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!

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.

ttuner is released!

I’m very pleased to announce the initial release of ttuner (Temperament Tuner)! This is a piece of software I’ve written to help with tuning instruments – especially harpsichords, since that’s what I usually tune, but it’s very helpful for any instrument at all.

For the impatient, you can find the downloads in the ttuner page.

What makes ttuner different from most other tuning devices (both hardware and software) is the way that a temperament it loaded into the program. To begin with, most tuners are limited to equal temperament, and can’t tune other temperaments at all. Others, like the near-ubuquitous Korg have a few historical temperaments, but don’t let you modify them in any way. A small number of tuners let you enter your own custom temperaments to use, but this is usually done by specifying the deviation, in cents, from equal temperament, which really has nothing to do with how these temperaments are really constructed or used. As well, they usually only let you specify in units of one cent – there’s no way to make a note .2 cents higher, for example.

Enter ttuner! This program calculates temperaments in the same way you would if you were tuning by ear. Starting with a reference tone (a tuning fork, for example) intervals are specified as being pure, or tempered by fractions of commas. A = E means that there is a pure fifth between those two notes. For example, the common Valotti temperament is entered like this:

  • A = E-1/6P
  • E = B-1/6P
  • D = A-1/6P
  • G = D-1/6P
  • C = G-1/6P
  • F = C-1/6P
  • Bb = F
  • Eb = Bb
  • Ab = Eb
  • F# = B
  • C# = F#

For convenience, you can also specify a temperament as a series of cent deviations from equal temperament, but of course it’s not as good as specifying the intervals themselves! This flexible way of writing a temperament also means that there’s no problem specifying enharmonic notes – my standard meantone file, for example, has B = D# and G = Eb, so both those notes are generated.

Another benefit this program has over most others is the ability to specify different sets of harmonics in the audio output. Instead of the Korg’s nasty sound, you can combine different sine waves to make something that suits the instrument that you’re tuning to. There’s no real limit to the number of different partials the sound can have, as long as you have the processing power to generate them!

For now, the program is just a console application – there aren’t any pretty windows or anything like that for now. That said, it’s very easy to use. Just open up a console window, (in windows, go to the start menu, choose ‘run’ and enter ‘cmd’ into the box). Then change directory (using the ‘cd’ command) to the program location, and type the following:

ttuner -t <temperamentfilename>

I’ve included several temperament files in the package already, so, for example, to load the Valotti temperament I showed you above, enter this:

ttuner -t temperaments\valotti.temperament

The default setup will calculate the frequencies based on A=415Hz, but if you want to change this, just enter a new frequency on the commmand line:

ttuner -t temperaments\valotti.temperament -f 440

Other useful commandline options: -h for harmonics. A pure sine wave would be -h 1, and a simple sound with a few partials might be -h 8,4,2,1,.5. As you can see, you can use pretty much any number here. It just takes the relative strength of each partial to generate the total waveform.

There are several other commandline options you can use, but I won’t get into them yet. Proper documentation will be forthcoming! (that’s what they always say….)

Once the program starts, you can change notes using the comma and period keys, and jump octaves using ‘<‘ and ‘>’. Press q to quit.

Harpsichord repairs

As many people know, my harpsichord has always been a bit of a fixer-upper. When I got it, about 8 years ago now, it was completely unplayable, with erratically positioned strings, unusable plectra, and a huge crack running the length of the soundboard, which also caused the belly rail to bulge out, completely seizing up the registers, and blocked all the back register’s bass jacks with the edge of the sliding soundboard.

Byrd Concert

A heads-up about my next concert: I’ll be heading back to Fredericton tomorrow to give a solo harpsichord recital. Here are all the details:

Sunday November 18, 2007
3:00 PM
Gallery 78 – 796 Queen Street

If you can come, you might want to get there early – it’s a pretty small space, and there has been a fairly large amount of publicity!

I’m travelling by bus again, which I’m not really looking forward to. It’s straightforward, and cheaper than the alternatives, and takes very little effort, which it nice, but it’s 12 hours sitting on a jiggling lump of metal. The worst part is actually the schedule – I have to get to the bus station before 6AM! It’s too early for the regular city bus schedule, so I have to go even earlier on a night bus, or spend a lot of money on a taxi.

On the last trip to Fredericton (just a couple of weeks ago!) I also took the bus. I found that the best activity is to listen to podcasts and audiobooks on an mp3 player. I think I listened to about a dozen Escape Pod stories last time, and I have a pile more downloaded now. There’s a lot of good stuff on that site, if you’re into science fiction at all! A lot of variety within the scifi genre too, which is very nice. There’s a lot more out there than the usual Star Trek stuff, and Escape Pod manages to sample a lot of different subgenres.

I should really get packed up so that I can grab a few hours of sleep before setting out. See you at the concert!

Concert reviews

I was pleased to see that harpsichordist and fortepianist Tilman Skowroneck has started a blog. I’ve been enjoying what he has to say on the harpsichord mailing list for a few years now. He wrote an article about choosing concert reviews to post publicly on a website, which bears comment.

The challenge of choosing which reviews to show people isn’t something that I’ve run into, simply because I don’t have any press clippings at all – I don’t think a review of a performance of mine has been published since I was in high school, with the exception of some large ensemble concerts at McGill in which I played a very small part and certainly wasn’t mentioned by name! I wish I could get a review done of one of my concerts, but unfortunately, it’s next to impossible here in Canada, it seems. Most of my performing is either in Montreal or else in the much smaller city of Fredericton. In the latter, the local newspaper hasn’t actually had any arts reviewers on staff in many many years, and I haven’t seen a classical concert review since I was in high school. It’s a real shame – there’s a small enough amount of classical music that you could put a review of every single concert in town into the paper without taking up too much space, but the interest just isn’t there on the part of the editors.

In Montreal, it’s a different story: there are professional music critics writing for some of the newspapers, and they do cover many classical concerts. That said, the main dailies here have concert reviewers that cannot stand early music – one goes so far as to state the fact clearly at the beginning of almost every early music review he’s forced to write. It’s quite ridiculous that they can’t find someone with a hint of interest in the music to cover the scene here, and makes the music look bad quite unfairly. The other issue in a large city like Montreal is just that there are so many concerts and established professional ensembles in town, that even in a style of music that the critics might appreciate, it’s rare to get anything written up about a small concert, especially for a new group.

Increasingly, I think private critics writing on blogs are becoming a more useful look at what’s really happening in niche styles of music, though I expect, and hope, that the situation is better in Europe. For now, every time I see an application that requires the inclusion of press clippings, I wonder if the person requesting them really knows what they’re asking for!

Perhaps I’m just at too early a stage in my career right now, and I will accumulate some mention in the press in coming years, but honestly, I don’t see it being too likely. Perhaps I’m also putting too much emphasis on print reviews – serious, informed writing about the kinds of performances I do seems to be confined to the net. Perhaps it just makes sense that way!

Busy busy busy!

Sometimes a blog doesn’t get updated because nothing is happening. Other times, it doesn’t get updated because there’s just way too much going on! I’ll try to make a few posts in the very near future about all the new developments in my life, but for now, a very quick run down:

  • Sari and I got married!
  • Both of our bikes got stolen – if you know of a good bike for sale in Montreal, let me know!
  • I lost my Brandenburg V virginity
  • I have a concert coming up next week in Fredericton – Sunday November 18th at 3:00PM at Gallery 78. You might want to get a ticket in advance, because it’s a small space, and there might be a lot of people there – I’ve been getting more pubicity than usual!
  • As always, there are a few more photos up.