Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Spam Roundup, September 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.

Please, you're too kind
Spammers are generous with their praise -- but notice that they're exceptionally vague about what it is they're praising. When it comes to comments, one size fits all.

 - You're so cool! I do not think I've truly read a single thing like that before. So great to discover someone with genuine thoughts on this issue. Really.

 - Attrractive portion of content. I just stumbled upon your web site and in accession capital to claim that I aquire in fact enjoyed account of your weblog posts.[I wonder where the capital of Accession is.]

 - Wow! Finally I got a blog from where I know how to really opbtain valuable data concering my study and knowledge. [And that area of study would be...?]

 - It's great that you are getting thoughts from this piece of writing as well as from our dialogue made at this time. [These thoughts aren't what you think.]

 - Thanks for your personal marverlous posting! I seriously enjoyed reading it, you might be a great author. [Might be!?]

The toys that launched a thousand spams.

Lumbering Along

The Straco Express Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering Along continues to be one of my most popular posts -- among spambots. I didn't realize my writing about this little vintage Japanese toy would be so... life-changing.

 - This it a topic that's close to my heart...Thank you!

 - I think this is among the most significant information for me. Amd i am glad stuyding your article [You might want to add a study of the English language to the mix.]

Fastidiously still

It's the word that just won't go away:

 - Fine way of explaining, and fastidious piece of writing to take information regarding my
presentation focus.

Waxing poetic

And then I received this:

 - Games wind and january showers evoke the flowers rofl

That's all for this month. Until the January showers come, farewell. And remember -- I really might be a great author.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Barney & Clyde - Meta Flashback

As long-time readers of this blog know, I appreciate comic strips with meta-sensibilities. That is, those strips that acknowledge that they are indeed two-dimensional creations bounded by the conventions of the genre. Take the May 30, 2015 sequence in Barney & Clyde (click on image to enlarge)

The cliche of having your life pass before your eyes is an old one -- but it gets an interesting twist in the hands of writers Gene and Dan Weingarten and artist David Clark. Of course a cartoon character's going to see old comic strips. That's the sole documentation of his life. But there's something else -- the actual gag is the amount of time that flashback took. Because that's the time it takes the average reader to scan the entire sequence. Meta, indeed!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Visualizing Chopin

If you don't "get" classical music, read on. can help.

One of the challenges classical music presents to many people is that it's not always immediately clear what's going on. Composers write on many different levels, and often it's not just the melody that's important (which may or may not be on the top), but the bass and sometimes how both play against inner voices.

Take Chopin's Etude in A minor, Op. 25 No. 1* as an example. Here's the opening pages of the score.

There's a lot of notes there -- but not all of them are of equal importance. Even folks who can read music can have a difficult time trying to sort it all out.

In the video below, Maurizio Pollini plays the etude as the camera follows the score.

It's helpful -- but only if you read music.

That's what makes Musanim's site so brilliant. It's the brainchild of Stephen Malinowski and it animates the music in a fashion far removed from Disney's "Fantasia" but very close to the graphics of the printed score.

Watch the musanim video of this Chopin etude, and you'll see the melody (red), the bass line (blue) and the contrapuntal inner voice (purple) leap out from the accompanying patters (teal and yellow).

Dense structure is almost a given for a classical composition. And the more you listen, the easier it is to hear. Musanim's videos provide a visual approach to the music that can make those structures apparent even to first-time listeners. When you hear the structure, the music makes sense. And when the music makes sense, it can move you emotionally. And that -- as it is with virtually every other genre of music -- is what it's all about.

*Don't be put off by all that nomenclature. The practice over the past few centuries is to assign opus numbers to each publication by a composer. Think of them as volume numbers. So "Opus 25" is simply the 25th work or collection of works that Chopin published. In this case, it was a set of 12 piano etudes, or keyboard exercises. Each etude was numbered, so the piece in question was the first out of that set of 12. Opus 25, No. 1 is just a method of uniquely identifying this from among the 25 etudes Chopin wrote (three of which were in the key of A minor).

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Elements Eternal - Contemporary Classics from Canada

I'm not very familiar with Canadian composers, so I was very interested in auditioning Elements Eternal. The release features world premier recordings from four Canadian composers. The works were commissioned by the Gryphon Trio, who performs them on this release.

It's a heady mix of music that I found appealing, intriguing, substantial and enjoyable. The Gryphon Trio gives each work its due; though the styles and approaches are different, the trio's sure-footed performances bring a certain consistency to the album as a whole.

"Solstice Songs" (2011) by Andrew Staniland is a three-movement contemplation on the change of seasons. Skittering strings, rumbling low register piano, and non-tonal motifs make this the most avant-garde work on the disc. Yet the motifs are easy to follow and the work's frenetic energy draw the listener in.

"Centennials" by Michael Oestrele provides musical portraits of three people who would have turned 100 in 2012: Julia Child, Conlon Nancarrow, and Jackson Pollock. Oestrele's music seems to get at the essence of each person, and does so in a goo- natured fashion. I might not have identified the subjects without a program, but I definitely would have enjoyed the music nonetheless.

Brian Current's "These Begin to Catch Fire" bustles and glistens like the sun-lit water that inspired the work.  The most conservative is "Letters to the Immortal Beloved," James K. Wright's 2012 work inspired by Beethoven's love letters. The work is for mezzo-soprano and piano trio, and has an appealing elegiac quality.

I still don't know much about Canadian composers. But I now know four I want to hear more of.

Elements Eternal
Brian Current: These Begin to Catch Fire; Andrew Staniland: Solstice Songs; Michael Oesterle: Centennials; James K. Wright: Letters to the Immortal Beloved
Gryphon Trio; Julie Nesrallah, mezzo-soprano
Naxos 8.57533

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Paul Lansky - Contemplating Weather

The more I hear Paul Lansky's post-serial music, the more I like it. This new release features three such works: Contemplating Weather for chorale and 11 instruments; Travel Diary for percussion duo; and It All Adds Up for piano duo.

Contemplating Weather has what I would describe as a post-tonal Copland character to it. The harmonies are very modal in spots, and the choir has a big, expansive sound. Jonathan Greene's insightful verses about how we perceive the weather are interspersed with instrumental interludes. The various combinations of the 11 instruments provide contrast to the primarily homophonic choral.

Travel Diary is loosely based on a road trip Lansky once took. This duo percussion piece imaginatively portrays the various stages of the trip, from leaving home, through getting lost in the city, and finally arriving at the destination. Lansky's use of percussion is always imaginative, with a mixture of tuned and indefinite pitch instruments that never sounds hackneyed or contrived.

In the liner notes, Lansky says the pieces that comprise It All Adds Up as doing "a variety of things in the way of navigating the area between tonal and post-tonal harmonies." The result is a piano duo work that sometimes frantically jazzy, like a player piano spinning out of control. At times Lansky skates close to atonality, but more often embraces tonality with vibrant lyricism.

The more I hear Paul Lansky's post-serial music, the more I like it. And I liked this release a lot.

Paul Lansky: Contemplating Weather
Western Michigan University Chorale; Birds on a Wire; Kimberly Dunn Adams, conductor
Meehan/Perkins Duo; Quattro Maini
Bridge Records 9447

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Grateful Red and Rover

I always appreciate it when a cartoonist lets the humor breathe. In the follow sequence from June 21, 2015, cartoonist Brian Bassett did just that in his strip Red and Rover. (click on image to enlarge)

This strip ran around the time the Dead launched their farewell tour,So although the strip is set in the mid 1960's, it had a certain relevance today. Note that we never see the girl's reaction. It's covered by the last inset panel, so it's left to our imagination. Was she confused? Unimpressed? Upset? Letting our imaginations fill in the blank makes the reaction far more effective than any Bassett could have drawn. And that's pretty groovy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Verancini - Sonate Accademiche sparkle in new recording

Francesco Maria Veracini, along with his contemporaries Giuseppe Tartini and Pietro Locatelli, continually pushed to expand the technical abilities of the violin. The 1743 Sonate Accademiche (Sonatas for Violin and Continuo, Op. 2) require quite a lot from the violinist.

The Trio Settecento understands that, and delivers performances full of fire and energy. Violinist Rachel Barton Pine plays the blistering solo passages with a bit of attitude, which makes these works sparkle.

Cellist John Mark Rozendaal and harpsichordist David Schroder are equal partners with Barton. As an ensemble, the Trio Settecento performs in a lively give-and-take that at times seems more like a jam session than a classical performance.

Which is pretty much how these works would have been performed, originally, I think. Of the twelve sonatas in this release, for me the real standout was Sonata No. 10, which features a traditional Scottish tune. Veracini spent a considerable amount of time in London, which is probably where he became acquainted with the tune (it also appears in John Gay's Beggar's Opera).

Highly recommended.

Francesco Maria Veracini: Complete Sonate Accademiche
Trio Settecento
3 CD Set
Cedille Records, 90000 155

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Barney and Clyde and the Wind

Referencing one work of art in another is clever -- but referencing two can be genius. The sequence run in Barney and Clyde on April 27, 2015 was one such example. Here's the strip itself: (click on image to enlarge).

If your a comics fan, you may recognize that the mouse has morphed into the maniac Rat from Stephen Pastis' Pearls Before Swine. (see below)

Really observant readers will also note the reference to The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, and especially its classic illustrations.

But those are just extra layers. To really get to the heart of this strip's gag, you need to put together the title of the book referenced, and the function of the drug being advertised. It's then that you realize that it's not just wind in the willows, its the rabbits breaking wind in the willows (a phrase that would not be allowed in the comic).

Kudos to the Barney and Clyde creative team, Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten & David Clark.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Friedrich Kalbrenner - Op. 4 Sonatas

In his day, he was one of the most famous pianist/composers in Europe. Friedrich Kalkbrenner ruled the stage until the 1830's. When Chopin arrived in Paris, it was recommended that he study with Kalkbrenner. Robert Schumann wasn't quite as impressed -- he thought Kalkbrenner was a show-off who wasted whatever talent he had. But perhaps, as these piano sonatas suggest, the truth is somewhere in between.

The Opus 4 sonatas were published in 1809, and have a distinctly Beethovenian character to them. Granted, its a tone tempered somewhat (Beethoven's Appassionata was published four years before). But still, taken on their own merits, I found these works to be well-constructed and even entertaining.

Luigi Gerosa makes a strong case for the music. His playing is firm and assured, yet with a certain stormy energy that breaks through when the occasion merits. Kalkbrenner was at the forefront of piano development (he was a partner in Pleyel's fortepiano factory), and his music takes full advantage of the range and expressive qualities of the instrument.

Although Kalkbrenner was quite prolific, he was eclipsed by a new generation of pianists, such as Chopin and Liszt. And with his decline, his music fell silent. This release is the world premiere recording of these sonatas, and I'm glad to hear them. I believe its not enough to just listen to the greats -- by exploring the music of the lesser composers, I get a better idea of what the average quality of composition was at the time. And that helps me understand just how extraordinary the innovations of the greats truly are.

If you enjoy the music of Beethoven's rivals, such as Ferdinand Ries, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Muzio Clementi, then you'll find much to like in these Kalkbrenner sonatas. I found they had the flavor of Beethoven without the sound and fury. Enjoyable, but not essential.

Friedrich Kalkbrenner: Three Piano Sonatas, Op. 4
Luigi Gerosa, piano
Dynamic CDS 7707

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Commotio: Organ works of the interwar period

Organist Christian Wilson chose an unusual program for his latest release, Commotio. Subtitled "organ works of the interwar period," it features compositions written between 1924 and 1931. Wilson's choices demonstrate the wide variety of styles in play during that tightly circumscribed time frame. Some composers are familiar, others less so.

Olivier Messiaen and Maurice Duruflé are represented, as they should be. Also included is Swedish composer Oskar Lindberg's sole Sonata for Organ. Lindberg uses a post-romantic harmonic language similar to Rachmaninov's. That, plus the straightforward arrangement of his material made this work the most traditional sounding one on the album to me.

Carl Nielsen's highly individualistic style runs true to form in Commotio, the title track. It's the most chromatic of the works presented, and seems to hint at the dissolution of tonality that the 1930's would usher in.

Like Hindemith, Austrian composer Hans Gal developed his own version of tonality, which he uses in his Toccata in E minor. While the key is stated, the harmonies move in unexpected directions.

Wilson performs at the restored organ at St. Martin's Church, Dudelange, Luxembourg. In its current incarnation, this 1912 Stahihuth organ is voiced for romantic French, German, and English music -- which makes this instrument well-suited to these works. The recording is clean, with enough ambiance to let the music breathe.

Commotio: Organ works of the interwar period
Christian Wilson, organ
Acis APL34295

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Lio and the Fourth Wall 11

All daily cartoonists use tropes. The difference between a trope and a cliché is an important one, A cartoon I think. A cartoon cliché is a setting or situation that's run again and again without any significant change. Zombie strips are particularly susceptible to this -- especially those where nothing's allowed to change from the original creator's work.

A trope, however, provides a starting point for the humor. And a good cartoonist can return to the same situation again and again and come up with something new. Like Mark Tatulli and his fascination with the panel boarders of 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. (see Lio and the Fourth Wall 1-8 for other examples).

Here's the strip that was run June 6, 2015, (click on image to enlarge)

Tatulli treats the border like a wire frame (which he's done before. Notice the attention to detail, though. Not only is the panel bent, but the  copyright notices are bent as well, as if they were attached to the border. And its such details that really bring the gag home -- at least to this reader.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Diabelli Project 102 - Marimba Solo

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 had a purpose. I didn't want to be constricted by regular meter. Long-time readers of this series may be puzzled by that, as I often use odd-meters and shifting meters in this sketches. But still, there's a regularity to those pieces, and since I write linearly, once I designate a measure as being in 4/4, or 5/8 or whatever, then what follows is shaped by that rhythmic structure.

In this sketch, I tried to just let it flow. (click on image to enlarge).

This is for solo marimba, and I split the hands. The right hand plays the natural keys, and the left hand primarily sharps. As the piece evolved (during the ten minute time period), I found myself at a cadence point (on the second staff). What next? I let the left hand take the lead, with the right providing chordal accompaniment. At the end of the fourth staff, there's another cadence, and the roles were reversed. Given enough time, I would have returned to the opening material to finish the piece (and I still might). 

But don't let that hinder you. As with all the Diabelli Project sketches, this is made freely available to any and all. If you do use part of this sketch, all I ask is that you share the results. 

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Renaissance Keyboard

Fabio Antonio Falcone turns in a compelling program of Italian renaissance keyboard music. It traverses the complete keyboard output of two composers; Andrea Antico and Marco Antonio Cavazzoni.

Both composers have their merits. Antico was active primarily as a publisher and arranger. His 1517 collection Forttole features keyboard arrangements of the then-new vocal form of the same name. Rather than simple transcriptions, these arrangements use the vocal form of the frottole as frames to hang runs and ornamentation on.

Cavazzoni was a harpsichordist as well as a composer. His works, to my ears, more fully explore the possibilities inherent in keyboard instruments than Antico. His music is polyphonic, with rigorously worked out counterpoint.

Falcone carefully sequences the works to provide contrast and maintain listener interest. He also varies the instruments he performs on, which also helps vary the sound of the recording.

The church organ Falcone plays was originally built in mid-1600s, and still retains (at least in Falcone's voicings), the small, intimate sound of a renaissance period organ. He also plays a harpsichord based on an 1531 prototype, and a polygonal virginal from around the same period. The difference between the full, strong sound of the harpsichord and the delicate tinkle of the virginal is easy to hear.

This one's a given for anyone interested in renaissance instrumental music. But I think it may also appeal to those who are looking for something a little outside standard classical repertoire.

The Renaissance Keyboard
Andrea Antico and Marco Antonio Cavazzoni: Complete Keyboard Music
Fabio Antonio Falcone
Brilliant Classics 95007

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Kernis - Three Flavors of Exuberance

This album presents three works by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. They were all written between 2002 and 2007, providing a snapshot of Kernis' evolving style. And that style is engaging, accessible, and exuberant.

Three Flavors began life as a concerto for toy piano and orchestra. While Kernis revised the work for a grand piano, he retained its sense of fun. From the driving ostinato of the first movement through the gorgeous lullaby of the second to the jazz-inflected finale, this is a concerto that appeals on many levels. I enjoyed it the first time I heard it, and with repeated listening grew to appreciate the imaginative orchestration and thematic structure of the work.

Two Movements (with Bells) is an homage to Kernis' father, with echoes of mid-century blues and jazz skillfully woven into its evocative melodies. This virtuoso work was commissioned for violinist James Ehnes, and in this recording he owns it.

The Superstar Etude No. 3 is an homage to George Gershwin, but I didn't need to read the liner notes to know that. This ferocious piano piece captures the spirit of Gershwin, equally at home in the classical and jazz worlds. And Kernis does so without losing his own compositional voice.

Pianist Andrew Russo is a long-term collaborator with Kernis. His performances show the deep understanding he has of this music, and in my opinion, brings out their full potential. This was one recording I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish.

Aaron Jay Kernis: Three Flavors for piano and orchestra; Two Movements (with Bells) for violin and pinao; Ballade(e) out of the Blue(s) -- Superstar Etude No. 3
Andrew Russo, piano; James Ehnes, violin; Albany Symphony Orchestra; David Alan Miller, conductor
Naxos 8.559711

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Gasoline Alley and the Hot Dog Monarch

I understand that the gentle humor of Jim Scancarelli's Gasoline Alley isn't for everyone. But there's something to be said for nuance. Take the May, 11, 2015 sequence, for example. (click on image to enlarge).

Joel and Rufus have launched another hair-brained scheme -- this time literally. There are three layers of humor contained in that final panel.

The first level is the balloon's shape. We expect an inverted teardrop hot air balloon, so one that looks like a wiener is funny (OK, not very funny, but still). The second level is the name. "Frank King" seems like an excellent name for a hot dog company. Because "frank" is another word for "hot dog." Get it? But it's the third level that makes me appreciate Scancarelli's artistry.

Frank King was the creator of Gasoline Alley and both wrote and drew the strip from 1918 through 1959. So the name on the balloon is actually a nod to the originator of the strip. An Easter egg for the knowledgeable fan.