a smell for the past

Bucharest, Romania
Originally uploaded by youkeo.

It’s rumored that Beethoven once said something along the lines of “music is unavoidable”, meaning that you can choose not to read a book, you can close your eyes and not look at a painting (or – now – a movie), but you can’t avoid to hear music. He forgot to knock on wood…

In fact, the only thing that’s unavoidable is probably “smell”. At least, I’ve never met a composer who can’t smell.

But this is not about smell – this is about architecture, the longing to sniff the past.

I’ve spent this fall primarily in Budapest, Hungary – a beautiful, clean, quiet city.

Presently, I’m in Bucharest, Romania – a severly dilapidated, dangerous, corrupt, and overrun city. It feels a lot like Moscow – except that I don’t speak the language.

Walking along the few streets that I have so far, I see an incredibly beautiful, intimate city — but it’s clouded under years of neglect, disrepair, dust, asbestos, and problems. It looks like a sort of Paris, only it stopped playing the role 50 years ago. A forgotten movie set. I’d take some pictures, but I don’t quite feel safe yet. My digital camera is very small, and my Burberry coat is quite conspicuous (thanks, mom!).

I’ve never encountered this feeling — being in an old city, clouded by the new. Growing up in Moscow and New York, I rarely saw living ruins. Either the buildings are new, or they were old and shining.
(I’ve seen the ruins in Rome – but they are just that, ruins. Museum pieces.)

As a composer, I involuntarily react to the architecture around me. I never felt any sort of sympathy for old buildings. They were old, well maintained, they had all the sympathy of the world, and they had to make room for something new – cooler, with faster elevators. But looking at Bucharest, with its sad dopey eyes, and its many hungry stray pets, I could change my mind. It would be a dream to see this city puff the ages away, and return to its beauty.

(… but I should be careful in what I wish for… After all, I don’t want Bucharest to become another tourist trap like Prague…)

There is a musician in Budapest, whose method of ethno-musicology is simple: find the old guy (that being the oldest violinist in town), get him drunk, and put on a tape recorder. What comes out becomes “authentic” – though I disagree.

Bucharest is similar – it is just like the old guy, barely breathing, falling apart… at least to my eyes. Surely it’s seen better – and worse – days.

I hope it recovers. Until then, it’s hard to be musically modern here. (But it’s still easy to blog.)


  • aaandy says:

    Hi there,

    I found this site through your message on the classical music comunity, so I came and had a look:-) I’ve added you to my friends list as I found this page very interesting!

    I would like to visit Budapest and Bucharest very much. They are places I haven’t wuite made it to yet!


  • Anonymous says:

    prague, tel aviv, and bombay

    the thoughts you are having in bucharest (my father’s hometown, one which – to my shame – i have never visited), remind me of what i felt in bombay. i thought that this city looks like an imperial pearl of the east, except nobody has maintained it in 50 years. buildings resembling the buckingham palace covered in black soot with with broken marble.

    i felt similarly about prague when i visited there for the first time in 1990. black walls with baroque carvings barely showing through. of course, when i came back in 1998, everything was painted pink and blue again, but for some reason it just felt like a big theme park to me.

    tel aviv, too, shares some of that. once i walked through it with a foreign visitor, and she mentioned that you can just see the war scars everywhere in the city. i had to inform her that there was never a war fought in the ‘white city’. it’s just years of neglect that made all those shell holes in the concrete. in israel there’s a sense like it’s all temporary anyway, so why bother. i’d expect european cities to not share the same sentiment for some reason…

    • admin says:

      Re: prague, tel aviv, and bombay

      Indeed. I wonder how architects feel about visiting cities like these, with empires swallowed up by modernity, but only half-way. I look at these streets, and get all nostalgic. But for what? For Bucharest to look like Paris? No. For Bucharest to look like Dubai? also no. Hopefully for it to look like something new – but what? I don’t know.

      Barcelona is the answer for ever fallen empire, I think.. 🙂

      hope all’s well!
      x L

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