From the archives: June 2005

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The falafels we ate last summer

Tuesday, 28 June 2005 — 4:14pm | Jazz, Music

At some point in your life you’ve probably heard some controversy about this thing called “love at first sight,” which to me is neither that compelling an issue nor at all fair to blind people. It even arises in the hypothetical reality embedded in literature, as do most debates that circle around the kind of representational silliness that abounds when misattributing to fiction the false responsibility of corresponding to the human condition.

You don’t hear so much about love at first listen, probably because it’s systematically demonstrable and there is no reason to doubt its operation whatsoever. To take someone at face-value is subject to being considered shallow, but to take someone at voice-value is a different matter entirely, because the voice says something. And this ambiguous something is not limited to the words and utterances it produces; consider someone who speaks in another language, where that is not at all a factor. This is a “how” property that lies in tone and melody. I venture I am not the only one who never understood all the hype about Marilyn Monroe until that scene in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot where she punctuates “I Wanna Be Loved By You” with that meaningless little poo-poo bee-doo. That – not the Coca-Cola pin-up look or the Kennedy affair – that’s what made Miss Norma Jeane a legend.

A quick scan of Google’s 3,630 results for “love at first listen” reveals that it is almost exclusively used in reference to recording artists, from whom one can be detached in all other respects, and for whom melody is what feeds the kids. While I do think the possibility of the concept transcends this medium of delivery and is active in day-to-day personal interaction, I am not going to deviate from this pattern.

This most prolific of strains is the kind of FALAFEL (Far-Away Love At First Enchanting Listen) where listening to a certain vocalist for the first time – it might only be a track, though a fraction thereof is occasionally sufficient – sells you on their albums on the spot. Let’s call the most extreme case the Ella Effect, not because this immediate rush was what accompanied my first encounter with Ella Fitzgerald, but because if you didn’t react the same way the first time you heard her sing, you’re deaf.

The Ella Effect manifests an aural holiness of the highest and most elusive order. It’s a rare gem. In nerdier terms than I dare manage, we’re talking Alpha Edition Black Lotus rare. Lady Ella herself aside, you’re about as likely to be washed over by this whopper of a falafel as you are to stumble upon the Chris Houlihan room on a hot summer’s day. Hear it once, and that’s a songbird you’ll be listening to for the rest of your life.

And I think I’ve found the Ella Effect once more.

Meet Emilie-Claire Barlow. A few weeks ago I awoke to a CBC broadcast of her take on “The Things We Did Last Summer” from her superb new self-arranged album Like A Lover, which was released this month. The setup was about as minimalistic as you could get – just ECB singing over a walking upright bass, already of interest by itself given that writing bass lines and playing them on a so-so Clavinova sample is something I’ve been trying to pick up for some time. But the track title is a bit of a misnomer, because far from being that old Cahn/Styne jingle by its lonely little self, it’s a framing device for a vocalese trip around the sun, a scatty-wah collage of about a dozen standards of a seasonal bent.

It’s the kind of chart that makes you want to shell out for the record right now – which I couldn’t at the time, because it wasn’t released yet. But now I’ve acquired the disc along with her 2003 release Happy Feet, and she’s phenomenal.

The written word fails to provide an adequately lossless isomorphism that captures her sound, but I’ll do my best and describe her tone as… open, cheerful, happy. Lady may sing the blues, but boy, will they ever bring a smile to your face. She channels that excitable flavour of brightness that veers a sharp left on the cute-sexy spectrum, and this day in age when Canada flies the flags of Diana Krall’s moody alto and Molly Johnson’s, uh, being Billie Holiday, Emilie-Claire’s is the road less travelled. She also uses little or no piano, so the albums are pleasant to comp over if like yours truly, you’re an ivoryman who fancies to pretend that a chanteuse of her calibre would have anything to do with you.

Of all the jazz singers recording today, I think she’s my new favourite. It’s unfortunate that her upcoming performance schedule is limited to Ontario and Quebec, and makes nary a mention of us alienated provinces.

Ms. Barlow also keeps a blog. Here we return to what I said earlier about how voice-value says something: after listening to her recordings, her fruity, lighthearted bubblegum writing style should come as a surprise to nobody. And if a weblog isn’t a metric of personal disposition, then what is?

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Here’s looking at Euclid

Sunday, 26 June 2005 — 7:53pm | Casablanca, Film, Insights, Mathematics

Let P = the set of all problems; Tn = the set of properties belonging to n little people; W = this crazy world.

Blaine’s Theorem: ∀x: xPT3, ∃ a hill of beans hW such that Σx < h.

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Für Elise the bell tolls

Monday, 20 June 2005 — 6:48pm | Classical, Music, Pianism

I’m to play a number of pieces at a wedding that is taking place on Canada Day, and the task of preparing them is my first serious return to the rigour of practicing small-C classical piano for the sake of performance since completing my Royal Conservatory ARCT three years ago. Skill at a musical instrument is something that atrophies quickly, but comes back with the kind of whoosh that brings to mind Stephen Chow, eyes shut and enlightened, reawakening to his repressed Shaolin or Buddhist Palm powers or what have you. It seems that if you spend a nontrivial proportion of your adolescence perfecting a tricky Liszt cadenza, it’s programmed into your fingers for life. The power that courses through your digits upon its return is a release of energeia so magnificent, you are led to think you can harness it to fry a rack of bacon. You would be wrong, but never mind those mortal limitations.

For this event, I was given a list of requests at a few weeks’ notice, with instructions to throw in any other favourites I deemed appropriate should the guests be taking inordinately long to seat themselves. Naturally, in addition to the standard corpus of the pretty Chopin waltzes nobody ever thinks of because they can’t remember the indices, I entertained the notion of sneaking in “Han and the Princess” from The Empire Strikes Back for good measure. “Across the Stars” is the more relevant cue in a wedding scenario, but playing it by ear is not a straightforward initiative, not because the compound rhythm is hard to pin down on first listen (it’s simple once you figure out which beat to think of as your anchor), but because Williams introduces a very subtle modulation with each iteration of the theme: the key you finish in is a whole tone lower than your key of origin. So you can take it for as long as you want, hitting five other keys before you loop back to where you started; the subsequent transpositions generate a cyclic group modulo 6. Whenever it comes up in the score to Attack of the Clones, a meandering transition escapes the cycle after only about two iterations at a time, and it’s a hard one to capture without having some sheet music as a guide.

The requests were an item of interest, though – and two of them in particular, both by that most temperamental of legendary German folk, Ludwig van Beethoven. They had two things in common: everybody knows them, yet after over a decade with the instrument, I’d never learnt them.

The first is “Für Elise”. Its popularity is unfathomable. I sometimes wonder what Beethoven would say should he return from the grave to discover that this innocent little Bagatelle in A minor he wrote for some chick is not only the default ringtone on the biggest overnight hit in the technological history of mankind, the mobile phone, but is – no joke – played by Taiwanese garbage trucks to signal their presence, like how ice cream cars over here use Joplin’s “The Entertainer”. It’s not a very spectacular composition – a simple ABACA with no modulations except for brief jaunts into the relative major a few bars at a time, and only meagre hints of Ludwig’s trademark tantrums – and one wonders if it is the phenomenon it has become because of its technical simplicity. It’s very easy for a beginning pianist to pick it up and woodshed it, and at the same time rewarding, because it has just enough musical elegance to not sound as dinky as a lot of early piano repertoire is wont to be.

The second piece to which I refer is the First Movement of the Sonata quasi una fantasia in C-sharp minor, perhaps better known as the “Moonlight Sonata”. I’m pointing out the obvious here, but like “Für Elise”, this composition is, to borrow what John Lennon said of the Beatles, bigger than Jesus. It was significant enough to be the namesake of an infamous German bombing operation – indeed, the source of one of Winston Churchill’s most controversial wartime gambits, a classic game-theoretical case study. Again, I have very little idea why it has penetrated the cultural consciousness so deeply, to the layman it bears on synecdoche for what classical piano sounds like. It is said that on the sonata’s popularity, Beethoven once wrote Carl Czerny with the remark, “Surely I’ve written better things.” And if we speak of quality in terms of the intricacy and range of his manoeuvres in the dimensions of harmony, melody and rhythm, he’d be right. But maybe the simplicity of the piece – long pedal points that change up in broad strokes under the controlled pianissimo of periodic triplets overhead – is what attracts the casual listener.

More to the point, in both of these selections, Beethoven doesn’t go very far, but what he does is sit on universals. Now, the musically literate may harp on this idea of universals as good old-fashioned Western European paternalism, but the precept that makes Beethoven tick – the very property of Mozart that makes babies smarter – is the binary relationship of tension and resolution that occurs when you frame music as consonance punctuated by dissonance. “Für Elise” and the First Movement of the “Moonlight” are similar in this respect: they are, fundamentally, grounded in minor-key consonances that are broken and arpeggiated, thinned out so the listener can in effect capture everything. And for the performer, as I am discovering firsthand, these ideal patterns spin a safety net of technical comfort.

I would deem it likely that it is because of this property of traditional forms underlying a proto-Romantic versatility of expression that they persist, while in the latter half of the twentieth century, the experiments to dissolve the binaristic “othering” of dissonance in opposition to consonance (or in the case of John Cage, silence to sound) led the methodical compositions of art music down a path that an untrained listener would consider highly esoteric. Yet the divergent rise of popular music in the 1950s with the emergence of doo-wop and rock-and-roll went in the opposite direction – back to simple harmonies and catchy melodic constructions.

The implication is that there is a disposition present in all of us, and arguably not something merely constructed, to be receptive to consonant harmonies and furthermore, retain them not in their harmonic form, but in terms of the melodic variations built on top of them. It is like how we feel the push and pull of a conflict in a dramatic setting, but we don’t remember the different kinds of conflict in terms of their categoric labels. On the contrary, we retain instances: Hamlet and Claudius, Rhett and Scarlett, Linus and Lucy. In primary school some talk about conflict as a 3-vector of man against man, himself and nature, but even that is demonstrated by example, and remembered by example. Like melody over harmony, it is not a relation of part to whole, but of building to foundations.

There’s a much bigger question that comes out of all this, one that strikes out at what it is we acquire that one equates with a heightened cultural literacy. For the sake of not obfuscating the above with interminable length, this is a thread I will leave hanging for now.

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Revisionary bloggings and a slice of za

Friday, 17 June 2005 — 1:55am | Scrabble

From page 62 in the paperback:

BLOG n pl. -S a website containing a personal journal

BLOGGER n pl. -S one who maintains a blog

BLOGGING n pl. -S the act or practice of maintaining a blog

Yep – BLOGGING is going on the magic -INGS list, one of the biggest sources of phoney confusion in the lower divisions (along with the many creative prefixations of RE- and UN-). WEBLOG sits on page 652 along with WEBCAM, WEBCAST (which takes -ED and -ING as well as the expected -S), WEBPAGE, WEBRING (which goes on the magic “can’t drop the -ING” list) and WEBSITE. INTRANET is in, INTERNET* is not; it seems generic internets, which were once playable in SOWPODS but subsequently deleted, weren’t in any of the dictionaries consulted. And let’s not forget this gem of a prospective bingo: CYBERSEX.

Crazy stuff is going on in the Z section. ZYZZYVAS has lost its claim to fame as the last word in the hypothetical pseudo-English of the Scrabble Crossword Game, dethroned by the interjection ZZZ. ZUZ (pl. ZUZ), I’m told, is yet another piece of foreign currency – a silver coin of ancient Hebrew origin. And who actually uses ZA as slang for “a pizza”? I gather it must have been part of this whole Ninja Turtles revival that’s been taking place over the past few years.

Then there’s the Qs not followed by Us, whose ranks are joined by the likes of QABALA, QABALAH and QADI. The newly-added BURQA looks familiar, thanks to the popular media and the unpopular French. And then there’s QI, which – like ZA – opens to North American players the possibility of scoring over 62 points with only two tiles should the opponent be imprudent about vowel placement. It is defined on page 456 as “the vital force that in Chinese thought is inherent in all things.” It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.

I actually thought it would be defined as a variant of chess, as in xiang qi, or Chinese Chess – an elegant board game for a more civilized age. I’ve never been very good at it myself, primarily due to a sparsity of English-speaking opponents to practice against. An uncle of mine, who was a distinguished ivory carver before the trade was banned, was a master of the game’s many strategic nuances, but all I ever managed to pick up was some rudimentary tactics like lining up the two cannons on the same file.

DOOWOP is in, and it takes an S. See, this kind of lexical overhaul only happens once in a Blue Moon.

That’s enough of the new OSPD for one night, methinks. Amusement aside, it’s not a book that will serve much purpose in the immediate future; I received confirmation yesterday that it will not have any effect on what I thought would be my next rated tournament, the Western Canadian Championship in Calgary (9/28-10/2), and certainly no effect at all until the corresponding OWL is published with all the juicy new dirty words we don’t know about yet. The word is that the hard deadline for incorporating the new word list in tournament play will not be until January 2006, so at this point it is better far to live than die and study the existing list. Then once the OWL2 is out, it is just a matter of putting the two editions into plain-jane text files and running diff.

I said I thought the WCSC would be my next rated tournament, but that is no longer the case. Ken Middleton, who directs the Sherwood Park club, is running Edmonton’s first-ever rated Scrabble tournament on the weekend of 17-18 September. Ken hosted an eight-round mini in the Park back in April 2004, but this time it’s a full fourteen rounds over two days in Edmonton proper.

Needless to say, this is a big deal and is exactly the kind of thing that will hopefully get Scrabble off the ground in this municipality that fashions itself a cosmopolis of champions. Aside from the admittedly huge kink of a dictionary transition happening directly afterwards, this is also a great opportunity for those of you who like the game but are hesitant to try it competitively to get your feet wet.

Over the past few weeks I’ve played against some local Scrabblers already on the club scene, some of whom have never left the city for a tournament or played under time constraints, and they are reachable – they won’t clobber and intimidate the recreational newcomer, though they will be a welcome challenge. The Division 3 roof is a rating of 800, and if you’ve never played a tournament before, that’s where you’ll go.

Seriously – if you are tired of beating your friends and have an interest in taking your game to the next level, that’s almost all you need to walk in and do well. I would recommend this much preparation: memorize the 96 two-letter words, know the Qs-without-Us, at least look at all the three-letter words, and play two or three practice games with the clock to get a sense of how long you should spend per turn and how the hold/challenge procedure works. Three months is plenty of time to get ready; last year, Dan Lazin hit the WCSC after just a month of doing the same, and this time the field is easier.

None of the local clubs are active in July and August, so if you want to practice, contact me and we’ll set up a game. (Pay no attention to the predatory salivation behind the curtain!)

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Trashed by hardset hatreds and dearths of hardest threads

Wednesday, 15 June 2005 — 12:38am | Scrabble, Tournament logs

Or simply, trashed.

You’ll notice that I haven’t posted here about Scrabble lately – not since the beginning of February, as a matter of fact. Until about two weeks ago I was away from the game for a very long time, which turned out to be detrimental to my health, as I quickly learned the hard way.

In the intervening time, the biggest change to the game in ten years fired its first salvo off the bow: The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, Fourth Edition. It hit shelves only two weeks ago, and mining the Internet has yet to turn up any meaningful list of changes besides the well-known ones like the addition of QI* and ZA* and the invalidation of EMF, and I hear a lot of words listed in the Dictionary Committee online beta didn’t make the final cut, but I plan to pick up my copy straightaway.

Like the current edition, getting the OSPD4 is primarily for definitions and getting a head start; as longtime readers should be aware by now, the mass-market dictionary is censored (with famous consequences) and does not reflect changes, if any, to the “offensive” list. The next edition of the Official Tournament and Club Word List, available only by direct purchase from the NSA store, does not arrive until August and will not come into effect until after Reno Nationals that month. The actual transition in terms of competitive play is at this time ambiguous.

So with my next tournament not until the WCSC in late September, and who knows what dictionary it’s using (though I just thought to ask), the OSPD3 and I aren’t exactly parting on good terms. Months of not studying harbinge destructive ramifications. And yes, I know “harbinge” isn’t a word, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Right now I’m hoping a number of things. One is that the transition comes late enough that I can actually get some mileage out of my most excellent Mike Baron Wordbook before it is rendered outdated, because lord knows I’ve hardly touched it since Christmas; another is that I don’t plummet below the 1200 mark, not just because it would mean a year-to-year ratings drop of 200 points, but because it would drop me a division at the WCSC. While I might get some money out of it, that’s just not fun.

This game is stacked. Incomplete and diminishing lexical knowledge just exacerbates the problem. In six of my fourteen games – just under half – one player or the other scored consecutive bingos. (In five out of six cases, it decided the game; the sixth was a miscalculated endgame on my part that put me under by 19 points when I projected I’d lose by 1.) That’s luck for you – playing off all your tiles, then drawing straight to a second bingo common enough to see with the bag half-empty (or half-full, depending on whether you’re a Marlin or a Dory), and having a spot to play it. For some perspective, the probability of drawing a bingo with a full bag is one in twelve, and that’s when you don’t need to account for your opponent’s rack management.

Granted, one of those sequel-bingos was a (successful) phoney of mine: HARBINGE*. The verb for the action that a harbinger performs is just that – harbinger. Now I know.

Speaking of successful phoneys, this tournament – while a disaster for me – produced a great story. As I believe I’ve mentioned in the past, Calgary tournaments award a trophy of a horse’s ass to the player who gets away with the one deemed most outrageous by vote. One game in my division began with Jefficus playing IN to open – and it sure looked innocent enough. Then his opponent, Saskatoon club director Al Pitzel, responds with a bingo: JAILERS, with the A hooked in front of Jeff’s play to make ANI.

Read that again carefully.

Jeff makes no complaint, and only after he is no longer able to challenge does he realize that Al had inverted the board and hooked his seven tiles in front of NI* to form… SRELIAJ*.

Final notes: Canada has its first two-time national champion, mathematics professor Adam Logan, who now teaches at Oxford. The tournament took place over the weekend and the online coverage is stellar; as with last year’s NSC, you can play through key games and see how your appraisal of the board positions match up with the experts.

I also finally made my way to Edmonton’s two local Scrabble groups in late May. The NSA-sanctioned and more competitive one in Sherwood Park is on holiday until after Labour Day, but ordinarily meets Mondays at 6:30pm in the Strathcona County Library at Sherwood Park Mall. There’s a more casual one just northwest of downtown, a games night that meets 6:45pm Thursdays at Queen Mary Park Community Hall, and they are switching on and off this summer in an erratic, flickering sort of way. Both offer good people and a welcome place to start, but are not so good in terms of tournament preparation.

I’ve been contemplating this since first year, but I do wonder if there is any interest in a Scrabble student group on the U of A campus. It would be a good way to foster some new opponents, as I reckon there are a lot of living-room players out there who are on the cusp – they can beat all their friends, but haven’t had the exposure or opportunity to move beyond that. Campus is also easily accessible without a vehicle, and that’s a big deal. But seeing as how I might be on my way out in a year, it’s not an easy project to get underway. The game, on a serious level, just isn’t for everybody.

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