Friday, July 31, 2020

The Perfect Violin

Okay, I've had this fiddle for a couple weeks, but it's amazing. The website copy comes off as a little hyperbolic:
designed for the highly trained player who can focus and control the power of this new model
Okay...really? Plus the "new model" is something like 15 years old, and externally at least the only difference is that it's a whole lot less ugly: here's a 2007 model, and the finish is sort of meh, and it has that funky non-traditional scroll that I assume is easier and cheaper to carve. But not mine!

I'm not 100% sure I understand the drive towards beauty in instruments. The saying goes "It should make you want to pick it up and play," and that's ultimately a shallow, aesthetic impulse. As far as I know, that striping ("curl") of the maple back and neck doesn't affect the sound: those pieces rely on uniform density and strength to do their job. Violin makers judge wood primarily by tapping it to see what sound it makes, and then secondarily by how pretty it is, because that's just what players expect. 

Does the varnish matter? It's not controversial that coating the wood in the wrong material will affect the tone: imagine encasing all these vibrating parts in something rigid like epoxy. You want it to protect the wood, which often means filling in the pores, which should be constricted anyway by letting the wood dry-cure for as long as you can stand, but maybe some of the porosity is involved in giving the wood the flex to vibrate... Applying non-invasive technology to the good instruments of any age, we're learning what makes them tick, and notwithstanding our recurring belief in a lost Golden Age (of anything), modern makers can build you an instrument that will stand toe-to-toe with a Stradivarius or a Guarneri, for $50,000 instead of $50 million.

You see how the finish is a lighter color in spots? That's antiquing to make the instrument look older than it is, a practice about as old as the expensive violins themselves. For the most part, it's not fooling anybody.

Years ago, NPR did an interview with the sound engineer at BMW who was in charge of how a BMW's door sounds and feels when you shut it. It's a recognition that our experience of an object goes far beyond its function. Consciously or not, you can tell when a door has been thought through down to small details, and that sets us up to expect a similar depth of thought in the driving experience, which hopefully the car can deliver on. And, of course, it looks pretty.

The instrument and I are still getting warmed up, but it's a keeper. I don't qualify as "highly trained" yet, and it is definitely a more advanced instrument, every bit as particular and demanding and rewarding as my reading has led me to expect.

It's not something I would have shopped for, but I have been hoping my next keeper violin would have a stripey neck.

The sound from the internal pickup really is amazing, too.

This is fun.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

try again.

5-string violin #2 arrives on Monday. I have some hopes for the sound and playability both being more to my liking, with the design being specific to the purpose: 5-string violin #1 is, I suspect, an ordinary 4-string body with a properly-sized neck and fingerboard. It is lovely, but the neck feels a little chunky, I'm not sure about the bridge shape, and it has these odd moments of producing some funky tones, as though the air inside can't keep up with what the strings are doing. Nothing as awful as a wolf tone, just some odd harmonics when I don't expect them and can't explain it from what I'm playing.

AES Dahlia 5-string violin
A purpose-built 5-string violin.

The curved bulges there on the bottom, instead of the usual sharp corners, are borrowed from some violas, with the same goal of creating a larger acoustic chamber to give more oomph (depth, volume, timbre, etc.) to the lower notes. If I understood the seller correctly, the string spacing and neck have some tweaks to keep it from feeling chunky (as 5-string #1 often does). I'm excited about the pickup, too, since I'm experimenting with recording, and I'd be happy to have a bit less friction than I get with microphones and the poor acoustics of my office.

(I have a little gooseneck microphone, which actually captures the sound very well, but it is awkward in every way, and not as easily applied to my other instruments as I'd hoped.)

I've been wanting to order what is modernly called a "cittern" from this one particular Swedish maker, but I've been putting it off, not sure if I'd actually play the thing–although usually if I ask myself that question more than a few times, the answer is "yes."

As fate would have it, a shop in Berkeley that I was already planning to visit because of a 4-string there I really liked, has a couple of that maker's instruments, becoming the only seller in the U.S.!

As fate would further have it, we experienced some poor planning around the fact that only one of our cars is running right now, so my chiropractor-driven visit to Berkeley was canceled. So...another time!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

25% more strings!

I bought a violin. Well, sort of. It's a violin. It has five (5) strings instead of four (4), which as with the rest of the violin has been pretty standard since Andrea Amati, whose grandson taught Stradivari. It combines the viola, tuned C-G-D-A, with the violin, tuned G-D-A-E, for a distinctive instrument tuned (wait for it) C-G-D-A-E. You can play violin parts, or viola parts, or just have fun.

Like most such animals, I have a 5-string violin, so called because the vibrating string ("scale") length (which determines where you have to put your fingers to play a given note) is the same as a violin. Maine luthier Jonathan Cooper, at the top of his profession, calls his version a "5-string viola" because it has a violin scale length on a viola-ish body. Just to keep everyone on their toes, Swedish fiddler Mikael Marin plays a "5-string viola" with a viola scale length, because he's a violist, and his wife Mia plays a 5-string violin like mine (if much nicer). (Adorably, their instruments are from the same extremely distinctive Swedish maker). My teacher says mine sounds like a viola with an E string, which it may, although I'm pretty sure if you play an equivalent Actual Viola™ next to it, you'll hear the difference. I asked Fiddlershop to make the E string less...piercing, since "piercing" is sort of the violin's default mode, and the E string leads the charge.

It's ridiculous. Also, lots of fun.

This may not be the final 5-string. If you don't commission one–which may lie somewhere in my future, but that will be $6,000 and up, and I am neither wealthy nor a professional player–there are only a few places to buy one, and fewer still which are not random people selling on eBay direct from China, and I identified all of them well over a year ago. Having spent a couple weeks playing the Fiddlerman one exclusively, I decided to try out one of the other sources, which is this one guy in Minneapolis (Gary) who's a sort of inventor-musician. That will be interesting, since his instruments, built in China to his design, are physically larger than the Fiddlerman one–which is a regular-sized violin, maybe with some hidden tweaks–so I'll expect the low C string to have more depth and power to it. He also spent a decade creating a custom electrical pickup that faithfully re-creates the acoustic sound: piezoelectric pickups translate the vibrations of the instrument directly into an electrical signal, unlike a microphone, which produces the signal from the vibrations of the air which has been vibrated by the instrument. This mostly frees you from feedback, but piezo pickups inevitably suck some of the life out of the sound, to the extent that there's an active market in little boxes designed to put that life back in. If you listen to the samples on Gary's website, his pickup really is amazing. In a mix with other people, there's no way anyone would notice, and folks find it good enough to record with, given you're likely to add EQ and reverb anyway.

I'll definitely keep one of them. The Fiddlerman 5-string reminds me how indifferent I am to my current rental violin. I'll get a good 4-string as well, but I have a lot of fun going around and trying instruments, which is...not what I've been doing this year. And won't really be doing in the foreseeable future, since violin shops are the sort of small, low-ceilinged spaces you don't want to be spending a couple hours during a respiratory disease pandemic. So there might just have to be a 4-string which is Better Enough™ for now.

Internally, I have labeled the 4-string goal the Froofy Violin, the kind of sound you'd want as a classical soloist rather than as a fiddler. Froofy Violins have the kind of upper register that I need to learn to use, because you can't just go along avoiding whole ranges of your instrument, or the kinds of music written for it. Even the extent to which I've learned to manage the Indifferent Rental's high notes has really helped me with the 5-string.

Pretty fun, as pandemic projects go.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

now with 33% more human.

We acquired a Bonus Teenager some weeks back. The pandemic weighs on everything, pressing us all out of shape, and households already under strain are not going to un-strain themselves. Long story short, J's friend X lives here now, until...later. He's been able to de-stress and keep talking to his family, so he's doing well.

Ironically, one of my brother's friends came to live with us (twice!) when I was a kid, and many of our friends we met here in California (some have moved on to bring their awesomeness to other states) have a similar story somewhere in their lives. It's a thing we can do.

One of the many changes is that J has someone to talk to, or sometimes just exchange monologues with. There's a marvelous early episode of Mythbusters where they investigate a myth that a duck's quack doesn't echo. I've never heard this elsewhere, but it resonated enough for Mythbusters to take it on, even if there was no obvious endpoint that involved fire, electrocution, or explosions.

(My friend group and I used to watch the show religiously.)

They find an acoustician and bring him out to some duck farm in the Central Valley, which picked a couple ducks (Bob and Roy) for them. They got the shoot all set up, and Bob the duck wouldn't quack. The show hosts are (or act like) City People™–not that growing up around ducks makes you an expert in making them quack–and host Jamie has an awkward little while trying to get a duck to quack.

They go to switch out Roy for Bob, and as the ducks pass each other, there's a festival of quacking. They just needed another duck there to listen.

Watching J and X is exactly like that. Left to his own devices, J will mostly not seek out social contact. But maybe it's never too late to have a sibling you get along with.

Incidentally, according to the Mythbusters wiki:
Initially, no echo could be found, so the team moved to an anechoic chamber for comparison. When examined by an audio expert, it was found that the echo was "swallowed" by the original quack, due to the very similar acoustic structure between the quack and the echo. Because of this, it may be difficult to tell where the quack ends and the echo begins, both having similar waveforms on an oscilloscope and blending together in a way that makes them difficult to distinguish. In the same way, human hearing may not perceive the difference between a duck's quack and its echo. 

Saturday, June 6, 2020


We have had it pretty cushy as quarantine situations go: a house, with several rooms, and some yard to move around in or, as Anna has done, plant containers full of food. And, though I tend to take it for granted because I don't always value my own gifts properly, we have a sophisticated home network and Internet connection that lets the three of us do video calls all day without any issues. Earlier, Anna was listening to a school staff member describing his brother rebooting the household Internet connection in the middle of an IEP (Individual Education Plan) meeting: they are legally mandated and brutally difficult to schedule (they can easily have a dozen busy people in them), so that sucked for them.

Anna is growing a bunch of food plants in the front yard. Agriculture in California is practically cheating, as just about anything will grow here, and most plants will be pretty happy about it. There are the exceptions, like anything that requires combined heat and humidity (no bananas, alas) or colder winters (sugar maples? particular kinds of apples?). Roses, which in my childhood New England did indeed take some skill, here are the default plants for rental properties because they're so easy. We have a rose we were literally unable to get rid of, as it was dug up at least twice and it just came back. We decided to respect its determination. It's called the Zombie Rose. I want to put a little fence around it and give it a plaque.

Rosemary grows into a serviceable 2-3-foot hedge here. The hedges tend to be more lemony than I would normally want to cook with, but it's right there if you want it. The loquat trees are going gangbusters right now. Not ours, though, since it's sickly. The grapevines have a ton of nascent grapes coming in; maybe too many to taste good? We'll find out. Figgy is promising a mighty Figpocalypse this year; I'm hoping I can get motivated to pick and dry them this year.

I like that we have all the musical instruments. Shocking no one, I have more that I would like. I finall ordered a 5-string violin, which gives me the lower viola range to play with, which would be fun since my playing is starting to produce tunes of my own. Then again, there's a lovely standard 4-string from 1960 that I tried in Berkeley, or the charming 1889 I played back in August and haven't forgotten since.

I've been listening to the This Week In Virology podcast, which is full of adorable crabby researchers educators. They are naturally crabby, but I think they're extra crabby because they love studying the whole spectrum of viruses, and resent having to spend these months talking about only one.

I stopped looking at the COVID-19 numbers, because in the absence of a competent policy response, they don't mean anything. With sparse and highly erratic testing, happening in the matrix of a generally awful health-care system, we can't even make educated guesses for basic facts like the number of cases or the number of deaths. It turns out our government (and possibly some others) have actually been mixing different kinds of tests in their reporting: there are PCR tests that try to count the virus in your blood, and the antibody/serology tests that try to measure your antibodies to the virus. They're radically different in their accuracy and utility.

Here is what we know, more or less:
  1. The number of cases appearing in hospitals.
  2. The outcomes for those cases.
  3. What's called "excess deaths," the number of deaths beyond the statistical norm (based on location/time of year, etc.).
And...that's it. There's not a whole lot to learn, especially when we still have to make it through the day-to-day of work and kids.

I started writing this a few weeks ago, but obviously it's not better now.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

meet the new Chris, same as the old Chris.

Here is a true story.

When I was in grade school, maybe age 7 or 8, my best friend Kenny had his birthday party at McDonald's, which was considered a fun sort of thing at the time, since you did it at one of the good McDonald's with a playground attached. The party was managed by some unsuspecting high school girl, and at some point she corralled the kids together to play "Guess The Number, Win A Prize" where she would write down a number, etc., which ordinarily might occupy several minutes, except they invited me.

(I think we were sitting on the floor, which is pretty gross to think of now. Maybe they mopped first, maybe it was a rug, I dunno. Obviously we couldn't see the pad she was writing on.)
"Okay, guess the number."
"Uh...right. How'd you know?"
"I watched you count everybody before you wrote the number down."
A pause.
"Uh...okay. New number!"
"I saw the end of your pen while you wrote, an '8' makes a distinctive...shape..."
Another pause.
"Okay, you can't play any more."
Fair enough.

Friday, May 1, 2020

virusfest 2020 (part 4): in which we pause.

When I was a kid and first learned about the Great Depression, I couldn't understand it. People were rich, and then suddenly everyone was poor? How can wealth just vanish from the entire world? Where did the money go to?

Some years later, my studies caught up to my questions–for some reason this wasn't covered in grade school–and the answer is that money is a social construct, not a real thing. The glib, dismissive response is to say "If you think money isn't real, try living without it," but saying that money isn't real isn't to say it isn't necessary. Deluded people will tell you different, but gold and silver have very little inherent value, most of which has arisen in the past 200 years. In reality, it's just that they're relatively rare, and extremely shiny.

(And durably shiny, since neither one corrodes over time in the atmosphere, which must have been magical in the ages of copper, bronze, and iron, which definitely do. Silver tarnish, besides not being corrosion, is actually silver sulfide, usually reacting with the sulfur dumped into the air by human industrialization.)

Our intuition rebels against the idea that our lives depend, usually all too literally, on a collective fiction; but as with everything true, it's true whether we believe in it or not.

Money may be the greatest human invention, because barter is a royally inefficient pain in the ass. How many chickens do you get for a cartload of wheat? Whose cart do you use? Is it the same number as last week? Why? Look, I know last time I said two sheep for an ingot of copper, but three sheep died on my way here, and I have expenses, so now it's four sheep.

What money and goods have in common is that they need to move in order for the system to work. Money does most of the traveling in modern times, with conversions into and out of goods and services at various points. Fundamentally, though, it's the labor of consumers, exchanged for money and then spent, that powers the global economy. The unimaginably vast amounts of incorporeal money that flow around from day to day, bigger than any nation's GDP, ultimately rely on people working and spending money.

Most of that labor and spending and services ultimately relies on interactions between human beings in the same room. And so we come to the present day.

(We are still, collectively, working our way through the euphemisms. "Situation," "current state of affairs." We're phasing in "pandemic," at least in California. I expect we'll reach "plague" eventually, whose non-metaphorical usage–except for incredulous responses to the rare incidents of actual bubonic plague–is mostly restricted to the AIDS pandemic. "Between the Pill and the plague" is the most succinct description I've ever seen of the enablement and curtailment of sexual liberation and promiscuity in the 1960s and 1970s.)

We've never tried this before. The unemployment forecasts are still looking at 40% or 50% or even more; by comparison, at the most depressed of the Great Depression, unemployment was around 25%. The billionaires are pushing for everyone to get back to work, helping conservatives adopt the belief that the control of lethal infectious disease is oppression, because people who are busy working and worrying about killing themselves or their friends or family are too busy to think about how broken the whole system is.

Not everyone is buying it. As long as we don't have a treatment or vaccine–neither of which is visible on the horizon–the health risk just doesn't diminish in a way that lets everything go back to normal. This isn't measured in months, it's measured in years.

I am not excited about this.