Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Miracle of Easter

For years I've been having a problem with my mailman. First off, it isn't the same person every day. My real mailman, who is good, has been on reduced shift for about 5 years now, and there is always some new temporary flunkie walking my route.To reach my mailbox, it is necessary to climb 2 steps. Most of the time, that is too much of an effort, so they just walk on my flowers instead! I call this the Killing Field.

This year, it got pretty bad. I went out one morning and found 3 of my iris had had their heads chopped off. The next day I found another 4 stalks broken. To save my remaining flowers, I ripped the mailbox off the wall and hid it. I also considered investing in a pitchfork. I left the dying stalks lying around on my porch for a week before finally throwing them in my compost bin.

On Good Friday, a few of my remaining flowers started to bloom. I was glad that some survived and that I got to see them before my vacation.

But when I went to empty my compost bin, lo! and behold! three of the decapitated stalks were showing sings of blooming, despite having been cut off from the plant for more than a week. It is a miracle, I tell you!

Adding to the miracle, these iris always bloom on Easter, no matter what time in the year that occurs. Last year, Easter came very early. Only one stalk bloomed; the rest decided to hit the snooze button and wait for an Easter at the appropriate time of the year. I would have done the same thing.

Friday, April 10, 2009


The cruel taskmasters at the office have finally allowed me some time off.

I've always wanted to spend April in Paris, so I'm going to Nice instead!

With the economy in decline and the fact that it isn't high season, incredible deals are available. I couldn't resist.

Unusually for me, I planned in advance this time. Almost 2 whole weeks in advance!

Somehow, that almost wasn't enough time. After buying my non-refundable ticket, I realized that I couldn't find my passport. I looked everywhere for it, even in the place where it was supposed to be. I turned my whole house upside down for two days looking, with no luck.

I had to quickly research the shady world of passport expediting services. If you happen to live close to one of the passport-issuing offices, you should be able to get an emergency appointment for a renewal when you are traveling within two weeks. If you don't live nearby, you can hire one of these services to stand in line for you, for a big fee.

Fair enough. That serves a legitimate need. The problem is, these guys get priority treatment at the passport offices, and they scoop up many of the appointments. When I tried to get one for myself, there was no chance. So I committed myself to using the service, and started getting all the paperwork in order. Luckily, I still had an old passport to prove my identity. (Otherwise it would have been a major ordeal.)

I had a day off last Friday, and I wanted to get it done that morning. Plus, I realized that Thursday was the absolute last day to get my smog check without paying a fee, so I took my car in for that around 4, and headed off for passport photos. First I had to get a haircut, another thing I've been too busy to do; can't have bad hair on a photo I'll be carrying for 10 years.

When I got those pictures back, man I was speechless. I knew I was ugly, but come on! I was wet (from the cheapo haircut), pale and puffy like a corpse dragged from a lake, with big raccoon-like bags under my eyes.

I almost canceled the trip just to avoid using those photos.

Started again Friday morning. Got new photos, not quite as ugly, and went to the post office to get my forms "observed" by the agent. I'm trying to rush so I can get the forms sent to the expediting service on time and still have some time to enjoy my day off. No luck. The lady at the post office explained to me that the lady who does the passport papers is off that day, and that while there was a temporary replacement for her, I'd be a fool to let that lady come anywhere near my paperwork. So I took her advice and looked for another place to take my papers. I discovered I could go to the clerk's office in Albany. But I had to hurry. Due to budget cuts, they'd be closing early.

Once there, though, things finally got better. A very competent and helpful clerk told me there was no need to pay through the nose for an expediting service. She could call the passport office manager and get me an appointment for Monday, and she did. (She also told me that the professional passport photos I'd paid for, both the ugly and the less ugly sets, didn't actually meet the specifications and might be declined.) Of course, that meant I had to go to the city on Monday to deposit the forms and then go again on Wednesday to pick it up, but finally it was done!

(So, if vacations are supposed to relieve stress, why are they so stressful?)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rubato, ma non troppo

Today a cool toy called the Echo Nest BPM Explorer was released. As discussed here and here, this makes it easy to analyze a piece of music to determine whether the performer used a click track or metronome.

Since my last post on music in 5/4 included one track with and one without a metronome, let's give it a test.

Here is a BPM chart for my rendition of the Bartók piece.
There is some variation around the beat, but not much, because I was sticking close to the metronome. (Something I rarely use.) The scale bars show that this variation is confined to a narrow range. The green line is a smoothed-out version of the instantaneous BPM, shown in white.

Here is the BPM chart for my rendition of the "Serenade".

There is much more variation going on there. Some of that is intentional rubato, though partially subconscious. But there is also a gradual increase in tempo from beginning to end. That is not intentional, but is probably common when I make recordings. Near the end I start thinking "Hey, this take seems ok! I'd better hurry and finish it before I goof up."

Finally, a more interesting example from Candlefire.

There is the same gradual speed-up as before. I often have that problem with Nyman, because his tempos are absolutely glacial in some cases. But the more interesting thing is the way the white line wiggles up and down regularly. As I explained before, this piece shifts back and forth between 3/4 and 4/4 in an interesting way which gives the impression of speeding-up and slowing-down. It appears that Echo Nest is fooled, just like a human listener would be. Though I'll need to study this more closely to figure out where it really thinks the beats are.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


It's the fifth day of the fourth month. What better time is there to celebrate songs in 5/4 ?

About a year ago, when I was 100% determined that I was quitting my job, the song of the moment for me was When Your Minds's Made Up, from the movie Once.

(My mind truly was made up. Why I didn't actually quit is another story, but at this moment I'm glad I didn't, because things got better there and got worse elsewhere.)

That song plays a central part in the movie, and we get to see it built up bit by bit through a long recording session. Though the 5/4 signature is rare, and has a reputation for sounding odd, when it is done well it can sound just as natural as 3/4.

Since it is a rare meter, it is rarely done well, especially by non-professionals. To prove that point, here is me doing Serenade by Emma Lou Diemer. (MP3)

I don't know much of her work, but the piano scores I've looked at look right up my alley, but mostly too hard for me. Very rhythmically interesting, with what appears to be an influence from Khachaturian.

The first piece I ever learned in 5/4 was In Mixolydian Mode from Bartok's collection Mikrokosmos. I had a hard time learning this one. For a long time I thought that was because it was in 5/4. I understand now that it was really hard because Bartok was making it hard on purpose. Though it starts out with a strong 5/4 feeling, very soon he starts playing with the stress, hiding the downbeats and subverting the rhythm so much that it is very hard to keep the feeling of 5. This is one of the very rare times I recorded with a metronome. (MP3)

If that doesn't sound good to you, you are not alone. I think Mr. B was thinking more of challenging the piano student more than making something that sounds good.

A few more famous examples of 5/4 actually done well are, of course, Take 5 and the theme to Mission Impossible.

Less well known, but good, are:
Science, by Sevish.

All I can say is, I'm glad this isn't the 7th day of the 8th month, because it will be a good while before I can play Hovhaness' Macedonian Mountain Dance at the right speed!