Sunday, February 29, 2004

Music at the Oscars

Thanks to the movie Cold Mountain (which I should probably see sometime) shapenote singing has now made its first appearance at the Academy Awards. So now those of you who have been wondering about the singing I've been doing on occasional Sundays will have an idea of what it's like. Kind of. Actually, it didn't really strike me as very shapenotey. It had instruments in it, for one thing. And it was set up as a lead singer with the chorus as backup, rather than as four equal parts. Add to that the way they lined up the chorus in the background (the traditional square arrangement doesn't work too well on stage, I guess) and I probably wouldn't have recognized it as shapenote at all. Except for the fact that they all had a copy of The Sacred Harp, even though they weren't singing from it. Oh well.

On the song just before the shapenote song, something else appeared that I didn't expect to see: a hurdy-gurdy. The guy was hardly even playing it, though -- he was just droning. Hmph. What a waste.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

The Voiceless Storyteller and the Secret of Happiness

Joel ben Izzy was at Borders today, telling stories and talking about his book The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness. Miriam was always telling me I ought to meet him sometime, and now I see why. He's a fascinating guy. After designing a degree in storytelling at Stanford, he's been traveling the world, collecting and telling stories. He's also worked as a "story consultant," teaching storytelling skills to lawyers, CEOs, and the people making movies at Pixar. In 1997, though, he lost his voice to thyroid cancer. For a year and a half he was a storyteller who couldn't speak above a tiny whisper, and for all he knew, the loss was permanent. The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness tells the story of how he got through this time and his eventual recovery, interspersed with stories from around the world. I haven't read it yet (I only just bought it today) but I'm going to recommend it anyway.

(So that makes two really cool events at Borders, just this week. Wow. I need to remember to check up on their schedule more often, and see what else they have going on there.)

Friday, February 27, 2004

No Viennesing for Me

So yeah, I opted out of the Viennese Ball this year. I'm sure it will be wonderful and fun and all that, but it's a big enough event that I need some really significant motivation to bother with it all. Especially the bits about finding a date and dressing up in a tux and all that. Sometimes that kind of thing is fun, but I'm not particularly missing it right now.

Right about now, Tina-Kari-Jeremy's choreography should be in full swing at the Opening ceremonies, and I'm sure it is going beautifully. Congratulations to everyone in Opening!

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Mandolin Noises

My newest musical toy is a mandolin ToneGard. It's a light, wire frame that fits over the back of a mandolin, letting the back resonate to improve volume and tone. I haven't gotten to experiment with it much yet, but I took it to the Irish session tonight. I could hear myself a bit better than usual, I think, though no one particularly commented on me sounding different. Of course, once you get enough other people playing, it's still hard to hear a mandolin, even with a boost like this. I'm going to spend some more time testing it out, though, and comparing the sound with and without the ToneGard, so I can get a sense of what it's really doing. It seems to change the quality of the sound a little bit, too, so I'll see if it induces any changes in my picking.

Dave mentioned another neat thing for mandolinists with volume inferiority complexes. Apparently there's some guy who makes mandolins with an extra little sound hole on the side, facing the musician. The idea is that it aims a bit more of the sound at the person playing it, so they can hear themselves better in a group. I'd love to try one of those. Sounds like a great idea. Patrick offered to get out his drill, but I passed on that.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Bordering Austria

I went to see Vienna Teng perform at Borders tonight. I had never seen her live before, and it was a lot of fun. She was a Stanford student (just a few years ahead of me, I think) then a software engineer for Cisco for a little while, and now she's releasing her third CD. It was just her and a keyboard tonight. No backup musicians, but she didn't need them. She has a beautifully simple sound just on her own. I also really liked her personality and her presence. Between songs she spoke comfortably and easily, like a natural person without a stage persona to get in the way. Good way to be.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Routine Towel Maintenance

I went to visit Mom for a little while this weekend. She has a copy of the complete Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series but she had never read it, so I've been reading it to her in little bits, whenever I visit. They really make very fun read-alouds. We're about halfway through the second book right now.

Something I really like about Douglas Adams' writing, aside from just the overall funniness of it, is his knack for description. He has all sorts of wonderful, glisk-inducing phrases that absolutely delight me, even when he's describing decidedly un-delightful things. For instance:
It has been said that Vogons are not above a little bribery and corruption in the same way that the sea is not above the clouds.
The hands that held the curtain were long and thin too: they were also cold. They lay lightly along the folds of the curtain and gave the impression that if he didn't watch them like a hawk they would crawl away of their own accord and do something unspeakable in a corner.
Of course, the thing that made me and Mom absolutely collapse was a complete throw-away line about "routine towel maintenance." You had to have been there, I think.

Fans of Douglas Adams really must read The Salmon of Doubt. In addition to containing the fraction of a novel he was working on when he died, it has a collection of other writings on a number of topics, both humorous and serious. It's fascinating to see how his style comes through in letters, articles and essays, and you can see what a genius the guy really was.

At some point I also want to find a copy of the original BBC radio version of H2G2. That would be really cool to listen to.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Automotive Sonata in H Major

I saw an ad for the 2004 Hyundai Sonata the other day. At first glance, it appears to be a fairly standard machine, but further inspection shows that it is really a highly unusual interpretation of a classic form.

While maintaining the three parts of the standard Sonata form, Hyundai's new model displays a very peculiar distribution of material throughout these parts. The exposition shows considerable folk music influence, being based on an astounding number of hornpipes. (It is advertised as "138 hp" but I have not attempted to identify each tune.) Though this is supposedly the driving force behind the Sonata, it is entirely absent from the development. Described as "roomy," this middle section contains a much lower density of material. However, it introduces an interesting new harmonic component with a chord progression notated AM/FM/CD, which I interpret to mean A major - F major - C diminished. The recapitulation is brief, and even sparser than the development. In fact, it can hardly even be said to be a recapitulation of anything. The majority of it has been left un-scored, perhaps indicating that the space should be filled in an improvisational manner by the performer. These peculiarities of form hardly seem to justify the title of Sonata applied to this vehicle, even allowing for large amounts of innovation.

Among the work's strong points, however, is the five-speed transmission, which indicates that it supports a wide range of tempos. This is comparable to much of Bach's work, such as "Ach, mein Sinn" from St. John's Passion, which has been recorded by various artists at tempos ranging from 77 to 115 beats per minute.

At $15,999 the cost of this Sonata may be prohibitive for some musicians, who may be more accustomed to paying $15-$30 for a book containing a large number of well-known compositions. However, it is far more affordable than some original manuscripts, which have been known to sell for as much as $2 million. The 5-10 year warranty should also be taken into account, though, and compared with the work of Beethoven and other masters of the past, which can safely be guaranteed for generations.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Syndication is Dead! Long Live Syndication!

(Those of you who aren't using my blog's RSS feed can ignore this post.) This is going to be the last post on this RSS feed. From now on, my blog will be syndicated here: I was sort of dragging my heels for awhile before switching to the new Atom format, mostly because I was annoyed that my news reader didn't support it. But now I've got the beta version of NetNewsWire, which works with it, so that's all good. I also discovered that Bloglines, a web-based aggregator, supports Atom, plus they even have a nifty little program you can download to check for updates for you. That's pretty cool. Anyway, I finally decided to switch over. If you're not sure whether your news reader supports Atom, you can check this page.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Guitar Attempts and the Case for Caselessness

I actually got out my guitar tonight for the first time in ages, and I even put it in standard tuning (it's usually in DADGAD or Taro Patch). I've never really figured out anything about playing backup, unfortunately, but that just means I need to start. So I put on some They Might Be Giants songs and started trying to figure out how to play chords with some of the less harmonically-scary ones, like Lucky Ball & Chain, and Four of Two, which I spent the most time on. Yes, I was using tab off the web. I'm still a wuss when it comes to deducing harmonies on my own. (After years of thinking I was learning to play by ear, I realized that I was only really learning to play Irish tunes by ear. Oh well. Always more challenges to keep life interesting.)

The thing about playing guitar is that I don't usually worry too much about getting my fingers in the right place, and I don't even think I'd have too much trouble with the picking side of it, if only I knew *what* to do to make it sound good. It's so different from playing melodies on the mandolin. I keep feeling like I can only do simplistic little strummy things, but I can't see what's beyond that to work on, even though I know there must be something more. Very frustrating. I'm going to have to start listening more closely to guitar parts of songs. I also realized that it can be pretty tricky to try to sing at the same time, even when keeping the guitar part simple. Of course, my main problem with that is self-consciousness. What I need is to have my housemates (all five of them) just go away for a few weeks so I can make a lot of noise and get used to it. Probably not going to happen, though, so I'll just deal with it.

Meanwhile, I'm going back to my usual strategy when I need/want to practice something. The guitar is not allowed back in its case at all until further notice. Keeping it out makes it much more likely that I'll pick it up and play it, even if it's just in little bits, so I'll get a lot more practice, even if it is a bit less convenient to have a guitar laying around the room.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Not For Kids Only

After Camp Harmony I went and ordered all three of Bob Reid's CDs. Marz Barz and Abracadab came pretty quickly, but We Are the Children was back-ordered, so I only just got it. Good stuff. This is really how children's music ought to be. He's got fun songs and silly songs, and songs that convey really good messages for kids, without being overly preachy. And it's all really good music, with a great selection of other musicians. He also has elementary school kids sing on a lot of his songs, both solos and entire classes at once. I would have thought that would get old pretty quick, but it actually works really well. The entire third album is sung by kids.

The best things about Bob's music is that, while it is clearly written for kids, adults can still enjoy it immensely. I look forward to his Kid's Concert at Harmony every year, as do the teenagers who grew up on his songs, and the parents who take their younger kids to hear him. Part of it is the fun and happiness he puts into everything, and part of it is also just that it's wonderful to watch kids get happy and excited about music the way they do with him. I would tell anyone with kids to get his CDs.

Along the same line of "real" music for kids, I recently discovered another album while looking up various recordings of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. It turns out they have an album called Not For Kids Only, with amusing songs for kids, plus some awesome playing by a great duo. I was especially interested to hear Three Men Went A-Hunting, since I remember singing that with Mom when Lacey and I were little.

And of course, we've got to work in They Might Be Giants as well. Their album No! is for kids, and they even have a book that goes with some of the songs. Again, the great thing here is that they don't compromise on musical quality just because they're aiming at kids. If you like their other stuff, you'll like this. Four of Two, for example, is one of my favorite of their songs (though admittedly, I tend to have lots of favorites).

TMBG also sing Why Does the Sun Shine? which is one of many science songs by Tom Glazer and Dottie Evans (thanks to a Rose-Colored Gloss for that link). Some of these can be considerably more on the corny side, but they're still pretty amusing in their own way. It's also interesting to compare the original version of Why Does the Sun Shine? with TMBG's on Severe Tire Damage, just to see the range of effects you can get from the one song.

I like music that makes it easy to be a kid at heart.

Monday, February 16, 2004

¡La Lunes! (a.k.a. that to which I was "hasta")

I'm back. Safe flights all the way. General highlights follow, mostly written on the plane (yay for having a laptop!). You can follow along with the pictures here if you like.

Saturday morning was Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The statue was cool to see, but you can't go up in it these days, so there wasn't really much to do there, leading Miriam and me to start adding to our collection of statue-mimicking photos. Ellis Island has a wonderful museum, though. Lots of really amazing stuff there to learn about immigration and the people who came to America that way. Some of the old photos and quotes from the immigrants were especially intense. I'm with Greg in giving it a huge recommendation. We spent a couple hours there but there was still a lot we could have seen.

Saturday afternoon we visited Greg, but missed Shaleece, unfortunately. In the evening was dinner and contra dancing. The dance was great, with a good band and tons of excellent dancers. For some reason, though, they insisted on keeping the lighting dim, so I was sort of having trouble with that. I'd spin around and have trouble seeing where my partner was sometimes, so I'd end up facing the wrong way. Silly. But it was definitely fun.

Sunday was mostly for Central Park, though we got going on it kind of late. Lots of good statues to play with there. And a neat castle. We missed the zoo with the gay penguins, though, because we didn't realize it was going to close as early as it did.

Also on Sunday was the visit to Strand Bookstore. That was a bit disappointing, though, since their "eight miles of books" hype had led me to imagine something more along the lines of Powell's, miles not being a unit of measurement I usually associate with books. I tried finding my usual questing books (the rare ones I look for whenever I'm in a used bookstore) but no luck. Oh well. Big bookstores are always fun anyway. I found out later that I had only been a couple blocks from the 4 of 2 clock, so I should have gone to see that. Next time.

I didn't really get through very much of my list of things to see in the short time I had, modest though the list was. I'll probably need at least a week sometime to properly get through some more of the museums, go to a show, see downtown more, and all of that. I feel like I didn't actually see much of the city. I went through a lot of it, but generally on the subway, which usually doesn't look like much of anything (though the 81st street stop is pretty cool, with lots of mosaics, as is the stop with the little "metropolitan gnome" statues). And Central Park is about as un-city-like as you can get out there, so it was a pretty skewed view of things. Even as it was, though, I felt distinctly out of place in the huge cityness of it, so this was like a little easing-into-it kind of visit. I'll do more whenever I might get out there again.

Friday, February 13, 2004

¡Hasta la Lunes!

I'm going to New York for the weekend! I've never been there before, and I'm very excited. I'm going to be staying at Miriam's, and I'll hopefully get to stop by and see Greg at some point, too. Dancing and touristing will certainly happen. Maybe I'll even run into Kimmy at some point.

My flights are American Airlines 288 (going) and 231 (returning). Yes, I will be in a gas-laden plane near the Statue of Liberty on President's Day. No, you will hopefully not hear about either of those flights in the news.

(Mother: you did not just read that and you are not allowed to worry. I promise to make sure that the security officers check my shoes twice for terrorists.)

"Hey, I've got nothing to do today but smile."
-Simon & Garfunkel, The Only Living Boy in New York

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Damaged in Handling

I got an envelope in the mail today. About three inches of the top right corner were completely ripped off, and the bottom left was nearly gone as well. The entire thing had been given a thorough crumpling. In case I hadn't noticed all this, there was a friendly reminder in the form of a red stamp reading "Damaged in handling in the postal service." I'm curious about what happened, though, since this thing clearly went through a lot more than just "handling." Oh well. The item inside miraculously survived, being much smaller than the envelope itself. I don't think anything else is missing, though anything really could have escaped from there.

That's probably about the biggest mail screw-up I've had since sophomore year, when I got that email from a random person saying they found a pile of mail in the hallway of one of the portable office modules out behind Wilbur dorm. In it was something I was supposed to have received six months ago at the post office halfway across campus. I just have to wonder how these things happen sometimes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Pondering Peripatetic Perambulations

Walks are good. Especially at night in cool weather. The salsa class last night was rescheduled due to a blood drive in the same location, so I took the opportunity to stroll around campus for a little while. There are lots of nice places around there that I miss seeing. Then tonight after work I just went walking around downtown Palo Alto, just to walk. I should do that more often.

Walking is really relaxing. I find that my mind goes into a state similar to the pre-falling-asleep stage at night. It's relaxed, and not trying for anything, so interesting thoughts and ideas float up to the surface, or get triggered by things I see around me. Coming back, I immediately need to grab a computer or a notebook to jot things down that I want to remember. I like it.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Finding My Inner Klutz

I went ice skating last night, with Becky and Dave and Neal, and some other dancers and people from Becky's dorm. That was really quite fun. I'd only ever skated once or twice before though, and it was a long time ago, so I felt pretty wobbly out there. But it didn't take too long before I could comfortably circle the rink without too much trouble. Nothing fancy, though. There were lots of kids there, most of whom could skate circles around me. There were little 6 year old girls skating backwards and spinning around, and all the little boys were being hooligan hockey players zipping in and out of traffic. I only fell down twice, and only one of those was entirely my fault. On the other one, I was trying to avoid creaming a kid who darted out in front of me. My steering was pretty minimal, and I never did figure out how to stop at will (as opposed to at wall, which is how I usually did it). Still, when I wasn't falling over, it was very nice and relaxing to just glide around in circles for a while.

It actually reminded me a lot of being a beginning dancer, and trying to do a waltz or a polka. There was a very definite line of dance (though they changed at the zamboni break and went clockwise for a while, which was a nice change). There would be really good skaters who could steer around the rest of us effortlessly, and I'd be there just trying not to hit anyone or block traffic too much. There was even a spot in the middle for the people who wanted to do turns or other things that didn't travel much, just like in dancing. I was glad of my peripheral dancing vision, and of the fact that I didn't have to be spinning around as I travelled, which would have complicated it even more.

I find that I'm sore in unusual places this morning. That definitely used some different sets of muscles than I'm used to. Plus, my feet were going crazy cramping up trying to keep myself balanced. But they couldn't because they had no direct contact with the ground, just those slivers of metal. Very interesting. Anyway, it was quite a fun outing. Thanks to Becky for organizing it!

Saturday, February 07, 2004

The Governor of California Waltz

That's how Richard has taken to announcing it when he plays "The Orgy" from Conan the Barbarian. yay california. siiiiiigh.

FNW was a lot of fun last night. Bob and I have been working out lead-changes for the Bronco schottische, which can be kind of tricky, but we're starting to get the hang of it. The feet actually go pretty much like the regular lead-switching schottische, but getting the hands in the right position is harder to do concurrently with all the other stuff going on. We also had an absolutely spectacular polka. (Yay for the Hamster Dance!) Annaka and I danced the triple-exclamation-point fast waltz, which wasn't nearly fast enough for us. Fast waltzes are just too easy with her. If Richard doesn't start playing anything faster, we're going to need a handicap or something. It's fun to have people like Bob and Annaka around, so I've always got a buddy for the really energetic dances. Thanks to everyone else I had wonderful dances with, too.

I had thought about leaving FNW early to go to some of the Swing Kids dance, but I couldn't bring myself to leave without the zweifacher, or the last cross-step. So I dashed off right at midnight (pumpkin time, but somehow I was still ready for more dancing). The swing announcement said it was going until "late," so I figured that would be at least 12:30, maybe 1:00. No such luck. The Toyon couches were just being moved back into place when I arrived, and I was severely chided for my tardiness. Oh well. I still got to say hi to some people and I even got one of the spiffy new Swing Kids t-shirts, with Rebecca's cool logo on it. Very nice.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Nighttime Daydreaming

I had another one of those nights last night where I had too much music on the brain to go to sleep. I recently started listening to a band called Fountains of Wayne, and these guys are really strong in the melody department. Real earworm material. I think one of their most popular songs is "Stacy's Mom," which is a little weird in that it's about a kid who's in love with his girlfriend's mom. But it's a really fun song, and just sticks in the brain like glue. Another one that I've completely fallen in love with is "Troubled Times." On the sillier side of things, they've got "I Want an Alien for Christmas."

So anyway, there I am: in bed, tired, trying to go to sleep. But my inner musician is just going crazy with these songs. Not only am I singing them, but I'm coming up with awesome guitar arrangements and killer solos and everything. It's amazing how good of a guitar player I am in my head, considering how little I play it in real life. I should really get the guitar out more and figure out how to do the whole singing and playing at once thing. I'm sort of scared to try, though. There's no way I could recreate the stuff from my imagination, and I don't have enough guitar skills to even console myself with. Oh well.

Dancing tonight. Yay! Unfortunately, some silly person scheduled the Swing Kids dance against the Friday Night Waltz AGAIN. Hmph. But better too many dances than too few.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Gods Among Us

I finished reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman last night. Very good book. Somewhat disturbing at times, but darkly fascinating all the way through. It reminds me of Charles De Lint's books in the blending of magic and mythology into the modern world, and that's always something that appeals to me, though his style is very different from De Lint's. The premise is that many different people came to America over the course of many centuries, and brought their gods with them. However, the old gods were gradually forgotten in favor of technology and modernization, and they were abandoned, left on their own to survive in the new land. I think Gaiman does an excellent job of integrating the gods into society (good for the story, that is, not for the gods). They've lost a lot of their power in today's society, but the magic and rituals that they still have left keep things interesting. I think he got the balance of it just right.

It looks like there were some mixed reviews on Amazon, and I agree that there were probably some weak points to the book. It takes frequent interludes back in time which, while related to the overall premise, do not directly affect the actual plot or main characters, so that could sort of kill the momentum for some people. I rather liked that though, once I got used to it, since it seemed to deepen and broaden the world of the novel and pull me into it more. The structure (even just of the main narrative) seemed to be a bit rambling, but somehow it seemed to work out, and it would make sense to me without my knowing exactly why. I think that one of the more important scenes towards the end could have been handled a bit better, but I won't say too much about that, so as not to give anything away. The book as a whole, though, was good enough to rise above the individual problems.

I'm starting to feel like getting into a bit more fiction again. (Unfortunately, I don't want to stop reading any of the non-fiction I've got lined up. Oh well.) This was the first thing I'd read by Neil Gaiman, but I might go looking for Neverwhere or Coraline next. Or maybe some Charles De Lint, since it's been a while since I've read any of his stuff.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Bass Notes

So it seems that all this shape note singing and pretending to be a bass is actually starting to pay off. Tonight I was driving home and trying to sing bass lines to the music I was listening to (TMBG, surprise surprise). Or I'd just sing the melody an octave below. Whatever I could manage for each song. Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I decided to check my lowest note against the piano when I got home. I don't often have an absolute reference for my range, since in shape note the songs are often pitched differently than they're written. (And my attempts at having absolute pitch are thrown off if I don't know exactly what my range is.) So I checked and found to my delight that I can sing a low F now! All you real basses are laughing at me right now, I know, but this is exciting for me. It wasn't that long ago that I was struggling just to get down to the G.

Checking my handy dandy little music dictionary, I discovered that the "official" range for a bass voice goes down to an E, so I'm actually pretty close already. Very cool. Of course, my bass notes still aren't very strong, but it's something at least. I also discovered that there are terms for different types of basses. A basso profundo is probably the one that would be the most fun, but I don't know where I would find the resonance for it, even if I could manage the notes. Then there's basso cantante, with a "light, sweet quality." That would probably be nice, too, though I still wouldn't label my voice anything like "sweet." The third one is basso buffo, or "comic bass." Maybe that's what we baritones can be if we're silly enough to think we can be basses.

Monday, February 02, 2004

A Movie Critic? Moi?

Well, no, not really. But I do have a post up on Flick Nut now. It's a new group blog about movies, so check it out if you like that kind of thing. I probably won't post a whole lot on it though, seeing as how I don't really watch enough movies. Now if it were a book blog, that would be an entirely different story....

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Good Contra. Lots of Happy.

The contra dance last night was awesome. Yay for the Guppies, for playing absolutely fantabulous music. Especially Stone's Rag, and La Partida waltz. I was just flying through some of those tunes. There were a bunch of fun new dancers, too. Quetzal came for the first time, and there was a modern dance student named Katherine from Stanford who's starting to try out other kinds of dances. Fiona and Doug were some great dancers who turned up out of the blue, but unfortunately, they're just visiting from Indiana, so we don't get to keep them. I have an invitation to go contra dancing in Indianapolis if I ever want to, though. (I'm sure that will come in handy... in a theoretical kind of way, at least.)

It was fun dancing in the new hall, too. I think the only point against it is that it doesn't have a lounge area with couches, like the Y did. Other than that it was great. And I like being able to just walk a couple blocks to get there.