New Toy

I now live in a two-harpsichord house:

Rachelle's harpsichord

(not the greatest picture – maybe I’ll try again when the light’s better, or experiment with a flash…)
Rachelle Taylor is lending me her Beaupré French double while she does some renovations to her house. I’m happy to give it a home for the next little while! It’s great fun having two harpsichords in the same room, to be able to run back and forth and compare the different sounds. This is a very nice harpsichord, with a very rich sound, and it’s a breeze to play compared to mine. I’m not sure it works wonderfully for a lot of the earlier music I usually play, but it’s fantastic for Rameau, and sounds very nice for Bach as well. I need to dig up some music that I haven’t played in a while – Forqueray and the like.

Biking the West Island

Yesterday, I finally got around to biking out to my Grandfather’s in Dollard. A long trip (by my standards, anyway!) but reasonable. It was pretty neat to see all the different kinds of city biking that I passed through along the way – I think I covered just about all of it, from relatively heavy downtown traffic, gravel forest paths, terrifying high-speed not-at-all-bike-friendly roads, and very lazy suburban paths and streets.

Here’s the route I took:

  • Left from Lower Westmount
  • climbed Decarie (boulevard, not expressway!!!)
  • jogged over a few blocks on Jean-Talon to Lucerne, which turns into Ste-Croix after going under the 40
  • up Ste-Croix and then O’brien to Gouin
  • take the Gouin path through all its snaking around until it gets to the Bois-de-Liesse nature park.
  • Through the park and exit at Sunnybrooke. Stay on the bike path heading west until Lake
  • then onto the path at Salaberry.

On the way back, I took the South route:

  • the slightly insane route straight down Boul. St-Jean
  • Lakeshore rd
  • and then the Lachine Canal,
  • up Atwater

The trip up was fairly straightforward, but boring. I was really diappointed by the Gouin path on the short stretch I used it – it zigs and zags down all sorts of tiny streets, which can be nice since there’s no traffic, but it means that every 20 feet there’s a stop sign, and you have to cross the busy streets a few times without any lights or stop signs to give you a chance. Slow and tiring for no good reason… As well, except for the tiny jaunt under the bridge, you’re never near the water at all. I think if I had to take this route regularly, I’d end up just forgoing the path, and going straight down Gouin with the traffic instead.

Bois-de-Liesse was a nice surprise though! I didn’t know this park at all. Not great biking, since you share the path with hikers (lots of kids were out!) and it’s all gravel or dirt, but it’s so nice travelling through the trees!

After that, biking in the Suburbs on the other side was really dull. There are a surprising number of bike paths, but their design is…creative, if not effective.. Most of them are a relatively narrow bidirectional lane over to the side of the road. Normally, this is ok, but there’s nothing separating you from the traffic, and often not enough room to safely pass other bikers. Bus stops often interfere with the path as well, though with the scarcity of bus service out there, it’s not really a frequent issue. The real problem is that the paths tend to just end randomly, without notice! This can really suck when you suddenly find yourself coming up to a big intersection (crossing Sources on Hyman), in the middle of the road going the wrong direction! I don’t know if they expect people to just get on the sidewalk at these spots or what… Doesn’t make much sense though.

After the satisfactory, but fairly boring trip out, I decided to head to the South shore for the return trip. Boul. St-Jean is NOT a good road to bike on. it might be nice at 3AM, but at 4PM when I tried it, there was a lot of very fast-moving traffic, and no room at all to manoeuvre. I was tempted on several occasions to either turn around or get on the sidewalk, but I persisted. A harrowing 10 minutes, which I don’t recommend. I don’t know if there’s any better alternative for crossing to the south shore though.

I had biked along the south shore before, and was happy to repeat the experience. Travelling along a relatively quiet road, right by the water, with parks most of the way, lots of wildlife, and a cool breeze off the water is the way it should be! Lachine canal path was similar, but a little crowded, as usual.

All in all, a fun trip, but I wish I could travel along Lakeshore without risking life and limb on Boul. St-Jean. Does anyone have a better route to take? Is St. Charles or Sources any more bike-friendly? Or are there any tunnels or other ways to cross the highway that don’t show up on maps?

And geez, I’m wordy.

Couperin Preludes

I’m a big fan of French unmeasured preludes, as I’ve mentioned before. I always have a blast trying to interpret all the little ambiguous notes, and trying to make them musical. They’re also such exquisite pieces of pure harpsichord music! (of course, unmeasured preludes exist for other instruments as well, but they they’re idiomatic for those instruments instead!)

François Couperin wrote a series of 8 preludes in his L’Art de toucher le clavecin which are particularly intriguing because, while he suggests they be played freely, they are very precise in their rhythmic notation as well, so there’s always a question of how much you can step outside of those rhythms, and how you do so.

A few weeks ago, Thomas Dent posted a recording of the first prelude to the harpsichord mailing list that were quite striking in how he moves individual 8th notes around in a fairly systematic way, but keeps the overall rhythm fairly strict. Personally, I feel that maybe this is a little bit backwards – to me, small changes within a stable beat characterize not an unmeasured piece, but just a typical baroque, and especially French baroque, approach to meter and rhythm. What makes the unmeasured pieces special, to me, isn’t that the small notes are flexible, but that the big beats don’t have to have the structured regularity that most French music, with its basis in dances, always seems to have.

With that in mind, I made a few recordings of my own of the first prelude, trying to emphasize different things. First of all, I tried to do the opposite of Thomas, just to see if I could! This version keeps the eighth notes fairly regular, but speeds up and slows down and stops on a few big beats. I think this is more or less the way I used to play this.

Then I tried adding in the sort of 8th note flexibility that Thomas talks about, while still thinking about the bigger beats. I think it’s quite successful, though I could stand to spend a bit more time on it, for sure! I found that, even though the notated rhythm is very similar from bar to bar, there are many different ways that Couperin uses the syncopated notes. Sometimes they are suspensions, sometimes they’re anticipations, etc..

Finally, I just bashed through, half-way ignoring the page, and making up my own sorts of things. Great fun! It’s not just pointless silliness though, by any stretch: I find it very useful, when trying to find out what little notes mean, to try improvising similar patterns. When improvising, I won’t play something ‘just because it’s there’ (because it isn’t!) but rather, I play things because it makes sense for where I’m taking the music. Doing this with this particular piece gave me a better sense of where the harmonies move, and what each syncopation is really trying to accomplish. Definitely a useful exercise!

So what conclusions are to be drawn? Mainly that there are many ways to interpret any piece as free as a prelude, measured or not. I think it’s important to keep in mind the underlying harmonies though, and to find a reason for every note to be where it is. Without that figured out, it’s nearly impossible to play the piece in a way that will hang together.

New copyright bill

So, the internet’s all abuzz about the new Canadian copyright bill that’s just been tabled. It looks pretty awful… as a musician and a computer geek, this basically seems targeted mostly at me, and people who use computers the way I do.

A few things that it would criminalize that I do regularly:

  • Copying a CD (legally bought) onto a computer or mp3 player
  • Watching a DVD on a linux computer (I don’t have a tv, and can’t watch DVDs any other way)
  • Watching non-region-1 DVDs (I don’t actually do this now, but I certainly might want to, and know many people that do all the time)

There are many other things that, while legal, I never do because I avoid any DRM-laden media because I disagree so strongly with it. For example, I will never buy anything from iTunes while Apple insists on DRM, even if it’s relatively easy to remove the copy protection. This law would make it illegal for me to play songs bought legally on iTunes on my computer or mp3 player.

My biggest complaint about this bill though isn’t that it makes me a criminal for something that I don’t think should be outlawed – I feel pretty safe in just ignoring the new penalties, since the chances of being actually caught are next to nothing. The main problem is that it completely changes copyright law, and puts the wrong people in charge of it.

See, the law says, essentially, that it is illegal to circumvent any copy protection device. So if I take a DVD, break the (largely ineffectual) copy protection contained on it and copy the movie onto my computer, I’ve commited a crime, even if I’ve acted completely within the bounds of copyright law, and even if the discs contents are not protected by copyright! In other words existing laws about what copyright restricts, and how long copyright lasts become pretty much meaningless, since whoever slaps any sort of copy protection onto their media basically can rewrite the law to work however they want. If they don’t want you to make a copy of a DVD to watch on your computer, they can prevent that, legally. If they want their copyright to last indefinitely, they just have to ‘make sure’ that the DRM doesn’t magically turn itself off after the copyright expires – i.e. they have to do nothing.

In short, this law says that our existing copyright laws (thousands and thousands of words in the current Act, and many more thousands proposed to be added by this bill) are useless and say nothing, since they can all be easily overridden by anyone putting the most simplistic ‘digital lock’ onto the work in question, and even worse, it means that these new pseudo-laws are not controlled by our lawmakers (misguided though they may be, at least we can – and will – vote them out of office when they make a horrible mistake), but they’re controlled by those tech companies that make the digital locks themselves. Why should we, as Canadians, grant that kind of power to American, Japanese, and other corporations?

I’m hoping that this nasty bill will lead to quickly getting rid of this government, but I expect nothing will happen until the Fall in any direction on this front. Parliament is supposed to adjourn soon for the Summer, and it would be ridiculously rushed for it to come to any sort of vote before then. Sigh.. another quarter of a year with this ‘strong leadership’ in place, wrecking our country.

Festival survived!

We made it! It was a lot of work, but the 2008 Fredericton Baroque Music Festival pretty much all came together nicely this past weekend! Highlights included playing a quiet intimate harpsichord solo (Hezekiah’s Lament, from Kuhnau’s Biblical Sonatas) and being almost entirely drowned out by a huge rain and wind storm! At least the tornado warnings didn’t come true… and I hope at least the people near the front of the church enjoyed what they heard! Unfortunately, attendance was a little bit lower this year than last – probably due to the weather and Riverfest, which was happening the same weekend, along with many end-of-school-year activities. Next year, there isn’t quite so much happening at the same time, so more people should be able to come!

We’re already planning next year’s festival, and the Early Music Fredericton‘s other concert dates have been mostly finalized. I’m going to be doing three all-Bach concerts, featuring all six (possibly seven, if you count the G minor reconstruction) sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord, along with many solo keyboard pieces. It will be a great chance to hear some well-known masterpieces, along with some of the music by Bach that you might not be familiar with.

Mark the dates on your calendar!


Work towards the festival is coming along nicely, with programmes essentially finalized, rehearsal schedules tentatively ready, programme notes starting to get written, last-minute advertising going out, etc. With all that, it’s regrettably easy to forget about the whole reason for doing all of this: the music!

I’m going to be performing an early Mozart concerto with YEME – actually a J.C. Bach sonata arranged into a concerto by Mozart. It’s a nice little piece, full of sparkle without being overly fluffy, and interesting little quirks without being angsty.

One thing about it though, is that it calls for at least two cadenzas ­— I think I’ll add in a third as well, since I’m a big fan of them. However, I don’t actually have much experience playing cadenzas! It’s not too surprising, since this sort of cadenza is mainly a product of the later 18th century (with the very notable exception of some of the Bach harpsichord concertos), and I generally don’t play much of that repertoire. Actually playing a cadenza isn’t much trouble ­— as I said, I really like the sort of rhythmic freedom that it calls for, whether it’s in a prelude non mesuré or a Frescobaldi toccata. The tricky part is in coming up with something to play, since none of these cadenzas are notated, except with a fermata over a dominant 6-4 chord, implying that you’re supposed to do something there.

Many people, when performing concertos from this time turn to published cadenzas, sometimes coming from sources contemporary to the concerto itself, sometimes written by famous performers from later years. Many people do write their own, but as is often the approach taken with ornamentation, they carefully write out their own cadenza and then follow it every time they perform. I much prefer the idea of improvising a cadenza though. There’s no doubt that this was the usual approach in the 18th century (and much later as well — it’s only relatively recently that it has fallen out of practise). The problem with it is, well, it’s hard!

I’ve been experimenting with improvising cadenzas for the past few weeks, and, while I’ve had a lot of success at coming up with some interesting patterns and melodies, it’s not so easy to make something that hangs together. Generally speaking, I find I can either make something that’s harmonically coherent — starts in one key, moves through some others and gets back where it started without breaking too many rules of counterpoint and harmony — or else I can do something that’s dramatically/rhetorically interesting — builds in mood, and flows from one idea through another and then back to the original thought — but it’s extremely difficult to do both at once! Countless times, I’ve done some really neat twists through unexpected chords, and neatly got back to the home key, but without really making it sound like anything except a series of chords. Other times, I’ve made a spectacularly exciting switch of mood from one end to the other, but then run out of steam before I get back to the right key!

The solution for me, is to not improvise everything blindly, but to start with a road map, and improvise within those limits, so I know where I’m going and can pace myself. But it is awfully fun to just leap in without really knowing where I’ll take it this time! It’s all somewhat new territory for me, in any case, and I hope that soon I’ll be more comfortable with this style of improvising, and will be able to safely dive into something in the middle of a concert.

long time no see

Yes, it’s been a while. What have I been up to? Some gigs, some work, making some bread, tuning some harpsichords…

Work on ttuner has slowed down a little lately, since I’ve been busy with other things, but I’ve made a lot of progress on a GUI. This was a big task, since it involved rewriting everything in C++ (which also meant I had to learn C++). It does just about everything it used to, but I have a lot of cleaning up to do, and a few more things to add in – configuration files, keyboard shortcuts and so on – before another release. If you want to, the latest code is available at the git repository I’m using. On that note, I gave up on subversion, and switched to git. I heartily recommend it!

In other news, the Fredericton Baroque Music Festival will be happening June 6-8! We’re knee-deep in preparations for that. With four concerts and a masterclass and all the ensuing rehearsals and organization, there’s a lot to do!

Upgraded wordpress

I just upgraded to wp 2.5. So far so good! I’m very happy to see that it doesn’t mess with the html you enter like the old version did. I had resorted to hacking the php and then writing my own plugin to disable all the autoformatting. This seems to work well so far though! Let me know if anything goes funny.

ttuner 0.1.3

Yes, these releases are coming frequently. There was so little time between 0.1.2 and 0.1.3 that I wasn’t even able to update the web page in between!

The new version adds volume adjusting (with plus and minus keys) and pausing (with space bar) to the interactive mode. I found a pile of other bugs of course, too! There’s also a bit better information displayed when notes are playing, including a list of available key commands. I’ve also included a few different harmonics files which you can use with the -H option:

ttuner -h harmonics/simple_sine.harmonics

for example. They’re straightforward, but I hope they show how you can make your own files if you like.

As always, you can get it at the ttuner page.

ttuner .1.1

A quick bugfix to the original ttuner release. this version fixes:

  • Incorrect placement of dll files in the windows zip. You shouldn’t get any ‘missing dll’ error messages any more.
  • Corrections to Lehman and Sorge1758 temperaments
  • A few more messages output about usage – no more guessing what key should be used to quit the program!

As always, the latest version is available from my programming page.

EDIT:There’s also an ubuntu package now, so if you’re on that system, you don’t have to worry about compiling anything.