Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Road trip

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Paso Robles, March 29, 2016—
WE'RE ON A SHORT road trip with a 13-year-old grandson, introducing him to favorite California roads of ours. Until recently I've hoarded some of these roads, telling only certain and special people about them, not wanting them to become too well known. Today I discovered (once again) the folly of this kind of stinginess. They've become better known, of course, as the California population has grown from 20 million in 1970, when we first drove some of these roads, to nearly twice as many today.

Still, they are marvelous roads, two-lane roads, relatively well paved for the most part, through the ranchland and mixed woodland tracing the San Andreas fault from Hollister in the north to San Miguel in the south. The northern half of the road began this morning, for us, at one of my favorite landscapes, looking across the broad San Juan Valley northeast of the Mission San Juan Bautista, and took us first to the formerly sleepy agricultural town of Hollister — now famous as a tee shirt brand and disfigured by shopping centers — to Highway 198, which runs east-west from San Ardo to Coalinga, neither of which towns we actually saw.

The southern half — ah, that's a very special road. It's been improved since last I drove it, several years ago; more of its own northern half has been paved, and today there was no water in the creek, meaning we didn't have to put our Prius to the test of fording open water.

From the summit, at 3500 feet, the road — now gravelled, not paved — drops down into Parkfield, population 18. Today both the motel and the restaurant were closed, so we continued, turning southwesterly, to close the day at a second favorite mission, San Miguel, where the church has been beautifully restored following a long closure after the disastrous earthquake of Dec. 22, 2003.

The proximate motivation of this trip was wildflower season. This year's rains suggested there would finally be a season worth seeing, and the Highway 198, at Priest Valley, promises much for tomorrow's leg, in the Carrizo Plain. The photo at the head of this post was taken toward San Miguel; the one here at the foot, in Priest Valley, looking north. Buttercups, poppies, lupine, owl's clover so far, and others not yet indentified. We'll see what happens next. IMG 6199

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ladies Voices


followed by


an opera in five acts to words by


music by



commissioned by the Noh Oratorio Society for

instrumentation: three sopranos
woodwind quintet:
flute (also piccolo), oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon
percussion (one player):
trap set, chime in D, antique cymbal

Eastside Road, March 18, 2016—

LADIES VOICES was first performed at the Berkeley Art Center, October 30, 1987, by Judy Ruth Hubbell and Anna Carol Dudley, sopranos; Marcia Gronewold, mezzo-soprano; Patrice Hambleton, flute; Robin May, oboe; Tom Rose, clarinet; Stuart Gronningen, horn; Robert Hughes, bassoon; William Winant, percussion. It was commissioned by Claude Duval and the Noh Oratorio Society for a concert at the Hatley Martin Gallery, San Francisco, November 16, 1987, when the role of the third lady was taken by Judith Nelson.

The Noh Oratorio Society flourished in San Francisco during the 1980s, largely (as I believe) through the benign creative energies of Claude Duvall, calligrapher, actor, stage director, litterateur. The Noh Oratorio Society had a wide range of interests, but always put a priority on the human voice and the use of language: they produced, for example, Michael McClure's ! The Feast ! in 1982; Chaucer's Parlement of Fowles in 1987; Edith Sitwell and William Walton's Façade in 1987; Robert Duncan's Faust Foutu in 1989; and many other works in various venues in the San Francisco Bay Area over a course of twelve or fifteen years.

I have no idea why he or his Society asked me to supply them with a little opera: probably through our shared enthusiasm for Gertrude Stein, some of whose poems I had already set as songs for voice with various instrumental accompaniment.

The brittle, hectoring music of the opera was composed on a Macintosh computer, as an exercise for a course I was taking in computer composition at San Francisco State University, taught by the composer Herbert Bielawa. We worked with the Apple Mac Plus computer, using software produced in those days by Mark of the Unicorn: Professional Composer for notation; another program whose name I don't now recall for a sequencer.

The classic Schoenbergian manipulations of melodic material are Transposition, which is setting the tune on a different starting pitch; Inversion, which is the tune upside-down, you might say; Retrograde, which is the tune stated backward; and of course Retrograde Inversion, which is both methods used simultaneously. These are easy techniques for the computer, which allows the composer to select a melodic passage of virtually any length, copy it, and paste it into the score elsewhere — in a different instrument, on a different pitch level, with augmented or diminished note-values (longer notes, shorter ones), or upside-down, or backward Ladies Voices takes advantage of these possibilities.

It is also a study in harmonic writing that avoids conventional tonality, following sporadic discussions I had had in the course of various visits with Virgil Thomson, and an early example of a growing obsession with counting: in the first act, for example, the snare drum sounds five notes to introduce the first soprano's first word, "Six," and 75 notes in all before the third soprano's last word, "Seventy-five."

The opera sets two plays of Stein's: A Curtain Raiser (1913) and Ladies Voices (1916). David M. Boje has written of Stein's theater with insight:

Gertrude Stein wrote 77 plays between 1913 and 1979 that fall under the general heading, Theatre of the Absolute. Absolute Theatre sacrifices developmental story (the dynamic movement to climax and receding from it) in order to invite the spectator to explore the present moment, and to stay in the present tense of theatrical experience. Stein was focused on opening a space in time, to explore the present moment. Stein wanted to free herself from the grip of developmental storytelling, the progress of time imposed upon story by the coherent narrative form that dominates traditional theatre. Stein sought to break free of the alternative reality created in developmental storytelling, and instead let the play be the reality that the spectators made sense of in the present moment of performance. …

A Curtain Raiser (1913), and Ladies' Voices (1916)… attempt to focus the spectators' attention on the present moment, on unfolding rhythms and textures(e.g. a series of non-referential numbers), with fragments of conversation, etc, all without a developing storyline. Instead of the progress of a coherent (linear) storyline with beginning middle and end, Stein uses fragments of dialogue that isolate from other fragments of dialogue.

(In the Four Seas (first) edition of Geography and Plays, in which the text was first published, an apostrophe sometimes occurs in the word “ladies,” sometimes does not. It has been suppressed throughout in my opera in the interest of consistency.)

I set the two plays in sequence to make a chamber opera in five acts exploring the psychological and musical nuances of three ladies of Gertrude Stein's milieu — the cultured, literary, leisurely set of liberated women in the first decade of the 20th century. Neither plot, setting nor scenario are supplied in Stein's text, but I see no reason to suppress them in production. I imagine a rather tense situation, with the second and third soprano pairing off apart from Genevieve, the first soprano, whose spiritualist trance in Act III contrasts with the amorous play of the other two ladies in Act IV.

I would prefer the instruments to be unseen by the audience, but would like three men and a string quartet to be upstage somewhere in the drawing room of Act II, the quartet possibly to be miming the performance of the opening of my second Stein opera, I Like It to Be a Play.

Act I (Curtain Raiser): The Theater, before the curtain (During the second performance these titles were for some reason spoken aloud at the beginning of each scene. This need not be considered a precedent.)
The three sopranos stage center right, discussing quantities among themselves. Winds and percussion in pit, if available, or in wings, or upstate right behind curtain; in any case unseen throughout the opera.
Act II: A Drawing room, late afternoon
A fashionable room in a Tuscan villa, ca. 1912. The ladies are in afternoon dress, probably at tea. The winds and percussion remain invisible, but a string quartet may be seen upstage left, alternately playing (silently) and resting, talking among themselves. The members of the quartet are never heard.
Act III: The drawing room, toward evening
The french windows at the back of the drawing room have been opened, exposing a flagstone or terrazzo terrace leading to a small formal garden beyond. Chaises-longues, side tables, a bar trolley. The string quartet no longer so evident; or perhaps its members are soundlessly among the company; or functioning as waiters, bartender, etc. The three ladies grow more expressive and animated.
Act IV: Garden terrace outside the drawing room. Later that evening
Twilight. The ladies have descended the steps into the near areda of the garden. The men are rarely visible, and that only at the extreme sides of the stage, engaged in mute conversation or business. The mood is expectant.
Act V scene 1: The Garden. Quite dark.
Act V scene 2: The same.
Duration: 9 minutes
I rehearsed and conducted the first two performances of Ladies Voices. The second performance was recorded, though not very well. (The recording reveals the interpolation of A few years later I was asked to change the orchestration for a performance at The College of Notre Dame, in Belmont, with unsatisfactory results.

The score was published, with a cover illustration, reproduced above, by the San Francisco painter Inez Storer, by Fallen Leaf Press, in 1996 (Fallen Leaf Publications in Contemporary Music (ISSN 8755-2698), No. 78.) It is available, with a set of instrumental parts, from Frog Peak.

The recording can be heard here.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Back to the blog…

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Eastside Road, March 4, 2016—

MARCH. TWO MONTHS into the new year, I resume. I was apparently temporarily frozen, the proverbial deer in the headlights, in the face of a return to this country after a pleasant and eventful European interlude, dismayed by the level of public discourse, discouraged by a number of unfinished projects left over from the old year, distracted by the stupid daily errands and repairs.

Distracted by further travels, too. A week after our return from Stockholm, January 11; we drove down to Los Angeles, returning via Reno (Nevada). Along the way we stopped at Manzanar. This is the site of one of the infamous relocation camps hastily improvised for thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry, taken from their homes on the West Coast and held for the duration of World War II.

The site is ten miles north of Lone Pine, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, the flat, windswept, arid desert at the foot of that remarkable range, near the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney. The photo above will give you an idea: it shows the monument in the former cemetery, with a view of the Sierra — the “Range of Light” — in the background. In the foreground, desert.

I have dim memory of that relocation. In 1941 I turned six years old. I lived, with my parents, in a middle-class neighborhood in central Berkeley. A number of Japanese-American families lived in bungalows along Grove Street; I seem to recall the carp ponds in their back yards. One day these families were gone: rounded up, taken away.

The area around Manzanar had a long, complicated, troubled history. Native Americans hunted, gathered, and gardened it for centuries. They were edged out by pioneer whites in the 19th century, attracted by the climate and its agricultural potential, especially after the coming of the railroads, which facilitated marketing.

Manzana is Spanish for “apple.” It was given the name in the 20th century, when it had become an improbably prosperous fruit-raising area. Fairly rich soil, hot summers, cold winters, and abundant water, and the patient and skilful attention of a few hard-working families, produced hundreds of tons of fruit for the quickly growing Los Angeles market  until that city realized its water was even more crucial to its future, and diverted it all for its own use, quickly reducing the land to desert.

The farmers sold their water rights and were left with barren land. Fortunately for them, empty land, on a rail line but far from “sensitive” coastal areas, were exactly what was needed to house a hundred thousand “relocated” Americans — temporarily, of course, just for the duration of the war. 

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This is what Manzanar looked like during World War II. The railroad stretches north and south along the eastern edge of the “camp,” whose neat, orderly blocks of bunkhouses are hygienically set apart to minimize the threats of fire and disease. Each array of eight or so bunkhouses has its own mess hall and two common lavatory-shower facilities, one for each sex. There were minimal recreational facilities — basketball court, baseball diamond — and, of course, the remnants of broken-down orchards, and chickenyards, and a factory where women could help make parachutes and other nonstrategic items needed by the war effort.

1Improbably, the prisoners —for that is what they were —made the best of things. They even made gardens. The federal government has installed an admirable explanatory center at Manzanar, and developed a self-guided tour of the facility. We drove the tour — with a few stops for photographs, and meditating, it took almost an hour. It took us, for example, to the cemetery, on the western edge of the site.

Along the way there were a number of explanatory panels. On one of these a faded color photograph recalls one of the traditional Japanese gardens these people managed to create:

“You are standing before San-shi-en, or 3-4 Garden. Water once flowed over these silent stones, soothing troubled spirits and easing the monotony of long mealtime lines. Designed and bilt by internees, mess hall gardens served as a source of block identity and pride.

“These and other gardens in Blocks 9, 12, and 22, share symbolic roots in ancient Japanese design. In each, you will find three distinct levels aligned north to south: a hill of earth represents the mountains from which water flows south to a pond, symbolizing an ocean or lake. Here, internees planted trees from the camp nursery and hauled stones from the rugged Inyo Mountains to the east."

1  2After the camp was abandoned in 1945 these gardens were gradually buried under windblown sand and the sediment left by springtime snowmelt. Archaeologists unearthed this one in 1999, and reconstructed the fence that had protected it. They have not reconstructed the garden itself; only its rocky bones, as you see in the second photograph here.

One of the mess halls, and one of the bunkhouses, has been restored and is left open for visitors to inspect. Here too welcome, fairly detailed, and sympathetic explanatory panels help the visitor understand just what life must have been like for these people. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph these interiors — it’s just too poignant, too intimate a glimpse into what may have been the most injurious aspect of this place: its theft of the dignity of its occupants.

A number of photographs show them as they were, in this place, at that time. They are surprisingly modern, lively, optimistic. They put on a good face, whether for their own morale, or for the benefit of whatever eventual onlooker they expected these photographs to find. They are well dressed, in the plaid pleated skirts and the sweaters and wide trousers of the early 1940s. You can be sure — there’s photographic evidence — that they jitterbugged to big-band swing; they played cards; they swapped stories.

Ultimately they survived, most of them, and returned, somehow, to a normal life. The war over, they were given twenty-five dollars and a bus ticket to Los Angeles. If they were lucky, a kind neighborhood might have looked after their homes and farms. They were a stoic lot, for the most part, and patiently endured their readjustment, as they had their confinement. Ultimately, during the Reagan administration, the government recognized its error, apologized, and paid a modest compensation.

The National Park Service has done a fine job recording all this, and making it available to visitors. They’ve done this, of course, in order to ensure that such an injustice may never be repeated. It’s something to consider during this presidential campaign. 
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Looking west toward Mt. Whitney

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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Dutch interiors

Prinseneiland, January 7, 2016—

ONE OF MY FAVORITE Dutch painters is Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (1597 - 1665), who specialized in the depiction of whitewashed church interiors. He did not, of course, paint the image you see here: I photographed it a few days ago in a friend's house in Voorburg, where we were staying a few nights.

I took it, in fact, the moment we stepped inside the front door, before even taking off my coat. The light was extraordinary, as it so often is in this country — can something so frequently observed really be called extraordinary?

The staircase is quite steep and narrow, and its treads are quite shallow: these staircases are dangerous to those unaccustomed to them. There isn't room to spare in Dutch cities. The house is in a long row of similar houses, all attached in the row. It rises three storeys and quite likely has a loft above the third.

Before stepping through that door you can barely see, on the right, let me remark on the paint. I think the Dutch make the best paint in the world. I don't know whether it's available in the United States — I seem to recall environmental regulations have forbidden its import, but perhaps that's changed. It's glossy, hard, and rich-looking; there's really nothing like it. That's what's on that door; and you'll see it in other photos here.


Stepping through that door on the right side of the entry hall we find a fine, spacious sitting room. Narrow, I suppose, but graceful for its high ceiling, filled with balanced light from large windows on the two ends. It was originally two rooms, as suggested by the ceiling panels; the bookcase bay recalls the original arrangement and separates the sitting area, at the far end of the photo, from a more worklike area with a table seating six and, out of the photo, a small upright piano.


Upstairs a bathroom and a bedroom have been joined and reconfigured as a home office, with two desks, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a conference table, armchairs and a studio couch. At the back of this second floor, the master bedroom and bath.

The third floor contains three smaller bedrooms and a half-bath. The kitchen is tucked into the ground floor at the back of the sitting room, and has also a breakfast table capable of seating four or five easily in a glassed-in room, a sort of conservatory, that leads to the long, beautifully planned back garden.

A VERY DIFFERENT HOUSE always pleases and surprises us a couple of hundred kilometers north, in Friesland, in a village so small it lacks church, cafe, gas station — nothing but residences, a bridge over the canal, and the beautiful Frisian skies.


Here you're looking through one of a pair of doors separating sitting room from entry hall and, beyond it, kitchen, with its tiled wall. The house is small, brick, and a national monument; the outside looks as it must have a century ago and more; and the interior, while modified for up-to-date appliances and technology, respects traditional visual and intentional configurations.

Like the Voorburg house, this cottage boasts its dramatic staircaseRiensteps leading to the sleeping loft, where there is also room for a small desk, laundry appliances, and storage.

The house belongs to a professional chef, and the open kitchen, filling one end of the ground floor, is one of its most impressive features.


Tiled walls, a huge French range, a capacious wooden sink, and under-the-cabinet refrigeration, as well as a large island countertop separating the kitchen from the dining table, facilitate preparation and service of anything from an omelet to a major culinary undertaking. The hood handles any ventilation problems readily — and silently, with a remotely located motor.

IMG 3566 IMG 3565

At the other end of the house, even though it's right on the road, the mood is calm. Paintings on one wall, books and windows on the facing one, comfortable settees and chairs express the ever-present Dutch quality of gezelligheid, usually translated as "coziness" but in fact so fundamental a value it transcends specification.

EntryDRIVE SOUTH a couple of hours and you'll come to the heart of the Dutch orchard country, the land between Maas and Waal, two broad rivers embracing flat country that's been generally overlooked by industry and tourism.

Here friends of ours have transformed a century-old farmhouse, which had also contained the office for the farm's steadily growing poultry operation, into a spacious, comfortable, orderly home.

Here the staircase has room to be spacious and public, though it leads from the public floor to the bedrooms above. In fact this is a second entry hall, a good idea in country prone to rain and mud in the winter. I was particularly impressed with the hugee solid wooden door you see on the right-hand wall: it extends floor to ceiling, wall to wall when swung shut. It usually stands open to bring outside light into the kitchen beyond.

MapDeferring to the owners, I won't show you the kitchen itself, always a hub of activity. We're standing in it, our back to the stove, and looking past a display wall into the main sitting room beyond. I tried repeatedly to photograph the map on the wall, which is quite old, putting east at the top, and which nearly centers on this neglected corner of Gelderland, sometimes flooded delta country.

Our host explained the isolation formerly characterizing this country. The rivers run swift, and in the time before automobiles it wasn't easy to get off this island; people lived isolated even from nearby Nijmegen, twelve miles as the crow flies.

A few years ago we walked through the area, on the Lingepad, one of those marvelous Dutch long-distance walking routes. We stopped at a restaurant on the edge of the Waal. A fence around its terrace had provisions for boards to be inserted between posts, then caulked with straw and horse manure, to keep floodwaters out.

Our host is a poultryman; he and his brother inherited the business from their father, but then, when it grew too big for this tranquil countryside, relocated to Bulgaria. It's an interesting story: they dismantled the huge feed mill their business needed, loaded it on a barge, and sent it up the Rhine, then down the Danube to its new location. The whole trip was carefully planned, but heavy rains caused river levels to rise, threatening passage underneath bridges.


Here's a look into the less formal sitting room, where you could do some serious writing if you liked, resting your eyes gazing out into the winter garden; or yu could watch a little television, or simply meditate on the fire burning in the stove.


Another sitting room offers bookshelves and a pair of the most beautiful leather club chairs I've ever seen — I'd ship these chairs home in a minute, if I could pry them away from their owner. This is Christmas season, or was when we were there, so there's a small tree at the window. The doors between bookshelves have hinged panels, closed here, readily opened to let yet more light in. I don't know when I'e seen an interior so thoughtfully lit.

City row-house; provinicial cottage; country farmhouse. I hope our hosts in these places — and others I haven't mentioned: A small-town apartment; a big Amsterdam canal apartment — I hope they'll pardon this intrusion into their spaces. I share them with the blogsphere with a feeling of affection and approval; it seems to me they portray taste and modesty in a manner most instructive in this age of excess and commodity…

Modes of transportation

On train
photo: Grace Zivny
Hammarby, Stockholm, January 10, 2016—

WE BEGAN THE LAST leg yesterday, leaving our delightful Amsterdam apartment on Prinseneiland for a small but perfectly comfortable room in a cut-rate hotel in a Stockholm suburb.

And in the course of the move we use nearly every form of transportation we've handled so far — only the bus and the metro are missing.

First, since there are now three of us, I call a taxi to take us, our visiting granddaughter, and six pieces of luggage to Amsterdam's Centraal Station. The taxi app I use doesn't work in this country, I'm told, so I call the first number that turns up from a Google search.

Plunged immediately into a pit of phone-ladders. Negotiable, and soon I think I have actually ordered a cab — but then I have to enter a credit card number, and I back away.

The next phone number belongs to Electric Taxi, and is answered by a human being, who — like every telephone voice I'ver encountered here — speaks English. She sends a cab right over. We barely have time to get downstairs.

The cab is beautiful, shiny, solid-looking, spacious and comfortable — a Tesla. Forty percent of our cabs are Teslas, the driver explains; the rest are Leafs. (Charmingly, he pronounces it "leaves.") Too bad you're only going to Centraal; I could take you out on the highway so you can see what it's capable of…

After some serious discussion we stay with the original plan. The ride is direct and speedy. He takes my credit card with a little machine. One does not tip taxis here. We're out on the sidewalk, under the station overhang, with a pleasant experience fresh in mind.

Other taxi rides here have been just as pleasant but sometimes more interesting. Twice we've taken cabs that turned out to be minivans — I don't know why they're so popular here. Both times it was late and dark and we were in a hurry. Once it was raining heavily, the only rain we've encountered on this trip.

In the dark, and especially in the rain, taxi rides can be interesting. Amsterdam is a crowded city, especially the part we traverse. Bicycles and pedestrians everywhere, nearly all of them in Calvinist black. In my many weeks in Netherlands I've only seen one accident, and that inexcusable: a tram grazed a bicycle. The tram had not left its track to do this, so it was clearly the cyclist's fault. That didn't make him the less an object of outraged sympathy among some onlookers, but most clearly looked at him with near contempt.

That was in The Hague, many years ago. Cyclists — I know, I'm generalizing — have if anything grown more self-righteous since. (Hasn't everyone, other than us, of course?) They have their own lanes, of course, and they have the right of way. But most of them don't ride with lights, and in the rain their heads are down, and they seem to count on drivers' skill and intuition to a foolish degree.

OUR TRAIN to Schiphol, Amserdam's international airport, has been cancelled. This doesn't really matter: there seem to be eight trains an hour, this time of day. We head for information to find out which platform the next train will leave from, though I know perfectly well it's track fourteen, it's always been track fourteen, the furthest from the entrance to the station — in the old days: now Centraal has been given a splendid new shop-and-cafe-heavy entrance on the north side, where a lot of development has been going on.

Our fallback train is a local, of course, so the trip takes a few minutes longer than usual. Again, it doesn't matter; we barely have time to settle ourselves on the fold-down seats near the doors — preferable for us, with our luggage — before we're there.

Trains arrive and depart right from the Schiphol terminal, which has one big concourse-lobby. It will be the same in a couple of hours at Arlanda, Stockholm's airport, but that will be another trip altogether. The commute train there takes an hour to get from airport to our station, and isn't quite as comfortable.

The best train trip of the last few weeks was in Finland, where we went from Rovaniemi in the north to Helsinki in the south mostly in our sleep. Our little compartment was snug but comfortable: I handled the ladder to my top bunk with my customary grace and good humor, and my companion found her lower bunk perfectly comfortable.

Best of all, I thought, was the cunning lavatory. On opening its door you're greeted with the two appliances you want first: commode on the right, a little out of sight when you stand in the doorway; sink just ahead, well lit, with a good mirror above. I don't shave, of course, but if I did it would all be quite practical, with an electric outlet handy. (They're at the heads of the bed, too, so you can charge your phone overnight.)

Over the sink, though, there was a shower-head. How the devil would that work? Do you have to stand in the sink and crouch to use it?

No: a chrome lever turns out to be the handle on the problem. It releases a catch allowing the entire room to swing around, revealing a shower stall. I haver the uncomfortable idea, for just a moment, that perhaps the entire installation is shared with the next compartment — but careful inspection shows there's room on the shared wall for two of these ingenious affairs.

TIME TO CONSIDER our flight. At Schiphol, if you have time, there arer plenty of shopping, dining, and drinking facilities, on each side of security. Our plane has been delayed by half an hour. Still, security looks uncrowded at the moment; let's go through.

After the x-ray, an attendant wants to look in my carry-on. I have too large a tube of toothpaste: it should have been in a little Ziplock bag. Don't worry about it, he says, happens all the time. Lindsey has had to take her boots off; otherwise the procedure is unremarkable.

We take the long long moving-sidewalks to our end of the terminal and find our gate. No one is there: not surprising; we have almost two hours before takeoff. It'll be late when we arrive at our hotel, whose restaurant will be closed — let's have something to eat.

There used to be a quite acceptable pannekoek way upstairs in a sort of observation tower, and we head for the elevator. But everything's been revised here recently, just as it had at Centraal Station, and a food court has taken over, with the internationally predictable leases. We return to our gate and find a sandwich shop with a Spanish theme. We make do with jamon Serrano and a glass of Spanish beer. There will be nothing said about this over at Eating Every Day.

The flight, on SAS, is remarkable for only one reason: there is no explanation of safety precautions. A little odd, since the captain asked us to listen to them, in his announcement. I did see the attendants talking pleasantly to people sitting in exit rows, so I suppose they got their instructions; the rest of us will just have to follow them if there's a problem.

There isn't a problem, of course, and I promptly go to sleep, to wake up shortly before landing, probably from the change in engine noise, or maybe cabin pressure.

We took one other internal European flight on this trip, about three weeks ago, on Air Baltic, or whatever it's called this week, from Helsinki to Amsterdam, changing planes at Riga. Had we more time, we'd have spent a few days in Riga. I remember it fondly from a stay in 1983, when times were quite different. Baltic Air, or whatever it's called this week, is a cut-rate airline, like Norwegian Airlines, on which we'd flown nonstop from Oakland (California) to Stockholm for $190. (Dinner was an extra $40 or so, but then that's what dinner cost, at the least; and our suitcases paid another $25 for their seats down in the hold, but at least they didn't eat dinner.)

There's no passport control for us — we've flown between Schengen countries — and as usual we simply ignore the option to declare stuff at customs. We don't have anything to declare at any rate. It's a long wait for the baggage, but that's my fault; I seem not to have recognized our bags. Once again I regret not tying a little colored ribbon to the handles. Will I ever learn to travel?

At tram

AFTER THE LONG train ride to our station we step out carefully onto a platform paved with ice. We walk with extreme care to the lift and emerge in a little vestibule I recall from a month ago: the turnstiles on the side we want to use are not available; a uniformed man in the ticket window cautions us to go the other way.

Last time we took the tram here in the wrong direction: I know better now, but have forgotten the quickest way to cross to the correct platform. It's snowing. We watch our tram leave the platform; then gingerly drag our wheeled suitcases across the tracks.

I've heard it said that the wheeled suitcase is responsible for the democratization of travel, for better or worse — it has eliminated the need for porters. Could be, but it's made our life a little easier. Though not in Venice, much of the time, with all its steps at bridges; and not on ice and snow. A few weeks ago I saw a young woman pulling her suitcase in a little sledge, apparently made for the purpose: but that was at the Arctic Circle, where such a procedure must be much more routine.

The next tram arrives in due course, in eleven minutes, as the automatic sign you see at every tram-stop had promised, and we ride with pleasure to our new hotel -- new to us, and only the sixth (and last) hotel in the five weeks of this trip. Much of the time we've stayed with friends, and their homes may (or may not) be the subject of another post. One of them was a luxury hotel booked by our friends for their anniversary party; the others have been the cheapest decent hotels we could find at Booking.com, our current fallback website.

I'll write about hotels another time. First, to get to tonights's, we havre to walk a couple of blocks up a gentle hill from our tram-stop. It's past ten o'clock now, quite dark, and quite cold. The streets and sidewalks are covered with ice and snow. Parked cars have a foot of snow on their roofs. Our shoes are leather-soled. We'd thought of getting little crampon-like attachments for them, but it seemed silly.

We did fall once, in Rovaniemi, when we were out late at night in search of the elusive aurora borealis. (Have I mentioned that we finally saw it, when least expected, rounding a corner in Helsinki?) My foot simply slid out from under me. Unfortunately, we were walking arms linked, for mutual support, and I pulled my sweetheart down on top of me. No harm done, and a little laughter.

But a fall could be disastrous, particularly impeded by all this luggage. We pick our way carefully.. Thankfully there are no careening bicycles, no trotting athletes, no rowdy teenagers cutting in front of us. Only the still cold dark night and the magical white of snow.

We've done a lot of walking on this trip, averaging about three and a half miles a day, my iphone tells me, perhaps truthfully. It remains the best way to see things. Trams and buses, yes, we've made good use of them, buying city-cards that you simply top up with your credit card when necessary: they do a good job of concealing from you how much you're actually spending on each trip.

Trams and buses are frequent and easy to use in Stockholm, Helsinki, Amsterdam, and The Hague. You do have to remember that stops are frequently far apart, though — and so you walk. Thankfully, we still can, relatively easily, even on the snow.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Three photos from the window

Prinseneiland, January 7, 2016—

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I HAVE BEEN WRITING here recently about the pleasures of orderliness and clarity. The opposite has its attraction too, of course — in fact the greatest pleasure may come from the tension between, or the mediation of, both: disorder and clarity. And so I give you three snapshots out the side window of the room I have been working in. IMG 4537

It's a big, comfortable work room, well lit by this window and another, to my left, on the adjacent end wall. I sit at a long table, six feet of it desk, another six feet bare worktable; in front of me and behind me, on the long walls, rows of bookcases.

But I'll write another day about this apartment, and other places we've stayed in on this visit to The Netherlands. Dutch interiors are interesting enough for their own post. For one thing, they exhibit that kind of orderliness I've been taken with recently. Today let's look out these windows.

I think this is my favorite corner of Amsterdam: the Westelijke Eilanden — "western islands" — built beween 1610 and 1615 to extend the Amsterdam harbor, in those days on the Zuider Zee.

Look at the back of your left hand: the thumb is curling toward Amsterdam's Centraal Station; the index finger is a thin peninsula to the west of what remains of Amsterdam's harbor on the IJsselmeer (the former Zuider Zee); the little finger is another peninsula. The short ring-finger is our island, Prinseneiland. To the north of it, spanning the tips of the middle two fingers, is Bickerseiland, named I suppose for Gerrit Pietersz Bicker (1554-1606, since his son Andries was living when the islands were raised, and it would have been inappropriate to name one for a living person.

The far island, at the north end, spanning the three fingers, is Realeneiland, "island of the reales", named for the Spanish coins: for the Bicker family sent plenty of silver to Spain, and other supplies too, and were paid I suppose in reales. The name of the restaurant De Gouden Reael, housed in a 1648 building on this island, records this.

For centuries these islands housed small warehouses and workshops related to the shipping trades, according to Wikipedia. They stored products coming from the middle East and the Baltic: grain, tobacco, wine, salt, herring, anchovies, tar. By the late 19th century, though, ships had grown too big to harbor here, and the islands were all but abandoned. Map1

In the housing crisis following the end of World War II they were discovered by artists and intellectuals; a new wave of gentrification has begun in the last few years.

But the three small islands retain their character, as can be gathered from these photographs. The canals are lined with old sailing ships, barges, and skûtsjes in varying degrees of decrepitude. Some have been converted to residences, their decks and canalside terraces often gardened. Old architecture stands next to newer buildings: in the third of the large photos here you can just see a 17th-century warehouse between the high brick building on the left and the new town houses on the right.

The canal at left in the top photo is the Bickersgracht, and the street leading from the bridge (unseen to the right of the photo) is the Galgenstraat, "Gallows Street," which bisects our island. In the old days, if you stood on this street and looked east, you'd see corpses hanging like laundry, apparently on that index-finger peninsula. They were the bodies of criminals executed on Amsterdam's main square, the Dam, and "then brought by boat to Amsterdam North, where they were hung, visible to everyone as a deterrent… left hanging until the ropes were destroyed or damaged, pecked by crows." (I don't recall where I got this quote.) There was a movement to rename the street after this practice was abandoned, but "Middle Street" never caught on.

The only other street is Prinseneiland, which encircles the island. IMG 4464

THE OTHER DAY I looked out the window to see a figure at one of these skylights, apparently a woman struggling with a stepladder. Inside the building, I mean. She finally got it into position and carefully climbed it to wipe the skylight clean. She looked in my direction, but I don't know if she caught me watching her or not. It's a Dutch thing to sit by the window and watch whatever happens. In many windows you'll see lace cloths stretched in carved wooden frames, set into the window to hide the observer from the observed. Most Dutch windows are left uncurtained, though: it wouldn't do to look as if you were hiding something.

As bad as the weather can be, the Dutch like outdoor life. The table and chairs under the rusting iron roof are probably used at lunchtime even in the rain. The other day we walked past a park-cum-playground on Bickerseiland, and saw, at dusk, about four o'clock, two couples, in their fifties I'd say, sitting around a bonfire they'd made, conversing over tea or coffee.

Since smoking has been prohibited in bars and restaurants you'll see tables and chairs outside most cafe doorways. There'll be an improvised roof against rain, perhaps, and often there'll be blankets on the chairs. Amsterdam in January is one of the coldest places I've ever visited, almost as cold as the arctic circle, because the cold is damp, and there's often a stiff breeze. Good sailing climate.

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I love looking at the complex disorder of these buildings. Buildings, ships, streets. On the "mainland," among the famous five horseshoe-shaped canals defining old Amsterdam, especially on the five canals, the rows of houses are proud, clean, and orderly. Each was built quite consciously, I think, to take a proper position among its neighbors, apparently modest yet clearly intent, often, on showing up the others: a gable a little more baroque, a stoop a little more ostentatiously plain, sober decorations just a tad eccentric. But here on the western islands pride gives way to practicality, and things have been built, and continue to be built, more as they must, for whatever architectural or economic reason, than as they might.

Well: I titled this post "Three photos from the window." Here, to close, is a fourth photo, of the building I've called elsewhere "our Einstein-on-the-Beachy blocky building" on the Bickersgracht. The window I've been looking out is on the left side of the building, second floor (third floor American style). It's twilight, just before five o'clock, and perfectly still; time for an apéritif…

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Tuesday, January 05, 2016


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Prinseneiland, January 4, 2016—
THE PEACOAT has served me well. I bought it at least fifty years ago, in the mid-sixties, when peacoats and paisley shirts and corduroy trousers were all the rage. I bought it used, furthermore, in the Berkeley flea market. I don't recall what I paid for it; probably no more than ten dollars. I've never seen any reason to replace it.

I have other cold-weather gear, and I brought just about all of it with me on this trip. Two other jackets, for example, to wear under the peacoat if necessary. Even at minus twenty degrees (Celsius: equivalent to minus four Farenheit), and in a biting wind, I've yet to put one of those jackets on. I'll probably leave one of them here: I'm sure someone will put it to good use.

This photo was taken in Stockholm three weeks ago; it wasn't particularly cold, and the coat is unbuttoned. Now I'm wearing it buttoned; sometimes all the way up to the neck. Made of finely woven Melton wool broadcloth, it turns the wind perfectly. Under it I wear the proverbial layers: a sleeveless wool sweater my talented companion knitted for me, also wool; a tightly woven cotton dress shirt; a synthetic tee shirt of some sort.

At the neck, a mink throat-cozy my daughter knitted for me. Sometimes a dress scarf from a street merchant in Rome. Always, and in this photo, a marvelous alpaca scarf my talented granddaughter made for me.

I nearly always wear a hat — this photo is misleading in that department. In the frozen north I wore a knit stocking cap pulled down over my ears; since coming to the Netherlands the wool beret has been sufficient. And then there are the gloves: I brought a favorite pair of tight-fitting synthetic ones, but of course I lost one in Helsinki, the right one: I'd pulled it off to use the phone, and my numb fingertips must not have noticed its sudden surrender to gravity.

For a few days I walked around awkwardly, scrunching the cuffs of the peacoat sleeves and thrusting them, along with my cold dead hands, into the pockets. Pockets: iPhone, extra iPhone battery, its cable, another iPhone battery, hat when inside and too lazy to fold it under my belt, tramcard if I'm careless, handkerchief, neckband if it's warm: amazing what these pockets will hold — handy when going through security, by the way — but the already heavy peacoat becomes pretty unwieldy, especially when that long scarf is threaded through its sleeves preparatory for the garderobe at museum, the coatrack in the restaurant…

IMG 3027Oh, yes: below the belt. Usual undershorts; long johns; long knit socks (also family-knit), normal walking shoes. In Rovaniemi, on ice and snow, I noticed the locals mostly wore trainers. My leather soles were treacherous, of course, but I only slipped and fell once.

My companion the Contessa dresses similarly, though she persists in avoiding hats. It's one of the few sources of continual domestic discord, and I think, privately until now, that her distaste for hats has been aggravated by my fondness for them. In Lapland she did go so far as to wrap her scarf around her head to protect her ears. I was surprised to find myself developing a new attitude toward hijab — I wonder, for example, if the presence of sand in the air may not have had something to do with its development. There was no sand in Lapland.

IMG 4038 How do the locals dress? A photo taken in the Gemeente Museet in The Hague may, um, address the question. They've all checked their outer garments at the garderobe, of course. (This is one of the reasons you don't stay in a museum until closing time: the crush at the counter is good-humored but time-consuming.)

These people are in a gallery devoted to a major temporary exhibition, Kleur Onketend (Color Unleashed), truly a marvelous exhibition of paintings (and a few surprising very early color photographs!) by European masters, many neglected, working between say 1880 and 1930, and they — the museum-goers, I mean — are dressed like the intelligent, leisurely, complacent people they (and we) are. IMG 4035 They contrast, of course, and not only because of the season, with the three ladies in Jan Toorop's delicious Trio fleuri (1885), with their sunbonnets and light frocks. Reminding me that summer does exist in these countries, even in Lapland I suppose. IMG 4072

Returning to the present, another exhibition in the Gemeente Museet was devoted to the flourishing and often startling Dutch fashion industry. A brilliant example of curatorship, this Ode to Dutch Fashion provides fascinating notes on aspects of Netherlandish clothing, even beginning with distinctions among the more than fifty shades of black in 17th-century Dutch portraits (crow black, coal black, glossy black, etc.).

The show culminates, in the playful Dutch manner, with a room inviting you to take a selfie behind a full-size photo of one or another of the (much) more recent fashions. I forgot to take note of the designer of the natty white suit I seem to be wearing here; I'm pretty sure it's Viktor and Rolf, and I wish I'd had it for the anniversary party we attended in the provinces a few days before Christmas.

The ubiquity of camera-phones — here in Netherlands, almost exclusively the iPhone, it seems — has apparently led to museums throwing up their hands and dropping the no-photography rule. (Disable your flash, of course.) So I happily snap away, usually taking care to photograph the label as well as the painting. This blog post is not about art or museums; it is about clothing; so I won't go further into the frequently disturbing subject of photography at the moment.

Instead I'll end with the juxtaposition of three parades of clothing. The first is of course from Ode to Dutch Fashion: five of what must be over one hundred striking ensembles, almost any of which could be worn on the street — though perhaps not in this weather. IMG 4063 IMG 3390

The second is of a trio of dandies from the 18th century, I suppose, carved in wood I hope, though, who knows, closer inspection might reveal them to be plastic reproductions. They stand stiffly but gracefully on the front of a draaiorgel, a street-calliope, and rhythmically and discreetly strike their bells at certain points in the performance.

Finally, there is a group of contemporary Netherlanders standing out in a parking lot across from the draaiorgel. They are waiting to have their photograph taken by the professional photographer who is standing at the left, checking her camera. The group family photo is for an important occasion, and they are dressed carefully, with the casual perfection (and, in some cases, playfulness) I've come to associate with the Dutch in general — partly through my very grateful forty-year relationship with a remarkable family. I hope they will not mind my revealing them here. IMG 3378

Monday, January 04, 2016

Alvar Aalto

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Prinseneiland, January 4, 2016—
HERE YOU SEE, rather stretched horizontally in a desparate attempt to fix a perspective problem, one of the most affecting sights I saw last month in Rovaniemi. It's a small corner of the Rovaniemi City Library, one of three central public buildings designed in the late 1950s by the great Finnish architect for the rebuilding of the northern Finnish city, the provincial capital of Lapland, left in near-total destruction at the end of World War II.

The rolling table, the armchair, and the lamp are Aalto's designs. The books on the shelves and the table are about him, and you're welcome to sit in this comfortable chair under this practical reading light and browse through them. Everything is calm and orderly. I think it must be difficult to harbor disorderly thoughts in such a setting. The function of visual clarity and orderliness in public settings is the encouragement of civic and civil ease and order.

I like the statements in the website linked above:

The principle of free design is one of Aalto's trademarks and the predominant theme of his library design is social equality. Aalto designed his libraries as low-lying, people-sized buildings with unadorned entrances.
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The ancient amphitheatre theme of the Rovaniemi Library is metaphorically transformed into a fanlike open book.

In the libraries designed by Aalto the lending department is divided into two levels. The reading bays offer peaceful places for study with natural light from the skylights. The common service desk in located on the upper level.

IMG 3044From the outside, the skylights resemble blocks of ice. Inside they join the lowered ceiling with an elegant arch that reflects the natural light. The indirect light is gentle and does not produce shadows.

The library serves some 180,000 people, a third of whom live in Rovaniemi. (Finnish Lapland, the northern half of the country, is very sparsely populated.) We spent a fair amount of time in this library, investigating its various departments, staying out of the cold, waiting for our night train to Helsinki. The library is not wheelchair-friendly: various reading bays and specialized shelving are at different levels, three or four steps up or down, reinforcing the feeling that while one can concentrate undistracted on one's reading — or writing, or studying — one remains connected to the entire system.

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Here is the living room in Alvar Aalto's house in Helsinki, built in 1936. The house is surprisingly small, but includes four components: a studio-office with drawing tables for eight draftsmen and Aalto himself (separated from the living room by the large sliding panel at the back of the photo); the semi-public living room, for gatherings of friends and perhaps close associates; the more private sitting room and bedrooms upstairs, also now open to the public; and perhaps two servants' rooms and the small kitchen, which we were not able to tour.

IMG 3199 The studio, seen here from Aalto's desk, has its own entrance, through a small office seen at the back of this photo, behind the silhouetted standing figure. There's also a small library, attached to the office. The high windows face northwest. The steep ladder-staircase at the back of the photo rests on an open woodburning fireplace; it gives access to a narrow gallery along the top, perhaps for observation of the draftsmen; perhaps display of drawings…

We were particularly taken with the private rooms, upstairs: two or three bedrooms, a guest bedroom with a small couch, and a small sitting room with two armchairs, a settee, a credenza, a small table, and a low brick fireplace.

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The house is open to public tours; it's located at 23 Riihitie. Google Street View shows the house beautifully, softened by lilacs and vines, and featuring an interesting detail: the garage door, slightly popped out, I suppose to accommodate a car longer than the one originally owned…

We didn't make a concerted effort to seek out further Aalto experiences; there wasn't enough time. You could profitably spend a month or two studying architecture in Helsinki alone. What particularly interests me, at my age and in these times, is the extent to which rationalist planning and architecture can contribute to a well-ordered civil society operating smoothly on the technological level — including transportation, communication, and distribution — while encouraging both such public arts as opera, theater, music, and museums and private opportunity for cultural, intellectual, and physical development.

Clearly there's something in the Northern European mentality that leans in that direction, and there's something in the American mentality leaning away.