Monday, October 31, 2011

Ready, Set, Write!

The National November Writing Month is just a day away. During NaNoWriMo (as it's sometimes called), writers are challenged to start and complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

I've done it before, but this year will be the first time I've gone into the event without a fairly detailed outline.

This year, to keep my goal of posting to this blog every day, I'll be sharing the actual writing. It's not because I'm any great shakes as a novelist (otherwise, I'd be rich and/or famous). But it will be a way for me to think about the writing process, and for you to see how at least one person approaches the task.

Who knows? It may inspire you, too! (Jeez, I can do better than that guy.)

Below is the plot as it stands today. I could try to lock down my creative work with a bunch of copyrights, but I won't. I'll simply say please be nice and even though I'm aware that the market value of this book will be extremely low, please don't steal. Ideas are easy to come by. Really.

The official plot to this years NaNoMoWri entry, "The Crime Broker."

I explain how this story is another of my great-uncle's novels published in the 1930's. "The Crime Lord" was originally run in Raven Mystery Magazine in October/November of 1936. I fill in some background of the pulp hero magazines, and the career of the my great-uncle both pre- and post-war.

Note: also add some commentary about the story and the characters. (may be best to do after story's written).

Chapter 1
Lieutenant MacGuffy’s with the Flying Squad. A rash of high-profile robberies has hit New York City. The alarm’s gone off at a jewelry store in Manhattan, and he’s rushing there to capture the crooks. Mac arrives as the  robbery takes place, resulting in a shootout. But while that’s going on, another – and larger—heist happens on the next block. MacGuffey pulls back some of his men to respond, but the crooks get away. And in the confusion, the first group is able to escape, too.

Chapter 2.
Raymond, Carlton, Nancy,  Jim Roland are sitting in a drawing room of a mansion, bored. Raymond and Carlton Barr are brothers, head of Carlton Industries. Because they can pass for each other, they also both don the identity of Raven, mysterious figure of the underworld when necessary. Although collectively referred to as Raven, when Raymond assumes the role, he and his brother refer to him as Raven (as does the narrator). When Carlton assumes the role, he's privately referred to as Crow. Jim Rowland is the police commissioner who knows their secret. Nancy Whittaker is a brash young socialite who grew up traipsing around the globe with her explorer father. She's somewhat sweet on Raymond, but he's having none of that!

They’ve been invited to a small gathering of potential investors by an up-and-coming firm. X is the young lion of Wall Street, amazing everyone with his successful investments and generous returns. He cuts a handsomd figure with his lush, brown hair and pencil mustache. Raymond and Carlton are having a hard time following his presentation.

Y is the host, one of X’s investors, and very excited to recommend him to his friends. The meeting ends, and several people express interest in becoming clients – but not Raymond, Carlton or Jim. They exchange small talk with Y’s young wife, along with Nancy. Jim is called away on police business, leaving Raymond and Carlton alone with Nancy.  Raymond pleads an appointment, and pulls Carlton after him.

Chaper 3.
X leaves the meeting, pleased with the number of new clients. Z is his assistant, who’s somewhat sycophantic. Z is of a slighter build than X, clean-shaven, and has thinning light brown hair. X gives him vague instructions for investment. Z has another meeting to go to as well, one he does not want his assistant to go to. 

In a foreclosed office building on the West Side, a sinister meeting takes place. Seated behind a large, ornate desk is a man in a pin-striped business suit and a domino mask. He has a pencil mustache, and lush brown hair. A large bodyguard with small eyes and a broken nose stands just behind him. 

A crook is ushered in. He says that the plan was successful. By staging two robberies close together, his gang was able to escape with the big haul – and as a bonus, the diversionary loot as well. His men place both on the desk. The Crime Broker takes his 50% and dismisses the men.  He pulls out a ledger and completes his notes on the crime.  

Another criminal enters, and makes his proposal for a crime. The Broker explains the deal: funding for the gang, and in return, 50% of the take. The crook balks at the high percentage, and threatens to go elsewhere. The Crime Broker dismisses him and warns him not to. As he leaves, the Broker instructs one of his men to follow.

Chaper 4.
Stanley is meeting with Lorenzo.  Stanley is a large, strong man who is usually very quiet -- but very dangerous. He works as the right-hand man to Spud Lorenzo, an oily mob boss who has run rackets in New York for some time -- but only risen to prominence after Stanley came to work for him.

Lorenzo’s worried. The rash of crime has been good in one sense – the police are now stretched so thin that his rackets can operate almost without interference. But at the same time, he’s worried. New bosses are rising up seemingly out of nowhere.  How are they funding their mobs? Stanley’s heard some vague rumors, but nothing solid. The phone rings. It’s the disgruntled crook with a proposal for a can’t lose heist. He gives some details, but what really interests Lorenzo is the mention of the Crime Broker. He sends Stanley.

Stanley meets the crook at a neutral underworld dive. The place is crowded and noisy. They pick a corner table. The crook gripes about the crime broker. Stanley presses for more info, but he suddenly catches movement out of the corner of his eye. Two torpedoes reach for their guns. Stanley flips over the table and dives. In the gun fight, the crook is killed, as is one of the torpedoes. The lead escapes.

Chapter 5.
Rowland asks Raven to find out what they can about jobs. They meet with Stanley, who has a plan of his own. He now knows of the existence of the Crime Broker. He just needs an audience. He puts out the word to that Lorenzo wants to do something big. 

X and Z are working in the office. The phone rings. Z takes the call, and hands over to X. X says mysteriously that he has to leave. Z watches him go.

Stanley receives a call. The Crime Broker will meet with him. As he goes to the meeting, Raven and Crow follow. They now know where the meeting place is.

Chapter 6.
Nancy has a funny feeling about X. She decides to do a little investigating on her own, and asks Raymond and Carlton for help. There’s just something about the financials that don’t add up. Nancy talks with Y and Y’s wife, who insist that everything’s legit and they’re happy with the service. Nancy tries to have a heart-to-heart with Y’s wife, but is rebuffed, making her even more suspicious.

Chapter 7.
 X  and Z are going over accounts. X talks vaguely again about investments, and wants to see the special account. He likes the numbers. He then says he has an evening appointment. Z asks where he can be reached , and X does not give a number.

The Crime Broker returns the office. The crook from the first job is back. The Broker wants him to do some hijacking. One of the companies X and Z were going over details for will be shipping some valuable furs out of the city to Chicago where they will be opening a new store. The crook thinks the heat is on, and is reluctant to take it. The Crime Broker reminds him of the ledger, which he will be glad to turn over to the police. It has all the details about the crook, but the crook has nothing on the Broker, save the meeting place, which he assures him holds no clue to his identity. The crook agrees.
A second crook is brought in. he badly wants to make the big time. The broker gives him a chance, saying that if he’s caught, he’s to keep quiet and all will be well.

Chapter 8.
Stanley is too distinctive in appearance to go undercover, but he gets information about the fur heist. He passes it own to Raven.  Raven passes it on to the police, who will escort the furs in unmarked cars, ready for the heist. But as the truck passes bank, the alarm goes off. The car responds, and while dealing with the bank job, the truck rolls on. As it turns a corner, the street is sealed off and hijackers swarm over it. 

The bank job is a diversion created by the Crime Broker, who used the second crook as a patsy. The crook is captured, and as he’s being lead to the squad car, he’s gunned down by the Broker’s thug to ensure his silence. The police pursue the murderer as he disappears into the crowd, further drawing them away from the fur heist.

Chapter 9.
Raven also followed the fur truck at Rowland’s request. As expected, the guards were drawn off. MacGuffy was along in a second car, with strict orders not to leave the truck. They’re under siege by the robbers, until Raven arrives. Raven and Crow break up the robbery, and saves MacGuffy, who joins them  in stopping the hijack. Only one crook escapes.

Chapter 10.
The Crime Broker is in a rage. He wants results. He had passed on Stanley’s proposal before, but now may be the time to try it. He calls Stanley in. A bank will be bringing in a large amount of cash, so much that it will be brought in on two armored cars. The deal is struck.

Chapter 11.
Tipped off by Stanley, Reven thwarts another Crime Broker crime. This seriously cripples the Broker’s illicit income, which also affects the dividends paid out through the laundered sources. X is having a hard time meeting expectations with investors. The Crime Broker becomes desparate and puts out a large bounty on Raven.

Chapter 12.
The first Raven hears of the bounty is when they patrol the underworld. Suddenly they’re in a flight for their lives. Stanley is able to appear as the victim, so he’s safe.

Chapter 13.
Stanley rescues Raven at the last minute, but this just brings heat to bear on Lorenzo’s mob. The running fight continues throughout the city, with the Raven and Crow becoming separated. Crow escapes with Stanley into the city, while Raven makes a break for Long Island.

Chapter 14.
In the course of his battle, Raven is severely wounded. He crashes his car into is pursuers, and makes off on foot. He sheds as much of his disguise as possible, hiding it in a culvert. He journeys on through the night, collapsing on the grounds of an estate in the middle of the night.

Chapter 15.
Raymond  awakens in a bed. He’s made it to Nancy’s home. Her servants found him and are nursing him back to health. She wants to take him to a hospital, but he asks to remain. He gives her a version of the story that crooks are after him (he hints at kidnapping) and would like to lay low for a while. Nancy asks about police protection, but finally agrees that with the force stretched thin, there’s not much chance of a round-the-clock guard. Plus, it gives Nancy a chance to be closer to Raymond (who instantly regrets his decision).

Chapter 16.
Stanley and Carlton hole up in one of the hideouts Stanley has prepared.

Chapter 17.

Chapter 18.

Chapter 19.
X is killed by Z, after he realizes that Z is the Crime Broker. Raven and Stanley arrive just a little too late.
Z is unmasked in final battle in the office with the rest of his gang, and is actually taken alive.

Chapter 20.
Finale. Rowland,
X  acted suspicious because he was having an affair with Y’s wife. That’s why he couldn’t explain where he was. Z figured it out, and used those times to hold Crime Broker meetings. He used a padded suit to fill his frame out, a brown wig and fake mustache to further convince people that he was X (should the need ever arise).
With the death of Z, the Crime Broker’s reign is through, and without the Crime Broker to pay the bounty, the manhunt for Raven is over, too.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Barney and Clyde and Pearls

Recently I wrote about a cross-over between the "Pearls Before Swine" and "Dennis the Menace" comic strips. Shortly thereafter, I noted a similar meta-take on comics in the "Barney & Clyde" strip.

So I really appreciated the October 29,  2011 sequence in "Barney & Clyde" which references... "Pearls Before Swine" with their character Rat severing as the punchline..

Brilliant. This is what keeps me reading the funnies, folks! (click on the image below to enlarge).

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The plot thickens -- in lumps

National November Writing Month begins very soon, and I'm not sure I'm ready. I've been working on a plot, but it's only partially complete. I've got the basic outline, true, and some chapters are just about fully realized -- but there's this big hole in the middle.

I have no idea how the characters are going to get from the opening sequences to the final solution to the puzzle (heck, I only know some of the pieces myself).

Looks like I'll have to make this one up as I go along! Will it work? Possibly. There are as many different ways to write a story as there are writers -- which is not as large as the number of ways to write a good story...

Friday, October 28, 2011

CCC 03 - Jennifer Higdon

We continue the Consonant Classical Challenge with Jennifer Higdon.

Higdon has been cited as one of the most-performed living composers. Her recent Violin Concerto has the distinction of winning both a Pulitzer Prize for music and a Grammy Award. Here's the first movement of a work that may well become a standard of the repertoire.

"Blue Cathedral" is a another good example of her style. As you can hear, it's not just melody that matters, but how it's cast. Orchestral color and timbre are an important part of Higdon's compositional voice.

Jennifer Higdon's music is solidly constructed, and should appeal to folks who like the late-romantic and post-romantic composers, such as Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss,  and Modest Mussorgsky. Not that you'll hear any of their music in a Higdon composition, but her compositions have a similar sense of fluidity and restless drama.

Her chamber works are of the same quality as her orchestral output. Below is her percussion ensemble piece, "Splendid Wood." In it, you'll hear the same strong rhythmic elements found in the violin concerto.

It's unfortunate that orchestras don't include a contemporary work as a matter of course with every program (they did in the 19th century). If music by living composers were performed regularly, there's a good chance that Higdon's works would be among the most frequently played.

Recommended recordings:

Higdon: Violin Concerto with Hillary Hahn

Jennifer Higdon: Blue Cathedral

Higdon: On a Wire (written for eighth blackbird)

Jennifer Higdon: Piano Trio; Voices; Impressions

The Consonant Classical Challenge background information.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Straco Layout - Part 12, Gridlock!

A busy day in Straco Town. Where did all this traffic come from?
At the recent TCA Eastern Division Toy Train Show at York, PA, I found a few things to add to the Straco Express layout.

This admittedly eccentric project involves building a layout for an early 1960's Japanese-made tin toy train (that I also purchased at a York meet). The goal is to do so as inexpensively as possible, and to only use toys and accessories manufactured in Japan around the same time.

This meet I found two vehicles to add to the streets. One was a fire chief's car. I'm not sure of the maker, but it's pretty typical for Japanese toys of the early 1960's. It's made of stamped metal, with decoration lithographed on the exterior. The car is about three inches long, and is excessively low-slung.

(click on the images to enlarge)
The original low rider.

The maker's counting on the lithography to carry this piece. While each side looks fine, if you view it from any oblique angle, it looks a little odd with each window filled with a face (some from the same passenger). It was originally part of a set that included a police car, an ambulance (actually, the same sedan in white with a red cross on the hood) and a stock car racer. For a dollar, I thought it was a good addition to the layout.

The problem of projection. There are eight heads shown  (two front, two back, and two on each side),
depicting a total of four passengers inside

The second vehicle I purchased (also for a dollar) is even stranger. Same basic design as the car -- stamped metal with lithographed decoration. Viewed from a distance, it appears a fair representation of a tour bus, with windows lining the sides and roof. But get closer, and it's almost an abstract interpretation.

Up close, this bus seems somewhat globular.

Note how the curved lines create a softness to the outline, making the thing look more like a blob than a bus. And the artwork is so small (the bus is only two inches long) and the screen printing so low-resolution that the images really break up when viewed close-range.

Get to the back of the bus! Looking at it from left rear,
it still seems more abstract than representational.
 This bus originally had a friction drive. Pull the vehicle backwards to wind the spring, and release it to watch it shoot forward. The spring's broken, but that's OK. I'll be using it in a static display anyway. 

Being made for the American market, all of the people in both the car and the bus are depicted as Caucasians. Or rather, what the Japanese artists thought Caucasians looked like. I think you can find the origins of manga on these pieces.

So now we have three vehicles for our little Japanese town. And we haven't added greatly to the cost, either. Another successful York meet!

Read about the entire Straco Express project here.

Somehow, it all ties together. Mission accomplished.
Total cost for the project:

Layout construction:
  • 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

Total Cost: $25.62

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

High Marx - the 416 Twin Floodlight Tower

Yesterday I wrote in detail about the Louis Marx Co. 413a Switchman Tower I purchased for my O-gauge Zen garden. At the TCA meet in York I also found a Marx 416 twin floodlight tower.

Now I've already written about why I wanted these accessories. But I'd like discuss the what, and take a closer look at the piece itself.

Marx made many low-cost toy train accessories, both before and after World War II. This floodlight was one of them. It featured two bulbs in sockets that rotated both side-to-side and up-and-down, so you could position the lights however you chose.

The interesting thing about this piece is how Marx economized to keep the cost down, yet still put out a durable -- and useful -- toy train accessory.

See the similarities?
It even has  the same red paint!
Take a close look at the image at left. The tower can be divided into four distinct parts: the black base, the red square pillar, the red lattice-work tower, and the black platform on top.

The base was used for several different accessories, such as the 413a switchman's tower I also purchased at the meet. That pillar (and base) was also used for street lamps, searchlight bases and other accessories.

And look closely at that girder column. It's the same one used in the 413a switchman's tower (and a few other things besides). Need I say that the light assembly also shows up in different pieces.

Marx recycled as many components as they could to make new and different toys. In the end, they could produce attractive and good quality products at a price that made them more than competitive. Dime stores like Woolworth's and catalog retailers like Sears (the 1930's equivalents of Wal-Mart and Amazon) would often have a low-end item or two from Lionel and American Flyer, and a plethora of products from Marx.

  One thing about exposed bulbs -- they can
put out a lot of light!
The 416 floodlight tower, although manufactured in the late 1930's isn't rare by any means -- there are thousands of them floating around. And they're desirable, but not overly so. This one cost me $10, and that was fine. It's meant to go on the layout, and that's where it is today, illuminating a siding that was sitting in the shadows.

And because it's made of metal, it actually looks a little more realistic than you might think, especially when the room lights are dimmed. Marx toys may be cheap and simple, but examine them carefully, and you'll discover excellent examples of American ingenuity!
Positional instead of fixed position lights.
Marx added value where it counted.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

High Marx -- the 413a Switchman Tower

Yesterday I wrote about the Marx 413a Switchman Tower and 416 Twin Floodlight Towers I picked up at the TCA York train meet. That post was about why I wanted them.

Although these aren't especially valuable or rare toy train accessories (given their both were manufactured over 70 years ago), they have -- in my opinion -- a distinct charm.

The Louis Marx Co. specialized in low-cost toys. At the same time, they made the best quality playthings as they could. The results were often ingenious when you stop to think about them.

Take the Marx 413a switchman tower.

This illuminated accessory could be placed on any O-gauge layout of the 1930's and look great -- even with Lionel equipment, the non plus ultra of toy trains. At that time, sheet metal was the primary material for these types of toys. Lionel stamped a lot of detail into the surfaces of their trains and accessories.

But stamping is expensive. Marx's solution was to economize on construction, using flat surfaces wherever possible, and instead use attractive and detailed lithography to decorate their products. The end result were trains and accessories that were almost as attractive as Lionel's offerings, but offered at a fraction of the price.

Take a close look at the switchman tower. Three sides have lithographed decoration. But there's a lot going on. A crewman throws a switch, a telegraph operator receives a message (you can tell from the cartoon electric bolts in the air) and it looks like someone's about to open the door.

These are illustrations that a child's imagination could run with!

The fourth side had a large window with a red translucent pane. Why red? Because it's a dramatic color, and because it prevents you from seeing inside the tower like a clear pane would (there's only has a light socket inside).

Why not have all the windows punched out? Because the more stamping  you do to the metal, the more it costs to create the dyes. And the frame becomes weaker and more difficult to bend into shape -- the tower would become more labor-intensive to build, plus the reject rate would rise, both adding to the cost of the piece.

One other thing: the base for the tower is the same as the bottom of the shed. Using one piece twice saves money, too.

So there it is, the Marx switchman's tower. Lithographed on three sides, illuminated on the fourth. Not rare (Marx toys were always popular and always shipped in volume), nor expensive -- this one cost me $19.00. But still a great deal of fun, and something that adds a certain retro charm to my layout.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Purchasing for an O-Gauge Zen Garden

In the foreground is the Marx Switch Tower
(ca. 1940), and in the background at right,
the Marx Floodlight Tower (ca. 1938)
I picked up a couple of items at the recent TCA Meet in York, PA for my train layout. There's a reason why I call it an O-gauge Zen garden -- it really is something that I work with in the same way one would such a garden, or a bonsai tree. It's not about what it is, but how it transitions.

In this case, I picked up two items that I had been looking for. They're two toy train accessories manufactured by Louis Marx in the late 1930's.

Now most of the 13,000+ people milling around the York Fairgrounds that weekend were looking for toy train items for a few common reasons:

1) They were looking for a bargain -- that moment when you find a piece you know is worth $1,000 marked to sell at $150 (an even that's as common as a unicorn sighting). There were some bargains, but not to that extreme.

2) They're filling in gaps in their collections. Some people are numbers-obsessed. If you have the #112 gondola car, and the #114 box car, then of course you need the #113 cattle car, also! But it doesn't have to be about numbers. Some are looking to complete sets with missing pieces, replace boxes, get all the variations of a particular model, etc. But it's still all about filling in some type of list.

3) They're hoping to upgrade. Just as with any hobby involving mechanical objects (be it vintage radios or antique cars), junkers are always welcome for the spare parts they yield -- and there are plenty of folks manufacturing reproduction parts as well.

4) They want to be first. Modern toy train manufacturers have figured out the most effective way to market to their core demographic, the collector. Put out something desirable in an extremely limited quantity -- and when it's gone, it's gone. Some manufacturers now won't even go into production unless the entire run is pre-ordered, ensuring 100% sell-through. What it means for the collector is that they have to be first in line or get left out. And this show is one of the opportunities to place that pre-order.

I was specifically looking for the Marx pieces, but because I was purchasing for a Zen garden rather than trying to fill in display shelves, I had some different reasons:

1) I wanted something tall and slender, to provide contrast to the cityscape.

2) I wanted something more toylike that realistic, to provide a better balance of real and unreal.

3) I wanted some lights that would better illuminate a dark portion of the layout.

4) I've always liked Marx lithography, and wanted at at least one pre-war example.

Not much of a match between that first and second list! But I was successful, and that's all that matters. A hobby is supposed to be fun, after all, regardless of how "fun" is defined.

And while the pieces aren't especially valuable or rare, they did exactly what I wanted them to do -- so I'm happy.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Meta Barney & Clyde

Just last week I cited a sequence in Sally Forth that showed the characters being aware of the fact that they're in a comic strip. Today, the characters in Barney & Clyde did something similar. (click on the image below to enlarge)

The primary difference is the style of humor, and the payoff. With Sally Forth, the characters never address the reader directly, but it's clear that they're talking not so much to each other, but to the reader. In Barney & Clyde, the characters explain the concept of "breaking the fourth wall" and the payoff is that they then do so themselves.

I certainly enjoyed the joke. And, not that two instances make a trend, but I'm looking forward to other strips going meta!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Ready to Write? Well...

I received a notice yesterday reminding me that the National November Writing Month is coming up. I'll be participating again (of course), and also try to keep up my daily posts on this blog. It should be quite a challenge.

Plus, I'll be starting at somewhat of a disadvantage this time. Normally, by the time the contest starts, I have a pretty detailed outline, so I know where the story's going. Not that it always gets there, but it has a solid foundation. This time, I have a concept, but little else.

This will be a challenge, indeed!

Friday, October 21, 2011

CCC 02 - Arnold Rosner

We continue the Consonant Classical Challenge with Arnold Rosner. It's no accident that composer Arnold Rosner was chosen to write the entry for Alan Hovhaness (*) for Groves' Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians. Rosner had not only studied Hovhaness' works, their music shares certain stylistic elements as well.

That's not to say that Rosner doesn't have unique compositional voice -- he does. The music for "The Tragedy of Queen Jane" Op. 78 is a good example. Rosner is fond of the same kind of long, languid melodies as Hovhaness. But he's also interested in medieval and renaissance counterpoint and harmonies which gives his music a different character than Hovhaness'.

 As with this work, many of Rosner's works use modal scales rather than the standard major/minor scales. And he also uses earlier forms of voice-leading that give his music a certain "ancient" quality.

Below is another good example. It's the first part of his Responses, Hosanna and Fugue, Op. 67. 

Rosner has an impressive catalog of works, including eight symphonies, six string quartets and a wide variety of orchestral, chamber, and solo instrumental music. And it's all of the same high quality as the samples above. Rosner's music builds on the traditions of the past rather than ignore them -- without sounding derivative or uninspired.

Recommended Recordings:
Rosner: Concerto Grosso No. 1, Op. 60; Five Meditations, Op. 6: Prelude to Act 2 of The Chronicle of Nine, Op. 81; A Gentle Musicke, Op. 44; Magnificat, Op. 72

Nicolas Flagello: Missa Sinfonica; Arnold Rosner: Symphony No. 5

Chamber Music of Arnold Rosner, Vol. 2

(*) Why isn't Alan Hovhaness included in the Consonant Classical Challenge? Only because we're limiting ourselves to living composers.

The Consonant Classical Challenge background information.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The 1-Bit Symphony -- more than 2-bit music

Visual artist and composer Tristan Perich has combined two separate musical concepts: the original performance, and the physical recording. When one purchases a CD (remember those?), it's a copy of a performance recorded weeks, months, often years before.

Not so with Perich's latest release. His 1-Bit Symphony comes in a standard CD case. But inside are some very simple electronics that perform the composition when activated. So every time you listen to the work, you're hearing -- not a recording -- but a live performance.

The symphony gets its name from the electronically generated square waveform. Its such a simple waveform that it can be represented by a single bit of digital information (and remember: a bit is a bit of a byte). Yet Perich does quite a lot with this primal audio building block, creating complex sound structures that are indeed symphonic.

The following video gives you a brief overview of the work, as the presenter hits the fast-forward button to skip through the various movements. When you hear the work as intended, though, you'll hear the themes slowly develop as they would in a Philip Glass or Steve Reich composition.

Will 1-bit music become its own school of composition? Perhaps not.

But Perich has created a valid form of musical expression that's uniquely his own. And that's a remarkable feat, indeed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Meta Forth

Sally Forth started out as a comic strip about the domestic foibles of a working mom. It's humor was gentle, along the lines of For Better or Worse. Then something started to happen when the original writer Greg Howard turned the strip over to Francesco Marciuliano. The character quirks became quirkier, the situations more comically exaggerated, and the strip's humor became much more sophisticated.

Then this Sunday's strip was published.(click on image below to enlarge)

The characters are fully aware that they're in a comic strip. Now that's novel.

And all of the references Sally and her co-worker Faye discuss are true. Ralph, the evil boss turned future brother-in-law has come and gone throughout the story lines as they said. Ditto with the new VP who was a major antagonist for Sally and then... gone. I especially like the reference to the background. Many artists fill in backgrounds with room details and people we never see again -- but this is the only time I'm aware that the fact has been acknowledged.

Congrats to Sally Forth creative team: Francesco Marciuliano (writer) and Craig MacIntosh (artist). Treats like this are the reason I always start with the funnies when I read the Sunday paper.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Radio Blank

We were driving with a friend's ten-year-old recently on some errands, and to make the 40-minute trip more pleasant, tuned the satellite receiver to Radio Disney.

Now I've been in radio a long time, and it was revelatory to listen to the station. Our children have moved past the Disney stage, and so I knew none of the artist they talked about, nor the songs that they played. Listening to the high-energy patter without any emotional attachment or even knowledge of the artists was revelatory.
"This is [blank]. Coming up next on Radio Disney we'll have an exclusive talk with [blank]. And she'll be playing her hit song [blank] live in the studio! And remember, [blank] is part of the [blank]tour hitting your town soon! And now here's [blank] the second single from the new album by [blank]."
My ignorance made the details irrelevant, letting me focus on the larger structure of the patter. They were patterns I recognized quite well, and I have to say they were very well-done.

It would not surprise me to learn that Radio Disney's breaks are tightly scripted. Not that they sounded stiff, but there was never a moment of questionable content, and never was anyone at a loss for words. Even the fourteen and fifteen-year-old artists interviewed seemed remarkably articulate.

I enjoyed the experience for another reason -- it brought home to me how much content is colored by our likes and dislikes. Fill those blanks with artists and songs I like, and I have an enjoyable and engaging listening experience. Replace them with ones I don't like, and the same patter becomes mindless and irritating drivel.

Content may be king, but context may be the prime minster.

Monday, October 17, 2011

WTJU - Enough with the stereotypes

A fair amount of ink, both virtual and real, was spilled celebrating College Radio Day. That's fine. But in a Washington Post story featuring a quote from WTJU's station manager, we were there under the broad characterization that's haunted the station for years.
Quirky, loud and unpredictable, college radio has dwelt for a half-century at the left of the dial, a youthful counterpart to public radio. 
Well, in WTJU's case, that's a very small part of the story.

I have hosted a classical music program (albeit, quirky) on the station weekly since 1984. And it's not an anomaly of programming, either. WTJU has aired classical music from 6-9 every weekday morning (and Sundays, too) for over 15 years.

We've air a complete opera every Sunday evening (again, for almost two decades now). And we have aired classical music in the evening for about the same length of time, with one of our hosts, Ann Shaffer presenting "A Time for Singing", an opera singer showcase, for over twenty years.

One quarter of our total airtime has consistently been devoted to classical music, just as one quarter of our airtime has been given to jazz programming. And the jazz programming has been of the same high quality as our classical programming. Ditto with our folk (which also includes world music) programming, which also occupies a quarter of the schedule.

We have had trained professional musicians, musicologists, published authors and recognized experts in the field programming and hosting classical, jazz and folk music on the station on WTJU for over a decade. Classical programming has been running every weekday morning from 6-9AM for decades. Jazz programming has always run from 9-noon every weekday for the same stretch of time.

But what is the public's perception of the statiion?

WTJU is an FM free-form radio station licensed to the University of Virginia and operating on 91.1 FM.
 - The CVillepedia

To me, that says I have no idea what the hell I'll be hearing if I tune in -- probably something loud and quirky. It doesn't say that if you tune in any weekday morning, you'll hear classical music. Every weekday morning, always from 6-9.

WTJU, U.Va.’s freeform, volunteer-run radio station, is special to many
- UVA Magazine

And if you read this article, you'll be under the impression that WTJU only does free-form rock programming (they don't mention the other genres). Thanks, guys.

And these are the sources that should know what WTJU is about!

So look. Call us multi-format if you must, or even variety. But do us and yourself a favor. Tune in and listen. We have classical music every weekday morning from 6-9. Jazz every weekday from 9-noon.

I'll be there as I have been since 1984.

And there's nothing free-form about that.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lessons from York - Culling Collectibles

Once again, Dad and I journeyed to the TCA Eastern Division Toy Train Show at York, PA. 13,000+ attendees, and an interesting mixture of  trade show and flea market. One large hall has all the current manufacturers of toy trains and accessories, such as such as Lionel, MTH, and Atlas. It's a great place to see the latest and pick up a few things for layouts.

The remaining six buildings are filled with folks selling used and antique toy trains and toy train-related items. Each time we go, Dad and I notice trends in what's available. And each time we try to figure out why there's a preponderance of just a few things.

This time, the halls seemed to be awash with three things: Lionel Madison passenger cars, Lionel motorized units, and low-end train sets, both pre- and post-war (WWII that is). Why?

A set of Madison cars from 1949.
Lionel's Madison passenger cars

Lionel first issued these passenger cars in 1948, the first year they returned to full toy train production after making nautical navigation equipment for the war. The cars were modeled on the Pullman passenger cars that were common on most of the major railroads of the day. The first set offered had cars named Madison, Irvington, and Manhattan. The Madison name stuck as the car type's designation with collectors.

Although the heavy plastic cars were discontinued in 1950, they didn't go away. Different owners of Lionel (General Mills, Richard Kughn,  and the current Lionel, LCC) used the dies to offer their own version of the cars cast in lighter plastic. Most of them were quite colorful, differing from the somber brown of the original.

At this show, we saw Madison cars from all eras. Often offered in groups, but seldom as part of complete sets. Since the cars were often coupled with some of Lionel's most popular locomotives like the GG1 and the scale and semi-scale Hudson, it gave me an idea as to why we were seeing just the cars come back on the market.

The No. 68 Executive Inspection Car. In the catalog illustrations
it looked sleek and low-slung -- unlike the actual product.
Lionel's motorized units

During the 1950's Lionel had a slew of four-wheel motorized units. There was a line of small gas turbine model switch engines. There was an executive inspection car, as well as a self-powered snow plow.

 Lionel also created a trolly car that used the same basic design. Unlike the models mentioned above, the trolly had a bumper that caused it to reverse direction when it hit an obstacle. So you could have it go back and forth on a long section of straight track. They also made a gang car with the same mechanism.

While these were interesting items visually, with the exception of the switch engines you couldn't really do anything with them but run them around the track. The trolleys and gang cars were often set up on a separate section of track on layouts, and because they didn't need a turn around loop, you could place them just about anywhere. The snow plows and the inspection cars? Problematic.

And they don't really have much of an appeal on their own, either. Most collectors acquire them if they're interested in having everything Lionel offered during a particular year. Which also gave me a an idea as to why we were seeing them again.

Lionel used "Winner Toy" for their low-end sets in the
early 1930's so they wouldn't dilute their brand.
Low-end sets

In a previous show we noticed that sets were everywhere. Sets in their original boxes, often with all of the track, the transformer, and any accessories that came with them. This time it was a little different. This time we saw many sets, dating from the 1920's through the 1970's. And not just Lionel sets, either. We saw offerings from Marx, American Flyer, Bing, and Dorfan. But there was a common thread.

A vast majority of these sets (as compared to the mix from previous shows) were entry-level sets. So we saw Lionel Winner sets from the 1930's, inexpensive stripped-down trains that offered just the basics. Marx always owned the low-end market, and their sets were everywhere. The Bing, Flyer and Dorfan sets, while somewhat rare and therefore pricey, were also nevertheless mostly the entry-level products from the companies.

Cutting the wheat from the chaff

I think the common thread was space. My theory is that all of these things were appearing because folks were thinning out their collections.

Madison cars take up a lot of shelf space -- especially if you have a set with four or five of them. If you're only interested in the locomotive, why keep the cars? Motorized units don't have strong appeal -- they're just small things that can clutter up a collection. So why keep them around? And sets with their original boxes are difficult to store. If you have some of the best examples, why keep the low-end ones around?

I don't think that folks are getting rid of these things as they downsize to move into assisted living or retirement homes. The average postwar Lionel collector is in his mid- to late-sixties and not ready for that type of move yet. Rather, I think that these collectors have reached the limit of their available space, and are starting to take a hard look at their collections. Do they really need one of everything, or can they divest themselves of marginal items to make room for more of what they really want?

That's my guess, anyway. I'd love to hear from folks in other fields of collecting to know if they see a similar trend. While the subject of our hobbies might be different, they're still enjoyed by people whose behaviors are pretty consistent.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sitting on the banks of the data stream

Usually when my Dad and I travel to York, PA, I go off the grid. My phone doesn't have a data plan (99% of the time I'm in a spot with Wi-Fi access), and the motel we stay in never has Internet access -- until this year.

So after telling everyone I know personally and professionally I was going to be unreachable for two days, I discovered I could be. If I chose to.

It was tempting to jump back into the rounds of social media conversations and emails, but I chose not to. Instead, I just.... watched. Watched other people carry on the Twitter conversations, the Facebook posts, the LinkedIn forums, the Google+ hangouts, etc.

I found the experience strangely empowering. I forgot that it's always my choice to respond or comment on what passes through my networks -- or if I respond, when I do so. For two days I occasionally checked on things. By the start of the second day I had lost the urge to post or reply.

Monday I'll get caught up on everything I need to, but I learned a valuable lesson. If I ever feel overwhelmed by the amount of information coming at me from all sides, I'll just take a little virtual vacation. Swimming in the data stream can be exciting, but sitting on the bank and watching it flow by can be relaxing -- and refreshing.

Friday, October 14, 2011

CCC 01 - Lowell Liebermann

Last week I started the Consonant Classical Challenge -- finding contemporary composers that were writing music that is not only accessible, but well-crafted and worthy of repeated performance. The idea is to combat the perceived notion that everything after Brahms is snarly, dissonant and ugly. It's just not so.

Our first composer is Lowell Liebermann (1962 - ).

Liebermann is a talented pianist, composer and conductor. All of those talents come together in his music.  Liebermann has written operas, symphonies, concertos, and many other chamber works and solo piano pieces. His piano compositions lay well on the keyboard, and while it might be technically challenging, it's clear the composer knows what the instrument (and the performer) should be capable of.

Here's a good example, Liebermann's Piano Sonata No.1, Op. 1:

Liebermann's experience as a conductor is obvious in his orchestral writing. His knowledge of what each instrument can do and how they blend together show in his work. Below is the first movement of his Flute Concerto, Op. 39, composed for James Galway.  I don't think you'll hear anything that might send people away, screaming in terror.

But listen closely. This is not just pretty music. Liebermann carefully works through his melodic material. His chords may be tonal, but they're decidedly modern. And so too is his orchestration. Brahms didn't combine instruments that way, and neither did Mahler.

It's hard to describe, but there's a contemporary sensibility to Liebermann's music that make it distinctively of our time.

So the next time you peruse a symphonic concert season schedule, look for works by Liebermann. And if they aren't there, then ask the management why not? This is indeed music of our time that any audience should enjoy.

Recommended recordings:

James Galway plays Lowell Liebermann

Liebermann: Symphony No. 2 / Concerto for Flute & Orchestra

Lowell Liebermann: Piano Works, Vol. 2

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Prohibition - a comic view, part 2

Last post I talked about how the attitudes about Prohibition (a current topic thanks to Ken Burns' documentary "Prohibition") had spread even to the lowly comics that appeared in the daily papers. But while Americans didn't feel a legal obligation to abstain, they did have a growing horror of the gang lords that arose to supply the illicit substance.

A modern equivalent would be the viciousness of the drug cartels of Central and South America.

So there was a selective feeling for a need for law and order. And the anger of one man towards what was happening in his city of Chicago created a cultural icon. Chester Gould wished for a champion to fight the gangsters -- and so he created the master detective Dick Tracy in 1931.

If there's any question about who Gould thought the villains were, check out arrival of the main bad guy in the strip below (click on image to enlarge).

"Big Boy" Caprice, the gang boss bears a close resemblance to Al Capone. And that was intentional. After Big Boy's gang ruthlessly murder Tess Trueheart's father in a robbery, Tracy promptly joins the police force to go after them with the full force of the law. He of course would be successful in capturing the men who gunned down his fiancee's father.  It would only be the first of many encounters Tracy would have with organized crime throughout the pre-war years.

The gangsters were often ugly, the violence brutal, and sometimes innocents died in the crossfire. But Gould was a man with a mission. For Dick Tracy, there was no compromise with criminals -- something Gould wished for in the real world.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Prohibition - A Comic View, Part 1

Ken Burns' new series "Prohibition" has brought an unusual piece of American history to light. Not many people, though (including the documentarians) are aware just how thoroughly contempt for the Amendment permeated American society.

I recently picked up  the first volume of a new "Gasoline Alley" reprint series. The volume covers the years 1921 and 1922, when Prohibition was still new. The focus of Gasoline Alley was a group of men and their cars (a hot topic back then), that gradually morphed into a story of a family.

Below are two examples from 1922 of the many I found relating to Prohibition (click on images to enlarge).

In the one above, Walt Wallet, the hero of the strip, talks to his friend Bill about alcohol and how he never used to drink -- before Prohibition.

In the second, Avery shares some of his home brew with Walt -- all very discretely, of course.

Now here's the thing: this was a  comic strip run in daily newspapers all across the country. The humor was considered appropriate for both adults and children (Gasoline Alley was popular with both demographics). Prohibition is treated pretty lightly, here.

If you want an idea of exactly how lightly,  substitute references to marijuana to those of liquor. What if the first strip Walt talked about everyone offering him weed, and how he'd never smoke if it wasn't illegal. Or if Avery offered Walt a joint from marijuana he was growing and Walt made a funny comment about the quality of the pot? Any chance of those gags being run in a mainstream newspaper (either on- or off-line)?

Ignoring  Prohibition wasn't just something hard-core alcoholics did. Everybody did it. And artifacts like these old comics document just how much in contempt the average person held the law.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Going offline -- and loving it

It's about time for my dad and I to attend another toy train meet in York, PA. We do this biannually, and when we do so,  I go off the grid. Where we spend the night, cell phone service isn't the best, and there's no Internet connection.

So that means that for most of the two days we're gone, I'm not online and have no way of getting online.

It's traumatic, and refreshing. And as I prepare for another trip, I realize that each time leaving the web has become a little more difficult. Today, for example, in addition to packing, finishing up details at work and other chores, I'll have some other things to do.

I'll need to schedule tweets for my Twitter feed to keep conversations going, and also set some Facebook posts to publish while I'm gone. And I'll have to write three days worth of posts for this blog to maintain my daily schedule!

But strangely, as much as I love the connectivity, I look forward to this time. No phone, no computer -- just me and my dad passing the time in the car talking about things, and sharing an activity we both love.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Tracy comes to the Alley

This past week was the 80th anniversary of Dick Tracy. After Chester Gould's demise, I thought the strip went downhill considerably, so I haven't been following it (I've shared my thoughts on Dick Tracy before). But I do follow Gasoline Alley, which has had an even longer run. But this past week, the two strips overlapped when Skeezix gets a call from the master sleuth.

Jim Scancarelli uses many of the old tropes from the classic strip; Gould's arrowed notations, and the vintage look of Dick Tracy (like the example below).

It was a nice tribute, and one a long-time comics reader like myself appreciated!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Time the Decider

I was reminded of Shelly's poem Ozymandias recently:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

We've been cleaning out our attic, and discovering first hand what the ravages of time can do. I had a large collection of paperbacks stored in a wooden crate in a corner of the attic. They weren't especially important, or valuable, or had strong emotional attachments. They were just books that I had enjoyed, and couldn't quite decide to let go of. So rather than deciding, I put them in the attic, the decision to be made at a later time.

Twenty years later, I pulled out the box to discover that various critters had also found my books useful, but in a different way. Even the box had been gnawed on, making it unusable as well. So out to the trash the whole lot went.

Even though I hadn't decided what to do with those books, time had.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The Consonant Classical Challenge

I ran across this article the other day, and I finally decided I'd had enough. In Battle of the Curmudgeons: Classical Music vs. Literature, Jonathan Bastian talks about how both genres seem rooted in the late 19th century. I don't have any problems with his premise -- just this:
Orchestras are basically playing the exact same historical music, again and again and again. It’s Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and so on. And because contemporary classical music is both obscure and exceedingly difficult to listen to, it gets left out.
And that's my problem -- the assumption that all classical music post-1920 is an unintelligible jumble of ugly sounds. It's not. But I see that assertion expressed over and over again. Because, you know, Schoenberg ruined it for everyone.

Anne Midgette recently published Contemporary Classical: a primer which outlines all of the current trends in modern music. She writes:
The conventional wisdom is that contemporary music in the 20th century was taken over by serialism... The resulting works are sometimes fascinating, but seem difficult and unappealing to some lay audiences; and (still following the conventional wisdom) a generation of composers shied away from serialist strictures. Minimalism was one reaction; neo-romanticism — a return to the melodic, tonal, timbral values of romantic music — was another.
But neo-romanticism isn’t the only path composers use to access traditional forms with a fresh eye. Some of today’s most successful orchestral composers are writing symphonies and concertos — like Jennifer Higdon, whose Percussion Concerto won a Grammy in 2010, and whose Violin Concerto was recently recorded to great acclaim by Hilary Hahn...

Another acclaimed recent concerto was written by the Finnish composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen... His Piano Concerto sounds as if it had been written to reassure those who were worried that, when he stepped down from the post to devote himself entirely to composing, he was going to float off into the world of the avant-garde. Without losing the quirky touch of his earlier compositions, this concerto is rife with references to its virtuosic predecessors in the canon...
Midgette's article is much detailed about all the trends in contemporary music If you're even marginally interested in classical music, I highly recommend it.

So here's the challenge. Each Friday I'll be talking about a composer who's writing music today that traditionalist audiences should relate to (if they were only give it a chance). There will be some criteria: the composer must still be alive (there are plenty of examples from non-living composers from Aaron Copland to Alan Hovhaness). And they have to be composers, so Paul McCartney and Billy Joel don't qualify (and neither does that diamond commercial guy).

This could be quite a long-running series -- as you'll see next Friday. And if you have suggestions for who we should feature, just let me know in the comments field.

"Contemporary classical music is both obscure and exceedingly difficult to listen to?" I don't think so.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Pre-Jackson Thriller

I spend a good amount of time watch old media. I find it entertaining and enlightening. Entertaining, because storytelling techniques have evolved, and while a situation may resolve in a certain fashion in a modern drama, there's no guarantee that it will turn out the same way in an older show -- different times, different mores.

I've been watching "Thriller," an anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff from 1960-1962 on NBC. A different time, indeed -- anthologies are no longer considered a viable TV genre. Although the series sort of trades on Karloff's reputation as a master of horror (he originate the screen role of Frankenstein's monster), these aren't really horror stories.

But they are indeed thrillers, stories that feature suspense, action, and tension.

When the series premiered, Time said it was an "hour-long bloodmobile." A contemporary viewer might be puzzled by that review. While modern audiences are used to realistic depictions of violent death and bodily trauma, it was far different in the early 1960's. There was a lot of murder and mayhem depicted, but it was all very sanitized (kids might be watching, you know).

"Thriller" may have had more "blood" than other programs, but it was still constrained by the values of the day. When someone got shot, they fell down. There was no indication of the damage the bullet did to the body. But because the program couldn't shock its audiences with graphic violence, it had to do it by other means.

And that's probably what made the Time reviewer so uncomfortable -- and me as well. Because "Thriller's" stories are indeed suspenseful. The central character is thrown into a situation where they don't know what's going on, but need to find out quickly or someone (usually themselves) will die. And because each story was self-contained (unlike drama series today), there was no guarantee the hero would survive. Or any of the supporting characters.

The stories took many twists and turns, often with a strong psychological element. And because most of the gory stuff happened off-screen, the viewer's imagination had to fill in the details (which often makes it more disturbing).

For me, "Thriller" is like watching a well-produced short play. The stories have a different slant than modern TV shows, told in a different way and often resolve in a different way, too. And for the reasons outlined above, they're more engaging, too.

So I'm enjoying this old TV show. For me, it's solid entertainment.

Here's an opening to one of the shows. The violence can't be shown onscreen, so look what they do instead. We meet all the entire cast of characters in a series of quick cuts reacting to the shot, and close in on the most disturbing image of the child with the gun. Who wouldn't want to watch more?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Laughing awkwardly

I guess it's true that there's no subject too specialized for a blog. One of my favorite humor sites is Awkward Family Photos. In addition to having some cringe-worthy photography, it's actually a pretty good-natured site. The goal isn't to make fun of the subjects, but simply to acknowledge that not all poses are flattering. And most of the submissions come from the subjects themselves!

So there's a whole site devoted to just, well, awkward family photos. And today I discovered one even more specialised: awkward classical music photos. This site has the same general idea -- taking publicity shots and album covers that, at the very least, don't do their subjects any favors.

And like AFP, the idea isn't ridicule. The site was organized by people who love classical music, and it's a way to turn the mirror of fun on ourselves.

So in order to enjoy this site, you have to:

1) Have the type of humor that would appreciate the images in the right way.

2) Have a knowledge and appreciation of classical music and its traditions.

That's a pretty narrow focus. And yet, there's the site, and it seems to be enjoying a fair amount of traffic. What's next? A viola-only awkward photo site?

It could happen, I suppose.