Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christ Child Lullaby

Well, what with Christmas coming, the goose getting fat, and all the other things that go on this time of year, I'm not sure how much posting I'll get done over the next week or so (finally--an excuse!). At any rate, there's no time like the present to get the carols up. Here's a good arrangement of the Christ Child Lullaby sung by Katrine Polwart, Christy O'Leary and John Doyle (accompanied by several other musicians, including Liz Carrol on the fiddle). The names of all three singers were familiar to me, but John Doyle was the only one I'd heard at any length, apart from this song. He was playing at the KVMR Celtic Festival a couple of months back, and I happened to be driving back from Reno, giving me rather indefinite amount of time and, finally, a glorious sunset somewhere around Truckee in which to enjoy the broadcast, which I did, immensely. His exquisite guitar playing would be quite enough to keep any audience happy, but his voice happens to be equally rich and compelling. He had the crowd in Grass Valley going with some sea chantey or other and I should say one can scarcely consider one's life complete until one has roared out repeated choruses about the shores of Californy (can I have forgotten the exact words so soon?) among the Sierra's narrow hallways of thick black pines, while the sunset catches fire along the the edge of a thick grey day.

Which is neither here nor there, where this lovely song is concerned. It sticks in my mind that I have posted it before, and, if so, probably did mention that it was originally written in the Hebrides, in Gaelic (in case the tune doesn't give that away).

Boys of the Lough also have a very sparse and lovely arrangement of the song on their CD Midwinter Night's Dream (Well, scratch what I just said about John Doyle being the only one of the three above who was familiar--no less a person than Christy O' Leary played uillean pipes and sang with Boys of the Lough. I should study CD liners more often.) It's a neat album all around, with a few good carols set in among a lot of tunes with titles like "Christmas Day in the Morning," in keeping with the situation, and lots of Shetland fiddling from Aly Bain.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Natural Law

Murphy's law is probably the foremost of all the laws by which the old world keeps running: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Not far behind it, and ever so much more exquisitely phrased, is Payn's Law:

"I never had a piece of toast
Particularly long and wide,
But it fell upon the sanded floor
And always on the buttered side."

The corresponding law for sunsets (yet unnamed), runs thus"The splendour of the sunset is inversely proportional to the photogencity of the location in which it is observed and/or the availability of an operational camera." Which is the nice way of saying that the sunsets that plaster themselves over the window during the evening shift at work have been splendid, but have too much city in the way to make pictures that might truly do them justice. So late last month I drove out Jackson way, stalking the wild sunset. The one I encountered was indeed a good deal less vast and less vibrant than those I had admired in less spectacular settings, but it was, all the same, a pleasant place, and a grand moment in which to be alive. The eager winter edge in the air, and the comfortable sounds of distant cows you will have to imagine for yourself.

Monday, December 13, 2010

O, Brother! (And Calf, and Cold, and Corn, and Cow)

Here's an intriguing presentation: an audio-enhanced sampling of words from various dialects of English. The IPA transcriptions are pretty impressive; it never occured to me that the top phoneticists must have ears trained to something like perfect pitch. Some of the differences presented are exceedingly slight, yet each gets its own discrete IPA symbol.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

We Moun Singen

Following Mass this afternoon was a hearty serving of lessons and carols. I think there is possibly an older name for the custom, and I am sorry, on more than one level, that I was scarcely at my best and brightest, leaving the explanation we got to trickle through my head, like water through a sieve. But if I can't tell you where the custom arose, I can, at least, report that it's quite a lovely one. The lessons were Bible readings, mostly Old Testament prophecies with a music of their own (doubly so the quote from Isaiah about "Every valley shall be exaulted," which one instinctively expected to sprout wings of Handel) and the carols of the rarer Advent variety. I was startled and delighted to hear a musical setting of "Adam Lay Ybounden," the medieval lyric that is, purposely or not, a spoken siubhal variation on St. Augustine's felix culpa.

The wise of the world (as represented by Wikipedia) believe the poem originally existed as a song, though none of the original tune has survived. Below is a modern setting similar to the one I heard this afternoon (and yes, though much of the pronunciation was updated, as far as I could tell, our choir, also, used the wonderful phrase "we moun singen").

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Change of Habits

Among a (probably very large) handful of things which I never expected to wax greatly enthusiastic about was the subject of red carpet. The idea, in the abstract, is either pretentious or demonstrative of a certain lack of decorative taste. But in the real world, much to my surprise, I saw a red carpet--or at least red carpeting--which caused me to stand and stare with nothing but a helpless awe.

Perhaps, to give the circumstances their due, it was not entirely the carpet. As a matter of fact, half of it was the shock of realizing I was indulging in the unprecedented venture of visiting a Robert Louis Stevenson museum--when it was open. I had laid a hand on the door, the door had swung inwards and I was--

I will go back a short space in time to explain that I was at the library in St. Helena, and I had arrived there mostly by a most pleasant, corkscrew-shaped trip over Highway 128, a route that had lead me up the north side of Davis, and out into the walnut groves, through Winters, and, at last, up into the foothills to the west, brown, homelike and holding up the sky with their share of oaks. Putah Creek runs along the highway for a space, laced tightly in the greys and whites and yellow sparks of late autumn's sycamores. The road climbs a little higher, up into country where stolid pines lift their fleet of masts above a mute, motionless ocean of manzanita thickets. Another few turns, and the way leads downhill again, among narrow valleys where the strange grey oaks of Solano County assuage the year-end theft of their leaves with eerie gonfalons of trailing moss. Right around high, bare red banks, left, finding pines and oaks behind and unambitious hills raising nothing more than a velvet of manzanita. Pines again, to frame the sky-grey shards of Lake Hennessey and beyond it the fringes of civilization that blossom suddenly into the Napa Valley, less wild than the country that came before it, but touched as it is by humankind, it might be considered a work of art, rather than of nature, a canvas of vineyards rusting richly in the long shadows thrown by the southbound sun.

It was small wonder if I was already slightly dazed when I reached the museum at last. At last, I say--after a time much longer than a drive through the mountains. I had, in essence been nearing that particular door since the Fourth of July. In great contrast to the sunbaked silence that had defined my memories of the place, the whole end of the street was now lined with cars, and the library was open to many hurried comings and goings.

Life even sprouted on the lintel of the museum itself as a man emerged, rasping with a broom at the impeccable walkway. I followed a little behind him as he went in again, walking more slowly the nearer I came to the door; the ambition of going inside suddenly seemed rather presumptuous. But the handle gave easily, the door swung aside, heavy and silent, and there I stood on the step, I must say in the interest of accurate reporting--gawking. I can recall hearing, as a child, a fairy tale that had, as one of its most impressive characters, a "dog with eyes as big as the Round Tower." I had no idea what the Round Tower was, and to be honest, I still have no idea. But it sounded very large indeed, and I now have a fair inkling, at least, of how it feels to have eyes approaching that size.

For I, pulling the door softly to behind me, was looking in on a room of opulent quiet, of glass cases and dark furniture all laid out against the thickest, reddest carpet I had ever seen. It had a welcoming, comfortable air, like a home library awaiting its intended reader, an impression hardly discouraged by the books which lay in every direction, most monumentalised in their appointed cases, but with a fair and tempting store of newer editions laid out for sale. A book of another sort lay on a table directly before me. A lady, who was standing several thousand miles away on the other side of the small room greeted me kindly and asked, "Will you please sign the guestbook?" I did that and accepted her invitation to come in and look around, though my feet, ever more deeply impressed by the carpeting and the sense of where I was, were slow to move. I began with the glass case to my left, and it's a wonder that in itself didn't finish me. There was a watch in the case. It was Stevenson's watch, open so that any casual passerby might see how the man who wrote Kidnapped told his hours. Next to it was a plain silver wedding band, also Stevenson's. I had seen many pictures (and there were plenty to see in that room) which recorded how extraordinarily thin that author was, but I was scarcely prepared for the sight of a ring which would have fit over one of my own fingers with very little room to spare. I was most certainly not prepared, despite my expedition to accomplish the same, to find myself in such close proximity to solid mementos of a man who had conjured such extraordinarily solid characters out of mere words.

The docent from the distant kingdoms on the other side of the room rescued me at that point, offering to give me a tour before I was left to my own devices. She was wonderfully patient, informative, and, above all, enthusiastic. Her story of the museum's founding was particularly interesting. I had supposed it had been settled in St. Helena piecemeal in vague deference to Stevenson's tarrying in the general neighbourhood. I had the story almost exactly backwards: the gentleman who began the collection, an advertising magnate named Norman Strouse, had a home in the area himself, and it was his perusing of The Silverado Squatters (at the site of the bunkhouse pictured in the book, if I remember correctly) that lead to a lifelong interest in the author. His enthusiasm resulted in a most impressive collection, impressive, at least, to others who might share his passion:

"And did you ever read 'A Child's Garden of Verses?'" the docent asked, pausing before another case. She didn't have to say much else. There in brave, garish paint, many gnarled by time and most in two ill-featured dimensions, marched and galloped the leaden legions of the Land of Counterpane.

Here was Louis' desk, the one he used at Vailima (the eyes now began to feel as though they had quite surpassed the Round Tower); there was his flageolet, rather like a recorder. . .this was his own collection of books. . .

Any one of these items would have astounded in itself, but I was particularly enthralled by the bookshelf. After my guide had completed the tour, I returned to savour the fading gold titles on the back of the bindings: some were worn away beyond reading, but I could still marvel at an age that published a life of Sir Walter Scott in. . .was it five volumes? (though the similar length of a nearby work on the Crimean War seemed a bit more readily believable). Popular Tales of the West Highlands had the distinction of having been quoted in a footnote of David Balfour, according to which it contains the uncanny air that Alan taught David to whistle toward the end of Kidnapped. Lower was a graceful two-volume set by another Stevenson--I believe it was Louis' father Thomas--on some fine point of lighthouse construction. The spines of several Dickens books were still legible: Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Martin Chuzzlewit. The shelves also contained several volumes of poetry, most of it fairly contemporaenous with its late owner, but also containing the inviting Poets and Poetry of Scotland, with Thomas the Rhymer and Richard Gall's names, in a gossamer of gold letters bookending the epoch the collection spanned. It was a rather delightful thought to picture a man who could work such magic with English as Stevenson, taking his own quiet enjoyment from words which had preceded him--even if, by an evil chance, he missed the added benefits of rich, red carpet in his own time.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Given the Day. . .

It seems scarcely short of mandatory to make some mention of Robert Louis Stevenson, although Google beat me to the punch by redecorating their search page with motifs from Treasure Island, in honor of its author's 160th birthday. I judged it an occasion auspicious enough to be celebrated with a glass of Scotch and several of Stevenson's short stories and essays. Of that number, this one best continues the theme set by Google and throws in some interesting trivia, and writing advice to boot :

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An Old Joke. Truly.

Hidden in the depths of a late medieval anthology is proof that the minds of the early 16th century dedicated some time to the truly important questions:

How many calves tayles behoveth to reche from the erthe to the skye?

And the answer (Ready?):

No more but one if it be long ynough.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Distractions from Botany

I remembered last night that I had a book about 19th-century plant collectors which I had yet to read, and thought it was an excellent juncture at which to browse through and get an extra line or two on David Douglas. It was the browsing that proved to be a bit of a difficulty: shuffling through the pages, I was detained by the wonderfully botanical name of Richard Spruce. But I ask you, what kind of book is it, that drawing you in close to read about an Englishman with a wonderfully botanical name, casually drops the information that he played the bagpipes, and never bothers to tell you whether they were Highland or Northumbrian (or Galician, for all one can guess), or the steps he took to maintain a good reed in the mountains of South America, where he collected quinine trees? Not a very nice kind of a book, if you ask me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

And There's More!

Back in August I posted a video of Bruce MacGregor playing a smashing strathspey and reel set. I hadn't realized, at the time, that there was another great video floating around from the same show, featuring "Lochanside", and lots of jigs, mostly pipe tunes, if I'm not mistaken. So here it is:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


In Carmichael, down on Manzanita Avenue, there is a Goodwill branch which has a most unfortunate habit. Not to beat around the bush: they keep their books in remarkable order. Not Dewey Decimalised or anything (which would be almost creepy, or at least, given the vagaries of the stock, just about miraculous) but tidy, you know, so when you go in looking for a cookbook, you are not horrified by the sight of Yorkshire Terriers on the cookbook shelf. Of course, this is a terrible state of affairs, because if you should happen to stop by this particular store (I'm not saying I ever did) you might actually find A Man for All Seasons on the drama shelf (they have a drama shelf. . .I mean, I hear they have a drama shelf) or something by Robert Frost wonderfully dogeared (but not Yorkshire terriered) on the poetry shelf. Or a book on the Sutton Hoo treasure on the history shelf.

Okay. Fine. I was in there last week, and, yes, I bought a book on the Sutton Hoo treasure. It seemed like just the thing every well-stocked Old English library needed. (One more parentheses: I have a lifelong ambition to have a well-stocked Old English library. I have no idea what that has to do with actually reading the books.)

Now, at last, we cut to the point of this soliloquy: the effects of reading the introduction and the preface to a book on Sutton Hoo. One might read the introduction and the preface to the book on a rare occasion when one is very early to work. One might forget to take the book out of the car after work. And, faced, one afternoon, with the incalculable distance from the house to the car, one might decide to supplement one's Old English studies with that 21st century phenomenon known as the Internet. In which case, where better to turn than the British Museum?

Frankly, I think anywhere would be better than the British Museum. Because if you go there, you might be reminded of the Lewis Chessmen, or you might be apprised of the existence of the Vindolanda Tablets. Which might distract you from making the trek to the car for the book on Sutton Hoo.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

History in the Making

A few days late, but here's a short reprint on the Battle of Britain from Flight Journal's website, complete with Spitfire and Hurricane pictures. The current issue of Flight Journal is largely dedicated to the same event--70 years ago, now.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Summer Black and Whites

1.) Experiments with the sunset and a quite lovely delphinium, back before the caterpillars ate it; 2.) An airplane engine from the Aerospace Museum of California; 3.) A bank or brae, or something at the UC Davis Arboretum; 4.) Marina Beach (to nobody's surprise); 5.) The UC Davis Arboretum again, with a swallow; 6.) A Cessna T-50 (ca. 1945), one of the Aerospace Museum's latest projects.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Off the Charts!

Tonight's link is another one of those rather astounding treasures that exists, surprisingly unremarked, as far as I can tell, in the depths of BBC Scotland . Bliadhna nan Òran, or "Year of the Song" (that is "year," singular, innit?) is very Gaelic-oriented. You can use the little tabs at the top of the page to translate some things (mostly the headlines) into English, but it won't go as far as admitting that Seumas Greumach is known, in some circles, as James Graham, and when it comes to lyrics, although they're supplied, the translations rely entirely on your own ingenuity. All the same, I think there is just enough English to let an American navigate about and acertain that there is a lot, and I do mean a lot of splendid singing to be had here! Some songs include videos of the singers, others are simply mp3's, but there is plenty here to keep you busy, if you have the slightest interest in Gaelic compositions, and rather immeasureable material for use, if you're trying to learn the language.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Close, But no Cigar

Watch, just watch. As soon as I put up this video, the one will finally surface that I've been hoping for ever since I started skimming YouTube for the latest records of Pleasanton. This is not last weekend's Pleasanton Highland Games, by several miles; this is Lucca Italy, as a matter of fact, the band is the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and the video is well over a year old. But it is a very catchy marching-band-and-pipes setting of "The 79th's Farewell to Gibralter," which is what the Marine Band (San Diego) and the LA Scots treated the crowds to at massed bands last weekend. The arrangement was much the same, except for the visuals--the Marines would start the tune in a block by themselves, marching in place, and when it came time for the pipe band to strike in, they would march up through the Marines until the block had doubled in size and consisted of alternating rows of pipers and brass or woodwind players. It was a most impressive sight, and a most contagious sound, as, I think, this video conveys very well.

P.S. As a matter of fact, yes this has been stuck in my head all week.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What I Call A Good Day

Well, it was cloudy when I woke up, and one would think this sufficient cause for thinking life was splendid, which I did. But then, through a series of events which mostly involved a smog check for the car, I left for work nearly forty minutes early, thinking to kill some time in the bookstore, and I happened to be driving around in this wonderful overcast weather with the window down. I thought, as I came up one of the side streets, "I hear bagpipes." And, almost as suddenly I thought, "Man, you have a one-track mind." But never in my life have I so clearly imagined the sound of--a piobaireachd, no less! A piobaireachd I didn't know. There was just no mistaking it. I turned the car and, to misquote Tolkien, "to my astonishment. . .and lasting delight," found a member of the Bushmills Irish Pipe Band (Grade III) playing, yes, indeed, a piobaireachd in less than a block of the shop! It was just a wee bit surreal. I mean, I would have thought the clouds and the wind were Paradise enow--when does one ever, ever, ever in the course of everyday life get all that and a piobaireachd too?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Roldán, Gold Leaf, and St. Francis

Here's a bit of a change: a page from the Getty Museum on a 17th century sculptor named Luisa Roldán. The page itself is quite interesting as regards the life of the artist and the construction of the intricate wooden statues in which La Roldán, as she was called, specialised. The video, if you have a minute (okay, twelve minutes, but it goes by very quickly) to view it is even better; it shows modern artists recreating the techniques that went into making such a statue as Roldán's Saint Ginés de La Jara.

The pictures on the Getty site seemed somehow familiar, but it took me a while to recall that I had seen a similarly crafted statue at Carmel Mission a couple of years ago. The St. Francis there was likely carved about a century after La Roldán's time, being produced around 1791 for the mission at Santa Cruz, but the similarities of design are hard to miss, and the placard, which, inexplicably, I remembered to photograph, describes it as "carved wood, gessoed and painted."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Seeing Double

Happy Snappy is a photography blog with a clever twist. It is maintained by two girls in two different countries who each post a photo on a weekly theme--a very good photo, I might add.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Thanks. . .I Think

Quote of the day, from a small tow-headed being of maybe seven who came, with admirable politeness, and introduced himself when I was practicing in the park this evening:

"I heard you from way over there, and it was so good, and I snuck up the hill to see if it was a real funeral."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Marina State Beach

Most of my pictures from the Monterey trip earlier in the month were from Marina State Beach, where I stopped on the drive home.The only thing missing here is the true colours, which were bound up with the motion of the wind, the fog, and the waves. A breaker might be carved in jade as it rose agains the milk-white sun and the dove-feathers of cloud, and then, as it curled down past its crest, it would shimmer into a dark peacock green.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Any comment on this video seems to fall a bit flat, so I'll just stick to the facts: Bruce MacGregor plays a strathspey and a couple of reels. The recording quality isn't the clearest, but the fiddling is splendid!

Thursday, August 19, 2010


The piper Bill Millin, who played Lord Lovat's commandos ashore on D-Day, passed away yesterday according to the BBC. The epitaph that springs immediately to mind is from the last chapter of O'Crohan's The Islandman: "The like of us will never be again."

Monday, August 16, 2010

A day late. . .or three

Saturday was a very difficult day, only because the World Pipe Band Championships web stream was, if possible, even more phenomenal than last year. It was a weird change of direction to shut down the computer and go straight off to work with my mind full of medley sets and nobody to talk about them, despite the droves of people (quite lovely people, for the most part) that I was waiting on all day.

Anyway, yes, that was a webcast of webcasts! I was sorry that Simon Fraser University missed a hat trick (ah well, there will be other years), but from the moment St. Laurence O' Toole stepped out on the field, they sounded like they owned the place--and what a sound it was!

The BBC site that carried the live stream now has the Grade 1 performances archived, with commentary by Canada's Bob Worrall. Very much worth a look and a listen--or a second, third, or fourth look and listen, for that matter! I'm smitten with SFU's medley (they had me from the get-go with a march setting of the slow air "Cha Till MacCrimmon), but there are as many exciting arrangements to be had as there were bands entered.

Friday, August 13, 2010


And, before the screich o' day, to mangle the old song, the drums will beat. Well, no, not before daybreak in Scotland, but in the wee hours here, they'll be kicking off the World Pipe Band Championships. Last year's BBC stream was monumental, what with crystal-clear sound recording, informative and unobtrusive commentary, and some topnotch filming reaching computers all over the world. By all means, if you find yourself up before about 9am, PST, catch some of it here!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Episode 2

From the studio that brought you The Robert Louis Stevenson Silverado Museum, comes the next installment in the thrilling series How to Visit a Closed Historical Literary Site. I was in the Monterey area over the weekend and, of course, nothing would do but that I must find Stevenson House, yet another footprint of the author's California travels. Well in keeping with my methodology for visiting such sites, I was only nearby thanks to a Highland Games. . .and by the time Sunday's massed bands had finished, Stevenson House, which is only open for a few hours on Saturdays, had been closed for over 24 hours. Even the gate had a "closed" sign, if I might presume to interpret the heavy padlock, so I saw what I could of the gardens (Monterey gardens are unfailingly vibrant) by leaning over the fence. I am reasonably sure that whatever else one can blame Stevenson for, teaching pigeons to panhandle was not one of his offenses. Someone since his time, however, had implied to the pigeons of Houston Street that a flightless biped was an unfailing source of nourishment. They came trooping up to me over the grey, silent asphalt and looked much taken aback when I did not offer to stand them a round. I was busy staring at the windows and wondering, unpoetically, if RLS actually used to look through them, or if all the glass has been replaced.
The sign on the front of the building was marvelously economical, being both the old and the new titles of the place at one go, though again, I haven't the slightest as to whether the "original" sign is, in anything but name, the original; trivial things like paint do not endure salt Monterey seasons unscathed.
I'd had fair warning; I'd looked up the museum hours even before I left home, and I knew it wouldn't be working out to go inside this trip, but still I felt a little wistful. It is an odd thing, I know. There is the Bohemian Stevenson whose main purpose in California was a typically Bohemian love-affair, an at times irresponsible, and certainly impractical man, but somehow that's the same man who invented Alan Breck Stuart. I don't mean the historical character, of course; I mean the John Roy-like little hero who stole the show in Kidnapped. And that is what brings me to look at the outside of closed, fog-dulled buildings. I don't know if I was half as interested in knowing that Stevenson had looked out of the window (as much as I admire his writing) as I was in knowing that some minute spark of Alan Breck had once been there.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


A couple of the posts here last September mentioned Scottish fiddler Bruce MacGregor. Well, to mention him again, among his other projects, he's filmed a series of how-to videos on different aspects of fiddle technique. I s'pose they would naturally be of the most interest to fiddlers, but this bit on double stops where Mr. MacGregor takes a strathspey apart and puts it back together again by way of demonstration will probably be of just as much interest to anyone who appreciates a bit of drive in a strathspey.

The videos here have more on ornamentation and bowing.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Climbing Sunward

J. G. Magee, Jr.'s "High Flight" has been anthologised (I don't think I've seen a high school reader without it) and recited so many times that, perhaps, it can, by its familiarity, be taken for granted. A shame, that. It's such a perfect piece, not only in the artless, natural construction of the lines, but in its accomplishment of weaving, word by word, a scene so terrifyingly alive. It fills a mind full of sun and "windswept heights," to the point where it is no longer merely taking in polished words but, yes, flying. Impossibly high.

If it's time to give the poem another reading, the RCAF has a copy up on their website, along with a biography of the poet.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

But No News is Good News, They Say

That is, I have little to relate, unless the discovery of a mantis in the delphiniums this afternoon counts as news. The middle shot might be an attempt at 50's-style Sci Fi. . .then again, it might be an accident.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Orfeo, Part II

Picking up where I left off last night, here's the libretto for L'Orfeo, from the website of a New York radio program called, "Here of a Sunday Morning." The libretto (Italian and English) is in .PDF, which takes a moment to open, of course, but it comes in handy if you want to go right to the pages corresponding to the arias in the link I put up last night. "Tu se' morta" is at the very bottom of page 6, "Possente spirto," at the top of page 9.

One can certainly understand how Orpheus' story (or variations thereof) would appeal to someone whose livelihood was music, but until I was looking for more information on Monteverdi's opera, I had no idea that so many composers had adapted the same subject!

My previous appreciation of the theme had been fueled almostly solely by Tolkien's rendering of the Middle English Sir Orfeo, which, in fact, eschewed with Hades altogether and had Orfeo's wife carried off by a king of the Otherworld rather than the Underworld. The University of Rochester offers this Middle English edition, with generous notes. A 1909 translation is available from Google Books:

(Tolkien's take on it is, as you would expect, quite solidly satisfying. And even better, if you go looking for it at your local library, it generally comes in a collection with his version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.)

Then, as my friend Maria reminded me, there is the Shetland King Orfeo which, in some ways, is about as far removed from the original as you can get, while still having the tale vaguely recognizeable. Again, Orfeo's wife is carried off by the "King o' Ferrie," and here, her name is nothing close to Eurydice. If I had to choose an incarnation of Orpheus' character that I liked best, however, it would be this one. Monteverdi's version seems somewhat above likes and dislikes, though certainly inspiring sympathy. In contrast, the picture painted by the laconic understatement of the old ballad seems less of a demi-god and more of a human being. A straightforward sort of man. Although certain prejudices incline me to be utterly delighted with an Orfeo who, faced with task of melting his adversary's heart, takes up his pipes*, the real charm of the piece is the concise request of the mortal man, standing before the dazzled court of Ferrie: "What I will hae I will you tell,/And dat's me Lady Isabel."

Biot Edmonston got the words to the song from an Andrew Coutts, of Unst in the late 1800's. The Oxford Book of Ballads publishes the tune for it as well, but it's rather rarely sung, quite possibly because not many people can make a phrase like "Scowan ürla grün," sound convincing. The Scottish band Malinky has quite a good version, which you can sample here.

The odd phrases that make up the chorus are, by the way, not exactly Scandinavian. As the song was collected when a form of Scots had taken over as the language of Shetland, such phrases as survived in song, having lost their meaning, began to erode in pronunciation as well. Based on similarities to Danish, The Oxford Book of Ballads proposes that Scowan ürla grün is "The wood is early green," and Whar giorten han grün oarlac, "Where the hart goes yearly." I seem to remember reading something Mr. Edmonston himself had written indicating that the singer he learned the song from did not know what the phrases meant, but now that I want to confirm that, of course I can't find it.

*Did the poet who wrote the ballad mean "pipes" as in bagpipes? Highland pipes were never much of an institution in Norse-influenced Shetland. But if you're going to play "good gabber reels," what other pipes could you possibly use?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Orfeo, Part I

Once again, here's one to blame on the radio. Somebody deemed the classical station should broadcast Monteverdi's L'Orfeo a couple of weeks back, and I happened to be on the receiving end at the time. To wax very common about something uncommon, had I been wearing socks, it would have knocked them off. For the first time in my life, I fell madly in love with an opera.

Of course, there is the caveat for those who have heard the opera and might be wondering what bee has taken up residence in my bonnet: I vastly prefer Baroque music to most of that of the Classical period, and (without being too well studied on the subject) prefer Rennaisance music even to Baroque. So when Monteverdi comes along, gracefully toeing the line between the Rennaisance and Baroque periods, the chances are pretty good that I will find some of his music tolerable--or better.

Anyway, L'Orfeo, from a [my] musical standpoint, is a delight, with its archaic vocal styles and period instruments seemingly set adrift in an ocean of music. The opera doesn't have the islands, if you will, of arias that stand apart by their contrast to the rise and fall of the recitatives, just waves that are raised a bit higher against the sun than those around them. Rather than a reflection against the arias, this is a remark on the appeal of the recitatives; L'Orfeo, as appropriate to its subject, mesmerises by an unbroken current of music.

NPR has a page dedicated to this opera where one can read a synopsis and listen to two of the arias. They are both quite beautiful (and quite sad), but "Possente Spirto" is, on top of that, rather astounding with its early Baroque ornamentation and interplay between voice and orchestra.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Strings and All

In the course of picking up pipe tunes, you certainly run into a fair share of laments, for great folk like the Laird of Anapool (no matter if nobody knows who he was--he rated a fine piobaireachd!), and for small things like an infamously Little Supper. Piobaireachd, and even the pipes themselves aside, there are still numberless pieces that might be played or sung in sorrow at the passing of things that were, from the loss of a homeland ("Lochaber no More") to the loss of a love ("Colorado Trail"). But a lament for the art of shoemaking? Well, perhaps a traditional shoemaker, faced with the advent of the Industrial Revolution would indeed be inclined to write such a thing. Here Bruce Molsky gives his inimitable rendition of "Peg and Awl," accompanied by himself on fiddle and Darol Anger on viola.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

It's The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

Okay, maybe I exaggerated a little bit with the title, but when BBC streams the World Pipe Band Championships live, two years in a row, superlatives are about all that come to mind. The date for very early rising for those of us on this side of the pond is August 14 this year, and the excitement is here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

West Coast Lady

The alleged territorial habits of butterflies in the Vanessa genus might be what makes these insects so absorbing to photograph. They startle if you get too close, but having indulged in their obligatory barnstorming session, they generally settle down again quite close to the spot they just left. It gets to be a bit of a game, seeing just how carefully close you can move before they explode into flight. More tricky is keeping them in constant sight through the eccentricities of their arial acrobatics so they might not disappear in a sudden landing. The pictures here are all the same butterfly, over the space of about 5 minutes at the Davis Arboretum last Sunday. I had guessed it to be a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui),but when it settled down at last with its wings open, the blue spots marked it as a West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

All Kind of Related

Well, for starters, I found this video, which is quite a lot of fun. How to tap your feet like a Quebecois fiddler + Le Vent du Nord = what's not to like?

I enjoyed that enough to see whether the folks who posted it, the Institute of Musical Traditions in Maryland, had any other videos. Which they do indeed (YouTube channel here). But who would have guessed that "any other videos" would include an Alasdair Fraser/Natalie Haas duet?

Then the search veered off in another direction as I thought if I put up a fiddle version of "Gloomy Winter's Noo Awa'," I might do well to find a definitive sung version. It's hard to say if Ben the Hoose has a definitive sung version, as the sample they have on their website is likewise mostly fiddle, but they are another duo worth a listen, in any case.

Most coincidental of all (but far off the trad music track), the phrase "gloomy winter" had been used in this nature photography blog post--so if you'd like to see some birds in very sharp focus indeed, that would be the place to check. If you've had enough birds for one week, go have a look anyway. It's pure art.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mostly Avian

Sunday afternoon this week meant a Sunday drive to have a look at the UC Davis Arboretum. It was quite a pleasant jaunt, after I got through the double torture of a traffic bottleneck in West Sac and the Youngbloods' "Get Together" coming on the radio simultaneously. That's not generally a song I tolerate at great length but I was too occupied with trying to keep track of who was merging and who was moving over, and who was losing a lane, and who was giving up and going back to Sacramento to reach over and turn it off. It proved a source of great entertainment when the chorus kicked in. The gentle-voiced singers were advising "Try to love one another right now!" and I was wondering why the jerk ahead of me didn't merge already since I'd left him a nice big space to merge into--surely he wasn't going to insist on passing yet another car before his lane ran out! And was the jerk (for he must be a jerk, and not possibly in the right) behind me honking at me for no apparent reason, or had some other unseen driver been caught in the middle of committing some infraction that would work its way up the centipede line of cars and become my concern all too soon?

The Davis Arboretum, thankfully, was about as far from bottlenecks and radios as you can get while still being within a mile of I-80. It was very quiet indeed; I had many a parking space to choose from (free, as it is on weekends, too) and gratefully left the car to its own devices for a while.

As I had decided to drive out on the spur of the moment, finding the Sunday afternoon heavy with the bright new intelligence that there was a botanical garden in Davis, I hadn't taken much time to research how the Arboretum was laid out. Without spending a good deal of time mulling it over, memories of other gardens had prepared me to expect something. . .well, if not expansive, giving, at least, a certain impression of spaciousness . This was why I was, at first, slightly disappointed to discover that the Arboretum is, through most of its considerable length, restricted to the banks of Putah Creek. It was, however, only a very momentary disappointment, which was pounced upon and devoured by the notion that there was far too much to see as it was.

While I am sure the creek has its charms as a feature in its own right, and likely enables the growing of some fine riparian flora, the greatest entertainment that it provided was the creatures living in and around it. I was only a few hundred yards on my wanderings when I was stopped by the sight of a barn swallow (or so I believe it was) calmly sitting on a branch over the water. I had never, in fact, seen a barn swallow calmly sitting anywhere, so I stopped to see it while I could, admiring the contrast of its sleek purple back and its scarlet face. It was just a hair too far away for me to get a sharp picture, but, since it didn't seem to be going anywhere, I had plenty of shots at it anyway.

It was carrying on a sporadic conversation with another swallow which would occasionally make an airborne appearance, coming in for a fly-by above the still water. The efforts of this second bird had a graceful conclusion, almost at my feet as I stood on the bridge. With sharp bank that would have done a Spitfire pilot proud, it came in on a blur that was a moth, winging, white beneath the overhanging trees. For an instant, sharp and startling as the best photo I missed all afternoon, all the unknown wonder of "footless halls of air" was suspended in the narrow void between the dark branches and the dark water. The moth was a darting star, wheeling across a strange, green inverted sky, and after it, exploded a presence, all spear-graceful wings, and purple smoke and red fire. Somewhere in the depths of space, these two impossible forces collided, and the star fluttered feebly in the mouth of the swallow.

Less graceful in its first impression was the green heron I glimpsed several times along stream's course. Its feathers were, from a distance, as smooth--and imaginative--as something that had been drawn in coloured pencil, but when it would sense anyone nearby, its efforts to make itself scarce gave an impression of great vexation, rather than fear. It had fine, strong, bright yellow legs, which it used to such a desperate effect, galloping off at a quick, but ungainly waddle, that at first I (who had never seen a green heron before and had no idea what I was looking at) wondered whether it could fly at all. When, at last, with a cry of exasperation, it took off, it proved quite steady in the air, with an elegant wingspan that came as a surprise on its stolid body. Much less airworthy and certainly lacking in long, yellow legs, turtles would surface through the murky water on occasion. The pictures I got of those were irredeemably out of focus, probably because of overabundance of lighting between the sun and its reflection on the water, but they were quite funny to watch. Their build dictates only one possible way for them to swim, their heavy shells dragging below the surface of the water and only their noses just barely above it. Of course, going around at an angle like this, with their noses literally in the air, they have quite a supercillious look about them. Perhaps they have good reason for looking as though they think they should be envied--in some of the long, sunny stretches, even that green water looked rather tempting to me, too.

As I said, though, an early impression of the Arboretum was that there was too much to see. I felt rather as though I was faced with a buffet where, in feeling obliged to taste everything, I put myself in danger of missing those dishes I knew I liked best. That is to say, I would stop in one place and shoot a few pictures, and instead of getting all I could out of that location, would stop and push myself around the next bend in the creek in the interest of "seeing it all." Which I never did. But that's enough for tonight.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Monday Music

The iconic fiddler/mandolinist/composer Peter Ostroushko has a grand selection of tunes on his website, and in styles ranging from ragtime to Irish to Ukrainian. No miserly 30-second samples here, though since he had to leave you wanting something, only three selections from each CD are available (which is enough to keep anyone busy for quite some time, as the man has, industriously, made quite a few CD's).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Matilija Poppies

Calflora has just about everything you might want to know about this native shrub.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Gory Etymology

This I did not know. Not that I've ever heard "decimate" used in a particularly cheerful sense anyway, but now they tell me it comes from the old Roman practice of punishing mutinous, or otherwise misbehaving legionaries by choosing a tenth of their number by lot, to be executed by their comrades. Here's a short article on the word, its use, and its misuse. One comfort--if you misuse it, whatever else the grammar police can do to you, they can't decimate you. Silver lining, and all that.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

In Which it Pours

At a country/bluegrass jam this afternoon, one of the musicians commented, "You can go for years without meeting any new fiddlers, and then all of a sudden, you'll run across six of them." The same must go for fiddle tunes; having posted Shetland music last night, I return to pass along a new tune that one of the guitar pickers at the jam today had just learned and was trying to teach me. I needn't mention, I am extremely thankful for YouTube--despite the man's patience in playing and replaying the tune at a clear, precise, and reasonable speed, the notes trickled, more or less, "through my head, like water from a sieve." But I did manage to recall the title, so here are a couple of versions of the "Temperance Reel". Kind of an interesting piece in that it is one of a handful (?) of apparently Irish tunes which have a degree of a regular following in the bluegrass world. (You do hear a good deal about bluegrass' Irish and Scottish roots, but it's a little rarer, at least in my experience, to run across a tune that retains such a close resemblance with the versions played in those traditions).

Anyway, here is a very bluegrassy version, complete with a couple of smashing banjo breaks by a group called High LoneSome Bluegrass Band.

And here is something even more unexpected (and I'm not just talking about the hat), a fluent harmonica version by Buddy Greene, Jeff Taylor (accordion/piano) and Tricia Walker (percussion) preceded by "Blackberry Blossom".

Saturday, July 10, 2010

For the Multitasker. . .

Shetland-Music offers this informative and enjoyable page; an article on Shetland fiddling (a three hundred year old tradition) and a sidebar full of tunes in case you're the sort who likes a bit of music with your reading. I can't speak for all the tunes yet, since I am sampling them in no particular order, and had to listen to Jenna Reid's twice; that girl plays a mighty sweet fiddle.

And, better and better, it looks as though this page is only a sliver in a forest of articles and biographies available on the site--but one must start somewhere.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Gadabout

Independence Day proved an interesting one this year. It was not the first time I had celebrated (if celebrating it can be called) my inalienable right to dress in woolen clothing on the 4th of July, but it was the first time I had ever played "Scotland the Brave" in downtown Napa. The band made a good showing, even if reeds (and throats) were getting a bit dry by the end of the parade route.

I had brought a change of clothes with a hazy notion of going. . .somewhere after the parade and getting a few pictures of. . .something. Fortunately, I took a wrong turn early in the day, when I was trying to find the spot where the band was supposed to meet, and found myself crossing Silverado Trail. What was it about the name that sounded so familiar? The answer took the form of a second question, which burst upon me scarce seconds later--How did you forget that Robert Louis Stevenson used to live around here? So, after the parade, and fully aware that no stretch of the imagination was going to qualify what I was doing as a legitimate 4th of July custom, I got back on Silverado Trail and drove up towards St. Helena to see if there was a trace of RLS to be found. There were certainly a good many cars to see. St. Helena was a happenin' place. Still the slowed traffic meant I had plenty of time to see the sign pointing the way to to the Stevenson museum. I chortled in my joy at this stroke of luck; searching for small, rumoured historical sites by dead reckoning is a very chancy business. Of course, I was under no misapprehensions that luck would extend to fantastical lengths and that the museum would be open, but it was still gratifying to find the place, neatly labeled, next to the public library.
There were small, mud-colored fish quivering in the fountain, and a dozen-odd indulgent yellowjackets were making semi-acquatic landings on the algae at the foot of the horsetail. They were so languid about it that one might have believed it was the insect version of the neighborhood pub; they certainly lingered over their drinks.

Not far from the fountain, a larger sign designated the library and museum, and beyond that was (perhaps not too surprisingly) a small, tidy vineyard.
Having satisfied, as far as I could, my literary curiousity by gazing at the stucco on the outside of the building, one might think I would be content and would head for home. Even I thought that-- but I did not do it. Instead I let myself be seized by an even wilder ambition, and, by rather devious routes, turned the car in a gradually westering direction.

After some time (the details of which I will spare you, as it mostly involved going around corners, so I could go around other corners and up grades so I could go down grades), I saw something grey and soft curled about the tops of the hills ahead of me. Fire? I didn't smell any smoke when I rolled the window down. Perhaps the wind was blowing the wrong way. But, no, the wind was just fine as it was, and great tufts of the grey stuff were eddying past the car. And it smelled wonderfully wet. "It's fog!" And grand fog it was, too, just flitting about in graceful pieces, cooling off July in a most unexpected way, and not interfering with driving in the least. And if fog on the hills was a sight for sore eyes, what was fog on the ocean? I, having driven about as far westward as I was going to get, got out at Doran Beach on Bodega Bay. Perhaps enthusiasm leads to exaggeration in this case, but the weather didn't feel much above 60, if it was even that. And there was plenty of ocean.
An intriguing boat was anchored and bobbing about at rather uncomfortable angles in the fog beyond the jetty.
After a time, either the crew found what they were looking for, or grew very tired of bobbing about at uncomfortable angles; they fired up the motor and came around to the harbour entrance. As the craft came nearer, it proved to be of a particularly endearing build--even wooden. The plot thickened with a sign hung over the side that belied the trawling rig, proclaiming, "Special Research." Judging from the beating they had been taking out on the water, they might well have been doing research on seasickness.
I lingered on the beach near the jetty for a while, trying to get an interesting angle of the waves, which ended up being a rather bad idea, as I had brought my pipes along, in their box, rather than leave them in the car. Of course, I was loathe to leave them too far out of reach, but that was not a very good reason for setting them down below the tide line, even if I was down there too. Inevitably, I got just far enough away to have a particularly enthusiastic wave go sizzling by me, and right through the box before I could reach it. Luckily the pipes were not touched at all, and the bag only got a couple of small spots of seawater, but the box is due for a good vacuuming--it's a miniature beach in there at the moment.
Even after I had packed my sandy box and my sandy self back into the car, it was a rather long departure. Every few hundred feet, it seemed there was a different feast for the eyes that could not be squandered for a mere drive home.
Doran Beach is on one side of a small peninsula; if I understand the geography correctly, the harbour channel runs around the end of the peninsula and skirts a salt marsh. That, being about as close to the end of the park as I could get, was my last stop, and it was difficult to get enough of it. The sluggish water was slightly oppressive after the caprices of the open sea, but by the same token, the channels and pools of the marsh, mirroring the grey sky, had edges as sharply defined as the shards of a sword against a red and green mosaic, the thick, tough growth of marsh grasses. Impossibly, from the steel-like fragments of water, the wind was carding soft spirals of wooly fog, each curl moving slowly in its own eldritch dance to the music that was the invisible surf, the insistent foghorn, the cries of the gulls, and the songs of numberless hidden birds in the marsh itself.

And if that wasn't a fine Independence Day, what is?