Friday, December 21, 2012

CCC 054 - Sergio Berlioz

Mexican composer, conductor, and educator Sergio Berlioz is our Consonant Classical Challenge subject this week. Berlioz, like Heitor Villa-Lobos, effectively combines elements of his native music with classical forms. The resulting works are attractive and accessible to even casual classical music audiences, without sounding derivative or trite. Berlioz has a unique compositional voice, and it's one he's honed to perfection.

Berlioz has an impressive catalog -- he's written two symphonies, six string quartets, concertos for both flute and cello, as well as a number of other chamber and smaller orchestral works. With his background as a conductor, Berlioz brings an intimate knowledge of instruments to his compositions. And that experience shows in the effectiveness of his orchestrations.

Toledo - la ciudad de las generaciones, Opus 13 demonstrates Berlioz' mastery of orchestration and his compositional balance between folk and classical traditions.

Quinta sinfonía "La luz de mayo" Opus 59 is an interesting work that gradually builds to a stirring climax. Composed for orchestra and chorus, Sinfonia No. 5 seems to open up like a blossom as Berlioz adds more forces as the music progresses.

The Cello Concerto, Op. 26 has the soloist and ensemble performing as near-equal partners in the musical conversation. Berlioz's writing for the solo cello is particularly effective, letting the instrument sing.

Sergio Berlioz writes music would be a welcome addition to most any concert program. It's contemporary -- decidedly communicating with modern audiences -- and it represents a continuation rather than a break with classical traditions of the past.

Normally I list some recommended recordings, but there are none available for Sergio Berlioz. Instead, below is a list of some recommended YouTube videos. Most of these are live recordings, and the ensembles aren't always playing at the highest level. But still, it's better to have some examples of Berlioz's music to enjoy than none at all.

Recommended Videos
Zarabanda for orchestra

Divertimento No. 2 for strings, Op. 23

Canto for flute and orchestra, Op. 41

Magma for string quartet, Op. 51

Dedalos for voice and string quartet, Op. 52

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hailstork: An American Port of Call

Adolphus Hailstork: American Port of Call
Virginia Symphony Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta, conductor

American composer Adolphus Hailstork has been quietly building up an impressive catalog of well-crafted works. This new collection brings some of them to light.

Hailstork's Symphony No. 1 is an expansive work with plenty of energy. Hailstork's melodies are always tuneful and rhythmic, which makes this symphony sparkle. For the most part, the work's thinly orchestrated. In some ways it's more of a symphony of small instrumental groups rather than a big ensemble.

Whtiman's Journey is a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus. Whitman's a quintessentially American poet, and Hailstork's open, Coplanesque composition brings out that aspect of poetry. It's a warm, elegiac work that's a satisfying blend of words and music.

An American Port of Call shares some characteristics of  William Walton's Portsmouith Point. both are short orchestral works depicting a busy seaport. Hailstork's composition has all the energy of a bustling waterfront, with different musical themes moving back and forth in crosscurrents. A splendid curtain-raiser.

Hailstork draws on his African-American heritage for Three Spirituals. Although there's some jazz inflections in this work, Three Spirituals is first and foremost a concert piece for orchestra. The melodies may be familiar, but Hailstork develops them in interesting ways that, while symphonic in nature, remain true to the character of the source material.

Fanfare on Amazing Grace is an imaginative treatment of this well-known (and perhaps over-performed hymn). The tune provides the starting point from which he builds a superstructure of original material, that reveals new insights about this melody.

Adolphus Hailstork lives in eastern Virginia. The Virginia Symphony, is a hometown  ensemble, well familiar with Hailstork's music. Under the direction of JoAnn Falletta, this regional orchestra turns in credible performances. Sometimes the ensemble playing isn't as precise as it needs to be, but that's a minor quibble. It's a joy simply to hear these works played.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

100K - Our top five posts

We last checked the popularity of our entries when we hit 1,000 posts. Since that was back in September, the line-up hasn't changed much. But some of my thoughts about why these keep showing up do.

5) Pardon Our Mess
In this post I took a radio station to task for posting "Under Construction" pages on their website. Why is it pulling in all kinds of traffic? Perhaps its the title, I don't know. I wonder if the subject of that post, WJMA-FM, has experienced any boost as a result. (their site's improved since the posting, but they've yet to change the images on the animated banner)

4) The Straco Layout, Part 10 - Paving the Pegboard Paradise
3) The Straco Layout, Part 2 - Getting the board
The Straco Layout series is about a portable display of early 1960's Japanese tinplate toy vehicles and trains I worked on. I was curious as to why these two posts (out of the 25+ in the series) attracted the most hits, so I typed "Straco board" into a search engine. I got a hit for the board of the Straco Corporation of Singapore. Not sure if it completely explains the traffic, but it's possible.

2) Marching Memes 3 - and a new topic
The only reason I can think of for this remaining popular is the word "meme" in the title. The content certainly doesn't justify the interest (not that it's bad, it's just doesn't have any type of broad appeal). The mystery continues.

And the most popular post of all time remains:

1) Goodnight Opus
Comic strip commentary is a regular feature on this blog. But few of my posts even come close to the traffic generated by this one.  The final installment of Berkeley Breathed's comic strip "Opus" was a major event, and one that continues to garner interest (and hits).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

100K - and growing

According to our traffic counter, Off Topic'd just past 100,000 page views.

Yes, I know: in the world of  blogs and websites that's no big deal -- some sites get that much traffic in a few seconds.

And I also know that page views don't equal page reads. Tomorrow we'll look at our five most popular posts, and  I suspect a good many of those hits were just someone opening the page, instantly realizing it wasn't what they thought it was, and moving on.

And I also know that page views don't equal readers -- one person can view multiple pages. And those people don't even have to be real. Some of the loopy comments I've recently received (but have been blocked from publication) are clearly coming from bots.

But still.

I don't have any professional goals for this blog. I'm not after any particular number of viewers, or need to monetize the content, or establish myself an expert in anything. During the day I spend a lot of time working in the realm of social media, writing highly focused content designed to do all of those things. This blog's for fun, and I know that by covering several subjects rather than sticking to one, I diminish my chances to build an audience.

That's OK. I'm having fun writing. Yes, I'm taking that 100,000 number with a large grain of salt, but even filtering out all the factors outlined above, it shows that someone's reading a post or two.

And for that, I thank you.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mark-Anthony Turnage Ochestral Works: Great performances by the LSO

Turnage Orchestral Works
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Various conductors and soloists

Mark-Anthony Turnage was the London Philharmonic Orchestra's composer in residence for five years, and this is the third volume of his works written for the ensemble. The recordings are all take n from live performances, which gives them an added sense of freshness and energy.

On Opened Ground is kind of a disjointed jazz-flavored concerto for viola. The music moves in fits and starts with the viola (Lawrence Power, soloist) popping in and out in surprising ways, while still providing most of the melodic content. Sometimes it seems like the soloist and orchestra are playing two different pieces, then there's a sudden shift, and it turns out all to be part of Turnage's plan.

By contrast, Texan Tenebrae is an emotionally wrought little gem. It grew from Turnage's opera Anna Nicole, and is a work contemplating the death of the Texas Playmate-turned-trophy wife. Turnage effectively uses dissonance to both ratchet up the emotion and suggest that, despite the placid nature of the music, all is not right

Turnage composed the Lullaby for Hans for his mentor Hans Werner Henze. This string orchestra work pays fitting homage to Henze's style. The ensemble drifts about in thick chordal clouds of sound, sounding ethereal, and -- despite the dissonances -- strangely restful

The clarinet concerto Riffs and Refrains would make a great companion piece to Bernstein's "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs." Both works take the sound of the jazz clarinet, and jazz motifs and recast them as building blocks from contemporary classical works. In Turnage's case, the piece is prone to sudden bursts of energy, followed by slow sections that seem to be holding the motion of the music back (but only for a little while). Michael Collins effortlessly switches back and forth from classical to jazz playing, making this an effective work that brings together both worlds.

Christian Tetzlaff fearlessly performs the violin concerto Mambo, Blues and Tarantelly. The opening section sounds like an angular version of the mambo from West Side Story, and the other parts equally traditional and aggressively modern.That's not to say it's not original music -- it is. Tetzlaff is completely invested in this complex music and turns in a highly focused performance.

If you're already purchased the first two volumes in this series, then you need only know the quality hasn't wavered. If you're looking for an introduction to Turnage, this disc can provide a nice overview of his orchestral writing.

Friday, December 14, 2012

CCC 053 Marjan Mozetich

This installment of the Consonant Classical Challenge features Marjan Mozetich. Although of Slovenian heritage, Mozetich has lived in Canada since he was four years old. His music is somewhat neo-classical, but that doesn't do his compositions justice. Mozetich is very much a composer who's aware of current music trends, and adopts the ones that best suit his compositions.

His Procession, for example, has some traces of minimalism. The work has a strong, forward-moving pulse to it, and relatively simple chordal patterns. Overall, there's a lightness to the work that sets it apart. Minimalist compositions can sometimes feel ponderous, while Procession seems lighter than air.

Affairs of the Heart is a work for violin and orchestra. It shares some characteristics with the early classical period composers. Just like Mozart and Haydn, Mozetich starts with a very simple melody that's mostly comprised of arpeggios. But this simple material proves fertile ground for the composer's inventiveness.

Mozetich can create some rather complex harmonies, but because they remain tonally based, they sound exotic, but not foreign to the audience. The Passion of Angels is an evocative work for harp. In it are sections that sound reminiscent of Ravel, yet retain Mozetich's compositional voice.

Mozetich is well-regarded in Canada, but unfortunately not so well in this country. That's too bad, because his music has an instant appeal to it that audiences should respond to. If they were only given a chance.

Recommended Recording

Affairs of the Heart: Music of Marjan Mozetich

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dick Tracy Tips His Hat

Broadway Bates, as depicted by
Chester Gould in 1932.
Mike Curtis and Joe Staton have been breathing new life into Dick Tracy. Their imaginative blend of new, relevant stories and homages (but not slavish imitations of) the strip's rich past, as I've noted before. In the current continuity, one of Tracy's earliest villains returns.

Broadway Bates first appeared in 1932. He was also one of the first to torture the detective by applying a blowtorch to his bare feet. Over time, Tracy's foes would become increasingly outre in their appearance (like Pruneface and Flattop), and their torture methods would also become more exotic. (click on images to enlarge)

Curtis and Staton have brought the confidence man back in a story about costumed crimefighters and criminals coming to Tracy's city. And if you think Bates bears more than a passing resemblance to the Penguin, that's not an accident. There's been a strong suggestion in the strip that the Penguin is one of Bate's brothers (mentioned by first name only).

The other nice thing about this sequence is the reference to Fletcher and Collins. Artist  Rick Fletcher and writer Max Allen Collins took over the strip from its creator, Chester Gould in 1977. The team continued working on the strip until Fletcher's death in 1983.

It's just a throwaway line in one panel -- and a nice nod to the past for Tracy fans.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Wolfgang Rihm Violin Works -- Serious music for serious listeners

Rihm: Complete Works for Violin & Piano 
Tianwa Yang, violin; Nicholas Rimmer, piano 

This is music not for the faint of heart. Wolfgang Rihm is an expressionist composer, who cites Mahler, Schoenberg, and Boulez among his influences. Rihm's an extremely prolific composer, and while his music may reflect his influences, it's certainly not derivative. Rihm has a distinctive voice and his music unfolds according to his own logic.

Unber die LInei VII for solo violin is a massive work that presents Rihm at his bare essence. Double-stops and arpeggios are rare in this work -- most of the music is a single-line melody. But what a melody! It skips around in a pointillist fashion, then becomes tenderly lyrical, then hops up to the extreme register for some softly played harmonics. All the while, though, the music has a sense of direction. And that sense helps the listener follow the player through this world Rihm sets them out to explore.

Eine Violinsonate and Hekton come from the early 1970's, and share a similar style. The music is disjunct, with sudden, wide leaps in register. By contrast, Antlitz and Phantom und Eskapade, composed twenty years later, show significant growth in Rihm's style. The leaps are still there, but its now but one aspect of Rihm's musical language, rather than the defining feature of it.

Tianwa Yang and Nicholas Rimmer have firm command of this material -- which is no mean feat. If you're up for some active listening of thought-provoking music, then this may be the disc for you. Rihm's music is adventurous and challenging, but never dull. And you'll hear some darned fine playing, too.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bach's Evenings at Zimmerman's Coffeehouse

Bach Sonatas for Flute & Obbligato Harpsichord
Evenings at Zimmermann's Coffeehouse
Robert Stallman, flute, Edwin Swanborn, harpsichord
Bogner's Cafe

The subtitle of this release aptly describes the disc. In 1730's J.S. Bach spend a significant amount of time at Zimmermann's Coffeehouse in Leipzig. It was one of the regular performing venues for the Collegium Musicum, which he directed (and wrote music for). Most of his instrumental music of this period were written for this group, including the four flute sonatas in this release. By no means are these major works. Of course, it is Bach, so the sonatas are well-crafted, but the music is intentionally light and simple. This is more the Bach of "Air on G String" than the Bach of the Cello Sonatas.

Robert Stallman performs on a modern flute, but that just gives the works additional charm. The music mostly stays in the lower part of the flute's register, and Stallman produces a very warm sound on his instrument. The result is some attractive playing and a pleasant listening experience overall. Edwin Swanborn provides tasteful accompaniment on the harpsichord. The keyboard obbligato helps move the music along without sounding overly busy or fussy. An attractive program of music played with just the right tone to keep the proceedings light and entertaining -- as perhaps they were in Zimmermann's over three centuries before.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Angele Dubeau -- Game for New Music

Game Music
Angele Dubeau & La Pieta

Are video games art? The Museum of Modern Art seems to think so -- they're assembling a collection of games to display in the hallowed halls of MoMa. What about video game music? The jury may still be out on that one, but Game Music certainly helps make the case for it.

Canadian violinist Angele Dubeau and the chamber orchestra she founded, La Pieta, present a program of current and classic video game themes arranged for the ensemble. It's an enjoyable collection of light classical music that should appeal to both gamers and those that don't know Ms. Pac Man from Master Chief.

Some of the scores have a cinematic feel. Splinter Cell, for example effectively conjures up the atmosphere of a techno-thriller action movie. Music from Heavy Rain and Chrono Trigger are two other selections that sound like movie soundtracks, befitting the serious nature of these games.

The theme to Assassin's Creed has been transformed into an elegiac miniature, with evocative Middle-Eastern touches. Final Fantasy is the most ambitious work on the album, an eleven-minute orchestral piece that would be at home in any concert program.

Not all video games are serious, though, and neither is their music. La Pieta's version of Angry Birds is just as fun as the original. And who knew that the theme from Tetris would lend itself so well to contrapuntal treatment? 

An enjoyable program from start to finish. Game on!

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

NaNoWriMo - Over, but not done with

On the final day of the National November Writing Month challenge I posted my novel on the site to verify the word count. It clocked in at 50,808 words, so I met the challenge -- again. Whew!

As always, it was a challenge, but this will be the fifth novel I've written through NaNoWriMo. And every year it seems to get easier with practice. (We won't talk about quality of writing just yet.)

Although the challenge is over, the work on the novel isn't. As I've done in past years, I'll post a PDF of the rough draft as soon as I clean up the misspellings (A Directory of Literature Sort Of) and other gross errors. But at some point I'll need to start seriously editing this story. I think there might be a good 25K-30K novella buried in there somewhere. We'll see.

Once I finish creating the PDF I'll put the book aside for a few months and look at it afresh sometime next year.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Sally Forth to MST3K

Francesco Marciuliano and Craig Macintosh occasionally move their comic Sally Forth beyond the fourth wall (Meta Forth and Meta Forth 2). Like this Sunday's sequence. (click on image to enlarge)

Ted really establishes his nerd credentials with the reference to Mystery Science Theater 3000. But to have the main characters Crow, Tom Servo and Joel (or is it Mike?) appear in the last panel? Genius.

Of course I'm a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and the shows current incarnations Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax), so I thought this was a great sequence.

If you're not sure what it's all about, here's a sample.

Friday, November 30, 2012

CCC 052 Arturo Marquez

American classical music lovers seem to be a little myopic. European composers are well-represented on the concert stage, and there's a few Americans as well. But that's about it. And that's too bad -- because there are many outstanding composers living and working both north and south of our borders.

Mexican composer Arturo Marquez is our selection this time for the Consonant Classical Challenge. Marquez incorporates the traditional music of his native land into his musical language, and the results have been very successful. His series of danzóns for orchestra successfully translate the essence of this popular Latin American dance, similar to what Brahms did with the Viennese popular dance, the waltz.

Marquez uses very simply chordal harmonies, coupled with exciting, syncopated rhythms. Those two characteristics of Mexican folk music make Marquez' compositions accessible and appealing to a wide audience -- both classical and non-classical

One of his most recent works, the Conga del fuego nuevo, is a perfect summation of Marquez' style.

Marquez has written extensively for both orchestral and chamber ensembles. His Cello Concerto No. 2 is one of his larger works. Yet even with its more sophisticated construction, Marquez' musical language remains consistent.


The series of danzóns have proved Marquez' most popular compositions -- especially with the championing of conductor Gustavo Dudamel (whose popularity also extends beyond the traditional classical audiences). Danzón No. 2 not only captures the excitement of this Latin American dance, but also demonstrates Marquez' skill at orchestration.

Marquez has achieved a high degree of popularity -- abroad. His music can be challenging to perform. It takes a high-energy ensemble to really bring this compositions to life. But what life! I've enjoyed his shorter works immensely. I would love to hear some of Arturo Marquez' major compositions performed, too.





Tuesday, November 27, 2012

NaNoWriMo - The Beginning of the End

Day 27 of the National November Writing Month challenge and I'm still writing about about the pace I need to (45,894 words as of this morning). Three days and about  5,000 words to go -- since I'm now averaging about 1,000 words an hour, I should make it. And remember, when it comes to the word count, its strictly quantity, not quality here!

Something unusual happened today. I wrote the end of the story. I normally just follow my outline, and as the story diverges from it just keep writing sequentially so I can see where it goes. This time, though, as the story unfolded I realized there were a lot of loose ends I needed to tie up -- more than I could remember. So, I started in on the last chapter. Here's a sample. It's open-ended, because I'm still in the thick of the story writing more loose ends and clues that need to be resolved.

The adventure continues!

"The Commissar Commands"

Chapter 20 – A Plot Revealed
A small group gathered in one of the private rooms of the Metro Club. Carlton sat in one of the overstuffed leather chairs, reflecting on how different this meeting one from their first meeting with King in this very room. King was there, of course. He held himself stiffly, his abdomen tightly bandaged under his clothes to restrict movement. Ambrose had the couch all to himself, his corpulent frame seemed to spread out to fill the space. 

Lieutenant MacGuffy had wheeled in Michaels. The arms merchant had sustained a broken collarbone from his fall, as well as a sprained ankle. Michael’s patrician features were drawn and haggard. He had been assured by the doctors he would make a full recovery, but the trials of his brush with death still wore heavily on him. 
Commissioner Rowland leaned against the fireplace, hands in his pockets. “I’m not sure I understand this at all,” he said. “So Harris was the Commissar. But why?”

“Misdirection,” said King. “Ricco was a malcontent – the kind revolutionists like to recruit. He worked at Eagle Iron Works. I guess as one of his employees, Ricco came to Harris’ attention. Harris then came up with the idea of creating this Commissar character as a way to conceal his identity and contacted Ricco to recruit him to the cause." 

"Ricco only ever knew Harris as the Commissar. Amazing how something as simple as a false mustache and a distinctive outfit can make an effective disguise.” He looked at Raymond owlishly.

Without seeming to notice, Raymond walked over to the decanter and poured a drink. 

“Do tell,” he said blandly, as he raised the glass to his lips.

King continued.”Harris' charade not only fooled his men, it fooled us, too. We were all looking for an organization led by a foreign power. But there was no commissar, no secret spy ring. Just Harris and his dupes.”

MacGuffey snapped his fingers. “Now I get it,” said the grizzled detective, “When we raided the Seven Seas tavern, you remarked on the fact that there was no electrical outlet in the radio room.”

“Exactly,” said the federal agent. “It was an odd detail, but I didn’t know why at the time. Later we discovered that Harris just filled the room with radio consoles and monitors on them – they weren’t connected to anything.”

“Just like the phony chemical plant we set up as bait,” Carlton remarked wryly. 

King laughed, “Exactly. Funny that Harris fell for the same gag he pulled himself. Harris used a wind-up Victrola playing a record of radio sounds effects.”

“And the dummy?” asked MacGuffey. 

“All part of the deception. The dummy sitting at the table was another bit of stage business, but an important one.  Harris made sure his men saw into the room every time they met. The dummy was far enough away that it looked real. And Harris was careful to only hold the door open long enough to let his men see it, but not long enough for them to notice that it didn’t move.”

“Taken all together, it had the effect Harris wanted. His men saw radio gear, they heard radio sound effects, and there seemed to be an operator sitting at the controls. To his followers, it looked like the Commissar was emerging from the command center of a large spy network rather than just someone playing a lone hand.”

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pearls Before the Double Bounce

Much as I enjoy reading the daily comics, I seldom laugh out loud when I do. I did today when I read Pearls Before Swine. Here's the strip in question. I'll explain why afterwards. (click on image to enlarge)

I often engage in wordplay, so I usually see pun-based punchlines coming long before the setup's done. Not so this time, which is why I laughed. A key component to humor is the element of surprise, which is what Stephen Pastis so masterfully achieved.

Neighbor Bob is a recurring character in Pearls, so I didn't realize that his name would be an important part of the pun. I was anticipating the punchline to be "No sari" (No, sorry). So when it turned out to be a play on the expression "No siree, Bob," I was taken by surprise. And I laughed.

But the real treat was the last panel where Pastis makes another pun on the word "Sari" -- the one I had expected, but didn't get, and therefore no longer expected. Two punchlines, or as I like to think of it, a double bounce.

Masterful. And funny.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thankful for time off

I'm taking a short break from the Internet this Thanksgiving. No Twitter, Google+ or even Facebook (well, mostly on that last one). And I'll be taking time off from this blog. For the next three days, I'll be spending my time exclusively in the analog world -- and loving every minute of it.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, everyone. See you (virtually) next week!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Alley Comes to Tracy 2

I recently posted about Walt Wallet's cameo (from Gasoline Alley) in Dick Tracy (The Alley Comes to Tracy). I thought it was just a single sequence, but I was wrong. Mike Curtis and Joe Staton spun out the crossover for a full week. And how enjoyable it was for us comics fans.

Here's the entire sequence, which mainly serves as a break in the action between one story arc and another. A few things of interest. Baby Judy was abandoned in Walt's car in 1935, and was adopted by the Wallets. In the flashback sequence both Dick Tracy and Walt Wallet appear as they were drawn in 1935 by their respective creators Chester Gould and Frank King. What fun! (click on images to enlarge)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Meta Barney & Clyde 2

Barney & Clyde (Gene and Dan Weingarten, writers; David Clark, art) regularly plays with the expectations of the comic reader (see: Meta Barney & Clyde). Popularly, the term "meta" is used to describe art that is self - aware. Such as movie characters who know they're in a film, or a hero who knows he's a character in a book. And that's what this past Sunday's strip was all about. (click on image to enlarge)

The execution was so brilliant, I have nothing to say, except well done. Meta, indeed!

Friday, November 16, 2012

CCC 051 - Michel Perrault

This installment of the Consonant Classical Challenge features Canadian composer Michel Perrault. Perrault is inspired in part by Canadian folk songs. These tunes have a slightly different character than American folk songs, which makes his music sound akin to -- but not like -- those of American composers also drawing on folk traditions.

"Jeux de quatres" (Four Games) illustrates this. The work is a concertino for harp and orchestra, and uses the solo instrument to good advantage. The slow movements have a spare, open sound that remind me of Copland, without Copland's "American" quality. Fast sections hop about in a Stravinsky-like fashion, without Stravinsky dissonance.

Perrault's "Meditation elegiague" for violin and piano is a short work that shows off his melodic gifts. The open parallel motion of the piano's chords remind me of Debussy. The melody, however, has some quite interesting and unexpected turns in it that give the work its expressive quality.

Perrault (like Copland) has also written for film, and, like Copland, his scores seem to work equally well in a concert setting. Listen carefully to this chamber piece "Carry & Roll." Fine writing, indeed!

Michel Perrault is well-known in Canada, and virtually unknown south of the border. And that's a shame, because he has an original voice, and one that should appeal to a great many concert-goers. Unfortunately, there seem to be no recordings of his music readily available for me to recommend. And that's another shame.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Lessons from York - A Skewed View 2

In yesterday's post (Lessons from York - A Skewed View 1) I looked at some collecting trends and speculated on their cultural meaning. The Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meet. is the hobby's equivalent of CES -- both in relative scale and breadth of coverage. You will see all the latest products there, but more importantly, you'll see the ebb and flow of supply and demand.

The sudden appearance of some types of objects can suggest trends (which was what yesterday's post was about), but the disappearance of readily available objects can be equally telling. So what things did we not see at York this time?

Don't pay too much for this. You will not get your
money out of it.
No deposit, no return
We didn't see any Lionel Coke sets again. When MPC brought out this "collectible," everyone scarfed it up. After all, it's a Lionel train, and it's Coca-Cola memorabilia. With two markets to sell to, buyers were bound to double or even triple their investment, right?


It turned out that neither group of collectors were especially interested, and so mint-in-the-box Coke sets have been a staple of the York meets for years. The spring show I noticed their absence (and guessed as to why). But they haven't returned, and I'm not sure they will.

I suspect more than one of the vendors that used to sell them at York are now offering them on eBay. A quick search showed eight, ranging in price from $169 to $249. All mint, all "rare." It's neither. And if you pay more than $120 for it, you've been taken.

Boxing up the returns
Another thing that was conspicuously absent this time were MPC "collectible" boxcars. During the postwar era, Lionel came out with a series of boxcars, the 6464 series. From 1954 through 1966 this boxcar was given a variety of different paint schemes, offered in sets and sometimes for sale separately, and always with the 6464 prefix to the catalog number (6464-100, 6464-475, etc.). Just like stamps, many postwar-Lionel collectors strive to have a complete set of the 25 different 6464 boxcars (and the innumerable variations).

An original 6464-150 boxcar, made between 1954-1957. Still
desirable by collectors.
Lionel didn't plan to make these boxcars collectible -- they were just painting the same shell with different designs to go with their train sets and keep the product fresh. But the continued demand for the 6464 boxcars didn't go unnoticed by MPC when they bought Lionel in the 1970's, or indeed by any of the other companies who have owned Lionel since. And so a steady stream of "6464-style" boxcars continue to flood the market.

Part of Lionel/MPC's 1976 Bicentennial series.
Unlike the 6464 series this car is modeled on, interest
(and value) has dropped significantly.
The current Lionel company offers a Monopoly, college football, and Beatles series of boxcars to name a few. MPC had a series of 50 state boxcars, as well as Disney characters, Lionel history, the 13 colonies (for the Bicentennial), and several more. Collectors dutifully bought them all, confident that, like the original 6464's, demand and prices would only increase over time.


For years I've seen MPC 6464 boxcars stacked on tables like cordwood, some priced as low as $10 (way below the original 1970's list price). Until this show. For the first time, most tables were clear of these faux-collectibles.


I think that this market has also moved to eBay. A quick search for "Lionel MPC boxcar" seems to confirm this.

Will this trend continue? I suspect so. And I'll be interested to see the impact on the York meet. Will we see fewer tables rented? Will the quality of the merchandise offered improve? We'll know more in the spring.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lessons from York - A Skewed View 1

Dad and I are back from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

As always, although the particulars of these posts are about toy trains, that's not what they're really about. I'm convinced that the behaviors of collectors are universal. And that's what I'm interested in.

The York train show is a good place to spot trends. It's one of the biggest shows in the hobby, drawing 13,000 - 15,000 attendees, and has hundreds of tables. It also has most of the major manufacturer's exhibit as well. For a company like Lionel, York is their Consumer Electronics Show.

Most of the items for sale we see show after show -- but there are always a few items present in unusually large quantities. Why?

This time, there were three things we saw on table after table.

A Lionel Standard Gauge No. 6 Locomotive, ca. 1906

Passing of the guard

This time we saw a lot of very early Lionel locomotives (about 1906-1915). Now, these are fairly rare, to begin with, and it's remarkable just to see one or two Lionel steam locomotives from that ear at York. This time, though, we saw dozens. The prices were quite high, but (at least for this show) they were available.


There's a common theme in toy collecting -- many collectors either want the toys they had as children or the toys they didn't get as children. So part of the desirability of an item is tied to a certain generation.

Toys from the early 1900's were sought after by the generation of collectors that founded the TCA in the 1950's. At this point, most of them have either passed on or broken up housekeeping. Which means these items are coming back on the market. Perhaps this mass appearance of rare, early toys is actually marking the end of an era.

Lionel standard passenger set: (from  top to bottom):
311 passenger car, 310 baggage car, and the 312
observation car. Not rare, but quite nice.

Next round of cuts

We also saw an unusual amount of  Lionel 310, 311, and 312 Standard Gauge passenger cars. These are attractive cars, but about mid-range in terms of desirability and value. And they come from a later era than the No. 6 steam locomotive pictured above. These two-tone cars were sold as sets from 1924 through 1939 when the Standard Gauge era ended.

There are a lot of these out there, and we usually see a few sets at York. But this time we saw an unusually high number of them.


If our theory about youthful nostalgia is right, then most of the owners of these sets are now in their 70's and 80's. Some sets will come on the market through estate sales, but there's a good chance that most are being culled from collections as the owners downsize. After all, if you're moving to assisted living, and only have room for a few pieces, you're going to keep only the top-of-the-line sets (which these aren't).

A year and a half ago a lot of sets come on the market (A Setting for Sets) and I thought it was for this same reason. Perhaps these two-tone passenger cars are just part of the next round of items to get rid of?

Lionel O-gauge postwar (1949-1955) F3 diesels,
originally sold as a pair.

A new generation retires?

The third thing we saw an exceptionally high number of were Lionel O-Gauge postwar F3 diesels. After World War II, Lionel resumed toy train production with a completely new line of products. Gone were the toy-like metal locos and rolling stock (like the examples above). Instead, Lionel used injection-molded plastic to create realistic scale and semi-scale models of real trains.

The most popular locomotives were the F3 diesels. The Santa Fe livery was a huge it, and thousands were sold between 1948 and 1955. The Santa Fe F3s are actively sought after, but because there were so many made, they're always readily available (for a price).

Seeing the success of the Santa Fe F3, Lionel offered the model in different livery, with less success. The New York Central version also ran from 1948  - 1955, but didn't sell as well as the Santa Fe. Today it's a much rarer locomotive, and I seldom see more than few at any York meet. Until this time. Everyone seemed to have them, and -- curiously -- not just the originals, but also the reproductions made by Williams and MTH as well.


Collectors who were kids in the early 50's are now hitting retirement age. Perhaps this is the beginning of the downsizing process for them. Why are the reproductions coming on the market? it's not for the reason you might think. Williams and MTH products are clearly marked, so there's little chance of them being sold as originals.

Rather, I think it has to do with a common practice among collectors who operate layouts. Often, a collector will keep the original item on the shelf for display, and run a reproduction on the layout. It keeps the value of the original high because moving parts don't get worn further, less chance for accidents that can chip paint or break delicate plastic parts and so on. Also, the reproductions are usually more reliable for operation.

My guess is that some of these collectors are moving into smaller homes, and taking down their operating layouts. And with neither shelf space nor layout, they no longer need the originals or the reproductions.

Something to support my assumption: in April I remarked on the scarcity of Industrial Rail pieces (What We Didn't See). These pieces have virtually no collectible value but are great for operating layouts. This time we saw a good deal of Industrial Rail rolling stock for sale -- all going for around $10 a piece. Another sign of layouts being disassembled?

Next: Lessons from York - A Skewed View 2; what we didn't see

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tone-deaf Spam

I received the comment below for my post Walt, Skeezix, Dad and I. Yes, it's spam, phrased so vaguely it would seem to fit most any post -- except the one it landed on. I was writing about my father, our mutual love of comics, and the passage of time.
You've made some good points there. I looked on the internet for more info about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this website. 
 Sure, sport. Except this was a  post with no issues, nothing anyone has a particular opinion about, or anything related to the "comment." But what really got me was the last line. Because with the post I included a picture of my father and I (reproduced above).
Also visit my blog - how to get rid of belly fat
What!? Are you saying that picture makes me look fat?

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Alley Comes to Tracy

Last year Dick Tracy made a cameo appearance in Gasoline Alley (Tracy Comes to the Alley). Today Dick Tracy's current creative team, Mike Curtis and Joe Staton, returned the complement. Walt Wallet appears in Dick Tracy, and it's clear he's no stranger to the master detective. (click on image to enlarge)

Vitamin Flintheart first appeared in the Dick Tracy strip in 1944 -- and he was old then. There's a good chance that he and Walt Wallet might actually be the same age!

I wonder if there will be a mention of Uncle Walt's good fortune in Gasoline Alley.

Friday, November 09, 2012

CCC - The First Fifty

 I started the Consonant Classical Challenge  to show that the characterization of modern music as ugly and unlistenable was simply unfair. When I began, I knew of several living composers that fit the list. Soon enough, though, it became a challenge for me to keep finding composers for the survey. It's a challenge I've enjoyed, and I've discovered a lot of great music along  the way (which I've shared with you in this series). I've found fifty living composers who -- each in their own way -- have made use of classical music traditions to create works that connect rather than break with the past. Beginning next week, I'll see if I can find at least fifty more...

01 Lowell Liebermann 26 Richard Danielpour
02 Arnold Rosner27 Jack Jarrett
03 Jennifer Higdon28 Samuel Zyman
04 Bechara El-Khoury29 Michael Abels
05 Michael Torke30 David Del Tredici
06 Michael Daugherty31 John Tavener
07 John Corgliano32 Valentin Silvestrov
08 Joan Tower33 Tarik O'Regan
09 John Adams34 Beata Moon
10 Jau Greenberg35 Nico Muhly
11 Christopher Theofanidis36 William Duckworth
12 Robert Ward37 Judith Zaimont
13 Adolphus Hailstork38 George Walkerb
14 Eric Ewazen39 Thomas Oboe Lee
15 Walter Ross40 Judd Greenstein
16 Samuel Adler41 Paul Moravec
17 Einojuhani Rautavaara42 John Joubert
18 Max Richter<43 peteris Vasks
19 Avner Dorman44 Juan Orrego-Salas
20 Carl Vine45 Leo Brouwer
21 Eric Whitacre46 Kenneth Fuchs
22 John Rutter47 Larysa Kuzmenko
23 Christopher Rouse48 Crt Sojar Voglar
24 Peter Schulthorpe49 Ester Mati
25 Kevin Puts50 Dobrinka Tabakova

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Being a good citizen

"Poor officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote."

-Tarheel Ward, 1970s

A friend of mine posted this today. It's a quote from her high school history teacher. I think it just about sums things up nicely.

As is my custom, I voted early in the morning. I think of it as the most important thing I do today.

And I'll think it 's the most important thing I'll do on Election Day next year, when the elections are all local, and ton Election Day the year after that when we'll have some state-level decisions to make.

In my opinion, the folks who only vote in the presidential election are like the people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter. Yes, it's better to some participation rather than none, but by only showing up for the big events, you miss what the experience is really all about. And you miss the chance to make decisions that immediately effect your life.

I'm a good citizen who voted.

How about you?

Monday, November 05, 2012

NaNoMo Day 5: The Past is Prologue

Day 5 of the National November Writing Month challenge and I'm running close to par (7,746 words as of this morning). With a 30-day deadline for 50,000 words, making changes can feel like trying to change a tire while your car's hurtling down the highway.

I've already adjusted the plot, and today I surprised myself by writing a prologue. According to my outline (Writing off in All Directions at Once), the story was supposed to start here:

Chapter 1
A private detective is following a group of men to a clandestine meeting. He’s discovered, and chased by the group. He’s cornered in a desperate gunfight, and takes a moment to write out something on a piece of paper and hide it. The gang closes in the detective is killed.

Instead, I wrote the following:

Prologue – A Gathering Storm
The noonday sun had just broken through the clouds when the battleship Portsmouth sank. A blurred whitish streak lanced through the sky.  It was accompanied by a shrill whistle that pierced the air. The streak curved downwards and something struck the battleship right behind the bridge. The projectile, still trailing white smoke crashed through three decks of steel as if they were paper. A loud explosion rumbled from the center of the ship, sending vibrations coursing through the hull. 

Smoke and debris pushed upwards, blasting out through the hole punched in the superstructure. Chunks of metal flew into the air and spiraled down into the ocean as a second streak arced towards the doomed vessel. The new projectile followed the path of the first, burrowing even deeper into the bowels of the ship before detonating. 

This second explosion rolled like thunder through the lower decks, and the hull bulged outwards amidships. With a groan, twisted metal plates, already stressed from the first blast, gave way. Rivets popped, letting the warped hull plates fall away like scales. The exposed beams of the hull were also bent by the explosions, and without the stabilization of the hull plates, buckled under the strain.

With a grinding crash, the battle ship split in two. The bow and the stern lifted upwards as the exposed mid-sections of each half of the ship took on water. Oily steam from the destroyed engine room roiled out over the water, briefly obscuring the two halves of the battleship.

The metallic groan grew in volume, as overstressed bulkheads slowly twisted and tore apart. The creaking of collapsing decks and clatter of falling masts became a death rattle as the remains of the Portsmouth slipped beneath the waves. Within minutes, all that remained of the battleship was a dark stain on the water, sprinkled with floating debris.

[Don't worry -- no one was hurt. This was a decommissioned battleship being used for target practice, as I explain in the rest of the prologue.]

As for chapter one, it turned out all right. Here's the first paragraph:

Chapter 1 - Trouble
A bullet splanged against the brick, dusting Lorton with rust-red flakes. The private detective hunkered down behind an ashcan in the alley. He knew he had been discovered almost immediately, but hoped he could put enough distance between himself and his pursuers to escape to safety. Another shot ricocheted off the brick building behind him, this one lower.
That's one of the things I like about NaNoWriMo. The only way to make the deadline is for me to bypass my internal editor and just get the words written. And sometimes I surprise myself.