Archive for October, 2006

Alexander Knaifel

I blogged about Alexander Knaifel a few weeks ago, and his piece Svete Tikhiy, or O Gladsome Light.  The music is so simple, in a manner of speaking, yet I never tire of listening to it. I listen to it on my way to work, if I’m travelling alone. I listen to it in bed. I can listen to it three or four times a day. It puts me in the mood to write. It creates a space around me in which I can imagine and create another world, a space on which the real world does not impinge. It’s a quiet, solemn world, though, perhaps not suitable to all kinds of writing. One would not be able to do humour in that world, for example.

When the music is so-called minimalist (which Knaifel is not, and perhaps no one really is) you can begin to perceive just how complex music can be. Knaifel allows you to contemplate each note and anticipate the next one. And the note that comes never fails to surprise, to be other than what you had expected, to be other than what music most often leads you to expect. In Svete Tikhiy, you can savour each individual note.

In the second half of the piece, the voices begin. Two or three women begin to murmur fervently what I can only assume is a prayer in Russian. What amazed me when I first heard it was just quickly the words were spoken/sung. How did they say them all without ever stumbling? (I must assume they don’t stumble. Even if it’s gibberish, you’d expect some stumbling or hesitation. Probably even more so in that case, since words with recognisable meaning, meaning you can anticipate, would help with the flow.) Then one woman’s voice begins a melody which hovers over the murmured prayer, which is like a drone in eastern music. Later, the voice joins the murmur, which assumes more melody and harmony. When the prayer-like part ends, the instruments begin (a piano and some strings) accompanied by the singers. This part is the haziest in my memory. What I do remember is that I’m never sure when it’s going to end. When I do think it’s going to end, it doesn’t. And when it does end, I never realise it has, and always expect more.

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Blind Spot

K., a friend of mine, was a chemical engineer before taking an early retirement. A few weekends ago we sat around and talked about beer and he told us all about how it’s made, how it goes off, how it’s preserved and transported. (He used to work for Heineken.) It was all fascinating.

He’s very intelligent and has a very scientific frame of mind. He knows a lot about a lot of different things, is inquisitive and has a good memory. (He’s a good story-teller in general, and a good person to invite to a social event if you’re worried people won’t hit it off and have much to say. He’s also, it’s important to note, a funny guy too.)

But it’s interesting how people who excel in technical and scientific things can sometimes have blind spots in other areas. Their scientific thinking can actually get in the way.

K. was asking me about my driving lessons and I told him that I find the “difficult” things easy, like going into first gear on an incline, parking, reversing around a corner, but when I simply change gears I get nervous and grip the steering wheel too hard. I’m not so aware of being nervous; my body simply reacts by tensing up.

“How do you hold the steering wheel?” he said.

I told him I put my hands at ten and two. He told me that now he keeps his right hand at seven o’clock.

“A car in good condition,” he said “should continue going straight unless prevented from doing so by something like a bump in the road. At 7.00 your hand is closer to your body and you’re more in control.”

He told me he had done a lot of driving over the years. He often had to drive to Holland for work. He gave me some figure, how many hundreds of thousands of kilometers he’d driven in one car alone. I told him about my father’s Toyota Corona, which he bought in 1981 and which he kept till 1995, a very long time for a place like Canada, where salt is thrown on the roads in the winter. With that car he drove from Toronto to Florida and back a few times.

K. explained how that sort of driving, without much starting and stopping, did not wear down the car much.

Then I remembered a Newfie joke. I explained who the Newfies are (there’s a Greek equivalent, as I’m sure there is everywhere) and told him.

“This guy wanted to sell his car and when his friend took a look at it he said:

“‘Are you crazy? This thing’s got 350,000 km on it! No one’s ever going to buy it. Don’t worry, though, I know this guy, he can change the odometer so that it’s really low.’

“So the guy goes and gets it adjusted so that it says only 20,000 km. A couple of weeks later they run into each other in the street and the friend says, ‘Hey, did you ever sell that car?’

“And the Newfie says, ‘Are you nuts? Why would I sell a car with only 20,000 km on it?'”

“Well, of course,” K. said. “No one would buy it. It’s an impossibly low number. They’d know right away that something was wrong. They’d say, ‘Haven’t you driven this thing at all?'”

I thought about this for a moment.

“K.,” I said, “it’s a joke.”

“Oh,” he said.

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I’ve been to Meteora several times over the years, but I wanted to take N. this summer because she’d never been. Before we stopped to get a room in Kalabaka, we drove up and took a look around. N. later said that this was the most impressive part of the trip.

If you look close enough at the rock, it looks like cement. The little mountains the monasteries are built on were formed by the sea, which covered the plain of Thessalia sixty million years ago.

The next day we went up to visit some of the monasteries. There were signs everywhere telling you not to take pictures, but this, I was sure, was not for religious reasons, but economic ones. They sell a lot of books and postcards up there. I turned the flash off and took as many pictures as I could. Because I did so furtively, a lot of them are blurry, since the shutter (or whatever it is digital cameras have) stays open for longer.

I don’t remember ever having gone to the monastery of St Stephanos before, which is a nunnery. In fact, I didn’t know until this summer that there was a nunnery up there. The main church inside was built in 1790, and the icons, as a result, are in much better condition than they are in other monasteries. There were actually one being painted still, and are unfinished.

N. and my parents left the church and I stayed behind to snap some more pictures. Just then, though, a nun came in. She was short and wore black-rimmed glasses, the kind all nuns seem to wear. I waited for her to leave, but she showed no signs of doing so. I held the camera behind my back and looked at two panels by the entrance. Both icons featured ladders, and they were what I wanted to photograph. I looked closely at them, waiting for her to leave. Instead she came up and asked me if I was Greek. I said I was, and she asked me from where. To keep things simple, I told her from Canada, and didn’t mentioned that I lived here.

The first icon, she told me, depicted the Heavenly Ladder of John Scholasticus or Climacus. She told me he had written a book explaining how one rises up the heavenly ladder to holiness. The icon showed angels helping along the men who were making their way up towards Christ. Several men were falling off towards a serpent-dragon, and one man had into its jaws.

(I apologise for the poor quality of the photograph, but I was rushed and the camera moved too much. You can see other examples of the subject here, here and here.)

She added, almost with embarrassment, that it was allegorical or symbolic. I suppose she wasn’t comfortable with the question of why they should suffer such damnation for failing to reach the top when they had been good enough to rise three quarters of the way.

On the other side of the door, was an icon of Jacob’s Ladder, with Jacob sleeping at the bottom.

(Again, the picture is not good. It doesn’t even show Jacob.)

The ladder, she said, symbolised the Virgin Mary, the second Eve who had come to reunite heaven and earth, which had split when the first Eve introduced original sin. There were only angels ascending this ladder.

Next she showed me the icon of the Second Coming, a particularly beautiful one on the wall behind us. On the upper left side of the river of fire were the damned being judged (notice the scales). On the right and at the top were the blessed. The river of fire led down to the jaws of another serpent-dragon. On the right near the bottom was a horizontal river and beneath them some chambers with dismembered limbs and severed heads in it. The nun told me that after the Second Coming, they would be restored, when the souls returned to their bodies.

It struck me as I looked at the medieval style of the painting that one tends to look at what it depicts as having taken place in the past, in biblical times, or at the latest in the Middle Ages, rather than something which is supposed to happen in the future. The visual arts, even with something as fantastic as Bosch, eventually lose their prophetic power.

The last icon she showed me was of St Stephanos or Charalambos, I can’t remember which, who when he knew his time had come (as it explains on the icon itself) lay down, crossed his hands on his chest, and died. It was in the middle of the day, but a star kept shining in the sky.

“Making icons is a good thing,” she said to me. “It keeps you close to God.”

On another wall there was an icon which had recently been started. It was to depict the martyrdom of St Charalambos. She took me and we left the narthex, or foyer, and went into the main part of the church, which had in the mean time filled with Italian tourists. She showed me a wooden case before the altar. She took out some keys and opened it and showed me a silver case with the saint’s head in it. At the top it seemed sealed with wax. The silver case was inside a glass case.

“Worship him,” she said [Προσκύνησέ τον]. It was an awkward moment. I don’t believe in God, but unfortunately people are sometimes offended when you don’t believe what they believe. I generally avoid confrontations and don’t feel it necessary to assert myself in such situations, although I suppose I should. To keep things simple (don’t forget that despite the interesting tour I was getting, I was looking forward eventually to having an opportunity to take some pictures), I made the cross, leaned forward and kissed the glass case.

Just then my mobile phone rang and I excused myself. It was N. I hadn’t told them anything when they left the church. I had just stayed behind, and she was wondering where I was. I told her I’d find her in a moment. I got off the phone and went back to thank the nun. She pointed out where the museum was and urged me to see it. Before I left, I snapped the pictures, which is why they didn’t turn out very well.

Other pictures:

The above photograph shows how things and people are carried over to at least one of the monasteries today, which tourists are not allowed to visit. At one point, two monks went across on it, which alarmed many tourists who were watching from below.

N. was very displeased with me for taking this picture. “Those are dead people!” she said. Well, they’ve left the door open for tourists haven’t they? I saw the photo in one of the books they themselves sell, so I’m not bothered by it. I’ve used part of the photo for the masthead photo of this blog.

Although I’m not at all religious, I love Byzantine art. This was on the ceiling of a balcony outside a church.

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