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":