Thursday, February 28, 2013

Japanese Litho Train Sets 3 - Cragstan, Distler and Nomura

The Cragstan HO scale F3, made by Nomura.
I'm not very far into my postwar Japanese lithographed train sets databasing project, but I've already come upon something unusual.

I knew that Cragstan imported HO train sets made by Nomura under their own brand. There seem to be a few variations of them, but they're mostly cosmetic. The sets I've found so far have the same basic components:
  • HO scale Santa Fe diesel, modeled after the F3
  • 2 box/stock cars
  • 12 sections of HO sectional track, making an oval
  • a power pack powered by 2 batteries
Fig. 1: Rolling stock from two different Nomura sets.
The older of the two is on the bottom.
 I've so far found three variations on the rolling stock. The shape of the cars are unchanged -- just the lithography is different.
  • Tan Santa Fe stock car and silver Santa Fe refrigerator car (Fig. 1)
  • Burgundy  Mobilgas automobile car and green Santa Fe refrigerator car
  • 2 silver Santa Fe passenger cars (figure 2)
All of these were made by Nomura (trademarked "TN" on the ends of the cars). I recently ran across a set made by the German company Distler. It's from the early 1950's, and was made in West Germany for import by Cragstan. The set is identical to the Nomura passenger set. (figure 3).

Fig. 2: Nomura passenger cars. The bodies are the same
as the box cars in Fig. 1
The only difference is the lithography. The Nomura locomotives have a different number, and the details don't seem as crisp as they do the Distler version. And the passenger car lithography is different. But the set -- track, rolling stock, locomotive -- is virtually identical.

Since Cragstan imported both, I don't think it's likely that the Nomura set is a knock-off. The Distler box specifically states "made in Western Germany for Cragstan." I think Cragstan contracted with the German firm to make this toy, then took the dies and stampers back and shifted production to Japan.

Fig. 3: The Distler Santa Fe passenger set.
The Distler set. The Nomura versions have a "TN" logo
in place of the "Made in Western Germany," and the
number board is 2246 instead of 1234 on the locomotive.
So what's the real connection between Cragstan and Distler? Did Distler make other toys for the importer? I'm not sure, but I now know to look carefully at loose Cragstan HO gauge rolling stock and locomotives. There are probably differences in build quality, which should mean an appropriate difference in value.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dvorak: Trio Solisti - Exuberant and entertaining

Trio Solisti: Dvorak
Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65
Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Op. 90 "Dumky"

These works of repertoire standards, and have been recorded by just about every piano trio worth their salt (as well as few that weren't). So what sets the Trio Solisti's interpretations apart? There's a sense of fun that pervades these performances. To my ears, the trio enthusiastically enjoyed playing these works. And it's an attitude that benefits the music.

Dvorak's Piano Trio No. 3 start out with some very aggressive attacks from the strings. But it's all part of the heightened sense of drama the Trio Solisti brings out in the work. In the slow and lyrical passages, the ensemble plays quite tenderly -- sometimes almost heartbreakingly so. the final movement is full of verve and spirit, and fitting climax to a rollicking good time.

Dvorak based the "Dumky" trio (as the name says) on the dumka, a Slavic epic ballad. Dvorak celebrates his Czech heritage in the work, and the Trio Solisi do, too. Maria Bachmann's violin sometimes sounds like a gypsy fiddle, digging into the notes to wring out every last drop of emotion. I've heard performances where the folk elements are downplayed, making the work sound more traditionally classical -- and those are valid interpretations. The Trio Solisti, however, by celebrating the Czech roots of the "Dumky," make this a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.

Sonically, this recording strikes just the right balance with me. The instruments are recorded close in, but not so close that there's no ambiance. The individual instruments sound cleanly, but not dry and brittle. And collectively the ensemble is nicely balanced, but not artificially so. It's an intimate, natural sound that gave me the feeling of sitting front and center of a very private concert.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pearls Before Andy Capp

Stephen Pastis, creator of Pearls Before Swine is one of the three nominees for the 2012 Reuben Award for “Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.” Yes, it's the cartoonists' equivalent of the Oscars -- a an award recognizing outstanding achievement as selected by fellow professionals.

If you've followed Off Topic'd for any length of time, you'll know that -- just from the sheer number of "Pearls"-related posts -- I believe Pastis earned the nomination -- and then some. Part of what I like about his strip is its meta-humor. Sometimes the joke expands outward, the characters being completely aware that they exist inside a comic strip.

Take the following sequence, for example (click on images to enlarge):

Sometimes Pastis has coordinated with other cartoonists to create a cross-comic gag. I'm not sure that's true in this case, but it is interesting to see how neatly the two sequences from the same day line up.

Don't get me wrong -- Brian Crane (Pickles) and  Rick Kirkman (Baby Blues) are also worthy nominees. Their strips are consistently of high quality. Pastis, however, just goes past the boundaries -- which is why his strip gets more mention here that the other contenders.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!

The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
Frederic Rzewski
Ole Kiilerich, piano

The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a massive set of piano variations based on a 1973 Chilean folk song by Sergio Ortega. Structurally, it resembles Beethoven's "Diabelli "variations, or Bach's "Goldberg" variations. Like the former, it's a virtual catalog of compositional technique. And like the latter, its 36 variations are divided into six groups of six.

The People United begins and ends with the same simple folk tune -- but this is a work that's more about the journey then the destination. After hearing it transformed by Lisztian piano flourishes, complex counterpoint, atonal reinterpretations, aleatoric passages, and extended piano techniques, the listener gains new appreciation for this tune when it returns intact in the final movement.

Frederic Rzewski is a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer. Like Bach and Beethoven, he knows -- and continues to push -- what's possible on his instrument. And that technical command gives the work a sense of coherence. Like the "Diabelli" and the "Goldberg" variations, this piece is a marathon -- although more for the performer than the listener.

The variations of The People United have a rhythm and flow to them that pulls the listener along. The each of the six sections have a feeling of arrival, although only in the final movement does one get a sense of completeness.

In the liner notes pianist Ole Kiilerich writes, "I had this odd feeling that the piece was written just for me to fulfill my conception of musical expression and I felt an urge to instantly dig deeply into this overwhelming piece of art right away..."

That compulsion works to his benefit. The performance captured in this recording is engaging and exciting. Kiilerich has indeed made this composition his own.

The People United can be listened to in installments. The six sections provide logical places to enter and exit the composition. But I recommend hearing the work the way it was intended -- from start to finish. As I mentioned earlier, "United" is all about the journey. And it's one that's well worth the time invested.

Friday, February 22, 2013

CCC 060 Valerie Coleman

American composer and flutist Valerie Coleman is the feature of this installment of the Consonant Classical Challenge . Coleman is the founder of the Imani Winds, and much of her writing is for her ensemble. Coleman blends jazz and African-American musical traditions with classical structures to create works that are distinctive and engaging. Her music can easily be enjoyed by non-classical audiences -- but the craftmanship of her compositions provide plenty of substance for serious classical listeners to dig into as well.

Red Clay Mississippi Delta has a title that evokes the Deep South. The music delivers on the expectation set up by the title with some bluesy and jazz-like figures. Coleman's first-hand knowledge of wind instruments and the strengths of the Irmani players makes this an effective work for wind quintet. This isn't a jazz piece transcribed for winds -- it's an organic work for winds that has some jazz inflections.

At first listen Umoja might seem like a pleasant little encore piece. But listen again. The work has a clear call-and-response structure, an integral part of African (and African-American) traditional music. It's strong rhythms also owe much to African drumming traditions. Along with all that, there's also some challenging writing for the instruments. It's not easy to bend notes on a bassoon like that!

Coleman's classical training comes to the fore with the Sonatine for clarinet and piano. The work has a more formal structure to it than the previous examples, but there are still some traces of jazz in the clarinet's melody.

Gypsy Run shows Coleman's skill at orchestrating for larger forces. This work is composed for symphonic winds. The multitude of tonal colors she gets from what other composers might consider a limited palette (no strings), is dazzling.

Coleman's music might be easy to get into, but it's not necessarily easy to place. Rubispheres starts slow, but once it gets going it never lets up. Coleman's composition requires a tight ensemble to bring the piece off.

Valerie Coleman is both a talented performer and composer. She knows how to effectively communicate with an audience, and not just the highly specialized contemporary music audience, either. Most of her published compositions are for chamber groups, many for winds as you might expect.

Her lone published orchestral work is "The Painted Lady," for soprano and orchestra. I'd like to hear that work in concert sometime. Her bio says "y the age of fourteen, she had already written three full-length symphonies." Valerie Coleman's mature works are vivacious and tuneful. They may be youthful works, but I'd really like to hear those symphonies, too!

Recommended Recordings

Imani Winds: Classical Underground

Close to Home: Music of American Composers

Imani Winds: Terra Incognita

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ginastera: The Piano Concertos -- A Legacy Restored

Nissman Plays Ginastera
The Three Piano Concertos
Barbara Nissman, piano
University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra
Keith Kiesler, conductor

This release is a case of matching the right performer with the right music. Barbara Nissman enjoyed a close professional relationship with Alberto Ginastera -- his third piano sonata is dedicated to her. Not only is Nissman well-versed in Ginastera's style, but she also gives them the tender-loving care they need.

The Concierto Argentino ia a good example. Ginastera wrote this early in his career. It's a youthful work, bustling with energy. Ginastera wasn't quite happy with it, and made changes to the score. Nissman plays the original version, which provides valuable insight into the composer's development and an enjoyable listening experience.
Barbara Nissman performed Ginastera's first numbered piano concerto under the direction of the composer. Her authoritative command of this elegantly crafted material is impressive, and her deep knowledge of the composition reveals lines and connections I've not heard in other recordings.

Ginastera's second piano concerto is the more adventuresome of the three stylistically. The agressive harmonies and abstract melodic lines have little of the folk elements so prominent in the other concertos. Ginastera originally composed the scherzo to be played with the right hand only. The premiering soloist wanted a left hand movement, so she transcribed it, changing some of the music in the process. Nissman restores the scherzo to the original music (and hand) for this recording.

The University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra proves a first-rate ensemble under the baton of Kenneth Keisler. Don't be fooled by the lackluster DIY cover -- these are well-recorded performances and important additions to Ginastera's legacy.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fastidious Spam

Recently the inbox for this blog has been overflowing with spam. Some of them have been carefully worded to generically apply to most any subject matter -- with a link to their own handiwork, of course. Like this one (all links disabled):

I am sure this post has touched all the internet visitors, its really really pleasant piece of writing on building up new weblog. Feel free to visit my homepage; low carb food 
my website - high fat diet 

OK, not too bad -- even if the comment was attached to the post HD Radio's Rate of Decay (maybe HD Radio would do better on a low carb diet?)

But this one really takes the cake -- er, processed meat product. Twice this week I've received a comment using the word "fastidious."

According to Merriam Webster, fastidious means:
a : having high and often capricious standards
b : showing or demanding excessive delicacy or care
c : reflecting a  meticulous, sensitive, or demanding attitude
And here's the latest comment I've received with the word -- this one from a classical CD review (Weinberg: Symphony No. 6 - A Russian composer is given his due ):

Hi Dear, are you really visiting this site daily, if so after that you will absolutely obtain fastidious knowledge. 
Also visit my webpage ... Freaky-Monster Wohnaccessoires 
my site > MiniMonster GeschenkegroƟhandel
 [MiniMonster Wholesale Gifts in English]

Sure,  toots, thanks. So is this knowledge you refer to capricious, delicate, or demanding? My writing can be characterized many ways (such as good, bad or indifferent), but I have yet to hear this term from any of my editors!

I don't think spammers have gotten more creative -- just stranger.

UPDATE: Shortly it went live, this post received its first comment:

If some one needs to be updated with most up-to-date technologies afterward he must be visit this site and be up to date all the time. My webpage: Privat Krankenversicherung Kind

More spam. And not particularly fastidious, either.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Japanese Litho Train Sets 2 - Thinking Inside the Box

Last post I outlined the purpose of this project -- to build up a catalog of Japanese postwar tin toy train sets. Perhaps I need to define the parameters a bit more. The toys I'm talking about are:

  1. Manufactured in Japan between 1949 - 1965
  2. Have locomotives and rolling stock built primarily of lithographed tin
  3. Operate under their own power, either from a battery power pack, or batteries installed in the locomotive
  4. Are not floor toys, but are designed to run on track provided with the set
There seem to be no reference books, toy catalogs, retail ads, or other traditional primary sources I can use to research these sets. But there is one resource available: the set box. Take the example below (click on image to enlarge).

This actually provides quite a bit of information.
  1. Set name and and catalog number (Cragstan 1892)
  2. Name of importer (Cragstan) and original manufacturer (Yonezowa)
  3. An inventory of the set contents
  4. Details about the locomotive (battery operated, lighted, forward/reverse)
  5. A fairly accurate representation of the set
If we could examine the box, we might find a copyright notice that might help provide a release date for the set. But even just looking carefully at this photo, I now have some useful information about the Cragstan 1892.

Collectors of Japanese toys will tell you that having the box with the toy often doubles the value. The reason is the attractive graphics of the boxes. But for me, the information they contain really makes them valuable.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Japanese Litho Train Sets 1 - Introduction

With no reference materials available, how can these be identified?
It's funny to think that three years ago I knew virtually nothing about Japanese tin toys of the postwar era. it was then I made an impulse purchase and bought a Straco Express.

That soon launched a search for enough track to complete a circle so I could run the thing. And in the process, I discovered strange similarities between toys from competing manufacturers -- and virtually no information about them.

I continued on, eventually making a small layout for the train, and populating it with Japanese toy cars of the era (chronicled in the Straco Express Layout series of posts). There also seemed to be very little information available for these low-end Japanese toys.

When I was invited to give a talk on Japanese postwar tin toy cars, (part of the Collecting -- and Collecting Information series) I easily found some materials written about the high-end car models of the Japanese toy lines, but not much else. I ended up having to piece together what I could, using Ebay product photos as my primary resource.

And that leads me to this series. Do you have a Lionel train set, or a random Lionel train car or two? There are multiple listings and histories available to help you identify what set your car belongs to, and a complete inventory of what originally came with the set. That latter bit of info can be helpful if you're considering purchases a set.

Similar research has been done for virtually all the toy train manufacturers -- Gilbert (American Flyer), Marx, Dorfan, Haffner, Ives, et al. The offerings of European companies such as Marklin and Hornby are also extensively documented.

Not so postwar Japanese tin toy train sets. Part of the reason might be because they were all self-contained. All of the above-mentioned manufacturers sold sets, but they also sold accessories (extra track, buildings, rolling stock) so you could add to it. All of the Japanese sets I've found so far have no such option. They have all the track you need, the power pack, the train -- and that's it. The sets were designed as inexpensive, single-purchase items.

Over the course of researching for my talk, I kept running across listings for these sets. And as I looked at the images carefully, I saw boxes with lots of useful information. I also saw many mismatched and misidentified sets.

So I've decided to just online information as best I can, and try to pull together some type of listing of sets and set contents for the various manufacturers. This is going to be a slow process, and one you'll see unfold in this blog.

If you have any information about the train sets produced in the 1950s and 1960s by ALPS, Bandai, Cragstan, Haji, Mizuna, Modern Toys, Nomura, Yonezowa or others, please leave a comment.

I'll need all the help I can get for this project!

Friday, February 15, 2013

CCC 059 Cindy McTee

American composer Cindy McTee is our next entry in the Consonant Classical Challenge McTee's music could be considered somewhat on the outskirts of our survey parameters, but that's alright. Just because a work is tonal doesn't have to mean it's nothing more than pleasant background music -- far from it. What this challenge is all about is finding those living composers (like McTee) who are using venerated music traditions in new and interesting ways to create works of real artistic merit.

McTee's compositional style is just that. Her harmonies are mostly tonal, which provides a solid frame of reference for the listener. Around that frame, however, she borrows rhythmic patterns from rock, melodic twists from jazz, and a manner of orchestration that's all her own. The result is music that might shock the blue-hairs, but should make any music lover under 50 feel right at home.

Her work Finish Line provides a good introduction to McTee's style. It's a jaunty, very rhythmic work with what sounds like (to my ears) Leonard Bernstein-like jazz riffs.

Circuits relies heavily on a forward-moving pulse, so it's no surprise that McTee uses percussion extensively (and imaginatively). The bass clarinet gets a workout, too! Dissonance is used more for irony and to inject a sense of playfulness than to shock -- and it succeeds admirably.

Einstein's Dream is very much a programmatic work, providing musical impressions of what a genius' dreams might be like. The first movement has an interesting mix of excerpts by Bach mixed with ethereal, atmospheric sounds. The second movement features a highly expressive solo violin part, repeating catchy little motifs and mixes them with some lively syncopation.

In some ways, McTee is the voice of her generation, using the shared musical language that spans both popular and classical music for her works. To my ears, it's an appealing combination. And it's one, I hope, concert (and radio) programmers will consider when dealing with the problem of an aging audience.

Recommended Recordings

Composer's Collection: Cindy McTee

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Brundibar: A Triumph of the Spirit

Brundibar - Music by Composers in Theresienstadt
The Nash Ensemble

Theresienstadt was the primary concentration camp for Czech Jews, and in that crucible the interred musicians forged an artistic life that was as creative as it was transient. The four composers on this disc were the most prominent to be interred at the camp. All had promising careers cut short by their arrest, all composed and performed in the camp, and all died in Auschwitz before the end of the war.

The Nash Ensemble presents works written at Theresienstadt by Hans Krasa, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, and Pavel Hass.

The title work, Brundibar is a children's opera written by Hans Krasa in 1938. Stylistically, it's similar to Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf". While tuneful and charming, it also has an underlying acerbic quality that give the music some tang. The original composition calls for an orchestra. The arrangement on this recording by David Matthews closely reflects the limited assortment of instruments available in the camp, and this stripped-down version gives this instrumental suite an additional edge.

Viktor Ullmann's third string quartet was composed in 1943, and is the only one of his quartets to survive. It's a highly chromatic and expressive work that compares favorably (I think) to the early quartets of Bartok.

Gideon Klein was greatly influenced by Alban Berg, as his String Trio shows. While the trio pushes to the edge of chromaticism, it never quite crosses over into atonality. Its nevertheless a compact, well-constructed work, completed just days before Klein was shipped to Auschwitz.

String Quartet No. 2 "From the Monkey Mountains" by Pavel Haas was inspired by the composer's trip to the Moravian mountains of the same name. The quartet is a programmatic piece depicting various aspects of the the trip, from the inspiring scenery to an amusingly bumpy cart ride. The quartet sounds much like those of Janacek and Smetana, weaving folk elements into a decidedly classical structure.

The Nash Ensemble plays with precision and energy. All four works are compositions of substance that deserve to be heard on their own merits. The fact that they were composed under the most hopeless of circumstances gives them additional emotional power. As Ullman wrote, "our will to create was equal to our will to live."

Monday, February 11, 2013

Billband - Towards Daybreak

Towards Daybreak

Billband is a chamber ensemble organized by composer Bill Ryan, created to perform his music. I'd best characterize Ryan as a post-minimalist, drawing inspiration from classical, jazz and popular music and bringing them together in an original fashion.

Most of the music on this album was commissioned by a dance company, and the works have a certain programmatic quality to them. As with most composer-founded ensembles, the intimate connection between creator and composer works to the music's advantage. These players know Ryan's music -- and it shows in their committed performances.

Ryan's music is somewhat sparse, so how it's performed makes a world of difference. Simple Lines, for example, is a work for two cellos (or in this case, one cello overdubbed) with rather plain melodic lines. But the expressiveness  cellist Ashley Bathgate pours into those lines lines make this work a thing of beauty.

Sparkle, as the name implies, is a light, shimmering work. Glockenspiel and piano tinkle away in the upper register while the soprano sax adds a glistening melody.

My favorite track is Blurred, which begins with a simple piano line. The line becomes obscured as it repeats against slightly different versions of itself. Cello and violin lines slide from note to note, further smearing the sound. Overall, a quiet and quite effective work.

Not all the works are slow -- Rapid Assembly is a jazzy little number, and Friction is a bundle of nervous energy -- bot there is a uniformity to the album. Ryan draws on a small group of instruments; piano, violin, cello, percussion, bass clarinet and saxophone. This provides a consistency of timbre to the album.

Listening from start to finish provides a complete aesthetic experience, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. The works on this album are, on the whole, quiet and introspective, and deeply emotional. This is quiet time well spent.

Friday, February 08, 2013

CCC 058 Howard Blake

British composer Howard Blake is this subject of the Consonant Classical Challenge for this week. Blake is a respected composer both in the fields of classical and film music. He writes in a post-romantic idiom that has a strong English flavor to it.

His composition "Walking on Air" from the animated short "The Snowman" is his best-know work. To many, it's his only known work. The song is well-crafted, and quite appealing. But if you listen carefully, there's more going on here than just pretty music-making. Blake infuses the song with an undercurrent of unrest, which gives it more emotional depth. I think perhaps its one of the reasons to song has remained so popular since its release in 1982.

Blake's classical compositions are just a solidly constructed. His clarinet concerto sounds somewhat like Gerald Finzi's in terms of its Englishness, but the harmonies are little more aggressive. While still a quite attractive work, there's enough substance to reward the careful listener.

Speech after long Silence, for solo piano is another work that has more going on under the surface. A casual listener will her the flowing chords and pop-inflected turns of the melody and feel quite at home. An active listener will take the title into account, and hear a carefully constructed elegiac work instead.

Blake is first and foremost a melodist. It's his strength as a film composer, and it gives his classical music an instant accessibility. His flute quartet is a good example of that talent. The melodies are attractive and memorable.

Although "Walking on Air" gets plenty of performances, there are many other works by Blake that should be well-received by concert audiences. Although his movie scores could be used in pops programs alongside those of John Williams and Howard Shore, there's more to Blake's catalog than just a collection of music cues. His classical works might not be considered proper academic fare, but they were written to communicate with the listener -- which is not a bad thing, I think.

Recommended Recordings

Howard Blake: Violin Concerto "The Leeds"

 Howard Blake: Violin Sonata; Piano Quartet

The Snowman

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Lio's Comic Cameos 2

Mark Tatulli seems to enjoy not just using his comic strip Lio to present his unique brand of humor, but to play with the very concept of comic strips itself. Today's single panel sequence is an excellent example of that.

Lio opens a can of tuna, and attracts every cat in the neighborhood. And since Lio's neighborhood is the comics page of the newspaper, that's where the cats come from. (click on image to enlarge)

From left to right we see Mooch from Patrick McDonnell's Mutts, Bill the Cat from Berkeley Breathed's Opus, Bucky Cat from Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy, and finally Garfield from Jim Davis' eponymous strip. Strangely missing is Lio's pet cat -- but perhaps that's part of the joke.

Breathed created Bill the Cat as a satirical version of Garfield, so it's interesting to see them both in the same panel. And speaking of Bill, to call a character back from a retired strip -- that must be some powerful-smelling tuna!

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

WTJU and Unreality Programming

I've written quite a bit about the community radio station I volunteer for. WTJU 91.1fm is the University of Virginia's radio station, and it's grown from being a small radio club for students to a radio station staffed local citizens and broadcasting to a large portion of the same.

But in many ways, WTJU hasn't quite grown out of its origins. I've worked in commercial radio and worked extensively with public radio stations across the country, so I have a good feel (I think) for what effective radio programming can be. I do love the freedom WTJU provides in letting me program my own show, and I like not having to do live remotes, engineer ballgames, or babysit syndicated programs as I used to back in the day.

But the fund drives are something else! (as I've written about before) Because WTJU is a multiformat station, the tradition's evolved of letting each of the four music departments (folk, jazz, rock, and classical) take over the station for a week to do special programming as a fund-raiser.

So in preparation to asking our audience for money, we first disrupt their routine. So if you're used to listening to jazz from 10-12 weekdays, there will be a week when it will be replaced by folk music, a second week when it will rock music, and a third week when classical will be played during that time. What are the chances you'll stay tuned during those three weeks?

Right. Our music programming has four distinct audiences. So we start our fundraising efforts each drive by alienating three of them.

Now these marathons usually feature some great and imaginative programming within the featured genre. Just look at this week's schedule! (click on image to enlarge). Lots of live, in-studio performances, some really interesting explorations of folk and world music... and then there's Wednesday morning.

Weekday mornings 6-9 WTJU does classical music. The Monday and Tuesday shows are primarily acoustic, and although not classical, should be fairly easy to listen to in the morning hours. Wednesday, though, we'll be doing three hours of yodelling -- and asking for money. 

Our radio club roots are showing. Programming is all about context. It's not just what you present, but when. What will get people to listen long enough to hear our fundraising message and persuade them to positively respond with a pledge? I'm not sure these questions were asked when this grid was assembled. Because when it comes to Wednesday, I'm pretty sure I know the answer.

Ah, well. I'll be there, nonetheless, answering the phone -- should it ring. I'll provide an update later on the results of the drive.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Shadow Knows Mutts

Patrick McDonnell, the talented creator of the comic strip Mutts, draws in a distinctively retro fashion. His compact characters and loose lines seem more akin to George Herriman's Krazy Kat from the 1920s than contemporary humor strips.

McDonnell often references vintage pop culture in his strip (see: Mutts and Kings), especially the Sunday sequences. Yesterday's example was particularly brilliant, as the drawing served a double purpose. It not only referenced a past image, but the nature of that image set up the joke.

Here's the sequence: (click on image to enlarge)

That first drawing refers to a classic 1933 cover of The Shadow magazine at right). And that's the joke. A groundhog not just seeing his shadow, but being the Shadow on Groundhog's Day.

Thanks for another great visual quote, Mr. McDonnell.

Friday, February 01, 2013

CCC 057 Chen Yi

This installment of the Consonant Classical Challenge features Chinese-born composer Chen Yi. Although born in China, Dr. Chen is currently based in the United States, and is currently on the faculty of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. An accomplished violinist and composer, her work blends Chinese and Western musical traditions, transcending cultural and musical boundaries. The pentatonic nature of Chinese music gives her work its tonal quality, while simultaneously moving her compositions in unexpected directions (at least to Western ears).

Chen has written extensively for orchestras and wind ensembles, and has also composed several works for chamber groups. As might be expected, her catalog of works for violin is exceptionally strong.

Ge Xu is a short orchestral work. Chen uses a standard Western orchestra in a unique fashion. The violins open with a plaintive melody, but the glissandos and harmonics make them sound more like a Chinese huqin. Her use of percussion also demonstrates a non-Western sensibility.

Her piano trio Happiness is a perhaps purer example of Chen's style. I hear the rhythmic pulses of Stravinsky coupled with pentatonic melodies. It's an exciting and appealing work.

Chen's melodic gifts come to the fore in her choral works. Distance can't keep us two apart is a particularly beautiful example.

Chen has written extensively for wind ensemble. Spring Festival is one of her popular works in this genre.


Just because a composition is tonal doesn't mean it's bland or boring. Chen Yi using the building blocks of Western music in a different way, and that provides fresh insights in the process. Her works enrich the repertoire and dispel the notion that classical music is solely the realm of dead, white European males -- and that helps makes the genre relevant to more people. Which is as it should be.

Recommended Recordings

The Music of Chen Yi: Symphony No. 2 and other works

Zhou Long & Chen Yi: Wild Grass

Chen Yi/Karen Tanaka: Invisible Curve