Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spam Roundup April, 2015

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.

Unintentionally Inscrutable

- Genuinely no matter if someone doesn't be aware of then its up to other users that thew will pass. so here it takes place. [Right here, right now.]

- Pretty section of content. I just stumbled upon your weblog and in accession capital to assert that I get actually enjoyed account your blog posts. [I wonder where the capital of Accession is...]

 - it's unenviable to create improvements in all of the time period and make a shrill touch principle. [I am inconvined that it's unevitable. 

- When someone searches for his necessary thing, therefore he/she needs to be available that in detail therefore that thing is maintained over her. [Don't be talking about your necessary thing. Eeew.]

- bear grylls messer
[I am NOT messing with any bear's grille.]

Complements -- I think
- Great goods from you, man. I have take into account your stuff previous to and you're just too wonderful. [Mr. Wonderful thanks you.]

- I am actually happy to glance at this website posts which consists of plenty of valuable information. [If he had actually read it, he would have been ecstatic!]

Lumbering on -- and on and on
[More comments about The Straco Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering along which talks about small tinplate toy. Really, it's not that big a deal.]

- Heya! I just wanted to ask if you have any trouble with hackers?
[Why, are you offering?]

 -  Regardless oof an customer's opion, you are able to always use fedback to boost your strategies.

 - Touche. Sound arguments.
[I didn't know we were even arguing.]

Fastidiously down but not out
"Fastidious" continues its decline in spam (at least in the spam this site receives). But occasionally...

- Your method of telling everything in this article is genuinely fastidious all be capable of without difficulty know it. [It was going so well until he hit the word "fastidious," and then the syntax all fell apart -- almost like driving over a speed bump too fast.]

- Hello Dear are you actually visiting this web paage daily if so afterward you will without doubt get fastidious experience. [She makes it sound so dirty...]

That's all for this month. May you find your necessary thing easily, and remember: don't mess with any bear's grille. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Lessons from York - What we didn't see: standard collectables

Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby.

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them. 

Last post I discussed what we saw an unusually large number of. And most of it had to do with that sweet spot of toy collection -- items that were made during the pre-teen years of the collector. And with the majority of said collectors in their late fifties-early sixties, trains from the mid-1960's have become very desirable.

While quite common in their day, these Lionel standard gauge locos
were hard to find this time around.

Standard gauge is no longer the standard

When the TCA was founded, the members were mostly interested in toy trains from 1900-1920. At that time, a "standard gauge" was developed. The trains were big -- standard gauge track is about 2-1/8" wide from outside rail to outside rail. By contrast, in HO gauge the rails are about 0.64 of an inch apart. Standard gauge lasted through 1929, and for a long time standard gauge trains were highly desirable.

Over time, the demand has remained high for the few top of the line examples (mostly from 1928-1929), while slowly declining for the rest. This time around we saw only two examples of those highly desirable pieces, and a dearth of other standard gauge. But then, the demographic that most wanted those pieces has passed on.

Hopefully the days of seeing
Lionel MPC boxes stacked
like cord wood is over.


Lionel was bought by General Mills in 1969 and reintroduced under the MPC brand in 1970. Through 1985 the company seemed to endlessly recycle old Lionel products with new graphics. While the original Lionel Corp. made products for boys to play with, MPC focused on those grown-up boys who wanted to collect. They turned out all kinds of "collect them all" sets that were eagerly snapped up by collectors knowing their retirements were now secure.

Not so. MPC Lionel kept margins high by skimping on quality. Diecast metal was replaced with plastic, plastic replaced with cheaper, thinner plastic, and so on. For a long time, the prices on most MPC products remained flat.

And for years we would see tables with MPC mint-in-the-box products stacked high.

A Lionel MPC state box car. The idea was to collect
all 13 (one for each of the original 13 colonies)
plus the loco plus the caboose to make a special
train that looked ridiculous.
But not this time. There were a few items (I did see two Coke sets -- priced at $150-$165), but not many. Where did all the MPC Lionel items go? I'm not sure. Maybe the vendors finally got tired of lugging them to and from the shows.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Lessons from York -- What we saw: echoes of youth

Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby.

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

There's been a definite demographic shift in the hobby,  and I suspect it parallels those of similar hobbies. For toys especially, nostalgia plays a major role. For the most part, collectors are looking to either replace what they had in their youth (usually pre-teen) or finally acquire those items they wanted but never got during that time.

As the population ages, the window of peak desirability moves with it. When the Train Collectors Association first formed in 1954, the founding members were most interested in the toys of their youth -- about 1900 to 1920. That corresponded nicely to the beginnings of electric toy trains (Lionel was founded around 1900), and so for a while toy trains of that era were the most desirable. By 1964, the focus had started to shift into the between-war years. When my Dad joined in the early 1970's he was most interested in the trains of the early 1930's.

What we saw the most of tended to follow that pattern.

It was always easy to find parts of this set on a vendor table.
But the whole thing intact and with the original box? That
was something that only happened at this show.
Marx marks the spot

This time around we saw plenty of Marx toy train sets in the box. Now that's actually quite remarkable. Lionel and American Flyer electric trains were often used as Christmas decorations. Set them up under the tree, pack them away with the rest of the ornaments. Many were packed back in their set boxes. They were handled carefully, so it's relatively easy to find Lionel and American Flyer sets in good condition.

Marx lithographed tin trains were a different story. They were always meant to the be a low-cost alternative, and as such were usually treated as everyday toys. If you were going to build a permanent train layout, you went with Lionel or American Flyer equipment -- the trains were very realistic and ran reliably. Marx trains with their bright colors and (mostly) unrealistic designs were seldom anyone's choice.

Marx trains were rarely anyone's Christmas train, and so rather than being brought out for the holidays, they were played with year round. There wasn't any need to keep the set box -- many Marx trains ended up in the toy box with the rest of the child's playthings.

Finding vintage Marx is good condition can be something of a challenge, but not impossible. And because Marx trains weren't sought after by many collectors, the prices remained low -- until now.

My theory is that the plethora of Marx train sets in their original boxes is due to two things. The first is the recent emergence of new old stock from dime stores, department stores, and drug stores. I'm not sure if this is inventory discovered when a building is renovated, or what -- but it's increasingly easy to find new old stock toys from the late 1950's through the mid-1960s.

The second is that the population has aged. The majority of collectors now have found memories of those Marx trains that were probably thrown out years ago with the other broken toys. Prices weren't astronomical (around the $100-$200), but they did show an increased interest in what were formerly considered disposable toys.

There were many different configurations of this set made
between 1959-1962. I think I saw at least one example
of each at this show.

Lionel General Sets

We also saw a lot of General box sets. In 1959 Lionel brought out "The General," an 1860's-style locomotive. The locomotive was offered in a variety of sets, including an inexpensive set with a passenger car and a mail car (I actually received one from Santa), a larger set with a horse car, and some other variations as well. The sets were offered through 1962.

Many vendors had General sets on their tables, most in very good condition. I'm not sure where they all came from, but I know why they were there. The pre-teen boys who looking longingly at them in the Lionel catalogs of that era were now roaming the halls of the York Fairgrounds with plenty of disposable cash.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Diabelli Project 088 - Percussion Trio

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.

One of the purposes of doing these flash composition sketches is to tap into my creative subconscious. Having to write as much music as possible in 10 minutes without premeditation has really spurred my creativity -- and created some surprises.

This week's effort was another percussion trio -- my third in this series. When I wrote this, I wasn't consciously thinking of the other two fragments (see: Diabelli Project 055 and 075). But they do sort of fit together, especially when I look at the forces involved.

Trio Player 1 Player 2 Player 3
055 5 Timbales Tamborine, Wood Block Cymbal, Gong
078 4 Tympani (F, C#, D, F) Tamborine Snare Drum
088 4 Tympani (F, D, E, F) 4 Timbales Cymbal, Snare Drum

It's possible to have three players cover everything for all three sketches. Here's this week's entry:

(click on image to enlarge)

What happens next? That's up to you. As always, this sketch is offered freely for any and all to use. Just let me know of the results. And just for the record -- when I've completed the Diabelli Project, I'll be returning to this trio of trios and see if they're actually part of a much larger work. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

CCC 130 - Daniele Zanettovich

This week's installment of the Consonant Classical Challenge features Italian composer Daniele Zanettovich. Zanettovich is well-regarded as a composer, conductor, and an arranger. I would characterize Zanettovich's musical style as Italian post-romantic. His original music has strong lyrical, melodies that just seem to sing. His use of harmony is fairly conservative, although his orchestrations owe more to the 1990's than the 1950's.

The Weiner Fantasie is a work based on the music of Johann Strauss II. Although the melodies are quite familiar, Zanettovich skillfully weaves them together in to a cohesive work that, like the Danube, seems to flow from one big tune to the next in a seamless fashion.

Zanettovich'a opera "Marco Polo" in one sense seems a continuation of Puccini's "Turandot." Like Puccini, Zanettovich uses pentatonic patterns to create a sense of the exotic Orient. Unlike Puccini, Zanettovich uses the device subtly. First and foremost is the melody, which is generally tonal, but never trite as these two excerpts demonstrate.

The Flute Concerto "Casanovo" shows Zanettovich's skill in painting a sonic portrait. The music has a playful element to it (as befitting the subject), and is structured to emulate the classical style of Cassanova's era (without slavishly reproducing it). And the music's so tuneful and sunny I think even Jonathan Bastian would be charmed.

Surprisingly, there are no recordings of Daniele Zanettovich available in the United States, either as physical media or digital downloads. I'm not sure why that is. Commercial recordings have been made, obviously. Here's a composer that deserves an audience -- and audiences would find much to like this music, I believe.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Edward Burlingame Hill - Teacher and Composer

Edward Burlingame Hill forms a link in the development of American classical music. He studied under one of the preeminent American composers of the late 19th century, John Knowles Paine at Harvard, In turn, as a Harvard professor himself, taught the next two generations of American composers, including Leonard Bernstein, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter.

The Austin Symphony Orchestra's debut recording presents four of Hill's works written between 1926-1941. It's easy to dismiss Hill as an academic ("those who can't do, teach"), but that's not really fair to Hill or his music.

Listening to this disc without any preconceptions, I heard works that were well-crafted without a trace of stuffy academia. Further, although Hill's music is tonal, he does successfully incorporate Gerswin-like jazz elements, injecting a little fun into the proceedings.

The album opens with Hill's 1926 Divertimento for piano and orchestra. It reminded me quite strongly of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (written just two years before). The difference is approach. Gershwin came from the rough-and-tumble world of Tin Pan Alley, and his rhapsody is a jazz piece cast in a symphonic mold. Hill is classically trained, and his use of jazz elements seems more polite and restrained. (Still, I think prefer Hill's Divertimento to Gershwin's Concerto in F major.)

The two concertinos for piano and orchestra reminded me strongly of similar works by Bohuslav Martinu. Hill's orchestrations are sometimes spare, and there's a strong sense of syncopation and rhythm throughout. The jazz elements are more smoothly integrated into these works.

Hill's Symphony No. 4, completed in 1941 is a good example of American neo-classicism. This 30-minute work follows the general symphonic form, but this is no Brahms knock-off. Once again, Hill's orchestration and strong rhythms reminded me of Martinu. The lush harmonies of the slow movement, though, brought to mind the music of of another mid-century composer -- Eric Korngold. That's not to say Hill is derivative -- he just happened to be writing in a similar vein.

The Austin Symphony Orchestra under Peter Bay is in fine form throughout this recording. The ensemble really digs into this music, presenting it in the best possible light. Anton Nel nimbly runs up and down the keys, making both the jazz and classical sections sound convincing.

Perhaps Edward Burlingame Hill's greatest strength was as a teacher. But these works show he knew his craft. And they provide some fascinating insight into the musical zeitgeist of between-war America.

Edward Burlingame Hill: Divertimento for Piano and Orchestra; Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, Op. 47; Concertino No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 36; Concertino No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 44
Austin Symphony Orchestra; Peter Bay, conductor; Anton Nel, piano
Bridge Records 9443

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nadia Shpachenko - Woman at the New Piano

Pianist Nadia Shpachenko commissioned four composers to write music for her. But they weren't just any four composers, and it wasn't just for any reason.

To usher in the new era (according to the Mayan calendar), Shpachenko asked four close friends to write works that would represent a new look at piano literature.

Although the resulting works aren't quite that revolutionary (at least to my ears), they still are well-crafted works that deserve a listen.

In a way, these works bridge the gap between the extreme avant-garde and the post-modern traditional. Although stylistically different, they all were written for a friend -- Shpachenko -- and because they share the same inspiration, collectively present a cohesive program.

Tom Flaherty's Airdancing for toy piano, piano, and electronics, uses the toy piano both as a tinny melodic instrument and as a metallic non-tonal percussion instrument. The exotic timbres reminded me strongly of Harry Partch's music. Flaherty's second work, Part Suite-a, uses thick tone clusters throughout, but with more major seconds than minor second groupings, softening the dissonance in an appealing way.

The Picture Etudes of Adam Schoenberg is a suite of four short vignettes that seemed to have echoes of Martinu in some sections. And the addition of the bass drum and gong work (played by the pianist) are both understated and quite effective in their use. His work Bounce concludes the recital, a work for two pianos that sounds like it was a lot of fun to play (it certainly was to listen to).

Cretic Variations by James Matheson is the longest work on the disc (14 minutes), and is a jazzy, percussive and thoroughly modern delight.

Nadia Shpachenko collaborated in the creation of these works, giving her an emotional investment and empathy with them. She conveys that empathy with sure, insightful delivery.

Woman at the New Piano: American Music of 2013
Nadia Shpachenko, piano; Geneive Feiwen Lee, toy piano and electronics
Tom Flaherty: Airdancing for toy piano, piano, and electronics, Part Suit-a; James Matheson: Cretic 
Variations: Adam Schoenberg: Picture Etudes, Bounce for two pianos; Peter Yates: Finger Songs
Reference Recordings FR-711

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Meta Barney & Clyde 4

The creative team of Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark present an interesting concept in the February 8, 2014 sequence of their strip, Barney & Clyde. (click on image to enlarge) 

The strip occasionally has cameos from other comics (see: Meta Barney & Clyde). And now we know why -- those other strips aren't just on a different part of the newspaper. They're in alternate universes! It explains so much. Thanks, guys, for being so mindblowingly meta.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Diabelli Project 087 - Violin Duet

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.

I've written for two stringed instruments before in this series, but in the past I've paired the violin with a contrasting instrument, such as the viola (see: Diabelli Project 073) or the cello (see: Diabelli Project 057). When I started the sketch, I had another violin/viola duo in mind, but as it progressed, the viola part kept going higher and higher -- and so it's now a piece for two violins.

That's one of the things I find exciting thing about flash composition. I can sometimes surprise myself as the music takes over and goes where it will (rather than where I think it should).  (click on image to enlarge)

So what happens next? That's up to you. As will all the Diabelli Project sketches, I make this available to any and all who'd like to use all or part of it in their own work. No payment or permission necessary -- just share your results with me!

Friday, April 17, 2015

CCC 129 - Fredrik Sixten

This week we feature another choral composer on the Consonant Classical Challenge. Fredrik Sixten is a Swedish composer and organist of renown in the choral world. Like many choral composers (especially those who specialize in sacred music), Sixten seems primarily concerned with writing works that are practical to perform. And especially for groups that may be all or partially made up of amateur musicians, that generally means writing works that are tonally grounded and incorporate singer-friendly voice-leading.

That's not to say that Sixten's music is overly conservative. His harmonic palette is rich and varied, and his melodies are contemporary in structure and form. Although most of Sixten's output consists of choral works, including some major works for choir and orchestra. he has written a number of chamber works, as well as some important works for his own instrument, the organ. Sixten has said that he sees no conflict in being functional and writing new music.

Sixten's setting of "Behold the Lamb of God" for acapella choir shows just how effectively Sixten uses his forces. The harmonies are close-knit and thick, with major and minor seconds sounding against each other to add color and emotional nuance to the words.

The mult-movement Requiem for soloists, choir and chamber orchestra is a much more substantial work. Sixten uses his orchestral forces effectively, sometimes supporting the choral lines, but at other points acting independently.

A Spiritual for Peace seems to draw inspiration from Gregorian chant, but its treatment is anything but medieval. Sixten is very much a contemporary composer, and the work has some strong dissonances -- yet in the end, they all resolve to an expanded triad that just seems logical.

Do¨den ta¨nkte jag mig sa° uses much more conservative harmonies, but Sixten still accents important parts of the text with passing dissonances. Sixten cites Swedish folk music as one of his influences, and this work shows just how deep that influence runs.

I found Fredrik Sixten's music quite beautiful. His choral music is written in the modern tonal vernacular, on par with other choral composers in this series. In an interview Sixten said that his primary goal was to communicate with the listener, and I think he achieves that goal readily. He also noted that as he brings the audience along, he often goes off in unexpected directions. It's quite effective -- because while the twists and turns the music takes keep it sounding fresh and original, they never lose the audience in the process.

Recommended Recordings
Svensk Markuspassion

Fredrik Sixten - Requiem

Christmas I Juletid (Christmas Time)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Venetian Christmas a release for all seasons

Don't let the title mislead you. Yes, "Venetian Christmas" is a compilation of music that was played during the Christmas season in Venice during the 1750's. But there's nothing that would make it sound "seasonal" to modern ears.

 Many of the selections feature the psaltery, an ancestor of the hammered dulcimer. The soft, warm tones of the struck psaltery strings give the music a different cast then that of a harpsichord's harsher plucked-strong sound.

Works by Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi make up much of the program (as they probably did in Venetian concerts of the day). Also included is a concerto grosso by Torelli and a sonata for psaltery by Fulgenzio Perotti, a composer and psaltery teacher.

 This is a beautifully recorded SACD that takes full advantage of the technology. The psaltery is a soft-spoken instrument, and Komalé Akakpo's expressive playing makes it sound luminous. Soprano Ruby Hughes sings Hasse's Alma Redemptoris Mater and Vivaldi's Salve Regina with warmth and sensitivity.

And the SACD preserves the fine details of violinist Ewa Golínska delicate phrasing and gives the ensemble sound of the Arte dei Suonatori real depth. I didn't receive this recording for review until well after Christmas. But no matter. It was a pleasure to listen to then, and I anticipate it will continue to be in late summer. This is one seasonal disc that is anything but.

Venetian Christmas 
Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Adolph Hasse, Fulgenzio Perotti, Giuseppe Torelli Ewa Golínska, violin; Komal&eactue; Akakpo, psaltery; Ruby Hughes, soprano; Arte dei Suonatori; Martin Gester,conductor 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Jack Gallagher - Symphony No. 2 Ascendant

What better way to present a new work than with a world-class orchestra and conductor? Jack Gallagher's second symphony gets such a treatment, and the results are stunning. JoAnn Falletta and the London Symphony Orchestra perform with assurance, bringing out all the expressive energy of the music.

And there's a lot for them to work with. Gallagher's well-constructed Symphony No. 2 is tonal and tuneful; accessible without being shallow. Of this work he characterized it as "lasting 63 minutes, [the symphony] seeks an expansiveness of discourse possible, perhaps, only to an extended work."

That bears out my impression of the symphony. Although it does last for over an hour, there's no filler here. The work is only as long as it needs to be for Gallagher's motifs to fully develop and arrive at their logical conclusions,

Like Malcolm Arnold, Jack Gallagher is a trumpeter-turned-composer. And like Arnold, his first-hand practical knowledge of the orchestra is apparent in his scoring. Although quite imaginative, it always sounds well-suited to the instruments he employs.

Also included on this release his short work "Quiet Reflections." To my ears, this simple, elegiac work reminded me of similar music by Aaron Copland, without sounding derivative.  Note to classical radio stations: "Quiet Reflections" deserves some serious airplay.

Jack Gallagher: Symphony No. 2 "Ascendant" ; Quiet Reflections
London Symphony Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta, conductor
Naxos 8.559768

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Straco Express Layout, Part 44 - Haji like a tanker?

Read all the installments of the Straco Express layout project here.

A couple of years ago I picked up a three-wheeled sedan for the Straco display layout (see: Part 22 - Tri Something New). It was an eBay purchase.

I'm often wary of eBay descriptions. There's no vetting of the information the seller posts, so listings are often rife with misinformation. In this case, the seller attributed the car to Haji, although there was no logo on the vehicle. For want of proof to the contrary, I've labelled it as Haji piece in this series for convenience.

But now I know for sure.

Same manufacturer? Hard to say.
My most recent purchase was a small gas tank truck. It appealed to me for a number of reasons. The colors aren't primary, which helps provide some variety to the display's color palette. It's also a somewhat intricate stamping, with the hood and front fenders more fully-formed that many of the examples I already have.

Comparing chassis, it's clear to see
they were both made by Haji.
And it's made by Haji.

I know this because the logo is clearly visible on the side of the vehicle. So how does that help identify the manufacturer of the green sedan?

And here's the documentation that
this is indeed a Haji toy.
Easy -- a side-by-side comparison completes the puzzle.

I had purchased a three-wheeled green sedan that may or may not have been made by Ichimura (see: Part 41 - Indian Head Mystery). When I compared the chassis of that vehicle with that of the Haji sedan, I could see distinct differences. When I compared the chassis of the Haji tank truck with the Haji sedan, I found them identical.

So now I'm satisfied that the seller was correct in his representation, and I in my attribution. And the Straco Express display layout just got another spot of color.

Definitely a welcome addition. Nice to have something not in primary
red, yellow, or blue.
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
2 tinplate signs: $1.00
4 tinplate signs (with train) $5.99
Cragstan HO Light Tower $20.49


  • Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00
  • A.W. Livestock truck: $4.99
  • Taxi: $2.99
  • Ambulance: $2.99
  • Two Japanese patriotic cars: $6.99
  • Haji three-wheel sedan $3.00
  • Haji three-wheel tanker $5.00
  • 1950's sedan $2.99
  • LineMar Pepco Truck $8.50
  • LineMar Bond Bread Van $8.00
  • LineMar Fire Engine $4.95
  • LineMar Dump Truck $12.99
  • LineMar GE Courier Car $10.98
  • Nomura Red Sedan $5.00
  • Nomura Police Car $2.52
  • Nomura lumber truck $3.48
  • 6 Namura vehicles $16.99
  • Orange Sedan $10.99
  • King Sedan $9.95
  • Indian Head logo sedan $4.99
  • Yellow/red Express truck $9.99
Total Project Cost: $191.37

Monday, April 13, 2015

Diabelli Project 086 - Piano Piece

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 week's flash composition is a study in tone clusters. Normally my harmonies are much sparser and the intervals open. But part of the Diabelli Project is about challenges; challenging myself to spontaneously create on demand, challenging myself to write for different combinations of instruments, challenging myself to write different types of (classical) music -- and challenging myself to write music I normally wouldn't write.

So here it is. The minor second turns of the melody just seemed to grow out of the minor and major seconds of the harmony. (click on image to enlarge)

As always, this sketch is offered to any and all who'd like to use it in a work of their own. All I ask is that you let me know what the results are -- I'm curious to hear how this turns out.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Pierné / Vierne Piano Quintets -- A Natural Pairing

The pairing of these two French piano quintets is a logical one. Gabriel Pierné studied with Gabriel Fauré, and Louis Vierne audited his courses as a teenager (Vierne was to formally study with Fauré but Fauré died shortly after Vierne was enrolled). And superficially, both quintets share similarities with Fauré's style.

 Both works share a smoothness of texture and the gentle lyricism of fin du siècle compositions. Both works are about the same length, and both have a three-movement structure.

There are subtle differences between the two but overall the disc seems to deliver one 70+ minute listening session of remarkable consistency rather than two discrete works. (That's not a complaint)

The Quatuor Arthur-Leblanc and pianist Stéphane Lemelin have a seamless ensemble sound that's critical for this music. To me the recording had a slightly distant sound. It softened the sound of the strings, which further enhanced the warmth of the ensemble.

Gabriel Pierné: Quintet for piano and strings, Op. 41
Louis Vierne: Quintet in A minor for piano and strings, Op. 42
Quatour Arthur-Lebalnc; Stéphane Lemelin, piano
Atma ACD2 2384

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Leonardo Balada - a unique compositional voice

Leonardo Balada is a Catalan-American composer who blends elements both from his native and his adopted countries in a fascinating way.

This release features two of his symphonies, as well as a concerto for three cellos. All have Balada's highly idiosyncratic style, which can take a little getting used to. Like other post-modern composers, Balada's comfortable mixing compositional elements rather than choosing to stick with one school or the other.

Symphony No. 6, "Symphony of Sorrows" (2005) is a good example of this. Finished in 2005, the work has elements that remind me Lutoslowski, with a dash of Varese and a healthy dose of Catalan folk music thrown in. The composition moves freely from clearly tonal to nearly-atonal sections. And yet it all works. Balada knows exactly where he's going and how he's going to get there.

The same is true of his Steel Symphony (1975) written 30 years earlier. It starts with an orchestra apparently tuning up (at first I thought it was a live recording). But it's really order rising out of chaos. "Steel" is indeed the word for this work. The brass instruments have a hard edge to their sound. The strings, when playing pizzicato, have a brittle ensemble sound, and the work overall conveys the concept of hard metal.

The 2006 Concerto for Three Cellos falls somewhere between those two extremes. The tonal sections aren't quite as accessible as those of the Sixth Symphony, yet the atonal passages aren't as harsh as they are in the Steel Symphony. In one section Balada has the three solo cellos playing in the upper extreme of their registers, creating a delicate, ethereal and almost ghostly sound.

Although I cite composers that Balada reminds me of, in no way is his music derivative. It's just the only way I can find to describe his music. So if you like Lutoslawski, Martinu, Gorecki, Stravinsky, Varese, or Ginastera (or at least elements thereof), you should definitely give Balada a listen.

Leonardo Balada: Symphony No. 6 "Sympony of Sorrows;" Concerto for Three Cellos "A German Concerto;" Steel Symphony
Hans-Jakob Eschenburg, Michael Sanderling, Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt, cellos; Galacia Symphony Orchestra; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; Eivind Gullberg Jensen, conductor; Barcelona SymphonyOrchestra; Jesus Lopez-Cobos, conductor
Naxos 8.573298

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Lio and the Fourth Wall 9

In his comic strip Lio, Mark Tatulli often incorporates the unseen conventions of the genre into his humor, breaking the fourth wall in a way that's often unexpected. (follow link  for other examples).

In this example, Tatulli has characters from other strips past and present threatening to break in -- and it's quite a mix of characters. (click on image to enlarge)

A brilliant way to call an invisible convention to our attention once again. And a nice overview of the depiction of the feline in the funnies over the years... (even if one character doesn't belong)

  1. Hobbes, from "Calvin and Hobbes (1985-1995) by Bill Watterson
  2. Mooch, from "Mutts" (1994 - ) by Patrick McDonnell
  3. Bill the Cat, from "Bloom County" (1980-1989) and "Opus" (2003-2008) by Berkeley Breathed
  4. Bucky Cat from "Get Fuzzy" (1999 - ) by Darby Conley
  5. Krazy Kat from "Krazy Kat" (1913-1944) by George Herriman
  6. Garfield from "Garfield" (1978 - ) by Jim Davis
  7. Felix the Cat - an animated cartoon character created in 1919 by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer

Monday, April 06, 2015

Diabelli Project 085 - String Quartet

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 flash composition was a quintet for clarinet and strings. This week, it seems I just dropped the clarinet and went with a standard string quartet. I say "seems," because these are indeed flash compositions. I sit down, scribble out some staves, and while I'm doing that decide for what forces I'm going to write, and what the character of the sketch will be.

I actually just drew a two-staff system, thinking I was going to write a piano piece. Nope. Once it got going, it just seemed to split out into four parts -- and parts that couldn't comfortably be played by one set of hands. So a string quartet it is. (click on image to enlarge)

This is the third string quartet sketch I've done for the Diabelli Project (see parts: 079 and 056). They're all a little different, but not too different. It's possible they might be separate movements of the same work. That's how I would approach this sketch if I wanted to develop it further, but you don't have to. Use this material any way you like -- just share the results!

Friday, April 03, 2015

CCC 128 - Costică Andrei

Romaninan composer Costică Andrei is this week's Consonant Classical Challenge profile. There's not a lot of biographical information available online about this composer, save that he's best known for his Romanian carols and other choral music.

Still, the goal of this challenge is to refute the notion that all contemporary music is ugly and unlistenable. So though we may not know much about Andrei, his music speaks for itself. The works I auditioned all had a strong tonal base, while using the Slavic modal scales and inflections of his native Romania.

Anatoly Diptic is a simple a cappella work with triadic harmonies. About half way through, the work becomes faster, with sychopated patterns that owe much to Romanian folk music.

Andrei's Te Deum Laudamus also has a strong Slavic flavor. The traditional text is set for male chorus -- a male chorus used to the Eastern Orthodox repertoire. The basses are especially low, and the smooth motion from note to note share similarities with Rachmaninov's Vespers and other sacred works by Russian composers.

Sus la Rasairt is a more varied work than the previous two examples. It's for mixed chorus, and Andrei interpets the text freely. The harmony is extremely simple, but the spirited rhythms and expressive rallentandos give the work substance.

There's not a lot of biographical information available about Costică Andrei, and there's not a lot of of his music that's commercially available. Nevertheless, the works I did find were consistently well-constructed and quite beautiful. Andrei uses the human voice effectively, and incorporates the traditional elements of Romanian sacred and folks traiditions into his own style. I'd very much like to hear more.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Comical Dick Tracy Returns

It was a little over a year ago that the Dick Tracy creative team, Mike Curtis and Joe Staton, introduced "Straightedge Trustworthy," the comic strip within a strip. Modeled after Al Capp's "Fearless Fosdick" (a strip within his strip "Li'l Abner"), cartoonist Vera Alldid's "Straightedge Trustworthy" makes no secret of who it's referencing and lampooning. (Vera Alldid, to be clear, is a character in "Dick Tracy" --  see The Comical Dick Tracy for more background on Alldid and Capp). 

For April Fool's Day, Curtis and Staton pulled an elegant prank, and simply presented their strip-within-a-strip as the strip itself. (click on image to enlarge).

 Funny and brilliant -- and especially appreciated by long-time Dick Tracy readers (such as myself). 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Franz Ignaz Beck Symphonies Anticipate Mozart

Franz Ignaz Beck was part of the Mannheim School of the mid-1700's. It was there that Johann Stamitz and his colleagues and students developed the language of the modern symphony, particularly with their use of dramatic contrasts and crescendos (the famed "Mannheim Rocket").

Beck was a student of Stamitz, and fully embraced the new innovations. He spent most of his professional life in France, where (until the Revolution), he enjoyed great success.

This new release form Naxos presents four symphonies that provide a good representation of the composer's style. All four works use winds and brass to great effect, although a little restrained. These are expressive works with plenty of energy.

Compared to Mozart and Haydn's mature efforts, Beck's symphonies don't seem to completely jell. But they're still enjoyable. I found them both engaging and enlightening. It's easy to assume that Mozart's musical genius sprang out of nowhere, but recordings like this remind us that a good deal of the foundation for his music had already been laid.

Overall, the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Marke Stilec perform well. I did hear occasional intonation problems in some of the more exposed string passages, though.

Anyone who likes early Haydn and Mozart should find much to enjoy in the music of Beck.

Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphonies
Sinfonia in D major, Op. 4, No. 4; Sinfonia in G major, Op. 4 No. 5; Sinfonia in B-flat  major, Op. 4, No. 6; Sinfonia in D minor, Op. 3, No. 5
Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice; Marek Stilec, conductor
Naxos 8.573249