Sunday, January 28, 2007

Telecoms frustrations (again!)

This is so frustrating! All I want to do is talk to my parents, and the pathetic telecoms in SA are making it impossible. Isn't being away from home difficult enough in itself? Does South Africa really want to chase us all away?
And can you believe that a cell-phone internet bundle would actually carry a restriction against using VoIP?
Rant over, but I am still cross.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

thinking in black and white, shades of grey, or full colour

At some point in the future, I will need reminding again that every moment of fear brings some sort of positive development in this process we call grad school.

I have been in conversation with my advisor since late last year on the experience of being between spaces, with all its challenges and joys. It has all been a bit unclear and even a bit raw for me, and so I haven't really wanted to write about it, but I guess now is as good a time as any to put it out there.

I realized with a bit of a shock over this past holiday that I am generally happier in New York than I was in South Africa. It is unsurprising that I like my current academic setting better than the last one, considering how unpleasant that got towards the end, but what was a surprise was how distasteful I found some of the lifestyle things in South Africa, after spending only a few months here. I went out with friends of mine in the very short space of time I had between arriving in Johannesburg and leaving for Natal, and we went to a mall for dinner and a film. I have always been quite fond of malls. When I feel hemmed in and isolated, they were always good places to feel like I was reconnecting with humanity. I loved spending time alone or with friends people-watching, or just wondering through shops and getting a sense of what people's lives consist of. It is fascinating to me to watch who buys clothes where, or what colours people seem attracted to. The problem was, this time the space of the mall felt just as claustrophobic as the high walls around our house. Usually the shopping experience is a space to get out, but this time it felt like going from one enclosed space to another. And after the streets of New York, that was difficult. Here, the claustrophobia of buildings dissipates when I travel up to the top floor or my building to look at the New York skyline, or walk along the river. There is a different kind of openness that is not the open spaces of the South African countryside, but is the openness of the presence of people in proximity. Quite simply, I feel safer here, and that concerns me when I consider a future at home.
I also feel hemmed in by my race at home. The fact that I am white has a very strong impact on how I am viewed, and what is expected of me, and what opportunities are available to me within my own country. Here, that matters less. What does matter is that I do work that people want to know about, and that is important.

At any rate, I was talking to my advisor about all of this on Thursday when she asked me whether I was so unwilling to confront what I feel are problems in the actualization of race in South Africa because I don't know how to respond to them, or because I actually agree with them, though don't agree with the way in which they are framed. It made me think really hard, because the question implicit in that is, do I think that my whiteness makes me unsuitable for the work I am doing? And while the obvious answer would seem to be "of course not", in actual fact, I am ambiguous. I have been skirting around the question of whether white people belong in Africa because part of me wonders whether they do. And I don't know really how to answer that, and I won't know untill I have had an opportunity to read more of the current debates about these things, and think the issue through in more concrete terms. What I do know, though, is that asking whether someone's race gives them the right to be in Africa or not is just as bad as asking whether a particular person has the right to be anywhere on the basis of their race. It is the same question asked by the apartheid government, or the nazi government or any and all of those terrible, destructive regimes. Our goals should be to find a way for everyone to live with what they need, not to determine who is entitled to live, and who not. There is a very good reason why I am a pacifist.

So I hope that at some point, I will be able to formulate my position on all of this more clearly and sensibly. For now, though, being in New York gives me the space I need to look for full colour amid the black and white that infiltrates my thinking in South Africa.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


I had my first ethnomusicology ensembe class last night. I am taking Afrocolombian Marimba this semester. Such fun. There is a very vibrant marimba ensemble at Wits, but I didn't have the time for that. Being able to take this one for credit makes a lot of difference.

Last night we began with a bit of background on the styles we will be playing (one of which is Currulao), before listening to the music a little. Our instructor is a fellow grad student who is quite far along in his PhD on this music, and so the examples we heard, and videos we saw are all from his fieldwork.
At first, the music sounded impossibly complex, and way beyond what I expected to ever be able to play. While I really love working with music, I am by no means confident in my musical instincts, and I have too little background in rhythmically complex music to feel at ease with the prospect of playing it. Gradually, though, we broke the music down into its component parts, listening for instruments, clapping different parts of the cross-rhythms, and learning to move in time, and even (rather hesitantly) to dance. By the end of the evening, it was feeling much more maneagable, even more exciting, and very accessible and enjoyable.

The whole experience got me thinking about the way we teach and learn music. I guess a big part of what was important here was seeing how easy it is to simplify things when you know what to listen for. Untill our instructor pointed out the two different rhythmic patterns, and indicated that they were cross-rhythms, all I heard was an impossibly complex rhythmic gesture that I couldn't pin down. As soon as I knew what I was listening to, though, it became two fairly straight-forward rhythms that are just juxtaposed. The effect is something similar to hearing the individual parts of a choral piece played on the piano, singing them separately, and learning them as independent lines, before putting them together in the complete sound. Now, after working with vocal harmony for so long, I find it generally easier to sing when I can hear the other parts, but sometimes it still is helpful to break the whole thing down again, and check notes and lines, and hear things on their own, before putting them in relation to the whole.

I'm beginning to realize how important being a student is to being a teacher. Far more than content, learning to teach is about figuring out how I learn.

And who knows. Perhaps in future years, we'll have a South African choral ensemble class in the department.

Monday, January 22, 2007

an expensive education

I just spent $200 on coursework books. And I still need to get another five book in the next few weeks. I'm just hoping that by spreading them out over two months, I at least won't feel quite so drained. I really love buying books, but this hit a little hard. Hope they are all worth it.

Friday, January 19, 2007


I snowed this morning!
I woke up around 05:00, and peaked out the window. Nothing. I turned over and tried to sleep. By 06:00, I had lost the battle, and was wide awake. I switched on my light, and peered through the blinds again. Still nothing. The ground was wet, but there wasn't a snowflake in sight. An hour and a half later, I was ensconsed at my computer, when my roommate got up and came to find me.
"Have you looked outside?" she asked.
I skooted over to the window, stuck my finger through the blinds, and sure enough, it was snowing. And sticking. The scafolding and builders materials outside my window were lightly dusted in white, and there were more soft flakes falling between the buildings. I couldn't get dressed quickly enough, pulling on as many layers as I could manage at top speed, and I was out the door in under ten minutes. The snow is so pretty. It floats down apparently from nowhere, and coats everything, getting in people's hair, and sticking on my eyelashes. The moment it touches my skin, it melts, and leaves little damp spots where it had been.
I walked at top speed down to Union Square, and then, because I was enjoying the walk, to Washington Square Park. By the time I got there, the snow had stopped, but the park was coated in a layer of white that was really pretty thick on the grassy patches. I walked all over the square, leaving footprints in the fresh iciness just for fun. Dogs and little children were hopping around excitedly, playing, just like I was, though less demurely, and I wished just briefly that there was someone nearby I knew well enough to throw a snowball at.

Suddenly the sun rose high enough to peek over the tops of the impossible tall buildings, and the whiteness was bathed in a shiny golden glow. Everything sparkled. It was just too beautiful for words. There are real benefits to being up early.
I kicked around for nearly an hour before I realized that my toes were going numb, even through three layers of socks and my hefty boots, and I headed for the library. The snow was clinging to my boots, clumped underneath and around the sides, and leaving darker patches on the bottoms of my trousers, and I kicked it off carefully before walking into the library building.
The building wasn't quite empty, but very nearly was, and I was glad I didn't have to try to hide the silly grin on my face from too many cool, calm and connected undergrads for whom a little sprinkling of snow in the middle of winter is tedious, and not novel.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Telecommunications in South Africa

Telkom is under increasingly public criticism for overpricing its services, though the real issue is, of course, lack of competition. I am glad to see that more public voices are being raised. So when is something going to happen? After only three weeks in South Africa, I must say that the expense and unreliability of internet services there really are my biggest frustration, and one of the biggest hinderances to the higher education system, and public intellectual life of the country.

Start of the new semester

I'm back in New York! I had the most wonderful holiday, very relaxing, and I had a fabulous time seeing my parents, and a few friends, and in some ways it felt like it came to an end too quickly. But in other ways, I'm glad to be back. I am very excited for the new semester, partly because I have some very exciting classes, and an ensemble and some choir auditions to look forward to, and partly because of some of the exciting activities due to happen this semester. I found out yesterday that my friend Ben Tausig and I have had a joint proposal accepted for a conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle in April! What a great way to start the semester. We have a lot of work to do before then, but I can't wait to travel to the west coast, and I am very excited about the joint project itself. More details will follow as I have them, so keep an eye on the blog.
It is also nice to be back in New York, despite the cold and grey at the present time. I am very grateful to have had a really warm, sunny (mostly) holiday, because I feel like the cold is less daunting now. And the weather forecast is predicting snow on Friday (there hasn't been any here this season, yet), so I am excited for that. It was also really lovely to see so many of my new friends again. There really are a lot of great people here, and they are such an important part of this whole experience. I cried when I left Johannesburg, and a whole lot on the plane, and when I unpacked my bag this morning, and when I ate a rusk my mom made, and put a map of South Africa on my wall, and found a spot for a mouse (called Alexandra) my friend gave me on Sunday, but a little home-sickness doesn't detract from my enjoyment at being back.
The view from the street outside my res building. The empire state building is all lit up in white