Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: Engaging music from Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi

Jennifer Higdon: On a Wire; Michael Gandolfi: Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman
eight blackbird
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Robert Spano, conductor
ASO Media

More and more I'm convinced that the people who don't like contemporary classical music are those that haven't heard it. Atonality and serialism are often cited as the reason for their rejection of current classical fare, but those objections are about a half-century out of date.

Contemporary -- and especially younger contemporary -- composers use the musical language of today to create works that aren't intellectual exercises, but actually connect emotionally with an audience.

A good example is the latest release by the conductor Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on their own label. Joined by the eighth blackbird sextet, they perform brand new works by two fairly young, yet established composers.

The orchestra's had a fruitful association with Jennifer Higdon, and On a Wire continues that trend. The work is a concerto for the members of eighth blackbird and orchestra. It's an exciting piece and one that puts the virtuosity of the sextet to the test. And it's engaging. Sometimes the music is quite lyrical, at other times it's bustling with rhythmic complexity -- but it's always tonal in some fashion.

If you can handle the outré sound of the "Twilight Zone" closing credits theme, you'll have no problem with On a Wire. Higdon's created an entertaining and good-natured work that I suspect is as entertaining to watch in performance as it is to hear in the recording.

The longer work on the disc is Michael Gandolfi's QED: Engaging Richard Feynman. This one's for the orchestra alone, although it uses a greatly expanded percussion section. The work uses two anecdotes of physicist Richard Feynman as its inspiration. Gandolfi's music is much more tonal than Higdon's -- my impression was that of a post-Hovhaness/Copland composition. Choral settings of Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Joseph Campbell are both effective and moving. Gandolfi knows how to write a vocal-friendly melody!

If you're looking for new music, this CD is a great choice. And if you think there's no new good classical music to be found, this disc is even a better choice. It just might change your mind.

Highly recommended.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Straco Layout, Part 6 - Painting and getting to the point

 Read all the installments of the Straco Express layout project here.

The next step was finishing the board. I had some Douglas Fir green paint left over from  a previous project, and I felt it was the perfect color for the Straco layout. It's a bright green, and rather than depicting realistic ground cover, it presents a more toy-like representation of grass that's in keeping with the bright colors of the Straco Express itself.

That's gonna leave a mark.
After the painting was completed, I worked on another little problem I had. I had purchased the shortest wood screws I could possibly find, but they were still a little long, as you can see.

One option would have been to file them off flush with the wood, using a Dremel tool. But I didn't want to put that much time into the project, plus I wasn't sure I could get the screws down level with the wood without gouging the wood at the same time.

I'm really not that bad a photographer.
The registration's off on the packaging,
which is why the lettering looks funny.
So I purchased some  furniture pads, and the problem was solved. I twisted the pad onto the exposed screw until the pad's adhesive made contact with the wood. Then I just pushed down and a little bit, and the screw tip was completely covered.

Problem solved. And I don't have to worry about the
bracing scratching the table top.
Now on to the next step... laying down the track  (in a way that will ensure it will work).


Friday, March 25, 2011

The Straco Layout, Part 5 - Bracing for Impact

Read all the installments of the Straco Express layout project here.

While I was happy overall with using the pegboard as the base for the Straco Express layout,  there was still one problem: stability.

Because of the inherently flimsy nature of both the rolling stock and the track, everything has to be optimal for this cheap little Japanese train to do more than one circuit around. For that reason, I added bracing to the pegboard.

As you can see, it's nothing fancy -- just some screen door molding repurposed. I was also trying to balance between adding  strips to firm up the pegboard and keeping the whole thing as light as possible for portability.

The solution was to go around the outer edges with the molding, and then cross-brace through the middle. I used the existing holes in the pegboard for my screws, which helped keep the whole thing symmetrical, as you can see from the pattern of screw heads when viewing from the top.

I'm still straightening out track sections, but the next significant step is to get the layout board finished. After that, I'll start laying down said track.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Where's Ralph? Footballing in Nigeria

Ken and I just wrapped up another Nigerian scammer scam -- our fifth. This one just happened by accident. It started when I received an email from a friend I had seen just a few hours before. The email claimed said a friend had been mugged in London and needed money to come home! I wrote my friend to let him know his email address book had been hacked, but it was the scammer who responded!

The game was on. I kind of made this one up as I went along. We soon moved from reality to "Green Acres," which somehow lead to a showdown between two dead presidents (or rather, their relatives). And then, all of a sudden, everything changed, and Roy Rogers (as played by Ken) rode onto the scene.

I've changed the name of my friend, but otherwise the emails are exactly as we received them. Chapter One has the bulk of the tale, Chapter Two begins when our favorite Texas oilman enters the scene.

I must say, the scammers' fake documents were better than we've seen to date, but I think our fake documents are still better -- I wonder sometimes if we're on the right side of this game.

Make sure you read carefully. We sprinkled the letters with puns, pop culture references, and made-up Western slang that probably didn't translate well.

For your reading pleasure, we present the Story of John and Marsha and Roy.

Chapter One: John and Marsha
Chapter Two: John and Roy

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Peering into the Mouth of the Congressional Cannon

This is a continuation of the yesterday's post about H.R. 1076, the bill to kill NPR. Interestingly enough, the Republicans who rushed this to the floor broke one of their own promises (and on purpose, I suspect). Remember how they vowed that they would make the text of every bill public for three business days to allow public scrutiny and feedback? Why the rush, boys? I usually only skirt the rules if I know I'm doing something sketchy.

Despite not being available for public scrutiny for 72 hours, the text was finally posted today I had a chance to look at the actual bill and it's even stranger than I first thought. Here's the meat of it:
To prohibit Federal funding of National Public Radio and the use of Federal funds to acquire radio content

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled:


- No Federal funds may be made
(1) to an organization that is incorporated as of the date of the enactment of this Act for each of the purposes described in subsection (c), or to any successor organization

(2) for payment of dues to an organization described in paragraph (1); or(3) for the acquisition of radio programs (including programs to be distributed or disseminated over the Internet) by or for the use of a radio broadcast station that is a public broadcast station (as defined in section 397(6) of the Communications Act)

- Paragraphs (2) and (3) of subsection (a) shall not be construed to prohibit the making available of Federal funds to any entity, including an entity that engages in the payment described in such paragraph (2) or the acquisition described in such paragraph (3), for purposes other than such payment or acquisition

(2) RADIO CONTENT ACQUISITION BY BROADCASTING BOARD OF GOVERNORS OR DEFENSE MEDIA ACTIVITY- Subsection (a)(3) shall not be construed to apply to the acquisition of radio programs by the Broadcasting Board of Governors or the Defense Media Activity.
OK, so they plugged the Internet loophole I mentioned yesterday. But what if NPR switched to straight video/TV production? Not covered. Now the bill further defines what funds can't be used for, and do so by basically paraphrasing NPR's articles of incorporation! (Just so there's no confusion).

Now some analysists think that this bill specifically targets NPR while allowing funding to go to the other providers like PRI and APM. i think the reasoning is that the list of disallowed funding purposes "for each of the purposes described in subsection (c)." That could mean only organizations who do all of the proscribed activities, not just a few. But I'm not so sure. What if it's interpreted as "any?"

The disallowed activities, for example, include:
"To establish and maintain one or more service or services for the production, duplication, promotion and circulation of radio programs on tape, cassettes, records or any other means or mechanism suitable for noncommercial educational trnasmission and broadcast thereof."

That pretty much defines the activity of every syndicator and producer both large and small.

And what about this disallowed purpose for funding?
"To lease, purchase, acquire and own, to order, have, use and controct for, and to otherwise obtain, arrange for and provide technical equipment and facilities for the production, recording and distribution of radio programs for broadcast over noncommerical educational radio stations, networks and systems."

Well, parts of that cover every station in the system. So if Federal funding can't be used for program creation or acquisition, or equipment maintenance/upgrades, I guess that leaves only salaries. Does that mean public radio employees will be able to make a living wage thanks to an act of Congress?

Now there's an unintended consequence!

BTW - Section B, subsection 2 exempts Voice of America and military broadcast service from this ban. So does that mean VOA and the DoD would become NPR's biggest customers? Just wondering...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hunting the NPR gnat with a Congressional cannon

My esteemed Representative Eric Cantor will be introducing a bill on the floor of the House tomorrow. In my opinion, it's a poorly written bill that's nothing more than a ham-handed attempt to kill off a perceived foe that will have dire and immediate consequences for many.

The Bill
H.R. 1076 - To prohibit Federal funding of National Public Radio and the use of Federal funds to acquire radio content.

Right from the start, this bill is a mess. First of all, "National Public Radio" no longer exists. The organization made the change to "NPR" a while ago. Just like AT&T, the initials no longer stand for anything. It's the company name. So the leading luminaries who crafted this, Rep. Doug Lamborn and Rep. Eric Cantor don't even have the name of their target right. Isn't that type of detail important when crafting Federal law?

The Reason
Hard-core conservatives have hated NPR since the First Gulf War. That's when Newt Gingrich tried to kill the organization for not getting on board with the commercial news organizations and only reporting what the government wanted people to hear.

And that's not just my opinion. Bob Edwards in a recent interview said:
“The opponents of NPR are using a fiscal argument when they really want it off, they want it gone, just as Newt and company wanted it gone” when the Gingrich House zeroed out its funding. Why? “So the voices of Fox et al. can prevail,” says Edwards.
The Intended Consequences
It's not enough to just cut off Federal money to NPR. The bill goes further and disallows any Federal funds to be used to purchase radio content. The idea is that stations won't be able to use that money to pay for NPR programming, thereby eliminating any chance that NPR will even indirectly get those funds.

For most public radio stations, the biggest single expense in the programming, and the biggest single payment is to NPR. But there's a reason for that. Listeners expect to hear "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." They enjoy "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," "Car Talk," and "Fresh Air."

I suspect Cantor et al. aren't thinking much beyond the news programs. They want that damn liberal news organization shut down!

The Unintended Consequences
But by saying that NO Federal funds may be used to acquire radio programming, Cantor and Lamborn will be doing much more than just getting that pesky Linda Wertheimer off the air.

Many people (and I suspect our two legal eagles as well) have come to think of the terms "NPR" and "public radio" as one in the same. But they're not. The relationship between NPR and a local station is much like that between NBC and a local affiliate. The local station pays for the privilege of carrying the "Today Show," but has no control over what Matt Lauer says.

But there are several more providers of public radio content than just NPR. Like "Prairie Home Companion?" That's distributed by American Public Media. Ditto "Marketplace." The new law would not allow Federal funds to pay for those programs.

Like "This American Life" or the BBC Newshour? Those are provided by Public Radio International. They also couldn't be paid for by CPB grants under the new rule. It would also disallow programming from smaller distributors and content creators, such as the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, StarDate, as well as programs produced by individual stations.

If you listen to public radio, pay close attention. Any program that has an end credit will be blocked from funding under this new law.

Further Unexpected Consequences
The law's being written with one goal in mind: kill NPR by blocking all funding to it. But that's not the way the law's written. Remember that name change I mentioned earlier? NPR changed its name because it's moving away from radio.  

The restriction applies to using Federal funds to acquire radio programming. But what about streaming audio, like the All Songs 24/7 Music Channel? If it's a feed created expressly for the Internet, then it's not a radio program, is it? What about podcasts? NPR produces several. They're not broadcast over the air, so they're not radio programs. What about Internet-only programs, like the Tiny Desk Concerts? They're not covered by this new law, either. What if NPR began producing video for public broadcasting? The law doesn't say anything about television programming.

The Bottom Line
HR 1076 will fail at its goal. NPR will not go away, nor will it wither that much. One of the reasons NPR hasn't allowed all of its programming to migrate to SIRIUS/XM is that the public radio system that they still rely on would be in open revolt. But if stations can't afford the programming anymore, that's where they'll go. And listeners will follow.

NPR will be just fine, but the local stations could suffer massive damage, as well the other syndicators and producers who never had a dog in this hunt. Even if there was a good reason to kill NPR, this bill is not the way to do it.

I've already asked Rep. Cantor to reconsider (like he ever listens to me). Now is not the time for complacency. If public radio (NOT necessarily NPR) is important to you, you need to speak up now, before we all have to pay for the consequences of this ill-written law that can't even get the name of its target right.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Review: Gavin Bryars refines his style with Piano Concerto

Gavin Bryars: Piano Concerto -The Solway Canal
Ralph von Raat, piano
Cappella Amsterdam
Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic; Otto Tausk, conductor

I've always liked Gavin Bryars' music, although I admit I was always more familiar with his earlier works, such as "Jesus' Blood Ain't Failed Me Yet," and "The Sinking of the Titanic." The latter was almost a study in sound landscapes and non-tonal sonorities, crafted to deliver a visceral emotional wallop. Bryars has continued growing as a composer, delving even further into the nature of sound, while refining his musical language.

All of that's beautifully illustrated in this new recording from Naxos. Pianist Ralph van Raat presents three of Bryars' recent compositions for the instrument, two of which are dedicated to van Raat. All three works share certain similarities. There are these long flowing arpeggios played with the damper pedal down. This causes these layered chords to overlap each other, creating an additional voice as sonorities fade in and out.

At first, listen, I was reminded briefly of Philip Glass' music -- but only briefly. While flowing diatonic chords are prominent, that's where the similarity ends. Bryar isn't concerned with gradual changes over time. He's more interested in what's happening at the moment. His chords change quickly, although each chord often has several notes in common with the one before it. The result is music that organically flows from point to point, much like a vine.

While the two solo piano works on the album, "After Handel's Vesper" and "Ramble on Cortona" are compelling listening, the piano concerto is a real masterwork.

Subtitled "The Solway Canal" it takes the Edwin Morgan poem as its starting point and a basis for organization. Like Smetana's "Ma Vlast," the piano concerto takes the listener down the canal, presenting scenes along the banks that drift past. The solo piano part isn't especially virtuosic, but it is the glue that holds the work together. The piano plays almost constantly, with the orchestra and chorus organized around its shimmering chordal cascades.

I would be hard-pressed to precisely describe the structure of the work, but I don't think it matters. "The Solway Canal" pulled me along from the first note to the final chord, and everything just seemed to fall into place.

If you think modern music has to sound like a toolbox descending a staircase, give Bryar a listen. You won't hear pretty little melodies, but you will hear compelling, accessible music that draws you in emotionally. And really, isn't that the point?

Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Tender Trap 3

I know I should leave this subject alone, but shortly after my last post about the Tender Trap I ran across an offering for a Marx train set on eBay.

Here's the photo of the train all set up. Attractively displayed, don't you think? (click on the images to enlarge)

Yet something doesn't seem right. Oh, I know. The tender's backward! Let's look at that a little more closely:

Yep, it's backward, all right. Notice how the coal empties away from the engine. OK, that's pretty subtle, but what about this? The tender is designed to connect to the locomotive and the other cars in one way and one way only.

Notice that the engine has a simple hook. There's a corresponding one with a slot on the correct end of the tender. The cars all have knuckle couplers (that don't work with the hook). There's a knuckle coupler on the correct end of the tender. Let's take an even closer look, shall we?

On the left are the engine and the wrong end of the tender. No match on the couplers. On the right, the other end of the tender and one of the freight cars. No match there, either.

I know, the complexities of couples might be beyond some folks. But there's one other thing.

Also included in this offering is not just the train itself, but the entire set: track, transformer, and original box.

A box with cover art. Cover art that shows how the train should be set up.

Let's take a closer look at the artwork.

Yep, there's no doubt about it, in order for our knuckle-headed seller to set this train up incorrectly, he had to not only ignore the obviously mismatched connectors but had to assiduously avoid looking at the box art for guidance. But I'm sure he felt the tender "looked right" the way he had it. It's what they always say.

From another auction site, here's the same engine and tender properly displayed.

Let's take a closer look. Notice how, even though not connected, the two hooks just look right. It's obvious they go together. Is this really such a difficult concept? After all, these things were designed for young children to set up and play with.