Thursday, December 07, 2006

Where have I been?

The last few weeks seem to have gone by very fast, but they also have been very intensive. All sorts of personal problems which I don't want to discuss here have occupied my time.

My father has just spent one week in hospital, and for someone who has always been healthy (he is 84), this comes as quite a surprise and quite a blow. As the diagnosis is not clear, everyone has been telling me stories about people going to doctors and not being diagnosed correctly. These days, so much depends on blood tests; it makes me wonder who devises these tests (how do they know what to test for, how do they actually perform the test, what do they mean) and how we managed say 20 years ago when there weren't such sophisticated tests.

I am trying to do an arrangement for an old song. I originally sequenced it in 1999 and sounded very good (in what I call a 'pointillist' style), but the transfer to Reason has changed everything. I get the feeling that by the time I finish, there will be only 25% of the original notes left; I've changed parts, thrown out a great deal and tried to make something new. At the moment, I am lucky if I can devote an hour a day to this - fortunately there is no rush.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Love

Is this an event which unites youth in a way that hasn't happened since June 1967? Is it an exercise in money grabbing?

I am referring to the "new" Beatles album entitled "Love". No doubt you've read about it elsewhere so I'm not going to delve into the background too much. I've known about the record for the past few weeks, a bit earlier than the general public here, who only became aware after last Saturday's tv weekly news roundup devoted a few minutes to the subject. By that time I had already downloaded a few songs which had been streamed by an Australian paper, and I was getting to know the material.

I thought that it would be instructive to see what other people had been writing about this album first before essaying my thoughts. I was really surprised: a large number of people were moaning about how the Beatles see this record as another way of milking the public; many were annoyed at how "new" tracks had been created and most of the opinions that I read were against the record.

I might have a few reservations, but I think that George Martin didn't go far enough in creating new tracks by mixing and mashing the old. One person was complaining that he bought the 45 rpm record of "Strawberry Fields" in 1967, and so he knows "what the correct version is". Is he unaware that the version to which he was referring was actually created from two different versions? For those who still don't know this, the invisible seam is at the 1:00 mark. Maybe it's because I spend much of my time creating music electronically, cutting and pasting bits and pieces from different songs and matching them up that I'm not horrified by this concept.

I may be a pathetic anorak, but one of my favourite Beatles cd contains only different versions and instrumental tracks of "Strawberry Fields". This was the first ever mash, and the "new" version revealed here is simply the "original" with yet another different first verse put on the front. To me, the differing versions reveal differing aspects of the music, and the new mixes enable one to hear things which were originally buried.

SFF was the first Beatles song which ever won sufficient respect to require a remake; often they were working to a schedule which didn't allow second thoughts. People have become so used to bands making a record once a year, or once every two years or even once every three years that they don't remember that in the sixties, bands were required to make two albums a year! Recording budgets were miniscule and recording techniques were caveman-like. For some reason, EMI issued an edict that the Beatles' tapes were never to be interfered with; as a result of George Martin's using two track recording to record two separate tracks as opposed to one stereo recording, recordings had been issued with all the instruments on one side and vocals on the other side - and he wasn't allowed to fix them! So even if there were no mashing done on "Love", the chance to remix the original recordings (as much as those recording allow remixing) is one not to be taken lightly.

These days, artists record a song. They make several mixes, maybe with different instrumentation, and have the time and luxury to choose the one which they think sounds best. Sometimes a mix will sound dated after a few years and sometimes the artists may choose to replace the original mix with a different version. Sometimes an artist will have second thoughts: I know that mentioning my music in the same breath as the Beatles' is pure sacrilege, but I'd like to give an example of my own.

As I've written before, I recorded The Band's "Whispering Pines" not so long ago. My original version had piano and organ on it, similar to The Band's version. After a while, I decided to remove the piano and organ, but kept the vocal. A few weeks later, I decided to change the music once again. Another week went by and I recorded a new vocal. I have four, maybe five, complete and different versions on my hard disk. Had I been pressed for time like the Beatles were, at least until "Sergeant Pepper", that first version would have been the one everyone would have heard. Now it's the fourth (or fifth) version that people can hear at The Band's site, the "Late October" mix.

Shouldn't The Beatles be awarded the chance to correct minor mistakes and have their music sound contemporary?

Regarding the mashing, some of it is amazing (especially "Drive my car" or "Within Without You"), some is interesting (SFF, "While my gently weeps") and some just is. But the "unadulturated" songs sound anaemic by comparion; one is always waiting for something new to happen and nothing does. But even a song which supposedly has been "left alone" can sound different - "I am the walrus" finally has a true stereo mix, and in the fadeout, the different vocal lines are much more apparent.

If anyone complains about the price - $18 list - I saw that Amazon were selling it at nearly 50% discount, but I imagine that most people will, ahem, acquire the album at no cost at all. It's not as if the Beatles need more money.....

Incidentally, if one studies their history, it wasn't until they broke up that they really started earning money (the story of many a band). Their original contract with EMI was miserly at best, and Brian Epstein let a lot of money slip through their fingers, not really because of mismanagement, but because they were the first and no one really knew how to handle their business. George Martin too had a raw deal with EMI and didn't make much money at the beginning, although by the time of "Abbey Road" he was probably getting a percentage.

I suppose that compared to most people, I am a Beatles freak, although I wouldn't consider myself a fanatic. I have studied their music both with my own ears and other people's commentary, and I've read their history. I did live through it, although I was too young at the time to go to their concerts. As a result, I hear this album in what is probably a completely different way from someone uneducated about the Beatles; but somehow I doubt that some unsuspecting purchaser is going to believe that these are the canonical versions.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Band

I have a vague memory that in 1971 someone came in to the classroom with a couple of albums under his arm and tried to sell them at a low price. I think that they came without a sleeve, which would tend to imply that they fell off a lorry, as the euphemism puts it. I didn't succumb to temptation, although I did listen to a copy; the only song that I remember was an upbeat number called "Time To Kill".

Several years later, I buy a copy of "Mystery Train" by Greil Marcus (first edition); I bought the book for its chapter on Randy Newman, but of course read it from cover to cover. Whilst I wasn't too interested in Elvis or Sly Stone, the chapter on The Band caught my imagination (I should also note that the chapter on Randy Newman deepened my understanding immensely). I talked this over with a lecturer in the Arts department, and he was kind enough to give me a cassette copy of "The Band" (aka The Brown Album). I found this quite difficult to listen to, and couldn't reconcile easily what I was hearing with what Marcus wrote about.

After emigrating to Israel in 1978, someone was kind enough to give me another cassette, this time with "Big Pink" on one side and "The Band" on the other. Maybe it was the clarity of the recording and maybe it was listening to an album without interruption (the previous cassette had the album spread over both sides of a C60, instead of one side of a C90), but suddenly The Band started to make sense. Around this time, the soundtrack to "The Last Waltz" came out, and I became captivated by some of the tracks, especially "It Makes No Difference".

When I moved from purchasing vinyl to purchasing cds, some of my earlier purchases were the early Band albums, along with a now not available compilation. When the Internet became popular, it didn't take long to find the excellent Band site, which again helped deepen my understanding.

A few days ago, I was looking at this site and noticed that a new page had been added: covers of Band songs by visitors to the site. As it happens, I had recorded a version of "Whispering Pines" a few months ago (several versions, to be accurate), but due to restrictions on the Soundclick site, I was unable to upload it there. So I took this opportunity to make one of my covers available, and one can hear it here. Hope that you enjoy it.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Shopping

My son has started keyboard lessons (not piano, but electric keyboard), and we promised him that if he makes a go of it, we will buy him an instrument. So on Friday, we found ourselves heading towards Tel Aviv, where the major musical instrument shops are to be found. After a bit of humming and hawwing, we chose the Yamaha PSR-E 303, which I discover afterwards is considered to have very good value for money. One thing which I was looking for was touch response; to quote, "On an acoustic piano, striking a key harder will produce a louder sound, striking it softer will produce a softer sound. With Yamaha's "Touch Response" the PSR-E303 keyboard responds like an acoustic piano."

All the time, my wife was saying that if the boy doesn't continue playing, then I can always use it (no doubt trying to play [no pun intended] on one's natural tendency to buy for oneself something better). Indeed, when we got home and set the keyboard up, it was mainly me playing selections from Van der Graaf Generator (a nice bossa version of 'Man Erg'), rather than my son playing the few simple tunes that he's learnt so far.

After this purchase, we had lunch and then split up for an hour, each person doing his/her own shopping or just wandering around. I was "just wandering around" until I found a shop selling cds - a selection which one could kill for. There aren't very many cds on my wish list anymore, and the few which I do buy normally come from esoteric outlets on the Internet; I find it frustrating to walk into a cd shop and come out empty handed. Not this time: the first thing which I noted were VdGG albums (although not the remasters); following this promising start, I then looked for Peter Hammill and found several of his discs, including the series of remasters, which have been available only for a week or so. I decided to buy 'Over', which is simultaneously one of his most extreme but listenable albums. The price was seventy shekels, which works out as slightly less than nine pounds and thus much cheaper than buying from Hammill directly.

Emboldened by this success, I then found "Walking wounded" by Everything But The Girl; Robin has mentioned them several times, but I've never heard anything by them. For forty shekels (less than five pounds), I didn't think that I was taking much of a risk. To round things out, I bought an old album by an Israeli singer, one which I bought on vinyl when it came out but haven't heard in twenty years. I'm more interested in the musician who wrote most of the songs, arranged and produced the album; this record is like a missing link between his earlier, more straightforward material and his later, more jazzy style.

Once home, I listened to all the discs in rotation. "Over" was definitely louder and clearer than the original; the bonus tracks don't do much for me, but I understand why they are there. I have on order from Amazon the remastered version of "Godbluff"; I feel that the original cd release was sorely lacking the power and clarity of the vinyl version, and judging from what's been done to "Over", the result should be good. "Walking wounded" was ok; I find the percussion too loud and distracting - but then, I'm listening to it in the comfort of my home and not on the dance floor. Maybe their earlier material would be more to my liking. The Israeli disc was a pleasure to listen to, although some of it sounds very dated (early 80s synth technology).

So: even if that day did cost us a lot of money, I think that it was very well spent. My left hand hurts from playing extended chords on the piano and my head is full of Peter Hammill songs.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Busy morning

Despite today being Saturday, and thus my one day off from work, I was up and awake at 6:45 am. The first item on my agenda was to watch something which I had taped yesterday on the video. During a few idle moments on Friday, I had turned on the tv and was pleasantly rewarded by the sight of Paul Simon; judging by the mustache and the song he sang ("Loves me like a rock"), I had tuned into a repeat of "Saturday Night Live" hosted by PS circa 1975.

After that song, there was a comic interlude with Simon playing one on one basketball with some pro from the NBA who was about two feet taller. Amusing but predictable. Then cut to Simon singing a song which seemed familiar but wasn't one of his ... wait a minute, it's "Marie", by Randy Newman. After one verse of this, Simon says that it is indeed "Marie", written by one of his favourite songwriters, and he so much liked Newman that he (PS) was able to persuade him (RN) to appear. Cue to Randy Newman playing "Sail away"!

Continuing this level of surprise, next on was Art Garfunkel for two duets, "The Boxer" and "Scarborough Fair". Simon put in a few "friendly jabs", like asking whether Garfunkel was done with his film career and whether he would be upto singing a few songs. I've never been too fond of "The Boxer", probably because of its over-dramatic arrangement, but with just the two of them and one acoustic guitar, the song was much better. It was very easy to hear what each was singing, which was a revelation as I've never heard the harmonies before.

The next item on the agenda was to master a live recording of Randy Newman made only a few days ago. RN is currently on tour in North America, featuring some new songs, and someone had uploaded a recording of his appearance in Toronto a week ago (14 Oct). I had downloaded it and intended to check volume levels before burning some audio copies. It's been my experience that such recordings, if not edited, tend to have very loud applause and very quiet music. This was indeed the case: the applause was approximately four times as loud as the music, and overloading the audio.

After a few experiments, I decided to boost the non-applause sections by 100% (ie make them twice as loud) and compress the applause sections to 50%. Whilst there are some small patches with audible volume changes, these are very short and don't distract from the performance.

New songs! One is called "I'll Never Get Over Losing You", which has nice lyrics but not an outstanding tune. The other is called "(A few words) In Defence of My Country", which is very topical and very funny. It accepts that America's current leaders may not be much, but they're nothing compared to some of the kings, dicatators and leaders that have existed over the past thousand years. Supposedly the new album will be released sometime during 2007, although no one knows quite when.

Finishing up an early morning full of activity, I set to work programming, adding a new feature/report to a program which I have developed to aid a clinical psychologist. This new report used some nice SQL features and looks very nifty! I imagine that the general public doesn't appreciate the niceties of programming, but I certainly enjoyed myself, and the results are pleasing.

That's enough for one day. Now I can rest and shore up some energy for the coming week.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Algorithms, part 2

My original idea didn't work too well, but I've thought of another way to solve the problem, which again divides the work into three:

first query: parts which have different values in both months
second query: for all parts which had a value in the first month, see whether they have a value in the second month
third query: for all parts which had a value in the second month, see whether they have a value in the first month

The second and third queries are similar in nature to my original method, but this way should be faster as the program is not iterating over all the parts, but merely a subset.

Last week was holiday week in Israel. I spent two days learning a new ERP program (and only scratching the surface), and not doing much else with the rest of the time. So there's nothing much to report here.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Strange dream leads to improved algorithm

People don't normally remember their dreams for long, so I'm setting this one down before I forget it.

I was with a group of people (I think that we were students on a course together) who had to run around a ship (some structure with at least two floors or decks) and improve our time for the course. Normally it was taking around five minutes, but I managed to run the course one time in four minutes. Speaking to the group (rather pompously, I admit), I started drawing parallels between how I had managed to improve my time by 20% and tuning computer algorithms. Small increases in performance can be achieved by looking at each part of the algorithm and applying local optimisation. In the dream, an example of local optimisation was the way I was descending a ladder between decks; normally I was climbing down the ladder 'properly', putting my foot on each rung. The local optimisation was to slide down the ladder, holding on with my hands but not using my feet.

The problem with local optimisation, I explained to the group, is that there is limited scope for improvement. True, it may be possible to end up with a time which is maybe five times as fast as the original, but in order to gain true improvement, one has to find a better algorithm. In computer terms, this is (for example) one which works in logarithmic relation instead of linear relation.

Then I woke up. Still thinking about changing algorithms, I started thinking about a problem at work. I started programming over twenty years ago, when computers were relatively slow, lack of memory was a major restraint, and it was very important to tune one's algorithms in order to obtain maximum performance. I don't work in a field which still requires high performance from the cpu, so these days, such matters seem unimportant. But I do know one report in one program which could do with some improvement, and not surprisingly I was working on it with no success the other day.

I have a database which maintains data about dead stock at work (defined as parts which haven't been bought for the last six months but the stock amount is more than twelve months usage), and one of the reports which I produce is a list of changes in the last month - what's been added (not good) and what's been used (good). At the moment, I'm using a simple, straight forward and brute strength approach to this problem: for every part in the database, I get the amount for one month and the amount for the previous month. If the amounts are different and not zero, I display the result.

This works, but it is incredibly slow. I've been trying to find a masterful SQL statement which will allow me to do what I want, but so far I've been unsuccessful. This morning I woke up with a new approach which involves three queries and may seem more complicated, but should be much faster than the simple approach, because the number of parts being looked at is much smaller. First of all, get data for the parts which had a value in both months where the values are not the same and not zero (I have a SQL query which will do this). Then get data for the parts which have a value for this month but not for the previous month. Finally get data for the parts which had a value last month but not this month. The resulting combined list will be the result set which I require.

Of course, I will check that the results which I get match the results which I was getting via the simple approach. I will also time both methods and see which one is faster, even though I'm sure that this new approach will be better. What might be construed as funny - or counter instructive - is that I am spending hours on finding a better approach for a report which will save maybe five minutes per month. Looked at in this light, it's not worth the bother to improve the time.

But it's an intellectual challenge, and that's what's important. Keep burning new synaptic connections in the brain. Thinking about thinking can sometimes be more valuable than simply thinking.

I was thinking about thinking, but it didn't really get me very far - Peter Hammill ("Black room")

Friday, September 29, 2006

Donwloading from YouTube

Another not exciting week has almost passed me by.

I have spent most of my out-of-work time this week downloading video clips from popular site YouTube, using the methods described in this article. Although the videos on YT are streamed and thus theoretically undownloadable, there are ways of getting around this. I use the Firefox browser at work, and once I had downloaded the VideoDownloader plug-in mentioned in the article, it was a breeze to get the videos onto my hard disk. I then used a program to convert the resulting .flv files (which can only be watched with an flv viewer) into avi files, and thence onto cd.

Technology aside, what of the videos? Most of the material which I downloaded are clips from the 'Beat Club' tv programme shown in Germany from the mid 60s until mid 70s; the videos uploaded to YouTube are clips which were shown on tv, possibly taped to video, and then digitalised. As a result of this analog/digital/analog/digital/conversion process, the final quality is not wonderful. Most of the videos came out looking ok, but some suffer from excessive pixelisation, especially the older BC videos which were shot in black and white.

A great number of videos show acts miming to their songs, and as their songs are available at higher quality elsewhere, the enjoyment lies in watching the musicians and identifying the instruments. Much of the tv direction is bizarre, focusing on meaningless visual elements (like the stage lighting) or on instruments which aren't the major contributors (eg The Kinks' "Lola", which has more shots of the pianist's hands than of Ray Davies singing). There are some excellent clips, such as Rod Stewart miming "Maggie May" whilst playing football and accompanied by the late John Peel 'playing' the mandolin. There are also some rare clips, such as King Crimson playing "Lark's tongue in aspic, part 1" (beware: there are two clips of this available, one just over seven minutes and one just under six minutes. Choose the shorter one: the longer one gets stuck at around the 2:30 mark). And there are some extremely weird clips, such as a Japanese trio who play a note-for-note rendition of Crimson's "Lark's tongue in aspic, part 2". I downloaded it without watching, so I was really surprised when I saw the result.

There is also a clip of Jimi Hendrix playing "All along the watchtower" as a RIGHT handed guitarist; if one watches closely, it becomes obvious that someone reversed the original film, as there are signs like "STAGE" which have been reversed as to be unreadable. I don't know what the novelty value of this is, but it's definitely worth finding the live clip of "Hey Joe", which has him playing normally (which means with his teeth as well as picking with his left hand).

Other live perfomances include Van der Graaf Generator playing "Whatever would Robert have said?", Roxy Music with "Virginia Plain", and concert footage of a supergroup comprising of (amongst others) Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman playing an excellent version of "Layla".

Sunday, September 24, 2006

New song uploaded

I uploaded a new song to Soundclick today, called "You think that you know him". It's not a new song, but rather a new arrangement. I found an earlier version of this on my hard disk the other day which I had forgotten about, as for the last few months I've been working exclusively on a cd of cover versions (which I'm not allowed to upload to Soundclick for copyright reasons). Anyway, I listened to this version, was generally pleased by it but realised that there were bits and pieces which needed to be improved. A few hours later, I had the music finalised, mixed it with the vocal which I had recorded whenever, and hey presto! A new track.

Here's what I wrote to a friend about the genesis of the song (in February 2002):

On Thursday evening I had been asked to play the guitar at someone's 40th birthday party, and so I played all these old Israeli songs. Most of them seemed to be in the key of A minor, and a fair number were waltzes.

On Friday morning, I thought to myself that I too could put together a waltz in A minor without too much difficulty. I laid down a chord sequence, but it was very stiff. Later that evening I thought that if I change this chord to that, and that chord to this, then something interesting might emerge.

And what do you know? On Saturday morning, I already had a chord sequence and tune. I dug out the bits of paper [on which I had been writing notes to myself], tried fitting words to the tune, and suddenly I had a verse. I typed it into the computer, and off the cuff added a second. I tried singing it, made a few adjustments, and suddenly a third verse (the fourth in the song) appeared. After a bit more cogitation the final verse appeared as if by magic. To make things interesting, I changed the pronouns, so instead of me singing about someone else, I'm now giving advice to a friend about what to do (the title was originally "You think that you know me"). Thinking about it a little more, maybe I should change all the "she's" to "he", and the "her's" to "him" - that'll make it into me singing to a female friend.

The words themselves have very little basis in real life, so don't read to much into them.
It's been my experience that the arrangements which I did in pre-Reason days need to be thinned out in order to sound good in Reason: Reason instruments take up more audio space and so there should be fewer of them. For this new arrangement, I combined the parts of two instruments into one, which made the result less cluttered. To my ears, there's a nice reverby bounce to this tune which I like.

I remember that when I was working on the song, I wanted something different for the solo section in the middle. I was wandering around the Internet when I came upon a flamenco rhythm in 3/4; ideal, I thought, and incorporated this into the arrangement. The original MIDI sounded much more Spanish than this version does, but that doesn't bother me too much.

Anyway, please give it a listen and also give it a positive vote - I think that this song could do well in the Soundclick charts.

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Continuing the unfortunate sequence of rock musicians' deaths, today I read about Boz Burrell, one time bassist and singer for King Crimson and later to find fame with Bad Company. Although he was in KC for only a short time, I managed to see that line up three times in the space of six months. He was 60 when he died.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Stevie Wonder

I wrote before that I found Tim Hughes' Ph.D. dissertation on Stevie Wonder; here's the link. There are two paragraphs which I want to write about here.

In the discussion of "Living in the city", Tim writes (page 29):
This motion in and out of phase by the right hand part occurs simultaneously in two other areas: harmony and register. When the two parts are metrically in phase, the right hand plays F# major triads. As the two parts move into metric opposition, the right hand moves up through a G# minor triad to an A major triad, higher and further away. The A major triad above the F# bass creates an F# min7 chord, blurring the harmony somewhat. As the two parts move back into metrical phase, the right hand moves back down through G# minor towards an F# major triad.

Although this made some sense to me, I didn't fully understand until I heard the part to which he is referring. It seems fairly clear to me that Hughes doesn't play the guitar, for otherwise he would have easily recognised what Wonder was playing. I don't think that Stevie Wonder plays the guitar, either, which is also surprising, considering. Guitarists, try the following exercise: play an E major chord in root position (022100); now slide the fingers up two frets and change the fingering on the G string (044200) - this is F#min7. Now move the fingers up another fret, again changing the fingering on the G string (055400) - this is G6 (or Em7). Play this in the correct rhythm and you have the vamp to "Living in the city".

I discovered this (or learnt it) sometime around May 1972, which coincidentally was about the time that Wonder was recording "Living in the city". My route to this vamp was interest in the differing sounds one could make by moving the E shape up the neck of the guitar without barring - ie just the three fingers - and moving between major and minor chords. This started from learning Simon Nicol's guitar part to Sandy Denny's "Who knows where the time goes", which is slightly different to the LITC vamp, being E/F#m7/G#m7 (or EMaj7)/F#m7.

This vamp forms the basis of my song, "Sunday rain", which was written at that time. I did a rollicking MIDI arrangement of this some years ago which maybe I ought to exhume.

The second discussion to which I want to refer is about "Higher ground":
The drums, bass and vocals sound much the same as they do on "Superstition", but the clavinet sound is quite different. First of all, there appear to be three different parts. Each seems to have been recorded similarly (perhaps in consecutive passes with a single setup, as on "I wish") but they are dispersed in the stereo mix: one to the left, one to the right and one in the center. As with the vocals at the end of "Living in the city", this dispersal seems to surround the listener, creating the effect of immersion in a polyrhythmic swirl of clavinet parts.

This caused a smile of recognition to appear on my face, as this is something which I've been trying to do in my own arrangements, although normally it's a split between two instruments panned left and right. Sometimes one echoes the first (maybe in a different octave), and sometimes they're playing split arpeggios. Wonder does something more complicated: he has three parts playing, each complementing each other and keeping a strong rhythm going. I've found someone's MIDI version of this song which displays the three clavinet parts, and it will be interesting to examine them and see what's going on.

Hughes has to write about Stevie Wonder's music from a musicologist's point of view, which can make it seem more complex than it need be. I think that quite a few players would have difficulty reading what he wrote but could assimilate the music quite easily. Also, I found the discussion about the structure of the songs (verse/chorus, etc) to be something which comes naturally, as a musician and songwriter. With these caveats in mind, I think that most people with an interest in music could learn from what Hughes writes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Busy busy busy

I've been very busy lately, but not necessarily doing interesting things, which is why I haven't been updating.

At work, one person has been on sick leave for the last two weeks, so I've been having to cover for her, which means between two to four hours a day extra work. There are days when this isn't an imposition and there are days when it is extremely hard.

On top of this, I've been doing some computer consulancies: one is for a clinical psychologist here on the kibbutz, rewriting a set of programs which date from around ten years ago, and one - which is not definite - is advising someone in the north how to convert a program which uses the BDE and TTable component almost exclusively to using mySQL and the TQuery component. Last week we exchanged several emails and I updated one module of his program to show how it should be written, but since then I haven't heard from him.

And on top of that, I've had problems with my teeth. I'm having root canal work redone on one tooth: I had a marathon one and a half hour appointment of Friday which left me very weak for the next 24 hours, and another one hour appointment yesterday. All the root canal work has been done, and now I need the tooth to be crowned. The best part of this treatment is that it doesn't hurt - because I have no nerves in the tooth - but it's mildly unpleasant.

Virtually nothing to report on the music front. Yesterday I stumbled across a Ph.D. dissertation of the music of Stevie Wonder (specifically six songs from 1972-4), which would be fascinating material if I were even slightly acquainted with the songs discussed. Unfortunately, I am not. This isn't meant to be a racist comment, but I think that my entire record collection contains maybe one disc made by a black artist (Miles Davis). Is it my fault that I don't like rap, reggae, funk, r&b and other similar styles whilst liking progressive rock and folk music?

Friday, September 01, 2006

More about Pip

One of the things on my unwritten "to do" list was to burn a DVD from a downloaded session of "Canterbury" bands: two tracks from Caravan, one long Hatfield medley and one National Health appearance. The drummer in the last two segments was none other than Pip Pyle, RIP. Today I found the time to create the dvd, and I've watched the whole thing (about 25 minutes) twice.

I don't know whether it's the quality of the captured picture or whether the original video was trying to be "far out", but the first Caravan song, "Magic Man", is simply weird, visually. Audio is fine. Very youthful and innocent psychodelia. The second song, "Golf girl", is much better, featuring a Richard Sinclair vocal (very straight, showing none of the vocal mannerisms that were yet to come) and Dave Sinclair on Hammond. Pye Hastings looks bored out of his mind. Richard makes an interesting lyrical change towards the end -
And later on the golf course
After drinking tea
It started raining H-bombs
She protected me
The Hatfield medley apparently comes from the late Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park; the footage comes from Japanese TV, complete with announcer. This includes part of "Somewhere between Heaven and Hell", "The yes/no interlude", "Fitter Stokes" and "Didn't matter anywhere". Classic material from "The Rotters' club" album. Dave Stewart is hirstute and rocking about on his chair, fingers moving from keyboard to keyboard. Phil Miller is hiding at the back, playing somewhat normal guitar (although he is always out of focus and smudged in the video - poor lighting resolution), Richard looks a bit older than the Caravan video, and Pip is ... Pip. Very strange watching him; he looks pudgier than his photos. He's also playing quite a bit with his eyes closed - surely an unusual thing to do.

The National Health performance is of "The Collapso", sourced from The Old Grey Whistle Test. This starts off exceedingly strange - part of the "Weird Musician of the month" competition, which John Greaves steals without competition. He is very much the star of the visual performance, whereas Phil Miller - who plays the tune - is hiding at the back again. Dave Stewart is shorn of his long hair and looks even weirder in his movements. Pip is still Pip, plumper than I thought, tapping his cymbals and playing with his eyes closed.

After 30 years of only hearing this music, it's fascinating to watch it being made. And of course, it is a fitting memorial for The Man Of Zinc (as DS's sleeve notes to "The Complete National Health") refer to him.

I've been thinking of recording one of Pip's songs: it's either "Share it" (music by Richard Sinclair), "Fitter Stokes" or "Binoculars". I would most like to do FS, but it sounds like I'm going to have problems singing it as it requires a huge range. I've worked out most of the music (quite weird, but what would you expect from a drummer?) and it would be fun to play. "Share it" also has quite a range, somewhere around 15 semitones, but that's just about manageable. The chords were very easy to pin down; they play it in B, but that's going to be too high for me. "Binoculars" can wait as a third option, if I even decide to go through with this. Of course, I'm so used to hearing the original of SI that it's going to be difficult at first to find a new musical approach, although I know that once I decide on a basic feel, the arrangement will turn out to be quite different from the original.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Pip Pyle, RIP

There are probably quite a few blogs this week bearing the above title. Let me (belatedly) join them.

For those that don't know, Pip Pyle was the drummer in "Hatfield and the North", a combo from the mid-70s - see my early blogs about Hatfield and "The Rotters Club".

Of the tributes which I've just read, maybe the best was from Jakko, who played with Pip in REM (not the famous one) in the early 80s. There is a recording of theirs circulating around the 'net which I downloaded months ago but have never heard. Maybe it's about time.

As the tributes make clear, Pip was more than just a drummer. He wrote very amusing lyrics for the Hatfields as well as contributing some ace tunes, all of which hint at the fact that "he was a character", as Jakko recalls.

Looks like there'll be a Pyle binge on the stereo this weekend.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Toothache and detectives

It's funny how things can turn around in a moment. This time last week I was feeling very sorry for myself, as I had a mysterious toothache which got worse and worse as the week wore on. The toothache was accompanied by general malaise, and I was getting fairly irritated by Thursday. Friday morning I woke up with a distinct lack of pain. I had arranged a visit to the dentist for the morning in an attempt to discover the source of the pain (I have a distant appointment for redoing root canal work on one tooth, so the pain wasn't too unexpected), but the dentist was unable to ascertain exactly where the pain had come from. Following the prime directive of doctors ("Above all, do no harm"), she elected not to do anything and wait for developments.

Anyway, after being in a terrible state on Thursday afternoon (forgetting all manner of things, including yoghurt in the fridge at work, and not filling my moped with petrol), Friday saw me as a different person, a new man. Isn't it wonderful when one isn't feeling pain and anguish.

Today two books which I had ordered arrived in the post, both written by Peter Robinson and in the DCI Banks series. One book was a collection of the first three Banks novels, and the other was the latest installment in the ongoing series. So far, I've only read the first book in the collection, "Gallows View". Judging by the amount of time which it took me to read the story, it's neither long nor deep. In fact, it's very much the first book in the series, and shows how much Robinson and his stories have improved and deepened over the years. The book introduces some of the characters which are still there, fourteen books on, and it's interesting to read how they started out, somewhat younger than how they are at the moment.

Whilst "Gallows View" is well-written, it's also lacking depth and length. Somehow I doubt that I would have been interested enough to carry on reading the series had this been the first Banks book that I read. For what it's worth, the first book which I did read was the tenth in the series, "In a dry season", which was very much a pivotal book in terms of both its plot and its characters. Since then I've been going both forwards and backwards in the series, and definitely prefer everything which has come after IADS to what had gone before.

I've also found a few mistakes in the books, something which has never happened before. When I pointed them out in emails to the author, he complained about his copy editors. As one of the mistakes required familiar knowledge with the series' back story, no off-the-shelf copy editor would have noticed; I'd be pleased to do the job for him.

Reading crime novels is only a comparatively recent trend for me; it probably started with the conjunction of two events - watching "Morse" on television, and the dearth of science fiction books which I liked. Whilst I bought most of the Morse canon, I was never too happy with the books. Apart from the similarity of some of them (Morse always got ill and frequently was hospitalised), I didn't like the patronising tone of the author. When I discovered Ian Rankin (by virtue of his mentioning Richard Thompson and Van der Graaf Generator songs in his books), I felt that I was much more at home with John Rebus. But after ten or twelve Rebus books, I realised that the crime part was taking second place to the social milieu of the stories; I wasn't complaining, but I did prefer that my detectives do a bit of detection instead of letting things happen to them. I should point out that Rebus' colleague, Siobhean Clarke, is a much better detective than Rebus is, and it will be interesting to see when Rankin takes the hint and phases Rebus out in favour of Clarke.

So it was somewhat fortuitous that I came across Peter Robinson and DCI Alan Banks.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Rare "Liege and Lief" outtakes

Someone turned up on the Sandy Denny mailing list a few days ago with a pointer to "rare L&L outtakes", such as this one ("Crazy Man Michael").

As I wrote there,
----
Once I heard CMM, then I knew what I was listening to. These 'outtakes' were passed around several years ago, but as far as my ears can tell, they're not really outtakes, but rather early mixes of the final versions. For example, CMM is missing Richard's Leslie'd guitar but otherwise is the released version. I'm not too sure about "Farewell, farewell"; it sounds like a slightly different mix, but it does contain all the component parts of the version we know.

One interesting thing: the disc which I have runs a bit faster and Sandy's voice is a bit higher than the versions recently posted. Whilst this can be done digitally, I sorely doubt that anyone would actually do so. I think that someone had a reel-to-reel which was running a bit fast, and that this was the source of the disc which I have, whereas the versions which have just turned up came from someone with a reel-to-reel running at the correct speed.

I don't think that anyone is trying to impress us with long lost alternate takes; neither do I think that someone has created these with studio trickery. It's similar to many of the Beatles' bootlegs with alternate versions: they're simply the final versions missing one or more instruments which were overdubbed at the end.

It actually says a lot about Joe Boyd's production techniques: it sounds like he would record the whole band at once - including vocals - and then add on whatever instruments needed to be added, normally Richard. The 'genuine alternative' takes of 'Quiet Joys of Brotherhood' on the remastered L&L show that Sandy would be recorded along with everyone else. Check out Richard's playing on 'Million Dollar Bash': he contributes wonderful runs when everybody else is singing, but when it's his verse, he only plays a simple rhythm part.

----
How I enjoy playing the part of the musical detective! I bought Joe Boyd's autobiography, "White Bicycles" some months ago, but refrained from commenting about it. I was quite disappointed by the book, as I expected to read more about Boyd's studio technique and what is was like working with Fairport/Sandy/Nick Drake. Instead I got to read more that I will ever want to read about the Incredible String Band. The early part (Boyd in America) was interesting, both in the information itself and its novelty to me, whereas the second half (Boyd in Britain) could have been better. I imagine that a fair number of people who bought the book were also looking for more information on the young Richard Thompson or Nick Drake than they actually received.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Graduation show

Exactly one calendar month after the Bar Mitzva show, it was the turn of the elder brothers and sisters to celebrate: last night, the high schoolers put on their traditional show to celebrate the graduation of yet another class. My daughter is one of the graduating youngsters.

The basis of the show is always the same: each child (sorry, young adult) in the graduating class is played/imitated by one of the high schoolers in a lower class (in other words, a 16-17 year old will play the part of the 18 year old); the plot is normally non-existent, but the text is full of jokes about the most obvious characteristics of the graduates. These characteristics are normally the more negative ones. Only the graduates themselves understand all of the jokes; we, as parents, might understand upto 75%, and the general audience's understanding varies on a scale of 0-50%. Oh yes, and there's always at least one dance scene which has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, but enables all the high school children to participate.

Even though understanding the jokes may be limited, everybody enjoys themselves, and I do think that the technical level of these shows is improving yearly.

Each class spends a vast amount of time together, maybe not as much as a corresponding class would have done thirty or forty years ago, but more so than say my class at grammar school. What is a class? It's all the children that are born on the kibbutz during one calendar year. Last year's graduating class was 20, which is very large for Tzora; this year's class numbers 14, and next year's is about the same number. My son's class numbers 15, but this is the last of the big classes.

When a child enters first grade, he spends his afterschool hours in a clubroom. The way that things are organised here, the first three grades constitute one group and the second three grades constitute another group. Grade seven is the bar mitzva year, which of course is the crucible for forging a class's identity: they take a name for themselves (normally an animal - for example, my daughter's class is named "the owl group" and my son's "the deer group) and undergo many joint experiences. During the next few years after the bar mitzva, the group's identity tends to fade, although they have one joint activity a week. The group gets resurrected when some of them move out of their parents' houses and live in a communal setting at the beginning of eleventh grade, and to complete things, there is the trip to Poland, exams and the culminating graduation show.

These children have been together in one form or another since they were born, and of course the ties are very strong. A few years ago, they were even stronger, but adolescence does funny things to one's allegiances, and yesterday's friend can be today's stranger, or even enemy.

Unlike the rest of the graduating class, my daughter decided that the army is not for her. Unfortunately, the army was less decided about that, and so it took a vast amount of to-ing and fro-ing until she was able to get a release (a few days ago). Instead, she intends to do a year of national service (for example, volunteering in a hospital), but she has missed the deadline for this year's allocation, so she will be at a loose end for several months.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

On a completely different subject, I just checked the Bill Bruford DVD site, and all the copies have now been sold. That didn't take too long.

Fairport Convention presumably played a marathon set last night to close this year's "Fairport's Cropredy Convention". There have been virtually no postings of the FC mailing list the past few days, but no doubt from today onwards I will start to read how wonderful it was. I went to Cropredy five times, including a three year consecutive run (1996-1998); whilst I very much enjoyed those years, I didn't like my final year (2000) so much. My disenchantment is as much to do with my increasing distance from the current Fairport style as it is with the physical arrangements. Actually, it's probably much more to do with the music than anything else; if I were totally gung ho about 75% of the acts appearing, then I could put up with all the inconveniences, but as these days I would probably be interested in maybe 5% of the acts, it's clear that I have nothing to look for at the festival.

What surprises me is how much correspondents seem to enjoy themselves, even though they admit that they don't like some of the acts. Is it so much fun sitting in a field for three days and listening to not always good music? Eating peculiar food? Weather either too hot or too cold? Camping at night and being disturbed by all night sing-a-longs or motorcycle gangs? Maybe it's part of the British experience which I have long left behind.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Bruford live DVD from 1979

Wandering around the Internet (as one does), I discovered yesterday that Bill Bruford and his eponymous group from 1979 have a dvd of one of their concerts about to be released. More details are available here . The dvd will be signed by all the participants (Annette Peacock - vocals; Alan Holdsworth - guitar; Dave Stewart - keyboards; Jeff Berlin - bass; Bill Bruford - drums, percussion), and is limited to 500 copies. When I ordered my copy, there were 172 left; checking the page today, I see that only 53 copies are left, so obviously the word is getting around.

I bought their "Feels good to me" album whilst on a trip to Britain in 1982 and very much liked most of the album. The tracks which I didn't like so much are the speedy vibraphone tunes of Bruford, like "Beelzebub" and "Sample and hold"; naturally these are on the dvd. I preferred the slower, dreamier tracks which of course aren't necessarily good concert material. On most of my preferred tracks, Kenny Wheeler played flugelhorn, adding a lovely tone to an exciting base. Wheeler doesn't appear on the dvd, which is probably why the selection is what it is. Incidentally, anybody who wants a transcription of the metrically diverse "Either end of summer" can find it here, along with transcriptions of "Beelzebub" and "Hells Bells".

At the time, I was in mail contact with Dave Stewart, mainly because of his work with Hatfield and then National Health. Since his excellent "Spin" from 1991, he's completely disappeared off the radar, although he was involved with the "new" Hatfield disc from about two years ago which contained live performances from 1973/4. His website hasn't been updated for a long time, and I always wonder what such a talented musician and performer is doing these days to make a living. Hopefully it's not by giving piano lessons (not that this is such a bad thing, but Dave deserves more). It's almost certainly not from royalties.

I have just checked that site's visitors book, and people are still posting entries (the latest is from three days ago), saying how wonderful DS was and why has it been so long since "Spin". DS himself replies to one query (dated 7 April 2006), but limits himself to explaining a "C major 7 over D bass" chord (wouldn't that be an inversion of CMaj9? I like playing such a chord, but with the D on top, not at the bottom). It's fascinating reading that address book - plenty of people write and say how wonderful the music was from the 70s (I quite agree) - but not a peep from Dave himself.

Other than this, not much has been happening in my neck of the woods. It's still very hot and I come home very tired each day from work, even though I haven't necessarily been doing very much.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Eilat activities

We've been home for a few days now, which means that it's about time to update the blog with some of our Eilat activities. It was nearly impossible to write at the hotel; the few computers there were staked out by children early in the morning, and even when I did get the chance to use one, it was impossible to concentrate. Thus my use was mainly confined to seeing what would be broadcast on tv - including the 1956 version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers".


Hiding amongst the foliage



On Sunday, we went to the "Kings' City", an activities centre which apparently cost $70 million. The entrance fee went a long way to recovering this investment. The advance publicity had us understanding that caves had been dug deep under Eilat, and that in these caves the story of the bible was told. Well, as Robert Heinlein once wrote, the best way to lie is to tell the truth ... just not all of the truth. Yes, the exhibit did take place in caves dug under the city, but the story was told in several friezes, which ended abruptly with the building of the pyramids (in other words, not much of the bible).

Other than that, there was a "hall of mirrors" exhibit which was very entertaining (albeit crowded) and one about optical illusions (ditto) - although I may have confused them slightly. The trip normally ends with a boat ride apparently around more biblical exhibits followed by a fifty (sixty? forty?) foot drop; as I have problems with my inner ear and balance, I never go on such circus rides, so I can't say anything about it.

Interesting? Yes. Worth the money? Definitely not.

The next day my son and I went sea diving, not with a snorkel but real diving with air tanks strapped on our backs. The diving centre was about 200 metres from the hotel which of course made access easy. The famous coral reef of Eilat lies just across the road from the hotel and the diving centre, so after receiving instruction and crossing the road, we saw coral and multicolour fish immediately upon entering the water.

This is really two experiences at once: diving and observing the fish. The latter experience was spectacular, although we had seen a 3D film of coral reefs and fish the previous day at the Eilat IMax cinema so it wasn't unexpected. But really being there, watching the fish swim around one's head whilst kneeling on the sea floor is definitely something else. The diving, on the other hand, was definitely unusual and unexpected. I don't know how far down we went - the instructor said that we might go down to 6 metres below sea level - but my ears definitely popped on the way down. There wasn't an airtight seal on my mask because of my moustache, so water frequently trickled in. After maybe 20 minutes I was quite tired of the experience, and my mouth was exceedingly dry, so I was quite pleased when the instructor signalled that it was time to rise to the surface and be unflippered. Unfortunately I don't have a picture of us dressed for the sea.

On Tuesday afternoon we went on a trip to the Eilat hills, driven by a very competent guide in an open jeep. On the way we saw a certain amount of desert fauna and flora, each adapting to the very special conditions that exist (like rainfall once every six years, in which 700 mm rain could fall in two hours - that's about our average annual rainfall). The guide showed us a shrub which basically hibernates all the time until it senses that there is water, whereupon pods open and expose seeds. The guide put one seed on my son's finger and poured a few drops onto the seed. Within seconds, the seed sprouted and began to germinate! This has to be seen to be believed. Talk about making hay while the sun shines - this is one of the most extreme cases of adaptation that I have ever seen.

We ascended a hill which is 750 metres above sea level; from this spot one can see four different countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel - der). The guide might have said that this is the only place in the world from which four countries can be seen - anyone care to contradict him?


The trip ended by the guide taking wood from the jeep and making two fires; on one he boiled tea in a kettle, and on the other he baked pita bread which was then consumed with olive oil, zatar and cream cheese. This also has to be experienced to be believed!

This was definitely worth the money!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Holiday

I'm typing this facing the pool in the Orchid Hotel, which is in the Red Sea resort of Eilat. We're spending a week here. getting away from everything. It's very easy to do so at this hotel, as it is not exactly the run of the mill hotel.

First of all, it's not really in Eilat; it's a few kilometres outside the city, on the way to Taba. It's directly across the road from the Marine Observatory, if that means anything.

Secondly, it's not an "eggbox" hotel; the rooms are individual wooden cabins which are scattered upon the hillside. We have quite a pleasant cabin with a good view of the Red Sea.

I was listening to Joni Mitchell's "Travelogue" this morning whilst watching people cavorting in the swimming pool. I'm not too fond of the Travelogue myself - most of the songs seem to have had their substance taken out of them - but it's quite good for incidental music whilst pool watching. I was struck by one of the lines in "Chinese Cafe" - "nothing lasts".

Maybe that's true of the modern world, but it didn't use to be so. In my mind, things are going to last forever, which is probably why I - and many other people - have great problems with change, be it on a personal, a professional or a national level. Nothing lasts. If I use that as my mantra, I might find it easier to navigate throughout my life.

Neither will this holiday last, but I know that it's only for a week, and then it's back to work I go, where nothing much will have changed during my absence.

I'm trying to write this entry surrounded by children playing strange games on the computers which the hotel has provided for guests' use. This makes concentration difficult, so I'm going to leave it for now and get some more rest.

Getting some rest

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Equatorial Stars

I've been listening to this cd by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno frequently since I bought it a week ago. It's not really my kind of music; in fact, it's not really music, as far as I understand the meaning of the term. I bought the disc because I was fascinated by the descriptions of the sounds contained within, and the only way that I could really listen was by purchasing.

If it's not music, what is it? Maybe the cure for insomnia, the slowed down, spaced out rambling musing of two musicians who have done better. If the whole thing were speeded up by two, it would sound like the adolescent rambling which I used to make on a nylon string guitar. Random and directionless. Had it been played at twice the speed with electric guitars and a rhythm section, it might well have been described as musical wanking. I don't live my life at the ponderous rate required to make this interesting (and by comparison, neither do I live fast enough to make punk rock or high energy rock or hip hop interesting).

It really is not my kind of music. I need a strong harmonic base, followed by a melody and then rhythm. That's probably why I'm so at odds with current "music", which seems to be based on a strong rhythm, followed by a minimal melody and no harmony.

The only disc which I have that is connected to Eno is his production of Paul Simon's latest, 'Surprise', and whilst Eno's contributions are ear-tickling, they send Simon's songs into a direction which I don't like (see above paragraph).

Fripp, on the other hand, is well documented in my discography. Well, the younger Fripp is, at any rate. It's a curious relationship that I have with his music (when I write "Fripp", I generally mean "Fripp's music" and not Fripp himself), which is probably due to the circumstances in which I first heard him. Being of the age that I am (or was), "21st century schizoid man" was the first track that I ever heard with Robert Fripp playing, and of course the guitar playing within is at a very high level. This was early 1970, and the King Crimosn which produced the first record no longer existed; the only musician who had a visible profile left was Robert Fripp (well, so did Greg Lake, but he was only the bassist and didn't seem to have much to do with the first album apart from singing on it). The miraculous playing on 21CSM and the group's virtual disappearance caused Fripp the man to achieve almost mythical status, and when he reappered in the flesh (touring with Keith Tippett's Centipede), it became almost a pilgrimage to see him.

I liked Fripp's contribution to two early VdGG albums, and especially what he played on Hammill's contemparous "Fool's Mate"; I loved KC's "Lizard" (although Fripp doesn't actually play that much on this disc), whereas its followup "Islands" left me fairly cool. In 1972, Fripp and King Crimson dropped off my radar until 1976 when I purchased "The young man's guide to King Crimson"; my jaw dropped open whilst playing side two (of the four sided vinyl set) which consisted solely of "Red" and "Starless".

I bought "Exposure" when it came out in 1979, as much for Peter Hammill as for Robert Fripp; this was very much a hit and miss record which made me finally realise that Fripp and I were not a marriage made it heaven. It wasn't until 2002 when I started reading Andrew Keeling's analyses of King Crimson material that I started listening to the old records (even buying some on cd) and searching out the material that I missed. Whilst this adult listening to the music of my youth increased my appreciation of what I liked before, it didn't extend to enjoying music which I hadn't heard before. "Discipline" (with the exception of "Matte Kudesai") left me cold and disinclined to investigate anything more modern (and that's 1982!).

It's a lesson which I've attended several times, but not really taken to heart: most of Robert Fripp's music is not for me, despite however seductive the writing about it may be.

Incidentally, neither do I like very little of Peter Hammill's post VdGG output. Whilst I religiously bought the vinyl records until the end of the 80s, I rarely played them and I haven't bothered to replace many of them on cd. I did buy 2003's "Incoherence" (the album which he had just finished prior to his heart attack), but I don't recall actually ever listening to the disc all the way through.

There is a dichomoty at the bottom of my heart: always looking for new music, but not necessarily liking it when I find it. I prefer to explore and discover new things within music to which I been listening for years. For example, my sequencing work on "Scorched Earth" brings my admiration for VdGG's music to an even higher level (it's a shame that "The Book", the VdGG biography, didn't go into any technical detail about the music in the same way that Sid Smith's book on King Crimson did). For example, I only belatedly realised something the other day about Crimson's 21stCSM: the instrumental material which is not based on a one chord modal workout is actually based on the 12 bar blues!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Schizophrenia and insomnia

I'm leading a schizophrenic life.

During the stay, I'm doing all kinds of weird and wonderful things at work. I"m inventing new ways of doing things which save time, I'm instructing, I'm building a website which we're going to use for direct sales to the public, and I have an ISO quality audit on Tuesday. As it's also the holiday season, several people weren't at work this week, but they all assume that I can replace them. Whilst it's flattering to be considered the 'go to' guy in the back office, it's also time consuming - time which I don't necessarily have.

When I get home, I'm in a different world altogether. I'm helping my wife preparing the exhibition for the bar mitzva show which will take place next Wednesday. We've been doing a pictorial history of the year; I've been sorting out the photos and printing them, whereas she cuts them up and makes the actual displays.

My last post had me 'released' from my commitment to provide music for the show. A few days after the bust up, the director called me and asked for a new version of the closing song. Her demeanour was as if nothing had happened, and in a sense, for her nothing had happened. She wanted a big band, swing version of the song. At first I was doubtful, but after a few hours researching jazz MIDIs on the Internet, I found something which could act as a guide (big band isn't exactly the sort of music to which I listen). Two or three evenings of hard work, and hey presto! An excellent big band arrangement is ready.

True to form, I don't hear another word from the director about this. From my son, I gather that they've heard my demo recording, but no more.

Today the parents gathered to record vocals for this closing song. After the first run through (without the music), two things transpired:
a) the parents have no idea how to swing
b) the arrangement needs to be shortened (I did it for four verses and chori, along with a modulation and solo in the middle; we only need three verses with no solo).

I rushed off home, fired up the MIDI file, chopped out the extraneous material, revoked the modulation, imported the file into Reason, created a wave file then burnt it to cd.

Then we went to record. By this time, the director had disappeared, leaving me to teach the parents how to swing. I don't mind doing this - in fact, I'm probably the only person who could do it - but I would have preferred to have been prepared beforehand. Anyway, we went through the song several times during which I pulled out most of my hair in desperation at those who sang straight on the beat.

Once we actually got to recording (in three groups of about eight a time), the singing went a bit better. Every time the first verse got mangled, generally by people singing too fast (despite my feeble attempts at conducting), but the other verses were ok. I decided that each group should resing the first verse, which went much better the second time round. The final recording was just a few people who can sing quite well; I hope that the engineer mixes this take higher than the others.

To add to the schizophrenia, I also have my own life to lead. Someone posted the notes to the opening riff to Van der Graaf Generator's "Scorched Earth" in the Peter Hammill mailing list and I got intrigued ... so much so that I started trying to sequence the song. With hindsight, maybe I shouldn't have started. Harmonically, most of the song is played with parallel fifths and so it sounds like it's been played in two keys at once. But that's the least of the problems: it's metrically weird! It starts off with a four bar sequence repeated maybe eight times: the first three bars are in 4/4 and the fourth is in 3/4. The verse starts off in 4/4, moves to 5/4 for a few bars and then returns to 4/4. The main riff at the end is in 5/4.

The song is also an earworm. I worked on it for a few hours last night, until 10pm when I broke and watched 'The West Wing' (which as far as I'm concerned is the best thing the Americans have done in television almost ever). Afterwards I showered and went to bed. All night the riff from 'Scorched Earth' was echoing around my head and I found myself counting the beats. Just before two I finally awoke from a not very refreshing sleep and found myself unable to get back to sleep. After a while I got up. went to the computer and started googling insomnia. Whilst most people agree what can cause insomnia (and none of them seem applicable in my case), there isn't much agreement in how to cure it, apart from the universal condemnation of sleeping pills. The lifestyle changes which are suggested won't help, because my lifestyle has already changed. The only idea which seemed worth a try is putting lavendar on my pillow; apparently this helps one sleep. At around 4am I went back to bed, and whilst it took some time, eventually I fell asleep. Only to be awakened at 5am by the alarm clock for my wife. Trying to sleep a little more, the alarm went off again at 5:50am for me. I wonder how much I'll be able to sleep tonight.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Look what they've done to my song

Running through my mind are slightly misremembered words from Melanie Safka's song from 1971, "Look what they've done to my song".

Look what they've done to my song, ma
Look what they've done to my song
They took the only thing I could ever do right
And turned it upside down, ma
Look what they've done to my song

(The real lyrics are available here)

Why should these words suddenly pop into my head? Because last night there was a palace revolution, a coup d'etat, and I was replaced as the musical director of the children's show. Not, I hasten to add, because of anything that I might have done, but because of circumstances and because the director wishes to work with someone else.

Of course I'm hurt and I'm insulted, but hey - it's show business.

What really hurts is that it's my son's party, and now all the enjoyment that I should derive from it has withered into nothing. Naturally I will have - by choice - nothing further to do with the production of the show and will see it for the first time only days before the grand performance (actually there will be two performances before audiences: the first before the invited guests from outside, and the second for the kibbutz).

As my wife pointed out, the director is the one who prevaricated for the last month and prevented much work being done in advance. She (the director) has made her bed and now she must lie in it.

I think of a pyschology book called "Learned Optimism" by Martin Seligman which I bought last summer and subsequently lent to a clinical psychologist here. What would the book tell me? It is not my fault. I do not have to bear responsibility for this. I should see this as a good thing: I will now have my evenings free for the next few weeks and not have to suffer burn out as I did when my daughter performed in her barmitzva show.

What hurts the most is that this marks the end of the 'age of volunteering'. Why bother volunteering to do something for free when afterwards someone can turn round and say "Thank you very much, but I'm paying someone else to do the job".

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Another week goes by

We left our hero rehearsing songs for the harvest festival on a sad Thursday afternoon. After another long rehearsal on Friday afternoon, the band were ready to accompany the songs during the hour long ceremony. I think that the performance went well, although by the end, I was very tired and could hardly move my left arm (all those barre chords). Here's a photo

I'm the one with the green cap on the right hand side. Isn't it strange that all the wind instruments are played by children (the oldest is 17), whereas the guitars are all played by aging bearded men (I'm the youngest and I'll be 50 shortly!).

We've been in the midst of a three week heat wave which only broke two days ago. Until then, we've had temperatures reaching 37 celsius outside (nearly 100 degrees F). Of course, our air conditioner stopped working in the first days of the heat wave and as a result the temperature in the lounge has often reached 31 celsius, making it almost unbearable to be inside. During the week, things weren't so bad, because I could spend all day in my air-conditioned office, but the weekends were tough. Anyway, we've now got a new air conditioner installed - only to find that the temperatures have dropped and we don't need to turn it on. The weather forecast predicts that the great furnace in the sky is going to heat up again on Tuesday.

I went swimming for the first time this season on Sunday evening. We have an open air pool which traditionally opens at Shavu'ot, and from 6:30pm to 7:30pm is an hour set aside for adults who want to swim lengths. After swimming several lengths breast stroke, my left shoulder began aching, so I decided to swim one length back stroke and then stop. Just as well, as that length left me totally knackered, so much so that I couldn't do anything all evening.

On Monday I finally was told some of the songs which are going to be in the children's show in mid-July which is the climax of their bar mitzva year. The person who has been chosen to be the director has - in my opinion - been vacillating and wasting valuable time by not informing us, the writer and musical director, what is needed. As soon as I knew, I set to work. The first two evenings I spent arranging one song in a variety of styles; these will form the incidental music between scenes. Once those were out of the way, I could tackle the closing song. This was ironically the closing song of the Shavu'ot festival (albeit with different words), so its chord structure was fresh in my mind.

After one evening's work produced a two verse version which was very stilted and not really there, I started afresh with a different intro (shamelessly adapted from the opening of Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting") which then led into a much better version. My instructions were "four verses and be bombastic"; my songs don't normally have so many verses, and I try my hardest NOT to be bombastic, so this was quite a challenge. Anyway, by Thursday evening I had an almost complete version, and I spend Friday afternoon polishing it up. By this time I had received the new lyrics and recorded a few takes as a demo.

Earier on Friday afternoon, I, along with most of the kibbutz and a large number of people from outside, attended the funeral of the member who had died the week before. Jewish tradition prefers that the funeral take place as soon as possible, which is normally the same day or the day after death, but in this case, the body had to be flown back from Russia, and of course the arrangements take time. It was a long funeral in which many people felt inspired to speak. As opposed to non-Jewish funerals which I've seen (on television), all the speeches were made at the graveside whilst the mourners stand under the sweltering sun.

I often have mixed feelings about these funerals. Whilst attending them is a mark of respect, there's no one standing around with a card marking who attends and who does not. The person who should be hearing all the epitaphs is the one person who can't hear them. It's more important - and more personal - to visit the bereaved family after the funeral. I've written about this before at length so I won't go into it again.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Shavu'ot

The Jewish festival Shavu'ot means different things to different people. Coming exactly seven weeks after Passover, Shavu'ot is one of the pilgrim festival when people are supposed to visit Jerusalem. It is the harvest festival. It is also the time that Moses was presented with the ten commandments.

To my kibbutz, the festival has two meanings. On the evening preceding the festival (all Jewish festivals begin at sunset prior to the festival day itself), the bar mitzva class presents a short ceremony consisting of a few songs and dances, before being presented with bibles. On the evening of the festival itself, the entire kibbutz has a harvest festival featuring all the agricultural branches, along with songs and dances. The kibbutz movement is well known for such festivals, and those that hold them are often overrun by visitors from outside.

My son and his friends have been rehearsing a dance for the ceremony for the last week. As they are at an age where their bodies are betraying them on a daily basis, dancing is the last thing on their minds, and so there have been frequent rehearsals. As a few of the children are musically minded, I wrote a short arrangement of a song which frequently features in one or other of the Shavu'ot ceremonies. This was originally for trumpet, clarinet and saxophone; after I learnt that the boy who played the trumpet has ceased to do so, his part was amended for the flute. Last week, I learnt that the girl who plays the flute does not want to do so any more, so I had to rewrite the arrangment for clarinet and saxophone only.

For varying reasons, we haven't had much time to rehearse. We finally met on Tuesday evening, only to discover that I had transposed the saxophone part into the wrong key. End of rehearsal. The next day I went over the arrangement and changed the transpostion. We met - by chance - at 10pm, and had a half hour rehearsal which went very well. The children told me that they carried on until midnight. We had another rehearsal today at 1:30pm, which showed that they had been working on their playing. This was very good, and my parting suggestion was that they put themselves into the freezer, to be defrosted this evening at 8:30pm.

At about half past three, just as I was preparing to take part in rehearsals of my own for the harvest festival music on Friday, we received a phone call saying that a member of the kibbutz had died (apparently of a heart attack) whilst on holiday in Russia, and so the ceremony for tonight was cancelled.

Apart from the shock and surprise (and also concern for the poor wife who had gone on holiday and was now faced with the unpleasant task of arranging for the return of the body to Israel), I admit that I had the ignoble thought that it was a shame that he picked today to die, and so waste all the hard work that the children had done. Why couldn't he have died yesterday or on Saturday? Or even better, not die at all.

The harvest festival will still take place, although obviously it will be tinged with a certain sadness.

There's one fiendish song with which I was having trouble in the rehearsals: it starts off with a few bars in 3/4, then alternating bars of 2/4 and 3/4, then a few bars in 2/4, then some more 2/4 and 3/4. And in the first verse, my guitar is the lead instrument! After a couple of floundering verses, I discovered that by counting aloud the beats, I could play the song without too much difficulty. As the song is being played in C minor, I then realised that I could put a capo on the third fret and then play the song with total impunity in A minor. What had been like a raging tiger had now turned into a pussy cat. I've heard this song many times on the radio and have never been able to figure out its metric irregularities (bits of it were clearly in 3/4 and bits in 5/4, but I was never able to parse it), so I'm pleased that I've also managed to put this long lasting question away.

As the Americans say, happy holiday.