Saturday, December 31, 2011

Year's End, 2011

I'll have the other half of this post tomorrow, but actually, they're pretty much the same. Simply because the calendar says this is the last day of the year, it can prompt a looking back over the last 365 days.

I can easily find many ways to finish the sentence "2011 was the last time I..."

2011 was the last time I drove our Buick Rendezvous. (we traded it in for a new car).

2011 was the last time I had to clean our family room carpet. (we replaced it with a wood floor).

There are many other "last time" events that happened this year. What occurred to me, though, is that some of them won't be obvious for years. We didn't know in January we would be buying a new car, but after the Rendezvous went belly up in June, we did. So I could have marked on a calendar (I didn't) the last time I drove it.

Same with replacing the floors. It was something we had been planning for a while, so it was a major event that came and went without surprise. I knew the date and time the carpeting would be removed, so that morning I knew it would be the last time I would walk on it

At some point, though, I might realize that 2011 was the last time I talked to a friend before they died, or the last time I was to hold a cherished heirloom before it was lost in a fire, or the last time I could admire a pristine view before the bulldozers arrive. But I don't know that now.

So this New Year's Eve I'll be thinking about not only everything that's happened this past year. And I'll also be wondering what historic events have passed by. Final events that will only become apparent with the passing of the years.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Down the Amazon Revenue Stream

Here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, our governor just announced that Amazon would be building two distribution centers in the state. As part of the deal, Amazon wouldn't be paying Virginia sales tax -- and various groups started to protest.

Now sorting out all the cross-currents here can be tricky. According to a recent article in the Free-Lance Star, the push is to get Amazon to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Virginia residents, since the company would have a presence in the state.

In the brick-and-morter world, that makes sense. If you have a store in the state, then any transaction in the building happens in the state and therefore the appropriate taxes should go to the state. But, according to a 2007 ruling by the state tax commissioner :
The establishment of a Virginia Distribution Center would not, by itself, create corporate income tax nexus or retail sales and use tax nexus for the Retailer.
So there's precedent for Amazon to be exempt from the ruling. But there's another factor here that no one seems to be talking about. And that's the nature of the affiliates. While Amazon is a retail company that does sell directly, it also serves as a gateway for affiliates to bring their own goods to the marketplace that Amazon has created.

Amazon takes a fee for acting as the middleman, but the transaction is really between the affiliate and the customer. I recently purchased a second-hand book through Amazon. The seller was a used book store in Kansas.

At the moment, neither the book store nor Amazon have a physical presence in the state, so there was no sales tax to collect. But what about next year? While the Amazon distribution center may be located in Virginia, the book store is in Kansas, That's really where the transaction takes place. So should the Kansas book store be collecting Virginia sales tax?

Some might say Amazon should collect that as the money passes through its system, because it is located in Virginia. But maybe not. Some affiliates (such as our own little company DCD Records) doesn't keep their inventory with Amazon, or even use Amazon's shipping services.

So what if that Kansas book store received notification of the sale, pulled the book off its shelf, wrapped it, took it to the post office and sent it on its way? Should that matter?

And remember -- the reverse could be true as well. DCD Records has sold recordings all over the country and never collected any sales tax on behalf of any other state. Should we? It would be an accounting nightmare that's for sure.

We do collect sales tax on purchases by Virginia customers. Because there's no mechanism for adding sales tax, when we sell to a Virginia resident, we have to take the sales tax out of the amount we collect -- so we make less money on a product when we sell it in state than when we do outside of it.

An unintended consequence, I'm sure.

And something else: if Amazon is required to collect Virginia sales tax, and DCD Records has to collect Virginia sales tax, then every disc we sell in state will be taxed twice.

And who thinks that is a good idea?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Milton Caniff - Master Cartoonist

For Christmas, I received The Complete Terry and the Pirates, Vol. 3: 1939-1940 -- another volume in IDW's excellent Library of American Comics series. These are wonderful books, printed on high-quality paper so the artwork can be reproduced with crisp, sharp detail. And that's good -- because in Caniff's case, it's artwork worth studying.

Take this panel, for example. (click on image to enlarge)

With the continually shrinking size of comic strip panels, it's unlikely we'll see such a drawing again. In this one scene, Caniff depicts the clashing of two armies, and the way he salves many different problems simultaneously is nothing short of a tour-de-force.

First off, "Terry and the Pirates" was published in family newspapers, so Caniff was limited in how much -- and how graphically -- he could depict the violence (Dick Tracy had a corner on the Tarentino-style stuff). So if you look closely, you'll see that this panel is remarkably bloodless (even the bayonet running through the officer in the center of the panel is clean). And yet it still conveys the power of two armies clashing.

How is this possible?

One way is by composition. No one's standing around here. All of the figures are in motion, most off-balance, which adds to the energy of their poses. There's also the dynamic of the overall scene.

Caniff uses the knowledge that the reader's eye will travel from left to right to his advantage. Moving from left to right, we start with a pair of figures, one standing over the other with a rock. Then there are two fighters in closer foreground, forcing the eye to refocus. Then in the center, there's the officer getting run through, back on the same plane as the first pair.

And then the action picks up. The figures become more jumbled, the action confused, and an explosion punctuates the last third of the panel. We're also looking at the line of combat at an angle, and the figures get smaller as we near the end of the panel. Not only does this suggest depth, and give us the idea that there are many more people involved in this struggle than we can see, but it also provides closure to the scene.

Just as a song fading out signifies the end (while suggesting it keeps on going), the perspective shortening of the figures also diminish the pull on the eye, so that by the time it reaches the end of the panel, the eye is almost stationary.

And note also the judicious use of black. The left third of the panel has a white cloud behind it, the center has a black sky. The right third is punctuated by an explosion which shows more white space (but not as much as the left third) and the remainder of the panel has a big black sky. So from left to right there's a transition from a big white space to a big black space -- you can bet that was intentional.

There's much more I could write about this one panel, such as the undulating line that runs through the heads of the figures. But I'll leave the rest to the reader. Just look it over, and then think about what you're seeing. Caniff certainly did, which is why his work merits deluxe collections eighty years after the fact.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The O-Gauge Zen Garden - A Matter of Perspective

It looks like these streets go on a ways -- but they don't.
I've had a lot of fun with my O-Gauge Zen Garden. And I've had a lot of fun photographing it, too. I carefully stage the shots so that one can't tell just how small the layout really is. And perhaps I've done too good a job.

In conversations about the photos I've noticed that the actual dimensions of the layout -- 3 feet by 5 feet -- don't seem to register with most people. The mental image they seem to have is a sprawling layout that envelops the entire basement.

Well, not quite. It really is just a 3 x 5 table, and a pretty cramped one at that. Here are two overhead shots, the equivalent of satellite photos. I had to press the camera against the ceiling to get these, but I think it was worth it.

As you can see, it's pretty small. But then, it doesn't take a lot to keep me happy...
Here's the layout at night. Looks different from this angle than
it did from the first photo.
Just two loops with a spur.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ensemble Caprice revisits Vivaldi with Return of Angels

Vivaldi: Return of the Angels 
 Ensemble Caprice
Matthias Maute, conductor

“The Return of Angels” is billed as a collection of Vivaldi’s sacred music arranged in an attractive program. The Ensemble Caprice under Matthias Maute perform these works with a lightness and transparency that make for an enjoyable listening experience.

The disc starts with Juditha triumphans, one of Vivaldi’s four surviving oratorios. Originally, this music was performed by girls of the orphanage where he directed the music program. Ensemble Caprice also uses an exclusively female cast, giving the drama a serene, otherworldly feel. By cutting out the long stretches of secco recitative, the Ensemble pares this large work down to a compact and appealing suite.

The motet O qui coeli terraeque serenitas (RV 631) is a study in contrasts, both in vocal style and orchestral writing. Soprano Gabriele Hierdeis floats effortlessly above the busy ensemble, turning in an appealing performance.

In addition to some psalms and the Et in terra pax from the “Gloria” (RV 588), there are also some excerpts from the oratorio Gesu al cavario by Vivaldi’s colleague in Dresden, Jan Dismas Zelenka. Zelenka’s music compares favorably to Vivaldi’s – without looking at the program notes, the casual listener might not hear the difference.

Also included is a Vivaldi concerto for two recorders (RV 566) and another for Trumpet and Oboe (RV563). Both works are ably played by the Ensemble Caprice, and provide a nice contrast to the vocal selections.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Thoughts on Christmas Eve

One of the things I like to do Christmas Eve is contemplate the strange blending of present and past that happens this time of year (Dickens had it right).

As I write this, I'm looking at our creche set up on the table. It represents many things, some obvious, some not. Of course, it's foremost an expression of our faith. As a Christian, I do believe in the miraculous birth of Christ as told in Scripture.

The Sacred

Our creche has all the traditional elements -- a shepherd, three Wise Men, stable animals, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. But being somewhat familiar with Scripture, I know that this scene is actually a composite, that probably never existed, and technically, we're putting it up at the wrong time, anyway. (Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the Roman tax census. Tax time for the Romans, like for us, took place in April, not December.)

Although a creche traditionally has them gathered together, the Wise Men and the shepherds didn't really arrive at the same time. According to Luke, the shepherds came shortly after the birth. In Matthew, the Wise Men arrive sometime within the first two years.

How do we know?

Matthew 2:13-23 tells of how Herod, based on what the Magi had told him, had every male child two and under killed. If Jesus was a new-born, then most likely Herod would have just have his soldiers look for one, or kill males six months or under. (The Slaughter of the Innocents is a part of the Christmas story that often gets overlooked -- but it's important.)

Tradition says that there were three Wise Men (or Magi), that one was African, and that their names were Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. But Scripture doesn't say any of that -- Matthew just mentions Wise Men, plural. Could have been any number from two on up. There are no names, and no nationalities -- only that they came from the East.

So our creche represents not only the Christmas story at it appears in the Gospels, but also as its been modified by two centuries of tradition.

The Secular

Our creche also represents some things for our family, too. When we first moved to Orange, the town's summer Street Festival featured many local craftsman. This creche was purchased from a woodworker who lived in the area. The Street Festival has long since degenerated to out-of-town food vendors and purveyors of cheap novelty items. So this display reminds us of a time now past.

The design is sparse, and even new the colors were muted, suggesting age. Twenty years after the fact, the wood and paint have accumulated an authentic patina of age, making the set even more appealing (in my opinion).

One of the reasons we purchased this particular creche was because we had young children. We knew they would be tempted to play with a creche, and so we wanted a set that was durable enough for young hands. The creche is still here, intact, and it sparks fond memories of Christmases past in our now-grown children.

It's a pretty simple decoration -- and one that's probably not worth more than we paid for it all those years ago. But for what it represents, our primitive wooden creche is priceless to us.

Friday, December 23, 2011

CCC 010 - Jay Greenberg

I'd be remiss (I think) if I didn't include Jay Greenberg on this list of Consonant Classical Challenge. Greenberg, born in 1991 was hailed a musical genius, and a modern-day Mozart. Before hitting his teens, he had written some astonishingly mature works, including his Symphony No. 5.

Greenberg's style is certainly tonal, but not slavishly so. If you're attracted to the Romantic Era composers who favor emotion over structure, than Greenberg's music should also appeal. Here's an excerpt from his "Four Scenes for String Orchestra."

Jay Greenberg is beginning to age out of his wunderkind status, and it will be interesting to see how he matures as a composer (Mozart also had to make that transition). Right now, not much of Greenberg's music is getting programmed. After sampling the excerpts above, you might wonder why. There's nothing there that should shock a modern concert-going audience -- even one with a half-century or more age advantage over the composer.

Recommended Recording: (right now, there's only one available)

Jay Greenberg: Symphony No. 5; Quintet for Strings [Hybrid SACD]

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Elmar Memories

 In a recent visit to my dad, he unearthed yet another artifact from my childhood -- an Elmar toy locomotive.

This was a premium that one could get by sending off Kellogg's cereal boxtops -- which we did. It was billed as a "Jet Drive Whistle Loco," a title that definitely overpromised.

Basically, you fit an inflated balloon over the smokestack. As it deflated, some of the air escaped through a slot on the top of the boiler, creating a train whistle. Most of the air went out an opening in the back, making the "jet drive" that pushed the engine along.

There were two things I remembered about this toy.
  1. It looked pretty good.
  2. It never worked very well.

Fast forward forty years, and I once again have the Elmar loco in my possession. After giving it a good cleaning, I  gave it a try. I have two thoughts about the toy.
  1. It still looks pretty good.
  2. It still doesn't work very well.
It's said that nostalgia colors our memories, making them at odds with the reality of the time. Not it this case. The good and the bad aspects of this inexpensive little toy is exactly as I remembered it.

Still, it looks pretty good sitting on my desk. Thanks, Dad!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Janacek: Piano Works - from master to pupil

Janacek: Piano Works
Rudolph Firkusny, piano
Newton Classics

Who better to present a recital of a composer’s music than an artist who studied with him? Rudolf Firkusny began his musical career under the tutalage of Leos Janacek, which gives his intepretation of Janacek’s solo piano works special significance.

All of Janacek’s major works for the instrument are present: Piano Soanta 1.X.1905, On an Overgrown Path, and In the Mists. It’s difficult to say exactly how, but Firkusny’s playing seems imminently suited to these works. Just as Czech orchestra can make Dvorak sparkle in a way that seems elude ensembles from other countries, so to does Janacek’s music benefit from the touch of a sympathetic countryman.

It’s clear that Firkusny understands Janacek’s music and it’s likely he discussed the finer points of interpretation with the composer. The folk-inspired passages sound forthright and simple, while the more complex develop organically. Janacek relied heavily on the cumulative dramatic effect of short phrases and motifs, and Firkusny delivers them with a sure hands. He knows how to draw the connections between the musical thoughts to present a cohesive whole.

With most other performers, Janacek’s music seems to me beautiful, yet static. In these performances Firkusny imbues them with a sense of forward motion that’s leading to an inevitable climax. These recordings were originally released on RCA Red Seal over a decade ago. Newton Classics provides a real service by making them available again. The remastering is flawless, and never gets in the way of the original recordings.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Tender Trap 4

I've talked before about what I call the "tender trap." It happens when someone sets up a model or toy steam locomotive and places the tender backwards. Most times, the manufacturers have a unique coupler to join the engine and tender, which makes this error harder to forgive.

Recently, though, I did run across an example that I couldn't fault the person too much for. On eBay this person had a 1940's Marx train set for sale.

Yes, the tender is backwards. Now Marx used the same type of simple coupler throughout the set, so you can indeed connect the tender in either orientation to the engine. But take a close look at the tender. The opening is at the far left -- the opening that should face the locomotive's cab.

Without that unique coupler arrangement, there's nothing to indicate to the novice how the tender should be joined to the locomotive. If you know something about steam engines, you would know this looks wrong. If not..

Monday, December 19, 2011

Jurowski proves Honegger more than a one-hit wonder

Honegger: Symphony No. 4, Pastorale d’Ete, Une Cantate de Noel 
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir 
New London Children’s Choir 
Vladimir Jurowski, conductor 
Christopher Maltman, baritone 

Swiss composer Arthur Honegger is basically known for two things: being a member of “Les Six,” and writing Pacific 2-3-1. This release goes a long way towards changing that shallow impression for the better. Arthur Honegger was a consummate craftsman, writing music that was impressionistic, lyrical, full of rich harmonies, and sounded like no one else.

The album opens with Honegger’s tone poem Pastorale d’ete. Composed on holiday in the Swiss alps, this short work is a wonderful sonic postcard from and makes a great opener for the program.

Symphony No. 4, written just after the end of the Second World War, is an exuberant work. Honegger incorporates two Swiss folk songs into the composition, which provide some of the thematic material Honegger rigorously develops. Although this is a light-hearted work, it’s by no means a light one. While pleasant-sounding on the surface, the structure and depth of the composition reward careful and repeated listening.

Une Cantate de Noel was Honegger’s final completed composition, written while he was terminally ill. Although it features several familiar Christmas carols artfully woven together, this is no treacly songs-of-the-season medley. The opening is somber and restless, reflecting Honegger’s emotional state. As the music progresses, that mood changes, as if the composer is turning from the woes of this world, to the serenity of the next. Une Cantate is a transformative work, moving from darkness to light, returning spiritual depth to well-known (if not shop-warm) carols.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir do an excellent job, turning in remarkably clean and tight live performances. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski exhibits sure command of this material, and clearly has a deep affinity for Honegger’s music.

If you’re not familiar with Honegger, or – worse yet – only know his one hit, this disc can be a revelation.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

In praise of Eduardo Barreto, Part 2

Yesterday I posted an analysis of one of Eduardo Barreto's last comic strip sequences published before his death. Barreto was one of those amazing artists who did such a masterful job that his work furthers the story, rather than call attention to itself. And it does so in ways often unnoticed by the causal reader.

In this last sequence published before Barreto's death, Noble, the head of the Shadow Team is having an audience with the Wambesi chief, explaining his mission. In disguise is the Phantom. (click to enlarge)

In the upper panel, the eye moves from left to right, starting with the caption. Note how carefully Barreto places everyone. The heads of the crowd are lower in the left than the right, pulling the eye along (and also suggesting depth). Noble is in the center, so we know exactly who the caption refers to. The chief is in the right foreground, and between the two is a picture of Noble's hunt -- the Phantom.

All three heads are related, conveyed by the subtle alignment of eyes. The eyes of Noble, the Phantom, and the chief are all in a straight line. The reader's eyes move from speaker, to subject, to audience. Also note Noble's dynamic pose. He didn't just hold up this picture. He whipped it out of his pocket and lunged slightly forward to show the chief. Noble isn't just mildly interested in finding this man, he really wants to find him.

The next two panels are interesting, because they take place at the same time. By laying the panel with the Phantom's face over Noble's scene, Barreto shows what the Phantom is thinking at the same time Noble is speaking. And look at the grouping of three faces. Noble address his man, who has a neutral expression. But on either side of him (and behind him) are two Wambesi warriers looking angry. Although Noble thinks he knows why, the placement of the figures suggests that Noble's team is surrounded and outnumbered by dangerous foes.

The next panel shows the Phantom in a field of white. While it nicely breaks up the page and gives the eye a bit of a rest, it has a more important narrative purpose. By isolating the figure, Barreto has removed all distractions. We need to pay attention to what the Phantom's thinking. It's the dramatic turning point in the sequence, and because there's nothing around the figure, time seems to stop for a moment.

In the first panel on the last row, the action heats up. Barreto uses speed lines to indicate motion. Noble doesn't just point to the picture, he jabs it emphatically. His emotion is carrying him away. This panel has to be read in tandem with the one that follows. In this one, we only see Noble, who's oblivious to what's happening around him. In the final panel, we see the results of Noble's words.

The Wambesi have exploded with fury. In the far right of the panel, you can see Nobel, still talking, unaware of the riot behind him. Not so the Phantom! Look how all the lines sweep the eye from left to right. The line of warriors is closest at the far left and trail off to the right. This funnels the eye straight through the middle of the panel to the Phantom, who's leaning backwards to carry the eye over to Noble.

Noble, however, is in shadow, so while that's the end of the narrative of the panel, it's not the main point. The main point is that the Phantom is facing  a sea of angry warriors.  Because Noble's in shadow, the eye pauses on the Phantom. All the warriors are leaning to the right, as are their spears. But only one is pointed horizontally -- and that one is aimed straight at the Phantom.

In far less time than it takes to read this post, Barreto works his magic. His lines lead the reader's eyes in the direction he wants them to, ensuring they see not only what he wants them to see, but in what sequence and with what weight. There's not a misstep anywhere along the way.

Eduardo Barreto was a rare talent. He'll be sorely missed.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In praise of Eduardo Barreto, Part 1

Shortly after I posted my last comment about the Phantom comic strip, I found out that Eduardo Barreto had passed away. Barreto was an amazingly talented illustrator. Like many, I first became aware of his art through his work on DC's Teen Titans.

I've written before about his work on the comic strip Judge Parker. His dynamic comic-book style and imaginative compositions (not to mention the way he drew women) revitalized the strip. His art was the perfect accompaniment to the change in direction the writing had taken, and together Barreto and Woody Wilson pushed Judge Parker into the 21st century.

Illness forced him to give up his duties. Eventually he returned to the field doing the Sunday sequences for The Phantom. The Phantom continues the practice many adventure strips maintained of running one story during the week, and different story in the Sunday sections.

To acknowledge the work of this master, let's take a closer look at the last two sequences published before the announcement of Barreto's death. Although it only takes a moment to read, Barreto's craft in telling a story in pictures is worth a second look. (click on image to enlarge)

 In this sequence, note the simple, but effective placement of panels. The top panel sets the scene (Africa) and gives us the two main characters -- the Phantom (in disguise) and Shadow Team leader.

The next panel shows us the Wambesi chief talking with the men. Note the line going from the Phantom's head to the chief's. It's going upwards from left to right, drawing the eye from the speakers of the request (the team leader, through the interpreter) to the receiver of the request (the chief). Note also that the figure of the chief is not only set higher in the frame, but also apart from the other figures, which are grouped together. This isolation and elevation shows his authority.

In the left lower panel, Barreto depicts the reaction to the team leader's words. The Phantom is at left, with all of the Wambesi to the right of him. The eye (always moving left to right) reads his thoughts, and then naturally move to the reactions he's worried about.

The final panel is a real tour-de-force. Barreto pulls back and gives us the Phantom in the exact center of the picture. The team leader and chief are still in their relative positions, so we know where we are. The village is full of detail, but not so much that it clutters the panel. And notice that there's an overall motion to the image. There's still the diagonal line running from the Phantom to the chief, extending downward through the two warriors in red (and don't think it an accident that only those two figures are clad in that eye-catching color).

In front of him is a curved enclosure. The eye moves up the implied line from red warriors to the chief, and come back down and follow the curved line of the enclosure, then pull right to read the word balloon.

Every line is there for a purpose, and the purpose is to further the story.

Tomorrow we'll look at the final panel published before Barreto's death.

Friday, December 16, 2011

CCC 009 - John Adams

We continue the Consonant Classical Challenge with American composer John Adams. At this point in his career, Adams can hardly be considered an obscure composer. His operas Nixon in China and the Death of Klinghoffer have become best-sellers as recordings (if not completely entered into the canon of operatic repertoire). Adams is often cited as part of the triumvirate of minimalist composers, along with Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

The difference, though, is that while Adams uses the same constant pulse that's a hallmark of the minimalists, he's always been concerned with melodic line. Adam's music should -- and does -- appeal to a great number of people who don't normally listen to classical music.

First, it has the strong, steady rhythm that people are used to hearing in virtually every other musical genre they enjoy. Second, the harmonies are simple and straightforward -- similar to those used by modern popular music. Third, the well-crafted melodic lines give the listener something to really engage with. And those melodies are those that go far beyond the short-winded ones that pop music offers.

John Adams' "Short Ride on a Fast Machine" is a good example of his orchestral writing.

Another orchestral staple is The Chairman Dances from Adams' opera Nixon in China.

And Adams continues to grow as a composer. Here's the middle part of his 2007 Doctor Atomic Symphony, based on his opera of the same name.

John Adams is one of the most successful contemporary composers when it comes to media. His recordings sell very well, and he has a very large non-concert-going fanbase. Inside the concert hall? It's a little different, but it doesn't have to be. If orchestras are serious about attracting the next generation of listeners, then programming the music they already embrace might be a good place to start.

Recommended Recordings

John Adams: The Chariman Dances et al

John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony

John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music

Thursday, December 15, 2011

(Plastic) Model Behavior

Yesterday when I was visiting my Dad, he handed me a dusty box. Inside was a plastic model car I had made years ago. I had completely forgotten about it, but the reappearance of the object has made some memories reappear.

The model is of a 1965 Dodge Monoco Hardtop, made by Revell/MPC. I put it together when I was around 9 years old.

What lines!
First, I was never really a big car fan, so I don't know why I chose this particular model kit, except that my great-uncle ran a Dodge dealership and everyone in our family drove Dodges or Plymouths (although never a Monoco).

Second, although the kit's assembled, it's not painted. I was never very good with a brush, and Mom didn't allow spray paint (too messy, even outside), so there it in its molded plastic glory.

Yes, painting would have helped immensely.
Who has a gold engine block?
Third, I seemed to have done a pretty good job with the cement -- there aren't great globs of it hanging out everywhere -- but there was some stock on my fingertips when I put in the windshield. As you can see from the crazed plastic.

Fourth, as I recall the kit (like many at the time), gave you the option of making the stock version, or adding some extras like a bigger motor, decals, etc. For some reason, I always chose to make the stock version.

I also preferred to color within the lines....

This Dodge Monoco sat on my dresser for years when I was growing up, and was finally packed away when we moved out of the house. Thirty years later, it's now sitting on my desk at work, next to a laptop that 1965 science fiction never imagined.

The car has a couple of interesting features. The hood opens up. I suspect if I had painted the engine block the right colors it would be a more impressive display.

And the front seats tip forward. One thing I quickly learned -- it was lot easier getting them back into position back then. At nine, my fingers had more room inside the car than they do today.

Thanks for digging this model up, dad.

And the seats tip forward.
What interior detail!
That gold Dodge Monoco still looks cool to me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Phantom Insider -- Revealed!

A few days ago, I pointed out that the current creative team producing the Phantom (Tony DePaul, Paul Ryan, and Eduardo Barretomade a reference to one of the strip's long-standing tropes. In the last two days, it's just gotten better. Not only is there a character breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the reader, but it's not just anyone. As today's sequence makes clear, our distinguished-looking speaker is actually Lee Falk, the creator and first writer of the Phantom. A very nice homage, indeed. (click on images to enlarge)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Robert Moran's Trinity Requiem: Music for All Time

Robert Moran: Trinity Requiem
Trinity Youth Chorus and members of Trinity Choir, Trinity Wall Street; 
Robert Ridgell, conductor, et al

Sometimes occasional pieces are just that – music written for a specific event, but have no life beyond it. (Richard Wagner’s “American Centennial March,” for example) But then there are other works that speak to audiences not just gathered for the event, but those in other places and other times.

Robert Moran’s Trinity Requiem is just such a work. This quiet, ethereal piece was composed for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Commissioned by Trinity Wall Street, which stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center, the composition is a serene, almost disembodied contemplation on the words of the requiem mass.

It bears some semblance to Arvo Part’s suspension-of-time music, but with a more identifiable tonal center. The quotation of Pachelbel’s Canon in the middle is a risky move – in the wrong hands it could sound trite – but Moran pulls it off. Somehow it adds to the otherworldly sorrow expresses by the music.

While written for a specific event, the Trinity Requiem transcends its origins. This is music that should be heard whenever people need solace from tragedy. The Trinity Youth Chorus, supported by adult members of the Trinity Choir sing with sure technique and firm conviction that help gives the requiem its emotional power.

Also included on the album are three shorter works in a similar style by Moran. Seven Sounds Unseen is an earlier a cappella work that uses the same vocal techniques as the requiem. Selections from it are performed by Musica Sacra, led by Richard Weterburg. Notturno in Weiss, performed by The Esoterica, directed by Eric Banke, adds a harp to the vocal mix, creating an interesting texture to this choral composition.

Robert Moran's Trinity Requiem: Music for All Time

Robert Moran: Trinity Requiem
Trinity Youth Chorus and members of Trinity Choir, Trinity Wall Street; 
Robert Ridgell, conductor, et al

Sometimes occasional pieces are just that – music written for a specific event, but have no life beyond it. (Richard Wagner’s “American Centennial March,” for example) But then there are other works that speak to audiences not just gathered for the event, but those in other places and other times.

Robert Moran’s Trinity Requiem is just such a work. This quiet, ethereal piece was composed for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Commissioned by Trinity Wall Street, which stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center, the composition is a serene, almost disembodied contemplation on the words of the requiem mass.

It bears some semblance to Arvo Part’s suspension-of-time music, but with a more identifiable tonal center. The quotation of Pachelbel’s Canon in the middle is a risky move – in the wrong hands it could sound trite – but Moran pulls it off. Somehow it adds to the otherworldly sorrow expresses by the music.

While written for a specific event, the Trinity Requiem transcends its origins. This is music that should be heard whenever people need solace from tragedy. The Trinity Youth Chorus, supported by adult members of the Trinity Choir sing with sure technique and firm conviction that help gives the requiem its emotional power.

Also included on the album are three shorter works in a similar style by Moran. Seven Sounds Unseen is an earlier a cappella work that uses the same vocal techniques as the requiem. Selections from it are performed by Musica Sacra, led by Richard Weterburg. Notturno in Weiss, performed by The Esoterica, directed by Eric Banke, adds a harp to the vocal mix, creating an interesting texture to this choral composition.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Phantom Insider

Another comic I follow just gave a nod to long-time readers. In today's continuity, the Phantom brings readers up to speed with the current story line. (click on image to enlarge)

Over the years, the Phantom's origin has been retold many times -- usually in a Sunday sequence. The Phantom's story officially begins in 1536, when the sole survivor of a pirate attack is washed up on an African beach. On the skull of his father he pledges his life -- and the lives of his sons -- to fight "piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms." The current storyline actually features the 21st Phantom, who inherited the persona from his father (and by direct descent from the first Phantom).

These origin flashbacks often featured a brief prologue: "For those who came in late..." Even in its initial appearance this statement had a double meaning. The strip started in 1936, so in theory, even those who were there from the beginning of the continuity might be considered "those who came in late."

The current team of Tony DePaul, Paul Ryan, and Eduardo Barreto have started to play with this prologue. This is the second time (that I can remember) that a character has turned to the reader and uttered the prologue.

It's a nice nod to a long-standing tradition, and a little added bonus for those who have been reading a while.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Clackety-Clack Train

One of the new decorations this year is anything but new. It's a wooden toy train made by my grandfather. Recently my dad ran across the original plans Grandpa used from a handyman magazine in 1957.

What's interesting is what differences there are between the magazine plans and the final process.

First take a quick looks at the plans (click on the images to enlarge).


As you can see, there are some minor changes -- the car is a little shorter than the plan, and the tender is (mercifully) turned the right way. Note the smokestack.

The directions call for a turned dowel, but Grandpa didn't have a lathe. So instead, he used the handle from an old rubber stamp.

And finally, for reasons unknown, rather than a metal clacker, Grandpa used a stiff piece of cardboard.

Still, as a home-made toy it worked fine. I remember pulling it along behind me as it clacked away. It's good to have it back, and nice to know the story behind it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The literary Dick Tracy

The revamped Dick Tracy continues to impress me. Joe Staton's growing into his role as the official artist for Dick Tracy and really making the strip his own visually. And writer Mike Curtis keeps adding little Easter Eggs to the script that reward the careful reader.

Take Friday's continuity, for example (click on image to enlarge). Sam Ketchum apparently is a big Terry Pratchett fan, and his holding Wyrd Sisters, one of the novels from Pratchett's Discworld series.

But the real payoff is in the final panel, when Sam states that Tracy reads Max Allan Collins. Collins is a prolific and well-respected mystery and comics writer. He was also the first writer to take over scripting of Dick Tracy after creator Chester Gould retired. Nicely done, Mr. Curtis!

Friday, December 09, 2011

CCC 008 - Joan Tower

Eight weeks, eight composers -- and we're not done yet. Consonant Classical Challenge rolls on with Joan Tower.Tower is a well-respected composer and pianist, at one time playing the renowned Da Capo chamber Players. Tower's early music was heavily influenced by serialism, but as her style matured, it became more lyrical and more impressionistic in harmonic construction.

Joan Tower sprang to prominence with her work "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman," an occasional piece inspired by Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." It's a work that's often programmed and recorded. Here's a performance of that work.

The work was so popular, Joan Tower actually ended up writing five such fanfares. But there's much more. Here's a movement from her piano concerto. Remember, Tower's a talented pianist, so she knows exactly what a top-flight performer can do (and asks them to do it). At the same time, musicality isn't sacrificed for technique.

 Joan Tower recently completed an interesting tour of the United States. "Made in America" was commissioned collectively by 65 small orchestras across the country, and Tower traveled (I believe) to just about every one for the premier of her work. A far cry from the stereotype of the academic writing in an ivory tower (no pun intended).

Joan Tower's music is vibrant and exciting -- and much of it is quite accessible to the common man -- or uncommon woman.

Recommended Recordings

Joan Tower: Made in America

Joan tower: Concertos

Joan Tower: Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Paavo Jarvi right at home with Baltic Portraits

Baltic Portraits
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra 
Paavo Jarvi,, conductor 
CSO Media 

Paavo Jarvi has always been a champion of Eastern European music. In “Baltic Portraits” Jarvi uses that experience to present works of five composers from the region with heartfelt and committed performances.

Erkki-Sven Tuur’s occasional piece Fireflower starts off the program. This exotic-sounding work was written for Jarvi’s tenth anniversary with the CSO, and shows off the orchestra – and its conductor – to good advantage.

Symphony No. 8, “Autumnal Fragments” follows, by Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen. Completed shortly after 9/11, the work’s fragmentary thematic structure reflects somewhat the disruption most of the world felt after the event. This is a powerful composition, and the Cincinnati Symphony is more than equal to the technical challenges presented.

Although best known as a conductor these days, Esa-Pekka Salonen started his musical career as a composer. Gambit is a short work that, although post modern in its harmonies, still retains a certain romantic lushness.

Estonian composer Arvo Part was brought to prominence by his fellow countryman, conductor Neemi Jarvi. One of the works Neemi Jarvi recorded was Part's Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten. His son Paavo brings a slightly different interpretation to this now well-known work. The tempos are a little brisker, but this is still a piece that moves at a very slow pace and remains true to Part’s tintinnabulli aesthetic.

Lepo Sumera’s Symphony No. 6 is the second of two major works on the album. The late Sumera admired Mahler, and while one can hear that influence in this symphony, the work seems to owe more to two fellow Estonian composers: Arvo Part and Edvard Tubin. The first movement’s long suspensions echo Part’s tintinnabuli, while the more energetic second movement sounds similar to Tubin’s symphonies.

If you’re familiar with any of these composers, Baltic Portraits will be a treat. If you’re not, Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra make a compelling case for further exploration of these composers’ works.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Fund Drive Funk

Just finished my first fund-raising shift for WTJU. It's not my first shift ever -- I've been doing fund-raising programs for the station for about twenty years. It's always a rush when I'm on the air, but there's always a let-down afterwards.

Fund-raising is a tricky thing on the radio. You're trying to persuade people who get your signal for free to voluntarily pay for it. You have to walk a very fine line between keeping upbeat enough to encourage the calls, but not get angry or depressed when the calls don't come. You have to encourage folk to make that pledge without hectoring them for being such cheapskates.

The show was pretty successful, and we raised a fair amount of money. So now it's time to come down from the adrenaline high and go on with the rest of the day. I'll have to do it again tomorrow, though. So if you listen to WTJU, do me a favor and pledge already. It will make tomorrow a little easier.

Pledge now:

Monday, December 05, 2011

#NaNoWriMo It's Over

Recently I posted that, while the National November Writing Month challenge had ended successfully for me in once sense, in another it hadn't. The primary goal was to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. I hit the word count in the deadline given, but I still had another chapter to go.

Well, now it's done.

Below is a link to the PDF of "The Crime Broker," my 2011 NaNoWriMo project.

There are a some caveats, though. First, this is an unedited manuscript. The only think I did before posting was do a quick correction of typos and spelling errors -- that's it. Even just skimming it, I can see that the middle is pretty weak. I need to bring out more of the subplot in order for things to make more sense at the end. I also know that I use the same phrases over and over. And for some reason, I seemed to prefer the letter "W" for last names. Editing will clean all that up, I'm sure.

Still, if you want to see what happens when someone turns off their inner editor (or should I say inner critic) and just starts pounding out words, well, here it is.

If you give this a read, please let me know what you think. My long-term goal is to edit and revives this and the previous stories in the Raven series for possible e-publication. All feedback would be most helpful!

The Crime Broker - A Raven Novel by Ralph Graves

Sunday, December 04, 2011

A classical reference survives

A few years ago I talked about using a reference to Greek mythology at work that elicited only blank stares. (Use Your Allusion). Thinks have  changed a little over the last three years. I recently submitted a review that used the Gordian Knot as an example -- and it was accepted.

And to be clear, since the review was about something technical written for the general public, virtually anything considered to be obscure usually gets changed. So at least one person (the editor) thought the reference sufficiently in the realm of common knowledge to stand.

I know longer feel like Prometheus bound....

(you can read my review here:
Polk Audio Ultrafit 2000 Sports Headphones: When you find something good, run with it.)

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Reckless dancing -- there's always one

With this classic setup, two DDC's could go wild and
everyone else could dance without fear of serious injury.
This evening we went to a Holly Ball dance (it's that time of year). There, front and center, was a phenomenon I've seen many times at wedding receptions -- the Dancing Drunk Chick. If you've been to any social gathering involving dancing and alcohol, you've probably seen her, too.

Once the DDC gets going, there's no stopping her. She's on the floor for every song (or in the case of tonight, even when the band took a break), dancing with wild abandon. Which was a good time to abandon the dance floor. Because the DDC throws her arms out, kicks her feet, hops around, spins, and generally uses a lot of space for her awesome moves.

And if she crashes into someone else in the process, well, don't worry -- she won't feel a thing. Sometimes young, though most often not (maybe there's something else going on here), I can always count on finding at least one DDC at every receptions. And strangely enough, there never seems to be more than two or three, tops.

I certainly admire her alcohol-fueled energy -- if not her flailing fists. Maybe its time to bring back the go-go dancer cages. Then we could all do the Safety Dance in safety...

Thursday, December 01, 2011

#NaNoWriMo - It's not over till it's over

Well, the National November Writing Month challenge is over. The challenge was to write 50,000 words in 30 days, and once again, I was able to do so -- but the novel, per se, isn't quite finished. Is till have a few more thousand words to write. So I'll be writing for a few days more!

And when it's finished, I'll post it with my other manuscripts from the NaNoWriMo challenge. It was a fun month, and for the first time the words flowed easily. Maybe there's something to this practice makes perfect thing...


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Magnificent music by Philippe Rogier

Philippe Rogier: Music from the Missae Sex  
Magnificat; Philip Cave, director
His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts

This outstanding recording by Magnificat features a set of masses by Philippe Rogier. Missa Inclita stirps Jesse is a parody mass, one of the higher expressions of a composer’s skill back in the 1500’s. The idea was to take an opening polyphonic theme from another composer’s work (in this case Jacobus Clemens’ motet Inclita stirps Jesse), and develop the material in a different way. The quoted (or “parodied”) material would begin each part of the mass.

Rogier was from France, but made his fortune in the court of the Spanish king, Philip II. These choral works are very clean, and spare. There’s no mere filling in harmonies here – each vocal line has a purpose. The Missa Inclita stirps Jesse is a fine example of high renaissance counterpoint, with the motifs expanding outward in ever more complex (yet transparent) patterns.

Rogier’s Missa Philippus Secoundus Rex Hispaniae takes its theme from the musical spelling of King Philip’s name. Despite its rather unmusical origin, Rogier makes it the foundation for a mass that’s an amazing compositional tour de force. His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts join Magnificat for this work, doubling the vocal lines and shading them in subtle ways. This is indeed music to pull one’s mind to higher things.

Cudos go to Maginifcat, directed by Philip Cave. This early music vocal ensemble has a wonderful blend. The ensemble can be a seamless blend of sound when it needs to be, and clearly articulating multiple lines of counterpoint at other times.

And added bonus is the release of this recording in SACD format. The album is beautifully recorded, but to get the full effect of the performing space (something never far from any renaissance composer’s mind), one should really hear it through the SACD multi-channel format. Rogier’s counterpoint depends on the special relationships between the voices as well as the harmonic – it’s the difference between a 2D and a 3D image.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Spanish Cape Mystery

I watched The Spanish Cape Mystery last night. This 1935 picture marked the first on-screen appearance of Ellery Queen, the king of deductive detectives. It was an interesting and entertaining enough film, although viewing it some 75 years after release gave it an added twist or two.

As I watched, I wondered how many of the detective story tropes I saw had descended into cliche even by 1935. The story (which varies from the original novel by the same name) involves a group of hangers-on in a mansion attempting to gain their share of a multi-million-dollar inheritance. Not only is everyone apparently capable of murder, but they dislike each other enough that they all have sufficient motive to bump off any of the others -- which of course begins to happen.

There's a significant red herring that draws everyone's attention (why does the murderer dress the victims in their bathing suits?) but only Queen can see the true reason. Which leads to the second cliche; the baffling solution. Ellery Queen provides the puzzled sheriff with a cryptic clue, "look for the man with black spots before his eyes," but never explains to the police exactly what that means -- or who he's referring to.

It's great for a story, but while he's being clever, two more people get killed.

I did enjoy watching it, but The Spanish Cape Mystery is in no way great art.

And, looking at it through the lens of time, part of my enjoyment came from the awareness of just how much storytelling has evolved in film. In this movie, scene changes are done by fading completely to black, and then slowly fading back in. Far too slow for today's tastes. And the dialogue, while moderately witty, was delivered at a very measured pace: line (pause) response (pause) next line (pause) next response.

As I watched the story unfold (slowly), I kept wondering if a little judicious editing wouldn't help pick up the pace.

There was one plus to this film, though, that modern franchise movie makers should take note of. The movie starts with Ellery Queen in mid-career. There's no long origin story. The movie starts with the ninth book in the series with Ellery Queen going on vacation to get a break from all that crime-solving!

So to all you comic-book movie auteurs, forget the scene one/day one mindset. Just start the story and go. The fans are already up to speed, and everyone else will be familiar enough with the character to stay with it.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Intimations of Mortality

Slate Magazine published Last Notes an excellent piece about the final words (and works) of some famous composers. Part of the thrust of the piece was that there is an end to life, and how the creative artist deals with it.

Personally (after a bout with cancer),  I'm comfortable with a life that has a beginning and an end. Like a good story, the limits help give it meaning and definition.

I've thought quite a lot this past year about numbers. Because my life has an end point, I will only write a set number of blog posts, for example. I don't know how many, or when I'll stop, but at best I can only keep writing till my dying day (unless technology advances sufficiently to write from beyond this life).

And that finiteness helps me appreciate things more. Some final events (like the ones in the article) will be marked -- last day of work, last day owning our current car, last mortgage payment -- but some won't. I will hear my favorite song for the last time at some point -- maybe I already have. At least I can say I enjoyed it every time it played.

All of the normal daily routines will stop at some point, either by choice or circumstance. But that's all right. Because that will give them meaning. In a straight line that extends infinitely in both directions, there's no way to tell which points are the best, because the set of them is open-ended. With a finite number of days, it's possible to mark the lows -- and the highs.

Don't worry -- nothing dire in my personal life prompted this post. Just an appreciation for the arc of the story.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mutable Traditions

We tend to think of traditions as unchangeable, but they're really not. They provide a certain continuity, but they do change over time. Take Christmas lights, for example.

When we first set up housekeeping, we were given some vintage Christmas lights to trim our first tree. They were similar to the ones I grew up with -- large and wired in sequence (so when one goes out, they all go out). It wasn't long before replaced them with minilights. And this year, we replaced them with LED lights.

The tradition of stringing the tree with lights didn't change, but the type of lights did. Each change brought a different type of illumination to the tree. So the tree we have now has a substantially different appearance than the ones from Christmases past.

These were obvious changes, but each year there are other more subtle differences that we don't always notice.

Its a wonderful time of year, and for me part of the appeal is that it's never quite the same as it was before.