Images of León

Images of León

Three years ago, in December of 2019, Rebe and I took a trip up north, to Léon and Asturias. Though I have already written a post about those two areas, my first visit was brief—and in any case I did not have a decent camera back then. It is with much apology, therefore, that I upload these belated photos of what was a thoroughly lovely holiday.

The drive from Madrid to León is the better part of four hours. Thus, we could have arrived at a decent time, had not the rental company been swamped with angry customers, waiting to pick up their cars. A word to the wise: when you rent at the cheapest company, you end up paying one way or another—in time, emotional energy, and yes, unexpected payments. As the Spanish say, lo barato sale caro. This has been my consistent experience with rental companies and airlines—though, I admit, I am so stingy that I still can’t help myself when I see a good deal.

In any case, we arrived in León just before the sunset. Compared to Madrid, it was frigid—made that much colder by the fact that the airbnb I selected did not have heating or hot water (again, being cheap has its costs). We were greeted by a dramatic sunset, the pinks, oranges, and reds dancing across wisps of clouds, as the shifting light played across the gray surfaces of the city. Such sunsets are rare in normally cloudless Spain.

We headed straight for the cathedral, hoping to visit before it closed for the evening. This cathedral is, without doubt, one of the finest in Spain—and all of Europe, for that matter. León, you see, was a major stopping point along the Camino de Santiago,  and so was visited by a constant stream of pilgrims during the Middle Ages—who, of course, brought both money and knowledge along with them. This explains the notable French influence in the gothic design of León Cathedral.

Although it is, by the exalted standards of gothic cathedrals, not especially big, its placement in an open plaza allows the visitor to appreciate the full, weighty majesty of the structure. In the waning evening light the delicate tracery, the graceful buttresses, and the many points and spires appeared like a dance captured in stone. But the real treasure is inside the walls—or, rather, in the walls themselves: the stained glass. Unlike most gothic churches, León has preserved its medieval windows (wars, bombs, and fires destroyed a good many over the centuries). These are absolutely stunning: full of intricate details and hundreds of individual figures, filling the interior with gemlike colors and ethereal light.

Once we had our fill of divine beauty, we turned our attention to more earthly matters. It was December and the town was full of Christmas decorations and market stands selling all sorts of knicknacks. I did some Christmas shopping—buying a colorful plate with a serrated center, for grinding up garlic, as a present to my grandmother—while Rebe contented herself with a new pair of mittens. And if you are in Spain in the winter months, it is obligatory to have some churros with hot chocolate.

Our meandering took us, inevitably, to Casa Botines, one of a handful of buildings outside Catalonia designed by Anton Gaudí. It is a severe building, strictly neogothic, lacking the exuberance of Gaudí’s later works. Even so, it fits in harmoniously with the city of León and is, at the very least, imposingly symmetrical. Right next to it is the Palacio de los Guzmanes, an attractive Renaissance structure that is now the seat of the local government (Guzmán was a wealthy family who commissioned the original palace).

This was basically it for our evening in León. After a short stroll along the Bernesga River, we drove to the Airbnb where we shivered all night.

Rebe with her new mittens.

However, this was not our last glimpse of the city. Three days later, on the way back from Asturias, we made a stop in the city to see the one major attraction we missed: the Basilica de San Isodoro. The history of the basilica’s name is interesting in itself. Though originally dedicated to another saint, in the middle ages it was re-dedicated after the Muslim ruler of Seville allowed the remains of the venerated Sevillian (he was a theologian and archbishop) to be moved north to León, which at the time was under Christian control.

Above the Casa Botines. Below the Palacio de los Guzmanes.

The basilica can only be visited on a guided tour. And though this tour lasted about an hour, only two things really stick out in my memory. The first is a jewel-encrusted chalice that was displayed in a glass case, in the center of a room devoted solely to this item: the Chalice of Doña Urraca. This item lay relatively unnoticed and uncelebrated in the basilica’s collection until 2014, when two Spanish writers claimed that it was the legendary Holy Grail. The evidence for this assertion was thinner than air. Art historians believe the chalice was likely constructed in 11th century Germany. In any case, there is another potential Holy Grail in Valencia’s Cathedral, if you want to cover all of your bases.

The real jewel of the basilica is, undoubtedly, the royal pantheon. This is the burial place of many of the kings and queens of León—from a time before Spain existed as a country, and León was just one of several small kingdoms occupying the Iberian Peninsula. Yet the pantheon is not famous for its bodies, but for its art. The ceiling is covered in a series of beautiful and well-preserved murals from the Romanesque period. These are of such fine quality that they have been compared with the Sistine Chapel, though stylistically they share little with Michelangelo. As is typical of Romanesque art, the figures are stylized, almost cartoonish, with no attempt at creating accurate proportions or a realistic space. The result is a kind of naive charm that I find quite moving.

A public domain image of the Pantheon.

That was the end of our tour. We ate tacos at a nearby Mexican restaurant (surprisingly good), and kept going back towards Madrid. But not long after we left the city, the sky exploded into yet another gorgeous sunset—with streaks of purple, red, and pink undulating like waves in the rolling clouds. We pulled over to take pictures. By chance, right in our line of sight, was one of the iconic Osborne bulls—the universal symbol of Spain. It was yet another reminder of the enchanting beauty of this country.

A special thanks to Rebe, who took many of these photos.

Review: The Song Machine

Review: The Song Machine

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was quite young, somebody gave my brother and me a new toy for Christmas. It was a little plastic speaker, which played 60-second clips from popular songs from tiny memory cards called “HitClips.” Though primitive in retrospect, at the time it seemed like incredible technology—to us kids, at least—and I spent weeks driving my mother crazy by playing and re-playing the one-minute version of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” I had. My brother, meanwhile, had the HitClip of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” and now if I listen to either song it makes me slightly nauseous.

This was, however, probably the most significant intrusion of contemporary pop music into my childhood. My father is a musician and, under his influence, I became a fan of the music of his generation—the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Bob Dylan—and remained mostly ignorant of, and uninterested in, the music of my peers. Indeed, like many teenagers with pretentions to artistic and intellectual superiority, I was quite proud to be disdainfully unaware of what was on the radio. It was therefore quite interesting to retrospectively learn about this music via John Seabrook.

Seabrook examines just the music that I was busy snubbing my nose at: the pop music of the nineties and aughts, such as the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Brittney Spears, Rihanna, Kesha, Kelly Clarkson, and Katy Perry. However, as quickly becomes clear, these artists are not the real focus of the book. Rather, Seabrook wants to examine the far less famous people who actually write and produce the songs that make popstars so famous. Indeed, it is fairly uncommon for a pop star to actually write their own music nowadays, which is why they have to tour and perform so regularly—they do not make much money on record sales.

A surprising number of songwriters are Swedish (apparently, the culture or the language fosters melodic gifts), such as Max Martin—a man infinitely less well-known than the singers I listed above, but who has written many of the songs that made them famous. Martin, along with others such as Dr. Luke and Tricky Stewart, do not write songs the way you might imagine is the “normal” way. Rather than searching for chords and melodies on a guitar or a piano, they focus on making “beats” or backing tracks—usually, using only digital tools, a fact that has put many studio musicians out of business. Then, this track is sent out to “top line” writers, who come up with the melody and perhaps the title; and finally, a lyrics writer finishes up the product.

Working this way, a song can be created relatively quickly. This is key to the modern pop song industry, as it allows producers to search for potential hits via trial and error. The same backing track can be sent out to a dozen or more top line writers, who in turn send back their melodies and ideas for the song. Of these options, the most appealing is chosen, and then worked into a full song. Even at this point, however, it is not unusual for a recorded song to be canned for being deemed insufficient. With so many options to choose from, producers need only to release what they are confident will succeed. And this is not merely a matter of guesswork. According to Seabrook, there are computer programs which analyze songs and rate their likelihood of becoming popular.

Now, being a purist is a good way to make yourself unhappy. And, in any case, “authenticity” in art is difficult to insist on, as it is such a slippery thing to pin down. Even so, I have to say that my sneering teenage self felt amply justified by this book. But before I snub my nose, I must add some caveats.

First, as Seabrook points out, this is hardly the first time in history when songs have been written by professionals for purely commercial ends. From Tin Pan Alley, to the Brill Building songwriters, to Motown and Phil Specter, there have long been professional songwriters creating material for charismatic singers. And hardly anybody thinks it inauthentic, for example, when a trained soprano sings an aria written by a professional composer (and many opera composers were quite shamelessly commercial, recycling old material and working with tight deadlines). At the very worst, this production model puts pop singers on the same level as movie stars, who are admired and praised just for knowing how to recite their lines. If anything is new about the modern “song machine,” then, it is just that the producers nowadays have more advanced tools than their predecessors.

All of this being granted, I must admit that parts of the book turned my stomach. This was especially true of the chapter on K-pop, which describes how potential stars are trained to sing and dance from a young age, and whose lives—from their schedules, to their diet, or even the boundaries of their love life—are carefully managed. The section on the dispute between Kesha and Dr. Luke—which included allegations of abuse and rape—was just as upsetting, epitomizing the exploitative extremes of the business. Indeed, as another reviewer has pointed out, there is a striking gender imbalance in the industry, with the overwhelming of producers and songwriters being men. And, of course, even if it is not exactly new, it is never pretty to see the inner workings of industrialized pop culture. It is like a visit to a hot dog factory.

Seabrook, for his part, seems to have come to like contemporary pop music more as a result of his delve into this world. Well, to each their own I suppose. He has written an informative and entertaining book on a subject that most people are familiar with, but which relatively few understand, and so has earned the right to listen to as much NSYNC as his stomach can handle.

View all my reviews

Review: Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork

Review: Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork

Alan Lomax was one of the few non-musicians—perhaps the only one—whose influence on American music rivals that of the greatest artists.

He spent the whole of his life studying, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating traditional music, especially that of his own country. Great artists like Muddy Waters might never have gotten their big break if not for Lomax. Other artists, like Bob Dylan, might never have been exposed to formative influences.

Rivers of song flowed through this man, who was never rich, who never held an academic post, who often operated with no institutional backing, and who remains comparatively little known. This is not entirely the public’s fault. Lomax was a genius when it came to finding wellsprings of musical traditions, but he was not so adept at self-promotion. It took him decades, for example, to find a publisher for his writings on blues music, The Land Where the Blues Began—a book that was finally published in 1995, some forty years after the events it describes. (More unfortunately still, the book is ultimately disappointing and disorganized.)

As another pertinent example of Lomax’s troubles with finding backers, there is a gap of twelve years between the release of the pilot of his American Patchwork documentary series (1979) and the rest of the programs (1991). Yet whatever he lacked in persuasiveness, he made up for in perseverance. However long it took, Lomax did eventually complete his documentaries on American music, which are now free to stream on And they are a treasure.

The American Patchwork series consists of five episodes. The pilot, which shares its title with Lomax’s book, is about blues in the Mississippi Delta. The other episodes cover jazz parades in New Orleans, Cajun music (also in Louisiana), the folk music of Appalachia, and finally “Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old,” which explores how the elderly serve as the pillars of musical tradition. Each episode is about an hour, and each one is worthwhile. Lomax, as usual, created them on a shoestring budget, with just a single cameraman, and so the documentaries have an almost homemade and unprofessional feeling to them. There is no sophisticated editing, no stunning visuals (indeed the camera work and editing often seems sloppy), and Lomax himself does all of the voiceovers. But what they do have, in abundance, is great music.

Most striking of all, this music is not, for the most part, played by famous professionals. Lomax takes care to find living traditions, and to enter into the communities to record the music as it is enjoyed in its original setting—often played by volunteers and amateurs, or at most by semi-professionals. As a child of the suburbs, I find these sorts of traditions fascinating and even inspiring. This sort of music—local, nonspecialist, communal—is so different from the music of the modern world, written by professional songwriters, performed by groomed superstars, and consumed from headphones or a speaker.

This difference is exemplified most clearly in Lomax’s episode on the “Noble Old.” There, Lomax shows how this music—most of which is not written down—is passed down from generation to generation, through living repositories of song, who accumulate more and more knowledge with each passing year. This could not contrast more sharply with today, where even being in one’s thirties is enough to isolate oneself from the main currents of popular music. (I am speaking from experience!) When music must be transmitted that way, from mother to daughter, from mouth to mouth, then it takes on an entirely different quality. For nothing will survive long in a community’s collective memory if it is not, somehow, vital to the identity of the community, embodying its values and even a sort of wisdom.

Lomax was a champion of this music his entire life. And despite his tendency to make romantic and unconvincing generalizations about peoples and cultures, he ultimately does make a convincing case for the vitality and beauty of these traditions. Of course, there is a certain paradox in people like Lomax and, by extension, myself—people who have traveled widely, read widely, gone to college, live in cosmopolitan cities, and so on—pining for the traditions of those who live in relatively closed, isolated, and often poor communities. In the modern world, we do not know the songs of our elders (if they even have songs to share), but we know a great many other things. And as much as I loved the episode on Appalachia, I will not be moving there anytime soon.

Even so, I found myself moved halfway to tears by each one of these documentaries. Comparing this lovely, haunting music with the formulaic and soulless jingles of the modern world, it is difficult not to feel that we have, somehow, gone badly off course. Nevertheless, the banality of pop culture is probably an inevitable price to pay if you want to live in a cosmopolitan culture. After all, once a society becomes relatively unmoored from traditional values (which is one way to define cosmopolitanism), the only measure of cultural value is what attracts people’s attention, and pop music certainly does that. Ironically, however, this freedom from tradition is what allows us to appreciate the musical traditions of vastly different cultures—within the United States and beyond.

I do not think Alan Lomax ever squared the circle of how to reconcile local tradition with a broad and tolerant perspective—how to have a strong identity and yet appreciate people quite different from oneself. His most ambitious attempt was to create a world-wide database of traditional music, the global jukebox; but rather than create a universal schema that could incorporate all human art, it only showcased the incredible variety in the world. Even so, and even if his loftiest intellectual goals were never reached, Lomax changed American music forever. And he still has much to teach us.