Thursday, May 31, 2012

WTJU and the Offline Pushback -- Epilogue

Yesterday I shared my story of the listener who will no longer listen to our radio station because I mention the website too often. (WTJU and the Offline Pushback -- Part 2)

The post elicited some interesting responses. One reader was thrilled to discover that WTJU had an archive of shows (wtju.net/vault). I've mentioned it several times on air, but it was reading the information online that did the trick. Call it another benefit of being online, I suppose. While I announce that information often on the air, if you're not listening the moment I do so, it's as if I never said anything at all. Links in feeds, though, are there whenever the reader gets to them.

The best overall comment about all this came from a colleague of mine at another station. During a Twitter discussion of the post he reminded me of an important concept of broadcasting.

"One caller represents the views of... one caller."

The responses from folks on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ were all positive. Many expressed amazement (or was that amusement) that well into the 21st Century someone's dead-set against any of that interwebtubes stuff.

But of course, the response group was self-selecting. Because anyone who shared my ex-listener's viewpoint would never see the post, because they avoid going online.

I regularly say on air, "If you're only listening to us on the radio, I think you're only getting half the WTJU experience." In this case, my ex-listener and those like her missed the entire conversation.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

WTJU and the Offline Pushback -- Part 2

If you read my original post WTJU and the Offline Pushback, then you know the background. A listener called in to complain that I was talking too much about the WTJU website. She didn't do things online, and didn't want to hear about them.

I tried to dial back the announcements, recognizing they were a little long. Since that time, I've basically stuck to three types of announcements.

1) The station ID - "This is 91.1, WTJU Charlottesville VA. Remember you can always listen to us online at WTJU.net."

2) Service to the listener - "And if you missed some of the show, remember you can always hear it again at your convenience at WTJU.net (I just say "WTJU.net" but what I really am pointing to is "WTJU.net/vault." Since I do an early morning program, I think this is a benefit -- I know a lot of folks who don't tune in until the second or even the third hour of the program).

3) Promotion of our online services - "We reviewed this CD on the WTJU Classical Comments blog. Once the music starts, I'll post a link to that review on our Twitter, Facebook and Google+ feeds."

Well, apparently it was all too much. The listener called this morning to let me know that she loved the music I played, but she could stand all that talk about the website anymore. She would no longer listen to WTJU.

I was sorry to hear that she felt that way, but I don't think it will change things. We're broadcasting in a very crowded market (four non-commercial stations sharing the same audience). Growing our listenership by expanding our coverage area isn't an option. So the best way to get the word out, and attract new listeners is online. (click on images to enlarge)

The WTJU Classical Comments blog stats for today. My show runs from
6:00 AM to 9:00AM. I don't mention the URL on air, but I do send it
out via our social media channels.


Online listeners alone aren't the answer. While our overall numbers are up, they're still small compared to our analog audience (like most every other station). But each online listener is still a listener, and one more likely to help spread the word about WTJU -- because they're already online.

And there's been a significant upturn in the number of folks using our virtual tape vault to listen (or relisten) to previously aired shows.

Yes, my online-hating listener is gone. She's history -- in more ways than one.

Note the overall growth for the blog. As long as the trend continues, I'll keep
talking about WTJU's online services on the air.



Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Straco Layout, Part 19 - Ambulance (and taxi) chasing

Can a toy train layout have feng shui? I think so.
I'm always on the lookout for more vehicles to add  to the Straco Layout (read more about the whole project here). Small Japanese tin toy cars pop up on eBay all the time. But there are reasons why I don't often bid on them.

First, the starting price is often higher than I'm willing to spend. The guiding principle behind this layout is cheap -- cheap toys, cheap materials, cheap expense.

Second, for a lot of the items that start at the $0.99 level, once the bidding gets going the price shoots past what I'd be willing to spend (which is when I drop out).

But recently I was able to snag two small cars that worked on all levels. First, they were inexpensive (I was the only bidder on both). Second, they were in great shape. Third, they met two other requirements I was looking for -- color variety and additional railroad station-related transportation.

I have to wonder what the quality of care is
with patients riding sitting up in the back of
a two-door ambulance.
The Ambulance -- a splash of color
This layout is unabashedly for toys, and is filled with vibrant primary colors. The problem was that the traffic on the highway didn't have a lot of contrast. The fire chief's car was red, the bus was red, the stake truck was red and yellow, and the cattle truck was yellow. No blue, green, or orange to break things up.

That's why I purchased the ambulance. Its bright blue body is just what I was looking for.

The Taxi - serving passengers
A lot of these small Japanese cars came in sets of four, and were basically variations on  a theme. The same stamped tin car would be decorated as a police car, an ambulance, a fire chief's car, and a taxi. Since I had a busy-looking terminal (judging by all the people lithographed on the sides), I thought a taxi would be nice, especially as a compliment to the bus I picked up at York.

Taxi, anyone? Two in the front, and two in the back.
That cab's packed!
Although the taxi was red and yellow (see above), it still served its purpose. I now have two vehicles serving the station.

A problem of projection
After I received the cars, I noticed something quite interesting -- there's an error on the lithography of the taxi.

The front shows a male driver and female passenger. But the driver's side window shows a female at the wheel. Whoops. The left-hand side of the car repeats the error -- female passenger in the front, male passenger in the side.

So who's really driving? The man or the woman?
It's certainly not a deal-breaker. And conversely, it doesn't make this some kind of super-rare variation that's worth thousands. It's just the way the car was made. And I think it's part of the charm.

Total cost for the project:

Layout construction:
  • Pegboard: $4.95
  • Flathead Screws: $0.40
  • Molding: $2.49
  • SilClear: borrowed from a friend
  • Green Paint: left over from another project
  • Wood Screws: $3.60
  • Felt Pads: $1.99
Power Pack: $5.90
Small Houses: $3.00
Testor's Gray Paint for road: $1.29
Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00
Bandai Areo Station: $8.99
A.W. Livestock truck: $4.99
Taxi: $2.99
Ambulance: $2.99

Total Cost: $45.58

#Straco

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day in the Funnies

Many comic strips had Memorial Day tributes, but for some reason the one the current creative team for "Blondie" -- Dean Young and John Marshall came up with. (click on image to enlarge)

It got me thinking about how many comic strips have characters that are either in active service, or are veterans. Here's what I came up with, just off the top of my head. If I've forgotten any fictional servicemen, please let me know! (And many thanks to all the real-life heroes of our armed forces this day).




Current comic strips with vets:

Doonesbury (Gary Trudeau) - Outside of the military-oriented "Beetle Bailey," this strip has the highest number of active and retired military characters, beginning with B.D. who served in Vietnam and lost a leg in Iraq. In recent years, Gary Trudeau has focused on the issues of combat veterans returning to civilian life in a convincing manner.

Judge Parker (Woody Wilson & Mike Manley) - Sam Driver's law partner Steve is a veteran of the Gulf War, who lost both his feet to a landmine. He's a highly competent attorney and a welcome addition to the firm.

Funky Winkerbean (Tom Batiuk) - Funky's younger brother is another veteran of the Gulf War, recovering from PTSD with the help of a therapy dog.

Gasoline Alley (Frank King) - Walt Wallet served in the Navy during the First World War, and his adopted son Skeezix saw action in the Pacific during the Second World War while serving in the army. His grandson, Chipper went to Vietnam in the medical corps. He eventually built on that training and became a doctor.

Beetle Bailey (Mort Walker) - Virtually all the characters are in the Army -- even Sarge's dog.

Popeye the Sailor (Segar) - During the Second World War, Popeye was depicted as being in the Navy, although not with any consistency (his clothing never changed to regulation dress).

Dick Tracy (Chester Gould)- For the Second World War, Tracy remained part of his unnamed city's police force, fighting black marketeers like BB Eyes and Fifth Columnists like Pruneface. One of the major supporting characters during this time was Frizzletop, an ex-Army nurse who had lost an arm serving at the front.

Discontinued comic strips with vets:

Terry and the Pirates (Milton Caniff) - When America entered the Second World War, the cast of this strip signed up. Terry Lee joined the Air Force, his companion Pat Ryan becomes a Marine, and their two Chinese companions, Connie and Big Stoop join the resistance.

Steve Canyon (Milton Caniff)- Steve Canyon was an Air Force pilot during the Korean War and later rejoined the service.

Johnny Hazard (Frank Robbins) -  The hero of this strip was a pilot with the Army Air Corps. After the Second World War, he became a freelance adventurer.

Captain Easy (Roy Crane) - Originally a soldier of fortune, Easy joined the Navy during WWII, where he met Buzz Sawyer (who would take the starring role in the strip's Sunday sequences).

Steve Roper and Mike Nomad (Alan Saunders & Elmo Woggin) - Steve Roper worked for Navy Intelligence during the Second World War, while his friend (and series costar) Mike Nomad served in the Marine Corps

Bloom County (Berkeley Breathed) - One of the major characters of this strip (besides Opus the Penguin), was Cutter John, a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet.

Lil Abner - (Al Capp) - Although focused on satirical humor, Al Capp's classic strip did have a vet -- Captain Eddy Ricketyback, decrepit World War I aviator, and owner/sole employee of Trans-Dogpatch Airlines.

Dondi - (Gus Edson & Irwin Hasen)- The title character was an Italian war orphan, who was adopted by Ted Wills and Whitey McGowan, two GIs serving in the Italian theater when the war ended.

Joe Palooka (Ham Fisher) - Boxer and all-American hero Joe Palooka joined the Army during the Second World War.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Men's 4-Miler Training, Part 7

I'm chronicling my efforts to get back into running after a long absence. To start, I'm participating in the Men’s 4-Miler Training Program offered by the Charlottesville Track Club

This week we moved up to 3 miles. I've been struggling the past few weeks -- not in my legs, but in my chest. The schedule calls for three running sessions throughout the week; Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Since I run early in the morning, Wednesdays are out (I leave at 5AM to do my weekly radio show on WTJU). So I've been shifting the Wednesday run to Thursdays. This week, I moved it to Tuesday, and did the Friday run on Thursday, giving me a day of recovery before the Saturday effort.

Well, it sort of worked. I still trailed the pack, and I was still wheezing for some of the course -- but things were better. First off, I was doing 16-minute miles. My very first race I kept a 17:07 pace, so there's been some improvement. The last race I ran, my pace was 16:19.

For most runners, of course, that's terrible. But I look at it this way -- I'm still improving. Especially as my last mile was today was 15:50.

And I know what the breathing problem is -- I'm going to fast. Once I slowed down, my breathing rhythm improved and so did my pace. Just the way the coaches said it would. So the challenge this week is to work on breathing, while pushing myself to stay under 16 minutes/mile.

Onward!

Friday, May 25, 2012

CCC 032 - Valentin Silvestrov

Russian composer Valentin Silvestrov is next in our Consonant Classical Challenge. Listening to Silvestrov's music today, one might be surprised to hear that he was part of the Kiev avant-garde movement of the 1960's and his work was ignored in the Soviet Union.

Silvestrov eventually achieved fame (in the West), and is a world-renowned composer today. In 1970 he dramatically changed to a more post-romantic style. As Silvestrov says, "My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists."

Audiences who enjoy Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" should easily relate to Silvestrov's "Epitaph for piano and strings." While differing in style, the long, evocative lines and the underlying emotion of the music is the same.



Perhaps Silvestrov's highest-regarded work is his fifth symphony, titled 1937 Kyiv Ukraine. There's an autumnal quality to the music, as if Silvestrov was saying goodbye to the late Romantic aesthetic. Since that work was premiered in 1982, though, he's gone on to write more in his unique old/new style that belies that notion.



Quiet Music for String Orchestra is an aptly named work. Like much of Silvestrov's music it invites quiet contemplation as it slowly unfolds. Silvestrov's lush harmonies are not quite conventional, but quite appealing and beautiful, as this work illustrates.



Valentin Silvestrov has an impressive catalog of music. It includes eight symphonies, two requiems, two string quartets and many other works for chamber orchestra, chamber ensembles and individual instruments. He's well-respected in Europe, and his music is loved by audiences on the continent. I think concert-goers in America would be, too, if only orchestras would program it. Silvestrov claims to not compose new music, but it certainly sounds new to my ears.

Recommended Recordings:

Valentin Silvestrov: Symphony No.5 / Postludium

Silvestrov: Dedication; Post scriptum

Valentin Silvestrov: Silent Songs

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Radio Challenge Part 3 - The Conclusion

In part one of this series, I outlined the experiment. Compare an hour of commercial radio against an hour of Pandora. Part two goes into greater detail about how I conducted the research and the actual results. Which just leaves the question -- how do they compare?

Music Content
Over the course of the hour, the radio station played ten songs, and Pandora played fourteen. So if music was all I was interested in, Pandora was the winner. Plus, these weren't any old songs. Radio stations carefully craft their playlists to ensure that listeners know exactly what they'll hear when they tune in.

In this case, I was listening to a classic rock station, and I wasn't disappointed. All the artists and songs I heard fell under that definition. And I even heard a (relatively) new song by Joe Walsh!

To set up my Pandora station, I took the first three artists I heard on the radio and plugged them in. I could have carefully crafted my station's playlist by using the thumbs up/thumbs down feature. But for this experiment, I just let Pandora's algorithms do the selecting. And they did a pretty good job. All of the artists (well, maybe with the exception of the Hollies) fit comfortably into the classic rock format.

Local Information
Surprisingly, this was pretty much a draw. Of course I didn't expect to hear any local programming or information on Pandora. Sometimes on the website local ads would pop up, but going only by what I heard, my Pandora station was an anonymous music machine.

Unfortunately, the classic rock station wasn't much better. The DJ intro'ed a few tracks, and read the weather once, but that was all. I didn't hear about any local events, any local news, or any local traffic alerts. With the exception of that lone weather forecast, this station could have been broadcasting from anywhere.

Overall Listening Experience
So which would I prefer to listen to? Well, it depends. Had there been more local content on the radio station, it would have been closer. As it was, I really only had two factors to consider:

1) How much music did I want to listen to?
2) How many interruptions was I willing to put up with?

The radio station lost on the first point, and definitely lost on the second. There's a reason why I put spaces between each music/non-music element in the lists. Because each break represented an interruption. On Pandora, the interruptions were minimal -- one 15-second commercial after every four songs. That's not to say it wasn't irritating, but it was tolerable.

Not so much on the commercial radio side. I understand the concept of station promotion -- I really do. I practice quite a lot of it when I'm on the air. But they were all for the same thing, the morning show. Really? There's no other special programming I need to know about? Who's on in the afternoon? What's happening this weekend? Anything else going on I should stay tuned for? Now those spots were irritating.

But worst, I thought, were the marathon commercial breaks. Yes, by clumping all the ads together into two blocks you can boast about "long music sweeps." But four minutes of unrelenting pitches is strong encouragement to turn the dial (or move to another music source). And as I listened through the breaks, I wondered how much value the advertisers of spots #2 and #3 really received for their ad dollar.

When the music started again, I tried to recall the ads I heard. I could remember the last one, and with less certainty the first one, but the ads in the middle? No idea.

Conclusions
So is Pandora radio? Well, based on my listening, I think it is. The primary difference I heard was the commercial station played more ads and ran more promos telling me how great they were. When both sources were just playing one song after another, the experience was the same -- it just lasted longer on Pandora.

Let's go back to Gordon Smith's keynote at the National Association of Broadcasters convention I cited in part one.

"[Broadcasters] have what everyone else wants --airwaves, content and a local connection."

Airwaves? Yes
Content? Not as much
Local connection? Not that I heard

So if two of your three key differentiators are neutralized, where does that leave you?

The Radio Challenge
Part 1 - The Premise
Part 2 - The Details

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Radio Challenge Part 2 - The Details

Here are the detailed results of my radio vs. Pandora experiment. I first listened to a midday hour of the local classic rock station. I then created a Pandora station based on the first three artists aired on the rock station. I just let Pandora play, and didn't thumbs up or thumbs down any selection. The time is in minutes.

I've inserted breaks between music and non-music sections so they're easier to see. The underlined songs were those common to both stations.

So what does it all mean? I'll finish my analysis in Part 3.

Classic Rock Station
0:00 Station ID/Promo (10 seconds)

0:00 Song 1: Guess Who – No Time
0:03 Song 2: Doors – Love Her Madly

0:06 Station bumper (10 seconds)

0:06:Song 3: Styx – Come Sail Away
0:12 DJ break – intro song (15 seconds)

0:12: Song 4: Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

0:17 Station morning show promo (30 seconds)

0:17 Song 5: Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven

0:25 Station promo w/DJ (30 seconds)
0:26 Spot break - 5 commercials
0:30 Station promo (15 seconds)
0:30 Spot break - 2 commercials
0:32 Weather check (10 seconds)

0:32 Song 6: Steve Miller – Take the Money and Run

0:35 Station promo

0:35 Song 7: Alice Cooper – No More Mr. Nice Guy

0:38 Station promo

0:39 Song 8: Kansas – Carry On

0:44:Station promo w/DJ

0:44 Song 9: Joe Walsh – Analog Man

0:48:Station promo

0:49 Song 10: Fleetwood Mac – Dreams

0:53 Station promo w/DJ  (1 minute)
0:54 Spot break - 4 commercials
0:58 Station promo
0:58 Spot break - 2 commercials


Pandora – Guess Who Radio 
0:00 Song 1 Guess Who – American Woman
0:05 Song 2: Zombies - She’s Not There
0:08 Song 3: Doors – Spanish Caravan

0:12 Spot break - 1 commercial (15 seconds)

0:12 Song 4: Offspring – Why Don’t You Get a Job?
0:15 Song 5: Jimi Hendrix – The Wind Cries Mary
0:18 Song 6: Hollies – Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)
0:22 Song 7 Free – All Right Now

0:27 Spot break - 1 commercial (15 seconds)

0:27 Song 8 Styx – Come Sail Away (live) 
0:36 Song 9: 8lue Oyster Cult – Don’t Fear the Reaper

0:42 Spot break - 1 commercial (15 seconds)

0:42 Song 10: Foreigner – Long, Long Way From Home
0:45 Song 11: Led Zeppelin – I Can’t Quit You Baby
0:50 Song 12: Doors – Alabama song (live)
0:52 Song 13: Rolling Stones – Miss You

0:56 Spot break - 1 commercial (15 seconds)

0:56 Song 14: Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth


The Radio Challenge
Part 1 - The Premise
Part 3 - The Conclusion

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Radio Challenge Part 1 - The Premise

There has been a lot of debate recently about the differences between online music services and broadcast radio. On one side, broadcasters claim that services like Pandora aren't really radio. After all, as Gordon Smith said in his keynote at the recent National Association of Broadcasters convention, "Think big: We have what everyone else wants --airwaves, content and a local connection."

On the other hand, Pandora calls itself "Internet Radio" and the streams the users create "stations." And according to a Jacobs Media Research report, 43% of its users think it should be consider "radio."

Do online services offer the same listening experiences as commercial broadcasters? Well, no. But as industry observers Mark Ramsey and Ken Dardis (among others) have continually pointed out, what really matters is not whatever distinction the industry makes, but how the listener perceives the experience.
 
So I decided to try an informal experiment. I listened to an hour of one of our local commercial radio stations (in this case a classic rock station), taking careful notes of what content I heard (and how much of it). I then went to Pandora and created a radio station using the first three artists aired by the commercial station.

Here's the content breakdown for my test hour:

Classic Rock Station:
10 songs
13 breaks (station IDs, promos, ads)
14 commercials

Pandora:
14 songs
4 breaks

This doesn't tell the whole story, of course. Tomorrow I'll publish a more detailed listing of all the content.

My perception was that I heard more music with fewer interruptions listening to Pandora. And the numbers confirm it. I deliberately chose a mid-day segment. (Morning shows tend to have a higher talk-to-music ratio, so I wanted  to get a more representational segment.)


The Radio Challenge

Part 2- The Details
Part 3 - The Conclusion

Monday, May 21, 2012

Gasoline Alley's Op Ed

Writer/artist Jim Scancarelli made a gentle observation in today's Gasoline Alley strip. (click on image to enlarge)


Whenever I read the paper (or check news online first thing in the morning), I always start with the funnies. Oh yes, I know that there are important things happening in the world. But reading the comic strips help set the tone for the day. In my comic strip reading, there's plenty of humor, as well as action, adventure and mystery.

It puts me in a good frame of mind in the morning. And really -- how much better might the world be if we all started the day in a good humor?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Fischer-Dieskau Dilemma

One of the most important performers in the field of classical music died yesterday. And that's going to be a problem for a lot of classical radio stations (at least in the US).

This has been a rough week for recording artists. Donna Summer died, prompting stations that play either light rock, urban, or Top 40 to air her songs in tribute. Chuck Brown, the father of Go-Go also died this week. Although not as well-known nationally, in the Washington DC area, where Go-Go originated, urban stations played and replayed his many recordings.

Now there was a reason for those retrospectives: although Summers and Brown weren't considered current artists (and therefore not usually included in the mix), their music was aired back in the day, and was familiar to audiences.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died earlier today. This German lyric tenor was a giant in the field, and considered one of the all-time greatest performers of lieder. He was also renowned for his opera roles, and (to a lesser extent) for his conducting. I haven't been able to find a definitive list of the original recordings he made, but most sources put it into the hundreds.

Hundreds of recordings, and many of them set the standard for performance of the works (or at least a benchmark other artists measure themselves by). So just as the light rock station is playing Donna Summer, and the urban radio station is playing Chuck Brown, classical stations will be airing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, right?

Welllll, there's a problem. You see, Fischer-Dieskau sang. And most classical stations avoid programming any type of vocal or choral works -- at all. I started a series called the CE Classical Challenge to examine in a quantitative way how much vocal music was being programmed on a typical day. It usually hovered around 0%.

So how will most classical stations honor one of the most important figures in the classical world? Make that one of the most important figures in the field of recorded classical music?

I think I already know the answer.

But I would love to be proved wrong.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Men's 4-Miler Training, Part 6

I'm chronicling my efforts to get back into running after a long absence. To start, I'm participating in the Men’s 4-Miler Training Program offered by the Charlottesville Track Club


The goal today was to run 2-1/2 miles on the road. The training sessions take place at Charlottesville High School, and as one of the trainers remarked, no matter which direction you go, it's uphill. My weekly runs are also pretty hilly, but I've been struggling with the Saturday runs. (or rather, run/walks - we're still doing a minute of walking for two minutes of running)

The problem is breathing. According to the coaches, fighting for breath means I'm running too fast. I need to slow down the pace to where I can breathe and talk comfortably while running. I wondered if another problem was my body was working too hard. I normally don't eat before I run, but on Saturday I do. This time I skipped breakfast (opting for coffee and orange juice), to see if that made a difference.

It did. I still came in last -- by a wide margin -- but I was able to get the breathing under control. I did feel really fatigued when I finished, though. So my stamina isn't quite where it should be. Still, as someone pointed out, no matter how slow you are, you're still lapping the people on the couch!

I'll keep that in mind this week.

Friday, May 18, 2012

CCC 031 - John Tavener

The Consonant Classical Challenge continues with John Tavener. Tavener's had a long and quite remarkable compositional career. His first two recordings were released on Apple Records, with active participation and support from the Beatles.

Tavener became fascinated with the music of the Russian Orthodox Church, and his music changed from aggressively avant garde to serene and spiritual. Like Arvo Part (with whom he's often compared), John Tavener writes music that seems suspended in time -- like a feather floating gently down from the sky.

Part of that aesthetic is related to the tradition of Eastern Orthodox chant, which doesn't have a strong rhythmic pulse to it. The Protecting Veil is one of Tavener's few strictly instrumental compositions -- and one of his most popular.



Since a major part of Tavener's inspiration comes from the Eastern Orthodox sacred tradition (which is exclusively for the human voice), most of his compositions are choral. And many of them are for unaccompanied choir. Athene is one such work, and demonstrates Tavener's mastery of choral composition -- and maintaining his unique creative voice.



Tavener has a talent for blending the traditional instruments of an orchestra together in unusual ways. Combine that with his equally innovative approach to choral writing, and some powerfully moving and deeply spiritual music is the result. This is the "Cosmic Lament VI," part of his Lament for Jerusalem.



John Tavener is performed frequently across the globe. The slow pace that his music unfolds invites the audience to contemplate the sounds -- and the sounds are beautiful. Programming Tavener on either a choral or an orchestral concert would be a distinct change of pace for most ensembles. And it might provide a welcome interlude for the audience.

Recommended Recordings 

 The Protecting Veil / Wake Up ... And Die

Song for Athene

 John Tavener: A Portrait

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Kraus Viola Concertos are No Joke

Kraus: Viola Concertos
David Aaron Carpenter, viola
Tapiola Sinfonietta
Ondie

David Aaron Carpenter presents three standout viola concertos on his new Ondine release. These concertos by Joseph Martin Kraus, dating from the 1790s, were thought to be lost until fairly recently. Kraus, who spent most of his professional life in the Swedish court, was well-regarded by many musicians of his day, including Haydn (for whom Kraus wrote a symphony).

Kraus was also an outstanding violist, which makes these works doubly appealing. First, they’re in the clear, classical style of Mozart and Haydn. Second, they really test the limits of the instrument. Kraus knew what a viola was capable of, and he wrote his solo parts accordingly.

Kraus has been called the “Swedish Mozart,” and with good reason. He had the same ability to spin out perfectly balanced melodic phrases that sound simultaneously simple and original. Like Mozart and Haydn, Kraus kept with the standard orchestra of the time – a large string ensemble with flutes and clarinets for coloration.

Violist David Carpenter keeps things moving along, which is good. This is music that benefits for a lightness of touch, and the sprightly playing of the Tapiola Sinfonietta hits just the right emotional tone.

The most interesting work is the Concerto in G major for Viola, Cello, and Orchestra. Although it seems to be a double concerto, the soloists aren’t quite equal partners. The orchestra supports the cello which in turn supports the viola. Still, it’s an engaging work and definitely one worth hearing.

Joseph Martin Kraus is lamentably under-represented in classical recordings. This release should go a long way towards redressing that situation. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mogensen: Accordion Concertos - fresh sounds for an old instrment

Accordion Concertos
Bjarke Mogensen, accordion
Danish National Chamber Orchestra
Rolf Gupta, conductor
Dacapo SACD

Mention the accordion, and most people think of Weird Al Yankovic, or a polka band. What they won’t think of is an instrument capable of serious artistic expression. And certainly not one that belongs in the classical world.

Bjarke Mogensen is out to change that perception with this new recording, Accordion Concertos. In it, he performs four concertos. All have been written within the last half century, and two specifically for Mogensen.

Ole Schmidt's Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro starts off the program. It's a fairly traditional-sounding work, with the soloist and ensemble having clearly defined roles. Rich harmonies support the fluid melodies, which make this work an appealing one to listen to. Although most of the solo work on this recording is single line, Schmidt writes some interesting counterpoint into the cadenzas.

Anders Koppel composed the Concerto Piccolo for Mogensen, and the concerto shows the artist’s ability to best advantage. The work is an angular neo-classical composition  that’s well suited to the tonal qualities of the accordion. In my opinion, it's the strongest work on the album. 

In Liquid, another commission by Mogensen, is radically different. Martin Lohse's work is almost a study in slow motion. Lohse draws out every single note both from the ensemble and the soloist. The sensation is similar to trying to run underwater. And the enforced slowness of the composition makes the listener pay closer attention to the music as it passes by. An effective work, and one that completely removes the accordion from its popular roots.

As its name suggests, Recall by Per Norgard, harkens back to the roots of the instrument. While at times it threatens to devolve into sea chanty, at heart it’s a carefully composed showpiece full of energy and good spirits.

These are fresh, exciting works that succeed both presenting the accordion in a new way and being an enjoyable listening experience. Whether you’re after fresh sounds, virtuoso performances, or just plain good music-making, this recording fills the bill.

Monday, May 14, 2012

SNOPA and Snooping

Just introduced in the House is H.R. 5050 - Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA).  It's a pretty straight-forward bill (read the full text). Basically, an employer can't demand that either an employee or prospective employee hand over their passwords for personal email and social media accounts. Further, an employer can't punish an employee for refusing such a request (that demand is in plenty of company policies already).

For any of us that have spent a significant of time online, these demands have always rankled and seemed overreaching. After all, you wouldn't ask an employee to hand over their personal mail, would you?

Since most of my friends are either occasional or even reluctant Internet users, I think I can see the employer's viewpoint. There have been plenty of mainstream media news stories about people being caught because of embarrassing Facebook photos, or blog rants, or even tweets. A good number have been disgruntled employees venting about their bosses is a pretty public fashion.

I can easily imagine an HR administrator (such as one of said friends) who lets an assistant deal with all that interwebtube stuff thinking it would be a good thing to monitor employee behavior online. And the only way to do that, in their limited worldview, is to access the employees' accounts. I really believe these policies were created by folks who have little or no knowledge of how social media works.

Why? Well, because an employer can find out everything they really need to know by simply going online themselves. Look up some people you know on Facebook that you're not currently friends with. Sure, some accounts are wide open with pictures of bachelor parties and everything else -- but then there are others that are locked down. You can't see the information unless you're their friend.

And if a company is concerned about the image an employee might project, I think that would be a good sign. Sure, the company can't see what's going on in that person's life -- but the general public can't either. And that's really all the company needs to know (in my opinion).

Twitter's a little different. You can't filter who sees it. So foolish people will crack on their bosses -- and get caught. Others will be more discreet. And again, that's all a company should be concerned about.

LinkedIn is a little different. Since it's basically a job search site, everyone's putting their best foot forward. But it might be worthwhile for companies to check and make sure that the LinkIn resume matches the one the prospective employee gave them. But if there's information blocked, than so be it. On LinkIn that's a disadvantage to the user -- the ones who get the most out of the service want prospective employers to see everything.

Google+, in my opinion, hasn't reached critical mass yet. It's a lot like Facebook in that there are circles of friends, and you can set different privacy levels for different groups. Again, as an employer I would just want to know what an employee allows to be public (and hopefully not that NDA).

What I haven't seen in the discussion is Pinterest. Pinterest boards are pretty public. They can give you real insight into a person by seeing what they consider of interest. Sometimes you can learn a little too much.

While I think some folks are starting to think carefully about what they post on Facebook and other places, Pinterest choices seem based more on the Id than the Ego. It may be where  your employer can find out more than you want them to know. And they won't need a password to see it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Return to Gasoline Alley

February 14, 1921 the comic strip Gasoline Alley took a dramatic turn (for the better). Previously, it had been a humor strip about a group of guys working on cars in the shared alley where their garages were. It was topical for the day, when almost everyone who had an automobile had to work on it to keep it running (sort of the like the early days of personal computing where everyone had to know a little DOS to operate the system).

Had it remained so, Gasoline Alley probably would have been cancelled sometime in the late 1920's. Instead, on Valentine's Day, Skeezix was placed on Walt Wallet's doorstep, and the strip started chronicling the adventures of this thrown-together family. As it continues to do so today.

Recently, Rufus (a mainstay supporting character) had to find good homes for some kittens. He left one at Walt Wallet's, which lead to a classic flashback. (click on images to enlarge)


1921

2012

A fine reference by current writer/artist Jim Scancarelli. And -- for this comics fan -- an appreciated one.

Friday, May 11, 2012

CCC 030 - David Del Tredici

The next composer in our Consonant Classical Challenge series is David Del Tredici. Aaron Copland liked him, calling Del Tredici "a creator with a truly original gift." And no wonder. Del Tredici has an affinity for the human voice, and most of his works are either for voice and chamber ensemble, or voice and orchestra.

David Del Tredici's music is similar to Leonard Bernstein's in that it falls somewhere between Broadway and the concert hall. Like Bernstein (and Copland), Del Tredici writes in an American style, although it's difficult to say exactly where the "Americanisms" are in his music. One of the best examples of his work is "Final Alice," an opera meant to be performed in a concert setting.


Although Del Tredici favors the human voice, he is equally accomplished at writing just for instruments. His work "In Wartime" for wind ensemble demonstrates his compositional skill. As the title suggests, this is a dramatic work with powerful emotions that Del Tredici effectively conveys while using a mostly conservative musical idiom.


"Tattoo" is one of Del Tredici's works for full orchestra. Will it appeal to everyone? The musical language is certainly familiar, but this is not a work that sits in the corner and provides some nice easy listening. Del Tredici's compositions demand the audience's full attention -- and rewards that attention with well-crafted and emotionally fulfilling music.



Although David Del Tredici is better known in vocal circles, there's no reason (that I can hear) why his works shouldn't be performed regularly in the concert hall. Del Tredici's music shares some elements with that of modern Broadway. And that makes his music relevant to contemporary audiences. Yet it's still mainstream enough to be understandable to more traditional-minded classical audiences. After all, Copland liked Del Tredici...

Recommended Recordings

Tredici: Final Alice

Del Tredici: In Memory of a Summer Day

Tredici: Steps For Orchestra/Haddock's Eyes

Thursday, May 10, 2012

FedEx or FauxEx 2

Seems to me I just wrote about a fake email from FedEx just last month (FedEx or FauxEx?). And so I did. Arriving in my inbox today was a variation on the theme, and I must say it's not much of an improvement over the original. Here's the message. (click on image to enlarge)





The primary difference this time is that it's from the US Postal Service -- sort of.  The header says USPS, and the body of the letter talk about USPS, but it's signed "FedEx Services." Well, perhaps someday FedEx and UPS will take over the post office, but I don't think its happened yet.

It's still the same reason for non-shipment: the package is not the right size or weight (never mind the fact that I didn't order anything that might be an odd size or weight).

There's a tracking number. A quick check at USPS.com proved it to be bogus (no surprise).

The document's filled with fractured English:"keeping over limited time," "nearest post office of USPS," and so on.

And the label parcel I'm supposed to print out is  a zip file. It's s a self-extracting file that, once downloaded, will open itself up and probably install something on my computer (and I might not be aware of it, either).

There was one nice touch, though. If I don't claim this package, the USPS will charge me $9.23 a day for storage. It prompts one to act quickly to avoid all those charges -- and maybe not take the time to really consider what's going on.

Sadly, there will be plenty of people who will take this at face value and open the attachment. Worse, there will be some who will recognize that this is a scam, but open the attachment anyway just to see what will happen.

Not me. And hopefully not you, either, should this land in your mailbox.


Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Classical Comedy is Harder

"Dying is easy, comedy is hard" goes the old expression. I'm not sure about the first part of that statement, but the second part is certainly true. Since comedy relies on surprising the audience at some level, timing is much more critical than it is in most drama.

What about classical music comedy? I think it's even harder. Because not only must all of the comedic elements hit at just the right time, but the comedians must also be trained professional musicians. PDQ Bach may be the world's worst composer, but only because Peter Schickele has the compositional skill to write music that elicits exactly the responses he wants. Victor Borge seemed to just fool around on the piano, but his playing appeared effortless because he had the skill and technique to make the difficult seem easy.

A good example of just how much professional training is required to pull off a successful classical music joke can be found in Aleksey Igudesman's Cyber Conductor routine.  Watch the video first, then read on.



Sure, there's a lot of funny stuff going on here. But watch it again, and pay close attention to what the conductor and the musicians are doing. The slow motion sequence, the instantaneous changes in the music -- there's not a single ragged entrance or misstep.

This is an incredibly tight ensemble, with world-class performing chops. But you don't notice it because of the humor. And the humor wouldn't be as effective without the skills of these top-notch musicians.


You can watch the video once and get the laughs. But its only when you rewatch it that you see the artistry.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Straco Layout, Part 18 - Keep on Truckin'

A new vehicle for the Straco layout.
There's been a new addition to the Straco Layout (read more about the whole project here). I've been on the lookout for a few more compatible vehicles to add to the layout. I had a truck from my childhood I could use (Part 11, Truckin' ) and I found a few inexpensive  vehicles at the TCA Eastern Division Toy Train Show at York, PA, (Part 12, Gridlock!).

Since then, I haven't had much luck. eBay seemed a logical choice, but it's also where all the collectors look, so I often lost out to folks who were serious about Japanese toy cars.

I did win an auction recently, though, and it was well within my comfort level (cheap these were originally, and cheap must be my purchase price).

A side-by-side comparison with the truck I had as
a kid (left). Size is comparable -- build quality isn't.
The new purchase is a truck that I'm sure was part of a set. These were often sold in packs of three or four -- identical models with different colors and lithographic designs. If anyone knows anything about this A.W. Livestock truck, please leave a comment -- I'd like to have some information about this toy.

When I added it to the layout, something unusual happened. A pattern emerged. All of a sudden I had two cattle trucks, and one of the trains has a cattle car. Voila! Instant industry.

I'm still looking for vehicles. They must be Japanese in origin, and made in the late 1950's to early 1960's. They must be approximately 2.5"-4" in length. And what I really need is some color contrast. I have two red vehicles, one that's red and yellow, and another all yellow. So the search continues for a blue, green or orange car or truck. That's cheaply made.
We've gone from a random collection of Japanese toys
to depicting a budding cattle industry.

And cheap.

Layout costs:
  • Pegboard: $4.95
  • Flathead Screws: $0.40
  • Moulding: $2.49
  • SilClear: borrowed from a friend
  • Green Paint: left over from another project
  • Wood Screws: $3.60
  • Felt Pads: $1.99
Power Pack: $5.90
Small Houses: $3.00
Testor's Gray Paint for road: $1.29
Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00
Bandai Areo Station: $8.99
A.W. Livestock truck: $4.99

Total Cost: $39.60

#Straco

Monday, May 07, 2012

Pearls Before Foxes 2

This is really exciting. For the second time a comics creator has commented on one of my posts. The first was Mike Curtis of Dick Tracy (Dick Tracy and the Phony Funny). This time, it's Bob Weber Jr. who writes and draws Shylock Fox.  You may recall I commented on the appearance of a Pearls Before Swine character in the strip a while ago (Pearls Before Foxes). (click on image to enlarge).


Mr. Weber wrote:
A few years ago Pastis did a very funny Sunday parody of my Slylock Fox strip. A few weeks later I included Rat and Pig in a Slylock strip. I put Pig in this Slylock strip because I really like Pearls, and because Pig looks so wonderfully pathetic in the cage. Sorry you didn't like the solution.
Knowing more about the relationship between the two strips helps me better understand and appreciate the appearance of Pig. And Weber's right --  he's a perfect choice as the Pearls character to put in this situation.

I'm a regular reader of Shylock Fox, and enjoy Weber's inventive puzzles. They usually involve either some piece of common knowledge, and require the reader to look for clues in the panel. And sometimes I miss it. My only complaint about the solution for this strip was that it required the reader to be familiar with the Popeye mythos. While I'd like to think that also might be universal knowledge, I'm not sure that's entirely the case.

"Lame" may have been too harsh a word, and so I'd like to apologize to Mr. Weber. Let's just say it didn't work for me personally. I still very much appreciate the talent required to come up with these minute mysteries week after week, and to keep them fresh and challenging. As I've said many times before-- comic strips are a vastly underrated art form.

And as always I feel honored when one of those artists takes the time to respond personally.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Fuchs Serenades: Attractive works by a major influence

Fuchs: Serenade Nos. 3 & 4 & 5: For String Orchestra 
Cologne Chamber Orchestra
Christian Ludwig, conductor
Naxos

Naxos completes its survey of Fuchs' Serenades with this release (the first two were released last year with the same performers). It's a collection well worth owning.

Robert Fuchs is perhaps best remembered as a composition teacher. His impressive list of pupils include Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Erich Korngold, Jean Sibelius and other major composer who defined the post-romantic scene of the early 20th Century. During his lifetime, though, he was also highly regarded as a composer. These works attest to his skill.

By definition, a serenade is a fairly light work, and all three of these compositions have that spirit. They're short, amiable compositions that present their attractive melodies in a straight-forward manner. That's not to say they're simple works. Fuchs uses a rich harmonic language that provides subtle emotional inflections. Chromatic relationships help the music glide smoothly from one idea to the other, all the while sounding like an organic whole.

To my ears, the serenades reminded me somewhat of Elgar's Serenade for Strings, which was written around the same time. The Cologne Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Christian Ludwig plays with a light touch, which brings these serenades to life. Brahms liked Fuchs' music very much. I did, too.

Friday, May 04, 2012

CCC 029 - Michael Abels

The Consonant Classical Challenge.continues with American composer Michael Abels. Abels came to classical music through his work with gospel artist Rev. James Cleveland. That lead to a project with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, and eventually Able was not just arranging, but composing original music in a neo-classical tradition.

Abels incorporates African-American musical gestures into his work, and most of his pieces are clearly tonal throughout. That's not to say they're boring -- far from it. Abel writes with passion and imagination and his works have the ability to get an audience excited about what they're hearing. Delights and Dances was commissioned by the Sphynx Organization, which performs it in this video.



Global Warming is Abels' most successful work. The title refers to the thawing of tensions as the Cold War ended. It weaves together themes representing many cultures from around the world, making it an appealing work even to those who don't normally like classical music -- but its even more effective for those that do.



Another good example of Abels' work is Urban Legends for string quartet and orchestra. As you'll hear, the work echoes the rhythms and energy of hip hop, represented in the language of classical music.



Michael Abels writes interesting and appealing music. Even though they're tonal compositions, these are works that could have not have been written at any time before. The vernacular of African-American popular musics are woven tightly into Abels' works, given them a timeless yet contemporary sound. If an orchestra wanted to wake up its audience (and attract new ones), Abels would be the composer to program.

Recommended Recordings  

African Heritage Symphonic Series, Volume 3 http://www.michaelabels.com/

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Meta Forth 2

Writer Francesco Marciuliano continues to subtly move the domestic comedy strip Sally Forth in an innovative direction.

In the past the characters showed awareness that they were, in fact, characters in a comic strip (Meta Forth). Yesterday's strip hints at that same meta-cognition, and at the same time shows the reader a little of the basic structure of comic creation. (click on image to enlarge)


If you weren't consciously aware of this concept before, take a new look at the humor strips you read. You'll see the weekly story arc (sometimes it lasts longer) that provides the framework for the gags. Seems Ted's noticed it, too.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Weinberg: Symphony No. 6 - A Russian composer is given his due

Weinberg: Symphony No. 6 - Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes 
St. Peters burg State Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Lande, conductor
Glinka Choral College Boys' Choir
Naxos

Mieczyslaw Weinberg was a close personal friend as well as a colleague of Shostakovitch, and that relationship shows in his music. His Sixth Symphony opens in a manner that sounds (to my ears) very much like Shostakovitch. But while there are some stylistic similarities, there are also plenty of differences.

Weinberg was an imaginative orchestrator, particularly with his use of brass instruments. This programmatic work has a powerful message. The symphony begins with a celebration of the care-free days of youth, and moves through the horrors of war (and the death of childhood) to a tentative hope for the future. Weinberg's sparing use of a boys' choir makes the message all the more effective.

The second work on the disc is a shorter Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes. The rich melodic content of this composition makes it instantly attractive. Weinberg sounds less like Shostakovitch here (perhaps its the choice of subject matter). The music flows along in a relentless fashion, with plenty of energy and high-spirited dance motifs that almost beg to be choreographed.

Vladimir Lande leads the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra in the performance of these works. The playing is first-rate, which really helps further the cause for these relatively unknown compositions. If you aren't familiar with Mieczyslaw Weinberg, this release is a good place to start.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Voting Local and Keeping My Own Council

Today is election day in our town, and turnout's expected to be low -- really low. First, the only decision on the ballot is which two people to elect to replace openings on the town council. Second, it's raining, which always tends to discourage those with an under-developed sense of civic responsibility.

It's too bad that more of my fellow citizens won't be participating in this election, because in many ways it's one of the most important. There's no real money for being on town council -- most do it out of a desire to make a difference in their community. And that difference can be substantial. Road repair, trash pickup, and general infrastructure maintenance all happen (or not) at the direction of the town council.

Is there money in the budget to fund another town police officer? Council decides.

What should the town real estate tax rate be? Council decides.

Should there be a meal tax, and if so, how much? Council decides.

How much money and effort should go into economic development? What can the town do to attract and keep businesses? Ultimately, the council decides.

In essence, the quality of life for each and every person living in the town is affected by the policies and decisions of the town council.

And interestingly enough, the party affiliations that so critical on the national level don't really count for much on the local level. Probably because the issues facing the town are very far removed from the national debate. There's no real issue about runaway government -- the town's budget has always been so modest that it never could support an inflated bureaucracy. Sweeping social changes simply can't happen at the local level -- they're beyond the scope of the town council's authority (not that any member has ever expressed an interest in doing so).                    

But the primary reason these local elections are so important is that this is where the effects of national and statewide polices are felt -- and dealt with. Mandates (usually unfunded) from Washington and Richmond force the town to take on projects it hadn't budgeted for, or take over funding for services it doesn't have the tax base to support. And trying to cover the gap between what's mandated and what the town needs to do to stay healthy is a real challenge.

How should the town meet that challenge? That's up to the town council. And the makeup of that council is up to the citizens.

At least, the few who turn out on a rainy Tuesday in May.