Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tabla lessons with Harihar Rao, with a side trip to Richard Feynman

One day in tabla class - I studied on the side back in my scientific days at CalTech - some progressive-minded classmates and I, looking for a bit of spice and a bit tired of the (while often interestingly subdivided but still) powers-of-2 meters, goaded our teacher, Harihar Rao (top right), into amusing us with some rhythmic fireworks. Like all Westerners, we were always looking for something new and more exciting than what he was actually teaching us, never really willing to spend the time to learn the details of anything, like dancers seeming to hold their partners close but really looking past, scouting the next liaison across the room. But he had been teaching gringos like us for many years and so was used to this blasphemy and, with a weary acceptance, proceeded to teach us a somewhat complex 7 beat pattern. We then tried, a bit shakily, to keep this going, as steady as we could, as he straddled it with an 11 beat pattern, his beat effortlessly 11/7ths faster. It was a sweaty and joyous bit of concentration, collapsing and coming back together as we tried vainly to hold the two opposing rhythms in our head, to achieve what he could seemingly without thinking.

For the few years I studied with Harihar, I couldn't walk anywhere without tabla rhythms appearing over the pulse of my step. It was an obsession, a compulsion. I would practice the patterns as I walked, like all drummers I have known since, making approximations of the sounds with my body, trying to fly each pattern against 3 beats, 4 beats, and 5 and 6 and on. The important thing - or what seemed so at the time - was to be able to perform it consistently while shifting one's concentration from one pulse to the other, flickering between views as with the Necker cube. Relative prime rhythms were of course the only ones that were interesting, like the relative primes that defined the intervals of which I was just becoming aware, and these rhythmic practices spilled out into my pianism, forcing me to play scales in polyrhythms, to add or subtract a beat or two or three to each measure of the left or right hand parts of just about anything to squeeze or expand them just a bit, a pleasant flurry of notes not quite lining up, like the middle bit of the first of the op. 28 Chopin préludes where the right hand switches from 6 to 5. [A note to the reader trying this at home: better is to move the right or left hand up or down a bit as well, a fifth or a third or whatever, and then, even better, to just stop playing other people's music as it's easier on the stereo anyway.]

I was lucky enough to attend CalTech when Richard Feynman was still teaching Physics X, and my friends and I would hang out there too, asking questions about the Moon and the blue sky and rainbows and gravitation and electron spin and DNA and the structure of the eye, learning more about science and its cousins in the barest refractions of light in the few smallest drops distilled from the great man's essences than in all of our more formal studies. The class wasn't really a class at all, but an informal seminar, held in the basement somewhere, maybe Lauritsen, where the students would ask questions about anything, attempting and failing to stump the great man, and where Feynman would always cut through to the heart of each issue, bringing an oh-so-pleasant shock of illumination and intuition.

CalTech was a strange and insular place, a tremendous opportunity for those who were prepared to take advantage of it, suicidally difficult for others, stocked with children who had been locked away, sequestered from society from birth by the nature of their interests and their antisocial smarty-pants disposition. But, even in that rarified place, where Nobel Laureates were dime-a-dozen, Feynman was an icon who floated a bit above the rest. When he showed up to our tabla class one day, we were suitably star-struck and tongue tied, unable to respond to his easy manner. His bongo playing was well-known to us, and well as some of his other idiosyncrasies - one I remember well is when he showed up at a meeting of the CalTech Christian students simply to point out what idiots they were for believing against all facts and logic - but in the end the instrument was beyond him, and he an old dog trying to learn a few last tricks, the sounds too subtle and he too impatient to coax them out of the hide.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

This year's CDs

The compact disc of my Missa, although wholly encapsulating a sad and dying medium of auditory exchange, is at least visually luminous and beguiling thanks to Karen and should be available quite soon, as soon as I can bring myself to go through all the recordings of both performances in some detail and make a final determination of what is the best and what is not. The chalice awaits the thick nectar of the reverb-heavy-laden music decanted, then held to the lips to succor those in spiritual need. Although I have attempted to interest a few of the typical classical music vendors in the product, it will be a vanity press item, made simply for the delight of my fans and so that I can continue to gaze longingly at my own reflection.

The Mordake CD, on the other hand, is mixed and packaged and has obtained the all-important record deal, only now awaiting approval from a thousand bureaucrats, dressed each identically in their identical indigo Mao costumery, soon to be unfettered, alive and on its own in the uncaring world.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bunnywhiskers once again

My dear friend Bunnywhiskers has moved her radio show to a new time and a new location and has asked me to ennoble her and her program by appearing, tonight, the 12th of August, 2009, two days past the Perseid peak, on FCC Free Radio at 107.3 on your FM dial here in San Francisco, or streaming online at the address you just passed over. We will talk of many things, surely including music and love and grace, and read excerpts from favored books and maybe the libretto from my upcoming production, possibly even giving away a free CD. All is possible. For those of you coming across this entry in the future, there may be a link to a recording of the show here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bletchley Park etc

As a former mathematician and reputed engineer, I've shared the recent nerdish interest in the true idea that World War II was really won by the boy and girl geeks who prodded and cajoled roomfuls of vacuum tubes and who lovingly sharpened their No. 2 pencils and who, on their long walks home, flirted and kissed furtively against romantic revival gingerbreaded walls, and that we Anglo-Americans, by our braininess alone, knew all the Axis powers' plans and played the war like a great chess game, not through the efforts of the poor filthy pawns who slogged through the mud and death and blood to capture and hold bits of land, captives of that distasteful space.

The reality is somewhere in between of course, although I did always wonder why it took so long for the engineers' roles to be understood. The truth was quite slow to arrive, and not until the 70s did the British government allow publication of Bletchley Park's breaking of the Enigma codes, for many reasons, my favorite of which is the fact that the Brits had sold the rotor machines to their former colonies throughout the world and hoped to continue to read all their diplomatic traffic. The secret business is a set of wheels within wheels, and there is great fascination in the work of statisticians deciding which bits of intelligence to follow and which to ignore, which will show the enemy too much knowledge of our knowledge and which can be safely hidden, possibly in other obfuscating and pointless missions, and who will be allowed to be killed by enemy attack, and who will be saved.

Outside of the rarified air of Bletchley Park there were also other, lower tech operations, some chronicled in the fascinating book Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks, who tells stories of encryptions in the field, used by operatives behind enemy lines, some using bits of one-time pad sewed into bits of silk parachute material, others using memorized poems, the most famous of which is his own romance The Life That I Have, perhaps made more poignant by the context, where Nazi handlers may have beaten this poem and others like it from those they captured, turning them as agents to work against the land and people they loved:
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The youth

from Conversations with Igor Stravinsky, late '57:
I have all around me the spectacle of composers who, after their generation has had its decade of influence and fashion, seal themselves off from further development and from the next generation. Of course, it requires greater effort to learn from one's juniors, and their manners are not invariably good. ... The very people who have done the breaking through are themselves often the first to try to put a scab on their achievement. What fear tells them to cry halt? What security do they seek, and how can it be secure if it is limited? How can they forget that they once fought against what they have become?
I have to admit that it is v. difficult for me to learn from my juniors. My typical reaction to the artistic successes of freshly minted composers is envy and jealousy tempered only by rage, depression and frustration, and although, in my case, I really have very little that I am fighting for, except my own self-aggrandizement, as I am an eclectic and polyamorous lover of styles and ideas and threads of artistic development, it's hard for me to get past the pettiness that so pervades my soul. But in deference to the idol of my youth, I resolve to try.

And I was intrigued to recently discover the brief affair between the young Igor and Coco Chanel, now a motion picture, see above.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

More on Teddy

Since some have asked, here's what I know about reverse engineering the original Teddy Ruxpin®. The original bear used normal compact audio cassettes, but with an opening along the top, where the metal tape indicator tab was later located. This way it could detect the difference between its own cassettes and commercial audio tapes, which would play out the speaker but not control the servos. The Ruxpin cassettes were recorded with a cloyingly mawkish story and music on one of the stereo tracks, the kind of music you can never get out of your head no matter how many emetics you ingest, and a control track comprised of a series of audio-level pulses on the other.

Pictured at the top is a detail of two quasi-periods of the control track, consisting of a set of nine positive-going pulses. Each pulse is about .25 msec wide, actually .27 for the 'blue box' I built so many years ago, and the time between pulses is what controls the servos. That is, the time between pulse 0 and pulse 1 in each group of nine controls one servo, and the distance between pulse 1 and pulse 2 controls the next, and so on. The time between pulses from a fully open to a fully closed servo varies from about 1.25 msec to 2 msec, measuring from leading edge to leading edge. The leading edge of pulse 0 of next group of nine is about 6.5 seconds from the leading edge of the last pulse of the previous group of nine. The total period of the groups is not fixed - you can hear the overall pitch change as they move. My main bear is one of the two servo variety, and for that animal the interval from pulse 1 to pulse 2 controls the eyes and from pulse 2 to pulse 3 controls the mouth. Later bears had a separate control for upper and lower jaw, and if you hook Teddy to Teddy's friend Grubby®, a pleasantly disgusting and seemingly out of scale and of a different cartoon aesthetic big grub-like creature, you will find that the other pulse to pulse modulations come into play to control him as well.

Originally I sent the control signal in using a CD to cassette adaptor and then recorded actual cassettes, but as I've resurrected the project in more recent days I decided to do some surgery (note crime-scene-like photo above) and bypass the heads on the crappy built-in cassette player. I attached a mini phone jack directly past the play heads and it seems to work to send the signal in from a dime-a-dozen mp3 player. One has to be a bit careful of the levels - too high or too low on the control track and the bear becomes subject to a variety of muscle spasms or alternately is sent into a catatonic state. Also, running the low-level wires out of the bear makes it subject to radio interference, and cell phones held close to the bear can also elicit the abovementioned palsies. I went a little further and hooked up battery powered amp/speaker combination inside since the built in speaker is also pretty bad. It's meant to be heard by a small child sitting in a quiet room alone with the somewhat scary bear toy and is not quite up to entertaining a packed opera house.

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