19 May 2010

Surface Noise

Happy spring? Not hardly. By my acute senses spring started sometime mid-February with two lightning strikes while ski-touring in the Jura. Using my own calendar, then, based on a combination of the Gregorian calendar, Farmer's Almanac, and a hodgepodge of folk beliefs, we're just about to enter summer. What better way to celebrate the change of seasons than with music?

The stereo is almost always on in this household, but something feels especially right about throwing open the windows and doors and filtering music into the yard and throughout the neighborhood. While in Switzerland this practice breaks all sorts of social codes and will certainly compel your Swiss neighbors to talk about you in private, it's also a great way to meet non-Swiss neighbors. For example, I am now much better friends with a British neighbor neighbour behind us who heard The Stranglers' "Bear Cage" issue loudly from ma maison. So with volume in mind I'd like to present a little present.

I rediscovered this summertime treat while filtering through the bulging mass that is my CD collection. This compilation came into my possession while I served as the Music Dictator for the mighty K-UTE at the University of Utah. I made the unilateral decision to add this promotional disc to my own collection rather than submitting it to the K-UTE library where it was intended and I'm happy to say that I'm a better person for it.

The CD was sent to college radio stations in 1991 and was created exclusively for the Dutch East India Trading record label that brought early Peel Session albums on the Strange Fruit label over to U.S. shores. It is indeed a sampler of artists who cut Peel Sessions anywhere from around 1970 and up to the late 1980s. The sampler was recorded using vinyl versions of those sessions with John himself giving commentary before and after each cut. Liner notes are slim and consist mostly of a catalog of Peel Sessions that would soon become available to a U.S. audience.

Because the idiosyncratic voice of John Peel either begins or ends each track, unless a station wanted to play the entire disc, as a whole it is not conducive to an on-air format. (Here I am, nineteen years later, still trying to justify my actions.) The compilation was intended for a U.S. market and never released commercially. I've never seen this for sale.

But because the disc is filled with the idiosyncratic voice of John Peel it makes for a great listen. There are stories about the early beginnings of John Peel's 1967 show called "barely credibly" Top Gear. There are stories about recording Jimi Hendrix and The Pink Floyd in the late 1960s. There are snarky comments about some of the featured bands: "lords of the dance floor" (New Order) and "fearfully voguish and a teensy bit boring" (Wire). Plenty of classic quotes: "But life has surface noise!" Plenty of classic versions of songs--Siouxsie & the Banshees' early 1978 version of "Hong Kong Garden" and The Chameleons' "Perfumed Garden" are worth the price of admission alone. And an hour's worth of John Peel's indelible sense of humor. Basically, this is totally cool.

The music will be up for a short time for your summery pleasure. As the program flows from one track to the next without interruption I suggest downloading it and burning it on a disc in a format that doesn't add space between tracks.

Take it away, John...


Photo credits:
John Peel, 1969

01 May 2010

Welcome to Walser Country

Though it has less to do with this:

And (maybe) more to do with this:

Walser country evokes similar images, cigarettes or not, of a rugged and romantic place inhabited by equally rugged and hearty people.

The Walser are German and German dialect-speaking people who have lived in the upper reaches of the Central Alps for over 1,000 years. Migrating down from the Bernese Oberland and first settling into the headwater valleys of the Rhône, Switzerland's Wallis (or Valais) is now named after them. In the 12th and 13th centuries the Walser Migrations took them up and over some of the highest passes in Europe.

The migrations took them every way but far west and by the end of the 13th century the Walser inhabited a large area of high alpine valleys on both sides of the crest of the Alps. They kicked the Romans out of the Zwischenbergen region of Switzerland. They barged into both the French and Italian wings of the House of Savoy. They instituted their language in what was then the Italian speaking region of Tecino, which has now reverted back to Ticino, the only Italian speaking canton in Switzerland. They resettled the Bernese Oberland at the foot of the Brienzer Rothorn. And they pushed above the Wallis/Valais, farther and farther north and east until finally settling into what is now known as Liechtenstein. From there the Austrian states of Vorarlberg and Tyrol seem only natural compliments.

The Walser perfected a life borne from short summers, long winters, and the need for trade and travel. Separated by deep valleys and steep mountains, the Walser developed an extensive series of trails in and out of their settlements that circumnavigate the Central Alps. Now known as Der Grosse Walserweg (Grande Sentiero Walser, in Italian) these trail systems still constitute some of the best access points to the 4,000 meter peaks in the area. And in the Central Alps anything that surrounds 4,000 meter peaks usually offers the opportunity for good skiing.

But not without a little patience.

The opportunity to head back to Walser Country was a welcome relief. The Aosta and its tributary valleys are quickly becoming home away from home. In my mind, apart from the real Marlboro Country, the Italian Walser Country offers a chunk of beautiful you are unlikely to outdo.

The first day offered plenty of new snow but very little visibility to see anything but the wall of clouds producing the snow.

Trees provided for some topographic relief so there I played until the sun decided to show.

And eventually the sun showed and it was then that patience was not only a virtue but a reward. Those who waited in the trees and slush of lower elevations were rewarded at the end of the day with rocks and fluff at higher and lighter altitudes.

Then Easter brought bunnies and chocolates and happy children and sun back to the deep valleys of the Walser.

And it brought meals and grappa and cheese.

The happy children remained and the skiing improved.

Gesù couldn't have picked a better spot to resurrect.

Then a day in the sun was followed by another day of clouds, but not without its own share of rewards. I plowed lines into the clouds with the hope of grace but instead, at the high point, I was given a stern look and a dismissal.

I wandered in white circles for a time, all the while following fabled Walserwegs to unknown passes and drops into billowy sky. Again, Walser-like perseverance paid off. The sky lifted above me and the ground dropped beneath me. Once more I understood where I came from and where I was to go. And the end result was 1,400 meters below.

And this is the cycle in Walser Country: you go up, you go down; the sun comes out, the sun goes away; you eat meals, children are happy. It's a routine and it's regulated by patterns in weather and others in similar loops.

If you're lucky, those that know Walser Country best will ask you to join them on a classic Walserweg on and around the glaciers of the high country. I was lucky and up we went.

There are dangers, of course, in the high country, and you're warned from the start.

But the Walser are a resilient breed and so you strike for higher ground. And higher still.

Cycles spin and the sun starts to fade and it's time, once and forever again, to loop the loop back down, out of history and toward a limitless state of the present. But first not without a little slip and slide, scrape and scratch, and a neck crane or two. Sometimes even a Walserweg comes to the end of a line.

If I had a choice I might say I'd like to get it over with in a place as beautiful and inspired as the Gressoney Valley. I don't have that luxury, though. Instead, I suppose I'll return there as often as possible as a reminder of what it means to live.

Photo credits:
Smoking Cowboy
Smoking Skier