Saturday, March 31, 2012

Dick Tracy and the Pirates

As I've mentioned before, these past few weeks have been remarkable for the number of comic strips that have featured cross-overs, referenced other comics, or -- in this case -- incorporated a loving homage to a true genius of the medium.

In the current storyline for Dick Tracy (Mike Curtis, writer; Joe Staton, artist), Tracy calls Wingy Sprinkle, a now-grownup companion to a young Sparkle Plenty back in the 1950's. OK, that's a nice reference to the strip's rich heritage left by creator Chester Gould. But then the team goes farther.

If you don't know much about comics, you can just read this three-day sequence for what it is: a way for Tracy to find out more about a shady financial institution. But for the student of the comics, there's so much more here. (click on images to enlarge)

 The first panel has a very distinctive  portrait over Windy's shoulder -- it's Terry Lee, the hero of Milton Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates." Caniff created the adventure strip in 1934. He wrote and drew it through 1946 when he left to start a similar strip (but one where he rather than the syndicate, owned the rights) -- Steve Canyon. The third panel shows the boss of the airline, Hotshot Charlie, a major character in the latter days of Caniff's run of Terry and the Pirates. And the very last thing the eye sees as it leaves the panel is a portrait of Milton Caniff, at about the age he was working on Terry.

So once Hotshot Charlie's revealed, how do you keep the readers of your subtext interested? Keep the references coming, of course!

The following day there's a portrait over the shoulder of Hotshot Charlie -- Burma, the blonde with the past who was one of the two most important female characters in Terry. And in the final panel, the most important one -- the Dragon Lady.

But Curtis and Staton aren't through yet. Here's the payoff.

In the middle panel, Charlie asks if Bitsy Beekman's checked in yet. Bitsy Beekman was a spunky female pilot with distinctive onion-ring braids and a signature French Foreign Legion k├ępi cap. Beekman and her airplane were key fixtures of -- Steve Canyon, Caniff's other strip. 

Nicely done, gentlemen. This comics fan thanks you for the enjoyable read.

Friday, March 30, 2012

CCC 024 - Peter Sculthorpe

Not all the great composers are dead -- nor come exclusively from Europe. As we continue the Consonant Classical Challenge., we look at Peter Sculthorpe, one of Australia's most prominent composers. His aim is to blend the musical heritage of Australia (particularly of the outback) with classical music traditions.

 Sometimes, that blending is in the instrumentation. His work Earth Cry, for example, is written for orchestra and didgeridoo.

Sometimes it takes a more subtle form. If you listen carefully to Mangrove, you'll hear some interesting tonal coloration, including the echoes of a flock of birds as they seemingly take flight.

Born in 1929, Sculthorpe has produced an impressive body of work, most of it well-respected among serious classical music lovers. In addition to two operas, he's composed extensively for orchestra as well as several works for solo instruments and chamber orchestra, and seventeen string quartets.

Sculthorpe studied piano from a young age, so it's no surprise he's written quite a few works for it -- both as a solo instrument and part of a chamber ensemble.

His Nocturne has all the expressiveness of Sculthorpe's music distilled down to its essence.

Sculthorpe takes the familiar language of classical music and gives it a different -- and appealing -- flavor. American audiences, like those in Australia, might find his music quite appealing. If only they were exposed to it.

Recommended Recordings: 
Sculthorpe: Island Dreamings / String Quartets

Peter Sculthorpe: Earth Cry; Piano Concerto

The Best of Peter Sculthorpe

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What's British for Spam?

Received a very exciting email yesterday. Well, it would have definitely made my life more exciting should I have been foolish enough to respond. (click on image to enlarge)

Of course it's a phishing email, but as a famous consulting detective might say, it's not without certain points of interest.

The Bad
So how did I know this was a fake?  Easy. I don't have an account with Barklay's, either online or off. But suppose the spammers had been lucky enough to use a bank I did have an account with. would I have been fooled?

Probably not. Notice that I was blind copied this email. That means it was sent to a bunch of people. If this were truly a notice of unusual activity on my account, it should have come just to me.

Third, note the attachment. The 'html" tells me it's not really an attachment -- it's probably a link to a website. But where? I'm pretty sure that the actual website will be far different than what the header says it is.

The Good
Spelling counts! Usually, these types of email have goofy spelling or fractured syntax that provide clues that English isn't the first language of the writer, and certainly not any type of professional correspondence from an established firm. So they did get that right.

I also like the recommendation of the browser updates. Nicely done. Surely a spammer would prefer you use that outdated version of Internet Explorer with its multiple security leaks. But these folks don't need to worry about security. Because they've persuaded you to go to their website and voluntarily enter all your secure information.

The Takeaway
Not all spam is as painfully obvious as the type that Frank Drake or our other alter egos take on. Even though this one still had plenty of clues that call its authenticity into question, I'm sure there are plenty of Barklays customers that would click on that attachment. Personally, when I get an email from our bank with telling us to do some action, I go to the customer service number on our bank statement (not any found on the email) and call.

And that's a safety precaution that works every time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Lio's Comic Cameo List

This was indeed the week for comic strip cameos. Lio embarked on a quest to find his missing pet squid. Each day in this pantomime strip Lio encountered a different comic strip character as he tracked down another false lead.

Creator Mark Tatulli makes some mordant comments about the industry along the way. Some of the appearances aren't quite as effective as they could be. His Dick Tracy is adequate (for some reason, many artists have a hard time drawing Chester Gould's creation), but his Dagwood Bumstead was not convincing at all. (He wisely kept Chic Young's characters off-stage in his previous reference "Pearls before Lio")

I did like his take on Charlie Brown, though. (click on images to enlarge)

Tatulli raises a point I agree with. Why is this dead strip cluttering up the comics pages. Is there anyone on the planet (who's interested, that is) who doesn't have all this stuff in a printed collection -- or has read it several times already? Let's make room for a new strip, please!

And I like this end of the tour through comics.

A reference, of course, to not only Opus (the penguin pictured in the flyer), but Bloom County as well. Although Berkeley Breathed's strips have finished, his creativity and willingness to push the limits of the medium continue to inspire.

As Tatulli's homage attests.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Shelley makes the case for Kalkbrenner

Romantic Piano Concerto Vol. 56: Kalkbrenner 
Piano Concerto No 2, Op. 85 
Piano Concerto No.3, Op. 107 
Adagio & Allegro di Bravura, Op. 102 
Howard Shelly, piano 
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra 

I’m a big fan of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series. This latest installment – Volume 56 – maintains the same high standards of recording and performance quality as the previous volumes.

Howard Shelley turns in committed performances of Friedrich Kalkbrenner's compositions. Shelley's interpretations seem to fully realize the potential of this neglected music.

 And this is music that needs a little help.

Audiences of the mid-19th century thought Friedrich Kalkbrenner one of the best pianists of his day – an opinion he shared himself. When Chopin arrived in Paris, he performed for Kalkbrenner. – who suggested that after three years of study with him, Chopin just might make a decent pianist! That inflated opinion of himself was the subject of satire during his lifetime, and part of the reason why his music fell into disrepute after his death. It's good to have it represented (especially by a sympathetic performer), so we can judge the merits of Kalkbrenner's music for ourselves.

Kalkbrenner, like many virtuosos of the day, composed music primarily for his own use. The works on this recording were all written for various concert tours, and so were created to do two things: appeal to audiences with their tunefulness, and impress audiences with their brilliant piano technique. They achieve both goals admirably.

The two concertos on this CD are written in a glittering, gallante style, The musical language is a little conservative – think Mendelssohn rather than Liszt – which keeps them from being truly great compositions. While there are plenty of grand gestures and crashing climaxes Kalkbrenner’s romanticism has a certain polite reserve.

This is music that’s meant to entertain. And on that level, it succeeds. Kalkbrenner may have thought highly of his talent, but if the piano solos in these works are any indication of what he could do, it’s an opinion not without merit. Shelley’s hands cascade down with complex arpeggiated patterns. They undulate up and down the keyboard, riding waves of scale patterns that are both pretty and pretty impressive.

Shelley performed the first and last of Kalkbrenner’s four piano concertos in volume 41 of the series (Kalkbrenner: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 4). With this installment, he fills out the cycle with the two middle concertos. Kalkbrenner’s music may be somewhat simple (in structure, if not in execution), but that’s part of its appeal. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Prince Valiant's Flash

Looks like artist Gary Gianni and writer Mark Schultz have been having a bit of fun with Prince Valiant. A few months go, a mysterious stranger appeared in a blinding flash of light, apparently dumped from the sky. He had no memory, but Aleta recognized him.

When she had been held in a magic-induced coma by the sorceress Maldubh,  Aleta had floated through an ethereal nightmare world, and had been saved by the stranger there. The stranger says that he had been torn from the grasp of his love, but beyond that, he remembers nothing.

The stranger (dubbed St. George by a somewhat jealous Prince Valiant) proves to be a strong fighter. He accompanies Prince Valiant, Aleta, and Sir Gawain on a quest to hunt down and destroy a golem (they don't call this an adventure strip for nothing).

Unfortunately I don't have access to the earlier strips in this sequence, but look closely at the stranger's clothes in the panels below. They give the savvy comics reader a good clue to his identity. One blond-haired hero of a Sunday-only strip is usually depicted wearing a red shirt with a sunburst and trousers tucked into boots. (click on images to enlarge)

Still not sure? There's a telling clue in his final appearance... "But then a bolt of lightning strikes, and the bold warrior disappears -- in a flash."

The unknown hero was, of course, Flash Gordon. Around the time he appeared in Prince Valiant, this was happening in his own comic strip...

I guess time moves differently in an inter-dimensional space portal.

Sadly, Flash Gordon has been in reruns since 2003 so there was clearly no collaboration between the two creative teams. 

But it's still a nice tribute from one legendary strip to another.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Thoughts on a memorial service

I attended a memorial service at our church the other day. It was for an active member of the congregation, so there was a fairly large turnout of the congregation (well, the older members, anyway). And a good amount of friends and neighbors of the family as well.

I noticed that some of the visitors seemed ill at ease. It wasn't grief -- I think they simply didn't come from a faith background and were uncomfortable being in a church. I understand the feeling. When I attend worship services in other denominations or faiths I feel uncomfortable, too. I don't quite know what to expect, and I don't want to accidentally cause offense or disruption.

We had a memorial service, which meant it was an actual church service in memory of the deceased. So sort of like the Sunday thing, only compressed a little. Everyone stood for the singing of the hymns and confession of faith -- but some of our visitors remained silent.

That was OK. They had come to show their respect for the deceased and support for the family. And to place themselves in an uncomfortable situation to do so tells me their hearts were in the right place. It wasn't about them -- it was about how they could help the grieving family.

And that's really one of the core tenants of Christianity. It isn't about me at all, but about what I can do in service to others. I like to think everyone in the sanctuary that day -- regardless of their personal views -- were in agreement with the spirit of that concept.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mutts and Kings

As I mentioned, this was the week for comic strip crossovers. In Mutts, Patrick McDonnell has been illustrating a series of quotes about spring. McDonnell's style draws inspiration from the golden age of comic strips (1920's-1930's), and he often includes homages to other artists both in and outside the world of sequential art. (click on image to enlarge)

The strip is entirely self-contained. Anyone can read and enjoy it without knowing anything else about comics.

Ah, but if you did...

Then you might find that crown and ermine robe looking very familiar. And you would be right.
They're both a reference to the Little King, a classic comic strip character drawn by Otto Soglow between 1931 and 1975.

And there's another subtle link. The Little King was mostly a pantomime strip. The lead character never talked. Although the characters in Mutts often have something to say, for this panel, Mooch is silent.

Wholesome, indeed. And fun.

Friday, March 23, 2012

CCC 023 - Christopher Rouse

American composer Christopher Rouse hasn't always written in a clear, tonal style. But everything he's written has been solidly constructed, and communicated the emotions he was trying to express. The beauty of his more accessible compositions make him the next candidate for the Consonant Classical Challenge.

To Rouse, the use of tonality is just another compositional choice, like deciding whether to use a flute or violin for a certain figure. It's not something that's necessarily hardwired into his style. And that makes Rouse's tonal compositions so moving. Because the makeup of the chords, as with every other aspect of the work, is there for a deliberate purpose. And that purpose is usually to communicate strong emotion to the audience.

His Flute Concerto demonstrates that. It's one of his concertos written in response to the passing of a musical figure close to him. Rouse calls these concertos his "Death Cycle." They end up being heartfelt elegies for a single instrument and ensemble. And the effect can be powerful.

Rouse is also a brilliant orchestrator, so not only are his harmonies carefully chosen, but every note is assigned to an instrument to give it precisely the effect he want.

Here's Rouse's First Symphony. Listen to how he uses the orchestra -- particularly the percussion section. It's a hallmark of Rouse's style.

The end result is that Rouse's music connects with audiences and communicates powerfully. As one of his more recent works, Rapture, demonstrates, that skill has only become more developed with time.

It's no surprise that several of Rouse's students, such as Michael Torke have also adapted tonality to their own purposes. Like Rouse, they create music that continues the traditions of the past without being smothered by them. Tonality provides but the context for their original thoughts.

Recommended Recordings:

Rouse: Symphony No. 2; Flute Concerto; Phaethon

Christopher Rouse: Symphony No. 1; Phantasmata

Sharon Isbin - Christopher Rouse, Tan Dun

Thursday, March 22, 2012

FedEx or FauxEx?

I received this email yesterday. It didn't fool me for a second, but I suspect it did many others. Take a look and see if you notice anything wrong. (click on image to enlarge)

Where to start?

Since I've sent and received a fair number of FedEx packages over the years, there were a few things I noticed.

  1. I didn't order anything. And certainly nothing that would exceed the FedEx weight limit (150 lbs.).
  2. I wasn't expecting a shipment from anyone. I think if someone was sending me something weighing over 150 lbs., they'd give me some advanced warning. ("Hey, let me know when you get that refrigerator we overnighted to you.")
  3. The tracking number's wrong. FedEx uses a 15-digit number with no letters.
  4. There are no logos nor links within the email -- nothing to authenticate the source.
  5. The biggest clue of all -- the type of attachment.
As my eyes glanced down the email, the first thing I saw was the attachment. It's a zip file.  Which means it's a self-extracting file that, once downloaded, will open itself up and most likely install software, or rather malware, on the computer.

No, I was not for a moment tempted to click on the link anyway just to see what would happen.

According to a 2010 survey of online security by Ipsos Public Affairs,
 Among those who have opened a suspicious email, over half (57%) say they have done so because they weren’t sure it was spam and one third (33%) say they have done so by accident. However, nearly half (46%) report having accessed spam intentionally. [italics mine]
 I'm not one of them.

Finally, I must say I was very disappointed with this effort. I think we did a much better job faking a FedEx shipment when we scammed a Nigerian 419 scammer in the Chronicles of Chuck.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pearls Before Frazz

This is the week for comic strip cross-overs and cameos. To start, Frazz by Jef Mallett featured an appearance by the cartoon Stephan Pastis. Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, not only shows up as a character in his own strip, but occasionally pops up in others (Pearls Before Dennis). (click on the image to enlarge)

This sequence is a nice gag by itself, but if you're familiar with the identity of the driver in the third panel -- well, then it's even better.

 As I said, there's a lot of cross-pollination going on. I'll be sorting some of it out as the week progresses.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Idylls of the Kin

The view of the my temporary office from the outside.
I've had to help out my father recently, and we've gone up to spend the week at his house. As I've mentioned before, it's a familiar structure. I remember it as my grandmother's house, and it's the one we moved into after she passed on.

In addition to helping my dad reorganize, I've also spent a good portion of the day telecommuting. With the unseasonably warm weather, there was only one room in the house that would do for serious work -- the screened in porch.

I have many fond memories of this space, from weekend visits with grandma, to long summers during high school and college, and even later. The furniture hasn't changed much, and with the bushes obscuring the view, it could be anytime between 1960 and now.

And the view from my laptop. If not for the computer, this could be
anytime between now and 1960.
And the warm wind gently moving through the porch worked its magic. As did the cooing of the morning doves and the robins splashing in the birdbath. Sure, I've got a lot of things to thing and worry about right now, but being here reminds me to occasionally let go and just celebrate the now.

Like now.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Blog-slimming changes

Well, I don't know about you, dear reader, but I've had enough. As I mentioned in a previous post (Does This Make My Blog Look Fat?) I thought I would give dynamic views a try. OK, I tried it.

I got tired of seeing the spinning gears while the blog loaded every time I accessed Off Topic'd. So we're back to a simpler design --but not the same one as before. I'll probably be tweaking it for the next few weeks, but at least it loads properly.

The concept of dynamic design is fine -- get the load time down and I'll be back. Maybe.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Taking the long view -- really long

Sometimes it's good to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. It's always easy to think of "us vs. them" (especially in an election year). And speaking of the election, there seems to be a bizarre contest among some candidates as to who is the most Christian (as defined by some of the voters). Are you for this, or against that? If you don't do this, you're not really a Christian. If you only do this, you're not Christian enough.

It's nothing new. In the early church the Galatians were the same way. Only those who did certain things, or followed certain rules were considered Real Christians. Paul addressed that in his letter to them. Basically, he makes it clear that it's not what we do that makes us Christian, but what we believe.

And that's an important distinction. If I go to church every Sunday and you don't, am I a better Christian? Well, no. The Bible makes no mention of points for attendance. And if I'm really a follower of Christ, I should know it's not my place to judge you -- just to love you for who you are and be thankful for the gifts you offer (instead of noting the ones you don't).

Paul was talking about Hebraic Law, but I think it applies to all the rules that have grown up around the various denominations. Because they all kind of do the same thing -- get in the way of what's important. And when I let go of that concept and stop evaluating people by my own personal checklist of dos and dont's -- I find we have more in common with them than I thought.

Paul really takes the long view in the last paragraph below. Step far enough away, and major differences become minor. Move further, and they disappear entirely (and no, I'm not going to sing "From a Distance"). If I can refrain from using my naughty-or-nice list, I can almost see that long view, too.

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. 

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
 - Gal. 3:23-29

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Penderecki/Greenwood: Two composers with a shared vision

Krzysztof Penderecki/Jonny Greenwood
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima / Popcorn Superhet Receiver
Aukso Orchestra; Krzysztof Penderecki,
Marek Mos, conductors


It’s an interesting concept for a concert – and an album. Bring together composers of two different generations, with the younger being deeply influenced by the older and present their music side-by-side.

In this case, the older composer is Krzysztof Penderecki, an acknowledged master in the field of classical music. The younger is Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist of Radiohead.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking of Greenwood as just another rocker dabbling in classical for a little artistic cred. He’s a trained multi-instrumentalist who is very familiar with the classical music world, and Penderecki’s music in particular.

The disc features Penderecki’s classic Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. The Aukso Orchestra, conducted by the composer, gives the work a somewhat subdued reading. Threnody can be a very disturbing and unsettling work. This contemplative performance suggests that the horrors, though not forgotten, happened a long time ago.

Popcorn Superhet Receiver by Greenwood follows. The work owes its direct inspiration to the sound of shortwave radio, a mixture of signal and background hiss. At the same time, one can hear a similarity to Penderecki’s Threnody. In fact, Threnody seamlessly leads directly into Popcorn, almost as if the two compositions were part of a larger work.

Polymorphia, though written in 1961, still sounds like a work that pushes the limits of both the instruments and the audience. Penderecki’s concerned with clouds of sound, and he subtly changes them throughout the work. Although there’s no discernible melody, the underlying logic of the work is clear enough, and Polymorphia has a forward motion that arrives at an inevitable climax (although the listener might be hard-pressed to explain how it got there).

Greenwood’s 48 Responses to Polymorphia takes the elements of Penderecki’s work and breaks them into smaller components that get individual examination. It’s a perfect companion piece to Polymorphia. Yes, there are some highly rhythmic sections that have the vitality of rock, but there’s not a trivial gesture anywhere to be found. This is a well-constructed, serious piece of music that takes Penderecki’s exploration of sound and goes even further with it.

This release is a fascinating blend of two composers whose styles do more than complement each other. The album create a coherent soundscape that takes the listener farther than any of the works do individually.

Highly recommended for those with a thirst for audio adventure.

Friday, March 16, 2012

CCC 022 - John Rutter

Eric Whitacre, who we featured last week in the Consonant Classical Challenge, might be considered this generation's John Rutter. Like Whitacre, Rutter is primarily a choral composer, and has always been concerned about writing music that's accessible both to the performer and audience.

His Suite Antique for flute, harpsichord and chamber orchestra has the signature Rutter trademarks. The melodies and harmonies borrow from pop music (in the same way that Leroy Anderson did). But this is music that wouldn't work well as a three-minute pop song. Listen especially to the plaintive quality of the melody. Who wouldn't find such composition appealing?

A better example, though, might be his "Magnificat." The essential Britishness that pervades the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst can also be found in Rutter. Perhaps it's the choral tradition.

Because it's really in choral music that Rutter shines. And many professional, church, and amateur choirs agree.

While some might consider John Rutter a composer of lighter music, there's nothing wrong with that. And there should be a place for it on most musical programs. I'd like to see concert-goers discover what choristers have known for years.

Recommended Recordings: 

Requiem & Magnificat/Rutter, Cambridge Singers

 John Rutter: Distant Land, The Orchestral Collection

Gloria: The Sacred Music of John Rutter

Thursday, March 15, 2012

We Have Band: Ternion a Turn On

We Have Band

The second full-length album of this Manchester, UK trio has We Have Band really coming into their own. Yes, they still have an ethereal Dream Academy-like sound. But it's clearly an inspiration, not an imitation.
There's an underlying urgency to We Have Band's material that sets them apart from that earlier group. That and a natural ability to write pop tunes that are attractive without being trite.

While still relying primarily on the transparent vocals of Darren Bancroft and Dede Wegg-Prosser (husband Thomas plays guitar and adds harmony), WHB's sound can move from softly-focused to tight and crisp when it needs to.

The opening track "Pressure On" may be dreamy with half-formed melodies floating over impressionistic electronics, but the next track "Rivers of Blood" will have you up on the dance floor (think Soft Cell meets salsa). And those horns on "Visionary" really make that mid-tempo song groove.

Ten songs of intelligent pop by a trio that plays -- and harmonizes -- well together. "Ternion" means a group of three. We Have Band is just that. And a darned good one, too. If you like the music on BBC Radio One, check out We Have Band.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Literary Dick Tracy 2

I've written before about how the new creative team for Dick Tracy (Mike Curtis, writer; Joe Staton, artist) has really jump-started this moribund strip. In the sequence below, Curtis has put in yet another hip literary reference (see The Literary Dick Tracy). And it's a good one. (click on image to enlarge)

"So long, and thanks for all the fish," is a familiar quote to fans of Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series (it's the dolphin's final message to mankind when they leave Earth). So this aside should score big points with science fiction readers (and there's a big overlap between comics and SF, so that's not a bad thing).

Note also that Sam Ketchem delivers the line. Sam was the one talking about books in my earlier citation. Mike Curtis is doing interesting things with this character. Can't wait to discover what's next on Sam's reading list!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Tender Trap 6

After my post yesterday about the Yonezawa Toys train set (and the incorrectly positioned tender). I decided to do a little more research. I found a complete set available for sale on eBay -- and a very reasonable price -- and another example of the "tender trap".

Things start out so well, too. Look at that box lid. No question there  how the cars should line up.

And look at that fine profile on the side of the box. Yes, it's clear that the coal load should go towards the locomotive cab.

Ah, even sitting in the box the tender's facing the right direction (although the caboose is out of sequence). How nice.

And now it's setup and -- ?! OK, the tender's facing the right direction, but it's in the middle of the train.

All they had to do was just follow the pictures -- how hard is that? Gaaah!

(Good price on the set though...)

The Tender Trap 5

Finding examples of what I call the "tender trap is easy. So easy, I could easily fill a Pinterest pinboard to overflowing. Setting up a model or toy steam locomotive and placing the tender backwards is a pretty common error, though, and one I don't need to comment on all the time.

Except now. I recently ran across this offering on eBay. It's all that's left of a Yonezawa Toys train set. Even though the locomotive, I can still tell the tender's backwards.

How? Simple. The coal load is always as close to the locomotive's cab as possible. Always. Yet most people insist on the highest point of the tender face away from the engine (I offer my thoughts on why in Part 1 of this series).  The photo above is just another illustration of that mistaken notion.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A resounding faux of confidence

 I'm pretty sure we could do a better Photoshop job
than this.
Received this email notice the other day:

I am pleased to announce that Digital Chips has been selected as a winner of the 2012 Best of Orange Awards in the Eating Places category by the US Commerce Association (USCA).

I'm sure that your selection as a 2012 Winner is a reflection of the hard work of not only yourself, but of many people that have supported your business and contributed to the subsequent success of your organization. Congratulations on your selection to such an elite group of small businesses.

In recognition of your achievement, we offer a variety of ways for you to help promote your business... Additionally, as a winner of the 2012 Best of Orange Awards selection, you may select a customized award which has been designed for display at your place of business by following the simple steps on the 2012 Best of Orange Awards order form. 

A signal honor, indeed. And won that we've achieved before (The Faux-ward Award, 2009). Glad to be back in the winner's circle again as one of the best restaurants in Orange, VA.

And just as in 2009,

Digital Chips, Inc, still isn't in the food service industry.

Our offices are still in Hood, VA, not Orange.

We're still not fooled by this scam.

Still, that combo pack does look tempting...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Empathy and the Golden Rule

Of course you don't have to be religious to use the Golden Rule. But it can add an extra dimension of understanding.

For example: this past week I've had to shuttle my Dad around for various hospital visits. We use his van because it's been easier for him to get in and out of. And he has a handicapped tag for the vehicle.

Some others who have used the van (with his permission) while he was laid up took advantage of that tag. They freely admitted they parked in handicapped spaces even when they weren't transporting Dad -- to them it was just a perk. Why not take advantage of the privilege when you have it?

I haven't been tempted because of a previous experience. I vividly remember a time when we were taking my grandfather out to a restaurant. He was very frail, and since very step was a struggle, the fewer he needed to take, the better. When we arrived, the both handicapped places were taken -- by cars with no handicapped plates or tags. The careless selfishness of those drivers created additional unnecessary hardship for my grandfather.

I hadn't really thought about that experience for years, until I got behind the wheel of Dad's van.Then I remembered. And so I've not been tempted to use the handicapped parking places when I'm not transporting Dad. Because I don't want to cause hardship to someone else.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matth. 22: 36-40

Sure, you can just live by the Golden Rule (that would be the second commandment Jesus talks about) and forget all that God stuff. But for me, the first is important, too. Because I believe that God gave me that earlier experience with my grandfather to help me understand what I need to do now. Others did unto us, so I know how not to do unto them.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Another type of life circle

We were up visiting my 81-year-old father today, getting ready to help him home from the hospital. We're staying for a week in order to help him transition back into living by himself after major surgery. As we met with the doctors and worked on what we needed to have in place, it occured to me that we had all been here before.

It's the same conversations Dad had to have with the doctors when Mom came home from the hospital near the end of her life. And it was the same conversation both Mom and Dad had with the doctors when Grandma was near the end of her life. And it was one Dad, Mom, and Grandma had with the doctors near the end of Grandpa's life.

It occurred to me that it will be a conversation I'll have again about other loved ones, and perhaps one my children will have for me. I hope the same compassion my father showed at those times -- and I felt today -- I'll experience when it's my turn to be the subject of the discussion.

Friday, March 09, 2012

CCC 021 - Eric Whitacre

To date, the focus of the Consonant Classical Challenge has been on composers who write primarily orchestral works. We'll expand our scope a little and include some composers who are better known for their choral compositions.

Eric Whitacre is one such composer. Thanks to his social media savvy, Whitacre's probably the best-known choral composer in the world. As with many who write choral and vocal music, Whitacre is most concerned about the beauty of the melodic line, and the ease with which it can be sung.

Whitacre paints with harmonic pastels, piling up thirds in pleasingly dense clouds of sound. His work for string orchestra, "October," provides a good introduction to Whitacre's basic style.

While his orchestral and wind ensemble music isn't significantly different stylistically than his choral works, its in the latter type of compositions that Whitacre really shines. The harmonic language for "Lux Aurumque" is the same as for "October," but listen to the subtle shades of tone Whitacre adds by using the human voice.

Eric Whitacre's work with the Virtual Choir project made him a household name among choral singers. Here's the composer talking about the third Virtual Choir project, which will give you a good idea of how this interactive project works.

And finally, the results of Virtual Choir 2.

Eric Whitacre is not only a relatively young composer, but one who has a great deal of appeal -- even to those not normally interested in classical music. An organization looking to expand its audience should consider programming his work. If the participation level of the Virtual Choirs are any indication, it's music the whole world's interested in.

 Recommended Recordings:

New American Classics Eric Whitacre Choral Music

Light & Gold

The Music of Eric Whitacre

Thursday, March 08, 2012

A Driveway Moment -- Shooting the Junco

The sitting junco. Too bad I didn't have a salt shaker!

We've all heard the hackneyed advice, "take time to smell the roses." And although it's been repeated so often it's been reduced to a trite aphorism, there's still something to it.

Yesterday morning, for example, as I rushed out to the car to head for work, I found a junco sitting in the driveway (at least, I think that's what it was -- ornithologists are welcome to weigh in).

At first I thought it might be dead, as it didn't move even when I stood next to it. But it was in a sitting position, and when I nudged it, the bird reacted. Was it hurt? It didn't seem to be. It was just... sitting.

If you look carefully, it looks like there's some ruffled
feathers on its forehead. Could the bird have been stunned
by flying into something?
I should have just dropped everything in the car and drove off to work, but I happened to have a camera handy. So instead of getting to work on time, I spent the next fifteen minutes shooting the photos you see here. At times the camera was no more than a few inches from the subject.

The bird turned its head, and hopped around a bit. while letting me get very close to it. After a while, it hopped away and then took to the air.

I have no idea why it sat there for so long, but I'm glad I made the most of the opportunity. Not sure if this counts as smelling the roses, but shooting the junco was one of those magical moments I'm glad I didn't miss on my way to something more mundane. (click on the images to enlarge)

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Rautavaara: Two New Concertos by a Finnish Master

Rautavaara: Towards the Horizon; Modificata; Incantations 
Truls Mork, cello
Colin Currie, percussion
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; John Storgards, conductor

This new release sheds some light onto Rautavaara's growth as a composer. The outer two works are  recent concertos, composed in 2008/2009. But the middle work, Modificata, was written in 1957, when Rautavaara  was just 29 years old  and very much enamored with serial composition.

The current version, though, is his 2003 revision of the work, which smoothed out some of the jagged edges. Still, it's a very stark and aggressive-sounding work, especially when compared to the concertos that flank it.

Rautavaara's second cello concerto, "Towards the Horizon" is a single-movement work full of expression. The cello seems to float along over top of an orchestral ocean of ethereal harmonies.  As the title suggests, there's a sense of motion towards a destination that's always out of reach. And while the cello part isn't that challenging technically, to meaningfully convey all the emotion written into the score requires top-notch musicianship. And Truls Mork fills that role admirably.

"Incantations" is a percussion concerto composed for Colin Currie. Currie met with Rautavaara during the composing of the work, and created his own cadenza. Having Currie perform on this recording makes the concerto come alive. All the hallmarks of Rautavaara's current style are there; the stacked chords, the warm orchestration and the large musical gestures to which the solo percussionist provides additional rhythmic impetus. Most of the the time, Currie's playing melodic percussion instruments, but even when he's not, Rautavaara's written the work so it sounds like he is.

This is fine addition to Ondine's catalog of Rautavaara recordings.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Shifting Score

It's understood that most forms of music are collaborative. Whether it's rock, country, jazz, blues, soul, or anything in between, the written music is only the starting point.

For most genres, what's written down is seldom the complete arrangement -- and often times there's nothing on the page but words and chord symbols. It's how the performing artist, in cooperation accompanying musicians choose to realize those incomplete instructions that give the song its sound.

And in a recording situation, the engineer, the producer, the arranger and guest musicians can also help shape the character of the song. In fact, for most people the recording of a song is considered the original -- not whatever printed music version of it might also be available.

For classical music it's different, though. Instead of several musicians collaborating on the structure of the song, a classical work is usually created by a single person who comes up with the musical ideas and the arrangement of those ideas. (For vocal works, the composer seldom creates the libretto -- it's usually supplied by another person.)

Classical music starts with the score -- and so one might think the score's immutable. Take a look at my little etude above. I've specified the notes to be played, the order and rhythm to play them in, how loud or soft to play them, and how to phrase the lines for expression.

So it's just left to the performer to play what's on the page, right?

Not quite.

Not every little performance decision is specified. MF means medium loud -- so how loud is that, anyway? How fast is "allegro?" And so on. If five different people were to play this piece, you would most likely hear five different interpretations. Collectively, you might recognize the performances as all being the same work (that opening motive is pretty distinctive, after all). But there would be more variation between them than you might expect.

An excellent example of that mutability was recently posted to YouTube. Robert Fink took the opening chords to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" from various recordings made between 1921 and 2010 and the results are revealing. The same notes on the page, but what a difference in interpretations. Different recording techniques, and different orchestral blends can be heard, too.

It's not a new concept, but one seldom illustrated as dramatically. In classical music, as in other genres, what's on the page is only the starting point.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Lawrence Ball: Method without Madness

Lawrence Ball: Method Music 
Imaginary Sitters/Imaginary Galaxies
Navona Records

I’m generally suspicious of mathematically-generated music. A lot of what I’ve heard sounds academic, mechanical, and lifeless. Not so with Lawrence Ball’s compositions Imaginary Sitters, and Imaginary Galaxies.

The liner note attempt to explain in part the algorithms (harmonic math) behind the music, but it really doesn’t matter. What counts is that Method Music works.

Ball worked with Pete Townsend (of the Who), who produced this two-disc set. Disc one is a set of short, five-minute Imaginary Portraits, created by feeding data about the subject into a computer, which then used the Method Music algorithms to convert them into sound.

The first track, Meher Baba Piece is a morphing variation on the opening to the Who's hit Baba O’Riley. Almost as soon as the listener recognizes it,though,  the theme starts to stretch and change.

The remaining portraits (ten out of a much larger set), are similar in structure. All are electronic works, and have a basically tonal structure. Superficially, they sound like the minimalist compositions of Steve Reich, with repeated motives gradually moving out of phase with each other. But there’s more to it than that.

Although I couldn’t say exactly what Method Music was, I could decidedly hear it at work. These pieces have an underlying logic to them that’s different than minimalism. And that logic is apparent throughout the pieces. This is highly organized music that’s moving towards a goal – although it’s getting there through an unfamiliar path. People who enjoy contemporary classical music as well as progressive and experimental rock should find common aesthetic ground in Imaginary Sitters.

Imaginary Galaxies, which makes up the second disc of the set, might appeal more to the classical rather than the rock listener. Although the compositional organization is the same, these are much larger and complex works. Each of the three pieces runs about twenty minutes. The pacing is slower, and the changes are more subtle. Timbre becomes more important, and if Imaginary Sitters were painted with primary colors, Imaginary Galaxies would be a wider spectrum of pastel and blended colors.

Ball writes, “I hope the listener feels as if held in a sonic cradle, watching an intricate musical mobile.” It’s an apt description, and I certainly did.