Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ma, Pearlman, Montero and McGill Play to Tape at Obama Inaugural

I've been following this story since the revelation was made, but this is the best story about it that I've yet read, as the main issues are raised in a balanced manner, and real, actual experts are consulted.

Forget for a moment that the piece was written by John Williams, who "borrowed" much of the music for Simple Gifts wholesale from Aaron Copland's ballet Appalachian Spring - one of my favorite pieces of American music (Bordering on Americana by now) - and, given President Obama's background, some type of a jazz piece would have been a far superior choice, many thorny ethical and practical issues are raised for musicians here.

First of all, let me say that I sympathize 110% with the members of the quartet, as I've had to play outside in the cold many times myself. And, truth be told, never at anything anywhere near as cold as circa 20 degrees F. My policy now is, when I'm hired for a gig, if it's going to be below sixty degrees F, I need to be inside, or I'll simply pass on the gig. Of course, I don't have the option to perform to tape, and I'm going to be at it for two to four hours, so even a comparatively balmy 55 degrees will make my hands stiffen up, especially if it's overcast, windy, or I'm in the shade. So, I would have passed on that gig, Presidential Inaugural or no (Yeah, yeah: Fat chance), unless they had me inside somewhere and put me on a screen for the outside festivities... but that's just me... or, is it?

"The revelation that millions of people who saw the inauguration of President Barack Obama were actually listening to recorded music instead of the actual performance of the Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman-led quartet has led to comparisons of lip-synching (though, in this case, might the correct term be hand-synching?) and drawn comparisons to other infamous cases, including Ashlee Simpson's "Saturday Night Live" debacle and perhaps music's most famous pantomimes, Milli Vanilli.

But Carole Florman, a spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, says she doesn't understand what the fuss is all about.

"I think this is a whole lot of nothin'," she said on Friday. "These are world-class performers who are playing in 19 degree weather and the technical requirements of their instruments made it impossible for them to have their music amplified and know that it would be in tune. So they made, what I think, was probably a difficult decision to play to tape."

Which raises the question, what on earth were they doing outside in 19 degree weather with priceless instruments? And when I say priceless, I mean priceless.

""Yo-Yo has got a Stradivarius cello that's worth ... $2 million or $3 million," he said. "We had snow falling that night, we had 17 degree temperature, we had the wind blowing as high as 20 mph, and that's a very very risky environment in which to play an instrument like that and expect it to sound good. And it's not like someone else played the music, Yo-Yo played the music.""

Okay, I don't think any musical instrument is worth that much, I don't care who made it or when, but that's just a simple function of supply and demand, and evidently there are enough people willing to pay that much for one of old Antonio's fiddles. The article doesn't make clear if Ma was actually playing that particular cello - I'm sure he has many - but if he was, and you buy into the idea that it's a masterpiece cultural relic, wouldn't it be insane-bordering-on-criminal to have it outside in 19 degree weather? Especially if the humidity was low (As I'm pretty sure it was)?

"Kent Webb, manager of technical services and support for the famous Steinway & Sons piano maker, said its instruments are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and the extreme cold would not only have made the instrument out of tune, but would have made the keys susceptible to sticking.

"The playability and the amount of finesse that one can extract from a performance are very compromised," Kent said."

So, not only are the instruments and their tuning in jeopardy, but also their playability, at least in the piano's case, and I'm betting McGill's clarinet was not exactly "happy" either (You have warm, humid breath going through a wooden cylinder that has metal keys attached to the outside: Brilliant!).

Am I the only one thinking this was just a bone-headed silly decision totally devoid of any logical reflection whatsoever? I'm betting not.

So, why then? Well, this is the rationalization, right here.

"A representative for Perlman echoed her comments Friday with the following statement: "Mr. Perlman was deeply honored to be a part of the inauguration ceremony. The brutal cold created the distinct possibility of broken or out of tune instruments and, in order to avoid a weather related issue detracting from the majesty of the day, a decision was reached to play along to the recording that the quartet had made earlier in the week.""

Like I said, the option still existed to play indoors and televise the performance, which would have been the logical and practical solution. Even the organizers of the inaugural recognized this.

"Florman said when Obama made his request for the quartet, because of the delicacy of the instruments and the size of the grand piano, there was some consideration given to having the quartet play at the Capitol and have their performance beamed to the world."

The old axiom goes, "You were right the first time."

No, the real "reason," as unreasonable as it is, was this.

""Everyone agreed that they needed to perform someplace so (Obama) could actually watch the performance," she said. "But obviously the drawback is that they're out in the elements.""

I'm sorry, but this doesn't even survive the most casual logical analysis: The point of a musical performance is to hear it, not to see it. No, they just wanted President Obama to see the quartet perform while hearing a pre-recorded version of the performance. If you are thinking there is an element of falsity and even dishonesty to this, you are right!

They should have played inside and televised a real performance. That's the only truly logical and ethical solution in a situation such as this.

Is it live, or is it Memorex? Yo Ma-Ma! (Sorry, couldn't resist).

Honesty is always the best policy. WTF am I thinking? We're in the realm of politics here.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Arranging for Guitar: Dust in the Wind - Kansas

For several years I've been bothered by a kink in my set, as well as in the list of pieces for the Heavy Nylon CD I'm working on. The problem is, the suites in my set progress around the cycle of thirds from A minor to A major - A minor, C, E minor, G, B minor, D, F-sharp minor, A - and I have no crowd pleaser for the second suite in C. I want Heavy Nylon to follow the same key plan for obvious reasons: Every suite should ideally end with a crowd pleaser, and Heavy Nylon is to be a collection of all the crowd pleasers in my set.

Well, I was waiting for my friend Mark at his shop one day - Transpecos Guitars (Link in sidebar) - and there was an acoustic guitar compilation on his shelves. I'm always leafing through stuff like that looking for material, and a basic arrangement of Dust in the Wind by Kerry Livgren of the band Kansas was in that particular book. This was the only Top Ten hit for Kansas, and some of us of a certain age made out with our college sweethearts listening to this, so I really don't know why I didn't think of it years ago.

Anyway, I noticed that the vocal melody was quite low and could be combined with the original guitar figuration quite readily, so I spent last night and this morning arranging it. It came out quite well, I think. Here's the MPEG-4 audio (Apple, in its infinite wisdom, has decided iTunes should convert MIDI files to M4A's now, instead of MP3's).

Dust in the Wind - Kansas

This is a bit of a test: I'm not sure if playTagger will tag m4a files or not. If so, clicking the blue playTagger icon will allow you to listen to the streaming audio while following the arrangement in this window. Otherwise, you'll have to click on the file name, which will open Quicktime or whatever media player you have as a default in another window.

This is one of those pieces you often hear first and second year guitar students hacking away at, so to be subtly humorous, I play the intro completely straight, exactly as Livgren played it. Of course, I've given it legit classical right hand fingering.

I have done the vertical edits to the music, but not the horizontal placements yet. That will have to wait for me to put the left hand fingering in, as every time you use the Align Spacing function in Encore, that is reset. As a result, there are some rest/note collisions in the score at this point.

BTW, this is the first arrangement I've done with the new version of Encore - v5.0.3 - and I absolutely love it. The new WYSIWYG display is great, and the guitar palette has been tweaked so that the fonts and sizes for the fingering indicators are much better now. Ahhhhhh!

After the sixteen measure intro, the verse starts, and the vocal melody is the same as the top line in the guitar until measure nineteen: There, I just use the guitar's open high E string to get the note in the vocals. This is not EZ guitar anymore at this point, as the right hand "c" finger is required to get the vocal note while maintaining the original guitar figuration below.

I decided to have no more than two simultaneous attacks throughout the piece to maintain the feel of the original texture as much as possible, and this lead to some changes in the melodic rhythm of the melody versus the original.

At 21 the high G was originally four quarter notes, but two half notes kept the attacks down to two max. Then, in 22, the original rhythm was straight quarters for the melody, but the eighth/dotted-quarter rhythm allowed for only two max attacks. The G to F at the beginning of 22 is the only slur - a pull-off in guitarpeak - that I needed in the piece.

I had to use a full four notated voices in the verses, but this is the only area in the piece that requires four, and with only two simultaneous attacks possible in the arrangement's texture, there is nothing even remotely virtuosic here (Well, unless you are a super-conservative traditional classical guitarist who doesn't use the "c" finger).

The verses are integrated with the chorus, so 25-32 are just a written out repeat of the previous eight measures. The chorus, then, begins at 33. Here I was actually able to go back to only three notated voices, so this is very close to the original guitar part, even though I have the vocal melody in the lead. At the end of 36 I introduce a figuration attack on the final eighth note of the measure, as I'm building up to the constant eight note surface rhythm I came up with for the bridge. I use the same device at the end of 38.

After the repeat, the second ending is the beginning of the bridge. There is a cool viola (!) solo in the original arrangement, so, since I couldn't do that, I decided to increase the interest with a constant eighth note surface rhythm here. Otherwise, 41-48 are fingered exactly like the original guitar part in the left hand.

For the written-out repeat within the bridge, I added alternating notes in the bass. This sounds "wicked pissah," man! At the end of 56 I let my trad composer creds show, as I made the return to the top via a real V(m7)/I - complete with a 4-3 suspension resolution LOL! - versus the original vi(add11) sonority. Not only can I not help myself, but I'm also thinking about the ending of the piece.

Unusually, the piece then returns Da Capo to the introduction! This is very cool, and I'm positive I've never done this myself, so it's giving me some compositional ideas (Yes, yes; Beethoven does this in The Ninth, but that's not exactly a miniature, is it?).

For the Da Capo I'm sure I'll add some adornments, but I didn't want to write all of that out. Instead, I added the adornments in the coda to give an idea and build up to the ending. In true rock and roll cop out fashion, the original version of this piece ends with a fade out. I hate fade outs... because that means I have to write an ending. LOL! As I mentioned earlier, I was thinking about this problem when I was arranging the bridge, so I just used the second phrase of the bridge with the alternating bass notes and the classical V(4-3m7)/I figure at the end to accomplish this. I even programmed a ritardando into the MIDI file, and the resolution to the close position C major triad sounds quasi-comically classical. So, of course, I love it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Contemporary Classical Guitar Demo MP3's

Instead of recording a completely new demo CD, I've decided to use five of my favorite recordings of the past three years. This will drastically shorten the time it takes me to hit the ground running here in San Antonio. So, with out further ado, here they are:

1] Classical Gas - Mason Williams

2] Desert Song - Eric Johnson

3] Eu So Quero Um Xodo - Dominguinhos

4] Tears in the Rain - Joe Satriani

5] Stairway to Heaven - Jimmy Page

Clicking on the blue playTagger icon will play the mp3 through your browser in this window, while clicking on the title will open up a new window with Quicktime or whatever media player you have set as a default.

I'm using the most popular pieces from my set in the tried and true fast, slow, fast, slow, epic ordering, which ought to be most effective, and I'm using Contemporary Classical Guitar - a term my manager, Peg, came up with to describe what I do - for the EP CD's title, instead of Heavy Nylon, since I think it will market better this way.

For printing up the CD's - since I want it to look pro - I got a Microboards GX AutoPrinter on the way from Sweetwater. My rep, Bill, just called me today out of the blue - he's psychic that way - and I told him what I needed, and BAM, as Emeril would say. I was thinking of a CD label printer, but this will be much better. It's a special order item, natch, so it will be a couple of weeks before I get it, but as I was looking at the Wedding Planners section of the SA Yellow Book, I noticed quite a few have emails and web contacts listed, so I'll do the first round of minor places that way. Not as effective as in person, so I'm not expecting a high percentage of response, but at least I'll be doing something.


Putting together the MIDI Guitar rig around the Axon AX 100 Mk II gave me the oportunity to redo my recording rig as well. Since the previous recording gear was in a 6U SKB rack and the MIDI rig required 6U, I just ordered a new 8U SKB rack and that let me put my Digi 002 Rack in with the rest of the stuff, while the older 6U SKB now houses the MIDI rig:

From top to bottom:

1] Lexicon Signature 284 All Tube Class "A" Stereo Recording Amplifier

This is the best direct recording device for guitar ever made. It has +4 db balanced recording outputs, and the class A-run pair of EL84 tubes give a warm and sparkly sound. Since I use the Lexicon MPX-G2's preamp and want a super-clean sound, I bypass the 284's preamp - which goes into distortion WAY too soon for me - by just running the output of the G2 into the effects returns of the Sig. Perfectamente!

2] Behringer BTR-2000 Racktuner

The only rack mount tuner that goes down to the A= 432 philosophical pitch I tune to, and it's also a rack light, an A/B box, and a metronome! I'm sure glad these are cheap, because I have four of them now.

3] Digidesign Digi 002 Rack

It's nice to have this finally in a rack with all my other recording gear, so - theoretically at least - I can record my live performances now. 8U is a bit large for a mobile system for me, since I'm my own roadie, but for some tiny venues, like art galleries, this wouldn't really be impossible (The 284 is only about 8 watts per channel. LOL!). More on this in a moment.

4] Lexicon MPX-G2 Guitar Effects Processor

Long discontinued, and still the best ever. This is my preamp as well as my effects device, and - as I've mentioned before - it's the only effects device I've used for ten years now. I have four of them, and I plan to buy more.

5] 1U Vent Plate

Class "A" amps generate lots of heat, even a tiny one like the Sig 284, so this is a good idea to allow for some convection cooling: The hot gear above generates heat that radiates up, and this allows cool air to be sucked in from below.

6] Furman PS-Pro Series II

This 20 Amp unit is really overkill for this rack, but, you see, I don't care about that. It offers unmatched filtering as well as surge protection, and tube amps really, really need super-clean power, especially when you're recording them. I hear almost no 60 cycle hum at all with this unit.

As I said, this could be used for mobile recording, but it is a tad on the large side and the 284 is way underpowered for large venues. Then, the Digi 002 requires a Mac with an external Firewire drive. That's a lot of stuff to schlep to a gig, set up, and test.

I'm thinking of going with the new Lexicon I-Onix FW810S instead of the Digi for mobile recording, and - believe it or not - using Garage Band 08 to record. The 08 version of Garage Band is not a toy anymore, and it records onto the computer's internal HD, which would mean just having to take my 17" 1.67 MHz G4 PowerBook to the gig with me. Then, if I replace the Sig 284 with a MESA 20/20 1U tube power amp (I already have one of those), I could get the rack down to a manageable 5U (6U with a vent plate (Or, a 1U rack drawer for the PowerBook)). I feel a new rack building project coming on!

Yes! I see it too!

Friday, January 09, 2009

MIDI Guitar: The Axon AX-100 Mk II

I've decided to get back into MIDI guitar and synthesis after about twenty years since I was a Synclavier guitarist back in the 80's. As with every new - or, renewed - technological change I make, I expect that it will take some time - about a year - before I'm performing with MIDI guitar again. The reason I know this will take time is, obviously, because of my previous experience with the Synclavier: You have to play very clean and deliberately to get the synth to accurately track what you play.

As with everything, this comes with advantages and disadvantages: It's great for your technique to have to concentrate on it so much, but expressiveness is bound to suffer, at least a little, and quite a lot at first. Hence, again, it will take time.

When I was in a power trio playing Synclavier, I used it on every song, but not in every section, necessarily - I controlled whether the synth was in or not with a pedal, and the straight guitar sound was always present. This time, at least, I'll only play MIDI guitar on selected pieces where it will work best, and again, I'll use my Lexicon MPX-R1 MIDI pedal to bring the synth in and out. And yet again, by "straight" guitar sound through my Lexicon MPX-G2's will always be on, so the synth will just be mixed in. This may hasten my being able to integrate MIDI into my set again (Hey, I can hope).

Nothing since the Synclavier has really aroused my interest until the Axon AX-100 Mk II came along. You really ought to watch the demo videos, as they are quite impressive. Some of them actually border on the mind blowing. It fits my requirements for a performance device, as it is a 1U rack mount unit, but it does have some limitations. First and foremost, to me anyway, it isn't a synthesizer. I became so good at programming timbres on the Synclavier that New England Digital actually distributed many of my timbre programs with the Synclavier, so I can synthesize, and I much prefer purely synthesized sounds to samples of real instruments. The Axon only has a General MIDI sound card in it, so eventually I'll go modular and have another rack that contains real, actual synths in it, or I may just use a Mac to run something like Native Instruments' FM 8: I love FM synthesis.

For my first foray back into the MIDI realm though, the AX-100 will do fine: I'll probably just use synth and string pads for background at first. So, for my Christmas present to myself, I built up an entirely new performance rig:

From top to bottom:

1] Behringer BTR-2000 Racktuner

Both the AX-100 and the Lexicon have built-in tuners, but they don't calibrate down to the A=432 philosophical pitch I tune to (And, I may have to tune to A= 440 with the Axon, I'm not sure yet), but there is nothing like being able to keep track of your tuning visually at all times.

2] Lexicon MPX-G2

I simply can't live without these, as my guitar sound is defined by them, and I have literally hundreds upon hundreds of hours invested in the virtual acoustic environments I've programmed into them over the past ten years. This unit makes 4 MPX-G2's I have now, and I still think it's the best guitar effects device ever (When someone makes something better, I'll switch, but I'm not holding my breath). In fact, nothing else really even comes close - the MPX-G2 is in a class of its own.

3] Axon AX-100 Mk II

Here's the new toy, and despite being an impressive piece of gear, it does have some semi-pro and toyish aspects to it. My bigest bitch gripe is that the device is powered by a wall-wart exterior transformer. I absolutely detest those things, and that's the reason the next device is where it is.

4] Furman AR-1215 Line Voltage Regulator

This is no rack mount power strip or conditioner: It actually regulates the output voltage through an isolated transformer (Not cheap, either). All of my performance racks have these, as the foundation of ANY good electric or electronic sound is clean power! When I plug in at a gig, especially if I'm running off of a generator, I never know what I'm going to be getting out of the outlet, so this is required, as far as I'm concerned. Yes, it also protects the gear from spikes as well as regulating the power. Expensive, but a wise investment, IMO.

5] Behringer RX-1602 Eurorack Pro submixer.

It may seem like overkill to have eight channels of stereo inputs when I only need two right now - one stereo channel for the Lexicon and one stereo channel for the Axon - but I'm thinking ahead to having MIDI synth modules in an auxiliary rack down the line.

6] Bryston 2b-LP power amplifier.

Brystons are the only solid state amplifiers that sound musical to me. This makes four Brystons I have now: two 2B-LP's, a 3B-NPB, and a Lexicon NT-212, which is just a THX Certified Bryston 3B-ST with a Lexicon faceplate on it.

The reason the Bryston is on the bottom for the time being, and not on top where it belongs, is because I can't get the damnable rubber feet off of the amp chassis! Bryston is not the only company that has fantastic engineering combined with retarded design execution, but really, if you have feet on a rack mount chassis, you ought to be able to screw them on and off with your hands! Seriously, WTF?!

The Furman is in between the Axon and the Eurorack because of the above mentioned wall wart transformer that the Axon requires. Serious BS for a piece of gear that is about eight Franklins in price, but oh well.


It will be a while before I can get to this, because my practice routine suffered a major setback with the move (But is coming back nicely), and then I have to do my metronome work and record a demo CD for my new San Antonio market. I'm going to do a five song demo, and kill two birds by also putting them on my MySpace page. Right now, I'm thinking of these five pieces, in this order:

1] Classical Gas - Mason Williams
2] Spanish Fly - Eddie Van Halen
3] Eu So Quero Um Xodo - Dominguinhos
4] A Day at the Beach - Joe Satriani
5] Stairway to Heaven - Jimmy Page

Of course, I'll post MP-3's (Well, M4A's actually, since iTunes makes those now) here too.

My business plan is to hit all of the wedding planners, event planners, caterers, and art galleries first, and just not worry about the club/restaurant scene at all right now. I do "professional courtesy" prices for artists and art galleries because I love those gigs, and it's a great way to get in with the local arts crowd, and then, of course, the weddings and corporate events pay big bucks. It is very important to do these contacts in person and not by mail, by the way, as handing someone a CD and a press flyer personally makes all the difference. Besides, I need to relearn my way around San Antonio and see what's actually here (I graduated from Mac Arthur high school here, but have not lived in San Antonio for about twenty years).

I'll also wait on the lessons, as I really don't want a lot of students and so I plan to charge an arm and a leg. LOL!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Happy (Belated) New Year!

Whew! I hate moving, but I was highly motivated to get into the new house, so it really wasn't so bad. All of the major chores are out of the way - all the moving, new electric panel, arranging, deco - and now it's down to little stuff, and I'm getting back into my practice regimen.

I'm settling in pretty well, I think.

The computer/recording/entertainment center:

Which sits nicely in the "family" room.

Of course, I set up a dedicated practice/recording studio in the third bedroom.

And - in the second bedroom - I have a gym now!

There's enough room for a cardio machine of some sort too, so, since I've been wanting to get a fixed-wheel track bike to ride, I think I'll get a rolling-resistance frame for it for the winter and those rainy days.

The "living room" will be a dedicated listening area.

For now, I'm using my ancient 15" 400 MHz G4 Titanium Powerbook to run iTunes and CD's into a Lexicon NT 212 power amp - which is just a THX certified Bryston 3B ST with a Lexicon faceplate - into...

... a pair of Turbosound TXD-081's. I can play my favorite Georg Solti version of Beethoven's Ninth louder than live with this simple rig!

Oh, and what do you do if you buy a house with blue carpet? Why, you get a blue couch, of course (Getting the carpets cleaned and stretched was the FIRST thing I did to the place).