In which Amsterdam poses me a musical riddle

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the colourful gable stones that adorn the houses of Amsterdam. They are usually found just above the door of a house, but really can be pretty much anywhere on the face of a building. Some of them are new, some centuries old. Most of them are regularly restored and painted. They add a dash of colour and variety to the city’s architecture.

A few weeks ago, I acquired a 135mm telephoto lens that allows me to snap these gable stones up-close. Now that I am actually looking for them, I spot a lot of them. Familiar streets that I’ve been walking through for close to 4 years, have been hiding beautiful specimens in plain sight.

The stones cover a wide spectrum of topics ranging from religious scenes to happenings from daily life. There are stones commemorating important events and ones that depict important people. Given the rich maritime history of the Netherlands, it’s probably not surprising that ships and fishes appear quite often as well.

When I spotted yet another gable stone with a fish on it, naturally, I didn’t make much of it. Looking closely however, revealed that the stone bore short musical score just above the fish. My curiosity was immediately piqued. What did those bars sound like?

I’ve lamented about the poor quality of art education in my school in the past. Music education in my school was an even bigger sham. Till my 20s I was completely ignorant of even things like where on a piano is the middle C, how the notes are written on a score and so on. When I moved out of my parents’ house to Banglaore, I took piano lessons. I didn’t get very far, but now at least understood the basics of western classical music.

The first thing I did once I reached home, was to start Garageband and try and play the score from the gable stone on my computer’s keyboard. I failed miserably. I had forgotten to sight-read music. I also couldn’t keep time with a precision that’s needed to play the 1/8th and 1/16th duration notes that this little piece is peppered with.

I wasn’t going to let this music go unheard. I signed up on NoteFlight and with some persistence managed to transcribe the bars more or less accurately. NoteFlight, or for that matter pretty much any music writing software these days, allows you to play the score as you are writing it. Here is what the score on the gable stone sounded like:

It sounded *very* familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. It was late by now. I left the computer and took up the dishes waiting in the sink to be washed. Just as I was washing the last plate, it suddenly clicked! Of course! These were the opening bars of the 4th movement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet! Here is what they sound like:

Placing these bars from original score next to what’s on the gable stone confirmed it beyond doubt:

Once I knew this, I felt quite stupid that I didn’t catch the connection between the fish and the score sooner. The trout on the gable stone should’ve been a dead giveaway! Also, I am pretty sure I could’ve looked this up online, but perhaps because I am from a time when you had to work things out yourself, I wanted to see how far I’d get. That said, the internet did play a big role here in giving me the tools I needed to puzzle this out.

p.s. The fourth movement of Schubert’s A-major quintet is a set of variations based on the theme from a song that he had composed earlier – Die Forelle (The Trout). This is what gives the quintet its popular appellation.

p.p.s. I looked up pretty much every rendition/arrangement of Die Forelle I could find on Spotify and heard it next day.

p.p.p.s. This episode reminded me of this little piece about a mutt that I had doodled over 10 years ago! Back in the day, Microsoft’s Tablet PCs had a little application (“Tablet PC Music Composition Tool”) that used to be a part of the Tablet PC “Powertoys” (meaning cool but unsupported software), which would allow you to transcribe music with the Tablet PC’s stylus. It had felt like a very natural application of technology to music.

A long and unnecessary rant about warm summer days

Wrote this rant a few days ago, but never got down to publishing it. For the last two days we’ve I’ve been enjoying a spell of cool weather that many people have called autumn in the middle of summer. Sometimes summer here goes on summer breaks too. Here is what 5th June felt like:

30ºC days are a rare event in Amsterdam. Today was one such day. People here cherish such days to the point of celebrating them. Unfortunately, I carry baggage from having grown up in Delhi and having suffered through relentless, 3-month-long, power-cut-ridden, 40ºC summer days and 30ºC+ summer nights stewing in my own sweat. Despite having lived through four years of cold, wet Dutch winters, and warmer, but equally wet and windy Dutch summers, I have been unable to muster any enthusiasm for warm, sunny days.

I was a little taken aback by how my body and mind responded to the weather today though. As I stepped out for a coffee break from the cool climate-controlled air of our office’s building, I found the warmth almost pleasant. It was not so much the warmth I guess but the novelty of a sensation that I haven’t felt on my skin a long long time.

Such warm spells rarely last beyond two days. Typically on the afternoon or evening of the second day, thunderstorms roll in and cool everything down. It always reminds me of the first monsoon rain after a protracted and miserable summer. It’s as if that same cycle plays out here but in a shortened format. T20 to a Test match. Sure, the breeze here doesn’t carry the sweet, earthy smell of rain and the rain doesn’t have the intensity of the first monsoon shower, but I think it’s a fair compromise for having to put up with hot weather in lots of two days – all of five times a year.


Our favourite cycling route

The wife and I have a favourite cycling route that takes us from our house to the edge of a large canal from where you can hop on to a ferry to a neighbouring town. Within fifteen minutes, you find yourself cycling on a smooth road lined with trees on either sides. Patches of grass run along the route. These days they are teeming with daisies. On a sunny day you can even spot a hare or two frolicking in the grass.

Tall and powerful wind turbines dot the route. They look benign, even soothing from a distance but are quite scary from up close. On a modestly windy day you can hear a menacing swoosh sound as the blades cut through the air. I don’t fancy being around one on a stormy day. The ride also takes us past a small power station that I presume processes all the electricity that the wind turbines generate. Its buildings are covered in graffiti and have a look of abandoned, industrial wasteland.

As the weather turns warmer, I have a feeling that we’ll find ourselves biking this route more often.

Photoblog: Photo #72 – A bridge with cycles

Summer is not quite here, but we are beginning to get an occasional warm day or so each week. The flowers are beginning to look a little tired and the elm trees are beginning to shed their seeds. The sun sets past 9:00 PM, which leaves me with about an hour of good light after dinner to walk around and take pictures. Here are three pictures of a bridge that marks the beginning of Herengracht. Taken yesterday and presented here in order of increasing contrast:

p.s. For someone who grew up in a city where summer temperatures would effortlessly cross 40ºC, the summer here feels like mild winter. The temperature on an “occasional warm day or so” I refer to above, rarely touch 25ºC. All this talk of summer here therefore, save for the length of the days, feels like a lie. Not that I mind this arrangement one bit.