Swedish blog #1 (Dallas Smith)

Nora, Sweden

I arrived this morning on a direct overnight flight from Atlanta to Stockholm. On the flight, I sat next to an older Swedish gentleman, a retired policeman, who had just finished visiting his brother in Florida. Since it was his first visit ever to the states, I asked him his impressions. His main two comments were: Americans were generally open and welcoming to him. (I understand that he’s used to the more reserved Swedish mentality.) His second comment was that it was impossible to walk anywhere…He missed walking…To go anywhere in Florida, it’s necessary to drive. He didn’t encounter any pedestrian streets or bicycle paths. They may exist, so perhaps he just didn’t see them. But the general observation is accurate: Americans are not used to walking anywhere. Many Swedes are proud of the fact that they don’t have to bother with owning a car. They can walk to the local store for their basic needs. Otherwise, the public transportation system is excellent.

Arriving on a gray, snowy, overcast day, I immediately availed myself of that great public transportation system. Stockholm’s airport is a forty minute bus ride from the central station. At the station, I bought a train ticket to the city of Örebro, a two hour train trip. (Traveling by car would have taken three or four hours.) I think that Sweden invented the system whereby everyone takes a number upon entering an office. It’s the same system used at the Nevada DMV office.

Afterwards, I went to the station’s sundry shop and purchase time for my cell phone. It took me a couple of years to learn that I needed to acquire an “unlocked” American cell phone, which allows me to simply insert a Swedish SIM card and make cheap local calls while I’m here. All Swedish phones are sold unlocked (unlike American cell phones), such that phone cards from various companies can be bought at any 7/11 or sundry shop. Plus, all the companies are integrated into the same phone net, such that coverage is much better here than in the states. I can be dropped from an AT&T/Cingular call just a block from my house in Reno.

I’m proud of the fact that I’m better prepared than previously to speak Swedish. (Thanks, Inge, my Reno language coach!) Previously, upon my arrival and trying to use my Swedish, many Swedes would hear my struggles and answer in English, since a majority of the country is fluent in English. But this time, buying my bus and train tickets, and the phone card, I was able to conduct the transactions successfully in Swedish without any English interjections from the Swedish participants.

Renewing an old Friendship

My Mynta tour doesn’t start until next week. So this initial musical encounter is completely separate from Mynta. The reason that I traveled upon my arrival first to Örebro was to meet a musician friend that I last saw 25 years ago. Björn J:son Lind is quite famous in Sweden, as a composer and performer. He’s not a jazz player. He’s more of a contemporary classical composer who draws on various modern styles, including improvisation. Besides making personal recordings for decades, he has had success doing movie soundtracks.

Björn is very spontaneous, as illustrated by this story of the first time we met in 1984. I had been aware of and been a fan of his music since my second visit to Sweden in 1973. While visiting a mutual friend Björn’s and mine, this friend offered to take me over to Björn’s house to meet him personally. At that time, I had my first solo LP in hand, Stellar Voyage, which I presented to Björn and thanked him for his inspiration. Almost immediately, he said, would you like to join me tomorrow on my live nationwide broadcast on Swedish Radio? It was a great musical experience for me, in which I met a number of other great musicians.

I had spoken with Björn in the course of previous Mynta tours during the last few years, but we had never managed to meet again in person until now. This year, the timing is good. Björn invited me to join him in a concert tomorrow here in his home town of Nora. It will take place in a great old church, which is around four hundred years old. Also playing will be Björn’s new partner, Marie, (they’re engaged…we’ve joked about them getting married in Reno.), who is the organist and music director at the church. There will also be a classical pianist with whom I will play (on clarinet) a movement from a Rachmaninov cello sonata.

Björn picked me up at the Örebro station from which we drove directly to the Nora church to rehearse. I will play on several of Björn’s compositions. He will play some piano duets with the other pianist. Around two hundred people are expected to attend. (I’ll report more details on the concert when I continue this blog day after tomorrow.)

Initial Cultural Observations

Upon entering a foreign country, the first fresh impressions highlight the differences from home. Beyond the previously mentioned excellent public transportation system, there is an obvious emphasis from the official government policies on down to conserve energy. I read graffiti on a wall while riding the bus into town (in Swedish) stating, Cars are ugly! There are certainly more windmills than at home (though not as many as are in Germany). Most downtowns have pedestrian-only shopping districts. There’s just a greater awareness of the need for energy conservation measures compared with the states.

Though Sweden’s Saab automobile company has been bankrupted in conjunction with General Motors’ troubles, apparently the Swedish government has bailed out the workers for a year while Saab looks for another strategic partner. Otherwise, the restaurants and cafes seem full. There’s lots of new construction visible in downtown Stockholm. So the world’s economic depression is not readily apparent here.

I’m not particularly fond of Swedish restaurant cuisine, which is why Mynta typically chooses Thai, Chinese, or Indian restaurants for our meals whenever we can find them on tour. Nonetheless, Björn’s partner Marie prepared a wonderful appetizer to our meal tonight, which bears mentioning: toast, layered with a slice of pear, a slice of goat cheese, drizzeled with honey and balsamic vineger, sprinkled with slivered walnuts, and baked…delicious!

First Concert Details

The concert began with the pealing of the church’s bells from its high steeple tower, which is the town’s tallest structure. [Actually, the bells were a digital recording…the old metal bells had been replaced by electronic technology.] I then played a solo bamboo flute introduction, starting on the same notes that the bells had played. The long natural acoustic reverb in the church lingered for several seconds. Björn and the other pianist, Lars Hägglund, began playing the pair of grand pianos set up in front of the pulpit of the church. I joined him on soprano sax on a piece Björn had taken from the movie soundtrack of Bagdad Cafe. He had sent me a recording he had made prior to my trip, and I had assumed that the thme was one of his compositions, which he had played on keyboard synthesizer. Björn continued in duet with Lars, in compositions from Björn’s well-known series of recordings entitled Europa. Lars played a solo, Listz’s Mephisto Waltz. I joined Lars for a movement from a Rachmaninov cello sonata, which I played on clarinet. I joined Marie to play one of Björn’s compositions, originally a guitar concerto, transcribed for pipe organ and soprano sax. We concluded with an up-tempo composition by a Norwegian composer for two pianos and my saxophone added, complete with a huge organ chord at its conclusion. This was a great concert to start my month-long musical tour.

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