From the archives: September 2005

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Absence makes the Nick go ponder

Thursday, 29 September 2005 — 1:51am | Animation, Debate, Film, Literature

At this precise moment I don’t have time to expound on why contrary to what you might have gleaned from Jessica Warren’s review in The Gateway, but well in line with the mainstream press, Corpse Bride is certain to be the most lighthearted fun you’ll have at the cinema this year – at least, until we see hide or hare of The Curse of the Wererabbit. Whatever I said a few months ago about “So Long and Thanks For All The Fish” being a shoo-in for the Original Song Oscar is now seriously in doubt in the face of new and viable competition that almost makes the award seem like something other than an antiquated joke.

I will be investing in repeat viewings. You should too. Come for the exorcising voice of Christopher Lee and classic Mexican calavera cabaret in the same tradition as the epitome of interactive literature. Stay for the first and second best scenes involving pianos since that Polanski war film from a few years back, and stop to notice the Harryhausen nameplate.

So UADS alumnus Alim Merali, who has already taken his place in CUSID history by serving up the textbook example of a low-burden case, has self-published the introductory book on competitive debate that he’s bandied about for the past three years or so. Talk the Talk: Speech and Debate Made Easy has a strong pedigree of blurbs behind it already; a free PDF version of the whole text is available for online perusal. I can’t say I’ve dug into it myself, as the 152-page CUSID Central Debating Guide compounds a backlog of incredible girth.

As an aside, I normally entertain mail from my readers, but any and all instances of “So where’s your book, Nicholas Tam?” will be ignored with extreme prejudice.

You really can get anything published nowadays, though. Just ask Stephen Lanzalotta, author of The Da Vinci Diet: Weight-Loss Secrets from Da Vinci and the Golden Ratio. Picture me as suffused with ennui as I am once again forced to point out for those fetuses joining us after the commercial break that first of all, his name was Leonardo, and secondly, Dan Brown wouldn’t know the Golden Ratio if the plus-minus sign ripped the square root off the unsuspecting five and shoved it up his sacred feminine. Never you mind the inherent ridicule of this unwanted circumstance.

All-nighters, asymptotic complexity proofs and three-day Scrabble marathons don’t admix.

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Not even remotely what you expected

Wednesday, 21 September 2005 — 11:52am | Video games

It is a fact that roughly a third to a half of the posts I sit down and write for this weblog never see publication. They are exclusively of the long-winded and moderately analytical sort, and I abort them for various reasons that differ from case to case. Suffice to say, not all of my candidate entries are founded on fully-formed ideas. Periodic abandonment is the price of writing for an ambiguous audience in such a manner that it is the words, not their personal association with the writer behind the digital curtain, that propel a subject with an efferent and centrifugal element of interest. The alternative is to reduce this place to yet another highly localized jokestop with an occasional amusing link to stick-figure cartoons that offer frighteningly-plausible proposals about how I might pay my way through college, and that I shall not do.

I sat down to write a gut-reaction post about the Nintendo Revolution controller pretty much the minute it was revealed in Tokyo Thursday night (with a spot of latency on account of receiving information through a correspondent and the press), embellishing it with dangling questions that were at the time unanswered for those of us sitting at home. This never got finished, as information kept rolling in all night, be it from the official press release or a direct-feed clip of Nintendo’s own concept video. By morning, there was a webcast of the entire hour-long Satoru Iwata keynote complete with synchronized presentation slides, and IGN posted a detailed FAQ answering most of the inquiries I had in mind.

(If you only click on one of those links, make it the video. It’s a doozy.)

By the same morning, online opinionation of the controller design was extensive enough, and diverse enough in both polarization and heat, that most of what I was originally going to post was redundant anyway. A lot of people caught on to the obvious implications: foremost among them, lightsabres. One observes that if LucasArts can get its act back together and not eschew the Revolution as it did the GameCube the past year or two, wireless lightsabre dueling is the obvious way to go. Of course, LucasArts isn’t getting much of an act together at all, which is why these guys are developing Sam & Max adventures and they’re not. But no matter – the point is, it’s not so ingenious that nobody thought of it, but it’s exciting enough that everybody wants it. So there you go: for those of you who are Nintendo sceptics – lightsabres.

It should be obvious by this point that my own thoughts on the subject retreated into a plain-text document where they could be tucked away and safely ignored.

From the standpoint of a traffic whore, this may seem counterintuitive, since gut reactions that suck in the immediate swarm of Google hits have a consistent record of inducing spikes in visitation rates sharp enough to impale a child of Ungoliant. But traffic whoredom is not my game; there’s some excellent coverage out there already, and I’m not going to compete with it. I think the impact of a reconfigurable and ambidextrous motion-sensing television remote has already been felt by the sheer depth of discourse it has inspired in its wake.

People are thinking about the video game business again and whether or not Iwata’s premonitions of doom about the heat death of the industry on the parapets of a lightning-struck tower are founded. Thought, like touching, is good. The soundest critique I have read distills the Nintendo philosophy to a cycle within which the Revolution controller is just the twelve-o’-clock bell of another iteration: seeding genres and letting other rivals populate them, resulting in the growth of the industry and a net gain for all or most.

As a side note of linguistic interest, it seems – from the official marketspeak from all parties involved in the console wars, of which the Nintendo press release is only a single instance – “hardcore” has been fully embraced into the lexicon of business rhetoric in the gaming sector.

From a more personal perspective, specifically as a game consumer removed from the question of whether the “remote controller” is an omen of death or rebirth… I think this is grand. First of all: lightsabres, baby. We’re talking about onscreen Jedi combat any way you swing it.

It’s more likely that the first killer app to adapt controller movements to melee weapon combat will be a Zelda title; I here assume that one is already on the drawing board, even though Aonuma’s team isn’t done yet with Twilight Princess. The 3D generation of Zelda adventures feature a masterful control scheme complete with context-sensitive lock-on actions to circumvent the nuisances of navigating 3D space with a device built on a 2D plane, but one of the design elements that never played out was the library of fencing tactics that resulted from certain button combinations: horizontal and vertical slashes, forward thrusts, spin attacks and the like. The distinctions are fun to play with, but are rarely necessary aside from poking Gohma in the eye every now and then. The combat system was a lot deeper than documented, but little of this is obvious. (How many of you knew you could do a spin attack with the Skull Hammer?)

Well, now we have an interface for navigating 3D space using an input device that operates in – get this – 3D space, and we have a motion-sensing system for total control over fencing techniques. One wonders, though, if Link will still be a left-handed character once under the command of a right-handed player.

Many are floating the question of the extent to which the eccentric interface will alienate multiplatform third-party developers. This is all part of a larger numbers game and is irrelevant to me as a game player.

Third-party support is a business concern, not a consumer concern. A lot of pundits out there make note of how owners of Nintendo systems almost exclusively buy Nintendo’s first-party titles, showing disproportionately overwhelming resistance to multiplatform releases that fare somewhat better on the Xbox and PlayStation 2. There are exceptions – Capcom’s Viewtiful Joe and Resident Evil 4, Namco’s Tales of Symphonia, EA’s perennial major-league statistical simulators that pass for sports games – but games like the first three I just mentioned are exceptional product; plus, they all started as GameCube-only titles.

The conclusion that is typically drawn from this curious observation is that either the GameCube is adopted as a second (and secondary) console, or Nintendo players are just a bunch of prepubescent kids. It’s certainly not a question of horsepower, as the PS2 is consistently overperformed by the other two. But these oft-heard excuses are gross oversimplifications. The real reason Nintendo satisfies, albeit to a niche (or more accurately, a wide array of differing niches), is because their appeal blends entertainment with almost pretentious arthouse sensibilities. It’s not the approach that attracts the largest market in raw numbers, unless you’re Pixar, but it helps retain a core audience that keeps the brand alive while it expands into nooks and crannies nobody even thought to consider. Call it the Apple stratagem.

In today’s segment of Penny Arcade, Jerry Holkins (“Tycho”) remarks that “for a couple generations now their systems have been (at least, outside of Japan) a kind of dedicated shrine to their own games, games that shame the rest of the industry with their polish, their palette, and their playability.” That pretty much sums up the real incentive for playing with the proverbial power: Nintendo, its first-party squadrons and immediate third-party allies are like real butter. Once you’ve had a taste, you can never go back to margarine. Is it a dream to live in a paradise where load times are a myth, Koji Kondo melodies fill the air and Hunter Metroids frolic in the skies? Nintendo’s world is that paradise. Some would call it a paradise lost. I say it’s regained.

If I buy one console next generation, it will be the Nintendo Revolution. It’s not because I have unswerving loyalty to Nintendo as a hardware manufacturer, because I don’t; owning Nintendo systems is an effect, not a cause. There are many critics out there who have repeated the claim that games are a software-driven business. True, but diversification of hardware is the condition that permits diversification of software, and that’s why it is no folly to laud the Revolution at face value. I have unswerving loyalty to Nintendo as a software developer, and have been well rewarded for it time and time again. Guess which platform you’ll find playing host to their interactive delights.

I’m not saying that the Xbox and PlayStation lines have nothing going for them, but while they have fairly substantial software libraries – something that will no doubt continue with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 – when it comes down to it, the number of top-quality titles for each console is about equivalent. Then it boils down to a matter of taste. Will it be Metroid Prime, Wind Waker, Resident Evil and Paper Mario? Or will it be Halo, Ninja Gaiden, Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic? Or will it be Grand Theft Auto, God of War, Katamari Damacy and Metal Gear Solid? For the informed one-console consumer, that’s half of the choice. The other half is the forecast – the projection of what is to come, and which exclusively-bound software studios you can rely on to generate consistently stellar output.

It’s safe to say that unless investing in all three comes at almost no cost relative to your financial statement, you’ll miss something – so the real variable to consider is what you can’t afford to miss. And there’s no way in hell I’m missing Nintendo.

Going into the next generation, Nintendo retains a quantity advantage of its own: while its first-party release schedule is sparse, it won’t get any sparser, since the philosophy behind the Revolution’s design is to avoid driving development costs through yet another roof.

The unique interface would remove any Nintendo-PC overlap if there were any to begin with, and there isn’t – something that puts Nintendo in a considerably different position from the Xbox. Let’s admit this much: the Xbox is a machine for PC-style games – some of them excellent – that are better on a controller than a mouse and keyboard. It further succeeds because it avoids the seriously and perhaps irreparably flawed upgrade model that is killing the PC game business. At the same time, some games that would otherwise help justify an Xbox hardware purchase happen to play better with a mouse and keyboard; Knights, I’m looking at you.

If developers that prefer the conventional controller setup decide to abandon Nintendo, that would be a crying shame, but it won’t add as much appeal to the Xbox 360 and the PS3 as it properly should. If money were not an issue, one of the two (if not both) would be worthy of consideration out of technological fetishism alone. If you don’t believe me, watch the Metal Gear Solid 4 video and come back when you’re done slobbering. Everybody notices the quality of the textures and real-time cinema-quality effects, but what truly thrills me is the scope of imagination on display that validates the hope that yes, the next generation can provide designers new freedoms of expression the current one does not – so long as your imagination is capable of filling that expanse, in which case your name is probably Hideo Kojima.

The obstacle here is that Microsoft and Sony are trying to price one another out of business in the most peculiar way – by raising prices so high that buying the other guy’s console second is an impossible proposition. Xbox 360 retail bundles in Canada – for the real thing, not the skeletal Core System designed to rip off people who don’t take the time to read about what they’re getting for their hard-earned money – are easily going to cost upwards of $700 ($500 for the system and over $150 for bundled games and accessories that will undoubtedly be exactly the ones you neither want or need, plus the Mulroney tax); Ken Kutaragi has been prancing about for months telling everybody how elite and unaffordable the PS3 will be, so that’s almost a given. Then again, the PSP was considerably cheaper than expected. Then again, the DS slaughtered it anyway.

The result? Unless Nintendo really screws up on the first-party software end – and I don’t believe they will, given their stellar track record of telling everybody else how to make video games, then waiting a few years before telling everybody all over again – I now have enough information to say that I’ll be their customer twelve to eighteen months from now, and for financial reasons, likely theirs alone. Seeing the Revolution controller has solidified my endorsement, and I am eager to see what games they’ll come up with for the slender contraption.

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Constant vigilance

Thursday, 15 September 2005 — 12:12pm | Adaptations, Film, Harry Potter, Literature

Keeping in mind that I’m not a stickler for correspondence to source material when it comes to movies adapted from books – relatively speaking, anyhow – I have a few observations to point out regarding the new Goblet of Fire trailer. Like a lot of trailers for big franchise movies that are near enough to release that most of the effects work is done, it shows everything – so if you don’t want to see everything from Hermione’s pink ball gown (yes, it’s pink here and not blue) to Lord Voldemort himself, avert your eyes.

First of all, the tombstone in the graveyard scene has been fixed. Early promotional images such as this one revealed an egregious error – that is, the presumption that Tom Marvolo Riddle’s dead father was also named Tom Marvolo Riddle, which was from the outset more improbable than the transfiguration of a pair of missiles into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias, and then flatly contradicted by events critical to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Near the end of this trailer there are a few shots from the resurrection in the graveyard (like I said, it shows everything), and the inscription has been corrected.

Much more irritating than anything else – and I suspect this will end up being my greatest annoyance with the finished product when I see it in November – is Dumbledore’s butchered pronunciation of “Beauxbatons”, which is similar to how they pronounce “Baton Rouge” in the drawl of the former Confederate states. Seriously, William the Conqueror died for this? Oh well – I suppose they already neglected to drop the silent T in “Voldemort”, so all bets are off. Now we’ll just have to deal with the premise that a Bulgarian kid learns how to enunciate Hermione’s name but the only one You-Know-Who ever feared stumbles over his French after a century of practice. What would really be upsetting is if the francophone characters do the same.

Like Cuaron’s flying Iceman Dementors in The Prisoner of Azkaban, there are a lot of neat visual inventions on display – Mad-Eye Moodyvision, Sirius Black speaking in the form of the embers in the fire instead of a disembodied head (which makes me wonder what will be done if they keep the scene of Umbridge fumbling about for his presence in Phoenix), and the rippling Jumbotron at the Quidditch World Cup, to name a few. I can see plenty of dynamism befitting the scope of the tale, a pulse that was sorely lacking in the Columbus films. Now that we have a pretty clear idea of the look of the film, the big question mark is the pace.

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Ptolemaic pianocentrism

Saturday, 10 September 2005 — 5:09pm | Classical, Jazz, Music, Pianism

If you were expecting a post on the applicability of “Turtle Talk with Crush” as a superstructural blueprint for the Turing Test, precursory omens of why high-definition post-DVD storage media are doomed to failure in the general consumer market, secret schematics of the Nintendo Revolution controller or more invective hilarity induced by a certain undeservedly bestselling author, come back later. This is not the post for you.

What’s better than one blog unlocking the mysteries of music theory? That’s right – two blogs unlocking the mysteries of music theory. Below I respond to Guillaume‘s criticism of the elevation of middle C in the Western European musical tradition, and while I may get on a slightly technical bent, it is my hope that this post will not be wholly inaccessible.

You should read Guillaume’s statements before proceeding, as he presents a concise historical overview of the familiar A to G tonal system as well as a rundown of what he considers to be a problem: that C, and the major and minor keys built upon it as a tonic, is an arbitrarily-selected tonal centre of gravity that is presently overemphasized and overrepresented. Those who are at all familiar with the rhetoric of Marxist or postcolonial literature should at once recognize the tropic structure of his argument, which is the age-old attack on an instance of reification. It runs thus: a) the governing establishment (in this case, a cultural bourgeoisie of tonality) presents an artificial construction (C as the organizing epicentre) as a normative and natural entity; b) the foundations of this construction are arbitrary; therefore, 3) the constructed norm, now revealed, must be disestablished.

Being a neo-imperialistic bourgeois know-it-all, I feel inclined to reject the conclusion that the C “mythology” (to borrow Barthes’ sense of the word), once properly exposed, should necessarily be subjected to demotion. Certainly, I concede that C is an overelevated focal point (and will attempt to explicate it with additional reasons that may ease Mr. Laroche’s bewilderment); and certainly, as a musician, I see the pedagogical value in exposing both students of music and the public at large to the undiscovered country beyond the major-minor system, though I do not envision such instruction as concurrent.

But the battle cry for change is a case of overstated alarmism, and the bizarre suggestion that A would be a suitable alternative makes hardly sense at all. Where it is not based on a circular rationale to do with the order of the Latin alphabet, for crying out loud, it refers to 440Hz as “a nice number, easily divisible into a number of smaller parts.” Here, the menace of the constructed norm rears its ugly head in the other direction. 440Hz was never standardized as the standard acoustic tuning frequency until the ISO 16 specification, dated 1955 and renewed 1975; prior to that, Guillaume’s assumption of a “properly-made tuning fork” was far from a proper existence, as proprietary conventions hovered all over the place.

Furthermore, if we are going to talk about divisibility as a theoretician’s convenience, we must also remember that these numbers are founded on a unit of measurement that is also not a natural entity. The hertz is the inverse of the second, and the authority of the second has no relevance to music in its unquantified form. Now, as soon as you quantify music, the second becomes important – not just in terms of frequency, but also in the dimension of tempo when it comes to variables like prescribed metronome markings – but these are every bit arbitrary conventions in no worse a way than C is a convention. To justify a mathematical convenience with itself is patently tautological.

A system built upon twelve well-tempered semitones to the octave derives its tonality from ratios of resonant frequencies, and the important thing to remember about ratios is that they are relative. Like the Kelvin scale (that would be a scale of temperature, not music), the only absolute is zero. Outside the realm of the theoretical, relative intervalic distances are sufficient.

In sum, arbitrariness is unavoidable. That said, C has a far better claim to its present position as the Ptolemaic do of the solfege in elementary instruction. Yes, this claim is one part retrospective and another part descriptivist, but at least it’s based on something practical, which is more than one can say for Guillaume’s argument for A to take its place. A is no more the sun of western music than C is the Earth.

So let’s examine some possible causes for the prominence of C. I attribute it first and foremost to notation. C Major has no sharps or flats. It tends to be very readable in any clef (and I hasten to point out that the thriving clefs, treble and bass, are founded on G and F respectively). This presumes the authority of the Ionian mode, but it also permits the definition and instruction of other scales in terms of how they differ from it; scales are easier learnt from identifying distinguishing accidentals than from note-to-note intervalic distances.

But, one might object, even if you accept the Ionian as the organizing mode of western music, you could establish it on any scale – and the readability of C Major doesn’t correspond to the ease of its playability on a given instrument. So how is it that C-oriented musical notation set foot in composition and performance?

Answer: keyboards.

The keyboard configuration of black keys and white keys is a direct visual isomorphism of musical notation, a representational mapping from sight to sound – albeit not a lossless one, due to the limitation that enharmonic equivalences like A# and Bb (or more tellingly, B# and C) are indistinguishable. Middle C is easier to grasp than, say, a hypothetical middle A, because only hitting the white keys with C as the tonic delivers an entire major tonality, just as hitting only the black keys delivers a pentatonic spectrum.

This isn’t something to be prescribed to the serious aspiring pianist, as it has the potential to lead to fingering habits that are undesirable in the long run as the keyboardist progresses to more complex pieces; Chopin famously trained his piano students starting with the B Major scale to avoid exactly that pitfall. But basic keyboard literacy is nowadays fundamental to any performer, and familiarity with the black-and-white layout is often a requirement for intermediate musical studies in any instrument. For them, keyboard technique is a secondary consideration, ranking behind the layout’s usefulness as a theoretical aid.

I’ve coined what I think is a clever word for this phenomenon, which I do not believe has been employed in a theoretical context: pianocentrism.

The continued entrenchment of C as a de facto “starting note” since the fifteenth century is a pianocentric result; the black-and-white alternation first emerged in exactly that period. The keyboard has historically been, and persists to be, the reinforcing mechanism for what Philip Tagg, in his paper on the semiotics of popular music, refers to notational centricity. Any way you swing it, notation has restricted much of our tonal cognition to a discrete twelve-step cycle, when pitch in the abstract is a continuous domain. Fred Lerdahl’s work on formal grammars of music outlines this conception in a generalized framework; the pianocentric orbit around C Major that I am here identifying is a specific, if popular case.

There exists a solid objection to this, and it is one that Guillaume implicitly posits when he defends his preference for A based on its suitability to the Aeolian mode – that is to say, the natural minor on the sharpless and flatless staff, executable on white keys alone. The idea is that if we reverted to an A-oriented model, which brings us back to how A-to-G notation was alphabetized in the first place, natural minors and not majors would be the new point of origin in a coordinate system that remains diatonic.

In other words, the dominance of C is a direct product of the dominance of the major scale. The utility of teaching the major scale first is what leads us to a descriptivist argument: simply put, it permits the beginning performer easy access to what we now call small-c classical music as well as a plentiful repository of nursery rhymes. In the dungeons of tonality, the major scale is the Big Key.

Is it limiting that the major-minor system – and as a result, C Major – indoctrinates society with traditional prejudices of consonance and dissonance? Yes, in the same way that the limitations of Euclidean geometry are prejudiced against hyperbolic surfaces. Yes, in the same way that the limitations of Newtonian physics make no allowances for wave-particle duality on the atomic level. It is no coincidence that Arnold Schoenberg (and every time I mention him, I just know Guillaume is going to jump all over my flagrant misunderstandings of serialism) described his twelve-tone system as being to music what relativity was to classical physics.

By this I mean that tonal prejudices, reified as they are, hold for a reason. Like the postulates of Euclid and Newton – although a better analogy would be to Northrop Frye’s theory of archetypes in English literature – tonality defined around the major scale is a theoretical approximation that only works under certain assumptions, but its utility is sufficiently justified by the breadth of observable phenomena it envelops.

Of course, music performance is one thing, and composition is quite a different matter; in that regard, it has been some time now that composers have dispensed with pianocentricity in the key of C, not to mention every other rudiment in the unwritten classical rulebook. This is by no means confined to atonal experimentation, nor has it failed to elicit popular consumption.

Think Leonard Bernstein. Or, for that matter, Danny Elfman’s title theme to The Simpsons. Or John Williams, probably the most popular symphonic composer of modern times. Although a good many of his lavish and bombastic leitmotifs that are now as firm a part of the cultural fabric as Wagner was a century ago are strongly major or minor, much of his work is not: the contrapuntal dialogue between keyboard and spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the exemplary cue, but consider the echoes of Stravinsky in The Empire Strikes Back (both its incidental music and the thunderous “Imperial March”), the “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and a good chunk of Jaws. In video games, the Japanese RPG music of composers like Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda was heavily modal (particularly in the Aeolian and Dorian); notice the frequency with which they resolve cadences from minor dominant chords, putting a whole tone of space between the leading note and the tonic.

Guillaume also makes an interesting observation that I feel should be quoted directly:

The reason kids don’t appreciate Messiaen’s sense of tonality (he argues that it’s there in his Technique de mon language musical, I tend to agree based on my definition of what tonality should be…) is partially because from the beginning we have them play nice little pieces in C+ that shy away from dissonance. We teach them that dissonance is bad because these cute little pieces alternate between the chords of I, IV and V, and anything outside that is a minor chord and thus to be avoided. If a minor chord is to be avoided, how are we supposed to appreciate the beauty of an augmented chord with a minor 9th added on top? Even on the other side of the musical learning, that thing called jazz, most books teach the chords and progressions and techniques from a base of C. How unoriginal.

(“Aha!” sayeth Nick as he espies a mention of his own personal field of quasi-expertise, “a chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality!”)

This is an interesting passage, partly because jazz harmony is almost exclusively founded on 9th, 11th and 13th extensions when it is not busy mucking about with overlapping inversions and funky pedal points. In fact, I speculate that is precisely why illustrations of leadsheet chord symbols are presented by example with C as the root: the accidentals on the staff explicitly signify how these harmonies fit into or differ from the diatonic sequence of the major scale.

In practice, the situation is quite different. Chord substitution and voicing revolve around emphasizing the traditionally discouraged tritone, often using it as a diametric pivot across the circle of fifths. Melodic improvisation is one big exercise in the convergence of modes and blues scales. New syntheses of these scales with the vocabulary of underlying extended chords are happening all the time, and complete conversions to a modal framework are old news; Miles Davis was doing it half a century ago in “So What”.

In my own experience, C is not the most comfortable of keys for the jazz pianist, as the white-key correspondence to the diatonic major becomes almost a hindrance and a distraction once one has found tactile comfort in a roughly equal proportion of black and white landings. I much prefer Eb, as the proximities surrounding it lend themselves to some very interesting progressions that feel a lot more natural to the fingers.

The ideal standard of performance in any genre, of course, is equal and balanced proficiency starting on any note. But for most purposes, C is as good a place to start as any.

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The Septembrist recapitulation

Thursday, 8 September 2005 — 3:51pm | Animation, Film, Video games

As some readers may have noticed – and whoever they are, I admire their persistence in providing return traffic in the face of abject futility, however motivated by ennui it may be – this alleged weblog has been less than rife with recent activity of late. As pleasurable as it is to thumb my virtual nose at virtual people in this besotted cyber-realm with only words as my weapon, I must admit it has not in contemporaneous times been my first and foremost love.

Advance Wars: Dual Strike is not my first and foremost love either, but it is most of what I have been galvanizing to fill the few extant temporal vacuums that betray the character of the astute hobbyist. It is, in short, probably the most enthralling video game I’ve played on any system this calendar year – the dream strategy title for those who prefer patient and methodical turn-based analysis to the rapid improvisation of an RTS, but can spare neither the time or the commitment to get mired in late-game micromanagement. For a crude associative description: think of it as a Sid Meier game with everything removed except combat and cold, hard cash. As a result it moves a lot faster, but has just enough depth to open the possibility of dragging out a battle to be settled by attrition – and you will sit through the ordeal without realizing how many hours are going by outside your soap bubble of virtual warfare.

In a way, the various incarnations of Advance Wars – and this one in particular, given the tangible manipulation of pieces offered by its supplementary touchscreen control scheme – mark the natural evolution of the tabletop board game, with all the conveniences of the digital age as their selected adaptations: interchangeable and editable board layouts, automated calculations in the place of twenty-sided dice, and artificial intelligence robust enough to provide competent opposition when there exist no other DS owners within a radius of thirty feet. I almost wish Dual Strike were released with support for Nintendo’s global Wi-Fi network to launch in November, but it already provides a bountiful playing experience as it is; besides, the scale of multiplayer matchups it makes possible have a tendency to result in disconnections and dead batteries.

And now for something completely different. As you may know, Disneyland celebrated its 50th anniversary this summer after a year of renovations and refurbishments – and boy, was it worth it. I’ve had the good fortune of visiting the resort on numerous occasions, and it’s never looked so good. The original rides are now decorated with gold-plated anniversary cars (or horses, or teacups, or whatever applies). There’s a museum of Disneyland memorabilia with such exhibits as blueprints and schematic artwork, every variety of admission ticket from every era, and a cheesy but insightful doc short hosted by Steve Martin and Donald Duck.

Classic Disney scenes are on display throughout the park in the form of photo collages assembled from the visages of animators, staffers and guests, each of them consisting of two to ten thousand images. As you enter Main Street, there is a grandiose two-level monochrome collage where these photographs congeal into the faces of the men and women who were with Uncle Walt’s empire when it began, which in turn compose a still from “Steamboat Willie”. I’ve found an online archive of these exhibits, and the one I just spoke of is here, but a mere JPEG does not capture the sheer ambition of the monument. Nor does a photograph show you that the Haunted Mansion collage glows in the dark. There are wonders to behold at this happy place, and this is just one of them. There are others.

The fireworks, for instance. Nowadays, we are so accustomed to pyrotechnics that it’s easy to be disenchanted at how fireworks, while still magnificent once you delve into the constructed choreography of a given display, all look and feel the same. Sure, the last decade or so have brought us the odd laser projection every so often, but we are fundamentally looking at the same old centrifugal fractal patterns set to Tchaikovsky, right?

Well, since 17 July, Disneyland has restored genuine spectacle to the ancient art of synchronized rocketry. The proverbial magic is back. Sparks fly over the repainted Sleeping Beauty Castle to the tune of “When You Wish Upon a Star” like the opening titles of a feature film, but live and right in front of you. Tinker Bell zips around the parapets. And it’s all narrated by Mary Poppins – that is to say, Julie Andrews.

Then the display becomes a sort of interpretive dance of light and sound, a whirlwind tour of Disneyland attractions representing each of its sectors (though “It’s A Small World” is noticeably absent, and the New Orleans sector is underscored by Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” played, not surprisingly, too fast). There’s a broadside battle waged right over the heads of the audience for “Pirates of the Caribbean”, and if you sit close enough you can see the Jolly Roger aglow on the Matterhorn’s peak like a distant Bat-Signal. “Star Tours” has laser cannons and explosions of green flame that light up the night set to John Williams’ end credits to Episode IV. The Frontierland shooting gallery features ducks with targets on them projected on the castle itself, which move about and seemingly get shot down one by one. And so on.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Chances are you haven’t either, unless you paid the House that Walt Built a visit of your own in the last seven or eight weeks.

If you plan to visit Disneyland anytime in the near future, or if you’ve never been there – make it so and make it soon. The “Happiest Homecoming on Earth” celebration is supposed to last until September 2006, according to the five-part golden anniversary retrospective that was posted at Jim Hill Media the same week I was in Anaheim, though by next summer’s end the top-billed novelty may have tapered off somewhat.

You really do have to see those fireworks show. My description does it about as much justice as a Klingon court-martial.

I haven’t devoted any of my recent blog-writing to what’s going on in wide-release cinema, in spite of having seen a passable, if less-than-usual quantity of major films of the ones that hit theatres between May and August, that quantity being eleven and a half. (The English dub of Howl’s Moving Castle is the half.) I attribute this to two causes. The first is that July and the better (or in this case, worse) part of August were for all intents and purposes dead, and all rumours of a box-office slump are for once both patently true and justified. The second is that the big films of May and June that were any good, a surprising number of them, turned out to be phenomenal; simply praising these achievements is a monotonous and redundant activity, and critiquing them intelligently takes too long.

Perhaps I will at some point offer a synoptic assessment that gathers and dispenses with the lot, but not today. For now, just go see the most satisfying film of the past few weeks, and certainly one of the best of the year. It’s called The Constant Gardener and it stars Lord Voldemort.

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