Friday, October 21, 2016

Floating Dreams

Totally Thames has a track record of interesting installations on the river, and 2016 was to be no exception.

This time it "Floating Dreams" by South Korean artist Ik-Joong Kang which was moored between the Tate Modern and St. Pauls next to the Millennium Bridge.

Each face was built of elements showing drawings from those that fled North Korea for the South, never to return, of their lost remembered hometowns. At the top a child gazed upwards at the cathedral, lit up on the horizon:
At a time when the world seems awash with refugees, it was a moving and dramatic installation.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Bjork at the Apollo + Bjork Digital at Somerset House

Bjork came to London in September and having just got back from Iceland I was intrigued to experience a bit of that country's most famous artist.

First up was the gig at the Apollo Hammersmith, for which the pic above is the only photo available. While there were flunkies at the Admiralty House to prevent unauthorised photography, at the Bjork gig they were full on secret - or rather not so secret - police, patrolling the isles for anyone daring to pull out their phone. It was rather oppressive. At the door when they found I had actually brought a camera I was pretty much frog-marched to the cloakroom to deposit it.

I wasn't sure about the motivation for this: was it to create a "concert" rather than "gig" atmosphere where the music is the focus or was it to keep the Bjork mystique?

My seat was at the back so it felt a bit remote (in particular compared to the previous night at the Brunel Museum) and the first half was all taken from her Vulnicura album which is about her break-up so was a major downer. Her costume was lit up so in the dark glowed like a luminous jelly-fish, which was cool, though hard to see so far away.

The second half included greater variety of songs and so was more enjoyable (to be honest). All were orchestrated and played by the Aurora Orchestra, who'd I'd seen previously at Kings Place. I found this worked well and part of the growing classic / pop cross-over with lots of interesting layers.

It was good, but more in the interesting way than fun, though the audience seemed prepared to applaud enthusiastically as if at a cult meeting.

The concert was linked into an exhibition at Somerset House called Bjork Digital which I went to on a later weekend. This was "an immersive virtual reality exhibition" and at its heart were four VR pieces. In groups of 25 we were led into rooms in which there were 25 stools each with a VR headset and headphones where we'd simultaneously experience the following:

  • Stonemilker: set on a beach in Iceland with between one and three Bjorks singing directly at you
  • Mouthmantra: set actually inside Bjork's mouth as she sings this song
  • Quicksand: sparks fly from an elf like Bjork creating a magical starscape
  • Notget: a shrunken Bjork grows into a goddess
The first three all used Samsung Gear kit where you could look around but not move while the last was HTC Vive where you could move a short way.

The last two were similar and blur together in my memory: the most memorable part was the growth of the virtual Bjork from having to crouch down at the start to later on having to step back to avoid being rammed in the face by her breasts.

The Mouthmantra was deeply disturbing and really not much fun.

My favourite was Stonemilker which you can experience for yourself if you have the right kit as its on YouTube here. It was really immersive: you felt on that beach and I'd often look round to try and work out where it was filmed only to turn back and find myself face to face with Bjork.

At times I wasn't sure what I was doing there, as it felt the artist was singing to, for and at her ex partner, the video artist Matthew Barney. Some of Bjork's videos did indeed remind me of his Cremaster Cycle, which I caught at the Guggenheim NY exhibition many years ago.

There was also a room where Bjork's videos were being played in a loop with full HD and surround sound.

I did wonder if seeing Bjork's VR in an exhibition was a bit like going to an exhibition of pop-videos in the 1970s, and that in the future it will just be pop-VR, which we will experience everywhere.

But if we are heading in that direction there'll be a period of experimentation, to discover what works and what doesn't, and it is artists like Bjork that are taking those first steps.

My take away thought was this was the first time I'd used VR and felt that, yes, this is cool, I'd like to get my own headset. It technically worked and the content was interesting, rewarding even.

In particular, in Stonemilker, technology and music worked together, a sign of things to come.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Opera Box inside the Thames Tunnel Entrance Shaft

The evening after the concert underneath the Cutty Sark it was off for another in an interesting venue, this time in Rotherhithe.

Previously I'd walked through the Thames Tunnel: constructed between 1825 and 1843 it was the first underneath a navigable river built by the father and son pair of Brunels.

The money kept running out so there wasn't enough for a gently sloping access route and instead the two access shafts were converted into entrances with a narrow ramp around their cylindrical sides. After the tunnel got taken over by the tube (and then the Overground railway (*)) the entrance shaft was disused for over a century.

Recently the tunnel got upgraded and as part of that work the shaft was converted into a performing space adjacent to the Brunel Museum. Here I heard The Opera Box perform a number of works, including:

  • Szymanowski's Six Songs of a Fairytale Princess
  • Butterworth's Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad
  • Debussy Ariettes Oubliees
  • Berg's Der Wein
  • Menotti's The Telephone

It was an amazing experience. The small size of the space meant you were a few metres from the performers and the acoustics were incredible. In the interval we had an interesting talk by someone from the Brunel museum about the tunnel's construction.

The Bergs was particularly memorable as the singer walked round with bottles of wine which she gave to members of the audience (almost me, then she veered to my neighbour).

Most moving was the Butterworth, particularly the last, My Team Ploughing, a conversation between two friends, one alive and the other dead. The performer was dressed as a soldier, like Butterworth himself who was killed in the First World War.

The next evening was to be a third concert in an interesting place, namely the Tower Bridge Bascule Chamber but I got distracted by another...

(*) yes I know, this is an underground bit of overground railway. London transport geeks will of course be aware that there is a place where the Overground railway goes under the Underground railway.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Voyages of the Sea underneath the Cutty Sark

As well as Totally Thames, the weekend of the Estuary Festival was also Open House London (plus Tall Ships in Greenwich - it was a bit of a calendar pile-up) and I went to Admiralty House. Alas there was a no photos under any circumstances rule (and flunkies to enforce it) so will skip that for the next event.

This too mixed an interesting location with something nautical and was a concert by Ensemble Perpetuo called "Voyages of the Sea" held underneath the Cutty Sark (above).

During the boat's controversial restoration it was raised above the dry dock to create a performing space below. I've been wanting to go ever since I heard I'd missed the band British Sea Power playing their From the Sea to the Land Beyond there a few years ago.

The young and enthusiastic Ensemble Perpetuo played pieces themed around the sea, such as Malcolm Arnold's Three Shanties and an arrangement of Debussy's La Mer. There were also three new works with the composers in the audience, the most interesting of which was Panufnik's The Upside Down Sailor which was all about the rescue of Vendee Globe sailor Tony Bullimore.

They were joined by Richard Stilgoe (doing a remarkable impersonation of Jeremy Corbyn) telling Bullimore's story, mostly using his own words. Very enjoyable, though someone should tell them it wasn't part of the Volvo Ocean race as he suggested (I was, of course, too polite).

There was also a chance to look around the Cutty Sark at dusk after it had closed for the general public:
An enjoyable concert and lovely performance space, with another the following evening...

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Thames and Estuary Festivals

The nights are drawing in, I'm back in London where there are no icebergs but a backlog of posts.

First up, some pics from September when Totally Thames met the Estuary Festival.

The Totally Thames has been a highlight of the calendar for the last couple of years with a month of activities focused on the great river flowing through London. Previously had an encounter with an enormous hippo and collected some seriously old flints from the Vauxhall foreshore.

This year was only able to see a handful of events as was away for the start of the month (and the Great River Race) and also the end of the month.

In between went down to Tilbury for the complementary Estuary Festival. This celebrates the edge-lands where the Thames merges into the North Sea between banks of mud and grass via various forms of art.

One of the key sites was the Tilbury Passenger Terminal, a Grade 2* listed historic building with that romantic abandoned feel to it:

This was the site of Points of Departure, an arts programme that included talks, video installations, audio installations, the canoe Ghost to take you to the land of the dead, live music with dynamically updated score derived from sounds from an underwater microphone, video of music played on a cockle boat out in the Thames Estuary about the wreck of the London, pictures, photos, found objects and much more.

Offshore there were tugs pumping their impressive arcs of water (top) and a bell you could ring to commemorate something or other (up to you):
One of my favourites was a set of videos with music about Trinity Wharf (another fab place) by the same artist as the 1,000 year Longplayer piece currently being played at that site by Jem Finer. It had the title of 51 31'44"N 0 0'38"E which is of course the coordinates of Trinity Wharf. You can watch some of them here: there's a dream like feeling that means they shouldn't be rushed.

It was the first such Estuary Festival and I think it was a fantastic start, so hope to see it back again in years to come.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Three icebergs

Like a snowflake, each iceberg is slightly different.

The "Ooooh! An iceberg!!!" stage melts away like the bergs themselves but then some 'bergs catch the eye of even the most blase, such as when there's a good hole like this one:
Other times there's a fleeting moment when sea, ice and sky all align:
Icebergs are always melting and hence changing. Every now and then one will melt so much that it will become top-heavy and rotate so its best not to get too close, though the sight is very impressive.

All photos taken in Scoresby Sound, Greenland on the schooner Opal or its Zodiac.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Monday, September 26, 2016

Geology of Greenland

The geology of Greenland is fascinating, even to a non-expert like me.

Parts of it are some of the oldest, if not the oldest, rocks on planet Earth, going back an estimated 3.5 billion years.

There is evidence of volcanic activity all over the place, such as the basalt columns above. These must cool just right (slowly) to form these hexagonal columns like at Fingal's Cave or the Giant's Causeway.

In other places there were seams running through much younger sandstone, such as here (with the shadow of the mast):
The red sandstone made this island look more than a little like Uluru (Ayers Rock), but with these plates of basalt running through. As the sandstone is relatively soft it wears away, leaving the harder volcanic rock standing, its own little island.

In other places the volcanic layers went through the harder granite and so was wearing away quicker than the surrounding rocks, reversing the effect.

Then of course there was ample evidence of glacier activity in the shape of the fjord and also the way stones were shaped by the flow of ice:
There were quite a few standing stones like this, presumably deposited by some glacier in the past.

Other stones seemed shaped less by the random forces of nature than some directed intelligence:
Even in this wilderness we humans can't help leaving messages saying "we were here".

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Wildlife of Greenland

A recent report into the world's wilderness showed a dramatic reduction, under attack by humanity's ever spreading presence.

But East Greenland is one of those areas that is still mostly untouched and there is a fair amount of wildlife to see, such as the polar bear above and below:
We also saw quite a lot of muskox:
They always seemed rather sad at their lot: wandering around the freezing wilds, eating the sparse shrubs and under threat of attack from polar bears.

There were also quite a lot of Arctic hare which seemed more chilled:
The seals seemed curious as to what we were doing, though also rather good at diving just as had the camera pointing in the right direction:
There were quite a variety of birds, though I'm not really an expert on types:
Some saw narwhal, but all I really saw were some blobs on the water without resolving exactly what they were.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Victualling in Greenland

There are no marinas in Scoresby Sound - and that's definitely a good thing. We saw more muskox than other boats, and I hope it remains unspoilt for as long as possible.

But how to do you victual the boat if there are no marinas with fresh water on tap and nearby supermarkets?

It turned out that watering is relatively easy: find a stream that is running (a surprising number were dry) then run the boat aground as near as possible.

It helps that there is usually a steep drop-off at the coastline so you can get even a schooner like Opal (above) close in relatively easily. Its worth checking for large underwater rocks to avoid a clunk! as the boat bounces off one and go for the type of beach here where there will just be a gentle crunch!.

Then lower a pipe into the fresh waters and start the pump and lo and behold the fresh water tanks are full again.

Food is trickier, but a top tip is to talk to the local Inuit hunters to see what they have on offer. We were offered this chunk of very freshly shot muskox:
Being so fresh it was left to hang for a few days until nicely matured and then made some superb appetisers and dinners, including a fab spag bog.

While there are no marinas there are plenty of anchorages and if you know where to look some special places where you can set your mooring lines into shackles attached to one of those 1,800m high cliffs:
Worth having those fenders at the ready to moor up to The Wall and have a whisky and pancake party!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Sailing the schooner Opal

Ok I was "guest" not "crew" but whenever Opal went sailing there was a call-out for willing hands and I was pretty keen to help out (*).

As noted early, sailing was only attempted when going downwind as tacking a tall ship upwind in a narrow channel full of icebergs isn't much fun. But we did sail on 3 of the 6 full days on-board and tried out 6 of the 10 sails, which isn't bad.

You can see four of the sails in the photo at the top and there were also the two below:
Square rigged sails seem to have a lot more lines to manage and we had a go at almost all of them.

Most interesting was untying the lines holding the topsail and topgallant sails to their respective yards. This involved heading up the mast and then along the yards to the ends, untying knots as you went. The view was very impressive:
This pic was taken from another time when only went to the crows nest (with a glacier in the background).

However, an idea of what it was like out on the yard ends can be seen in this pic of the sailing instructor tying the lines (with an iceberg in the background):
We also hoisted the gaff rigged mainsail which involved lots of swigging and making sure the throat and head went up as at the same speed so the gaff was nearly horizontal.

The final sail was the course sail.

Then we could switch off the engine and properly sail. I had a go helming and remember going about 5 knots down Ofjord trying (successfully) not to steer into an iceberg.

Charts were pretty useless so it was good that visibility was excellent. The difference between charts and reality can be shown in the image below in which radar reflections from the mountains at the edges of the fjord can be seen to be very different from the chart's positions:
The Opal was at the centre of the channel at the time, not ramming into the cliffs. The blobs on the radar plot on the right are of course icebergs.

All in all, a lot of fun.

(*) ok, there was this time that the shout-out went to go up the rigging to furl and tie the topsail and topgallant and I said no thanks as had just had a double whisky and it seemed to fail the key health and safety test (**)

(**) namely, could I tell this story to mum without getting into trouble

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Sailing Scoresby Sound, Greenland

This is very approximately the route we took on the schooner Opal into Scoresby Sound.

Scoresby Sound is said to be one of the longest fjord systems in the word, if not the longest, extending around 300 - 350 km from the opening.

The opening itself is nearly 30 km, so similar to the closest point of the English channel. But the other side is much clearer as the fjord is surrounded by staggering high mountains. Cliffs drop from 1,900 m down to the sea and keep going under water for a couple of hundred metres more.

The scenery is spectacular, so much that even when the weather was 7 layers cold it was hard not to be on deck. I can see why so often would meet yachts at Reykjavik either on their way there or back.

The typical route is to do a circumnavigation of Milne Land, as in the Google Earth picture above, which is about 700 km or 375 NM over the week.

Top highlights included:

  • Inuit dinner at Ittoqqortoormiit
  • Uncountable number of icebergs
  • Countable but unknown number of glaciers
  • One polar bear
  • Many muskoxs
  • Several arctic hare
  • Lots of seals
  • One icy dip
  • Two trips up the mast
  • Sailing on three days
  • Five nights saw the northern lights
  • A wealth of geology
  • One bonfire
  • A couple of BBQs
  • Lots of good food
  • Fresh bread
  • The Wall pancake and whisky party

... and much more. I'll have to groups these by topics, starting with sailing...

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Schooner Opal

At Constable Point (Nerlerit Inaat) we joined the Opal, above, and from the start I just loved this ship.

The Opal was built in 1951 in Germany as a trawler and then converted into a schooner. Later the gaff rig was modified to include foremast square rig topsails and topgallants.

This modification was because in waters such as Scoresby Sound the wind tends to blow along the fjords, meaning you're either going slap bang against it or with it. And tacking into the wind in a narrow channel full of icebergs isn't much fun, so in practice you'd motor. Hence you'd be most likely to sail downwind where a square rig is actually more practical.

Also it looks just lovely.

The engine was electric with a generator, so it could be ultra quiet plus it was very efficient, which helped reduce CO2 emissions. The owner (North Sailing) was keen to go carbon neutral and when Opal is sailing close to Iceland it can recharge the batteries from the renewable grid.

So lovely and good for the environment!

Below deck there were cosy cabins with bunk beds named after exploration vessels:

There was also a log burning stove which made the cabin nice and warm and created atmospheric scenes on deck: