Our last full day on vacation had only one item on the agenda, to drive around Rocky Mountain National Park. This makes something like our fifth NPS property visited on this trip, all except for Mount Rushmore being very topographically oriented. Since we’d spent an inordinate amount of time in the plains the last few days, it seemed to provide a good opportunity to balance things out if we spent our last day in the mountains, and not just any mountains but some of the biggest around.

From Longmont, the trip to Estes Park and the gateway to the National park took a lot longer than the map would indicate, but maybe after driving 75 to 80 mph everywhere for the last week, my perspective was in need of recalibrating. Mom’s Golden Age pass got us into the park for free (normally $20 a carload), which leads me to wonder what is in it for the NPS to offer those things in the first place. They signed her up for one at Wind Cave for a total of $10, and since then we figure we were able to save over $60 in park admission fees, even including yesterday’s National Trails Museum, which isn’t even an NPS property. The only place that openly snubbed it was Mount Rushmore. It would be one thing if the pass was keeping money from the hands of greedy corporations, but I almost feel guilty taking money from the park service, since you always hear about how much they need the cash. Either this is some kind of mandate that’s being forced on them (and that they’re forced to promote, which makes it seem unlikely) or they’re getting some kind of kickback somewhere down the line.

Anyway, RMNP, as the signs in Estes Park call it, was busy, but not horribly so. It’s a big place, so it seemed to have enough room to absorb the throngs of cars without turning into a rolling gridlock like Acadia does at the height of the season. It was a bright sunny day when we got there, and true to form we were done with the visitors center and ready to enter the land of no lunches just about 11:15. We primarily drove up the main road through the park, stopping at one scenic vista after another along the way, each more spectacular than the last as the altitude increased, until we finally rose above the tree line and ended up at the Alpine Visitors Center, about half way along the road. This was the one place in the park that was overcrowded, at least for the time of day that we arrived, around 1:15pm, and it took probably 10 minutes of circling the parking lot before we could snag a space and then another 15 minutes standing in line at the “snack bar” before we could snag an overpriced late lunch.

It was too far to continue all the way to the other side, so we backtracked from whence we came, taking an alternate route towards the bottom by way of the Moraine Park, and bypassing Estes Park by following a long loopy descent through huge canyons along route 7 to get back to Longmont. Just as we were leaving the Moraine Museum the daily thunderstorm caught up with us and we drove through a brief deluge as left the mountains, but by the time we got down to the plains again it had cleared up, although the sky still looked ominous. We found a place in town called Martini’s Bistro to have a sumptuous, reasonably priced dinner, and for once were back at the hotel by 8pm already fed.

Reviewing the trip while waiting for dinner, the rodeo seemed to be a big hit, although it seems a distant memory already, and everybody liked Mount Rushmore and the various wildlife we saw at the different parks, buffalo, prairie dogs, etc. This was probably our most ambitious family vacation with the kids ever, and in spite of the frequent bickering and tantrums that come hand in hand with having them so near each other for extended periods of time, I think on the whole it went very well, well enough to consider doing it again. There are other parts of the country that could benefit from doing a similar circuit, too. But let’s not rush things just yet, there’s still six hours of plane ride to get through tomorrow.

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At the Parkway Plaza, there were no free waffles, but they did have a restaurant on the premises, so we moseyed down there later than we should have for the first real breakfast of the trip. The food was good, there were a few too many flies buzzing around the windows, but this didn’t seem to bother anyone but us.

Before we left Casper, we spent the rest of the morning at the National Trails Museum (sorry, “Interpretive Center”), which is a fairly new place that covers the history of all the different westward trails and the throngs of pioneers who travelled over them. Apparently all the major trails converged in Casper because that was the westernmost point to cross the North Platte River before heading into the mountains. The Museum isn’t large but has a good amount of interactive displays along with several artifacts, with one area each for the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, California Trail, etc. The whole westward expansion via the trails ended in the early 1860’s with the transcontinental railroad, but in its heyday thousands of people a day were making the trip. The Native Americans started out friendly but ended up getting totally screwed.

Since we’d had a large and relatively late breakfast, we hit the road and headed south, the only other item on the agenda being Fort Laramie, one of the major outposts along the trails. Travelling through Wyoming can be a challenge, as you can drive for hours without seeing any place to eat. This is not necessarily surprising, since you can drive for just as long without seeing any people either, but it makes it problematic when you have kids who begin telling you they’re starving about an hour before each meal time should really start. Once we passed through Douglas, there was nothing bigger than Al’s Hot Dog truck between there and the Fort, so we went past the turn and drove an extra 20 miles to Torrington, a thriving metropolis of 5,000 near the Nebraska border which at least had a Hardees.

Then it was back to Fort Laramie, which hasn’t been a fort for over 100 years but still maintains a significant collection of structures from its prime, many of which have been restored and furnished. The kids weren’t terribly excited by most of this, but it gave them a chance to run around, and they did have a few people out among the grounds showing how people lived then, particularly one woman who was washing clothes and got them to try it out.

The storm clouds were looking ominous by the time we were ready to leave, and sure enough within five minutes of getting in the yet another Wyoming scirocco had blown in with driving rain and lightning in every direction. I still wanted to see the trail ruts that were just down the road, so we headed in that direction and took advantage of a brief break in the rain (although not the lightning) to drive down a couple of gravel roads and run up a hill to take a few pictures, but barely had time to get back to the car before it started pouring again. I decided to forgo the Register Cliff site as it was further into the storm front and it was getting late anyway.

We made it back to the highway, the clouds parted and we drove to Cheyenne unimpeded, stopped to have dinner at a Mexican place that wasn’t the one we were originally looking for, but turned out to be pretty good anyway. By then it was very late and we still had to get to Longmont for the night, so it was back on the highway and driving in the dark until we got to our hotel just about at 10pm. It seemed like we’d been driving since we got up, which we hadn’t, but fortunately our last full day tomorrow stays much closer to home base.

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Date with Devils Tower

Jul 31, 2005

After three nights in Rapid City, you’d think we would’ve seen all there was to see there, but no, as it turns out we could’ve spent probably two extra days there doing other stuff that was definitely on the second tier but still seemed worth checking out. But the agenda had already been set, so we left South Dakota behind and headed back into Wyoming. We didn’t really want to stick around too much longer anyway, since the giant Sturgis motorcycle rally was starting in a couple of days, and there were already tons of middle-aged, weathered bikers running around the state checking out the same landmarks as we were.

So it was off to Devils Tower, made famous by the Close Encounters movie but apparently it has been there for quite some time. The tower is fairly remote, it could’ve been done in a day trip from Rapid City with time to spare, but for us it was just a stop along the road to Casper. We spent a couple of hours there, for once it was relatively mild and overcast, and while it threatened to rain it never did while we were at the place. We saw a ranger talk about the history of climbing the tower and how people did it, then did the trail walk all the way around, which wasn’t the original intent, but once we got to the half way point, it was either turn around or keep going.

There’s nowhere to eat within 100 miles of the place, so we bought some time with a few soft pretzels for the kids and ended up not stopping for lunch until Gillette, by which time it was past 2pm. We hadn’t been to any fast food chains the whole trip, so we stopped at Wendy’s. We stopped again in Buffalo, so the kids could take a break at an old carousel that was operated by a gift shop just off the highway. They had a ferris wheel too that was manufactured in Jacksonville, Illinois, but it wasn’t currently operating because of liability reasons.

For dinner we thought we’d do something different for a change and actually check into the hotel first, so we made it to the Parkway Point in Casper for our one night there by 6pm or so. There was supposed to be a steakhouse just down the block, but when we got there there was a huge sign that said there’d been a fire and they had temporarily relocated to… the Parkway Point hotel, and sure enough there it was when we returned. Had to wait a while for a table, and while longer the food (Wyoming is like Barbados in this respect that no one in the service industry is in much of a hurry), but finally had some Wyoming steak and dessert and everything, such that it was after 9 before we were back in the room, so so much for turning in early.

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The Badlands Beckon

Jul 30, 2005

After more waffles, we drove east from Rapid City this morning to visit the Badlands National Park. It was hard to tell from the pictures and the literature what exactly to expect there, but it was quite a place. From our hotel it only took about an hour to get within sight of the place. We stopped near the park entrance at a gift shop place that also had an area where you could see and feed prairie dogs, so we let the kids chase around some prairie dogs for a while. This was the hottest day yet, and by the time we entered the park around 11 am it was already close to 90.

Badlands NP is a National Park because it is a landscape out of place with its surroundings. From the west, you drive pretty much exclusively through the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which also completely surrounds the park, until you get there, with little evidence of any change in topography. Then, just inside the far end of the park, you’re met with something that looks like a cross between the Grand Canyon and some other planet. Huge craggy cliffs jut into the sky and plunge down below you, all colored in alternating narrow stripes. This goes on with some variations through much of the 20 miles or so that comprise the main road through the park. There are quite a few lookout points along the way, I’d say the ones in the eastern half are more interesting than those at the western side.

After stopping at a few of these lookouts and letting the kids run around and climb on the rocks, it was already lunch time, but as luck would have it near the Visitor Center is a combination gift shop, lodge and restaurant that served up some decent grub. Then it was back into the heat for more lookouts (or viewpoints, as the signs said). We made it to the other end by 2:30 or so, which connects back with the highway in the town of Wall. Wall is a wide space in the road except for the enormous Wall Drug which is advertised at least every 1/4 mile as you approach it along I-90. It’s a sprawling department store, crammed full of stuff all subdivided into narrow rooms so you can’t tell without a map where you are or how to get out. At one end is a animatronic T-Rex that starts moving and making noise every 12 minutes. Much of the souvenirs they sell are just everything you can possibly think of with the words “Wall Drug” emblazoned on them, which makes it sort of a recursive souvenir, as it would seem the primary purpose of the store is to sell souvenirs of itself. We walked around a bit, but were there mostly for the ice cream, except for Justin who wasn’t impressed with the selection.

We were back in Rapid City by 5 with no specific items left on the agenda, so we headed for the Rushmore Mall so we could pick up a few supplies at Tar-zhay and then eat dinner at Fuddruckers, one of those chains that used to be in our area but aren’t any more. We dropped Beth and Chloe back at the hotel and then Mom, Justin and I went back to Keystone to see the evening lighting ceremony/extravaganza at Mount Rushmore. There was no laser light show, just a brief speech about the history of the flag, followed by a movie covering the four presidents, and then the lights came up gradually on the monument. The rain and lightning we saw on the way back from the Badlands had held off for the evening, and getting out of the park afterwards was a snap, we were back here by 10:15, with a sleepy Justin who was happy to have taken a few pictures on his newest disposable camera.

Tomorrow is another big driving day through eastern Wyoming to the next hotel, but the kids have lots of movies left to watch, so it shouldn’t be too bad.

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So the focal point of the pilgrimage was at hand today, the momentous trip to…
Mount Rushmore!

Or as Justin would call it, Mountain Rushmore. We slept in a little this morning and got to the free continental breakfast by 8:30 or so. As luck would have it they have the same waffle maker as the other place, so it was waffles all around, then off to the monument, which is only about 15 miles from the hotel. Although most of the literature tends to downplay the amount of time you can reasonably spend there, I would submit that you could easily do most of a day, what with walking around the presidential trail, checking out the museum and the studio, the enormous gift shop and equally enormous cafeteria. We didn’t get out of there until after 2pm. Much of what there is at Mount Rushmore other than the mountain itself is relatively new, so it may be that if you’re going by old information you’ll get the impression that you just go, look for a few minutes, then leave, but that is not the case.

Beth was worried that the monument wouldn’t look as big as she expected, but as it turned out it was plenty big. In the weeks leading up to this trip, there were items in the news that the monument was being cleaned, which at first conjured up images of scaffolding all over the place, but various sources reassured that this was not the case, it was just people on ropes. Purely by coincidence, we arrived this morning to witness a small ceremony on the plaza with the monument in the background, announcing that the cleaning was finished, with presentations between the German company that did the job and the park service representatives.

We took a tour around part of the trail that takes you closer to the monument, so you can look up the noses of all the presidents individually. It was a clear sunny morning, so we got plenty of pictures. If we get ambitious we may return tomorrow evening to watch them light the thing up.

The only other item on the agenda was Crazy Horse, but needing a break from the heat and the whole giant sculpture thing, we took the scenic route along the Iron Mountain road that twists and turns through the Black Hills. This road goes through the Black Hills National Forest, and there were a couple of scenic overlooks where we could see Mount Rushmore from a distance, or else some of the other spectacular scenery of the area, ultimately working our way down to Custer State Park. Apparently the second-largest state park in the country, it’s more of a wildlife preserve, and for a small fee you can drive through the wildlife loop road where most of the animals are. We saw antelope near the road in ones and twos, and then a parade of donkeys that were tame enough to eat out of your hand, regardless of what you offered them. The real search was for buffalo, and given our track record at seeing wildlife, most recently exemplified by the futile search for green monkeys in Barbados, we weren’t optimistic. But towards the end of the drive, we saw a bunch of parked cars up ahead, that upon reaching them revealed to be observing an entire herd of at least 50 buffalo that were in the process of gradually crossing the road, and ended up blocking traffic for 10 minutes or so. You can’t get too close to these guys or they’ll run you over, but they got plenty close to us as they meandered across the street, so we got some good pictures.

Through the whole afternoon it was suddenly overcast and raining off and on, nothing major, but it was getting towards 5 o’clock and we still hadn’t gotten to Crazy Horse, so we got back on the big road and drove up there by way of Custer, stopping briefly to check out some fiberglass buffalo that were decorating the downtown street corners. The Crazy Horse monument is a work in progress, having started to take some basic recognizable shape just in the last 10 years, although work started in the late ’40’s. The scale of the undertaking is just ridiculous, and since it is a privately funded operation, it could easily be another 50 years before it is finished. But while looking at the monument itself requires some imagination, the rest of visitor’s area is pretty large, with an enormous museum, auditorium, restaurant, the sculptor’s home and studio, people doing Native American crafts. We spent a couple of hours there and didn’t see everything.

Scultping monuments out of mountains doesn’t seem to be done much in other countries, it seems to be a multi-generational type of project that requires enormous amounts of cash and some crazy sculptor with the vision to see it through. Mount Rushmore never was completely finished as the original sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, had envisioned, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Crazy Horse monument, which is a far more ambitious project, doesn’t ever quite end up looking like the scale model that is at the forefront of all the pictures. But just to make the attempt and create something that large and iconic is quite an accomplishment in itself.

The rain had cooled things off quite a bit and it was getting late, so we headed for home, stopping in Hill City for dinner at a local diner, imaginatively called the Hill City Diner. Like much of this area, it seems the key was to be as retro as possible, not by carefully constructing a retro look, but by just coming up with a look 40 years ago and never changing anything. The oddest thing were plastic bags of water hanging over the doorways. The waitress called them “redneck fire extinguishers”. The food was good, anyway.

Tomorrow we venture into and through Rapid City on our way to Badlands National Park, and the temperature is expected to be 97 degrees. But first, more waffles!

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As we drove from Fort Collins up towards Douglas, Wyoming, then veering off the Interstate into South Dakota, we were treated to an endless nearly pristine prairie landscape. The lack of topographical features wouldn’t be so pronounced if it wasn’t for the lack of everything else – people, cars, houses, trees, even the cattle that are suppoed to be the ones who have free reign over this area. It’s more undulating terrain than Illinois, and rather than an endless alternation between corn and soybeans, primarily what you see from the highway are even more endless expanses of grassland. It can’t look much different than it did 150 years ago when people started wandering out here in greater numbers.

My fun-to-know fact about Wyoming is that it is the 9th largest state in area, but is the least populated state, containing a measly 500,000 people (50,000 of which are in Cheyenne). Driving through this stretch of eastern Wyoming, the sparsest area of them all, you can’t help but believe it. We poked around the hotel longer than we needed to this morning, getting in on the free breakfast, but this time without the waffles, before beginning the first long driving day of the trip. That 75 mph speed limit made the time go by, we made a pit stop in Cheyenne to see a bit of downtown, but ended up caught in bunch of blocked off streets because of a parade, so we didn’t see as much as we wanted. Might be able to pass through again on Monday on our way back. Then it was about another 100 miles north on I-25 almost to Douglas, with barely any signs of civilization along the way.

Turning right off the interstate, we stopped at a little truck stop/diner for a surprisingly decent lunch, and then we zigzagged through the eastern edge of Wyoming and into South Dakota following US 18 until we reached Hot Springs at about 3pm. At the southern edge of the Black Hills, there was still little evidence of civilization or other tourists until we got to our first destination at the so-called Mammoth Site, a working archeological dig that has been in operation for 30 years uncovering the largest collection of mammoth fossils anywhere. What’s neat about this set-up is that is entirely indoors, so it must be among the cushier archeology sites one can work at. Oddly enough, they only have people digging there on a regular basis for a few weeks of the year, primarily volunteer labor from some outfit called Earthwatch. Then they spend the rest of the year analyzing and cataloguing what they find. We spent a couple of hours there taking the tour around the dig and going through the museum and gift shop. The kids even thought it was relatively interesting.

Wind Cave National Park was just up the road and even though it was pushing toward dinnertime it seemed like we should go ahead and check it out instead of putting it off for another day and potentially missing it entirely. As we drove up the road, Beth read the park guide she’d picked up, which said there was a tour leaving in less than half an hour. We made it there and switched to sneakers and grabbed jackets and sweatshirts and got our tickets with a few minutes to spare. The tour guide took a group of about 40 of us on the “Natural Entrance Tour” or something like that, starting at ground level and going down a series of 300 steps until we were nearly 200 feet below ground. What’s odd about this cave is that there are virtually no stalactites/stalagmites to be seen, but instead some elaborate crisscrossing deposits on the walls and ceilings called boxwork. Wind Cave claims to have 95% of the known boxwork deposits in the world’s caves. The tour took a little over an hour, ending with an elevator ride back to the surface.

We stopped at Pizza Hut in Custer on our way north to Rapid City, and finally got to our hotel shortly after 9, the last stretch in the dark but driven while being treated to a spectacular lightning display. We drove right past the turnoff for the Crazy Horse Monument, which we’ll circle back to tomorrow, along with the star attraction, Mount Rushmore.

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Cheyenne Frontier Days

Jul 27, 2005

Our first full day in the wild west, so what better way to spend a slightly jet-lagged day than at the World’s Largest Rodeo, otherwise known as Cheyenne Frontier Days, going on this week in the capital of Wyoming just up the road. Now, all I knew about rodeo is the 30 seconds I see on OLN while flipping through the channels once in a while, and it’s not something I intend to take up as a spectator sport on a regular basis, but it was kind of fun.

If I were a betting man, I would’ve lost big this morning, as I figured the kids would be up at 4:30, lack of sleep notwithstanding, two hours off their schedule and ready to rock and roll. But instead they seemed to instantly adapt to Mountain time and woke up around 6:30 here. Since we’re all in the same room these first two nights, that was a huge coup on our part. Justin was still cranky, but not as bad as he could have been. We managed to get ourselves ready and go check out the continental breakfast, then headed north and got to the Frontier Park around 9:30 or so.

Reading up on the rodeo ahead of time, they had me worried about the parking situation, but as it turns out during the week I think if you get there before noon you wouldn’t have any problem. CFD is an annual event that is sort of the Wyoming equivalent of the Illinois State Fair, except with the focus on rodeo instead of livestock (although there is a also Wyoming State Fair, as it turns out). The ride from Fort Collins to Cheyenne is devoid of trees or any evidence of civilization, but it’s neat to see the mountains following you along a few miles off to the west while you drive through what appears to be mostly ranch land, rolling terrain with little vegetation and some buffalo off in the distance. The day started on the cool side, perfect weather for a mostly outdoor event.

The rodeo itself takes place every afternoon in a large outdoor grandstand. We got our tickets for that early on, and spent the morning checking out the competition that was just getting started for authentic western pioneer cooking, and taking a tour of the “Behind the Chutes”, basically an excuse to get up close and personal with the various horses and bulls that would be participating in the afternoon’s festivities. The smell of horse manure was omnipresent, making me harken back to my summer working for the State Fair.

A huge, densely packed carnival midway was the main source of food in the area, so we still had time after the tour for overpriced carnival food for lunch. The rodeo itself was a steady stream of bull riding, bronco riding, steer roping, steer wrestling, and various other festivities, punctuated with loud popular music and a running commentary by a couple of cowboys and a jumbotron for instant replays. It was definitely entertaining even for the uninitiated like us, but the show went on well past three hours, so we cut out shortly before it ended. Surprisingly, Chloe was enthralled by the whole thing, even Justin was mildly entertained for the first couple of hours.

After that we checked out the Indian Village and did a little shopping until the Indian Dance demonstration began. By the time that was over it was 7pm and we hadn’t eaten dinner and hadn’t had anything substantial to drink since mid afternoon. So we called it a day and headed back to Fort Collins, where we tracked down an Italian restaurant in the Old Town area, a few miles north of our hotel, and although it was well past their bedtime, the kids managed to do okay and eat something. Bedtime was even later tonight than last night, so they should be comatose for the big ride tomorrow.

I suppose if you’re going to do a big driving vacation like this one, this part of the country is a good place to do it, since most of the interstates have a 75 mph speed limit. So our trip tomorrow to our next destination in Rapid City is over 300 miles, but maybe it won’t seem quite so long if there’s no traffic, nothing to look at, and you can do 75 on the highway legally. Should be fun!

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Here we are in Fort Collins, Colorado, on day one of a nine-day odyssey through the northern plains that constitutes this year’s vacation. The original intent
was to go to Scotland for the Worldcon, but since the airfare never dropped below $800, we went for plan B instead, and I have a feeling that the Black Hills
will look a little like Scotland if it’s a particularly rainy day and you squint really hard.

Got up earlier than usual for a 10am flight to Denver by way of Dallas which took forever but was basically on time and uneventful. As there is no food on
flights of any duration any more, this made a challenge for keeping the kids in snacks and necessitated eating lunch at what was for us 2pm in
Dallas.

Met up with Mom at the Denver airport right on schedule, collected the rental minivan, and since it was only about 5pm local time, headed towards Denver
first for dinner. The planning for this trip has focused primarily on Wyoming and South Dakota, but we are spending four of the 8 nights in Colorado, so I
finally took the time during the flight out to look through the AAA guide on this state, and ended up opting for the Buckhorn Exchange restaurant for dinner, where we dined on cornish hen,
buffalo and elk while the kids had burgers which they were assured was beef. The restaurant is over 100 years old, making it the oldest in Denver if not quite
in the Durgin Park category. Chloe was creeped out by the zillions of stuffed animals mounted on the walls, in cases, and hanging from the ceiling.

Got here to the hotel by 8:30 or so, the kids were totally wired but managed to wind down relatively quickly without too many threats. For this hotel only, Mom is sharing a room with us, and I fully expect them to wake up at 5am, so we may be getting an earlier start tomorrow than necessary. Then it’s off to the Cheyenne Frontier Days (which is 45 miles away, but this is as close as we could get to it
lodging-wise). Sounds kind of like the Wyoming version of the Illinois State Fair, but with the focus on rodeo instead of livestock. Today was overcast and downright cool (as we barely escaped a 90+ heatwave in Boston), but is supposed to be more normal tomorrow.

As to what’s been going on the last 11 weeks or so, well, I don’t know, I’ve been busy? I’m just a loser, I guess. Let’s see if I can keep the updates coming…

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Drury at NEC

May 5, 2005

Went to NEC last night to hear Stephen Drury give a free recital. I heard him last year for the first time as part of his SICPP contemporary piano festival doing the Concord Sonata, and while last night’s program wasn’t quite as cutting edge, there was still a lot of non-standard recital fare. Putting aside the Schumann Papillons and Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentale, both of which were played with a wide variety of expression and touch and took enough chances that it produced a few refreshing wrong notes, let’s focus instead on the “contemporary” stuff which is Drury’s bread and butter. In lieu of any program notes whatsoever in the program, I’ll construct my own.

Guero (1970, rev. 1988) Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935)

“Guero” is the title of an album by Beck, which apparently translates as a Spanish slang term for “White boy”. Since Lachenmann is German through and through, this would seem an odd derivation of the title, I thought maybe it was derived from the same root as “guerra”, Italian for “war”, but altavista says no. Anyway, Lachenmann is a new name to me, but he was the most avant garde composer on the program (which is saying a lot), and with hands down the most avant garde piece, 5 minutes or so of music without any key ever being struck. Drury was called upon to run his fingernails up and down both the tops and edges of the keys, flipping the edges of the keys up, plinking the ends of the strings, depressing the pedal, anything but actually playing a note. The effect is to make electronic-like sounds through a non-electronic instrument.

Extensions 3 (1952) Morton Feldman (1926-1987)

Feldman was probably the most prominent member of the Cage circle other than the master himself, and while I can’t say I’ve heard much of his music in my life, this is about what I would expect it would sound like. He supposedly said of the title, “By extensions I do not mean continuities. I had the feeling of a bridge where you don’t see the beginning or the end, where what you see seems transfixed in space.” This is a short, very pointillist work that at least in this performance never picked up much speed or got very loud. What’s interesting about this kind of music is that each note or chord must be taken for its own sake, because you have no idea what is coming next or whether the note you just heard is the last one in the piece. Drury as always played this with total conviction and kept the audience (which consisted mostly of Drury fans) in rapt attention.

Etudes Australes III, VI (1976) John Cage (1912-1992)

The complete Etudes Australes consists of 32 pieces that if played consecutively would take about 3 hours. The title refers not to Australia specifically, but to the star charts of the Atlas Australis, covering the southern hemisphere, which forms the basis of the work’s notes and chords. As a set these are known to be notoriously difficult, although these two selections didn’t seem to be on the whole. Combined they were less than 10 minutes, and made a nice development from the Feldman in that it was just like the Extensions 3 only moreso, more notes, more contrast of dynamics. Much of this is Drury’s doing, since while the notes are all notated in the score, there are no durations, dynamics or tempo given. He also made subtle use of something slipped under a few of the lower strings, making for some interesting overtones coming out of some of the notes that gave a distinct sense of the suspension of time.

Etude X: Der Zauberlehring Gyorgy Ligeti (b. 1923)
Etude XIII: L’escalier du diable (1988-1994)

By way of contrast, these etudes looked and sounded very difficult, constant chromatic clusters of notes played at a breakneck tempo. Ligeti is Hungary’s greatest modern composer, best known here for his choral works of tone clusters that were used to represent the Monolith in Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The title of the Etude X refers to a poem by Goethe and translates as “The Magician’s Apprentice”, the same source as Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” of Disney fame. The second etude here translates as “The Devil’s Staircase”, programmatically indicated by the gradual ascent up the keyboard of a continuous series of scales. Etudes in the truest sense of the word, these have been recorded with player piano in order to have them go as fast as Ligeti intended, but Drury did just fine by himself, and seems to revel in this type of fiendishly difficult work. Unlike the other pieces mentioned above, the Ligeti was played from memory. All four parts of this half of the program were performed without a break, segueing from one piece directly into the next.

After the Schumann, intermission and the Ravel came the last item on the program:

Carny (1992) John Zorn (b. 1953)

Zorn seems to have his own cult following as a jazz musician, saxophonist and composer, but has also written classical works, and this piece was written for Drury. In fact, you’re best left to read about it from the pianist’s own web site. This piece was probably around 15 minutes and appeared to be extremely difficult, not only technically but conceptually as it consists of a rapid fire juxtaposition of snippets of music in all different styles, sometimes contiguous, sometimes on top of each other (even played backwards in some cases). Drury says he devoted a year of his life to learning this piece because it’s the type of work that, like the Concord Sonata, is a constant process of discovery the more times you play it. The audience was enthusiastic in its response to this piece, but one hearing could hardly do it justice. This is one I would really like to have a recording of.

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Sunday in Cranston

May 4, 2005

One of the interesting things about the piano group is you never know where you’ll be next for a Sunday afternoon soiree. This past weekend it was Cranston, RI, home of one of our members, Richard, who’s a retired doctor (not to be confused with the other Richard, who’s still a practicing doctor, so to speak). Robert and I carpooled down there, as it was a good 70 miles each way, but we got there right on time. Needless to say it wasn’t a large crowd, but large enough, we spent the first hour or so discussing impressionism and Debussy’s Clair de Lune in particular. A few people played it and I brought recordings of Samson Francois (at 4 minutes) and Leon Fleischer (at 5 minutes).

Everyone who played in the recital portion of the program was ready to play, which isn’t always the case. I did my five minutes of Beethoven, the 1st movement of Op 10, No 2. Since we’d come so far, no one was in a hurry to leave, so we hung around for awhile afterwards variously chatting and jamming at the keyboard (Richard has 2 baby grands in his living room, plus a large CD collection of piano music, much of it still in the shrinkwrap). The other Mark in the group (2 Marks, 2 Roberts, 2 Richards, you get the idea) is an afficianado of ragtime, and knowing there would be two pianos brought his own eight-hand arrangement of Joplin’s Chrysanthemum Rag, which we attempted with the two Marks at one piano and the two Roberts at the other. The drive back didn’t seem quite as long, but it was still after 7pm by the time I got home. If Robert were to describe this soiree with his usual flair for words, I’m sure he’d gushingly and enthusiastically call it “very enjoyable”.

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