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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Who By Fire

I’ve been reading a biography of Leonard Cohen, recently: the 2012 I’m Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons. It’s an interesting journey through the life and thoughts of an exquisite artist who is, by nature, somewhat reclusive and stays out of the spotlight, but is deeply dedicated to his art.

I don’t normally read “star” bios or autobiographies – frankly they often seem contrived and the lives portrayed, no matter how gussied up in prose, merely shallow. Most of them I categorize as “who cares?” books.

Even those musicians I respect and admire have little to keep me turning pages. I struggled with Keith Richards’ autobio and never finished it. In Eric Clapton’s bio I got through a mere chapter. I read the two-volume bio of Elvis, but it took months to complete. I have read a few Beatles’ bios, mostly because they were such a huge influence on me when I was young. Most of these books, however, bore me with their similarities and unbridled adulation.

But not this one. I was glued to it (as much as I can be glued to any one book when I’m always reading a dozen at a time).

Cohen interests me for many reasons. First, he’s Canadian and that colours his work and his life for me in ways an American or British artist cannot. Not many Canadian writers or musicians garner the praise and awards he has.

Second, he was first a poet and novelist before a songwriter, and I have an appreciation – bordering on worship – of both talents in others. I read his poems and books when I was a sales rep for McClelland and Stewart, in the mid-70s, and even met him once at a party thrown for M&S authors. I still have several of his books in my library.

Third, he eschewed the glamour and glitter that permeates most stars’ lives and lived plainly, simply and austerely. I respect people who do not feel the need to wear their money on their sleeve. He makes himself known by his literary and musical achievements, not by his bling.

Fourth, he studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, and was even ordained a Buddhist monk – a dedication and effort I can only admire from afar; my dabblings in Buddhism seem like a splash through a rain puddle in comparison. Yet the grandson of a respected rabbi also retained his Jewish faith and culture.

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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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