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.

Monday, July 10, 2006

CRPG Review: Akalabeth

One of my favourite hobbies is playing computer role-playing games, or CRPG's for short. I have collected 232 (at last count), played 63 of them, and have even finished 28 of them (I know these numbers because I keep a spreadsheet on them!) I started to wonder why I gravitate towards CRPG's in particular, out of all the different genres of game there are, and found the reason to be multi-faceted.

The first reason I have is my love of maps. As a child I used to pore over the world atlas we had (the lovely England-centric one with maps of each individual county, while giving one map to boring Canada), memorizing each town in Cumberland or tracing Peter Brownrigg's journey across Yorkshire and down to London on the Old North Road. At age eight years I discovered The Lord of the Rings, and spent hours studying the maps, referring to them constantly while reading the books. One of the major delights of the Swallows and Amazons series was the inevitable map in the frontispiece. My fascination continues even today - I own the complete set of topographical maps for the Bruce Trail. In each CRPG, you explore a unique world map, possible full of dark forests, deep jungles, jagged mountains, misty swamps, searing deserts and other phenomena. That joy of seeing what is over the hill is a major plus.

Related to my love of maps, is my love of mazes and puzzle solving. Every CRPG has its underground dungeons or impossibly spiring towers full of traps and treasure. It is extremely satisfying to break out my graph paper and transfer with draughtsman precision a rendering of the labyrinth I find myself in. My sisters may remember those Vladimir Koziakin maze books I used to buy when I was younger, with complicated mazes with rated time limits like 28 minutes. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of beating a challenging maze.

Of course, mazes are not the only problems to be solved in a CRPG. There are traps to bypass, quite often needed to be worked out with logical analysis. For example, in one game, the blue bleebs always tell the truth, the red bleebs always lie, and the green bleebs sometimes lie and sometimes tell the truth. At some point you must talk to the bleebs to get help, and must weigh their cryptic utterances with what you know of their character to figure out your path. There are other types of puzzles as well, such as how to by pass the magical statue, where to find that magic Sword of Wounding, the location of the hidden tapestry, or the last person to have seen Chips O'Toole before he mysteriously vanished. Who can resist these mysteries?

The last few examples point out another enjoyable feature of CRPG's - the story itself. I enjoy a good read, whether fantasy, science fiction, mystery, spy, or historical fiction. I enjoy the story on an entertainment level, as well as the aspect of trying to discover what comes next (or whodunnit). All CRPG's tell a story, if you care to look for or follow it, and are thus an interactive novel. Even better than a book, is the chance to change the story, or have your character be the one to fulfill the plot, instead of just reading about the protagonist. This is extremely rewarding.

Of course, having your character be the prime mover is where the role-play comes in. In our childhood, we are variously fire fighters, cowboys, astronauts, baseball players, roman centurions, nuclear physicists, or whatever our imagination conjurs (think of Calvin and Hobbes). As adults, we are somehow supposed to ignore all these flights of fantasy and "enjoy" our serious role of whatever-we-do-for-a-living. Well, I still imagine myself as a rock star, or a mad scientist, or an evil genius trying to take over the world with an insane lab rat as my partner, so why not pretend to be a warrior or wizard?

In CRPG's you roll up a persona or alter-ego, and then armed with the abilities possessed by your electronic avatar, and whatever talents you personally profess to have in problem solving, you set out on your quest. In real life, I am neither particularly strong or charismatic, but I have a quick wit and quicker reflexes. Can I replicate myself in a fantasy game? I could be a studious wizard, gleaning spells from painstakingly researched tomes, or a nimble thief with sleight-of-hand swashbuckling my way through the world.

Why stop there? Why not imagine myself as something completely different? Now I can be that strong but dumb barbarian who solves puzzles with an axe. Or a gentle healer who eschews combat. Why stay human? I can play an elf who is deadly with a bow, like my hero Legolas from Lord of the Rings. I can even switch genders, and create a female alter-ego - the choices are limited only by your game system and your imagination.

But what I like most of all, is when you have to create a team of characters. In these games, one character is not strong enough to overcome all the challenges, but a group of four or six with enough diversity can make their way through. Now you are trying to solve a puzzle with imperfect information with a spectrum of characters who may or may not be up to the task. Each battle becomes a tactical challenge, as you husband or spend your resources, and commit your characters to actions, trying to get the most payback for the least loss. And if you mess up, unlike in real life - re-load and try again!

Now on to my first review. Akalabeth is not a particularly good game (see my rating of 1 star out of 5). The game is in black-and-white, the outside world is a featureless expanse relieved only by the occassional abstract symbol representing mountains, dungeons and towns dotted here and there. Your character is likely to die from starvation before even finding the first dungeon (you don't have enough money to buy both weapons and enough food to get to the beginning dungeon and back unless you get a lucky random map at the beginning). There is no save game feature, so if you do not finish the game in one sitting, you must start again from the beginning. There is also not much variety, with three weapons and two character classes. After ten minutes play, you have basically seen all the game has to offer. There is also an optimum strategy that once you figure out, you can beat the game with no thought and a couple hours work. There are so many better games out there that playing this is almost pointless.


In 1979, the Apple 2 home computer had penetrated into 100,000 homes. These people needed games to play, but there were few written. Richard Garriott, a fifteen-year-old high school student, had a part-time job after school working at the local computer store. For his own amusement, he wrote Akalabeth. His boss convinced him to send the game off to a publishing house, and it sold 25,000 copies. Garriot made $5 per copy, and no longer needed to worry about his college tuition. Why did it sell so well?

It was the world's first graphical roleplaying game. Until Akalabeth, all adventure games were text-based, where the scene was described to the players and then they typed in their input. Now here, the dungeon was represented pictorially. Take a look at the screen shot. You can see a 3-D representation of what your character sees. You are fighting a skeleton, while in the background is a ladder leading to escape, and down the corridor is a door you could also take on the left. This view worked so well, that it was still being used as a standard ten years later. Even twenty years after Akalabeth was released, this 90-degree pictorial 3-D view was being used (albeit with colour and texture) although full 360-degree motion had become viable in the early 90's. You have combat action choices, and statistics that affect your health, damage, etc. These are still staples of the CRPG.

In summary, this game is worth spending ten minutes on, just to view the origin of the CRPG, and to see both how much, and how little, has changed.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Performance and Practise: Problem Composers

In my guitar practise, I frequently meet with pieces by Robert de Visée, court guitarist for Louis XIV of France. These pieces are not any more technically challenging than the others surrounding them, but I have always had difficulties in playing them. The timing seems weird, or the harmonies seem wrong. Or I get the notes right but it sounds like a random collection of notes, with no sense of conveying a musical piece. An example is the Saraband pictured above. I practised this on and off for a three month period before I could even play all the way through it without mistakes, but it still sounded "wrong".

I understand that this is not a unique problem - Alison can not play Mozart, for example, even though she can play technically more demanding pieces from Débussy or Chopin. Even world-reknowned recording artists seem to have their favourite composers to play.

So the question is - what do people do about this problem? I have no musical teacher to help me out. Alison suggested just skipping the composer on the grounds of incompatibility - you don't have to learn everything. This seemed quite practical, but I am stubborn. I refused to consider that a composer could "beat" me.

I found a solution that worked for me.

I was fortunate enough to find a CD in the library that had Julian Bream playing de Visée's entire suite in Dm. I took it out and listened to it. A light went on. I listened to it again and again and just absorbed the composer's spirit (as filtered by Bream). I have probably listened to the piece over 100 times now. The first of my mistakes was that I was subconciously playing it like a J.S. Bach piece. I had to throw that thinking out. Secondly, I realized my tempo was wrong - the piece has a stylized and deliberate tempo. Lastly, I listened to Bream personalize the piece.

Here is a link to the first eight bar theme as recorded by Julian Bream. Go ahead, click and listen.

Bream omits some notes, adds his own grace notes, varies the tempo, and varies his tone - the simple piece comes alive when he plays it. I have now started to incorporate some of his techniques in my playing, and now the piece sounds like it means something. I have applied this thinking/approach to other de Visée pieces, and it has paid off - I no longer fear him.

Practical advice - if you have acomposer you just can't fathom, listen to somebody you admire playing that piece, and dissect their approach and then try to incorporate it. Listen 100 times if you have to, until you "get it"

You will open up new worlds in your repertoire, and learn new performing techniques as well.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Album Review: Olias of Sunhillow

I recently acquired this rare import, having missed it greatly since the demise of vinyl. In 1976, wearied of critical savagery from without and political infighting from within the group, the rock group YES fractured and the members all took a year off to pursue solo projects. Perhaps the finest of the lot is this debut album from Jon Anderson (and in my opinion the only one of his solo albums worth buying).

The album portrays a cosmic Noah's Ark story, with Olias building the ship Moorglade and fleeing from a dying planet to found life on a new one. The plot only matters as it explains the sound of the album - it is very spacey and mystical; I think Jon Anderson was on a higher plane (the astral plane?) when he wrote this one.

Anderson plays every instrument on the album - harps, guitar, sitar, synthersizers, drums, what have you, as well as doing all the vocals. As a result, the album focuses on the sound and the music instead of technical virtuosity.

The whole album is basically ten different, lush soundscapes masquerading as songs, as Anderson draws you in to another world of peace and higher consciousness. If you like Tangerine Dream at their best, and Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Cray Diamond", then you will get the sense of this album. There is hardly any urgency (except at the crisis part of the story) just beautiful, mood-setting pieces that drift in and out. I like playing this at bed time.

This is one of my favourite albums of all time, and I was glad to finally acquire a CD version of it