or similar, where apparently my sister had become famous for wandering around Shanghai as an Anglo wearing a lime green wig. She tells me the comments are on the order of, “I spotted her on the subway” and she also appeared on the jumbo-tron during the bid for an encore, so clearly she became a ’15 minutes of fame’ local celebrity in Shanghai. The full concert story is archived on a blog from her friend here, along with this photo:


Now two things are true. I have never been as creative as my sis, and I absolutely adore that she was wandering around Shanghai in this wig. And using it as part of a greater plan to be the lead singer of Sodagreen for Halloween. Second thing, I still don’t have a costume for Hallowe’en and I need help, being not as creative as my sis I’m a bit baffled at the moment.

Oh and maybe a third thing, I can’t wait until spring break when I’m going to China to see my sister’s life in person! Planning must commence immediately…

Good things about England v1

I have lived in the UK for nearly three years. I spent a great deal of time this summer abroad. When I returned to the UK from five weeks in America, I was not prepared for the culture shock, and I did not enjoy my first week back–even after three years here, I was feeling “comfortable” in the US and “uncomfortable” in the UK. But one of my “facebook friends” asked about the things I enjoyed here in the UK, the things that I missed after being away. I may not have been prepared to answer that question at the time, but I feel as though I can now detail the things that I truly love about living in the UK. My hope is to detail these in a series of posts starting now.

Buskers. Musicians. Mostly professional musicians, probably. In Minneapolis, where I hang my heart, the local street musician scene normally amounted to a guy with a saxophone playing bad “smooth jazz” standards on the street. In the UK, at least in the places where I’ve been, the street musicians are amazing. Recording contracts even come out of UK busking. Recording contracts for opera singers. In my local neighborhood, I have seen groups of buskers doing 8-part harmony. With dance moves. And CDs for sale. I have seen people singing opera, celtic fiddling, playing guitar, I have been awoken on more than one occasion by an accordion playing outside my window. I have seen fully supported 6-piece rock bands (with generators and full electrics), and tribes of people dressed as indigenous Americans making music .

There’s a dark side of this of course, not all of the buskers are doing it for fun. There are a lot of homeless people in my neighborhood. There is a toothless guy with a guitar who sings the same two Oasis songs on perpetual repeat. There is the apparently homeless girl with a dog who plays a plastic flute and is really not making music at the level of most of the others. But fortunately in my neighborhood these are the exceptions and not the rules.

The best thing about the busking phenomenon is the element of surprise. I have been walking around town near Christmas-time and happened upon a full brass band playing standard carols. Lately I’ve been encountering an accordion player with a trumpeter playing Mexican-sounding mariachi band standards and it has made me smile. So my first “good thing about England” is the culture that allows for, and even encourages, massively talented people to play music on the sidewalks. I’m pretty sure the locals, unlike the Americans, would notice if Joshua Bell was playing on the street.

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.

youtube and the UK

I was at the gym tonight and I caught the tail end of the crazy video for Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” and was mesmerized… seriously, I totally blame Madonna for the ridiculous trend of women doing suggestive dances while wearing leotards in videos. And it’s really caught on over here, sigh. (Although Cheryl Cole’s bottom sets a new gold standard, ha ha ha.) After I got home I decided to find the video and watch the whole thing to see if I had gotten an odd impression by just seeing the end (where Beyonce and co. mime like they’re riding something and smacking their own bottoms) only to get the dreaded “We’re sorry, this video is not available in your country” message. I had forgotten about the war over music videos and youtube in the UK. Because, well, I spend so little of my free time watching pop videos online. But I was sure the music video was out there somewhere. Back to my search results, and four items down is the link to MTV and the video, which played just fine. So exactly how is the youtube ban helping? You can still see the video, just not on youtube. And the point of this is … ? In the end, although the song is catchy, I’m just not into the video, either in fashion or in dance. Or I’m just getting old and very uncool.