18 notes per second, with a grin

What is the greatest guitar album ever recorded?1 Surfing with the Alien? Performing this week … Live at Ronnie Scott’s? The Return of the Hellecasters? Something by Danny Gatton, or Roy Buchanan?

How about The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark? Clark may have had the persona of a hayseed clown, but he could play guitar. Here’s a sample:

It’s not as easy as it looks. If you have any interest in guitar music, you need Roy Clark in your library.

Clark died yesterday at the age of 85. Wonderduck has more.

Odds and ends

VCV Rack

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.

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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.

Vocal synthesizers, of which Vocaloids are the most successful, occasionally come in handy for those of us with lousy voices. I’ve made use of Miku myself. Others include Plogue’s Alter/Ego and Chipspeech, and Wolfgang Palm’s Phonem.

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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.

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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?)

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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.1

(Boo)

A bit of music to set the mood. You can all sing along.

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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.

And there’s always Natsume Yujin-cho.

I have no particular taste for horror and creepy stuff. Although there’s plenty, most I’ve seen bores me. The shows mentioned above caught my attention for reasons other than mere “chills.”

Toys

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.

Winfield, at last

At the Beautiful Music booth

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.

Contra dancing

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.

Psittacosis

It’s Squawk Like a Parrot Day. Here are the Bonzos with an appropriate tune.

Addendum: If it’s pirates you want, here’s a set of variations on a tune named for Gráinne Mhaol, alias Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland.1

Saa! Kaizoku no jikan da! Let’s not forget Marika Kato.

There are many space pirates in anime, and a surprising number of the are women. Their speech sounds like normal Japanese, and none of them gargle their rrrr’s.

Fiddles in snow

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.

Surfin’ Suomi

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.1 Charles 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.

Kilts and daggers

It’s Tartan Day today, so here’s a Scottish fiddle tune, James Scott Skinner’sFingal’s Dirk,” in a not-quite-traditional arrangement.

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 Cakewalk for 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.)

A whole lot of notes

Back in the 19th century, virtuoso pianists took themes from popular operas and arranged them into fantasies to showcase their pianistic prowess and dazzle audiences. These operatic paraphrases fell out of favor in the austere 20th century, and nowadays the only one you might hear is Liszt’s “Réminiscences de Don Juan,” based on themes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It’s a shame. They may not be great music, but they can be fun.

In this 21st century, something similar is evolving in Japan. Here’s a piece based on Yuki Kajiura’s music for Madoka Magica, arranged and performed by “Animenz.”

Here’s a more ambitious piece, based on themes from Gunbuster, performed by Yui Morishita, a.k.a. “Pianeet.” (It’s not clear whether it’s his own arrangement, but I suspect that it is.)

And another theme from Madoka, arranged and performed by Morishita.

Morishita is particularly interesting. Besides playing anime music, he is also an Alkan specialist. The reclusive Charles-Valentin Morhange, who changed his name to “Alkan,” was of the same generation as Liszt and Chopin and wrote notoriously difficult piano music. Morishita has recorded three CDs thus far of Alkan’s music. I’d like to embed here the video of his rendition of Alkan’s “Le chemin de fer,”1 which has particularly good sound and shows the finger gymnastics from several angles, but for no obvious reason I can’t.

You can find more of Morishita performing both anime tunes and Alkan on YouTube. I think he just might have the chops to make proper Lisztian paraphrases of anime themes that any fan of piano music will enjoy, and I hope he does. I’d really like to hear a good “Noir” or “Cowboy Bebop” fantasy.

For those who are interested in extreme piano, there is an Alkan Society. Unfortunately, it’s based in Great Britain, and its events are a wee bit inconvenient for Kansans to attend.

Here’s a recent article on Jewish comedian-musicians, which oddly spends quite a bit of time discussing Alkan.

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Who am I?

You are Johann Sebastian Bach. The smartest person you know, you don’t suffer incompetence easily and are more than willing to tackle difficult projects yourself rather than trust them to others. Highly intellectual, you crave order, discipline and structure – let’s be honest, you probably have your picture next to “perfectionist” in the dictionary. Unfortunately, your brilliance is likely to go largely unappreciated by those around you, and you’re going to have to wait for future generations to recognize your genius.

Yeah, right. Who do you think you are?

(Via Robbo.)

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… and now for something completely different. Alkan didn’t just compose for piano.

Libretto:
As-tu déjeuné, Jaco? (The French counterpart of “Polly want a cracker?”)
Et de quoi?
Ah.

Too much culture

Here’s a month’s accumulation of video timewasters.

One of my Christmas gifts was Eight Days a Week, an account of the early years of that band from Liverpool. It reminded me of the story of a certain other band. Bonus: Neil Innes vs. the Beatles.

A biography of one of the great British eccentrics. (Here’s an uninterrupted performance of one of the musical numbers.)

For those with certain, um, unusual tastes, here’s a documentary on the Shmenge Brothers.

It looks like Batman Ninja will be, at the very least, a good-looking movie, but what interests me is the writer, one Kazuki Nakashima.

And now for some high culture:

And finally, the only version I can tolerate of a certain overly-popular baroque piece, performed by the idiosyncratic Jun Togawa.1

Wrong notes

Nicholas Slominsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective, a compendium of harshly negative reviews of composers from Beethoven to Varèse, is fun to browse. Years ago I based a little name-that-composer quiz on entries in the book. That quiz is long gone, along with the rest of my first weblog1, so I’ve compiled a new one. See if you can identify the composers and works from the following excerpts. In a few cases, the critic speaking is also noteworthy.

I’ll post the answers sometime next week.

1. Crashing Siberias, volcano hell, Krakatoa, sea-bottom crawlers.
Composer, composition

2. ____ was abominable. Not a trace of coherent melodies. It would kill a cat and would turn rocks into scrambled eggs from fear of these hideous discords.
Composer, composition, critic

3. It is mathematical music evolved from an unimaginative brain … How it ever came to be known as The Tenth Symphony is a mystery to us.
Composer, composition

4. The overabundance of dissonances and the incompetence in handling vocal parts in ____ reach the point where the listener can not be sure of the composer’s intentions and is unable to distinguish intentional wrong notes from the wrong notes of the performers.
Composer, composition

5. The ____ is filthy and vile. It suggests Chinese orchestral performances as described by enterprising and self-sacrificing travelers. This may be a specimen of the School of the Future for aught I know. If it is, the future will throw the works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven into the rubbish bin.
Composer, composition

6. If the reader were so rash as to purchase any of ____’s compositions, he would find that they each and all consist of unmeaning bunches of notes, apparently representing the composer promenading the keyboard in his boots. Some can be played better with the elbows, other with the flat of the hand. None requires fingers to perform nor ears to listen to.
Composer

7. ____ sometimes sounds like a plague of insects in the Amazon valley, sometimes like a miniature of the Day of Judgment … and for a change goes lachrymose.
Composer, composition

8. It must be admitted that to the larger part of our public, ____ is still an incomprehensible terror.
Composer

9. If it were possible to imagine His Satanic Majesty writing an opera, ____ would be the sort of work he might be expected to turn out. After hearing it, we seem to have been assisting at some unholy rites, weirdly fascinating, but painful.
Composer, composition

10. As a kind of drug, no doubt ____’s music has a certain significance, but it is wholly superfluous. We already have cocaine, morphine, hashish, heroin, anhalonium, and innumerable similar productions, to say nothing of alcohol. Surely that is enough. On the other hand, we have only one music. Why must we degrade an art into a spiritual narcotic? Why is it more artistic to use eight horns and five trumpets than to use eight brandies and five double whiskies?
Composer

11. Cunning must be the coinnoiseur, indeed, who, while listening to his music, can form the slightest idea when wrong notes are played — its difficulties to the eye being doubled by the composer’s eccentricity of notation.
Composer

12. To hear a whole program of ____’s works is like watching some midget or pygmy doing clever, but very small, things within a limited scope. Moreover, the almost reptilian cold-bloodedness, which one suspects of having been consciously cultivated, of most of ____’s music is almost repulsive when heard in bulk; even its beauties are like the markings on snakes and lizards.
Composer

13. ____ always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.
Composer, critic

14. ____’s symphonic poem ____ is not just filled with wrong notes, in the sense of Strauss’s Don Quixote; it is a fifty-minute-long protracted wrong note. This is to be take literally. What else may hide behind these cacaphonies is quite impossible to find out.
Composer, composition

15. The ____ has pretty sonority, but one does not find in it the least musical idea, properly speaking; it resembles a piece of music as the palette used by an artist in his work resembles a picture. ____ did not create a style; he cultivated an absence of style, logic, and common sense.
Composer, composition, critic

16. There is only one thing for a man like ____ to do if he desires to escape oblivion, and that is to plunge into the grossest materialism in music and seek to puzzle or shock you, because he cannot touch your heart.
Composer

17. ____ had not much to say in his Fifth Symphony and occupied a wondrous time in saying it. His manner is ponderous, his matter imponderable.
Composer

18. … I shall hot criticize this music; quite to the contrary, I will say that this is wonderful barbaric music, the best barbaric music in the world. But when I am asked whether this music gives me pleasure or an artistic satisfaction, whether it makes a deep impression, I must categorically say: “No!”
Composer, composition

19. The Paleozoic Crawl, turned into tone with all the resources of the modern orchestra, clamored for attention at the Philadelphia Orchestra concert when ____ was given its first airing on this side of the vast Atlantic. It was the primitive run riot, almost formless and without definite tonality, save for insistently beating rhythms that made the tom-tom melodies of the gentle Congo tribes seem super-sophisticated in comparison … Without description or program, the work might have suggested a New Year’s Eve rally of moonshine addicts and the simple pastimes of early youth and maidens, circumspectly attired in a fig leaf apiece.
Composer, composition

20. The ____ threads all the foul ditches and sewers of human despair; it is as unclean as music well can be.
Composer, composition

21. I can compare ____ by ____ to nothing but the caperings and gibberings of a big baboon, over-excited by a dose of alcoholic stimulus.
Composer, composition

22. … if the crude expression be permissible, I should say that what was at the back of ____’s mind was an alarm of fire at the Zoo, with the beasts and birds all making appropriate noises — the lion roaring, the hyena howling, the monkeys chattering, the parrots squealing, with the curses of the distracted attendants cutting through them all.
Composer, composition

23. Again I see his curious asymmetrical face, the pointed fawn ears, the projecting cheek bones — the man is a wraith from the East; his music was heard long ago in the hill temples of Borneo; was made as a symphony to welcome the head-hunters with their ghastly spoils of war!
Composer

24. ____’s violin concerto sounds, in its brutal genius, in its abolition of all formal limits, like a rhapsody of nihilism.
Composer

25. (the amoeba weeps)
Composer

Update: The answers are here.

That other Christmas song

Petrus T. Ratajczyk isn’t available to record the tune I think of as “Santa Wears Jackboots,” and Vince Furnier’s version is mere schlock rock, so I thought I’d see how Hatsune Miku would do it. Nota bene: it gets loud.

Technical stuff for the curious: The guitars are the AAS Strum GS-2. The rest, except for Miku, are components of NI Komplete, run through various NI and Logic plugins.

Update: “Pay attention to the “I(Nice)” function.”

G, D, A, E, sometimes A, E, A, E

Over the years I’ve watched my young friend Roger Netherton develop from a talented youngster to a first-rate fiddler. I’ve mentioned him numerous times, e.g., here, here, here and here; you can find additional mentions by searching here for “Roger.” He focuses on old-time music, but that’s not his only interest. He taught himself Japanese well enough that he was able to skip the first year of Japanese language class at college and start with the second year. He later spent a semester at a college in Japan. He did the translations for my notes on installing Hatsune Miku, which is the most-visited page on my website. Here he plays a melody from the anime Someday’s Dreamers, accompanying himself on piano.

Roger is finally ready to record an album. His Go Fund Me page is here. If you like old-time fiddle, you might want to check it out.