Sunday, July 15, 2018

"By Jove!" he thundered.

I've got voices in my head.

Character voices. It's a great method to work out details of their background and how they interact and their distinctive voices; set them to talking.

It is also a way to explore the idiosyncrasies of the Translation Convention.

The reader is going to read the book, dialog and all, in a language which is comfortable to them, regardless of what the characters might have been originally using. Thing is, this is one of those illusions that works best when it goes unremarked.

It may be an obscure example, but in the Japanese theatre the ninja-like garb of the kuroko stage hands is a signal to the audience that these people don't exist within the frame of the story. This approach reaches its height with the puppetry art of bunraku. On first glance the stage is crowded with people in black (three puppeteers are necessary for each puppet.) Blink, and most of them go away, leaving just the actors in the story.

The thing about invisibly accessible dialog is it is terribly easy to throw a stumbling block in front of the reader. The moment the reader notices a word choice, they are thrown out of that easy immersion. They stop hearing the character voices, and start seeing words on a page where an author has made choices.

The easiest way to throw the reader out is to use speech that sounds too colloquial. Never mind that "Okay" has citations going back to 1839, and "puke" was invented by Shakespeare; use either in a novel set much earlier than 1920 and your audience is going to stop, lift their eyes from the page, and ask, "Did they really say that then?"

What's funny is that this is not restricted to language that is plausibly correct for the period. (Strongly related to the Translation Convention is the unsaid understanding that dialog is edited for clarity and time; it is understood that no-one actually talked like that -- ever! -- but the reader is willing to pretend they do rather than wade through page after page of, "Um, well, the way we sorta did the thing, I mean the thing, um, the thing we were doing, was..." The same goes for overly exact replications of period speech patterns and slang.)

That is to say, an "Okay" can yank the reader out of a story set in Ancient Rome, too. Despite that the text is modern English, not Latin. As I said, the Translation Convention only works when the reader is able to pretend it isn't there.

Linguistic origins are another potential stumbling block. In my trunk novel Shirato the setting is an alternate world but the conceit is that the culture we spend most of our time with is speaking colloquial modern Japanese. So it is "understood" that the dialog on the page is translated from Japanese into nearest English equivalents. Then I had a nuclear reactor to describe and hit an interesting problem. They could speak of plutonium, and gamma radiation, but the blue glow of Cherenkov was off the table. Why? Because "Cherenkov" was obviously derived from the name of a Russian, and there's no Russia in the world of the story.

Of course there are no Roman Gods (Pluto), or Greek Alphabet (Gamma) in that world, either. The point of how the Translation Convention works is not that the words are somehow right or wrong, it is whether the words are obvious enough to the reader to attract their attention in the moment. 

Randall Munroe pointed this out in a strip he did about Star Wars. Han Solo has just identified his ship, the Millennium Falcon, and Luke Skywalker asks, "What's that?" When Han starts in the Kessel Run story, Luke stops him, "No, I mean; what's a falcon?"

Of course many, many writers try to get around the terrestrial animal problem with what James Blish dismissively called the, "Call a rabbit a smerp" method. This is usually a failure. Even David Weber is guilty with his "near-bears" and "psuedo-corn" and whatever, despite there being good reasons for those terms in-world. It still stops the story while you think about it.

So is the related, "Hold your hippogryphs" attempts to localize.  On a really good day, a character can yell, "By Toutatis!" or "Great Hera!" and it slots into the "interesting and different thing a character says that helps make them distinctive" place in the reader's brain. But try out, "A Flying Greebix in the hand is better than two in the Vorus-Fruit thicket," and the reader will find themselves contemplating your cleverness -- or lack of it.

It's the sort of thing that some writers and some texts get away with better than others (Sir Pterry was a master). And often there are no good solutions. If you write "Cat" then the reader may ask, "They have cats on Alpha Centauri?" If you write "Smerp" they'll wonder what that is. If you write "Neo-Cat" they'll also take note; which is a good way to intentionally attract the eye to the way things are different there, but in many cases to the local it fills the cat-shaped hole and even if it doesn't look exactly like a cat or meow exactly like a cat, it is, for all intents and purposes, just a cat.

In short, if it is there for color then, sure, give it an interesting name and remark on it. But if the point is getting from point A to point B so the plot can progress, it is better to call it a horse.

And then there's where the language is successfully transparent but is saying the wrong things. The horse of the late Bronze Age had yet to be bred and trained to riding; they pulled chariots. And the sheep had yet to be selected for sheering (bronze makes louse scissors) so they were more hairy than wooly. Not a real problem; if chariots or wool come up in the story you can explain then how it works in period.

Thing is, we have language to describe many of the places and things of the Bronze Age. But that language is foreign. Spear and shield and sword have become invisible enough to use. But what of, say, amphora? There are a great many understood Greek terms for things that were common in the late Bronze Age. But they are Classical Greek, in some cases originating in the archaic Greek of Homer, which is on the other side of the Greek Dark Ages from Mycenaean Greek. Which we don't really know; it is so poorly transcribed in Linear B most academic works chose to spell out the words rather than try to give a more colloquial transcription.

And many of the common words for people and things of the Egyptian New Kingdom are...Greek. Also Classical Greek. Again there is a transcription problem, as the older Hieroglyphs do not preserve vowels.

So there is a terrible balance necessary by the writer here on whether to try to use an anglo-saxon (or a franco-germanic-latinate loan word incorporated so long ago into English it merely reads as "English,") or a Greek word that has more color and specificity but might cause the reader confusion, or a best attempt at a Mycenaean term which would be nearly impenetrable.

This gets really basic. "Crete" sticks in the reader's eye because it is clearly modern. "Kriti" gets a semi-pass except that it is at best early Greek -- but I read a book recently in which the author chose that for his Minoan characters. (Oh, and don't get me started on "Minoan!")

What I meant by misleading above is that the more you use words from Classical Greece, the more you lose the distinctions of this earlier and quite different Bronze Age society. Just as if all you have is "pots" and "boats" it loses all distinctiveness as a culture.

(Yes, you could go on to describe the thing in detail, as I did with the horse and sheep above, but there are always tradeoffs. Sometimes you need the text to move more efficiently than that.)

And then comes those places where the easy, familiar, nearly-invisible term is saying the wrong things.

I was doing a trial sketch of a scene for the novel. There's a mild earthquake, and my POV character ascribes it to "The Earth-Shaker." Which is one of the sobriquets of Poseidon. Or perhaps aspects. And this already is a problem; that gods are rarely immutable points in most cultures. They have different local versions, different faces for different occasions, different personalities that are often treated as distinct entities. And they change with time.

It's a problem I had my characters point out in my Stargate fanfic; when you say, "Hathor is the goddess of fertility and music" you are making a mistake.

In any case, I chose "Earth-Shaker" because that fit the voice of the character. The Earth-Shaker can be identified with Poseidon, but this is not quite the Poseidon of Classic Greece. In Homer's time Poseidon was connected to earthquakes, the sea, and horses. (Sure, why not.) In the Mycenaean times the sea was more the bailiwick of other gods and Poseidon's role was closer to that of being chief honcho (although there's also a Zeus, and a female Zeus...and it gets complicated).

So, even though calling him "Earth-Shaker" is uninformative to the reader, calling him "Poseidon" can give the reader the wrong impression. Just like using any other Classical Greek terminology can give the wrong impression. And part of this is educating the reader; Athens always had an Acropolis, because an Acropolis is a hill (or, rather, the use of a height for a structure). That's the name, that's what it means, but the reader is going to be imagining the Parthenon up there and it has too good a chance of dragging them out of the story while they ponder when that was actually built.

As usual, there are no simple solutions. Worth noting that there are distinct approaches. If you start a book with a bunch of italicized words that are very much calling attention to themselves as foreign and/or technical terminology the reader will adjust and, in time, be reading smoothly again.

If you start ultra-colloquially, that also will vanish in time (although you still risk dragging the reader back out of the story when they notice just how much someone is sounding like, say, a pulp noir detective.)

The most invisible, and the way most writers go especially for English earlier than King James and all historical periods before that is to use slightly more formal language. Full sentences, an avoidance of contractions. This does become problematic when you want a character or a speech to stand out for being rough-talking; if your Roman Legate has instructed, "Have the men draw up in equal ranks, and we will proceed across the marsh to engage the enemy directly," it is difficult to follow this with the grizzled old Centurion turning to shout at his troops, "Roight, you lot!"

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Key to the Past

NOT a free plot bunny. It might be, instead, the archaeology novel I should have set out to write.

See, when I was working on my Stargate/Tomb Raider cross-over fanfic, there came a point where I wanted to separate Lara Croft from SG1 and have them both working on the mystery from different angles. Best way to have some time pass was for her to go low-profile and instead of flying direct to the next McGuffin, have to hitch a ride and drive across the US.

Which turned out to be the American Southwest (she started in Colorado and was heading to California). And I had the idea of her hooking up with a cable television pseudo-archaeologist, and there was a real one who had a whole team, a paramilitary look, and some unusual cars. So why not take this further: especially since I had by this point determined I was going to visit the Trinity Site (the first atom bomb), why not follow the people who have rebuilt the Landmaster from Damnation Alley and give my fictional team a reproduction Ark II from the television show of the same name.

I didn't flesh out the team too much because they were strictly side characters; there for atmosphere, with the Tomb Raider and Stargate casts continuing to do the heavy lifting. But I did flesh them out a bit; R. Barringer Newberry, the huckster and showman that might underneath it all believe in the greater truth he claims to seek. Barry Wentworth, the "tame scientist"; a shy, out of shape Aggie (Texas A&M) who pursues cryptids (that is, creatures like Bigfoot and Nessie) with intellectual honesty and scientific rigor.

Stan, Newberry's quiet older brother, who built Ark II, shows a surprising reserve of personal courage, and could in a longer novel be the required resident mechanical genius. Sarah Cojuangco, a driven athlete trying to make a name for herself in the extreme sports field, who does all the climbing and caving. And Wendy, who didn't get a last name in the credits of Key to the Past on the History Channel (she was only there for the eye candy) and in any case dropped out before Lara Croft came on the scene.

So all you need is to flesh out the team a bit more with a few drivers and someone to handle the high-tech instruments, and put in a legit archaeologist who fell into doing this when they couldn't find steady work in CRM (Cultural Resource Management; basically the legal requirement to make sure a new building project isn't going to destroy a significant archaeological site). So the conflict, between pseudo-archaeology and real science, and between cash and publicity versus professional anathema, is built into the protagonist themselves, with Newberry both companion and foil in the adventure.

And, well....!

So this would be all in the United States. We may not have history going all that far back (even the First Nations history is relatively recent, at least compared to Europe, much less Mesopotamia). But we have it and there's a lot of interesting stuff to delve into, from the Civil War to Cahokia. And there aren't so many of the monuments of pseudo-archaeology; no Giza Pyramids, no Yonagai Formation, but there are the Mounds, and Roswell -- there's enough (enough in the real world to have spawned a half-dozen cable television shows).

Plus a novel could do what I did with the fanfic; play with the back roads and the roadside Americana, all that Muffler Man and Googie diners and museums for giant balls of string.

I've been across the US a few times and wouldn't be against some more exploration. And I've mucked around some of the corners of the pseudo-history world, mostly in re various long-lived conspiracy theories and associated nonsense (JFK, the Apollo Program, Young Earth Creationism). And I'm not uninterested in the history of the US, going all the way back to the prehistory; back to Clovis and pre-Clovis (and very much not including any damned Solutreans, thank you very much!) So research would be fun and isn't entirely unfamiliar ground.

And doing boots on-the-ground research to get the look and feel of a Nevada ghost town is a lot cheaper than paying for flights to Greece and trying to recreate the look-and-feel of the Bronze Age Aegean!

Of course the essential problem of an archaeological fantasy is still there; how to have a secret which is dangerous to uncover and awesome when found but still stay within the bounds of honesty to real science -- particularly since the real history is so recent, there are peoples and cultures and even families who are still around.

About the only loose thread I have to pull on so far with this is the idea that what they find is never what they were originally looking for. As in, they might look for the truth of the Kensington Rune Stone, end up showing to the reader just how ridiculously wrong the KRS theories are, but while they are there finding something............else.

I'm not sure this actually helps, but it is an idea.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

"Bird, bird, palm tree, man sitting down, another bird..."

Made a small breakthrough on the sax. The low C was giving me trouble again and I changed my embouchure to fix it. Meaning I have some sense now of how the embouchure works, and the beginnings of the tools to get around problems. Now the biggest hole I have to playing "almost anything" is I haven't memorized the fingering for any of the non-chromatic tones.

A bigger breakthrough on the novel. I changed one letter. (Or, rather, changed from the Ugarit Letter to the Medinet Habu inscriptions). And so much fell together.

I've been outlining too long. There's still so much to learn. Not a day goes by when I don't discover something that totally throws my previous understanding. Yesterday was finding out there were other Mycenae capitals on Crete (well...yeah! It's a big place! But I simply hadn't thought of it). But it is time to start making choices. Even poor, under-researched choices. It is time to start writing.

So I love this change of a letter. It means I know magic is in (at least that one skill is), it tells me how Setna and Kes meet, it also tells me why Setna was in Amarna, it tells me who they think the threat is and what they'll do to try to stop it, it tells me how I want to understand the LBA Collapse and the role and structure of the Mycenae in LHIIIB-C. It puts the Sea Peoples firmly into the picture, too. And it even gives me a good lead as to why Kes left the Peak Sanctuary to come to Knossos.*

It is also firming up my itinerary. Since the Sea Peoples are a thing and the Acheans have a suspected connection, Mainland Greek is on the table. Even Mycenae itself, Lion Gate and all. And if I'm hitting the big cities (started in Knossos, after all), then really should show off Pharaonic Egypt with Pi Rameses if not Memphis.

*See, the Medinet Habu funerary inscriptions are in Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Which were sometimes embroidered onto trade goods for the Egyptian market by Mycenae weavers -- in my mind they didn't know the language and these come across like those jumbled English words on Japanese novelty t-shirts, but I don't know if that's true. And then there's thinking about Markov chains, and that you can write nonsense that is still grammatical (or nonsense words that still agree with the phonemic rules).

And then there's memory, and all the bardic tricks (like Homeric epithets) that allow you to memorize a long poem. I don't memorize a poem as a photograph of a piece of paper with characters on it, I memorize strings of words which are organized in grammatical ways. Apply these same necessary crutches to make a vision coherent, and -- voila, Kes has to learn hieroglyphs before she can "see" the entire inscription and decode it.

But before that she could realize that some of the words -- even as she doesn't even know how they are pronounced -- have dread meaning. Words like "Sherden" (one of the Sea Peoples). So she's writing that one out a lot. And Setna finds it on an embroidered border, and he knows about the Sherden from the Amarna letters (things that may have been temporarily lost to the Egyptians in their race to erase the Heretic Pharaoh and his entire era from history).

But even before this, at the Peak Sanctuary she grew up in, there's the moment when she is first struck down by a vision. Obvious assumption it is from the gods, so what, child, did you see?


(Which if you know anything about Greco-Roman soothsaying is exactly the right -- or wrong -- answer).

The scene gets even better, though, if she elaborates; "Birds made of stone. They were trying to tell me something."

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Philosophy and Bagpipes

There's this quip in audio circles that goes, "Don't worry, we'll fix it in the mix."

Stock picture from Colourbox

See, mix philosophy is you start with the best performance you can get, captured as cleanly and accurately as you can get. Nothing wrong with audio manipulation for artistic effect; George Harrison was playing all kinds of tricks with tape speeds and overdubs and Abbey Road is one of the great albums of all time. What you don't want to be doing is trying to fix basic mistakes, like a singer who forgot the notes or a broken microphone.

Douglas Morrison Little Theatre

I played piano as a kid. Not very well. (I still play, and I still don't play very well.) Piano is an instrument well suited to solo performance, in a way few others are. There's an incredibly wide frequency and dynamic range and it is of course a chordal instrument. But it is, still, a solo.

When I became ME for a small community theatre I had to learn to mix. And I turned to MIDI -- synthesized instruments -- to produce multi-part songs I could practice mixing on. And nothing wrong with that. TV shows had to get by with largely synthesized music, so did musical theater, so did games. A full symphonic orchestra is expensive. And even when you've got a half dozen real musicians in the pit, the demands of a Broadway score are such that two or three of those musicians will be playing synthesized instruments on a keyboard.

Thing is, there's a human factor about actual, physical instruments. They have more flexibility and can turn in a more nuanced and detailed sound. But more than that, there's a sort of essential honesty that comes through. Even the makers of a software and hardware package designed entirely to substitute for a pit orchestra (OrcExtra) suggests you replace as many of the built-in parts as you can with live players. Even just seating one trumpet beside the keyboard player who is operating the software provides a better experience for the audience.

insaneintherain, YouTube capture

And then there's these people. There's plenty of people, again, who get perfectly good result playing their chosen instrument against canned background tracks. But there's a sort of bragging rights in being able to say you played "All the parts" -- and there's people who do. A surprising number of them, in fact.

Odd thing is, though; often the drums are canned. Drums are expensive and take up a lot of space and are hard to record. So pre-recorded drum loops are not uncommon even among people who can play three or four different families of instrument. Same will sometimes go for strings or even bass. And of course piano; these are almost all legitimate keyboard players, but an actual piano is large and heavy and expensive. So they play a piano sound on a piano-like keyboard.

And that's where that mix philosophy starts to get weird. Someone like Carlos, he's clearly playing through the entire piece for each part he plays. Others, they are just as clearly making take after take until they finally get a useable one.

And from there it's a tiny step to editing out the fumbled note or even slapping a layer of autotune on the whole thing. And that's where it gets weird. See, the sound of an instrument is manipulated all the time. A trumpet in the rehearsal hall sounds a lot like a trumpet on a recording (but even there, expect compression and reverb...there's a reason there's so many buttons and knobs on a mix console). The rock drum kit, on the other hand, sounds very little like that in life. It is arcane application of specialty microphones and a lot of processing that gets that final distinctive sound.

Point being I don't see there being a bright line. And when it comes to recording, being able to say you played the trumpet part on an actual trumpet is really just bragging rights. But what happens if you re-pitch and sonically alter a recorded trumpet in order to get a french horn part out of it? What if you chop up a crumhorn performance in order to fake a bagpipe? Heck, can you even say you played "guitar" on a track if you used a ukulele and processed it a lot? And who cares if you do?

One problem I have is the same one that "fix it in the mix" points to. And that is when you chop and manipulate a take, modify and re-tune a sound, you are taking away from the music instinct and integrity of the moment of performance. There are decisions you make as a player that only happen in that context. They just don't present the same when you are down at the sample level hand-editing a waveform.

Basically, you risk taking the life out of it when you manipulate a recording in certain ways. And worse; if you had to resort to technological trickery to record it in the first place, that life was never there in the first place. this wrong in other ways? Is there a dishonesty in doing this kind of manipulation? And a dishonesty to what, and whom?

(The other thing I'm finding very odd is after decades of doing live sound and obsessing about mic placement, I'm recording my own stuff with basically any old microphone and....fixing it in the mix.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Doing in the wizard

I'm having a lot of trouble with magic.

Specifically, what role "magic" should play in a novel set at the end of the Aegean Bronze Age. Because worship of complex pantheons of gods was the default state, sacrifices and scrying, amulets and cantrips were everywhere. Because demigods and magical armor and curses are all over the stories told about (and one presumes told in) that time.

But what do you do in a story, in a work of historical fiction grounded in archaeology and history and set before a modern reader? There are choices, but I find all of them equally unpalatable.

The conservative answer is that magic isn't real. That's the serious historian's answer (few historians take cultural relativism to the point where they allow each culture its own laws of physics). Thing is, it would be dishonest to the cultures to leave it all out. It is not a good depiction of a person from the time to have them not have their relationship to the gods on their mind. Or to not have (depending on the specific culture) a few protectives spells and amulets about their person.

On the flip side, of course, when you put that stuff in, it creates a distance from the reader. The reader -- who probably doesn't accept the divinity of Poseidon or the dangers of the Evil Eye -- is going to look down on these characters for their foolish superstitions.

It may be possible to show how augurs and sacrifices and processions fill necessary social, political, even economic functions. How protective amulets are a useful comfort to the individual regardless of actual efficacy. It may be possible, in short, to bring the reader far enough into the mindset of the culture that they accept along with the characters the reality of the supernatural.

It might even be possible to break through that barrier thrown up in the 18th century; that division we recognize now between naturalistic and supernatural. We tend, today, to throw out anything we can't rigorously proof. But well before even Aristotle, how are you going to proof a naturalistic explanation for earthquakes? What predictive (aka useful) power does this explanation have? And a supernatural explanation is not usually contradictory to observed reality. If the myth is that storm clouds gather reflecting the dark mood of Zeus before he lets loose with the thunderbolts, well, that's a pretty good way of knowing a storm is coming with enough time to get under cover.

Equally unpalatable is deniable magic. This runs in two forms. The first is where there is a naturalistic explanation for everything that is labeled magic. The difference from the above is the train of coincidence that makes, well, magical things happen anyhow. Think of Flood Geology. (Or before that, Immanuel Velikovsky.) This is when things are set up in the most peculiar way possible so something that looks exactly like the Biblical Flood can unfold in a manner that is intended to be coherent with modern science (it isn't).

So a haughty character is struck down by the gods. Or by the unwise move of wearing steel armor on a hilltop during a thunderstorm. A character returns from the dead. Or was just in a chemical trance brought on by a concoction similar to the fabled zombie drug.

Some people think that you can get the best of both worlds going this way. That you can have demons flying around the sky throwing fireballs and it turns out it was all the result of a particularly bad loaf of bread (aka ergot poisoning). Me, I think you've taken the sparkle out by making the explanation that mundane, and pulled the reader out of the story with how strained and contrived the "real" explanation was. It reminds me of the ending in multiple Scooby Do episodes where the clearly intangible floating ghosts who were walking through walls and soaring over the heads of our characters are revealed to be an elderly farmer wearing a bed sheet dipped in glow-in-the-dark paint. Oh, really?

(And now that I think of it, it's also a bit like those serials where the cliffhanger ending had the characters go over a cliff in a hurtling car. Then the next episode shows the car from a different angle, where it is going at most three miles and hour and all the doors are wide open -- and ignores completely you would have totally seen the hero getting out, anyhow.)

The very worst form is when the writer thinks they are being clever and leaves a, "It was all a dream....but was it?" escape clause. When everything about the demonic invasion can be explained by bad weather and a migration of lizards....except for one bright red trident left stuck in a door.

What else do I need to say about the latter but that this is annoying and cheap?

And then there's actually in-your-face magic. One danger is that magic has to be carefully defined otherwise it removes all tension. Protagonists with powers outside the usual have a terrible tendency to whip out new ones at the slightest hint of crisis.

A bigger problem I have is, which magic? If one set of gods is real, why not all of them? If one person can see the future, why can't all the diviners and oracles do the same? Basically, if magic hardly ever works, or worse, works completely differently from the way everyone in-world thinks it is supposed to work, you are back to Case A again; a world of superstitious idiots.

And if it does work, at least to some statistical significance, why hasn't it changed society? This is something that bugs me in every superhero story; why are the cops surprised? Why are the muggers so bold? Why do they still have plate glass and bank vaults, if they get broken into every other day?

That's the thing; usually when magic is added, it is to be a game-changer. The protagonist (or the villain, let's be fair) can do something no-one is quite ready for. And, yes, that's the powerful fantasy as well. If it is (relatively) ordinary and integrated into society, your hero can no more whip out an unexpected spell and make their escape than he can whip out an unexpected sword and solve his current problems that way. Not to say the adventurous hero doesn't do exactly that, it is just when you come down to it, in this flavor the magic might as well not be there at all. But if it does change the game...then all the ills above come to fall.

My bottom line is that it real magic feels cheap. I'm not entirely sure why. It doesn't feel wrong for an outright fantasy, or an alternate world. I think it is because a real historical culture is a balance of needs and pressures and evolutions and the job of the historian is to explain how it works and how it got that way. Saying, "Oh and by the way the gods are real" is to my mind no different from changing the availability of tin or the size of horses or the temperature at which iron melts; either because you really want armored knights in the Bronze Age or because it is just too damn much work to research, understand, and explain to the audience how self bows and chariots work.

Removing the real reasons why supernatural belief systems and their accoutrements exist in a culture, and their real function in a culture, is to portray that culture falsely. I think it gives a less rich picture. Certainly a less nuanced one.

And in the bottom line, the only thing functional magic gives you is the dangerous chance to have something spectacular and marvelous and not a little bit outright power fantasy happen. And if you are planning to write adventure, with impossible odds and unlikely derring-do, it is really hard to resist adding that double-edged blade to your story-telling arsenal.

Hence my problem.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Single-reed is different.

It actually does require a certain amount of strength to focus the air and control the reed. I'm finally getting clean notes at the bottom of the scale but working it makes my mouth sore. It's right back to the first days of trumpet; you've got to build up those muscles.

The Venova; Yamaha's "Casual Musical Instrument." It's a saxophone that fingers like a recorder. Yeah...a plastic version of a woodwind instrument usually made out of brass.

As with the brass family, I've discovered with a degree of chagrin just how much the embouchure affects the pitch. You look at a trumpet, and you think with those buttons it should just go from one pitch to another. Nay. You can lip up or down nearly to the next note, and worse, you can force it to play outside of the usual harmonic series.

Woodwinds are worse. I'm tempted to blame Equal Temperament, but I think it is inherent in the mathematics of sound production. Yamaha openly admits that several of the notes are compromises; they will play sharp or flat and there's no alternate fingering that fixes it. You can try to half-hole them, or you can lip them (which changes the tone).

Apparently on a real saxophone there are extra keys for just these sorts of problems, plus yet another set of keys to make certain transitions easier (for trills, say).

But I have to say, even within the chromatic scale there are problems. The top of the first octave plays terribly flat if I don't blow it up, notes past about the fifth of the second octave are difficult to reach, and the lowest two notes of the chromatic scale (the ones with the keys on them) squawk badly and have trouble settling in.

Some of that is just the sax. Apparently the lowest notes are always a pain this way, and opening up the top octave is the same as with the brass family; strengthen your embouchure and eventually you get there. But some of that has to be this peculiar little instrument itself. It is an interesting acoustic experiment, folding the length of a soprano sax to where you can mostly stop holes instead of manipulating an assemblage of rods and valves. So it is cheap and travels well. And it sounds...okay.

So will I, in time. I'm just about where I can get through a tune without squawking.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Dodged that spear

Or bash it aside with your shield, if you are following protocol according to Homer.

When I heard the rumor the next Assasins Creed game would be set in Greece I worried. Then I saw the title was Odyssey. That's all I needed; for a major AAA game to be set in the Heroic Age, especially if they went all accurate about bronze age Aegean culture. A three-hundred person team with years to work can do some pretty serious research.

But, thankfully, the game turns out to be set during the Peloponnesian War. (More-or-less. The Assassins Creed series has very nice looking history, but the actual events get a bit bollixed.) In any case, this is high Classical Greece. Four hundred years after "Homer penned" The Odyssey and eight hundred years after the setting of my novel.

Although, from the looks of the previews I've seen, the lead dives on what looks suspiciously like a sunken Minoan palace, and meets what has to be the minotaur.

So maybe it isn't just my current focus that has been making me notice more and more of the Classical age (that is, Greece and Rome) getting talked about in various corners. Maybe there's a renewed interest in those corners. Not that the classical world ever went away, but we are today far from the mindset of Schliemann and his contemporaries, who lived and breathed Greek Myth and the Glories of Rome in a way that shaped their perception of the past and their overriding goals in learning more about it.

(The game is also a full RPG with a dialog wheel and "choices that matter" in the Mass Effect et al style. And nary an assassin in it, cueing various people to sneer that they'd never buy it while it pretended to be an Assassins Creed game, but then they only buy Assassins Creed games anyhow.)

(One of the complaints is you can chose which gender to play. Which the purists don't like because it sort of flies in the face of the "reliving the genetic memory of your ancestors" thing the games were originally built around. I'm unhappy because as egalitarian as I want my games, the experience for men and women is different, particular in earlier ages. Further, the game gives you choice of playing as an Athenian or a Spartan. Well. Spartan women were expected to be fit and know how to fight but the shit would really have to have hit the tower shield for one of them to be out on the front lines. Their sacred duty was, basically, to make more Spartans.)

(The Athenian woman, on the other hand -- were rarely let out of the house (well, there's a class distinction here, plus the rules were different for non locally-born but anyhow) For all that vaunted Athenian democracy it was one of the most repressive of the Greek City states (a low bar when it comes to Classical Greece -- the Laconians are very much the exception) when it came to women's rights. The evidence is unclear how widespread female literacy was in Athens, or how much exposure they got to the vaunted philosophical, artistic, and scientific glories of the golden age. The evidence is somewhat clearer that the nobel Athenian women were, however, bored out of their gourds.)

(Point being, it is not impossible for the player avatar to be out there adventuring. But every interaction should be colored differently depending on gender as well as background. What I am afraid is with all the RPG elements and millions of lines of recorded dialog and so forth there simply won't be resources spared to make the experience differ in any substantive way. And it should matter. Not because it is historical, but because it gives a richer experience.)

The reason I got into this particular series of games in the first place was to be able to walk the environments and interact with the people of historical times. I'm getting this game, if and when it comes down and price (and so does the computer that can run it). But more and more I have to recognize that this is less a walk through history and more a deeply flawed diorama; well-positioned, nice artifacts, but the plaques and posters explaining it are complete garbage.