Sounding the North Conference and Dunblane Concert Wrap-up

 

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From 26th – 29th October I will be giving a presentation on Nordic Viola at Sounding the North conference as part of the Sound Festival, Scotland’s Festival of New Music in Aberdeen.

The conference will explore the following questions:

“What is it that makes northern music sound northern? Is it an association of ideas or experiences? Are the clues to a piece of music’s northernness left there intentionally by the composer? Or do some of the inherent qualities of northern places – the seasonality, the remoteness, the long days and nights, the untouched beauty – become a part of the minds of the people who live  there? Perhaps northern music sounds different just because its creators breathe the air of a different part of the planet.”

The seasons of the north

In my presentation I will explore the idea of the viola embodying the sound of the north. I will look at how the seasons are depicted in music by Nordic composers, focusing on Kári Bæk’s “Vár Trio” flute, viola and bassoon, Poul Ruder’s “Autumn Collection” for solo viola and the two pieces I commissioned: “AND” by Lillie Harris for solo viola and “Ukioq” by Arnannguaq Gerstrøm for flute, viola and bassoon.

Natural Sound

I’ll also look at incorporating recordings of natural sound as well as how these sounds can be imitated instrumentally through pieces by Kristian Blak, Arnannguaq Gerstrøm and myself.

Improvisation

Last, but by no means least, I’ll look at the role of improvisation in my project with reference to performing with Charles Ross in Iceland and, closer to home, with Dávur Juul Magnussen and David Martin as well as improvising solo in the Tvisöngur sound sculpture in Seyðisfjörður. Improvisation is also a tool I’ve used successfully in schools’ workshops – so successfully that I notated and have performed the piece I worked on with students at Anderson High School in Lerwick.

Composers and Performers

There will be lots of exciting composers and performers to mix with at the festival including Bent SørensenGemma McGregor, Alasdair Nicolson, Geoff Palmer, Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson, Gunnar Karel Másson, Arild Anderson, Bozzini Quartet, Edinburgh Quartet and Zoe Martlew.

Dunblane Cathedral Concert

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Personally I absolutely feel that the seasonality, the remoteness, the long days and nights, the untouched beauty do become a part of the minds of the people who live there. My 6 months in the North Atlantic area are something I treasure and long to revisit and hopefully I get that message across in concert.

There were some special moments in the Dunblane concert for me, many of them centred around the younger audience members.DSC_2023 Our special guest from the Faroes, RSNO principal trombone, buried himself deep in the nave of the cathedral and when he started playing, the face of one of my young friends lit up – she loved the idea that the music had moved into the body of the cathedral and come to meet her. Another mother told me how her daughter had come home and written down all the things the music made her think of.

 

 

Pictures © Martin Stewart Photograhy

DSC_1995 I think Dave Hubbard created a fair few fans of the contra-bassoon, too!

Other members of the audience met me in the interval, full of their own stories of the North Atlantic. We had a full house and it was lovely to share my musical experiences of Iceland, the Faroes and Greenland.

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Dunblane School Workshops

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Working with young people has been an important part of Nordic Viola right from the outset. In the run-up to our Dunblane Cathedral Arts Guild concert on Sunday 1st Octobert, flautist Helen Brew and I spent yesterday up at Dunblane High School.

First up was a composition workshop with Advanced Higher Music students. We introduced them to ways of depicting northern landscapes in music. We talked about incorporating recorded sounds from nature into music, either by using the soundtrack itself in the music, or by imitating sounds of nature on our instruments. We also looked at some traditional melodies and talked about how we could draw motifs from these and use techniques such as imitation and canon to develop them.

In the short time we had available, we improvised as a group, setting up a texture to mimic the sounds of ice and wind. We then started laying on top of that fragments of an Inuit entertaining song.

We were just getting into a groove when, unfortunately, the bell went. Hopefully we opened the students’ eyes to new ways of creating music, discovering sounds they never new they had in their instruments!

After school we gathered in the school hall with the orchestra. I was astonished, first of all, at the number of musicians in the school and, secondly, at their sight-reading abilities. We spent an enjoyable hour playing through tunes from Shetland, Orkney and Iceland, all of which my own ensemble will be playing on Sunday.

Thanks go to Dunblane Cathedral Arts Guild for setting up the visit and to Dunblane High School for hosting us. We look forward to entertaining some of the young people and their parents on Sunday afternoon. As well as a wide range of music from the North Atlantic, there will be tales from mine and others’ travels as well as some images of the region to accompany tea and coffee in the interval.

Nordic Viola – 1 year on

One year ago I was about halfway through the first phase of my sabbatical. After two wonderful weeks in the Faroes, I’d just returned to Iceland and was preparing for a concert in the beautiful Bláa Kirkja in Seðisfjörður.

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It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the coming month is going to be one of the busiest yet for Nordic Viola.

Composing the North!

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Things kick off on 25th September in Dunblane High School. Flautist Helen Brew and I will be spending the morning working with four Higher Music students on a composition workshop. Using sounds recorded in Greenland, the Faroes and perhaps even Dunblane, we’ll be exploring how we can use sounds from the natural world to inspire our music making. Maybe we’ll use live sounds in our pieces, or maybe we’ll try imitating them on our own instruments – it’ll be up to the students. We’ll also look at incorporating elements of traditional music into compositions.

Dunblane School Orchestra

After school, Helen and I will work on some music from Iceland, Orkney and Shetland with the school orchestra. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun playing together and hopefully whet the students’ appetites for our concert the following Sunday.

 Dunblane Cathedral Concert

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The concert is in Dunblane Cathedral at 3pm on 1st October and is promoted by the Cathedral Arts Guild. We have a brand new piece by Greenlandic composer, Arnannguaq Gerstrøm. It’s called “Ukioq”, which is Greenlandic for “Winter”. Arnannguaq has created some wonderful “icy” effects from flute, viola and bassoon. I love the way that, as well as the sterner aspects of winter, there is a lot of playfulness in the piece. Alongside this lively new piece there’ll be traditional tunes from the North Atlantic and possibly even a mystery guest!

Aberdeen Sound Festival

Later in October I’ll be at the Sound Festival in October, exploring whether we can pin down a “sound of the north.” More on that nearer the time.

Old Composers, New Composers and the Northern Isles of Scotland!

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Over the last couple of months, I’ve been discovering some new music, travelling to Orkney and Shetland, meeting some new composers and receiving my commission from Arnannguaq Gerstrøm in Greenland.

So far, the Nordic Viola concerts have been based on a narrative of my journey around the North Atlantic during my sabbatical. Looking beyond the concerts that I have planned on 1st October for the Dunblane Cathedral Arts Guild and on 21st January in the RSNO Chamber Series, I would like to put together a programme of more substantial works.

Sermitsiaq by Adrian Vernon Fish

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In Doune we gave the first performance of the last movement of Adrian Vernon Fish’s Sermitsiaq Trio for violin, viola and cello. We’ve had time to play through the entire piece now. I just wish I could take my entire trio over to Nuuk so they can see Sermitsiaq for themselves as this piece perfectly captures all its moods, from imposing to playful. One day!

Jón Leifs and Sibelius

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I’ve also been exploring works by more established (dead!) composers. BBC Radio 3’s Northern Lights series in December 2015 introduced me to the Icelandic composer Jón Leif’s music. I love his huge orchestral scores “Geysir” and “Hekla” depicting the volcanic landscapes of his home country, but he also wrote 3 string quartets and my plan is to earn the first of these.

Sibelius has been a constant inspiration to me. We performed the “Kullervo Symphony” with the RSNO in the 2015 Edinburgh Festival and it is so evocative of the north that I just wanted to jump on a plane and go straight back to Greenland which I’d just visited for the first time. I’ve just got hold of the “Voces Intimae” quartet which I think would make a nice programme with Adrian’s piece. I haven’t been to Finland yet and I guess if Sibelius is going to find its way into my programme then I’d better put it on my list!

St. Magnus Festival, Orkney and some new composers!

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In June, I travelled to Orkney for a weekend at the St. Magnus Festival. I had considered visiting Orkney on my sabbatical but, as I already knew Orkney well, decided to spend more time in Shetland instead. So, in one sense, it was unfinished business but it was also an opportunity to catch up with Lillie Harris and also to meet her colleagues on the composers’ course there. One of these was Angela Elizabeth Slater, whose quartet “In da Eye o’ da Hurricane” fits in perfectly with my project. It is inspired by Christian Tait’s poem “Fae da journal o a crofter’s wife” from Shetland and is a string quartet with the viola set against the other instruments. She also wrote “Flickering Airs in Coloured Skies” for the St. Magnus Festival, perfectly illustrating the weather and landscapes of Orkney with its light and quixotic textures.

Ukioq by Arnannguaq Gerstrøm

Just before I take a rest for the summer, I received my eagerly awaited commission from Arnannguaq Gerstrøm. I’ve been so excited waiting to see how she responded to my brief to write a companion piece to Faroese composer Kári Bæk’s “Vár Trio” for viola, flute and bassoon. I asked Arnannguaq to write something based on either summer or winter and, actually, I’m secretly pleased she chose winter. I’ve travelled to Greenland in both seasons, but winter made the biggest impression on me and that’s when we met. “Ukioq”, which means “Winter”, captures so much of what I remember from my time in Nuuk – the crispness, the capriciousness and the joy of winter. The cold and the wind are there also, of course. We’ll perform “Ukioq” for the first time in Dunblane and then again in the RSNO centre, Glasgow, when I’m hoping that both Arnannguaq and Lillie will be able to come and hear their pieces performed.

Now for a well-earned break and time to meet some old friends in Shetland!

Doune Concert

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The Doune concert on 10th May was the first Nordic Viola concert since my sabbatical officially finished in March. Since the first concert in Kinbuck in August last year, the programme has obviously become much more personal. The countries I visited (Shetland, Faroes, Iceland and Greenland) hold very vivid and immediate memories for me. I have my own stories to tell alongside the many beautiful pieces of music and writing already out there.

I remember when I first set out on the project, I worried about finding enough repertoire; now I have so much to choose from in so many styles (traditional, classical, contemporary) that selecting a concert programme means leaving out music that I’m dying to perform to people! Each piece tells it’s own story of the weather, the wildlife, solitude or a simply a good old knees up on a dark winter’s evening!

One of the features of music-making in the Far North is using the means at your disposal and much of the repertoire is very flexible. I’ve performed with a flute/2 viola/bassoon quartet, solo, with Charles Ross and his huge variety of string instruments (viola, 12 string guitar and Siberian fiddle) and in a viola/cello/piano trio. Doune saw yet another combination: a 2 viola string quartet with Anne Bünemann (violin), David Martin and myself (violas) and Peter Hunt (cello). Lots of people commented on how warm the sound was with 2 violas and how it highlighted the violin sound more than a standard quartet.

Working with composers has been an amazing part of the experience. Kristian Blak taught me so much about Faroese music and he was a big influence on my improvised trio, Mjørkaflókar, which is based on a Faroese melody. He also introduced me to the music of William Heinesen with which I opened the Doune concert. In Iceland, Charles Ross,  taught me a lot about improvisation. We share a love of timbre and instrumental colour and he gave me plenty of new ideas to play around with.  In Shetland I worked with Lillie Harris. Her solo piece, AND, which I performed in Doune continues to develop each time I play it. There is so much potent material in it and you’d be hard pressed to find a more vivid evocation of a Shetland storm! Adrian Vernon Fish shares my love of both Shetland and Greenland and we performed Uyeasound Nocturne (Shetland) and part of his Trio, Sermitsiaq, named after the mountain that guards Greenland’s capital, Nuuk.

The more I travelled, the more fascinated I became with the links between these sea-faring, Viking inhabited islands. The Doune programme reflected that, too:  the Faroes seen through the mists of Shetland, my Icelandic piece Tvisöngur, which started out as an improvisation in Iceland and was composed on Mykines in the Faroes,  traditional Shetland tunes about Greenland dating back to the old whaling trips last century and Polkas brought by the Danes to Greenland.

As in Kinbuck, we filled the hall and took the audience on a journey round the North Atlantic. Be warned, this concert will induce wanderlust: as I speak, two friends are on their way to Iceland…

There’s still much more to come. On 1st October I join up with my original group of Helen Brew (flute), David and I on violas and Dave Hubbard on bassoon for a concert in Dunblane Cathedral. All being well, we’ll have a Greenlandic premiere to perform from the last composer I met on my travels, Arnannguaq Gerstrøm.

 

Future Concerts

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It’s now about 6 weeks since I left Greenland and ended my sabbatical. There are still plenty of concerts planned for Nordic Viola, though. I have collected, composed and commissioned enough repertoire to run several different programmes with various groups of instruments. Each of my next 3 concerts will be different and I’ll be trying out some new pieces.

First up is Doune, about 5 miles from Dunblane, on 10th May. (If you’re a Monty Python fan, Doune Castle  stars in the Holy Grail!). I will be performing with a string quartet with a twist: Anne Bünemann on violin, myself and David Martin on viola and Peter Hunt on cello.

Highlights will be mine, Anne’s and David’s take on an improvisation I first did with Anderson High School in Shetland, based on a Faroese folk tune, a string trio by Adrian Vernon Fish about a Greenlandic mountain (Sermitsiaq) and a lovely set of Shetland tunes inspired by whaling trips in days gone by to Greenland.

Future concerts are a possible performance for the Dunblane Cathedral Arts Guild in October and a concert in the RSNO Chamber Series on 21st January 2018. Both of these will be a line-up of flute, 2 violas and bassoon.

http://www.rsno.org.uk/concert-listing/concert-information/?c_id=744&action=Read+More

We also hope to visit the Faroe Islands again in 2018.

 

Music and Art in Nuuk

I feel very privileged to have experienced a wealth of culture in Nuuk this week. Last week was about playing and teaching for me. This week has been about enjoying other people’s efforts.

Hanne Sandvig Immanuelsen’s Classical Festival has been running all week. It must have taken a lot of effort on Hanne’s part to put this together. Bringing 8 musicians from across the Nordic countries to Greenland takes a lot of organisation and fund-raising. On top of that, Hanne herself was playing first violin in a couple of tricky pieces and also had her own pupils to teach.

Speaking of which, it was great to see the senior string students playing alongside the professionals in some of the pieces in the gala concert on Thursday.17022120_10212282725083088_5611576417340324084_n We do a lot of side-by-side projects with the RSNO. I’ve never had the chance to step outside and listen, but this week showed very clearly how young people step up when they are joined by professional players. Quite aside from all the amazing experiences I’ve had in the last 6 months, that in itself will inspire my work when I go home.

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Kids were to the fore again in the Sunday Brunch concert, this time in the audience. I say audience, but that’s too formal for the setting in Katuaq’s foyer. In this wonderfully adaptable cultural centre, the “brunchers” were eating in the small hall, it’s walls drawn back, whilst the musicians were right in the foyer. The space around them gave young children the chance to get up close. Sometimes I was more focused on the kids than the music, watching their fascination with the double bass, crawling under the piano to get close to the sound and dancing to the music. What a lovely way to present music to people. The playing was good, too, with a mix of chamber works by Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Tchaikovsky and Lumbye, the Danish Strauss.

Saturday night was a different kind of gig with Greenlandic singer Frederik Elsner and his band, also drawn from across the Nordic region. In a nice twist, this was the most formal concert of the week. Nice to see preconceptions and expectations being pushed aside and people enjoying all kinds of music in all kinds of settings for it’s own sake. Greenland, I’m impressed!

On Thursday I also visited the art museum. I was especially impressed by the current exhibition of photography by Jette Bang, a Dane working as far back as the ’40s. Beautiful portraits showing the very different life in Greenland a generation ago. The exhibition space was superb, too. Adele, if you’re reading this, you’d love it. That Arctic light reflecting off the snow outside coming in through long windows has a beautiful quality.

With so much culture around me, I was inspired to do some composing myself, with a piece for flute, 2 violas and bassoon inspired by the brittleness and wildness of this icy world. I’ve got some recordings of natural sound that I’d like to incorporate, but that’ll test my technical competence when I get home.
Talking of iciness, we’ve been down into the minus 20s this weekend. Now even I will own that that is cold. I find it invigorating when the sun is out but the wind is biting and quite sore on the bits of my face I can’t manage to cover!

I’ve sadly only got 3 more days left, so this is probably my last blog from Greenland. It’s been an amazing month. Time has flown by as there has been so much to learn and experience. I can’t resist adding just a few more pictures of this very beautiful country!

Concerts and some lovely weather

Last week was a busy week, much of it spent in the music school, working alongside Hanne Sandvig Immanuelsen. We were preparing for the first concert of Hanne’s Classical Music Festival. I gave a couple of one-to-one lessons and a sectional with the violas and then played alongside them. We also had some guests from the Maniitsoq music school. Maniitsoq is a smaller town north of Nuuk. A children’s choir from Nuuk were also singing with us. For some of the orchestra, this was the first time they’d accompanied a choir, so one of my jobs was to get my enthusiastic and very rhythmic charges to slow down a bit and follow the singers!

There are some quite advanced students in the orchestra, too, and most fun was playing the “Lady Gaga Fugue” (in the style of a Bach organ fugue!!) and “Let it Go” from “Frozen” with them.

The concert in the Hans Egede Church went really well and was a lovely way to start off the festival. Hanne is a real life-force for music in Nuuk, working tirelessly with her pupils and performing herself when time allows. She can turn out a pretty mean polka, too, as she showed in the school concert we gave on Thursday morning!

Concerts resume this week in Katuaq, the arts centre which stands as the proud centrepiece of the city. Katuaq is actually celebrating its 20th birthday this year. It’s a busy place with concerts of all genres, meetings, workshops, a cinema and a bustling cafe.

On Monday I had a lovely meal with Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, her husband Lars and their two lovely children. Arnannguaq is a composer and flautist and is writing a trio for flute, viola and bassoon to complement the trio I have by Kari Baek. We spent some time talking about writing for the viola and various sounds that I can make on the instrument. We had a look, too, at pieces I already have by Lillie Harris and Poul Ruders, as these are such good examples of contemporary writing for the instrument. My hope is that I can get both Lillie and Arnannguaq to a Nordic Viola concert in Scotland. I’d love them to meet each other.

Aside from music, I learned a lot about modern Greenland from Arnannguaq. It’s a country that’s changing rapidly, especially as it confronts the possibility of one day being fully independent from Denmark.

We’ve had a week of beautiful weather. Just as in Scotland, Valentine’s Day seems to be a real turning point. The days are noticeably longer and the sun is higher in the sky. When I arrived, there were just 7 hours of daylight, now it’s 9. I remember one day when I could hardly drag myself away from the colonial harbour for rehearsals as the sunset was so stunning over the sea. When I set off home at 7pm, there was still a strip of deep red on the horizon. Temperatures were down around minus 15 with clear skies and a north wind, but that’s really OK when you’re wrapped in down and merino wool. Clear skies also brought an absolutely stunning aurora on Thursday night. The whole sky was lit up with waves of shimmering light, from luminous green to delicate lilac.

The temperature shot up over the weekend – in fact it rained overnight!! Yuk! That also turned the ski trails icy – I have the bruises to prove it! On the plus side, I enjoyed feeling a little warmth from the sun, hanging around on the rocks just enjoying the panoramas out over the sea.

I can’t believe I’ve only got just over a week left here. Time has flown by learning about this fascinating country and just enjoying the sheer beauty of the place. Once I’m back in the UK I’ll upload some pictures for you.

Greenlandic Music and Culture

 

Musikskolen, Nuuk

One week into my stay in Greenland and it was time to get to work. I’m going to be teaching and playing at the music school most of this week, prior to a concert in the Hans Egede church next Thursday. Nuuk’s music school is thriving with a string orchestra and chamber groups under the tutelage of Hanne Sandvig Immanuelsen. After communicating with Hanne by email for the best part of a year, it was lovely to finally meet.

The afternoon started with a viola sectional before a full orchestral rehearsal. It was a real treat, too, to play with the children’s choir from Nuuk. I love listening to the beautiful Greenlandic language. I wish I could speak it, but I’ve enough on learning Danish. It’s quite challenging teaching through another language, but music is so universal and also children are so patient with language learners, something I’ve found throughout my journey. After the rehearsal I joined in with a quartet playing “Let it Go” from “Frozen”. Apt enough!

As if Hanne didn’t have her hands full enough with the school, she is also organising a week-long classical music festival in Katuaq, the cultural centre.

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Musicians are coming from around the Nordic countries to play. Unfortunately for me there are enough viola players – even I would concede that 3 violas to 2 each of first and second violins would be a little overkill. I get plenty of chances to play at home and for Hanne it’s a well-earned chance to play with other professionals. It’s good for my work/life balance anyhow – ski in the morning, concert afternoon/evening! Perfect!

Arnannguaq Gerstrøm

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On Monday I’m having dinner with Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, a flautist and composer who has had her music performed in Copenhagen and the wonderful Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik. I’ve asked Arnannguaq to write a piece for flute, viola and bassoon to complement Faroese composer Kári Bæk’s “Vár Trio” which Helen, Dave and I performed last August. I know from working with Lillie Harris that it’s a really exciting thing to have a piece written for you and it creates a real bond between you and the composer. It’s also a massive challenge, as obviously the piece has no performance history to fall back on. It’s entirely up to you to decide how the score should be interpreted. Arnannguaq’s piece should be finished by June and I hope to perform it sometime over the summer for the first time, followed by a performance as part of the RSNO Chamber Series on 21st January 2018.

Greenland’s music

Drum Dances

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I had a look round the Greenland National Museum the other day and learned a bit more about the country’s music. Many of you will remember from earlier concerts I’ve played that drum songs were a central part of the culture and were used as entertainment but also to settle disputes. In duels (iverneq) songs (pisit) would be delivered in turn until one person either surrendered or ran out of arguments. The audience were part of the judging process too. Shamans would also use the drum song in séances and trances.

European whalers brought polkas and dance music in the 17th and 18th century. These included Shetlanders and I have a set of tunes from Shetland inspired by Greenland. Shetland fiddler Maurice Henderson made his own journey to Greenland to find the origin of the tune “Willafjord” and has produced a beautiful book published by the Shetland Times. German Moravian Brethren missionaries brought wind instruments and there was a fine case of brass instruments in the museum.

Greenland’s Music Today

From the 70s there has been a move towards more political writing with many fine bands writing music with an anti-colonial message as well as drawing on Inuit music for inspiration. And so the story comes full circle.

My next job will be to root around in Atlantic records and see what I can find to take home with me. I may not have a solo concert on this trip, but actually that may be a good thing. There’s a lot to assimilate and a lot to learn. A lot of music should come out of this month and the performances can come later. I’d like an excuse to come back here again, anyway!

Life in Nuuk, Greenland

I’ve been in Nuuk, Greenland, for 4 days now. I was a bit nervous before I left. Being here for a month is a very different prospect from spending a week on holiday in a hotel like I did last time.

I needn’t have worried – I love it here. I’m staying in a lovely flat in a lovely area, about 15mins from town. DSCN4070Nuuk is like any other small town, really. What is different is, of course, the snow. Really everyone in Scotland should come here for winter driving lessons. The snow is just not an issue. Obviously winter tyres help. Snow doesn’t melt here, so there are enormous piles of it where streets have been cleared.DSCN4039 Pedestrian crossings are marked with gantries – zebra crossings ain’t helpful! Houses are built with the main floor above ground level so you can get through the door.

The weather was gorgeous over the weekend. I’ve bought cross-country skis and I skied myself ragged over the weekend. The trails go out to the coast with views of the mountain, Sermitsiaq. It is very, very beautiful. I’m not sure how cold it is because cold never bothers me, but my sweat did turn to ice inside my goretex yesterday!

Life gets busy over the weekend. I’m in the music school for several days. I have lots of ideas going round my head for a new piece, too, once I can tear myself away from my beautiful surroundings.