Monday, August 31, 2015

Spam Roundup August, 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.

That's the name -- don't wear it out

Hi there! AI know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could find a captcha plugin for my comment form?

Whats up this is somewhat of off topic but I was wanting to know if blogs us WYIWYG editors or if you have to manally code with HTML.

Hey! quick question that's entirely off topic. do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? [Yes, this blog is titled "Off Topic'd" but enough's enough!]

The Nomura 3" tin lumber truck. Still pulling down
the comments!
Lumbering Along

The Straco Express Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering Along continues to be one of my most popular posts -- among spambots. Really, fellas, it's just an inexpensive vintage Japanese tin toy. Really.

What I do not understood is in reality how you're no longer really a lot more well-preferred than you might be now. [What do you mean "no longer?!]

Wonderful workk! this is the type of information that are supposed to be shared across the web. Shame on Google for no longer positioning this put it upper. [Google "Straco Lumbering Along" and watch what happens.]

Spammers register at general dating services. The attraction must be interested in or the headline of the game who tend to be better? [I find the idea of registering spammers especially attractive.]

Fastidiously yours

Just when I thought spammers were through misusing this word, I receive this:

Hi, this weekend is fastidious designed for me, for the reason that this moment i am reading this impressive educational post here at my residence.

That's all for August. Until next time, have a fastidious month, and try not to get to far off topic.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Kuhlau Piano Quartets Echo Beethoven

Friedrich Kuhlau wasn't just an admirer of Beethoven - they were friends during the last part of Beethoven's life. And perhaps its because of that close association that the two piano quartets on this release share some similarities to Beethoven's chamber music.

In addition to being an amazingly prolific composer, Kuhlau was also a virtuoso pianist and a master of counterpoint -- both qualities figure prominently in these quartets. The piano parts are extremely challenging, although they never threaten to overwhelm the rest of the ensemble. Both have extended fugal sections that (to my ears) are impeccably crafted.

Kuhlau completed his Piano Quaretet no. 1 in C minor, Op. 32 in 1821, and the influence of Beethoven is strong. And no wonder -- Kuhlau used thematic material his friend's third piano concerto in the opening movement. While Kuhlau goes a different direction with the material, the stylistic resemblences remain. Like Beethoven, Kuhlau uses motivic development to move his music forward.

Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 50 was written ten years later, and Kulau keeps up with the times. While there's still a Beethovenian character to the music, the expansiveness of the movements and the more lyrical approach to the melodic material reminded me a little of Schubert -- especially in the Scherzo where Kuhlau incorporates a ländler.

The Copenhagen Piano Quartet perform with pristine accuracy as ensemble, which works very well for the contrapuntal sections. Yet they play with the emotive energy this music needs. While Kuhlau may not be as stormy as Beethoven, he still packs plenty of drama into his music. And on that, the Copenhagen Piano Quartet delivers.

Friedrich Kuhlau: Piano Quartets 1 & 2 
Copenhagen Piano Quartet 
Dacapo SACD 6.220596

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Vytautas Baceviciu - A welcome rediscovery

Lithuanian composer and pianist Vytautas Bacevicius lived and worked mostly out of the spotlight. Exiled from his homeland by the Second World War, he eventually settled in New York City. Bacevicius resisted assimilation into American culture.

Though born in Poland, he celebrated his Lithuanian heritage, even changing the to the Lithuanian spelling of his name (unlike his more famous sister, composer Grazyna Bacewicz). He never engaged with the New York music scene, and he never returned to Lithuania, thus cutting himself off from his largest potential audiences.

Although obscure more or less by choice, Bacevicius' music is well-crafted and deserves a hearing. Bacevivius developed his own version of atonality that, at least in these works, sounds more like post-tonality to me.

The 1946 Piano Concerto No. 3 has some very distinctive jazz elements. Some sections to my ears sounded like a highly chromatic version of Gershwin, perhaps crossed with Hindemith.

Completed in 1967, the fourth piano concerto is less tonal, and decidedly more original than the third. Bacevivius is an original and imaginative orchestrater, especially when it comes to percussion.

The 1958 Spring Suite serves as an effective bridge between the two concertos. It opens in a light, gauzy manner that reminded me of Martinu. As it progressed, its disjointed melodies seemed similar in style to late works by Shostakovitch.

Pianist Gabrielius Alekna does a tremendous job. Bacevivius demands a lot from the soloist, and Alekna delivers. The Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra directed by Christopher Lyndon-Gee also perform credibly, though in some spots the recorded ensemble seemed a little lacking in detail. Those are minor quibbles, though.

I was glad to see this release labeled "Volume 1." Bacevicius was indeed an original composer, and his music merits further exposure.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Reply All Mark Trail

Two of the many newspaper comic strips I read daily are about as far apart stylistically as possible. Mark Trail has been running continually since 1946, and until fairly recently the artwork seemed stuck in the 1950's (kudos for current artist James Allen for making the artwork more dynamic and contemporary-looking).

Donna Lewis started Reply All in 2011, and uses Photoshop to create collage-like artwork.

Mark Trail is about the outdoor adventures of a globe-trotting wildlife photographer. Reply All is about the personal insecurities of a young woman in the working world.

And yet...

Here's Ken, the marine biologist that brings Mark Trail into an undersea adventure in August, 2015.

Here's Drew, the boyfriend of Lizzie, the heroine of Reply All.

Seeing them both on the same page, I was struck by the resemblance. Are they brothers? Does Drew lead a secret life of adventure?

I'm sure it's just a coincidence.

But still...

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Heinichen Masses Show Italian Influences

This release features the final two surviving masses of Johann David Heinichen, written in 1728 the year of his death. Heinichen spent several years Venice learning the Italian style, and it shows. When he returned to Germany in the employ of the Crown Prince of Saxony, he wrote Italianate operas and other large-scale choral works.

The two masses on this release are full-blown "number masses." Each section's text, such as the Credo or Gloria, is broken down into smaller phrases, and each phrase set to its own piece of music.

The Italian influence is quite strong -- to my ears these masses resembled those of Alessandro Scarlatti. Like Scarlatti, the dramatic power of the music owes much to the operatic conventions of the day. Heinichen's melodies are wonderfully lyrical and expressive. But Heinichen's German background is present, too. While the solo sections are sinuously fluid, the choral sections feature rigorously constructed counterpoint that looks ahead to Bach.

Hans-Cristoph Rademann leads his forces with a sure hand; the Dresdener Barockorchester performs with a restrained energy that seems appropriate for works intended for worship services. The Dresdner Kammerchor has a clean ensemble sound, which made it easy to follow the polyphony.

If you like the sacred works of Scarlatti, Handel, or Telemann, then there's a lot hear that you should enjoy as well. I did.

Johann David Heinichen: Messen 
Missa No. 11 in D major; Missa No. 12 in D major 
Dresdner Kammerchor; Dresdner Barockorchester; Hans-Christoph Rademann, conductor 
Carus 83.272

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Signaling a Change in the O-Gauge Zen Garden 2

Last post I outlined the project; install a Lionel 450 signal bridge and make it operational. It was a little bit of a challenge, because the pressure plate switch that operated the signals wasn't compatible with the brand of track I had on the layout. So instead, I used three-position toggle switches for manual control.

I don't have a separate control panel for the layout. The transformers and switch controls just kind of huddle in a corner of the layout (at least for now). I couldn't mount the toggle switched directly to the table. I would then have to reach over the switch controls to activate them, which would have been awkward.

So I built a switch box that would hold the toggle switches at the same level as the other controls. And I did it with a ruler. Hardware store yardsticks are actually pretty sturdy, and their width was about the height I wanted. I simply built a box with pieces cut from a single yardstick (with plenty left over).

After cutting the pieces, I drilled holes in what would be the top of the box
for the switches. I had a jury-rigged switch for the floodlight on the layout,
so I replaced it with a two-position toggle switch and added it to the box, too.

Ready for final assembly.

And here it is. I removed the switches, then primed and painted the box.

Yep, it all looks a little rough, but with the box in place,
everything will look much better.

And the box is installed. Sure, it looks homemade, but not totally
out of character with the other controls.

Now the installation's complete. The signal bridge adds to the clutter of an urban industrial area that I'm after. And more lights (and colored ones at that) are always a good thing on my O-Gauge Zen Garden -- as you can see below..

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Signaling a Change in the O-Gauge Zen Garden 1

The Lionel 450 Signal Bridge installed. Now everyone can travel safely,.
As I mentioned in the last post in this series, real estate is at a premium on my little 3" x 5' tabletop. And so the only way to keep adding things is by building up, not out. One of the ways to go up is to put something over the tracks.

I opted for a double signal bridge. This was a fairly common sight on most railroad mainlines. It's basically a frame with a set of lights for each track. Green means the track ahead is clear. Red means its not. A number of companies made such signal bridges over the years, some more toylike in appearance than others.

I chose an early Lionel 450 double signal bridge. It was inexpensive (always a plus), and unlike the later versions -- including the one offered today from Lionel -- it was made mostly of metal with very little plastic. So it looks pretty realistic. And it's sturdy, which is good. Because I know from experience that anything sticking up on the layout (like telephone poles) are going to get dinged from time to time by a hand reaching for something in the middle of the layout.

I couldn't use the 153C pressure plate connector
with the MTH track I had. So it was time for
another solution.
There was a problem with the signal bridge, though. I didn't have the right type of track to connect it properly. As you can see from the wiring diagrams, the signal lights were activated by a pressure plate that attached to the tubular track. I was using a different type of track, and the pressure plate wouldn't fit.

Plus, on my little layout, it takes about 5-7 seconds for a train to complete the loop. So those bulbs would be blinking like a strobe light. So I decided instead to wire the lights to a pair of toggle switches so I could set them manually -- and have them stay in that position.

Working out the wiring for the bridge wasn't difficult. One lead ran to each light, and the other to power. In the original configuration, the pressure switch would change orientation each time a train passed over completing the circuit between one of those lights and the power. The next go around the switch to connect the other light instead.

I opted for a three-position toggle switch, which allowed me to turn the lights off. Just one problem, though. How to install toggle switches on the layout where -- as mentioned before -- space was at a premium? As you'll see in part 2, I uses some materials already at hand.

Monday, August 17, 2015

HBO, Sesame Street and untended consequences

Most of the industry press I've seen about the HBO/Sesame Street deal has been positive. HBO gets first-run of the iconic educational program, and in exchange, public radio stations get to air the broadcasts nine months later -- for free.

While it seems to be win/win, I believe there's a possibility that's only in the short run. In the long run, it might possibly kill public broadcasting.

Remember the last presidential campaign when Mitt Romney targeted public broadcasting?

James Poniewozik distilled the essence of the pros and cons of the fight in his October 2012 article for Time magazine, Why is Mitt Romney picking a fight with Big Bird?

It’s the defenders of public money who bring up Big Bird... whenever this happens. It personalizes the debate. It gets people worried about their favorite characters and educational TV for their kids; it conjures the specter of heartless politicians killing Big Bird. 
And if you’re a conservative budget cutter or culture warrior, you do whatever you can not to cite Big Bird, or Sesame Street, or any cuddly figure that millions of people love. You talk about Bill Moyers, or a documentary you charge with liberal bias... You tell voters that coastal socialist elites are taking your money to undermine your values! You only mention Big Bird, if you must at all, to say that government money or no, Big Bird will be fine. (emphasis mine)

Now that HBO's funding Sesame Street, Big Bird will indeed be fine. So in conservatives' minds there's even less reason to fund public television. And for the supporters, one of their most emotionally potent arguments has been removed.

With Sesame Street out of the picture, I believe we'll see the renewed call to kill public broadcasting from virtually every Republican candidate this campaign season. And why not? With Big Bird out of the picture, it will be one of the safest campaign stances ever. And should the Republicans win the White House, it will be one of the easiest campaign promise to keep.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sibelius - Compete Works for Mixed Choir

This two-CD set of Sibelius' mixed choir works encompasses the composer's entire career, ranging from student works of the 1880's to his final choral composition in 1947. The works are in a general chronolical order. The first disc focuses on works written between 1888 and 1902, while the second covers mainly 20th century compositions.

 Listening straight through, I could hear how Sibelius refined his harmonic structures and his melodies became more sharply defined. It was also illuminating to hear how Sibelius managed to create music of real depth within some very narrow confines.

A good portion of the works, for example, were written for amateur choirs. And that usually means limited vocal range and modest rhythmic and harmonic complexity. While Sibelius kept the basic elements simple, he still used them in such a way as to create compelling music that is anything but run-of-the-mill.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir sings with a steely precision that suits this music. Even Sibelius' early works have a Finnish quality to them (I can't think of any other way to describe it). The choir's crystalline ensemble blend rings true with that inherent Finnish character.

Jean Sibelius: Complete Works for Mixed Choir 
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Heikki Seppänen, director 
2 CD Set 
Ondine ODE 1260-2D

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Sulla Lira - the Voice of Orpheus

The change in musical style from the high renaissance to the early baroque around 1600 hinged on an ideal -- to return to the purity of music of Ancient Greece. The concept of playing al modo d'Orfeo (in the style of Orpheus) actually arose around the early 1500's, and continued to gain traction in Italy as the century progressed.

The style of Orpheus -- a single voice accompanied by a lyre -- is the focus of this new release by Le Miroir de Musique. In it, they show how much range of expression was available in this seemingly limited format.

First, the concept of what a "lyre" actually was changed over time. The lire da braccio (looking like a flattened viola) was the instrument of choice in the 1530's. It evolved into the lira da gama, although the oval vielle, chitarrone, and lute were all considered legitimate alternatives.

Le Miroir de Musique presents settings using all of these instruments, providing contrast from track to track. And tenor Giovanni Cantarini and soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr also provide variety by alternating selections.

In the style of Orpheus, the words are paramount; it's the beauty of the poetry that matters. Both singers deliver, effectivily conveying the emotion of the text.

Selections range from anonymous works to those by some of the leading composers of their day, such as Giulio Caccini, Alessandro Striggio, and Bartolomeo Tromboncino. And the works are arranged in mostly chronological order, so you can hear how the style developed as the disc plays on.

Highly recommended for lovers of early music and of the early baroque.

Sulla Lira: The Voice of Orpheus
Le Miroir de Musique
Ricecar 354

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Barney & Clyde and an Old Friend

It was just a throw away gag for a daily strip. But it was done well.

In the April 17, 2015 sequence of Barney & Clyde, Dwayne interviews a job seeker. (click on image to enlarge)

Of course the humor revolves around the cultural legacy of Bazooka Joe. His raison d'etre was indeed to sell gum. Topps Company began selling their Bazooka brand bubble gum in 1947. In 1953 or 1954 (sources vary), they introduced Bazooka Joe and his Gang as a comic feature. The comic (like the one pictured below) was wrapped inside the package, and included a fortune and a premium one could get with a boatload of Bazooka Joe comics and a little bit of cash.

The top panel shows most of the regulars, including (L to R), Mort,
Pesky (Joe's kid brother),Hungry Herman,  Jane (Joes girlfriend),
and finally Bazooka Joe.
Topps discontinued the comic insert in 2012 (as mentioned in the Barney and Clyde sequence), Although the company still uses Joe occasionally, for all intents and purposes, he's disappeared. To any kid who chewed gum in the late 20th century, Bazooka Joe was a familiar comic character. Kudos to Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten and David Clark for the reference.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Florent Schmitt - Sonate libre

Florent Schmitt was a near-contemporary of Claude Debussy, though he lived much longer. Debussy died before the end of the First World War, while Schmitt lived on through the Second World War as well as the start of the Cold War (he died in 1958). .

While their contemporaneous music has some similarites, Schmitt's music has (to my ears) more clarity than Debussy's soft-focus impressionism. (I'm not slighting Debussy; just trying to describe Schmitt's music for those not familiar with it.) .

Beata Halska and Claudio Chaiquin present a program of Schmitt violin and piano works that show the composer at his best. .

Written in 1901, Quatre Piéces fairly drips with fin de siècle romantic expression. While the melodies are wistfully sweet, the harmonies look forward, rather than back, with Debussian harmonic motion and chord structure. In some passages (particuarly the second and fourth movements) the thickly stacked chords with their sevenths and ninths sounded more like a classic jazz ballad than a classical composition. (That's not a complaint.) .

The Habeyssé, Op. 110 is another major work on the album. Written in 1947, its a much more angular work. Shifting meters and some lightly atonal passages make it sound like a modern work, but one that clearly is part of the same continuum as the Quatre Piéces.

The massive Sonate libre (1919) is 30 minutes of imaginative, seemingly free-flowing music. It reminded me of Messiaen's music (a composer Schmitt admired), but there's nothing derivative here. This is a work that requires fire and imagination to play, and the team of Halska and Chaiquin have it. They're perfectly in synch expressively. plus they both have the precision necessary to pull off Schmitt's cascading runs. .

The quality of the music and the performance is first-rate, in my opinion. My only complaint is the quality of the recording. The sound has a slightly hollow quality to it that I found a little distracting during the softer passages. It's not enough of a flaw for me to discouage anyone from getting this album -- just enough to make it a four and a half-star instead of a five-star review.

Florent Schmitt: Sonata libre 
Quatre Piéces, Op. 25; Scherzo vif, Op. 59, No. 2; Chant du soir, Op. 7; Habeyssé, Op. 110; Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées, ad modem Clementis aquæ...Op. 68 
Beata Halsk, violin; Claudio Chaiquin, piano 
Naxos 8.573169

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Les Grandes Eaux Musicales de Versailles

The liner notes for this release read "Alpha invites you to prolong the pleasure of your visit to Versailles with this recording of the music you heard in the gardens."  I'm sure it's offered in the gift shop at Versailles (and obviously several other places as well -- like Amazon).

"Les Grandes Eaux Musicales de Versailles" may be the soundtrack to the water garden tour, but that's not where this music was originally heard. The compilation features Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "Te Deum" (originally heard in the royal chapel), as well as several dramatic works that would have first been performed in the Royal Opera House at Versailles -- not in the gardens.

But while the setting is a little sketchy, the authentic instrument performances on this compilation are rock-solid. The performances capture the florid elegance -- and refinement -- of Louis XIV's court. And in a way, this release can serve as a good introduction to French Baroque music.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "Te Deum" is an excellent example of the religious music commissioned by and performed for the King. Jean-Baptiste Lully set the standard for French opera (and incidental music for dramas).

 Jean-Marie Leclair founded the French violin school of the High Baroque, and Nicolas-Pancrace Royer was music teacher to the children of Louis XV and one of the most flamboyant harpsichord players of his day.

André Campra, a transitional composer between Lully and Rameau is represented with two selections from his opera Tancrède (another work that was most certainly performed at Versailles, but not in the water garden). And the disc fittingly concludes with excerpts from Dardanus, an opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Rameau brought the French baroque period to a close, and fittingly, his music closes the program.

I haven't toured the Versailles gardens, but I did enjoy the soundtrack.

Les Grandes Eaux Musicales de Versailles
Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Te Deum (Le Poème Harmonique; Vincent Dumestrea, conductor)
Jean Baptiste Lully: Piéces d'orchestra & airs (Café Zimmermann); Versailles, L'iles enchantée (Capriccio Stravante Orchestra; Skip Sempé, conductor)
Nicolas-Pancrace Royer: Pyrrhus (Les Enfants d'Apollon, Michael Greenberg, conductor)
Jean-Marie Leclair: Sylla & Glaucus (Les Nouveaux Caractéres; Sèbastien d'Hèrin, conductor) 
André Campra: Tancrède (Orchestre Les Temps Présents et les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, Olivier Schneebeli, director
Jean-Philipe Rameau: Dardanus (Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon, director)
 Alpha-Classics 959

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Dick Tracy and Superman

I'm sure writing a daily adventure strip can be stressful -- pressing deadlines, restrictive format, etc. But I think it has to be fun, too. Take a look at the April 7, 2015 sequence in Dick Tracy, for example. Joe Staton and Mike Curtis were kicking off a new adventure involving a train robbery. (click on image to enlarge)

That throw away line in the first panel is indeed relevant. It refers to the classic 1942 Superman cartoon by Max Fleischer. It was one of 17 Superman cartoons that Max Fleischer produced for Paramount Pictures for theatrical release. The series was beautifully animated, and is considered a classic of the genre -- much the same way Dick Tracy is regarded in the realm of sequential art.

Although not strictly necessary to Dick Tracy's story arc, the Billion Dollar Limited reference was much appreciated by fans such as myself.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Diabelli Project 101 - 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.

It's doesn't take long to create a Diabelli Project flash composition -- the rule is ten minutes max from the moment the pen (or pencil) touches paper. When time's up, that's it. It does, though, take a little longer to make a fair copy of the sketch (and decipher my hasty scribbles). So when I wrote the 100th sketch, I had no idea how many I'd actually done -- it just got added to the pile for copying. 100 would have been a nice place to end the series, but that's not where I stopped.

This week's sketch is another short piano piece. (click on image to enlarge)

Going forward, I'll be experimenting with longer writing times. Is it really a flash composition if I take 20 minutes instead of 10? I don't know -- but I'm curious to see what comes of it. 

As always, this sketch is available to any and all who'd like to use it. Just share the results.