Sunday, January 15, 2012

Fight On! #1 Cover to Cover - Part 11

Enchanted Holy Symbols 

by Jeff Rients

The idea behind this short article is to make cleric's holy symbols something more than just the focus that allows clerics to turn undead. Everything else seems to be magical, so why not holy symbols?

There are five examples given, and they provide ideas from spell storing to turning different monsters. I am in favour of this idea, and used it to great success in one campaign with a sect of spider priests. There is also a medieval-inspired picture depicting a battle, and a prophet in the background holding a cross, that I assume illustrated the idea of a holy symbol.

I would have liked to have seen more ideas in this article, perhaps different or gradated holy symbols representing hierarchy in the church, and an examination of generic vs religion-specific symbols and its implications on the game. The Wicked Frog Totem has a great name, but  its abilities were mundane. I think I'd like a bit more "gonzo" in this article. All told, it is a solid article that may give a GM some new ideas, but fails to really break new ground for me.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Fight On Cover to Cover - Part 10

Puissant Priestly Powers
by Santiago L. “Zulgyan” OrĂ­a 
This collection of new cleric spells takes up just over a page (it would have fit on one page without the classical rendition of Jesus getting baptized by John the Baptist, but I suspect asymmetry is good unless your name is Sheldon).  There are eleven spells offered in all, ranging from levels 1-5. The main problem is: would you select them? Level 1 is usually taken up by Cure Light Wounds, and at 5th level people love Raise Dead and Cure Critical Wounds.  All told, the spells seem useful, and not overpowering. Most of them seem to be very Old Testament in their inspiration. Here is one example:
  LEVEL 4 
Eye for an Eye: affected subject will lose as many hit points as he deals out in combat, and will be subject of the same effects he produces by magic, receiving normal saving throws against them (for example, if he casts a death ray upon someone, he will also have to save or die). Duration: 1 turn/level.  
I can see preparing this one for use on a dangerous adversary.

There is one quite arresting spell called Tentacles of Demogorgon; this is a GREAT spell for an evil adversary to have. I wonder how many player characters' clerics would cast this one?

I think if I was playing any OSR-based game, I would edit my rules document and drop these spells in; they are balanced, interesting and useful, and the cleric's spell list could use a bit of fattening up.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 9

Setting up your Sandbox
by Calithena

The next article discusses one of the most important parts of setting up your game - how to start a world. Often you draw a good map - now what? Calithena offers advice on locality and starting small, how to block out areas of adventure, when to expand them, and the process of creating hooks and feeding the information to the players. He then gives examples.

The article itself is two pages of text, and a one-page sub-continent black-and-white hex map. Calithena puts his theories into examples that are easy for a prospective DM to follow. I liked it so much I yoinked the map for may Mazes & Minotaurs sandbox, adding color and creating a players map version.

This would have made an outstanding blog post, but I am happy to have it in magazine form where it is easy to keep referring back to it.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 8

The Tomb-Complex of Ymmu M'Kursa 
by Gabor Lux

The Tomb-Complex of Ymmu M'Kursa is a four-page adventure for intermediate characters. I place it at levels 4-6, and ran a 4th/5th level party with two clerics through it to test it. This adventure is taken from the author's own campaign world of Fomalhaut, and describes one of the numerous burial vaults in the undercity below a decadent city-state of the desert. I am not sure if the proper-name references in the dungeon are campaign specific, but I don't think that is important. In my OD&D campaign I dumped it as a forgotten mausoleum five miles south of Verbosh.

The dungeon suggests the standard 1-in-6 chances of random monsters, and an uninspired wondering monster table that basically reads like a list culled from the monster manual. I was a bit disappointed, although there are one or two twists in the list to liven it up a bit.

On the right side of the page is a gridless map of the dungeon. This was my first exposure to a gridless map, and at first I was not keen on it. Now, I appreciate it a lot more. The map is very like the catacomb maps of our own world, and gridless map design allows the designer to break free from the constraints of the 10' square and 90-degree turns. I found the map key to be unclear, and quite often during play read the wrong description or misplaced monsters or had to make some guesses as to what the designer intended. The map flow is fairly good, with many circular routes, sub-areas and branches.

The adventure has 15 numbered locations, with most of them having sublocations (a., b., etc.). There are chances to fight monsters in about half of the locations, numerous traps, locked doors and secret passages. The treasure is frequent, but usually cursed. This location seems to reward the nothing-nothing-motherlode type of dungeon exploration, which may cause a major re-think on parties used to the smooth experience/treasure curve used in many campaigns. Using Labyrinth Lord as a base, the entire dungeon contains approximately 9254 xp in monsters, 7100 xp in treasure, and four magic items and three cursed items. In approved old-school fashion, much of the treasure is in forms less obvious than coins and gems.

The strength of the module is the originality in description and concept of the named undead who are buried therein. These creatures truly bring the wonder and terror of crypt exploration to life, and redeem the module. There are a few specials thrown in to add a bit of variety, and a possible ally that my players used to good effect. There is one mood-setting piece of artwork which looks appropriate, but neither added nor took away from the presentation.

My first reading of the module was negative - I thought it was deadly, a bit monotonous, low in treasure, and half of that treasure was cursed. I decided though that the proof was in the pudding, and ran a party through it. Their first foray was disastrous, but then they changed their approach and spell selection, and cleared most of the tomb (they did miss one sub area). The feedback was unexpectedly positive, and they really enjoyed the riddles. They thought they were a level too low, but I am not sure I agree.

So, if you have a party that is willing to be clever instead of hack-and-slash, and likes a bit of horror and the supernatural, then send them through it - they will probably enjoy it

Friday, April 15, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 7

The Ruined Monastery
by James Maliszewski

The Ruined Monastery is a five-page adventure for 1st level characters. It details the first level of the underground chambers beneath the abandoned monastery of St. Gaxyg the Gray. There is a back story given, but who really cares? Any GM worth their salt can invent their own back story, and anyway all you need to know is there is an unexplored place with monsters and treasure. There is a good paragraph that explains who the baddie is, what he is doing there and what he hopes to accomplish. That being said, I used the back story verbatim for my group of beginning players, as an example of how they can find places where they can adventure.

The next two sections are two of my favorite things: rumors and wandering monsters. James provides a rumors table to give to players. I like to use rumor tables to give barkeeps and other random acquaintances something to spill to players who like to work at information gathering. Here is one sample rumor from the table: The ghosts of the murdered monks haunt the ruins of the monastery (False). That should get the players in the right frame of paranoia mind. And who knows, maybe the GM will decide to make it true?

I also like wandering monster tables - they add dynamism to a locale. Whenever a designer neglects to include one, I always create my own. This wandering monster table is excellent - besides what you might expect, it also includes a new monster and a static monster (green slime). I had never before thought of using a static monster as a random encounter - consider it yoinked.

The map is a hand-drawn pencil and paper map, taking up two-thirds of a page, that has been scanned in. However, it does not look amateurish. The markings and numbers are all very clear and readable. It reminds me of the maps I used to make (and still do, come to think of it). The map flow is designed so that your choices matter; there are many side branches you can choose to take or not, but also a few circular routes so that players can try flanking maneuvers and alternate routes to many destinations.

The physical layout features 14 numbered locations, 6 of which have monsters and 2 more have traps. There are 7 locations where treasure may be found. Using Labyrinth Lord as a base, the entire dungeon contains approximately 463 xp in monsters, 250 xp in treasure, and four magic items. James also provides an option for the GM to create a second level if desired, with hints as to how to stock/create it. There are two new monsters, and one new magic item, and they are terrific. Both monsters are different enough to be memorable, but not so bizarre as to cause suspension of belief. My players will never forget being chased by death maggots.

I think James does an excellent job of showing the old-school module design memes. These include: circular routes allowing customized exploration (no railroads), no MacGuffin, wandering monsters, much of the treasure being other than coins - some of it unrecognizable as treasure to the casual player, traps for the unwary, the old Gygax trick of including one piece of treasure that the players will never find unless they are obsessive-compulsive super-paranoid completists, a nice alignment-based special, new monsters, and chances for players to kill themselves.

I ran this module for four 2nd-level characters using Swords & Wizardy White Box. They had four men-at-arms accompanying them. Three of the players were kids who had never gamed before, the fourth was their dad, a veteran of RPG's. This place chewed them up, and only the judicious use of a Charm Person spell and liberal does of flame and oil avoided several TPK's. They all enjoyed it, and I would definitely run this module in any new campaign.

The bottom line? This is a perfect representation of old school, a triumph of concision, with a lot of atmospheric detail. It is also a lot of fun, to boot.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 6

Magic Items Sidebar
by Kesher and Calithena

The next article in the magazine is a pair of magic items, set in a text box to finish off the final page of the Flexible Sorcery article. I like this idea, as it avoids having to start a new article halfway down the page - I like it when new articles start at the top of their own page.

The first magic item is The Ring of Twelve. This ring is adorned with moonstones that can be used to create a clone of the wearer. The clone will perform a task for the wearer to the best of their ability, but the kicker is what happens after. There is a random reaction table to determine how the clone reacts to his original, which can range from murderous hate to devoted admiration. This is a great magic item, as its power is scalable; it can be given to a first level character or a tenth level character. In addition, it has possible drawbacks so that the player can decide how to manage his own risk. The referee will have to be up to the task of refereeing a  bunch of clones, but there should be no end of plot points created. This is an item that may show up in one of my campaigns.

The second item is The Idol of Irizandhe. This small jade sculpture is an insidious item that will slowly cast a curse on its owner, although a lucky person may be able to sell it for a sizable sum of gold before succumbing to its curse. You'll have to buy the magazine to find out its powers (I won't spill the beans here), but this is again an excellent item that will find its way into my campaigns. I like cursed items that don't automatically zap you, but give you fair warning.

These two items belong to the philosophy of making magic item unique, instead of just the ubiquitous +1 sword or wand of fireballs. In my experience, most players love unique items, and it is only the sheer number of arduous tasks that get heaped on the GM that lead to him handing out the mundane variety instead of dreaming up new, creative, distinctive items. So here you have two of them that have been imagined for you - good stuff!

Friday, April 01, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 5

Flexible Sorcery
variants by Jeff Rients, with Jason Cone and Calithena
This article describes three ways that the de facto Vancian magic system with rigid spell lists and memorization could be extended or enhanced. The suggestions are labeled Spontaneous Magic, Counterspelling, and Magical Duels. The three are not mutually exclusive - any campaign could use none, some or all the ideas.

The first idea is Spontaneous Magic. There is nothing gamebreaking here, just a small addition that can help with the flavor of a campaign, and give the creative yet another tool in their arsenal of tricks.

The idea is that a mage who can make major magic (spells) should also be able to perform some minor magic, like cantrips. Thus, a mage who has memorized Sleep could make people yawn, a mage who has memorized Fireball could light a torch. However, if the mage had cast Sleep, he would lose his yawn-inducing ability until he had re-memorized it.

My first reaction was "this is neat". But I don't think I would use it in my campaign, as it puts too much of a burden on the DM. It gives a whole new class of rulings that the DM must make, and then needs to keep track of so he can be consistent. I might try it if my players insisted on it, but would put the onus of bookkeeping on them.

The second idea is Counterspelling. This is definitely a fantasy trope - the enemy wizard starts casting his spell, and the party's wizard desperately tries to stop it. It has also been missing in most D&D-based games.

The basic mechanic is for a mage to announce he is counterspelling, and then roll 7+ on 2d6 to stop the spell. There are assorted adjustments to account for mage levels, spell levels, and sacrificed power. It then gives rules for how often NPC's and monsters will choose to counterspell.

The idea looks interesting, and I might try it in my campaign, but I would have to adjust the parameters during play-testing. It looks too easy for the counterspeller. I would think it would shift the mage class from being primarily offensive, to primarily defensive against powerful monsters or NPC's. Since your Fireball spell will be burned by the counterspeller, you are unlikely to use it - instead you will just stay in reserve waiting to dispell the opponent's spell.

The third variant proposed is the Magical Duel. Again, that is another staple of fantasy fiction missing from the rules. Who doesn't like a good wizard duel?

The mood is set by an amusing illustration showing various cartoony outcomes of a duel. It could have been omitted with no loss of impact, but it is not useless either.

The basic idea of a wizard duel is that it must be mutually consensual. The duellists then each roll 2d6, apply appropriate modifiers, and the difference between the two rolls is looked up on a chart that gets severely worse as the gap in the two dice rolls widen. Here are two examples of results, one mild, one less so:

- Smoke pours out of loser's ears. Loser takes one point of damge
- Loser catches fire, taking d4 damage each round for d4 rounds

I would allow this in my campaign - it can't be forced on an unwilling player, it gives them another tool, and also more rope to hang themselves.

All told, this was a good article, with interesting idead

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 4

The Swanmay
a new race by Calithena

The  next article is a re-imagining of the Swan Maidens of legend as a PC race. They get a minor boost in Wisdom and Charisma, and have the ability to shape-shift into a swan. This ability is counter-balanced by the danger that their shape-shifting shawl may be captured, and they will then be forced to serve the new owner of the cloak. Swanmay characters are always female, and lawful/good. Calithena suggests letting them advance as either warriors or priests. A few ecological and philosophical details are also presented.

I found the article interesting. I recognized the basic idea of the race from Swan Lake, and have no reason to believe any of the details to be incorrect. The character does not seem overpowered, and provides verisimilitude. I would probably present this as a playable race in any future campaign I run.

Of course, one has to adjust for one's own campaign world. There are some legends where the swan is actually a male, so I may allow a male swanmay. One problem would be in a race-as-class game. I would probably treat the swanmay as a Fighter with clerical spells equivalent to a cleric half their level, and make the character advance at the same pace as a Magic-User. In a game like OD&D with level limits, I would probably limit them to dual class level 5 fighter/level 5 cleric, but that would need some playtesting. I would keep their alignment as Lawful, but allow Neutral/Evil (the Black Swan) All told, a good solid article, and like any GM, you can see I couldn't help but tinker with it!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - Part 3

The Devil's in the Details
First in a series by Kesher

The first article in the magazine is "The Devil's in the Details", by Kesher. Two interesting points right off - this is the first in a series, and Kesher uses his forum handle. The use of forum handles vs real names caused quite some heated debate after the magazine was released. I support the use of forum handles if that is what people want, but there was such a backlash that in future issues, rather than stand on principal and irritate a lot of people, I used my real name. My real thought was "Fuck all you assholes, it is the content that is important, not the name". It reminds me of the fate of Michael Haydn's 25th symphony. The symphony was originally thought to be by Mozart (and was numbered No. 37 in his catalogue). It was performed quite often. Once scholarship discovered that it was in fact written by Haydn, public performances decreased dramatically. A sad commentary on humans - if the work was worth listening to when it was thought to be by Mozart, changing the name on the page does not change the intrinsic worth of the piece.

On the subject of the other point, "the first in a series", this always makes me happy. Part of the joy of a magazine is the serial nature of the publication, and thus continuing links from magazine to magazine provide an extra anticipation and excitement to the reader. Of course, if the series is bad, then you are stuck with something lame for a long time, but it is usually just a small piece of the magazine and can be easily endured. I guess this says something about me - I will wade through trash to find one or two spectacular gems, and that redeems the collection, whether it is a record album or an anthology or a menu. There's nothing wrong with good, consistent, meat-and-potatoes fare, but the gems are where it's at. If the only thing that Springsteen had written was "Incident on 57th Street", his career would still have been justified.

Back to the content! Kesher writes some unimportant babble to start, then gets into the gist of his article - tables to generate character background in his campaign. This issue deals with dwarves. He then provides some nice mood-setting prose: "Their thick beards are tangled with secrets. They kindle light in darkness, their songs echoing down straight paths tunneled through silent stone". Even Zak probably wouldn't object to that.

There are three tables - a MANY DWARVES..., a SOME DWARVES..., and SOME COMMON TRAVELLING GEAR. The idea is to roll 3 times on the first table, once on the second, and 1-3 times on the third. And then to choose a custom trait for your particular dwarf. I entered the tables into TABLESMITH and generated three examples to give you an idea:

Many dwarves will keep their word unto death, are capable of killing for a cause they believe in and with appropriate materials, can build an ad hoc object to accomplish a simple purpose.
Some dwarves are deadly philosophers.
Your dwarf owns a carved wooden box containing essential tools.

Many dwarves learn to play a musical instrument from a very young age, claim dwarves invented books and refuse to discuss whether or not dwarven women exist.
Some dwarves search for dark secrets in silent, lost places.
Your dwarf owns a steel-frame travel pack, a well-used bear grooming kit, an exquisite lamp, oil and a tinderbox.

Many dwarves are bemused by elves and therefore keep their distance, wear jewelry and finely-crafted clothing and abhor spontaneous displays of emotion.
Some dwarves can learn a new language in just a few hours, from an able teacher.
Your dwarf owns a shortcloak and long-piped hat in clan colors, a crossbow or throwing axe.

There is also a very nice quarter-page illustration of a dwarf embedded in the article. This is a good use of graphics for two reasons: it helps the reader focus on the thrust of the article (dwarves), and since the illustration is by the author, it shows us his vision of his dwarves. At the end of the article we are urged to make our own tables, and promised "Elves" in the next edition, plus there is a short Q&A to convey a bit more color, which wouldn't have been missed if it had been clipped.

My reaction to this article was very positive. It is simple to understand, easy to use, and evocative. Would I use it in my games? Probably not. I am currently running four D&D campaigns, and I can't see any of my current players being interested in generating a background like this (most of them just name their character Bob or Fred and grab some dice!). However, with the right group of people, I would definitely offer it to them as a possibility. I am thinking of also using it to flesh out any dwarf NPC's that my characters meet.

The other main use for it is simply the ideas it invokes. My favourite entry is "Many dwarves are morbidly embarrassed by their curse-deformed feet, wearing stone shoes to hide them." Or maybe the simple "Can kindle a light if they need one". I think most of us mine articles for ideas, and this one has many. I really look forward to the issue with "Elves"

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fight On #1 Cover to Cover - part 2

The PDF copy of Fight On! #1 has 31 pages, one of which is the cover. Page 2 is a dedication page. The issue is dedicated to E. Gary Gygax, who had recently passed away, and is a fitting choice. It was Gary who took the fresh ideas invented by Dave Arneson and massaged them into a printable product, starting the whole RPG era. There is a nice picture of Gary, and then a quote chosen from the famous afterwards on page 36 of Book 3 - The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. The gist of the quote is Gary posits that his rules are a framework, and building on it should be easy and fun. He then advises people to take the game and make it the way you want it to be. An apt selection.

Page 3 is a busy page, with an introduction from the editor, a submissions guideline section, a table of contents, a list of illustrators and their artwork, and an explanation of the house terminology. The page is laid out in two columns, which is standard for the rest of the magazine.

The introduction is from Ignatius Umlaut, the editor. It is a three paragraph entry that sets a fantasy stage in the reader's head, then introduces the magazine's mandate. It is a positive, upbeat message and is a useful addition to the magazine. Beneath Ignatius' introduction is a really silly line drawing of what looks like a squashed troll. I am going to assume it has some significance for Mr. Umlaut, as otherwise it is a waste of space on a page that is already very crowded. The last section on the first column is submission information. It is clear about how to submit, ownership rights of submissions, and even has the very generous statement that the publishers will help any interested parties to connect with the authors. This in fact happened to me, as Ignatius connected me with a French roleplaying magazine interested in one of my submissions. What is missing from this paragraph is the information that Fight On! does not pay for any submissions, but will recompense you with a free PDF of the issue.

The second column starts with the Table of Contents. I never look at ToC's on my first read, as I just plow into the material, but it is absolutely crucial to have one, for when you need to find the article you want to mine for ideas. This ToC is clear and easy to find. It adds the authors of the pieces as well, which is nice but probably not needed, and does add a bit of clutter. After the ToC is the list of illustrations, where I find the cover logo was designed by Jeff Rients, and the illustration by Andrew Reyes. I do like this touch of listing all the artists and their illustrations. The next paragraph discusses the thinly disguised aliases for Armor Class (Defense Class), Hit Dice (Wound Dice), and so on. The use of these throughout the magazine proves to be annoying, but is probably necessary for legal reasons. The last paragraph on the page provides miscellaneous contact information.

This page is a crowded page, but the information is useful and fairly complete. Now all the necessary preliminaries are out of the way, the next article can focus on the actual gaming content. All told, the first three pages give a good vibe - you feel you are in the hands of professionals who know what they are doing, and are going to deliver what they promise.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fight On #1 - Cover to Cover

This is the first in a series of posts analyzing the first issue of Fight On! Magazine, the premier magazine for the Old School Revival in role playing. Calithena and Ignatius Imlaut release Fight On! quarterly, and it is the best bang for your buck going. To my knowledge, there has been no serious in depth review of the 'zine. In the posts to follow, I will examine each article, what it contains in general terms, my reactions to it, what use I am likely to make of it and why (or why not), and other assorted ramblings I wish to share.

I will avoid addressing sentences with "In my opinion"; this entire series will be my opinion on the articles. In interests of full disclosure, I am an occasional contributor to this periodical. I have a bias towards data and away from pictures - a picture seems to be a cop out from having to fill the page with useful material! The magazine is available in PDF and in print; my review will be on the PDF copy I have. Feel free to comment on these posts!

I will begin my "Cover to Cover" series with "the cover" (duh). The cover of any item is one of my exceptions about the utility of graphics. The cover is the first thing you see on a book or magazine, and has to make the right impression so that its target audience will take a closer look.

This cover is bang on. The bold, clear, bright green, old-school font (reminiscent of early Dungeons & Dragons) leaps out at the reader, and will be recognizable to any who played D&D in the 70's. The large, black-and-white line drawing of a fighter with raised sword has the clean lines associated with the original white box, and early Judges Guild illustrations. Again, the magazine flaunts its old-school cred - the fighter wears a helmet, there are no spikes on the armor, and the sword looks tantalizingly like a rune sword.

For those lucky enough to have the original boxed set (which I picked up for $8 back in the mid-80's), the homage is even clearer. On the last page of Book 3, there is E. Gary Gygax's afterword, and at the bottom of the page is a fighter with raised sword and the caption "FIGHT ON!". Fight On! magazine is in effect promising a spiritual rebirth of the same attitudes that spawned the original Dungeons & Dragons. What is nice is that the quality of the cover artwork is a step up from the artwork in the original book, which was average at best, and childishly crappy at worst. This promises well for the rest of the magazine.

The secondary parts of the cover are the subtitle and the picture caption. The subtitle proclaims "a fanzine for the old school renaissance". Again, this is a clear mission statement. It knows who its audience is. The picture caption then makes a nicely subversive statement: "for Fantasy Role Playing Campaigns played with Pencil, Paper, and Your Imagination". There is no mention of dice, of story, of character development, or of rules. The editors have cut to the core of what makes old school roleplaying so great, so inclusive, yet sometimes bewildering.

The cover then finishes off with the pedestrian notices "Issue #1" and "Spring 2008". This is a promising sign that there will be a summer issue, and the magazine will be an ongoing, viable entity.

In all, I think the cover is just perfectly suited to appeal to its target audience, and portrays a professional and intelligent outlook by the editors. Well done sirs!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Musing on Writing

I went down to Starbucks last night to write the second chapter of my novel (many of my writing projects get finished there) but it just didn't work. I wrote five pages, but unfortunately those five pages encompassed three aborted attempts to open the chapter. This is where I miss my laptop. On computer, I would have copied, edited, re-arranged sentences and paragraphs, and probably have mashed out a chapter. On paper, I had all these sheets lying around with different ideas - it was a lot of rework. I am going to try again tonight on my home computer.

I think some good came of this (besides all the interesting ideas I generate from the exercise). My first chapter worked well, and flowed, as I knew exactly the point or focus of the scene - the point was to introduce the main character, and the lens used was a pistol duel at dawn. For my second chapter, I obviously did not have my focus properly worked out - I was just writing for the sake of writing. So I am going to attempt to extract the one main important theme or idea, and once I have that, just write the scene with that angle in mind. It should then just write itself.

We'll see

Monday, June 02, 2008

F--- Me I Love Keats

Thanks to Clare for pointing me to Bridget Jones Diary for the title! Title censored 'cuz my Mom might read it!

I just finished the Complete Poems of John Keats. For a poet who died at age 26, he sure left behind a large body of work! My paperback is over 450 pages. I was familiar with his famous stuff, but I was amazed by the rest of it - I don't think Keats ever wrote a bad poem.

What struck me about Keats was he summed up everything we stereotypically believe a poet to be - flowery, ornate, classical, and with a lovely touch. Of course he was much more. He could write scathing political satire (The Cap and Bells) as well as Wordsworthian phrases (I Stood Tiptoe). He will always have a soft spot in my heart for his "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer", which opens Swallows and Amazons.

To me, Keats combined love of nature's beauty and a deep interest in the Greek and Roman classics with an earthy sensuality that could only have been expressed in poetry without being scrubbed by the censors. All his poems are great, here is one of the best



SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.


Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Fight On!

Okay, what have I been up to lately? I think I'll do it in reverse order. Coming up, I have the car undergoing an operation in a couple of weeks - Brian is going to redo the exhaust so I will be in Kitchener-Waterloo on Sat June 7 during the day if anybody wants to say "Hi", or needs me to pick up or drop off something. We've got Thomas all sorted out for his Bruce trip, and that will free up the Wii for more Guitar Hero time for me. I really should be writing instead of playing a video game but I am obsessed right now - I five-starred all 70 songs at Easy Level this week, so now I am doing them all at Medium, then I will do Hard and Expert, then I will forget about the game because it will be done (I am both boring and methodical). After experiencing Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me" I may also have to do a thread on worst song lyrics ever.

On Wednesday (May 28) I have my recital. "Fugue for Tinhorns" from Guys and Dolls is back on. Its a trio, so we got together last week to practise and our accompanist did not show, plus the other two guys had not memorized the piece. You can imagine my slow burn. We are supposedly practising it Wed night half an hour before the show! Also I am doing "Non piu andrai" from Mozart's Il Nozze di Figaro (it's the piece that everyone knows). I am having trouble with the "o" sound in "riposo" but it's too late to fix it now! God I hate recitals (that I have to perform in).

Tonight we are going to Michael's year-end string concert, and I am really looking forward to that. It's always awesome. Michael discovered this weekend that he has lost his music to Dvorak's 8th Symphony *sigh* (and he lost his wallet and his bus tickets). This weekened I had to get up at 5:00 am (!!) to cook breakfast for the participants in Thinkfast, which is a 25-hour fast for young people designed to raise money and awareness about world hunger. The Knights always cook a breakfast for them on the Saturday morning after it ends. Last weekend I was in Toronto as a voting delegate for the Knight of Columbus State Convention, so that was a wasted wekend.

I have many writing projects on the go, and though I am not quite as successful as Mary, I did get an article published in "Fight On!", a magazine dedicated to re-vitalizing the "old-school" spirit in RPG's. So I now have a more-or-less regulated writing schedule: Toastmasters Bulletin, K of C Bulletin, "Fight On!" magazine, Toastmasters speeches, and my damn novel whenever I find the time between all the others. Let me reiterate - DO NOT write a historical novel! It is way too much research.

Oh yes - our fund-raiser for Wayne Little raised $6998.50. We had Kenny Rogers, Neil Diamond, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and John Denver perform. I'm thinking Helen should become a Carly Simon impersonator - $500/night isn't too shabby!

I'm sure I did lots of other things that nobody cares about, so I'll sign off now.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

William Blake

Well I just finished the works of William Blake, and I am a bit disappointed. Most of his good stuff is his well known stuff, and the obscure is very uneven. Blake recycled a lot of his work, and the sameness of the images and the extravagance of his hate for the establishment gets wearisome. For example, this encapsulates Blake's world view, from "Auguries of Innocence"

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

but the rest of the poem is crude and mundane. Or his statement

If a thing loves, it is infinite

shows the way to his view that any imagination confined, any self-denial, is contrary to God's will. My favourite of his prophetic books is "The French Revolution", a mythic poem with cohesion, vivid imagery and meaning For anybody wanting to start his myth cycle, that would be where I recommend. If you read Blake's work with an eye towards his championing of women, the working class, and the abolition of slavery, as well as the overthrow of the tyranny of the Church and State, you will get more out of it. As generally I find only snippets of his work to be consistently interesting, there are few poems I can display that show Blake at his best. This one is justly famous, so I leave you with it

Preface to Milton

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

OK, finished the second half of my Lyrical Ballads poetry book, featuring Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A friend of Wordsworth's, his poetry is nothing like, despite avowedly similar aims. Coleridge's stuff is more like people expect from a poet, with fantastic subjects and flowery language. He is till quite readable, however, and many of his poems are pastoral, which links him thematically with Wordsworth.

There are poets who are consistent in quality, and easy to read, like Wordsworth. And there are the inconsistent poets, who leave some things unfinished, but occasionally have such beautiful passages of words that you could die happy if you were the one who wrote those passages. Coleridge is the latter. He is (deservedly) known for his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Khubla Khan. His cautionary Ode to France, written after the revolution, eerily parallels modern America. But my favourite passage is probably this stanza from his elegiac-style benediction for his infant boy:

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree

Just beautiful stuff. Here's the whole poem


The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud--and hark, again ! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings : save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed ! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village ! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams ! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not ;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

But O ! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come !
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams !
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book :
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike !

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought !
My babe so beautiful ! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes ! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe ! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags : so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher ! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw ; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

CRPG Review: Ultima

Ultima (now known as Ultima 1) is the sequel to Akallabeth, described in an earlier review here. Richard Garriot, still a teenager in high school, broke new ground in inventing the "tile graphic" concept for Ultima. He divided the screen into small areas or tiles, then created a library of tiles. He then used these tiles to build worlds by drawing them on screen. This greatly sped up graphics, as he only had to redraw changed tiles (instead of an entire screen) when an event was happening in the world. He kept the dungeon 3D wire view from Akallabeth, and these two graphic engines became the staple for the next ten years of CRPG's (see the screenshot, showing how a rich world of grasslands, water, mountains and forests can be created with just a handful of unique tiles; my laser-armed aircar is in the middle of the screen)

While a bit naive by today's standards, Ultima was quite sophisticated for 1980 computer gaming. The setting is a lost kingdom/post-apocalypse/swords & sorcery-style setting a la Lin Carter or Robert Howard (Conan or Cerebus the Aardvark), where most people live at a medieval level of technology, but the adventurer can find such space-age equipment as phasers, hovercrafts and power armor. The wizard Mondain is spreading an evil influence through the land, corrupting people and animals, and spawning monsters, and your job is to track down Mondain and put a stop to it! This game also features the first appearance of Lord British, Garriott's alter-ego, and the most famous NPC (non-Player character) in CRPG history, who will re-appear in most of the sequels as the benevolent ruler of Britannia.

This game showcases Garriott's unique approach to game design - he likes to give people different things to do, so that they can advance the plot in different ways at different times depending upon their preference. If you feel like dungeon crawling, there are 36 dungeons in the game, all ten levels deep (I once mapped the lot of them!). If you like exploring, there are four continents to discover, plus some special islands. For minimaxing (a game term meaning getting the most bang for your buck) your character, you can seek out all 40 towns and compare their shops to get the best items and the best prices. If you like questing, there are eight castles whose rulers will dispense quests. For those who prefer an indirect approach, you can pilfer from shops with thieving skills, and bust princesses out of dungeons. There is even a space arcade game that you can unlock once you have the correct items!

While you can do whatever you like, the game design ties these activities together to make them meaningful. Dungeon crawling is the fastest way to get gold and hitpoints. Exploring is necessary to find the towns and people and special sites that boost your abilities and items. Shopping provides the necessary food and survival gear, plus various magic spell stores. Completing the quests boosts your stats, and gets you items needed to activate the Time Machine. Stealing is a quick way for a thief character to get a head start on the game to make him even with the fighetr and cleric. Rescuing princesses gets you gold and hit points. The space arcade game is needed for you to become a Space Ace, which will impress the princess enough for her to reveal the location of the time machine.

Ultimately, you must raise your hit points, get the best items, boost your stats, become a Space Ace, complete the quests, rescue the princess, find the Time Machine, and go back to a pocket universe before time started, where Mondain is hiding, and bring him to justice. But the freedom of choice is yours. I once completed the game from start to finish in one (long) evening just to see how fast it COULD be completed, but I have also spent countless hours just having fun.

I haven't talked about the character generation, the races that can be played, the spells, the monsters, the treasure - that is all to be discovered, and secondary to this review. Let's just say in the fast game that I exploited the sytem by maxing my DEX at start and creating an Elf Female Thief, then stealing power armor and a phaser from the first merchant to turn his back, and GALADRIAL was off to the races!

So three cheers for Ultima, which is still fun in the 21st century!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

'Bloodied Angels Fast Descending'

I had a delightfully Spinal-Tapian evening last night, as my sister Helen, her son Chris, and my friends Claus and Tom joined me in an evening out for some heavy metal music at the John Labatt Centre in London. This was to be Chris' first concert (not counting Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears or Hilary Duff or any other teeny-bopper concerts he may have seen in the days when he would not be held accountable for any lack of judgement in taste).

First to offer their wares were f'ing Down, a black metal act, featuring former members of f'ing Pantera, as the f'ing lead singer mentioned in between calling the audience f'ing pussies or calling out songs like "This one's for the f'ing bikers". I actually could not quite tell when they changed songs. About the only thing Chris and Helen agreed on at the concert was that Down f'ing sucked. I actually found them quite amusing, as they only played for 30 minutes, and they accomplished the goal of making the next act look good in comparison.

Megadeth (a speed metal group) played a short, taut set, only 45 minutes long, with little talking, and many guitar solos (I think i counted seven of them in "Hangar 18" alone!) Our seats were a bit far away to get a good look at Dave Mustaine's guitar playing. I didn't know their new stuff, and Chris didn't know their old stuff, so we had few comparison points. Memo to Helen - Chris needs to grow his hair long before the next heavy metal concert so he can headbang more effectively.

Sabbath played almost two hours, and most of their songs were interesting. They had an excellent stage set (no 18-inch high stonehenges here) which I wished I could find a picture of and download. The music was slow and very heavy (as opposed to Megadeth's fast and very heavy). I think Chris could take or leave Sabbath (not enough energy!) but I think they put on an excellent show. Helen and I are Dio fans, and he still has the voice at 57 years of age - quite impressive, and Sabbath were nice and heavy.

I'm not sure if I would go again (concert tickets are expensive), but I'm glad I checked them out.

PS - There was a drum solo!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Performance and Practise: Group Dynamics

front row, left to right: Helen, Sally, Me (John)
back row, left to right: Clare, Alison, Tony

For the last few years, I have enjoyed playing with my sisters at a few Christmas concerts. These started as informal get-togethers, but have morphed to something a bit more planned since I joined in (mainly because I live out of town and have to plan to get down). As we contemplate doing even more concerts, I have been musing about group dynamics.

Basically, my sisters enjoy getting together and signing popular or folk songs, usually in an easy-to-sing key, with everybody singing harmony. It's fun - making music is fun. Without changing this format, a pleasant performance can be put on for people. We also realize that we can deliver an even better concert experience if we vary things.

We can change between song styles. We can sing unison, harmony and a capella. We can experiment with different keys, moods, and even different instruments (banjo's anyone?) Perhaps Clare or Helen can do a lead, or we can do call and answer. Adding another instrumentalist to the mix when I joined allows Sally to rest from guitar and play the violin. With Sally available I don't have to play every song and can also take a break, or break out the harmonica. Sally and I have different guitar styles and talents, so we can vary the repertoire more.

All of a sudden it is not so cozy. Which songs are we going to play? Who picks the songs? How do we produce a dynamic difference in performance? Who will efface themselves so that others can shine? How much should we push ourselves to learn different things? All these put a bit of a strain on the group - are we still having fun?

Fortunately the answer is still "Yes", and I am learning so much about music just by performing with others. As long as we listen to each other, give respect, and know when to let things just slide, I am sure we will continue both to have fun, and get better. It is interesting to see how much things have changed the last few years, but hopefully the main reason to get together will never change.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Songwriting: My Bonnie Highland Lass

The sun has set, let's have a wet
It's time to raise a glass
To Annie of the ruby lips
My bonnie highland lass
My mood is dim and melancholy
This in turn will pass
As I ponder on the wonder
Of my bonnie highland lass

My bonnie highland lassie
Has left and gone way
I fear that all the bright lights
Have led her all astray
Her hair so black and raven
Her choc'late eyes so brown
Here I'll make a haven
For her coming from the town

The sun has set, the day is wet
As I stare into the grave
Of my bonnie highland lassie
The love I couldn't save
No more I'll pipe to please her
It's time to say a mass
My only goal to save the soul
Of my bonnie highland lass


This tune was written literally as fast as I could write it down, maybe two minutes for the lyrics and five minutes for the music. I share space at work with Anne Cowan, who was hired by former Crabtree owner Margaret McLean many years ago as part of an outreach program with the London Mental Health unit. Annie was an English teacher before being hit with schizophrenia, and works about 6 hours per week, when she remembers to show up. She is also a poet, having written 7 volumes of poetry (although she refuses to publish them).

Anyway, Annie and I chat about philosophy, science, literature, beer, music, and whatever topics amuse us. Her latest complaint was that I had never written a song for her. I agreed to write one on the spot. She wanted a Scottish song, with all the correct elements. Her hair, she said was raven black, not grey, and her lips were ruby. She wanted the song melancholy, and we needed to put bagpipes and the word 'bonnie' in it. I came up with My Bonnie Highland Lass. When she objected that she was a lowlands girl, I overruled her - not romantic! You're a highland girl now. Plus I decided to kill her off in the end, which she thought was appropriate. I had been contemplating putting Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" to music, so the starting point of the lyric was easy, and the rest just flowed.

The tune was a mish mash of Loch Lomond, Coming Through the Rye, and The Northen Lights of Old Aberdeen, hopefully fused into something unique. I stole an idea from Chris De Burgh's "I'm Coming Home" off the Spanish Train album to help me get through the chorus. Working out the chords was the laborious part - I'm still not very good at finding the right chord to put behind a melody to convey the sound I want. The last consideration was I wanted this to be able to be played on a recorder (or any pipe) so I had to constrain the melody to make it fit into one octave. Anyway, it was fun to write.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Album Review: News of the World

I recently picked up News of the World, by Queen. This was my favourite Queen album when I was a teenager, and listening to it reminded me of why - it is the heaviest Queen album. This is a drawback to others, but I like it when Queen kicks back and kicks ass. It may help when evaluating the album to realize that this was Queen's reaction to the punk movement and their criticism of lavish excess of bands like Queen, Led Zeppelin and Yes.

The Good:

From a technical standpoint, this is the best Queen has ever been. It features their cleanest production and their tightest playing - they have never sounded so good. Brian May found a unique guitar sound that he never duplicated on any other album. In fact, this is a Brian May album - I have no idea what Freddie was doing when this was written/recorded. We Will Rock You crunches, We Are the Champions soars, Sheer Heart Attack is like a buzzsaw in your ear outpunking the punk movement, John Deacon steps out on electric piano on the gorgeous Spread Your Wings, and Queen's harmonies are finally released on the epic It's Late. It all finishes with your ears bleeding, and then the perfectly appropriate My Melancholy Blues finishes the album. One can just picture Freddie sitting at a piano in some empty ballroon with spilled champagne glasses and soild table cloths as he rings down the curtain. Oh, did I mention the guitar just crunches?

The Bad:

Where is Freddie? Fans of Day at the Races/Night at the Opera silly stuff will not find any Seaside Rendezvous, Millionaire Waltz, Somebody to Love or Love of My Life. Champions is solid, Melancholy Blues is lovely, but the only other tune he wrote is the bizarre Get Down Make Love, which could safely have been left off the album. Half the songs are sung by Taylor or May. The album is front loaded - after the four hit songs, you have to sit through very mediocre songwriting until album end. Queen stripped down their harmonies so much that they are only in evidence on two songs. You expect more from Queen than just a solid rock album.

The Interesting:

It's Late is the first in a series of songs that Brian uses to explore his crumbling marriage, culminating in Love Token on his Back to the Light Album. Freddie's chord progressions on My Melancholy Blues get taken to a new level on the next album with the superior Don't Stop Me Now.

The Bottom Line:

I like this album - it rocks (I'm a May fan). Clare finds it a bit boring (she's a Mercury fan). Borrow it from her and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Songwriting: Come to Me

Come to me all of you weary
Come to me all who are lost
Come to me all of you hungry
I'll feed you whatever the cost
The road that we choose is a hard one
It wearies me right to the bone
But come take my hand now together
And you won't have to walk it alone

Come to me when you are tired
Come to me when you are sad
When deep in troubles you're mired
I'll comfort you, make you feel glad
The road that we choose is a long one
We may stumble and trip on a stone
So come take my hand now together
And you won't have to walk it alone

Come to me all of you nations
Looking for the right way to turn
Come to me all of you leaders
With so many lessons to learn
The road we must choose is a strong one
We can choose it when we are full grown
So let's join our hands all together
And we won't have to walk it alone

This song came to me when I was driving home from church, exasperated at the lousy choir and yet another plodding 3/4 time song. I was thinking "I could write a better song than that!", and composed the melody and the first two verses in my head. Supper intervened when I reached home, so I had to wait until after dinner to put it down on paper. The hard part was coming up with a third verse. As we Hitchens' are immune to hard work, I was getting desperate after 15 minutes. I finally hit on the happy idea of turning it from a church song to a universal song.

Thus you could look at verse 1 as God to person, verse 2 as person then reaching out to another person, and verse 3 is then a community reaching out to a greater - very nice flow.

So there we go - a 15-minute throwaway song. Strangely enough, Sally likes the song so the effort wasn't wasted.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Album Review: The Girl I Used to Be

"The Girl I Used to Be" is the debut demo album of Helen Hitchens, a gifted folk singer/songwriter. It is recorded in her home studio with just herself and her guitar. Although obviously raw in production, it is a staple in my rotation of folk albums. This review comes around because I listened to it just before listening to Carole King's "Tapestry", one of the most acclaimed albums of all time, and I did not see much difference.

Before you laugh at me, let me point out the obvious. "Tapestry" is the better album. But ...

If you pared the fourteen songs on "The Girl I Used to Be" album down to the ten best, and expanded them a bit with professional arrangements, arranged for professional musicians, and gave the whole treatment professional production, it would stand up to anything out there. Perhaps there is a lack of stylistic variety, if compared to "Tapestry", but that is more like complaining about Handel because he is not as good as Bach.

Loosely biographical, the lyrics run the gamut from penetratingly biting ("What Was That?") to tender ("Light in the Sky"). All facets of love are examined - the first blush ("For The First Time"), the hard times ("Sometimes"), the ending ("The Man That I Once Knew"), the rebound ("One Wish") - Helen digs deeply into her experiences to give personal memories a universal and poignant treatment.

While I focused on the lyrics, a music album is no good without music. Helen has some very engaging melodies on the album (Light in The Sky, How Do You Stop, Waiting For the Train) - and the rest are quite pleasant. I would like to see her push her boundaries a bit more - I would also like to hear a second album!

Helen has a lovely, throaty voice reminiscent of Carly Simon's, that struggles a bit in the high range. I believe that is nothing that couldn't be propped up in a studio setting. Her guitar playing is lovely - rhythmic and musical, yet never overstated. I wish my own acoustic strumming could achieve such steadiness.

It makes me proud to see how much talent our family posesses

Thanks sis

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Poetry: Charlotte Bronte

I have just finished reading "The Complete Poetry of Charlotte Bronte", so I thought I would voice my comments. I haven't read "Jane Eyre", nor studied her life, so I could be way off base with my thoughts, but an uninformed approach isn't always bad.

My first impressions were that she was a competent, work(wo)manlike poet, but nothing special. Her poems lack the imaginative spark of Keats, or the trenchant lyricism of Tennyson. I gained the impression of a well educated student writing to show a mastering of all the outward forms of poetry, but in a seemingly mechanical way. That's not to say her poems are bad, just that she does not stand out in particular (she certainly had an impressive vocabulary). Some notes in the book, though, sparked my interest.

Firstly, most of her poetry was written between the ages of 13 and 17! Wow! What a precocious child! Seeing as most poets take a while for their art to mature, it would have been interesting to see what she produced in her maturity, if she had kept up her poetical writings.

Secondly, she had a whole mythical continent with their own kingdoms, histories, and fantastical beings that she used to wite about. At age 15 she gave up writing about faeries, etc, as they were only fit for childish amusement. It is only in the last eighty years, starting with Dunsany and Eddison, and culminating with Prof. Tolkien's seminal works "Tree and Leaf" and "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", that fantasy has emerged as an area that society will take seriously. It is sad to see creative areas unexplored due to society's dysfunctions.

Thirdly, I thought her unpublished poetry to be more interesting than her published works. If, as I guess, her unpublished works seem to better represent her character, than it is quite a shame that her more interesting work had to be suppressed while more societally approved material was released. My favourite poem of hers was her unpublished "The Grave of Percy", set in her mythical kingdom of Angria twenty years after the death of the titular hero.

Still, from the roughly thirty poems that she released, we have some interesting glimpses into her character. The savage last stanza of "Gilbert" must have shocked her audience, and the defiant "Passion" is marvelously ambiguous, depending upon whether you read it as being spoken by a man or a woman.

The sense I gained of Charlotte Bronte was of an incredibly smart and gifted woman, stuck in a society that did not allow women to "accomplish". Her poems are full of waiting, watching, observing others, living vicariously, or just admiring nature, but the undercurrent of tension running throughout her poems hints at discontent, frustration, and a fierce will held in check.

I am glad now that we live in a society where women are allowed to contribute their talents, thus instantly doubling the number of people who can express their many talents to benefit both themselves and the rest of society. Great contributions have been made to all endeavours of human life by female scientists, mathemeticians, artists, singers, politicians, etc that one wonders how we ever functioned with only one arm, as it were. It is too bad that it came too late for Charlotte Bronte.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Book of the Month: The Best American Science Writing 2002

I don't read as often as I used to, but I still manage to polish off two to three books per week. It is inevitable that some books will make me so excited I wish to share them.

The Best American Science Writing 2002, edited by Matt Ridley, is a fascinating and gripping book. It is comprised of magazine articles, most of them in the 4000 to 5000 word range, that were published in 2002. The topics are always relevant, usually controversial, and most assuredly thought-provoking. I think Clare would like this book - the quality of writing is top notch, and the jargon is not technical at all. Each article can raise your awareness to the point that you decide you want to drop your career to make a difference in that field - very powerful stuff.

I am not going to detail all the articles here, but the following I found particularly fascinating:

- An article on a plastic surgeon, who is the foremost emergency repair artist on the East Coast (fixing up burn and cancer victims, for example), but who also dreams of implanting wings in humans. It examines the ethics of body modification, and explores the concept of people as art. It is horrifying, but probably the best article in the entire book

- An article on breeding for parts. Parents of Fanconi anemia (a fatal childhood disease) desperately try to have more children, hoping that one of them will be a bone marrow match to save their dying child. This has now led to in vitro fertilization and ultimately, experimentation on embryos - get as many viable embryos out there and then pick the best one before you implant in the mother.

- An article on cloning. Why would you clone? A clone may be a genetic copy, but will not be "you". A clone will start out again as a baby, so cloning can not replace a dying 30-yr-old sone, for example. The person will be alike yet different. Also, most clones are imperfections, so you would have to destroy hundreds of clones before getting a healthy one

- Medicine and Race; there are known differences between the way white people and black people in the US react to chemical treatment, but because that is considered racist you are not allowed to act on the knowledge - and it is killing people

- The War on Cancer; thirty years later mortality is still as bad. It discusses the flawed model used by the US, and the political funding decisions that are not in the public's best interest, and why the most promising avenues are not able to be explored (politicians are killing you!)

- Dietary Fat; 50 years and millions of dollars of research have failed to show a problem with regular fat intake; since the switch to low-fat diets, though, obesity has risen and other diseases taken hold. It details the commercial and political interests in the low-fat craze, and its deadly consequences.

- Brain Cells; long thought to die but not renew, new evidence has shown we can grow new brain cells. This has implications with late in life learning, and recuperation form diseases. This information was stalled for ten years by one person who's powerful position was threatened if it turned out to be true

- How the Universe Began; a scathing critique of the scientists who claim to know it all (this has nothing to do with religion)

There are myriads of others, including the inconsistencies in quantum theory, global data that shows the world is actually getting better, the effects of melting icecaps on arctic birds, etc

I wish everybody could read this book - it is the most provocative book I have read this year

Friday, August 04, 2006

Performance and Practise: Perfectionism, Pragmatism and Pride

Sally lent her guitar method book to me last year, and I have been studying it daily. The first solo piece that you come to in the book is entitled "Spanish Study". As you can see in the small snippet pictured, the first section has pairs of eighth-notes, and the second section has triplets.

There is no speed posted for the piece, and I originally learned it about 60. It is simpler than it looks as the high note is a drone on the open E. At a speed of 60, I am playing two notes per second in the first part, and three notes per second for the triplets. The triplet is awkward, but I eventually got it to not sound too ragged, and then worked on improving my speed. I stopped at a speed of 96, pleased with the overall sound of the piece. Still, a nagging part of me wondered what the tempo should really be ...

I found out. I was listening to Liona Boyd play a piece called Asturia, by Isaac Albeniz. Suddenly I heard the theme! "Spanish Study" is a brief excerpt from a longer piece called "Asturia"! Well - the tempo was pretty quick. Very quick. I fished out my metronome and tried to measure it. My metronome only goes up to 208, so it was too slow. My best guess is she is playing at a speed between 220-240, and she was doing it fluidly and effortlessly.

I was devastated. My puny 96 was mocking me. I knew I was not going to be able to play at 240 (approximately 12 notes per second), but surely I could gain some speed and salvage some sense of self worth. After three months of practise (I practised other things also) I was up to a ragged 132 and feeling topped out. Should I drop it down to 120 and play it smoothly? Is that good enough for performance? After all, who will know what speed it should be at? Those were the thoughts of my pragmatic side, which wins out quite often. But shouldn't I try to play it perfectly for a performance? My pride and sense of professionalism was trying to have its say. 240. 240. 240. The chant was maddening.

I decided to do something I hadn't done in a while - I looked at the music. Imagine my astonishment to see "p i a" for the right-hand fingering on the triplets. I had carelessly been playing it "p i m", probably because the opening couplets were labelled as "p m". (Terminology note: p=thumb i=index m=middle a=ring). Unfortunately, "p i m" pulls your hand out of alignment, which was why I was struggling with the speed. In classical guitar, all else being equal, your top three strings each belong to a specific finger, and since I needed to play the first and third strings, the first and third fingers were obviously called for.

So I decided to try the new fingering, and even with the awkwardness of using the ring finger, I could sense the difference. Once I brought the strength in my ring finger up to par, my speed increased dramatically. I decided to set myself a goal of 176 for the tempo, which would be a nice quick speed and still reachable. I would then polish it, perform it, and put it away. What I didn't realize was that I would hit my speed target in three weeks.

So now my inner demon is saying "176 is not too far away from 200 - you can do it". I'm not really sure now when to quit. Is it "good enough", or do I try for "better"?

I face this dilemma in anything I try, but rarely is it as clear cut an issue as in this piece. I would love some feedback from my sisters on their thoughts between the drive for perfection in performance, and willing to settle for "good enough"

Friday, July 28, 2006

Album Review: Fish Out of Water

This album can be considered a bookend to Olias of Sunhillow. It was recorded by Chris Squire, bass player and co-founder of Yes, during the same period as Olias. It has nothing in common with Olias except for the quality of its work. Squire has crafted a dense and darkly orchestrated album, backboned by his muscular but agile bass playing. The five songs on the album flow into each other, divergent in content and tone, yet all blending together into a coherent musical suite.

Squire's strength as a composer is in two main areas: his ability to create a motif and then thematically build on it with subtle variations of ever increasing complexity, and his ear for arrangement to get the most out of his rather straightforward ideas. The musicians he chooses to back himself with are some of the finest jazz/rock fusion players in the world. The unique sound is due to the lack of a guitar - pianos, flutes, saxophones, organs and orchestration take their turn in supplying the melodic instrumentation. Squire's vocals are mediocre but sufficient.

This is Carlene's favourite album. It is also the pinnacle of Squire's work, perhaps only approached by the Yes album Drama, which he co-wrote and shared vocals on.For anybody wanting to get into prog rock, but actually wants to hear structure, cohesiveness and pleasant melodies as well as virtuoso playing and experimental tones, there is no finer place to start.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Song Writing: Nothing That Matters

Nothing That Matters
by John Hitchens

There ain't no point in blaming
It's nothing that I planned
But still I guess after the latest mess
I'd hoped you'd understand
Point the finger at me
It's not a chance you'd miss
But nothing we've gone through
When it was just us two
Could prepare us for this
Now you just leave me at the door
Without a goodbye kiss

There's promises we've made
Many things we've left unsaid
And quite a few callous words or two
Before I left your bed
I'd like to try to patch it up
It's always in my plans
But with promises broken
And words left unspoken
I doubt that there's a chance
Now I just leave you at the door
Without a backward glance

Nothing that matters comes easy
Sometimes what really matters never comes at all
It just leaves you feeling empty
Leaves you with nothing at all

Some nights I dream of you
Most nights I dream of her
For it's only in dreams that good things it seems
Happen to occur
Now here we are together
With no one else in sight
But even at this table
We're not even able
To talk without a fight
So let's just leave it at the door
And one final last goodnight.

Nothing that matters comes easy
Sometimes what really matters never comes at all
It just leaves you feeling empty
Leaves you with nothing at all

Song writing is an intensely personal experience, and there are as many different types of writing processes as there are artists. I can only give you my approach, which will no doubt be radically different from Helen's, for example.

With me, generally, it begins with the chorus. Some people grab a title and go with it, others get a theme and start to write from first line of first verse right to the end, but I get a chorus. It is not something I look for, but usually some sort of catch phrase will grab my attention, and then *bam* I have the whole thing in my head - the first two lines of the chorus, complete with harmonies, chords and other musical arrangements. I don't even have to write it down in case I forget, so vivid is the moment. Eventually I will write it down, and attempt to create a full blown song. Let's take a look at the second song I ever wrote, to see the process.

In this case, I had the idea that "nothing that matters is easy", like the idea "the course of true love never did run smooth". A sudden burst of insight sparked the idea that sometimes what really matters just doesn't come, for whatever reason, and that's just the way it is. So I had the basis for a song. I had been listening to a bunch of Springsteen at the time, so there was no doubt in my mind that this would be a guitar/harmonica song. I fleshed out the chorus, and then needed to work out the verses.

Quite often, I just write down the chorus and never progress further - I have many finished choruses lying around without a song attached to them. Here I decided to play on the theme of a marriage breaking down. It is important to realize that my songs are not auto-biographical, but they are plausible. I like to think of them as a path another John may have taken, somewhat akin to a collapse of the wavepoint function of John in the Many Worlds Interpretation around a different plausibility ("Hereafter, in a better world than this, I shall desire more love and knowledge of you"?)

Here, the verse starts vague, as I am not sure yet what I am writing about. I finally manage to firm it up into that familiar sordid story of another woman. Here, the man is so world weary that he can't even bring himself to care anymore. When does the need to leave finally overcome the inclination to stay?

If I was to release this song to a publisher, I would have to work on it a bit. There are three long verses. These each could be chopped in half to give six short verses. Since six is too many for a song, we should cut it down to four. The writing needs to be taughter so we can tell the same story in 2/3 of the words. Perhaps some development can happen - not much actually happens in this story. The author spends 150 words basically hinting he is probably leaving. An excellent model might be Glenn Frey's "Tequila Sunrise", which shows great economy in plot advancement. The chorus has lines of unequal length, which makes sense when one realizes it was written in the idea of a ragged, Springsteen-ish monotonic mumble, but not so good if you want a universal appeal.

Stylistically, I tried to make verse one about actions, and verse two about words, to set up a bit of a contrast, On the same note, verse one seems to be about the woman's reaction, and verse two about the man's. Thus verse three ends in a mutual decision to balance things and bring closure to the subject. I have a few triplet patterns to break the rhythm, which may or may not work, but are now so securely ensconced that I can not now imagine removing them. I also add a few interior rhymes (rhymes within a line like And quite a few callous words or two") to enhance the sound. I also synthetically created a motif at the end of each verse to give the audience an easily identifiable recurring theme, which looks forced, but will have to do for now.

Now, if the words come first, how do I find a melody? When I write my verses, I have a rhythm track in my head. In this case, I was writing to the meter of "Devils and Dust", while envisioning a tune (can you envision a tune?) akin to "Philadelphia" (both by Springsteen for those one or two non-afficionados in the world). The next problem was to make sure my melody was NOT "Devils and Dust". I started about a third above the Devils and Dust, and then tried some random notes. I got something workable, and then I put in some chords with a walking bass line (C G/B Am G) for the triplets and the song was mostly written. I just needed to check that it didn't subconsciously duplicate a song I had heard before. I think the tune is a bit too happy for the subject matter, but you can't have everything!

The last thing to do was work out the harmonica part. This posed certain difficulties, as I did not own a harmonica. In fact, I did not even know how to play a harmonica! Thus I bought a harmonica in C major (this allows you to play in the keys of C and G) and started to learn. This song was written in G, so that was not a problem. I worked out a bit of a harmonica interlude to go after the choruses. Now to put it all together.

I bought a harp holder, so that I could play guitar and harmonica at the same time, and fired up the song. I now remembered why I hate the key of G (although it is a great key to play in). I can not sing in it!! My voice fits the key of C perfectly, but in G I am either too high or too low. Now my sisters can understand why I grumble about playing everything in G. I tried switching to C, but the chords did not sound right, so G it is. Maybe I'll get Tony to sing it ...

Anyway, if I ever get a car that can take me to Kitchener, I'll have to play it for my sisters.