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Above Greenland

from Sunday, October18th of the year2009.

As I write this, I am zooming quickly over Greenland: it’s an amazing, impossibly desolate landscape. I am listening to that Dawn Uppshaw album “Angels Hide Their Faces;” there is something simultaneously appropriate and inappropriate about the choice. I am going, tonight, to New York for 24 hours; tomorrow at 3 PM I will speak at the New Yorker Festival, alongside Peter Sellars, Rufus Wainwright, and Lisa Bielawa in an Alex Ross-moderated panel entitled “Radical Opera,” for what that’s worth. I am going to present the initial aria from my opera Two Boys which is just about the most unradical thing in the world, but maybe I’ll wear a really great shirt or something to offset my traditional ways.

This last week I have been in Bilbao and Reykjavík: port cities, what’s up! In Bilbao I was presenting a small talk, with Valgeir Sigurðsson, at the Guggenheim, about our score for Stewart Matthew’s Scent Opera, an experimental narrative about industrialization told through scent and music. I had never been to Spain before in earnest, save for some discount flights to London via Madrid a few years ago. I have learned something about my own self: I am pretty good at languages; Spanish, being Friends with Italian, can be made to submit to my command of Romance Lingua Franca. However, I sound like a Dominican drag queen. I had no idea how they navigate the up-for-grabs consonants c, s, and ll, and as a result ended up sounding like a combination of Rosie Perez in White Men Can’t Jump and “Funkella,” the drag queen whose single, “Tu Chocha a Pesta” was featured on the Night on South Bitch compilation that was so crucial to my development as a human being. (I have since seen an elderly Israeli woman write the word bitch when she meant beach which was pretty amazing).

Valgeir and I arrived in Bilbao and discovered to our delight that Dan Bora, the intrepid sound engineer, had changed his flights to be able to spend the night with us. He took us to a series of pintxos bars around town; it was some kind of national holiday so pickins were slim: a delicious chorizo, a microwaved squid in her own ink, a pile of bread. Never in my life have I had such delicious sparkling water as in Bilbao. My mind was constantly in overdrive because, beloveds, it’s a lot of basque on the signage. I only had the peripheral pleasure of hearing Basque as she is Spoke, but the shit looks like it’s from outer space. We are talking major scrabble points.

Our flights from Bilbao to Iceland afforded us a five hour layover in London. Five hours is a difficult number “” you can’t necessarily make your way into town, but it’s a bit much to spend the whole time up in Heathrow. So, when we found out that our check-in was closed for a few hours, we booked it to the left luggage in Terminal 1 (get into it: I didn’t know it was there and it’s under-advertised) and got on the next Heathrow Eggispreggis to St John. Campari, Cuttlefish, Rarebit, Marrow Bones, Eccles Cake: is there a heaven greater than that restaurant? I was soothed in a deep, deep way. Evidently Fergus Hendersdóttir was in New York cooking; did anybody go?

Top chef interlude: On the train to town I watched Top Chef; does anybody else have this weird inherent trust for that Bryan Voltaggio? He has a weird deferential attitude that’s simultaneously assertive and humble. Do those boys have a military background? The only thing that a lot of these people on Top Chef do that drives me batshit crazy is the misuse of the word “actually.” It’s actually braised in red wine. It’s actually served with a yogurt. Michael Voltaggio totally said, “I actually braised the pork cheek themselves”¦” “The cuvaison actually smelled like vanilla”¦.” “” It’s a little much. It’s the same scary thing as when waiters overuse ‘actually’ AND are making these furious gestures at eye level that look a lot like the punchline to the joke, “why do lesbians always lose a fistfight.” I always get annoyed when there’s too much “actually.” It’s very oppositional. Were we doubting the way in which your dish, which we had never heard of until just this moment, was brined?

Also: I am so over Toby Young. England people do have a better sense for bons mots, fine, but the bon mot has to come from the Smart Place and not from the Bon Mot Place. Does that make sense? It’s like, if you write a piece of music where it’s clear that the only reason you’re doing it is so that it’ll be cool on YouTube, that’s really all you’ve done. Ur Music Is Cool On uTub. Baþta Così. Toby Young delivers vaguely erudite foodie soundbites, but nothing on the level of like, The Debt to Pleasure, or even Hannibal Lecter. He needs to check himself. Whoever that lady was a few weeks ago shut him down for doing that weird English Pronunciation Passive-Aggressive Palsy viz. “Paella.” LL is a fucking LETTER. Get into it. I have posted here many times about weird English Pronunciation Passive-Aggressive Palsy “” most notably when a friend of mine who has the most expensive education the world has to offer pronounced the artist’s name Mìro, as opposed to Miró, where there already is an accent on the name self, hello? which sort of firmed it up for me: they’re just doing it to mess with our heads. Let’s, as Americans, try to organize a standardized, respectful but non-NPR way to navigate foreign words.

So, then, after Bilbao, to Iceland, for Airwaves! Yay! A few years ago, I was wickedly proud to introduce Sam Amidon to the Bedroom Community team; this year, I got this boy Puzzle Muteson to come from the Isle of Wight. I had heard his music on MySpace, fully randomly, two years ago (see my post about it HERE), and fell madly in love with it. Puzzle came, and fortunately brought his keyboard player John (whom we all immediately dubbed HjlómJón, which was easier to navigate than JónBorð) who helped Puzzle navigate the social waters. The lineup this year was: Matthew Collings (deep, dark, minimal grunting), Puzzle (more on this in a sec), Daníel Bjarnason, Tim Hecker (which sounded like Koyaanisqatsi in Hell, in a good way), Me, Ben Frost, and somebody called Kangding Ray who is a french dance music artist.

Puzzle’s show was very exciting for me “” he had a very serious tuning problem with his guitar, which is always endearing. I think that he and I will work on an album together later this year, which gives me a quiver of delight. I was especially happy last night because Puzzle and Daníel invited me to play with them, and the day before, I played a show at Kaffibarinn at the end of which MaJiKer (an old friend via the Velvet Mafia, from Paris) played, for the first time, his remix of my old bag Wonders, from Mothertongue.

My Icelandic continues to improve, happily. I have gotten better about just fighting people who refuse to keep the conversation in Icelandic. I can cut it, I promise! There is a restaurant in downtown Reykjavík in a hotel (101) where I go probably twice a week; they hired a new, super-friendly, great smile waiter who wins every point because he allowed me to perform a slightly complicated series of orders (vegetarians, people coming later, sharing plates) in Icelandic “” it involved a lot of declensions which I’m sure I fucked up but he was very kind and kept on smiling. They don’t have a tipping culture in Iceland, which is unfortunate because I would have surreptitiously slipped 20’s into his palms otherwise.

In my next post, thoughts about opera.


  • Re: linguistically enabling/ed foreigners, yes! I went to Israel for the second time this summer and anyone who allowed me to keep the conversation in my utterly mangled Hebrew got só much love from me, even when I screwed up their gender and/or number. Ridic. Similarly the Palestinians we met in Bethlehem who took the time, over the most insanely delicious tea and coffee everever, to spend more time teaching us Arabic than trying to get us to teach them more English. Bless their hearts. (By the way, what is up with that weird Arabic th sound? It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard in my life)\n\nI’m just gonna continue ROFLsaurus thinking about you speaking like a Dominican drag queen now.\n\nJeremy (one of the Juilliard luncheon composers)

  • Just listened to the Sunday afternoon performance of your Jubilate Deo, performed exquisitely by the Brattleboro Choir and Orchestra, lovingly led by Susan Dedell. Delectable, moving, more beautiful than words can say.

  • Without “actually,” I’m speechless.

  • it’s a pleasure to read your blog. Love your music.

  • Hi! I’m fairly certain this is not the place to post this, but I’m not sure how else to send this request. I would LOVE to research “The Only Tune” (not for performance or anything, just to study the score), but I can’t seem to get a copy of it either for perusal or purchase until 2011. Is there a way for me to get access to some version of the score? I’m interested in looking at the ways in which the work relates to other recordings of the tune. Thanks for considering – I love your music!\n\nCheers,\nChelsea

  • “Angels Hide Their Fæces”

    I’m currently watching Rosie Perez on Wendy Williams. It’s mad breath compression and phonation efficiency problems.

    One time I had on an Outfit, and this man followed me off of the train and into the street, and, after some blocks, he stopped me only to say, “Hi, I actually love the way you dress(?), and I’d love to get your information(?),” etc. with that ubiquitous rising terminal/upspeak thing. Ordinarily I would’ve catalogued this under the “Annoying Overuse of ‘Actually'” file, but in this case, “actually” actually did explain to me why this creepy man, whom I’d actually noticed behind or next to me since the turnstyle,” was actually following me.

  • 1. The reason SnottyToby Young (or Stewie from “Family Guy”) disdains correct pronunciations is b/c, if you’re British, British English is THE ONLY LANGUAGE IN THE WORLD. If you aren’t pronouncing it all up in the King’s English, you ain’t doing it right. Completely an imperialistic, dominance, not-very-good-at-being-a-top, failed nation thing. C’mon Toby, say paeLLa, say it, bitch! You know you love to elide!
    2. I’m not sure how I feel about there being a person in the world named “Puzzle.”
    3. Portion control. Meats, fats. Portion control. Have a pear sometime; an apple. Greens?
    4. Looking forward to your discourse on opera.

  • Heathrow has left luggage in Terminal 1? I seriously owe you for that nugget.

    I’ve heard Brits pronounce ‘Don Juan’ as “Don JOO-an.” And my son’s name (Jacques) as “JAY-quiss.”

  • sadly, if you read the Byron poem, for the meter to work then don WAN must be pronounced as don JEWan. that’s how they rolled back in 1820something.

  • During my tenure as burrito technician at Serrano over the other side of Tjörnin, I fear I may have got a little snippy about making people talk Icelandic to me. Even if they can tell from my accent, I’m doing just frábært so I refuse to be patronised. Is that reasonable?