Wind to create energy, art, music, and friendship

High above the village of Paleohora, I and other participants of the 14th Levka Ori project worked with the wind for a week. We arrived on Friday 21 August exhausted from the long flights from Amsterdam and Brussels. The next morning we met in a hut on the sandy beach to discuss our plans.

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High above the village of Paleohora, I and other participants of the 14th Levka Ori project worked with the wind for a week. I hesitate to use the word “work” for it has felt more like play than work. Nevertheless, I say “work” for it represents a focussed effort to create something out of nothing, communicate our ideas about self-expression, and engage in a creative process that would spill over to other areas in our individual lives.

We arrived on Friday 21 August exhausted from the long flights from Amsterdam and Brussels. The next morning we met in a hut on the sandy beach to discuss our plans. The founder and co-0rganiser Fernand (pictured below) explained the aims of the project and this year’s theme of wind. As none of us had to pay or were paid to participate, it was a free option bounded only by the opportunity cost of being there. [I’ll explain this later in a future blog on economics and freakonomics.]

Fernand, the founder and co-organiser of Levka Ori project
Fernand, the founder and co-organiser of Levka Ori project. Photo by Julian H. Scaff

Most of the participants had good ideas about what they would be doing or at least aiming for. Robert wanted to use his guitar in different locations to hear it against the wind or with the wind. As I didn’t have access to a piano, I resorted to taking pictures and videos with my mobile phone to blog and remember this event, if nothing else. Unlike others, I had no clue what I would or could be doing on the mountain where we’d be “catching” the wind.

Anne trying to take a picture of the panoramic view above Paleochora, Crete
Anne trying to take a picture of the panoramic view above Paleochora, Crete. Photo by Julian H. Scaff

And what a windy surprise it was to finally get to the plateau 900 meters above sea level, where only goats and their masters roamed. The wind was a constant companion as I explored the dry terrains of this area. The wind was loud against my ears, but only because I was there.

You cannot hear the wind unless it hits an object such as a microphone or your ears. It’s invisible but you can see its effects. You can feel its force and temperature on your skin. It cools you under the heat of the noon day sun. Sometimes it threatens to blow  you away. It’s fearless and arhythmic. It removes all silence and doubt.

While one artist was visibly recording the wind, the other was looking for material to cast her resin. [See the contrast below.]

An artist recording the wind in Paleochora, Crete
An artist recording the wind in Paleochora, Crete. Photo by Julian H. Scaff

The creative process involves making apriori assumptions and ideas, testing them in an environment of exploration and experimentation, tweaking or changing the original plan, abandoning initial plans, starting anew, etc. It’s a necessary part of being an artist. The goal is not to create but to engage in the process.

Blurred and changed by the wind
Blurred and changed by the wind. Photo by Julian H. Scaff

On Sunday, tired of the bumpy, uphill roads and the constant force of the wind, I took to the beach by myself while others pressed on. I finished reading the book “Freakonomics” and wondered why I was here at all. True, I was curious about the workshop in which the outcome would be something or nothing. I was eager to work with others, to see the world from their points of view. Most of all, I needed a holiday. And I expected Robert to want the same. That was the rationale for booking this working holiday.

Robert Bekkers playing guitar in the wind above Paleochora, Crete
Robert Bekkers playing guitar in the wind above Paleochora, Crete. Photo by Julian H. Scaff

On my second visit to the project site, I decided to collect goat droppings, pebbles, and dry wood sticks to make musical instruments. The goat excrements were round and light like coffee beans. I thought of putting them in empty water bottles and Cretan beer cans and using them like shakers. I would make wind chimes out of pebbles and sticks. I was excited about my idea.

On the way back downhill, I saw Julian’s wind machine powering two lights on a simple installation. Art and renewable energy, he told me, was his interest. A few days later, he erected another wind-powered chain of lights which we could see from the village at night.

Julian Scaff and his wind machine on Paleohora, Crete
Julian Scaff and his wind machine on Paleohora, Crete. Photo by Julian H. Scaff

…. to be continued….

Cocktail conversation at sunset in Paleochora, Crete

Five minutes before sundown, a lean man in his early fifties approached our table. Our conversation moved slowly much like the sun before it touched the earth. Until it actually skimmed the top of the mountain, the sunset seemed to take forever. The pace quickened as soon as it intersected the dark silhouette of the distant slope.

Five minutes before sundown, a lean man in his early fifties approached our table in the corner cafe at the far southeastern end of the sandy beach of Paleochora. [Note: sometimes the village is spelled without a c, i.e. Paleohora.]

“Hello, do you mind if I sit here?”

Paleochora, Crete at sunset
Paleochora, Crete at sunset

The evenly tanned man gently pulled out the empty plastic chair next to Robert.

“I just want to see the sunset for a few minutes,” he added politely.

“Sure, please go ahead,” gestured Robert. “We saw you yesterday. We were sitting over there. But all the tables on that side have been taken.”

The fair haired man nodded and explained that he was here with his girlfriend and her family. “It’s open evening tonight, so we’re free to do as we please. She is with her sister, and I am alone.”

He ordered a glass of fresh orange juice while I sipped the special house cocktail containing creme de cacao, Bailey’s, and some exotic ingredients.

“Orange juice is so cheap here. Squeeze two oranges and it’s only two euros! But cappucino is the same price as in Germany.” He gave the waiter two euro fifty.

“Where are you from in Germany?” I asked.

“Freiburg.” It sounded vaguely familiar though I had not been there in any of my dozen visits to his country.

Our casual conversation moved slowly, much like the sun before it touched the earth. Until it actually skimmed the top of the mountain, the sunset seemed to take forever. The pace quickened as soon as it intersected the dark silhouette of the distant slope.

The German had come to Paleochora (pronounced with a silent “c”) some 30 years ago when it was full of hippies living in wooden huts. “You can still run into a few of those ageing hippies.  There weren’t apartments or hotels dotting the landscape then.”

He was here on a two week holiday, and sunset was a precious moment.

“Where are you from?” he asked us.

“I’m from Holland,” said Robert and turned to me. “Well, Anne is sort of also. But she can explain.”

As usual, to avoid a difficult question, I  tried to summarise it all in one sentence. “I consider myself Chinese although I grew up on an American air base in Okinawa.”

Robert introduced ourselves as a piano guitar duo from the Netherlands.

“Oh?” he seemed interested. “And which instrument do you play?”

“Guitar,” said Robert. “Anne plays the piano. But there’s no piano here.”

“So I didn’t bring my music.”

“Nor your piano, I see. Was it too heavy to carry?”

Robert chuckled.  “She would have to be Horowitz to get her piano here!”

The man smiled and volunteered, “I used to play the piano when I was young and then I studied to become a professional violinist.”

He grimaced, “I had to stop because it was hurting my ears. Thankfully I was forced to discontinue. I wouldn’t want to work so hard for so little pay.”

He complained that traveling in a string quartet got boring and playing in an orchestra grew tedious.

“So did you switch to something else that was easy but more rewarding?” I asked.

“Yes,” he leaned back in his chair. “I became a psychologist.”

“How interesting!” I told him about my busy teenage years on Okinawa. I accompanied choirs in school and church, played keyboards in bands, played organ for five weekly church services, and taught 20 private piano students, all before I turned 18. “It was too easy to earn money in music. That’s why I went to study engineering at college.”

“But you’re a professional musician now?” he was puzzled.

“Yes, after working in various non-music fields in different countries, I returned to music, lured by the idea of being paid to do what I loved and not having to follow other people’s agenda or operate to tight deadlines like my previous job as magazine editor.”

Sunset at Paleochora, Crete
Sunset at Paleochora, Crete

The sun had nearly disappeared by then. But we had only just begun the interesting part of our conversation. What kind of psychologist was he? Why did he choose to return to Paleochora after such a long time? Why didn’t he visit other parts of Crete?

We told him that we were actually jealous of musicians who could audition and play in an orchestra. 

“It’s hard to get hired as a guitarist,” said Robert. “Even harder as a classical guitarist.”

“And there are so many great pianists out there,” I added. “So here we are — a piano and guitar duo, possibly one of the hardest combinations of instruments. Unlike the violin, the piano and the guitar can’t ease into each other to gradually blend into a single sound. The piano hammers. The guitar plucks. We don’t sustain easily on a single note, like string, wind, or brass instruments.”

“Once we play our note, there’s no turning back,” said Robert. “We have to be exactly synchronised if we’re playing the same note otherwise you’ll hear two instead of one.”

The German psychologist shook his head. It did not make sense anyone would invest in such an impossible feat: to play such seemingly incompatible instruments with steep acoustical challenges and actively having to arrange and commission new music for the duo. Like so many others before him, he was skeptical.

“Perhaps we can continue this conversation tomorrow at sunset?” he suggested.

Yes, of course, we replied.

Meanwhile, he has 24 hours to figure out how we could afford to miss a week of teaching, rehearsing, and performing to come to this island.

Panoramic preview in Paleochora, Crete

Any mention of the Greek islands conjures up unforgettable images of clear blue skies, deep Mediterranean waters, and sunbathing on the sandy beaches. Half a lifetime later, I return to Greece once again, no longer alone but with a Dutch guitarist, an American photographer, and an American film maker to the largest of all Greek islands: Crete. Joining us from Belgium is a Norwegian artist, also curious and brave enough to make something creative in the one week we have together. The theme of this year’s project is WIND. What can you do with an acoustic classical guitar without amplification?

Any mention of the Greek islands conjures up unforgettable images of clear blue skies,  deep Mediterranean waters, and sunbathing on the sandy beaches. That was my memory of Mykonos, Naxos, and Corfu when I first ventured here as a college student.

Half a lifetime later, I return to Greece once again, no longer alone but with a Dutch guitarist, an American photographer, and an American film maker to the largest of all Greek islands: Crete. Joining us from Belgium is a Norwegian artist, also curious and brave enough to create something in the one week we have together for a possible exhibition in a museum in Brugges early next year.

Panoramic view from top of Paleochora Crete
Panoramic view from top of Paleochora Crete

Months ago when we as a duo first decided to participate in the Levka Ori project, we had sought in vain to find a venue with a piano in the ancient village of Paleochora, sometimes spelled Paleohora. Without it, any concert (if at all) would be solo guitar. And so I left my music behind in Utrecht but brought my laptop to record this journey and enjoy the last days of summer with the 2,000 inhabitants of this peninsular paradise.

On Saturday 22 August 2009, Fernand, the founder of the Levka Ori project in its 14th continuous year, introduced us to several high altitude areas in this southwestern part of Crete. We scaled various mountain tops to embrace the breathtaking panoramic views and test the acoustics only to be blown away by the strong and deafening Cretan wind. [For current conditions of temperature, wind direction and speed, check the real-time updates.]

The theme of this year’s project is WIND. What can you do with an acoustic classical guitar without amplification? We brainstormed numerous ideas: concert for guitar and wind, mosaic of guitar with wind, the wind playing the guitar, and fantasia for guitar with wind. While the other participants walked around the “Magnesia” site formulating their plans for the rest of the week, the guitarist walked from stone to stone, peak to peak, experimenting with his guitar and that fierce and unpredictable entity called the Cretan wind.

By late afternoon, we conceded that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to compete against the wind. We drove downhill and stopped at a lone Cretan church for a rest.

Cretan church above Paleochora, Crete
Cretan church above Paleochora, Crete

While inhaling the 360-degree view from this plateau, I heard the beautiful sound of solo guitar floating from the church. I posed for a memory and joined the others in the small white-washed building.

Anne Ku next to church above Paleochora, Crete
Anne Ku next to church above Paleochora, Crete

The romantic sound of nylon strings plucked against wood free from the wind welcomed us into that small space. Natural light acted as spot lights on the old mosaic floor. The guitarist stopped. He was only experimenting with chords and harmonics.

“Please play something I like,” I requested.

Outside the wind continued its roar. But inside the clean space of the Cretan church, I enjoyed a private concert of solo guitar.

Robert Bekkers in a Cretan church above Paleochora, Crete
Robert Bekkers in a Cretan church above Paleochora, Crete

William of Rotterdam

I told 7 year old William that we wanted to share our music and interesting stories with the world. His father said that he drew comic strips in his spare time. Trilingual in English, Dutch, and French, William is more likely to experience different points of view than someone who is monolingual.

I made good use of the three hour train journey from Paris to Rotterdam by changing and updating the Piano Guitar Duo concert page based on suggestions from a supportive reader. While at it, I also changed the blog page of the site.

As soon as the Thalys train crossed the border into the Netherlands, I called my friend who lives in Rotterdam but loves Paris. I couldn’t wait to tell him about my 4 days 5 nights in this incredible city.

He brought along young William, to whom I was introduced in March at the Effusion house concert in our Monument House Concert Series in Utrecht. William had begun piano lessons while the other young guest Riley had just begun violin lessons. It was good to see young people enjoy a concert of new music.

I told 7 year old William that we wanted to share our music and interesting stories with the world. Our photos don’t always do that. Neither does audio and video recorded music. This blog is meant to fill the gap.

But something is still missing.

The human touch of a hand drawn interpretation? With narrative?

His father said that he drew comic strips in his spare time. Trilingual in English, Dutch, and French, William is more likely to experience different points of view than someone who is monolingual. Perhaps he also sees the world differently.

Talking to young William, who has natural entrepreneurial tendencies, shed light on new ways of looking at piano and guitar. Youth offers the freedom of imagination that age has forgotten.

No sooner had I arrived in Utrecht, 40 minutes away, did I get an e-mail of a scanned copy of his first interpretation of our piano guitar duo (below). [Click on the image for the 800 x 600 version.]

First work for piano guitar duo by William of Rotterdam
First work for piano guitar duo by William of Rotterdam

Before I had time to react, he already churned out yet another.

Second work for piano guitar duo by William of Rotterdam
Second work for piano guitar duo by William of Rotterdam

Suppose he comes to one of our concerts, would he then draw differently? Would it fuel his wild imagination or stifle it? Are there more ingenious ways to react to a concert other than the obvious expressions and words?

Could William add to my collection of Music on Canvas in Paris?

I have asked several artists before him to draw our piano guitar duo.

William of Rotterdam, I shall call him, is the first to do so.

To-date, he is the only one to have done so.

ADDENDUM

I am told that William is 7 (not 8 as I had written yesterday). Checking the blog statistics, I’m pleasantly surprised to see it jump six-fold, i.e. twice the previous daily high reached. Obviously William has many fans, perhaps even more than we!

Music on canvas in Paris

I decided to see the Museum of Modern Art for the second time. Has anyone else written music about art? How about paintings about music or musicians or music instruments? Below are paintings of guitar, piano, violin, and music scores that I found in the modern art museum in the Pompidou Centre. Can anyone guess the painters?

Outside the George Pompidou Centre in Paris
Outside the George Pompidou Centre in Paris

By chance while signing the guestbook of the Brancusi sculpture exhibition yesterday, I noticed a ticket for the George Pompidou centre lying nearby. Somewhat had deliberately left it. I decided to see the Museum of Modern Art for the second time. On the way up the escalators, I couldn’t resist taking pictures and videos of Paris.

Why is this worth a blog?

I am a musician not a painter. Mussorgsky composed “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Has anyone else written music about art?

How about paintings about music or musicians or music instruments?

Below are paintings of guitar, piano, violin, and music scores that I found in the modern art museum in the Pompidou Centre. Can anyone guess the painters? Help me put the correct title and painter to each of these untitled images.

First an abstract of a guitar on a table.

Title 0
Title 0

And then you see the guitar….

Title 1

And the guitarist….

Title 2
Title 2

Probably the most famous painter ever:

Title 3
Title 3

More guitar paintings….

Title 4
Title 4

And this

Title 5
Title 5

Still more guitars…

Title 6
Title 6

Enough guitars! How about sheet music?

Title 7
Title 7

And another….

Title 8
Title 8

Don’t forget the piano!

Title 9
Title 9

Or the violin!

Title 10
Title 10

….and the violinist!

Title 12
Title 11

Finally a painting in pure blue that reflects the photographer and blogger! C’est moi! Merci beaucoup!

Title 12
Title 12

Paris in one day

Returning to Paris brought back many memories of previous visits. I was not the insatiable culture vulture I am now. With aching feet and suntanned backs, we made our way back to the Marais district.

My Finnish friend, who has sightread piano music with me in London, Mannheim, and Bussum since 1993 when we first met, showed me the clavinova he’s renting during his six month sabbatical in Paris.

“Had I known you’ve got a piano here, I would have brought some 4-hand duet music!” I exclaimed with regret. How could I not have guessed that he could not do without his piano?

His one bedroom, 48 square metre apartment sits on the 5th floor in the Marais (4th arrondissement). There is no lift but rather a painful 94 nontrivial steps to climb to what-is-equivalent of the 6th floor in the USA.

The 94 non-trivial steps to the 5th floor flat in Paris
The 94 non-trivial steps to the 5th floor flat in Paris

“That’s why Parisian women look so good,” mused Robert the Dutch guitarist. “They have to climb a lot of stairs.”

Right this moment (Sunday 16 August 2009) I am struggling to capture the incredible action-packed day since our arrival on Friday night into Gare du Nord. While Robert and my friend are running 12 km on this Sunday morning, I am sitting on a small wooden stool facing the balcony. The distant bells of the Notre Dame chime of noon. My stomach cries for sushi.

Returning to Paris brought back many memories of previous visits.

“I came here for a job interview on a sizzling hot day in 1995,” I reflected yesterday. “I’m pretty sure it was in August. The company was located in that part of Paris famous for Japanese restaurants. Maybe it was here. There are so many sushi places in the Marais.”

“Why didn’t you take the job?” Robert had asked.

“I would have been an energy economist if I had. I didn’t like the high taxes I’d have to pay as a single woman.” It seemed a lame excuse for rejecting Paris.

I had brought my father here in 1998. I was not the insatiable culture vulture I am now. Notre Dame. Fruit de la mer. The Louvre. China town. That was about it. He had injured his foot and couldn’t walk far. But I did visit my Korean/German friend, who has been living here since. I will see her Tuesday for lunch in the 8th arrondissement where she works.

The Notre Dame in Paris: cleaner and whiter than ever!
The Notre Dame in Paris: cleaner and whiter than ever!

Yesterday my Finnish friend led us on a walk to Place des Vosges, the oldest and most perfect square in Paris. According to my “Paris for free (or extremely cheap” guidebook, it set the model for urban construction throughout Europe. We walked diagonally across the park toward a jazz trio playing outside one of the art galleries.

There was simply too much to see, even after traversing the 20 rooms in the Picasso museum. We were overwhelmed by the enormous output of Pablo Picasso in his life time. A staff member told us that there was more in reserve, i.e. in storage, than on display. The museum was closing for two years at the end of the month for refurbishment, and the displays would go on tour, starting in Helsinki.

We were told that Pablo Picasso had five official wives and countless number of mistresses and affairs. You could say he was a chaud lapin— a hot rabbit — a womaniser. My guidebook mentioned that the museum contained that largest collection of Picasso’s art in one museum. Apparently his art was given to the French government in lieu of death duty payments, after a long court battle with his heirs.

After a light lunch on the pavement of one of many restaurants near his home, my Finnish friend suggested that we have a picnic in the evening on the banks of the Seine.

The spot where we would have our evening picnic later on Isle St Louis
The spot where we would have our evening picnic later on I'sle St Louis

The day grew hotter as we walked along the “strand” along the River Seine. This was a sandy area for pedestrians and cyclists only. Under each bridge staged a different act, from a clown making animal balloons for kids to an operatic high soprano drawing crowds for the “Queen of the Night.” It felt like carnival on the beach, except it was in the centre of Paris.

Beach in central Paris: the Strand on the Seine River
Beach in central Paris: the Strand on the Seine River

We made way to the Museum of Modern Art in the Pompidou Centre. Strange that I had never been inside, after numerous visits to Paris. The escalators offered a brilliant panoramic view of Paris as we ascended to rooftop level. What awaited us in the three remaining hours of the day inspired us beyond imagination. This was possibly the biggest collection of modern art we had ever seen. If only we could do this for modern music! People flock to see modern art but why not modern music?

The view from the George Pompidou Centre in Paris
The view from the George Pompidou Centre in Paris

With aching feet and sun soaked arms and legs, we crawled back to Le Marais district. The live band at Hotel de Ville was still pounding away, threatening to boycott our plans of having Robert play guitar under a bridge (without amplification).

Hotel de Ville in Paris
Hotel de Ville in Paris

Nonetheless we had the bottle of 2007 Shiraz from South Africa (that we got from our concert in Rotterdam the previous day) and some very very old Dutch farmer’s cheese waiting to be consumed. Just add some qualite superiore sausages and fresh salad from the local grocery store, and we’re off to join the rest of the young generation on the banks of the Seine.

The marathon to Paris

“Are you musicians?” he asked, pointing to Robert’s black guitar case.

“Yes! In fact we are on our way to Rotterdam to give a concert. And then we’ll go to Paris from there.”

After getting comfortable on the intercity train from Utrecht to Rotterdam, I noticed the T-shirt of the man sitting across from us. It said something like

Swiss marathon: 350 km from Geneva to Basel

I motioned to guitarist Robert Bekkers next to me. He was looking out the window when I got his attention.

A half-marathon is 21 km. A full one is 42 km. But 350 km? How many marathons is that?

“Did you actually run 350 km?” I blurted out.

“Excuse me?” the dark-haired man in his early 50’s awoke from a reverie. “Oh!” he pointed to his T-shirt. “You mean this? It was 7 days in the Swiss alps.”

“But that’s 50 km a day! Still more than a marathon!” I exclaimed.

Robert began talking to him in Dutch.

The man looked like a long distance runner, with a lean and subdued body of zero percent fat. He explained that it was a small marathon consisting of 50 runners who woke up at 7 am every day and ran until 3 pm with an average speed of 8 km per hour. It’s important to keep a steady tempo because of the long distance and the mountains.

I asked if he had run in the Bordeaux.

“Medoc!” He knew the marathon. “No, I don’t like wine,” he replied in English.

I continued in Dutch. “Our running club coach in Bussum told us it’s the most amazing and sought-after costumed marathon with the best wines, champagne and oyster. He said he could get us in. But we never made it past the half-marathon. I’ve done 5k and 10k only.”

“That’s pretty good,” he said in English.

I pointed to Robert. “He has run several half-marathons but his body is more like that of a sprinter.”

“Yours too,” he said in English.

“Are you not Dutch?” I asked after his insistence upon speaking English.

“No, I’m French.” A Frenchman who does not like wine? Now that’s a curiosity.

“Oh! We’re going to Paris today. My Finnish friend is taking his sabbatical there. He just started running a year ago and already he’s won a silver medal. Robert is going to run with him.”

The Frenchman revealed that he ran for the scenery and atmosphere, not for competition. He said that the hardest moment was the second day. We agreed that once you get over the hard part, it was plain sailing.

“It’s asymmetric,” I drew a graph in the air.

“Are you musicians?” he asked, pointing to Robert’s black guitar case.

“Yes! In fact we are on our way to Rotterdam to give a piano guitar duo concert. And then we’ll go to Paris from there.”

“I am also a musician,” he smiled and waved his right hand. “I’m a conductor and a singer. I conduct seven choirs.”

“Really? What a small world! I graduated from conservatory last year.” I began enthusiastically to tell him about the two choral pieces in my second chamber opera “Culture Shock!”

“I got my friend Nicky, the alto soloist playing the part of the foreigner, to write down what the Dutch train conductors said on the train. I then used those words in the libretto.”

“Dames en heren! U kunt hier overstappen….” I sang.

The French conductor chuckled.

“You wrote the libretto yourself?” He was impressed. “Have you ever thought about writing an opera about a marathon?”

“No, I haven’t,” I pondered. “I like to work with musicians and singers to develop a composition. But that’s an interesting idea.”

I could almost hear his brain switch into dream mode. “The choir will wear shorts and run and pant. Hoo, hoo, haa, haa!”

Robert laughed. I giggled at the thought of a choir doing a marathon on stage. We exchanged email addresses and promised we’d explore the possibilities.

The train was getting close to central Rotterdam station.

“What will you do in Paris?” he asked.

“I wish we could give a concert. We want to perform wherever we go,” I said.

“You can play under the bridge,” he pointed to Robert’s guitar.

“Which bridge?”

“Any bridge. It’s beautiful.” He meant that Robert could busk under any bridge and collect money for it.

“I should have brought something sexy to wear,” I mused, imagining my role in getting the onlookers to donate their coins.

“No need. Don’t wear anything.”

It took me a second before I understood what he meant.

He was French after all.