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 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?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

squeak squeak squeak

I'm enjoying my violin, which sounds mostly tolerable and only occasionally appalling. It's often said the violin family are the instruments best able to mimic the human voice, and at the right moments, my violin certainly sounds just like the voice of someone in extreme torment. At other moments, it sings the unhappy keening of a cat in heat: truly a versatile instrument!

I do come to the violin with several advantages over 5th-grade children in the 80s:

  1. Decades of experience teaching me that difficult things are difficult, and the only rational response is to accept that you're a beginner and practice a lot.
  2. 25(!) years of playing guitar, which is, from a broad physics perspective, identical to the violin.
#2 may not be entirely obvious, but they share more terminology than not. The strings start at the head, wrapping around the tuning pegs (which are often just called tuners on a guitar, where they are also geared, as on the violin's larger siblings); pass over the nut and continue down the neck, over the fingerboard to the bridge and ending in the tailpiece. There are also top/back/sides, and, one of my favorite names, purfling.

I know all this because (a) I learn stuff easily enough that it's my all-consuming hobby; (b) when I first picked up the guitar, I had a copy of The Guitar Handbook, which, along with a string-winder, should be issued to every new guitarist; and (c) the Internet.

One handy thing the guitar has are frets, metal bars on the fingerboard which show you where to put your fingers. The violin presents you with an undifferentiated expanse of black. You get to learn, probably by ear-abusive trial and error, the muscle memory of where your fingers go.

Happily, the frets on a fretted instrument (guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, etc.) are not placed and spaced by accident, nor even by art, but by the glories of science! The quick version is that the frets get predictably closer together as the string gets shorter and the pitch gets higher. The violin is quite a bit shorter than the guitar, but I've been playing guitar a long, long time and I have a pretty good feel for where the frets should be.

...leaving me free to observe how cramped my fingers are.

Here are the things that have to go right for a violin to make some basic, passable music:
  • The bow must be at the right tension.
  • The bow must have the right amount of rosin on it.
  • You must be applying the right amount of pressure on the bow.
    • The right amount of pressure is different on the ends and the middle.
  • You must be moving the bow at the right speed.
  • You must be moving the bow perpendicular to the strings.
  • You must place your fingers precisely on the unmarked fingerboard, with a margin of error that is essentially zero.
  • You must do all of these things at the same time and coordinated with each other.
This leaves out how you hold the bow, angle of the violin, and various other body mechanics.

Sooo, yeah. That's why I'm taking violin lessons. Should keep me off the streets for a while.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

I bought a violin.

I'm not entirely sure why I do these things. It goes from "hey, that looks like fun" and progresses to "those movements look almost entirely alien to my body" and finally peak at "student violins aren't very expensive at all," and only afterward do I remember that when we were choosing instruments back in 5th grade, I avoided the violin because everyone said it was relatively difficult. I chose the trumpet, instead.

Now that I've become acquainted with the violin's 17th-century technology--no joke, it's like the Plimoth Plantation of musical instruments--I see that in the general case, everyone was more or less correct.

In my specific case, however, I chose the trumpet and then also had braces for 4 years, and these were the old-school braces where they glue caltrops onto (most relevantly) your incisors for the duration, which amped up the difficulty of the trumpet to where its only competition would have been other horns.

I often do things because they're challenging--

Hmm. It's possible I only do things when they're challenging, unless there's no other choice.

I have my reasons, I guess.

Friday, September 8, 2017

part of the problem.

We've lived in this house well over 4 years now, and the neighborhood is changing. I don't know how much it was accelerating before we adopted Leela last year; now that I have a roommate who will literally start jumping up and down and barking at me if not walked soon enough after eating, I see the change very clearly. Houses do change hands, it's true, but mostly what I see is Latino families moving out.

I'd never bothered to think about it, but it takes a much longer time to move out than to move in. Moving in, your new place ingests whatever boxes and couches you've chosen to bring with you, and you put the bed together and unpack a couple pots and then you're officially living there.

Moving out, especially as a tenant, should just be the mirror end of the process, but instead it drags on and on. Maybe your housemate leaves some stuff behind. Maybe you like your new girlfriend more than she hates your couch. Stuff has to be Freecycled, or put out through Craigslist, or left out on the curb. If you're using the Friends & Family Moving Company, just moving stuff takes days and days, depending on when your someone's co-worker or relative has a truck available. Then the place has to be cleaned up enough to get the security deposit back.

So it takes a week or two or three, and the dog routes are arbitrary enough that I rarely pass a house less than once every week or two. The people on the streets are more white and Asian, with some black and Southeast Asian. More dogs and babies being walked; fewer poorly-behaved, stir-crazy dogs barrelling into their deadbolt-weight screen doors as we go past. Cars become newer, unmodified, European: Mini, Fiat, BMW, Volvo, Audi.

The problem with gentrification is that it's an inevitable outcome of having cities where people can buy and sell real estate. The Latino couple who raised their kids in this house, before retiring to Gilroy to be full-time absentee slumlords, were going to sell the house, one way or another. There was no scenario in which that didn't happen. Probably flippers wouldn't have bought it--too much work for too little profit--but the way it had appreciated, its days as a run-down low-income rental property were over.

The neighborhood does better when the homes are cared for: after the two very exciting police incidents in the first few months, our intersection is quieter, and seems to be calmer every time Anna has some dismal trees removed, or has a fence put up, or engineers the window replacements, or gets the house painted.

The evenings smell less and less like delicious Mexican food, though. We're losing so much diversity, and I don't know where it ends up.

I'm betting it's gonna be messy.

Monday, August 14, 2017

the wrong coast for dogs.

Leela is the first dog to actually be my responsibility, and being from the Northeast, we had a remarkable lesson to learn:
There are plants out here which will physically (i.e. not by poisoning) kill your dog.
These are called "foxtails," or "spikelets" if you're going to get all semi-educated about it. They work on the same principle as a barbed hook or arrowhead, only they're also like cluster-bombs, in that they will just keep breaking into smaller pieces which are still barbed and can only move in one direction. Spikelet fragments just keep working their way into the body, to the extent that, though it sounds like science fiction, a bit of spikelet stuck in the paw can eventually work its way through the bloodstream to the heart.

Or direct to the lungs, if they get one up the nose. Lethal plants! You'd think we were in Australia.

It's more a concern with bigger dogs and their bigger noses, but Leela's number finally came up, as one spikelet was randomly loose, and at the right angle, and had some fascinating scent that made her snort it up. Luckily, she started convulsively sneezing uncomfortably, and scrunching her face up, and I could see the tips of the spikelet in her nostril. I carried her home (because she continued sneezing when on the ground) and got her to the vet, and they sedated her and got the pieces out.

I'm pretty sure this was more expensive per ounce than marijuana.

She's a pretty unhappy camper under sedation: she lies there immobile, but the arrangement of her legs is all wrong. And then she'll suddenly have a burst of determination and get up, and then she'll stand still and then start wobbling like an AT-AT falling.

So, yeah. Plants that can physically kill your dog. Way to go, West Coast!