There are many epic stories out there – it seems people throughout the ages have been entertained by stories of improbable heroism, impossible deeds, romance, tragedy, magic, friendship, betrayal and the binary battle between good and evil. Latvians are no different, except our own epic poem, Lāčplēsis (Bearslayer) dates not from centuries or millennia ago, but from the end of the 19th century. The author, Andrejs Pumpurs, took liberties with folk stories and expanded a typical hero’s tale into a mythical legend of the pagan fight against christianization. Lāčplēsis’ origins are a matter of slight debate, as in some versions, he was born of a bear with the ears of a bear, and his ears were where his strength resided – in other versions, he was merely adopted by a bear and raised in the woods until a local king found him and took him in, or he wore a hat of bears’ ears, where he hid his strength. In any case, he meets his tragic end tumbling over a cliff into the river Daugava while fighting the crusading Black Knight, and, as always, it is said he will come again at a time of greatest need (so far, no sign – I guess that’s a good thing?).

What’s very interesting is that Lāčplēsis is very much a national symbol – the highest military honour one can receive is the Bearslayer medal (Lāčplēša ordenis), and he is trotted out for all kinds of events and by the most nationalistic political parties – who are, the vast majority, very right-leaning christian. How they reconcile a supremely pagan hero with their beliefs, I don’t know – especially one who lived a rather non-traditional life-style during one portion of the epic (the author borrowed ideas, and I find interesting the possible connection between bears and the etymology of Arthur). But there it is.

Anyway. The story was put into musical form (a ‘rock opera’) in the 1980s, to great acclaim. Every now and then, a new performance is prepared, and the next one is due in early November. As it happens, it will be a full choir-and-orchestra version (the best kind!) and my choir will be among those performing. It’s a melodramatic piece of music, the best kind to perform, full of deep texts about freedom and bravery and time running through fingers like sand and other major themes, and lots of opportunity to sing your heart out together with the string and brass sections (and the cymbals!). I expect it will be a wonderful experience.

Here’s a small sample, a medley of some of the main songs, from the vocal-symphonic music concert from 2013 (I hope the video starts at the 1.43:08 mark). I’m not going to translate all the words, just the four lines of the final section so you can have a small idea of the drama of the words:

It is not water that flows in the Daugava, it is time

It is not blood that flows in your veins, it is time

It is not a wave that washes over us, it is time

It is not the whirlpool that twists into rings, it is time

25. Vispārējo latviešu dziesmusvētku Vokāli simfoniskās mūzikas koncerts Rīgas arēnā

The short guy on the left has one of my favourite voices ever.

(The video contains the entire vocal-symphonic concert, which I recommend if you like classical music. If you listen to the very end, the very last song is conducted by, in my opinion, one of the most talented conductors out there. Before taking over at the National Opera, he was artistic director of my choir, and his style and interpretation have biased me against many another worthy conductor.)


Friendship is a strange sort of alchemy of character.

In other words, two distinct people can randomly come together and discover an incredible compatibility. Alternatively, they can be as compatible as oil and water.

This short story is about the first situation, about someone I met at the beginning of summer through work. See, in the interests of improving Europe in general and participating globally, we have developed a partnership with Macedonia. The Macedonian team was visiting beginning of June, and I was invited to come along to a few social events due to my superior English (someone’s afraid to practice). Anyway, I met a new friend, quite unexpectedly. Me, the self-proclaimed pinnacle of anti-sociability. She was the interpreter, I was the language specialist, and we found strange but welcome common ground. During conversation, she discovered my art hobby, mostly through the series of small cat pictures I did for the lab going on two years ago (they hang on the walls in the new lab, I’m quite proud!) and was the first person to actually offer money for my art, specifically – for a reproduction of one of the pieces. She said the cat looked like an alchemist, and I like that naming. I had to overcome a few hang-ups about people paying for my art, as I’m used to creating randomly, as gifts, but she has insisted, and in this case I have come to the conclusion that it would be impolite to refuse, plus I’m very flattered. And from the alchemy theme, I altered the background and overall theme of the piece. Anyway, this is finished piece, slightly larger than the original (the wonders of technology!), and in a different colour scheme:

Alchemist cat!

I have titled it “The Alchemist”, and it is still small, about 15cm x 20cm. I rather like it. Next week I travel to Macedonia for the week and will have the opportunity to hand it over in person.

Anyway, as social as I can be (and it turns out I like putting on The Face and shmoozing at conferences, because there’s a lot of interesting people out there – minus a few creeps, but the biological sphere seems pretty balanced where I’ve hung out, so they are rather few), I am prone to bouts of something resembling depression and, as mentioned, being very anti-social. I like my alone time, a lot. I like dark music, I like melodrama, I like unhappy endings, never mind that I’ve managed rather well with my own life and situation. I’m always afraid that, once people discover what I’m really like, they won’t like me. So as contrast, here is Coheed and Cambria’s (we’ll be seeing more of this group) Dark Side of Me, a song that speaks to me on the unrevealed side of me. Oddly enough, it’s music like this that makes me feel better and can get me out of a funk.

(And check out dude’s hair, I went to their concert way back when and one of the distinctive things I remember is that mass of hair emerging out of the fog during the opening song.)

Slavic Saturday

OK, I’ll bite. Last week Rob Grigjanis mentioned Antonín Dvořák and he indeed is one of Czech composers whose work is dear to my heart. I particularly like his Slavonic Dances, Opus 46. I was looking for a video that I like and unfortunately the only one that I do cannot be embedded, so you would have to head over to Czech TV Website. I hope it works for out-of state too. Other recordings that I have found on YouTube I did not like – right at the first dance “Furiant” seemed either too fast or too bland.

That I make such judgement is slightly ironic and possibly unfair to the musicians. I do not dance at all and I hate it, particularly polka. Surely everyone knows polka, although not everyone knows that it is originally Czech dance. My experience with it is however rather unpleasant – I was always a bad dancer, but it was seen as somewhat required to take dance lessons in highschool, so I did, being awkward and clumsy all the time despite my best effort. And polka was for me the last straw in this string of tortures – at the end of the lesson my disgruntled dance partner has lifted her skirt and has shown me her feet that were kicked and stomped bloody. That put a final crimp in my (non-existent as it was) desire to dance that dance ever again, since I try not to hurt people on principle.

It is not that I do not have a sense of rhythm, but everyone tells me polka has two and a half step (hence the name půlka(half)-polka), however I simply hear three steps and that daft little half-skip just tangles both my brain and my feet. Not that other dances are much better with their inane jumping and turning and all that nonsense. I do not see the point of dancing, really.

But the music can be beautiful and can move me to tap my feet or nod my head a little. That much I admit.

Slavic Saturday

Today’s snippet is from my home country.

It is a symphonic poem “Vltava” from a series of six such poems in a musical epos “Má Vlast” (My Country) written by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. Vltava is the most known from the six and in my opinion rightly so. It is an astounding piece of music, all the more impressive for the fact that Smetana composed it at a time when he was deaf. So he never actually got to hear it except in his head.

Truth be told I do not much care for most of Bedřich Smetana’s works, because he mostly wrote operas. And I was to one of his opera’s once, in school, and it was boring as hell. The singing, the implausible stories and lack of acting in my opinion destroy the beautiful music. But I did not care much about Má Vlast either at that time, partly because of natural tendency of children to oppose anything that is a part of the curriculum and partly probably because my brain was not mature enough to enjoy this kind of music. Maybe nowadays I could enjoy opera done properly?

This recording has the added dimension of being made in Prague Spring Festival in 1968, a year when Czechoslovak Socialist Republic had also a political Prague Spring,  when its people peacefully stood up to the USSR bully in wanting to determine their own fates and got beaten into submission in return.

And finally, before you can enjoy the music, author’s own words explaining what it means (a rare and very specific occurrence):

The composition describes the run of Vltava, beginning at its both springs, the warm and the cold Vltava, the confluence of both streamlets into one, then Vltava’s flow through woods and meadows, through landscapes where merry feasts are held; in Moon’s night glow veela dance; on the cliffs proud castles and their ruins stand; Vltava foams in St. Johns rapids; flows in a broad stream towards Prague, Vyšehrad shows up, and it ends its majestic flow n the distance in Labe.


Slavic Saturday

I do not think I could make this a regular feature, but possibly an irregular one – some random snippets from the Slavophone world whenever I notice something interesting – be it art, traditions, languages, politics. Let me know if you would be interested.

I instantly fell in love this song (and some others from this band). It is so cheery and silly. And I love violin.

And yes, the text is silly, although my Russian is not so good so I could understand it all instantly. But I was able to parse some and with help of online translators translate the first half for you. Unfortunately I cannot translate all, because translating it into English was not only much more time consuming than I expected it to be  – but above all I started hiting on phrases that are probably Russian idioms whose meaning I do not know. Being able to understand the gist of something and translating it into another language is not the same thing I am afraid.

I ain’t no poet in addition to my rusty Russian, so take the translation with a grain of salt. The Skobari (скобари) is an ethnic group in Russia and I could not find any proper anglicized word for them. And you probably won’t be able to sing along the translation with the original.

Who goes there, who goes there
have a look at who goes there
riding on a crippled mare
that sems to be our Skobari.

Skobari are a jolly nation
going home from a fare
one bare naked, one bare footed
and one with an injured head.

Play me such one
Skobar funny
so my tummy doesn’t hurt
tummy mine, the sinner’s one.

Play me such one
thats good for dancing
but not for every
snot nose prancing.

Smashhing up, smashing up
I feel like smashing up.
And truth be told you
I feel like brawling too.

Who’s that lad
prancing knees
hasn’t got hands on
aspen sticks.

Pennies for a party one
daddy collects his loot.
Mom whispers in his ear:
“Don’t you get drunk you silly fool!”

I was born hopeless
with no respect too –
should the heads roll
I’ll tie the rope.

I am breaking, back is arching,
I’m not really feeling well,
give ne just one half a litre
and I no doctor is needed.

We saw the grave of the one
who called us drunkards.
We did drink for our own money
nobody was serving us.





A Bohemian Rhapsody Movie? How Did I Not Notice?

Today, when reading my portion of stomach turning politics on RAW STORY I noticed that one of the film ads looks suspiciously like it is talking about Queen, but Freddie Mercury was shot way too up close and the picture quality was way too good for seventies. So I looked closer. And I googled. And I found out that two of the living members – Brian May and Roger Taylor – are producing a movie about the band that is due to be released in November this year.

Now I wish I was living somewhere near a functioning cinema that would screen the stuff. My sister absolutely adored Queen when I was a kid, but I did not notice them much at that time. However later in life I found out that some of their melodies actually got embedded in my brain and to this very day Bohemian Rhapsody, Under Pressure or Radio Ga Ga are amongst my most favourite songs and Spread Your Wings is sure to bring tears to my eyes. All the more that since then I learned English and therefore can understand the lyrics, which makes it all the more powerful.

I do not listen to music much, because when I have the time (like when driving) I find it often distracting, and I rarely have time to just sit and enjoy it. But multiple Queen songs rank definitively near the very top of my personal “Top Ten”.

Maybe I should paint a picture again. I used to listen to music when painting. I miss that greatly.

I got mugged in the Memory Lane.