Patterns of Light

Gaismas Raksti: Cultural Experiences

After a week of cultural experiences, I need to write something to deconstruct what I have observed, felt, and discovered.

The title of this post is based on the multimedia show we experienced last night by Shipsea, a Latvian rockstar, at the National Library, Gaismas Pils. The title of the show is “Patterns of Light” and it is meant to be the opening ceremony of the centennial celebration year as Latvia begins its 100th year of existence.

But in addition to this dose of local culture, I also went to an opera and an art show. I want to first reflect on the opera “Faust.” As some of you may know, I directed a production of “Faust” a million years ago at Ashland-Greenwood high school. Here I am, searching for any photos of this show, but it was right on the cusp of digital vs. analog photography, so I do not have any digital records of the show. Just memories. Fond memories.

The opera was basically wonderful. Tickets to the National Opera are about the same price as a movie, which just seems incredible to me. Here we saw this wonderful live symphony, and these amazing singers and costumes and set design LIVE, all for the same price as a regular old movie. The story of “Faust” is dark, I mean he sells his soul to the devil to have his youth back. But this version became even darker as the love interest, Marguerite, murders her own baby and is sentenced to death. The character of Mephistopheles was played by a bass with clown-white make up and a devilish appearance. He was just excellent to watch with his cross-dressing costume changes and weird manipulative ways.


Patterns of Light

Okay, so now that I am warmed up thinking about this classical form of performance, I need to reflect on the presentation at the National Library last night. First of all, I had no idea what to expect which is kind of fun. We showed up for the 8 p.m. show at about 7:40, and it wasn’t very crowded. In my mind, I was thinking because it was open seating, that there would be a line, and people would be fighting for the best spots near the stage. But there really was no stage.

My first clue that this wasn’t a regular rock concert was the way people were dressed. It was, as they say here, “posh.” Most of the crowd were older members of society in their fifties and sixties, and no one seemed to be concerned about getting a good spot. The Latvian National Libarary, Gaismas Pils, is a tall building with a large central hall that is open all the way to the top floor. It rises up, drawing the eye from level to level, narrower and narrower to the peak. The main floor is about the size of a large high school gym, but it is hard to estimate exactly because of the way the space feels–so empty and open.


Human Sculpture

Before the show started, we wandered around the space taking in all the fixtures as they announced that the concert would be starting soon. There was an elevated triangular shaped “stage” on one end, a giant black box in what might be called the center of the space, and some other features here and there.

When the lights went out, the music began with a small choir standing on small platforms in front of the large black box. The conductor stood high above the crowd directing the choir. The music was all in a minor key and rather dark and cacophonic. It was lovely, but there were no simple, easy to sing melodies. I would categorize the whole show as a bit challenging.

But it wasn’t just about the music. We were invited to move around the space as performance went on, and there were performers and visual elements occurring in conjunction with the music which was loosely based on the Latvian version of Jack and the Beanstalk, “Pasaka par garp pupu“. Although in this version of the story, I don’t see the devil being cut into pieces as the song lyrics seemed to say last night.

Carrying the Dead

As the music continued, people began walking up invisible stairs onto the black box, and forming human sculptures. The shapes were symbolic, but I am not sure what they all meant. And some of the actors walked slowly across the top of the box, zombie-like, and down another set of invisible steps to enter the audience. They walked among us in a trance, moving fluidly and slowly through the crowd.

Rita did not like the effect, but I thought it was mesmerizing. After awhile, you weren’t sure exactly who were members of the audience and who were performers. It made me feel that I was a part of the production. People moved out of the way as I walked through the crowd, and we all looked at each other with admiration and suspicion throughout the performance.

One of the human sculptures on top of the black box seemed to make sense to me as a man and a woman seemed to give birth to a human embodiment of Latvia. I felt like I was at an Olympic opening ceremony, and I needed Bob Costas to explain the symbolism of the movements and music.

“And here we have the birth of Latvia with the pagan traditions of fire and nature combined in a spiritual movement of music based in the folk tradition of the Livonian culture.”


Or something…

After the opening song, the attention turned to Shipsea who now sat in front of a synthesizer on the triangular platform with a full band. He sang new age music in a high-pitched, beautiful voice. He was the highlight of the entire performance because his music was more melodic and uplifting.


The evening was kind of a blur with all the performances going on in the midsts of the crowd, and on the various stages, and the movements and everything. The highlight of the night for me was when they dropped this giant screen down from the high ceiling of Gaismas Pils, and then projected a life-size waterfall which gave the illusion of us standing under the falling water. It was just a stunning production, and I felt like I was almost out of my body.

Then, the conductor stood on a platform in front of us and began conducting, but there was no choir. Voices rose all around me, and I looked around to see that the choir performers were standing in the crowd with us. How cool is that?

The show ended with light, as all the zombie-walkers returned down an escalator with light sabre-type tubes. They divided into three groups and made light sculptures that resembled postmodern campfires. The making of the sculptures seemed like a real chore as they struggled with these rubber bands holding the tubes together. They had to work in silence as the music played, and I felt sorry for them when the tubes did not cooperate. Each tube was then plugged into a main board which was hooked up to the sound system, so the lights were loosely synchronized to the music as it played. The effect was hypnotic.

After constructing the digital campfires, they sat around the “fires” as a lovely song about “gaisma” (light) played. I walked around to observe each group. I was hoping that the actors would break their zombie act and perhaps smile and enjoy the light that they had created, but most of them were still stone-faced.

“Now, the Latvians are demonstrating the three ancient tribes of the Baltic region before uniting into one civilization. They sit before the prehistoric campfires and now walk together up the staircase, celebrating the formation of one united country!”

Even as I write this, I know it is wrong because it appears there were four original tribes of Latvia, and the history is really complicated and uncertain. But I am going to stick with my analysis for now because it just makes some sense to me. Perhaps the performance was not meant to be historical or linear. Maybe it was more esoteric and sublime. Maybe it was just meant to be felt rather than understood. In any case, I felt like I was moved.

My main complaint was that the overall feel of the performance was DARK. The costumes were dark, most of the music was almost chilling, but the point of the performance was to begin the celebration of the Centennial. Why not break out of this dark, Eastern European winter with some bright performance that leaves us feeling bright, hopeful, and happy?

I do not know. I am still trying to figure it all out. I feel like just being there and seeing it performed was an incredible experience because I will never see anything like it again. And it was not something I could watch on t.v. or online because it was an immersive experience that required a personal presence. I also imagine that each night the show will be a little different because of the aspect of the crowd being a part of the performance. Where you stand, which way you look, what you pay attention to, these are all factors in the way you experience this type of show. It was quite three-dimensional… maybe even four-dimensional in this sense since time was also an important aspect. I felt sorry for the people with their phones out recording it because I do not think that watching the show would be very enjoyable.

At one point, when the waterfall was pouring down, I noticed that some of the actors were standing on platforms with one arm raised in the air. I joined them on the floor, and I really wished that everyone in the crowd would do the same. I wonder if that was the point? Were we supposed to engage and do some of the things that the performers were doing? At one point, they joined in a kinetic dance, were we intended to join along?

I do not know. I do not expect to ever know for sure, but at least I am left THINKING after the performance, and in that, the show was a certain success. I am looking forward to the rest of the Centennial and more cultural celebrations!

Some more pictures



January Beach

Ziemā Pludmales

14 January 2018

After we arrived back in Riga this afternoon, I was making up new words to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and singing aloud on Gogoļa street past the cold people waiting for a bus, carrying a pussy willow branch and a bag of driftwood from the Gulf of Riga.

I like to think that we went to the Baltic Sea today, but officially it was the Gulf of Riga. I still have not gotten to the actual “sea” yet, but there is time.

Winter has arrived in Latvia. It was -8 C today which is something like “cold” in American terms. Not as cold, mind you, as Omaha was a few weeks ago, but cold enough to freeze water and make your hands bitter. We still have had no real snow, but this morning, tiny flakes were fluttering in the air as we walked to the train station to buy tickets for Vecāķi, a small beach town just north of Riga. The name, I am told, means “old fish hook” or “old lure”; something to do with old and fishing.

Cheap Tix

Here is the best part. Tickets for the train cost 1.60 Euro. Round trip train tickets to the beach and back were under 2 Euro. I checked the chart on the train, and the most expensive train tickets, to get all the way across Latvia (to the sea for example) are 5.80 round trip. I think I paid about $200 to get from New York to D. C. back in the states.

Okay, I am lying. That wasn’t the best part, but it was pretty cool. I just need to remember that I have the freedom to walk to the train station and get on the train to go just about anywhere in Latvia for the price of a hamburger. Remind me of that next time you talk to me. It needs to sink in.

So we took the train with only one slight hitch. The ticket lady came by and we couldn’t find Anna’s ticket. It was sitting on the seat next to here when we left, and now it was gone. Rita spoke to the kind ticket taker and explained… we looked everywhere, but we couldn’t find it. Later, it would be discovered, that she had rolled it like a cigarette and placed it behind her ear. Curious.


After a smooth and comfortable 28-minute train ride, we arrived in Vecāķi. There wasn’t much to see as we walked past the old station and into the village. It was quiet. There were some nice houses, and some old, broken houses. There are these wonderful little hills that have formed over the centuries, apparently from the wind blowing sand in from the sea, and pine trees now grow on these hills. It makes for lovely scenery.

The beach was only about a kilometer from the station itself, and we just walked to it. I don’t know why that impresses me so much. I guess, growing up in Nebraska where there are no seas or real beaches, it was always a bit of a chore to get to any sort of body of water of relevant size. Usually, there were gates and fees. Sometimes we had to cross private property or get permission. But here, the whole beach is just clean, open, and stretches for miles and miles with this wonderfully soft and silky sand. No broken bottles. No oil sludge. No stink. It was pristine.

I had never been to a beach in winter, so this was a unique experience. I don’t know how it is on the ocean, but here, the waves have begun to freeze. We could see where the tide had been, and how it had receded, leaving the beach frozen with tracks of various people and animals (some of which I could not identify). And closer to the water, it looks like the waves have literally been frozen just as they crashed on the beach. The patterns and details were just beautiful. Enjoy the slideshow of beach patterns!

I made them all horizontal just to improve the flow. I think they work that way, too… but they are a bit disorienting. As you watch, turn on your favorite meditative music or the sound of ocean waves. Enjoy the flow. Let your heart breathe and your mind see. Peace.

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We walked across the sheets of ice, sliding and laughing as the waves gently lapped the shore. We were not completely alone. There were some joggers, dog walkers, and other sight seers, but for the most part, we had the beach to ourselves.

Rita was on a mission to collect little sticks and pieces of nature to create some crafts for the flat. I think whatever she comes up with, it will be delightful. Anna enjoyed throwing sticks and watching them slide across the ice. All in all, it was a bit of magic until my feet and hands started to get cold. Just a little tip: If you take photos and take your gloves off all the time, then your hands get cold, and life is not as much fun as it could be.

I wish I could capture the magic of being on this beach on a Sunday in January, but the best I can do is to write these words and share these photos. My final thought about the beach was that my boots have kissed the Baltic sea… but it doesn’t sound as good now as when I said it at the time.

Pagan hut?

We walked back from the beach through the pine woods, climbing trees and looking for interesting branches and woodland features. We saw a weird hut that some people, probably pagans, had built to perform some kind of ceremonies. At least, that is what I am hoping it is for.

Then we ended up at a wonderful little cafe with a fireplace and warmth. It was the Cafe del Mar Rīga, and I highly recommend it! I ordered ribs and potatoes that came to the table looking like a work of art. Rita and Anna were both more than satisfied with their potato pancakes and pasta. Drinks, dessert, comfort… it is all waiting for you by the beach at the Cafe del Mar! Ļoti labi!

After a long, relaxing lunch the feeling returned to my hands and feet, and it was time to head to the train. For some reason, I thought we had more time than we did, but that is what happens on lazy Sunday afternoons. There is so much time until there isn’t.

I took a “shortcut” through the woods as Anna and Rita walked on the path through town. Suddenly, I realized that we had left Rita’s special stick bag at the cafe. I started jogging toward the road to catch her, and then my phone rang. It was Rita to tell me that she had left the bag. Great minds think alike, or something.

I did my best imitation of running back to the cafe to get the bag, and then checked my watch. 9 minutes to the train?!?! I again, jogged out and tried to catch up with Rita and Anna, but they were too far ahead. I was calculating the time and distance and thinking that if I hurried, we would just make it to the train. A little more jogging. A lot of heavy breathing. And yes, I caught them, and we made it to the platform just as the train arrived.

On the way back, we sat next to an elderly woman who had the most striking Latvian mittens. As you may or may not know, my cousins run a shop, Senā Klēts, that specializes in Latvian Mittens (Cimdi) and other costumes. They even have a book about them! So I couldn’t help but say, “Atvainojiet, skaista cimdi!” (Excuse me, beautiful mittens). She smiled, and told Rita that they were made by her mother for her husband, and that is why they are a bit too big. It was a lovely moment, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo. I showed her and she smiled.

And that was it. We got back to Origo in Riga, and I walked home singing my song, carrying by branches and thinking about how incredible each day can be if you are open for adventure and not scared to be a little bit cold.

My biggest fear is running out of places to go and new things to see, but I can also find beauty in the ugliness of everyday life, and I think that is a lot of fun. I will finish by sharing some photos of the walk home that are not as scenic as the beach, but they have their own beauty.

Oh, and there will be a few more beach photos in here as well. So enjoy more pictures! Have some hot coffee and relax!


More Photos