From the archives: Classical

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Home rows, tone rows, and the lost Dvorak études

Saturday, 23 July 2011 — 10:12am | Classical, Computing, Music, Pianism

I’ve been aware of the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard for a long time, but only in the past few days have I decided to try the layout for myself. Like any cognitive realignment pushing against the momentum of a lifelong habit, the initial adjustment process has been slow and occasionally punishing. When you are acccustomed to the fluidity of the keyboard as an invisible extension of the mind, it’s terrifying to find it amputated and clumsily reattached. I expect this overwhelming self-consciousness to be the norm someday when future generations willingly trade in their limbs for more dynamic cyborg substitutes.

Up to now, the closest I’ve come to this awkward stumbling was when I attempted to train my left-hand dexterity on Charlie Parker melodies I would normally play with my right. A kind of impotence, really: I was willing myself to do things that I was used to executing at dizzying velocities with ease, but my body just wouldn’t respond. The trick, I discovered, is to force yourself to slow down, clean up the suddenly naked particulars, and not rely so much on your established ‘chunks’ of muscle memory. My left hand is still a shambles, mind you, but as the lesser automaton it invents the more colourful passages.

That’s why I’m still plugging away in Dvorak. It may be slow-going at first—this post you are reading now is taking an eternity to punch in—but within minutes of playing with it, you begin to perceive all sorts of qualitative pleasures that simply don’t exist in QWERTY-land. It’s like switching to an Apple Macintosh, complete with the moment of epiphany where the cultishness of the already indoctrinated looks reasonable all of a sudden. (Or so I’ve heard. Having been a Mac user on and off since the age of five, I can’t really say.)

Continued »

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Suggested reading, abcdelmrs deiinot

Monday, 12 April 2010 — 11:12pm | Assorted links, Classical, Computing, Debate, Journalism, Literature, Music, Scrabble

Until last week I had been out of touch with tournament Scrabble for well over a year and a half, having taken a hiatus from playing at any events. In the meantime the organizational politics in North America have drastically transformed: Hasbro decided to redirect the National Scrabble Association toward developing the game in schools and ceased to support the tournament scene, which spun off into a non-profit licensed to use the Scrabble name and a rebel organization that isn’t. The best thing to have come out of competitive Scrabble going unofficial, though, is The Last Word, a model community newsletter that improves on the NSA’s old snail-mail Scrabble News in most respects (although it noticeably lacks annotations of high-level games). If you are inclined to read about Scrabble squabbles, Ted Gest has written in the latest issue about the NASPA/WGPO split.

And now for something completely different:

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Suggested reading, recollected edition

Monday, 8 March 2010 — 12:01pm | Assorted links, Classical, Computing, Harry Potter, Hockey, Literature, Music, Pianism, Science, Video games

Fall away from the Internet for a week or two and the Internet falls on you. Here’s some of what I saw when I succumbed to its gelatinous reach:

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Tales of the Minimalist Freighter

Wednesday, 3 March 2010 — 10:40pm | Classical, Film, Music, Science

Last month I attended a performance of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot’s “documentary digital video opera” Three Tales at the ADC Theatre, the first production in Britain since the UK premiere in 2002. I’m still not sure what to make of it.

On the surface it looks straightforward enough. The 65-minute composition for voice, acoustic instruments, and video divides neatly into three segments on subjects from the public face of twentieth-century technology—the Hindenburg disaster, the atomic bomb test in the Bikini Atoll, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep. We hear the familiar Reich technique of displacing and superimposing copies of repeated motifs slightly out of phase, which catches the ear well enough in recordings but in live performance has the air of a magic trick. As in Reich’s seminal string quartet Different Trains, many of the melodic ideas are derived from the pitches and articulation of human speech—but not, in Three Tales, the rhythms; here, the speech recordings are subtended to click into the frame of a regular pulse. The video speed, too, is synchronized to musical time and not “mimetic” time or real-time, if you get my meaning.

We see some captivating archival images in the first two movements, chiefly the ones that draw attention to the logistics of large-scale technology, like the construction of the Hindenburg (set to variations on the Nibelung motif from Wagner’s Ring) or the dislocation of indigenous people and livestock in preparation for the Bikini tests (with thunderous sforzandi from Genesis to spice things up). What I can’t quite fit into the picture is the Dolly movement, a contrapuntal collage of video interviews with prominent scientists like Richard Dawkins, Marvin Minsky, and Rodney Brooks. Korot tells us the work, as it was conceived, is more accurately called “Two Tales and a Talk”. Here’s how Reich described it:

Each of the three acts not only looks and sounds like it’s historical period, each is formally organized quite differently to comment on that period. [...] [Dolly] is non-stop with certain kinds of material recurring in no clearly discernible pattern. Musically one might say Dolly was a kind of free rondo. The forms of each act reflect the historical period they describe.

But what does the piece say about technology? It sets up a debate instead of taking a firm position, adopting the ambivalence that is often so necessary for art to say anything at all. Commentators have remarked on the obvious irony of critiquing technology in a technologically enabled medium, but I think it would be facile to stop there: as in most of his earlier works, Reich’s crucial gesture is to forsake electronic synthesizers and recreate the effects of audio manipulation in acoustic human performance. It is an incursion of man on the domain of machine, not the other way round.

Yet the Dolly movement remains an uneasy fit. Consider a crude reading of the work:

  1. Hindenburg—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! That didn’t turn out very well.
  2. Bikini—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! That didn’t turn out very well.
  3. Dolly—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! I wonder if it will turn out well?

I believe what we have here is a case of arson, murder, and jaywalking. Dolly now feels like a quaint late-nineties relic as revolutionary as Deep Blue—that is to say, not at all, in the grand scheme of humanity’s future. Cloning isn’t dragging us to the Singularity anytime soon, and conjuring images of Ray Kurzweil musing about robots replacing us all is a bit of a logical stretch.

Perhaps, as someone too irreligious to get his pants in a twist about the classic Promethean fears of man indulging in acts of creation proper to God, the message of Three Tales is lost on me. Or maybe the point is that the message is lost on everyone else.

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Suggested reading, goddam phony edition

Monday, 1 February 2010 — 11:32pm | Assorted links, Classical, Jazz, Literature, Music, Video games

In a way, the media frenzy over the death of J.D. Salinger can be understood as a kind of cathartic relief—i.e. now that he’s croaked, we can finally talk about him without feeling like we’re intruding on something. It has, at least, made for some very good reading about one of literature’s most enigmatic figures. Rather than collect the obituaries myself—I haven’t had time to read them all—I’ll link to the links at Bookninja here and here.

Serious aficionados should take a look at this 1957 letter by Salinger explaining why he saw The Catcher in the Rye as unfilmable. Really dedicated junkies of all things Salinger may even go as far as perusing Joyce Maynard’s 1972 article, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life”, which led her to drop out of Yale and live with the author for a year. (I personally find it nigh on unreadable, but it’s evidence that the cliché anxiety about settling down with 2.2 kids has been around for nearly four decades at least.)

And now for something completely different:

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Suggested reading, cork-popping edition

Monday, 18 January 2010 — 9:24pm | Assorted links, Classical, Jazz, Literature, Mathematics, Music, Science

I read too much and write too little. This has made it difficult to keep this space current and engaging, something that I sought to remedy with a weekly book review until other commitments started getting in the way. The book feature will return as soon as I can manage it and for as long as I can help it; but until then and going forward, I will content myself with regularly sharing some links to pieces that may fascinate the sort of people who come here in the first place, as they certainly fascinated me.

Up to this point I have typically refrained from aggregating news and commentary from elsewhere without any reply of my own, but I would rather pass on insightful reading material free of comment than never have it reach you at all. At the very least I hope to introduce some of you to the many excellent blogs and journals I follow.

Some recent highlights:

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I am the very model of a squandered opportunity

Saturday, 3 October 2009 — 9:46pm | Classical, Literature, Mathematics, Music

Among the many things I passed through upon my arrival in Cambridge was a symposium on Euclidean Geometry in Nineteenth-Century Culture, organized by Alice Jenkins (University of Glasgow) and CRASSH. I may say a few things about it later, but for now, let us limit ourselves to this tidbit.

I briefly spoke to Robin Wilson, the author of Lewis Carroll in Numberland (reviewed here), from whom I learned that Lewis Carroll once corresponded with Arthur Sullivan to propose an operatic adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Sullivan declined.

Or, as I like to tell it: Sullivan declined, and English comic opera has never recovered since.

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