sun, 08-jul-2007, 15:40

Brandenburg Concertos

bach: brandenburg concertos

The first section of the Bach: Complete Works on CD are Orchestral Works and Chamber Music, and the first two CDs in this section are the six Brandenburg Concertos. They're performed by Musica Amphion, a Dutch baroque orchestra conducted “from the harpsichord” by Pieter-Jan Belder, and were recorded in May and June 2006. Although I’m not an expert, I can’t find anything in the recording or playing to complain about. All the instruments are bright and crisp and there are no sound artifacts I can hear. Occasionally I can hear someone playing a wind instrument breathing, but I don’t think that’s unusual in recordings of small groups of musicians.

All together, the concertos are very different from each other, and none use the same set of orchestral or solo instruments. The variety in instrumentation, different musical styles, and the unique flavors make them really entertaining to listen to. Each one has something to recommended it, something that sets it apart from the others. I think it’s an excellent way to start off the collection.

Concerto Number 1 in F major, BWV 1046

Solo instruments: oboe, violin piccolo, horn.

Other instruments: two violins, viola, cello, basso continuo, harpsichord.

I wasn't very familiar with this concerto, but I've now listened to it more than any of the others because it’s the first one and I keep starting there and not finishing the whole set. The third movement is especially impressive with all the solo instruments charging in and out. One thing that surprised me is the strong rhythm in the piece (the whole set of concertos, really). I don’t usually associate toe-tapping with classical music (Waltzes excepted), but here it’s pretty strong in places.

Concerto Number 2 in F major, BWV 1047

Solo instruments: trumpet, oboe, recorder, violin.

Other instruments: two violins, viola, cello, basso continuo, harpsichord.

From the very beginning of the second concerto you know you’re listening to something very different because the instrumentation is so different, featuring a trumpet right out front. The second part is quieter and the conversational interplay between the recorder, oboe, and violin is very clear if you’re listening for it. The final part returns to the strong solo trumpeting from the first part. I don’t know whether Musica Amphion uses a traditional valveless trumped or not, but it sounds like it’d be difficult to play even on a modern trumpet. The recorder really compliments the trumpet in this part, sometimes mirroring the trumpet, and sometimes as a counterpoint.

Concerto Number 3 in G major, BWV 1048

Instruments: three violins, three violas, three cellos, basso continuo, harpsichord.

The third concerto is one I’ve heard a lot of in the past, and the melody in the first part is very familiar. I remember it as being played more slowly than what’s recorded here, but the rapid pace makes it seem more urgent and emotional than it would played slower. It really moves along, and has several very dramatic sections. This one only had stringed instruments, which is another variation from the previous pieces. There are parts that seem like solos, but the group is playing together and supporting the overall melody a lot more than in the first two concertos.

Concerto Number 4 in G major, BWV 1049

Solo instruments: violin, recorder.

Other instruments: recorder, two violins, viola, cello, basso continuo, harpsichord.

The fourth concerto is another familiar one, but I don’t think the versions I’ve heard in the past used the recorder. Bach apparently wrote “echo flutes” on the score, which is commonly interpreted to be the recorder, so I’m not sure what instrument I’ve heard in the past. The solo recorder, and the light and whimsical nature of the music brings a happy Disneyesque medieval countryside (Pylea, perhaps) to mind.

Concerto Number 5 in D major, BWV 1050

Solo instruments: traverso (modern flute), violin, harpsichord.

Other instruments: violin, viola, cello, double bass.

The fifth concerto was thought to have been written both to show off Bach’s new harpsichord, as well as for a competition with another composer and organist Louis Marchand, who didn’t show up for the competition. It’s also one of the first harpsichord concertos. The flute solos are quite prominent, but at times the harpsichord takes over completely with no other instruments playing. It’s a good opportunity to hear what a harpsichord really sounds like because it’s in the background for the rest of the concertos, and I’m far more familiar with classical music played on modern instruments where the piano takes it’s place. There are obvious differences in tone and richness between the harpsichord and piano, but one thing I can hear in the harpsichord is that the two hands seem to be able to separate their parts more clearly. During the harpsichord solo near the end of the first part, it really sounds like two people playing, and I think they’d blend together on a piano.

The second movement has just the solo instruments playing, and it seems thinner and less interesting than the rest of the concerto, which makes me wonder what Bach’s other chamber music is going to sound like and whether I’ll be able to appreciate it. Luckily the goodness returns in the third movement. Still, this one is my least favorite of the bunch.

Concerto Number 6 in B flat major, BWV 1051

Solo instruments: viola, viola da gamba, cello.

Other instruments: base, cembalo, harpsichord.

The sixth is another concerto that has only stringed instruments, but it’s unusual because it has no violins and so the sound is deeper and more open. I’m not sure if it’s the instrumentation or the recording here, but this concerto sounds like it’s on a larger stage than the previous concertos. The overall effect of the music and instrumentation makes it seem more serious and mature than the other concertos, and really expands the variety of the entire set.

Conclusions? Since the Brandenburg Concertos are so popular, I haven’t discovered anything new here, but listening to them more critically and with an eye toward what each instrument is doing has significantly improved my appreciation of them.

I got some of the information for this post from the Wikipedia page for the concertos, as well as Benjamin Chee’s introduction. As I mentioned in my introduction to this listening project, I have no particular expertise in classical music, so I’m hoping there will be enough information on the Internet to lead me when I’m not sure what I should be paying attention to.

tags: Bach  Bach edition  music  review 
sat, 07-jul-2007, 16:37

mcsweeney’s quarterly concern #10

mcsweeney’s quarterly concern #10, michael chabon (ed.)

I’ve given up the monthly book reports in favor of a post every time I finish something. I think it’ll give me a better chance to write more about each book, and my memory will be fresher when I do it. I won’t have a public record of what I’ve acquired each month, but the book queue sidebar gives a good view on what I’ve got (the un-italicized titles) and haven’t yet read.

McSweeney’s Issue 10 (reprinted by Vintage with the proceeds going to support 826 Valencia) is a collection of short stories, but rather than the typical “contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory stories” (to quote Michael Chabon’s Introduction), the stories are all attempts by the writers to revive the lost art of writing genre short fiction. It’s quite a list of authors too, including Chabon himself, Nick Hornby, Michael Crichton, Dave Eggers, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Harlan Ellison, Rick Moody, Neil Gaiman, and others I’m less familiar with.

My favorites include Elmore Leonard’s story about a young man becoming a U.S. Marshall, Kelly Link’s strange story about cat skins and witches, Nick Hornby's take on an end-of-the world coming-of-age story, and Michael Moorcock’s 1930s detective fiction about the murder of Hitler’s half-niece. Rick Moody has an interesting pseudo-time travel story that didn’t grab me enough for me to completely follow it, but it was very interesting and I’ll have to re-read it again to see if I can figure it out.

Some may have suffered in my eyes because I wasn’t enamored of the genre they chose. Despite Geek Love and the first season of Carnivàle, I don’t like carnivals that much, which made Glen David Gold’s carnival story awfully dull. My least favorite parts of Cloud Atlas (itself a work of genre fictions) were the first and last parts, similar to the Jim Shepard story and the “survival / man on the run” story by Carol Emshwiller. Maybe Gold, Shepard and Emshwiller succeeded with fictions I'm just not that fond of.

At the same time, some of the best stories in the collection were the ones that didn’t stray too far into pulpy genres. Dave Eggers’s mountaineering story and Laurie King’s backwoods cabin tale were enjoyable less for the plotting and occasional dips into the genre pool, and more for the fully fleshed out characterization, and the human emotions in evidence.

So, what can the collection tell us about genre fiction and it’s place in the short story world? For me, not a huge fan of short stories to begin with, it’s clear that there’s room for all kinds of fiction, and there’s no reason to reject a story because it’s got themes further from our own, more mundane, experience than usual. I enjoyed both the really pulpy fictions in the collection, and those that were more conventional; and I was bored with quite a few of the stories in each category as well. If Chabon keeps writing great genre novels like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, maybe there will continue to be room for all sorts of stories in the “Literary Fiction” section at the bookstore.

tags: books  review 
fri, 06-jul-2007, 18:42

overloaded scale

bach: complete works, overloaded scale

hanging scale

bach: complete works, 8.5 pounds

I recently got Bach: Complete Works, which is a 155 CD box set on the Brilliant Classics label (yeah, I’ve never heard of them either). The amazon reviews were surprisingly favorable, and it’s very reasonably priced. But until you’ve seen it in person, it’s hard to comprehend how massive 155 CDs of music is. I tried weighing it on my kitchen scale, but the scale tops out at 6 pounds and the collection Errored the scale (seen on the right). Next I tried hanging it from the ceiling with my antique hanging bullet scale. Eight and a half pounds. Or somewhere between four and seven days of music if listened straight through.

The collection is organized by musical category, not in order, as I was expecting. Twenty-three CDs for Orchestral Works / Chamber Music, 23 for Keyboard Works, two sets of Cantatas (60 CDs total), 32 CDs of Vocal Works, and 17 Organ Works CDs. They appear to all be performed on historic instruments (harpsichord instead of piano, most notably), and each category of music is done by a different group of artists.

I may regret the attempt, but I think I’m going to try to tackle these in order, hopefully writing a blog post about each CD or set of CDs. If I do a couple CDs a week, it’ll only take me 18 months to get through all of it. Lucky for me, and my relatively uneducated ears, the collection begins with the Brandenburg Concertos, which I’m already quite familiar. If I wind up getting tired of a particular category I may skip around a bit, since I may have trouble getting through all of the vocal parts without some instrumental breaks.

After that, perhaps the 170 CDs of Mozart!

tags: Bach  Bach edition  music  scale 
sun, 01-jul-2007, 15:10

black swan green

black swan green, david mitchell

Books Acquired

Books Read

I think this is the last time I post one of these long monthly summaries of what I’ve read. I should be considering the books when I’ve finished them, not a month later, as is the case with Galatea 2.2. I remember what it’s about and that I liked it, but the details of the story and exactly why I liked it is already fading from memory. Plus, if I comment on each book, there'll be more posts!

As for the best of this month, it's a toss up between The Raw Shark Texts, which is a great “summer read”, and Black Swan Green, which is a more serious coming-of-age story. Read both!

Galatea 2.2

As I mentioned, I liked this book a lot and am really looking forward to reading more of Powers’s work. The book appears to be somewhat biographical since the main character’s name is Richard Powers and the number of books he’s written and his back story match what the Wikipedia has to say about him. But it’s unlikely that Powers really participated in the creation of a neural net genuine enough to make it’s creator consider whether it had a right to life. Which is what happens here.

As to why I liked it, I’m afraid I can’t really remember exactly. It was very smartly written, had some excellent science in it about the nature of language and consciousness, but didn’t get too hung up on the science that it felt like you were being educated.

Never Let Me Go

I’ve never read Ishiguro before, and I didn’t want to start with Remains of the Day, so I chose Never Let Me Go. The book is a sort of argument about how far we would be willing to go to extend and improve our lives. In this case, by producing humans whose purpose is to provide replacement organs for the rest of us. When they’re not donating organs, they’re taking care of those that are. The book is told from the perspective of one of the organ donors, mostly in the form of flashbacks to her growing up. I found that technique to get a little old after awhile, because I got tired of the first person voice and wasn’t as interested in learning every detail of her childhood. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, the final section of the book had a strong emotional effect.

Page 263:

…when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly, there wasn’t time to take stock, to ask sensible questions. Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us, all these ways to cure so many previously incurable conditions. This was what the world noticed the most, wanted the most…How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back.

The Raw Shark Texts

I read this book in two days, and once I hit the half-way point I couldn’t put it down. It’s a smart, funny thriller that’s also a love story. The main character wakes up on the floor of his apartment with no memory of his past, and soon discovers that this has happened to him multiple times in the past. Notes he sent to himself from the past start to clarify the situation, and once he figures out what’s going on, the adventure begins.

Some of the dialog didn’t ring true for me, but the sections from his past life were great. Page 123:

“Hey” “What?” “While we’ve been sitting here, have you been thinking my girlfriend has no knickers on? ” “No, course not,” I said, then, after a second: “Well, it depends. What’s the right answer?” Clio tucked her hands deeper under her knees and looked away so I couldn’t read her expression. “No clues,” she said.

The book isn’t perfect: the last fifty pages bear a striking similarity (intentionally, I’m sure) to a famous movie about a shark, and I kept thinking to myself, “this will make for a great movie.” None of these issues is damning, though, and in fact, The Raw Shark Texts is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

Plus, how can you go wrong with a book that’s got a flip-book section in it?

Black Swan Green

David Mitchell’s latest tells the story of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor (presumably not this Jason Taylor), growing up in a small English town in the 80s. I found a lot to like about this book, since I was also a teenager in the 80s (in a small town in the U.S.A.) and faced many of the same problems fitting in with my peers. Thankfully, I didn’t have a stammer, but it’s a good stand-in for whatever it is that makes a person not part of the in-crowd. The book is rich with the details of the community, Jason’s family, and the trials he faces among his peers.

What was most impressive, though, was how much Jason changed and grew through the year that the book covers. Not only does Mitchell convince you to care about Jason, but you feel like you’ve lived his growing up along with him.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Barbara Kingsolver and her family move to a small farm in rural Virginia to see what it would be like, for a full year, to grow as much of their food as possible on their farmstead. The book is another view of the same issues that Michel Pollan considers in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I read last month. The main narrative describes the yearly cycle of food on their farm, from the asparagus of April to the squash, frozen meat and banked root vegetables they eat over the winter months. Along the way Kingsolver’s daughter includes commentary and recipes from the perspective of a 19-year old, and more political or scientific sidebars from Steven Hopp.

It’s an effective way to consider the subject of the worldwide industrialization of food production, but suffers because most of us can’t just pack up and move to a farm. I’d love to be able to raise chickens and turkeys and grow all my own food, but land covenants in my neighborhood forbid raising “livestock”, and Alaska is a tough place to grow your own food (although we’re doing what we can in our small garden. Still, this, and Pollan’s book have caused me to think more carefully about the food choices I’m making and what options I have available for making better ones.

Falling Man

This is DeLillo’s 9/11 novel, and man, is it a flat, emotionless book. I guess that must be the point, though.

From page 75:

“Is it possible you and I are done with conflict? You know what I mean. The everyday friction. The every-word every-breath schedule we were on before we split. Is it possible this is over? We don’t need this anymore. We can live without it. Am I right?” “We’re ready to sink into our little lives,” he said.
Working Alone

I’ve done quite a bit of work around our house, most of it by myself. Hanging fourteen foot-long pieces of siding while standing on a swinging platform hung from the roof is not easy, and neither is raising, squaring and plumbing walls. Carroll considers solo building from the ground up starting with the foundation, moving up through the structure to the roof, and even has a chapter on building a deck. This book, and Moving Heavy Things, will go a long way toward allowing you to work on your house by yourself without getting hurt.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Genuinely funny, honest and open, and yes, heartbreaking.

tags: books  review 
sun, 24-jun-2007, 14:35

Tow rope around the tank

Tow rope around the tank

Winching an oil tank

Winching an oil tank

The oil tank that feeds our furnace sits under the deck on a wooden sled. Over the years the tank has slid downhill to the point that the tubing was starting to bend and kink and I was worried it might actually slide all the way off it’s supports. So it needed to be pulled back up the slope and secured.

The tricky part is that there’s nothing solid enough under the deck to attach a jack or winch to, and the tank is heavy: it’s a 300 gallon tank about two-thirds full. What’s the saying about moving the moon with a long enough lever and a place to stand?

I used a tow rope around the tank, some chain to join the rope to my two-ton winch, and attached the winch to the trailer hitch on the back of the pickup truck. Worked like a charm. I’d fully tension the chain with the winch until the truck just started to move, go under the deck and rock the tank back and forth, causing it to move forward an inch or so. Re-tension the winch and repeat.

I moved the tank about a foot uphill in less than an hour, and blocked the end of the sled so it can’t slide down any more. (Those are our basil plants on the deck in the bottom photo.)

tags: Dakota  house  oil tank  winch 

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