Sunday, January 21, 2018


Been reading a little fiction lately. The level of look and feel I like in a book seems rare. A military SF story didn't have it. A YA fantasy did.

I also played a little Skyrim, with several popular fan-made mods that make the cold and rain (and hunger and disease) a bigger threat than the wolves. And that reminded me that for some details of traveling, working, camping out in the wilds, I don't have to draw from secondary sources. I'm in no risk there of copying what another writer said about how it feels to labor in the cold rain to build a shelter, or to stare into the night waiting on an attack so long, and on so little sleep, the hallucinations begin. I can draw from experience.

There's got to be some advantage to having a few decades of life experience behind me. And it hasn't all been sitting at a computer. (I still wish I had a deeper grasp of the Classics, but even history -- at least at the depth I'm currently grappling with it -- is relatively new to me).

There was -- perhaps still is -- a chance to take a mere gloss of the Bronze Age and write (relatively) generic adventure on top of it. But research has a way of taking over. I just picked up a book on the history of weaving, and have an eye on an excellent book on women's experience in the Bronze Age that, unfortunately for me, comes in at a staggering $170 for hardcopy.

It is basically a fluke of Linear B; how words are constructed in it and how it was employed in the palatial societies, but one of the tiny windows into the lives of ordinary people in the Bronze Age looks upon the lives of women weavers attached to the palace.

And, yes, a similar window, a similar fluke of documentation looks into the community of artisans working in the Valley of Kings. (There's also an unusual bit of paperwork addressing the duties at a Hittite frontier guard post). And, yes, other people have pursued enquiries through these windows, which is why there's some pretty good resources on Mycenae weavers.

All of which is a long way of saying I am increasingly attracted towards writing more towards the mainstream of historical fiction. About people's lives, about their worlds. Less about military exploits with minimal context.

With these kinds of resources -- and with the situation of the Late Bronze Age -- I could elaborate the story of any single character into a novel's width. Their backstories are, currently, more interesting to me than the team-up, and I want to tell them. Even if I end up with three books before the Avengers Assemble.

At the moment, though, one of the few other elements that is coming to clarity is how I want to use magic. To borrow a term from the paper-and-pencil RPG Runequest, no "battle magic." All the cultures I've studied so far have magic that is trivially easy to use -- amulets, cantrips, potions, sacrifices -- but their effects are trivial. Or, at least, subtle. The big stuff, the live-changing prophesies or the resurrection spells or the typhoons and earthquakes take a while to set up. And often as not involve the gods.

There's little cultural equivalent of someone casually flying or throwing a bolt of fire or any of the other easily-accessed, extremely-effective magic of anyone from a Dungeons & Dragons magic-user to the Wicked Witch of the West.

I'm not ruling out the big magic, note. Although I really, really don't want to involve gods.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

I am your density

Two things that surprised me about the Khajiit piece was how well the instruments worked together, and how few parts I actually needed. The first shouldn't be that great a surprise. Musical instruments have been under evolutionary pressure for centuries to get along with each other. They represent a very narrow band of all possible sounds, being sounds that are generally harmonious, of a compressed dynamic range, and generally close to the tonal range of the human voice.

The small number of parts should also not have been surprising. I had a pretty big clue from my experience with Agamemnon.  When I had composed for virtual instruments (aka "MIDI") it required a fair number of parts -- of instrumental lines -- to fill up the sonic space. I wrote more sparingly for Agamemnon; what filled up the sonic space there was the stacks of noise and distortion effects.

Which physical instruments have. I forget the writer who, speaking of the difference between synthesized and "real" instruments, used the phrase "sweat and spit." The sound of a physical instrument is nuanced and ever-changing; even as not all those nuances are intentional by the performer. You hear noise. The bow squeaks, the fingers slide along strings and slap down frets and clatter on valves.

Even the massed forces of the symphony orchestra show their humanity in bits of what the creators of Garritan Personal Orchestra (a lovely collection of virtual symphonic instruments) refer to as "scoring noise." Chair move, papers rustle, people breathe. All of this added complexity adds to the interest and sonic density of the instrumental line (as well as adding to the humanity; of that special thrill of witnessing a human carrying off a difficult task.)

I grew up around keyboards. Now, I'm not going to claim all pianos sound alike, all keys sound alike, all ways of striking them sound alike. But the big thing is that piano keys are largely uncoupled from the physical actions that produce the sound. The individual notes are more alike than not. So the keyboardist works for harmonic and rhythmic complexity, for polyphonic lines, for cascades and glissandos and arpeggios; in short, for multiplicity.

A monophonic instrument like violin or trumpet (ignore double stops and multiphonics for this point) puts all the performer's nuance into a -- for lack of a better word -- vocal approach to the single melodic line. The variety of attacks, the evolutions of tone color, the options to slur or detaché or slide, are all applied to articulate the part in a way not dissimilar to how a singer forms words.

I knew all this in theory but it surprised me that it was sonically satisfying with just a recorder and a bodhran in the space. Some of this is range; the bodhran appears more limited than a rock drum kit but it still fills out many of the same frequency bands. You've got your bass hits, your tom fills, and scratching and brushing not unlike the brush and/or sizzle of a snare. Where it really lacks is in the high tones that in a kit are filled with the white-noise wash of cymbals and hat. But a recorder fits that niche nicely.

Two recorders -- soprano and alto -- fill up not just the higher tones but the vocal range. Add the wash of reverb coming back in glistening highs and a little friendly low-end mud to glue things together, and it is enough.

And that's something I really want to think about more. About how the proper selection of a relatively small number of instruments can fill up the sonic plate as effectively as the massed forces of a (synthesized) symphony orchestra.

So what next?

Obviously I need to work on my chops. Since I've gone 180' from the idea of hiding my performance deficiencies behind layers of synthesized symphonic cover to actually planning multiple exposed solo lines, I really need to become a better player than I am.

At this stage, though, performance is the best tutor. I learned so much trying to play to metronome, playing along with previously recorded tracks. And so much about where I could cover and fake and where I needed to be able to do better.

A few random ideas have appeared. The "Bardic Cover" is amusing and I know how to work those particular instruments. Not saying I'm not wishing for a tenor recorder and a guitar-like instrument with deeper tones available than the ukulele offers. (Perhaps even a baroque-lele -- they look really cool, but reviews are mixed).

It occurred to me that "NYC," of all things -- the pean to New York from the musical Annie -- might fit that instrumentation. At least it would an excuse to really try for the recorder polyphony I bowed out of on the last piece. Even filk up the lyrics..."Sol-i-tude...there's something about you..."

I'll hold on to that thought and see if the video I posted on YouTube gets any hits.

A while back the thought occurred to try to cover the original series Battlestar Galactica theme in the style of Chuck Mangione. Don't ask me why.

I found sheet music recently for the lyrical "Fire Treasure" from the long-running Lupin series of manga, anime, and movies. I bet a flugelhorn could handle the melodic line. I'd be a little surprised if my hundred-dollar trumpet could.

And close to the top of my chart at the moment, a salsa take on "Still Alive" from the game Portal. Which is trumpet, bass, keyboard, and the only part I'm sure I have the performance chops for is clave. But if I could carry it off...well, there's real temptation for another video...

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Color Grading

It's not that odd that I've never done a serious video before.

Sure...I've flirted with it. There was for instance an animation I did in Bryce 3D a while back. Hand-painted lightning effects and all. But a slow computer and a seriously small budget made serious video work too frustrating to face.

Now the thing I'm shortest of is time. It's sad, really. I have so many of the skills: I've studied basic shot and structure (whilst trying to learn comic book art...another long story). Did lighting design (for theater) professionally. Recorded voice talent including using a boom pole to do it. Built and rigged 3d models. But I don't have the patience to get into something too terribly elaborate.

I just wanted to finish the joke. As long as I was going to record a "bardic" (Early Instrument) cover of a Skyrim fan song about the memetic Khajiit fondness for shadows, I wanted to do a video that included screen capture of in-game performance of the instruments I was more-or-less simulating in the music I recorded.

And, okay: here's the final product:

After the first attempt, I decided I needed more clarity and more of an arc. The big trick in pulling things together more was to use Breezehome (an in-game purchasable dwelling in Skyrim) as the background to all the live tracks. The other was to use some long in-game sequences in full screen under the other elements, roughly dividing the video into four phases (Riften fly-in and reveal, Breezehome, the road to Riverwood, and outside the shrine in Whiterun).

I walked around Breezehome for a while, freezing in place to take 10-20 seconds of background plate wherever I found an interesting shot. Of course, it was late in the process when I realized many of my recording sessions were seated and a crouched posture would be a better perspective.

Then to live shooting. I didn't have the patience to set up lights or to really play with costumes (I also don't own any...if I do another bardic cover I should really pick up a shirt, though.) Pretty much, I popped open the 5' x 7' chroma-key screen, leaned it against the book-case, lined myself up more-or-less in front of it in my work clothes and faked my way through the parts.

I'd also done a lot of takes and a lot of chopping and adjusting when I recorded, so i would have been too much work to replicate the actual performances for the video. I mimed most of the woodwind parts when taping video. I did use a metronome to try to be somewhat on time, but when I got into the editor the lag was so bad it was too frustrating to try to line up the takes exactly.

That, and there were often artistic reasons to move the take. I slowed a few of them down, duplicated several, even mirror-imaged a couple all to fit the video better.

To take the load on the poor video editor down a little I made a comp of all the live parts and my game-recorded backgrounds. Each track had a good dozen filters on it; besides the chroma-key I had to scale and shift the background elements appropriately, brighten them up a little, and do a bunch of color and contrast adjustment to the live video to try to make it look like it belonged in the same world as the new background.

Then splice those parts into the video. With unfortunately even more tweaking of crop and scale and brightness and so forth. I didn't try to get all the instruments in there -- there are places where I tracked two shawms, four crumhorns, two recorders, ukulele, and bodhran all at the same time -- but I still ended up with almost twenty tracks of video. No wonder poor ShotCut was running slow!

Oh, yes. And the ending of the video is entirely lucky chance. I had switched to animation camera using a console code and that makes the character nearly uncontrollable. My random attempts to walk to a new shot location caused Yakima the camera cat to hide behind Heimskar the Priest. I thought it was funny so I saved it.


Way back when I was writing music using MIDI: what we call now "virtual instruments" or "software synthesis," but at the time was largely in physical devices, often rack-mount ROMplers (a samPLER using Read-Only Memory chips to store the waveform data).

And my thought was that I should really learn to play a few of the instruments I was simulating: so as to get an understanding of the language of that instrument, how it was normally played, what is idiomatic and what is difficult, and thus produce more realistic MIDI compositions.

Some years later I was mixing bands and pit orchestras and that thought came around again in slightly different clothes: I should learn to play an instrument (other than keyboard) so I could understand and gain sympathy for what the musicians I was working with are going through, and learn how to better support them.

Forward several more years, and what changed is that I now had funds. A steady day job -- which also meant my free time was presenting in a form that made possible daily practice sessions with the instruments I could now afford. I wasn't mixing shows any more, and my own (MIDI-ish) music had moved in different directions, so what was left was mostly that largely inchoate desire to actually try a brass instrument, or even a violin, and find out if I could actually play it.

In the back of my mind was a new thought; that I could continue to compose with virtual instruments, but I could "pad out" the tracks with live recordings (the same way I was already using found sounds and samples and other sonic raw material.)

After about eighteen months of learning on what has turned into a growing collection of musical instruments I started on the first composition that would be designed from the start around recorded parts. And what happened? On closer examination that particular piece had the peculiarity that I could -- technically -- perform every part on it. There would be no MIDI, no synthesis, no found sounds. All would be actual musical performance.

The most surprising part is that it doesn't sound that bad.

(The other funny hilarious thing is that almost none of my new collection of instruments figured into it. Mostly, it became possible because back in my budget days the instruments I could afford were recorders.)

Monday, January 15, 2018

It's Not Easy Being Green

Made surprising progress today on the better version of the video:

A 5x7 collapsible chromakey screen arrived at the UPS depository today.

I tried setting it up with my high-CRI fluorescent light but it actually worked better to just use room lights. And tilt my desk lamp over to get a little front light on my musical instruments.

Compositing was straight-forward in ShotCut. Also, I sent Yakima the Photographer/Bard back into Skyrim and pulled some background plates. Plus did another camera fly, this time a straight zoom into Riften. It was a little jerky -- Skyrim is running on the edge already what with the quality cranked up to High for the shoot, and enough fan-improved meshes and textures added on to bring it up past Special Edition standards, and adding the overhead of a Quicktime screen grab is almost too much for my poor computer. But...ShotCut makes it easy to re-time a clip, and at 4x the base frame rate it got nice and smooth.

The next trick is to "bake" the performance clips first, rendering them out as new video files that can then be added back in without all the overhead of multiple layers of cropping, scaling, color grading, and chromakey magic. But it looks like it is going to work.

And not take a lot more time away from the Sea People.


First draft of the video for the "Khajiit" piece done. It's not working for me.

Not just for technical issues, but for a lack of focus and flow. Also...a thing that is unique about this piece is that I performed all the parts on acoustic instruments. On period acoustic instruments, in some cases. So the video should show that off and the first draft doesn't.

I was going to get a little crazy with costumes and chromakey and shadow-filled lighting because I'm shy (and because it looks like it would be fun). But seeing as I've already stuck my mug on several YouTube videos on my efforts to learn violin and trumpet, maybe I'll just set up the camera in front of the nice wooden fence we have in the backyard and film that way.

So the first quest was footage. Used QuickTime Movie Player as a screen recorder, which caused the game to slow and stutter quite a bit. I created Yakima the Location Scout-Cat and sent him out into the wilds of Skyrim for footage, armed largely with a barrel full of console codes (as I didn't have the patience to build him up to where he could actually survive the war zones we wanted to photograph).

Skyrim, as far as I am aware, doesn't really have a Mechanima plug-in, so there was a lot of ducking in and out of camera options via console. Unfortunately there seems to be no easy way to trigger a performance animation or even a walk from the "free camera" -- which really restricts the available shot angles -- and of course there's no keyframe spline to guide a tracking shot.

Then edit. iMovie is of course nearly useless. Pity the Mac never had something as nice as Windows Movie Maker. I tried out ShotCut, which generally did the job but I wanted full keyframing. Filmora keeps pushing itself everywhere that purports to be a list of "best editors" but even without the $50 price tag it just seems...underpowered.

OpenShot was well worth a try. Full keyframing, infinite layers of video tracks. The most recent versions have moved from a friendly floating tabbed window for certain functions to a tiny docked panel in which the options are less clear and a lot harder to manipulate. Still, it technically did the job...except that it borked on anything bigger than a still frame. It would hang for minutes before displaying what was right under the timeline pointer.

Natron was very interesting and worth a second look. This is the only node-based compositor in this list. One of the warning signs of open-source software is when the Linux version is highlighted. This software is deep, complex, and largely undocumented. It took a few hours to get over the hump and figure out how to patch input file through processing and merge nodes to an output render. Unfortunately, it too didn't run smoothly enough on my Mac Powerbook to allow cutting video to a music track.

So back to ShotCut. The lack of keyframes means you can't animate changes in position and scale of your clips, but it does offer fade and cross-fade. Since filters are applied per clip, not per track, you can arbitrarily slice a single clip into sub-clips and apply different filters to each; essentially keyframes without any of the inbetweening that usually smooths it out.

So how to the next version? I think I need to pen-and-paper this; to actually make something like a storyboard, if not a full script and shot list. On the flip side, I only want to spend so much time on this project. I have other, better, music waiting. And the Sea Peoples, of course.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Ludy Morza

Drat. Outline failure.

I've been thinking a lot about the Bronze Age Collapse and how that interacts with the story I'm trying to write. I'd been aware since I'd first encountered the event of parallels with our own time. The more I read, both in history and in the news, the more I'm seeing things that I feel like I should talk about.

Heck, during the recent fires, when everyone was walking around suffering and hacking with all the smoke in the air, it struck me that the mass sacking and burning of the palatial centers of the Bronze Age would have to make things "interesting" for the poor peasantry downwind.

The evidence is fairly strong for a long period of drought at the end of the Bronze Age, possibly brought on by a small-scale climate change. There is also the possibility (as has been raised for several past cultures, particularly some mesoamerican ones, but also the dust bowl Steinbeck wrote about), that some of the problems may have been self-inflicted. There is good evidence for famine and plague as well (the latter, of course, is almost a given anyhow).

So there's a nasty echo here of the predictions of the results of modern climate change; the crop failures and famines and the loss of habitability leading to mass migrations and, when those migrations are opposed, warfare.

Plus it has certainly been mentioned before the extreme stratification of the palatial societies was itself a stressor. The interdependence of wide networks of trade has certainly been discussed; the Bronze-age equivalent of strategic minerals being of course copper and tin (and cedar) -- with the very real possibility of reaching Peak Tin. There's even been theories in some circles (looking at you, Drews) of a technological advance that changes the balance of power -- and not in the favor of the side that's been investing generations in the construction of elite Charioteers.

Be all that as it may. From the ground, the picture looks very different. I am looking at the motivations and world view of my cast and they are ill-suited to join forces to try to stop a catastrophe. For my Egyptian scholar, Egypt is eternal. Not necessarily unchanging -- very much, the people of the distant past had knowledge and technical abilities (pyramids, anyone) that the current generation can only search for.

The Mycenaean's views I'm still working on. It is possible that he sees already the ending of the heroic age that Homer will write off; the old kings, the great cities are falling, the older heroes like Perseus and Theseus have already passed on, and even the more recent heroes like Achilles were left in the dust of fallen Wilusa. He is, however, part of the new martial world of the Greek Dark Ages; he's a fighter, a noble son, a mercenary captain.

From his direct experience, though -- like that of most in the time -- there isn't so much an overwhelming pattern. They don't see the simplified sweep of invasions and collapses that we, with our paucity of records, draw on maps today. They see instead a series of discrete events. Of many alliances and changes of power and changes of ownership. They see the tumbling rock, not the avalanche.

The Minoan may have the best perspective here. (Actually, she's a Mycenaean weaver on Crete, brought up in a mountain temple and somewhere along the way picked up a romanticized proto-nationalistic understanding of the previous Minoan culture). If she knows any real history, she knows of Thera and the tsunami that may have triggered the decline and eventual destruction of the Minoan centers, paving the way for the new Mycenae thallasocracy. In short, she knows it can happen here, because she's "seen" it happen.

The Phoenician has the most potentially balanced understanding of the changes that are going on. His is also, in some ways, the most distant. He's not going to describe this is a disaster, or the movement of the various peoples lumped together by some historians as "the Sea Peoples" as an invader. He's going to see the trends of change in technology and philosophy and population density and balance of trade.

So for both these reasons, I've moved pretty far from the idea of doing some light adventure thing where my met-in-a-tavern group of unlikely heroes tour half the Mediterranean like a package tour, fighting off endless bad guys with various spectacular feats of derring-do and eventually saving the world from something even worse than a Dark Age.

But that leaves me very uncertain of where I am going to be. I had a bit of an outline that at least was an emotionally logical progression of people just trying to survive and figure out where to go next.

Even that, though, got me in trouble. I was just reading again about our favorite "heretic pharaoh," Akhenaten, and I realized there's the whole great city of Amarna, the former capital, abandoned to the sands not two hundred years ago as of the time the novel is set. What better place for my Scholar-scribe to go Indiana-Jonesing?

Go a bit north by north-east, and if my Mycenaean Xenephon actually gets his less-than-ten-thousand to the sea, he might just want to sail back to Greece and who knows what kind of fun is waiting for him back at Ithaca (or, rather, the post-palatial destruction Mycenae and other great cities).

The party is so split at this point, though, that's two different...well.....BOOKS.