When I was abroad, I missed music so much it was depressing. I go to IU in Bloomington, a city with such a varied and amazing music culture that I am spoiled. I am in a blues/folk/bluegrass band there – I play accordion and sing – and I left it, as well as the everyday encounters with music that I love, at home. I had iTunes, but an iPod just isn’t the same as hearing good music in a café, or live music at a party, and England just wasn’t cutting it.
England loves club music, electronic and dub-step and fist-bumping music that I just can’t groove to. Maybe Canterbury is a bad example, but I rarely even heard hip-hop there. I am not a music snob; I’ll listen to pretty much anything I can feel, or anything I can move to, but I need something with soul. I would go into relaxed-looking, hole-in-the-wall English pubs for a pint with friends, hoping to finally find that one pub with the interesting and soulful music that I craved. Instead, they all played the same music that just reminded me of the 17-year-old drunk guy falling down the street last weekend.
When I finished classes in England and started to travel around, the times I heard fantastic music were like wonderful gifts. For some reason, a huge majority of these times were spent at the tops of tall things: buildings, cathedrals, hills, and rocks. I noticed the pattern right away, hence my tendency to climb everything possible. Always when I saw the views and heard the music, I felt that I was supposed to be there on the top of that thing at that exact moment.
In Strasbourg, France, my friends and I climbed the Strasbourg Cathedral, a mostly-Gothic, pink building so ornate it should be ugly, but so magnificent that it is astonishing. We climbed the 500 ft. of stairs for a small fee. It was the world’s tallest building until 1874, surpassed then by St. Nikolai Kirche in Hamburg, which I also climbed and will talk about later.
We walked around the perimeter of the low pink-stoned wall. There was only a few German tourists at the top with us. The city looked older from above, the roofs all complementary hues of tan, brown, and orange, many of them tiled in German style since Strasbourg was once owned by Germany. The square below was crowded, but we couldn’t hear voices. What we did hear came from the upper story of a much shorter building: a tack piano.
A tack piano is a honky-tonk piano made from putting a tack on each of the piano hammers so they make a metallic noise against the strings. Think of a Wild West saloon and you know exactly how it sounds. We were in France, in a once-German city, hearing Western America. The piano player did a couple of American honky-tonk songs before moving on to a German polka, then a Russian dance. There was something comforting about such a strange conglomeration of cultures and we stayed up there for a long time without speaking.
In Berlin, Germany, we climbed to the top of the Berliner Dom, one of the most recognizable churches in the world. We climbed this building slowly, as there is a museum of the bombing and reconstruction of the building that is set up on each platform as you climb the stairs. As a weird intro to the music we would hear at the top, we saw the original manuscripts of Bach’s Passions, which were first performed in the area. We kept taking stairs until we reached the circular balcony that wraps around the famous green dome, among the stone statues of angels.
The view was of the river Spree, the lawns with a fountain, and the Reichstag (German Parliament). The music we heard was from – wait for it – South American flutes and pan flutes. A guy was playing them down on the lawn to a cheesy recording of a fake background orchestra. It was no Bach, but it was a funny accompaniment to such a great view. Later, we sang a made-up song about plums at the top of the tallest hill in Berlin (Victoria Park) to continue the pattern.
Next was Hamburg and the St. Nikolai Kirche. It was the tallest building in the world until 1876, and it is still the second tallest in Hamburg. The church suffered many fires and collapses over the years, and British and American WWII bombings left the roof collapsed and the interior gone. The massive tower never fell, although it was cracked and every building in the surrounding area was completely destroyed. This tower is the tower we climbed, or rather ascended, in a glass elevator.
The building was a charred and stunning skeleton, with the inside still not reconstructed. When we had almost reached the top, the bells sounded. The bells were broken or out of tune and instead of the bright church bells one expects, they were eerie and far-off. It was an unconventional tune, one completely unique to the church. I wish I had had the foresight to record it. We looked at pictures of the older church structure at the top of the tower and all I could think of was how much history, sadness, and growth those bells had witnessed, more than any person in the world.
In Barcelona, Spain, the high-places, good-music pattern continued. My friend and I had climbed a huge hill in Park Güell, which is a nature park in which the architect Gaudi built a lot of crazy things. At the top of the highest hill of all, mounted on a huge rock, we spotted a large wooden cross. We’d seen it all lit up the night before from far below in the city. This time we climbed up to it, onto the top of the rock where young people were relaxing in the sun. The city stretched out with the ocean beyond it. The music crept up on us, starting with the tuning of a beat-up guitar, then the strumming of a few gritty chords. When he started singing, I had to turn around to find him. He was at the base of the rock on a bench, a 40-ish year old guy in a green army surplus jacket. He sang the blues better than anyone I had ever heard in person, and probably better than most I’ve heard on recorded albums. His voice was straight out of a 1940s shack by the Mississippi River, full of gravel and emotion. With Spanish speakers all around me, I was hearing a true slice of home, of American history, and I’m surprised I didn’t cry. I gave him a big tip, though.