Friday, September 26, 2014

a star wars epiphany

Wow. A thought just crossed my mind. I was thinking about how the best Star Wars movies were the ones where Lucas remained in charge but left the screenwriting and directing to others (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) — and it hit me.

If there are lucky stars out there, thank them profusely that George Lucas wasn't an amateur composer.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

hairstyles

This summer I went into a completely new salon, introduced myself to a stylist, and said, "Do something stylish." I do this every so often, just to stay fresh (with mixed results). I didn't even tell her how I normally do it. She ended up giving me a sweep-back slickish cut that made me look like a character on "Suits"... plenty dashing, but then after a week or so Catherine said I looked like a televangelist.

So then I went to another new person and said I wanted something stylish. This one gave me a shorter, spikier look that befits a musician (it's what you'd expect of the contemporary worship guy at, uh, St Thomas Episcopal, for instance). Nice middlingly stylish cut. She said, "This makes you look like a very handsome older man, who looks young." Hey I'll take it.


"Suits":




Televangelist:




It's New, It's Now:

Friday, September 19, 2014

hugo energise



The past couple of days I've been wearing Hugo Energise, a several-year-old fragrance from Hugo Boss. Apparently, experts and critics think it's ho-hum, but I think I like it. Nice peppery and fruity smell right up front, and then it mellows to a warm spicy, slightly chocolaty smell. After a few minutes, though, there's a powdery thing to it that's extremely synthetic and industrial-smelling. Hm. Don't like that. But it doesn't stay that way.

Overall, very pleasantly manly, just off-center enough to be non-cliché, probably very good for fall and winter.

Monday, September 15, 2014

busy beaver

Greta gets numbers. I think she'll end up being like her mother that way. She's like me, too, in that she gets the poetry of numbers, even if she doesn't quite understand them natively yet.

She debuted a song that she wrote the other day, called "Busy Beaver." Yep — a reference to the busy beaver, a "Turing machine," really a theoretical way of producing mind-bogglingly high numbers. Greta just can't get over the mind-bogglingness of busy beaver numbers, and regularly tries to compare them to real-life sizes and distances.

So, a new song that brings together her love of God, her love of music (listen to that nice pop melody! when she sings it, she does a very pop-music dropped "r," so that it's "Busy Bea-vehhh"), and her love of numbers, all in one place.

Click to enlarge.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

eau de lacoste L.12.12 blanc



Recently I'm wearing Eau de Lacoste L.12.12 Blanc. When it first goes on it smells very typically guy-ish, that sporty citrusy smell that dominates dorms across the land (though it's on the grapefruity side, so that helps). But after a few hours it mellows into a sweet woody smell with just a tinge of something distantly flowery that makes it fairly distinctive — but only fairly.

I'm not sure it passes the distinctiveness test, which is really my only test for a fragrance. Sure is nice and clean and pleasant, though. If L.12.12 Blanc went to high school with you it would be that guy on the tennis team who's athletic and "popular" but also actually popular — nice to everyone and pretty smart and fun and great to hang around with. Terrific August fragrance.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

that's one happy marriage

Thursday, August 21, 2014

the tongue p

Stick out your tongue and then use it to make something like a "p" sound. Is there a name for that sound? It's not really a "t" or a "th" or a "p." It's a whole separate thing. Surely *some* language uses it, right? 

Greta came up to me and said a new word in an unspecified foreign language (as is her custom); "Wun-∞a."

"Wun-tha?," you ask.

No! "Wun-∞a."

"Wun-pa?"

NOO!! "Wun-∞a."

Friday, August 15, 2014

a huge gift

Over the years, I've been the beneficiary a couple of times when a longtime musician retires. Yesterday I was honored to be bequeathed the massive music library of Loretta Cormier, who's moving to a smaller place — complete collections of many of the greats: Harry Warren, Sammy Cahn, Yip Harburg, Irving Berlin, Porter, Kern. Wow! All those back numbers to go through!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

solace/fernando



A flashback from my childhood: I remember sitting in Ms Goodenough's class in 4th grade, listening to two songs at once in my head. We had the soundtrack to The Sting at home, which included my favorite Joplin, then and now, "Solace." Abba's song "Fernando" was on the radio, meanwhile, and I realized that their choruses had exactly the same chord structure and the same faux-Spanish sound. I'd sit there with both songs going on in my head, listening to how they collided and danced. I've still never heard it done physically, but I just now enjoyed the same modern motet all over again.

No doubt school wasn't entirely worthless, but I did and do tend to grade my classes based on how much opportunity they gave me for that kind of reflection — which, after all, is what helped give me the skills I use today.

Questions for discussion among teachers:
1. Was I goofing off, in a daze, or hard at work?

Friday, July 4, 2014

on a patriotic mood


God shed His grace on thee. What are you saying when you say that? If you're quoting the song "America the Beautiful," then you're not saying that God did shed His grace on America. Nope: you're praying that God will shed His grace on America. That phrase is in the subjunctive mood.

The fact that "shed" [subjunctive] is the same as "shed" [indicative] can be confusing. So confusing that many people mistakenly go on to the next line to sing ...and crowned Thy good with brotherhood. But that's not how it goes. It's "crown," not "crowned." So, the whole statement is
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.
Interesting, right? The key there is really the "crown," which has to be subjunctive. Like many such statements — "God bless you," "Peace be with you" — the telltale may is missing. It's understood: "May God bless you," "May peace be with you." Except that may has been missing for so long we sometimes don't even hear it.

"Goodbye" is subjunctive, then. It's a shortened way to say "God be with ye," which is a shortened way to say "May God be with ye."

The may does show up in later verses, though, just to reassure us: May God thy gold refine.

My July 4th wish? May we always remember that that line is subjunctive.

Friday, June 13, 2014

political people of the people


I just read an article about Hillary Clinton and her money that frustrated me because neither of the quoted team opinions got the issue right. The various facts are that the Clintons didn't start off super-rich, and that they now are, and that they entered the White House after a long period of government service and law practice, and that they didn't have much in savings or investments, and that from November of 92 on it was certain that they'd eventually make millions from book deals and speaking engagements, and that they had tons of legal fees and didn't actually own a house, and on and on — a goulash of extremes that typifies many people's experiences in today's public life. Those extremes in no way typify my life or, probably, yours, but then we're ordinary.

I hate these attempts to seem "ordinary" by emphasizing money problems — just as I hate the modern attempts to smear candidates for not being "ordinary."

There was a time when we wanted our politicians to be people at the top of their game. Rich lawyers are in fact what we need in government. Law is the language of all three branches of government, and expert lawyers make lots of money, in government or out of it.

We should be proud of the country that produced the Bush family, a generations-long dynasty of super-rich people who have a family ethic of public service; and that produced the Clintons, born into middle-class and lower-class obscurity but with hard work and drive made it to the the top. People on Team Red and Team Blue have a great time deriding one or the other — and often switching opinions to fit team jersey as candidates (humble-origin Nixon and Reagan, landed gentry Carter, poor-smart-kid Obama, patrician Bushes, married-into-money McCain and Kerry) come in and out — but that derision only hurts us, I think.

It would be great to get rid of the corruption and collusion that so damages our commonwealth, and it would be great to get rid of opportunistic politicians who go through phony put-on antics every election season. But it would also be great for us, the voters, to be big enough to get past team jersey and be thrilled that America has produced such a variety of success stories.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

instinct and wind instruments


Clara is trying to play my melodica. First, I blow into the mouthpiece and encourage her to play the notes. They toot in little random toots. Then, inevitably, she goes for the intriguing mouthpiece and tries to blow into it herself.

Once or twice, she succeeds — at first. Then, very soon after that, she stops blowing and starts vocalizing, "uh... uh... uh... uuuuuh...," into it, with the mouthpiece just sitting in her open mouth.

I was puzzled at how this development went backward, and has done so a few times, until now all she does is the vocal sounds. Then I remembered the pigs.

A while back, when places had window displays, a bank thought it would be cool to have one with live pigs depositing money into piggy banks. They trained the piggies the way you train piggies: by rewarding them with food. Every time they deposited coins, some food was released. (At a rate of tuppence a bag, I'm guessing?)

This worked for a while, but then eventually the piggies started just nuzzling the coins. A puzzlement, until figured out that the piggies were rooting at the coins. They were digging at them, the way they dig for food. So, the training that gets them to associate food with depositing those coins properly eventually goes so deep that they associate the coins themselves with food and promptly start rooting uselessly at them.

Thus the question of instinct versus culture is answered. (Partially.)

So, I figure this is what's happening with Clara. She knows how to blow, and she blows and gets sound, and then, associating the making of sounds with one's mouth so strongly with vocal sounds — the sounds she's best at producing — she just starts singing.


(Not really Clara. No Brake kid would ever have hair that long.)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

an american original: chester nez

Just days before D-Day, one of the most fascinating stories of the war comes to an end.

In 1942, Chester Nez was a 10th grader in boarding school. 6 weeks later, he was serving. His first message: "Japanese machine gun on your right flank. Destroy."

When Nez was a kid, the US government took Native American children off reservations and put them into boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native languages, and were abused severely if caught. But, being five percenters, they still whispered Navajo to each other, keeping the language alive — which later benefited that same government, and all of us, by forming the basis of the only unbroken oral code in modern warfare.

The Navajo Code Talkers took part in every Marine assault in the Pacific war, flawlessly.

His mission was secret. Even his family and fellow Navajo didn't know what he did, because the mission wasn't declassified for over two decades. Only in 1968 did the truth come out.

At age 90, he wrote a bestseller. At 91, he completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Just today, he died, the last of the original Navajo Code Talkers. Thank you, Mr. Nez, for a remarkable life and example.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

someone's daughter

I just read that "As the father of a daughter" thing that's been going around — one thing got under my skin till I named it.

"As the father of a daughter, I promise ... to remember that all women are someone's daughter, and to be brave enough to remind others of that when they need reminding." 

It seems to me that this good man who doesn't want to be part of the problem still is. Really, he can't see a woman's worth unless he remembers that it resides in the man she belongs to? This line of thinking has always bothered me, but I'm just now putting my brain around it: "Think about it: she's someone's daughter, someone's sister, someone's ... — she's *someone's*." That's the problem, right?

May I suggest: "She's someone."

Monday, May 26, 2014

a salute


You I'm thinking of today, who gave so much of selves unseen, do you know the power of your sacrifice?

Some of you signed up, knowing it was against regulations for our military forces to enlist men or women like you. You signed up anyway, defying the rules to defend American soil or American allies. You served and died in 1775, and 1861, and from then to now.

In World War II and Korea, you died before you had the chance to be dishonorably discharged. You never knew that your brothers and sisters in arms were not only discharged but reported to their local draft boards, and thus revealed to their entire communities — communities they sometimes couldn't then return to. Many stayed in the cities they landed in, groups of unmoored veterans gathering in New York's Greenwich Village or the San Francisco Castro, the army of the banished, forming gay ghettos where you could have lived less hidden, if not entirely free, had you lived. Those communities have lasted to this day. People who speak dismissively of them may not realize how they got started.

Jesus of Nazareth said there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends; you laid down your life for those who never accepted you, and who would have drummed you out of service if they'd known. Many would have cruelly mocked you, and did, and worse. But they owe you their gratitude, as do we all.

Soldiers who survived returned to embrace their loved ones as a grateful public looked on — but not the ones like you. Other servicemen and women retired and received pensions that are every soldier's due — but not the ones who got dishonorably discharged for being gay, and struggled for the rest of their lives, some even today.

But you never faced those later-in-life things. You fought, and died, and now you lie beneath the earth. We who remain must remember.

You may never have been saluted in life by anyone who fully knew who you were and what you gave to serve. Today let us, at last, salute you.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

it happened last summer


I look over at my watch and the face is fogged up on the inside. I live a July afternoon all over again. I was keeping an eye on Greta, getting some cleaning done, checking to see her play on the back porch every 30 seconds or so. I looked out and didn't see Greta on the patio. I looked to the pool: the water was moving. My next memory is that I was right there at the edge of the pool; I'd moved out there to see Greta in the pool, no safety suit on, bobbing right at the foot of the steps, nose and mouth just going above and below the water. I couldn't tell what look she had on her face, but her eyes were a bit wide. It didn't look like full-on distress, though.

I had, however, read up on the whole thing, and knew that she was drowning. This was exactly how it looks: the arms out, the bobbing up and down, the lack of screaming and flailing. I asked firmly whether she was OK: no response at all, just the bobbing. As I'd done in imagination a hundred times, I took my phone out of my pocket and laid it at the side of the pool (gotta do that before impulsively jumping in, because you need to be able to call 911), and then plunged in and in one swoop she was in my arms, well above water, crying and sputtering. I assured her that she was OK, and that everything was going to be alright. Now that she was out of survival mode, she was able to relax into being very upset and scared. She called for her Mama, she cried, she held onto me. Ron came out, Linda came out, Catherine came out. It was all OK.

Later, Linda asked me if my adrenaline had surged. Nope: the whole experience was calm and clear and, though it all took split seconds, each decision and action felt like it existed in a space of its own. I wouldn't say I was shaken, but I'd say I was, and am, haunted. What if even one thing had gone differently? This July afternoon could have been a disaster written on my heart for the rest of my days. It's not like I felt my Parent Alarm tingling or anything: I just looked out, she wasn't there, the water was troubled, I went, I got her out. What if I hadn't looked out just to check? Ah, but I did. Never experienced any change in heart rate, but man. That whole day I occasionally stopped and just let out a sigh — one of those sighs that says everything from what-if to thank-God to whew.

Parents often talk about being flooded with panic and fear when they lose track of their kid at the store. But, face it, when you lose your kid at the store you'll find your kid, 999,999 times out of 1,000,000. This, on the other hand, is the leading cause of accidental death among children between 1 and 4 years old, and the third leading cause of death among children period.

So now my watch occasionally fogs up, and I allow myself to stop and let out a sigh. Whew.


***

But not just "Whew." Action as well: we got Greta and Clara into a safety swimming course. It doesn't teach anything about recreational or competitive swimming — just how to be in the water and not drown.


Greta is now 3, almost 4. Clara is 16 months. I watched yesterday as a woman held Clara over the deep pool water and let go. Plop, she just dropped right in, but instead of flailing, or sinking straight to the bottom, this little baby who still can't speak a word calmly held her breath, floated to the top, rested her head back on the water with her face out, and breathed, while occasionally uttering a miserable moan. (Miserable, but alive and well.) She can do this fully clothed.


Clara can float till someone gets her; Greta is learning to flip over and swim to safety. How nice to know that a very real source of death, injury, and sorrow is no longer the threat it once was to our girls.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

a universal principle of sport and art?

Here's a video that perfectly expresses why people who like the Spurs like the Spurs. The main thing is that they play basketball: no hotdogging, no showoffy grandstanding — the American cult of the individual, elsewhere threatening to capsize sports, is replaced here by the American values of teamwork and patience.

At one point, a person says watching the Spurs is "like listening to Mozart." I think the person meant it in the sense of a gentle, perfectly working machine that's endlessly pleasing. But there's something more there. It's like listening to Mozart because in fact Mozart often withholds the resolution to a phrase, and then withholds it again, then again, then again, and then boom! it lands. Just watch play after play here, where, instead of just going for a basket, the player passes it, then instead of going for a basket, that player passes. Pass after pass after pass, until the shot is inevitable. What makes for great music makes for great basketball as well.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

my response to 40 questions

Some time ago, a fellow by the name of Thomas Swan posted a list of 40 questions for atheists and agnostics to ask Christians. The goal was to get beyond the simple thinking and name-calling that happens from both sides and instead get people of faith to dig in a bit and give solid reason for their belief. (The goal was also to get those people to question their own faith if they hadn't ever done so.)

Here are my answers to the 40 questions, submitted to Mr. Swan and you, and anyone else, to consider.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Friday, May 2, 2014

composer hopkins

Did you know that Sir Anthony Hopkins is also a composer? Here's a waltz he composed several decades ago, performed by the entertaining showboat André Rieu and his orchestra, with Hopkins himself in the audience.

I'm glad to say that I know first-hand what a great experience it is to sit in an audience and hear your own music coming from a symphony orchestra. I'd like to hear more from this composer, too: it's likely that he'll be known in future years mainly for pieces like this, while his acting will be forgotten. Weird to think it, but that's how history goes.

Monday, April 21, 2014

easter egg hunt

Saturday, March 22, 2014

a surprising portrait

The Jazz Protagonists got through recording a live show at the home of Scott and Jennifer Rose — a yearly tradition. This particular evening they were celebrating Scott's birthday. On the wall above the piano was a painting hanging, wrapped in birthday wrapping paper.

Partway through, Scott tore open the present: a portrait of the Jazz Protagonists that they will now hang on their wall. What an honor!!


Monday, March 17, 2014

trocolatey goodness

A linguistic landmark: today, Greta used the word "trocolate." ... sounds just like a kid funny, but listen to what's going on in her brain — not only putting together language rules, but pulling apart slurs she hears in casual pronunciation.

Greta hears palatalizations like "chruck" for "truck" all the time. When saying "trouble," some people don't just make a 't' sound followed by an 'r' sound at the beginning — they make something more like a 'ch' sound: "chrouble." For "Tuesday," lots of Brits say "Choose-day" while most Americans say "Toos-day" or "Tyoos-day."

Greta, like most Brakes, is being reared for radio-ready pronunciation. She hears people say "ch-rouble" and "ch-ruck" and knows that the "real" way to say it is "t-rouble" and "t-ruck" — and then overgeneralizes, so that she suspects that "chocolate" is actually "trocolate."

You can hear this same process when Southerners and Texans refer to the Jaguar car brand as "Jag-wire." They're overcorrecting. "You're a *liar* if you said you set a *Jaguar* on *fire*" sounds like three rhyming things around here (lahrr, fahrr): so when you decide to say it in the un-Texas/South accent, you just might "correct" all three to rhyme with "choir."

So, it's all pretty fascinating: she's very obviously creating a set of language rules in her brain, not just sounds as words tied to some meaning, but actual *structures* with a system behind them. When your kid says "mouses," it doesn't show stupidity at all; it shows smarts. The kid simply hasn't learned all the exceptions, but has — amazingly really! — put together complex rules of how words are formed, and is applying them all over.

It's so deep; it's so wide, your inside!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

watching a frozen form develop

Do you use the Ngram viewer much? It does word searches for every word in every book in its database, which is by now most books between 1800 and today. It's only books, so it doesn't give you the roiling world of newspapers and magazines, but it's still addictively enlightening, and I find it a great way to put hard numbers to my questions. Last night I came up with a very interesting couple of results.

Someone mentioned a profession that had "a stigma attached to it," which always jars me — how do scars attach? It's the classic sign of a frozen form to use a word that way. That is, a word goes out of use except for being frozen into a certain phrase, and you're not really in control of the metaphor because you just think of it as a phrase. ("One fell swoop": what exactly does "fell" mean? Swift? Angry? Destructive? Amazing? Wicked? If you had to bet would you win? Actually, it means something like "ferociously evil and deadly.")

I looked it up in Ngram, and discovered that you can see it happen in front of your eyes: as we lose the meaning of the word "stigma," our use of it as a metaphor changes. The decline of the term "stigma on" very neatly precedes the rise of "stigma attached."



It's especially interesting to note that it actually gets to a low before the frozen form rises. As long as the mental image of a scar is ... attached ... to the word "stigma," it acts as an antibody, a protection against weird uses of the word. When the antibodies die out, only then does the virus have room to grow.

I tried to think of other frozen forms in which there's a stock phrase that actually gets the meaning of the word wrong like this. Hmmmm — I finally hit on "shambles." You often hear people say something is "in shambles," instead of "a shambles."

In fact, "a shambles" acts as a stepping-stone. Look at how our use of the term "a shambles" ("this place is a shambles") rises just as the phrase "the shambles" ("go down to the shambles to get some meat") is falling. Then, once the literal meaning has died, its uneducated cousin "in shambles" has room to rise.



Not as dramatic a dip as with "stigma," but it's definitely there. This way, using the stepping-stone, we never stop using the word "shambles," and it retains its usefulness smoothly as its meat-market meaning fades. (The combined number stays near 0.0000300% for nearly a century before World War II apparently gives us more reason to reach for this word.)

Friday, February 14, 2014

meditation on love



We're reading an article on the book "From Shame To Sin," which traces attitudes toward sex in the late Roman Empire as it Christianized. It mentions 6th-century prostitution conversion narratives, and that got us to talking about Massenet's opera Thaïs, whose conversion scene is the wordless "Meditation" that is Massenet's most popular work to this day.

I mention that it's one of the most beautiful melodies I can think of, to which Catherine responds, "You should write it."

Ahhhh, my woman understands composers too well!! As Valentine's Day enters, I think of the great Paul Buchanan line that is one of the most romantic of any love song: "I will understand you."


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

new lingo creates new meanings


The sentence "Cray was the blues guitarist" can now either be read as a straightforward identifier or as a blend of a very old and a very new way of saying things.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

practicing my scales

In the past few days I've been shedding a little bit on some octatonic scales. I've been very conversant with the octatonic scale since college, and found myself easily able to improvise on it — something that enabled me to spin off beautiful modern-classical pieces on a whim.

But my fingers only got conversant with one octatonic scale. The other two I understand and can do, but never fooled around with enough. What! — that's like a musician knowing only the white-key scales. Crazy!

You've put it together by now that "octatonic" refers to an eight-note scale. When Maria von Trapp sings "do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do!!!," that's definitely an eight-note phrase, but notice that the first and last are the same.


No.




Yes. Thank you.


We humans, who have a duple heartbeat and two walkin' legs, love for things to be in 4/4 time, and on top of that we just can't leave that leading tone (ti) hanging without resolving to the home-base of do. That means our usual scales are seven-note scales. The usual pattern for those seven-note scales we call "diatonic." All the typical scales and modes are diatonic: they could be transposed to play on only white keys. (I've gone into that — fascinatingly!! — here and here.) To make an eight-note scale, you have to go outside the bounds of diatonic harmony.

But — here's the kicker — not too far. You could think of an octatonic scale as a way of wandering through a diminished seventh chord. That's the kind of chord that, played by itself, sounds like the villain in a silent movie:  LISTEN 


"You'll never defeat me! Can you not hear that fully-diminished chord?" 
"Maybe it's compensating for your fully-diminished sword."

So, if you just arpeggiate up the chord, then go stepwise between, you've got yourself a scale:  LISTEN  What you wind up with is a scale whose intervals are very systematic: whole-step, half-step, whole-step, half-step, and so on. This is why the ancient Persians called it the "string of pearls" scale, by analogy to the way they used to string pearls of alternating size.




Technically speaking, there are lots of octatonic scales, because you can pick any eight notes within an octave. Most of the time, though, people are referring to these intriguing, oddly symmetrical scales — and, if you do a little number-crunching, you'll see that there can only be three different ones. Think about it this way: those four notes that outline a diminished-seventh are filled in by four other notes, which, therefore, also outline a different diminished-seventh.


There's two villains in this here scale!


In other words, really, this scale is made up of two interlocking dim7 chords. That leaves only four of the twelve tones left, and they form a third, unused, dim7.

So, really, there are only three dim7 chords in the world, and we just stack them in different inversions and call them different names. While other pairs of chords (like C-major and A-minor) have notes in common, those dim7s have all their notes in common. Classical composers from Vivaldi to Wagner utilized this symmetry to create a kind of harmonic Wood-Between-the-Worlds. (More on that later.) For instance, a C dim7 is spelled C-Eb-Gb-Bbb. That's the music-grammar-nerd spelling, though. Most folks have an easier time conceptualizing the same notes as C-Eb-F#-A.


What's the matter, double-flat-user? Can't take it?


Meanwhile, an E-flat dim7 is spelled Eb-F#-A-C, an F-sharp dim7 is spelled F#-A-C-Eb, and an A dim7 is spelled A-C-Eb-F#.

And there's more: a lot more. All those conjunctions and overlaps and symmetries make these scales really useful for classical and jazz musicians. It's a great way to sound exotic and fresh without sounding alienating. Each octatonic scale contains no less than 8 standard-sounding chords you can use.


So, the scale is filled with major and minor chords that sound quite stable, but the way they're put together sounds just a little off from the way you're used to hearing them. The effect can seem richly enchanting.

In this video, you can hear and see Franz Liszt using it to quite good effect, sprinkling little magical-sounding downward-spiraling figures starting in measure 7 (I love videos that show you the music!):



Now skip ahead a couple of generations and listen to this eerie landscape by Ravel, in his Rapsodie Espagnole, the first couple of minutes of which are fully and gorgeously octatonic.



Cool, right? Sounds classical, and yet Mozart has definitely left the building. You can hear how the Persians dug that scale before we did. It's got a fantastical incense to it — beguiling to a late-19th-century crowd. Rimsky-Korsakov used it all over, and so did Stravinsky in a very 20th-century way. And, as I mentioned, jazzers use these scales all the time in scaffolding their improvisations.

If you're John Williams, and you're writing the music for the Indiana Jones movies, the main theme is a cinch: bright major key, march tempo, upwardly projecting brass figure. But now you come to the part where Indy is in some cave and a secret door opens, revealing some ancient wonder. What music to write? Spangly jewels often call for a high-register piano figure. But a major chord is way too square:  LISTEN  A minor chord is no good either, is it?  LISTEN  Even if you do a more complex diatonic chord, it still doesn't quite fit the bill:  LISTEN  Working from a whole-tone scale sounds sort of magical, but too dreamy:  LISTEN 

By now, though, you know the answer. Gotta be octatonic, baby!  LISTEN  Perfect. Sounds very John Williamsy and very Indiana Jonesy. Of course, part of that is because that's the way Williams did write for those movies. But part of it is that he wrote it that way because that sound was exactly what he needed.


Maybe, but if you gimme one more double-flat I'm pulling out my gun.


All of which is to say that I've been shedding some on my octatonic scales, getting them all down the way I have a few down, so I can plug them in much more easily when needed. And now you know a bit more about an important tool in the musician's toolbox.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

science, faith, and both

Most people would say that they want their children to be scientifically literate, and to have a chance at a career using science. Most people would say they want to raise children with the best attributes of faith, believing in something more than a purely material existence. Most people want their children to learn respect for other people, even those who are very different from them. It's possible to have all three. But right now....

Read every word of this article by Tim Stafford.

Monday, January 20, 2014

playing ink

An old friend called me to play piano for the pit of a high school musical, something I don't usually do. I'll be the professional anchor for the group. Today was the first run-through.

Broadway scores are so weird: you're very rarely playing anything other than standard patterns of the various pop styles — but instead of just saying "G-minor salsa, 12 bars," they actually write out every note for you, and sometimes don't even put the chord symbols in. (I have yet to discover the guiding principle for including and excluding chord symbols in Broadway piano scores.) The result is a score that takes up huge amounts of manuscript real-estate, meaning that one song can be 30 or 40 pages, which you have to furiously flip and flip while playing with both hands.

On the other hand, you can treat it as a discipline, a way of forcing oneself to be a better reader of ink. "Ink" is a term that musicians often use in referring to notation, as opposed to simple charts or chord symbols or lead sheets. So, you'll find someone at a rehearsal asking the director something like, "Should we comp here or do you want us to play ink?" Depending on your background, playing ink may be a completely foreign concept, or it may be all you know. Classical players are regularly impressed (and somewhat mystified) by the ability of jazzers to spin florid minutes out of a few simple instructions; jazzers are regularly impressed (and somewhat mystified) by classical players' ability to sight-read through pages and pages of sixteenth-notes with barely a clam.

Of course, the fun thing is to be able to do both. While my abilities place me firmly on the side of the jazzers, I'm looking forward to the experience of spending a couple of weeks buried in ink.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

a word about an offensive word



It's with a mix of feelings that I read about the latest change to Pittsburgh's branding.

I must say that as a person of Oceanic Redistributor origin, I strongly object to the offensive name "Pirates." Oceanic Redistributors are part of the rich cultural fabric of humanity's history, and to reduce them to a cultural stereotype with eyepatches and strong rhotic articulation is demeaning and insensitive.

Monday, January 13, 2014

music partners

Friday, January 10, 2014

dance move needed

The other day I did a song called "The Floating Fairy." What we need here is a simple dance move that a preschooler could do.

For example, in my literary masterpiece "Spinaround Kid," whose lyrics consist entirely of the words "spinaround" and "kid," the key dance move, intuited by every single preschooler who's ever heard it, is to spin around. It's a fun song.

So, all that's needed now is a simple move, to be called, inventively, "The Floating Fairy." Describe it in the comments!

Here's the song, which came about when I was playing with Greta and Clara, and stumbled onto this. It caught my attention so nicely, with its Debussian riff and direct poetry, that I had the good sense to grab the laptop and record it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

today's music fact

Know the semi-reggae Blondie song "The Tide Is High?" The horn section is from Doc Severinson's Tonight Show band.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

to train a citizen

From G. K. Chesterton's All Is Grist:

"To train a citizen is to train a critic. The whole point of education is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards, by which he can judge material and fugitive conditions. If the citizen is to be a reformer, he must start with some ideal which he does not obtain merely by gazing reverently at the unreformed institutions. And if any one asks, as so many are asking: 'What is the use of my son learning all about ancient Athens and remote China and medieval guilds and monasteries, and all sorts of dead or distant things, when he is going to be a superior scientific plumber in Pimlico?' the answer is obvious enough. 'The use of it is that he may have some power of comparison, which will not only prevent him from supposing that Pimlico covers the whole planet, but also enable him, while doing full credit to the beauties and virtues of Pimlico, to point out that, here and there, as revealed by alternative experiments, even Pimlico may conceal somewhere a defect.' "

Thursday, January 2, 2014

new years babies

Clara is now a year old. Wow! What a year it's been. And our sister-in-law Sarah Beth is expecting in a few months. What a year it'll be.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

new year's snapshots

What a way to end a year and begin a new one. Two things:

Greta and I were playing outside at our friends' ranch, having climbed trees, pretended we were on a ship, examined an ant-bed at length from afar, played with doodlebugs, balanced on logs, and generally explored the place. I was sitting down, and she said she wanted to sit on my lap. I crossed my legs and then she plopped down right in there, with her head just tucked under my chin. She said, "This is perfect." I said, "Yes, it is."

At tonight's gig, we were playing "The Nearness of You," a song that's all about not needing any of the typical trappings of love and romance, because you simply want the presence of the other person. I noticed something odd on the dance floor. It looked like someone was having some sort of emergency but I couldn't figure out what, and then one split second later my brain resolved it: a man was pulling his wife out of her wheelchair to dance with him. Her entire left side was paralyzed, so he was holding her up as they slow-danced to the entire song.

What a great way to end a year and begin a new one.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

hot and cold breath

We all know how to breathe hot air ("hahhh") and cold air ("whooo") — but *what* is making it hot or cold?

Jason: I have wondered that myself in the past... I would assume: 1) speed of air, 2) surface area of mouth opening, and 3) whether the air comes from the bronchial tubes or mouth???

Barry: But the air invariably comes from the lungs, and even when you "whooo" slowly it's still cool. A puzzlement!

Jason: I think it is primarily the surface area of the opening and cavity. With the hahhh you have a LOT more, and that is all at 98.6

Barry: Compelling: something about the ratio of 98.6º surface area to the mass of air flowing past it. But then that begs the question: what temperature was the air when it was *in* your body?

Jason: All 98.6. But the reason it would be cooler when quickly pushed through with a whoooo, is same effect of a "swamp" cooler (or evaporative cooler)

Barry: On reflection, I think that has to be it.

Kelly: It acts on the same principle as an air conditioner, when a gas expands it cools. By pursing your lips you can compress the air by "lip resistance" and releasing it causes it to expand. By exhaling there is no pressurization.

Carl: The problem with that explanation is that the pressurization would increase the temperature as much as the depressurization decreases it.

I've always assumed it has to do with velocity (or, more accurately, convection). The air is lower than body temperature either way because it is only exposed to the inside of your body for a second or two, but it is nonetheless higher than the ambient air. So when it comes out with negligible velocity, you can sense that it is hotter than ambient temperature, but when it comes out at a higher speed, it is transfers a significant enough amount of energy away from your skin (being of a lower temperature than your skin) that it seems cooler than ambient air.

This is vaguely similar to the reason that 75° water feels cooler than 75° air: it's coefficient of convection is higher. But in the situation at hand, you're increasing the coefficient by adjusting the velocity of the fluid (this is not a technically correct statement) rather than by substituting a more convective fluid.

Kelly: But if it were merely convection this would only have an effect on the skin as consistent with "wind chill". This effect would not have an effect on something without moisture, such as a window. Even if you huff quickly it will fog or purse your lips and blow slowly it will not.

As I've been contemplating the water temperature vs the air temperature on the body could it be that water is a greater great heat sink and has a greater capacity? Possibly?

Carl: Kelly, you're right that my argument essentially boils down to "wind chill." Convection affects any body, though, with or without moisture; it's just a matter of heat transfer and the 3rd law of thermodynamics. I'm not sure I understand your point about fog on a window, but I'll readily admit I don't know why the moisture in your breath would be more likely to condense on a window when blown "open mouth," but not "closed." My best guess (off the top of my head) would still be velocity. Even if you blow fast "open" and slow "closed," I imagine the latter would still be considerably faster than the former because of the extreme effect of throttling. If that's the case, then the moisture simply wouldn't have time to settle on the glass. (I recognize that may be faulty, though.)

And when you say that water is a greater heat sink, that's essentially the same as saying that it has a higher coefficient of convection, as I understand it.

Kelly: Would moisture condense in the mouth as an effect of greater velocity in the mouth cavity? This is quite a quandary...

Carl: you've gone beyond even my pretended knowledge there. I guess greater pressure would make it condense... I think.

Kelly: Okay, being the scientist that I am, I had to perform an experiment to figure this out.

Equipment: Calibrated digital thermometer with a K-Type thermocouple.

Control was ambient air temp. 79.8° F

First experiment: pursed lips, quick blow: Temp increase 6.1° F. Open mouth "huff": Temp increase 10.9° F.

Second experiment in a refrigerator. Temp 36° F

Pursed lips, quick blew: Temp increase 10.3°F. Open mouth "huff": 15.2° F.

Conclusion: Ambient air is taken in and incorporated more efficiently with a thin, fast paced stream of air more than a wide slow stream of air. In addition, the temperature differential (delta T) between refrigerated air is heated and caused a greater effect.

Any other observations are welcome. Y'all have a great weekend! Tschuss!

PS: In addition, I moved the thermocouple closer to my pursed lips and the temperature differential was greater (less air infusion).

Carl: wow... impressed. I'm just an armchair engineer.

Kelly: And yes, Carl, the feel on our skin would thus be very influenced by ambient air at a higher velocity, thus the "wind chill effect". Therefore the award goes to us both! Cheers!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

skiing reindeer says

Monday, December 23, 2013

christmas cookies

One of the many pleasures of being married to Catherine is her skill at baking, won from her years as a professional baker. Her work is not only delicious, but very pleasing to the eye as well.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

how the numbers lie (and don't)



A favorite blog I've been going through obsessively of late is Laura Wattenberg's baby name wizard blog. Even though we've had our last kid, and named her, the interesting thing is that this blogger goes into hard data, and comes up with the most interesting stuff.

I'll show you an article that to me is enlightening about the art of interpreting data, but promise me you'll get her superb analysis on red-state/blue-state names.

In it, she discovers that on political issues the reds and blues are mainly purple: there's near-complete agreement on things like guns and welfare (though we don't see it because the conversation is often between the extremes) — but the real difference is in names, AND, counterintuitively, the progressive names are coming from the red states and the traditional conservative names are coming from the blue states. (Blue: Patrick, Sarah / Red: Jaxxon, Kynlee) Crazy!! Then she goes into why that's the case, and it's absolutely true and absolutely a revelation.

Meanwhile, this article I wanted to show you is about the name Jacob and its current reign in popularity. In the process, she uses two different graphs that show that though the name is the most popular, the percentage of Jacobs has gone down because of the greater diversity of names (including the mind-boggling fact that in England in 1800, six names covered half the population!!!! Zow! In America in 1950 it was 75 names; now it's in the 500s. That's a wave of change!).



What it points out to me is that numbers do lie if you don't look at the complete message they're giving. Two different people could show you the two different graphs in this blog, and get you to believe two different things — more and more Jacobs! fewer and fewer Jacobs! — but the true story is deeper and more interesting than that. To her credit, she tells the whole story, but how many numbers and charts and graphs do you see everyday that seem to prove something, and what if the people who made them really looked at what the numbers were saying as carefully and insightfully as she does? My guess would be that we'd think differently about money, art, cities, health care, relationships, kids, everything we think we're informed about.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

canting unbutton



This morning, Greta said, "I keep on can'ting unbutton these!"

We all have stories of kids plugging in grammar in odd ways. Just about every kid, when instructed emphatically to behave, has protested, "But I am being have!" It's a blast hearing all the strange things that come out when a child is learning the language.

Beyond that blast, though, is a philosophy: the idea that the world makes sense. "I goed potty!" "Look at those mouses!" — while it would be less than ideal to hear both those sentences spoken in the same conversation, they're a perfect example of a kid getting grammar right, in a sense: they show that there's a global set of rules in the kid's mind that that kid is beginning to follow. He or she might not know all the exceptions yet, but deep down it's pretty cool that an -ed on a past-tense verb or an -es on a plural is now something firmly in that kid's mind, to apply to new words and ideas.

Even if those words and ideas are exceptions. English is a language of exceptions, maybe more than other languages that aren't so mongrel. So it's frustrating for a kid. You have to learn pretty early that those rules don't quite work all the time, and you have to learn when and how they don't. Sheeeesh!

The thing is, it never stops. We are constantly guilty of thinking that the world makes sense. We apply these global rules — the just are rewarded and the unjust punished; people make economic decisions rationally — and we pay a price for it.

Again and again, we keep on can'ting unbutton the truth about life.