Friday, July 27, 2007

Harry Partch - The Adapted Guitars

Today's instruments are a bit confusing because Partch shifted the roman numerals he used to name them during his life.

Partch bought and altered his first Adapted Guitar (pictured here thanks to in 1934 and used it to compose and perform his Americana works Barstow and U.S. Highball. He fitted the guitar with high, stainless-steel frets on a brass plate that was screwed into the neck to aid in tuning the guitar to just intonation.

In 1945, he adapted a guitar with a smooth and narrow fingerboard by adding pinheads and brass rivets and filing them down to be equal to the the fingerboard's level.

That same year, Partch adapted a Hawaiian guitar, complete with a plastic rod to make gliding pitches possible. While the six strings of the first two guitars were tuned in three pairs of octaves (2/1), each a third (5/4) apart, the ten strings of the third guitar are tuned according to one of Partch's hexads.

Obviously he couldn't call all three instruments "Adapted Guitar," so he started calling the second guitar Adapted Guitar I, the Hawaiian guitar Adapted Guitar II, and the original guitar Adapted Guitar III. But in 1956, he gave up on the second guitar and renamed the original guitar Adapted Guitar I.

Confused? I thought so. All you need to remember is that Partch ended up with two guitars - Adapted Guitar I, which was the original and has six strings, and Adapted Guitar II, which is based on a Hawaiian guitar and has ten strings.

Here's an excerpt from Partch's Barstow performed on Adapted Guitar I:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Writing a Book is Like...

Writing a book is a lonely endeavor. You sit in front of a computer terminal (or blank sheet of favor, whatever is easiest on your hands or creative muse) for hours on end, listening to the voices in your head and watching words dance across the page. Sometimes they dance to the tune you play for them and sometimes they resolutely perform the waltz when you are clearly playing a polka.

You can tell how lonely it gets sometimes just from the fact that I'm anthropomorphizing letters. I'm truly turning into my son who drives the "L" as a truck and brings the "B" to eat breakfast.

What interests me is how different the portrait of writing and academic life is in fiction than in real life. In the book I'm currently reading as an antidote to constantly thinking about Harry Partch, writing flows as quickly as thinking and much more eloquently, research yields new surprises and enlightening discoveries with each new document, and people around the world are interested in mundane topics and stake their lives upon them. Life as a professor is full of adulation from students and long chats in large, well-appointed offices. Universities are havens of learning and of knowledge where students diligently hunker over books in the library waiting for the day when they will be allowed to write on their chosen subjects.

Of course, it is almost exactly like this in my life.

In reality, most letters and documents are full of curious but ultimately useless information and an entire weekend in an archive can yield one piece of pertinent knowledge. When you tell people what your book's subject is they politely nod and go home to tell their families "you'll never believe what this guy I met is writing a book on!" Writing is oftentimes a slog, and an uphill one at that.

So why do it? Why, at the end of the day, can I sometimes not tell you how many hours I've actually spent writing? It must be the thrill of discovery. The book I'm reading has one thing exactly right - when you find that piece of history that illuminates everything you've been examining the entire world lights up. When you fall into a flow in writing and look back in wonderment that the words on the page came from your hand, you feel a deep satisfaction. And when your family, like mine, supports what you do and is interested in your subject and progress, you realize that your book will find its niche and bring something new into many people's hearts and minds.

In other words, as lonely as it has been in some ways researching and writing for a month, it is worth the trouble for the conversation I'm starting both with people I don't even know and the people closest to me. It is a period of loneliness that quickly opens into a vast dialogue that continues for years and proceeds in twists and turns you cannot imagine. That is what ultimately makes writing worthwhile.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

One Down, Seven To Go

My lack of posting here and instead applying my writing muse to my book has paid off. In the past two weeks, I've managed to rough out one complete chapter of my book on Harry Partch. I'll keep going tomorrow and see how far I can get in the what remains to me of the month, but for now I'm going to rest easy for a bit.

Of course, all this writing has meant I've not gotten my hands on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I have to content myself with my read-through of Half-Blood Prince in preparation for the new book.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sleepless Thoughts

We've long had sleep problems with Sam, as most of you know already. The past two nights we've gone back to our old ways. Sam is cutting a new tooth, and each tooth he cuts is an ordeal. He often gets a rash on his bottom and always runs a fever for the few days before it comes through. Night before last he got up a few times, but last night we thought we were prepared. We gave him ibuprofen and a cool bath before putting him down for the night.

It didn't work.

Around 1:30, Joy got up with a screaming Sam and soothed him back to sleep. 4:30 was my turn. Like most children, Sam finds his mom more comforting. I'm for play, so he has a harder time settling down for me. As I sat there, stroking his head, I was alternately furious with Sam (how dare he keep me up when I desperately need sleep so I can expound the importance of Harry Partch's hobo music to a world that desperately and achingly wants to know about it!) and sorry for him (he wanted to sleep so badly, but just couldn't).

Right now, he's up from a short nap and laying on the couch watching his Thomas the Tank Engine DVD for a little more quiet time. He looks so small and fragile nestled underneath a large blanket and surrounded by mountains of pillows. Looking at him now in the daytime, it is hard to imagine the flood of emotions that went through my head at 4:30 in the morning. I felt utterly helpless and overpoweringly angry and quietly frustrated and completely protective. Before we had Sam, I imagined an outpouring of love for the small innocent entrusted to me. Now I know that parental love is harder and deeper and infinitely more complex than I could ever imagine. And thankfully, I've begun not always beating myself over the head with the emotions I "shouldn't" have, but instead going with the flow and doing the best I can.

It isn't always easy at 4:30 in the morning, but I'm learning.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Comics Characters Revealed - Minstrel Maverick

Ah, it's been too long, sweet, random comic book characters. We've had a summer of Spiderman and Ghost-Rider on DVD, but we've all missed something special. Something like...

The Minstrel Maverick

I mean, really, can you ever come close to beating that name? He's a genteel balladeer...who kicks musical butt! Or perhaps he's a rogue Blackface performer who finds the minstrel show demeaning to minorities...and kicks musical butt! I find the connotations between the minstrel - either a Medieval-era wander songwriting or a 18th century American vaudeville show - and the maverick - variously unbranded cattle, a lone rebel, or Madonna's record label - semantically rich.

But in spite of that great name, you actually can come close to beating it once you learn that the Minstrel Maverick's real name was Hank "Harmony" Hayes. I suppose "Hank" was a bit butch for a traveling musician, so he went by "Harmony."

Anyway, the Minstrel Maverick first appeared in All-American Western #103 where he charmed the ladies, hung out with Blacksmith Bill (and perhaps Tanner Ted and Haberdasher Harry), and beat the bad guys with his guitar. That's right, instead of a weapon, good ole Harmony would bash people's heads in with his reinforced guitar. Those wimpy minstrels from the 1960s could have learned a thing or two from him if only his career had lasted that long.

Friday, July 13, 2007

My Son is a Fish

This summer, we decided to start Sam out swimming. So we've been taking him into the water almost every day this month. We'll let him stand in the shallow part and then will either put him in a floaty or take him out with us and encourage him to kick and paddle. We also have been trying to get him to put his head under water. I'll duck under and Joy will declare "Dada's under the water! Doesn't that look like fun?" Or Joy will submerge and I'll scream "Where's Mama? Sweet Lord, what happened to her?"

Yes, I'm already socking money away for Sam's therapy.

The other day, after we had taken our turns going under water, I asked Sam if it was his turn to go under water. To my surprise, he said "Sam's turn!" So I threw him up in the air and on a count of three, took him quickly under water.

When he came back up he said "More under water!"

When we tired of that game we went back to the shallow edge and let Sam work on walking in the water. He immediately threw his face in the water and pulled it back up, laughing the whole time.

We thought going under water would take a few weeks. Now what do we do with our fish of a son?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Audiation is F-N!

We've discovered this week that Sam is beginning to audiate.

While that might not seem like such a big deal, to musicians it is a vitally important skill that we have to develop. It's easiest to think of audiation like the inner monologue. Kids all go through a period where they say anything that pops into their heads. Take, for instance, when we ask Sam what an object is in one of his books. He'll look at it and say, "what is it? don't know. it's an elephant!" He thinks about the question and a possible answer and then spits out the right answer. We go through this process in our heads when we are older, but right now Sam doesn't carry on conversations with himself in his head; they all occur out loud.

It's the same way with music. We aren't born with the ability (and the curse) of getting songs stuck in our heads. We can't "hear" music in that way until we are trained to do so. Kindermusik works on this a lot, as do songs like "Bingo." Remember that one? You sing about the dog's name and progressively take out one letter, so B-I-N-G-O was his name-o becomes -I-N-G-O and --N-G-O and so on. When you sing it you hear the missing sound in your head in rhythm and then keep going.

Yesterday Sam was a little fussy before lunch, so I picked him up and sang a made-up song about us having pizza for lunch while rocking back and forth with him. Sam loved it so much that at lunch, he kept singing the song. And at one point, he even rocked back and forth in perfect time while nodding his head. He was clearly singing "pizza for lunch" in his head.

An exciting day for us, but one Sam will look back on and curse when he, like me this week, can't get "Michael (Jump In)" stuck in his head.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Scattered Posts

Posting is going to be a bit hit and miss over the next few weeks. I've finally decided to buckle down and actually write my book (or at least as much as I can get through) this summer. To do so, I've gone away from my beautiful, wonderful cable modem and put myself where I only have dial-up access. It is oh-so-slow, but gets the job done and, most importantly, keeps me from wasting precious time by seeing if, just perhaps, I've gotten earth-shattering e-mail in the last 4 minutes.

The internet - where the world is at your fingertips so you don't have to confine procrastination to your house.

This morning I realized I was doing the right thing when, as a summer storm blew through, I heard the "Chimes of Partch" begin to sing violently. I was, at that precise moment, beginning to structure the flow of chapters, so I knew that Partch was either telling me "God speed with this project" or "Get your grubby fingers off my legacy."

A good omen either way.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Harry Partch - The Adapted Viola

This year I'll be teaching my class on Music since 1945 again, and I've already started collecting wonderful resources to use, like this website that has recordings of the bird calls Messiaen used to compose Réveil des oiseaux along with cute little pictures of the birds and this one that automatically generates your twelve-tone matrix from a tone row. There is an incredible website where you can play Harry Partch's instruments, and Corporeal Meadows has good information on many of his instruments, but I haven't found a resource that suits my purposes and lists all his instruments with pictures and short commentary.

So I'm making it myself.

Over the next few months I'll slowly profile Partch's Instrumentarium so that hopefully, come next spring, I'll have a complete list ready for use. And hopefully, since many of you have wondered about Partch's music, you'll enjoy this little taste of the scholarly work I do as well.

Adapted Viola
(photo by Fred Lyon)

A combination of the viola and cello, the Adapted Viola was Partch’s first attempt at adapting an instrument to just intonation. He created the fingerboard in 1928, but it wasn't until two years later while in New Orleans that he hit upon the idea of putting it on a viola's body.

The instrument consists of an average-size viola soundbox with a neck and fingerboard that is six inches longer than usual. The tuning pegs are from a cello, as are all the strings except the first, which is a double-length violin first string. Instead of frets, the fingerboard is marked with a series of brads hammered in beside the strings to mark the various pitches, 37 to the octave at this point in Partch's career. As you can see, the Adapted Viola is played with a bow and the instrument is held between the legs. The Adapted Viola’s range is expanded from the traditional viola to rest between the cello’s and the violin’s.

Partch's first large-scale work in just intonation, The Seventeen Lyrics of Li Po, was written for this instrument and solo voice and is hauntingly beautiful. Here's a bit of the beginning of "A Midnight Farewell:"

The Adapted Viola started Partch on his instrument building path, and it remained central to his music through the 1940s.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Sam Discovers Packing Peanuts

On Tuesday, Joy got a huge package of postcards for Kindermusik. The postcards were carefully packaged to avoid any denting or crinkling, which meant that they were swimming in a sea of packing peanuts.

Sam has never seen packing peanuts. When he peered over the box's side, you would have thought he was looking into the promised land. He prompted tumped the box over and proceeded to throw the peanuts up in the air, making it snow; throw them around the room, like impromptu snowballs; crunch through them barefoot, so they squished between his toes; and roll around in them, so he made packing peanuts angels. What could be better on a hot July day?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Time for a Parade

Today, Sam got to experience his first 4th of July Parade. The neighborhood kids get on their bikes and in their wagons and parade down the street to a local church where they eat and drink and run around while the adults run around after them. You know, good old fashioned American fun. We met up with Sam's friends and did the parade route together. They decorated the wagon last night with their grandmother and do you want to know my favorite part? The copious amounts of duct tape. What says America more than decorating with duct tape?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Nostalgia Overload

I've been mired in nostalgia these past few days. Actually, I've been swimming in it. The nostalgia trip started this past weekend while Joy and I were beginning our own. My brother recently gave me a copy of No More Kings's debut album, and I finally got around to listening to it in the car. At first, Joy and I looked at each other, unsure of what we were hearing. Then we realized that, yes, we shared the same childhood with No More Kings. There is the song riffing on Knight Rider, a song that celebrates that we all had to read Gulliver's Travels in high school, and even a song and video that images Karate Kid from Johnny's point of view. While not musically groundbreaking, this is clever stuff and you should definitely check it out.

If that album were all pushing me back to my childhood, the trip would have been over before we returned home on Sunday, but when we went to see Ratatouille on Saturday, a fresh tidal wave of nostalgia hit. Plastered all over the theater lobby were images of my favorite childhood toys.

The Transformers are back!

I know, I've been living under a rock and hadn't really let it sink in that another Transformers movie had been made. Actually, I blame it all on Sam, but that's another story. But when I saw the posters, I suddenly remembered going to the local theater to watch the original movie with my best friend and being horrified when Optimus Prime actually cursed in the movie. I remembered staging epic battles between the Autobots and Decepticons that stretched from my bedroom, through the kitchen and den, and even into the backyard. I was firmly back in my childhood.

Then, today, I open the paper and see this:That's right, a front and back spread on Transformers as well as five articles, a timeline, descriptions of the robots, and a review of the movie. The saddest thing to me? Not only has Bumblebee been changed from a VW Bug to a Camero (how can a camero be called "Bumblebee?"), but Megatron is no longer a gun (complete with cool scope that becomes his own blaster - he's the one pictured on the left). He is now an "alien spaceship," which evidently means he has lots of random parts sticking out his robot body (he's the one on your right). *sigh* I suppose a robot/gun isn't acceptable anymore.

All of this prompted a discussion at my house about how wedded to our childhood loves my generation seems to be. Now that we are all parents, the toys from our childhood have reappeared on shelves. Everything from My Little Pony to He-Man (yes, they are making a He-Man movie) is back, and I've heard many friends mention how they can't wait to introduce their children to the toys they used to love. George Lucas has probably ridden this trend the furthest as the prequels were timed to come out when the children of the original Star Wars generation were the right age to enjoy them.

Why do we have such an intense attachment to these created, manufactured, and marketed things? I have a hunch it is related to that fact that we were the first generation to endure the perfect storm of tie-ins. Every hit toy had a hit show and usually a hit movie. We could play with the toys, wear the Underoos, watch the TV show, collect the comics. Our entire lives could be subsumed by our favorite toys. Add to the amount of stuff an older generation that was generally wealthier than their parents and willing to spend on their children and you get a generation consumed by their toys. And when they reached adulthood and had children of their own, they wanted to share the enjoyment and immersion they had experienced.

Or it could be a Peter Pan complex. We reached adulthood, didn't like what we saw, and have been trying to recapture our childhood ever since. The only difference now is that we have so many concrete artifacts from our younger years to hold on to.

In any case, it strikes me as an interesting defining feature of our generation. Other thoughts?

Monday, July 2, 2007

Scores in the Birthday Film Festival, Part II

Time to finish up my quick discussion of the scores for my birthday film festival. Feel free to agree, disagree, or wonder what in the world I'm thinking.

The Producers - I need to start with a quick caveat: I have not seen the musical version or the movie of the musical, though I admit to a perverse glee in considering that a movie was made of a musical made of a movie about the making of a musical. My head just hurts thinking about it.

John Morris is not a widely-recognized name in film scoring. He was a favorite of Mel Brooks's and wrote the scores for most of the writer/director's movies. He also wrote the score for Dirty Dancing, though raise your hand if you can hum any tune from that movie except for "The Time of My Life." Overall, this low profile fits what I heard in The Producers. The music is unobtrusive and mainly pastiche. It gives you exactly what you would expect, exactly when you would expect it, and manages not to get in the way of the words or visuals. In fact, Mel Brooks helped write the film's most memorable music, the opening number of "Springtime for Hitler." All in all, the film's music reinforced the commonly-held prejudice that comedy scores lack musical sophistication because the overall sound design is more important in getting laughs.

Vertigo - Herrmann is a master. His scores for Hitchcock films are among his most daring and successful. Vertigo stands alongside Psycho as his greatest achievement.

What more can you say?

Next, please.

There is plenty to say, and plenty have said it, a fact you probably gleaned from my earlier comment that I heard two papers on the music this year alone. Alex Ross has written one of my favorite discussions of the film and the music, and you should definitely read it. But even without following the link, you have to admit that Vertigo is one of the great works of the 20th century. I'm planning on adding a day in the spring to my Music History Survey class on film music and we'll probably look at Vertigo. To give you an idea of how good a score it is, think of the opening credits. Saul Bass designed swirling, twisting spirals that are so good at communicating vertigo that Joy had to look away because her head was already hurting that night. Behind those images, Herrmann's main title music endless circles through third relationships, hinting at a tonal center, but never giving us one. Those hints of tonality pull at our musical perception in the same way the spinning images do our visual and together give us a complete picture. They tell us that all is not as it seems and we will be pulled off our center by the movie.

Herrmann's music works this way through most of the movie. There are long, long stretches with no dialogue, but the music tells us what is going on inside the actor's heads. It creates an atmosphere as clearly as Chinatown, but is exactly the opposite. Where Goldsmith uses the barest minimum of materials to define Chinatown's corruption, Herrmann overloads the film with Post-Romantic lushness to create madness and obsession. It is truly a brilliant score.

The Rules of the Game - Music is quite possibly the weakest element of this sterling film and may be why it continues to rank below Citizen Kane on all-time-best lists. Kane boasts Herrmann's first film score and the music adds immeasurably to the film. The Rules of the Game boasts costumes by Coco Chanel, but lacks cohesive original music. Instead, Renoir used fragments from many different composers, most notably Saint-Saëns. The music works to some degree in establishing the characters' pedigree, but does not help the narrative or reveal anything about the characters beyond the surface. A musically disappointing end to a marvelous week in film and music.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Gone and Evidently Forgotten

Joy and I have been gone this weekend.

As in away from our house.

As in away from our house without Sam!

This is the first time we've gone away for an extended period of time without the Munchkin. We'd done a night away in town before, but never two nights out of town. It felt so decadent yesterday, sleeping late, eating a lazy breakfast, hiking for two hours, going to a movie, reading in bed, playing games. You know, the stuff we used to do B.S. (that's before Sam...get your mind out of the gutter) It has been a relaxing weekend and a chance to reconnect and wonderful.

But yesterday afternoon, we got to missing Sam. So Joy called her mom, who's been having a weekend slumber party with Sam, to see how he was holding up.

He didn't even miss us; hadn't asked for us once.

Usually when we leave Sam with a babysitter, he'll stop everyone once and a while and ask where we are. But he's having so much fun with his Nana that he doesn't have time to miss us.

I'm sure that's an overstatement, that he has missed us and will be glad when we return this afternoon. We are certainly relieved that he has done so well with us away. But there is a small part of us that is sad he didn't at least whimper a bit over our absence. We don't demand histrionics, but a small tear would be nice.

That's the way it goes being a parent - Sam came with a lifetime supply of guilt. We felt guilty over leaving him and now we feel guilty that he hasn't missed us, like we haven't bonded properly. Do these feelings negate our time away? Not at all. We enjoyed our time away and are eager to see Sam again. We can have it both ways. It just helps to treat ourselves the way we treat Sam - acknowledge our feelings, but not let them control us.