Monday, March 31, 2014

Alda on Performing Arts in Iceland

Harpa, Reykjavík, 2012

I've been a fan of the Icelandic performing arts for years and this short essay about a new Icelandic opera  (taken from Alda Sigmundsdóttir's Facebook page, 30 March 2014) eloquently sums up my impressions and then some:

Last night we went to see a new Icelandic opera called Ragnheiður, which has been getting rave reviews. Critics have literally been falling all over themselves with rapture. So I confess I was more than a little curious to see it, though not without apprehension, since I'm not a big opera fan and find few things worse than sitting through a lengthy theatrical performance when I'm bored out of my wits.

But the production totally lived up to the hype. And sitting there in the dark I had some thoughts.

1. Not for the first time I was filled with awe that this tiny nation - 320,000 people - are able to put on a production of such remarkable quality. We went to a Broadway show last summer that was substantially inferior to this. And this is not a one-off. Pretty much every theatrical production you see here in the professional theatres is of such a standard. It completely defies all logic.

2. It was brought home to me how essential the arts are to a nation's identity. This opera is about a very dramatic event in Iceland's history, and it is performed in Icelandic. Sitting in the audience you could FEEL the concentrated attention of all the people watching who connected on a very profound level with all that was going on. It spoke to them - to us. Granted, it would have spoken to anyone - the emotions, occurrences etc. were common to all humanity - but the context, clothing, setting, language, etc. were OURS. And people were crying all around me. Practically sobbing. I have never experienced that at the theatre before. In tear-jerk movies, yes, but never at the theatre.

3. I marvelled at the fact that certain political forces believe that the arts are a luxury, and pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of things. They are not. Performances like the one I saw last night are the glue that hold a nation together. They nourish the finer sensibilities, like compassion, empathy and love, and they foster a sense of unity. They promote a healthy society, and any politician who does not see the value of that is seriously stupid. 

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Masked and Anonymous

A Film
By Larry Charles and Bob Dylan
Sony Pictures Classics, 2003

In the vast universe of Bob Dylan’s work this film is in its own galaxy, a one-off melange of music, current events, history, show biz and philosophy. It bombed on its release over a decade ago, but upon re-watching it last night, I found it to be classic “Bob.” Dylan has always been a keen observer of the human condition and he has used this ability create new music over a framework of eternal themes. The dialog (whether spoken by Bob or someone else) is full of Dylan's trenchant observations, zen riddles, and even a few jokes.

The unbelievably strong cast has a ball in bringing Bob’s characters to life. John Goodman and Jessica Lange are a pair of promoters, trying to score big on a televised benefit featuring the washed up singer/songwriter Jack Fate (Dylan). It boasts of Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Val Kilmer, Giovanni Ribsi, Mickey Rourke, Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz (in a mesmerizing performance). The action takes place in a decaying third world country, riddled with corruption amid the constant threat of revolution. This is a very dark film.

In it, Bob does perform several songs live with his current touring band. His music is used elsewhere in the film in a variety of ways (sometimes performed by other artists) giving an effect akin to an iPod on shuffle, but somehow fitting in context. As a whole, the film may be less than the sum of its parts, but then Bob has always been hard to pigeon-hole, and this effort is no exception. I think this film may actually be more topical now than when it was released. I suspect it will come to be appreciated even more in the future.

Highest recommendation.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fork and Forum

When it comes to dining out I'm hardly what one would describe as adventurous, but I am open to new experiences. Last night was an “event” dinner, featuring one of my favorite local artists, Caitlin Karolczak, held in one of my favorite Minneapolis restaurants, The Grand Cafe. The Grand Cafe has a “farm to table” ethos, no brag, just fact. For a such a neighborhood-oriented venue, owners Dan and Mary Hunter have established a go-to destination with food far beyond the usual bistro fare.

The “Fork and Forum” is a concept they've been exploring: dinner with a creative person such as authors, musicians, visual artists and who knows what-else, a chance to break bread with like-minded people on a shared interest in congenial surroundings. Limited in size it was held in a special private dining area which was just about the right size for a group of 10 or 12 people. There were actually a few more than that last night; the different conversations tended to split the room in half, but it remained lively. It was a low key affair, Caitlin spoke about her upcoming projects and answered questions about her work and methods. I was kind of hoping for a "manifesto" from the artist, but it really isn't her style.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The End of Winter

Flippist World Headquarters, Anoka, Minnesota, February 21, 2014

Today should be the last full day of below freezing temperatures this year. If the long range forecasts are to be believed we shouldn’t have any freezing temps at all in April  which should hold until November. This winter was notable here for the snow and the continuous cold. We didn’t have that much more snow than usual, but what we did have stayed the whole winter—no thawing in January or February to speak of—so whatever fell just stayed.

I’m beginning to think I should spend winters somewhere warmer like Iceland where it was consistently 30-50°F warmer than here!

By Professor Batty

Comments: 4 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Reykjavík By Bike

My trusty steed photographed in Grótta, Seltjarnarnes, Iceland, October 2012


Possibly the best way to see Reykjavík and its surrounding area is by bicycle (Reiðhjól), and is certainly the best way to go if you are an experienced urban cyclist. Most of the city, except for the multi-lane highways, is bike friendly. The bike rental places have practical maps. If you do go outside the city maps are a must—trails meander between hills and it is very easy to get lost. Weekly rentals are not too expensive in the shoulder seasons, but daily rentals in the summer are pretty pricey. Before my last trip I looked online for used bikes, but they were quite expensive and the ads are in Icelandic. Even if you are experienced with bike maintenance you probably won't want to spend your precious time there tinkering with a second-hand bike. The bikes I've rented in the past have all been high quality and perfectly maintained. They were mountain bikes; the wide tires aren't really needed but do add an extra margin of stability.

Things to be aware of: cobblestones and painted street lines, when wet, can be treacherous. If you are riding in the morning in the spring or fall there will often be ice under bridges and in low areas; you may hear a warning of "Ís" (pronounced  'eese'), from oncoming cyclists. Traffic in Reykjavik can be dodgy, especially with cars coming around corners in narrow, curving streets. Some blind corners do have mirrors—good luck with that. Watch out for young idiots on racing bikes (the ones who haven't had their first crash yet) they can be very fast in the hilly parts of town and these fools think nothing of zooming in and out of pedestrians at 30 mph. There are a lot more cyclists on the road in Iceland in the last six or seven years than there used to be. Another thing to be aware of are the little motorized scooters, which are allowed on the bike paths.  Check the weather before you go out, any wind stronger than 10m/s should be avoided.  You should always wear some kind of glasses to protect your eyes from the wind gusts which can carry grit. Riding in town gives you the option of shelter in a shop or under an awning. There are often little squalls of rain throughout the day but they usually they blow over in a few minutes—unless they don't!


If you are riding at night, lights are a must. The rental shops have them, I brought my own as well, you can't have enough. If you have an extra large head (like me) bring your own helmet. Rental bikes have racks, I brought my own rack bag fitted for my camera gear as well as a smaller bag for the handle bars. I didn't bring a water bottle, I just bought a Coke and refilled it with tap water as needed. You should wear layers, and a water resistant windbreaker along for the top. The weather is very changeable, it can be quite cool in the summer and relatively warm (in the sun) in the Spring and Fall, you may need to change your layering several times in a day. Panniers‎ are a good idea, they really don't take up too much room in your luggage if you fill them with your bike clothes. Unless you are doing major trekking, I would advise against bike shoes with clip-less pedal systems, that would require bringing another pair of regular shoes along if you are going exploring at all. You'll need all your storage space for your layers—and another set of shoes would take up a lot of room, although your priorities may be different than mine.

This post isn't meant as the last word in cycling in Iceland, it's just offering a way to see this great ‘little’ city in a more intimate way than driving and with a wider range of vistas than walking.


By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Death of Film Criticism


                       The Grand Budapest Hotel

I braved yet another cold, gray, late-winter day to catch Wes Anderson's latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Being the center of an almost religious cult of fans has its drawbacks—the true believers become insufferable and the haters gotta hate something. It is a most unfortunate situation. The film itself is magnificent in almost every aspect: direction, cinematography, actors, music, art and graphic design (it could be a textbook!), with a madcap plot and even subtle historical allegories. What's not to like?

The problem for me was that the build up to the film was so dramatic and pervasive (thanks to the internet and its army of film reviewers) that what should have been a joyous trip of discovery was diminished by overexposure. It's my own fault, and I knew it going in. There was so much information on the internet, so much really fun eye candy and provocative writing available, that I felt powerless to resist its allure. It was something of an experiment (read as: rationalization) to see just how far I could go with it. I went too far. I almost wish I had known nothing about it before I saw it.

So, I learned my lesson. No more film criticism, no more “b-rolls” and “making of” features, no YouTube clips or multiple trailers on upcoming movies. I’ll try to go in cold, without conscious (or sub-conscious) prejudices, an open mind and heart and hope for the best—at least as far as Wes Anderson is concerned. All these previews and reviews didn’t ruin the film for me (it’s a hoot!) but they did take away some of the surprise and awe.

I’m already looking forward to see it again.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Hay Officer of Hörgár Parish

Reply to a Letter from Helga

A novel by Bergsveinn Birgisson
Translated by Philip Roughton
AmazonCrossing, Las Vegas, 2013

A letter sent to an old lover constitutes this short novel of desire and regret. This is a deep look at the psyche of an Icelandic farmer, Bjarni, a man who is torn between farming and the allure of a woman and a modern life in Reykjavík during its occupation during World War II.  It would be hard to find a story about Icelandic farming that didn't include sheep, this book is no exception. Sheep are the third partner in this triangle and although the story is somewhat sad it is a sadness born not of despair but of conflicting desires.

Bjarni tells the story of his life and in doing so tries to justify his actions to Helga via a series of anecdotes, some of which are very funny, some are quite sad, others are quite earthy; most are a mixture of the three. There is a lot of rural Icelandic culture here, as well as many literary references which are fortunately explained in a glossary. I found the book to be fascinating, although a casual reader without any experience in Icelandic Literature might have a hard time warming to the distinctive perspective of this book.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 1 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Saint Patrick's Day

Minneapolis, The Tempo Bar, 1975

I had been working "Police Hours", an odd rotating shift, days-evenings-nights, six on three off, clerking in the MPD's property and evidence unit. It was a strange life and the relationship I was in was suffering for it. I foundher handwritten note in an open drawer, atop of a pile of underwear. She was a Medievalist, into symbolism. It basically said what I already knew but refused to acknowledge. We were finished. It was a Monday, Saint Patrick's day, and I didn't have to work until Wednesday. I went out.

Some of my old high school buddies had a R&B band and were playing in a nightclub in South Minneapolis, not far from the University district. The groove was on by the time I got there, it was one of those places with a dance floor right next to the low stage, the line between the musicians and the dancers as to who were the actual performers would blur at times. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, except me.

Gradually I thawed as I looked out on the crowd and began to see that there was still joy to be found in the world, even in a tacky nightclub. That was the day I began to live again, to be in the moment, and to finally let the fear subside.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 2 

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Horatio Alger times four for the baby boomers. Just what the world needs—another Beatles biography. Mark Lewisohn's hefty (932 pages) new book The Beatles: All These Years, Volume 1, Tune In is quite possibly the only book on The Beatles career prior to 1963 that one might ever need to read- unless it would be the expanded version of 1700 pages (also available). The first part of a planned trilogy and probably the most interesting part of a story that never fails to intrigue. Lewisohn paints a detailed portrait of the people and places which shaped the formation of the most successful musical act of all time.

Mark also authored The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions,  which is another monument of minutiæ. More of interest to specialists, it really shows how much work went into creating the groups' classic recordings.

The third book shown above contains the notated music of all the Beatles' recorded songs (excepting a few in the Anthology series). Of interest to fledgling guitarists is the inclusion of tablature, handy for figuring out exactly how they voiced their instruments. I've been consulting it for years and I've never found an error in the transcriptions by Tetsuya Fujita, Yuji Hagino, Hajime Kubo, and Goro Sato. 1138 pages, just the thing for your orphan guitar!

By Professor Batty

Comments: 1 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Orphan Guitars

I visited The City of Orphan Guitars last weekend:

A music “trade fair”, although there was darn little trading going on that I could see, just booth after booth of “Orphans”—guitars nobody wants anymore. There were a few good ones, however, the beige National (above) is a masterpiece of Modernist design albeit not too practical. Nobody really needs more than a couple of guitars but they do have a way of multiplying, I'm up to thirteen now, I should be a seller at the next show.

I did rescue another "orphan" a while back. I found it on eBay—just parts really—it was a wreck:

It cleaned up real pretty, I had most of the things I needed to make it playable already:

Another orphan saved; it's a good guitar, I play it often. Somewhere, rotting in a moldy basement or buried in the back of a dingy closet, are other orphans—alone, never played, their sad strings mute. Won’t you find it in your heart to rescue one of these, get it fixed up, learn three chords and play a song on it once in a while?

Everybody now: Louie Louie, A A A D D Em Em Em D D, ad infinitum…

By Professor Batty

Comments: 5 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Wanda Gág Day!

If you suspected that my “artist/obsession” entries over the last few weeks have been leading up to something, you are correct—this post. Today, the anniversary of her birth, is the day to celebrate the life and work of Wanda Gág: artist, writer, translator, feminist and very “Modern” woman.

I’d been doing some research: partly to refine her Wikipedia page (which had been anemic), partly for another project, but mostly because I find her to be a continuing inspiration to me in my artistic efforts.

When Wanda was 15 her father died and her mother sank into depression, Wanda became the de facto head of the household, seeing to the welfare and education of her six younger siblings, even while attending art school. It’s a story she tells in her autobiographical Growing Pains (1941) taken from her diaries. In 1917 she moved to New York where she found work in illustration while continuing her studies in drawing and printmaking.

Her sensual lithographs and spooky block prints caused a sensation in the Greenwich Village art scene of the 1920s. Her circle of friends grew to include such luminaries as Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keefe, Rockwell Kent, Diego Rivera and numerous other Modernists. She contributed a cover to the Leftist magazine The New Masses. From the mid 1920s to the late 1930s her prints were consistently honored in the AGIA's “50 Prints of the Year” collection. Her award-winning book for children, Millions of Cats, remains a benchmark in children’s literature, perpetually being rediscovered by new generations.

Gág lived two lives: one as a respected author of books for children, the other of a fiercely independent free-thinker.  She was well aware of the dichotomy:
I often think, what if my readers and various people who apparently think highly of me, what if they knew that I can feel love for more than one man at the same time, that for years there have been three men on my love-horizon, that I indulge in bizarre and esoteric love rites with my lovers! Would they, knowing this, consider me less good? But I am good. I feel that, in respect to sex, I am pure, clean, ethical, GOOD, all through. ~ diary entry, March 19, 1941
Wanda kept three lovers for many years, in an arrangement which, if not exactly comfortable at times, was apparently acceptable to those concerned. She felt that sex was vital to her creativity, but also that the needs of her lovers would always be secondary to her artistic pursuits.  She could be charming or confrontational, and was fiercely adamant in her feminist views. Carl Zigrosser, her gallery manager (who was also one of her lovers) wrote:
   "She is an enigmatic person, a taut equilibrium of of many conflicting forces, caution and abandon, logical cerebration and jungle temperament, feminine sensibility and masculine ruthlessness, genuine humility and expansive egotism."                            
The noted publisher and designer Egmont Arens, after reading her 1927 article in The Nation magazine These Modern Women: A Hotbed of Feminists, wrote:
   “Be more explicit about your relationships with men. The way you solved that problem seems to me to be the most illuminating part of your career. You have done what all the other ‘modern women’ are still talking about.”
Wanda was also an advocate of a “return to the land” lifestyle, growing her own produce and living as close to nature as possible, spending as much time as she could at her rural “estates”, a ramshackle house (Tumble Timbers, 1925-1930) and then a small farm (All Creation, 1931-1946), both in New Jersey.


Wanda designed her own clothes, translated numerous Brother Grimm fairy tales  (translations still considered classic), and won several book awards. Her breakthrough book Millions of Cats (1927) has never been out of print. Wanda never had children of her own, she felt it would interfere with her art. She had already helped raise her siblings and knew well the sacrifice that entailed. A heavy smoker all her adult life, Wanda died of lung cancer at the age of 53 in 1946.

For more information about her adult life as an artist be sure to check out Wanda Gág: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Prints by Audur H. Winnan; it contains the only published excerpts from her later diaries. The best general biography of Gág is Karen Nelson Hoyle’s Wanda Gág, a Life of Art and Stories.

   Images by Carl Zigrosser and/or Robert Janssen, circa 1925-1929, sketch by Wanda Gág, circa 1941 

More on Wanda…

By Professor Batty

Comments: 7 

Sunday, March 09, 2014


A veritable heatwave forced me out for the third time in a month—a birthday party
for venerable Minneapolis music writer Tom Surowicz (pictured below) at the even
older Schooner Tavern,  possibly the oldest continuously run bar in the Twin Cities:

Tom, a long time supporter of the Minnesota music scene, likes to get his friends
and musical acquaintances together for informal gatherings, paying it forward as
it were. The band on this night was fronted by John Beach (on keyboards) and
included his son (on guitar) and Mary on vocals.
Standards, Blooz and Jazz. Mellow.

Thanks Tom! Hope to see you again next year!

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Friday, March 07, 2014

Annie's Triumph

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Annie Rhiannon Atkins, my old blog-pal, has been in the news lately.  She was the lead graphic designer for the new Wes Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel and is now the subject of an article in the UK publication The Independent (scroll down for image gallery), featured in interviews at the the prowlster, Nylon Magazine, Totally Dublin, as well as an extended piece on the IFTN site. It's great to see her years of hard work being recognized on the world stage. I can hardly wait to see it (opening today in New York and LA; other US cities on the 14th). Close-ups of Annie's graphics start at about the 2:20 mark:

All of the film's graphic elements were "touched" by Annie's genius in some way:

Fox Searchlight Pictures

I really, really, want one of those boxes!

By Professor Batty

Comments: 2 

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