04/18/14

Spoon River: Smith, Goodman and Masters



VERY well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,
Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,
You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.
While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.
Edgar Lee Masters: Thomas Rhodes; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

What is is about poetry or musical lyrics that moves us so differently than just prose? So thoroughly? So deeply it can make grown men cry?

Why can we remember lyrics of songs we heard decades ago, poems we learned in grade school, yet can’t recall what we had for breakfast or what was on the shopping list? Lyrics, perhaps, are different from poetry in that they are interwoven with the rhythm, melody and harmonies of the song, which itself carves a rut in our memories. But both stick with us better than mere words.

Why can a song send shivers up our spine, raise the hair on our arms, sweep us away with its emotions, helpless like driftwood on a river? Why can it dredge up those emotions years later, outside any context?

(Listening to Trio Los Panchos playing La Malagueña Salerosa today brought goosebumps to my arms… but almost any version of that song does that. Perhaps it comes from hearing it played live, by buskers, along the malecon in a warm, romantic February evening in Mexico… and today, years later, it has the power to transport me there.)*

In The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin writes,

One characteristic of poetry and lyrics, compared to ordinary speech and writing, is compression of meaning. meaning tends to be densely packed, conveyed in fewer words than we would normally use in conversation or prose. The compression of meaning invites us to interpret, to be participants in the unfolding of the story. The best poetry – the best art in any medium – is ambiguous. Ambiguity begets participation. poetry slows us down from the way we normally use language; we read and hear poetry and stop thinking about the language the way we normally do; we slow down in order to contemplate all the different reverberations of meaning it contains.

Which strikes me as a singularly catching insight. I thought about those words recently while transcribing some Bob Dylan songs for our local ukulele group. Dylan is a master of ambiguity. Which makes his songs so much more memorable, I suppose. How odd, how amazing, I thought, that I can still remember the words and chords to his songs I learned to play 30 or 40 years ago.

And they are songs that have no particularly deep emotional contact for me – not necessarily songs I listened to with a lover, shared with a friend or simply found emotionally fulfilling. But I can simply pick up a uke and strum out Memphis Blues Again, It Ain’t Me, If Not for You, I Shall Be Released and The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest or a dozen others without giving much thought to words or music: they just spill out like old, familiar tunes, even though I haven’t likely played them for years.

It’s like the music is a meme; an intellectual virus that binds itself to your DNA. Like herpes; one it takes hold it never leaves and unfolds itself when called out. How and why does it do that? It’s the subject of many books, including Levitin’s.

I HAD fiddled all at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away.
Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.
There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.
Edgar Lee Masters: Blind Jack; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

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04/9/14

Oooh, shiny….


Godin MultiukeReligious texts are full of admonitions about avoiding temptation. The Lord’s Prayer tells God to “lead us not into temptation.” Fat lot of good that does. We can find the way ourselves, thank you.

Not only do we lead ourselves there, we go willingly and eagerly. Pushing and shoving aside those who stand in our way to reach temptation. Ever see the crowds in the mall on Boxing Day?

Psychological texts, magazines and sites are full of secular advice on resisting temptation, too. It’s our brain’s “executive control” functions that  fail use when we succumb to our impulses. And fail they do, with disconcerting frequency.

Religious temptation, Wikipedia tells us, is the inclination to sin. Well, I can’t get into the whole notion of sin, relativism cultural and social bias, and situational ethics here. Maybe another post. For now, I’ll leave it to the theologians to wrestle that particular set of demons into the mud.

I’m talking about the average daily, run-of-the-mill temptation, the sort  that makes you pull out your wallet when you come across an unexpected sale on power tools, when you went to the store for a bag of potting soil. The sort that makes you go to the grocery store and come back with mangoes, exotic cheese, avocado and ice cream instead of just the milk you went to get. The sort that makes you go onto Amazon’s website just to look up something and end up ordering a half-dozen books and that first West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band CD you’ve always wanted in your collection (okay, okay, but I had the other two already so I had to complete the set).

Temptation, Wikipedia says,

…is the desire to perform an action that one may enjoy immediately or in the short term but will probably later regret for various reasons: legal, social, psychological (including feeling guilt), health-related, economic, etc… actions which indicate a lack of self control.

Godin MultiukeIt’s tough, you know. We live in a rich, consumer-oriented society in which we are bombarded daily by thousands of ads all screaming “Buy me!” Promising a better, richer, more fulfilling life if we just give in and pull out our wallets. We are born and bred to be consumers.

We live in a world full of music stores replete with ukuleles just hanging there on the walls singing like sirens when you walk by. Hear that? That’s the voice of a solid-koa Koaloha sweetly calling my name… and that dulcet voice? That’s a Martin… Oooh, what’s that shiny one?

And then when we get the credit card bill, we start regretting it. But how to resist? Should we even try? Are we doomed to fail? But… is life to short to live without another ukulele?

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde has his character, Lord Henry, say,

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.

And when you do, inevitably, yield, you are then beset with those nagging questions, the voice of your conscience nagging, scolding. What was I thinking? Why did I do it? Why did I buy it? What will she think?

She being the spouse, of course (at least in my case). The one who sits in judgement on the new toy, the new pet, car, TV set, ukulele, motorcycle, personal watercraft, riding lawn mower, that bag of specialty cheeses… did I mention ukulele? Did I mention it was shiny?

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03/23/14

Thinking about a new ukulele


Kala resonator uke
I’ve been thinking seriously of adding another ukulele to the herd. A tenor resonator, or resophonic, like the Kala shown above. That’s the re-designed 2014 model.

I’ve played earlier models, including the 2013 version with the strings attached to a tailpiece (see photo below, left). The 2014 design (shown above) anchors the strings back into the cover plate, which I expect will be a better design; it looks cleaner, too. But I believe the biggest change is that the through-the-plate model has more tension on the biscuit (see below). And I like Kala products, too.

Earlier Kala resoI really like resonator instruments and currently own a Soares resonator tenor guitar. It’s lovely; all-metal body, but a heavy beast (20lb or so)

I owned a Republic all-metal reso uke, a few years back, but it was concert scale. Interesting uke, but I didn’t keep it. I loved the look, but I don’t like concert scale as much as tenor, and I think that concert scale strings don’t put enough tension on the biscuit to make the cone work effectively. However, it gave me some ideas about improving reso uke output.

In the physics of guitars and ukuleles, the more tension on the saddle, the greater the energy passed along through the bridge to the sounding surface (top). Thus the greater the tension, the louder the sound and the greater the sustain.

A tenor uke has more string tension than a concert, and because of this it is this is generally louder and richer in tone than a shorter scale uke.

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03/18/14

CPLUG songs and more


CPLUG
CPLUG – the Collingwood Public Library Ukulele Group – has so far proven a very popular group. We started with 17 people at our first monthly meeting and more have attended each time: 34 people came out last month! I’m hoping to continue this trend and see as many this week at our next meeting (March 19).

You can read about our group in this newspaper story, here. We are dedicated to enjoying making and learning music in a friendly, supportive community group setting.

We need help! We need songs, song leaders, helpers, tuners and ukuleles. And of course ukulele enthusiasts.

Songs and song leaders: I’ve been choosing and arranging the songs so far, laid out in PowerPoint for projection on the big screen so everyone can see the lyrics and chords. We would benefit by getting other arrangements of different songs, however, and not always be bound by my particular choices. Have some favourite tunes? Get them ready to share – or bring in the song book or sheet so we can discuss how to get it ready.

Song leaders are those folk who feel confident in standing up in front of the group and leading the rest in the song – explaining the chords the rhythm, the changes and any techniques. And, of course, singing.

Song leaders will also be able to take over the group if I am called away to meetings or conferences. I can offer advice and help getting the songs set up for projection, if you need it.

Helpers are people who can aid the newcomers and beginners getting tuned, fitting their fingers to a chord shape, helping them hold the instrument or figure out strumming. We already have a couple of great helpers, but a few more would be ideal. Share your knowledge and experience.

Tuners: not everyone has (but should own) a digital tuner. Please bring yours so we can get through the initial tuning a little faster.

Ukuleles: every meeting, some people have shown up without one. Some hope to be able to borrow the library’s few ukes, but they are, so far, booked ahead of time. I’ve been bringing a few extras, but last meeting we simply didn’t have enough for everyone. If you have an extra ukulele or two, and feel comfortable letting someone else play it, please bring it along.

I’ve been asked by CPLUG members where people can buy ukuleles. That’s not always easy in a small town. I’ve purchased most of mine online.

Locally, you can order one from Blue Mountain Music, but they are a small operation with limited in-store stock, so you’re usually buying one sight unseen.

Broadway Music, in Orangeville, has a fair selection and isn’t too far away. I’ve also seen a fair selection of mid-to-low end brands in music stores in Barrie and Owen Sound. And, of course, there’s always the Twelfth Fret in Toronto. Or the Ottawa Folklore Centre and Folkways stores in then Kitchener-Guelph area). If anyone knows of other sources, please let me know.

Larger urban centres tend to have a better selection, of course., but nowhere near the range of brands and models available online. Canada seems about a decade behind the USA in commercial trends, so music stores up here are not always aware of the uke’s popularity.

You can also buy them online, even get a good used on from the marketplace on Fleamarketmusic.com or ukuleleunderground.com/forum although that’s a caveat emptor option when buying from individuals.

If you want advice on brands, models, sizes, strings and so on, please ask at any meetings. You might also ask another member to try his or her uke to see it you like it. The best way to choose one is to try playing several.

Anyway, here is the song sheet* from February’s CPLUG session, and March’s upcoming CPLUG session. Both are in PDF format. If you want to get these in email before every meeting, contact me to join the CPLUG email list. Here is the chord book, for letter-sized printing.

Update: By request, April will be a Bob Dylan month.

~~~~~
* All images and lyrics are from online sources and for entertainment purposes only, not for commercial reproduction. Photo courtesy the Collingwood Public Library.

01/12/14

The Music of the Templars


Templar chantFor the past 25 years, I have had a mysterious page in Latin, held in a cheap picture frame, and stored in a closet for many years.

It’s a two-sided page from a book, printed in black and red letters. I bought it at a used-book store in Toronto back when I lived there and frequented such stores. I rediscovered it last week when cleaning out my workroom to create a ukulele space.

The page is roughly 21 x 14 inches (53 x 35 cm) and in very good condition, for its age. It’s also quite beautiful, especially to anyone like me who is interested in the history of printing.

I’ve taken some photos today, and posted them here. Click on the images for a link to a larger picture. The paper looks yellow in the photos, but that’s the bad lighting in my room: it’s really a creamy white.

Today I decided to do some research into it and learn more about this page. Is it authentic? if so, where did it come from and what does it contain? And what was its purpose?

A small sticker on the back of the frame gives the only notes I have about its provenance, and they are not properly written:

Antiphoriu hmnorem scancte
Romane ecclesie
Copletu
Impressum venetis
cu privlegio MDIII

Templar chantWhich appears to say it is a page cut from an “antiphonarium” (or antiphonary) from Venice, dated from 1503. That’s 510 years ago, a decade before Machiavelli wrote his famous work, The Prince, in nearby Florence.

Venice was one of the first Italian cities to have a printing press, starting in 1469, barely 20 years after Gutenberg’s press was built in Mainz. It became on of the Renaissance’s hottest spots for printing and had many printshops – and professional editors. More on that, below.

In my research, I found a blogger who also bought one of these pages in Toronto around the same time I did, probably from the same store: Byzantine Calvinist. His post and photos date from 2006, however. I haven’t identified the exact content of his page, but it seems to be the Order of the Mass or perhaps from the Epiphany service.

He writes the sticker notes as:

ANTIPHONARIU hmnorem sancte
Romane ecclesie copletu. . . .
Impressum Venetijs cu
priuilegio. . . .M.d.iij
(Venice 1503)

Another page from what seems the same book showed up on National Book Auctions, lot 6460, in late 2012.
Templar chant

Templar chant

Templar chant


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12/17/13

Selling the electric upright bass


Ergo electric upright 5-string bassMy first experience playing a bass guitar came when I was asked to join a local garage band in the mid-1960s. I was learning rhythm guitar back then, inspired by the Beatles and the wave of British pop bands that flooded the airwaves from around 1962.

But they already had two of those. They didn’t have a bass player, though, so I became the bass player. Not a terribly good one, mind you, but it was a fun experience. As soon as I left, a year or two later, I went back to rhythm guitar. But bass stuck with me and I’ve tinkered with it on and off since then.

In the 1980s, when I had an apartment full of musical instruments and recording devices, and jammed almost every weekend, I bought a couple of bass guitars to fool around with. I also needed something different to play when I went to a jam that already had half-a-dozen guitarists.

My favourite was a short-scale (23″? 25″?) Supra bass. Wish I’d never sold it, but that was 20+ years ago. Ab antiquo, as it were.

I started tinkering with bass again in 2011, when I bought an Epiphone Viola bass, a close clone of the Hofner bass Paul McCartney used in the Beatles, but a shorter scale.  Beautiful instrument. It was on sale as a ‘scratch and dent’ item at the local Blue Mountain Music store, but I couldn’t see a single blemish.

I’d been playing ukulele for more than three years by then, but when I saw it in the store, suddenly I had an urge to play bass again. I got it and a small practice amp.

Shortly after that, I picked up a used Ibanez six-string bass from a seller on Kijiji. Six string basses are oddities to me, but I’ve always loved playing odd instruments, so I added it to the collection. I didn’t play it a lot, though, after the initial plucking. Mostly I found the Epi easier to play and I didn’t want unplayed instruments cluttering the house. Pretty soon, I sold it.

I started looking at electric upright basses a couple of months after that, mostly out of curiosity. Fretless, upright basses have always sounded beautiful to me and I’ve been a big fan of Charlie Mingus for decades.

But size-wise, they are just way too big for my little house. Susan would be most unhappy were I to fill our already-crowded dining room with a fat bass. A loud bass, too. Not exactly something I could plunk away at without disturbing her. At least with an electric bass, I can play without amplification, or with headphones.

So the alternative  was an electric upright bass. But I knew as much about EUB as most people know about quantum mechanics or the mysteries of the apostrophe. I needed to do some research. I joined bass forums and asked the typical newbie questions: what to look for, brands, sizes, etc. Did I want a flat fretboard or radiussed?
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