Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

February 12, 2005


Subsidence is a big word in Mexico City. Although it is at 9,500 feet elevation, Mexico City is built on an old lake. In the past century, the aquifers underneath that old lake have been depleted. As a result, the buildings in Mexico City are sinking. Some have sunk up to fifteen feet. There are stories of first floors becoming basements and second floors becoming main floors.

The trouble is, they buildings don't sink uniformly. Some of the old Spanish buildings have become hazardous. In this picture, you can see that the old building in the background is leaning one way while the fountains in the foreground are leaning another. This is typical. The fountains can actually rise up as the surrounding buildings sink.

Due to subsidence, there are few old buildings in Mexico City which are on the level. In fact, it was quite strange to go to Puebla, a town without subsidence problems, and see the cathedral standing perfectly straight.

Mexican Tuning

The organs in Mexico are tuned differently than keyboard instruments here. Not only are they tuned lower, but the intervals between each note are different.

Our keyboards are well-tempered. That means that the purity of each individual key scale has been compromised and tweaked to allow one to play in different keys. Our ears have gotten used to this form of tuning.

The organs in Mexico are tuned to a modified mean-tone scale. That means, if I get this right, that they can be played in a few keys, but if you tried to play in a key such as F#, it would sound wildly dissonant.

I really didn't notice the difference going down to Mexico. The music had a different flavor, but I couldn't put my finger on just what it was. The organs themselves had such a completely unique tone--a sort of benign, well-rounded nasal sound--that the tuning was the least of the challenges for my ear.

However, I must have gotten used to the modified mean tone scale, for when I put Greig's Piano Concerto in the disc player a couple of days ago, some of the passages sounded absolutely off. I mean, they were as offensive to my ear as some modern stuff.

Of course I'll get used to our scales again soon enough--but it is interesting to note that our sense of what sounds right in music is more a product of culture and training than of any objective criteria.

February 11, 2005

A couple more Mexico pics

This Mexican teen couple was all cool and hip--until they figured out I was taking their picture. Then they got shy and demur.

This little guy was manning the soap booth. I suspect his parents had gone for a bit. There were young kids selling things on the streets of Mexico City, but not usually this young. I think he was having fun grinding down a bar of soap--not doing it as a job. I hope.

February 10, 2005

Lead on O Kinky Turtle

At the hotel in Tlaxcala, a few of us were lingering over a late dinner--late, in Mexican terms, being 11 p.m.--drinking wine and laughing over misapprehended hymn titles. The one above took the cake for me.

Then there was the tale of the kid who took a music appreciation test and was asked, "What was the name of the composer of The Messiah? He thought hard and came oh so close: "George Frederick Doorknob."

Group dynamics

When I announced to my history class last fall that I was going on a pipe organ tour, one student piped up: "What sort of people will you find on a pipe organ tour?"

Good question. We talked about it on the trip. Pipedreams host Micheal Barone, who should know, said that pipe organ fans tend to be intellectually curious. Others said pipe organ fans tended to be eccentric. The people on the trip were certainly more independent than members of the average tour group, I suspect.

Several of the group were professional organists themselves. Others were amateurs. In the group were two doctors, two instrument builders, several Phds in music, an agricultural economist, some retired teachers, a retired park official, a retired high school band and orchestra conductor, two retired engineers, a postal worker, a farm wife and organist, a retired journalist, now a realtor--that's all I can think of off the top of my head.

The politics of the group were generally left-wing. One of the doctors was a Fox News conservative who was willing to speak his mind. His politics might have set off some fireworks--but, in retirement, he goes on medical missions to Third World countries. Nobody could accuse him of not caring for the poor, since he probably has done more hands-on work for the world's poor than the rest of us combined. I enjoyed the confusion he induced in people who might otherwise have assumed that all conservatives despise the poor.

There were a couple of devout Catholics, one of whom got pretty offended when the history professor's cynicism towards the church came out as she described the various shrines to the Virgin.

In the end, I think Barone put his finger on what the group had in common: Intellectual curiosity.

February 09, 2005

New dream fodder

One odd effect of traveling to Mexico is that it has introduced new materials into my dreams, for better and for worse. I slept four hours this afternoon as a result of the flu, and when you have the flu, dreams can get pretty strange, but they were made stranger still by the trip.

For instance, there is an anxiety I haven't had before: The notion that the floor beneath you might give out. When we climbed to the roof of several old churches in Mexico and walked around, we took for granted that the roof would hold us.

Well, once when I was up on a roof, it cracked just like ice on the lake might when you walk on in it November. Not a good feeling. I ran to the edge, figuring things would be more solid there.

So, in my dreams this afternoon, I fell through a cathedral roof. Never did hit the bottom, though.

Oh, I never did mention all the police in Mexico and the fact that our bus was inspected by machine-gun toting police. It was obvious and a little troubling that our guides were more nervous about it than we. So, in my dream this afternoon, I dreamt that I was arrested and hung by some banana republic troops. That's a new one.

One the positive side, the beautiful abandoned monastary we visited in the countryside appeared in my dream. It was dreamy enough at the time. Glad to see it again.

More Mexico pictures

Here is a typical scene, a colorful church with a fountain. In the background is some carnival equipment. This picture was taken in the delightful town of Tlaxcala.

The square at Tlaxcala, like most squares, was filled with lovers being romantic in an unquestionably romantic setting.

Mexico's public architecture is wonderful. We all agreed it was superior to ours, both the new stuff and the old. Here is a picture of the Mexico City Post Office.

February 08, 2005

Back to the cold

I wasn't gone long enough to feel tremendous relief at returning home from Mexico. It was such a good trip, so busy that I didn't have time to get homesick.

The warm temperatures disappeared in time for my arrival. Yesterday hovered around zero. Today wasn't too much better, although this evening didn't feel too bad. My body didn't adjust to the Mexican warmth, so I am not shivering too badly.

Mexico is known to produce digestive pyrotechnics in its visitors. The effect was delayed until the trip home. Today, I feel fluish, achy, generally weak. Perhaps it was something I ate, or perhaps it is just the season catching up with me.

The swamp castle progressed a bit while I was away. The siding is on the garage, and it looks quite nice. Today, Jeff and Dean started putting up the knotty pine on the ceiling in the living room. Mom was busy sealing the pine boards while I was gone.

Brian the electrician went over the wiring again with me; that took two hours. Again, I am sure that two years from now I will wonder why I put the light switches where I did. Some of the locations changed from the last trip through with Brian--I already wonder what I was thinking three weeks ago.

I am always astonished how little there is to catch up on when I return from what felt like a long trip. There were a total of three letters of consequence. The rest went into the garbage. There were four phone messages. That took about ten minutes to take care of. Thanks to a darn good staff, I am pretty dispensible at the nursery.

I loved the colors I saw on the trip to Mexico. As a result, my house might be pretty bright! Ochre, mustard, red wine, lime green, burnt orange. Who knows. You can always paint the walls over again later.

February 07, 2005

Los Remedios

I wrote in my column this week about Los Remedios, a 16th century Spanish church placed atop an Aztec pyramid. I will start out the pictures of the trip to Mexico with that highlight. Here is a shot of the interior of Los Remedios. It is done in spectacular gold leaf. It was damaged in two earthquakes in the past twenty years and has been restored.

The exterior is painted a sort of mustard color. In the bright sunlight at 9,000 feet elevation, it really shone.