Saturday, March 30, 2019

New song

In one of the more lucid moments when I was ill with pneumonia at the beginning of the month, I sat down at the piano and began improvising. After a while, I discovered that I had created the basis of a new song. I then rushed (as much as is possible with pneumonia; it would be more accurate to write that I dragged myself) to the computer in order to enter the song into the sequencer, but also decided to record myself playing the one verse on piano by means of my mobile phone. It's a rough recording but good enough to remind me of what I had written: another one of these serpentine-like tunes which go up and down the keyboard, accompanied by chords which don't necessarily belong to a key or mode. After thinking about it for some time, I realised that the song was basically in A minor, although there are a few bits which are out of this key.

Over the days, I developed the song whilst arranging it: a middle, instrumental, section appeared, followed by a bridge. At one stage, the instrumental section was repeated as a coda, but this got changed later on. I also created a minimal version of the song - just some chordal instrument along with the tune: this was a guide version intended to help me write the words. Whilst doing so, I saw that I needed a few bars of music between the first two verses; the link between the sung bridge and the third verse also needed a few extra bars. It was probably at this stage that I realised that the tune did not match my vocal range: either I would have to lower it a bit and sing at the top of my range, or raise the tune and sing at the bottom of my range. In the end, I raised the song by four semitones, to C# minor, making the lowest note B below middle C.

Once the arrangement was nearly complete, I could write the words. On a Friday two weeks ago, I wrote the opening verse (after discarding my original lyrical idea); the following day I wrote the next verse, and just over a week ago I wrote the rest of the words. Of course, I was very interested in adding vocals to the music as soon as possible, as this helps me hear the entire song better (as a producer).

I made a few attempts at recording the vocals as well as mixing: I knew that I would eventually be discarding these vocals. This initial version had tentative singing, which shows how new the tune was to me. I always wonder how the Beatles could record a song which had been written only a few days before with such confidence, sounding as if they had been playing the song for months or years. I'm thinking of the pre-Revolver days, possibly even pre-Rubber Soul, when a complete song was recorded in one or two sessions, with no room for reconsideration.

Yesterday I had the time and space to record new vocals. My usual strategy is to record me singing all the song through a few times then make a composite version. If one take was good all the way through, then this would be used, but sometimes I mess up the words (even though I'm reading from a lyric sheet) or the phrasing, so I could have one take with two good verses and another take with the other verses. From this composite version, I then do 'breath removal' and tuning: these are technical and painstaking, but they make a big difference to the final product. Breathing sounds especially bad after equalisation and reverb. From this master, I might then extract lines for further manipulation, either for emphasing a part or for creating harmonies. As it happens, after all this, I wasn't happy with the vocals for the middle bit, so instead of singing it again, I extracted the necessary bars from the original vocal from last week and gave it some treatment.

After all this technical material, one can see that I am more interested in the music and the final production; what about words? As opposed to my last few songs which seem to be interested in telling myself something, this one was a throw-back to the days of 1975/6, starting "Where are the autumnal backstreets where we used to walk? Where are the leafy bowers where we used to talk?". They're not bad lyrics, but they don't mean very much to me, at least, not now. Sometimes lyrics which seem to be written off the cuff later turn out to be very perceptive.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Wake up call

A few days ago, I had a routine blood test performed. These days, one can get most of the results the same day, so that evening, I was able to log on to the appropriate website and see the results. Most of these were fairly similar to my last set of results (although the cholesterol set of tests may have slightly improved), but one result set my alarm bells ringing.

The blood glucose level was 110 mg/dL, where the recommended range is 70-100; looking at the history of results from the site, there is a definite tendency to increasing levels.

The statistician in me would prefer more data points taken at more regular intervals but I think that the meaning is clear. Lest I suspect that there was a problem with my recent blood test (like eating ice cream after 8pm the evening before), there is a separate blood test called Hemoglobin A1c %, which evaluates the average amount of glucose in the blood over the last 2 to 3 months by measuring the percentage of glycated (glycosylated) hemoglobin (source). The normal range is 4.0 - 5.7%; my level was 6.1%. I have no history of this test for comparison. It is interesting to compare this level with overseas standards: The American Diabetes Association currently recommends an A1c goal of less than 7.0%, while other groups such as the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists recommend a goal of less than 6.5%. In 2016, the ADA recommended that an A1c level of 6.5% as a cutoff level to diagnose diabetes (source).

I read somewhere (possibly on the health fund's site) that these elevated levels can be caused by the following factors
  1. A sugar rich diet
  2. Lack of exercise
  3. Some pre-existing condition in the body
I have control over the first two factors, so I will have to do my part with life style changes. I used to speed walk 5km every evening a few years ago, but this stopped after we 'changed' dogs. It's easy to find excuses, such as 'next week I have to travel to Karmiel on Tuesday and Wednesday, and to Haifa on Thursday' or similar. But I have to do something!

I am out of condition. Yesterday I walked just over 1.5km in 17 minutes before my right leg started hurting just above the ankle. Today I walked 2.2km in 23 minutes before the pain started, so at least I am improving. I shall have to force myself to find the necessary 30-40 minutes every day whenever possible.

I suspect that I am also developing lactose intolerance; apparently this increases (i.e. the body becomes less tolerant) as one gets older. One of my brothers in law has lactose intolerance and avoids milk and cheese almost completely. He is of Yemenite stock, which is traditionally lactose intolerant, whereas I am of European stock, which is traditionally tolerant. This is a problem for me as I drink 2-4 glasses of milk a day; I have learned to drink only one glass of milk when I am in Karmiel if I want to avoid pains and hiccups on the way home. It probably doesn't help my digestive system that I am sitting without moving for a few hours.

Fortunately, milk companies in Israel sell 'low lactose' milk with 2% fat; I bought a couple of cartons yesterday and have been drinking the milk with no ill effects. But at work this is going to be a problem: I can't see me taking a carton of low lactose milk to work and leaving it in a refrigerator without someone else using that milk, even if I label the carton. I think that the solution will be to keep it in a non-transparent plastic bag. But I can't see myself traveling to Karmiel (3 hours) with a carton of milk in my bag; I think that I'll ask the secretary there to buy me a carton for next week.

I assume that I will be summoned soon to our family doctor where we will discuss the blood results. I also intend to bring up the lactose problem. From what I have read, intolerance is not normally tested by clinical means but rather by symptoms and reducing exposure to milk. So I'm going to continue with the low lactose milk for a few weeks and see what happens.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

The Tel Aviv Saxophone Quartet

Yesterday evening, combined with a celebration of Women's Day, we were treated to a concert by the Tel Aviv Saxophone Quartet. Their personnel has changed from the photographs on their site: whilst the alto and baritone players are the same, the tenor and soprano players have changed. The new soprano player comes from our kibbutz (he and my son were childhood buddies) and the new tenor player comes from a moshav not too far away and went to school with a few kibbutz members.

I missed the beginning of the concert (8:30pm is too early for a Friday night) so there may have been a formal presentation of the quartet and its aims. I didn't catch the names of most of the pieces they played, but looking at a list posted on their site, I can see that they played a piece by French composer Bozza as well as what was originally a string quartet by Kodály, rearranged for a saxophone quartet.

The only piece whose name I did catch was the closer, six bagatelles by Ligeti. I found a performance of this on YouTube which gives an idea of what we heard last night (although without the choreography!). There it is played by a piccolo, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon; obviously one part got swallowed up in the translation to four parts.

As is hinted by all the composers, the music was strictly 20th century, meaning that there weren't any 'tunes' nor chordal progressions. The pieces in no way are easy on the ear, although some of the Ligeti pieces were more textural as opposed to musical (that's not a criticism). Whatever, the playing and communication between the instruments was precise and impressive. The acoustic balance was excellent, achieved without microphones. The tone of all the saxophones was 'pure' as opposed to 'jazzy'. I often feel that the saxophone parts which I sequence are not realistic as there are no slurs or other modern affectations, but they would have been at home with the pieces played yesterday (although they would have stood out due to their simplicity).

Looking at the list of pieces by Ligeti,  I see that there is one called 'Clocks and clouds', written in 1972-3. There is a piece by National Health bearing the same name from about 1975; it wouldn't surprise me that Dave L. Stewart appropriated the name although I doubt that the content is similar. Stewart's one time collaborator Mont Campbell lifted a part from Vaughan Williams' 'Overture to The Wasps'.

Unfortunately I don't have a photograph from yesterday evening: the empty seat which I found was behind the baritone sax player. Even from straight on, I doubt that I would have achieved a good photograph as the players 'hid' behind their music stands. It never even occurred to me to record their playing.