It is11pm here on the west coast of america, where the voices are loud, the legs are long and the sun is strong. Today has been the first proper academic day for me- i had a music induction at 9am, followed by a placement exam, an audition for clarinet lessons, an audition for the UCSC wind band and then a beauracratic battle to find out which courses i could and couldn't do. The placement exam went ok- the hours of exercises whilst counting cars for SBC paid off for the harmony/melody bit of the exam, but as usual my aural skills were hopeless and my knowledge of Western musical history patchy. The clarinet audition, which i was half nervous about and half complacent about, went really badly. I haven't had lessons for 2 years, and though i have been burning my arse practicing all summer, it is impossible to replace the knowledge of a teacher, and it seems i have overlooked some fundamentals like controlled breathing, timing and poise. apparently i am letting the instrument control my breathing, rather than my breathing control the instrument, and as a consequence my tone quality is poor. The teacher, Mark Brandenburg (!), seemed entirely unimpressed with me, and even less impressed when i tried to talk my way into his lessons. It didn't help that there were half a dozen shithot annoyingly preppy players waiting with me, with their A clarinets (which are used in classical orchestras, rather than the standard Bb that i use) and unabashed boasting. so, although i havne't yet recieved the email from him telling me whether i am in, i very much doubt it. Which is a right bummer, because that was one of the main reasons i came here.
If you have clarinet lessons, you also have to be in either the wind band or orchestra, so i immediately went for my wind band audition. This went better, with a friendly teacher who went off one one about the time he went to york with a load of boys and got mobbed by St Margarets girls schools' girls. He was impressed with my sight reading and Mozart, and I think i am in. however, now that i am not going to have lessons (i think), i might sack the wind band off, even though they are playing Carnegie hall in New York in spring. what do you think?
It turned out after that I don't have to do any of the 'core courses', which are a grounding in western tonal harmony, and i can go straight into Jazz Theory and Computer music synthesis (though the latter clashes with Music of India, at least for this term) provided i sweet talk the instructors. I am in a funny situation- because none of what i am doing counts for credit either at SOAS or here, it is almost like i am unaccountable to anyone, which means i can do anything i like. i could even sack off music altogether and do latino studies, or environmental studies, or Hindi. I still might, though i have satisfied the minimum requirements for this term with just Jaxx Theory, Music of India and Gamelan, and will have lots of free time to write music, walk in the woods etc.
There are plenty of woods to walk in here- my college (where i live) is surrounded by huge redwood trees that extend ad infinitum. There are very friendly deer that forage about the place, and at night if you walk into the woods a bit the grasshoppers are deafening. I took a little wander last night with my Mbira and the first spliff of my stay, and it was lovely. I find I can only play my Mbira when i am feeling peaceful, otherwise i get impatient, but last night it was all good. Its funny when an inanimate object can give you a better insight into your mood (i guess the same thing happens when you choose what music you want to listen to). Suddenly a group of completely typical OCesque (not that i have ever seen it...) girls walked past, boys hot on their trail, and i layed flat so they wouldn't see me. Alice (the girl from SOAS who is also here doing music) described the conversation of many here as vacuous, and i think that is the perfect word, just useless and boring. I was feeling the pinch when i first got here in terms of lack of stimulating conversation, and it made me feel lonely, but as the days go by the interesting people emerge and all is well.
The lowest point was at our building induction (the college is spread out in buildings holding about 40 people each, with a 'Community Assistant'- i guess a bit like a prefect- who is there to help people by hindering their misbehaviour) where it was spelt out that there was to be no alcohol, no drugs, lots of inane whooping and no smoking within 25 feet of any building) where i felt like i was back on that summer camp in india last year where well meaning young adults in positions of low power are so niice but well annoying and treat you like babies. Then i reconciled this with the fact that most of the people here are 18, just out of their christian parents' bosom and very, very naive. So i got on with it, and it turns out that the majority of people get battered quite alot. Unfortunately I live in the same flat as one of the afore mentioned Community assistants so i can't even have a nice glass of wine with my evening meal.
But the past couple of days have been cool, and i have had many a good conversation. Many people here are eager to learn about the world and are open minded, which is really good. And the jamming is also very good. I followed the sound of a drum beat to a nice latino guy called Moises, and soon there were 4 guitars, a violin, a mandolin and a jazz Real Book to play with. We did a wicked and spontanious version of Miles Davis' All Blues, it sounded wicked, followed by some bluegrass, some bossa nova and long conversations about the LA hardcore scene.
But anyway, i am digressing. After my morning at the music centre i headed over to the east field (you can see all of these places at www.ucsc.edu) where they were holding 'OPERS', a US version of freshers fayre, with good BBQ food and lots and lots of stalls. This was a real eye opener. I smiled to see the US version of the Socialist Workers Party and (would you believe it) Workers hammer party peddling their papers and raising their eyebrows at me when i told them my political orientation. There were also stalls for many religions (people with tshirts saying 'i am a zionist'), ethnicities (including the 'mixed race' society, who were very vague when i tried to find out what they actually did), sports (ultimate frisbee is massive here, and everyone is surprisingly good at 'soccer'), the republican party (with a 6 foot cut out of Bush- i am going to their meeting next week), radio stations, campus publications, environmental groups et al. there was one really good group called the 'disorientation collective' who are very Crimethinc.y (www.crimethinc.com) and promise to show the underbelly of university life (it turns out every nuclear warhead in the US arsenal was designed at california's universities). There is a good political scene in santa cruz- recently the government rounded up over 100 illegal workers from the town (which only has 50,000 people in it) and there is a big campaign to fight back getting started which is fairly prominent on campus. they use the same slogan- noone is illegal- as no borders did back in london. How can i not get involved. On sunday there is also come guerilla cinema on a disused railway line somewhere which is showing that 'paradise now' film.
There were also lots of 'fraternities' on campus. if you don't know about them (which i didn't until recently), they are sort of American Pie style clubs that people pay to be a part of and in exchange get access to the 'best' parties, free alcohol, the chance to mingle with sorority girls and be nicely groomed for rotary club style adulthood. the ways people find to feel loved. anyway, next week is 'rush week', where all the fraternities have open free parties to try and get you to join them, and even though i have been warned about frats, i am going to go and experience it.
I am sharing a small room with two other guys, max and edmund. max is a proper quality guy from the same small town as tom waits (who bummed fags off his dad back in the day), into rock climbing, mandolin playing and making me milkshakes. edmund seems a complex character, lacking many a positive emotion, but i am working on him. blame the parents. next door is giancarlo, the afore mentioned community assistant and gym guy. he has realised i am his age, and is cutting me a bit of slack, but it is still irksome to have Authority, any authority, living next door. I initially thought opting for a cheaper, smaller shared room was a bad idea (i have almost no space to call my own) but i don't spend much time there- i am writing this email in the living room, where there is a nice speaker, a LAN connection and a sofa so it is ok.
Santa cruz town is wicked, i can see why it is a bit famous and not symptomatic of america at all, an interesting mix of small non-chain stores, beats, beaches, a funfair just like scarborough, lots of hippies and nice bus drivers (who have consistently believed my true story that i lost my bus pass on a bus on the second day i was here and let me on for free). they even have lots of charity shops (where i bought all my pots and pans) and thrift stores. everyone is friendly, but everyone is much more friendly when they are working for a shop you are in. someone offered to help me choose tinned tomatos the other day. i mean really....
so yeah, everything is turning out pretty kosher here after a couple of nervous days in the beginning. i am missing everyone lots though; there is noone i can hug properly here or get excitedly stoned with (cannabis consumption is done with lots of cool poise round here...). YOU WILL JUST HAVE TO COME AND VISIT ME. it is really a set of sights to behold.