Hero vs. protagonist: the soundtrack

Ted Gioia:

I’ve seen intricate taxonomies of music genres, which divide and subdivide songs into every possible category from glitch hop to folktronica. I’m told that the Spotify streaming platform has identified 1,300 different genres of music. Yet these lists never include the genre hero music—the oldest and most enduring song of them all and the root of all narratives. Like other genres, it morphs and evolves, but it never disappears.

(If you’re not reading Gioia regularly, you should be.)

An undistinguished year

Let’s take a look back at 2023….

Nah, let’s not.

… Just a few highights, then.


Most of the thrilling action around here this past year happened in the garden. I summarize it here.


This year’s musical discovery was guitarist Takeshi Terauchi, who formed his first group 60 years ago. If Dick Dale had been Japanese, he might have sounded like Terauchi.

Dick Hyman’s 1975 recordings of Scott Joplin’s music were finally re-released in their entirety this year. Jed Distler says that they’re the best, and he may be right. Previously my preferred Joplin recordings were William Albright’s — which are good (and Albright’s own ragtime music is worth investigating) — but Hyman’s are more alive and colorful, and swing better. Hyman is a jazz pianist, and it shows, particularly in his improvisations on Joplin’s rags.


This fall there were two first-rate anime series broadcast simultaneously. Most years there are none. If Frieren and The Apothecary Diaries maintain quality in their continuations, they are both potential classics.


Most of what I read was disappointing, and what wasn’t I haven’t finished yet. The most curious was Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds & Firebrands, in which Scruton summarizes, as far as it can be done, the philosophical underpinnings of radical leftism. I have a hard time with philosophy; it’s often difficult to believe that most of it isn’t ultimately just complicated word games. Scruton’s book doesn’t help. Although he writes clearly and engagingly, the people whose ideas he analyzes come across as a bunch of pompous loonies proclaiming nonsense. It’s possible that Scruton is unfair to his subjects, but other things I have read by him indicate that he is generally a reasonable, temperate man. Scruton on Slavoj Žižek:

We should not be surprised, therefore, when Žižek writes that ‘the thin difference between the Stalinist gulag and the Nazi annihilation camp was also, at that moment, the difference between civilization and barbarism.’ His only interest is in the state of mind of the perpetrators: were they moved, in however oblique a manner, by utopian enthusiasms, or were they moved, on the contrary, by some discredited attachment? If you step back from Žižek’s words, and ask yourself just where the line between civilization and barbarism lay, at the time when the rival sets of death camps were competing over their body-counts, you would surely put communist Russia and Nazi Germany on one side of the line, and a few other places, Britain and America for instance, on the other. To Žižek that would be an outrage, a betrayal, a pathetic refusal to see what is really at stake. For what matters is what people say, not what they do, and what they say is redeemed by their theories, however stupidly or carelessly pursued, and with whatever disregard for real people. We rescue the virtual from the actual through our words, and the deeds have nothing to do with it.

Chickens, dogs, banjos and bagpipes

Alan Arkin died a few days ago. You can find plenty of encomiums to this unique, legendary, etc. artist online1. Back in 1958, long before Peter Falk yelled “Serpentine” at him, he wrote a minor classic science fiction story, “People Soup.”2 You can read it here.


There’s an exhibition of Komar & Melamid’s art in New Jersey. I’d like to see it, but it’s a bit far to pedal. I wrote briefly about the duo here. The New Criterion article, worth reading though it is, omits one noteworthy project of theirs, a collaboration with composer David Soldier to produce examples of the “most wanted” and “least wanted” pieces of music. The “most wanted” song is inevitably drivel that not even Vernon Reid’s guitar can redeem, but people do like drivel, as I constantly rediscover. The “least wanted” song, however, is simultaneously wonderful and horrible and is worth hearing all the way though at least once.

Still cuckou after all these years

Twenty years ago today I launched my first weblog, Mixolydian Mode.1 I intended to write mainly about books and music. My gimmick was that I would post a simple MIDI arrangement of a traditional, public domain melody every day. I never wrote all that much about what I read or listened to, but I did post a tune a day for over a year. Finding and arranging the tunes became tedious; I eventually reduced the frequency I with which I posted them, and finally quit altogether. There are over 600 of these MIDI files gathered here. Some of them are transcriptions of old music, but the vast majority are my own arrangements.

The first tune I posted, on April 14, 2003, was the thirteenth-century round, “Sumer is icumen in.” Here is the file. Back then, if your browser wouldn’t play a MIDI file, QuickTime would. This is no longer true. Here is the tune as an mp3, which should work in all browsers.

Here are the lyrics, if you’d like to sing along:

Sumer is ycumen in,
Loude sing cuckou!
Groweth seed and bloweth meed,
And springth the wode now.
Sing cuckou!

Ewe bleteth after lamb,
Loweth after calve cow,
Bullock sterteth, bucke verteth
Merye sing cuckou!
Cuckou, cuckou,
Wel singest thou cuckou:
Ne swik thou never now!

The first several years of the twenty-first century were the golden age of blogging. Even though I never had much to say, my site got a lot of traffic and a lot of links. At one point I was receiving over 400 hits a day, and it’s possible that most of them were actual visitors, not just bots. Sure, Glenn Reynolds got that many hits in a minute, but out here in the backwaters of the internet, that wasn’t bad. That golden age is long over, and I get less and less traffic every year. I expect that when I observe the twenty-fifth anniversary of my weblog, I may get a hit every other day from an actual human visitor (and a hundred from the multitudinous bots every hour).

Soon after starting Mixolydian Mode I discovered that some Japanese animation is worth watching (most isn’t, of course; Sturgeon’s law applies here as it does everywhere else). This led to contact with Steven Den Beste and the eccentrics who hung out at his place. Steven quickly became my most prolific commenter. Soon I began a second weblog for my anime explorations, so that readers of my main weblog who weren’t fascinated by all things Japanese would not be subjected to my obsessions.

Back when I started posting online, Blogger and Safari didn’t get along, and WordPress didn’t exist. Instead, I used the now-forgotten pMachine. It worked well for a while, but eventually it became impossible to efficiently clean up the spam comments that increasingly infested the blogosphere. When the pMachine people abandoned the free version of their software, it was my cue to move to WordPress. In April 2007 I re-launched my weblogs, calling them now “Zoopraxiscope” and “The Kawaii Menace.” Some time after that I merged the latter into the former so I just had one weblog to maintain. The original weblogs no longer exist. Some of the highlights are collected in the “ancient texts” in the sidebar at right. There are snapshots at the Wayback Machine for the morbidly curious.

Since 2007 I’ve paid for my webhosting, so that visitors are spared ads and I have adequate online storage and control over my websites. Some hosts are more reliable and ethical than others, and I’ve occasionally had to move my weblog. The WordPress migration tools don’t always work perfectly, and quite a few of the pictures from years past have disappeared into the aether. All the text since April 14, 2007 is still archived, though.

Blogging has changed over the past twenty years. As I recall, it used to be more social, more fun, more frivolous. You could discuss the ramifications of a recent political outrage, and then post the results of silly Quizilla quiz, or play tag with other bloggers. Quizilla is gone now; webrings are forgotten; St. Blog’s Parish has lost most of its parishioners. Part of the change is probably due to foolishness and triviality migrating to Facebook and other slums, and part of it may be due to the medium maturing, but I sometimes miss the old days.

There are those who are no longer with us. Steven, Charles G. Hill, Shamus Young, Wonderduck2 — all of them are missed, along with Zippy Catholic, Gerard Van der Leun and others. And then there are those who took their blogs private or just stopped posting altogether. I sometimes wonder how the Rat Maiden is doing these days, or Kashi, or the crack young staff at the Hatemonger’s Quarterly.

I’ll continue posting spasmodically until Big Sister takes my computer away from me or a Carrington event crashes electronic civilization. The frequency of posting will probably steadily diminish, but I’ll continue reading, watching, weeding, grumbling, thinking cynical thoughts, and taking pictures of everything.

2022: Music

Most of my recent music purchases fill gaps in my classical library, e.g., more of Rossini’s “Peches de Vieillesse,” Dohnanyi’s “Variations on a Nursery Song,” etc., but I did buy a few non-classical CDs. The latter were all “good, but…” recordings.

Liquid Tension Experiment 3 is similar to the first two, even though it was recorded over twenty years after its immediate predecessor. LTE’s version of “Rhapsody in Blue” works better than I expected and is worth hearing if you’ve ever wondered what a virtuosic progressive rock quartet can do with Gershwin’s approximation of the blues. The rest of the album is very good — Petrucci et al are superb musicians — but it’s nothing you haven’t heard before.

Ozric Tentacles’ Space for the Earth is more neo-psychedelic guitar- and synth-driven space rock. Ed Wynne has been doing this sort of stuff for about forty years now, and this one is much the same as its many predecessors. It’s quite listenable — Wynne belongs high on any list of underrated guitarists — and you don’t need trendy chemical amusement aid to enjoy it, but the Ozrics’ earlier recordings are livelier and more of a group effort.

The reconstituted Gryphon’s Get Out of My Father’s Car is much like Reinvention: mostly progressive folk, but expect anything from Renaissance-style dances to moderately-hard rock, with lots of flutes and recorders, bassoons and krumhorns, harpsichords and fiddles and golf umbrellas, all expertly played.1 When the the players keep their mouths shut, it’s very good. Unfortunately, sometimes they sing.

I picked up a bunch of the later P.D.Q. Bach recordings on the Telarc label. Peter Schickele is a second-rate comedian2 but a first-rate musician, and when he shuts up and lets the music make the jokes he’s often ingenious. Overall, these are more polished and better recorded than the old Verve LPs, but less interesting. My favorite of the later works is “The Short-Tempered Clavier: Preludes and Fugues in all the Major and Minor Keys Except for the Really Hard Ones (S. easy as 3.14159265),” in which the themes and fugue subjects are all over-familiar melodies such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Shave and a Haircut.” One of the fugues combines the “B-A-C-H” motif with “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Suggestion for a piano recital: open with a suite of incidental music to Dudley Do-Right, and follow it with “The Short-Tempered Clavier.”

(Gee, it seems that everyone I listen to is getting old and tired. I suppose I should find energetic young artists to follow, but I no longer have the patience to wade through all crap out there to find who’s good. (This is not a call for recommendations, thank you.) There’s also the fact that human nature changed again at the turn of the century,3 and the culture has become not just stupid but alien.)

Debussy’s greatest hits, arranged for motorbike and schoolgirl

What sort of music do you associate with motorcycles? Something fast and furious, like Steppenwolf or The Rodeo Carburettor? Something with fiery guitar, like Joe Satriani or Jan Cyrka?

How about Debussy? The first music heard in the extended Honda commercial Super Cub is his thundering first “Arabesque.” Later in the first episode, when the protagonist goes on her first night ride, she putts along to the pounding beat of “Clair de lune.” Over the course of the twelve episodes there is more Debussy, plus additional piano music by composers from Beethoven to Schumann.1

Against my better judgement, I’ve taken out a membership at Crunchyroll again. While most current shows look like isekai drivel, there are some recent offerings that might be worth my time. Atomic Fungus liked Super Cub, so I started with that.

High school student Koguma states at the beginning of the first episode that “I have no parents. No money, either. Nor do I have any hobbies, anyone I can call a friend, or any goals for the future.” One day, after struggling up a long slope on her bicycle once too often, she stops by a motorcycle shop, where she purchases a Honda Super Cub for a suspiciously low price. One of her classmates turns out to be a Cub enthusiast, and suddenly the emotionally withdrawn Koguma has a friend. Over the course of the series Koguma learns how to ride and maintain her bike, finds a summer job, solves various problems associated with riding a motorcycle, and gradually becomes a more competent and sociable individual.

The series it most resembles is laid-back Yurucamp, with girls doing outdoorsy things, and featuring an introverted central character. There are significant differences, though. Yurucamp‘s Rin is a fundamentally healthy person who enjoys solitude, while Koguma’s isolation at the beginning of Super Cub is nearly pathological. The art and character designs in Yurucamp are more cartoony and the characters themselves more boisterous than their counterparts in Super Cub. And there is no Debussy in Yurucamp. Still, if you enjoyed watching Rin and the Outdoor Activities Club, Super Cub is worth checking out.

I can’t give the show an unreserved recommendation. In the tenth episode, after a snowfall Koguma and her fellow Cub enthusiast frolic on their motorbikes on a snowy field, taking lots of spills. Perhaps it’s not as dangerous as it looks, but it seems like an excellent way to break arms and collar bones. Immediately after that, another girl falls into a stream in freezing weather and calls Koguma for help. Rather than summon emergency services, Koguma carries the barely-conscious girl to her apartment on her motorbike and revives her there. The girl survives and her family is grateful to Koguma, but Koguma’s heroics nearly killed the poor girl.2 If you watch Super Cub, I suggest you stop at the middle of the tenth episode and skip to the twelfth.

Continue reading “Debussy’s greatest hits, arranged for motorbike and schoolgirl”

Faster, louder

When the weather is crummy and I can’t get out on my bike, I get my daily exercise on a stationary bicycle. Furiously pedaling nowhere is every bit as exciting as it sounds, and there is no convenient place to put a book on the cycle, so I crank up the wireless headphones and listen to loud and fast music as I pedal. I’ve compiled a playlist with frenzied tunes by artists from Deep Purple to Onmyouza to Brave Combo, but sometimes I want to hear something different. Therefore, I assemble speedy medleys of traditional tunes. Here’s one I finished (i.e., got tired of fiddling with) this week. It’s a collection of Klezmer/Israeli tunes, arranged without the slightest concern for authenticity. Subtle it ain’t, but it is loud.

For the morbidly curious, the tunes are “Khosid Dance,” “Flaskadriga,” “Sha Shtil,” “Lechayim” and “Ot Azoy Neyt a Shayder.” This is probably not how they’re supposed to sound.

Happenings fifty years time ago

Kim Du Toit came across this graphic and offered this challenge: “Your job, should you choose it (and you should), is to pick your five (and only five) favorites.” Let’s see… Something/Anything?, Machine Head, Trilogy, Foxtrot, Blue Öyster Cult. That wasn’t too hard. With a few exceptions, most of the recordings listed are not my favorites by those artists, or are from musicians I have little enthusiasm for.

There was plenty other listenable music in 1972. It was right in the middle of the golden age of progressive rock, after all, and not just in the Anglosphere. These also are fifty years old:

Back Door, Back Door
Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso; Darwin!
Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, Striking It Rich
Gentle Giant, Three Friends; Octopus
The Groundhogs, Hogwash
Hot Tuna, Burgers
Il Balletto di Bronzo, Ys
Jo Jo Gunne, Jo Jo Gunne
John Renbourn, Faro Annie
Khan, Space Shanty
Le Orme, Uomo di pezza
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band et al, Will the Circle Be Unbroken
Premiata Forneria Marconi, Storia di un minuto; Per un amico
Procol Harum, In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Randy Newman, Sail Away
Richard Thomson, Henry the Human Fly
Ry Cooder, Into the Purple Valley
Steeleye Span, Below the Salt
Strawbs, Grave New World
Wishbone Ash, Argus

And let’s not forget Ashley Hutchings and Flied Egg.

I would have a much harder time picking just five from these.

Continue reading “Happenings fifty years time ago”

Rusting away

I gather that youngsters have not heard of Neil Young. He was a musician popular about fifty years ago, noted for having the thinnest tenor of any professional singer. He ranks third on the list of the most whiny vocalists in rock, surpassed only by Kurt Cobain and Thom “Creep” Yorke. He wrote one listenable song, but Petrus Ratajczyk did it better.

Continue reading “Rusting away”

Two weeks early

Here’s an old shape-note hymn, “Star in the East” or “Brightest and Best,” from William Walker’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. It’s actually an Epiphany hymn, but since “We Three Kings” is inescapable at this time of year, I figured I can post it for the Christmas season.

Southern Harmony is an interesting historical document, by the way. While it contains much worthwhile music, it also has such curiosities as “The Romish Lady.”

There was a Romish Lady brought up in Popery,
Her mother always taught her the priest she must obey;
O pardon me, dear mother, I humbly pray thee now
For unto these false idols I can no longer bow.

Assisted by her handmaid, a Bible she conceal’d,
And there she gain’d instructions, till God his love reveal’d;
No more she prostrates herself to pictures deck’d with gold.
But soon she was betray’d….

Betrayed by her mother, she is thrown into a dungeon by priests, brought before the Pope and condemned to be burnt to death. Such was the state of ecumenism in the 19th-century United States.

Boo, boo

A couple years ago I posted a Halloween playlist focusing on eccentric music most people have never heard. This year I’m trying something a little different. Here’s some seasonally-appropriate piano music, some of which you may know and some of which may be strange to you.

Charles-Valentin Alkan was allegedly the only pianist of their generation whom Liszt found intimidating. A reclusive eccentric, he wrote uncompromisingly difficult music that only in recent years has begun to enter the repertoire. Here’s Marc-André Hamelin with the finale to Alkan’s “Symphony” for solo piano, which has been characterized as a “ride through Hell.”

Raymond Lewenthal, who kick-started the Alkan revival fifty-odd years ago with his Alkan recordings, plays the entire symphony here. It includes a funeral march followed by a macabre minuet. A couple more pieces: “Les diablotins,” featuring tone clusters long before Henry Cowell was born; “Scherzetto.”

Liszt’s various “Mephisto” waltzes are too obvious to mention. Instead, here’s his set of variations on “Dies Irae,” “Totentanz.”

Bonus: from Liszt’s late, experimental works, the “Czardas Macabre.”

Possibly the finest Halloween music ever composed is Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit.” Here’s Martha Argerich. (When Argerich was a student, her teacher at one point thought she had been slacking off and therefore assigned her “Gaspard.” Argerich didn’t know that it was nearly impossible and learned it in a week.)

(This brings back non-treasured memories. Early one morning many years ago, the jackass in the apartment next to mine set the building on fire in a bungled suicide attempt. Fortunately, I was awake and the fire alarm worked, and everyone got out of the building safely. The firemen had the blaze under control before the flames reached my place, and I was able to retrieve most of my possessions later. However, there was much smoke and water damage (I boasted that I had the largest collection of dirty books in town, none of which were pornography). One of the casualties was Argerich’s early Ravel record, including “Gaspard,” which had been on the turntable when the fire started.)

So you don’t like piano music, but you want to hear something beyond “Monster Mash”? Lee Hartsfeld has you covered. He’s recorded and restored ancient 78 rpm records of Halloweenish music and made them available to download here and here. And here. The selection is amazing — the first batch includes Leopold Godowsky playing Edward MacDowell and Zez Confrey playing Zez Confrey. There’s Cole Porter and Paul Whiteman, jazz and ragtime and novelty tunes and much more, some terrific, some ridiculous. It’s worth a download or three.

Nine octaves

Does your Fazioli seem tame? Do you feel limited by your Imperial Bösendorfer? Try a 108-key grand piano from Stuart and Sons in New South Wales.


If you want the extended range but don’t have an extra $300,0001 handy, Modartt’s New York Steinway D goes down an extra octave to a very low A, and up a fourth to a high F. The additional notes aren’t particularly musical — the low ones are mushy and metallic, the high ones have barely any perceptible pitch — but they might occasionally be useful for musical eccentrics, and a virtual grand piano is a lot cheaper than the real thing.

Virtual noisemakers

Possibly of interest to those who make music with their computers or might want to do so: IK Multimedia is currently running a “group buy” of much of their software. If you purchase one of the eligible items, after you install and authorize it you can then download at least eleven thirteen twenty-four more software packages of equal or lesser price for free. I stretched my budget a bit to participate, but it will be a while before I know the new toys well enough to discuss. The “MODO” Bass, at least, I’m pretty sure I’ll use.

I got curious about the music software I most frequently use and noticed something odd. IK Multimedia is an Italian company. Applied Acoustic Systems is Canadian. Arturia is French, as is Modartt. Native Instruments and u-he are both German. My digital audio workstation is Logic, an Apple product, but Logic originally was developed by the German company C-Lab/Emagic, from whom I initially purchased it over twenty years ago. There are a lot of other music software developers, and it’s possible that there are some significant makers from the USA that I’ve overlooked. However, the synths and samplers I usually load in my DAW are all from foreign lands.