Friday, December 26, 2008

The Violin

I think this will be the last post of 2008 for me. Apologies for not getting around to posting my promised do-it-yourself game ideas, but here's something worth watching: a 24-minute film, The Violin, directed by the Canadian George Pastic. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1974, though I first ran across it when it was shown at a Suzuki violin workshop my sisters were attending many years ago. Oddly, I seem to remember it without narration, and I feel sure it would be better with no narration. Oh well. Maybe I just blocked it out. The voiceover sounds a little too much like the guy from "A Christmas Story," but everything else about this little gem seems perfect to me. This is a version I found on a library VHS awhile back. I don't really have the rights to post it, but it doesn't seem to be showing up on DVD anywhere, so I think people need to see it. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

See also this UPDATE (11/16/18):

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dew Witch Horse Elf

For some reason, I woke up this morning thinking about a commercial for a game called Mad Gab where people are trying to sound out the phrase "eye mull of mush sheen." It turns out that all the people are 'love machines' (sound it out) and, even more importantly, they're all having a great time playing this game. How can my family have that kind of fun?

Oh sure, the obvious answer would be to buy the game, but I think there's more fun to be had in coming up with your own little puzzles. So, here are a few I came up with this morning when I should have been grading. (Oh, so that's why I woke up thinking of something else to do with my brain - anything but grading.)

They're not exact phonetic matches, but if you read them out loud, it should sound like someone with an odd accent saying something familiar. If you're having trouble, you could ask your computer to read the phrase to you. (UPDATE: Here they are, read by your friends at AT&T Labs: sitar..., purr..., thumb..., half....) Click on the phrases to find the answers, but only if you really can't get them.

...I have a few more do-it-yourself game ideas, but I'll save them for Christmas Eve (hopefully).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Turning the Page on Turning the Page

Given that I make my living as an academic, I have a rather strange, even embarrassing, quirk. It's possibly something I shouldn't even admit, but here it is: I don't like books. Well, that's overstating things. I love words, I love reading, I love writing, I love many, many books - I'm just not a big fan of the book as technology. I've tolerated the old "bound sheets of paper" format for a long time, but count me as one of the most enthusiastic about the long promised paperless future...even if it's not here yet.

My two biggest complaints about books have to do with the eye-strain I get from reading pages and a general tactile disaffection for paper. When I was growing up, it was well-known in my large family that I hated setting the table because touching paper napkins gave me "chills." There's a lot of confounding evidence as to how true this was, because I also simply hated setting the table, taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, and other chore-like activities. Still, it's fair to say that my fingers don't really like paper, but the eye-strain thing is probably the bigger issue. And, yes, I'm now at that age when I'm wearing progressive lenses, but they still haven't made the experience of reading something completely comfortable. In fact, that may be the best summary of the whole problem - I just don't find it completely comfortable to read a book, so I'm always shifting around, looking for just the right position.

The odd thing is that, since the dawn of the computer age, I've found myself ever more at ease sitting and reading exactly as I am now - staring at a glowing computer monitor. Among other things, I never get sleepy reading at the computer (this is not always a good thing), but I also don't experience the kind of eye strain one always hears about. It's comfortable, I don't find myself constantly looking for a new position, and I don't have to touch icky paper. I realize this puts me in a very small minority, but there it is.

So it is that I decided to jump in and be an early-ish adopter of e-reading technologies. I had some birthday money to spend and decided to buy a Sony Reader (kind of like the Amazon Kindle). It's quite appropriate to call this an early adoption stage, because the technology/market isn't really there yet. For one thing, the so-called e-Ink screen is smaller than ideal and the contrast isn't as good as it could be. (I'm sure there's a reason that the background is more gray than white, but I don't like that.) It's true that one can select three different font sizes, and the largest is very easy to read, but that size allows not much more than a paragraph per page. I like to see a bit further ahead and behind than that.

Still, it's pretty impressive, and I much prefer sitting and reading this to most books. There's none of that annoying "holding the book open" (see above descriptions of childhood laziness) and no paper touching issues. Curiously, one problem for me is that, perhaps because the screen doesn't glow at all, I find myself getting just as sleepy reading the Reader as I would a book. (It's too much like a book!) I'm not sure I wouldn't be happier with the look of an LCD screen, and that would have the advantage of working in the dark, but I realize this device isn't designed with me in mind, especially given what an alien I seem to be when it comes to books. (Even next-generation undergraduates look at me like I'm crazy when I profess my preference for e-reading.)

Of course, the fact that the reader can easily hold hundreds of books is amazing and highly appealing to my techy side. On the other hand, it's a shame that this early adoption phase means we're dealing with proprietary formats, so I'm stuck with Sony's eBook store and it's somewhat limited selection. (I don't think the Kindle's is all that much better, putting aside some of the Kindle's wireless tricks that don't really interest me. I don't need a new way to read blogs.) The prices are often ridiculously high as well, and creating one's own documents isn't as easy as it should be, although I think the Sony beats Kindle in that regard.

My biggest disappointment is that my Sony Reader (PRS-505) doesn't provide a way to search for text from the unit itself. It turns out that the next generation touch-screen reader, which is almost twice as expensive, does make searching possible, but I was astounded that this wouldn't be a basic feature of any e-reader. To my hyperlinked mind, I always assumed this was a sine qua non advantage of this technology. I can search the versions of the book stored on my computer, but that's no fun. When I'm reading, my mind will often drift back to a half-remembered phrase, and I'd always assumed an eBook would make it easy to hunt the words down quickly. Oh well.

So, as you can tell, I'm not 100% thrilled with the technology as it now stands, but I knew that going in. I've been greatly enjoying reading Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia on the reader, and I've also bought an e-copy of the indispensable The Rest is Noise, partly because I've had a class reading the book and I thought it would be handy to have a "copy" at hand all the time. Aside from the absurd pricing (e-Noise costs $11.99, while now available in paperback for $12.24), one other odd quirk which professors may have to start facing is that there's no standard page numbers to reference in an e-Book. (The page numbers change according to font size.) This will become a citation issue that needs to be solved in the years ahead.

In other paperless news, I'm so ready to try the tablet PC approach to sheet music. (That's right. Although I don't mind the feel of music scores, I'm just not that sentimental about the piles of scores I own. Please don't hate me.) The ever intrepid Hugh Sung is now offering his own little Airturn device that makes it easy to "turn" virtual pages with a wireless pedal. Unfortunately, I don't have the money lying around to buy a Tablet PC, but I may start scouring eBay for deals. I can't wait to put that kind of page-turning behind me.

I also only just realized that the monumental Google Books project includes lots of musical scores, although they are maddeningly difficult to search, at least as far as I can tell. I learned this yesterday when I was searching for a PDF score of Strauss's Zueignung for purposes of this post. Surprisingly, the song is not yet available at the astounding, but having been alerted by Alex Ross to the existence of scores on Google, I went fishing. It took quite a while before I came across this scan of a volume from the old "Musician's Library" series put out by Oliver Ditson. (I've had many students who'd been handed down volumes of these aged, hardbound collections. Talk about pages that give my fingers the creeps...)

Anyway, I'm happy that wherever you are, you're probably reading this on a brightly glowing screen, gently scrolling through my interminable prose without having to turn a single page. And remember, books are still useful for propping up a piano lid when the short stick isn't quite short enough. (Of course, I believe pianos should be open with the full stick all the time, but that's a topic for another day.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

...a little more about that

I ended the last post noting how I'd heard Barack Obama and family inserted into a beloved Christmas carol on A Prairie Home Companion. I also updated the post with a link to the entire audio for that show and my own on-the-fly transcription of the lyrics. I don't want to overstate this - I'm not really that offended because I don't think that ill will was intended. Rossetti's original text is meaningful to many people and I'd rather not see it conscripted in this manner, but I don't see the words as sacred in a way that means they shouldn't be altered. (Whoops, it looks like I altered them myself at the end of this transcription.)

The whole situation does support the Republican talking point that Obama followers tend towards worship of the man, but that's hardly news. It's certainly not true of all his supporters, but clearly, many, many Democrats think Christmas came early this year. Given that Christmas is pretty much a secular holiday at this point, it's not too surprising that even the more sacred carols would be interpreted in a more humanistic way; I suspect many people want to feel something spiritual at Christmas, even if the original story doesn't work for them. I will say this - bleak midwinter probably describes Chicago better than just about any day in Bethlehem. Still, for the record, I'm much more moved by Christina Rossetti's beautiful words. (I don't know who wrote the words for Fleming (Keillor, perhaps?), but rhyming 'Washington, D.C.' with 'festivity'? Or "People rise at dawn and do what must be done"? 

One other note about Renee Fleming on PHC. Earlier in the evening, she sang Strauss's Zueignung. [86:21 into the show.] I was thrilled to learn when it ended that the pianist was Bradley Moore, a fellow Arkansan and fellow classmate of mine - but, why did Fleming burst in on the wonderful big piano solo that occurs just before the end? That's our moment, Ms. Fleming! When I heard it live, I first thought she'd made a mistake, but a rehearing makes it clear that she knew what she was doing. Does anyone know the story of this alternate version? (And, let me repeat, it's THE big moment in the song for the pianist. Please let us have that, songsters. We don't ask much.) [Note: the Zueignung score linked above has some friendly coaching advice for singers.]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The People Divided Will Never Be Downloaded

It's been a while since I blogged about the bizarre price structures at, mainly since I cancelled my subscription long ago- but they reeled me back in with 75 free downloads, and I'm giving them an extra month or so, just to be nice. So it is that I've just discovered the greatest bargain there yet: all 62:38 of Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated on one track! Given that the basic subscription rate (30 downloads at $11.99/month) comes out to 40 cents per track, this is quite a deal (unless you hate the piece; but really, there's something for everyone in there).

Curiously, in what must be a mistake, I see that Amazon offers the same album (which includes one other 10-minute piece) for a $7.99 download, but will let you download The People on one track for 89 cents, while the other, much shorter piece is only downloadable as part of the entire album. So, if you choose to buy the "album" from Amazon, you're basically paying $7.10 for the 10-minutes of Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. Oh, you brave new digital world.

But here's the really ridiculous thing about the eMusic pricing. They have another album with the Rzewski in which each of the 36 variations gets its own track. The final tally when you download the piece this way: $15.20. Hmmm. In that version, you can't even get the whole piece with one month's worth of downloads. I guess in the most ridiculous scenario, you could download the first 30 tracks and then wait until the next month to get the rest, kind of like one of those serialized novels.

I've already spilled too many words about eMusic elsewhere (here and here), but here's my updated list of particularly long tracks for the budget-minded downloader. At this point, I've downloaded more than 50 hours of music for something like $50 to $60. Of course, it's all just bunches of bytes on my hard drive which isn't nearly as satisfying as that boxed set of Beethoven symphonies on 7 LPs that was my first big music purchase some time back in the dark ages.

So, do I listen to all that downloaded music? Well, I've been trying my darnedest to give the recent 100th birthday boys, Messiaen and Carter, their due, but that's a process-in-progress. (I do love some of the more obvious Messiaen pieces; as for Carter, I'm not there yet, but one of my few rules in life is that, if a composer is still composing at 100, I'll give him a try. 2016 could be quite a test of this rule.)

For this morning's commute, I started out with the Rzewksi (a milestone work I'll admit to not knowing well), but although I was enjoying it, it's a bit intense for busy traffic. During a rather quiet stretch, I had the volume up and it happened that one of those violent piano lid slams happened as I was merging into another lane. For a second there, I thought I'd merged into a Chilean freedom-fighter, but I managed to stay on the road...and switched the Rzewski off shortly thereafter. I'm not quite ready to die for that cause.

In other commuting news, I've more or less given up sports radio again, so I'm trying to tolerate NPR. Really, I am. Driving home from a Saturday afternoon gig in Maine, I even tried listening to A Prairie Home Companion, though I generally find Garrison Keillor to be about 10% as funny as he finds himself. I figured that by only chortling once every 5-6 minutes, I wouldn't be in too much danger of hurtling into my highway neighbors.

It was a Town Hall celebrity special PHC with Renee Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer on hand, and it was keeping me awake, if not particularly entertained. Then, Ms. Fleming began singing the Holst version of In the Bleak Midwinter, and I thought, "well this should be nice." However, I noticed the lyrics had taken a quick turn from Christina Rossetti's after a line or two. I wasn't paying that much attention, but something about Chicago...a family moving to Washington, D.C...suddenly the PHC crowd is cheering...and I suddenly catch on.

You know, I don't want to get into politics again here on the blog, and I'd like to reaffirm that I hope for nothing but the best for and from Obama, but c'mon. Has it really come to this? The only good news is that Fleming sounded hideous singing it - I think she was really trying to sell the "message," but she's one of those singers who sounds better when she's not trying to be too expressive. The voice was spreading all over the place; in fact, it sounded like about six different voices at various times.

Maybe I just imagined the whole thing, having been swept into dreamland by the News from Lake Wobegon. But then how did I get home?

UPDATE: I wasn't dreaming. The PHC episode is now available online. You can hear about the coming of the savior starting at about 110:30 of the episode below (also archived here.) I've even transcribed the lyrics for you here. You can decide for yourself how fitting it is to compare the journey to the Beltway with the journey to Bethlehem.

UPDATE2: More commentary here.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas at MMmusing

Finally, I've gotten around to rehanging last year's Christmas decorations here at MMmusing, which just means you get easy links to 2007's three Christmas features. Sadly, there are no new Christmas features this year, unless you count the J. Peterman ads as gift-giving suggestions, but old-fashioned things are always in style at this time of year. So, if you missed the seven-layer medley of holiday favorites, then dash away to see how many tunes you can pick out. (Helpful hints are supplied.)

I've already blogged this year about the "12 Composers of Christmas." I had hoped to upgrade it with actual singing on the soundtrack this year, but maybe it's just as well to encourage viewers to sing themselves. There've been more than 1500 views since I re-posted it last week, so maybe someone's singing.

If you have a little more time on your hands, you can check out my first feature film, 2000's A Christmas Carol. It relies quite unapologetically on the cuteness of assorted nieces and nephews, but it's still shorter than most of the other versions out there. Plus, it has a singing fish. Read all about it here.

Part II is here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Rite of Appalachian Spring

This is one of those projects where the title inspired the whole thing. We generally end up studying the Stravinsky and Copland around the same time in my music appreciation class, so it was perhaps inevitable that they'd run together in my mind at some point. I probably also owe some credit to Alex Ross, who does a good job of pointing out (see p.267 of hardback version) how much Copland's style owes to Stravinsky, even though the end results are quite different. This is also a good time to thank the ever generous Alex for linking to my "Webern in Mayberry" post, thereby sending a wee bit more traffic this way.

A few quick comments. I love this sort of project, as it fuses the acts of composing, arranging, and audio engineering. I've little doubt Peter Schickele would have gotten here first were it not for copyright issues, but I'd don't think he's married these pieces yet; in case you're wondering, this arrangement is performed by Maestro René Köhler leading the National-Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. The musical part of this actually went together quite quickly. Nothing is transposed, in fact. And, yes, it is intended to sort of break apart at the end; that's part of the fun.

I only decided to add visuals to make this more YouTube friendly, so they're not very sophisticated. The Rite of Spring picture is Nikolai Roerich's design for the original 1913 production. You can see the Joffrey Ballet's recreation of that version here. It was completely unintentional that the generic Appalachian Spring image (which I just found on Google) ends up looking a little Thomas Kinkade-y at times. Ahhhh! By the time I realized that, I'd already invested too much time to go back. Please don't call me the "YouTuber of Light."

Christmas decorations go up on the blog tomorrow. (Or maybe Saturday. Tomorrow's really busy.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sinfonia synthetica

Jonathan of Dial M thinks he's the last blogger to comment on the YouTube Symphony, but no one gets to the back of a line better than me. Anyway, count me as completely bewildered by the whole thing. First, the idea that they'll build a performance from all the winning submissions is just goofy. Aside from how they'll deal with all the low-quality webcam audio they'll be getting, doesn't this take all the fun out of playing in an orchestra? Kenneth Woods had a great post recently describing how a blind trombonist is able to play in an orchestra because of his great listening skills, but the larger point is that the deepest and best kind of ensemble experience comes more from listening than watching and counting. (As an experienced accompanist, I find watching is needed only in a few specific moments - like during the bows.)

Sadly, it sometimes seems that people look at the process of learning what to listen for as something they shouldn’t have to do. Yes, I suppose one can be good enough to play the notes on the page, count the rests accurately and watch for a cue and do their job, but is that making music? More to the point- do you really just want to be living in a world where your whole universe is your part and the conductor? Playing an instrument is fun, but playing music is more fun…

Yes, I know multi-track recordings are made this way all the time, and I'm not saying that can't be a musical process (here's a terrific recent example; thanks, Elaine). I just don't see how Tan Dun's YouTube Symphony has any special qualities that lend it to the global multi-track approach. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what special qualities this piece actually has. Maybe it's cruel, but watching it reminds me of nothing more than the Frasier episode in which Frasier conducts his own overblown jingle - in each case, the composer/conductor looks a little too pleased with himself, while the musicians look like they're punching time clocks.

[Compare 1:27 of Frasier to just about any moment in the Tan Dun.]

For that special masochist in your life...

Another musical offering from J. Peterman:

[click pic to enlarge]

Monday, December 8, 2008

Le sacre du Peterman

On the advice of my therapist, I'm not prepared to say yet why I ended up imagining my weekend trip to the BSO as a page from the J. Peterman catalog. But I did. [See also: Peterman sells Schubert.]

More Rite Stuff: The Rose of Spring, The Rite of Springfield, The Rite of Springtone, Too good to be true

Monday, December 1, 2008

They're back...

Having a little trouble getting caught up from all the work I didn't do over Thanksgiving Break, but we might as well get December off to a proper start by bringing this back. Let's get those total YouTube views up over 1000, shall we? (We're at 993 now, so it's not too long a trip.) Useful for family singalongs and those music history review sessions that are just around the corner. Without further ado (since I'm about to be late for rehearsal):

Read about last year's minor (very minor) Christmas miracle.