Sunday, July 16, 2017


Thursday's practice was thirty minutes of doing scales.

The Cecelio arrived in early July of 2016. That means last week I marked the first year of learning violin. I can basically get through a tune now. Accidentals, string crossing, shifting, the start of a vibrato. I'm not doing much in special bowing and I've yet to assay a double stop.

This next year is basically about refining. About, more than anything else, getting comfortable. Right now it still takes so much concentration there are days I simply can't practice.

And, yeah, I'm expanding my practice needs as well. I've been mostly toying with the bass, and that will probably be enough until I actually have a tune I need it for. The penny whistle needs some time in the rotation; I'll probably start taking that to work to at least nail down the scales and get a few flicks into muscle memory. And I've got an upcoming composition I'm tempted strongly to add a darbuka.

(The darbuka is one of the greater group of instruments out there; the ones that you can learn the basics of and kinda-sorta play in a few hours. Unlike the violin, which is weeks of doing exercises -- often without the violin at all -- before you can play a limited tune. All instruments, of course, take vastly more time to get any good at.)

I've also been hitting the books on music theory. Again, there's a lot to be learned there. Music theory reminds me quite a bit of Renaissance astronomy. See, there are inherent mathematical relationships between tones and the harmonic structure of those tones. And there are psychoacoustic responses we humans have to combinations of those tones.

Out of these simple rules, however, comes near-incalculable complexity. What is needed is a simplified structure, an imposed grammar (like the Latinate grammar that got hammered over the Germanic-rooted and rather different linguistic processes of English.) A structure or grammar that will allow working musicians to communicate, to plan, to tune, to build, to otherwise get on with the business of making music.

The Greeks took a stab at such a system and we've been building around it since, adding to, modifying, re-interpreting and distorting until the original Greeks wouldn't recognize it. The thing you have to remember, though, is buried under all the "plagal cadence descending from a diminished major triad with flatted seventh" is actual frequencies and their harmonics.

Frequencies and harmonics that will never, ever, quite line up perfectly. No matter what tuning or which harmonic minor you reach for, no single formulae works for everything. It is positively Goedellian; there can exist no consistent single system of music.

Well, I do have one new thing I've already learned from my studies. And that's a key thing about modes (or scales). When you are composing a piece, you aren't "in" a mode. You assert a mode.

Let me make this really simple. I set out to compose a tune in A minor. I start on A, because that's the key I'm in, right? I go up to G because that sounds cool. After a little more wandering I end up on C.

And, whoops. The tune I wrote is basically in C Major. Because that's the relative Major of the key I was trying for. The notes are exactly the same. It's the same white notes. The problem is, I set up a classic IV-V-I sequence there -- a sequence rooted in those underlying harmonics I mentioned earlier -- and thus the piece "feels" like C was the tonic all along.

Sure, I could bring in some harmony parts and assert the triads of A Minor, and that would pull the perception of the key around. Thing is, if you are a beginning composer, and you start with the tune, then fumble around finding chords that go with it, probability is against you finding the ones that really go with (or allow you to modulate from then return strongly to) the key you wanted to be writing in.

I should really spend another year at this, but I'm eager to monkey up some new tunes.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Informative Tombs

I was dashing off a couple simple scenes for a Tomb Raider fanfic when I suddenly stalled. I wanted to put a little color in the bit (from Tomb Raider: Anniversary) about Natla telling Lara the location of lost Vilcabamba.

Trouble is, Vilcabamba isn't lost. Well, it was, but only a little. Hiram Bingham found the site in 1911, it was identified in 1960, and in the 70's the identification was widely published.

We can give the 2007 game a pass as it is a fairly faithful reproduction of the 1996 game. But, really -- calling it "Lost Vilcabamba" in 1996 is pretty shoddy research.

There's a more important omission in the game, however. And that is, lost or not, Vilcabamba is interesting. What it was and the part it plays in the final act of the Incan civilization is fascinating enough that at least two works of fiction were inspired by it. But all the game does is throw out the name.

(At least the player gets that much; they might be inspired to look it up. There is a major location in the first game of the Crystal Dynamics "trilogy" that doesn't even get a name. In fact, only indirect evidence even tells which country the site is located in!)

This is particularly sad because the art direction of all the games has made an effort to bring in some of the artistic motifs, architectural elements, living arrangements, natural surroundings, etc., appropriate to the various cultures brushed against.

The 2013 game does a little better. Particularly nice are the "artifacts," in-game collectibles that have a nicely textured model that can be turned and examined, along with a charming commentary by this game's college-student version of Lara on the artifact's history, use, cultural context, etc.

Pity these are outside of the main plot. In fact, few elements that are important to the plot or the gameplay are examined in any interesting detail. Heck; there are plenty of people who would enjoy a name given to the various wartime wrecks littering the island and the handy weaponry (mostly left behind by the Japanese Army) that Lara picks up. At least there's a bit on the (actual) Himiko, but what the game gives is almost entirely unique to the plot and has little to do with any actual historical myths.

I do realize games are rarely about context. Gameplay is king, and that only makes sense. But the Civilization games made a name in part by referring to real historical developments and making it possible to learn things about them that went beyond what was strictly necessary for game play. In a very different example, the game Skyrim is absolutely stuffed with context, with artifacts and cultural ways and histories and architectures and stories, stories, stories.

In and among the gold pieces and healing potions stuck into treasure chests or littering a bandit's hideout are plates and bales and pots and eating utensils and other cultural relics that can be picked up and examined, and also books, books that add no skill points, carry no hints, have in short no influence on game play, but books that contain multiple readable pages of text. Of stories and legends and songs, all there just to give more background, more detail....more texture to the world.

So, yeah. If I'm playing a first-person shooter set in W.W.I, I want to have equipment that is modeled after the real things. And I want the game to tell me the real names. And some of the context. To name the battle, to name the leaders, to explain why it matters, to tell me (or better yet, let me experience personally) how it unfolded in history.

I don't need this for every game. But any game that flirts with history would, I think, want to make that history breath. To have more than just a name here and there or an accurate in-game model, but to make it possible for you to learn from it. To inform, just enough so you get the value of that peculiar thing games can do; to allow you to walk within and interact.

To experience the thrill and the sorrow of walking the ruins of that last Incan stronghold, knowing what you are looking at...and why it matters.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Bridge Too Far

I've taken ownership of the Pfretzschner. That is to say, I've started modding it. I don't know what the history of the bridge is (it's probably not original) but it looks like it has been through a number of hands. On closer examination, the curve is all wrong.

The A string was sunk far too deep. I could work with it in 1st Position but when I really started working 3rd I couldn't sound it without hitting another string. So I cut a tiny sliver of hardwood out of the back of a file handle and glued it in with CA glue. Re-shaped, cut a new notch.

The E string is still not right. This may be the fault of the bridge having been cut for an E without the protective sleeve. In any case, the compound curve just isn't there (oddly, though, someone seems to have monkeyed with the G string -- the curve there is sharper than it should be). Enthused by my success with the A string I lightly recurved and deepened the notch for the E string by less than a string width.

And it feels good now.

And that all inspired me to another crafts project:

The metal practice mute was not working for me. I have lots of scrap materials at work, though. So I cut two pieces of thick rubber, bolted them together (no need for Barge Cement for something this simple) and cut string notches in it.

Works like a charm. The volume is significantly lower but much of the sound quality is still there. Only drawback is not being able to see the fingerboard over the mute. But then, I'm not supposed to be working by eye anyhow.

Now all I need is to find a shoulder rest I like. Perhaps I should build my own there, too....

The U-bass, meanwhile, has developed a minor electronics issue. Volume dropped a bunch. I may have to swap out the pre-amp. Going to try adding an external pre-amp first.

I'm working up a full Instructable when I finally finish the thing, but here's a preview pic of my other bass-related project:

At two violins, a ukulele, and a bass (not to mention three recorders, a crumhorn, a bombarde, and a penny whistle -- and of course two 61-key keyboards and a couple of mini keyboards) I really need to add some kind of rack to my collection as well.

The main musical adventure of the moment is theory, however. I really need to improve my music theory. I've been listening to podcasts -- maybe not the optimal format, but very efficient for studying during work hours.

I'm realizing I need more theory to do what I want to with my next big composition. I want especially to be more deliberate with harmony, especially harmonic progression. Fumbling around for chords that sound cool kinda works for solo piano stuff, but it becomes a huge pain trying to find which notes to harmonize with, which need emphasis, etc. when working up a full arrangement.

More on that later. I'm strongly contemplating an unrelated sketch just to get back into things.

But, hey, if I do it right, I can work in some violin recording. I'm just about ready to start learning parts.