Archive for the ‘Culture’ category

On the Need to Make Music

August 21, 2018

Since I’m retired (whatever that means), I have more time to excavate long-ago crannies of my life.

I was reflecting on when one transitions from boy to teenager.  “One” being me, of course, as the overwhelmingly predominant source of my material.

This was in northern Canada (although the Bulkley Valley in north central British Columbia is not that far north really).

Young and impressionable, after listening to the inspiring music of the late 1960s from afar through a few records and more importantly, night-time rock radio, I longed to create the same emotions I felt.  I wanted to rock, to move people, to express truth.

I hungered to play music, to play guitar, to stir people.  There was nothing I wanted more, in the way of the young.  My failure to accomplish anything in that realm, through a combination of lack of musicality, of lack of instruction, and without proper equipment, had a rippling effect through my life that even at this remove I can glimpse. (I fear that it was mostly lack of musicality.)

I wonder if there isn’t something similar for every young person, an object or area of immense emotional sustenance if only it could be brought fully into one’s life.  In my case, I think it was rock music and guitar.  For some other young one, it might be racing motorcycles, or painting landscapes, or being a comedian.  I think there must be some such for every one, although it might only be foggily felt, or deemed too mundane to receive encouragement.  There are artesian wells of yearning in the young that the adult world often tries to cap.  Or the yearning is allowed to exhaust itself through indifference.

In some ways my failure at music helped make me remote, painful, standoffish, insecure, and melancholic. Although as a teenager, this probably was the normal state of affairs!

RamblersPhoto1I was the nerd who sat and listened, the only audience in the noon-time classroom, while the school sock-hop band – voice, guitar, drums and bass – practised Secret Agent Man and Wipeout for a dance.  I couldn’t play, but at least I could listen….

The poor old school band was surprised at receiving such attention at their practice times.  There was something obsessive about it, I admit.  I always clapped after they finished playing.  They were unsure how to acknowledge their audience of one.

It is true that passion does not necessarily signify talent.  I am a good example of that.  But now in the latter half of my sixties, I learn to once more play guitar and appreciate the modest musical abilities I do have.

I am lucky enough to have some rewarding recording experiences thanks to a music teacher and producer.  It means a lot to me, and makes me want to do more.

The fountain is bubbling in my heart again, like a boy.

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Note: Image is of the band, The Ramblers, from the site GarageHangover.

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Rock CDs (and a DVD) I Just Had to Buy

July 26, 2018

Now that I’m retired, music I love is taking up more of my time.  I’m trying to play more, and learn more, in my lower intermediate rock guitar student way.  I’m listening more, especially to bands I neglected in the past (or think the wider culture has neglected).

And I just finished reading This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of A Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin.  One of the saving graces of human beings as a species is music, in all its forms.  The book describes how humans are hard-wired for music.  We should be grateful for that.

I’ve got shelves of CDs already, and I really don’t need to add to them, but I couldn’t resist buying a few recently.

From Amazon, which has become a major resource, I picked up the first new CD in 20 years from the New Riders of the Purple Sage.  It has songs with lyrics by Robert Hunter, famous for his contributions to the Grateful Dead.  I’ve never had a CD of theirs or even listened (to my knowledge) to the New Riders, although I know they’ve been around for a long time, but the Robert Hunter connection made me want to check them out.

Another from Amazon is Janis Joplin Live at Winterland ’68 with Big Brother and the Holding Co.  This was fairly early in Joplin’s short career, and the band, Big Brother, also shows what it is capable of as one of the original psychedelic outfits.  I love Janis in live performance, the rawness and sheer over-the-top passion – I’m thinking now of the Festival Express DVD where she bowls everyone over with her astonishing performances.

And my third CD from the ubiquitous retailer is the Zombies’ Still Got That Hunger. The Zombies, an English band, are famous for their songs from the 60s like Time of the Season and She’s Not There.  Pretty long in the tooth, these guys, but I want to hear what they sound like now with new material in this CD from 2015.

The Disappearing CD

It’s harder and harder of course to find CDs at any local storefronts in the Greater Vancouver area.  And CDs themselves are apparently slowly on the way out, given the tendency to buy single tunes online or obtain through file-sharing.

But in the little fishing village becoming gentrified that is Steveston (a hamlet within Richmond, BC, home to the Vancouver Airport), there is a small bricks-and-mortar shop called Beatmerchant, where CDs are still sold.

The owner, Frankie Neilson, actually knows a lot about most of the music I love.   He worked in the music industry in the UK with Polydor in the 1970s.  He relocated to Vancouver in the 1990s after spending some time in Toronto.  He started his physical store in 2005.

Wishbone Ash Argus

So from Frankie this week I bought Argus by Wishbone Ash.  I have it on an LP but since I almost never get around to hand-cranking my old Kenwood turntable and listening to any of the old long-plays, I decided to get the CD.  (You probably don’t know about Kenwood’s series of hand-cranked turntables which required considerable strength just to get going, like a Model T….  OK, just kidding.)

Argus was Wishbone Ash’s biggest album and rose to #3 in Britain in 1972.  They were a band playing progressive rock I guess you could say, with folk and classical influences.

Also from Beatmerchant is the 2 CD compilation The Essential Paul Revere & The Raiders. You never hear them now even on so-called classic rock stations, but Paul Revere & The Raiders were big when I was growing up during high school and into the early 1970s.  My brothers and I listened to them a lot on our battery-powered Phillips phonograph (since we didn’t have electricity for many years – not kidding).

Some of their early hits include Kicks and Good Thing.   They were Columbia Records top-selling rock band of 1967.  Later, they shortened their name to The Raiders and had hits with Indian Reservation and Birds of a Feather.

They often liked to wear Revolutionary War costumes….

And finally, Beatmerchant had a DVD I didn’t know existed: Stephen Stills & Manassas – The Lost Broadcasts. Manassas was a band that Stephen Stills formed with some other heavy weights of the time such as Chris Hillman and Al Perkins.  Their primary release was a self-titled 2-disc LP in 1972 (mentioned in this post).  The group only lasted a couple of years, but I’ve been a fan ever since.

This DVD apparently shows the band performing a number of songs on German television.  The YouTube video of It Doesn’t Matter gives you an idea of the band.

So the next step is for me to listen to all this good stuff!

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Revisiting Grand Funk Railroad

July 5, 2018

Many of the thronging hordes that frequent this blog may not have even been alive when the power trio Grand Funk Railroad were in their heyday.

I was around in the late 60s, early 70s when at least one of their songs became unfortunately very popular.  I say “unfortunately” because an almost meaningless song like “We’re An American Band” was constantly on the radio, when they had so many other great rock ‘n’ roll songs we should have heard more of.

However, I can forgive “American Band” every time I hear “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home.”  Take a moment now to listen to it…. Isn’t that epic?

I listen to it as if it is a mysterious fable wanting to tell me something. At the end I’m never sure what, but I’m still touched by the telling.

It did get considerable play in its day, despite being 10 minutes long, especially on FM radio at that time, which was almost as free spirited as the early internet.

The song became an unofficial anthem of Vietnam vets, who came to hold the song and its writer Mark Farner in high regard.  It resonated with their experiences wanting to come home from the war zone.

So, Mark Farner on guitar, Don Brewer on drums and Mel Schacher, bass, made up Grand Funk Railroad, which was formed in 1969.  (However, others participated in the future.)  Its original configuration was that of a power trio.

Power Trio!

(“Gramps! Gramps! Whatever is a ‘power trio?”

“Why, little one, for a short time it was a magical combination of musicians for playing rock music.  It was loud, energetic and expressive in a tempestuous time.”)

In those days, some people thought Grand Funk borrowed a lot of their sound from Led Zeppelin, a quartet.  But they were really in the mold of Cream, that famous power trio.

But listening to them as I have been recently, they seem more like a northern yankee version of the Allman Brothers Band, a much larger unit.

The Funk were good.  So together in their playing.  It’s amazing, as was the case with other good power trios, that they could raise such a mighty and melodic wall of sound.

Mark Farner’s lead guitar is often restrained but capable of wonderful passages.

The compilation I have is Classic Masters – Grand Funk Railroad. I will mention some of the songs in rough chronological order.

The history of the band can be divided into two rough periods, Terry Knight as producer, 1969-72, and the well-known Todd Rundgren for most of the time after that.

“American Band” and their other #1 hit “The Loco-Motion” (which I do like a lot better than “American Band”) came from the Rundgren period in the 70s.  He brought a more radio-savvy appreciation of the times and of what could be a possible hit.

“Time Machine,” their first single back in 1969 from the Terry Knight years, is blues-rock which chugs along so lovely.

“Heartbreaker” is from that early time too.  A blues wailer to start which turns into a power anthem, so controlled, then surprising in its rendition of majestically combined voices.

“Miss Mistreater” is the only GFR live recording released as a single.  A morose sarcastic ballad is sung with a sense of experience and understanding which transitions to a high-tempo freakout, then slows again.

Then “I’m Your Captain” arrived and impressed many, although there were some who considered it musical gobbledegook.

The band added a keyboardist, Craig Frost, and went off to Nashville to record songs like “Rock and Roll Soul.”  This is a pretty standard hollerer about rock ‘n’ roll, which you know will live forever, man!

I have to say that the band’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” outdoes the original.  They truly made it their own.

I won’t mention every song in the compilation at hand, but I did like the hard rocking “Shinin’ On” a lot from 1974 and the Rundgren period.  Great intro….

After Rundgren, a new producer Jimmy Ienner got involved in the mid-70s.  “Some Kind of Wonderful” — can I get a witness! — and “Bad Time” come from this time.  “Bad Time” is catchy and definitely gone beyond into pop music.

“Take Me” was released as a single in December, 1975.  Great guitar solo from Mark Farner.  He sounds a little like Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits here.  And then there was no more of substance to hear from the band.

Listening now, I think Grand Funk Railroad are much better than what may be their general reputation in rock music.  It’s true at the time when they were producing music I didn’t think they were so great, yet every time I heard “I Am Your Captain/Closer to Home” I had to stop and listen.

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Guitar Dreams

May 1, 2018

I wanted to play so much

as a green teenager

I needed to make music as stirring

As what we heard on

our battery radio

on cold winter nights

all over the Pacific Northwest

down to San Francisco

 

In a northern cabin

A guitar came into my hands

From my mother

Acoustic, hard to play

Poorly made

I puzzled to play something

vaguely rocking

While in the background

Donovan

sang

Hurdy Gurdy Man

 

Fight

To play the guitar

No instruction

Little talent

Just willfulness

It ended badly

With a whimper

 

Now in my latter

years I have returned

to the beautiful

instrument

Still not very good

But better

 

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Again With The Voynich?

February 9, 2018

I’ve been fascinated about the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript ever since I first heard about it.  This is attested to by a couple of previous posts here, one in 2010 – I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript – and one written in February two years ago – Whatever Happened With the Voynich Manuscript?

voynich_bathers

In short, for those who haven’t run across mention of this ancient document which may come to us from the 15th Century or before, the Voynich Manuscript is written in an indecipherable script by person or persons unknown. It is also decorated with unknown star constellations and plants, and with a variety of naked female figures cavorting in and around vaguely alchemical vessels.

You can look at a digital version of the manuscript for yourself on The Internet Archive.

Over the years, the most fascinating aspect of its mystery has become the proliferation of both plausible and bizarre theories about it.

Basic human psychology

There is a basic aspect of human psychology at play here: our tendency – our need – to create patterns and meaning out of ambiguous or mysterious raw material.  And then to clamp like a vise to these preliminary gestalts as if they’ve been bestowed by the gods themselves.  Once a shallow channel of belief takes form, it only seems to deepen with the flow of time and self-convincing, and rarely finds another path.

When last I wrote about it – my knowledge consists of web sources – there had seemed to be a minor breakthrough by Stephen Bax, a linguistics professor in England. He thought he had deciphered 14 characters and 10 words of the Voynich. He believed he was able to pick out names like hellebore or coriander for some of the plant diagrams. He tried to identify proper names in the text, which is a strategy used in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

More recently Bax speculated that “the script was devised for a particular community, possibly to write down an already existing language, and then that script was lost to us, with the exception of the Voynich manuscript.”  He cites an example of lost languages only recently revealed in manuscripts kept in an old monastery in Egypt.

Bax, let me hasten to say, is one of the more serious and reasonable people to look at the manuscript.

Here is a short list of other theories:

— an early work by Leonardo Da Vinci
— written in the Manchu language with an original alphabet
— a medical text written in the language of the Aztecs
— a liturgical manual for ritual euthanasia in the Cathar religion of the Middle Ages
— a sixteenth-century hoaxer created the gibberish text
— created by an alien visitor to Earth

Artificial Intelligence and a finding of Hebrew

Most recently, computer scientists from the University of Alberta here in Canada used artificial intelligence methods to try to decode the manuscript.

As you may know, artificial intelligence has in recent years improved by an order of magnitude or more with such accomplishments as “Watson” winning the TV game show Jeopardy, and AI beating the world’s best at the oriental strategy game of Go.  The latter is especially impressive given the reliance upon a highly trained intuition about the shape of the game by the best human players, which is a step above the admittedly complex accomplishments of the grandmasters of Western chess.

In the Voynich case, in preparation for tackling the manuscript, the scientists trained the AI to decipher 380 different language versions of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The AI determined after the first 10 pages of the manuscript that 80 percent of the encoded words appeared to be written in Hebrew.

So the researchers tried to have a native Hebrew speaker translate.  He couldn’t do it.  Then they tried Google Translate!!

With that, the first sentence read something like: “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”  It could possibly make sense….

The scientists also translated the so-called “herbal chapter” and seemed to get words like “farmer” and “air” and “fire.”

Of course, we have to remember that this AI was trained on modern-day languages.  Even if it was Hebrew, Google Translate only works with the modern language, not medieval dialects.

And 20 percent of the examined text didn’t seem to be associated with Hebrew at all, but gave wildly different results, such as Malay and Arabic.

The Times of Israel provides a detailed review of the history of the manuscript and an analysis of these most recent results.

The article points out that the AI analysis is based on the premise that the person who wrote the manuscript encoded by both substituting letters for one another, and mixing up their order as in an anagram. This is an assumption that is unproven.

Another researcher tested Google Translate with another sample of the manuscript (with another manipulation process) and ended up with Hindi….

We are still left with the mystery of the Voynich.  The only proper response seems to be to celebrate its inscrutability.

And that is what composer Hannah Lash has done.  In the 2016 post, I mentioned that she was creating a symphony based on the enigma of the Voynich, a creative reaction amidst the noise of all the theories.  As of 2017, she completed it, and the symphony in its entirety has been performed.

You can hear an excerpt from the third movement at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra site.

If you really want to get into her musical process about the manuscript, there is a large selection of videos on YouTube.

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Note:  For an interesting breakdown and comparison of Voynich images with other sources, see this analysis of the illustrations at René Zandbergen’s site about the Voynich Manuscript.

Also, it is sad to note that linguist Stephen Bax cited above recently passed away.  His site, and fascination in the last part of his life about the Voynich, will apparently continue to have some connection with fellow “Voynichero” René Zandbergen.

A Different Angle on the Chief

September 1, 2017

In an effort to get back to more posting here, let me begin with some photos from the rock climbers’ access to the Stawamus Chief at Squamish, BC, Canada.  This follows on the previous post about my favorite hike to one of the granite monolith’s main three peaks.

On this recent occasion, my friend Bob, who is a devoted hiker of just about anything in the Squamish-Whistler corridor, told me it was quite interesting to walk along the bottom of the cliffs where the rock climbers go.  Neither of us are rock-climbers, although I like to bring up that I did do some rappelling and rock-scrambling in my youth.

This is also an area with truly massive boulders where we passed several parties of younger climbers practicing, crash pads at the ready on the ground.  But we went inside that belt to approach the bottom of the Grand Wall, and moseyed our way along for a while right at the bottom.

(At the second photo down, where Bob is standing against the cliff, if you look up, up, up you can just make out a couple of climbers – one with some red on.)

Climbing the Wall

Scaling the bottom of the Grand Wall

Bob Pan Stitch

At the bottom of the Grand Wall

Chief ClimberRV1

Rock climber prepared for the Chief

Notes on images:  These were all shot with my Fuji X-100s.  The second is a vertical panorama of course, stitching three photos together with Microsoft’s wonderful (and free) Image Composite Editor.

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A Few Quotes For These Times

January 24, 2017

That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.

Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
This republic, Europe, Asia.

Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.
— Robinson Jeffers

Such is the irresistable nature of the truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
— Thomas Paine

With words we still name our losses and our endurance.  We do this because we have no other recourse, but also because man is incurably open to words and slowly they form his judgement.  This judgement, which those in power habitually fear, is formed slowly like a riverbed, by currents of words.  But words make such currents only when they are credible.
— John Bergen

The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned imposter couldn’t be happy with.
Joseph Brodsky

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
Voltaire

It is natural for the mind to believe and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false.
Blaise Pascal

People do not seem to realise that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
Kurt Vonnegut

We have no ideas, and they are pretty firm.
Joseph Heller

What if you could make humans do the wise thing, like the way you could make them laugh?
Joan Slonczewski