Saturday, October 13, 2018


I just passed my 1-year mark on the violin! No signs of stopping, and I'm pleased with where I'm at, considering. I don't practice as much as I might, for a couple reasons:
  1. The violin feels, and may be, loud, and playing quietly is this whole side project.
  2. The violin sound is (for the poor devils like myself who didn't start at age 5) heavily dependent on good posture and full attention.
  3. The mandolin is familiar, easy to play quietly, and tolerates being played while slouched on the couch.
I have limited emotional bandwidth, and the mandolin really wants to help you make music, while the violin is the opposite of that.

I've been working on the same two violin pieces for many months, on the theory that as I've still been learning a lot of skills that strike me as basic, like "playing in tune" and "playing from one string to the next without producing a mysterious dissonant harmonic a couple octaves higher," I might as well learn those things on music I'm already familiar with. "Learning lots of songs" is a necessary step, though, and I'm about there.

I did return this week to a song listed in The Nordic Fiddler as "Swan Polska," which even six months ago was just a bit too hard. I applied a tool I picked up from my teacher a month or two ago:
"...and this note is held just a bit longer."
"This is where we discover I have no innate sense of rhythm."
"I just fake it everywhere, that's why I'm not playing notes for the same duration every time."
"Oh! you know about subdivision?"
"Nope, never heard of it."
"Ah ha! It will solve your rhythm problem. In fact it's the only thing that will solve your rhythm problem."
 I'm not sure why nobody ever told me this, but subdivision is just identifying the note duration that you're going to count: quarter note or eighth note or whatever. This came up for this song:

My trouble was (is) tracking the beat during all those offbeat ties and that half note, so one helpful way to count this is to count or tap eighth notes, and behold, immediate improvement. I took this back to the troublesome song, which is actually called "Polska efter Pelle Fors"...

...yes, much like Irish folk songs, which are often named things like "Garrett Barry's Jig" in the pattern of "[person]'s [dance type]," Swedish folk songs are often named "[dance type] after/in the style of [musician]." And, no, they're not unique.

...which I'm too lazy to scan the music for, but take my word that I'm counting the sixteenth notes and now I can practice it. Very slowly.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


Europe: "I made a violin!".
Scott Cao Original Bench Violin - Baron D'assignies
Norway: "I will see your violin, and raise you an alternate tuning, five sympathetic understrings, and enough gratuitous inlay to make Liberace envious."

FeleHel (2).jpg

Sweden: [pounds a shot of akvavit] "Call."
Image result for nyckelharpa 

Iceland? Denmark? Finland? No?

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

a fine addition to the family.

On Friday I picked up the mandolin from Gryphon Strings, and wow, it's a peach of an instrument. They did a bunch of stuff that good luthiers can do:
  • Add buttons for a shoulder strap.
  • Lower the string height ("action"), at both the nut and the bridge.
  • File down the edges of the frets so they're smooth with the side of the neck/fingerboard.
  • Fix the intonation--essentially the ability to play in tune along the entire length of the string--by not only moving the bridge (and marking its place so I can put it back myself), but also by doing some fancy filing of the saddle grooves in the bridge.
    • (In a regular mandolin, this function is handled by a "compensated" saddle, like the zig-zag below.)

Instead of a mandolin's standard G-D-A-E tuning, I have it in G-D-A-D, a common tuning for both the octave mandolin and its longer sibling, the Irish bouzouki. I'm finding it's more fun to play that way, and enables the kind of sound and feel that drew me in the first place to this family of "paired strings, but neither a regular mandolin nor a 12-string guitar" instruments.

When I emailed the maker (Stan Pope) to tell him it had made its way to me, and to ask about some pricing not on his website, he wrote back:
Chris - That is a "blast from the past" 
The main changes I have made, are Truss rods in all steel string
instruments, Cross Bracing top and back, brass tailpiece that accepts
ball end strings.
My assessment of my mandolin, which the Gryphon guys agreed with, was that it was an early piece by someone who could go on to do truly great things. Evidently Stan thinks so too.

(In addition to design and mechanics, he's clearly put in the time mastering ornamentation and wood finish.)

Particularly in the harmonic-rich G-D-A-D tuning, it just...sings. Like it wants to help you make music, even if you don't know how. Pretty much the opposite of a good violin, which will help you make music, but only if you know how to play, and it can't be bothered with you otherwise.

Stan's instruments appear to be wildly under-priced. We'll see how much I play the one I have, whether it makes any sense to have him build me one, and if that happens before he retires. Those are problems for another day. Just now, I have to go practice.

Friday, August 17, 2018

a world of musical ambiguity

I have already brought home a hand-crafted...thing. It belongs to an odd family of instruments, which the "mandolin" family. They have paired strings, called "courses," and each course can be unison or an octave apart, and the paired strings give them a full, more multi-dimensional sound with more higher-pitched overtones. Which may not be what you want: 6-string and 12-string guitars are both wonderful, but not, for most of us, interchangeable.

As mentioned previously, some Swedes developed a 5-course instrument that they call a cittern, for no discernible reason. I have discovered that you can actually buy one off the rack, though the Internet's opinion of the Ashbury brand is that it's kind of okay, but if you're halfway serious, it's worth having a luthier build you one. I don't really want to pay $900 for a mediocre instrument, nor do I want to pay $4,000 for a nice one. So much for that.

(Note that Ashbury calls it an "Irish" cittern, again sort of nonsensically because while Swedish musicians do love them some Irish traditional music, I've only seen one or two people play a 5-course instrument who wasn't Swedish.)

So I kept poking around on Craigslist, and this thing shows up, labeled an "Irish cittern."


The maker is a real person, using a different shop name now. It's "chunky," in a sense: the neck is square-ish and heavy, the string height farther down the fingerboard is really high, and it feels like the ends of the frets should be rounded off with a file. And it sings, with sustain and harmonics for days. It's clearly a solid early piece by an artist who could go on to make truly great things. Totally worth $140.

Here's what I've learned about these instruments:
  • A "mandolin" is very well defined.
  • The following instruments have no solid distinctions between them:
People tune them differently, using different weight strings based on the tension the instrument was built to withstand: it's common, especially on longer-scale instruments like the Irish bouzouki or the Swedish cittern, to see people lower their preferred tuning to fits the instrument's strength, then only ever play with a capo that moves the instrument's range above what they could safely crank the strings to. For example, they could tune an instrument to GDAD, but always play with a capo that pitched the strings to DAEA, when trying to tune that high directly would be likely to break strings or damage the instrument.

I will call it an "octave mandolin," because that's what people thought it was when I wandered into the shop with it.

Wikipedia has caught up:

Amongst many luthiers and musicians the Irish bouzouki is considered to be part of the mandolin family, but for others this new family of instruments is a separate development. In actuality, the mandolin and lute families are related and the bouzouki is a part of that. At any rate, since the genesis of the Irish bouzouki in the late 1960s, luthiers have incorporated so many aspects of mandolin construction, particularly when building archtop Irish bouzoukis, that for most it is a moot point.
For many builders and players, the terms "bouzouki", "cittern", and "octave mandolin" are more or less synonymous. The name cittern is often applied to instruments of five courses (ten strings), especially those having a scale length between 20 and 22 inches (500mm and 550mm). They are also occasionally called "10 string bouzoukis" when having a longer scale length. The fifth course is usually either a lowest bass course tuned to C2 or D2 on an instrument with a long scale, or a highest treble course tuned to G4 or A4 on a shorter scale. Luthier Stefan Sobell, who coined the term "cittern" for his modern, mandolin-based instruments, originally used the term for short scale instruments irrespective of the number of their strings, but he now applies "cittern" to all 5 course instruments irrespective of scale length, and "octave mandolin" to all 4 course instruments, leaving out bouzouki entirely.
I'm sitting on our couch and I can see eight (8) stringed instruments, which is a fine number.

Monday, August 13, 2018

I could never dream of such nuance.

One of the many curious things you learn in calculus is that "infinity" is not exactly a single thing: that, yes, a set of things can be infinite, but infinite sets can have different "cardinalities," and with some straightforward (as these things go) math, in some calculus situations you can algebraically cancel out infinities the same way you might cancel out the n in 5n/n. In an ordinary everyday life, you'd never know the difference.

I have learned many subtleties in the world of boring bedtime literature. There are different ways to be boring! And they are not alike.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

  • Here we have sentences, actually quite pithy by later standards, but still of considerable length, which do the reader no favors as s/he tries to untangle where Gibbon has been superseded by actual archeology, where his observations are still illuminating, and where he (unaccountably to modern eyes) suffers as both a scholar and commentator from assuming the Bible is historically accurate and not presenting any good theories as to why the entire ancient world failed to notice the flood of miracles leading up and including the Crucifixion, which encourages in the modern reader the sense that, while our ways of understanding history are always improving, at the very least Gibbon deserved to be supplanted by the slavering hordes of archeology, geology, linguistics, sociology, anthropology, textual criticism, physics, and chemistry.
  • I hope you're interested in ships, whale biology, and ships that hunted and skinned whales, because there are very, very long and detailed interludes on all that, and more. And others less interesting. Although, there are no ships until 25% through the book. Before that, you're treated to a long-form essay about the pulpit in the Seamans' Chapel. (Not its symbolism or significance. Just the pulpit.)
  • An over-indulgent pot-smoker whose rambling self-monologues every so often deliver an hour of genuine brilliance.
Paradise Lost
  • It is 3 AM. You have been driving for 17 hours. Jamie wouldn't have called if it weren't a real emergency; you pray to gods you don't believe in that the trouble isn't the cartel again. 
  • Hundreds of square miles of corn and soybeans, punctuated by the occasional farmhouse or rest stop.
  • Your muscles twitch with accumulated coffee and Adderall, but you are lulled by the metronome thunking of the expansion joints in the pavement.
  • Nebraska has come for you.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018


Here is the sort of thing that happens if you learn stuff for fun:

I finally started in on Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London excellent series of paranormal/urban fantasy police procedural novels. The protagonist is an African-British police constable, who among other things was training to be an architect, dropping out when he discovered he couldn't draw, but with a practiced eye, he guides the reader through the centuries of British buildings. The fourth book, Broken Homes, focuses on a failed modernist high-rise building built when architects thought they could build a better society by separating living space from retail or work space, raising people up, literally, by building upward.
(The astute reader will notice this is the exact opposite of the "mixed-use" standard we're currently working with, where homes and shops and businesses are all together; this is not an accident, as all of these projects failed in pretty much the same ways. Nobody bought into these ideas when they were introduced in the 1920s and 1930s; it was only World War II's destruction of Europe's housing that provided an opening.)
At the same time, I was reading J. G. Ballard's novel High-Rise, which takes place in a modernist skyscraper, and whose first paragraph hints at a dystopian narrative:
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal, he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond which their lives had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.
While that was all fresh in my mind, I suddenly had a yen to listen indiscriminately to episodes of the fabulous 99% Invisible podcast, which I'd previously dropped because a lack of commute also means a lack of podcast-listening time. And I just happened to hit a two-part episode about--wait for it--an enormous modernist tower project in the Netherlands, called the Bijlmermeer. You can guess what happened to it, although it has its own Dutch spin on things, like the role of Suriname, the project's pragmatic and seemingly effective redevelopment, and then there's the thing where a 747 crashed into it.

I actually found a podcast devoted to hunting down this kind of inter-relatedness, though mostly from the Renaissance and earlier: The Endless Knot, brought to us by a pair of delightfully nerdy history/language professors.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

getting there!

After about 9 months of violin, much of the noise sounds like music!

It's still a ridiculous instrument, sensitive to the smallest misstep in timing, or barely-perceptible muscle tension. It's a lot like singing that way, where you get these odd tips that are often not physically possible--my favorite is "sing while opening more space between your upper and lower molars"--but using that image, you can get your body into the right position. "Relax your sternohyoid muscles" is not helpful feedback for most of us.

My new teacher told me about "leading tones," which may have been in that second semester of Music Theory that I dropped out of. In the violin context, it means that certain notes--predictably, thank heavens--get played at a slightly higher pitch than normal, which amounts to placing your finger a millimeter or two higher than you would normally. In science-y terms, if you would normally play a B at 493.88 Hz, unless the next note is C, in which case you might play it at 494.5 Hz. He said, "Our brains make it sound better that way," and it did explain some passages whose correct intonation has escaped me.

On the other hand, it is a tremendous sense of accomplishment to actually get better at playing the violin, because the violin does not help you in the slightest.