Archive for October 2004
I spent too long in and around London today, so I got to the hotel later, and more tired, than I would have liked to. I decided to skip the Terry Pratchett Fan Meet, which would have been a bit much to tackle without a chance to rest first. Now I’m on the Docklands Light Railway heading back into London, for a little late-night shopping.
Besides, I was having second thoughts about the Meet. Gatherings of strangers can be incredibly awkward, even with a common discussion topic, and I’m always aware that I’m not actually needed there. It can be difficult for an outsider to participate in some tightly-focused groups at all, when conversations are founded on a common subtext or back-story that you are not privy to. I’ve been guilty of doing that on occasion, when the subjects relate to computers and/or music.
I did get a chance to play with the Alesis Micron today, and I think I will probably pick one up on Monday. It’s small but well-built, the user interface is the best I’ve seen on a synthesizer anywhere near this tiny, and I have only enjoyed a small taste of the sonic potential so far. This is also one of the rare occasions when the staff in the store – Brixton Exchange Mart, Hammersmith branch – helped me make a purchasing decision: they could hardly have been nicer and more helpful, even pre-empting some questions, and happy to chat away about music in general.
I’m playing Big Vili’s Cream City mix to and from work this week – an 80 minute salute to “crate diggers” everywhere, those who live for the thrill of finding that rare chunk of cool vinyl in the record store basement. I didn’t know the thing was that long when I downloaded it, because it’s a lower quality MP3 encoding, but still very listenable on headphones.
A CD vs Vinyl debate is simmering on rec.music.progressive at the moment, and I’m making the possible mistake of getting involved, or at least trying coax people out of their polarised opinions. I like the idea of vinyl, but both CDs and Vinyl have different things that can go wrong during their creation. I would _love_ to hear a recording made on a top-class analogue multitrack, mixed to 2-track at 30ips, mastered through an Avalon direct to virgin* vinyl, played back on a top class turntable. But that’s not practical, on my budget.
I have some CDs I can barely listen to, like Rush’s “Vapor Trails”, despite the excellent music on them – I think that album’s sonic shortcomings have been covered here before. Then there are excellent ones, and there are positive technical developments that make a real difference. Do I have to start on about Super Bit Mapping and other dithering algorithms, brickwall filters, etc?
All I’m trying to say is: the Vinyl vs CD debate is part of a wider analogue vs. digital debate which has been done to death already. Personally, I don’t think ordinary CDs are representative of what digital recording is capable of if done carefully. I’d rather have my music on a medium that precisely replcates what it sounded like in the studio; I can always feed it though a tube preamp if I want to warm it up, but once any fidelity is lost, you can’t get it back again, even if the sound becomes warmer in the process.
* trivia: this is where Virgin Records got their name, according to Richard Branson: they tried to make their records high quality by using only new vinyl, not recycled.
I have a two-day training course next, followed by my long weekend in London, but I’m taking a little therapeutic surf this evening. The weather outside is atrocious, a severe weather warning is in effect for England and Ireland, and I can see, out the window, that the wind will be on my face on my walk home. Oh, well, here are a few things that have made me smile this week:
- A PC as Modern Art? Have a look…
- Engrish is always enlightening, if surreal at, well, most times.
- User Friendly is still my favourite online comic strip.
- A big shout out to Big Vili, Finnish purveyor of Rap, a MPC1000 user with a link to my MPC1000 pages on his site.
- Wil Wheaton is on top of the world, kinda, with the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for the PS2. He has a fairly major role in there, as TV reporter Richard Burns, which he couldn’t talk about for months – agony.
On the other hand, the sad death of John Peel has produced the most moving and genuine tributes I can recall, ever, and I can’t disagree with any of them. Even b3ta.com members got in on the act, such as here. Will independent music ever have another champion such as JP?
Just an average day, a little shopping, a few more DVDs at good prices for my collection. One is Ed Wood, the biopic starring Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, and Sarah Jessica Parker. Landau won an Oscar for his portrayal of the once-legendary actor Bela Lugosi, who had fallen on hard times as a drug addict. Wood took hims back to basics, as you might say. Another is Ghost In The Shell, an Anime masterpiece (in my opinion) that I saw years ago and have never quite shaken off. I’ll get to both of those later, I’m sure, but this afternoon I’m indulging myself a little with a Steve Vai concert DVD.
I remember Vai mostly for his 1990 album Passion And Warfare, which was the beginning of the end of the Shred Guitar genre that had been so popular in the 1980s. While P&W included much Shred, oh my, it was but one component in a larger musical context that appealed to non-guitarists like me. Liberty, the opening track, was dubbed “the National Anthem of Mars” by Vai, for good reason: a veritable orchestra of guitar, arty, overblown pretentious, yet funny and unforgettable. Humour is a constant thread through Vai’s work, along with a unique mystical vision that came to the fore in rather strange ways. The Sex And Religion album is laced with an almost Buddhist ethic, where the Wheel Of Life is balanced by directly opposing elements: happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain, life and death. Deep Down Into The Pain invites the listener to “embrace the bliss of pure sensation” as a path to Nirvana, includes a solo on a specially-built Ripley guitar (using the “Xavian” 16-tone scale!), and culminates in the sound of Steve’s second son being born. “It’s a boy!” “How..?” “Look at those! There’s your first clue…”
This concert DVD also appeals to me because Vai’s band, on this occasion, included two other musicians I was already familiar with. Tony MacAlpine was one of the stars of Shred in the 80′s, but came at it as a classically trained musician, his albums including Chopin piano pieces between the guitar and synthesizer pyrotechnics. Billy Sheehan is a pioneering rock bassist with a very fluid lead style and technique which he flaunted in the 80′s, when he worked with Vai in David Lee Roth’s band, then later with his own band Mr. Big. This concert shows his skills are still all there, but he’s a little more selective in when and how he uses them, to the benefit of the overall sound.
Next weekend I take a flying visit to London for a couple of separate events and a little shopping. I may come back with an Alesis Micron synthesiser if the price is right, or a bunch of PC parts to upgrade the old box lying in the cupboard. It’s been hard to pin down just what I want, cross-reference that with what I need, and what is actually available at a sensible price. I will probably go for an AMD Athlon 64 (3200+) CPU, either a ASUS or MSI motherboard, but I need to do more research into quiet hard drives and video cards. A quiet PC is a priority, so it’s a good thing that both motherboards I have in mind have a “Cool & Quiet” feature that throttles the CPU back when full performance is not needed, keeping the system cooler and allowing adaptive fan speed control.
The actual planned events for the trip are a “meet” with a bunch of Terry Pratchett fans on the Saturday, and a Bill Nelson concert on the Sunday. The concert is in the UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, a venue I have been to just once before, but I remember it as small with good acoustics. I hadn’t been quite sure whether I should go, but the clincher was news that Kate St. John will guest on woodwinds – I really enjoyed her previous work with Bill, including the band Channel Light Vessel, which I had the pleasure of seeing live at the Jazz Cafe.
This tour is called “Be Bop Deluxe and Beyond”, the first time in over twenty years that Bill has agreed to look back to his days as an unlikely pop star in the 70′s. His next project after BBD was Red Noise, and one of their albums, Sound On Sound, partly inspired a bunch of musicians to start up a magazine dealing with the rapidly-evolving world of high-tech recording that Bill has always been involved in, and it’s appropriate that the magazine is sponsoring this short tour. The Bloomsbury gig I will be at is the second one there, added after the first one sold out in days, but it’s the last in the tour, and I hope Bill and the band aren’t too tired to let their hair down.
This trip is totally unnecessary, the cherry on the top of what has been a great year so far, personally, despite all the things in my life that are not as I think they should be.
It’s Friday, and payday, because Monday is the Halloween Bank Holiday here in Ireland. Yes, you read that right – Halloween is a big thing here, probably because it’s in opposition to the Guy Fawkes Day celebrations in England. A day off for some, but not for me. I’m working, but I get a day credit that I will use later in the year.
Earlier this week I saw the first part of a new BBC documentary, The Power Of Nightmares, which has some very interesting things to say about the origins of the Neo-Conservative movement in the USA (the NeoCons), and Al-Qaeda, even how their respective ideas may have evolved from the apparent “moral vacuity” in 1960′s America. The Guardian preview and Times Online review have more detail on the ideas presented here, but the most interesting aspect for me was the apparent influence of NeoCons at the highest levels of the US government.
What are Neo-Conservatives? The term is used today to denote those who studied under Leo Strauss, a professor at Chicago University, or who were influenced by Strauss’ writings. The best resource I have found so far is a detailed article on Wikipedia.
A new name to me was the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) which, in its own words, is “dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle; and that too few political leaders today are making the case for global leadership.” Three names are cause for concern in particular: Dick Cheney (US Vice-President), Donald Rumsfeld (US Secretary of Defense), and Paul Wolfowitz (Rumsfeld’s Deputy Secretary). All are signatories to the PNAC Statement Of Principles (1998), and Wikipedia even names Cheney and Rumsfeld as PNAC co-founders.
PNAC is only a recent development, but Rumsfeld was actually in the Nixon administration, and held the posts of Chief Of Staff and Secretary Of Defense under Ford (1973-76). The documentary alleges that Rumsfeld, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and others strongly influenced Reagan into starting the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, a.k.a. “Star Wars”) as a means of keeping the Soviet Union in the spotlight as a threat to the USA, when its economy was collapsing and was actually no real threat. The reasons were based on a theory that the best or only way of unifying the American people behind their leaders was the presence of a threat to their national security, and if one did not actually exist, then it had to be created.
Why all does this bother me? Because it goes a long way towards explaining US policy of the last 24 years as founded on ideology, and not pragmatism, an experiment that may have gone horribly wrong. Or has it? The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2001 may have been just the unifying factor the Neo-Conservatives looked for, and played out to their advantage. I clearly have to do a lot more reading on this topic before it will make much sense to me.
I am short-sighted and colour-blind,
I wonder if my eyes should come out some day;
I hear the ground beneath my feet grumble,
I see the birds carry people away;
I want a window into my mind,
I am short-sighted and colour-blind.
I pretend to care why people do what they do,
I feel the wind through Peter Pan’s wings;
I touch the sky and scribble on clouds,
I worry about inconsequential things;
I cry when red turns into blue,
I pretend to care why people do what they do.
I understand how night turns into day,
I say enough to know what I mean;
I dream of seagulls landing on water,
I try to live outside every dream;
I hope for a world real and undefined,
I am short-sighted and colour-blind.
Thanks to Sheryl for posting an “I Am” Song Kit on alt.music.mike-keneally. Want to make your own? Fill in the brackets:
I am (two special characteristics you have)
I wonder (something you are actually contemplating)
I hear (an imaginary sound)
I see (an imaginary sight)
I want (an actual desire)
I am (the first line repeated)
I pretend (something you actually pretend to do)
I feel (a feeling about something imaginary)
I touch (an imaginary touch)
I worry (something that really bothers you)
I cry (something that makes you very sad)
I am (repeat the first line)
I understand (something you know is true)
I say (something you believe in)
I dream (something you actually dream about)
I try (something you really make an effort about)
I hope (something you actually hope for)
I am (repeat the first line)
See how easy it is? Eat your art out, Alanis…
We’re definitely getting better at the move thing. Less than two days since the question arose, we have already put down a deposit on a new place and given notice at our current one. It’s 20% more expensive for me, but with a much bigger personal space, I will actually be able to keep my music equipment in the bedroom, and do more with it without disturbing anyone. Less communal space, however, the place is smaller overall. Taken proportionally, overall rent is slightly up on the current space, in line with inflation. It’s a far better location, closer to work for me, but far far closer for my flatmate – five minutes walk for her. Transport links are better, and we’ll be close enough to the centre of Dublin to walk – hardly further than what I was doing to and from work. I’ll probably document the drama as it unfolds, of course.
Last night I made myself sit still long enough to see a film I’ve had on DVD for months, yet never watched properly: hana-bi (花火, Fireworks). This was the most critically successful film by actor/director Kitano Takeshi, who stars as Nishi, a police officer unable to cope with the changes in his life. His wife is terminally ill with leukaemia, but that’s only half his troubles. While he’s away from a stakeout visiting her, his partner is shot and crippled; shortly afterward, while tracking the gangsters responsible, two young cops in his charge are killed. Shamed, he leaves the police force, then finds himself in financial debt to a group of Yakuza, possibly the same ones responsible for his professional disgrace.
All is not lost, however: his crippled colleague first attempts suicide, then takes up art, and some of his work punctuates the film, interleaving the action and drama with bright, dayglo images of ordinary life and events. Nishi smoothly robs a bank to pay back the Yakuza, but makes several visits to a scrapyard while planning the job, befriending the owner, whose encounters with his “staff” and a local wimp provide some light relief.
Nishi is hardly a “new man”: macho to a fault, unable to back down when the Yakuza, envious of his sudden wealth, come looking for more. They track him as he takes his terminally ill wife to the mountains for a last holiday. His wife is almost totally mute, not speaking until the very end, yet they both find bizarre humour in his attempts to be a good husband, hardly what she was used to when Nishi was a cop. The police catch up to him: will he submit to their arrest? Hardly.
Kitano Takeshi (北野 武), whose name can be translated as “warrior of the northern plains”, acts under the name “Beat” Takeshi, and this is pretty much his film: he directed it, edited it, starred in it, wrote some of the music, and even created the stunning artwork that features heavily in the second half of the film, as Nishi’s crippled partner recovers. One painting, a shocking abstract portrayal of suicide, raises questions of just how much he knew, considering he had received a package of money from Nishi by post.
A critical success, hana-bi won the Golden Lion award at the 1997 Venice Film Festival. Is it a violent film? In places: Nishi only does damage as much as he feels necessary – and, in committing the bank robbery, shows how to do without it – but it is clear that violence is the only language spoken by his enemies. Nishi spends whole scenes mute, behind sunglasses, observing, not responding. How should he respond to what life has thrown at him? Can he change without losing himself?. hana-bi is one poetic answer to the questions asked of a man whose life is crumbling away beneath his feet.
Yippee. I’m moving house. Again.
Our one-year lease is up at the end of the month, and one of the two people I’m currently sharing with has already made another arrangement, even though we aren’t obliged to move. The remaining pair of us have decided to make a move to a smaller place, rather than try to get someone else in to fill the empty room at an uncompetitive rate. A day later, and we’ve already checked out a very interesting place in Ballsbridge which, despite the name, is a much posher area of Dublin, a fair bit closer to work for me.
This is getting tedious, but it is at least getting easier each time. But how the hell am I supposed to make any long-term plans, when I have to keep moving every year, when my employer appears to be committing corporate suicide, when the experience I’m getting from my job is not the kind I want to have?
My particular department at work has been largely insulated from major changes so far, but not from little ones, the drip, drip, drip that gradually wears away at any animal, mineral or vegetable. We are cracked, in every sense of the word, yet somehow still holding together; as together as we ever really were, anyway. When you get to our level, management has to tolerate a degree of individuality in its staff, and I once joked that, if our manager left, he could get a good job with an opera company, with all his experience of managing a bunch of prima donnas.
I guess the way forward is the one familiar to any Boy Scout: Be Prepared. Travel light, and assume nothing.
This morning features the opening of the new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh: a remarkable building, beautifully designed, but a project marred by massive cost overruns. Queen Elizabeth II is attending amid some controversy: some wish she wasn’t there at all, while others expressed dismay over the II in her title. Queen Elizabeth I of England was, after all, never recognized in Scotland: during Elizabeth’s reign, Scotland was ruled by James V, who died in 1542 when his daughter Mary was just six days old. The story of Mary, Queen of Scots, is one I’m not all that familiar with, but the short version is like something out of a soap opera.
A Catholic, Mary was first married to the future King Francis II of France, but he died not long after taking the throne, so Mary married her Catholic cousin, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. Mary may have had an affair with one of her Italian advisors, David Rizzio, and he didn’t last long when Darnley found out: Rizzio was murdered. By 1567 Darnley tried to take over the line of succession for his heirs: he was strangled and his house blown up by Protestant saboteurs. The main Protestant conspirator was James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, whom Mary soon married after he divorced his wife.
The outcome of all this drama was as serious as it could possibly be: Mary had offended and alienated anyone who might have supported her, and the Scottish nobility raised an army against her. Before 1567 was over, she had been defeated and forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her son, James VI. Mary sought refuge in the English court of Elizabeth I, but was effectively a prisoner for the next 20 years. Because Elizabeth was Protestant, many Catholics believed that Mary should be Queen of England but, after several abortive conspiracies, Elizabeth had had enough and signed Mary’s execution warrant in 1587.
In a suitably ironic coda, Mary’s son James VI succeeded to the throne of England as James I when “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth died in 1603. Despite his Catholic heritage, James’ bloodline could be traced directly back to King Henry VII, and he had already succeeded in quelling Catholic ambitions, and married the Protestant Princess Anne of Denmark, despite having been kidnapped by Protestant militants earlier in life. With Britain largely united, the sectarian conflict was mostly over, and the focus shifted outward, leading to war with Spain over their refusal to let the Spanish infanta marry James’ son, the later Charles I. I could go on, but that will do for one day.
Sir Sean Connery is in attendance, and has naturally managed to offend a few people already. Strangest sight of the morning: the Queen entering the building and being greeted by officials, while the brass band plays, of all things, Mark Knopfler’s theme music from Going Home. Um…?
I read in the newspaper that tonight was going to be “An Avant-Garde Guitar Extravaganza”, so I thought I would start on Piano.
Mike Keneally gets down to business on a “legal bootleg” take that a fellow fan was kind enough to share with me. Even more amazingly, this is a live recording which has not been through any audio compression, only Shorten format lossless compression* to make the files smaller for download. It’s a long concert, with two sets, in which Keneally is joined by his friend Henry Kaiser; in the second set, which I haven’t got around to yet, Michael Manring gets involved, something else for me to look forward to. Still, Keneally is the main attraction, a big guy who attacks everything he does with an infectious enthusiasm.
This concert is from August 2000, just before the release of the Dancing album, and he plays several songs from that album in solo form, voice plus guitar or piano. One song is Live In Japan, a song about a wish to live in Japan, and an awful pun on the Live In Japan albums released by every other band during the 70′s. On acoustic guitar alone, Mike extends the middle section, and gets so involved in improvising that he almost forgets to start the second verse, then totally forgets the words by the time he gets there. “Never mind”, he says, “I’ll do another song”, before taking a few requests from the audience, one of which is for… the rest of Live In Japan. Polished and professional? No, not really. Fun? Hell, yes!
A long way from the Rush concerts last month, which were tightly scripted and choreographed with lighting and special effects. Geddy may have nearly forgotten the words at some point – understandable given the age of some material – but he had a couple of flat panels on stage as teleprompters. Yet Rush publicly take pride in controlling the music themselves, with help from some advanced technology, and there certainly was enough slack in the arrangements for things to go wrong on several occasions, with dropped notes leaving one or other of the guys down on the upbeat, or the other way round.
How would I respond to the same requirements? Would I even have the same requirements? The Rush way of using technology in music has evolved over more than two decades, not quite from scratch. Since they were able to learn from the experience of earlier bands like Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, you might say the equipment was “second generation”. Because Rush already had instruments to play, however, their challenge was integrating technology with their existing working methods. It wasn’t always possible, of course, and some of Rush’s best work evolved directly from these limitations. Subdivisions – probably my all-time favourite Rush song – is split into musically discrete sections as Geddy switches instruments: intro and verses on synthesiser, including synth bass, then choruses on electric bass. The solo section is also “subdivided” in the same way, a plaintive synth solo followed by some liberating guitar from Alex, before the synth takes over, the walls close in and the yearning for escape is once again encased in glass.
* Normal “ZIP”-type compression relies on regular patterns in the data, something you rarely find in any audio (except silence), so special measures are required. The kind of compression used MiniDisc or MP3 format is “lossy”, because the encoder analyses the audio and uses our knowledge of psychoacoustics to leave components out, shrinking file sizes down to a tenth of the original (more or less, depending on the quality settings you use). This is still the most common way of encoding audio for use on the internet, but what if you don’t want lossy compression affecting your sound? This is why lossless audio compression schemes are becoming more popular, most notably FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Compression) and Shorten, both of which are free to use for encoding and decoding. The compression ratios these achieve are nowhere near as good as MP3 or ATRAC (MiniDisc), around 2:1, but the results speak for themselves: genuine CD quality with no loss of information across the audio spectrum.
I couldn’t count how many times I’ve come back from work, angry at other peoples’ screwups, needing to explain to myself and anyone else who will listen just why I’m so angry and upset. I understand, and so it was my pleasure to help out one of the folks I share a house with, just by being there and listening. It was the kind of preventable snafu that sounds all-too-familiar to me, an example of why I’m considering a move into Management: the realization that I really could do better, despite my lack of formal management training.
On a related topic: last weekend I read Terry Pratchett’s latest book, Going Postal. It concerns a thief and con-man who is appointed to the position of Postmaster General of Ankh-Morpork by a scheming Patrician. He’s only the fifth Postmaster General to hold the post in as many weeks, the previous incumbents suffering mysterious demises. The new PG, who goes by the unfortunate name of Moist von Lipwig, takes over as manager of the Ankh-Morpork Central Post Office and its motley crew, watched over by his Golem parole officer, whose motto is “You Can’t Run And You Can’t Hide”.
Much of the story is allegorical and loosely related to real-world events, mostly questions of corporate scandals and privatization in the UK. I didn’t find it quite as absorbing and resonant as Night Watch, which I read last year, but still excellent overall. One to read again, for sure.
I have fond memories of the film Raising Arizona, but it was too long ago for me to remember much detail, so I’m taking a refresher this evening.
Ah, now I remember. Why the hell do people think I look like Nicholas Cage? At least I know what to do with my hair, most days anyway. But Holly Hunter… um… help… the word I must use is adorable, whether it’s wrestling a car around the suburbs of Tempe, Arizona, after Hi robs a drugstore for a pack of Huggies, or just standing there, borrowed baby in hand, getting her way without saying a single word.