Princeton: visitor’s attractions

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(The picture is a historic coupon for obtaining ice, taken at the Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve in NJ.)

For the past six months I have been living as a postdoc in a big university in the US in Princeton. As I am moving forward soon to a new endeavour, I wanted to tell about my experiences regarding things I have done here, in everyday life, with a small child, and without a car in this particular case.

An omission should be mentioned before the start: living in a town that is of course frequently associated to its universities, I will not say very much about the campus life here. Part of it is because a lot of information is doubtless available for those who need it; another reason is that as a postdoc, I know something about what goes on in the campus but not all of it and rarely do go there after my office hours. Hence, more than a summary of academic activities, this post is an outline of what to do in a university suburb that is not directly linked with the universities. (The plural is intended, as the town has three universities, as far as I know.)

Let me start with where I and we spend the most of our free time relatively. The town has what I think is the most enjoyable public library I have seen. For start, the staff is very polite, the space magnificent, the child enjoys a fish tank, toys, and free story times, the adults eg newspapers, movies, cafeteria, of course books, and a good affordable cafe. What matters to me all in all, though, is how socially inclusive the place feels. You just need an address (maybe that would be flexible too) to get the library card: and that gives access to the collection albeit a lot you can do by just going there. It is one of those places, which as a visitor to any country one learns to appreciate, where you almost always feel at the right place and in the right time. I have seen visiting parents making many new connections there: I have also seen people bringing their own visiting relatives there (I also seriously thought about taking my mother) which shows the place is important for its users. On top of this social side you have the usual library books, as I mentioned, and we use it for renting dvds for a $1 for a piece.

When I mentioned the place to a US expat living in Europe, he remarked it is great to hear our child can engage with American culture this way. I think he has it right, regarding why going to this place serves more than just our immediate needs. Where else would our child learn so many American children’s songs? Where else would we watch the newest (in fact, considerably, from the European vantage) American movies if not here? With a one year old the movie theater is not an immediate option.

I will shoehorn the next recommendation in as it is related and even if this as a digital service is not specifically to do with the town. Nevertheless, with your library card you get to register with the Hoopla streaming service. This is rather ingenious maybe for reasons that have not been articulated albeit I have not checked on its origins. You use your account to ‘borrow’ ie keep streaming a video, a record, or an audio book for a fixed time: further there is a limit to how many works you can get in a month. Though this may sound limited to some, to me, it actually circumvents many of the issues I have with streaming personally. Because the amount of streams is limited, you actually sense possessing and thus appreciating what you have as long as it is on loan. It is not like the fast food buffet feeling of exhaustion, having ‘all you can eat’ as per music. And it doesn’t cost and thus it is and feels like a public service. 

Of course, a streaming library is as good as it’s contents and fortunately the selection is diverse, large, and even unpredictable when need be. I would have never imagined finding this many good records I enjoy.

My second or third attraction continues with the theme of music. Princeton Record Exchange is all what I remember a good old record store to be, which are either less common than before or then I don’t go to them anymore where I’m from. New records are ample, often even cheaper than the norm, and there right on time: the place further has a big used and discount section. You could theoretically get a good start of a record collection for less than $20. As a collector of some sort, the selection is also admirable (maybe partly because some of the American artists were rarer in Northern Europe than they were here). Nonetheless I count having bought more than 10 cds there in less than six months: that maybe more than the last 3-4 years combined for me. On top there is movies and even games. It is a good antidote for those Fridays when you walk home from work and know there is no weekend plan. On a broader note, I think the place has taught me to appreciate what a good record store is worth once again.

Let me end with some of the surroundings, with knowledge that much more may be reachable by a car. The Mountain Lake Nature Preserve just north of the center has a long stretch of forest and footpaths as well as a mountain lake. Gourgeusly green in the summer, it still is quite nice for a slight homesickness for Northern Europe during the rainy winter months. The little museum piece that started this post is from there: apparently the mountain lakes were dammed for generating an ice infrastructure back in the days. I have yet to find other similar preserves in a walking distance although they may exist.

I wish I could write more as the city center does have an impressive amount of shops and boutiques. I do notice I haven’t managed to visit many of them yet. There is always a chance of discovering something new before we embark, but above are the places I will miss and consider revisiting, if I travel here again some time.

J.G. Thirlwell (Foetus) live at Art’s Birthday Party 2013, Stockholm

J.G.Thirlwell @ Art's Birthday Party 2013

J.G.Thirlwell @ Art's Birthday Party 2013

Images taken from http://sverigesradio.se/sida/default.aspx?programid=3676

I just finished watching a live stream of J.G. Thirlwell’s (Foetus) solo performance at Art’s Birthday Party 2013 in Stockholm. For some reason, this is the first live stream I’ve watched of a show rather than taking myself to a gig place.  How was it? One hour later, I am still at this moment much impressed both technically and sonically — if I can, I’d offer many thanks to all responsible for organizing this public stream. Let me write a little bit more about both these sides starting with the performance itself.

To date, I’ve seen the artist perform live once in 2005. Then — incidentally, just around leaving a job and with the savings I had made, but that’s another story — I traveled alone to Vienna to see him perform with a big band at Donaufest his then new album Love and conduct the orchestra for an older album by the side project Steroid Maximus. It was an excellent experience with fond memories and whereas I traveled alone, I even managed to meet a few students in the audience and discuss the gig afterwards.

Rather than a big band, today’s show, Cholera Nocebo, starts with something more familiar to those who frequent electronic festivals like I used to. Namely, it is a man behind a laptop. We see this laptop played via small keyboard and familiar-looking video footage from a driving car and hear what seem like incidental noises. But already now, the atmosphere is, somehow, cinematic, perhaps reinforced by the musique concrète artifacts that are lying around ready to be used. Soon, the piece indeed turns towards the orchestral: manipulated samples of a real orchestra blast across the speakers, an actual bowed string is played, as is a triangle and other metallic percussions, a music box, and what seems like a treated piano getting its chords pulled. (With my apologies for any faux musical terminology.) Just like a classical soundtrack to a movie unfolding.

This is and always has been my fascination with this performer and his Foetus project in all versions of its name. As I think he has said when interviewed, he uses the studio — or in this case, a laptop, some real instruments, and one extra performer for a while — to make it sound like a full-blown orchestra. At this age, I’ve discovered I have some fascination with classical music, be this due to being a Finn and accustomed to Sibelius or some insignificant musical talent I seemed to show at some point. But I’m afraid I’d never found this out through the normal way of listening to classical. This music just never was ready at hand. For instance, as far as I can remember, I’ve never seen a classical concert performed in a concert hall and don’t know if I will — with no prior experience of going to a concert as a child or later, it is difficult if not impossible to start at 35. However, the kind of music heard today manages to shift the typical venues and the technique of this genre: namely it is just one person, with a laptop or a studio, at a gig, creating the atmosphere, the dynamics, the tensions, and the appeal of orchestral music at least for me. Suffice to say, today’s show accomplished this end very well and I recommend testing the audio stream that is linked at the end of this post.

Secondly, being a computer music hobbyist with some tinkering experience, it was appealing to see this show performed up so close via the video stream. Whereas I know next to nothing about playing most instruments, the using of musical keyboards, laptops, and an incidental manipulated instrument I can appreciate. That they make sound like an orchestra is moreover rather impressive to see in such real time. Also excellent to this end, there was virtually no delay or lag between the audio and the video stream.

Let me now turn more to the technical side of watching the gig from a stream. I must have had some doubts about gigs over stream at least as far as I’ve never managed to see and listen to one before. But today’s stream beat any of my prior expectations by far. Almost the first thing one notes is that the sound is coming from the gig’s mixer and that you receive it in clear stereo. So, in one way, you get clearer, crisper audio than the audience who attended the show. This is not to downplay either way of experiencing the gig but just to note that there can be something inherently different to watching a stream to going to a gig yourself. You also get to see close-ups from cameras including those mentioned instruments getting played. Indeed, all in all, the cutting among several cameras seemed very well done. This is written by someone who is not a professional, but has got long experience in making visuals in the VJ’ing scene. Tonight’s show’s all successful video mixing notwithstanding, I was also charmed by how the crew managed to include an ending by zooming, blurring, and fading away some object in the ceiling. For me, from my prior experience in the VJ scene, this is the kind of sensitivity to the real-time that is crucial for creating visuals, and in my humble opinion, not often done that well. So, many thanks for this stream through this blog marking. 🙂

In the end the audience clapped loudly and I felt I really should have clapped too, but then that would’ve waken up both pets and people.

(It seems that the web site has added the live stream of the sound here: http://sverigesradio.se/sida/default.aspx?programid=3676. If I see the video become available, I shall link it as well.)

Swans, Flow festival, Helsinki, 11 August 2012

I just saw Swans live at the Flow festival, Helsinki. A stunning gig; and very apt for this event, in my opinion.

Rather than trying to  “review” my experience  more – a genre that I really don’t know how to write, any way – let me flesh out some impressions.

All in all, this gig goes against expectations — whether it is that of a “show”, of a “rock band”, of “rock songs” or of the ways in which bands interact with the audience. Memorable moments range from:

  • Michael Gira’s surrealistic (in this context, anyway) welcoming of the audience, “Good morning”, it is 20:00;
  • the long portions of songs that comprise one note;
  • the abruptly shifting vocal styles (from whispers to shouts to clear singing);
  • the short beautiful portions of acoustic music including harmonica (I pictured Apocalypse Now for some reason) ;
  • the gig finish which was just a snare drum (and not really a drum solo);
  • lack of choruses, verses, or bridges albeit certainly there was a structure;
  • the rock mannerisms which were somehow not quite like mannerisms (which showed, perhaps, that such manners are usually very much structured and almost always predictable);
  • the sheer loudness at least based on people talking about it afterwards (with earplugs, which the volunteers hand out enthusiastically, it is not too much to bear; the loudness was felt rather than heard near the front row).

It was a very good, satisfying and almost shattering experience at least to me. I also kept following the reactions near me part out of curiosity, part because they were unusually explicit: some just walk away hastily; some gaze at the audience around them with curiosity maybe trying to sense what others think and then they leave; some make sense themselves and start moshing in the heavy parts, or doing moves in the mellow parts, glancing at their friends maybe for a kind of an approval.

It is also obvious that a lot liked it. “The best rock gig I have seen”, someone says I hear when I walk away after the show is over. I catch some people I know and they seem to concur: it was an excellent gig. And I concur of course. Maybe this is the lesson that was hammered home by the show at least to me: music that defies expectations can still be enjoyed and remembered. I do look forward to other similar experiences.