March 31, 2017

Meet the Band

We had our first rehearsal last Monday night. It was a bit rough, but that's always to be expected the first time through. Afterwards, I went home and re-wrote the timeline/chart we are using as a score, translating it into Portuguese and adding notes for each section to clarify/solidify the ideas we discussed in rehearsal.

Last night was the second rehearsal, and with the new chart things went much better. The band members now have a clearer understanding of what happens in each section, so they can focus more on playing and less on trying to remember what they are supposed to do. I'm quite confident that with two more rehearsals they will have it all worked out.

The musicians are all really nice folks who are making a serious effort on this crazy piece. Some of them play jazz, but I don't think most are very experienced with this kind of improvisation, so it's maybe a bit of a stretch for some of them. But they are open-minded and enthusiastic, which counts for a lot. Also, the sections of the piece that refer to traditional Azorean music are working out great because they have that stuff in their blood. I really appreciate their willingness to make the time for this, rearrange their work schedules, stay out late on work nights, etc. – for the sake of the experience, and no pay. Yet another example of Azorean generosity!

BUSTED! L-R: José Medeiros (trombone), Gianna De Toni (bass), Carlos Miguel Mendes (tenor sax), Luís Senra (tenor sax), Carlos Medeiros Carlos (clarinet), Nuno Carreiro (trumpet)

In other good news, I was able to re-make the opening sequence of the piece. It starts out with the bubbling thermal mud pits at Furnas. But when I was there before it was in summer and very crowded, and I didn't get such good recordings because of all the human noise, so that section was shorter than I would like, felt like it ended before it really got going. But the other day we made a field trip and went to Furnas around 8 PM when there was almost nobody there, so I was able to make some new recordings and used those to make a longer opening sequence. It only adds about 40 seconds to the piece, but I think it's a stronger beginning, a bit more "primal."

Also on that field trip we visited a tea plantation where I encountered many goats, who love to walk between the rows of tea plants scratching their sides along the plants as they go. After all of our recording adventures we ate some fish in Porto Formoso, a very sweet little town on the beach.

Here's a video by my housemate/fellow resident artist Robin Parmar that gives a taste of that day's field trip.

Three Dances from Robin Parmar on Vimeo.

March 30, 2017


Apparently, someone decided that what this little beach town of 4000 people really needed was a fancy contemporary art center, and so we have Arquipélago. When I was here in 2014 it was still under construction and not yet open. They converted an old industrial building that was once used to make alcohol, and before that to process tobacco, which was grown here. Now it is a very nice exhibition space for contemporary arts, with an excellent black box theater that I am working in.

I am especially jealous of the system of weighted pulleys that allows all of the lighting bars to be lowered and raised from the floor, without going up in a rickety lift. And they do have cat walks above in case you need to go up for some reason. I also like the fact that there have been two competent government employees helping me out with setting up sound and lights. The room has surprisingly good acoustics. When I heard "black box" I expected the usual dry acoustics, but this space has a lovely reverb that will allow us to perform without amplifying the instruments. And while the sound system may not be state of the art, it is perfectly adequate for what I am doing here. So far so good!

March 29, 2017

Ribeira Grande

On this trip I'm staying in the town of Ribeira Grande, which I visited only once previously for one evening so didn't know very well at all. Having been here for almost two weeks now, I can say that I like it very much. We are on the north coast of São Miguel, in the middle part of the island. It's the second largest city on the island, with a population of around 4000, so not as busy as the main city of Ponta Delgada, which is only a 20-minute drive away. We have plenty of most things one would need, and the town has a relaxed feeling that I really like. And yes, we do have a large river. There is also a very nice sand beach here, a bit of a rarity in these parts. And a radio station. And a fancy new contemporary arts center where I have been rehearsing and will be performing soon. I'll write about that in another post. For now, I'll just post a few pics taken along the main street that give a pretty good sense of the town.

Below is a picture of Nuno's house, where we are staying. The door in the center is his, and everything you see on the top floor. This was originally two houses that were later joined together.

March 25, 2017

It's How They Roll Here

The phone rings: "Olá, Steve. We are going to Furnas. Do you want to go? Bring a swimming suit and a towel. We will pick you up in 40 minutes." OK.

I'm assuming "we" means Raquel, my housemate Robin, visiting artist Peter Cusak, and me. Raquel arrives and there are actually two cars, the other one containing Diana, João Pedro, and two women I don't know, Rita and Isabel, who work with Diana. We drive to Furnas, which is a spa town in the caldeira of a volcano, and it is very foggy and raining (see the Penúmbria film mentioned in my previous post.) We get out at the fancy hotel at Terra Nostra park, which is a rather magnificent botanical garden with hot springs. We walk through the hotel to the park entrance, where there is a little moment of confusion as most of our group suddenly vanishes while Robin and I try to figure out whether we should bother to pay the €8 to get into the park, since it is pouring rain and we are already getting drenched. We decide to go for it because our other option is to stand around in the pouring rain waiting for them to come back.

Once in, we walk past the large public thermal pool, which I've been in before and is really not so great. But down by the dressing rooms there are a couple of other smaller pools that I did not notice when I was last here, probably because they are hidden behind a wall of plants and trees. And here we find Diana, Raquel, Peter, and João Pedro. Robin is not much of a water guy and goes off to wander the park in the rain. I'd much rather be completely drenched in a pool of hot water than in my clothes and soon join them, and we soak contentedly for a very...long...time. I can feel the last of my cold being leached away by the warm mineral water.

A couple of hours later, we somehow drag ourselves out of the water and into the hotel bar, where we find not only Robin and Rita and Isabel, but the whole entourage from the Pontes events, which has more or less merged with the Invisible Places crew. There are sandwiches and coffee and drinks and conversation, and this goes on for another hour or so. Then it is announced that we are going to dinner. So we pile in the car and head off somewhere. Turns out we are going to O Cantinho do Cais, a fabulous seafood restaurant in the little town of São Bras, where I went with Emanuel and Diana and João on my last trip. When we arrive there is a delicious fish soup already waiting on the table for us. And bread. And wine.

But then the propietor, Senhor Jorge, proceeds to serve us (about 20 people) the house specialty, molho de peixe, an incredible stew made out of several kinds of fresh fish ladled over toasted bread.

After another hour or so (coffee, pastries, etc.) some of the group are heading off to a theater thing in Ponta Delgada. Others are going to Arco 8 Gallery, where Raquel has a DJ gig tonight. Robin and I opt to be dropped off at home in Ribeira Grande, to dry out and recover, full and happy. Just another day in the islands...

Today's Handy Portuguese Phrase Is...

"Estou constipado." Translation: "I have a cold." Looks like the long flight + no central heat + late nights + lots of smoke finally caught up to me. I've been laying low the past few days, resting a lot, trying to kick it. The good news is that it is moving through quickly and I'm now feeling like the worst has passed. And I've got a lot of work done on my upcoming artist talk for Invisible Places. But because of this there isn't a lot to report. I try to get out and walk a bit each day, usually first down to the beach if the weather is nice (it's been spotty), and then around town. The waves have been quite big lately, and at night I can hear the sound of the surf echoing off of the houses on the hill behind us.

Diana Diegues has been organizing a series of events that were originally curated by her late husband, João Da Ponte. The series is called Pontes (Bridges), and has a theme of encouraging dialogue between artists from different disciplines. They got government funding to do it, so Diana has carried on in tribute, and there have been things happening in different venues around Ponta Delgada every night this week. I've managed to make it to a few of them. Monday there was a film screening and photography exhibit at a great gallery called Arco 8.

I liked Paulo Abreu's film NYC 1991, which is all Super 8 street footage in the tradition of Bruce Baillie, with a soundtrack by Lee Renaldo.

There was another screening/discussion at an old, but still functioning factory that makes sugar out of beets. They now only use this factory about one month out of the year, and it operates at a big loss, but they keep it going to help the local beet farmers and the workers. It will eventually be turned into a museum.

Eduardo Brito showed his very beautiful short film, Penúmbria – a Calvino-esque fictional documentary about a town that was founded in an impossible location, marketed as the most melancholy place on earth, and eventually abandoned.

Penumbria was founded two hundred years ago, in a distant isthmus - a place of arid soils, angry seas and violent weather. The city was due its name to the almost permanent shadows and cloudiness. One day, its inhabitants decided to leave, offering Penumbria to time. This is the story of an uninhabitable place.

He shot it in several different locations in Spain, Portugal, Chile, and I think somewhere else, but somehow managed to weave them all together into one seamless locale. This very brief trailer barely hints at what a wonderful little film this is.

Last night I roused myself from bed to go to the concert by Medeiros/Lucas, who I have mentioned before on this blog. Carlos Medeiros is a great older singer, coming from the more folk end of the spectrum. He lives here, in a little house on Diana's property in São Vicente. Pedro Lucas is a young guitarist now living in Lisbon who combines folk elements with sampling and electronica. Last night they played with a keyboardist in a small church high on a hill overlooking the whole town.

I should mention that the audiences for all of these events have been quite good, with a lot of familiar faces every night I attended. People really seem to come out for things here. And of course there are big social dinners afterwards. Last night I skipped that part and came home to continue recuperating, and today feel quite a bit better. I was very happy to finally see my friend Emanuel last night, and look forward to spending some more time with her when I am back on my feet. Rehearsals for my project at Arquipélago start on Monday.

March 20, 2017

Almoço com os Romeiros

I previously mentioned the romeiros – groups of religious pilgrims who spend a week walking around the whole island, visiting all the churches and praying and singing as they walk. Early this morning as I was gradually waking up I heard two different groups pass by the house. What a lovely thing it is to lie in a warm bed on a cold, rainy morning and gain consciousness to the sound of twenty or thirty men quietly singing as they process beneath your window.

After a slow morning (emails, late breakfast, online Portuguese lessons), Robin, the other visiting artist who arrived late last night, and I decided to head out for a walk around town. At some point Robin got to feeling hungry and I suggested we return to the cafe where I'd had my meeting with Gianna on Saturday for some lunch. Many of the cafes here have a small room up front with a bar and a couple of tables that is visible from the street, but then there's another room in back that isn't so obvious. The front room being full, the waiter directed us to this other room, about the size of a typical dining room in a house, which was mostly taken up by a long table full of boisterous guys ranging in age from 20-something to 70-something. They were having a great time, laughing, eating and drinking and getting just a little rowdy. I noticed that many of them were wearing rosaries and figured they might be romeiros who had finished their walk. Robin and I were the only other people in the room, our table pushed into a corner just a couple of feet from theirs.

At about the same time that our lunch arrived, the singing began. One hymn followed another for maybe 30 minutes. Some were very solemn, others more upbeat, all delivered with much sincerity, enthusiasm, and varying degrees of intonation – the latter becoming more variable as successive rounds of aguardente were consumed. Occasionally they'd sing a verse in English for our benefit, looking our way to check if perhaps we were feeling perturbed, which of course we weren't. In fact, we couldn't have been happier, and our recording devices were on the table in an instant. I just had my phone, but it gets the point across.

At some point there was a break in the singing and I told them how beautiful it was and asked if I could take a photo. This led to them bringing us a couple pieces of their leftover chocolate cake (how could we refuse?), and one of them coming over to relate to us in quite good English what was going on. He graciously explained the whole romeiro thing – who they are and what they do and why they do it – and said that this was their post-pilgrimage celebration. He referred to the men as his brothers, and mentioned that not all of them had completed the trip; one ended up in the hospital (reason unknown) and another sprained his ankle and they had to carry him on their backs, and some just got tired and couldn't finish. So this lunch was all about some hard-earned letting off steam after completing their long trek.

Best. Lunch. Ever. And especially for Robin, an excellent first-day introduction to this place.

March 19, 2017

Slow Sunday

I slept an amazing 11 hours last night. Woke up feeling great and non-jet lagged. Went to the local supermarket and bought some grocery essentials: wine, cheese, fruit, yogurt, muesli, juice. There is a public market here but it only happens once a week, so I'll try that later.

There was a big religious procession down our street today. I'm not sure what the occasion was, maybe something in the lead-up to Easter. There were five or six different marching bands. They try to leave room for each other, but sometimes I could hear two playing at once, which I love.

Grabbed some dinner at a local "snack bar"/pizzeria. Fried hake, boiled potatoes with parsley, a small salad, some rice, and a pastel de nata for less than €8. Not bad. The young kid who worked the counter spoke perfect English, said "Your Portuguese is great!" I told him he was lying, but thanks for saying so. Nuno is now cooking an octopus stew with a whole octopus in it. I will observe.

March 18, 2017

Back in the Islands

After a long but totally uneventful day of travel, I arrived in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel at about 7 this morning (midnight Seattle time). Having only slept a bit more than an hour or so on the plane, I was feeling pretty disheveled. Diana Diegues, who I met last time I was here and is helping with local organizing on the Invisible Places symposium, heroically met me at the airport and drove me to where I'm staying, in the smaller town of Ribeira Grande, where they put me because it is where we will be rehearsing and performing the piece I am presenting.

I'm staying in a great old traditional row house in the center of town belonging to architect Nuno Malato. It had been abandoned when he bought it from a friend, and he is gradually restoring it. Nuno is a good friend of Emanuel Albergaria, who is probably the closest I have to a "best friend" here. She was incredibly kind to me when I was here before, and I like and respect her so much. Nuno is a great guy, and it all feels rather familial. One other artist will be staying here – Robin Parmer arrives from Ireland late tonight.

After a nap I had a productive afternoon meeting with Gianna De Toni, a very good Italian bass player and guitarist who I also met previously. She will be playing in my piece and is helping me round up the musicians for it. Also on hand was Mike Ross, a musician from Texas who has been living in Portugal since 1985 and teaches at the conservatory here. He was very helpful with translation and I think we got it worked out. Now we just have to make sure that the rehearsal dates work with the musicians' schedules, and with the venue where we will be working.

After our meeting I went for a walk on the beach and sat there for a good long time just watching the surfers and enjoying the sound of the waves. It's been way too long since I've done that. On the way back I unexpectedly encountered a group of romeiros – religious pilgrims who solemnly walk around the island from town to town leading up to Holy Week, praying and singing at all the churches. It reminds me a lot of the Penitente Brothers in New Mexico. Although I am not a believer, it felt like an auspicious beginning to this trip to witness this very old tradition continuing on my first day here.