Boris Godunov

Boris GodunovI’m not sure why Boris Godunov, moves me like it does, but it has a curious, emotional effect on me. It’s a sprawling tragedy mixed with politics and betrayal, weighted down by brooding and scheming characters, a fickle mob, a holy fool, a ghost, an imposter as pretender to the throne, and the overthrow of a ruler – very Shakespearean. Or perhaps Machiavellian, in the negative sense of the word.

I’ve been listening to it, again, as background music while I work at home these past few days. And every now and then I stop to listen, and marvel at the boldness, the richness of the music,the strangeness of it.

I’ve actually been listening to both versions – the original from 1869 and the version revised by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1872. I’m at a loss to say which version I prefer. The original is shorter and darker, and feels dense and moody, but the revision was the first version I encountered and still holds a special place for me. Besides, it’s not exactly light itself. But I think I lean more to the revision simply for the extra material.

I can’t recall when I first heard it, but I think it was sometime in the early 1980s, around the time I was studying the history of the Soviet Union and its institutions. I may even have discovered Pushkin’s play – on which the opera is based – first, but that may be the chicken-and-egg question. Somewhere in my library, I still have that book, just as I have the CDs of the opera in my music collection. Pushkin’s 1831 work was apparently inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IV. But I cannot help but think of it as the Russian King Lear.

I recall driving down the road from work, in the ’80s, windows open on a summer afternoon, the opera blaring from the car in competition to the pop and rock blasting from the other drivers. I used to do that with the 1812 Overture, too. What a rebel, eh?

In general, I like opera, as I do most classical music, even if I’m the musical equivalent of a patzer when it comes to truly appreciating it. But Boris is somehow different from other operas.
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432 vs 440Hz: Science or Codswallop?

A432 vs A440Canadian band Walk Off the Earth posted excitedly on Facebook that they had just recorded a new song. Great. I like WOTE and look forward to their new song.

What was really different about that notice was that they also said they had changed their instruments from the standard A440 to A432 tuning, and it made a huge difference to them:

For all the music nerds out there, you might want to look into this. This has not been 100% proven but the evidence is building. When we were in the studio recording our latest album “Sing It All Away”, we decided to experiment with recording our songs in A=423Hz and also Standard A=440Hz. When we compared the 2 different tunings we unanimously chose the 432 tuning as the one that made us feel better. Hence, our album was performed and recorded in this obscure tuning.
Anyway, this is a cool read and if you’re feeling fancy, try tuning your guitar to 432 and give it a jam. You might feel the vibrations of Mother Nature in your soul!

Do you smell woo hoo in that? What difference would a mere 8Hz make? After all, it’s barely audible; a mere 1/6th of a tone.

Plenty, according to some. It’s become one of those internet true believers’ issues. But is it real or just hogwash? Objective reality or merely subjective? Let’s start with a little history and some science (and not the woo hoo Mother Nature stuff…).

A440 means that the middle A (A above middle C, or A4) is tuned to produce a note at the frequency 440Hz. One Hertz or 1Hz is one cycle per second. Your typical North American electrical current is 60Hz. The range of human hearing is roughly 20Hz to 20KHz (20,000Hz), but we are most sensitive in the range between 1K and 4KHz (some reports say 2-5KHz) – much higher than either A432 or A440.

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Kanile’a Islander GL6

GL6What a difference two strings make. Late last week, I traded my Jupiter Creek steel-stringed baritone, solid-body uke for one of these Kanile’a nylon-stringed GL6 “guitar-leles” which the company calls a “guilele.”

It’s really a short-scale guitar tuned like a ukulele: a fourth higher. More like a requinto than a uke.

Kanile’a says of the GL6 line:

Our GL6 is a hybrid instrument that we developed bringing the convenience of the ‘ukuleles’ size with the playability that guitar players love. This instrument has our unique Super Tenor body in combination with our 20 inch scale, joined at the body on the 16th fret with 22 frets total.

Now I’m trying to remember all the chords, the fingering, the techniques I used when I played guitar. Boy, what a difference those extra strings make! And BTW, the Islander model isn’t one of the  company’s high-end models: it’s a modestly-priced instrument.

I played guitar from around 1965 until 2008, when I took up ukulele. And that’s all I’ve played since. You get used to the size and scale pretty quickly.

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Updated Ukulele Songbook

ukuleleEven though our local uke group, CPLUG, is not currently meeting, the songbook has not died. I have updated it with new arrangements and made a few editorial changes to the older content this past fall and winter. I, of course, continue to play the ukulele every day.

If you don’t know this songbook, it’s a mix of more than 100 tunes ranging from traditional folk music to the 1980s, most of them arranged by me, with some that include my modifications of other people’s arrangements.

There are some songs with more than one version – either the song in two keys or an easy and a jazzy version. That makes for more than 120 arrangements, all with chords indicated by a letter and a graphic chord chart showing finger placements.

I will continue to add songs, but the songbook is already quite large (252 pages). Possibly it will require starting a second book. Most of what I add in future will be from the same eras – music I know and love. There isn’t anything post-90 simply because it’s not music I play nor am familiar with.

I am also learning new tunes and remembering old ones from my guitar days, as I do so, I will add them to the collection.

Of late, I’ve been listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen, and reading his biography, which inspires me to play more of his music, so expect a few more arrangements of his tunes to appear. Plus I’ve found a source of song sheets from the 20s and 30s that offers music I don’t know but think would be fun to learn.

You can download a PDF of the latest version of the songbook here. And if you’re interested in rekindling our ukulele group, please contact me.

Click the ‘continue’ button to read a list of the songs to date.

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Why Do We Make Music?

MusicMusick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
‘Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv’d the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg’d
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?

William Congreve (1670 – 1729) in his play, The Mourning Bride (1697).

Why have humans made music from the earliest times of our species? The oldest known bone flute is more than 40,000 years old. But a Neanderthal hyoid bone shows humans could speak 20 millennia before then, and that means they could probably sing, too. Steven Mithen hypothesized just that in his 2004 book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body.

Mithen opens his book with the words, “The propensity to make music is the most mysterious, wonderful, and neglected feature of humankind…” Liisa Ukkola, researcher at the University of Helsinki and Sibelius Academy, said of a recent study on the genetic basis of musical aptitude,

Music is social communication between individuals… music perception and creativity in music are linked to the same phenotypic spectrum of human cognitive social skills, like human bonding and altruism… We have shown for the first time in the molecular level that music perception has an attachment creating impact.

Clearly the urge to make music has been with humans since the beginning. Why, is, of course, open to debate. Wikipedia notes:

Some suggest that the origin of music likely stems from naturally occurring sounds and rhythms. Human music may echo these phenomena using patterns, repetition and tonality. Even today, some cultures have certain instances of their music intending to imitate natural sounds. In some instances, this feature is related to shamanistic beliefs or practice.It may also serve entertainment (game) or practical (luring animals in hunt) functions.

Then it adds, almost as an afterthought:

Music evokes strong emotions and changed states of awareness.

Congreve said it best: Music has charms to sooth a savage breast/To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak. But emotions are, despite all the study done on them, notoriously difficult to categorize in a way everyone agrees on. Much like music.

I often ponder why music matters, why I feel compelled at times to play, to create, to sing, to listen. Why one song moves me to tears, another to joy, another to dance and yet another to sing along. And why does some music leave me cold and unmoved?

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Stop Whining, Elvis Haters

DilbertDon’t people who hate Collingwood’s Elvis Festival ever get tired of whining and bitching about it? I guess not. There’s another whining letter about it in this week’s Connection. More than twenty years the festival has been running successfully and they still haven’t figured it out yet.

Just because you don’t like the event, doesn’t mean others don’t. In fact, tens of thousands of people really enjoy it and come from all over the province, from nearby US states and even from overseas to attend it. We cannot all like the same things and we certainly cannot all like what little lightens your narrow little world. Let others enjoy themselves even if you don’t.

Just because you can’t see the great economic value of the event doesn’t mean others don’t. The restaurants and hotels are full, so are a lot of shops. Open your eyes: this event brings in money for the town’s businesses. No, it doesn’t benefit everyone: no event on the planet will do that. But it benefits a great number of local businesses who employ people. Let them enjoy the trade and the customers even if you don’t.

Just because you don’t want to make the effort to see what it’s all about, to enjoy a day downtown with the crowd doesn’t mean it should stop. Sit at home in your darkened room if you must. Wiser, less curmudgeonly folk accept that for three or four days a lot of other folk are going to have fun here, so they join them. or not: but stop bitching about those who do.

I get so tired hearing people whinge about Elvis, whinge about other people enjoying themselves. Whinge about an event that is good for the town but because they don’t like it, they don’t want it here. No one can have fun when they don’t want to. What a selfish, narrow-minded attitude.

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Musical Sources

Old sheet musicTrying learn a song from an old songbook or sheet music can be difficult unless you already know how the song goes. Many of our group are introduced to the music in our songbook only through my version when I play in at our meetings. And, I admit, my version may not always reflect the original accurately.

It’s good to be able to hear the song so you can  appreciate how it is arranged and where the chord changes will be.

Here are a few of the online resources I recommend, you can go to where music from the 1920s and 30s is available to listen to or even download:

Of course, you can also look for a song on YouTube. Keep in mind when you’re working from old sheet music that most of the songs were not originally intended for ukulele, and may be written in a key that is difficult to play in. To simplify and correct the arrangements, the chords shown in the sheet music may not always be the ones we use in our own songbook.

NB: This is a copy of what I posted on the CPLUG blog.

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Defining Classical Music

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uT3SBzmDxGk]
MusicI listen to classical music a lot, even more than before since the arrival of the new classical FM station in Collingwood. But while my listening at home is through a selected collection of CDs, the content played on radio – internet radio included – is more eclectic. Airplay often includes soundtracks, music from musicals, even some modern pieces (the other day I heard a well-known tenor singing a somewhat romanticized version of Besame Mucho in Spanish, with orchestral backup).

While I don’t object to this mix – in fact I enjoy it most of the time – it did get me wondering what the definition of “classical” music really is. I only recently discovered from my internet searches that the very term is relatively new, and the first reference to music as ‘classical’ only dates to 1836, and it was in specific reference to a period that included Baroque music, although we use the term much more broadly today. Wikipedia isn’t helpful because it simply muddies the waters:

Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music (both liturgical and secular). It encompasses a broad span of time from roughly the 11th century to the present day. The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common practice period.

I have a personal definition, as we all do, but it’s murky: when I was pondering that question, I realized I find it difficult to express it. I can list composers, conductors, singers, and musicians whom I would label “classical” – Bach and Yo Yo Ma, for example. But what of the music itself?

Among my collection of music is Gregorian chant, Medieval songs, Baroque suites, Enlightenment symphonies, Industrial Age operas, Victorian operettas and post-war tone poems – a range of about a millennium. All of which I vaguely categorizes as ‘classical.’

I have in that collection works by John Cage He’s contemporary avant-garde, but is he classical? Wikipedia’s page allows for a broad temporal range that would allow him to fit in but is his style suitable?

The major time divisions of classical music are as follows: the early music period, which includes the Medieval (500–1400) and the Renaissance (1400–1600) eras; the Common practice period, which includes the Baroque (1600–1750), Classical (1750–1830), and Romantic eras (1804–1910); and the 20th century (1901–2000) which includes the modern (1890–1930) that overlaps from the late 19th-century, the high modern (mid 20th-century), and contemporary or postmodern (1975–2000) eras, the last of which overlaps into the 21st-century.

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Ukulele Workshop Today

Manitoba HalI just returned from Orangeville where Broadway Music hosted a two-and-a-half hour musical workshop this Saturday by Manitoba Hal today (which will be followed by his concert tonight from 8-11 p.m. – try to attend, if you can: he’s very talented).

Very informative and well worth attending. Interestingly, at least half the participants were my age, and I didn’t see anyone in the classroom under 40. Perhaps you have to be mature in order to really appreciate music this way, not simply as the soundtrack in the background.

Hal spoke to the group about a basic approach to understanding music theory – chords, chord construction, scales and the all-important Circle of Fifths. He also spoke about how to put it all together to both make music and to figure out song arrangements for yourself (something dear to my own heart as I struggle to arrange songs for our local group).

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Revised CPLUG Ukulele Song Book

Ukulele moviesI spent the past couple of weeks diligently working on updating and expanding our Collingwood Public Library Ukulele Group (CPLUG) songbook. I’m happy to announce it is completed – and that I can get back to my regular blogging.

I had put together two smaller songbooks previously for group use, as well as sent along several individual song sheets over the past year. Over the time since the group began, I’ve been updating my own style and design and been looking at other groups’ songbooks for ideas. As a result, there was a certain inconsistency between formats and designs. This is a project I’ve wanted to get done for the past few months, but other commitments and writing occupied my time until recently.

The result  – finished only this morning – is a new, 204-page, thoroughly revised and updated songbook that not only includes all of the group’s past songs, but also many new pieces for us to play in 2015. It’s easier to read and follow, and better organized. It has a mix of musical genres, styles and levels, from beginner to advanced.

Here’s the full list of songs in the revised book:

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The Book List Game

Classic booksIn a recent story titled “Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read,” the eminent astrophysicist listed his top eight book titles – from a Reddit conversation that was going on back in December, 2011. Here are the books he chose back then (check the linked story above for his comments on why he picked these titles):

  1. The Bible;
  2. The System of the World, by Isaac Newton;
  3. On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin;
  4. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift;
  5. The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine;
  6. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith;
  7. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu;
  8. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.

I certainly can’t argue with his choices as worthy of being read, although they wouldn’t all be my top choices. I have all of them but the Newton on my bookshelves.  This list was much discussed at the time it was first released. Open Culture commented:

The list, which has generated a great deal of interest and discussion, leads you to think about the very nature of not just what constitutes essential reading, but what defines an “intelligent person.” Should every such individual really read any book in particular? Does it matter if others already acknowledge these books as essential, or can they have gone thus far undiscovered?… he makes the perhaps daring implication that an intelligent person must connect to a widely shared culture, rather than demonstrating their brainpower by getting through volume upon little-read volume, written in the most labyrinthine language, expounding on the most abstract subject matter, or grappling with the knottiest philosophical problems.

A followup discussion with other recommended titles was published by Open Culture in April 2014. And in republishing the list again after two years, it has re-opened the discussion in 2015. To which I weigh in, first by commenting on his choices.

I have a suspicion that the Bible was slipped in as a political sop to prevent him from being targeted as a godless atheist or some such name by the fundamentalists. Can’t have non-religious scientists. While I know many people who have read some part of it, I have met few who are not in the religion business (ministers, priests and rabbis) who have read it in its entirety. I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, either, but have read a good deal of it in several translations.

Not that it’s a bad book to read. It formed the foundation for Western culture, law and morality until the mid-19th century and still plays a vital role in it, despite the trend to secularism these past 150 years. Just that it’s not in the same intellectual grouping as the rest and makes me wonder what his criteria were for the rest.

Actually I recommend all people should read the core of the world’s religious and spiritual literature – the Dhammapada, for example, is one of my favourite titles. The Bhagavad Gita, the Diamond Sutra, the Koran, the Tao Teh Ching, the Nag Hammadi codex, the Talmud, the Kalamas Sutra… we should all read these books so we can better understand the faiths of others and engage in informed discussion about them – not simply pursue ideologies or knee-jerk, media-induced reactions.

But I also recommend people read Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens to get a look at alternative views on religion. Having no religion should be an intellectual decision, not a puff of lifestyle negativity, like a diet fad.

And that raises the question about philosophy: why are there no works by major philosophers – no Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Sartre, Voltaire… although one can suggest that Machiavelli was somewhat of one, at least a political philosopher. And why not recommend The Discourses – a more comprehensive and broader approach to power and politics – instead of The Prince?

Similarly, Gulliver’s Travels is a marvellous political and social satire that still has resonance and humour today despite almost 300 years since it was first written. But it is written in a style that is no longer popular, its humour may be too dated (and obscure) for some, and can be seen as rather too rambling. Don Quixote is as much a satire on the human condition, so why was it ignored? Was there nothing more modern that was worthy?

Choosing one work of fiction from the millions of books written is tough. Is Swift a better choice for the sole novelist than Joyce? Or Tolstoy? Hugo? Herbert? Clavell? Austen? Shelley? Melville? Conrad? Clancy? Cervantes? Dumas? Woolf? Lawrence? Achebe? Orwell? Melville? Hardy? Dickens? Each writes about the human condition, although not necessarily as a satire. And which of their works to include? Why would you pick Anna Karenina over War and Peace?  Pride and Prejudice over Sense and Sensibility?

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Classical music matters even more today

JS Bach cartoonThe official launch of the new Classical FM 102.9 radio station in Collingwood this past weekend reminded me of my own past history with classical music, but also why it matters so much to have classical music in our lives. And why we need to keep that cultural lifeline to our musical past alive and active.

Classical music binds us to our past, to our civilization and our culture. Music reflects the styles and tastes of the era in which it was composed, as do art and literature. And while some people may think it stuffy, much of it was actually the pop music of its day.

I was brought up in the 1950s and early 60s listening to light classical fare at home, but without any specific interest or focus on musical style. My parents liked the music, but I can’t recall any particular era or style they liked more than any other. They listened to a smorgasbord of what we’d call “easy listening” music and it was hard for a young boy to distinguish between a piece by Mantovani, Mitch Miller or a classical quartet.

(I, of course, was plugged into my crystal radio at night listening to rock and roll music, and later on my two-transistor portable radio… my parents’ music seemed old-fashioned compared to Dion, Elvis and the Beatles.)

We didn’t discuss classical music at home: it just was there, part of the aural landscape. We had a few of those “popular hits of classical music” albums on vinyl for the 33 rpm stereo player, and a collection of pieces on 78 rpm on old record player (I think it had been my grandparents’). The latter was in the basement where I would sit and play the music for hours, running through the 78s while I read books and comic books.

We had a lot of operetta, too, in the 78s, mostly Gilbert & Sullivan. I learned some of it by osmosis. I can still sing the words of some of the songs I heard then, too. My father used to sing many of the songs in the car when we drove to the cottage or to visit my grandparents. When I was a a lad, I served a term…. still makes me smile.

But I never really appreciated classical music per se until many years later. In the late 1960s, my then-girlfriend and her friends at university were all cultural snobs; at least they seemed that way to a hippie-ish youth playing guitar pop-blues-rock-folk music. But they taught me to like – and soon love – a wide range of classical composers and pieces.

I learned from them; I learned to like the music because that’s what my girlfriend liked. It’s amazing and amusing what love does for a young man.

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