Kiwi Tracks: September 2006

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Surf + Klezmer = Surfing USSR

I started writing this post twice already and both times I was punished with a browser crash! It made me angry to the point of resigning the task thinking: I'm not meant to write about this subject.
But I misunderstood the cue: it simply made me wait until I was ready to write this post. What was originally intended to be an announcement turned into more of a review (with an exiciting announcement at the end).

But let's start with what this post is all about.
Last week I came upon an announcement of a concert/short film screening-event organized by the Physics Room. The name of the band caught my attention instantly: Surfing USSR!
Well, I have to admit I wasn't familiar with this band at all (having just moved to ChCh last year), but it seemed to be a Surf band. Doing a little research on this band wetted my appetite even more. Surfing USSR blends Surf music with Klezmer.
My friends know that I have a a bit of an unique taste in music (a bit of that can be heard in the teahouse). Anyways, two of my favourite musical flavours are Surf and Klezmer music. Generally speaking, the two have not much in common: Klezmer is the spiritual music of Jews and rooted in century-old traditions while Surf music developed as the expression of a young generation in the late 50s/early 60s as a style of the then new rock music. Despite these differences they share one important element: a sense for sweet melodies! In Klezmer music, these are usually presented by a clarinet, while the guitar does the melodic work in Surf music. Surfing USSR takes melodies from traditional Klezmer tunes and transforms them into something that fits both genres perfectly (don't get me wrong, it isn't anything like traditional Klezmer music, more like the avantgarde Klezmer/Jazz from John Zorn's Tzadik label).
Originally, I wanted to write an announcement of the concert/movie performance that happened last night. Now, that I've seen them last night at the SOFA gallery in the Arts Center, I'll let you know what I thought of the performance.
I went there with the expectation of a concert rather than an art event (I guess I should've read the flyer more thoroughly!). It turned out to be a seated event with Surfing USSR supplying a live soundtrack for a selection of New Zealand short films. The movies covered a wide range from experimental collages (9417597 by Lissa Mitchell) to social commentary (Mad Scientist by Mike Heynes). The music contributed a good part to tricking me into initially believing that those short films were old films from Russia (the root of Klezmer is in Eastern Europe and most melodies have a "Russian" sound to them). But I found out from the program that all films were made by New Zealanders.
This event was a great example of how music can greatly enrich your visual experience (another excellent showcase that I was fortunate enough to witness was Lambchop's live soundtrack to Murnau's "Sunrise").
The band was incredibly tight despite the fact that one of the members now lives in Auckland and they haven't played a gig together since 2005! Chris O'Connor on drums supplied some very pointed musical commentary to the films and came up with an equally compelling and unusual set of percussion. Marc Howe on bass formed the stable base of the band, tying it all together. And Greg Malcolm on guitar created a sound that ranged from (mostly) sweet melodies to short noisy bits. The band's ability to change tempo effortlessly (that might be one of the reasons why someone compared them to Frank Zappa, who reportedly required his band members to change from a Reggae to a Ska rhythm instantly) and make it all sound so easy was very impressive. While most pieces were Klezmer-inspired, some pieces ventured slightly more into the realm of experimental sounds. An example was the piece accompanying the film 9417597 which reminded me of a track by Windy & Carl (from their phenomenal "Antarctica" release) in its use of repetition to create a certain mood.
... Listening now to their CD "Surferdelic", I'm sometimes reminded of the guitar work of one of my favourite jazz guitarists, Bill Frisell (especially on "Resurrection of the dead") ...

Since they announced a short-notice (I think, Greg called it "private") concert at the Wunderbar tonight at 8 p.m., I can only urge anybody with a interest in surf/klezmer/avantgarde/noise/jazz to come and see them perform. I'm sure it's gonna be a great night!

Thank you Greg, Marc & Matt for the show last night (and thanks to the Physics Room for making it possible). I'll see you tonight.

Note: Don't take my (amateurish) word for it, check out the review of their album "Surferdelic" from THE expert in Surf music, Phil Dirt, on Reverb Central.

UPDATE 18 Sep: The concert last night at the Wunderbar was very exciting. The small audience was treated to some great musicianship and truly awesome music. Chris, I've seen some amazing drummers (off the top of my hat: Michael Sarin in Dave Douglas' String Quartet in 1995 or 1996 was a revelation) and you rock! As I said to you, I have no idea how you can possibly coordinate your limbs and brain. It all seems so natural (and fun). Marc, I have great respect for your ability to keep those two (Greg & Chris) together and under control; I imagine that to be quite a task. And Greg, thanks for your guitar work. I appreciate your urge to experiment which isn't often found in a musician who commands his instrument as perfectly as you do. Thanks again for another great night (and thanks for "What is it Keith?", I quite liked it on first listen).

Friday, September 01, 2006

Mt. Rolleston, Low Peak (via Rome Ridge)

What an exhilarating experience! The ascend to the Low Peak of Mt. Rolleston (2212m) was equally long, scary and beautiful. In short: a memorable day out amongst the tops!

Rome Ridge ImpressionThis trip came to me almost like a miracle since I didn't expect to get out into the mountains for quite some time due to the opening of Ya-Ya teahouse which requires me to work there on the weekends. But when Andrew (who was also on the trip to Mt. Cassidy) sent an
email on Thursday, looking for a partner to climb Mt. Rolleston the next day, I grabbed hold of the opportunity. Weather forcast predicted a perfect day and I could easily squeeze in a day off work.

So Andrew and I left Christchurch Thursday night to spend a cold night in Arthur's Pass village. After getting up at 5 o'clock, we stepped out into the bush at the head of Coral Track at 6:15. First light on Mt.Rolleston The timing worked out just perfectly when, after following the steep bush track in the dark for about an hour, we reached the bushline and caught our first glimpse of Low Peak in the golden light of the first sunrays. We saw the whole tour laid out before us: Rome Ridge is a long ridgeline leading all the way up to the summit.
From our perspective it didn't appear to be very far to the summit but we had been warned that this was going to be a long day and so we weren't fooled that easily.

Setting out in the snow on a much more gentle slope than in the bush made for quite a nice change. Relatively fresh footsteps indicated that First sun on Mt.Rollestonsomeone had been up there the previous day and we were happy to follow them, not having to kick our own steps (Thank you, stranger!). The weather turned out to be fantastic: not a single cloud in the sky, frosty temperatures and hardly any wind. Snow conditions were good, albeit not perfect. While Andrew would have loved it all frozen hard I was quite happy to have a 5-10 cm "cushion" on top. Walking was quite comfortable and we didn't need our crampons for quite some time.

Pristine Beauty... There is something really exciting about ridge travel, especially in the snow: you follow a fairly narrow path with steep slopes on both sides and you know the consequences of a wrong step, but at the same time you feel very safe. That's how I usually feel on a ridgeline, somewhat caught in contradicting feelings ...

We quickly found out how the appearance of the summit's proximity could be so deceptive. What looked like a long, slowly ascending ridge from a distance was in reality a series of steep drops and climbs along that ridgeline. Not quite as direct as it originally appeared. Ridge TravelBut Rome Ridge has a lot of character, constantly surprises you with unexpected angles and perspectives. I also found myself deeply impressed by the natural aesthetics of the smooth curves and variations that resulted from the interaction of rock, snow and light.

The route along the lower part of the ridge was fairly straightforward with easy walking for most parts. Aside from some very short steep climbs we could just stroll along and enjoy the fantastic scenery. After about 2.5 hours, we had made our way along the lower ridge from the bushline and had reached the gap which marks the begin of the final ascend to Low Peak. Neither Andrew nor I had done this trip before but we had heard that there would be a slightly tricky passage around the gap which we had to negotiate. The buttress at the gap can be circumvented on either side and we decided to continue following the footsteps to the SW-side. Panorama Rome RidgeAfter traversing down a snowfield and loosing about 100m of altitude, we reached the bottom of an icy gully which marked the way up. Andrew - the experienced one of the two of us - suggested to get the crampons and second ice-tool out, a call for which would be VERY thankful very shortly after. While we had our packs down, we put our harnesses on as well - another sensitive judgement!

Starting up a very steep section, Andrew came to life: he obviously embraced this bit of a challenge as a welcome change from the ridge-travel that we'd done up to here. Since he knew about my lack of experience with this kind of terrain, he made sure I was allright and offered to rope up if I needed to. Andrew climbing ahead'This is some seriously steep ground' were his words, I believe. But I felt allright and saw no reason to stop and rope up (until it was a bit too late, that is).

Only about 5m further along the wall (Andrew must have grown wings, since he disappeared very quickly out of sight), I grew a little uneasy about the surface conditions, finding my ice axe scraping trough powder or bouncing off solid rock on one side while the other side still anchored safely in firm ice. It was at a near-vertical bit (at least that was my impression of its angle), that I felt uneasy enough to decide I couldn't go on like that: One axe secured my position, with the other wildly feeling for a hold, one crampon semi-secure in a crack in the rock and the other one kicking! It was a nigthmare! I didn't really know what to do, so I called Andrew: 'I'm not o.k. anymore, I'd take you up on the offer of roping up!' (wondering how to rope up in that position since I couldn't move, let alone taking my pack off to get some ice-tools up to Andrew). It turned out that Andrew was just within earshot, but it was hard to understand what he was saying. He told me to back-climb into a safer position and that he would get the rope to me. Back-climbing? How should I do that? I felt a sligth panic crawling up, intensified through the slow tiring of the one arm and leg that secured my current position. I looked back over my shoulder, down the gully and decided that this was it: I was definitely going to die in this spot! For a moment I felt sorry for my friends and family and regretted to have far too many items left on the things-to-do-in-this-lifetime list.

Climbing the stairsBut the moment passed and the spirit returned to me, so I started to try getting back to a safer spot. I made it down about 2m to a rock outcrop where I could at least rest my foot and get both axes into the ice. As I evaluated my situation, I noticed that my hands and feet were extremely cold. (Thoughts about losing fingers and toes ploughed their way through my brain)

Andrew had to back-climb quite a bit to get the rope down to my position. I heard him mutter unintelligible curses when the rope just wouldn't end up in the gully I was stuck in but invariably slip into the next gully over, only about 2m beyond my reach. We both got quite frustrated by the whole affair and were more than happy when I had finally roped up and began my 2nd attempt on the wall. It is amazing what a rope does to your confidence (even though Andrew didn't have too much confidence in the anchors he set up since the snow was very soft). I managed to negotiate the steep section with a lot of effort and leaned into the rope slightly twice (not only to test it!).

Andrew is loving it... The whole tricky section was only about 10 to 15m long, above the steep bit was a steep but nice gully with near-mint snow conditions ...
The way above the gully to Low Peak was certainly steeper than the lower parts of the ridge, but nothing complicated. The snow was quite good and we made good progress. About 20 Minutes below the summit we found a nice flat piece without wind that was perfect for lunch and gave us the opportunity to discuss the excitement we had in that gully.

After about 8.5 hrs we finally stood on the summit of Low Peak, rewarded with an breathtaking panorama. We were in the middle of a Winter-Wonderland straigth out of some fairy tale! Longingly, I looked towards the 'real' summit of Mt. Rolleston and decided to come back to stand there next time.
Panorama from Low Peak

Our descend was via the Otira Slide and out to the road following the Otira Valley. Friends of ours had come up this way about a week ago and we knew that the conditions would be fairly o.k. But a full day of sunshine had turned the top-layer into some soft slush (mixed with hard ice in shady spots), providing less than perfect footing. Long way downProgress was fairly slow since we had to face towards the slope for most of the way down. Towards the bottom of the slide, we tried to bumslide our way down - with mixed success.

When we reached the bottom of the valley, dusk started to come over us and we were overwhelmed by the lighting for the second time today. Walking out the Otira was uneventful and we were mainly driven by the desire to get back to the car. Every attempt to hitchhike back to our car at the head of the Coral Track was unsuccessful and so we ended up walking for an extra hour along SH73, before we could get out of our boots and rest our legs sitting down.

I want to thank Andrew first for initiating this trip and second for being such a great partner on the mountain, you made me feel really safe!

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