Thursday, July 31, 2014

Spam Roundup, July, 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.

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"Lumbering along " lumbers along
 The Straco Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering along, a short post about small vintage Japanese tinplate toy continues to garner the most comments (from 'bots, that is).

The Nomura 3" Lumber Truck, ca. 1960. One of the hottest
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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Timeless Classics from 18th Century Czech Masters

Music from 18th Century Prague
Zelenka: Sanctus et Agnus Dei
Tuma: Stabat mater
Collegium 1704
Vaclav Luks, conductor

The latest installment of Supraphon's long-running Music from 18th Century Prague series features mostly sacred music by two composers, and an instrumental work by a third. All three share a connection with J.J. Fux, whose highly influential teachings on composition and counterpoint left their mark on virtually all Czech composers of the period.

The album opens with a Stabat mater of Frnatisek Tuma, who spent most of his working life in Vienna, rather than Prague. Written in the stile antico, the Stabat mater follows the ideals of Fux (channeling Palestrina). Tuma's composition is a glorious work of church counterpoint.

Jan Dismas Zelenka was known as a daring and inventive composer. And while that's true of his instrumental music, his sacred works are more conservative, following the guidelines set out by Fux. Still, the counterpoint seems fresher and brighter than that of Tuma, with a strong sense of forward motion.

Johann Orschler's Sonata in F for two violins and basso continuo provide an instrumental interlude between the choral works of Tuma and Zelenka. His sonata sounds Italianate, although somewhat understated in the solo parts.

The Collegium 1704 directed by Vaclav Luks performs these works admirably. The choir's blend is a little sparse, and the voices sometimes have an edge to them. For these works, though, it works. The dense counterpoint of Tuma especially would be muddied with a more homogenous vocal blend.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Kenner Sky Rail Project Part 6 - The Results

I've been tasked with getting my old Kenner Sky Rail set back into working order. It has to be ready for an event my dad's hosting, so time is short. Can a toy be brought back to life after a half century of neglect?

Read all the posts about this project here. 

Although I was able to get the Sky Rail cars to operate after a fashion, I wasn't satisfied. I needed to be sure they would work on demand -- like when we gave our presentation to the Capital Miniature Auto Collectors Club.

Additional cleaning of the track and contacts didn't seem to make much difference, so I began to look for other factors -- and found them. As I've noted in earlier posts, it's a very fragile circuit that runs through the track. Pins don't fit snugly into slots, so contact is hit or miss.

And in this case, it was mostly miss. The problem turned out the be the "sky hooks" -- the brackets that attached the rails to the girders. The hook snaps onto the girder, and is basically held in place by the tension.

As the sky car passed over the rails, the weight of it pulled slightly on the track as it traveled. After a few circuits around the loop, some of the sky hooks (especially those connected to the top of the girders as in fig.14, left ) had slipped downwards.

Of course, they didn't do it at a uniform rate, which caused small kinks at the rail joints, which sometimes broke the circuit. Even when it didn't, the slippage sometime widened the gap just enough between rails to prevent the sky car's pickup shoe to maintain contact with the metal part of the rails -- which stopped the car dead at the joint.

The solution turned out to be simple -- and temporary. I had to make sure all of the sky hooks were perfectly aligned to ensure a smooth ride for the sky car and to maintain a good current flow. And I had to remember that I could run the sky cars around their loops no more than three or four times before the rails would get out of alignment.

So for the presentation, I double-checked the sky hooks right before the talk, and only ran the sky cars for two circuits before powering them down.

It was a huge success.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Diabelli Project 050 - Piano Piece in F

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 purpose of the Diabelli Project was to get me composing again after a long hiatus. By dashing off these little flash compositions, I hoped to get the creative juices flowing again. And it seems to have worked. In the early stages of the project, I seemed to have trouble getting through more than a few bars of music before my self-imposed time limit ran out.

Well, the time limit hasn't increased, but I seem to be able to write faster these days. Like this little piano piece, for example: (click on image to enlarge)

I got farther than I normally do, but I didn't finish it.

But you can.

The other part of the project is still to offer these sketches freely to anyone who would like to do something with them. Just be sure to share your results (and if you make a million dollars with one, it would be good to share that, too).

Friday, July 25, 2014

CCC 110 - André Waignein

Today the Consonant Classical Challenge presents Belgian composer, André Waignein. It's important to remember that there are many ways to write classical music (such as tonally), and there are many reasons to. Some composers need to create whole worlds by the sheer force of their will. Waignein's goal is a little more modest, I think. He just wants to write music that people can enjoy.

Most of André Waignein's catalog consists of works for wind ensemble. Writing effectively for winds has some special challenges. Most wind ensemble music sounds somewhat flat and monochromatic -- not so with that of André Waignein. He blends instruments carefully to create a rich, nuanced palette of sounds.

Waignein's use of tonality is simple and straight-forward. Although he does use four-note and five-note chords, most of his harmonies are triadic. And while they don't often resolve in the manner prescribed by traditional music theory texts, they do move in patterns that are accepted practice in more popular musical forms.

That's not to say that Waignein writes pop music. Rather, like Leroy Anderson, he uses some of the language of popular music integrated into a classical setting to communicate with his audience. "Relativite" for solo piano is the essence of Waignein's aesthetic. It's a simply melody in a simple setting.

"Song and Dance" can almost be considered an extension of that aesthetic. The work begins with another simple, beautiful melody, and then moves through a medley of popular styles.

André Waignein is capable of more complex composition, too. His "Missa Solemnis" has some jazz/pop elements, but mostly it sets the Latin text to some gorgeous melodies that enhance the meaning. In some ways, this work reminded me of similar large-scale compositions by John Rutter. Note that Waignein chooses to use a wind ensemble to accompany the choir, rather than an orchestra.

The title, "Music for Fun" tells the listener exactly what to expect. It begins with a bossa nova and goes through several popular instrumental styles. There's no deep truths being expressed here. Just fun music to make you feel good.

André Waignein is well-known in the wind ensemble world. His music is played on both sides of the Atlantic by high school and college ensembles with some regularity. I'd like to hear more of his other work, though. He's written a quasi-concerto entitled "Three Movements for Piano and Orchestra," as well as an homage to Lionel Hampton for vibraphone and orchestra. If someone would like to be a little imaginative with their pops concert programming, one of these should do nicely.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Susan Rotholz's American Tapestry of Flute Duos

American Tapestry
Duos for Flute and Piano
Susan Rotholz, flute; Margaret Kampmeier, piano
Bridge Records

The album is titled "American Tapestry," but it's no crazy quilt. The four duos for flute and piano Susan Rotholz and Margaret Kampmeier perform fit nicely together. All are tonal after a fashion, giving the program coherence; and yet each differ in character to give the listener real variety.

Robert Beaser takes a simple theme and lets it logically unfold with his "Variations for flute and Piano." Some of the harmonies have an open quality to them, which makes the Variations a nice lead-in to Aaron Copland's "Duo for Flute and Piano." This 1971 work has the wide open sound of Copland's Americana works.

Robert Muczynski's "Sonata for Flute and Piano" also fits well. to my ears, the work has a Ravel/Debussy quality to it, with a hint of Samuel Barber. That's not a bad combination, and one that makes for an attractive and enjoyable work. The album concludes with Lowell Liebermann's "Sonata for Flute and Piano," and almost seems like a further development of Muczynski's work. Liebermann's piece is just as artfully constructed, with melodies that can only be described as beautiful.

Rotholz plays with a clear tone that's never out of control. Even when the music takes the flute into the extreme upper register, the sound gets brighter but never shrill. The recording is also well-balanced. Both flute and piano are on par with each other and sitting comfortably in the soundfield; close enough to hear all the detail, without capturing any harshness.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Fresh-sounding Concertos for the New Century

From A to Z: 21st Century Concertos
New Century Chamber Orchestra
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin and director

This new release presents four violin concertos written in the 21st Century from Clarice Assad, William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, and Ellen Taaffe Zwlich. Two of them -- the Bolcom and the Dougherty -- were commissioned by the ensemble. All benefit from the outstanding musicianship of the group and their talented music director, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Clarice Assad's "Dreamscapes" is meant to evoke the ethereal half-conscious world of dreams, and does so effectively. This isn't a violin showcase type of concerto. Rather, the solo instrument seems to travel through soundscapes conjured up by the ensemble.

"Romanza," by William Bolcom is more straight-forward work. Bolcom's fascination with American musical forms manifests itself in the finale's cakewalk. "Romanza's" post-romantic construction allows for plenty of expression, and Salenro-Sonneberg rises to the occasion. Her violin practically sings, wresting every bit of emotion out of Bolcom's music.

Michael Daugherty treats the ensemble as a large string quartet in "Fallingwater." The work divides the ensemble into four parts, similar in structure to a string quartet. Daugherty's music often has pop inflections, and "Fallingwater" is no exception. But those influences are understated, providing a freshness and energy to the score without being obvious.

The final work on the album, "Commedia dell"Arte" by Ellen Taaffe Zwlich is in many ways the most traditional (if one can use that term for 21st Century music). As the title suggests, Zwilich uses the characters of commedia dell'arte as her point of inspiration. Each movement presents a musical portrait of one of the stock characters. There's an Italianate light-heartedness about this score, and Salerno-Sonnenberg's bow fairly dances across the strings.

These concertos aren't necessarily about virtuosity; but they are about musicianship. Each one is a partnership between the soloist and the ensemble. Both halves need to be fully committed to deliver successful performances of these works; and there's no question that Nadja Salerno-Sonneberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra delivers.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kenner Sky Rail Project Part 5 - Making Connections

I've been tasked with getting my old Kenner Sky Rail set back into working order. It has to be ready for an event my dad's hosting, so time is short. Can a toy be brought back to life after a half century of neglect?

Read all the posts about this project here.

The layouts in the Kenner Sky Rail construction book all looked pretty attractive. I chose one with two closed loops. A point-to-point layout requires operator attention. I would have to stop the cars when they reached the end of the line, back them up through the line, stop them at the other end, send them forward and repeat. With closed loops, I could (in theory), just set the power level, and let the sky cars travel in endless circles around the track.

Building the model was great fun -- and frustrating. I discovered that Kenner had cheated a little with their beautiful photos. I could indeed match what was shown in the photographs, if I left the unphotographed sides incomplete. In the end, I modified the design slightly to get something that would look good at all angles.

Then came the test -- would the sky cars travel merrily along their rails?

Yes. No. Almost.

As the cars traveled along the rails, the shifting weight causes some of the contact pins to wiggle slightly. And that broke the circuit. Plus, with the longer, more elaborate loop there seemed to be some voltage drop in the far reaches of the layout.

I had carefully cleaned the track and the contacts on the sky cars with a number of cleaners. I started with Brasso, which took a lot of the grime off, then switched to DeoxIT Liquid, which is designed to improve conductivity as well as remove tarnish. The before and after video below shows the results.

So yes, it kind of works -- and with the presentation just days away, the only question remains is this: will it work well enough, and long enough?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Diabelli Project 049 - Piano Piece 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 flash composition sketches from the past three weeks have shared some similarities -- one being a buildup in the final two measures as increasingly complex chords are added on the way to someplace. This week I start with that idea. The right hand builds on its simple 3-note motive, while the left hand ranges far and wide with its melody. (click on image to enlarge)

Instead of a 2-bar crescendo, this piece starts building right from the beginning. But building towards what? That's up to you. As with all Diabelli Project sketches, it's available for you to finish, rearrange, or just use part of (for free, of course). All I ask is that if you do something with this music, that you'll let me know. I'm curious to see how it turns out..

Friday, July 18, 2014

CCC 109 Andrea Tarrodi

This week the Consonant Classical Challenge features Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi. Tarrodi is relatively young (b. 1981), but has already made a name for herself. She's won several awards for her compositions, which have been performed frequently -- and it's easy to hear why.

The daughter of composer and trombonist Christian Lindberg, Tarrodi's musical style sounds (to my ears) post-modernist.  Her motivic development can sometimes recall Stravinsky's, and her harmonic structures seem similar at times to Debussy's, while at other times more closely resembling the sound clouds of Arvo Pärt. Although Tarrodi's music doesn't fall into the major/minor framework, there is always an underlying sense of direction and a clear-cut tonal center.

"Charities" for harp and percussion strips Tarrodi's sound down to its bare essence. Throughout this impressionistic work there's a strong tonal grounding, even as the music whirls around in gossemer-like strands.

By contrast, the excerpts from her orchestral work Liguria show what Tarrodi can do with the full resources of a symphony orchestra. Here the chordal textures are thicker, the melodies more finely colored, but the essential gestures of Tarrodi's music are still there.

Tarrodi's first string quartet, "Miroirs" starts with an elegiac cello line accompanied by pulsing chord clusters that almost sound like breathing. There is a section with grinding dissonances that would send the blue hairs scurrying for the exits, but these dissonances resolve back to their tonal roots by the end of the work.

Composers like Andrea Tarrodi show us what's on the horizon of classical music -- and it sounds pretty exciting. Just as composers in the 1920's were freed from the constraints of traditional tonality, modern composers -- like Tarrodi -- are freed from the constraints of atonality. Tarrodi isn't writing music that reverts back to the post-romantics. Rather, she's moving forward, using tonality as an organizational element in a decidedly 21st Century manner.

Recommended Recordings

Future Classics II

Thursday, July 17, 2014

John Cage: Works for Two Keyboards 2 -- A Mixed Bag

John Cage
Works for Two Keyboards 2
Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo

John Cage's music can be difficult to listen to. And many times, that's the point. Cage wanted audiences to be aware of the unspoken assumptions about what music was and how it should be listened to -- or viewed. There's often a strong visual element in his work. Which, I think, is the problem I had with "Music for Two."

It's part of his "Music for ___" series. Cage wrote a part for every instrument, and the composition/performance becomes whatever the combination of instruments are at the time. In this case, it's two prepared pianos. The problem for me is that there's just not a lot going on aurally. I suspect seeing the performances interact and the visual cues provided by them moving from one part of the piano to the other would give me a much richer experience. Musically, it sounds like about five minutes of material spread over a 29-minute track.

By contrast, "Three Dances" more than justified the price of admission. This is Cage at his finest. The prepared pianos sound like sophisticated electronics or exotic percussion instruments, which make these 1945 works seem as if they could have been written yesterday. And Cage's complex rhythmic patterns keep things hopping. This isn't the metronomic regularity of minimalism. Rather, these dances crackle and explode unpredictably, yet all the while simmering with energy that can only sometimes be contained.

Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer perform these works with amazing precision and obvious relish, even if they couldn't quite sell me on the "Music for Two." That track, I'd recommend only to Cage compleatists. "Three Dances," though, are for everyone. Those pieces (and the Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo's performance) rock.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Jerome Lowenthal Delivers a Potent Post-Modern Program

Jerome Lowenthal: Rochberg, Chihara & Rorem
Jereome Lowenthal, piano
Bridge Records

Pianist Jerome Lowenthal presents an attractive program of works that he has some kind of direct connection to. And that connection makes these not just informed, but exciting and insightful performances.

George Rochberg's compositions make up the bulk of the release, with three works that are similar in construction, yet yield different results. "Carnival Music" (composed for Lowenthal) is a wild mix of academic atonality and commonplace blues, tangos, and marches -- filtered through a fun-house mirror. "Nach Bach" a work Lowenthal champions, is more aggressively atonal, with snatches of Bach interspersed, like sunshine glimpsed through roiling clouds.

"The Partita Variations" features a number of pastiches (again, mixed with atonal elements) that culminate in a decidedly tonal three-part fugue.

Lowenthal easily sails through the sudden shifts in style -- one moment playing heart-on-your-sleeve Tchaikovsky, the next icily stabbing disjunct notes across the keyboard.

Paul Chihara's work, "Twice Seven Haiku for Piano," is the result of a suggestion made by Lowenthal to the composer. It's a set of quite short characteristic pieces that cover a wide range of styles and genres. These are fun little musical vignettes that Lowenthal plays with relish. The album concludes with Ned Rorem's "75 Notes for Jerry," written for Lowenthal's 75th birthday. Lowenthal's tender performance makes the work sound very close to Debussy, a fitting end to this post-modern program.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kenner Sky Rail Project Part 4 - Power

I tried replacing this connector, but I couldn't construct
one that fitted tight enough into the rails.
I've been tasked with getting my old Kenner Sky Rail set back into working order. It has to be ready for an event my dad's hosting, so time is short. Can a toy be brought back to life after a half century of neglect?

Read all the posts about this project here.  
By hooking a wire through this loop, I could run power
from a transformer and use the existing connector.
I insulated the two leads with electrical tape.

The over-and-under arrangement of the circuits on the monorail created something of a problem. The sky cars' contacts bracket the rails. Power wires have to be carefully placed to stay out of the way of the passing car.

The power packs that came with the sets used a double U-shaped design that joined two sections of track together. The leads were then snugly pulled together (insulated from each other), going out through the very small clearance the passing sky car afforded.

Unfortunately, the plastic toggle switches in in the packs had become brittle with age. When I turned them, they fell apart. Using the original power packs was no longer an option.

I tried twisting wire into the shape of the connectors, but I couldn't get the gap between the rails tight enough. Only the original connectors would do. I was reluctant to strip them off the power packs. As the Sky Rail set is a vintage toy, I thought it best to leave everything in its original condition.

The original power packs. Unfortunately,
these were toast, so I had to improvise.
So I created a temporary solution. The connectors had loops on the ends where the power pack wires were soldered on. I threaded new wires through those, and crimped them closed. A little electrical tape insulated the wires from each other, and I was set. I could then run the wires to a pair of DC toy train transformers.

And so I did. Trying the sky cars out on my small test loop proved it a successful solution. So now I was ready for the next step. Construct the actual layout we would have for the presentation and make sure it operated as anticipated.

Another page from the Sky Rail Book of Dreams
(also known as the instruction book)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Diabelli Project 048 - Piano Piece in A minor

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, today's bit of flash composition may look familiar. Two weeks ago I wrote one with alternating 5/8 and 6/8 measures. Last week, I kept the meter constant (5/8), but alternating grouping the pulse 3+2 with 2+3. This week, those two concepts are in essence combined. Each measure has the equivalent of 6 eighth notes in them, but they're grouped either in 3+3 (6/8), or2+2+2 (3/4).  And like the other piano pieces of the past two weeks, there's a building toward something with thickening chords in the final measures. (click on image to enlarge)

Could all these parts be sections of a larger work? Perhaps. That's up to you. Anyone who wants to complete this fragment is welcome to do so -- just share your results. I'm kind of curious to hear how this one ends myself.

Friday, July 11, 2014

CCC 108 - György Orbán

This installment of the Consonant Classical Challenge features Romanian composer György Orbán. Orbán emigrated to Hungary in 1979, and became a professor of composition at the Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest. Orbán's music draws on renaissance and baroque traditions -- especially in his use of counterpoint and polyphony. At the same time, Orbán doesn't mind borrowing a little from jazz. The result is music that is tonally based and immediately accessible to the audience, while still expressing the composer's individuality in a compelling fashion.

Serenade No. 4 shows Orbán's gift for melody. To my ears, it seems to share the turns of phrase that  I hear in Janacek, Smetana, and Enescu. The playful syncopated rhythms, though, are a distinctively Orbán characteristic.

The Agnus Dei from the "Missa Quinta" demonstrates Orbán's contrapuntal mastery. The simple, diatonic melody is folded back on itself, creating an intricate, yet transparent aural tapestry. One can easily follow each individual voice, while hearing the harmonic motion generated by the layered melodic lines.

Orbán's love of jazz can be clearly heard in this movement from his sonata for bassoon and piano. The piano's bluesy interlude would not be out of place in a smokey jazz club. And those jazz elements help infuse the music with a sense of playfulness and good humor.

The Pana Lingua features a distinctively Eastern European-sounding melody, treated in an imaginative fashion.

György Orbán is best known for his choral works. They turn up with some regularity in choral concerts not only in Europe but in this country as well. I, for one, wish his instrumental works enjoyed the same popularity. They're well-constructed compositions with a distinctive sound, with an immediate appeal even for the casual listener. For an ensemble interested in expanding their audience, the music György Orbán seems like a natural choice to me.

Recommended Recordings

Daemon Irrepit Callidus (Composed By György Orbán)

Hungarian Piano Music

Sacred Repertoire for Male Choir

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Anna Bon di Venezia: Six Sonatas for Harpsichord -- elegant and charming

Anna Bon di Venezia
Six Sonatas for Harpsichord, Op. 2
Barbara Harbach, harpsichord
MSR Classics

Anna Bon di Venezia is a somewhat mysterious figure -- very little is known about her, save that she, along with her parents (a stage manager and an opera singer) were hired by Count Esterhazy, where (presumably) they worked under his Kappellmeister, Franz Joseph Haydn.

Anna Bon published a set of flute sonatas, a set of keyboard sonatas, a set of trio sonatas before marrying and apparently retired from music.

The harpsichord sonatas, published in 1757, are fascinating. To my ears, they sound similar in style to the ones Haydn wrote around the same time. These are short, straight-forward works that are charming in their simplicity. Barbara Harbach performs them with delicacy and authority, bringing out the beauty and elegance of Bon's carefully crafted melodies.

These works, I think, compare favorably to contemporaneous sonatas by more famous composers. Recommended to anyone interested in early classical music.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Tracy Silverman: Between the Kiss and the Chaos

Between the Kiss and the Chaos
Tracy Silverman
The Calder Quartet

There's nothing like a composer performing his own music. Especially when it's so dependent on the performer's artistry. Electric violinist Tracy Silverman manages to not only bridge the worlds of classical music and rock, but does so in a way that makes the blending sound effortless and natural.

The title track is a concerto for electric violin and string quartet. Silverman makes the most of the contrast between electric and accoustic instruments, as well as blending them together so effectively one can't separate them. Each of the five movements uses a different artist (and a signature work by them) as a starting point for Silverman's explorations.

Personally, I thought the second work on the album, "Axis and Orbits," to be even more interesting. This set of four pieces is written for solo electric violin and loop pedals. I've sat through plenty of live performances where the musician first sets up the loops and then starts into the work. It's not always pleasant. Silverman has too, apparently, and has been careful to incorporate the loop-building process into the composition. So from the moment you hear sound, the music has begun. Silverman accomplishes his goal so artfully that one sometimes isn't aware that it's just one person playing -- and playing live. I can think of more than a few guitarists who could learn from his example.

Lassus Musical Biography Maintains Excellence in Vol. 3

Roland de Lassus: Musical Biography, Vol. 3
Egidus Quartet and College
Peter de Groot, director

You'll come for the music, but stay for the biography. The third volume of WEM's excellent series couples first-rate performances of Lassus' music with an in-depth biography that places that music in context.

This volume focuses on the year 1583, when Lassus' relationship with his sponsor,  Albrecht V Duke of Bavaria, was starting to unravel. The music from this time is mostly sacred, featuring the Missa O passi sparsi, along with several motets and the Magnificat supra Las je n'iray.

The Egidius Quartet wisely inserts several "sine textu" instrumental works throughout the program. It provides some tonal variety, and makes the disc enjoyable to listen to straight through. The Egidua Quartet and College perform with pure singing tones that give the selections a luminous transparency.

The release comes with a 62 page hard-bound CD book with color illustrations. It's as much a joy to read as the music is to listen to. Granted, this release will most likely appeal to only hardcore early music lovers. But if you're one of them, this -- and the rest of the series -- is worth the investment.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Kenner Sky Rail Project Part 3 - Contact!

The instructions do mention the importance of
keeping the rails clean -- if you read the fine print.
(click on image to enlarge)
I've been tasked with getting my old Kenner Sky Rail set back into working order. It has to be ready for an event my dad's hosting, so time is short. Can a toy be brought back to life after a half century of neglect?

Read all the posts about this project here. 

An electrical circuit can be a fragile thing -- especially when dealing with toys. In the case of the Sky Rail, there are all kinds of ways to interrupt the flow of electricity. The rails are connected by long pins. If the hole isn't a tight fit, contact can be interrupted as the car travels along the track. And since the car often wobbles slightly as it travels, just running the thing will cause the rails to pull apart -- at least enough to break contact.

After decades in storage, the rails are coated with dirt, tarnish, and in a few spots, rust. All of which degrade power transfer to the sky car. And the copper pickups of the sky cars themselves are also dirty and tarnished.

I rigged up a little test track to see how well the cars ran. They ran poorly.

So the first step was to thoroughly clean the rails, the pins, and the contacts. I chose Brasso to get most of the grunge off the rails and the pins. I wanted to be careful not to strip any finish off the rails that they may have. I scrubbed the rails until they were smooth. then worked on the the pins.

The most difficult task was cleaning the copper contacts of the sky cars. If I could have disassembled them, it would have been simple. As it was, I had to scour away with a Q-Tip at a less-than-optimal angle.

Now it was time for a more ambitious test on a full-sized set up. Just one problem -- how to supply reliable power to the rails?

Two more pages from the instruction book. They make it
look so easy!

Monday, July 07, 2014

Diabelli Project 047 - Piano Piece in B-flat 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.

As I mentioned last week, I really got into writing piano music for my flash composition project. This one's also in an odd meter (5/8). In this case, the subdivisions shift, alternating between 3+2 and 2+3.

If I were to continue this piece, I'd probably continue that alternation. But you don't have to. As with all the Diabelli Project pieces, I make this available to anyone who wants to use the material , and to use it any way they'd like. All I ask is that you share the results.

Friday, July 04, 2014

More Ways to Liberate 1812 from the Fourth

This is an updated version of a post originally written July 4, 2007

I say it every year -- it's past time to retire the "1812 Overture" from 4th of July concerts. I do understand why its there. The score has a part for cannons. Cannons go boom. Fireworks go boom. We have a piece of classical music that goes boom.

But what is the "1812 Overture" really about? It's not about our War of 1812 against the British. Rather, Tchaikovsky wrote it to commemorate a Russian victory in the Napoleonic Wars -- the Battle of Borodino, where Russian forces turned back Napoleon. Let's just recap: in relation to the very American July 4th event, the "1812 Overture" is about the wrong war on the wrong continent between the wrong protagonists. And there's more.

The work quotes the Russian Imperial and the French national anthems and uses those two tunes to represent the ebb and flow of the two armies.

Is blasting out the "God Save the Tsar" really the best way to celebrate America's Independence Day? And what about "La Marseilles"?

So let's forget the Russian overture written by a Russian honoring the victory of a Russian monarch over a French military dictator and trot out some red-blooded American classical music written by real Americans.

If you're looking for rousing, orchestral music that can be enjoyed by casual listeners in a casual setting, here are some suggestions of Real American music written by Real Americans.

Michael Daugherty: Mount Rushmore

- Daugherty's composition embodies the vernacular of American music and culture. His Metropolis Symphony is a musical portrait of Superman (a distinctly American superhero) and his world. "Mount Rushmore" has four movements, corresponding to the four presidents it depicts: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.

Daugherty quotes Revolutionary War songs in Washington's movement, 18th Century French music in Jefferson's, and the finale is an inspiring Copland-esque setting of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" for orchestra and chorus. This should be a standard work for 4th of July concerts!

Charles Ives: Variations on "America"

- No composer sums up the American spirit of independence of thought than Ives. His variations on this distinctively American tune are original and inspired and makes more traditional arrangements just sound uninspired.

Clifton Williams: Strategic Air Command March

 - No one could write expansive, elegiac American music like Clifton Williams. Want to salute our troops? This march should fill the bill -- especially if you'd like to give the Sousa marches a rest.

J.J. Richards: Shield of Liberty March

- And speaking of marches, Sousa wasn't the only one writing good ones in the 1890's. C.L. Barnhouse was a cornet player who wanted to improve the quality of band music, so he started a publishing company that's still in business today. Marches were among the most popular genres and things like Richards' "Shield of Liberty" march. Now, this is the way to start a patriotic concert!

Howard Hanson: "Merry Mount" Suite

- Harris had a distinctly American voice, and his opera "Merry Mount" is a distinctively American story. Based on the short story "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, it dramatizes the conflict between the fun-loving colonists of Mount Wollaston, Massachusetts and their more serious Puritan neighbors.

Henry Cowell - Hymn and Fuging Tunes

- American composer Henry Cowell was a truly original thinker. He developed his own system of music -- something American composers seem to have a knack for (think Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Carl Ruggles, et al.). Cowell also dug deep into America's musical heritage for inspiration. His series of Hymn and Fuguing Tunes pay homage to the uniquely American "fuging tunes" of the early 1800's. American-sounding melodies based on American musical tradition, in short, 6-10 minute works. Why aren't these programmed more often?

Roy Harris: When Johnny Comes Marching Home

 - Roy Harris was a contemporary of Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson, and Henry Cowell, and like them was concerned with developing an American style of classical music. His short set of orchestral variations on the Civil War tune "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" should be a logical choice for any program celebrating American history.

Many celebrations will feature some Aaron Copland (usually "Fanfare for the Common Man"), or some Leonard Bernstein -- good choices, but there are so many more. We have a rich classical music tradition stretching back over 200 years -- music written by Americans that have a distinctively American voice that can still speak to us today.

If you don't like the concept of American flags being made in China, then why settle for 4th of July music written in Russia?

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Collecting -- and collecting information 17

The Rosko Santa Fe Set. (click on images to enlarge)
Collect enough information and patterns start to emerge. That's what happened recently in my ongoing research on Japanese toy train manufacturers. I happened to run across a Rosko train set in its original box.

Version 1 set (L), Verions 2 set (R)
As I've noted before, with virtually no documentation about this subject, the boxes are invaluable sources of information.

The set was familiar; a Nomura-made H0 Santa Fe diesel, green Santa Fe refrigerator car and brown Mobil Gas box car (call them Version 1). The cars represented the earlier version of this set; the later version had a silver Santa Fe refrigerator car and a yellow Santa Fe stock car (Version 2).

Version 2 coupler (L), Version 1 coupler (R)
In addition to a difference in lithography, the two versions also featured difference couplers. Version 1 had an elaborate hoop and hook system that was popular among H0 model railroaders in the 1950's. Version 2 had a simpler tab and loop.

Version 2 sets were imported by Cragstan, and sold in the US under that brand name. This Rosko set was different, though. The locomotive had red and green lights on the sides and the roof. I had seen that locomotive floating about on auction sites, always (if not by itself) with the Version 1 cars.

Rosko Steele, Inc. was New York City-based importer. According to a 1964 newpaper profile, the firm was run by George Kolberg, who designed many of the toys himself. He seemed primarily interested in battery-operated toys that featured lots of action.

The Nomura Santa Fe Set. Note how little the
box art had to be modified to rebrand it for
Rosko Steele, Inc.
And perhaps that explains the Rosko version of the Nomura train. The Cragstan version (sold with Version 1 and later Version 2 cars) was a straight-forward electric train. Nomura, like many Japanese companies, worked with several importers. It's possible Kolberg asked Nomura for something extra. The Rosko Version 1 set, though has the later Version 2 couplers -- something that may be significant.

There's still one more puzzle piece. I also have an example of the lighted Santa Fe train set in a box branded Nomura. The artwork is identical to the Rosko set, save where the Rosko brand replaced Nomura's on the top and sides of the box. Looking at the artwork, it appears that the Rosko artwork was added afterwards. In the Nomura set, the both the cars and couplers are Version 1.

So the evolution of this set seems to be:

Late 1950s - Cragstan/Nomura Santa Fe Freight: Version 1 cars, Version 1 couplers
1959-1961 - Nomura Lighted Santa Fe Freight: Version 1 cars, Version 1 couplers
1962-1963 - Rosko/Nomura Lighted Santa Fe Freight: Version 1 cars, Version 2 couplers
1962-1964 - Cragstan/Nomura Santa Fe Freight: Version 2 cars, Version 2 couplers

There are still a lot of questions to be answered. Did Rosko import the Nomura-branded set and later in the run have the box art modified, or did Nomura change the art because Rosko rather than Cragstan was importing the set?

It's difficult to say. But with this new piece of information, it will be easier to know if an assemblage of Nomura H0 rolling stock was sold as a set, or gathered together after the fact. And in terms of value, that can make a huge difference.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Seattle Symphony Starts Strong with Faure

Gabriel Fauré: Masques et Bergamasques; Pelléas et Mélisande; Dolly; Pavane; Fantaisie; Berceuse; Élégie
Seattle Symphony
Seattle Symphony Chorale
Ludovic Morlot, conductor
Seattle Symphony Media

I received a package with three discs to review. When I asked a colleague which one to begin with, he said, "Start with the Fauré." It was good advice. The Seattle Symphony has started their own record label, and this inaugural release is a strong start.

The plush romanticism of Fauré's music seems a perfect match for the Seattle Symphony's ensemble sound. Pelléas et Mélisande was recorded before a particularly well-behaved live audience, and the entire program was recorded in installments over a two year period. Yet the album has a surprisingly uniform sound.

And what a sound! The recorded ensemble has an expansive, warm sound that serves the music well. A real standout is the Pavane, which includes the Seattle Symphony Chorale singing with the intimate delicacy of a chamber choir.

Ludovich Morlot brings out the personality of each work; the light-heartedness of Masques et Bergamasques, the charming innocence of Dolly. the dark beauty of Pelléas et Méllisande. And the featured soloists from within the orchestra are worthy of note, too. Flutist Demarre McGill (Fantaisie for Flute), violinist Alexander Velinzon (Berceuse), and cellist Efe Baltacigil (Élégie) effectively communicate the emotions of their respective works, making them much more substantial than mere showpieces.

My colleague was right. If you have a choice of what to listen to, start with the Fauré.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Kenner Sky Rail Project Part 2 - Testing, testing

So far, so good. Running two leads to the pickups,
I determined that the motors were operational.
I've been tasked with getting my old Kenner Sky Rail set back into working order. It has to be ready for an event my dad's hosting, so time is short. Can a toy be brought back to life after a half century of neglect?

Read all the posts about this project here. 

The first step, of course, was to determine if the sky cars were even functional. These were toys designed for the short-term. The plastic car bodies consisted of two halves, glued together. So it will be impossible to service the motors. Either they still work, or they don't, and the project's over.

I used a small H0 transformer as a power source and tested each car with two exposed wires. The cars had an ingenious pickup system. The monorail has two metal rails crimped over a fiber frame. The car has two copper plates to pick up the current from the rails. The bottom one is bent to ensure it presses against the lower rail to maintain contact. The upper has bent panels in the front and back to help guide the place over the gaps between rails so it won't snag.

This diagram from the original instruction sheet
shows how the car connects to the track.
They weren't kidding about keeping the rails
and contacts clean!
The test proved partially successful. The motors on both cars worked. Initially, they were quite slow, but as I continued to up the current they were soon spinning free. Each car has a headlight in front. Unfortunately, they failed to light in either car. And there seems to be no way to replace them. So we'll have to settle for just motion with our sky cars.

Now that I know the cars work, it's time to do some cleanup.

Ideas from the instruction book. I wonder if
I can get them to look that good.