Month: March 2008

Sean nós

One of Ireland’s many tricks is to fade away to a little speck down on the horizon of our lives, and then return suddenly in tremendous bulk, frightening us.

—George Moore, Hail and Farewell

For St. Patrick’s Day (or, in Boston, Evacuation Day—a ruse so transparent that even the mayor can’t be bothered to keep up appearances), a bit of George Moore, a quintessentially disreputable Irish writer (“I would lay aside the wisest book,” he once wrote, “to talk to a stupid woman”), who, in true Irish fashion, confounded the stereotype by both maintaining a lifelong skepticism towards his native country and also being a very good writer indeed. Hail and Farewell is his often biting three-volume memoir of the Irish literary Renaissance at the turn of the last century; upon publication of the third volume, the New York Times opined that “if Mr. Moore revisits Ireland he is the bravest man in the world.” But Moore could also accurately and sympathetically capture the Irish susceptibility to romance. Here, Moore attends a Dublin literary dinner organized by the journalist and politician T. P. Gill; a fellow guest is William Butler Yeats.

My neighbor laughed, but his laughter only irritated me still more against him, and my eyes went to Yeats, who sat, his head drooping on his shirt-front, like a crane, uncertain whether he should fold himself up for the night, and I wondered what was the beautiful eloquence that was germinating in his mind. He would speak to us about the gods, of course, and about Time and Fate and the gods being at war; and the moment seemed so long that I grew irritated with Gill for not calling upon him at once for a speech. At length this happened, and Yeats rose, and a beautiful commanding figure he seemed at the end of the table, pale and in profile, with long nervous hands and a voice resonant and clear as a silver trumpet. He drew himself up and spoke against Trinity College, saying that it had always taught the ideas of the stranger, and the literature of the stranger, and the songs of the stranger, and that was why Ireland had never listened and Trinity College had been a sterile influence. The influences that had moved Ireland deeply were the old influences that had come down from generation to generation, handed on by the story-tellers that collected in the evenings round the fire, creating for learned and unlearned a communion of heroes. But my memory fails me; I am disfiguring and blotting the beautiful thoughts that I heard that night clothed in lovely language. He spoke of Cherubim and Seraphim, and the hierarchies and the clouds of angels that the Church had set against the ancient culture, and then he told us that gods had been brought vainly from Rome and Greece and Judaea. In the imaginations of the people only the heroes had survived, and from the places where they had walked their shadows fell often across the doorways; and then there was something wonderfully beautiful about the blue ragged mountains and the mystery that lay behind them, ragged mountains flowing southward. But that speech has gone for ever.

Variations (5): Tech rehearsal

Robert Schumann saved a steel pen he found at Beethoven’s grave for special occasions, such as writing his essay on Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. There are various ways to understand this act, but I think it sufficient to note the association with Beethoven and that the pen was made of steel. Attempts to manufacture steel pens were not satisfactory until the 1820s, and steel pens did not widely supplant feathers until the 1840s. To find one at Beethoven’s grave would be comparable to finding a typewriter at Wagner’s grave, or a computer at Stravinsky’s.

—Alfred W. Cramer, “Of Serpentina and Stenography:
Shapes of Handwriting in Romantic Melody,”

19th Century Music (XXX/2), Fall 2006

It is not surprising that when the “Anti-Gas Establishment” of the Royal Engineers got together for a reunion ten years after the [First World War], one of the sketches in a comedy program made reference to the Russian ballet. Both gas and the Russian dancers were regarded as the height of “newness,” as expressions of a sense of the modern that far exceeded what was considered acceptable by most of society. Lieutenant Colonel Henry S. Raper, CBE, FRS, Cavalier Crown of Italy, was presented on the anniversary program in the following way:

Raperski Presents his famous Russian Ballet, “Dialysis.” Argument:—The scene is laid in a woodland glade in which the three beautiful sisters, Chlorine, Bromine and Iodine, are discovered wandering. Sodium, a notorious bad character, approaches and beguiles them by presenting each with an electron for their rings. Too late they discover what has happened and they are about to crystallize out in despair, when they are precipitated by Argentum and thus saved from their awful doom. The last scene depicts Sodium, who has now become an Ion, in Brownian motion.

—Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War
and the Birth of the Modern Age

Für fünfzehn Pfennige

The New York Post misses the crucial details in giving some background on the whole Eliot Spitzer-call-girl-scandal-resignation thing:

Shortly before his pre-Valentine Day’s Washington, DC, hotel tryst with the call girl now publicly known as “Kristen,” Spitzer asked his aides in the Mayflower Hotel if they had a classical-music CD he could bring to his room, a witness said….

“At the time, he claimed it was to help him focus and concentrate,” the source said of Spitzer. “He said he was going to work late into the night.”

(Emphasis added.) So what are we talking here? Götterdämmerung? The Turn of the Screw? Lulu? The Emperor Waltz? Enquiring minds, &c.!

In C

According to the counter at the bottom of the sidebar there, sometime in the past couple of hours, this blog received its 100,000th visitor. Thank you all very kindly! Good friend Jack Miller (whose now-defunct As the Apple Turns was pretty much my primer on how to blog) used to offer fabulous prizes to those visitors who turned over the odometer in such dramatic fashion. Not being nearly as tech-savvy, I honestly can’t tell who was responsible for that portentious click. However, a couple of months ago, my mom expressed her determination to trigger this particular milestone, and far be it from me to doubt her. So a round of applause to Soho the Dog’s official 100,000th visitor:

My mom.

A new Strauss & Mahler t-shirt will soon be making its way to lovely and scenic Niles, Illinois! And again, many thanks to everyone who finds these ramblings worthy of occasional perusal.

Mother, Superior

Today’s episode marks the 500th post here on Soho the Dog.

Last spring I had occasion to mention the 1970 book The Computer and Music, edited by Harry B. Lincoln. Here’s another excerpt from the book that grabbed my eye:

Another composition of a much different sort was produced in 1964 by Mother Harriet Padberg of Maryville College of the Sacred Heart outside St. Louis….

Her compositional method is based on the idea of first subdividing the octave into twenty-four steps. These are not tones in equal temperament, however, but rather the 24th to 47th harmonic partials of a fundamental of 18.333 cps. It follows, therefore, that the 24th partial is 440 cps. The 48th partial is, of course, the octave of this, and the steps within the octave are separated by equal numbers of cycles per second…. Second, Mother Padberg associated a letter of the alphabet with each note of this scale, doubling up V and W and associating Y with either I or Z. Third, she defined a tone row by means of any 12-letter meaningful phrase and further defined ways of developing rhythms from ratios of consonants to vowels. With the addition of further rows for dynamics and voicing or orchestration, she was then ready to write computer programs for generating compositions based on these schemes. Mother Padberg first wrote a computer program in FORTRAN for an IBM-1620 computer to enable her to write a canon for two or four voices. Later, however, she was able to expand and generalize this idea by writing a more generalized program for an IBM-7072 computer. This latter program permitted her to generate canons in two or four voices based on one to three tone rows with the further option of producing a “free fugue.” The construction of this “free fugue” was based on the idea that a tone row and its transformation constitute a “group” to which transformations of group theory are applicable.

—Lejaren Hiller, “Music Composed with Computers—
A Historical Survey,” in The Computer and Music,
Harry B. Lincoln, ed. (Cornell University Press, 1970)

Sister Padberg’s “Canon and Free Fugue” sounds like one of the coolest pieces of all time. Hiller gets most of the basics right, although the tone rows can range anywhere from 5 to 12 notes in length—the computer separates the input into blocks based on word breaks, which are then converted into rows. The use of text as the generating material isn’t just for ease of input, in other words; the linguistic structure becomes a main factor in the musical results. The rhythmic patterns are fairly intricate, based on prime number relationships derived not only from the consonant-to-vowel ratio, but also the comparative lengths of the resulting word blocks. You can get all the details in Sister Padberg’s dissertation, available through ProQuest.

It’s fun how many contemporary musical threads the “Canon and Free Fugue” seems to echo, however distantly. The use of language as not just an inspiration, but a guiding factor in the actual compositional building blocks of the music, relates to a similar current in other avant-garde music of the 1960s, from the serious investigation of the inherently musical qualities of phonemes in Luciano Berio’s Circles or Sinfonia, to the playful embedding of Bach’s name—via Morse code—within Lukas Foss’s Baroque Variations. The program’s ability to turn any phrase of suitable size into music also gives it a kinship with aleatoric developments. And the intricacy and ingenuity of the scheme points towards the fascination with process that would lead to early Minimalism. But even on its own, the “Canon and Free Fugue” intrigues, the way the step-by-step transformation of written language into a musical result parallels the computer’s translation of programming language into purposeful electronic activity.

Sister Padberg taught mathematics and music at Maryville University for 24 years, starting their music therapy program in 1973. Though retired from teaching, she continues to volunteer as a music therapist (and pick up awards now and then). She relates via e-mail that the only realization of the piece was fairly “primitive”; for her thesis defense, she played examples that were synthesized from punch cards that she sent to Bell Telephone Labs. Her dissertation contains the complete FORTRAN code for each program, as well as sample data outputs, if anyone with more computer savvy than me is interested in attempting a full realization. If you’d like to play around with the 24-tone scale, the frequencies are reproduced below (click to enlarge):

For an idea of how technologically spoiled we are when it comes to electronic music, Sister Padberg writes:

It is interesting that a few weeks ago an “alum” of those days was reminiscing about how the students had helped me get some idea of the “sound” by filling Coke bottles with the correct amount of water and blowing into them!!! How times have changed!!

That image of a bunch of college students pouring water in and out of Coke bottles until they whistle at the proper frequencies is irresistible—the low-tech, hands-on, trial-and-error origin of the digital sound world we live in now.

O wie mich sehnet auszuruhn

Apologies for the spotty posting this week—I’ve been buried in a pile of music for a recital this weekend. And a special voodoo curse on whoever decided that the proper low key for Brahms’ “O wüsst’ ich doch den Weg zurück” should be C-sharp major. What is this—affirmative action for double-sharps? I haven’t seen this many x’s in one place since they cleaned up the Combat Zone.


  • “[F]ormer U.S. House of Representatives Page, Real Estate broker, and music composer” Thomas Boyle promises to FINE TUNE AMERICA (probably a joke, but who can tell these days?).

  • In this corner: jazz legend Oscar Peterson. In that corner: right-wing anti-Semitic Mussolini-loving priest Lionel-Adolphe Groulx. The prize? A subway station. You can probably guess who I’m rooting for.

  • Kyle Gann and librarian friend (really, all of you should have a librarian friend) Rebecca Hunt send items for this year’s Christmas list.

  • And finally: Against growl, opening salutation scrambled toast (15). For Joshua Kosman and longtime Soho the Dog friend Katie Hamill, who both placed in the top 100 at this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.