Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Straco Layout, Part 20 - A Patriotic Traffic Pattern

More cars to add to the busy roads of the Straco layout.
I'm almost at the point where I don't need any more vehicles for the Straco Layout (read more about the whole project here).  After all, I don't like bumper-to-bumper traffic in real life, and I don't find it especially attractive on a toy display. Having too many pieces overwhelms the viewer and just looks like clutter.

However, I'm still open for unusual pieces, as long as they fit the criteria; made in Japan in the 50s-60s, mostly or all-metal construction, originally inexpensive, and still fairly inexpensive. A pair of odd cars caught my eye the other day.

Judging by lithographic colors and the car bodies, I believe they date from the late 1950's (I welcome any additional info about these cars). Note the design -- though made in Japan, these are clearly patriotic vehicles! They're red, white, and blue, and they have stars and bars on them. (click on images to enlarge)

Patriotic, but not official. The odd design of the lithography
attracted me to this pair of vehicles.
Of course, these are American patriotic motifs as interpreted by another country, so the design isn't as iconic as it would have been had these been created in the States. And although they're decorated in an American theme, they're not official vehicles of any kind.

Many of these cheap Japanese tin cars were sold in sets, with the same car body being lithographed as a police car, a fire chief car, an ambulance, and a taxi. These aren't anything like that. They just... are. Which is why I liked them.

So traffic's increased by 20% on my little Straco layout.

The real challenge is what to add next. Cars and trucks are fairly easy to find. Structures and trees are much more difficult. But part of the fun of this oddball little project is the search, so we'll see what happens.

In the meantime, I have a pair of patriotic vehicles that arrived just in time for the Fourth of July!

Total cost for the project:

Layout construction:

  • Pegboard: $4.95
  • Flathead Screws: $0.40
  • Molding: $2.49
  • SilClear: borrowed from a friend
  • Green Paint: left over from another project
  • Wood Screws: $3.60
  • Felt Pads: $1.99
Power Pack: $5.90
Small Houses: $3.00
Testor's Gray Paint for road: $1.29
Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00
Bandai Areo Station: $8.99
A.W. Livestock truck: $4.99
Taxi: $2.99
Ambulance: $2.99
Two Japanese patriotic cars: $6.99

Total Cost: $52.57


Friday, June 29, 2012

CCC 035 - Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly is one of the youngest composers featured on the Consonant Classical Challenge. Born in 1981, this talented young man has built an impressive career in both the classical and rock worlds. Although Muhly writes in an eclectic style, "post-minimalist" seems the best description.

Like the minimalists, his harmonies use simple chords to bind everything together. And he also uses tonal melodies and melodic fragments as his compositional building blocks.

Unlike the minimalists, Muhly isn't as concerned with rigorously working out the slowly shifting phases of melodies slightly out of sync. Rather, his melodies do sometimes interact with each other, but contrast and change happens much more rapidly. Muhly is a composer who wants to get to the point.

Music Under Pressure has that aesthetic. There's not a lot of dissonance in this ballet score, and most of the melodies are quite simple in construction. And yet Muhly takes these basic building blocks and creates something unique (and accessible)

This is a Record of John has an appealing arrangement of early music. It reminds me a little of Resphigi's Ancient Aires and Dances which also reinterpreted older music for modern instruments. But the arrangement is in Muhly's unique voice.

Motion is a work that quotes older music, while presenting original material by Muhly. I think its a work that has appeal both to lovers of traditional classical music and those just coming to it through other genres.

I suspect bluehairs might find Nico Muhly too modern, but middle-aged audiences should find a lot to like in his work. And for concert programmers trying to attract new listeners, Muhly should be an easy choice. While speaking the musical vernacular of the day, he still says things musically that are significant and reward the careful listener.

Recommended Recordings

Seeing Is Believing

Nico Muhly: I Drink the Air Before Me

Nico Muhly: A Good Understanding

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lio and the Fourth Wall

I have to admit when I first became aware of Lio, I didn’t like it much. But Mark Tatulli‘s humor has grown on me. And I especially like the way he plays with the conventions of the daily comic strip.

Here are two recent variations on a theme, calling the reader’s attention to something that’s always there (but never seen). The panel borders provide context to a comic strip’s panel, but they usually aren’t noticed by the reader. In these cases, though, they’re the point of the humor.

In the first, Lio shreds the vertical borders with his helicopter. And note the final panel. There are no borders at all. The helicopter is alone in (apparently) a wide open space.(click on images to enlarge)


The second breaks the horizontal border – literally. It’s an effective way to show just how limiting the real estate allotted to each individual comic can be. And have some fun with that fact.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Here the Cliffs: the Orchestral Music of Hilary Tann

Here the Cliffs: Orchestral Music of Hilary Tann
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Kirk Trevor, conductor
North South

Very lyrical, yet highly individual music -- that's my impression of the compositions on this new recording. Hilary Tann’s works remind me somewhat of Alan Hovhaness’. Not in terms of melody or harmony, but rather in organization. The pieces move along from point to point driven by their own internal logic. Sometimes the underlying form isn’t readily apparent, but that doesn’t matter –- somehow it all works.

From Afar has some large gestures in it, and the orchestral sound ebbs and flows like the sea. The Cliffs is a work for violin and orchestra, that's really a concerto, but more of a rhapsody. The solo violin remains in the forefront throughout most of the work, playing angular melodies that the orchestra then comments on.

A short and attractive work. The Feather to the Mountain sounds the most to my ears like Hovhaness. The wide-open theme (the feather, I suppose) is supported by long, static chords and big chordal clusters, both suggesting the massiveness of the mountain. It makes for an interesting study in contrasts.

 Integrating an alto saxophone into an orchestra can be a challenge. In The First Spinning Place, for alto sax and orchestra, Hann partially solves the problem by making the alto a solo instrument. But she also effectively brings it into the orchestra by coupling it with unusual instruments – such as a marimba. That provides a surprisingly effective blend. The fluidity of the solo line is perfectly suited to the alto sax, and I suspect this may soon enter the solo saxophonists’ repertoire (if it doesn’t, it should).

Max Lifchitz has done an amazing job with his North/South Recordings label. For years it has championed contemporary music that’s not quite avant-garde, but still innovative enough to deserve a hearing. This new recording of Hillary Tann’s orchestral music is another outstanding addition to the North/South catalog.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pearls Before Zits

I always get nervous when the Sunday funnies are rearranged. That's because it only happens when there's a change in the lineup. Apparently editors believe that readers won't notice a strip's been added (or deleted) if most strips are in a new location.

I had that sense of unease recently when I ran across Zits in a new location. Then, as I read it, I realized that it wasn't the signal of a comics lineup change. Rather, it was an excellent joke by Pearls Before Swine creator Stephen Pastis -- and I completely fell for it. (click on image to enlarge)

Pastis so perfectly captured Jim Borgman's style that I really thought I was reading Zits -- at least for the first panel.

Crossovers between comics can be entertaining, but only if the art works. If the characters are too far removed from their original look, then the reader has to work harder to process what he's seeing, and the humor get lost. Not so with Pastis. This was a masterpiece.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Pinterest Etiquette?

One of my favorite pulps, and an entry on my
Pulp Frisson board.
I've been having a lot of fun with my Pinterest boards. And it's been gratifying to see other folks follow my boards, repin some of my selections, and even throw in a comment or two.

Something happened the other day that wasn't so much fun. I received a notice that virtually all of my pins on my Pulp Frisson board had been repinned -- all by the same person. I went and looked at the board (Pulp Attack) and sure enough, there they were with my comments stripped out.

Now there were several other pins from different sources, but still. Initially I was a little upset. My first reaction was that this person was building a board based on my work. After all, I was curating Pulp Frisson pretty carefully (as I've outlined in another post), and it seemed unfair that someone would take advantage of that and pull everything over to their board.

But then, the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that it really didn't matter. First of all, none of my pins were original -- they all came from other sites. So I was sharing cover art that had been scanned in by other people to begin with. Secondly, it doesn't really matter how popular (or not) my boards are. There's no monetary reward, and in the overall scheme of things, I'm flattered for the attention they draw, but not especially worried about how they're ignored.

So in the end, I decided interpret the repinning as just a positive endorsement of my taste for pulp-era cover art.

I'm doing these boards primarily for fun, and that hasn't changed.

Still, it did cause me to question my own use of Pinterest. Is there any agreed-upon Pinterest etiquette (as there is for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites). Is repinning the entire contents of another board considered bad form, or high praise? Should comments remain with the repin, or is it acceptable to edit or even remove them?

I don't have an answer, and haven't really found any online. I'd welcome any thoughts about this. I'm not especially concerned about what others do with my pins, but I would like to be a good citizen and make sure my boards follow best practices.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Tender Trap 7

Sometimes I think I should start a Pinterest board for the Tender Trap. But there are so many examples, I wouldn't have time for much else. So I'll stick to just posting some especially outrageous examples once in a while.

What I call the tender trap is a deliberate error. A lot of people who aren't familiar with toy trains place the tender backwards because they think it looks better. If it was as simple as that, I wouldn't say anything -- but in order for them to place the tender backwards, they have to deliberately ignore how the train's hooked together.

For example: here's one I found on eBay.

Look closely at the couplers. The engine has a bent pin. On the far end of the tender is a tab -- designed to hold the bent pin. But the seller chose to reverse the tender, forcing the pin into the knuckle coupler.

Notice something else -- the back of the tender has a blank wall. So how was the coal supposed to get from it to the engine cab? Here's the way it's supposed to look.

And here's another view.

Personally, I think having the correct end of the tender connected to the engine "looks right." And all you have to do is just match up the links. How hard is that?

Friday, June 22, 2012

CCC 034 - Beata Moon

When we started the Consonant Classical Challenge, the idea was to call out living composers writing innovative music in an accessible style that could help revitalize orchestral programs. But not every composer writes for orchestra.

American composer Beata Moon is a good example. Like Chopin, Moon is a talented pianist who writes primarily for her instrument. A good example of her style is her Prelude for piano. While remaining within the framework of post-modern tonality, Moon nevertheless creates music that sounds fresh and engaging. This is not just pretty noodling.

Beata Moon has founded an ensemble to perform her chamber works. Unfortunately, I couldn't find an example to share. Her choral work Insomnia Tips, though, can give you a good idea of how Moon writes for other performers.

Although Beata Moon writes accessible music, it's never bland. Submerged is a work with dramatic tension and forceful musical statements.

 I hope that in time Beata Moon will receive some commissions to write music for orchestras (or at least string orchestras). Her music is appealing and engaging. She has a unique and distinctive compositional voice, and it's one I'd like to hear more of.

Recommended recordings

Beata Moon: Piano Sonata; In Transit; Submerged; Guernica; Inter-Mez-Zo

Beata Moon: Earthshine

Beata Moon: Saros

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Krenek: Complete Symphonies Tell the Whole Story

Krenek: Complete Symphonies
NDR Radiophilharmonie
Takao Ukgaya, Alun Francis, conductors

It took a while but CPO finally issued the last installment of their cycle Ernst Krenek symphonies. Krenek is best known for his Weill-like opera Johnny Spielt Auf, a product of the Weimar years. It’s not really a fair representation of Krenek’s style.

He was much more interested in the atonal compositions of Schoenberg and Webern, and that interest is reflected in his orchestral compositions. The first symphony (1921) is neo-romantic, reflecting the influence of his teacher, Franz Schreker. But even in this work, the harmonies have a slight edge to them, and it’s easy to hear where Krenek wants to go.

The second symphony (1922) is more aggressively atonal, but there are still lyrical post-romantic elements there that keep the work sounding a little more conservative than Weber. The third symphony (also written in 1922) has Krenek coming into his own as a composer, and even though it could be classified as atonal, there’s a compelling logic behind the work that makes it more than just an academic exercise. The harmonies, though dissonant, are expressive, and the symphony’s charged with energy.

The fourth and fifth symphonies have no elements of the early Krenek’s style. And yet, while they encompass the most modern aesthetic of the day, they have a surface organization and coherence that isn’t as readily apparent in other atonal composers of the 1950’s.

All in all, these five symphonies are an exciting body of work. Each composition has its own character. Although Krenek kept pace with the avant garde, each work is unmistakably in Krenek’s compositional voice, providing a continuity across the set.

An additional treat are the fillers – the Concerto Grosso No. 2 and Potpourri show a more relaxed and more lyrical side to the composer. Krenek chose to write atonal music, but these works show he had the skill to be melodic when he wanted to. A fine set that should do much to raise Krenek’s profile.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

An unexpected hiatus

If you’re a regular reader of Off Topic’d, then you probably noticed a sudden suspension in publication. I was posting six days a week through June 2, then…. nothing for 18 days. The reason for the interruption was that I was seriously ill, and it took a while for me to recover. While I was sick, I had very little energy. And I somehow lost all interest in social media. So my blogging, Facebook posts, LinkIn updates, Twitter conversations, Pinterest boards – all came to a screeching halt.

That may not have been a bad thing – after all, now that I’m starting to get back into things, I discovered I hadn’t really lost any followers, friends or readers. My forced neglect (and lack of impact on traffic) will help me keep all of those stats in perspective.

I apologize for the unexplained absence, and promise to work back up to a reasonable (and reliable) post schedule. There were some posts I was working on that were never published, and when I finish those I’ll probably put them out under their original creation dates. So there might be some back-filling in addition to new material.

But please stay tuned –  now that there's a reason to once again.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Men's 4-Miler Training, Part 10 - Race Day

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

 If this were a movie, then I would be out at Scott Stadium, moving my body through sheer force of will, making myself complete the four-mile course. But it’s not. So I’m having to sit out the race. While the kidney infection has mostly run its course, I’m still quite weak, and a secondary infection has settled in my knees. So I not only don’t have the energy to walk, but it's painful to do so.

 I’m forced to sit this race out, but I’m not done yet. Once I’ve recovered (and I intend to fully recover), I’m going back into training. Even if I have to start back at the beginning of the four-miler training program, I’ll do it. This is the second time my running has been sidetracked by illness, and I’d like it to be the last! Good luck to everyone who’s running today. I’m with you in spirit.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Men's 4-Miler Training, Part 9

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

This has been a rough week. A kidney infection has kept me from running at all this week, and today I just don’t have the energy to do the run. We met at Scott Stadium to do a practice run for next week. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to get back into it. My fellow runners with some experience assure me that after seven weeks of training, I shouldn’t drop back to the beginning, so the setback might not be that bad.

I did show up to the meeting, though, and while others ran the course, I walked the parking lot – just to see how much I could do. I was able to keep walking until the first runners returned, but only just. This week its rest and recuperation. I’m determined that even if I just walk the course, it will be worth it.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Men's 4-Miler Training, Part 8

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

This was the penultimate week of the training program, and the last at Charlottesville High School (where every direction is up). Next week, we do a trial run over the actual course.

The goal this time was 3.5 miles, and for the first time I felt pretty good about the run. I accepted the fact that I would be dead last, and with that out of the way, concentrated instead exclusively on my breathing. My goal was the recommended rate of one breath (in and out) for every five steps.

For my purposes, I counted each half breath as a beat, meaning I needed to do two beats for every five steps. As a trained percussionist, I've had a lot of experience playing odd metric combinations against each other, so this one was pretty easy. The breath "2" simply falls between steps 3 and 4.

If you want to figure it out for yourself, the process is pretty easy (especially if you read music). Just find the lowest common denominator, write out all the numbers, and align both patterns up against it. Play it for a while counting the pulse, and once you get the feel of it, you're ready. Here's how it works:

1                  2
Pulse (Common Denominator)
1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10
1      2      3      4      5


1                  2

1      2      3      4      5

It worked. Sure, I was last and pretty quickly, too, but my first mile was 16.47. The second mile was 16.25. I should have also worked on the pulse, because the first mile was a little fast. My third mile was 17.02. But the last half mile was exactly 8 minutes.

And while I was running, I got into the rhythm. We were running for 3 minutes and walking for 1 minute, and soon I was surprised to hear it was time to walk. In previous weeks I lived for the walk mode! And as we dropped further back, I kind of lost track of the time and found myself running for 4-5, occasionally even 6 minutes at a stretch. With no shortness of breath, and no undue fatigue.

I think I've finally hit on a race strategy. We'll see how this week goes!

Friday, June 01, 2012

CCC 033 - Tarik O'Regan

Our Consonant Classical Challenge continues with British composer Tarik O'Regan.  O'Regan omposes primarily for choir, although he does have a well-balanced catalog of works. Among his many compositions are some short works for orchestra, and many solo instrumental works (mostly for piano).

O'Regan writes flowing, engaging melodies that lend themselves to singing. And they sound equally engaging in his instrumental compositions. O'Regan's harmonies, while consonant, are far more complex than simple major/minor chord progressions. He stacks up his intervals carefully, then changes some around so that one chord morphs into the next.

"Latent Manifest" showcases O'Regan's compositional technique. It's a work inspired by a J.S. Bach violin sonata -- but this is no slavish imitation of the original. 

Most of O'Regan's solo compositions are for piano, but his (so far) lone work for guitar is a real standout. Here is his "Guitar Interlude."

The bulk of O'Regan's music is written for choir. His "Triptych" has an unusual combination of choir and marimbas. The combination of instruments and voices give the work a fresh sound, while remaining completely accessible to audiences with more traditional musical tastes.

Tarik O'Regan composes appealing, expressive music in an original manner. I would think his orchestral works would be easy to add to just about any orchestral concert program. Hearing these works live would (in my opinion) be a real treat.

Recommended recordings

Tarik O'Regan: Threshold of Night

Tarik O'Regan: Voices