20 Jan-25 Jan, 2009


After some brief flurries of snow on Monday morning, Tuesday morning’s drizzle was not altogether welcoming, but was not as alarming. I greeted the day the same way as I imagine a student might greet his normal, though not beloved, teacher after a stint with a horrible substitute: “hello, you’re back then, are you? Feeling better? Good.”


Tuesday proper did not start for me until after my first class of the day, Art History. I had lunch, and decided to take a stroll over to Princes Street and see if I could find The Wind Section, a music store dedicated to the needs of woodwind and brasswind musicians. I found the store a bit small, and sadly containing mostly new American instruments, and chatted with some of the people who work there. I always like to get a feel for the local music repairmen, so that I can feel comfortable returning should an accident happen. You don’t have to love the repair people you work with; just trusting them is enough.

Around the corner from The Wind Section sits The Royal Bank of Scotland, which is rather acutely feeling the squeeze of what is here ubiquitously called “the credit crunch.” I swear that phrase is on everybody’s lips, and with the Great British Pound falling to the lowest it has been in years, I can understand why. About a year ago, one pound would buy close to two dollars; as of Thursday evening, it had fallen to a dollar thirty-seven. Stores are featuring credit-crunch prices and sales of 70% off are not unheard of. The RBS seemed strangely silent from the outside. I saw only a few men in suits rushing around outside its doors, where I imagine in times of prosperity many more would have been. When I returned to the flat, I darkly joked that I had seen members of the bank outside with butter-knives, carefully scraping the gold off their fences and insignias into small brown canvas pouches.

After this journey it was off to music class, which for Tuesday and Friday was held in St. Cecilia’s Hall, just down the Cowgate from the College Wynd. The topic for Tuesday: Plucked String Keyboard Instruments: The Harpsichord, The Virginal, and The Spinet; taught by Dr. John Kitchen, noted musicologist, fortepianist, harpsichordist and organist. (Note: Yes, a fortepianist is different than a pianist—he plays a the fortepiano, which as a term denotes early pianos, which are mechanically different from modern pianofortes or ‘pianos’.) Musically, the class was a delight—to see an excellent musician sight-read and improvise on 16th, 17th and 18th century Harpsichords, Virginals and Spinets was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon. I was struck by two things: first was the evident (in light of these fine and rare models) poor quality of the harpsichord on which I have been playing at Hampshire, and second was the surprising difference in tone colour of the three, which are essentially three different shapes of the same instrument. The Harpsichord is bright and piercing, with great resonance and depth to the basses, the Virginal has a much more open, vowel like sound with a strumming consonant, the Spinet sounds roughly like a harp, which is what it is shaped like as well.

When Nick and I walked into the Aspen Bar and Grill (where we had watched the football game a week or so earlier) to meet Darci and watch the inauguration we could hardly fit inside the door. To say the place was packed would be a bit of an understatement. Red White and Blue banners hung from the ceiling. The Bar was mobbed. After five minutes of waiting and pushing through the crowd, we got downstairs to Darci and her friends, and watched the great deed being done. From the comments and cheers we heard, it seemed that at least a third to a half of the Bar’s occupants were Americans. The rest, it seemed, were British or Scottish. There was a local TV crew upstairs, and after the invocation, at the top of the hour, the televisions inside Aspen switched over to local Scottish news, and before long, The inside of the Bar was on the screen, accompanied by resounding cheers.

After dinner and some interval of time, I went off to sit in with the house trio for the open Jam Session at the Jazz Bar just around the corner. (It is a wonderful coincidence that I live right next to Edinburgh’s main jazz venue.) The trio was quite good, though on the whole not as good as the Big Swing Trio that I sit in with in Boulder. They were, however, quite capable. I hope to return again next week, and sometime perhaps I will get a recording of it.


It was after classes on Wednesday afternoon that I found what I believe to be the best used bookstore in the whole world. Just like so many of the best things in life, I stumbled upon Edinburgh Books without really meaning to, although I was planning to go to a used bookstore to look for some gentle evening reading.

I had seen a number of used bookstores along a street just after the Grassmarket, and so I went this way, and did in fact pass several bookstores, none of which particularly enticed me. Some seemed overly academic or seemed to contain too many rare books; others looked more promising, but for whatever reason, I didn’t much want to enter them. I went down a side street, determined to explore a bit and forget about the disappointing options previously described.

It was in this mindset that I turned a corner, walked a bit down the street, looked to my left, and saw Edinburgh Books. I don’t know exactly what it was that made me enter—perhaps some gut reaction to the aesthetic of the place, or maybe I was intrigued by the tall dark wooden shelves filled with books, or perhaps it was the Viol (a six-stringed fretted mini-cello, basically) reclining in the window; in any case, I entered, intent on some Chekov.

All of the literature books seemed to be in one small room, but the room was just the right size, and the books just the right ones. It seemed any author I could think of was well represented here. There were about eight books of Chekov, one of which I took home with me; there were about twenty of Thomas Hardy, who seems to be my favourite right about now; and even two by Garrison Keillor. After carefully selecting two books, I was ready to go when I saw a small staircase in the corner of one of the rooms. Among the items listed below were music and travel. I went down.

The first small room contained many books on music, perhaps more than I have ever seen in a used bookstore, and my disbelief doubled on entering the adjoining room, which contained used music scores. Thousands of them. All carefully arranged by instrument and genre. I checked the trumpet music and found it disappointing, but on turning around, I found a greater treasure than trumpet music: hundreds of Eulenberg Pocket Scores.

For the uninitiated, I must explain—the publishing company of Ernst Eulenberg, Ltd., in London, is one of the only publishers in the world dedicated to printing small “pocket-sized” (7½” by 5¼”) editions of musical scores, which feature parts for all the instruments, as written in the composer’s and conductor’s scores. I could not even begin to look through all of them in one day, so I picked out Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto in C Minor, which is one of my all-time favourites, and went to check out. The whole trip cost me less than £10. Since then, I’ve been refraining from returning—it’s dangerous to live so close to the best bookstore in the whole world.


Really the only unique thing that happened on Thursday was that Nick and I took part in an Economics study. For this, we went up to a third-floor computer lab in the William Robertson Building, answered questions prompted by the computer, and were duly paid for our time. There was a £5 reward simply for showing up, and then a further payout based on your answers to the survey. I was paid an additional £4.50, which was more than Nick or many of the other participants got. I felt pretty good about that, since everyone else were maths and economics students, and I was just a measly Art History and Music student.


On Friday morning I went out on a big shopping trip. I withdrew some cash from the Bank (the exchange rate was £1 = $1.37, the lowest it has been in a long, long time) and went in search of vanilla extract. I know this sounds a bit overblown and comical, but my inability to find vanilla extract in this town has been baffling—either no one in Edinburgh bakes (and if their oven is the size of ours, I can understand that) or no one uses vanilla or both. I couldn’t find it in the local Tesco or Sainsbury’s, so I had to go farther afield. After my banking just off of Princes’ street, I began to head east, and soon I was rounding the base of Calton hill next to the Scottish Government building known as St. Andrew’s House.

St. Andrews house is a large and somewhat forbidding hulk of grey stone. While it bears the clear traces of an Art Deco inspired aesthetic, sadly the first thing that came to mind for me on this particular day was the neo-futurist fascist buildings of Mussolini’s Italy. It has the same heavy aesthetic, though touches of Deco are clearly visible. Built in 1939, it has been designated “Category A”, which means it is essentially a national historic landmark. It was refurbished in 2001, and currently houses much of the Scottish Government. The story of the Scottish Government is in itself an interesting story, which I hope to relate at a later date.

Not too long later, I passed brilliant rectangle of perfectly kept grass, which I discovered belonged to the Regency Bowling Club. I made it a goal of mine to see, at some point, a group of elderly people lawn bowling.

I got to the massive Sainsbury’s that was my goal not too much after the Regency Bowling Club. While this particular store was no larger than any American supermarkets, after two weeks of shopping in the small “Local” versions of Tesco and Sainsbury’s, the place seemed huge. It was here that I finally found vanilla.

At 3:00 it was time for Music class again. This time we were treated to an astoundingly captivating clavichord rendering of Bach, and a lecture on struck string instruments. The instruments involved were Clavichords and Fortepianos.

The clavichord requires a deft and delicate touch from its performer, and gives in return a narrow (but extant) dynamic range and the ability, unique of all acoustic keyboard instruments, to play with vibrato. The mechanism of the clavichord is extremely simple. When the key is pressed, a small metal flange called a tangent strikes the string (or, more often, strings), and remains in contact with the string(s), until the key is released. This means a couple of things: the sounding length of the string (and thus the pitch of the note) is determined by where on the string the tangent hits, the volume of the sound (even when played forcefully) is very quiet, and the pitch of the note can be changed depending on how much pressure the tangent exerts on the string(s). In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the clavichord was not primarily a performance instrument, but rather a practice instrument. It was said that the musician who was proficient on the clavichord could play any keyboard instrument. Dr. John Kitchen’s rendering of the first piece (C Major) in Bach’s Whol-Tiemperte Klavier was incredibly quiet, and incredibly intimate.

“The first thing people say about the clavichord is ‘it’s so quiet.’” he said afterwards, “yes, it is quiet, but the human ear can adjust and concentrate on it. There’s nothing that says an instrument cannot be quiet.” The fortepiano performance was very nice as well. It turns out the fortepiano he played is a reproduction bought for the use of students. I intend to sign up to try it sometime.


At 2:45 on Saturday afternoon, I left for what was to be my longest walk yet. I would strike out in the general direction of Dean, and the more specific destination of the Gallery of Modern Art. The walk there was reasonable. It probably took a little over thirty minutes. There are two Modern Art museums right next to each other off of Belford road in Dean: The Dean Gallery, and The Gallery of Modern Art. Both are free and open every day from 10 AM until 5 PM.

I did not go into either of them. After the long walk I didn’t really want to rush myself through either museum. Instead, I walked around the grounds, which are both small, but intensely green. Almost the entire front lawn area of the Modern Art Gallery has been turned into a construction called “Landform” by artist Charles Jencks, a sculpture which is said to be inspired by either chaos theory, Seurat’s La Grand Jatte, or both. In physical terms, it is a series of carefully designed and executed hills and ponds laid out in a somewhat spiral-s shape. It looks like the ground has been stirred up by a giant spoon or whisk, or else it looks like what would happen if some used a slice of marble-rye as a plan, wherein the white rye became the hills and the brown rye became the pools. I plan to take some pictures of it eventually—the light was fading when I was there.

I walked out a back exit from the grounds and down a steep path to the walkway alongside the Water of Leith. Wishing to venture into uncharted territory (well, for me at least) I walked upstream, striking southwest from the museum. After a few minutes, I stood at the base of another looming arched stone bridge, which had a path running up the slope next to it. Upon reaching the roadway of the bridge I found it was not a roadway at all, but instead a bicycle path. This I followed almost directly south for about fifteen minutes, before threading my way back east towards the centre of Edinburgh. When I measured my route in Google Earth after I returned, I found I had been close to five miles.


2 Responses to “20 Jan-25 Jan, 2009”

  1. dad Says:

    Loved the bookstore story, the plucked strings story and the long walk. Don’t know which is the best part.
    5 miles is a long walk when its all concrete – hope you sleep well.

  2. rachel Says:

    Keep walking at this rate, and you’ll soon be a 21st-century William Wordsworth. If I’m ever in Edinburgh, Edinburgh Books will be my first stop. After I go visit the penguins, of course.

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