Monday, March 31, 2014

Spam Roundup March, 2014

There's spam, and then there's spam so oddly written it's somewhat amusing. Here's a roundup of some of the "best" comments I received this month from spambots around the world.

When you can't say something nice... just quote the dictionary
 - lifework liftable liftgate liftoffs ligament ligating ligation ligative. fulhams fullams fullers fullery fullest fulling fulmars fulmine. handbook handcars handcart handclap handcuff handfast handfuls handgrip.

Life on this technological globe we live in!
  - Why viewers still make use of to read news papers when in this technological globe the whole thing is accessible on web?

I'm in favor of any reader who can be fruitful
 -  What's up everyone, it's my first visit at this website, and article is truly fruitful in favor of me, keep up posting these content.

That load looks like logs to me -- not bushes.
Wood there be a connection?
 - Thanks for sharing your thoughts about bush. Regards
[This was posted to the ever-popular The Straco Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering along. Maybe the "bush" refers to the wood on the lumber truck? If not...]

I'm big on touching points
 - Thedse are really enormous ideas in concerning blogging. You have touched some good points here. Any way keep up wrinting.

Not seeing the connection here
My partner and I absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of your post's to be exactly what I'm looking for. Would you offer guest writers to write content for yourself? I wouldn't mind writing a post or elaborating on most of the subjects you write in relation to here. Again, awesome weblog! Also visit my website :: best supplement to build muscles
[This was posted on CCC 079 - Willem Wander van Nieuwkerk -- a profile of a contemporary classical composer. Not sure how our poster's knowledge of muscle-building would fit in.]

Until next time, keep those enormous ideas coming, and we'll see you in the news papers!

Friday, March 28, 2014

CCC 098 - Imant Raminsh

Imant Raminsh, a Latvian composer who now lives in Canada is the focus of this week's Consonant Classical Challenge. Although a violinist, most of Raminsh's music is written for the human voice -- most of it for chorus. Writes almost exclusively for the human voice, mostly choral works. Perhaps because a good portion of his catalog are sacred works, Raminsh's compositional style seems a continuation of tradition rather than a break from it.

His music has very strong tonal centers, with "softer" whole-tone (as opposed to half-step) dissonances. Raminsh has a very distinct compositional voice; his melodies seem to flow naturally from one note to the next without sounding commonplace or cliched.

The "Magnificat" begins softly, with a Gregorian chant-like solo that makes clear Raminsh's connection with sacred music traditions. The relatively simple harmonies and modest ranges of the voices make this a work that can be performed by college choirs, amateur ensembles, as well as professional singers.

The clarity of Raminsh's ensemble writing in his "Ave Verum Corpus" s easier to hear in this performance by a professional ensemble. Every voice has a purpose, and that purpose is to enhance the meaning of the words through harmonic shading.

"Three Spanish Lyrics" is a song cycle, showing Raminsh is eqaully skilled writing for the solo voice. Simple and direct, these three short songs demonstrate his ability to craft a singable melody that's both memorable and engaging.

Imant Raminsh writes music that's meant to be performed -- and it is. His work often turns up on programs for choral conventions and conferences. There's a serenity to Raminsh's music that makes it especially effective for worship. I wish more community choirs would add Raminsh's works to their repertoire.

Recommended Recordings

Raminsh: Earth Chants - The Choral Music of Imant Raminish

Raminsh: Vocal Works

Anima Mea! New Music for Women's Voices

Thursday, March 27, 2014

American Grace -- Orli Shaham's album of connections

American Grace
Piano music from Steven Mackey/John Adams
Orlie Shaham, piano
Los Angeles Philharmonic; David Robertson, conductor
Jon Kimura Parker, piano
Canary Classics

This album is all about connections -- and those connections help make this release such a strong program of contemporary piano music. Orli Shaham and Steven Mackey are close personal friends. His piano concerto "Stumbling to Grace" was composed for her, and in this recording, the performance is conducted by David Robertson, Orli's husband. These close connections facilitate communication, and to my ears, translate into a superior composition and performance.

The music is well-suited to Shaham's technique, and she plays with a deep understanding of the material. And the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Robertson, is right there with her. This concerto, as the name implies, is one with a destination in mind. Disjointed themes gradually coalesce over the course of the 26-minute work, stumbling towards a satisfying finale that pulls all the pieces together. Without a deep understanding of the structure and purpose of all these seemingly unrelated bits, the concerto could come off as rambling mess. In this case, though, composer, soloist, and conductor all seem to be of one mind, And the result is phenomenal.

The John Adams works included are also worth the price of admission. Shaham breezes through "China Gates" with metronomic precision tempered by an expressive delicacy. Hallelujah Junction, a work for two pianos, is another outstanding performance. Jon Kimura Parker and Orli Shaham are perfectly matched, sounding like a single uber-pianist.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bernard Rands: Piano Music 1960-2010

Bernard Rands 
Piano Music (1960-2010) 
Ursula Oppens, Robert Levin, piano
Bridge Records 

By presenting a selection of piano works spanning 40 years, Bridge makes it easy to hear how Bernard Rands matured as a composer, from strict serialist to a more intuitive (albeit still non-tonal) style.

The release opens with his 1960 composition, "Tre Espressioni." This is an early work, and to my ears, the pointillist atonality sounds a little to academic and emotionless. "Espressione IV," written just four years later for two pianos seems more fully developed. In this case, the two pianos start off with completely contrasting material and gradually work towards a confluence by the end.

In "Memo 5," composed in 1975, I thought I could detect a little bit of humor amid the disjunct tone clusters and rapid passage work. According to the liner notes, Rands wrote it to express his displeasure with "PPP -- pretty piano pieces." His displeasure is made quite clear.

The largest work on the album is Rands' 2007 "Preludes." This collection of 12 preludes was dedicated to composer and pianist Robert D. Levin, and the first letter of each prelude spells out his name (Ricecare, Ostinato, Bordone, Elegia, Ritornello, Toccata, etc.).  Collectively, the set has a greater range of musical expression than the earlier pieces on the album. Some are just as spiky as "Tre Espressioni," but the writing seems more sophisticated and authentic, somehow. Some of the preludes are even somewhat lyrical (but never sentimental).

"Impromptu," finished in 2010 concludes the program in a satisfying fashion. In contrast to the opening work, the contour is smoother, the dissonance less aggressive, and the overall tone more amiable. To me, it sounded like Rands had completely internalized his compositional process, and the work had a naturalness to it that the early piano pieces lacked.

Ursula Oppens and Robert Leven do excellent work bringing Rands music to life. The technical requirements are steep, but both artists never lose sight of the overarching musical organization of the works.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Prickly City's Puppy Cameos - Part 2

Scott Stantis' Prickly City riff on several other comic strips established a pattern in the first four sequences (see Part 1). Set the scene in the first panel, and bring in a dog from another comic strip in the second. But a good deal of humor comes from surprise. And after four days, things get interesting.

The fifth strip continues the pattern. (click on images to enlarge)

This time it's Shagg, from Peter Gurin's Ask Shagg that gets the boot ("asks too many questions").

Then the pattern starts again.... only this time it's not a dog at all.

It's Rat from Stephen Pastis' Pearls Before Swine. And one might think that's the end.

But there's one more.

We move from dogs to cats. And with Garfield the sequence stops.

Stantis provided some solid entertainment for comics fans throughout this series. Comics readers wanted to know who would appear next? Daisy from "Blondie?" Rover from Red and Rover? There were many other choices, but none as satisfying as the direction Stantis chose to take. For me, it put the "fun" back into the funny pages.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Daibelli Project 034 - Air in C major

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

Last week's entry was an air, and this week I continued the trend. Although with some differences. Both are in C major, and both are in 3/4 time. This one I had a more definite purpose though, and that was to write something that had three voices. (click on image to enlarge)

Is it a keyboard piece? Perhaps, until you get to the fourth measure. Maybe it's a work for three strings, or three wind instruments. A fourth voice could enter at some point, too. That's up to you -- if you chose to finish it. Just let me know how it turns out.

Friday, March 21, 2014

CCC 097 - Thomas Rajna

Hungarian-born Thomas Rajna is this week's featured Consonant Classical Challenge artist. Rajna, currently living and teaching in South Africa, has enjoyed a successful career as a concert pianist, recording artist, and composer. Rajna's compositional style is tonal, with thick, complex harmonies. His melodies are quite lyrical, and the richness of his textures allows them to be quite expressive.

As one might expect, Rajna's composed extensively for his instrument. His solo piano works include a set of preludes, and his chamber works almost always feature a piano plus another instrument. Rajna's also composed two piano concertos, but his output doesn't stop there. He's also written concertos for violin and harp, as well as shorter works for clarinet and violin with orchestral accompaniment. Rajna's written orchestral works, a ballet, and an opera (as well as other vocal pieces), all in his distinctive style.

Suite for violin and harp - For most of the movements, there are chords consisting of stacked thirds, with a supple, lyrical melody floating over the top.

Violin Concerto - Rajna's orchestration has a distinctive sound to it. While the harmonies are rich, there's a transparency to the music that keeps it from sounding heavy.

String Quartet No. 2 - The work builds upon the string quartets of Bartok and Kodaly (composers whose works have been recorded by Rajna). The tonal foundation of the music, juxaposed against the chromatic motion of the melodies and second-relationships creates a dynamic and tension that's only fully resolved in the epilogue.

Piano Prelude No. 5 - There's nothing like the composer performing his own work -- especially one for solo piano. You can hear how Rajna takes full advantage of his prodigious technique, and also (if you listen carefully), his love of jazz -- which he has also performed.

Thomas Rajna is well-known in South Africa, where he's made his home. His recordings are distributed and sold throughout Europe. And he's worked with conductors and orchestras that are prominent in America? So why has he not quite arrived in the US? I'm not sure. It's certainly not because of the quality of his music. Perhaps this will change over time. Rajna's music should appeal to both audiences conservative and adventuresome. I, for one, would really like to hear his piano concertos.

Recommended Recordings

(as performer) Granados: Allegro di Concierto; Valses Poeticos; Capricho Espanol; Rapsodia Aragonesa

Schumann: Piano Quintet Opus

(as composer)
Instrumental Music by Hungarian Composers

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Collecting -- and collecting information 13

My three Linemar vehicles (L to R): PEPCO Line truck
NYC fire truck, Bond Bread deliver van.

Sometimes answers just lead to more questions. In Part 12, I talked about the problem of the Linemar 3" trucks. In the late 1950's-early 1960's Linemar (the Japanese subsidiary of Louis Marx Co.), issued some inexpensive friction vehicles.

The first one I had run across was a power company truck marked Potomac Electric Power Company -- a Washington, DC regional company. Could it have been issued as a promotional piece for PEPCO? Then I found a Linemar Bond Bread van. Again I wondered if this was made for Bond Bread.

Recently I won the bid on a Linemar fire engine. This vehicle was marked "NYC Fire Department." I'm pretty sure this wasn't a promotional piece. New York City is almost a generic name as is.

Then I discovered a boxed set on eBay. No, I didn't bid -- the $499.00 asking price was outside my price range (more on that later). The set has 10 vehicles -- including all the ones I talked about in Part 12. There is a Mobilgas tank truck, Central Coal and Coke dump truck, PEPCO power truck, Coca-Cola delivery truck, GE delivery van, RCA service vehicle, Bond Bread van, school bus, and a police car (marked "1st Precient).

At first blush, my question seems to have been answered -- the vehicles were all part of a set.

The Linemar vehicle set (click on image to enlarge).

Then I looked a little closer. I had three of the 10 vehicles. They looked nothing alike. The Bond Bread van is a very simple stamp, the fire engine an intricate design, and the PEPCO truck somewhere in between. The fire engine has wheels lithographed on its side (as does the dump truck) -- but not on the other two.

All from the same set, but with distinct differences.
And when I turned them over, I discovered that the chassis for all three were also different. If all the vehicles were made at the same time for the same set, they should all have the same chassis with minimal body style variants. That's the norm for these vintage Japanese car sets, and for good reason -- it's cheaper.

So why all the variety? I think it's because these sets were pulling together leftover stock -- vehicles from different runs for different customers, put in a set box and shipped off.

In the two photos below, you can see all 10 vehicles in the set.

It's easy to see that the Mobilgas, PEPCO, Central Coal and the police car were all made the same way, with the black chassis crimped to the body. The other vehicles use the front and back bumpers folded up as tabs to secure the body. Further, the RCA and GE trucks have the same body, while PEPCO truck and the school bus also share the same basic body shape.

All in all, it's a mishmash of body shapes and construction techniques. To me, that suggests a set created to move existing stock rather than 10 vehicles designed from the start to be used for this set.

One thing more -- look carefully at the box art. While most of the vehicles are accurately represented, the markings for the PEPCO truck just have the number 19, and it's labeled as a "telephone truck!"

So why does the actual model have the very specific markings and corporate colors for a regional power company?

I now know how these vehicles were packaged -- or at least in one iteration. But this is one answer that just brings more questions!

A word about that price -- $499.00 might seem high, but I don't think so. First, the rule of thumb for Japanese postwar toys is that the about half the value of the item is in the box. Because they were made of very cheap cardboard, they usually didn't last, nor were they meant to. Once purchased, most people discarded the box and played with the toys. The graphics --and the information -- on the box adds real value. The near-mint condition, rarity and desirability of this box makes it's value of $250 a little on the high side, but not by much.

That means that the vehicles are valued at $250, or about $25.00 a piece. Again, a little high, but I've seen some of these (especially the Coca-Cola truck) sell for $45-$65 dollars in pristine condition. So all told, not an unreasonable price for the total package.

Just way more than I would ever want to spend.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Value of Twitter Part 6: Pi Day Classics (an annotated Twitter conversation)

What I really enjoy about Twitter is not just the conversations, but the depth of those conversations. In real life, the following exchange would have been a non-starter -- unless I was at a convention of public radio classical music broadcasters.

On Pi Day (3/14/14), WUOL Classical 95.5 fm, Fine Arts Radio for Louisville, KY, sent out a tweet calling attention to their Pi Day-oriented classical programming. It got my attention, and the following exchange ensued. If it appears a little obscure, I've included an annotated version directly below it.

The takeaway from this is simple: on Twitter you can find folks as passionate and knowledgeable about the same things as you --- no matter how obscure the topic may seem to the general public. Just as at a social gathering in real life, if you say interesting and thoughtful things in a pleasant manner -- and respond to others doing the same -- you'll have a rewarding experience.

The conversation:

WUOL: #PiDay on WUOL means we've been playing Op. 314, K. 314, BWV 314, RV 314 and HWV 314 all this hour. Did we miss a connection? 

RalphGraves: @WUOL Which Op. 314 did you air? Hovhaness' Symphony 38 or J. Strauss' Blue Danube? #PiDay

WUOL: @RalphGraves Strauss

RalphGraves: @WUOL Well, there's the Pi Symphony itself...…

WUOL: of course there is! RT @RalphGraves: @WUOL Well, there's the Pi Symphony itself...…

RalphGraves: @WUOL Also, what about Schubert's lieder "Nachtgesang" (D. 314) #PiDay

WUOL: @RalphGraves Good suggestion!

RalphGraves @WUOL Another option: Czerny's Op. 314, Grande polonaise brillante précédés d’une introduction pour le pianoforte et violon concertane

RalphGraves: @WUOL With the competing catalog systems, you could have three Domenico Scarlatti keyboard sonatas for the price of one! [1 of 2]
RalphGraves @WUOL P. 314, Sonata in C (K.251, L.305); K.314, Sonata in G Allegro (L.441, P.505); L.314 Sonata in D K.511, P.388) [2 of 2]

WUOL: @RalphGraves there are many ways to slice it.

RalphGraves @WUOL D'oh! Well put.

The annotated conversation:

WUOL: #PiDay [using this hashtag creates a link in Twitter, and ties it to all the other tweets using this hashtag. This is a smart way for WUOL to get into the general conversation surrounding Pi Day celebrations -- and attract more online listeners.] on WUOL means we've been playing Op. 314, [Since tweets are limited to 140 characters, this is a clever way of communicating a lot of information. These are all catalog numbers for various composers. If you know a lot about classical music, you'll know the composers. The only exception is the opus number. Since it's just a publication designation, it can belong to any composer prolific enough to have that many works published (a concept I run with in my response).] K. 314 [Mozart: K.314 is his Flute Concerto in D major. K. stands for Ludwig von Köchel, who first cataloged Mozart's music in 1862.] , BWV 314 [Johann Sebastian Bach: Chorale "Gelobet seist du." BWV is an abbreviation for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue), first published in 1950.], RV 314 [Vivaldi: Violin Concerto in G major. RV stands for Ryom Verzeichnis, the catalog of Vivaldi's works compiled by Peter Ryom and first published in 1972] and HWV 314 [Handel: Concerto Grosso in G major, Op. 3, No. 3 -- although this work has an opus number, so few of Handel's works were published, the HWV catalog number is a much more useful way of identifying the work. HWV is an abbreviation for Händel-Werke-Verzeichnis (Catalogue of Handel's Works)] all this hour. Did we miss a connection? 

RalphGraves: @WUOL Which Op. 314 did you air? Hovhaness' Symphony 38 or J. Strauss' Blue Danube? #PiDay [In my response, I also included the Pi Day hashtag to ensure it was part of the larger conversation. Also, don't be too impressed. I don't know a lot of opus numbers off the top of my head. I first had to remember which very prolific composers actually used opus numbers for their works and got into the 300's. A search of the catalogs of Johann Strauss the Senior and Alan Hovhaness lead me to the specific works quite quickly.]

WUOL: @RalphGraves Strauss

RalphGraves: @WUOL Well, there's the Pi Symphony itself...[Lars Erickson composed a symphony based on the numbers in Pi. I provided a link to the YouTube video of the work (YouTube is an amazing source for classical music). In Twitter, the link is valid, even though it extends beyond the character limit. I've added the correct link so you can follow it.]

WUOL: of course there is! RT @RalphGraves: @WUOL Well, there's the Pi Symphony itself...[WUOL liked the idea so much, they retweeted it.(That's what the "RT" means -- "retweeted from the name that follows.") The conversation just got broader.]

RalphGraves: @WUOL Also, what about Schubert's lieder "Nachtgesang" (D. 314) ["D" refers Otto Erich Deutsch, who assigned catalog numbers to all of Franz Schubert's works. The catalog was published in 1951.] #PiDay[I didn't have room for the hashtag in the Pi Symphony tweet, but I do here -- keeping the Pi Day conversation linked in!] 

WUOL: @RalphGraves Good suggestion!

RalphGraves @WUOL Another option: Czerny's Op. 314, Grande polonaise brillante précédés d’une introduction pour le pianoforte et violon concertane [Carl Czerny was a prolific composer and pianist. I happened to know his opus numbers extended up into the eight hundreds (he wrote a lot of piano exercises and etudes, each with its own opus number).]

RalphGraves: @WUOL With the competing catalog systems, [Domenico Scarlatti wrote 550 keyboard sonatas. Three different musicologists have cataloged his works, and all three systems are still in use. Alessandro Longo grouped them by keys in the 1920's, Ralph Kirkpatrick did a chronological listing in the 1940's, and in the 1960's, Giorgio Pestelli did a completely revised listing.] you could have three Domenico Scarlatti keyboard sonatas for the price of one! [1 of 2][I couldn't fit this all into one tweet, so my "1 of 2" note says that this tweet is to be read in conjunction with the one immediately following.]
RalphGraves @WUOL P. 314, Sonata in C (K.251, L.305); K.314, Sonata in G Allegro (L.441, P.505); L.314 Sonata in D K.511, P.388) [2 of 2] [P. stands for Pestelli 's catalog listing, K. for Kirkpatrick's catalog listing, and L. for Longo catalog number. Each D. Scarlatti sonata has three different catalog numbers, which was my point; one composer, three different Pi Day numbers! (And no, Scarlatti didn't number his own works, so there is no "Sonata No. 314"--technically.)]

WUOL: @RalphGraves there are many ways to slice it. [Brilliant punning reference to pie/pi.]

RalphGraves @WUOL D'oh! Well put.[That pun was the perfect place to end the conversation so both of us could get back to work. But what fun!]

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Prickly City's Puppy Cameos - Part 1

Scott Stantis' Prickly City recently used a comic situation to riff on several other comic strips -- and did so quite brilliantly. This somewhat political strip's current story arc has a Hillary Clintonesque bunny preparing to run for election. These sequences involve her choosing a potential running mate.

The first strip sets up the premise, and the remaining ones follow through, up to a point. (click on images to enlarge)

Notice how the punchline for each comments on a characteristic of the "guest star." Snoopy gets a "good grief" and an aside noting that he's a character in a zombie strip ("been out of work for longer than six months"). "I'm not that hungry" provides counterpoint for the ever-voracious Marmaduke. Poncho from Paul Gilligan's Pooch Cafe remains in character, spoiling for a fight. The canine from Scott Adams' Dilbert -- Dogbert --has his attitude being compared to another famous know-it-all.

It takes real draftsmanship to render characters drawn in another style convincingly. And Stantis is up to the task. Which is part of the reason these cameos are so effective.

After four days, the rhythm's established. Set the scene in the first panel, and bring in another comic strip dog in the second. And placing the strips together, it's easy to see the variations on the theme. But then everything changes -- as we'll see in Part 2.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Diabelli Project 033 - Air in C major

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

If you've been following this series from the beginning, then you know I've almost exclusively made these counterpoint exercises of one type or another. The challenge today was to break the trend and start thinking about other kinds of music. Like a song. Actually, I prefer the word "air" because it removes any pop culture connotations. Nothing wrong with those, but I just wanted to write something still in the classical realm.  (click to enlarge)

And here it is. Of course, with that huge melodic span over the first two measures this would be an instrumental rather than vocal air. But where does it go next? If you happen to complete this musical thought, be sure to share!

Friday, March 14, 2014

CCC 096 - Bengt-Göran Sköld

Swedish organist and composer Bengt-Göran Sköld is the subject of this week's Consonant Classical Challenge. Sköld's been described as a post-modernist composer, a term that isn't very helpful -- save that it implies he isn't a serial or atonal composer. And that seems to be true.

Sköld's use of tonality seems to vary somewhat depending on the medium. His solo organ works, though tonally grounded, are quite adventurous with thick, complex harmonies and intricate, chromatic melodies and countermelodies. By contrast, his chorale music is fairly straight-forward, using intervals and melodic contours that are easy to sing (and listen to). In between are Sköld's instrumental compositions, which use more advanced chordal constructions than his choral music, but seem more transparent than his solo organ works.

In his La chaconne for organ, one can hear how Sköld fully exploits the potential of his instrument. The pedal provides the harmonic foundation -- which is tonal -- while the upper registers obscure the harmonic structure with thier extreme chromatic motion and minor second relationships.

Mass No. 2 is a composition for female a capella choir. The Benedictus is charming in its direct simplicity. Sköld's melodies are reinforced with transparent, triadic harmonies, that give clarity to the female voices.

In the Concerto for violin and string orchestra, the rich harmonies of the string orchestra are tonal, but these are no simple major chord progressions nor are they clearly modal. Sköld's harmonic progression has its own internal logic, and it effectively keeps the music organized without falling into cliche.

Unfortunately, there seem to be no recordings of Bengt-Göran Sköld's music readily available. However, the composer has his own YouTube channel, where he's posted 33 videos of his music. The channel not only includes many works for solo organ and choral ensembles, but it features a good amount of his orchestral music as well, including the magnificent violin concerto, his horn concerto, and some shorter compositions.

Bengt-Göran Sköld's compositions should appeal to just about any classical music listener -- adventurous or conservative (albeit not every work for every audience). I'd love to hear his symphonies performed in concert -- or even a recording of them for that matter.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Straco Layout, Part 31 - Where's the fire, chief?

The Linemar NYC fire truck (click on image to enlarge)
Read all the installments of the Straco Express layout project here.

There was a problem with my Straco Express display. And it had to do with municipal services. Many Japanese penny toy manufacturers created sets in a very simple fashion. They took a single automobile body and lithographed different designs on it. The most common designs are police cars, taxis, ambulances/medical cars -- and fire chief cars.

One of the earliest 3" friction cars I had obtained for the display layout was a fire chief's car (manufacturer unknown). When I purchased the set of Nomura vehicles, I got another one, albeit of different design. (see Part 26, Maxing out the Motorway). So I had two chiefs, and no Indians -- er, firetrucks.

The Straco Layout's Fire Dept.: (from L to R) Nomura Fire Chief car,
Fire Chief's car (maker unknown), Linemar NYC Fire Truck.
A recent eBay took care of that. The new addition was made by Linemar, the Japanese subsidiary of  Louis Marx & Co. The firetruck is marked "NYC" and fits nicely into the display. It turns out the firetruck was offered as part of a set that also included the Potomac Electric Power Company truck (Part 27, Local Power to the People!), and the Bond Bread delivery van (Part 30, The Name is Bond. Bond Bread).

The body is a fairly intricate stamping, with lots of embossed detail. I think I'll pair it with the first fire chief's car I purchased, as the Nomura chief's car is more rounded. The earlier car has stamped detail that better matches the Linemar fire truck. 

Am I done? Possibly. I've seen other vehicles from Linemar's set for sale -- mostly for far more money than I'd care to spend. Still, any train layout  -- scale or tinplate --is always a work in progress. At least now I'll have some fire control.

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
Bandai Areo Station: $8.99

  • Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00
  • A.W. Livestock truck: $4.99
  • Taxi: $2.99
  • Ambulance: $2.99
  • Two Japanese patriotic cars: $6.99
  • Namura Police Car $2.52
  • Haji three-wheel sedan $3.00
  • Namura lumber truck $3.48
  • 1950's sedan $2.99
  • 6 Namura vehicles $16.99
  • LineMar Pepco Truck $8.50
  • LineMar Bond Bread Van $8.00 
  • Linemar Fire Engine $4.95
  • Namura Red Sedan $5.00
Total Cost: $108.00

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Scrapping the concept of "collectable"

You don't have to be an expert in pressed steel toys
to see there are serious issues here -- like missing
parts, dents, rust, and scratched paint.
Recently we attended an auction that featured "old toys." It's an area of collecting I'm marginally interested in, so I was quite curious so see what was offered and how the bidding would go. (It wasn't the primary reason we went to this auction, by the way.)

I snapped some shots of what was offered. If your first reaction to these photos is "what a lot of junk!" then congratulations. Your instincts are true.

Nevertheless, there were people pouring over these items, intently examining them. And worse yet -- they all sold. Why? Because old toys are collectable.

But they really weren't. In part of my series on the basics of collecting, I outlined three parameters that determined value -- condition, desirability, and availability.

Let's run down the list.

First, condition on all the trucks were abysmal. In addition to rust and scratched paint, every toy had missing parts that should have been obvious to just about anyone -- note the slots in front where tabs held the grills on, for example. The frames were bent, and working parts, like hand cranks, no longer worked.

There's a good chance that the most valuable thing in this photo is
the cardboard box.

And if you look at that train set, you'll see the same issues. Missing parts, broken mechanisms, and the absence of most of the set itself.

Yes, you could have these items completely refurbished and restored. And then you'd have brand-new looking toys that wouldn't be worth what you put into them. Because when it comes to toys, original condition is very important. Most collectors want an example of a piece in the best condition possible -- not a recreation of what it looked like new.

For the train set, this one's a non-starter. A partially destroyed locomotive and a box of track. There's nothing desirable here.

The pressed steel trucks do have some appeal. Many collectors either had one (or more) as a child, or wished they did, so there is a market. But size is an issue. The larger the item, the harder it is to display a collection of them. Many more toy collectors are interested in Matchbox-sized cars than pressed steel behemoths simply because of space issues.

Just from the photo you can see the left headlight is missing, as well as
the fixture on the roof. The sides of the dump bed is bent, and the
rear panel is missing. Mix in scratches and rust and you've
got an item no one would (or should) be proud to display.
Starting again with the train set, the box holds nothing of interest. That type of 0-gauge track is still being made. There's also plenty of used track that's in like-new condition at bargain prices.

When it comes to toy train track, condition is everything, as the rails have to clean to make good electrical contact with the locomotives. This is a box that should have been just thrown away.

The pressed steel vehicles aren't particularly rare. You can often find them on Ebay in very good condition for $50-$100.

It's possible these might be used for parts (just like real junk cars), but it's problematic. The surviving parts on these toys are scratched, dented and rusted -- hardly suitable for use in restoring something to like-new condition.

In conclusion -- save your money
All three parameters -- condition, desirability, and availability -- depress the actual value of these items. AT best, they should have only sold for a few dollars each. Although I can't imagine anyone actually displaying these items with pride. If they thought they could resell them later for big bucks because, you know, all old toys are collectible, there are unpleasant surprises in store.

You should really only collect because of your interest in the items -- not in an interest to make money from them. And definitely trust your instincts. I did. I have no regrets for missing out on these beauties. If they went for any money at all, someone paid far too much.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Florilegium starts strong on Couperin cycle

Channel Classics SACD

Francois Couperin's 1726 work Les Nations consists of four sections, each one representing a different nationality - France, Spain, Imperial (Germany), and Piedmont (Italy).

Each section is massive, consisting of a sonata followed by a suite. Florilegium performs the first two in this new release, with a second volume to follow L'impériale and La piémontaise.

The ensemble strikes just the right balance in their performances. Couperin's music sounds refined and elegant, but not bloodless. Some of the dance movements are quite spirited (in a tasteful fashion), and melodies flow with easy familiarity that bring these works to life.

Rounding out the recording is Les caractères de la danse by Couperin's contemporary Jean-Féry Rebel. As played by Florilegium, I can hear a distinct difference between the two composers. Rebel's dance suite sounds more lively and spirited, a little less refined, perhaps than Couperin.

The performances are first-rate, as is the recording. If you have a choice between the SACD and the download, I recommend the former. This is intimate music-making, and the additional detail revealed in the SACD (including the sound of the harpsichord action) just adds to the richness of the listening experience.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Diabelli Project 032 - Invention in C major

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

The rules for the Diabelli Project's flash compositions are pretty simple. I have about five minutes to write music, and that's it. When the time's up, the pen (yes, pen not pencil) gets put away and the session is over. The goal is to short-circuit my inner critic and just let the music flow. And it's worked pretty well.

I mention the rules because this is the first time I failed to complete the final measure. (click on image to enlarge)

So what happens next? I was tempted when I made a fair copy of the sketch to complete the thought. But then I thought it might be more interesting if it was open-ended. And so it remains. If you're inspired to finish this up, please go ahead. Just let me know of the results!

Friday, March 07, 2014

CCC 095 - Juan Colomer

This week the CCC focuses on Spanish composer Juan J. Colomer. Colomer is well-regarded as both a composer and orchestrator, and he's won several awards for his compositions. Colomer writes with the musical traditions and sounds of his native country. This, in part, influences his harmonic choices which give his works a strong tonal foundation.

The ballet “Sorolla” was commissioned by the National Ballet of Spain. Each movement depicts a traditional dance of Spain (based on a set of paintings) set in contemporary language. The excerpt below shows how effectively Colomer is able to blend both traditional and classical instruments to create exciting and authentic-sounding Spanish music.

The Cineto volando Waltz also has a strong Spanish flavor. Colomer's orchestration makes the most of the appealing melody.


Fierabrass is a kind of off-kilter work for brass ensemble. The characteristic flourishes and melodic turns of Spanish traditional music are still present, but Colomer's piece twists and turns in unexpected ways, keeping the listener a little off balance. It also keeps the Spanish gestures sounding fresh and inventive.

Colomer also writes for film. His score to "The Lascivious Devout" shows a different side of the composer. While still quite tonal, Spanish gestures aren't in the forefront. Instead, Colomer uses chromatic steps in his melodies and half-step relations to give the music a strong emotional intensity.


Why Colomer isn't programmed more often in this country is a mystery to me. He's written several orchestral works, as well as a good number of chamber music as well. Audiences used to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnole" and Cahbrier's "Espana" should find plenty to relate to in Colomer's music. Juan Colomer's music is skillfully written, and retains the fire and energy of traditional Spanish music, without devolving into cliche.

Recommended Recordings

Pasion Espanola

Gala Lirica

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Morales: O Magnum Mysterium - Christmas motets for all seasons

Crisobal de Morales
O Magum Mysterium
Christmas Motets
Manfred Cordes, director

Cristobal de Morales was called "the light of Spain in music" and with good reason, as this new release demonstrates. Morales' counterpoint is transparent, and his settings easy to follow and understand. His music is both deeply expressive and ethereal in its beauty.

This release presents fourteen of Morales' Christmas motets, but they're works that can be enjoyed for their on intrinsic merits any time of year. The Weser-Renaissance ensemble, directed by Manfred Cordes,  performs in an almost self-effacing manner, with clean, unwavering tones. This clarity gives these works an almost other-worldly purity that I think captures the essence of Morales' intent.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

How My Brain Works 2

Even after I revealed my secret (How My Brain Works), colleagues and friends still seem surprised with some of the discoveries I make in the nooks and crannies of classical music. Thanks to the Internet, it's easy to fall down a rat hole, going from link to link to link. For most people it's just a diversion. For me, it's a voyage of discovery.

Here's how I got from a conversation about basic repertoire to a radio special on Olympic music in five easy steps.

Hans Huber, Swiss composer.
Step One: The conversation
Ken Nail, who used to co-write this blog, and I were discussing classical music. Ken wants to refresh his knowledge of classical music and had found an old Reader's Digest wall chart of the 100 Greatest Compositions (probably from an LP collection). He was going to listen to every work and check it off the list.

As we talked, I pulled out my 1907 edition of "Stories of Symphonic Music" (mentioned in Re-evaluating Raff). The book outlines the stories behind works that were considered basic repertoire in 1907. My point was that the definition of basic repertoire changes over time. The book had an entry for Han Huber's Second Symphony. I'd neither heard of the work, nor the composer.

Step Two: YouTube
Ken went off to listen to some of the compositions on his checklist, and I decided to track down some info about Hans Huber, and his 2nd Symphony. Neither was hard to find. I discovered that Huber was a Swiss composer of some prominence at the turn of the 20th Century, and his Second Symphony (along with several other of his works) was posted on YouTube.

Step Three: The Recommendation
When a YouTube video plays, there's a list of recommended videos that appear in the right rail. One of them was a symphony by Rudolph Simonson. Another composer I never heard of! So I did a quick search. His Wikipedia entry read in full:
Rudolph Hermann Simonsen (April 30, 1889 – March 28, 1947) was a Danish composer who studied under Otto Malling. In 1928, he won a bronze medal in the art competitions of the Olympic Games for his Symphony No. 2: Hellas. From 1931 Simonsen headed Royal Danish Academy of Music.
Step Four: The Connection
Wait - what?! Simonsen's 2nd Symphony won a bronze medal at the Olympics? That lead me to research the Olympic arts competitions. You can read more about that in my post, Olympic Musical Gold - Part 1. So now I had a list of all the Olympic medals awarded for music compositions.

I,  of course,  had listened to Simonsen's 2nd Symphony and thought it was pretty good. But what did the other winning compositions sound like? Was there more Olympic medal-winning music available?

Step Five: Sharing the Results
As it turned out, four of the medal-winning compositions were available via YouTube. It translated out to be about 50 minutes worth of music. And so, while the Olympics were being held in Sochi, I presented a special edition of my radio program "Gamut," on WTJU featuring Olympic competition music (see: A Gamut of Olympic Music). My listeners got to hear the strange story of arts competition at the Olympics and hear the four medal-winning works that had been recorded.

And that's how it happened. Everyone says it's all about the journey. I think it's a little bit more than that. It's about paying attention to what happens on that journey. That's where the adventure lies.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Pearls Before Cathy

Stephen Pastis' Pearls Before Swine has featured many cameos from other comic strips. In addition to the humor such juxtapositions can provide, Pastis usually takes the opportunity to comment on the character that he folds into the sequence. In this case, it's as plain as the nose on your face.  (click on image to enlarge)

Cathy Guisewit's creation Cathy (1976-2010) has no nose. Pastis call attention to that omission for the strip's punchline. When this oddity is brought to the reader's attention, it can lead to another realization. Every other character in Cathy was always drawn with a nose. Except Cathy.

For the comics fan, it's something to think about (albeit not too deeply). Thanks, Mr. Pastis!

Monday, March 03, 2014

Diabelli Project 031 - Invention in A Aeolian

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

This one's a bouncy little invention that has two things going for it, I think. First, it's in 5/8, giving it an off-balance feel that helps propel the music along. And that's good, because the second thing is that it's written in Aeolian mode, rather than minor, so there's no leading tone to pull things strongly towards the tonic. That means there's a little less sense of forward motion. So having the 5/8 push is a good thing. (click to enlarge)

So where does this little invention go next? That's up to you, if you're so inclined. Just let me know how it turns out. I'm curious to see how that greater/lesser momentum plays out.