31 May 2006


Two lessons:
  1. When you're feeling down, capitalize on it. Play sad pieces as dramatically as you would if it were the end of the world, and your audience will be blown away.

  2. Play carillon demonstrations at the Beiaardschool for German-speaking tour groups. To my shame, I gave in my exhaustion my worst perforamnce ever for a tour group, and two people had 5 € tips each ready for me the moment I got off the bench. I don't know if they were from Eupen or Germany or Austria or what, but whoever they were, they were very, very kind. One of the tippers took a photo of me as I was unlocking my bike outside, as if I was some kind of big deal. It had never even occured to me that constantly rendering such a musical service would merit a tip. Quelle idée!
I don't understand why I feel so discouraged. My deadlines are leaving a cloud of doom hanging over me at all times, and I'm not at the level I wanted to reach by the time of my final exam. Of course I missed two months to being trapped in the hell of my room with a cracked femur, of course I've been insanely busy with academic pursuits. But I cannot explain to myself why my playing is still short of perfect. How I dare expect myself to be superhuman I also cannot explain.

Even the highest compliment from someone I admire as much as Geert doesn't seem to affect me. When I replayed my Adagietto after his comments, he was amazed and had nothing more to say about it. I could barely manage a half-sincere smile. Why am I my own harshest judge?

Apparently he didn't finish his compositions until the day before his final exam--and he still graduated with great distinction (with the same score as Sally)! Not that I except myself or any other human being to be able to pull off the same stunt. But maybe I just want to hear from him that I'm ready, and we both know that according to our standards, that's not true.

Or maybe all I need is an end to this time of month and some godforsaken sunlight. Oh, and a lift of bandwidth limits.


Over lunch we discussed tax evasion as the Belgian national sport. Apparently there is a saying that goes, "The best way to paint your walls white is to paint them black", black paint referring to tax evasion.

I hope I'm athletic enough to compete, because Tom and I each got a big envelope of Belgian tax forms in the mail today.

30 May 2006

may hail

Somehow woke up at noon when I intended to wake up at 10. Clearly rolling down the shutter halfway has a much more powerful effect than I ever imagined. To my amazement, garbage and recycling pickup had mercifully not happend yet, and my housemates helped me take out the garbage. Two miracles in one day!

Losing too much hair, but no time to go to doctor and ask what the hell's wrong. I take my multiple vitamins.

When I arrived at the school, there was nobody there besides the two mainland China girls, who were in one practice room together. So the only occupants of the school were three Asian girls... two of them together because they can't seem to operate separately.

Left my bike outside in the sun but brought it in just before it started to hail. Hail at the turn of June? What a wond'rous country we live in!

Tom and I had an avid discussion while he washed dishes and I scarfed down food about things we're fed up with at school. Then went with Elvo to see X-Men 3. The post-credits scene was probably the best part. But I gotta admit it was pretty exciting to see the Golden Gate Bridge yoinked off its hinges.

27 May 2006

miserere mei deus

The highly-recommended Asian restaurant Ilha Formosa is in a cozy Pelgrom-like barrel-vaulted basement. As usual, I started scouring the menu for the small section of food I could eat when I remembered that the establishment was vegetarian! The dishes were an explosion of flavor and each employed as many different vegetables and meat substitutes as possible. They even gave us the standard cheap Chinese candy with the bill.

St.-PauluskerkAt my wit's end under pressure, I'd nearly forgotten how much Compline used to clear my mind, and unwittingly, I came to a concert by the Canterbury Cathedral Choir and found the catharsis I'd forgotten would help me. I had never seen the interior of St.-Pauluskerk in Antwerpen and was stunned by the perfection of its composition and color and by its priceless collection of artwork. Every object was a treasure in its own right, and the famed 17th-century organ was gloriously restored. Sadly, it was also too far from the choir to play continuo, and the range of its keyboard was limited. They had to skip a piece with continuo, and the organist substituted Mendelssohn for Duruflé in one of his solos.

The Master of Music was gratified to be able to speak in English and to even find himself in "English weather". But the white light filtering in through the windows until nearly 10 pm only added to the church's beauty. I had never heard a boy's choir live, and it was everything people said it would be. Such little children; one in the front was perpetually fidgeting. But those small boys' clear, piercing voices filled the entire church. Their rendition of Allegri's "Miserere mei" (made famous when Mozart bootlegged it from the Vatican at the age of 14) was breathtaking. The unseen descant in the back sung even the highest notes well, and in one verse even sang them flawlessly, an achievement I had not even heard in my various recordings of the piece.

To my delight, the audience was filled with kindred souls... the woman in front of me was clearly enthused, and during the intermission everyone wandered around the church and gazed upwards in wonder. They even beat me to the postcard stand. Needless to say, the choir earned our standing ovation.

As I was stepping off the L train at Mechelen station, the Brussels-bound American in the booth across from mine suddenly hurried up to me and said, "I just wanted to tell you that you're gorgeous. Absolutely beautiful." He smiled at me with red eyes and then went back into the cabin. I'm sure he was simply struck in his drugged state by my funky outfit, but in any case I didn't burst his bubble by revealing that he was complimenting a fellow American instead of some cute foreign Belgian. Sorry dude, it's the California Girls who have the style...

24 May 2006


Radio Polonia article: "When fire broke out in the roof of St. Catherine Church in Gdansk, "[monks living in the nearby monastery] were very busy bringing to safety the most valuable pieces of art, especially the Baroque paintings. Unfortunately, the monks completely fotgot to call for fire brigades. It's believed that a passer by called for the fire fighters from his mobile phone half an hour later."

Is this typically Polish, or typically monkish?

"One hundred fire-fighters arrived soon at the scene. Extra fire brigades came from nearby cities too. Unfortunately, it was too late to fight with the flames that completely burnt the roof of the church. But the tower of the church was saved together with the 37-bell carillon which has chimmed every hour on the hour since the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War."

Typical of all societies, then, that people think of carillons as being wonders of automation and nothing more. (That's 49 bells to you, buddy).

But YAY! The carillon might well have survived without serious damage. The question is, will the fire marshals allow access to it? Or is that not a typical concern?

22 May 2006

Byebye carillon :-(

Gdansk 1905St. Catherine Church in Gdansk caught fire during renovations to the roof and has practically burned down! In Geert's sms-ed words: "Byebye carillon :-(". What an incredible disaster... for the World Carillon Federation Congress this summer, and for all the Polish students who are or have been studying at the Nederlandse Beiaardschool. It may suck for the Congress attendees, but the Polish carillonneurs will bear the brunt of the disaster... another calamity following on the heels of Portugal. Slightly eerie as I just read while cramming for campanology about two or three carillon towers that were struck by lightning in Lehr's The Art of the Carillon in the Low Countries (Lier's St.-Gummaruskerktoren was hit thrice before they rebuilt the crown in stone rather than wood). The St. Catherine's Church carillon was the city's pride until it was destroyed by a lightning fire in 1905. And 101 years later, some renovation company has hell to pay.

St. Catherine's Church, Gdansk
St. Catherine's Church 2006

21 May 2006


I'd been working on memorizing my exam pieces for the past week and tonight saw the fruits of my efforts. Playing with nothing before me, I look without seeing and can thus concentrate on senses other than sight. Solutions and nuances emerged in every piece from passages I had practiced countless times all year. I was right, Geert was right--I just needed to put the preference for playing by heart into practice.

18 May 2006

Rouen jour 2

We arrived bright and early in the morning at the Église Abbatiale Saint Ouen to play its magnificent 4-manual Cavaillé-Coll organ (1890) and chuckled at the "orgue et trompette" concert flyers slapped across the exterior restoration scaffolds. Our payback came abruptly when little old Madame Marie-André Morrisset-Balier informed us that we could not play after all due to an "unexpected" (planned) event in the church. She and her trumpeter, however, would perform for us.

Fortunately Joris talked her into a little playing time, and Johan opened with Franck's tumultuous Chorale No. 2, which truly demonstrated the power of that instrument to blow us all away.

"Ça manque un peu de sérénité," was Madame's flabbergasting response.

Fortunately Joris also had the keys to the chapel of the Hôpital, which in itself seemed a medieval village dotted incongruously with 70's and sleek modern buildings. I had never seen an organ with a pedalboard quite so much like a computer keyboard, but Nicolas de Grigny's Livre d'Orgue came miraculously to life in Joris' hands, and the acoustics were perfectly balanced. Wannes went wild and played well past lunchtime while Iris and I wandered contemplatively and hungrily about. Coming upon a dusty latched door, I undid the lock and found myself midway up a forgotten staircase. Pieces of the ceiling lay on the steps near the top, and at the end of the stairs I came to a dark room filled with shadows and debris, but alas, I had no flashlight.

Everything in the center of Rouen seems to be crumbling and neglected. It makes for excellent medieval spelunking photography. (My specializations seem to be getting increasingly narrow...)

After a lunch for which I barely managed to find a remotely vegetarian platter, we came to the peculiarly-named Église St. Thomas de Cantorbéry (why must the French insist on inventing their own spellings?) in Mont-Saint-Aignan to play its restored mean-tone Renaissance organ. I squeezed in a lot of campanology reading and found an old donation slot hidden behind the 'new' organ staircase. It was a lovely instrument, but hearing bright reeds for several hours left my ears dissatisfied. Surely early composers wrote for softer stops!

That night we had dinner in a festive turquoise and orange restaurant hung with fishing nets and new-age artwork and staffed by a pretty blonde in patterned tights and neon pink sneakers. As we impatiently awaited food or bread or anything to sustain us, Joris recounted Madame's response to his last concert there: Why did you play so fast?

"Why did you listen so slow?" was Gary's suggested reply. Apparently Duruflé got miffed after a concert at a music critic who commented that one of the pieces was nice but too long. "No," he replied, looking down at the man, "You're too short."

I ordered the seafood salad and was confronted with quite possibly the largest salad I had ever seen in my life -- et en France! Unwisely, I partook of half a glass of the white wine that was going around and found myself swaying side to side with eyes closed after dinner. The friendly waitress asked if I wanted to take a nap in the back room. Do they really have a cot for such purposes?!

There was a little emergency when we returned to our extravagantly manned Etap Hotel Rouen centre Rive Gauche. The check-in machine refused to give us the room reserved for the ladies. Wannes offered to "sacrifice" himself by giving us his single room, but the question of what had happened to our belongings still remained. Had they checked the room out to another customer?

Finally Marie-Noëlle had had enough and hit the emergency call button. Sure enough, it called a hotel employee and not the fire department, and we got a code with which to reserve the room another night. When we finally went in and put down our things, Iris and Marie-Noëlle rushed out laughing tensely for a smoke.

Rouen jour 1

Day one of the Conservatorium organ department’s field trip to Rouen, France. Wannes, a stout fellow named Johan from Lier, and I departed from Mechelen in the evening. I finally gave the McDonald’s in Mechelen a try with them, but was disappointed by the French fries (without dip--that would have cost 40 cents extra). If European McDonald’s are better than American ones, they certainly don’t do fries that way. Ironic for a country that boasts some of the best frieten in the world. I stole a balloon from the Happy Meals. "I beg your pardon?" Wannes asked as I tried to inflate it in the car.

It’s difficult to reconcile myself with having overlooked it, but just across the river from IKEA Anderlecht is a nuclear power plant with mood lighting. Yes, mood lighting! Changing pinpoints of light over the entire surface of the cooling tower. It must be an impressive sight by night--or at least psychedelic.

For the first hour, I fervently reviewed my exam repertoire, but fell asleep as darkness fell and remained that way through my companions’ incessant and increasingly irritating chatter. To drown them out, I was sleepily extracting my iPod mini from my backpack when Wannes’ voice cut through the haze of unconsciousness.

“Don’t you want to take pictures of the lightning?”

Sure enough, lightning was crashing in stereo around us as we sped through misty surreal fields. We passed by trees illuminated eerily as I had only seen them in photos. Moby provided the perfect soundtrack, and I savored the melancholy, solitude, and vulnerability of which I become intensely aware when driving at night.

Many of the buildings in Rouen seemed badly maintained, further persuading me that Flanders really is economically one of the best places in the area these days, although Wannes’ explanation was simply that run-down buildings were a French habit. Since the cozy family-run place they used to haunt had gone of out business, we checked into an Accor hotel outside the city center that seemed more like a prison, with a giant code-operated gate, code-operated doors, and an electronic check-in. The only redeeming aspect was the vending machine with Van Houten hot chocolate. Unable to resist, I knocked back a full cup and was chipper by the time I hopped into bed, although I’d barely managed to stay conscious for the ride.

It did not occur to me that the top bunk of a short room does not offer an ideal environment for sitting up. Twice I became acquainted with the consequences before I finally managed to toss and turn myself to sleep.

10 May 2006

land of gaudì

Barcelona, here I come!!!

dancing to carillon music

"Très amusant et panorama exceptionnel !"

A French carillonneur's method of persuading me to play a ten-bell chime in Crest-Voland this summer. And he really does make it sound like a party! After all, the greats have played there--even Boudewijn himself.

Watched a crowd of Belgian college students dancing to carillon duets by the Bell's Angels in Leuven, but really just went to be able to recount the story in coming years. Wandering into enchanting old campus buildings around Leuven made for the real memories.

07 May 2006

the final frontier

As nobody else signed up to perform for the Week van de Amateurkunsten carillon concert in Lommel, I decided at the last minute to trek out to the edge of the country and see what it was all about.

In the morning, I squeezed in a bit of practice time in the Sint-Laurentiuskerk, where I met the gentleman renovating the instrument and got a little tour of the organ innards. He's hosting a contest for the fundraising concert attendees in which they can guess how many little whatchamacallits he replaced (see how much knowledge I absorbed from him) to win a bottle of wine.

Then a 40-minute ride to Lommel on a train whose design and color scheme were new to me. And what should I find upon exiting the station but that the major road leading from the station straight to Sint-Pietersbandenkerk, which can be seen clearly in the distance, had no sidewalk. It was just the kind of suburban hell I'd thought I'd escaped when I turned back from trying to bike to the Thimble Islands in Connecticut via a road that turned nearly into highway, although people lived along it and had to drive to their next-door neighbors' houses.

So after 15 minutes of walking along the bike path, dodging bikes and the occasional scooter, I find some pavement in the official Lommel city limits, and suddenly the empty streets sprawl out into a church square filled with people, an ice cream truck, and screaming children swinging on some miniature bungee-jumping contraption. Other living beings! Liesbeth is doing a jolly improv on "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" to give me an "American" welcome, perhaps forgetting that the Beatles were accompanying a Scottish folk song when they performed it. Some children show up for the carillon tour, the little girl amongst them with perfectly curled hair dressed to the nines (no, the tens!) in perfect Victorian revival style by her mother.

Sint-Pietersbandenkerk"This is a special place," Liesbeth reassures me when I mention the lack of sidewalks leading to the center of town and gesture around my head to indicate the girl's pigtails. "Kind of a lawless place on the edge of civilization." After reviewing the five different switches and three different locks I had to turn on my way out, she hurried off to judge music exams while I went wild on the bells, trying to play pieces from memory and to get "Motorhythmia" right for an audience familiar with it.

After returning the spare keys to the bartender of 't Torenhof, I hurry back fueled by a cone of speculaas ice cream in order to catch the one train per hour to Antwerp (the other train goes to Neerpelt--and those are the only destinations). As I rush into the station, I see only one track and become alarmed that I won't find the other in time. Until I realize that there is only one track--and one train, going back and forth.

It's over 10 minutes late, and just as it arrives, who should appear out of nowhere beside me but Liesbeth, in her long skirt and no car in sight, just as if she'd been beamed down by Scotty. "I wanted to make sure you reached the station all right and that you didn't miss your train." I was taken aback at how thoughtful she was. "It's only happened a few times before that I heard the carillon playing and didn't want to leave!" I was utterly aghast to receive a compliment from the one other carillonneur besides Geert infamous for giving final exam scores some 20 points lower than everyone else. There was nothing I could say in return.

Well, that train was late, the train to Mechelen was late and slow. Trains don't like running on Sundays at all. What if the engines themselves go on strike some Sunday to demand more vacation time?

Klaas was kindly still waiting for me outside the WAKcentrum by the time I finally returned frazzled to Mechelen, so we had a drink on the Haverwerf and very slowly made falafel pitas at Merad. We were able to do some biking, but I wish things had not been closed for Sunday evening.

Dream on!

Lo, I have ventured to the edge of Belgian civilization and returned enlightened by the cultural experience... of being the only Asian many of them have ever seen walking their streets. I'm sure the pagoda shirt I was wearing didn't help me avoid stares. Man what a wacko fun country!

I learned a new word the other day--caitiff: A despicable coward; a wretch. Not something to incorporate into my pun email addresses.


Amongst my questions about the Carillon Museum's collection as I put the finishing touches on my catalog: "Were these stolen? 'Four gold jewels in velvet bordeaux-colored box. One pair of bells rests on a stand.'"

Koen's reply: "do not mention them in the catalogue for they will never return"

Tom's addendum: "And lo, for as so it shall be said, so it shall be done."

Thanks for the awesome photo, Elvo!

05 May 2006


I finally felt ready today to play my most strenuous pieces in one go. For the most part, it worked, although my arms were trembling for a good half hour afterwards. I hardly cared, exhilarated to discover how the confidence necessary to play those pieces actually feels. It's new. Tom claims my bench and the entire playing cabin were rumbling during Motorhythmia. If I can make this happen consistently, the GCNA will be getting "motorhythmicized" (as Neil Thornock himself termed it) in June.

Perhaps because I was utterly useless yesterday evening in Antwerpen and furthermore slept six entire hours, today was shockingly productive. I began the morning with pushups and then practiced the carillon for several hours, played in the tower, had a late lunch during which I claimed the last Godiva truffles from Ana, practiced the piano, practiced the organ, biked 21 km roundtrip to Walem and back (discovering a charming park in Rumst, a nature preserve in a cutoff loop of the Nete River, a magnificent temple-like underpass, and--finally--benches along the way) while practicing hopping until I was red in the face, made pasta with tomato saffron sauce, practiced more piano, and vacuumed my room. It's now time to tackle some YUCMI business, and it's not even midnight! How is that possible?!

Warm weather makes time pass slower. Therefore, one can get more done on a warm day. Could it be simpler?