Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Laptop Review

I don't usually don't do reviews of anything, but I have had an excellent experience with my new laptop, so here are some comments. I wanted a lighter laptop with a larger screen than my older Macbook Pro so I bought a Chromebook. They take some getting used to, but I have used them before and they are quite manageable for most purposes. I bought the newest Acer 15.6 inch model:

As I said in the previous post, I just got the laptop and charged it up the day before getting on the plane to Toronto. As I forgot the charger, it had to last the whole six days I was there, which it did, but after checking my email the last morning, it only had five minutes left! Pretty impressive, especially compared to my older MacBook Pro that only has a couple of hours of charge. I love Chromebooks because they boot up in just a few seconds and shut down instantly. Mac and Windows machines, especially the latter, seem to take geological time to boot up.

So what is the hitch? Chromebooks run the Chrome operating system from Google which will not run any ordinary applications. So I can't compose on the road as it won't run Finale. It also won't run Word or Powerpoint or any other ordinary program. What it will run is Google docs so for normal purposes just open your Word file with Google docs and edit therein, saving it as a Word file to send to others. Mind you, I haven't done this much, but I think it would work. For web browsing there are no issues. I am writing this review on my Chromebook.

Why did I get a Chromebook instead of a MacBook Air like everyone else? A new MacBook Air with a 13' screen costs north of a thousand dollars. My 15.6' Chromebook cost $212 (plus $58 shipping and import fees to Mexico).

How does the screen definition and speakers compare to my older MacBook Pro? Quite well. Viewing this YouTube clip on the Chromebook compares well with the Mac:

The picture seems very comparable (mind you, my old MacBook does not have a retina display) and the sound also seems just as good--a bit better in fact as it delivers more volume at max. The MacBook is a bit quiet even when you crank it up. The Chromebook has some fair-sized speakers on either side of the keyboard. The keyboard is nothing special, not as nice as on a Mac, but perfectly useable.

So there you have it. Why are Macs so much more expensive? They are gorgeous examples of industrial design, and Apple has found that their customers are loyal enough to accept higher prices. Windows machines are more expensive largely because of the hefty fee Microsoft charges for the operating system. So, you might consider buying a Chromebook at a fraction of the cost.

UPDATE: How hard was it to connect my Chromebook to my HP printer? It took 30 seconds.

Back From Toronto

I got back from Toronto last night so I can give a bit of an update on the project. First some background: over the last few years I had developed a good working relationship with a recording engineer down here in Mexico. Ken Basman was originally from Toronto and was an outstanding jazz guitarist. He was also a very talented recording engineer with his own studio and an impressive collection of microphones. Sadly, he passed away a couple of years ago so I have been looking for an alternative. I just completed a piece for violin and guitar, Dark Dream, and there was another piece for violin and piano that also needed recording so I approached violinist Valerie Li, first violin with the Afiara Quartet whom I had met when they gave a number of concerts here in Mexico. She was interesting in recording the pieces with me and knew a very good recording engineer in Toronto. As Toronto is also home to some fine pianists, that made the project feasible. I just had to fly up to Toronto in December when the daytime high is often around zero! Never mind, just dress warmly.

The project was a real success. We recorded in the Glenn Gould Studio, a small concert hall in the CBC broadcast centre that is outfitted as probably the finest studio for recording classical music in Canada. We recorded two pieces, Dark Dream, which I just completed a couple of months ago, and Chase, composed three years ago. I flew into Toronto last Wednesday, getting in at 1:30 in the morning. At noon the next day I had a rehearsal with Val which was our first run-through of the piece. As she is a highly accomplished chamber music musician it went very smoothly and we largely worked out the ensemble problems. The next day I attended the rehearsal of Val with pianist Todd Yaniw for the much shorter piece, Chase. That went quite well, though I was not impressed with the beat up piano at the Conservatory. Saturday Val and I had another rehearsal of Dark Dream and Sunday we recorded both pieces at the CBC. Total rehearsal time Dark Dream: 3 1/2 hours and Chase, 1 1/2 hours. Total recording time: Dark Dream, 2 hours and Chase 1 1/2 hours. Dark Dream turned out to be about 14 minutes long and Chase about 4 minutes. I expected Dark Dream to come in at ten minutes as that is how it was originally planned. However, I rewrote the piece three or four times so it just grew!

Here is a look at the Glenn Gould Studio, named after perhaps Canada's most famous classical musician, pianist Glenn Gould who was pretty much resident in the CBC building for much of his career:

Click to enlarge

Inside the control room:

Our recording crew, Paul, technical assistant from the CBC, Pouya Hamidi, our recording engineer, and pianist Todd Yaniw. I believe that Pouya is performing a traditional invocation of the gods of recording for a successful session.

Myself, Pouya and violinist Valerie Li, getting ready to do a take:

I will have more about the actual recording in future posts.

While the recording itself went very well, there were a few unexpected challenges. As I said in a previous post, I completely forgot my charging cables for my iPhone, my Chromebook and my Kindle. They were all charged up when I left so it was not a complete disaster. In fact, the Kindle lasted the whole trip. Val had a spare iPhone charger, so that helped. But the Chromebook only lasted the whole time due to stringent rationing! I was going to do a lot more blog posting and maybe watch a few shows on Netflix, but had to keep the usage to an hour or two a day. It turned out that the Chromebook, advertised as having up to 12 hours of battery time, actually delivered about that much. However, taking an Uber to the Royal Conservatory for a rehearsal, my iPhone slipped out of my jacket pocket in the back of the cab. It took several days of phone calls and a significant tip to get the phone back. Luckily, I did! But my recommendation is to NEVER leave anything in an Uber.

On the plus side, I discovered a really good sushi restaurant near my hotel.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Sunny Toronto

Sure, it starts to get dark around 4:30 in the afternoon, but Toronto can be sunny in the winter as it was yesterday. Mind you, it was also 8 degrees below zero, so there's that. We had a rehearsal at the Royal Conservatory of Music, one of Canada's leading musical institutions. Here is a photo of the original building that has since been added on to with new construction on one side and at the back:

I also paid a little visit to the LCBO another uniquely Canadian institution. Canada, traditionally, was a bit conflicted about sinful things like alcohol, so in most provinces, sales of alcoholic beverages are tightly controlled by the government. LCBO stands for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The Quebec equivalent is the SAQ, the Societe des Alcools de Quebec (sorry, no accents on this keyboard), and in British Columbia it is the BCLDB, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch. These shameful products are usually sold out of dull, generic government buildings. On the other hand, provinces like Ontario and BC are more and more producing fine wines and are justifiably proud of them.

I ran into another wine aficionado just before coming to Toronto which reminded me of my interest in ice wines. Ice wine (Eiswien in German) was invented in Germany, by wineries in the Moselle valley. Sometimes, if you let your grapes fully ripen in late fall, which gives you those luscious late-harvest wines, you get caught by an early frost which ruins the grapes by the time they thaw out. But sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century vintners started to crush the grapes when they were still frozen which gives a highly concentrated juice as the water is taken out in the form of ice crystals. The result is a sweet, completely natural wine, balanced by good acidity. Other sweet wines, like Sauternes, are created by a fungus, referred to as "noble rot" that causes the skin of the grapes to degrade and some of the water to evaporate, again resulting in a more concentrated juice.

The two main nations that produce ice wine are Germany and recently, Canada. So I dropped by the LCBO and picked up a couple of bottles of ice wine to take back to Mexico with me. Very little of this wine is exported and, as far as I know, none to Mexico! I also picked up what I hope will be a good Barolo to go with the Christmas turkey:

Ice wine is traditionally made with the Riesling grape, but in Canada is often made with the little-known Vidal blanc grape:
Vidal blanc (or simply Vidal) is a white hybrid grape variety produced from the Vitis vinifera variety Ugni blanc (also known as Trebbiano Toscano) and another hybrid variety, Rayon d'Or (Seibel 4986). It is a very winter-hardy variety that manages to produce high sugar levels in cold climates with moderate to high acidity.
Ice wine is not cheap as the whole crop has to be picked all at once, often in the pre-dawn so the grapes are still frozen when they are crushed. Save it for a special occasion!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

This will be a combined miscellanea today with some bits about my trip to Toronto as I am rationing time on my laptop due to my forgetting my charging cable at home. I had my first rehearsal with violinist Valerie Li yesterday and it went very well. Val is a terrific violinist, first violin with the Afiara Quartet, a really outstanding ensemble. Val is originally from Vancouver and attended the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, one of the finest music schools in the US. She and the other members of the quartet came together at the San Francisco Conservatory and later on at Julliard in New York. They just got back from a three week tour of Denmark. I met the quartet in Mexico when they performed a few times in our local festivals. They stood out for me for their superb musicianship, especially in the Beethoven quartets. So when I was looking for a violinist to record some new pieces, she was at the top of the list.

We rehearsed for a couple of hours yesterday and I was very pleased with how it went. Val is a meticulous musician and working on my piece "Dark Dream" for violin and guitar, I had some new insights into what is going on in the piece! How this piece came to be, something I will go into in more detail in another post, was first of all at the conceptual level, then later on I rewrote much of it intuitively. With new music, the details of interpretation will develop as you rehearse the piece. Val was very insightful in shaping phrases and the dynamic layout. Today I will meet her and pianist Todd Yaniw at the Royal Conservatory of Music where I will hear them rehearsing my older piece, "Chase" for violin and piano. I have only written two pieces for piano in my life, this one and a song for voice and piano from a couple of years ago. "Chase" is a pretty straightforward piece designed to be a bit of a romp for both instruments and easily enjoyable for the audience.

* * *

The New York Times has a piece on creativity and asceticism. They recount how artists have often, in the past, been associated with hedonistic excess:
In classical Greece, in fourth- and fifth-century Athens, the major artistic prize of the era, for drama, was given under the auspices of Dionysus, a god of wine and ecstasy. Dionysus is a curious proto-patron saint of the arts, given the story of his birth. Zeus — king of gods, thunder god — wooed the mortal Semele. Hera, Zeus’ wife and the goddess of heaven, tired of her husband’s philandering, learned of Zeus’ latest conquest and convinced Semele to demand that Zeus reveal his true form — lightning — a sight Hera knew would kill her: No mortal can bear a god in full. Zeus assented, Semele died, but Zeus saved Semele’s fetal son, tucking him into his thigh, carrying him to term, earning the child the epithet “twice born”: to a mortal, to a god.
That there is something divine in the mortal act of making things is another part of the lore around creativity. The process of giving artistic birth is said to court a kind of violence that the maker must reckon with. Recent books have wondered about the tension between varieties of addiction and creativity, often by writers who themselves had been alcoholics, booze being a way to blunt or redirect the violence of making.
But the writer, Wyatt Mason, goes on to note that:
if it is fact that a kind of excess often accompanies the making of art, then there’s another kind of excess — less cinematic, for sure — that seems closer to the point: Artists, even the hedonistic ones, are fundamentally, one might say excessively, ascetic.
For the artist, though, asceticism isn’t a fad or a fashion or a mindful cleanse — a thumb of turmeric and a pinch of cayenne — prudently chosen. It is a regimen that evolves out of the need to do something unreasonable that an artist can’t be reasoned out of doing: work, demanded by no one but the self that makes it, because making is what the artist needs and knows.
* * *

I have long been a fan of Esa-Pekka Salonen both for his conducting and as a composer so I am delighted to read that he will be the next musical director of the San Francisco Symphony. This orchestra, unlike many others in North America, does not change conductors on a whim. The current director, Michael Tilson Thomas, has been at the helm for a quarter-century. Joshua Kosman writes in the San Francisco Chronicle:
The 60-year-old Finnish musician’s arrival in 2020 to succeed Michael Tilson Thomas promises to be an exciting development on every conceivable front. It’s going to mean a high level of musical execution from an orchestra that already plays like one of the best in the world. It’s going to mean a healthy infusion of contemporary music and a broadening of the repertoire, and it’s going to mean a range of new approaches to the very structure of orchestral music-making.
It’s really something of a coup.
If that assessment sounds a little breathless, consider that it could not have been made about any other conductor the Symphony might have chosen. There are fine conductors out there, but there’s simply no one on the orchestral scene today who can boast the range of musical and leadership skills that Salonen is poised to bring with him.
* * *

 They don't link to the story and I can't find it, but Arts Journal mentions a piece by critic Jennifer Gersten that sounds interesting:
Classical radio stations promote their programming as “calming and refreshing,” an “oasis,” or “an island of sanity.” Playlists on YouTube and audio streaming services have titles like “8 Hours Classical Music for Sleeping”; inexpensive compilation CDs offer “The Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe.” Jennifer Gersten, winner of the 2018 Rubin Prize in Music Criticism — identifies at least one reason why the industry keeps falling into this rut, and argues that the habit sells both the music itself and potential listeners very short.
Well, sure. The thing is that while I, and some of you as well, look to music for an enlivening, occasionally transcendental experience, a lot of listeners just hope for a respite from the hectic stress of everyday life.

 * * *

This item struck close to home: Canadian orchestra is forced out of its hall.
After decades of performances at its home base at the Royal Theatre, the Victoria Symphony has announced that it is being forced out of the Theatre due to exorbitant rental increases and curtailed access to booking dates.
Recent changes to rental fees and newly created priority scheduling policies and procedures developed by the Board of the Royal Theatre have created an untenable situation for the Victoria Symphony. ‘With the new policy our rent will increase by 100%, and combined with significantly reduced access to available dates in the Theatre we can no longer continue to offer our series of concerts,’ says says Chairman Alan Hollingworth.
The Symphony will pull out half of its season offerings from the Royal and take them to the Farquhar Auditorium at the University of Victoria.
I played the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo with that orchestra on that very stage. This isn't quite as bad as it sounds because the Royal Theatre is an older facility with frankly, minimal backstage amenities. The newer auditorium at the university is a better performing space.

* * *

Ending with a bit of whimsy, Yuja Wang's agent, Mark Newbanks, has, according to Slipped Disc, dropped her because she is too "high maintenance."
The boutique artists’ manager Mark Newbanks has dropped the pianist from his elite list, apparently for being too high maintenance.
Mark erased Yuja from his website this month and she has reciprocated in kind.
This is an uncomfortable situation for an international artist, but she won’t be alone for long. The vultures are circling quite low in the sky.
* * *

Which brings us to our envoi. One of my favorite orchestral clips, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting an orchestra of young students at the Verbier Festival. This is the last movement of the Symphony No. 5 by Sibelius:

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Recording in Toronto

I am in Toronto for the next few days recording two pieces with violin. While I am here I will take a few photos and share some experiences with you. In the planning for a good part of a year, over the next few days we will hopefully get good performances of two recent pieces of mine recorded. We used to say "in the can" or "on tape" or maybe "on vinyl" none of which longer apply. "On hard drive" just seems odd.

Anyway, I got in late last night on an Aeromexico flight which, apart from leaving a half-hour late, was excellent. I have been worried about my guitar ever since I booked the flight a few months ago. As I have mentioned before, my instrument was built by Robert Holroyd in Vancouver in 1983 and it has been my sole instrument ever since, undergoing a couple of repairs and restorations over the years. It is a superb guitar and irreplaceable since Bob passed away decades ago. I will not let it travel in cargo. My travel agent assured me that the policy on Aeromexico was that musical instruments can travel as carryon luggage as long as the case is less than 1.15 meters in length (which I guess lets out cellists). My case is 1.07 meters, so I should be good. But I was extremely apprehensive because of many bad experiences over the years where I was often lied to and sometimes forced to check my guitar. When I showed up for checkin in Mexico City yesterday there was no problem. I held up my guitar case saying, "this is my carryon" and they simply said," that's a guitar?" and waved me on. It came to me that all the bad experiences I had back when I was touring, were with Canadian airlines, who seemed to actually hate guitars.

Seated next to me on the flight was a gentleman who commented on my case and asked me if I was a classical guitarist. He turned out to be a Mexican guitarist who just started teaching at the University of Toronto and he gave me a copy of a recent album he recorded that I will review when I can get to it. So that was a nice coincidence.

I got in very late last night--it was snowing lightly and around 0 degrees (32 Fahrenheit), but the hotel folks were very nice. That is the first thing I notice, Canadians are polite to a fault! Now, yes, I do realize that I am in fact Canadian, born and raised, but I have not actually lived in English Canada for the last twenty-eight years so I do feel a distance from English Canadian culture. The first eight of those years were in Quebec, which is quite different, and the last twenty in Mexico, which is really different. It is fascinating to view one's own culture from the outside, as it were, which is what I am doing. I have never spent much time in Ontario (apart from a summer back in the 80s) and I have not been in Toronto since around 2000. One of my first goals will be to see if I can find some Montreal smoked meat!

I am writing this on a new laptop, an Acer 15.6 inch Chromebook that I purchased from Amazon for $213. Yes, not a misprint. There was a charge for shipping and import duties to Mexico, but not that much really. Why so cheap? Chromebooks are much cheaper because they do not include hefty fees for the Windows operating system. They take some getting used to because they do not run any of the usual programs, but for web browsing they are perfect and you can use Google docs instead of the usual Office programs. I find that, for most purposes, they are ideal. They boot up in a few seconds and shut down instantly. This is the third one I have owned and I love them when I travel. My Macbook Pro is a bit too heavy. Plus, 15.6 is a lot of screen on a laptop, which I appreciate. I can't do any composing on it as it will not run Finale. I should look and see if there is any music software available.

I managed to completely forget all of my charging cables so I will have to ration my computer time. It says that the average battery life is twelve hours (!) so that gives me two hours a day as I charged it up before I left. Fingers crossed! My iPhone is going to die a lot sooner, so I am going to leave it turned off most of the time. Why did I forget the cables, which I usually remember? I think it was because I was mostly focused on packing everything I needed for the recording. I haven't traveled with my guitar for twenty years so there was a lot to remember:

  • guitar
  • extra sets of strings (2)
  • sandpaper (2 kinds) for the nails
  • polishing board for the nails and nail file
  • clipper for the strings if I have to put a new one on
  • metronome/tuner
  • scores for both pieces
  • music stand
  • foot rest
Often the most challenging part of being a musician is simply the logistics of getting there with everything you need.

I am staying in a Marriot just a couple of blocks from the CBC building where we are going to be recording and while a modest, older hotel is quite suitable. The room is great--it has a kitchenette with a fridge, stovetop, dishwasher and kitchenware so I can actually cook here. I wonder if I can find a decent bagel? I am told I have to visit the Kensington Market, which I vaguely remember from years ago. I won't be here very long and every day involves either rehearsing, recording or editing, but maybe I can fit that in.

And now, time for breakfast!

Monday, December 3, 2018

Best Albums of the Year?

We live in a time when criticism, music criticism in particular, is abhorred. Ok, let's go with that. If you don't have criticism, which has to be some sort of bigotry: sexist, colonialist, oppressive, exclusionist, etc, then you have wide open doors and windows, let the sunshine in! In practical terms this means that, as we find from Ted Gioia, you just give a long, long list of everything under the sun: The 100 Best Recordings of 2018. Not only that, but there is a long list of also-rans. Just reading the list makes me tired. So is this any kind of service to the listener? Maybe, let's listen to a few samples. Number two on the list is Marisa Anderson: Cloud Corner, described as "Serene Folk Guitar Instrumentals from Portland"

Uh, ok. Fairly harmless, but I have heard pretty much exactly this dozens of times before. So nothing special. I only skipped the first one because it was described as "Contemporary Soul/R&B Influenced by Billie Holiday, Etta James, Nina Simone" and I have heard lots of that before. The third one is Mark Applebaum: Speed Dating, described as "Experimental Spoken Word Music / Contemporary Classical Music" Blogger won't embed, so follow the link for "3 Unlikely Corporate Sponsorships: No. 1, Nestlé"

This is a polyphonic version of Kurt Schwitters Ursonate mixed up with Tom Waits "Step Right Up" in a special version for kindergarten. Number four is Typh Barrow: Raw, described as the Belgian Amy Winehouse.

Pretty typical soul/blues to my ear, but with a nicely gravelly voice. Number five looks really promising: Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly: Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music, described as "Gamelan Transcriptions and Contemporary Songs Inspired by Them" Oh dear, imagine my disappointment when what I hear is gamelan reduced to kind of bland new age music with dreary breathy semi-spoken vocals. I would describe this as road trip music for overstimulated folks who really need to calm down.

And besides isn't this the worst kind of cultural appropriation?

I could go on, but all this seems to prove is that 90% of everything really is crap. If Ted Gioia had actually done the proper job of a music critic and tried to pick the ten good ones out of the hundred, now that would have been a public service. And we could have some good arguments about it. But as it is, in this post-critical wasteland, he makes no critical judgements so you have struggle through the whole bloody list to find the few gems that might lie within. How marvelous.

UPDATE: Just to be fair, this is Ted Gioia's reason for presenting the list as it is:
I am listing my top 100 and honorable
mention albums for 2018 in alphabetical
order, rather than ranking them. This
marks a change from pre-2017 lists. I
am doing this because each of these
albums deserves recognition and the
sequential ranking tended to focus
too much attention on just a few
Each of these albums deserves equal recognition? Why is that exactly? How delightfully egalitarian.

Everything Has Already Been Done

Here is a video by producer Rick Beato with guest Rhett Shull asking "Has every song been written?"

I think that this is really a genre question: the more tightly restricted a genre becomes, the more pieces written in that genre come to resemble one another. This could be Viennese minuets, San Francisco psychedelia or current pop songs. The first example in the video is of exactly the same chord progression used by Marvin Gaye and Ed Sheeran over which different melodies and lyrics are heard. What we have now is a kind of industrial songwriting process vaguely similar to the process of making sausages or hot dogs. The process is similar and the end result is similar. This is actually a plus because in the pop environment the listeners tend to like stuff similar to other stuff they like, so the more homogenous the product, the more likely it will be accepted. On the other hand, the danger is always present that too much homogeneity will cause boredom and rejection. You want to give the listeners exactly what they expect, with a little spice of difference.

But then you get critics, like these guys, or me, saying "hey, you're just regurgitating what has already been done." Hilariously, there was a critic back in the 16th century, if I recall correctly, who was claiming that all the contrapuntal ideas and combinations had already been tried. Two hundred years before Bach! And then Shostakovich, in the 1950s, proved all over again that even in the genre of keyboard fugues, you could still come up with lots of new ideas. (Domenico Scarlatti managed to write 555 sonatas for harpsichord between 2 and 6 minutes in length without ever repeating himself.)

Creativity is a very remarkable thing because someone can come along, and with one tiny change, or a whole bunch of them, or one or more big changes, they can transform a whole genre, create a new mood or perspective and thereby renew a whole area of music. DuFay did it in the 15th century, Monteverdi did it in the 16th century, Bach did it in the 17th century, Haydn did it in the 18th century, Chopin did it in the 19th century, Stravinsky did it in the 20th century and so on.

And at the same time, every one of these composers used a whole lot of traditional material, they just transformed it without throwing it away.

For an envoi, here is the ballade by Guillaume DuFay, "Se la face ay pale."