Thursday, December 31, 2009

For Auld. . .Whatever Else?

I got the ol' internet back sooner than I had expected and, once again, couldn't resist posting the obvious--a rendition of Robert Burns' "Auld Lang Syne." A bit of a change, though, the tune sung here is supposed to be the original one; not quite the one we're used to. The lead singer is Mairi Campbell, the choir, Sangstream.

Have a grand New Year, will ya? God bless.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

On the 5th Day of Christmas. . .or is it the 6th?

A very merry Christmas to all and sundry! I apologise, as ever, for the long silence; the excuse this time--just as I was struck with bushels of inspiration I lost my internet service. Posts will likely be patchy, with a chance of rain, until next week, when I will no longer have any excuse, and they will probably still go on being patchy. Here was something I had intended to put up a bit earlier:

A Christmas Tree

The tree had grown when they set it inside--
Perhaps it was only that the roof was low,
But then they switched on the strings of lights
And it was unmistakable; a tree would have to grow
Up until it scraped the rushing Milky Way
To drench itself in white-gold stars. How
They burned on every branch, dripped quivering fire;
Constellations blossomed against the sky-dark boughs.

There was a tree once, the story runs,
A dark tree in a garden grew like this--
Tall, but in no other way alike--until it erased Heaven
For the pair who stood beneath and ate its bliss,
Ate and found it bitter. That tree withered in time,
But its fruit thrived, grew tendrils of darkness
Toward a dying sky. Only a distant echo
Wove words of daybreak through the starlessness.

The stars tonight are music in the sky
And upon exultant branches. There may be
A roof above, but still the new tree grows,
Tangling planets and needles, growing endlessly.
And all the fire of space whirls in one room;
The sea-roar of song hushes as the stars press in to see
The eternal cave amid the death-black boughs
Where a Maiden, singing, soothes a shivering Baby.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Protons, Neutrons, Electrons, and Wallpaper

Mosaic dolphins decorating the floor of a Roman villa, floral tapestries wrought by medieval needles, flowers frozen blue in Delft pottery or preserved in perpetual colour in a 19th century calico--to somewhat rephrase the old saying, even practical art imitates nature. On that premise, there was not anything unusual about the Festival Pattern Group of the 1951 Festival of Britain. They were comissioned to design a set of patterns which would be applicable over various housewares and fashion textiles and, like many of those who had designed such things before them, they took the natural world for their inspiration. They gave themselves a bit of an advantage, however. One could take issue with a Red Admiral depicted on a sheet of wallpaper and object that it was not lifelike enough. Considerably fewer people could be found to discuss the accuracy of a pattern which represented the diffraction of energy through aluminium hydroxide.

The Festival Pattern Group based their designs on nature as expounded by the science of X-ray crystallography. Their foundational images were obtained by positioning a strip of film around a crystal of a given substance and concentrating an X-ray beam into the crystal. In this way, the refraction of the X-ray beam would be recorded as patterns on the film, suggesting the atomic structure of the substance.

An English museum called the Wellcome Collection has an online exhibit of the designs of the Festival Pattern Group. The image galleries have everything from a tie exhibiting chalk crystal structure, to quartz crystal structure carpeting. While I find some of the patterns more interesting as novelties than desirable as wallpaper, I think the majority of them are quite attractive. Still, it is probably a good thing they didn't catch on; the fashion world can be confusing enough as it is.

"Oh, Myrna, did you ever? She's wearing haemoglobin, and it's nearly a month after Labor Day!"

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nine 8ths Irish

So, this is one of those "check out the MySpace" posts, except that, for once, it is a band which I've actually seen. On Sunday afternoon Nine 8ths Irish were playing a CD release concert at The Fifth String (man, that's a lot of math in one sentence). It was a neat venue; I've only been in the shop once before, so I couldn't tell you what they had to rearrange to get an audience packed in there, but the walls were still sprouting guitars, mandolins, fiddles, banjos and the like in all directions. I found myself sitting shoulder to shoulder, you might say, with a very handsome Blueridge guitar.

The music was of a handsome caliber to match the setting. It was not just a group of fair musicians getting a tune started and then letting it wander along to an inevitable finish. It might be a rather odd metaphor, but the picture that comes into my mind is a border collie working sheep. He's doing what he was born to do, he's perfectly at ease, and perfectly delighted to be doing it, but by gummy that herd is going where *he* wants to put it, and not just any corner it wants to stravage off into. The musicians here were, in that sense, herding the tunes along. The whistle might play alongside the fiddle here, it might soar into harmony there, it might sink into a whispering drone while the fiddle soared. The guitar might drive the tune with an unadorned rhythm, or braid chords together around it with a flight of passing notes. The bodhran might set a reel on fire, or make a bar startling by its sudden silence. No matter which way the tune turned, quick fingers were wrapped around it, shaping it, embellishing it, nudging it forward. I have mentioned fiddle, guitar, whistle and bodhran, but Brady McKay's warm and masterful vocals were on par with the instrumental virtuosity whenever she was called up to sing.

Some highlights of the evening were, fortunately, sets which the band recorded on their new album: of these one of the most exciting was a break from instrumental pieces altogether with an a capella rendition of the seafaring "Greenland Whale Fisheries," another a rich G-minor reel that would not have sounded out of place in a Cape Breton evening but which was, in fact, composed by fiddler Linda Relph. Also from the album, a set that caused quite a delighted stir was "Sally Gardens/Frank's Reel," where Kathy Barwick jumped in with an unabashedly Scruggs-style banjo accompaniment.

Well, you can hear some of this for yourself at the band's website. And, yes, "that banjo one" is one of those featured in the widget box at the top of the page, if you'd like a sneak peek (it's number 4).

Lastly, to return to the place I started, here is Nine 8ths Irish's MySpace page with another round of very satisfying tunes.

P.S. A word from the experienced: if you should find yourself mentioning this band aloud, take the name slowly and distinctly. One of my coworkers was a bit puzzled when he thought he heard me going off about "Miley Cyrus."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Suddenly Culinary

I had a much better post planned for this evening. I went to a very satisfactory CD release concert yesterday, and was looking forward to writing about it, but have been sitting here for an hour beginning and beginning over, mentally crumpling reams of paper. . .so we'll have another go at that tomorrow, which is going to come all too soon if I don't hit the hay in the next half hour or so. . .

So here's something about cocoa. I am of the ranks of those (whoever they are) who are unfond of sweet cocoa, but while I can drink it entirely unsweetened, I'd just as soon not make a steady practice of it. A happy medium (neither gourmet, nor probably very healthy) is to dissolve a couple of teaspoons of baking cocoa in hot water, and add some flavoured coffee creamer to it, maybe a wee bit more than you would normally indulge in a cup of coffee, and top off the cup with more hot water. It's really rather good.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Spalting Spiel

It was spalted maple, the top of the guitar was. That was what the tag said. The floor manager hung it up with the other guitars, and those of us who were gathered around admired its spaltedness. I had no idea what spalted meant, but the wood was startlingly unlike anything else in the shop. It looked as though a slightly mad artist had picked random lines out of the wheat-yellow grain and had carefully highlighted them with a fine-point black fountain pen. It was very spalted indeed. (I have to use that word ad nauseam now because I had never used it before in my life until yesterday and I now feel obliged to make up for lost time.)

As you can read here, spalting is actually the earlier (and rather more attractive) stage of wood decay. Those wonderful black lines are actually the pallisades that "form when incompatible colonies of fungi come into contact with each other and lay down barriers to separate their territories." That makes fungi sound rather vicious and not quite so much. . .fun, eh?

The page I just quoted, that of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, is well worth a perusal, as it describes the spalting process in fairly concise detail, and even gives spalt-it-yourself guidelines, for those so inclined.

But all this wonderful description is a bit cart-before-the-horse--I should have started at this page where you can see several examples of the phenomenon. While I'm at it, here's the guitar I started jabbering about in the first place, the Ovation CC44-SM, though the picture here doesn't show the spalting to its best effect.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tune of Christmas Past

Well, fine, it is still a bit early for talking about a certain little book by Dickens. I don't care if I did see Santa Claus alive and sitting in the mall today with a fistfull of sleighbells, looking slightly neglected, and bawling out to the echoes, "Oh what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh-hey!" It's too early for that sort of thing. But I wanted to read Dickens, yet wasn't in quite a Great Expectations sort of mood, nor quite feeling up to Martin Chuzzlewit. In short, I wanted something. . .short. So A Christmas Carol it was after all. And, oh, is that an entertaining book! I don't know how I could have skimmed over the bits about the fiddler at Fezziwig's party before, but somehow they came across as brand new this time around:

In came a fiddler with a music-book , and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches.

(Is that a rich description of the so-called catguts being wrangled up and down around and around the desired note, or what?)

After some hearty dancing they give the fiddler a dram, you might say:

. . .Old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, "Well done!" and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But, scorning rest, upon his reappearance he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a brand-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.

And finally:

. . .The great effect of the evening came. . .when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! the sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up "Sir Roger de Coverley."

Which meant I had to put down the book and go in search of "Sir Roger de Coverley," just for the sake of deep learning. To my delight, it proved to be a good deal less obscure than I had feared, indeed, if you have ever seen a movie version of A Christmas Carol, you have likely heard it; for some wonderful reason, directors tend to get that detail correct. "Sir Roger de Coverley" is both the name of a very old English 9/8 jig, and of the steps which are customarily danced to it, something along the lines of a Virginia Reel (I say, drawing on my vast stores of knowledge; I can myself execute exactly 3.25 dances, and the Virginia Reel is over a quarter of them). Here is the tune on a button accordion as played by an Australian fellow who gives his name as Hector. You can definitely see how something like this could become "the great effect of the evening":

Monday, November 30, 2009

St. Andrew's Day

Yes, it is the feast of Scotland's patron saint. I was surprised to find a fair bit on the tradition of St. Andrew's Day on the Taigh na Teud website--they're a very fine music publishing company in Skye (quite off the topic, they have some wonderfully exhaustive collections for fiddle), but who knew they had found time to compile articles as well? Anyway, here is the aforesaid article.
The Taigh na Teud article explains that St. Andrew's Day, "tends to be more popular with Scots who live abroad." Robert Service (of "The Cremation of Sam McGee" fame) wrote a poem about a group of Scots, very far abroad indeed--in the Yukon--who took their St. Andrew's celebrations quite seriously. I think John Ford should have made a film version. . .

The Ballad of How MacPherson Held the Floor

Said President MacConnachie to Treasurer MacCall:
"We ought to have a piper for our next Saint Andrew's Ball.
Yon squakin' saxophone gives me the syncopated gripes.
I'm sick of jazz, I want to hear the skirling of the pipes."
"Alas! it's true," said Tam MacCall. "The young folk of to-day
Are fox-trot mad and dinna ken a reel from a strathspey.
Now, what we want's a kiltie lad, primed up wi' mountain dew,
To strut the floor at supper time, and play a lilt or two.
In all the North there's only one; of him I've heard them speak:
His name is Jock MacPherson, and he lives on Boulder Creek;
An old-time hard-rock miner, and a wild and wastrel loon,
Who spends his nights in glory, playing pibrochs to the moon.
I'll seek him out; beyond a doubt on next Saint Andrew's night
We'll proudly hear the pipes to cheer and charm our appetite.

Oh lads were neat and lassies sweet who graced Saint Andrew's Ball;
But there was none so full of fun as Treasurer MacCall.
And as Maloney's rag-time bank struck up the newest hit,
He smiled a smile behind his hand, and chuckled: "Wait a bit."
And so with many a Celtic snort, with malice in his eye,
He watched the merry crowd cavort, till supper time drew nigh.
Then gleefully he seemed to steal, and sought the Nugget Bar,
Wherein there sat a tartaned chiel, as lonely as a star;
A huge and hairy Highlandman as hearty as a breeze,
A glass of whisky in his hand, his bag-pipes on his knees.

"Drink down your doch and doris, Jock," cried Treasurer MacCall;
"The time is ripe to up and pipe; they wait you in the hall.
Gird up your loins and grit your teeth, and here's a pint of hooch
To mind you of your native heath - jist pit it in your pooch.
Play on and on for all you're worth; you'll shame us if you stop.
Remember you're of Scottish birth - keep piping till you drop.
Aye, though a bunch of Willie boys should bluster and implore,
For the glory of the Highlands, lad, you've got to hold the floor."
The dancers were at supper, and the tables groaned with cheer,
When President MacConnachie exclaimed: "What do I hear?
Methinks it's like a chanter, and its coming from the hall."
"It's Jock MacPherson tuning up," cried Treasurer MacCall.

So up they jumped with shouts of glee, and gaily hurried forth.
Said they: "We never thought to see a piper in the North."
Aye, all the lads and lassies braw went buzzing out like bees,
And Jock MacPherson there they saw, with red and rugged knees.
Full six foot four he strode the floor, a grizzled son of Skye,
With glory in his whiskers and with whisky in his eye.
With skelping stride and Scottish pride he towered above them all:
"And is he no' a bonny sight?" said Treasurer MacCall.
While President MacConnachie was fairly daft with glee,
And there was jubilation in the Scottish Commy-tee.
But the dancers seemed uncertain, and they signified their doubt,
By dashing back to eat as fast as they had darted out.
And someone raised the question 'twixt the coffee and the cakes:
"Does the Piper walk to get away from all the noise he makes?"
Then reinforced with fancy food they slowly trickled forth,
And watching in patronizing mood the Piper of the North.

Proud, proud was Jock MacPherson, as he made his bag-pipes skirl,
And he set his sporran swinging, and he gave his kilts a whirl.
And President MacConnachie was jumping like a flea,
And there was joy and rapture in the Scottish Commy-tee.
"Jist let them have their saxophones wi' constipated squall;
We're having Heaven's music now," said Treasurer MacCall.
But the dancers waxed impatient, and they rather seemed to fret
For Maloney and the jazz of his Hibernian Quartette.
Yet little recked the Piper, as he swung with head on high,
Lamenting with MacCrimmon on the heather hill of Skye.
With Highland passion in his heart he held the centre floor;
Aye, Jock MacPherson played as he had never played before.

Maloney's Irish melodists were sitting in their place,
And as Maloney waited, there was wonder in his face.
'Twas sure the gorgeous music - Golly! wouldn't it be grand
If he could get MacPherson as a member of his band?
But the dancers moped and mumbled, as around the room they sat:
"We paid to dance," they grumbled; "But we cannot dance to that.
Of course we're not denying that it's really splendid stuff;
But it's mighty satisfying - don't you think we've had enough?"
"You've raised a pretty problem," answered Treasurer MacCall;
"For on Saint Andrew's Night, ye ken, the Piper rules the Ball."
Said President MacConnachie: "You've said a solemn thing.
Tradition holds him sacred, and he's got to have his fling.
But soon, no doubt, he'll weary out. Have patience; bide a wee."
"That's right. Respect the Piper," said the Scottish Commy-tee.
And so MacPherson stalked the floor, and fast the moments flew,
Till half an hour went past, as irritation grew and grew.
The dancers held a council, and with faces fiercely set,
They hailed Maloney, heading his Hibernian Quartette:
"It's long enough, we've waited. Come on, Mike, play up the Blues."
And Maloney hesitated, but he didn't dare refuse.
So banjo and piano, and guitar and saxophone
Contended with the shrilling of the chanter and the drone;
And the women's ears were muffled, so infernal was the din,
But MacPherson was unruffled, for he knew that he would win.
Then two bright boys jazzed round him, and they sought to play the clown,
But MacPherson jolted sideways, and the Sassenachs went down.
And as if it was a signal, with a wild and angry roar,
The gates of wrath were riven - yet MacPherson held the floor.

Aye, amid the rising tumult, still he strode with head on high,
With ribbands gaily streaming, yet with battle in his eye.
Amid the storm that gathered, still he stalked with Highland pride,
While President and Treasurer sprang bravely to his side.
And with ire and indignation that was glorious to see,
Around him in a body ringed the Scottish Commy-tee.
Their teeth were clenched with fury; their eyes with anger blazed:
"Ye manna touch the Piper," was the slogan that they raised.
Then blows were struck, and men went down; yet 'mid the rising fray
MacPherson towered in triumph - and he never ceased to play.

Alas! his faithful followers were but a gallant few,
And faced defeat, although they fought with all the skill they knew.
For President MacConnachie was seen to slip and fall,
And o'er his prostrate body stumbled Treasurer MacCall.
And as their foes with triumph roared, and leagured them about,
It looked as if their little band would soon be counted out.
For eyes were black and noses red, yet on that field of gore,
As resolute as Highland rock - MacPherson held the floor.

Maloney watched the battle, and his brows were bleakly set,
While with him paused and panted his Hibernian Quartette.
For sure it is an evil spite, and breaking to the heart,
For Irishman to watch a fight and not be taking part.
Then suddenly on high he soared, and tightened up his belt:
"And shall we see them crush," he roared, "a brother and a Celt?
A fellow artiste needs our aid. Come on, boys, take a hand."
Then down into the mêlée dashed Maloney and his band.

Now though it was Saint Andrew's Ball, yet men of every race,
That bow before the Great God Jazz were gathered in that place.
Yea, there were those who grunt: "Ya! Ya!" and those who squeak: "We! We!"
Likewise Dutch, Dago, Swede and Finn, Polack and Portugee.
Yet like ripe grain before the gale that national hotch-potch
Went down before the fury of the Irish and the Scotch.
Aye, though they closed their gaping ranks and rallied to the fray,
To the Shamrock and the Thistle went the glory of the day.

You should have seen the carnage in the drooling light of dawn,
Yet 'mid the scene of slaughter Jock MacPherson playing on.
Though all lay low about him, yet he held his head on high,
And piped ass if he stood upon the caller crags of Skye.
His face was grim as granite, and no favour did he ask,
Though weary were his mighty lungs and empty was his flask.
And when a fallen foe wailed out: "Say! when will you have done?"
MacPherson grinned and answered: "Hoots! She'll only haf' begun."
Aye, though his hands were bloody, and his knees were gay with gore,
A Grampian of Highland pride - MacPherson held the floor.

And still in Yukon valleys where the silent peaks look down,
They tell of how the Piper was invited up to town,
And he went in kilted glory, and he piped before them all,
But wouldn't stop his piping till busted up the Ball.
Of that Homeric scrap they speak, and how the fight went on,
With sally and with rally till the breaking of the dawn.
And how the Piper towered like a rock amid the fray,
And the battle surged about him, but he never ceased to play.
Aye, by the lonely camp-fires, still they tell the story o'er-
How the Sassenach was vanquished and - MacPherson held the floor.
This poem (and many others by the same author) can be found at RobertWService.Com.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Reel Piano

No particular reason for this clip from Comhaltas, other than that it's good music and one doesn't hear enough reels on the piano.

Friday, November 20, 2009

New Tunes

Some bluegrass-playing friends have invited me to join them in entertaining at a retirement home in a few days. We did a run-through of the proposed set yesterday afternoon before I went to work. For the most part the tunes were three- or four-chord melodies, fairly predictable, especially since I had a good view of the guitar players from where I was sitting, but there were a few worries when it came to instrumental selections, namely these three:

Dear Old Dixie (The musicians are Bill Wells and Blue Ridge Mountain Grass.)

Remington's Ride (The banjo player here is Jason Skinner, who has included the tune on an instructional video):

Santa Claus (I have no idea why "Santa Claus," therefore this tune does not awaken in me the same degree of antipathy that my neighbors' Christmas decorations-already-yet do. The banjo player here is Johnny Butten.):

An extra note for those of you who might like to try this at home: I ceased to think of "Tennessee Waltz" as an interesting tune a good fifteen years ago, until yesterday when the dobro player said in an offhand way, "Oh this is just the way I learned the chords. . ." Where most folks would play the first two measures: C_ _ C_ _, she plays C_ _ Cmaj7_ _, and it makes a world of difference. Exquisite might be a good description.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ditt Ditt Darium

Here's a folk group with a neat-and-tidy sound, and an unbearably cool name: Ditt Ditt Darium. The Sweden-based band consists of two fiddlers and two singers who specialize in mostly seafaring songs. Or, one is informed they are mostly seafaring songs; they are also mostly in Swedish, but the musical blend of voices and fiddles is mesmerizing enough that you don't necessarily need the words. In fact, they don't always need words themselves--have a look at the MySpace Page and listen to "Windy Gyle"--some mighty nice instrumental use of the voice there! Shorter clips of all the songs on their CD can be found at CD Baby.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Shot at Sundown

Yesterday afternoon I took a drive across the river to Folsom. Down along Sutter Street they have "historic Folsom" which is an eclectic conglomeration of businesses in some inarguably sightly old buildings. That street there below, people do indeed drive on it, but it was a wonderfully quiet afternoon, and despite the traffic pouring over the bridge a few hundred yards away, it was a peaceful place for a stroll. There is a small museum in Old Folsom, which I had hoped to peruse (the Pony Express had a terminal in the town, back in the day) but I dallied too long in the antique shops and it closed on me. I'm not a great antique shopper, by a long shot, but I could browse through those places for hours. They have many of the charms of a museum, though with some of the "do not touch" factor removed. The old books, of course, usually make the biggest impression, but I have a fascination with old saddles and tack. And glass of all descriptions, oh, yes, the glass. Which is not to say I have any great wish myself to own more glass, but I do find it fair to look upon, especially if the sun happens to be behind it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

'Cause I Eats Me Spinach

Feeling rather recklessly extravagant on my way home from work the other night, I stopped and picked up a take-out dinner at an Indian restaurant. Indian food is something in which I cannot claim much expertise because of a misfortune that befell me when I was at university. I had a friend there who took me out to introduce me to Indian cuisine, and she suggested I try something called Saag Gosht, which is lamb cooked in spinach sauce. I say this is unfortunate because it was so delicious that I have never been able to persuade myself to order anything else when Saag Gosht is one of the choices on the menu, limiting myself as a rather one-dimensional (but appreciative) connoisseur of Indian food.

Anyway, I have tried making it myself in the past, but one thing I very much like about ordering it out is that they usually run the spinach and onions through a food processor at some point in the operation, resulting in a very smooth, well-blended sauce. Most of the recipes that I have Googled do not enlighten one on that process. I remember the one time I tried it, the spinach kept compacting in the bottom of the food processor, and very little of it ended up smaller than "chopped" anyway. Here is a recipe (sans the food processor) in case anyone else wants to give Saag Gosht a try. It would be just as nice a setting for beef as it is for lamb.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cave of Gold, II

That video post of Margaret Bennett from last Sunday was meant to be a bittie longer, but I ran out of time. Anyway, to return to the subject of the Cave of Gold, she told a version of the story that had a MacArthur piper in the leading role. Ron MacLeod has compiled another short version of the story, featuring a fortunate-but-not-so-fortunate MacCrimmon piper who had a definite reason for going into the cave. You can find that here.

Also, there is a piobaireachd of the same title (in fact, Mr. MacLeod's story is associated with the piobaireachd), though to the best of my knowledge the song and the piobaireachd share nothing but the story, being two entirely different tunes. You can hear Murray Henderson play the piece on Lismor's Piobaireachd.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Literary Interlude

I can't for the life of me remember where I came across the following poem, but it has been rattling around in my head for years. One might expect that the poet who could fit such an abundance of birds so tidily in a scarce four lines had dedicated a lifetime to perfecting his art. In fact, though Edward Thomas did earn his living as a prose writer, he only turned to poetry in the very last years of his life.

This poem is one of those cases where the "picture is worth a thousand words" saw is stood upon its head. No matter how luminous the picture, it would have been lacking without the invisible blackbirds.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day

I'm on my way to work, but thought I should post a short something for Veteran's Day. Here's a collection of patriotic tunes played by various military bands. They don't clarify exactly who is playing what, no, but I found it via a link on the USMC San Diego Band's website.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Today was my "library day," upon which, I miraculously returned three volumes of poetry which were not even due for another two weeks. More to the point (but I was just so proud of the aforementioned feat, that I had to mention it. . .afore) I checked out The Illustrated History of Canada, perceiving that the obligation of carting it home would fit tidily into my new exercise regime, even if I never read it. Then again, it's illustrated. How can one not read it. . .or at least sip knowledge from the captions under the pictures?

Early on in the book, I was quite taken with a painting by an English artist named Frances Anne Hopkins. Her husband, Edward Martin Hopkins, was an official of the Hudson's Bay Company during the 1860's. She accompanied him on several of his. . .well, I suppose you could call them business trips, but it seems a very dry description of anything which might involve a group of canoes and the Great Lakes' region. On these trips, Mrs. Hopkins sketched and, when she returned home, painted some striking records of what she had seen.

Here are a couple of examples courtesy of the Library and Archives of Canada:

"Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall"

"Shooting the Rapids"

If you look closely, you can see the artist herself in the centre of the boat in both pictures, though she is mostly just hat in the lower one (over the shoulder of the fellow in the light blue shirt), in the waterfall piece, she is hard to miss in a white dress and hat (another hat).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Cave of Gold

Folklorist Margaret Bennett tells the rather creepy story of the "The Cave of Gold," (Uamh an Oir) and sings the song in the video below.

If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, you can skip ahead to 6:57 where the song starts. The story is, in short, about a piper who decided to explore a mysterious cave in the Isle of Skye, and who fared rather badly in his venture. The song was his lament as he discovered the perils of the cave. (But if you have time to listen to the story here, you should. She tells it better.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don't use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand."
--Ray Bradbury

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars

We met a professional photographer named Wally Pacholka down at the Death Valley 49ers Encampment a few years ago. This, in itself, was not so unusual, as there are photographers and artists galore down there over that weekend selling their various works. Even in such a crowd, however, Mr. Pacholka stood out. His specialty is photographs of the night sky, shot from angles which incorporate terrestrial landscapes. (You can read a bit about how he does it in the "About the Artist" section on his website, Astropics.) Perhaps even more remarkable than his exceptional photography, however, was his fervor for astronomy. He didn't discuss it as an expert propounding facts to an ignorant public; he just enthused, rather quietly, very selflessly, but with such single-minded attention that it recalled the first roots of the word "ardour" (fr. L ardor burning, as Webster's says). He was excited to point out the Orion Nebula to us, and even loaned us his binoculars so we could have a better look. I don't know what was better--noticing the nebula for the first time, or seeing a person who enjoyed its existence as much as Mr. Pacholka did.

It seems safe to say that his art transfers a degree of that zeal. All of his photographs are well calculated to make you take a second look upwards the next time you're under a night sky, but if I might play favourites, start by taking a look at this one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dies Irae (What Else?)

Yes, I would dearly love to be unpredictable, but I had the good fortune to hear an all-male schola sing the "Dies Irae" at Mass yesterday, and remembered just how much I liked it. Perhaps it is the rhyming scheme that sets it apart from most other long Gregorian pieces; this four-line structure makes it a bit more song-like, to my ears, rather than pure chant. Then again, there is the modal structure, which, I am told is a combination of the Dorian and Hypodorian modes. . .(Don't take this to mean I know the first thing about modes; I am just parroting what I read). Whatever the cause, I have always found it a most impressive piece. Sobering, to be sure, but impressive. Here is a solo version by an Italian singer named Giovanni Vianini who directs a Gregorian schola.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Of All Places to Hear It. . .

I was skipping through the stations on the car radio this morning when I happened to catch a song by a Newfoundland group called the Masterless Men. The announcer said, "Newfoundland," (a word you hear regrettably little on the music stations) and I woke up a bit, expecting something vaguely maritime. When they started in with the banjo, it was unexpected, but who's going to complain about a nice, laid-back sounding bluegrass band? To add to the confusion, I came home and looked them up, and their recordings really are in the Newfoundland/Irish folk genre, not bluegrass; they had just picked the double whammy of a bluegrass-style tune and some nice banjo work for that particular piece. All in all, something far above what a cynic like me normally expects to find on the radio.

Anyway, here is the Masterless Men's version of "The Bramble and the Rose" which was what I heard this morning. It was written by one Barbara Keith, and has evidently been recorded several times in the past, though it was new to me. Though the recording quality here isn't all it could be. . .here it is.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Just Plain Rambling

I figured tonight would be slow at work (and I was right!) so I took along a notebook for writing in the quiet moments. Unfortunately, even then I did not come up with anything complete enough to be posted here. Though I don't want to overdo the photos, I don't want the blog to atrophy too much either (and what cataclysm might occur if it did sit quiet for a week? I haven't the slightest.), so here are my last couple of Balclutha pictures.
The first being a study of a muchly-spliced rope:
And the second, rigging so high that it blocks out the sun.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New and Different

I fulfilled a lifelong ambition today and attended an Irish session. I've always wondered how different from an American-style jam they were and how well I would stay afloat in one. The answer to the first is: very; the answer to the second is: not well. It was a smashin' time, though, in a very comfortable pub downtown, and a great opportunity to take in some fantastic fiddling. The turn-out this evening was scarce on variety, consisting entirely of fiddlers and bodhran players (three of each, not counting me). The effect was pretty neat, especially since the bodran players did a good deal more than just keep the rhythm (which they did beautifully); they were much given to an almost melodic style of playing which chuckled through tight, treble phrases, plunging deliberately into dramatic low tones which one of the players admitted rather gleefully had something of a cannon shot about them.

In one of these sessions, unlike in American fiddle jams, nobody takes turns. Or, to be more precise, they take turns picking tunes, but not playing them. The leader (that is, whoever picked the tune) might start in by himself, but as the tune gathers momentum and the rest of the musicians recognize where it is going, they start coming in, and the music blossoms out, thick and rich. Each fiddler, of course, has a slightly different take on a piece, all of which generally complement each other when played together, but when you add in the drive of the bodhrans, whew! it is moving along! It was. . .big, almost a force of nature, like a wind blowing uninhibited across an ocean--or the ocean itself. The rolling wave of music might curl and crash, suddenly, hissing into a whispered sheen of foam as the leader changed tunes and the other players quieted to listen, but still it moved forward, and once more another tentative bow would feel out the tune, a bodhran player would carefully tap out the rhythm on his thigh, and bit by bit all the force would creep back in and the music would flow in full spate.

For myself, my bowing is going to take a lot of work to keep up in a setting like this, and the repitoire definitely needs a transfusion! I heard a lot of great new tunes, and wrote down the names to several I particularly liked. These were, as luck would have it, a collection which I am having small luck in tracking down so far, but here's a small taste, albeit not on fiddle. I liked this "Return to Milltown," for the drastic differences between the first part and the second, and have been able to find a very creditable accordion version here ("Return to Milltown" is the first tune, which lasts to about 1:05 of this set; the other two pieces are "Mulhaire's Reel" and "Golden Keyboard.")

Probably my favorite of the evening was "Myra's Jig," which you can hear on the MySpace page of an English trio called XYZ. I found out in trying to track it down that it is actually a Scottish tune, rather than Irish one, which is, perhaps an anticlimatic addendum after my intentions for adding variety to the repitoire. . .but it is awfully catchy!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bluegrass, Etc...Etc.

For months I've been trying to come up with some sort of show-and-tell on the band Bluegrass, Etc. Their website is informative regarding the careers of the individual musicians, John Moore, Dennis Caplinger, and Bill Bryson, and you can listen to a few clips from their CD's (though believe you me, you are missing out not to be able to hear their rendition of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring;" it is not a complicated piece, and they don't complicate it, but it is a mighty nice arrangement). The Etc. is part of what makes this band such a kick to listen to--for example, you might not have guessed that all these years you have been sorely missing banjo accompaniment to "Jamaica Farewell;" once you get a taste of it, you might consider that the definitive arrangement. The rest of what makes the band slightly addictive is that they're just plain good musicians. I take that back. Not plain good. Crazy good.

There aren't many videos available of Bluegrass, Etc. and of the few existing, the sound quality does not do them justice. Here's a taste of an instrumental, however. Dennis Caplinger on banjo, and John Moore on guitar play "Don't Try This at Home."

John and Dennis are currently involved with another project as well, a group called Greenbroke, (MySpace page here) which includes John Cowan on bass and Brad Davis on guitar and vocals. From what I have been able to hear of them, they are on average a little more bluegrass than Etc, in this case, but likewise insanely musical. Here (despite what I just said about them being "more bluegrass") they toe the line of Texas Swing with "Panhandle Rag," John Moore on mandolin, this time.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I've been listening to a bit of Vivaldi lately and thereby took a notion to dig around and find some classical mandolin playing. The search came to a screeching halt at Evan Marshall's website although I later realized that my idea of classical mandolin was laid-back Baroque melody lines, which this most certainly is not, for the most part. This is a whole new idea, not only is it more strictly classical, (Rossini, and the like) if you read the description on Marshall's homepage, you are told that he plays all the harmonies and whatnot. Good on him, you say. He does it all at exactly the same time. Impressive, you say. Then you can scroll down to the bottom of the page and "click to listen while you surf," and hear him play the, "Ave Maria." Impossible, you say. Yet he does it. Very well.

The site did include a video, or rather a sound clip set to pictures, of a true duet--really two mandolins this time, on nothing less than Vivaldi's Mandolin Concerto in C-Major, so there's a bit of the Baroque after all.

Oh, and in the course of writing this post, I found the page on his site that offers a video of him playing "Ave Maria". So now I can see it, but I still can't for the life of me figure out how he does it!

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I said I'd try to dig up a translation of Golagros and Gawain to match the Middle Scots version I mentioned last week. Well, no luck on that, but if you can get your hands on The Knightly Tales of Sir Gawain, with translations by Louis B. Hall, there's a decent prose rendition in that. Some of the more flowery passages are considerably paraphrased, but it does follow the poem reasonably well.
Re: yesterday's post, it wasn't Bobby Hicks who wrote "Cheyenne." It was Bill Monroe. Yes, the Bill Monroe.
I mention the Gaelic singer James Graham every once in a while (here, f'r instance), but I think I've neglected to mention his website so far.. He has a few short clips from his albums up there; this is an excellent chance to get a taste of one of his very best pieces, a cover of Capercaillie's "Breisleach".

Now in Full Color. . .

And what, pray tell, do the pictures in this hodge-podge have in common with each other? They were all taken in northern California, and they are, for a bit of a change, not in black and white; in fact, the colors are the point of this lot.

First, some classic planes from the Capitol City Airshow. And this, boys and girls, is the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a little foggy, so there was nothing to distract from the bright cables--as long as they could be seen at all.
This is the bridge from a thoughtful distance. I quite liked this picture and was disappointed that it came out a bit on the fuzzy side. The red roofs and the orange-red bridge were a bit more obvious in real life. That whisp of white off to the right of the bridge's foundation is a sailboat. I edited the contrast in this picture a wee bit; it was from the set I took at the Hyde Street dock, also in San Francisco, and it was too close to noon for taking good pictures, especially of bright yellow boats. But I couldn't pass it up, I've been intrigued by feluccas ever since I saw that one at the Monterey Bay Aquarium last year.
Further inland, and more muted, here is the inside of the dome at the State Capitol in downtown Sacramento.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Video Overdose

One thing I neglected to mention about Sunday's jam--I happened to catch a wee bit of another jam that was happening over on the porch, and it was, without exaggeration, one of the most amazing things I have ever heard. The group was quite small; it consisted of a fiddler, a rhythm guitarist/singer, and a third fellow who was strictly rhythm guitar. I had the luck to be passing by at the moment when they decided to play "Wayfaring Stranger." Oh, man. The singer had a very deep, clear baritone, which would have stood out extraordinarily, to begin with, but one note from the fiddler to top it off, and you were absolutley paralyzed. The man turned the tune inside-out, and upside-down, and coaxed sad, low notes off of the C (on top of being a man of wonderful taste in improvisation, he was playing a 5-string) or drew thin, wailing, heartbroken notes off of the E. Just when I thought it couldn't possibly get any better, a second fiddler came wandering out the door, and pretty soon the two of them were winding phrases one over another, warp and weft of musical weaving, while the the baritone, his rich voice as much an instrument as the violins, laid in the solid anchoring threads of song. It was one of those moments, like the perfect sunset, that was all the more beautiful because there was no way to capture it. Also, it made one feel rather humble: "What did I ever do to deserve to be here and be one of only three spectators who is hearing this at all?"

I had no hopes of finding a video that would even begin to convey exactly what I heard on Sunday, and I was right in that. You did have to be there. But for those of you who don't know the tune already, here is a very nice introduction by the Byron Berline Band.

And here's somthing else neat--another take of the same tune with both fiddle and vocals by a very young Allison Krauss, ca. 1987.

Though we really didn't play that much bluegrass at the jam, the other folks talked about it enough to where I had a rekindled interest in the subject. It was mainly that delicious minor-to-major flavour of "Wayfaring Stranger," however, that inspired me to try to find a video of the bluegrass classic "Cheyenne." I think this might have been written by Bobby Hicks, (anyway, I know he made it famous), but who should I find playing it but Aubrey Haynie (of the Time Jumpers)!

Which led me to find this video, which has absolutely nothing to do with any of the preceding (except that it is Aubrey Haynie again), being a good deal more Texas style than bluegrass, but it's another fine rendition of a classic. Eee, I do like those double stops.

That is enough rambling for one day.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Great Wet North

It was just a gorgeous day! Now I say that, who did not have to be out driving in it; over three inches of rain fell in Sacramento, and the winds were extraordinary. It has been a definite fall here for the last week or so, cooler temperatures, turning leaves and all, but the heavy hand of the storm was in no mood for sorting leaves--probably a good half of what ended up on the ground this afternoon was still green. I went up to the park in search of the ideal puddle.
And returned to discover that the best puddle in the neighborhood was right outside the parking awning at the apartment.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fine Lines

Here is an interesting and informative website that was set up to supplement a (now past) exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The focus is drawings from medieval manuscripts. I thought this one was particularly intriguing in that the illustrations do not attempt to be anything more than line drawings, and yet they are in colour. The characters are a bit mysterious, but I am quite certain I would not like to get on their bad side. This one is my favorite, though it was probably utilitarian; speculation labels it as a plan for a cathedral facade.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Fiddler

Today was an official day off; not only did I not have to work, but I got to spend the afternoon actually playing music. Definitely a great case study for "time flies" and all that. There was a healthy mixture of tastes in the group, but basically everybody there knew more bluegrass than I did, and I knew more Scottish music than they did, and we all met in the middle when it came to country. You can all probably guess how this sort of thing would go, if you haven't attended a jam (or a thousand) already, but the musicians are set up in a circle, and each person, in turn, picks a tune, and then the living daylights is played out of said tune, with each musician taking a solo or two. We did a few old-timey pieces, like "Blackberry Blossom," (the dobro player had a neat lick for that, which I fully intend to steal) and "Nine-Pound Hammer," and a lot of old-timey country. One of the singer/guitar players caught my attention with a song called "Colleen Malone." He sang it slowly and sadly as behooved the subject matter. In this setting, the tune let me to believe it was a fairly old song (traditional, I mean), but the singer told me afterwards that it was written by Tim O'Brien. Here is the bluegrass group Hot Rize, of which the composer is a member (in fact, I believe that is him singing lead) with their rendition of the tune:

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hit the Nail Right on the Head

Not long ago, I was over visiting some relatives, and the radio, which was playing in the background, was snarled around a very large snag of opera. The tenor had something discordant to say. The baritone had something even more discordant to add to that, and the soprano seemed to be telling off both of them, just as discordantly, but in a higher register. The tune wandered about, turning in and over unpleasantly upon itself like a Slinky that had met with an unfortunate accident and which was now tangled beyond all hope of regaining its original form or purpose. I wondered who would go and write something like that, and why. The answer to who turned out to be Richard Wagner, and I still have no idea why.

The pain was still fresh in my mind some days later when somebody handed me a book with a generous admission by Mark Twain regarding the same composer:

"Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Continued Adventures Of--

One of my favorite pieces of literature is the Middle English "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." The hero is depicted so realistically that one is never sure that all will end well; he is, like the rest of us, a human being, all too capable of falling or failing. This is all the more reason why the story sustains its interest. The enumeration of Gawain's trials does not come across as a distant, predictable catalog of obligatory events, like an obstacle course far beneath the skill of a runner, but as a set of very real problems. And even while such real problems as the threat of a beheading seem to be glossed over lightly enough in many of the old romances, the unknown talent which gave us this poem took the time to draw a human being, afraid of death, conscious of sin, aware of his own weaknesses. The real chance of failure makes his successes all the more glorious.

I thought to improve my mind some weeks ago (it has yet to actually improve) so I checked out an armload of poetry books from the library (I have yet to give them much serious consideration). The Oxford Book of Scottish Poetry did get a cursory flip-through, however, and there, much to my amazement, was a selection from another poem about Gawain, this time, not in Middle English, but in Middle Scots. It is called The Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawane. To my unsuspecting self, perhaps the most amazing part is, it was written in exactly the same style as the Green Knight--alliterative stanzas, each ending with a rhyming bob-and-wheel. I haven't read enough Medieval pieces to confirm that this was the latest rage at the time; I suspect that must have been a fairly popular format, as it does leave a writer enough freedom to spin a good yarn, while maintaining a bit of a poem's structure. Still, it is interesting to speculate on the popularity of the Green Knight poem, which is supposed to have been written in northern England. Did the Scot who wrote Golagros and Gawane some years later hear or read it? Aside from the structure, the poem, though not of such a reflective tone as the Green Knight, treats strongly of the virtue of courtesy. I suspect this was an expected attribute in the non-Frenchified, non-Maloryized version of Gawain, but given its central place in Golagros and Gawane, the poem, though not permitting such an intimate view of the knight's mind, does seem to continue the same likable hero of the Green Knight.

Below is the entire poem in Middle Scots with commentary that will likely answer most of my questions when I get around to reading it. I'll see if there is a modern translation floating around too (I haven't tried it all the way through in Scots yet--I borrowed a translation from the library), but I picked a bad time for this post. I need to run to work.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


When my old roomie came to visit a few weeks ago, we took a day and rode the train to San Francisco. Technically speaking, we took the train to Emeryville, and caught a bus there for the waterfront. The bus nosed through the financial district and I quickly realized that all my previous ideas of a "big" city had been rather small-scale. There is a lot of San Francisco, vertically, as well as horizontally; the open views of the waterfront would have come as a relief if they were only a fraction as beautiful as they are. The Hyde Street Dock, however, is a sight for sore eyes to beat even the comfort of fog on the Pacific; clustered around it are the vessels belonging to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, most notably the Balclutha.
She is a fairly old ship, built in Glasgow in 1886, built for work, and certainly did it, as you can read at the site above.
Above, faintly on the lower left--yes, that does say "Ghiradelli". In the picture below you can get a glimpse of a few of the other vessels there, including a steamboat.
It was just after noon when we reached the dock, which tended to wash out the pictures a bit, and, as in the purple spot below, put manifestations in which were not there in real life.
Again, rather washed out, but there is the Balclutha in her entirety. (That spot between the two buoys in the middle is an intrepid swimmer braving the sea lion attacks, which were described in a warning poster on the shore, in case you were wondering). The two masts on the left of the Balclutha belong to a very lovely old schooner, the name of which I don't recall and which was docked in a location which made getting a good picture impossible (unless you wanted to swim out with the sea lions to get it.) Further to the left is the famous Alcatraz Island enshrouded in famous fog.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hidden Talents

I just happened to stop by the library yesterday, and picked up a book on the background of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde "because it was there." The most interesting information I came away with was extremely by-the-by, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the writing of the aforementioned novella; Robert Louis Stevenson played the tin whistle, the piano, and something called the flageolet. It is going to take more reading than I have done to figure out exactly how a flageolet works; by most indications, it has largely been replaced by the tin whistle, so the fingering must be generally straightforward, however RLS describes taking his apart for cleaning, "into seventeen separate members," which would indicate a construction much more complicated than that of a whistle.

Here is a page from a flageolet website which lets the author speak for himself on the subject. Just as intriguing is the mention of tunes he wrote, some of which are in mothballs (or whatever you put valuable, generally unread manuscripts in) in Monterey. I wonder what it takes to have a peek. It might be too much to expect the musical equivalent of Kidnapped, but to say I am curious would be an understatement.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hands. . .Err, Feet-On Pentatonic

Here's an oddly fascinating video. I don't think I'm going to even try to explain it. Just have a look, eh? If indeed the people in that audience can be considered a reasonable sampling of people in general. . .well, people are a lot more musical than they give themselves credit for!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Feast of St. Francis

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. There is so much one could say about the man, especially after reading Chesterton's perceptive biography (which is more perceptive than biography). My original post for the day was going to be quite predictable--a quote from the aforesaid book, but an attempt to choose a theme, or an aspect of the saint's life set the gears in my head to working overtime.

Admittedly, I always feel just a wee bit sorry for St. Francis, whose image graces a hundred thousand bird feeders, as if his mission in life were to go about singing, "Feed the Birds," in a pale glow of insipid tolerance for all things. I'm not objecting to the bird feeders themselves, it is just that after a body sees a few hundred of them, St. Francis can fade away into a plaster shadow of a man, placid, passive, who sat and smiled dreamily and let the world rush by him while he nodded, oblivious in his impractical corner.

Chesterton's vision of St. Francis, on the other hand, is that of a man, if possible, more alive than other men. The journalist gives the saint fiery dark eyes, underlines the not-so-subtle results of his mission with words like "explosion." But most of all, Chesterton's St. Francis is overflowing with a sense of very real joy--not merely a plaster smile of toleration--a joy so intense as to be almost as visible and solid as a mountain. Chesterton was also the man who said that only the humble man is truly happy (I think it was somewhere in Orthodoxy, but a few forays into the same have proved fruitless, and I have to begin thinking of bed in the interest of work in the morning). So, by way of brushing a few of the cobwebs off of St. Francis, while letting the birds have their proper attention, here is a quote that is not from the biography at all and which Chesterton wrote in The Defendant, not necessarily thinking of the saint. Still it fits mighty well in suggesting why a man like Francis might be the furthest thing from passive; he might be better said to be caught up in a lifelong state of pleasant surprise:

In a very entertaining work, over which we have roared in childhood, it is stated that a point has no parts and no magnitude. Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the cosmic things are what they really are--of immeasurable stature. That the trees are high and the grasses short is a mere accident of our own foot-rules and our own stature. But to the spirit which has stripped off for a moment its own idle temporal standards the grass is an everlasting forest, with dragons for denizens; the stones of the road are as incredible mountains piled one upon the other; the dandelions are like gigantic bonfires illuminating the lands around; and the heath-bells on their stalks are like planets hung in heaven each higher than the other. Between one stake of a paling and another there are new and terrible landscapes; here a desert, with nothing but one misshapen rock; here a miraculous forest, of which all the trees flower above the head with the hues of sunset; here, again, a sea full of monsters that Dante would not have dared to dream. These are the visions of him who, like the child in the fairy tales, is not afraid to become small. Meanwhile, the sage whose faith is in magnitude and ambition is, like a giant, becoming larger and larger, which only means that the stars are becoming smaller and smaller. World after world falls from him into insignificance; the whole passionate and intricate life of common things becomes as lost to him as is the life of the infusoria to a man without a microscope. He rises always through desolate eternities. He may find new systems, and forget them; he may discover fresh universes, and learn to despise them. But the towering and tropical vision of things as they really are--the gigantic daisies, the heaven-consuming dandelions, the great Odyssey of strange-coloured oceans and strange-shaped trees, of dust like the wreck of temples, and thistledown like the ruin of stars--all this colossal vision shall perish with the last of the humble.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Just A-Swingin'

I had a very pleasant shock at work yesterday. It was quiet and we were fishing for subjects to talk about when one of my co-workers brought up this neat band he'd recently seen on a DVD at a friend's house. It was a style of music that was new to him, though quite musical, he said. "They're called the Time Jumpers." It was a revelation to discover that there was anyone left in the world who hadn't heard of Western Swing before; I grew up so near Bakersfield that I guess I was unconsciously convinced that, not only did everyone know the style, but that everybody harboured a not-so-secret desire to be a piano player in a band like that (not that the Time Jumpers actually have a piano player). The chord progressions tend to be a good deal more complex than what you find in most country-ish music, but even better, Western Swing is very music-oriented. The vocalists do get their share of attention, but the musicians are given a good deal more to do than is usual in many other styles, and, oh, do they do it well, whether it's filling out a chorus with an breathless run of backup fiddle that spans most of the instrument's range, or wandering through a nice-and-easy steel solo where every note is carefully placed.

Anyway, here are a couple of clips from the Time Jumpers DVD, and by all means go over to their website, where you can read about them (some mighty impressive bios, there) and hear plenty more clips from their CD's.

Friday, October 2, 2009

As Pretty As. . .Many Pictures

Love from Prague is a mighty fine blog if you like photography. You can, in some ways, compare painting to fiction, where an artist is free to make his own world, as close to, or as far from the real world as he likes. Through this means, through making something different, he throws the world, as his audience knows it, into a new light. There is something quite exceptional about those people who can take their art directly from the world as it is, and still make you see it differently, which is exactly what the photos on Love from Prague do. No fancy retouching, just a startling new look at something that you might otherwise pass by every day.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


My highly scientific poll on the past tense of "strive" finished today.

One person claimed that "strived" is the way to go, and one rallied round for "strove." The clincher--I asked my grandmother what she would say, and she gave me an odd look and said, "Strived." She should know. So if people want to write things like, "Music of this period strived to be more noble," evidently they are welcome to it. But if you should catch me writing "strove," tread gently because you tread upon my dreams.

Da Slockit Light (Revisited)

I've mentioned Tom Anderson's lovely air "Da Slockit Light" a couple of times in the past (here and here, to be exact), but here is a long overdue video of Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas themselves performing it, with a riot of Shetland reels following after. I've always been very keen on the dynamics of this particular fiddler, and a lovely, slow tune like this one is ideal for showing off his talent for putting a good deal of heart into his music. It seems safe to say that Natalie Haas is rewriting general perceptions of the cello--she certainly has for me, anyway! Nothing can touch the variety of expression and rhythm and out and out musicality that this particular fiddle/cello combination produces. When we saw these folks back in March, I think the show ran close to two hours--nothing but the two musicians and a bit of entertaining talk--and never a dull moment in the lot of it.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Serious Skiing

On a trip to the library yesterday I was delighted to discover a little volume called Heroes, Villains and Ghosts: Folklore of Old California by Hector Lee (Capra, 1984). The stories in the book have been passed around the state for quite some time and, as Lee writes in the forward: "In their survival, legends tend to drift away from the actual facts in order to convey an "essential truth" which may be more interesting than the historical truth." I'm about halfway through it at present, and have a most interesting cast of characters, who may or may not be entirely historical, running about in my head. One of these, Snowshoe Thompson, proved of particular interest since he was a bit of a local boy. That is to say, he used to take the mail from Placerville over the Sierras to Genoa, Nevada--on homemade skiis. The route he followed, according to Lee was "more or less. . .the old Carson trail," which, these days, makes up part of stunning Highway 88. I had the great luck to ride over 88 back in June, and the view still sticks in my mind as one of widest and most wonderful the state (and possibly the world) has to offer. Then again, with Thompson, it was winter, and he was alone and on skiis. It was a very wide and white view, I've no doubt, and the mountains which fold, one into another off to the horizon might take on a slightly different light from that perspective. All the same, they say he carried the winter mails over the mountains for thirteen years. Though no doubt embellishments have crept into the stories they tell of him, to see those mountains and to think of that record is quite enough to make him a legend.

Here's a little piece from a 1910 book called Heroes of California, complete with a photograph of the man, and one of the terrain he crossed.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Coming Soon to a CD Player Near You

Another good news sort of day--Julie Fowlis will be releasing a new album on October 26! It looks nothing but promising, considering it includes "Bothan Airigh am Braigh Raithneach" *and* lists Allan MacDonald in the credits! Julie sang the lovely "Bothan Airigh am Braigh Raithneach" on one of BBC's Transatlantic Sessions a while back, so a version of the song was available as part of that collection, but who's to complain of more of a good thing? I think it's among her best.

If you go over to her MySpace page, the first three songs there are from the new album. And for those of us who don't speak Gaelic, there is the luxury of lyrics and translations here.

P.S. "Lon Dubh," also on the MySpace page (I think it was released as a single) might be familiar to those of you who are better at your pop culture than am I. Embarassingly, the title is one of the few Gaelic words I actually know, and yet for the longest time I couldn't figure out why the tune was so familiar!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Random Views

Here are a few shots from the last couple of weeks, all from Sacramento and the environs.
First off, a shot from inside the State Capitol, on the third floor, just because I liked the lights, and the clock (which didn't show up so well) and the arches. Historically, it is likely of little note; it is the view from just outside the bathrooms.
A comfortable shot looking up to the second and third landings in the capitol.
And a very uncomfortable shot, looking down from the third floor. That checkered bit to the left of the centre is the ground floor. It isn't all that far, as heights go, but it is the one thing about the capitol which has impressed me from an early age. Artistically, I have always loved the view. Altitude-wise. . .let's all move along now, eh?
The motor and prop of a biplane, from the Capitol City Airshow.
And the tail of a much larger plane. . .
Which has propellers like this:
Sunset shadows on the side of a Rite-Aid somewhere downtown.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Stirling Head Tune, II

That article I linked to exactly a month ago on the supposed musical shorthand surrounding one of the Stirling Heads mentioned the piobaireachd scholar Barnaby Brown. I can't say why it never occured to me to see whether he himself had written down anything on the matter, than again, it made for a pleasant surprise when I stumbled across it this afternoon. He goes into more depth on the musical structure, gives an example of the harpers' shorthand, which it somewhat resembles, and brings up some questions of his own. Here you go.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Sleeping Tune

From Session A9; here's an arrangement of Gordon Duncan's "Sleeping Tune" that verges on the orchestral in places. Man, that's a grand tune!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Old Things of Great Beauty

My email service thinks it is being kind in offering me the latest headlines whenever I sign out of my inbox. I'll hand it to them tonight--for once in a million years (or at least since the squid tried to invade San Diego a couple of months ago) there really is something new and wonderful to read about. Well, okay, wonderful, yes, new, not so much. The Staffordshire Hoard is a recently uncovered archaeological find dating from the 8th century or thereabouts. They are saying it is bigger and better than the famous Sutton Hoo treasure that most of us lucky young things met as photos in our high school literature books, punctuating excerpts from Beowulf. So much surfaced in this single dig that predictions are flying that it will considerably influence Anglo Saxon studies, perhaps even rewrite them, to an extent.

(The website above is nicely set up and very extensive and, yes, it includes pictures--oh! such pictures!)

Deep Matters

I've been really wanting to try the "poll" feature on the blog, and last night I found the perfect excuse. In a book at work, I found a phrase that ran something like this: "Music of this period strived to be more noble." Thus the poll over there to the right. Does "strived" sound odd to you, or not?

EDIT: Yes, I do have other things to do, why do you ask?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Wild Grey Yonder

My old roomie came to visit last week, and one of the things we did was take in the Capitol City Airshow out at Mather Field. They called it an airshow, but I think it was actually an elaborate ceremony meant to guarantee rain. We had a blazing, painfully unclouded summer here, until the week of the airshow, when it began to get grey, and the wind began to kick up. As far as I know, however, none of it was so inclement as to warrant an interruption of the flying, so in a way we had our cake and ate it too.

There were plenty of photo opportunities, but the best of them required a fast-draw style that I have not yet acquired with the camera. I managed to catch some airborne acrobatics faintly here, above the tail of the plane on the ground.

There were a few old warbirds there, including a P-38, which was very exciting to see, however the pictures I got of that in flight might as well have been the Loch Ness Monster for all you could tell what they were ("It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a. . .spot on the lense!")

When we first arrived, there was an F-22 Raptor running through some of its tricks. I don't know that I've ever seen anything that was both so graceful, and so powerful. It commanded your attention, and drew you right along with it, so you were, at the same time, more conscious than usual of your feet, planted firmly on the ground, while it seemed your heart and soul were spiraling off into the sun. Again, no good pictures on my part, but I found something better on YouTube--here's a short video clip of an F-22 in action at Nellis AFB.

Of course, the top billing of the day was the Air Force's Thunderbirds in their F-16's. Precision flying is pretty neat to begin with; when you see it done in graceful little crafts that are going upwards of 400 miles an hour, it leaves you quite bereft of any words to describe it. I hadn't been to an airshow in at least ten years, and in that time my mind had acquired a new simile for that kind of perfect flying. I was a little unnerved when the thought crept in, "They're like SFU!" Which is like comparing apples and oranges (or worse, comparing Naills and F-22's) but there is a certain something that sort of precision has in common, a single-minded pursuit of excellence that leaves one much the better for having seen it.

Then add to such excellence, the breathtaking (an overused word, but honest, I don't think I was doing much breathing at the time) sight of a trim aircraft carrying the impossible cargo of a single human soul straight up for miles, dwindling until, at last it is swallowed by the huge, silent grey desert of sky. An astronomer might tell you that the pilot has not even scratched the surface of the universe, but a fact like that does nothing to banish the phrase that is running through your mind, and probably many of the minds around you: "I have. . .put out my hand, and touched the face of God."
On the walk back to the car, your legs feel a little odd, as if you weren't entirely earthbound the whole time you were watching the flight, and your feet need to get used to the asphalt all over again.