Lupines in Iceland

June 2014

As the plane descended into Keflavik, massive fields of lupine spread out as far as the eye could see. In the days to come, these lush purple dominated the greener landscapes of Iceland that we saw.

Originally from Alaska, the lupines were introduced to Iceland in the 1940s. They grew like wildfire and are now considered to be an invasive species in Iceland.

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Evans, Satie & Chopin

This is not a music blog. Yet my recent posts seem to revolve around music. Maybe because I have been listening to music more often. Listening to familiar favourites can evoke past epiphanies. Sometimes new insight comes along. It’s like rediscovering a place that you thought you knew so well.

Here are 3 musicians who did not cross paths physically. And yet there is a common thread in all three works listed here:

  • They have a simple recurring bass line, where the same notes recur throughout the entire work. This is sometimes known as ostinato, or persistent repeats. Or basso ostinato, literally meaning obstinate bass.
  • The melody is carried out in the treble line. This sometimes blossoms into something great.
  • Piano! Piano! Piano!

In reverse chronology:

1. Peace Piece by Bill Evans (1929 – 1980)

A chance discovery on the radio in my teens, Peace Piece left a deep imprint. That also got me started on Bill Evans.

2. Avant-dernières Pensées by Erik Satie (1866 – 1925)

Music of the master of minimalism.

3. Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57 by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)

Chopin fully utilised the treble line to show off his composer chops, and for a pianist to show off his or her dexterity.

A berceuse is a lullaby. There are moments where it feels like butterflies fluttering over calm waters.

Finzi’s Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano

On the theme of bucolic music (see my post on Troldhaugen), I’m reminded of English composer Gerald Finzi. At a friend’s recital last week, the programme had included a couple of Finzi’s Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano. The whole set consists of 5 bagatelles and makes for a satisfying listening experience.

The Bagatelles are perfect examples of how well the clarinet and piano complements each other. The clarinet – which is often said to have the range “closest to the human voice” – is personable: it sings and moves the listener’s heart gently, never forcefully. The first three of the set were written shortly before he was drafted to work for the Ministry of War Transport in 1941. Together with a fourth, the Bagatelles was premiered in 1943. perhaps uplifting the spirits of war-weary recital goers. The finale to the set – a lively fast-paced piece – was added a year later.

What I like about the Bagatelles is that it’s down-to-earth. I read somewhere that ‘bagatelle’ means “a short, unpretentious instrumental composition”. In urban slang, it probably means no-bullshit music.

Herbie & friends

Many years ago I started getting hooked on the likes of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck when none of my friends were. Even then I didn’t get to step into a jazz club until I was 20… my first was Reduta in Prague!

Later on when I started having a little bit of savings, I wondered if I could ever treat myself to such a luxury trip to fly to Canada just to watch the Montreal Jazz Festival. Maybe catch Oscar perform acrobatics on the piano (he then passed away a few years after my first such musing). As much as I like travelling and music, flying overseas just to catch concerts just seemed a bit excessive.

Over the years the Singapore arts and entertainment scene has really elevated (overhyped? internationalised?) itself to bringing in superstar names. At what cost? Humble me don’t quite know. But I’m not complaining this time, because lo and behold, Herbie Hancock was invited to Singapore for the Mosaic festival. Performing with him tonight were the superb Vinnie Colaiuta, James Genus and Lionel Loueke. Loueke was a surprise to me and the segment with African folk themes was a delight. Overall the concert was just ultra ultra ultra cool. And hot hot hot at the same time. Does this make sense?

That it happened here is just too good to be true. And I didn’t have to buy a plane ticket just to watch it!

A Norwegian morning

Woke up to a hot Singapore morning. I turned on the radio: Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhaugen. Sat down to listen even though I was about to dash off to the office and instantly I’m uplifted. Funny how music that was written for a specific occasion can bring such delight even when listened to on its own. I can’t remember exactly when I first heard this gorgeous piece, probably in my late teens.

Little did I know many years later – this June – I would visit Troldhaugen itself! 

Edvard Grieg named his home Troldhaugen which means “trolls’ hills”. It sits by a picturesque lake, in scenic Bergen. The house is now conserved as a museum: the composer is the pride of Norwegian classical music. He had a very successful career during his life time – some say owing to his Scottish roots, others say having a shrewd publisher helped. He shot to fame at the age of 25 with the Piano Concerto in A minor. Wedding Day at Troldhaugen was written much later, and forms part of a set for piano called Lyric Pieces. Actually that whole set is a goldmine of elegant yet homely music.

Scenic Bergen, Norway.

Scenic Bergen, Norway.

Scenic Bergen, Norway

Scenic Bergen, Norway

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Troldhaugen.

Here in this little hut, a bit away from the main house, is where Grieg went to work in peace and quiet. The writing desk looks out to a Norwegian fjord. I am a firm believer that space – especially physical space – is needed for creativity to flourish, for the soul to be nourished.

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Troldhaugen overlooks this lake.

What does Norwegian music of a peasant folk style have anything in common with an Asian who lives in this corner of the world all her life? On the surface, very little. But the music is innately intimate and unassuming. It feels like music that one may have known for a very long time.

The Hundred-Foot Journey

I love films about food. Films with a food theme are seldom just about food: Julie & JuliaLike Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate), Eat Drink Man Woman and Ratatouille depict bonds that are forged, broken and reconciled over food. One of human’s basest instincts is not merely satisfied by consumption, but also the experiential discernment in taste and the interwoven complexities of tradition, pride and innovation (or resistance thereto!). 

The Hundred-Foot Journey – directed by Lasse Hallström (director of yet another food movie that I like, Chocolat) – tells the story of cultures separated by the titular “hundred-foot’. A family of tandoori restaurateurs from India, the Kadams, first sought asylum in the UK, and then moved to Europe because “the vegetables of England have no soul, no life”. In their quest of finding a new home, the family settled in a small village in France near the Swiss border (apparently the idyllic location was filmed in the Midi Pyrenees – one of the regions I have lusted for a while!) There, they set up Maison Mumbai, a mere 100 feet away from the one-Michelin star French restaurant Le Saule Pleureur run by the uppity Madame Mallory. As her new neighbours open their restaurant, Madame Mallory bemoans “the death of class”. Competition ensues.

Like any other good movie about food, this film is a visual feast: luxuriant plump tomatos, tandoori over crackling fire, and multiple shots of golden perfect yolks sliding into glass bowls, ready to be whipped into a fluffy omelette or emulsified into scintillating hollandaise. I’m getting hungry as I write this – be sure you don’t watch the movie on an empty stomach.

Yes, it’s a ‘feel-good’ movie. It is about food, and it is comforting. 

Taming the monster

Finally, I tamed the monster of a wardrobe over two weekends. Gone were the disobedient bulges that keep the doors from closing. No more avalanches of falling garments. Tumbling clothes are now the strict domain of the washing machine.

I was busy patting my own back. Then came this comment:

“The quantity has not depleted, though it definitely looks neater.”

But I had just packed two extra bags of things to give away!

I had the good fortune of not having to move homes in the past few years. Whereas prior to living in my current home, I was moving home every 1 and a half years on average. All the packing and shifting that came with each move was a chore. Yet each move was:

  1. An opportunity to purge.
  2. A reminder not to buy stuff next time. Not just buying unnecessarily, but even when it’s truly necessary, ask myself one, twice or even thrice – is it truly a need or is it just lust masquerading as need!
  3. Even if it is truly a need (as the little devil on the shoulder temptingly whispers), remind myself what a pain it would have to be when you pack and shift homes next. Home shifting enough times is an effective deterrent.

Suddenly I feel like resetting the button. Rejolt the system into simple living. Travel and live out of a bag for a couple of years.