Wheat Kings

Sometimes my head has too many thoughts.

Today’s song holds more than just a nice melody for me. In a lot of ways, what it is about is a reminder of why I do the work that I do, and why it is important to do it well. If you google “David Milgaard” (the inspiration – what a terrible designation – behind the song), you can probably divine more than a hint of what I do. The why is a complicated mix of ‘I like it’ and higher values and the feeling that I can do something to make the world a little… better, I suppose. Or something that makes me feel useful on a daily basis. Anyway, here’s your music:

The Tragically Hip is a strange kind of band, they’ve been around since the 1980s and they really sunk deep into the Canadian consciousness. They were certainly a fixture of the music world in the 1990s and early 2000s. I don’t know if they ever tried (too hard), but they never made it big outside of Canada. Within Canada, though, hoo boy. Everyone knows them, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily like them. They have a very unique style that doesn’t always feel accessible. It’s taken me years to grow into my appreciation of their music, and they certainly have a rich collection of Canadiana that touches on stereotypes and themes and very specifically Canadian subjects, even though their songs that I do like are definitely among my favourites. Their lead singer, Gord Downie, is a whole other kettle of fish. He did their farewell tour 2 years ago (he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and was given about a year, he walked on later that same year) and it was one of the biggest things to happen in recent Canadian cultural history. Not least because in his final months he addressed the subject of residential schools (I’m a bit out on a white dude saying so much without hearing about him giving First Nations people a voice of their own, but I can’t say he did wrong). We’ll be hearing more from the Tragically Hip in the future.

In any case, enjoy the music. I have a very social weekend ahead of me and it’s tangling with new stuff at work that makes me feel out-of-step but has many possibilities for personal and professional development. I hope to recover soon. :)

A Soviet Heritage

So this happened. And yes, snowflake that I am, I find it offensive. Deeply so.

“We are disappointed that the largest retailer in the world and in the U.S., Walmart, does not acknowledge or respect the millions of victims of various nationalities, who suffered under the Soviet regime – those deported, including the elderly, infants and children, political prisoners, dissidents, members of resistance movements and all those who lost their lives, health or family in the Gulag or other repressions of the Soviet totalitarianism,” a letter to Walmart, signed by the chairman of the Estonian Pro Patria party, Helir-Valdor Seeder, Estonia’s minister of justice, Urmas Reinsalu, and the Estonian member of the European Parliament, Tunne Kelam, said.

It’s like some symbols of authoritarian regimes are verboten, while others… are hip and trendy? By virtue of being labelled differently? (And yes, the term ‘communist’ as applied to the Soviet Union bears little resemblance to its application to the underlying philosophy, but this is not that discussion.)

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Epics

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.)

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.

…….