Saturday, January 20, 2018

typologica musica.

I've been watching Scandinavian folk musicians on repeat for months now, so this singer's instrument, with 5 "courses" of 2 strings each, has been driving me batty.

(He sounds like Richard Thompson singing "The Times, They Are A-Changin'," but we'll run that down some other day. It is notable that this is a Swedish[?] Christmas song, the "Twelfth Night Carol," but since I first heard it yesterday, I don't care and I'm happy to play it on Repeat.)

The video description says Esbjörn Hazelius is playing the cittern, but then Ale Möller is on the mandola, so it's by process of elimination, and Google Chrome automatically translating Swedish Wikipedia that we learn that yes, Mr. Hazelius is the singer. You might also, as I did a few months ago, say "What the hell is a cittern?", and then you could go to English Wikipedia and learn about something that is definitely not the instrument in that video.

This may be hard to appreciate if you didn't grow up with the state of the art being LexisNexis's infuriatingly odd query language, but one of the most important things about the post-Google era is that you can type "difference between cittern and bouzouki and mandola" into a text box and get something really helpful.

The confusion is this:

  1. The mandola and octave mandolin have the same relationship to the mandolin that the viola and cello respectively have to the violin.
  2. Some Irish guys introduced the four-course Greek bouzouki into Irish folk music, where it was sometimes custom-built with a flat rather than rounded back, just like the...flat-backed, four-course mandolin family.
  3. English master luthier Stefan Sobell started custom-building mandolas/octave mandolins/Irish bouzoukis with five courses, and then he called that a "cittern" for some reason. He's been so influential that, with the word "cittern" having gone dormant, the name stuck. Sort of.
There's a bunch of stuff on that comparison site about instrument scale length and how that affects the gauge of strings you put on it to produce the kind of sound you want, but unless you play a stringed instrument, it's boring.

Best part: the Greek Greek bouzouki dates all the way back to...1900.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

looking back.

I'm not near the end of any more books, so it looks like I'll be finishing out 2017 at 90 books read. I read quite a lot of comics this year, but decided to leave those out of the counting. That still leaves me finishing 1.73 books every week; by habit (more about this in another post) I would tend to minimize it by pointing out it was a handful re-reads and a whole lot of Terry Pratchett, but that's a lot of books, even if I didn't finish The Iliad.

(Gonna go ahead and spoil you for that one: Gandalf isn't actually dead, and Gollum dies at the end.)

How was 2017, really?

I still love my job managing software engineers. Faltered a few times as my anxiety got in the way, but by and large I did the job and I'm good at it.

The dog has settled down quite a bit--inasfar as anything with Jack Russell Terrier heritage can be said to settle down--and she learned some new behaviors, some intentional, others not. My favorite, far and away, is that she inadvertently learned that "Rat check!" means she should run outside and check the back patio for rodents. (It started because I would open the door and summon her for a walk, and then I was in the bathroom and saw a squirrel, said "Leela! Rat check!" and from somewhere inside the house she bolted out her door, to chase the offender with the special joy of any animal fulfilling its purpose.) She's also extremely soft. Even J pets her now.

I suddenly had the unstoppable urge to learn to play the violin. Go figure. It's fun: "play" in the most kid-like sense. My ambition extends as far as playing for dance nights at bars; that will carry me for at least a couple of years. It's the least forgiving instrument I've ever encountered.

Related: there's a whole world of Scandinavian fiddle music! Kismet being what it is, of course there's an active fiddle jam close to home, playing at the monthly dance party.

I finally learned the difference between a fiddle and a violin:
Nobody cares if you spill beer on a fiddle.
J is taller than me. If his shoulders are not yet wider than mine, they will be in 2018. In theory, this is not his "major" growth spurt. He has hit the choppy adolescent cross-currents from "child" to "adult," and it's tossing him, and us, every which way. We all suffer an extra bit because his other household is...less amenable to angry disagreement, let's say. We knew it was coming, but the map is not the territory.

Anna has been hard at work with Garage Project (tearing down our horrible decaying garage and replacing it with an Accessory Dwelling Unit). Besides not having a horrible decaying garage, we want to scaffold J's entry into adult life with a place he can pay an achievable rent on without technically living with his parents.

It's been a year of heavy-duty therapy work, which I summarize for people as "My childhood was not nearly as healthy as I thought it was." My life has never made sense, in a way that lives should make sense: I could see the problems I had, but never found a theory to understand where they came from, and I just assumed I was born with a package that included striking emotional issues along with the freakish intelligence. Now I have a theory that fits all the facts! I am excited. My family-of-origin does not share the excitement.

(Fun fact: I am the only one of my siblings to make it out of my teens without injuring a hand by punching a fire door in anger. That's normal, though. Right?)

Tentatively, I'm feeling better in the past couple weeks. I've been sleeping more or less like a normal person, feeling pretty awake during the day. Anna and I even overlap for an hour or two in the evenings, which restores some important time that we haven't had in a few years. We're remarkable people to talk to, it turns out.

My 2017 was better than most recent years. I hope 2018 goes better still.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

O Tannenhund, O Tannenhund

The dog grew a winter coat! She didn't, last winter, so I guess we can chalk it up to another 12 months of love, scritches, and yogurt on her morning kibble.

The year in review:

I didn't even have to stage this. Once she can't move her body any farther, her neck extends another 2-4 inches.

Mid-October brings the almost inconceivable gift of her sunbeam, delivered directly to her bed next to Chris's desk. None of this depth-of-winter nonsense where she has to disturb her morning nap every ten minutes to see if her sunbeam is on the back steps yet.
Dog? What dog? No dogs here.
[David Attenborough voice]: "In winter, the tiny brown-and-white dog hibernates. It forms a tight, energy-efficient coil, with the tail over the nose to prevent the formation of frost. This will help the dog absorb enough warmth from its electric heating pad to survive until the sun returns in the new year."

Monday, December 25, 2017

Happy Violinmas

Anna got me the sparkly blue electric violin I'd been ogling for weeks, as well as appropriate stickers:

("This machine kills demons" is on a violin case in Charles Stross's "Laundry Files" Lovecraftian spy novels, which in turn is a riff on Woody Guthrie.)

It actually plays decent, for the price ($100 or so). Not a good choice for absolute beginners, though. And I'm renting an upgrade violin from one of the many high-quality luthier shops in the area, which leads me to recommend that you do that instead of buying one from Amazon. Having had the experience with guitars, I was starting to sense that I'd outgrown the instrument.
[Chris]:  Okay, tell me straight up: how crappy is my violin?
[violin teacher] It's not crappy! It's not like it's impossible to play. For an Internet violin, it's great.
I went into the shop and said, "I bought an Internet violin, and it's been fine, but I've never played a nicer violin, and I have no idea what the differences are, so I would like to try a nicer violin." And behold, I have a nicer violin on a rent-to-own plan.

Sometimes I back into things, so now I'm learning more about this finicky instrument I thought it'd be fun to learn. Having read Stradivari's Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection, I'm now reading Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung. I'd heard the author in passing doing a radio interview, and was struck not that she'd had her Stradivarius stolen, but that she'd felt moved to write a book about it (and apparently a good one).

(If you couldn't quite catch that, another violinist does an interview to talk about the Caprices and what's special about it:)

Happily, my violin ambitions don't really go farther than playing Irish music in bars.

Min Kym does an amazing job of laying out the connection between a virtuosa and her instrument, so we can later understand why--besides the loss of an essentially priceless instrument--the theft was so disabling for her. There are aspects of her life I can relate to, though.
We’re eight, or five, or seven. We race ahead (of course we do). We are child prodigies. We can’t help it. That’s what we are. We don’t ask for it (we don’t train to be it), haven’t been driven by ambition (not yet). We are child prodigies, cuckoos in the nest, oddities, freaks. Later, when we go to music school or college, we might meet someone who is like us, who has lived through the same experiences (there won’t be many), but in the meantime we are on our own. No matter the love and support we get from our families or friends, no matter the guidance from our tutors, we are on our own. We’re not like anyone else. Yes, we can ride a bike or play in the streets, watch TV or jump in the pool, but we are also child prodigies with an ability outside all that. Maybe it will peter out, maybe we’ll crash and burn, maybe turn out to be the best exponent since…since the last one, who knows? We are child prodigies. We don’t quite know it yet, but there’s a long way to go.
I wasn't a music prodigy; maybe I would have been, in a musical family? would I have been a math genius? Impossible to say. I was really, uncomfortably, smart, in a way that set me apart from everyone around me.

I think I've never really talked or written about that part of my life.

It's probably time to start.

Friday, December 8, 2017

like a Rolex from a street vendor

As usual when I catch a new project, I've been doing some reading and documentary-watching about violins, and here is my biggest takeaway:
The world of violins is a snake-pit of treachery and blind faith, and we guitarists should appreciate how lucky we are.
Really truly old guitars don't sound very good. Guitar manufacture has responded wonderfully to modern techniques and materials, and then the guitar in its current form is at most 200 years old. If you actually had a 200-year old guitar, you would donate it to a museum and probably play something from the past 60 years instead.

By contrast, the violin achieved its final form in the 1700s (Stradivari died in 1737), to the extent that modern violins are mostly copies (often quite carefully done) of examples made by the Stradivari, Amati, or Guarneri shops. There's no shame in this: my guitar is a brilliant, patent-infringing postwar Japanese copy of a classic Martin style. It doesn't say "Martin" on it, though. It says "Nashville," which doesn't really make any sense, but sends an honest signal of "this guitar was made by a company that never really existed, and contains no original design work whatsoever."

People have been copying Cremonese violin designs for centuries, but they've also never been shy about just sticking a "ANTONIUS STRADIVARIUS CREMONENSIS FACIEBAT 1713" label inside and calling it good to go. In that case the one thing you know you haven't got is a Stradivarius, but then you're at a loss as to what you actually have. Following the old adage that "90% of everything is crap," that's probably what you have. Much like wine, get some pointers from someone in the know, then get whatever you enjoy.

Monday, November 20, 2017

3 reasons to take up violin.

1. Ciaccona comp. Maurizio Cazzati.

2. Forked Deer, trad. perf. by Tony Trischka (banjo) & Barbara Lamb (fiddle).


3. Folkrotsvalsen comp. Ale Carr / Mitt i Juli comp. Jonas Olsson, perf. by Dreamers' Circus.

I've been listening to this on repeat for weeks now, because it's virtuosic Vikings, referring to a bunch of Scandinavian music things that I know are there but I can't really access. That weird-ass folk-fiddle on the right is a "träskofiol," made by--I swear I'm not making this up--taking a giant wooden shoe and gluing violin fittings on it.

This raises more questions than it answers: are actual real-life clogs that big? if not, someone must make them just to be made into instruments?

There's also the nyckelharpa, with keys that look unsettlingly like a rack of ribs. As my friend once said about her year living in Finland, "the long winter does funny things to people."

(The träskofiol player wrote the waltz-y first piece, before swapping the träskofiol for a cittern, member of a bizarrely diverse and widespread family of similarly-shaped instruments, including that great harbinger of globalization, the Irish bouzouki.)

I particularly want to play Mitt i Juli someday, which means I probably will, since the melody line is freely available, and its basic form is not rocket science. I can't find anything about the fiddle player who wrote it, though, except Dreamers' Circus saying he died fairly recently.

Funny story: I was playing this for my violin teacher:
"Wait... that guy in the middle..."
"Danish String Quartet?"
"Yes! Those guys are awesome!"

And of course she's met them, which hadn't occurred to me, but of course the world of professional string quartets would be small, and even more so for the under-40 crowd.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

not entirely unlike music.

One unsurprising outcome in my violin lessons: given how much better I get when practicing 10 minutes every week, I would get quite a bit better if I practiced more than that. I'm sure I will, someday, but the important thing is that I'm doing it for fun, and if I don't have it in me to practice more, that's actually okay. In fact, it's important that it be okay. Fun things should be fun.

Did you know there's a whole, living body of Scandinavian fiddle music? And can you imagine a more Nordic trio of brilliant musicians playing it? I'm not finding a ton of information about this weird-ass thing on the right, but apparently "clog-fiddle" is the literal translation of träskofiol, and it's a violin made from a giant wooden shoe. (I have many questions about this instrument, viz. why would anyone make wooden shoes that big? If they started making fake shoes big enough to make it sound better, why keep the shoe shape? I found a video of a woman playing one with 8 strings instead of 4, and how does she do that?)

(The other weird-ass thing, played by the same Viking, is called a cittern. Wikipedia helpfully says they "generally have four courses of strings," and then of course the Viking's and most others I'm finding actually have five.)

I've noticed in the past that the dog is often soothed by my guitar-playing, which is, if repetitive, pretty competent. But! I was practicing violin this afternoon when the noisy, food-spilling Dungeons & Dragons kids were here, and she fell asleep--then woke up when I stopped playing. Even to me, my violin playing sounds like I'm getting to do more than just more reliably avoiding the screeching.

It's fun to see music with new eyes.

Hands? Ears?