Saturday, September 02, 2006

Danger Pay...

So there I was, at 11:00 this morning, innocently tuning the piano in the restaurant where I am playing these days, when I noticed someone outside the window. Fairly strange since the window is 200 metres in the air and there is a sheer drop to the Arabian Gulf below. Yes, this man is essentially hanging in space with a big long squeegy and a bucket, cleaning the windows of one of the world’s highest restaurants.

For visual reference, the white dot at lower left is a boat, and not a particularly small one. The islands of ‘The World’ development (check it out, quite mindblowing; don’t miss the nauseating promo movie!) can be dimly seen on the horizon.

more pics and musings at My Other Blog…

Friday, September 01, 2006

a change of scene...

Hi folks... long time no post! in the meantime I have moved my 'default' blog over to Wordpress (link below), for various technical reasons not particularly worth getting into here. The following post was created there, and I have ported it back here - but it doesn't seem to display very well; I recommend viewing it, and changing your bookmarks (should you have them) over to the New Improved Subtle Arts Weblog!...

reflectionsAnyway, I seem to have missed a couple of months there somehow. Sorry about that... Not so much to report, in reality, as the routine is pretty steady here - I run on the treadmill every other day or so, and soak and steam a bit in the spa (nice work if you can get it); otherwise I spend most days writing and mucking about trying to get the computer to do what I want it to... our room at Bab Al Shamsoccasionally working on some electronic music, or wandering across to Madinat for some tea and a change of scene.

Athanasia came for a visit last week and this was definitely an improvement to the overall situation. Desert PoolWe managed to get a few days away at a desert resort (run by the same company - meaning, Staff Discount...) called Bab Al Shams. This was really relaxing and beautiful, if a little artificial, but as my dad said, at least it's a copy of something real, something that grew - Rustic Luxury... that's what I call a nice bathroom!in this case, traditional Arabian fort architecture. It's still a bit surreal, for someone who is not used to ultra-luxury resort hotels, and all that that implies... but nevertheless, hard not to be impressed with the place somehow. It's all very low-rise, two stories and broken up into separate sections by a labyrinth of narrow winding passageways and quiet courtyards, with pools and bubbling fountains here and there. Courtyard SculptureThe rooms are very elegant and beautiful in a rustic way, all sandstone and wood tones and textures, and the spa is simply sublime.

And then there is an intertwining complex of larger pools for swimming and sunbathing and such, which is pretty superb - very easy to pass a few hours floating around and gazing out at the endless sand. In the late afternoon there are camel rides and falconry shows on the dunes; Camel Ridesthe guys running them were not exactly bursting with enthusiasm, but despite the obvious touristy overtones it's hard not to be a little taken in by the atmosphere.desert sunset

At night, after the obligatory mindblowing desert sunset - I had forgotten just how lovely it can be, and how deeply one tends to sink into it - the place takes on a more camp-like atmosphere; in fact, the resort's signature restaurant is offsite, 300 metres away in a slight depression so that neither is quite visible from the other; courtyard firepitit's called Al Hadeera and it has a kind of desert-camp theme, with carpets in the sand and live cooking of quite superb food from around the Arab world. There is also entertainment most nights - music, belly dancing, henna-painting, and so forth - but not on the night we were there, as it was a religious holiday. I suspect it would make the whole thing even more acutely touristy, but that kind of goes with the territory. Desert PoolAnyway. A very nice couple of days.

Our time back here at the Burj Al'Arab was quite enjoyable as well; not quite as photogenic, perhaps, but let's see what we can do. We did get out for an early-morning Abra-ride through the canals and waterways of the Madinat development. Abra, Abra, cadabraAbras are traditional Dubai watercraft, and the ones plying the waters here are electric, very quiet and reasonably eco-friendly, important since one area of the lagoon is sectioned off as a sea-turtle recovery area. Athanasia had a couple of nights out exploring while I was busy working (cue violins) but mostly we just took advantage of the time together which seems very important when it's in scarce supplylobby silhouette...

Well I guess I should consider getting back to work at some point. Hope someone out there finds the pictures interesting... given the new camera (forgot to mention that!) I will try to find time for a few more before I head back to Berlin. Meanwhile, I'll leave you with one of Athanasia's, from the hotel lobby here, which i think is rather striking...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

grooving right along...

OK, three weeks in now and basically settled into a rhythm of sorts. It's still a comfortable place to be, no question about it, and the work is going well: we have a decent repertoire assembled and the group dynamic is coming together nicely. I have figured out where most things are, how to get what I need and not ruffle any feathers doing so.
And I have passed the initial phase where everything is so new and interesting that you have to try it – meaning, to put it plainly, that I am not eating as much. I've realized that most things are in a kind of rotation and you don't have to put a little of everything on your plate, because if you don't try it this time it will come around again.

Additionally, and also hopefully of use in resisting unfettered weight gain, I have managed to make friends with the treadmill. I've never really liked them, I much prefer running outside, preferably in the forest, but with no real option (running outside in the Dubai summer heat would likely be quite dangerous) I am finding it's not so bad. Actually I bought a new pair of runners today, mainly because they were so absurdly cheap compared to Germany.
It's a day off and Lars (our bassist) and I went to the Ibn Battuta Mall, which is by far my favourite of those I've managed to visit so far (malls are kind of the centre of all life in Dubai, and there are a lot of them). It's actually kind of six malls all connected, each done in the architectural style of one of the countries – all Muslim at the time – which the 14th century traveler the mall is named after, visited and wrote about.

So you have the China court, the India court, the Persia court, the Egypt court... and I suppose two others, but that's all I managed to get through today. Since Dubai is such a new city, only half-born as it were, there is little 'real' architecture here, and to get the flavour of the city you have to see what's being built now – much of which is pretty outrageous. Of course, a great deal of it is also quite bland – clusters of tall glass towers with little to distinguish them from one another. There is an enormous herd of these being thrown up nearby at what is called the Dubai Marina, though it has very little to do with marine services from what I can tell. Something like a hundred huge skyscrapers, business hotels and condominiums, all being built at once, and already apparently over 90% sold. Business, at least the construction business, is booming in Dubai.

However, there are also some architectural gems here and there (besides the malls... with or without indoor ski hills), one of which is right next door to us here, the Madinat Jumeirah complex. Jumeirah is the company that owns and runs the Burj Al'Arab, and the Jumeirah Beach Hotel across the street, and a host of other hotels and developments besides. It's a big company, and being a big employer with close ties to the Royal Family, quite powerful as well. As usual, I find it very strange working for large companies, but perhaps it's imprudent to go into too much detail on that...

In any case, Jumeirah have turned away in recent years from the ultra-modern eye-popping style that the Burj represents, and towards a more traditionally-inspired idiom. The result is the Madinat complex, incorporating two large hotels, the Mina A'Salaam and the Al Qasar. The latter is another gated, ultra-luxury project like the Burj and I have not been inside, but the Mina A'Salaam is open and it is, to me, really much more beautiful and tasteful than the over-the-top opulence here (supposedly the Al Qasar is even better;

they also have a desert oasis resort, out in the middle of nowhere, called Bab Al Shams, which I'm told is worth a visit too). There is also a theatre, some private luxury villas, and a 'souk', which means marketplace but it's really more like a low-rise mall with a bit of a traditional Arabic cast to the architecture. It's a tourist trap in some ways, and the deals are not the best in town, but actually it's kind of a nice place to wander through. And it gets me out of the hotel.

The whole compound is arranged around 3 km of artificial lagoon, beautifully manicured, with island villas and sculptured gardens and traditional boats called Abras putting slowly around taking guests from place to place. As with so many things here, none of it is 'real' at all, but it's really quite pleasant all things considered. For a bit of a splash but still well below what a stay in the Burj will run you, it would probably be rather nice. Not that I'm advertising.

Well, as I say, I have more or less adjusted to this rather surreal lifestyle. It really is not too unpleasant.

Besides rehearsing, performing, eating and sleeping, I have spent a fair bit of time watching World Cup matches with Lars and Vadim, the Russian pianist from the lobby band. Still have not found the rhythm to get the creative process kick-started, but hopefully once the World Cup is over that will happen of its own accord. I did finally manage to get to the beach, although it was the middle of the night. I will leave you with this picture of the hotel in its evening dress...

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Burj Al Arab - first thoughts

OK, I've been here for almost a week now, I guess it's about time I got around to writing a few things down and sending them out there into that world – the one I suppose is still out there, somewhere, beyond the confines of the lovely but artificial realm which is, for the moment, my home. I'm afraid it will be very much in my usual meandering style; I will however try to break it up a bit so it's not all in one big chunk. Some of you know how difficult that is for me; I hope you appreciate it!...
I have taken some pictures, and i will post a few here, but it's difficult for me to really capture and convey how strange it is here. At the moment, for example, I am sitting in the lobby cafe listening to the resident traditional quartet playing what sounds like classical Persian music on Ney, Riq, Santur and Oud). I can't take a picture of them as photos are not allowed in this area. Above me stretches the atrium which, even if I could take a picture, it would be impossible to give any real sense of. It's enormous.
I have taken a few from above – from my floor, the 9th (really the 18th, as each floor is actually two; all the main suites are on two levels. My own humble room has a false ceiling, above which is a technical area; I'm not entirely sure what exactly it's for, but thankfully it does not seem to be used much, at least not while I'm there) and from the 18th (36th) where the spa and fitness room are. Hopefully they can give you some idea...
Of course, everything here (besides our rooms) is aimed at all-out, over-the-top, no-holds-barred opulence. For the most part, they achieve it. It's an impressive level of service, if sometimes a little surreal. I think I have been thanked more in the past few days than in the previous 5 years, and for no apparent reason. They say thank you at every possible interaction with a guest. They thank you for riding in the elevator; for giving them your dirty laundry; for walking through the lobby. They thank you when they put the cappuccino you've ordered on your table. Thank you sir, for allowing me to get out of your way. And of course, always, a smile. It's a bit unnerving. Thankfully some of the staff allow themselves a bit of latitude in their relations with the entertainers, a bit of joking around; it's not all as sterile and artificial as it sounds.
They tell me around 1200 people work here. I'm not sure if that includes the entertainers or not (there are 10 of us, by my count – the trio I play in, a Russian quartet who play light classical and such, a strolling guitarist who plays on the terrace, an Armenian pianist who plays melodic easy listening, and a harpist in the fish restaurant downstairs, also Russian; oh, and the traditional quartet, but they don't stay in the hotel), as we fall between the cracks a little – not really staff, not really guests, in a kind of grey area.
We have most of the priveledges of guests, we can eat in some of the restaurants - not all, but then we don't have to pay in the ones we are allowed in... we can use the spa and fitness facilities, come and go more or less as we please as long as we're dressed sharp and on time for the gig. Par for the course, and certainly not a bad way to pass the days, if a bit isolated. The space-station effect.
Anyway, with about 205 suites, that's around 6 staff per suite. When you take into account everything that is involved – a concierge and a butler per 'floor' – there are suites on 24 floors – on duty around the clock; reception staff in the lobby, around the clock; cooks and waiters and hosts and bartenders and sommeliers at 4 restaurants and a handful of bars and cafes; therapists, fitness coaches and various attendants at a fully-appointed spa; clerks at several luxury shops; cleaning staff for all of the above (as well as the fountains and the giant aquarium; see photo); lifeguards for the outdoor pool and the private beach; drivers for the fleet of Rolls Royce limos, on duty all the time; ditto for the buggies which are the main form of transport across the bridge (to the beach areas, the neighboring water park and other hotels in the complex, and the 'souk' - really a kind of mall with a nod to traditional market architecture. It's simply too hot to walk). You begin to get the idea. The place is actually quite seriously understaffed, with many employees working literally absurd hours.
The hotel is really in two wings; the 'billowing sail' which stretches between them, constituting the hotel's facade from the land side (more on this later) is more or less just that – some sort of fabric-like material stretched across a huge frame, and designed to let the wind blow through it to help keep it cool in here. So far so good – at least a tiny nod to ecological concern at the design level. Sadly, that's about as far as it goes; in fact, this place is like a gigantic temple of waste on almost every other level – the endless piles of top-quality towels and linens laundered every day. The ship which comes every night to dredge the channel between the Burj and the mainland to keep it from silting in – for then we would no longer be on an island. I cannot imagine the amount of food from the buffets – amazing food, really, superbly prepared from the freshest and finest ingredients – that is thrown away at the end of each day. I do my best to eat as much of it as I can, but after all there is only so much that one man can do...

OK I'll wrap it up there for today. I'll try to keep momentum and write fairly frequently, at least as long as it seems interesting enough to write about. More soon!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

this is getting out of hand...

I am, unbelievably, writing from 35,000 feet in the air. Posting a blog entry. We are travelling at 575 miles per hour, and are somewhere north of Turkey, if the electronic map in front of me is to be believed. South of Yalta. A friendly man just came through the cabin with free vouchers to try the onboard broadband wireless LAN for 30 minutes for free. We are definitely entering the twilight zone.

Stranger still is the fact that Lars, the bassist with whom I will be playing for the next 4 months, is sitting next to me and talking to his girlfriend on Skype. This is truly insane...

Anyway. I will elaborate on this very shortly- but for now I thought I'd say Hi, just because - again, unbelievably - I can, and because it's been so ridiculously long since I posted anything. I have been meaning to, of course, but normal life has proven remarkably distracting over the last few months. However, here I am... on my way to Dubai, to live in a 7-star hotel for four months. It's a little disorienting, but I am going to try to make the most of it... OK, details to follow...


Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year!

Hi everybody... it's been a while since I posted anything here, and many things have changed, which perhaps there will be time to speak of soon, but not now. This is just a quick note to mark the new year, which we celebrated last night in true Berlin style, as these pictures show: standing on the roof at our friends' place in Neukölln, in the deepest heart of fireworks madness. I think in a way it is one of the great fireworks shows on earth, all the more for being a fundamentally chaotic, anarchistic, unorganized 360 degree free-for-all! Because Berlin is so flat and uniform in terms of height, standing on a rooftop in the midst of many thousands of people firing rockets and roman candles, is a kind of surreally immersive experience, which I cannot readily compare to anything I've experienced anywhere else. It is rather different - and to me somehow more thrilling - than an organized show, no matter how superb, can be. And it is definitely best experienced from a rooftop - at street level it quite honestly feels more like a war zone than anything else, and can be quite frightening and uncomfortable.

Things are otherwise moving along here, and we have many plans for the new year, the first of which is a full restructuring of my studio, made necessary by water damage from an accident upstairs, necessitating some painting and carpet replacement. Luckily virtually nothing of ours was damaged, for which I think I must have paid rather a big portion of my allotment of lucky stars. However, I do have to pack this whole room into boxes over the next week, another reason to make a quick post now - who knows when I'll have time to again!

Well, perhaps I will think of more to write a bit later, for now...
more soon!


Saturday, November 05, 2005


Well, so much for my best intentions to write more often. More weeks have gone by, and they have been rather full ones too, and it's so difficult to gather up the important memories and put them in some sort of order. Oh well, disorder will have to do; it is perhaps a rather more accurate depiction, at any rate.

I am writing from a room in a deliciously rustic house in a small town in the French countryside, St. Laurent. Not so far from Nantes, perhaps three hours or so southwest of Paris. I've been here for about five days now, having been invited to join my friends James and Constance in a small recording project here. We have been staying in Constance's family home, right off the main square, opposite the nuns' cathedral (St. Laurent is a pilgrimage town), adjacent to the Boulangerie which I have yet to see the inside of (hopefully today) but which I am told contains some spectacular manifestations of the baker's art. Well, I have tasted a couple of them, and they certainly did not disappoint. France is the true home of pastry delight.

The business part of this trip has been taking place over at Constance's cousin's place – a few villages over, in Mauleon. Maxence (for that the cousin's name) has a small project studio there which contains, amongst other treasures, an odd assortment of old analog synthesizers and electromechanical keyboards (a wonderful Rhodes, a very early-model Clavinet, a small home-model Pianet, a somewhat dilapidated but perfectly functional ARP String Machine, a little Korg Micropreset..) which we managed to get a great deal of use out of in three and a half days of recording. I was unable to stay longer, as I have to head back to Berlin today, and James will stay on to lay in all the horn and woodwind parts, and with Maxence continue to mould the bed tracks we laid down into an album.

It's a bit tricky to describe what kind of music this is. It is feel-good music, I suppose, which is at least something. It is party music, dance music, but very jazz-inflected too. Funky, dirty clav patterns brush up against weird 'cheesy' organ parts, and bossa-nova ballads sit next to kind of 'organic' dance tracks which we have dubbed 'biotechno'. I had no very clear idea of what kind of shape it was going to take before I came here, but as James is one of the most talented and interesting musicians I know, it seemed likely to be interesting. And although it is still somewhat embryonic at the moment, the results so far seem pretty promising. I can't wait to hear what they cook up in the remaining week.

Maxence is a very interesting character. Firmly rooted in a kind of French 60's kitsch, which pervades pretty much every aspect of his home and life, he lives in a quaint little house next to a lovely park and a babbling brook, with lovely views of the medieval town with its crumbling stone castle from the garden. The studio on the lower floor is cosy, a thicket of wires, a festival of keyboards and musical miscellany. Maxence himself is a very interesting musician, not an 'advanced' player of anything in particular but with very sophisticated tastes and harmonic understanding, quick and subtle ears, and what I would call very musical instincts. Thus far he has been mostly the technician and co-producer, playing a little guitar and bass and tambourine here and there; I think there will be some further guitar parts and some live drums as well. Mainly, though, he has been responsible for getting some very organic and juicy sounds down 'on tape' (well, disc, but that's the way things are these days, isn't it?).

Basically, at the end of the day it will be a groove-oriented, analog keys and winds kind of thing, with two lovely french vocal numbers from Constance (James' wife) who is a really wonderful singer, in a quiet and unassuming but very individual way. All in all I am really quite happy with the quality of what we managed to record in my few days here; the basic ideas came from James (in variously developed stages, some quite rudimentary with tons of room for improvisation and creativity, others more strict and just requiring touch and groove from me) and Maxence's quiet competence and patient open-mindedness were also a very big factor, but I think I can allow myself to be a little proud of my contribution as well. There are a couple of parts which I think are quite impressive, not something everyone can pull off. Quirky, yes, but I think unassailably groovy and musical.

So, back to the present moment... this morning it is rainy and I have to pack up and get ready for the long train ride back to Berlin, but hopefully there will be time for a little stroll in the countryside nearby. Up to now my impressions have mostly been from the car – and much of that time I was driving and unable to give the scenery my fullest attention (this trip has also afforded me an opportunity to remember how to drive standard). I have however managed to appreciate some of the local food and wine, as I have been invited to a number of Constance's family meals here, with her mother and aunt and grandparents and various uncles, cousins, other aunts and old friends – it makes me miss having my own family nearby, of course, especially as there is a similarly eccentric feeling here... but it is very nice to be included. All in all, a lovely trip! But I am looking forward to being home. There is much to do!

More soon... t