Moving Target

I may be about to buy a new laptop PC. Trouble is, there are a lot of factors to think about. Many ways to go wrong, leading to hours or days of headache and possibly large amounts of wasted money.

My first stop was the HP website. HP alone has more models than you could shake a stick at, and their charts don’t really explain the relevant differences. None of the charts even lists the number of USB ports, and I’m going to need four (two keyboards, an audio interface, and a dongle). Or maybe five, if I want a mouse. The differences between USB 2.0 and 3.0 may turn out not to be trivial: A device with a 2.0 class-compliant driver might not like being plugged into a 3.0 port.

I checked the Sweetwater site. They only want to sell you Macs, not PCs. Macs are more expensive, migrating some of my software to a Mac might prove problematical, and I’ve heard funny stuff about compatibility issues between music software and OS 10.8. Maybe those issues are ironed out by now … maybe.

The basic advice I used to give to Keyboard readers was, buy something that does what you want today. Don’t buy promises about what something will do in the future. But how do I figure out Read more

That Was Then

I prefer not to spend a lot of time hanging out in the past. Or rather, I tend to be very selective about it. On your first visit to my back yard, I will quite likely mention to you that the 50-foot-tall redwood tree was planted (from a sprout in a coffee can) by my sister when she was in Camp Fire Girls. If the tree were to die, on the other hand, or had to be cut down, I would be unlikely ever to talk about it, unless the subject of trees came up. Reminiscences are worth indulging in only if they connect to something that’s going on now — and preferably something marvelous, like a redwood tree.

The past is very large. The older I get, the more of it there is. And dwelling on it is depressing. A few bits are nice, and I like remembering them, but most of it, not so much. I don’t like remembering how young and vigorous I was, and I don’t like remembering all of the things I’ve screwed up in my life. It’s much nicer to just accept the past, shrug it off, and concentrate on whatever I’m doing now.

I still have a few boxes to go through of stuff that my mother left. I’m finding programs of school plays I was in in high school, of concerts that I played in youth orchestras in the 1960s. I found an essay I wrote for a college application. What I mostly remember from that period is how lonely and confused I was. Those emotions swirl around the memorabilia and make me want to toss everything out.

That’s probably what I’ll do. Since I don’t have any kids, none of it will ever be of interest to anybody but me. And I don’t want to hang out there.

In 1981 an art gallery owner in San Francisco defrauded my father and several other painters, ran off owing them money. Tonight I found copies of the lawsuit that Read more

Take Two

Revisiting the past can be enlightening, or at least educational. Twenty years ago, when synthesizers were hardware and the most advanced music computer around was an Atari ST (which had a whole meg of RAM), I wrote and recorded a bunch of instrumental pieces in my living room. The recordings were on DAT — remember DAT?

Today, while cleaning out the garage, I found the box that had my DAT master tapes in it. I haven’t yet been able to listen to any of them yet (if indeed they haven’t deteriorated), as I no longer own a DAT deck. But finding them reminded me that last year I tried re-recording, from scratch, one of the more complex and interesting tunes from that era, “Clarion at Dawn.” The original version was on my CD Light’s Broken Speech Revived. For some reason I never quite finished the re-recording, so tonight I loaded it into FL Studio, did about a dozen little tweaks, and now I think it’s approximately as good as it’s going to get.

Here’s the original version:

…and here’s the brand new shiny sparkly version:

This is not quite a note-for-note transcription of the original. It’s close, but I couldn’t resist making a few improvements. Detecting precisely what was going on in those backing tracks was a bit of a puzzler here and there, there never having been, of course, a written-out score. But you can manage the details if you load the original recording into an audio track in the sequencer, A/B a couple of bars at a time, and if necessary scribble down a few rhythms or chord voicings.

I did add a counterpoint flute line in one section and a few little frills here and there. In addition, it occurred to me that the harmonic structure, though it’s very obvious to me, might not be as evident to listeners. The piece begins and ends on the V chord (the dominant), not the tonic. To try to guide the listener’s ear a bit, I added a brief drone on the tonic at the very start of the piece.

When I started the re-recording, I wasn’t sure but what I might want to do major surgery on the arrangement, but I quickly decided it was just fine. The tricky bit was matching some of the sounds using different instruments. The “oboe” in the original was a Casio, and the muted trumpet was a Korg M1 factory patch. In order to match the muted trumpet, I had to resort to a hardware synth, my Yamaha Motif, as none of the software instruments I have would do that particular tone. The Motif is also playing the Clavinet rhythm, for much the same reason.

I don’t think I’m going to redo anything else on the CD. Writing new music is more fun. But I’m glad I did this one. I think maybe I had a more active imagination 20 years ago, but I definitely have a better recording setup today!

Writerly Assumptions

Writing historical fiction is uniquely challenging, not only because of the need to research countless details but because it can be so difficult to truly enter into the mind of someone whose view of the world is, in some ways, quite alien to our own. When the narrative is written in the first person, the difficulty is compounded. The narrator must never use a modern turn of phrase.

In The Alienist, Caleb Carr seems to have done a fine job researching the details of life in New York in 1896. But his narrative voice is not flawless. The narrator, purportedly writing 20 years after the fact, in 1919, at one point observes two other characters, a man and a woman who may possibly be romantically linked, and reports their interaction in these words: “…the strange chemistry between them…”.

I’m pretty sure that’s an entirely modern use of the word “chemistry.” Certainly chemistry itself was well known in 1919, perhaps even better by the average person than today. But “chemistry” was not used as a metaphor to describe subtle personal interactions.

It’s not a bad story, even so. Very sensationalized, and some of the criminology is also suspiciously modern, but I’d have to do research to be certain.

Music Spoken Here

Most music, with the exception of a certain type of dogmatically free improvisation and the later works of John Cage, consists of sound that is organized in some perceptible manner. We can speak intelligently of the organization, whatever it happens to be, using the terms semantics (the meanings of certain musical gestures) and syntax (the ways in which the gestures are permitted, within a given style, to be joined to one another).

I’m quite familiar with the syntax and semantics of both classical and pop music — speaking here strictly of European-American music, not of other kinds. Today I’m struggling with the question of what sorts of syntax and semantics may be found in the more abstract forms of electronic music. In quite a lot of it, very little seems to be happening. A certain texture is presented, and the texture flows onward with very little in the way of overt dramatic structure. But yet we can say that a given piece produces a certain feeling, be it exuberant, nervous, dreamy, or disturbing.

I’m not quite willing to say that such music is devoid of syntax and semantics, but I don’t know quite what to make of it. One term I’ve been playing with is “process music,” process being a loose term that can refer to almost anything that is ongoing rather than punctuated by dramatic contrasts or neatly distributed in little cells called phrases.

In his book Musicking, Christopher Small observes that the Euro-American classical music tradition derives from the dramatic traditions of opera as it developed in the Renaissance. This music is theatrical: It’s about struggle and passion, about tension, climax, and an eventual triumphal resolution of conflict. He’s right, of course. It’s useful to be reminded that this tradition is not Read more

Opinions — Everybody’s Got One

Recently I seem to have been offending people. A few more than usual, anyway. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: I say what I think. Sometimes I go to the trouble of displaying my thoughts within a framework of consiliatory compliments. Sometimes not.

I’ve been knocking around on this planet for a few years, so I’ve accumulated a lot of miscellaneous knowledge about this and that. My opinions are, I’m sure, sometimes wrong, but they’re seldom wrong in dumb or obvious ways, because I know a bunch of stuff. Nonetheless, if someone points out to me where I have erred, I will change my opinion. That’s how you learn stuff. And I will change it in public, because I’m not wedded to the idea that I have to be right, or look cool.

Among other things, I have grown increasingly impatient with bad music. There’s a lot of it around. It’s produced by people who really have only a very shadowy idea of what good music is, or how to produce it. Thanks to the Internet, anybody who produces bad music has an equal opportunity to share it with the world. Because I haven’t entirely given up the desire to keep up with what’s going on, I sometimes listen to music that has been shared online.

Oh, dear.

The interpersonal difficulty is that people who are doing bad music don’t realize they’re doing bad music. If you point out that it’s bad, they quite likely respond that you’re ignorant.

This just in: I’m not ignorant. I play in community orchestras. Sometimes I play chamber music. Sometimes I play Bach or Haydn on the piano. In my record collection is an amazing variety of wonderful music — from new age piano to Frank Zappa, from Miles Davis to the Residents, from Prokofiev to Bjork. I also Read more

Fabulous Conspiracies

This weekend I got interested in the “9/11 Truth” movement. Watched a couple of video presentations. To be sure, there are all kinds of people in this movement, ranging from flying saucer nuts to Ph.D. engineers. I was looking at what seemed to be the more authoritative end of the spectrum.

My initial reaction was that the videos raised some troubling questions. On mulling it over, however, I’ve concluded that even the best educated and most cautious of the conspiracy theorists are building castles in the air. (And of course, we know only too well what can happen to castles built in the air….)

The contention of the Architects & Engineers for Truth is that the World Trade Center buildings (all three of them) collapsed as a result of controlled demolition. The implication, though they’re careful not to articulate it, is clear: Nobody but the CIA could have pulled off such an operation.

Now, I’m quite willing to argue that George Bush and Dick Cheney are capable of such monstrous evil. I don’t think they would have hesitated for more than 15 minutes, if they thought they could get away with such a scheme. But on close examination, the scheme doesn’t make sense at all.

The theory is that the towers were brought down by an application of thermite to the steel girders, which caused melting. And indeed, chemical residues that look like thermite are found in the wreckage. The difficulty with this idea is that the girders were vertical, and quite thick. When thermite is ignited, it melts steel, but molten steel, being a liquid, flows downward. Keeping the burning thermite in contact with the un-liquified surface within the girder Read more