Thursday, April 11, 2013

“Wood Of Ancient Castles And Cathedrals”

The violin first emerged in northern Italy in the mid-1500s. Many of the most distinguished violins ever created were produced by famous local families of violin makers—such as Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari—in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Stradivari was the most famous of these craftsmen, and produced over 1,100 violas, guitars, cellos, and violins. Around 600 of his instruments exist today.

Many top musicians today prefer to play instruments created by Stradivari or his contemporaries. But scientists have found it difficult to pin down the exact difference between a modern violin and a Stradivarius.

"It may be that Stradivarius violins are so well made that they are easier to play" to their best potential, said John Topham a tree ring expert and violin maker in Surrey, England. "The finest instruments are the ones that allow musicians to express themselves best," he said.

Henri Grissino-Mayer, co-author behind the new study and tree ring scientist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, said there is continuing debate as to whether these instruments do indeed sound superior and what, if anything, explains that quality other than the legendary skill of their makers.

"There are many competing hypotheses … and a lot of it is grounded in folklore," he said. "Some people even believe [Stradivari] used the wood of ancient castles and cathedrals."

Is this a junkyard church, this decay
around us, bricks, steel and broken glass?
Do rusted gears not turning say mass,
is their oxidation how they pray?

Backstage the girls were playing
Five-card stud by the stairs

Lily had two queens and was hoping for a third
To match her pair

Outside the streets were filling up
A window was open wide

A gentle breeze was blowing
You could feel it from inside

Lily called another bet
And her draw card was the Jack of Hearts

One of my favorite songs—of all time, in the whole world—is an old folk song by Bob Dylan that takes about ten minutes or more to play. It has sixteen verses and no choruses. It tells a mysterious story and it is an amazing piece of writing: It is carefully ambiguous and, depending on your mood, you can draw any number of meanings from the song. Who was who? Who did what? Who lives and who dies? The song is very clear about telling a specific sequence of events, but at the same time it still leaves those key questions as not-quite-revealed or resolved. It’s so wonderful. Only, I think, a folk song—or a written poem—could do something like that. A visual depiction in a graphic novel or a movie, I think, inevitably would limit the possible meanings by actually depicting this, that or another thing, which would take away some of the mystery. And people reading a modern novel, I think, would expect all answers to be provided, every detail to be explained.

Songs and poetry—well, folk songs and poetry—can be much more mysterious, much more human and interesting.

“Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” is an interesting song, too, because when some musicians perform the song, you can actually see them and hear them trying to hurry up and get through it. [laughs] People, probably especially musicians, are so conditioned by commercial radio and commercial pressures on recorded music in general, that the notion that they should, perhaps, slow down and enjoy the telling of a long story so that the audience could enjoy listening to a long story never even occurs to them.


I was thinking about this kind of stuff because a couple of high-profile synthesizer makers are teasing, right now, that soon they will release new operating systems for their musical instruments. This actually happens a lot nowadays, but today I’m going to single out these two because they caught my attention since they’re doing it at the same time.

If an object has an “operating system” is it a musical instrument? Or is it a computer? Can it be both?


First, Teenage Engineering has a graphic up on their site—currently at least, it will change but this is a screen grab from just now—that links to a YouTube video of a TE person playing an OP-1 with the new OS:


These days at first glance this might not even seem noteworthy, since many of us deal with computer companies all the time and, for instance, Microsoft and Apple issue updates to their operating systems regularly. In fact, some companies—like, for instance, Google—update products automatically and users sometimes, suddenly and unexpectedly, find themselves doing one thing or another and having the software react quite differently than it always has in the past. Some people find this disconcerting. In some cases companies—like, for instance, Google—have modified their updating policies. But sometimes companies just go ahead and keep changing things without notice.

Imagine one morning a violin player picked up her violin and moved the bow across a string and the violin suddenly sounded like a flute.


Wood of ancient castles and cathedrals
is still wood. It hasn’t turned into steel.

I know a long folk song. When I play it
on an arranger keyboard workstation
or on an electric guitar plugged in
to an arranger keyboard workstation
that is processing the guitar’s signal
I like to create some variation
for each one of the song’s sixteen verses.

I mean I create some variation
in my playing not the thing’s programming.

I like to be clear that I’m playing live
and not looping a recorded pattern
since each verse is harmonically the same.

Digital electronics can do that
and the robot musicians deep inside
a modern instrument that’s not made from
wood of ancient castles and cathedrals
can skillfully lead you through a long song
counting the bars so that each verse is right.

I love the robots so before I play
the robots and I sit down and I try
to explain to them I don’t know what’s right
and one of the reasons I play the song
is to find out by playing it what’s right
or at least what’s right that time I play it.

I apologize for switching them off.

But there’s something like magic in a song
when the exact meaning is always new
and fingers or the thinking that moves them
can create phrases that are always new
even if the song might be decades old
or even if the song is as old as
wood of ancient castles and cathedrals.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“The Stars From Here: A Puppet Thriller”


On Not Playing A Synth Workstation #1

On Not Playing A Synth Workstation #2

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