Dick Dale, the king of the surf guitar, died Saturday at the age of 81. I discovered his music late, when I listened to his comeback CD Tribal Thunder out of curiosity. Ever since then his spring reverb-infused twang has featured regularly in the various playlists I put together.
Dale never hit the top 40. His biggest hit, “Let’s Go Trippin’,” only went as high as #60 on the charts fifty-eight years ago. So what? Quality is at best weakly correlated with popularity.1
His signature tune was the eastern Mediterranean tune “Miserlou.”
Dale often did covers of other people’s music. When he performed them, they became Dick Dale songs, no matter who wrote them. The following were once Link Wray and Johnny Cash tunes.
The one memorable part of the otherwise disappointing series Ghost Hound1 was the opening theme, Mayumi Kojima’s “Poltergeist.” It immediately became one of my favorites. I don’t understand a word Kojima sings, but I don’t need to; the music tells me all I need to know.2 I recently came across a video of the song with the lyrics translated. Does knowing what the words mean add to (or subtract from) the value of the song? In this case, I don’t think it makes any difference. Judge for yourself.
If you want to hear more of Kojima, you face a challenge. Aside from “Poltergeist,” none of her most listenable songs are on YouTube. Your best bet probably is to locate a copy of A Musical Biography, a best-of compilation.
I tracked down a couple of tunes mentioned in an episode of Hozuki no Reitetsu. Yutaka Ozaki’s “15 no Yoru” is probably best appreciated by adolescent drama queens, but the other, “Giza Giza Heart no Komoriuta,” by the Checkers, is not bad at all. (Epileptics beware: jerky video.)
A long time ago, back before the last ice age, I received Malcolm Hamilton’s recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier as a Christmas present. I discovered a few days ago that most of the six-record set is now available as free downloads. The sound is very good for being digitized from vinyl. I can’t give the set an unreserved recommendation, though. At least two of the prelude and fugue pairs are missing, and there are occasional skips — true to vinyl, perhaps, but annoying. Still, the performances are good and the price is right. You can also listen to them on YouTube.3
If you prefer piano to harpsichord, Kimiko Ishizaka has released Book I of the WTC, completely free of any copyright and downloadable for any price you care to pay (including $0 if you’re a cheapskate).
And now for something completely different: Jordan Peterson, performing with the Muppets.
Here’s another batch of quickie tune arrangements using the Arturia V Collection synths. As before, every sound in each is made with the named synthesizer emulation, though there may be some occasional manipulation with equalization, compression and delay. “Captain Sudley” is a Carolan tune; the others are traditional.
Along with the earlier batch, I’ve now made inexpert use of half of the Arturia collection. With a few exceptions, the remaining keyboards are of less interest to me. While I can always use a good, accurate grand piano, electric pianos have never appealed to me, and transistor organs sound cheap.
Working with these new toys confirmed a couple of observations.
1. After a while, all subtractive synths start to sound the same. Someone with a good ear might be able to tell a hardware ARP from a Moog on a recording, but once you’re using computer emulations, with all the electronic and mechanical quirks cleaned up, one sawtooth wave sounds much like another.
2. The more novel the sound, the harder it is to use. In a piece with many voices, the plainest patches work best. The Buchla Easel is an amazing noisemaker, but I doubt that I’ll ever use it much.
I spent much of the weekend playing with my new toys, emulations of “classic” synths in Arturia’s V Collection. Some of them are very complicated and will take a while to figure out. To get an idea of what each is like, I’ve been assembling quick arrangements of various tunes from my big page of MIDI files. Here are some of the results. Every sound in each is from the named synth (with one exception, as noted)
This was a skit from the 1924 I’ll Say She Is, re-enacted in 1931 when moving pictures finally had sound.
A bit of musical history:
Jean-Jaques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley recorded what was probably the first electronic music intended for popular audiences. Their first album featured Perrey’s Ondioline, a forerunner of the Moogs and Arps to come, plus tape loops with funny noises. In the musical demonstration during the second half of the video, note how Perrey wiggles the keyboard side to side to obtain a vibrato.
I stumbled across the Perrey video while looking for the episode of To Tell the Truth in which the panelists try to identify the real Robert Moog.1 Perrey and Kingsley used Moog’s modular synthesizer on the second album, over a year before Switched-on Bach. The music from the two Perrey-Kingsley albums is collected here. It may be cheesy, but it’s cheese of high quality. If you’ve been to Disneyland, you may have heard one of their tunes.
The formidable jazz pianist Dick Hyman was another early user of the Moog. “The Minotaur” got some airplay on top-forty radio in 1969, but the flip side was more fun:
Back in ancient times, synthesizers such as those played by W.W. Carlos and Keith Emerson were assembled from various single-purpose modules, linked together by a multitude of short cables. To change the sound, the musician rearranged the cables and fiddled with the controls on the modules. It was laborious, but with perseverance you could make something like Switched-on Bach or Tarkus. Eventually these modular monsters were replaced by compact synths with fixed architectures, which were easier to program and to transport. Later ones added polyphony and memory for patches, so the musician could play chords and recreate sounds instantly.
Although many of the later synths were immensely useful and desirable, none ever sounded quite like their forebears. Emerson’s modular Moog in particular was legendary. During the past 20 years or so, there’s been increasing interest in modular systems. Notably, the Doepfer “Eurorack” format has become prevalent in certain parts of the electronic music world. A musician can buy whatever modules he wants from a variety of manufacturers and combine them as he pleases. Unfortunately, purchasing modules gets expensive.
However, if you have a reasonably powerful computer, you can run the VCV Rack, a virtual Eurorack. The basic rack, including all you need to make funny noises, is free, and there are many more modules you can download to play with once you get the hang of it, most of which are also free. It’s available here.
I spent several recent lunch hours fiddling with the VCV Rack, and a couple of things quickly became apparent. First, it’s not easy to get an interesting sound out of it. The early synthesists had to work hard to make their music sound good.
Second, videos are the worst way to teach anything. There’s very little text documentation for the rack, so I sat through a number of videos explaining the basics. Good grief, they’re such a waste of time. In principle, videos should be perfect for this job — you can see the connections being made and hear the sounds that result. In practice, you get a guy rambling for half an hour trying to explain something that could have easily been summarized in three minutes. Advice to anyone making an instructional video: before you plug in your microphone, make a detailed written outline of what you want to cover. Better yet, write out what you want to say and skip the video entirely.
Charles G. Hill brings tidings from Japan of a man who “married” a holographic representation of the vocal synthesizer “Hatsune Miku.” Hill linked to a video featuring Miku’s voice which is apparently extremely popular but which doesn’t show what the software is capable of. Here are a couple that better illustrate how a pathetic dweeb could become fixated on the computer-generated image of an anime-style girl: Miku in concert; Miku on a desktop.
Francis W. Porretto wonders if anyone remembers Vaughn Meader and David Frye now that their targets are gone. The First Family was before my time, but I do remember hearing one particular skit by Frye frequently at the left end of the FM dial.
It’s been scientifically established that nearly any pop song can be improved by remaking it as a polka or surf tune. In a similar vein, J Greely recently wished that the cast of Dr. Who had turned a recent episode into a Bollywood musical. I haven’t seen that episode so I can’t say for certain, but I expect that would indeed have been an improvement. I suspect, in fact, that most television shows would benefit from being transformed into Bollywood musicals. (Just wondering: are there any Bollywood musical production numbers featuring surf guitar?)
This is terribly unfair, I know, but Cardinal DiNardo in the picture above looks very much like how I visualize Wormtongue when I read The Lord of the Rings.
A bit of music to set the mood. You can all sing along.
It’s that time of year when I recommend that everyone watch Mononoke, unless I forget. So, if you want to view something appropriate to October 31 done with intelligence and artistry, watch an arc or two of Kenji Nakamura’s first and best anime. It’s not necessary to watch the stories in order. My personal favorites are Bakeneko (“Goblin Cat”) and Nue (“Japanese Chimera”), episodes 10-12 and 8-9, though all of the tales of the simple medicine seller are worth your time.
A couple of other possibilities:
Madoka Magica — Not for casual viewing. If you try to marathon this in one evening, you’ll be an emotional wreck at the end. You do need to start at the beginning.
Hozuki no Reitetsu — Something a little lighter, set in the Japanese version of Hell. The first episode introduces the main characters, but after that you can skip around. My favorites include the fourth episode, which introduces the demure rabbit Miss Mustard, and the eighth, which examines J-pop and modern art.
Here’s an interactive celestial panorama, courtesy of NASA and ESO. You can see both visible light and gamma ray views of the skies. Check out the gamma ray constellations, which are rather different from their traditional conterparts.
If you’d like to annoy nearby people with funny noises, you can play WebSID, an online emulation of the SID chip in old Commodore computers. It works with your’s computer’s qwerty keyboard.
I thought I’d grabbed just a few snapshots at this year’s Walnut Valley Festival two weeks ago, but when I got home I discovered I had over a thousand frames. I finally sorted through them all. Here are a couple; there are more here and here.
The fiddler in the contra dance band Friday evening was Roger Netherton, whom I’ve mentioned here many times. His first CD is finally available. If you like old-time fiddle or just enjoy good music, check it out.
Girls und Panzer is on Crunchyroll, and I have the discs as well. However, for the eighth episode I always watch the fansub. One of the highlights of the franchise is the Russian team singing “Katyusha.” Thanks to imbecilic copyright laws, the song is missing from the American edition of the show.1
There are many recordings of the tune available, though none suggest tank girls in snow. I recently discovered that Alexey Igudesman, of Igudesman & Joo, composed a set of variations on “Katyusha” for solo violin. Here’s a performance by Irina Pak.
Not familiar with Igudesman & Joo? Here’s an introduction. If you don’t have time for the whole thing, skip to the Rachmaninoff section starting at around 40 minutes. There’s plenty more on YouTube.
Before there were I&J, there was P.D.Q. Bach. Peter Schickele is still making discoveries, such as the Concerto for Simply Grand Piano and Orchestra.2 Here’s a performance with Jeffrey Biegel. While Biegel is certainly up to the technical demands, he’s not quite enough of a large ham to make the performance convincing. Perhaps with a bushy beard and another 50 pounds he could pull it off.
Alfred M. Yankovic and Brave Combo have conclusively demonstrated that virtually any popular song can be improved by polkafying it. It’s also true that rendering a song as a surf instrumental almost always makes it better.1Charles Hill posts a couple of surf transformations that are superior to the originals and links to a third. My favorite re-arrangement, though, is this one by Laika and the Cosmonauts, yet another eccentric band from Finland. They call it “Sauna Soul” for no obvious reason, but you probably know it by another name.
Technical stuff, for those interested: This arrangement was assembled in Logic. The guitars are two instances of the AAS Strum GS-2, run through NI’s Guitar Rig; the bass is the String Studio VS-2; and, the percussion is Logic’s Ultrabeat.
(Want to make music on your own computer? If you have a Windows machine, you can download Cakewalkfor free. Add a cheap MIDI keyboard (preferably velocity-sensitive, with pitchbend and modulation wheels) and download a few freebie VST soft synths (u-he has a generous selection, including Zebralette, Tyrell N6 and Triple Cheese), and you will have more more synth power at your fingertips than Keith Emerson could dream of during his glory days, for peanuts.)