Thursday, July 18, 2019


So here's a thing from Fiddle Tunes.

There's a famous (as these things go) Swedish folk band called Väsen (pronounced, for those of you getting any funny ideas from German, "Vessen," with an "e" roughly like that in "mess"). The fiddler, Mikael Marin, plays I always assumed was a large 5-string violin, which it sort of is, except he's a violist and it's a 5-string viola. This is a little confusing in that a 5-string viola has the viola strings (C-G-D-A) with the high E from a violin; a 5-string violin has the violin strings (G-D-A-E) with the low C from a viola. You wouldn't be playing world-class viola or violin repertoire on either one: even if there weren't compromises in the sound (relative to the classical norms), you'd be hard-pressed to get the classical music world to take you seriously. They're mostly applied to folk traditions, like bluegrass. Or Swedish folk music.

Marin's instrument is visually striking just from a distance, because the fingerboard and tailpiece have a light-colored border:

Image result for mikael marin viola

It's hard to overstate how rare this is, except to say that to an untrained eye (including mine) every violin or viola looks exactly like every other violin or viola, going back centuries. And it's not like people haven't experimented, but they repeatedly come back to the classics: witness this shop selling no less than four copies (probably more) of Guarneri del Gesù's Il Cannone violin. Which was made in 1573! The modern guitar is a kaleidoscope of designs, and didn't even exist until the 1800s.

The fingerboard in particular has remained a sacrosanct black for a long time now, typically ebony, glued onto a neck made of maple. Some original baroque violins had inlays on the fingerboard, and of course Norway's Hardanger fiddle is off getting high on its own supply. The online consensus about fingerboard inlay seems to be that

  1. Over enough time and environment changes, the surface can become uneven as the inlay shrinks or expands at a different rate than the fingerboard.

  2. It makes a weird violin and you'll probably have trouble selling it.

  3. Marin's viola was made by a famous Swedish luthier, Per Klinga (who died last year), and is clearly of the "I am going to play this until I die and I don't care who has to deal with it after that" class. I just assumed Marin had asked for it as a feature (and his wife Mia has a matching 5-string violin).

    Except...Anna Lindblad, who was teaching at Fiddle Tunes with her bandmates, has one too! It seems pretty common on Klinga's instruments.

    I got to see it up close when I went to ask her about it after class, and it's beautiful. I couldn't see everything the maker did, but the light-colored outline around the fingerboard is this stunning curly maple, all striped and finished to play with the light hitting it.

    As it happens, Per Klinga's instruments are famous in and around Sweden and its music, and if anyone wanted to sell one, it would probably take all of a week before someone took them up on it. The old advice goes to buy an instrument that makes you want to pick it up and play; I couldn't pick it up, but I really, really wanted to play it.

    Wednesday, July 10, 2019

    back home on the farm.

    The trip home was no less stressful than the trip out: while no instruments fell on my head--I claimed a window seat on the shuttle, out of range of falling luggage--when I went to print my boarding pass on Saturday, I discovered I had somehow booked my return flight for the same day I left, meaning I was supposed to leave on Sunday but had no flight booked. Getting home before Monday was expensive.

    A variety of household stuff went dramatically poorly while I was gone, and kept going for a couple days after I got home, so in retrospect certainly the trip wasn't worth it, as amazing as it was.

    I did the math later in the week, and including my lessons, I crammed about two months of playing time into a week. Physically this was not at all as hard as I expected: my decision to back off the guitar and mandolin, which use exactly the motions of the left thumb I need to learn not to use on the violin, is clearly the right one.

    Every morning there were two classes with the "artist faculty," well-known (relatively) performers who span a bunch of different traditions: Scandinavian, Irish, old-time, Quebecois, Cajun, Cape Breton, and others more obscure or hybridized. After lunch there's "Band Lab," where you learn and prep a few songs to play at a dance on Friday night and a concert on Sunday. Finally the end of the day has sessions with tutorial staff, who are about the same level as the Artist Faculty, and cover the same range of styles, but not as famous.

    I went to a class with Donna Hébert, who's sort of a general northeastern North America person, but then I remembered that Swedish music is why I picked up the instrument in the first place, so I mostly stayed with the Scandinavians the rest of the time. The morning teachers were Fru Skagerrak, a trio of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish women, and they were amazing. At some point I realized I'd actually heard of Anna Lindblad (Sweden), but mostly through random YouTube videos.

    Everybody was really nice! And also way above my head. Most of the time, every available space, inside and out, was full of groups that sounded like this:

    That's not a specific band, just a circle of very good players. They all either know the songs, or they have the skills to pick it up as they go. Nobody called the tune, or the change. It was pretty daunting, and the only circle I was really able to join was a group of drunk twentysomethings on Friday or Saturday night, who were declining (and/or too drunk) to play at their full speed. It was fun! But I have a long way to go.

    The attendees were mostly white, with a skew towards folks near or past retirement, who could take a week without working. The one non-white performer was Fiddlin' Earl White, who seems to have spent his decades moving around the country every 3-5 years collecting and transmitting fiddle repertoire. He performed in the finale concert on Saturday (open to the public, which most of the week's concerts weren't).

    Now, there was a Kids Track and a Teens Track, and the teens were led by The Onlies, a group that themselves grew up going to Fiddle Tunes and the kids' and teens' programs (there's an adorable video of them kicking ass at a dance in 2011). The Onlies taught the kids a Swedish polska (not the same as a polka), and then a super-catchy fiddle tune blended with a secularized (and also catchy) tune called "I Belong To The Band, Hallelujah!".

    The teens played at the public finale! They were great. Then Fiddlin' Earl White gets up and does a set with his band, then says, "That tune they played before is called 'Chips and Sauce,' by the clog dancer Ira Bernstein. And I actually taught it to The Onlies, several years ago. Here's the original."

    Around and around it goes.

    Fru Skagerrak played a set, too, including a bunch of Anna Lindblad's songs that I now want to learn, as it turns out she is a kick-ass songwriter. They played a convincingly Swedish tune, which was actually written by a Cajun musician, who had met the Swedish group Väsen many many years ago when they were at some music festival in Louisiana, and the Cajun guy then went home and wrote a Swedish song. Which was then performed by a Scandinavian trio, at a festival in Washington state.

    Around and around it goes.

    The final song of their set was this Anna Lindblad tune, from her album Med vänner ("With friends"). The dancer is Nic Gareiss (here's a great video of the two of them playing Quebecois songs), and the guitarist is the amazing Roger Tallroth from Väsen. Lindblad wrote the song about the friends and music you meet at festivals like the Tønder Festival in Denmark, where she met the other 2/3 of Fru Skagerrak. It's a Cajun/Zydeco tune, by a Swede.

    Around and around it goes.

    Wednesday, July 3, 2019

    now that you mention it...

    The PNW gave its all for a damp day yesterday, transitioning seamlessly from mist to rain to fog to more rain and back to fog. The air has a delicious, unfamiliar smell, like the arid, resinous spice of California mixed with the salt of the Atlantic coast I grew up with. On Sunday one of the locals was warning me about the capricious weather, the vast and rapid changes a single day can bring. It was no good to tell her I grew up in New England, that I've lived in California for twenty years and the primary thing I've hated about it has been the monotonous weather. It never does any good. It's like telling someone, "Oh, thanks, I'm not vegan, I just really prefer the taste of the ice cream substitute made from oat milk and xanthan gum."

    I accept that if I'd spent the past twenty years shoveling show for several months of the year, California's eight straight months of cloudless, blinding sky would look a lot more appealing. I hate it anyway.

    Not what I'm writing about, though. No, the misted-over Puget Sound has me thinking about fog.

    Ancient sailors--on the Mediterranean, for example--used to sail along the coast during the day, and beach their ships at night. If you know anything about sailing, you'll understand that this is an incredible pain in the ass. You have to know all the landing spots for thousands of miles of coastline, and spot them correctly, and hope the wind will actually carry you there. Logically enough, a sailboat can't sail directly into the wind, but modern boats can get shockingly close. Not ancient ones, as a rule, so if the wind is coming from the direction you need to go? You have problems.

    (This is the non-deity part of Odysseus's long journey home, and it slowed down Alexander the Great's invasion of India considerably.)

    Long ago, I did a course at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, sailing a 30-foot wooden boat around the thousands of islands of Penobscot Bay. Currents and winds being what they are, we did a fair bit of night and fog sailing (sometimes both). GPS was mostly limited to the military then; LORAN was okay for coastal navigation in North America, but in any case, electronics were expensive and took batteries, and we had neither engines nor generators nor solar panels. (Now, by comparison, though it doesn't alway feel that way, electronics are dirt cheap and power efficient, and battery technology is much better.) We navigated anyway! Without dying! Or even coming close. Looking out on foggy water, that certainly feels insane, even though I've been reading nautical charts since I could read, and I helped my classmates.

    Here is the infrastructure and information purchased by your tax dollars and recorded on a chart:

    • High-granularity depth and sea bottom surveys.
    • Terrain surveys, contour lines, and landmarks.
    • Automated lighthouses/buoys with foghorns, each of which has light/sound patterns unique within some large radius.
    Say you're in motion, with your compass telling you you're headed due northwest. You see one light with a pattern "[white] [green] [pause 2 seconds]" and another going "[red] [pause 1 second] [red] [pause 2 seconds]". You now know exactly where you are. You can measure their angles relative to the boat if you want, but you don't really have to, because the system is designed to prevent you mistaking one lighthouse for another. Only got one lighthouse? Use the terrain details to find a hill or a water tower or something.

    (Boat hit something? Your navigational skills might not be as good as you thought! But maybe you can use that to figure out where you are. Make lemons with that lemonade!)

    Here is what I realized, looking out on the foggy entrance to Puget Sound:
    Our sailing ancestors were batshit insane.
    I have no idea what they did when fog appeared in these rocky, island-studded coastal areas. Did they just drop anchor at the first remotely safe spot? Without navigational aids, you're stuck with "dead reckoning," which is a neat exercise if you're doing it for fun, but might be all too literal otherwise.

    No wonder ships wrecked all the time.

    Tuesday, July 2, 2019


    I'm spending the week away from the family, in the breezy and gentrifying Port Townsend, Washington, at the annual Fiddle Tunes Workshop (or whatever it's called--the name has changed over time). It's about 2.5 hours from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and it turns out to be a little out in the sticks. This is probably because Sea-Tac itself is sort of in the sticks, and then you have to cross a bunch of salt water to get here.

    Fort Worden is one of a triangle of Army bases built to make naval attacks on Puget Sound a fruitless suicide mission. Then we invented airplanes, won World War II, and it eventually became a state park, with an arts organization to take up residence. I didn't grow up around military bases back East, so maybe they all look like this, but the architecture here is the same as the former bases I've seen in California: tall, blocky, gratuitously unattractive. Unlike the Presidio, these all need paint, but there's a lot of moisture in the air, and the money is better spent giving kids music lessons.

    The trip out was a little rough in spots. I discovered that I hadn't gotten the helpful email about which shuttle I should be on, because the paperwork didn't go through and I wasn't on the list. There was space much sooner than I expected, which was great! It was a little airporter kind of shuttle, with the ceiling racks full of instruments. I put my seatbelt on, but said to my seatmate, "For all the good a seatbelt will do us, given all these instrument cases waiting to be flung into us."

    You can guess who was the only person to have an instrument fall on their head. I didn't see it coming, so there was no chance to dodge, and very loud reflexive profanity. I'm grateful it was a lightweight foam case: a banjo, or the kind of fiberglass or carbon fiber cases you use for really nice violins, would have given me a nice concussion, instead of just ringing my bell a bit.

    Day 1 went really well! I'm surprisingly better than I assumed I was. Day 2 was harder, as I'm still tired and I also went on an epic walk into town last night. But I'm on vacation! It's been a while. Maybe I've forgotten how to be on vacation.

    Sunday, June 23, 2019

    so that happened.

    Despite my lawyerly heritage, I didn't grow up around actual litigation or other court proceedings: more stuff like tax/zoning/real estate law. As a result, like so many Americans, my impression was that of the Law & Order TV series, where you see the lawyers doing motions and depositions and whatever, but of course they don't show the months in between when you're just waiting for the next court date.

    There are months in between court dates. But ours finally arrived!

    I say "ours" even though I'm not named anywhere, and by the strictest letter of the law, I don't exactly exist. In fact, Angry Biodad (ABD) has always reflexively thought of me as some sort of backup babysitter in J's life, which has often been useful, especially in the times when J was struggling with the tension between his biological parents. I'm an alternate category of parent, called a "Chris": a poorly defined but highly reliable source of unconditional love.

    The hearing was a little nerve-wracking, since the judge got progressively (and mostly justifiably) crabbier as it unfolded. I see where they're coming from: they don't know us, they don't know J, they just have the ruling from two years ago, and a new pile of papers with a bunch of contradictory claims in it. This whole motion was J's idea, so the filing had a ton of his statements in it, and he needed to vet it before filing (and in fact had some corrections); buuut, the previous ruling was very clear that no one should show J any court paperwork! (Because ABD had done exactly that, last time.) And Anna had taken faithful dictation for a couple of angry emails J wrote to ABD, because J's had a headache for nine months limiting his screen time, and that also bugged the judge. There wasn't really a better way to do this, though.

    The goals were:
    1. Let J stay with whoever he wants without hassle, which means ABD stops showing up at school or the house to pick J up as though everything's fine.
    2. Get a court-appointed person to talk to J (and his doctors and therapists and whoever) and get his voice into the record.
    The judge's summary went something like this:
    1. For fuck's sake, none of you people have abided by the previous court orders. You suck.
    2. The child is 6'1" and is clearly not going to comply with the existing custody order, and there's no point in my ordering something a 6'1" child isn't going to comply with, so: 
      • the original custody order stands, but
      • my interim order is that no one will try to force the child to comply with the original custody order.
    3. Contact (phone calls, whatever) with the non-resident parent must be initiated by the child.
    4. To unravel the parents' clusterfuck of conflicting hearsay and sketchy document serving habits, Family Court Services will interview the child and everybody with "Dr." in front of their name, so I can be sure of what this kid actually wants and if there are good reasons for it.
    5. Family therapy with ABD and J continues, with the mom if the therapist wants.
    6. None of you will talk to the kid about court stuff.
    7. See you in August.
    8. Go away.
    If you're going to be rebuked by a judge, the best kind of rebuke is certainly the kind where you get the outcome you wanted along with it. Success!

    Sunday, May 26, 2019

    so much typing.

    I just finished an epic fantasy book called Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson. I've been chewing through all of his books, and he doesn't seem to work on any scale below "big," which, along with being a fan, is probably how he was chosen to finish Robert "Died While Writing The Twelfth Book" Jordan's The Wheel of Time series (which turned out to need another two books after that).

    I have a pretty high tolerance for thick fiction, and my conversion to ebooks means I can have a computer do the wordcounts for me. Moby-Dick, about which generations of students have justifiably asked "Really? You're serious?", punches above its considerable actual length of 214,000 words. For some reason we thought Neal Stephenson had reached new hardcover weights with Anathem (345,000 words) and Reamde (403,000 words), although the much earlier Cryptonomicon was 470,000 words.

    Oathbringer weighs in at a healthy 454,000 words, but what really got my attention was the size of the file: 73 megabytes, well over the 50 megabytes accepted by Amazon's Send To Kindle app. Reading without the Kindle service is annoying, because I read dozens of books concurrently, switching between my iPhone, iPad, and actual Kindle, and the Kindle service keeps track of my location (and, less frequently, notes) in each book.

    The series containing Oathbringer has a character with a genius for drawing, and this volume, #3, just has a whole lot more illustrations meant to be her art. Luckily, the nice thing about text is that computers are really good at manipulating it, and Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire--1.3 million words, but with a file size pushed over the edge by Piranesi's engravings--already drove me to figure out how to split up a book. This turns out to be pretty easy, since I'm already using the standard "I need the tool that does everything and it's okay if it's obscure" ebook app, Calibre.

    Looks like I'm holding steady finishing a book per week. So many of them have been Sanderson's, though, I feel like I should get double credit.

    Sunday, May 12, 2019

    not my first choice. or second, or third.

    We're in what I really hope is a peak stress period dealing with Angry Biodad (ABD), but at the same time, J is magnificent. Standing up and telling his story to anyone who will listen, plus ABD, who won't. Growing up with courage and kindness, and adorably confused that I should think that was anything admirable or out of the ordinary.

    We've tested the legal system a bit now, with both sympathetic and unsympathetic cops, and verified that while a cop might be really mean-spirited about it, he is not going to drag a kid kicking and screaming to go with a parent he doesn't want to go with. Jerkface Cop charged in with his own emotional baggage, and said all he can do is "enforce" the court order...but that turns out to be toothless, and limited to just being a jerk (to me and to the kid). As J talked and talked about these problems going back to when he was little, and all the ways he's tried to have an honest conversation with ABD, Jerkface Cop got quieter and quieter and seemed to understand that this was a very different situation than the one that caused him so much pain. I hope he takes the lesson from it, but who knows.

    I myself am a bit of a mess, self-medicating with a combination of cookies and music. I'm still enjoying the fiddle, but it's also demanding, and I enjoy having the mandolins (3) and guitars (2) as easier outlets.

    It's been a pretty shitty month, all things considered. But it could be worse.