Random Observations #2

April 19, 2013 at 8:21 am (Icepick) (, , , , , )

  • The news media has been falling on its face this week. The coverage of The Boston Massacre II has been wretched. That said, other observations mentioned below are contingent on the information I’m getting as of 8:00 AM Friday, April 19th, 2013.
  • Today is 20th anniversary of the Branch Davidian massacre/fiasco, and the 18th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. (That latter event took place at 9:02 AM CDT. I’ll be happier when we roll around to Noon today without much incident.)
  • How perverse that the explosion in Texas was near Waco.
  • This is all like a faint echo of 2001. An unexpected bombing followed by deadly mail. Here in Florida we’ve even had the first shark attack of the Spring, over in New Smyrna Beach. All that’s needed are comeback hits for Afroman and Andrew W. K.
  • And how typical of the times that the things that might make for fun re-runs are the things that don’t happen. (Yes, I liked “Because I Got High” and “Party Hard” – both stupid fun-time songs, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.)
  • And yes, I mean a faint echo. BM II, while awful, is obviously dwarfed by the scale of 9/11/2001. And fortunately no one has been killed by any of the ricin letters, which makes this less deadly than the anthrax letters. Still, fun times these aren’t.
  • The two guys in Boston are/were better terrorists than thieves. Holding up a convenience store? Really? Convenience stores are designed with the idea that they’re going to be held up repeatedly, so you can’t get much money out of robbing one. If that was part of their efforts to get away they clearly didn’t know much beyond how to make a bomb.
  • One of the guys is named Joker? Really? Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19. Sound out that first name, or listen to the media members.
  • Post script: This morning I got the scrambled eggs absolutely perfect. Naturally, this is the morning my not-quite-three-year-old daughter decides to NOT eat her eggs. You don’t eat them, little girl, and I will!

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The Universal History of Everything (musical)

February 23, 2013 at 4:19 am (By Tim) (, )

I’ve been resurrecting old blog posts, finding old media, checking old links, and generally getting ready to start a new music appreciation blog for the Choir School. But what turns up on Facebook, linked by an old acquaintance who’s the Music Program Director of our local public schools?

ESTE (This): La introducción perfecta (en español—pero, si usted no entiende español, ¿qué entiende usted?)

I realize this isn’t the “universal history of music,” but only one view of European-derived music. But that’s fine. It’s from my culture, and very likely the culture of most people who read this. I’m not at all ashamed it doesn’t include Chinese, Persian, or Indian music, not to mention all the other great kinds of music people have dreamt up in every corner of the globe since humans first showed up.

No, I’m not ashamed one little bit.

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As Time Goes By the Syntonic Comma

February 17, 2013 at 1:30 am (By Tim) (, , )

Intended as bon-bons, I’m afraid my relentlessly didactic musical nougats have not been as popular as I hoped. But unwilling to abandon a niche taste for classical music, I thought I might tempt you with a belated Valentine’s Day sweet:  Chiara Massini, my favorite harpsichordist, in a little video montage, accompanied by her playing “As Time Goes By” on a slightly out-of-tune harpsichord.

In my world, a kiss is still just a kiss. But afterwards, I’ll tell you how the harpsichord is tuned. It sounds like Valotti temperament, one of several common unequal tunings used in the late 17th and 18th centuries, gone off a little bit like Sam’s piano. It’s similar to Bach’s well-tempered system, but maybe a tad smoother. If you listen carefully, you can hear how some chords and maybe a note or two sound a little more out-of-tune than others. Ah, romance!

Even the best harpsichord goes out-of-tune after an hour or two of playing. They need constant tuning. It’s the nature of the beast. If you want something lightly-built and resonant to respond to the plucking of strings, instead of them being smacked around, as on a piano, the light and resonant will not stay in tune as well as the heavy and iron-framed.

So, the first thing you need to do if you want to learn to play the harpsichord is to learn to tune it. You will be doing that every day. Antique temperaments, in addition to the piquancy they lend to old music, are actually a lot easier to tune than piano-style equal temperament. This allows Ms. Massini to smile at us from the keyboard after less than 20 minutes of twanging strings, instead of the hour it would take the usual suspects to tune equal temperament. But there are no kisses to be found anywhere on an equally-tuned keyboard. There aren’t any smacks in the face, either, but, as everyone knows, those tend to go with kisses—except, of course, on the piano, which manages to combine smacking around with a firm rule against smooching in the Tuning Department. It’s also time to abandon this metaphor for growing inconsistent, stale, and excessively kinky.

And, frankly, I’d rather spend the 40 minutes flirting with Ms. Massini while she played, sad as I might otherwise be we never had Paris.

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Is it Slippy, Drippy or Nippy?

February 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm (By Tim) (, , )

When my eyes haven’t been tearing from this miserable flu, I’ve been reading Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The title of this post is from the contemporary English parody names for the current months of the French Revolutionary Calendar. I’m not sure which one we’re in right now, but, everything considered, they’ll do. Burke mostly wrote his Reflections in 1790, two years before Year I and all the fun with new months.

Burke has a reputation as a fine writer, especially among those who haven’t read him. Those who do frequently discover everything has the color of a well-considered, adamant speech in Parilament, intent on elegantly demolishing opponents in lengthy detail. No wonder Johnson considered him the most formidable man he knew. But looking at his page, I’d rather hear the speech. The 18th century needn’t have been that long-winded. Addison, for instance, knew how to end a sentence, as well as to make a withering argument the most polite, humane thing you’re ever read.

In any case, considering England during the Regency, and having the musical bent I do, I couldn’t help but remember Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), the “English Mozart.” Samuel Wesley was John Wesley’s nephew, and the son of the Anglican clergyman and hymn-writer Charles Wesley. There were so many clergymen among the remarkable Wesleys, it is not easy to sort them out. The main thing, I suppose, is that John Wesley (1703-1791) was the most remarkable of the bunch, founding Methodism and living the long life he did.

Young Samuel showed great musical talent, composing prodigiously from age 15 until 21, when he got a knock on the head from which he never quite recovered. He did, however, write a small number of very good pieces after that, the Symphony in Bb Major (1802) among them.

Wesley converted to Roman Catholicism in 1784, rather like Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian (aka “John” after his move to England). Unlike Bach’s son, who was far too trendy for Dad’s old, wiggy stuff, Wesley was a proponent of the music of J.S. Bach. Among other efforts, he introduced the young Mendelssohn to it.

Bach’s influence is obvious in the fugal texture of this beautiful and sober 1st movement from the Symphony in Bb. So are other influences from the “Classical” world of Haydn and Mozart, plus a great deal of originality. It is one of the minor tragedies in the history of music that Samuel Wesley found his faculties impaired at such a young age, and we never got what we should from such a talent.

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Singing In A Blizzard

February 8, 2013 at 11:20 am (By Tim) (, , , )

If you’re in New York, and want to hear some beautiful singing to cheer yourself despite the weather this weekend, you could do worse than go listen to the boys of St. Paul’s Choir School from Cambridge Mass. They will be riding out the blizzard in what we hope will be a less snowy Big Apple. Here is the schedule:

• Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola at 5:30 on Saturday 9th.
• Mass at 12:00 and concert at 1:30 at St. Catherine of Sienna on Sunday 10th.
• A (short) concert at 4:00 in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Monday 11th.

My son is a graduate of the School, and I teach recorder there. It’s the only boys’ Catholic choir school in the U.S., and will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. Having been around the School for seven years now, I’m still thrilled every day to hear these boys sing. They’re conducted by John Robinson, the young and very able new Music Director, who came to “our” Cambridge from Canterbury Cathedral in the U.K. three years ago.

And here is a sample of the Choir chanting the Introit, Si Iniquitates. They, of course, do a wide variety of other music. If you’re Catholic and appreciate this, please don’t be jealous when I tell you the Choir chants a Latin Introit for the 11:00 Mass at St. Paul’s every appropriate Sunday during the school year.

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Music To Drive By

August 14, 2010 at 2:43 am (By Donna B.) (, )

Retriever asks for recommendations of good driving tunes to keep her and her co-drivers awake and happy.

Here’s the list I posted for her:

Charlie Mingus – Moanin’

Something fast light and airy from one of the elli’s (Locatelli, Corelli, Torelli, et al)

Grateful Dead – Deep Elem Blues

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Will the Circle Be Unbroken

Pump Boys & Dinettes – Vacation

Mormon Tabernacle Choir – The United States Marines Hymn

Mormon Tabernacle Choir – Hallelujah Chorus (despite bad video and spelling, it’s pretty good audio)

The Beach Boys – Barbara Ann

Earl Scruggs & Steve Martin – Foggy Mountain Breakdown - be careful… this one tends to encourage speeding!

Another one that triggers lead foot syndrome is the Ventures’ Wipeout.

John Philip Sousa – Stars & Stripes Forever

Janis Joplin – Brand New Key (I’m not sure what the title is… I got a brand new pair of roller skates, you got a brand new key…

Warren Zevon – Werewolves of London

Marty Robbins – Ghost Riders in the Sky

Roger Miller – King of the Road

and… as an afterthought for 55 mph driving: Massenet’s Meditation from Thais.

So…. what’s your favorite driving music?

Also posted at Opining Online.

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Govern These Ventages with thy Fingers and Thumb, Give it Breath and it will Discourse Most Elequoent Music.

August 16, 2009 at 1:37 pm (By Theo Boehm) ()

I’ve been very busy the last few weeks preparing for and attending the National Flute Association’s annual convention, this year held in New York.

This is a not-to-be-missed event for serious American flute players and makers. It also attracts a large international following. It may seem strange to have a convention for devotees of a musical instrument, but every year 3,000-odd flutists and flute makers cram themselves into a hotel in some sweltering city in August to hear concerts, go to lectures and workshops, and attend a trade show with every conceivable type of flute and flute-like instrument on display.

I realize this may sound to many, especially to musicians who don’t play the flute, like a particular circle of hell. But flute players have always been highly social creatures, seeking, I think, more than other instrumentalists, both to compete with and to be approved by their peers. It’s been this way for a long time. The first periodical journals devoted to a musical instrument were early 19th century British flute magazines. The flute has been a popular amateur instrument for a long time, so it isn’t surprising that music magazines aimed at this particular audience sprang up in the era of the rise of the middle classes, many members of which now had the leisure to devote to doing things like learning to play the flute or the new piano in the parlour.

The flute makes players insecure because it is, of all the woodwind instruments, the one with the greatest tension built into its very concept. Other woodwinds use mouthpieces and/or reeds that the player interacts with to produce the basic sound. These are ephemeral things that constantly need renewal, and over which players can exert considerable control and personalization. There is also an intimacy to making a sound with something vibrating in your mouth that is different than that experienced with any other musical instrument.

But the flute is oddly extrinsic. The sound is to a very real degree built into the instrument, and the job of the player is to discover it, shape it, and bring it out. Although this is extremely personal, it resembles the interaction of the player with practically every other musical instrument, and not the intensely internal kind of relationship other woodwind players can have with their instruments. The slightest physical problem, especially with the lips or mouth, can make it almost impossible to play the flute, but at the same time, there’s always something out there, just beyond the player’s grasp, that needs the best posible physical control. The tensions inherent in this situation tend to make players insecure. So it’s very common for flutists constantly to be seeking new headjoints (the top part of the flute, where the pedal hits the metal, so to speak), or to be on the lookout for a new instrument.

This is a very good situation for flute makers, but highlights another tension in flute playing: The instruments are expensive.

I’ll get into this in more detail another time with one of my usual musical instrument posts, but the basics of the situation are that the modern, metal flute was invented in 1845 to be made, not of just any metal, but of silver. The techniques used in making it are variants of silversmithing methods, and those alone, combined with the price of the precious metal, tend to produce instruments that are costly. The best flutes are also made to a very high standard of craftsmanship, which has been the tradition of flutemaking since the days of boxwood and ivory flutes in the 17th century. Related is the problem that the post-1845 Boehm flute (named after its inventor, Theobald Boehm) has a very difficult-to-make mechanism, whose complexity and subtlety of interaction with the player are found nowhere else among woodwind instruments.

Here’s a picture of old Theobald, looking very determined, and holding the wooden version of his new toy (developed AFTER the metal one):

A good, professional modern flute will start at about $10,000. There are usually a number of options of precious metals and variants of mechanism that most makers offer, so it is not uncommon for a player to spend $15,000 or more for a fine instrument. The reasons are, of course, the high cost of silver, gold, and platinum (the metals used to make flutes and/or various bits on them), and the fact that a truly well-made instrument can take hundreds of hours of skilled craftsmanship to produce.

There are perfectly good cheaper instruments, but the reality is that it’s necessary to spend at least $3,000 to get a flute made of silver that approaches professional standards. You can get $149.95 flute-shaped objects at Target, usually made in a sweatshop in China out of some dubious nickel alloy, which may or may not be radioactive because of the medical waste in it. But you can depend on these excuses for shipping toxic waste from China to ultimately end up at the bottom of a pile of junk in the basement or forgotten in some closet, long after poor Buffy has given up playing the damned thing. It just was a lot harder to play and so much more out-of-tune than anyone expected, especially the unsuspecting kid on whom it was foisted.

That is not to say that decent instruments are not made in China. But, while they may be cheaper than similar instruments produced elsewhere, for reasons that Chinese goods are always cheaper these days, the fact remains that you get what you pay for, and you are going to have to spend upwards of a minimum of $1,000 to get something functional and which resembles a musical instrument.

So there you have some nice reasons for insecurity: The nature of the instrument, the player’s interaction with it, and the expense.

If those don’t make you want to seek help, I don’t know what would. And what better place to find it than among 3,000 of your best flute-playing friends?

(Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening)

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I Play Ear.

August 10, 2009 at 2:09 am (By Amba) (, , )

Thinking of jazz (but this would apply to other musical forms just as well), it seems to me that the listener is the fifth member of every quartet, the seventh member of every sextet, the silent duet partner shadowing every soloist. The ear is also a musical instrument. And the quality of the music depends also on how well it is played.

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Today’s Dead Musical Instrument: the Viola da Gamba

July 11, 2009 at 5:25 pm (By Theo Boehm) (, , )

(Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening)

Some of the ghosts with whom I particularly enjoy having conversations are defunct musical instruments. The good thing about dead instruments is that it sometimes doesn’t take much to bring them back to life. One easy and grateful resurrection has been that of the viola da gamba.

The old gamba is with us again, speaking in its high, nasal voice, like an ambassador from those centuries when it was the principal bowed instrument of European music. And, like any good diplomat, it knows how to fit its style to the message it intends to deliver.

Sometimes acerbic and edgy, telling stories of war and glory to the ladies and gentlemen at home, as in the clip above, with all the drama of that great age of warfare and theatre, the 17th century.

At other times, smooth and eloquent as at a great council from the same century, its head bowed in prayer at the convocation, and its subsequent discourse profound yet courteous, as in this 6-part Fantasia by William Lawes, the last great English composer for the viol (as it was known in English) before the Civil War and the age of Cromwell. Lawes was, in fact, killed on the Royalist side at the seige of Chester in 1645, but not before he demonstrated the manners he had learnt at Court:

Developed in the 1400’s, the viola da gamba, as it was known in Italian, held sway during the same centuries as the harpsichord. Viols were made in various sizes, something like the violin family, but with a few more thrown in for variety’s sake, and played, not under the chin, like the violin and viola, but on or between the legs, the larger sizes being held something like a ‘cello. Viols had six strings, tuned in 4ths with a major 3rd in the middle, like a modern guitar, and commonly had tied-on gut string frets, like lutes, early guitars, and other plucked instruments of the time. The bass closest in size to the ‘cello was often fitted with 7 strings, which was begun in France in the 17th century. Sometimes the bass sizes were played fretless, leading ultimately led to our modern string bass, which is, in fact, the lone member of the viol family to survive in continuous use into modern times.

The bow was also held with the hand turned upwards, a finger or fingers helping to regulate the tension of the bow hair. The so-called “German” style of bow and bowing technique used by some modern string bass players is the only survivor of this method of playing stringed instruments.

An early example of a depiction of the viol is this angel, playing a rather kinky-looking instrument with an equally kinky technique in this detail from the famous Isenheim Alterpiece of Matthias Grünewald of around 1512-1516:

Clearly, some music not of this earth is being made here.

If we fast-foward 2-1/2 centuries, we find ourselves face-to-face with this slightly tipsy-looking gentleman, the last professional virtuoso on the viol, a German living in the London of Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Johnson, one Carl Friedrich Abel:

Abel had his portrait painted by Gainsborough, and wrote music like the following, although his tie-back wig would have kept any flowing locks from getting caught in the strings as this guy’s threaten to do:

The one, great, semi-pop-culture moment for the viola da gamba came in 1991 with the release of Tous les Matins du Monde, a movie based loosely on the life of Marin Marais, a gamba virtuoso at the court of Louis XIV, which starred Gérard Depardieu, and sparked a short-lived craze for viols and their music, especially in France. It’s an excellent movie, except for the complete lack of coordination by some of the actors pretending to play on their instruments, the music actually supplied by Jordi Savall, who is in the first clip in this post.

If we’re back in the dramatic 17th century through that movie, we might as well get a final taste of the young Marin Marais charming the elusive Sieur de Sainte-Colombe and his daughter, Marais being played by Guillaume Depardieu, who actually could play the instrument a bit, and who came to a tragic end last year:

There are plenty of ghosts here, old and new, to keep us company if we want to bother with them. They’ve always seemed more to bother with me, but, as I say, that’s just my particular bit of luck.

—Theo Boehm

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