Friday, January 14, 2011

Thames River Cruise, Royal Observatory, Charles Dickens Pub, National Portrait Gallery

Dear Blog,

It's me, Celine. On Friday, we met at Westminster pier in the morning for the Thames river cruise. The boat dropped us off in Greenwich village, where Emily and I walked through the small market, had a lovely coffee in a fold-out espresso shop packed into the back of a tiny truck, and got lunch at a little corner restaurant. We then walked up to the Royal Observatory, where we spent the whole of the afternoon. I was struck by the intimate connection between time and place; we litened to a tour guide who told us of a famous 18th c English clockmaker, John Harrison, who invented the marine chronometer, the most reliable and precise clock to ever have been made at that time, that helped sailors in their navigation. It is fascinating that time could help people navigate through space. He ran into many problems because the change in humidity and temperature experienced during sea travel dramatically effected the mechanisms of clocks; also fascinating that something so entirely spacial could alter time (or rather our measurement of it). Harrison's solution to this problem was to use a bi-metal strip that would account for the swelling and shrinking of the pendulums.

In another room in the observatory, there was case after case of clocks, watches, and other time measurement devices (i.e. sundials). Eerily, all of the devices had stopped. Not one dial moved. It was as if time had died; the place felt a bit like a morgue. I felt as if I had entered into a chapter of Peter Pan.

From this room, I walked up a wrought iron spiral staircase to the main observatory; where the largest telescope (a 28" refracting telescope) is housed. The size of the telescope is quite impressive. A dramatic diagonal steel skeletal structure rises from the floor to the ceiling, holding the telescope in place. I heard what sounded like low bells ringing. It turns out the sound was actually an audio installation, Longplayer by Jem Finer. The following is a brief description of the piece from that wall text.

"<Longplayer is a> continuous musical composition written to play without repetition for 1,000 years. Music is created in real time from a 20 minute recording of Tibetan singing bowls. Every 2 minutes, 6 different exerpts are taken, modified in pitch, and then played back simultaneously by Super Collider Software. Finer describes Longplayer as growing out of a desire "to make something that made time as a long and slow process tangible." "

The piece contained unexpected cadences. It echoed, throbbed, pulsated; calling to itself accross the space. I sounded like the mournful bells of a clock. As I was listening, I could hear the beating of the rain against the roof. I was alone in the room. It was beautiful; the rain sounded like seconds ticking away. I became strangely more aware of my own internal movements; the pulsing of blood, throb of my heart, contraction of my muscles.

Around 5, we went to the Charles Dickens pub in Southwark. The pub was cozy and full of what looked like jolly locals. It was warm, and the local cask ale was the best we'd had yet. We ended the evening by going to the National Portrait gallery, which closes at 9 on Fridays.

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