Sunday, December 10, 2017

Blue Horn Project

About three weeks.

That, for me, was how long to get to the point where I felt like I was playing tunes instead of struggling through exercises. The violin is truly the outlier here. It took six months to be in enough control of the bow and the fretting to think about assaying a tune.

Actually, my measure is a little different and a little more subtle. It is the "arbitrary tune" measure. Strictly speaking, the tunes aren't arbitrary, but it is the point where you take something you remember and try to play it by ear. See, "Twinkle Twinkle" and similar exercise pieces are chosen and/or designed to stay within a limited scope. On the violin, that's two strings, three stops, first position only. The equivalent starter trumpet piece would put you all within the same slot, two slots at the max.

I'm working the Grand March from Aida right now (that is, the melody, by ear) because it is a lovely slotting exercise. Big sections are just dancing back and forth between slots with just the first valve going up and down. I may not be smooth at it but it isn't a "crippled" piece designed for the student.

Okay, three weeks is also my personal measure, and won't hold for everyone. I've messed around with a post horn and blew a few notes once. I've worked with recorder and crumhorn and penny whistle so tonguing a note is already second nature, I have the breath control, and it is just one more set of fingering to memorize. For that matter, two of those instruments are overblow instruments.

Which is not exactly the same as changing partials on the trumpet. You do have to blow harder, but that is due to the real change you are making; pursing your lips tighter. After all, even I already have a two-octave range, with all the accidentals, and there's only three valves. The rest is all by changing partials.

Incidentally, the Bodhran was something like thirty minutes to find the basic stroke, and three hours to start the triplet going. I've put in about ten hours on it at this point. Unlike the trumpet and violin I don't have to take rest breaks to recover.

That's the terrible secret to trumpet, as it is with adult violin. Your lips simply do not last. When I started I could only practice for five minutes at a stretch. I'm up to fifteen now, but I can only do that two or three times a day. So looking at the number of days spent is not a good measure of the hours expended.

Oh, yeah, and I've cleaned it thoroughly twice and I pull and clean out the valves once a week.

However. I haven't made much progress on the Khajiit piece and I'm feeling less and less skilled by the minute. Or, rather, by the YouTube video -- lately I've been watching some crazy cover bands that do 20's jazz version of 80's pop hits. I've been around musicians. I hung out with a bunch back in high school, I worked sound for years. I am nothing but envious. I can sort of knock out something on an instrument or two but I am no musician. Not yet, and from the progress so far, not ever.

(As one more plot point on the graph, I've been playing piano since I was a teen. And, no, I'm still not very good. I've learned how to practice smart, and get as much as I can out of less than ideal practice -- time, and little things like lack of access to a good practice room -- but I really don't seem to have "it.")

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Watch this (Maker) Space

TechShop may be having a Mark Twain moment.

However, far from there being a "rumor" of its demise, it was the CEO who sent a mass emailing and open letter to the Maker community in which he stated Chapter 7 had been filed, the company was dissolved, and the assets were now in the hands of the court.

As of a week ago there's a new email drifting around (which much smaller circulation*) in which that same CEO says they've sold the company and it will arise anew as TechShop 2.0. And oh yeah; they didn't actually file the Chapter 7.

Friday, December 1, 2017


I think it was Mark Twain who said the world lost a perfectly good swear word when H. Rider Haggard chose to name a character "Umslopogaas." I've found myself saying "Ahhiyawa!" recently. But, really, half the names given on the funerary inscription of Ramses III at Medinet Habu would make pretty good swears as well.

Yes; "Ahhiyawan" is probably "Achaean" in yet another language (peoples of the Bronze Age had more names than a character in a Russian Novel), but where are they? Apparently in Southern Anatolia. Umm...isn't Greece, like, the other direction?

Welcome to the Late Bronze Age. As the potential itinerary of my novel expands, I've been having to read up on the Hatti (sorry...Hittites), Mitani, Khasa, Philistines, Phoenicians, Scythians, Assyrians, Babylonians (plus the various "neo" Assyrian and Babylonian empires), Canaan in general and outliers like the Ugaritic civilization...and that isn't the end of the list, I just got tired of typing.

And, yeah, Troy is back on the table. As Wilusa, of course. If there's anyone in ca 1190 BCE who even thinks that little siege would make a really spectacular story, they still haven't gotten around to adding random gods and damsels to the mix. Nor a wooden horse. They have no inkling at all that centuries later there's going to be Romans claiming descent from a survivor, and oh yeah if some old guy is still trying to row his boat back across the Aegean they haven't been talking about that yet, either.

A quick browse through the Kindle archives and there's at least two works of (recent) historical fiction set in Wilusa. Or at least starting there. Dunno if Homer is nodding or rolling but there it is.

So I started researching dates. And the first realization is that the progress of the Bronze Age Collapse can be roughly placed in three stages, with the middle one -- the time my story is set -- being as short as five years.

I could indeed cover most of the hot spots within a couple of years. It would be possible for someone to fight at Wilusa, observe the fall of Ugarit, visit the ruins of Mycenae, and still get back to the Nile Delta in time for Ramses III's big party.

(The other realization is more like a deepening appreciation for how much we still don't know and how much sources disagree. Boy do sources disagree. And that's after you take into account the huge changes that have been happening since the 90's and basically accelerating since; within this decade good data is finally starting to come out of Turkish and former Soviet Union excavations.)

Except that's also a change in plan on my part. It is a complex path I took to get there, but one of the big things to fold in is that many of the peoples moving about are refugees, not pirate gangs. Even in the inscription at Medinet Habu some of the attacking "Sea Peoples" are shown with families and oxen and everything else you need to do the Anatevka walk into a new land.

Match this with a peculiarity of the destruction in several places; that the palatial centers, the ostentatiously expensive palaces and temples and noble houses are the ones that got burned. And the reduced population continued to live in more or less the same area. This doesn't sound like an invasion.

It sounds like a peasant revolt. In any case, how ever you read it, I'm not seeing the massacre by Ramses III as being the happy ending.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

As We Stumble Along

Started recording parts and the only thing keeping from despair at how poorly it is going is the realization of just how much I'm trying to do for the first time.

I've recorded parts into MIDI before. I've almost never tried to record instrumental performances of my own. Certainly not to a click track. So this is basically the first time I'm playing along with someone else (even if the "someone else" is the previously recorded tracks).

And not all the tone colors work. I mixed sound for live bands for a few years but this is the first time in which I am having to make the overall musical decisions. It isn't just the placement of the microphone, but how hard to pluck, how far sul tasto to place the bow, where to place the tone hand on the bodhran. It isn't that easy to hear, not while also playing the parts in.

But the biggest disappointment is how ragged I am. How obviously uncomfortable, how much I struggle just to get through the instrumental line without error, with little left over to bring out expression and nuance.

Of course I'm doing a multi-instrumental recording that includes instruments I've held for less than a month. So I don't have the comfort -- the chops -- to let me go on automatic and leave me free to following the beat, hitting necessary accents, adjusting tonal qualities, etc.  This is the downside to not practicing four hours a day.

(I do have that kind of practice on the recorder. Which isn't as helpful as it could be in part because of the crazy accidentals of this D, E, D#, Cm chord progression, but even more because, drat it, the recorder parts I wrote are neither idiomatic nor play to my strengths on that instrument.)

But, actually, it ain't that bad. The violin performance is particularly bad but I had pretty much zero rehearsal on it. And even the crumhorn sort of does the job, at least after a lot of EQ. (The patch I was using to simulate it in the mock-up had more of a low end presence, substituting as it is for a low synth pad in the original song).

On the technical side, crashed the Powerbook once. Chased around a terrible lag and finally solved it by turning Chrome off (it was fighting with Reaper over the audio drivers, apparently). Using some of my old mic collection through an external phantom power/pre-amp and a cheap Behringer USB interface. I really, really miss my Pro37 condenser, though. It just had a magic touch on so many instruments. The only positive comment I can make on the mics is the MK1000 kick mic does a nice job on the bodhran.

I think I'm going to move some of the recording to my workplace for a quieter and more importantly more private environment where I can take the mute off the violin and back up the mic. Close-mic is not really the right trick for some of these sounds, and I really don't need to be worrying what the neighbors think in addition to all my other performance stresses.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Arsenic (Bronze) and Old Lace

Novel is giving me a hard time.

I came close to making a sketch for a prologue scene. Idea one was a pair of scribes working on the famous letter from the King of Ugarit in which he pleads for aid against the ship-borne raiders who are burning his country.

Idea two was the death of my Mycenaean's mentor in battle when someone breaks position in the formation. Except. Did they fight in formation at the time? The phalanx hadn't been officially invented, but formation is more the rule than not, and those shields look appropriate and oh boy I've still got a lot of research to do before I can actually write even a damned sketch.

(And the former idea, although easy enough to pull off from the research materials I already have available, highlights its own problem. Which is that between the Scribe, the Seer, the role of magical texts, and the importance to the plot of the Medinet Habu inscriptions, writing -- ancient languages -- are going to be a really big part of this. And I just don't have those chops.)

I like the characters. I've been living with them in my head long enough for them to really flesh themselves out. But I still haven't picked the settings, or nailed down the plot.

A recent thought is that they never actually make it back to Pi-Ramses. This would save me from having to do massive research on cities and palaces and armies of the New Kingdom. I could have the seer character "read" the Medinet Habu inscriptions instead, as a coda. And that moves the climax to Scythia, without having to confront a god then go racing back across the Ancient World to get to Egypt before 1170.

And that means I can take the characters out of their setting. Over the last lonely stages of their trek far from the centers of the Ancient World, they can change in ways that make them no longer the playthings of gods -- allowing that climactic confrontation to at least make some kind of sense. I know I said I didn't want them to move from their own setting, and certainly not to suddenly have all this future technology and tactics and (worse yet) modern attitudes, but I sort of like having them learn through the seer material from the Classical age, as well as other world cultures, and within their own tight private circle of the four of them develop along philosophical and moral lines that are entirely unique.

Anyhow, it's a thought.

(And, yeah, I really want to do Tale of Setne and have a journey into Duat. So that makes the plotting of the pivotal chapters...confusing.)

My main research task at this point has got to be charting every single date (or rather, range of dates) I can find on the key events I feel I want to reference or be influenced by; the fall of Ugarit and Mycenae, for instance. And also draw up my own map that highlights the possible places of interest and puts in as much as I can discover about what the possible political state, cultural make-up, travel routes, etc. are in each of these places.

And maybe when I look at those charts some kind of plot will start to make sense.

And maybe when I've plotted out the high points, I'll have a manageable list of research topics.

It's all driving me to put the thing aside for a couple weeks while I catch my breath. Maybe finish off the Tomb Raider/SG1 crossover fanfic while I'm at it. Figuring out what is under Mount Shasta is starting to sound simple....

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Origin of Species

The Khajiit piece is coming along. Went to a concert of Early Music last night and it has given me ideas.

Mostly about counterpoint...most of the songs performed last night were tenorlieder, in which the outer voices dress a melody held in the tenor voice. Pity I don't have a tenor recorder, and my Susato crumhorn in quality brown ABS plastic is not really suitable for a lyrical line (I can play one, and in theory it fits -- the cat in Prokovfiev's Peter and the Wolf is performed by a low-register clarinet, but in practice the sound is just a little too silly.)

The Bodhran also arrived yesterday. I'm not making a video of that one for the "How long does it take?" series, though. Within an hour or two I could perform the parts I'd written (well...I'd intentionally written parts I was pretty sure I could learn). Before the afternoon was done I also had a pretty good start on the Bodhran triplet.

But then, that series is kind of a fail. First off, I don't have the patience to properly script and edit video (plus I was going for the immediacy and honesty of showing what it really sounds -- and looks -- like when you are struggling with an instrument for the first time.) So it is rambling and semi-coherent (much like this blog).

Second is the question is far too open-ended. "How long does it take to learn to play?" is the perennial question, and the only real answer is, "The rest of your life."

How good is "good enough?" I have been theorizing that there is a fuzzy line you cross where you actually feel like you are playing a melody as opposed to struggling through a technical exercise. But on reflection, I think the question is better turned on it's head; "How bad do you sound after n hours?" Would you be willing to let a friend listen to you after six hours? Would you rather wait six weeks? How long before you tried to play with someone else, in a band, or record?

The other fail is that I'm not a complete noob. I've been messing around with instruments for a long time. I've struck a variety of drums in my life, including as much as a hundred hours on the pads of my electronic drum set. So bouncing a stick off a membrane and getting a good tone is not new territory for me.

The U-bass was a similar exercise. I've never played bass, but I've a couple years of ukulele already. So I'm not starting from ground zero. And in all cases, I have a smattering of music theory, experience in how instruments are supposed to sound (from recording and mixing them), and decades of experience with other complicated manual motions from various sorts of tool and craft use. "Hold it this way and turn your hand this way and then apply pressure like this" is not a terrifying new prospect. It's just one more set of muscle memories to absorb.

And, yeah, the trumpet. I've tried to get a tone from a horn in the past, messed with it enough to be able to get two partials out of a post horn. And I also knew the theory. But the trumpet brings up another problem with the "how long does it take?" question. Because you can practice for a week, but your actual practice time is only a couple of hours.

The reason is, the first hurdle to the trumpet is building strength in your embouchure. You literally can not practice for more than five minutes at a time, and twenty minutes in a day is pushing it. Your muscles fatigue after that and there's nothing more that can or should be done with that instrument that day.

The violin is similar in that getting that rotation -- particularly as an adult -- is bad enough that wrist and shoulder and neck and back strain show up quite rapidly. The pain is enough to mess with your concentration after fifteen minutes. Even now, I get sore if I try to push past thirty minutes without a break. So the time you spent in "days" is not really indicative of the total effort.

(That's not counting watching instructional videos, doing finger exercises, reading up, cleaning and maintaining the instrument, and so forth).

And that also means it isn't actually that silly to be practicing four or five instruments at once. Particularly since I'm practicing the actual instrumental lines I mean to start recording within the week.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Xenephon's Cravat

I'm very much on with "Five Senses" writing. Isaac Asimov made a long and fruitful career without describing as much as the color of a character's hair, but I gravitate towards fiction with enough look and feel to make me feel as much physically embedded in the setting as I am intellectually engaged with the story.

This is not always the easiest stuff to research, especially as one moves back in time. It is also not the easiest thing to describe. The colors in a sunset or the odors of a cooking fire are easy enough to translate to modern eyes and nostrils, but how does one economically carry across design motifs, clothing styles, technologies?

This is exacerbated by the fact that it is much easier to find the name "khopesh" or "krater" than it is to find out how heavy it is, how it breaks, how it smells, how to carry it; in short, all the five-senses stuff that is at the forefront of the experience of someone actually living around and using these things. The name is of use mostly to those who are cataloging them, so of course so many sources both contemporary and modern tend towards lists of names.

Names are also an often necessary short-hand. In a modern-day setting the writer can say "Paris" or "Taxi" or "Starbuck's Coffee" without having to explain and describe. The look and feel comes across to the reader because they have their own sensory experience with the thing to draw upon. Or at least have encountered sufficient other descriptions to be able to fill in.

But for those things which are not modern (or referred to frequently within modern contexts?) Well, there's one peculiarity to note right off. There appear to be certain genres or periods -- Victorian era and Roman era leap to mind -- where part of the contract with the reader is an assumption that the reader knows what a cravat, a Hansom Cab, a spatha, a legate is. And there are sufficient depictions so said reader can get a little of the five-senses impression of how loud, uncomfortable, effective, powerful, etc. these things are, in addition to the general size and shape and color.

This is not like, say, shogun, samurai, kimono and katana, which are more-or-less assumed to be part of our general cultural knowledge (as inaccurate as common understanding of these things might be). This is instead a special expectation; that someone drawn to stories set around Rome or with a Lost Legion on patrol will know or will make an effort to know what the lorica and gladius are and have at least some idea what it means to be a Roman.

I'm pretty sure the Bronze Age isn't one of these exceptions. So the names alone are insufficient. The names are often problematic anyhow. For every wonderfully expressive, essentially self-translating term like "ox-hide ingot," you have two like "krater" that need translation, and two like "stirrup jar" that seem useful until you realize stirrups hadn't been invented yet.

This latter is a tremendous problem for the writer. Not only do many terms in English have specific, known (and therefor culturally inappropriate) origins, so do individual words. "The point of no return" comes from aviation, "running the gauntlet" came to English in the 17th century and had a Swedish origin (although there is a Greek equivalent, "Xylokopia," that just puts it back into the other problem of needing translation.)

You need to catch as many of them as you can, because once the reader's attention is attracted, they are going to realize how many of the words you are using in an ordinary 20th century English-language text are quite obviously derived from other languages, and that brings up too many questions you don't want them to have.

I ran into this during Shirato when I wanted to mention a certain blue glow but "Cherenkov" is both a personal name and the name of a Russian. Which didn't fit at all with my pseudo-Japanese setting. It yanks the reader out of the text while the ordinary anglo-saxon (despite its also complex cultural origins) sneaks by unremarked.

And what do you do with something like "Wanax?" It is the appropriate name of a Mycenaean ruler of the palatial period. It is similar to "king" but there are important differences. Put "King" in the book and the reader will make certain assumptions that don't fit the culture under discussion. But put "Wanax" and you have to explain it, slowing the narrative. Or -- from a later period -- there is the entirely appropriate word "tyrant," which was applied then without the pejorative sense we give it today thus would, again, require explanation.

I'm willing to bet there is no global rule. Each item has to be approached on a case-by-case basis. "King" will do because we're not going to meet many of them, but "Basileus" (which is a later Greek transliteration of a fortunately quite similar Mycenaean term) is a better match for the former functionaries/local governors who during the LHIIIC phase of Mycenaean culture take over from the fallen palaces and morph over the years into local chieftains/warlords.

"Khopesh" is fine because it is vaguely familiar to the audience and (vowels aside) is a faithful recreation of the Egyptian "ḫpš."  "Naue-II" is out because it is obviously an academic coinage and contains the name of the German archaeologist who categorized them. Since they were traded all over the place there are probably some authentic names for them out there, but as that doesn't help visualize them it would be best to describe them from an in-universe point of view; "One of the long narrow swords that had come out of the North in recent years."

And, yeah; this little game is even harder when it comes to the names of entire peoples. I am perhaps fortunate that in the period I am writing few have a national identity per se; they are mostly tribal, with a certain affiliation towards cities in some places. My Mycenaean may self-identify as Athenian, for instance; Athana or perhaps Athenai goes back as a city name to at least the late Bronze Age. My Laconian is less lucky, as his people (quite possibly Mycenae fleeing from the collapse of the palatial system) didn't move from the lower Peloponnese into Laconia until a few hundred years later.

And of course "Egypt" is a modern transliteration of classical Greek; the earlier Linear B inscription is "a-ku-pi-ti-yo" which possibly derived from the Amarna-period name "Hikuptah." Which is back to the original naming problem; "Egypt" is expressive but wrong, but "Hikuptah" would take a bunch of explanation. The one advantage I have in my particular story is my characters are a polyglot bunch; the moment one of them says one name, another will correct or amplify with the name that their people use!

Just as well the Bronze Age is not one of the periods with a special dispensation. Because this research is tough enough without having to face those critical and well-informed readerships.