Gangnam Style In Sonata Land
Leaving a city that you’ve visited and liked is never a happy experience, however short your sojourn to that place might have been. You feel low and wish you’d have had some more time to spend there. And if it’s a city as vibrant and as much a blend of the old and new as Berlin is, the sadness is greater. So it wasn’t with buoyant spirits that we boarded the taxi to go to the airport that afternoon. The music playing inside the cab was soothing. It was a piano sonata. Mozart’s in A minor, and the cabbie turned around to ask us whether we wanted it changed. I looked at my only co-passenger, my eight-year-old daughter, and asked her if it was fine. Yes, she pensively nodded.
We’d killed a couple of hours after checking out of the hotel by walking the streets of central Berlin, aimlessly in the cold winter drizzle, not talking much and, well, feeling sad that the holiday had come to an end. The piano sonata was very welcome. I asked the cabbie who was playing and he said Mitsuko Uchida. “She’s Japanese,” he added for good measure. Uchida trained in her teens in Vienna and is a British national who received the OBE a couple of years back (all this we googled on our phone, splurging recklessly on roaming data charges) and the sonata was a fit accompaniment to our journey to the airport.
Music creeps up on you in the most curious ways when you are travelling. The previous day had been New Year’s Day and we’d woken up late, had a lazy, indulgent brunch and then taken the underground to go see the ongoing Salvador Dali exhibition in Potsdamer Platz. There, music crept up again in the screening of the short and surreal 1929 film, Un Chien Andalou, made by Dali and the Spanish filmmaker, Luis Bunuel. The film is disjointed and has no real plot and has bizarre scenes galore. When Dali and Bunuel had first screened it in Paris, they’d expected their audience to get enraged. Instead, the two got welcomed into the ranks of the Surrealists, a movement whose stars they later became. The film’s soundtrack has excerpts from the controversial 19th century composer Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde and, while listening to the dramatic final aria that the film excerpted I was immediately transported to my early teens when my father would play on his mono record player heavy, 78 rpm recordings of Wagner’s operas. I cried off Western classical music pretty early (silly of me) and much to the chagrin of my old man and am only now rolling slowly back to listening to more of it.
Music crept up in Berlin’s Mitte area where, after checking out the impressive New Synagogue, which was badly damaged before and during World War II and is now reconstructed, we tracked down the Ramones Museum, a sort of shrine to the legendary New York punk band, Ramones, filled with memorabilia, including clothes worn by Joey Ramone, tickets, posters, pictures, guitars and so on. A bit self-indulgent, I thought but couldn’t help being impressed by the German fan’s dedication. There’s a bar along with the museum whose façade, incidentally, is fashioned after that of New York’s erstwhile CBGB club where the Ramones got their first big break and which was New York’s original and iconic punk rock club. Sadly, that club doesn’t exist any more.
I found music in Berlin’s flea-markets on the weekend. At the Flohmarkt am Mauerpark, you can get lost in carton after carton of vinyls mainly but also CDs. And if you have the knack for bargaining and some patience, you can find great stuff. Not much of it is very organised but no one’s going to say anything if you park yourself at one of the stalls and spend as long as you want rifling through what’s on offer. I found a limited edition vinyl single on which Jack White and Alicia Keys perform as a duet. It’s the song, Another Way To Die from the Bond film, Quantum of Solace, and is written and produced by White. The flipside has the instrumental version and the record itself is amber and transparent and is one of those for which you need to use the circular adapter that comes with your record player. I paid a ridiculously low price for it, using up the small change in my pocket.
Of course, Berlin has much, much more to offer than opportunities to discover music but you can do that as well. Or, multi-task as my budding violinist and classical music enthusiast daughter did, dancing Gangnam style with wild abandon at one of the many Christmas Markets that dot the city’s landscape in December.
I know Christmas is long over. I’m also rather far from being an aficionado of Christmas carols. But if there’s just one Christmas song that you want to hear and if you haven’t heard American soul singer Clarence Carter’s Back Door Santa, I suggest you do so. It is a tad NSFW and certainly not all-age appropriate but a nice soul-inflected version of what Santa ought to be.