Saturday, December 17, 2011

Interlude, by Dickens

Of A Christmas Carol, G.K. Chesterton wrote warmly: "The story sings from end to end like a happy man going home; and, like a happy and good man, when it cannot sing, it yells.*" Beyond even its own inherent music, the tale contains a highly satisfying depiction of happy and good men singing. Here, as observed by Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present, it follows:

And now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants; and water spread itself wheresoever it listed; or would have done so, but for the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing grew but moss and furze, and coarse, rank grass. Down in the west the setting sun had left a streak of firey red, which glared upon the desolation for an instant, like a sullen eye, and frowning lower, lower, lower yet, was lost in the thick gloom of darkest night.
"What place is this?" asked Scrooge.
"A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth," returned the Spirit. "But they know me. See!"
A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children, and their children's children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song; it had been a very old song when he was a boy; and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So sure, as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.
The Spirit did not tarry here, but bade Scrooge hold his robe, and passing on above the moor, sped whither? Not to sea? To sea. To Scrooge's horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled, and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.
Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of sea-weed clung to its base, and storm-birds--born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the water--rose and fell about it, like they waves they skimmed.
But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their horny hads over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them--the elder too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be--struck up a sturdy song that was like a gale in itself.

*Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men

Friday, December 16, 2011

And Here's The Other

To continue yesterday's subject of the rather amusing things I found in Mother Goose (and, to my astonishment, as well as yours, putting off the inevitable regarding Christmas music), the second poem I found ran thusly:

In fir tar is,
In oak none is.
In mud eel is,
In clay none is.
Goat eat ivy.
Mare eat oats.

Now you may all, good people, have grown up with this poem from your infancy, but I made its first acquaintance in that hour, and a most puzzling acquaintance it was, like a face, assuredly never seen before, and yet somehow half-remembered. There it sat, staring back at me. I read it again, more deliberately. There was something about its very economy to make one pause, to. . .read it again. I am not (not always, perhaps I should say) one who enjoys rooting around in the more innocent pleasures of literature until "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down," brings to mind the Black Death, rather than after-school afternoons, hallowed by the smell of cut grass, but this piece of verse was begging for an explanation.

Was it a weirdly time-worn fragment of an old gnomic verse? In it, indeed, vibrated some echo of "A king must hold a kingdom." I read it again, almost aloud, finding the taste of the words, as they passed, stranger than ever. "In fir tar is. In oak none is." I lingered over the more familiar tree. "In oak none is. In oooak. None. Is. In hhhoak none. . .In hoc non est!" Despite the gravely turned phrases, the reassuring parade of truths upon which a world might be built, it wasn't English at all. That was where it all went crooked.

Anticlimatically, despite further pondering of the lines, and incessant mutterings regarding mud and eels, I could make nothing further of it. I would like to think that I might have had better luck were I a Latin scholar, but the cold, hard truth was too soon in. . .dawning? No, not dawning, assuredly. It was more like a sunset, in which the sun did not so much set as plummet--like a lead weight into fishless waters.

I was, at length, forced to Google ("In Google, answer is"?). You may well imagine my disappointment when I found by that auspicious means, not reassurance that I had discovered a the long-lost key to a hidden treasure, or even that the lines lived out their promise in meaning something more than they so obviously stated. I found no comforts, only the declaration of the wise of the world that, if recited quickly enough, the poem passed for pseudo-Latin (I quote) "doggerel." Oh, and that the last two lines, at least, can be dated as far back as Henry VI. (The latter, at least gives "Mairsy Doats" a most impressive pedigree.)

In other words, someone, God rest his soul, got me good.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Music Appreciation. . .Or Not

I recently had some time to kill, and the handiest volume for this task happened to be The Complete Mother Goose. Its chief charms, besides the pictures of Mother Hubbard's dog, engaged in his various accomplishments and looking dreadfully pleased with himself, were a couple of very odd poems. Here is one of them:

There was a piper had a cow
And he had naught to give her.
He took his pipes and played a tune
And bade the cow consider.

The cow considered very well,
And gave the piper a penny,
And bade him play the other tune:
"Corn rigs are bonnie."

Cows have evidently been making suggestions to the People Who Materialise When One Is Trying To Practice In A Park, because they, too, invariably ask for "The Other Tune."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

By Way Of Twitching an Eyebrow

I am still alive (I wonder how many blog posts on any given day open with that reassuring phrase) and, indeed, quite well. It has just been a hectic (by my lazy standards) couple of months. I have all sorts of plans. . .well, some plans. . .well, a plan, to write something about Christmas music before Christmas is upon us. Unfortunately for the sake of variety, I am now reading A Christmas Carol. . .and planning fiddle lessons. (Not literally right now, or this post would not be written, I would be moving on to another book, and all of my lessons would be arrayed in so tidy a fashion as to shake the world.) Which suggests that the next post will assuredly be about Dickens. Or music, as I said. Or Dickens and music. Not o'ermuch variety in inspiration these days.

But, since I don't quite have the time to write the threatened post yet, on a different topic entirely, here's a very short piece of modern literature for you, a smashin' good headline, as recalled from Yahoo News:

Hikers spot giant carnivorous snail

I didn't dare read the story that followed, for fear of disappointment, but I hope for the sake of humanity that it ran like this: "But they were able to outrun it."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

But How Was I To Know?

However impossible it may seem, somewhere among the readers of this blog lurks the computer that invents the farfetched recommendations attributed to Barnes & Noble. Having nothing to do with that revelation, it is all very unfortunate that I have discovered that I can walk to Barnes & Noble on my lunch break. Having a good deal to do with that, a few weeks back, I, intoxicated with the distinction of being A Person Who Had, At Last, A Copy Of Martin Chuzzlewit, darted prodigally into the aforementioned establishment and bought a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. And the computer printed in the most surly tone imaginable:


Bleak House
by Charles Dickens

Dombey and Son
by Charles Dickens

Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations
by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist
by Charles Dickens

And the computer is batting 300.

[If you're reading this again, computer: I'm sorry about the previous "recommendations" post, pal. That bit I ranted on before--it was just in fun. You know that, don't you? And I honestly did enjoy the bits of Moby Dick that I've read. I enjoyed 'em a lot. . .Well, most of 'em, anyway.]

Monday, November 14, 2011

All the Latest Rage

This weekend I finally learned Jerry Holland's fabulous "Reel for Carl," which, considering I first heard the tune in 1999 on one of Shane Cook's early albums*, was a task--a pleasure, I should say--rather overdue. It's quite an addictive tune, perhaps not the least because it is in the refreshing key of C#m, coming as a perpetual surprise to the ear. (Admittedly, to the uninitiated (me) it is also a perpetual surprise to the fingers, and therefore, in its early stages, not always the kindest of surprises to the ear.) The sound on the video below isn't the clearest, but Mr. Holland himself plays the reel in question at exactly 1:00.

A mesmerizing solo version of the tune also appears on the composer's The Fiddlesticks Collection, and anthologised on Green Linnet's Legends of the Scottish Fiddle.

*Heritage Fiddles, now out of print. Yes, I do enjoy writing footnotes. Why do you ask?

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Today being Robert Louis Stevenson's 161st birthday, here is his opinion on Guinness. Or at least Guinness' opinion of his opinion on Guinness. (Spoiler: It's good for you.)

Credit where credit is due: RLS Silverado Museum's Facebook page

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

More Fiddle

And, speaking of fiddles and instructional videos, here's a link that ended up in a recent FootStompin' newsletter. It's just plain clever. The full demo of the tune starts at 0:50.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Here is something I have seen, and am certain of: I am the deeply contented, if lazy, owner of the excellent video advertised by this clip:

I sent away for Sarah-Jane Summers' Highland Strathspeys for Fiddle a few months back, and if I haven't memorised every nuance of every phrase of each of the five strathspeys presented on it, I have only myself to blame. It is a most beautifully presented instructional video, very easy to follow, and with nice features like having the demo played in a separate "chapter" (the clip above is one of these) for easy reference, as well as having it played, unseen, whenever you bring up the sub-menu for the given tune. And in case this, plus the movement-by-movement breakdown which makes up the bulk of each lesson isn't enough to drive a tune home, the DVD also comes with a little booklet of printed music.

Here is something else, which I have never seen and which I am still, nonetheless, certain of (yes, I know I'm ending sentences with prepositions; I'm rather enjoying it): I really, really want a set of these strings. One of my friends (who has not yet tried them, but also really, really wants them) brought up the subject yesterday, and it would appear to be highly contagious. Here's a great little article on the same subject (octave strings, not contagious fiddle fads) from Darol Anger, who has actually tried the like.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Keeping Up Appearances

The fun in reading Dickens often lies, not so much in what he is saying, but in how he is saying it. In Martin Chuzzlewit, that archetype hypocrite Seth Pecksniff is about the most royally annoying creature who might be comprehended by a human mind. . .but it is an unspeakable amount of fun to follow the deadpan tone in which his inventor describes him, as in these passages from Chapter 3, where he endeavours to make a favourable impression on (very rich) Old Martin Chuzzlewit:

'No,' said Mr Pecksniff, keeping his hand in his waistcoat as though he were ready, on the shortest notice, to produce his heart for Martin Chuzzlewit's inspection, 'I came here to offer my services to a stranger.'

* * *

It would be no description of Mr Pecksniff's gentleness of manner, to adopt the common parlance, and say, that he looked at this moment as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. He rather looked as if any quantitiy of butter might have been made out of him, by churning the milk of human kindness, as it spouted upwards from his heart.

* * *

. . .Mr. Pecksniff, towering on tiptoe among the curtains, as if he were literally rising above all worldly considerations, and were fain to hold on tight, to keep himself from darting skywards like a rocket. . .

Friday, September 30, 2011

On the Airwaves

If you don't happen to be up in Grass Valley yourself this weekend, it would be worth tuning into KVMR's live webcast to catch a bit of the Celtic Festival Saturday and Sunday. Scots singer Emily Smith--which by extension, unless I'm much mistaken, also means fiddler Jamie McClennan--and the classic Old Blind Dogs are all in the line-up, for starters.
The Scotsman has a short article on the John MacLellan Medal recital which is coming up next month. Alas, attending wouldn't just mean a drive across town, or across a county or two--or even across the state, for that matter. Still, I don't think it's only a case of the grass always being greener on the other side of the. . .pond that makes the evening's planned entertainment sound so intriguing.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Two miniscule people, neither of whom could have been much older than four, were regarding the cover of a music magazine with a gravity that would have gladdened the heart of anyone guilty of designing it. It depicted a riot of the professionally unkempt who were brandishing their guitars and trying to out-snarl each other.

"Why aw they so mad?" a small, serious voice ventured.
The other explained,"Dey don't want to pway da duitaw anymow."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Oh I May, May I?

To wax slightly biographical, I went to Barnes & Noble yesterday and bought a copy of Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit. I've read it before, and it is quite a good book, which is why I finally determined to own it, however, the part of this little episode which most invites comment is that, along with my receipt, the register printed me out a helpful little slip of paper that read like this:

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
Moby Dick: Or, The Whale by Herman Melville
Martin Eden by Jack London

Which occasions a meditation on just how the computer might have come to such a conclusion:

Barnaby Rudge You, valued customer, just bought a book by Charles Dickens. Therefore, I shall assume you might like to try yet another.

Fair enough, register. I see your logic and, inded, I may read that one someday.

Moby Dick: Or, The Whale You, valued customer, whose taste in literature is now an open book (ha ha) to me, obviously like Big Fat Tomes. Here is a volume quite famed for its portliness.

I'll give you points for some restraint, register. I suppose you could have suggested Melville's Complete Works, which I have seen bound under a single cover, and which would be my choice of the book to throw at someone, if throwing the book at someone ever fell to my lot. But, deep in your little mechanical heart of hearts, do you find much similarity at all between a tale of hypocrisy in England, and one of verbosity on the high seas?

Martin Eden With my keen, virtual eye for detail, I have noted that you have been known to buy books with the Christian name of Martin. I've cleverly found another for you.

Now you're just havering. And I have a book to read. Goodbye.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

And Now For a Bit of Piobaireachd

After a long absence. . .I'll take the lazy way out, write very little, and post two videos and a website. Like this:

Scotland's Songs, has a page which I may have linked to before (and if I didn't, well, I should have) which has a bit more about "Lament for the Children," as well as examples of some other piobaireachd-related singing.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tenting on the Old. . .Currant Bush

Herein follow the clearest of the faunal pictures from the Independence Day weekend drive up (or rather, down, in this case) Highway 89. I had parked in a pullout and was occupied in keeping a bumblebee in focus atop a sulfur buckwheat bush when I chanced to glance deeper into the plant and saw a caterpillar. A closer inspection of the bush revealed at least two more of the same species, though that took me no closer to identifying the creature. I snapped all the pictures I could, intending to iron out the who's-who questions when I got home.

A couple of pullouts later, however, the main feature was several currant bushes that had been most definitely settled by the same sort of caterpillar; their manner of settling suggested very strongly that they were tent caterpillars, or Malacosoma californicum, if you'd rather.

I'm still rather curious as to why I found a scattered few of the creatures, unhoused, in the sulfur buckwheat bush. They are evidently pretty gregarious.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Don't Miss It

This couldn't possibly be August, could it? And if such an untoward thing as August had prematurely landed upon us all. . .well, surely even if such a thing had happened, the BBC wouldn't be offering the worldwide live streaming of yet another World Pipe Band Championships, would they?

Oh, but it is, and they are. Next Saturday, folks. I go to buy a coffeepot, tomorrow.

Monday, July 11, 2011

How It's Done

Here are a couple of videos that Temple Records compiled last year, featuring the Battlefield Band. First off, an arrangement of "A' Bhriogais Uallach," with some rather driven harmonies--and a glimpse of a little fellow who looks as though he's wearing the trousers in question, too, at the end of the video. (Also, here's a translation of the song, or at least a similar version of it, because the lyrics are too good to miss.)

And in case you are not content with that, and would like to feel utterly exhausted, here is some intense and splendid fiddling (and piping!). You know that bit in "The Great Escape" when the Americans are trying out their potato moonshine for the first time, and the only comment they can all muster is a strangled sort of, "Wowww?" That is what I have to say about this video:


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

High Country

A band gig Sunday landed upon me the happy obligation to drive up Highway 89. To add to the utter perfection of the day, I had my mp3 player plugged into the stereo system, and just about the time I hit the bit of the drive in the picture below, a piper filed somewhere in the depths of my machine struck into a magnificent rendition of "Scarce of Fishing." Probably, on reflection, that isn't the most accurate musical tribute that might be paid to the area that contains various bits of the Feather River, the Yuba River, and I couldn't tell you how many smaller streams. . .but the crunluath a machs were eloquent.
The highway is just one lane in each direction, but it is situated cunningly, with a generous trimming of pullouts, and each pullout has a view, be it expansive and scenic, or quite concentrated and floral. Below are some guesses at some of the floral bits. The faunal should follow in the next couple of days.

Brodiaea hyacinthina?

Calyptridium monospermum?

Sarcodes sanguinea, or Snow Plant. This was truly weird and wonderful, and I had no idea what it was when I saw it. It looked rather alien, like a cross between a flower and a mushroom. There is, come to find out, a good reason for that. Although it's considered part of the heather family (Ericaceae), it doesn't process its nutrition in the expected floral fashion (i.e. chlorophyll); instead, it takes its sustinence directly from a type of fungus that grows on pine roots. Yes, really.

Here's more on heterotrophic flora. Worth a gander: it's really quite fascinating.

Yellow, definitely. In Fabaceae, I think.

Ergonium umbellatum, Sulphur buckwheat.

Something in the Cryptantha genus, but what?

And, something in the Castilleja (Indian paintbrush) genus.

Balsamorhiza, maybe?

Collomia grandiflora. The common name isn't much help. It's "grand collomia."

And a flock of Aquilegia formosa, Western columbine.

Monday, June 6, 2011

In a Stunning Twist--

I met a small creature when I was up at the park this morning. The creature addressed me thus: "I jump. I jump and jump and jump." And this he demonstrated splendidly, all over the pavement, to a point where admiration compelled me to say, "My goodness--you're like a kangaroo!" Whereupon he paused mid-jump to divulge the shocking truth in the most matter-of-fact tone imaginable:"No, I'm a boy."

Monday, May 30, 2011

Reachd 'n' Roll

Herein follows a setting of "Mary MacLeod," that I am quite willing to bet you were not expecting. And it works:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Bonnie, Bonnie Bugs

I've had broom much on the brain of late. I have not been pondering its vicious invasive habits, or even taking the trouble to find out whether I am looking at the Scotch, or the Spanish, or at some other variety. There is just a good deal of it around here, so much so, that you can't help but notice it--so much so, indeed, that the perusal of a poem collection the other night turned up, at its first opened page something Stevenson was saying about bonnie broom. I don't know why broom absolutely must be bonnie, but the laws of poetry seem to dictate that you cannot mention that particular noun without that particular adjective. Do you think I exaggerate? Then possibly you never heard of the bonnie, bonnie (two of 'em! Count 'em!) broom of the Cowdenknowes? The poets do have a point, I'll admit. It is: At least it was growing along Sunrise Boulevard in a bonnie enough fashion to make me drive over to the American River Parkway on Sunday to see if I could get a decent picture of it. Well, to be honest, a good deal of the "bonnie" award goes to the big fried eggs of matilaja poppies that were growing among it, high on the bank, and I couldn't get anything like a picture that did the panorama justice:

Though the river was fair enough,

And so were the wild grapevines which seemed obligated to grow all over every inch of space that didn't already have something growing in it. . .and a few that did.

But the real pay-off, that more than made up for any disappointment over broom that insisted on being bonnie from a distance was this. Or rather these. There were herds of them:
And can you guess what this faboulous and fearsome beast is? It is the oh-so-thankfully flightless young of my old nemesis the Pipevine Swallowtail.
You didn't even have to look for the little fellows--they were everywhere. Well, yes, for starters, everywhere there was a handy pipevine, but also taking their evening strolls among other foliage, or even, in one case, across the road.
Fabre once complained: "The fashion is all for the Mollusc and the Zoophyte. The depths of the sea are explored with many drag-nets; the soil which we tread is consistently disregarded." Mind, I can't point any fingers when it comes to a fondness for the Mollusc, but there are certainly some wonderfully bizarre creatures quite close at hand.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Sticky Business

I am, despite the apparent contradiction implied by the appearance of a post, internetless at the moment. Which means I was at the library yesterday, waiting for my turn on the computer, which meant I took the opportunity to check out a great armload of books, which I shall probably never read, which means I did sit down and look at the one with all the pictures in it, which means (at last) that I can bring you this fact, which I found quite startling: there is a cactus peculiar to--Bakersfield. It is, with the characteristic direct address of Kern County, called the Bakersfield cactus, or, more obscurely, Opuntia treleasii. And this is what it looks like. So now you know--don't ever ask me again.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Unless It's A Fish

My Mom gave me a really lovely set of dessert plates. I do mean absolutely lovely--the sort of thing that I admire to such lengths that I am very nearly inspired to invite hordes of people over just so that I may let them eat cake.

As you can see in the picture on the left, the aforesaid plates are of the intriguing, "Oh-this-old-thing-we-tore-out-of-a-naturalist's-notebook," pattern, which truly happens to be a favorite theme of mine for prints, be they floral or faunal. I mean, a splendid cake is a splendid cake, but who would not rather have their cake, and egret too?

I am just feeling a little conflicted about this particular pattern, however. The best parts of such arrangements are invariably the tantalizing scraps of field notes and encyclopediesque entries that fill in the spaces between the sketches. Just as invariably, such entries are incomplete. The one above, for instance, runs artistically off the edge of the plate, so you can read only enough about some half-named creature (Eastern. . Fancy Copperplate Squiggle: scientific name Sialia si--) to make it sound rather astounding. It can boast a mighty stature of seven inches. It does. . .something in south Manitoba. Evidently whatever it does involves gurgling, and holes. To my mind sprang a vague and fearsome picture of the prairies of Manitoba, stretching in an endless golden sheet from horizon to horizon--and absolutely riddled with dark burrows, wherein dwell, and gurgle, the fierce, yet seldom-seen Sialia si. I was more than a little miffed when I discovered that the people who made the plate were not introducing me to a vocal, land-dwelling moray eel, but were most likely only starting rumours about Sialia sialis, otherwise known as the Eastern bluebird.

Still, until I get just a bit more clarification on the gurgling bit, I don't think I shall be taking any extended walks through the more southerly bits of Manitoba.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Here's a blog with many's a fantastic shot of the six-legged side of things: Bug Safari.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Excuses, Videos, and Suchlike

Well no, I didn't give up blogging for Lent. Life has just been in a bit of a comparative upheaval, the main culprit being the virtual shingle which I hung (or had hung for me) in February, launching me to the high estate of fiddle-teacher-with-a-rented-studio. This is my excuse for spending the time that used to be spare tracking down and transcribing tunes and, as a matter of fact, I am enjoying it immensely. But it does keep me busy, or so I like to believe.

And, of course, I get the benefit of all that tracking down (yes, more accurately known as surfing-the-web-and-getting-distracted-from-whatever-important-thing-it-was-I-was-looking-for-in-the-first-place). F'r instance, here is the delightful "Don Messer's Breakdown," as played in a style that does it justice by 1999 National Fiddle Champion Shane Cook. . .and as if that wasn't enough, he goes and follows it with an impeccable "St. Anne's Reel."

Friday, April 1, 2011

Niche Market

I saw this sign hanging over the door of a shop yesterday:

Smoke Shop, Gifts, and Cash Register Supplies

Do you suppose there is a story behind that, or is it just the logical conclusion that most smoke shops come to when customer after customer stoically settles for cigarettes when, all the while there is a longing for reciept tape languishing in his eyes?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Playing Hooky

I happened to be standing in the right place at the right time (at work) on Saturday to be the recipient of the news that Catherine Fraser and Duncan Smith were going to be playing in Fair Oaks on Wednesday. Without having heard them before, I imagined it would be worth seeing (thought in a mild tone of mind), after all, how often does one get to hear Scottish fiddling in Fair Oaks? Too bad I had to work Wednesday night. But the more I thought about it, the more inviting it sounded, and the more I thought, "What's with the have to work?" and when I texted a coworker and found her willing--no apparently eager--to take my shift, I caved in entirely; and am I ever glad I did!

From a purely practical standpoint I ended up with a great seat from which to observe some exquisite bowing, which had been my purely practical desire in playing hooky in the first place. But that was only the least of it! The short version of the story (you knew this was coming, didn't you?): if you get a chance to see these folks yourself, please do!

The chief impression I took away was of shades, colours of sound. Recall, there was only a fiddler and a piano player up there, nothing more. But the fiddle could whisper, and it could cry, and it could dance--sometimes all in the space of a few bars--and the piano was not relegated to a predictable rhythmic role, but had a palatte of its own colours which wove through the fiddling and blended seamlessly. At times, too, the fiddle would subside into a haunting drone or chuckle through a few bars of chords to let the piano take the lead.

Even this, I suppose, would have been only half as delightful, if it weren't for the affable stage presence of both performers. Both had a gift for conversation, which complimented the music well, especially as they played a large number of tunes composed by Catherine herself. Though these tunes would have spoken for themselves well enough (a bit of an understatement, that), they were twice as endearing when the context had been explained. One of my favorite sets contained two tunes Catherine had written in Montreal, with an intentional Quebecois flavour. (It's a wonder anyone in the audience still has feet--you would think all that tapping would have worn them clean off.) My runaway favorite for the evening, though was her slow air "Hills of Kaitoke," which is up on MySpace, and also on the duo's latest CD.

And yes, it was that good, that I'd love to take a chance on growing tired of excellence and attend such a performance every week. . .but I suppose it's better for the work schedule that such opportunities are rather few and far between.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Here are a couple of snaps from a week ago Monday, when I had the fortune of driving down, at long last, Highway 58. The mountain, unless I have grown terribly discombobulated from a long absence, is Breckenridge; the wild currants in the foreground, even if they are not quite in bloom, have an incomparably spicy smell. That is to say, one can't properly compare them to anything except wild currants, and any decent soul would wish every other living being in the world a chance to smell the same on a bright, late-winter morning. The fiddlenecks, something not over-far from Amsinckia menziesii, were flourishing, but not quite in bloom at the same location.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Some Rather Nice Snapshots

Are you in the mood to be flabbergasted, stunned, flummoxed, astounded, and made to feel absolutely minute? Well, then, I have something for you. One of my friends introduced me to Astronomy Picture of the Day yesterday, so I pass it on. Note that the tab on the bottom of the page will take you to the archives, so you don't have to wait until tomorrow to further your exploration of the universe. A good many of the photos are, like today's shot, impossibly wonderful vistas that you just don't run across in your usual terrestrial wanderings, but there are some equally amazing ones that include the earth in the picture as well. This one was unexpected, and quite clever--it looks like something that should have appeared, in gold leaf, of course, in the margin of a Book of Hours.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Of All Sad Words. . .

Here is a photo from the past weekend in Long Beach that might have been something grand. You will note, it encompasses not only the UCR Pipe Band (Grade IV champions), but the Queen Mary, some impressively inclement weather, and, faintest of all, a rainbow running through the middle of everything. At the time, I was only sorry that I couldn't find a decent angle for a clean shot at the ship, the band and the rainbow, all at one go. On seeing the results here, however, I am much sorrier that I never followed the rainbow's end to its logical conclusion. That must have been some kind of beer!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hot Club of. . .Bluegrass?

I know, I know--this constant dependence on videos is a rather sorry state of things. I will write something one of these days (whether that counts as a promise, or a threat, I don't know). In the meantime (once again), here is a rather above-average jam.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Relativity and Baroque Music

The local Classical Station has recently started broadcasting Sunday Baroque, which, though I've never yet managed to catch it in its entirity, or anything even remotely near its entirity, I consider a huge treat. This past Sunday the airwaves were exquisitely alive with a piece called "Folies d' Espagne," by a group called the Palladian Ensemble. If you go to their record label's website, you can hear a tiny clip of the piece, the very last selection on the CD. There are several other impressive versions to be heard on YouTube, my favourite, so far, being the one below, a solo by flutist Mario Caroli, but having heard the Palladian Ensemble's arrangement first, I miss the lively interplay between the recorder and the viola da gamba.

Now, veering off in an entirely different direction, here is a very intriguing article that is only related because the link was posted on Sunday Baroque's Facebook page. . .and it does mention Bach a couple of times--and the Theory of Relativity a couple of times. It's about Einstein's musical side, which was considerable.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Since music has taken a lion's share of the topics here of late, I should probably post something else today. Then again, there's always tomorrow, and in the meantime, here's a rousing Quebecois set that's just as well heard sooner as later.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

While I'm On the Subject. . .

As I was rambling on last night it occurred to me that quite aside from any music Stevenson played himself, one could likely compose a decent paper on mentions of songs and tunes quarried out of his books. "The Bonnie House of Airlie," turned up more than once, and there was Alan Breck Stewart, bursting "with a great voice into a Gaelic song," after his defense of the roundhouse, or whistling "Hey, Johnnie Cope" by way of an insult--or to switch books entirely, what about "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest"? When I thought about it, I realized my delight in the discovery of the music archive I posted yesterday was caused less by a satisfying of historical curiosity and more because Stevenson, when he had occasion to work a bit of music into a story, wrote as though he appreciated both a good tune and the skill required to turn it out well. Well, yes, he was a writer of fiction and so could make his characters say whatever they ought, not necessarily what he was believing in his own mind, but he was, for my money, accurate on the subject and. . .aw, I'll just come out and say it. To borrow a word from Alan Breck, I'm unco fond of the piping bits--like that scene from Catriona where the selfsame Alan is describing how he passed his time while in hiding:

'And whiles I would make songs.'
'What were they about?' says I.
'O, about the deer and the heather,' says he, 'and about the ancient old chiefs that are all by with it long syne, and just about what songs are about in general. And then whiles I would make believe I had a set of pipes and I was playing. I played some grand springs, and I thought I played them awful bonny; I vow whiles that I could hear the squeal of them!'

Stevenson himself said, on the subject of writing: "The right kind of thing should fall out in the right kind of place; the right kind of thing should follow; and not only the characters talk aptly and think naturally, but all the circumstances in a tale answer one to another like notes in music. The threads of a story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web, the characters fall from time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature, which stamps the story home like an illustration."* In his own writing, such illustrations are far from lacking, but one of my lasting favourites is "In Balquhidder" from Kidnapped. If you click the beginning below, it should take you to a page where you can finish out the chapter and decide its merits for yourself. But a story stamped "home like an illustration," or no, the details are delightful--the picture of the two enemies nearly running into each other at the door, the descriptions of the playing, especially the "warblers," which would almost have to be crunluaths, by the details set out, even the remark: "And he had no thought but for the music," is a perfect summation of the effect of a piobaireachd. Not as visually memorable, but the bit where Alan and Robin are debating whether they should eat before playing is rich. . .or at least somehow it comes back to haunt you when you find yourself first up some chilly morning, in a solo competition with nothing more hearty than a cup of Arco coffee to encourage you: "I havenae broken bread for near upon ten hours..."

*"A Gossip on Romance" (1882)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

'Ay, ye have music'

Some months ago--indeed, over a year ago, now, I mentioned that Robert Louis Stevenson (the same ubiquitous Stevenson) had a fondness for music, playing the flageolet and the piano. Here, however, is an impressive site that does a good deal more than mention it, having transcriptions of some of the tunes RLS wrote or collected. It requires a bit of scrolling, which is well worth it, especially on the home page where you can get a look at a jam session in the South Seas, including views of two French flageolets which seem to have very little finger room in relation to their size. (There was a copy of the same picture in the Stevenson Museum when I was there last month, and I did end up making several trips back and forth between it and Stevenson's (English-style) flageolet which was on display in the other room. I never did quite figure out how it worked; the fingering looked straightforward enough, but the keys were intimidating.)

Among the tunes in the index, one particularly worth mentioning is "Over the Sea to Skye," an old tune to which Stevenson penned a set of his own particularly wistful words. His lyrics are available at the bottom of the page, along with the useful trivia that "Over the Sea to Skye" (or "Skye Boat Song," if that's what your band calls it) is pentatonic (at least in the setting he used)--and why.

So there's your music theory for the day. Furthermore, the list includes several good old Scottish tunes, as well as some classical pieces that look rather intriguing--or if you are, like me, just an abyssmal piano player, there is company for the misery, a line from a letter Stevenson wrote to his cousin: "I can fish along with either hand pretty jolly, but on putting them together I become like Martha careful and troubled."

One bit of music which doesn't seem to appear on the site is the tune mentioned late in Kidnapped: "At first I proposed I should give him for a signal the 'Bonnie House of Airlie*,' which was a favourite of mine; but he objected that as the piece was very commonly known, any ploughman might whistle it by accident; and taught me instead a little fragment of a Highland air, which has run in my head from that day to this, and will likely run in my head as I lie dying. . ." One could, of course, assume that Stevenson had generously left the tune to the imagination of the reader which, perhaps, was exactly what he did at the time. However, when he got around to writing Catriona, he, went to the trouble of inserting a footnote in David Balfour's voice: "A learned folklorist of my acquaintance hereby identifies Alan's air. It has been printed (it seems) in Campbell's Tales of the West Highlands, Vol. II, p.91." Which, thanks to Google Books, is this:

*A tune which gets its own page here.

Monday, January 10, 2011


It's a little late in the morning to label the Shetland reels here as "wake up tunes," but they are pretty sprightly!

The company that posted this video, Foot Stompin' Records, is a great one-stop shop for Orkney, Shetland, and Scottish music (including Gaelic singing, and various sorts of fine piping), and their shipping prices and times were quite reasonable for overseas orders, the last I checked. If you do the Facebook thing, you can "follow" them there, and get snippets of the latest traditional music news and releases; they have an email newsletter as well.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Eighth of January

After all, it's not every date that has a tune named after it. I've always found this one a rather cheerful bit of music, even without the benefit of clever uke-work.

The end of this page has a charming, innovative, and unexpectedly stately version of the tune, arranged for fingerstyle guitar; in fact, the arranger was kind enough to put up the tabs as well, in case anyone doesn't have enough winter projects already.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Something Short of Spring

Least the profusion of new growth might seem a bit out of place for two days after Christmas--I hadn't come close to a quota of mushroom pictures when the sun iced over, turning the landscape monochrome, like a black-and-white shot in bad lighting. . .and four or five hours later, everything was under four inches of snow.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Happy Epiphany!

Well here it is the twelfth day of Christmas by some reckonings, and the day after the twelfth by others, and here is a great lack of commentary (thanks to me) and a very lovely picture (thanks to Wikipedia, where you can read more about it.) But really, did you ever see so many flowers in a Christmas picture? Or an angel, calmly cradling the Star of Bethlehem between his hands? I think you could search many a year and find no match for so much wonder filling so small a space.