Hammering on

The past few months seem to have been a time for me to re-examine and, to a large extent, reject some of my long-held musical opinions and prejudices.

I’ve recently mentioned that I’ve been getting into both opera and ballet, having concluded that while I still think seeing them live is the best way to encounter them, there is plenty of enjoyment to be had from exploring them via DVD and CD.

Another opinion I have recently revised is what I think of the use of pianos for music originally written for  harpsichords or other keyboard instruments.  I have always preferred to listen to music on the “authentic” instruments it was written for, and still do to a large extent. In the case of keyboard music (for example Bach’s preludes and fugues, originally written for harpsichord) I have, until not very long ago, tended to avoid listening to them on piano.  That is to say, I haven’t gone out of my way to avoid hearing them but certainly would never have chosen the piano as a vehicle for them or wanted to get any piano versions into my own music library.

The fundamental thing that changed my opinion on this matter was actually listening more carefully to some fine piano performances of music written before pianos existed.

One of the first of these was an album of Glenn Gould playing keyboard works by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons.  I got this, a couple of years ago, mainly because I wanted to listen to some of Gould’s work as he was a very famous pianist (and one who seemed to have a somewhat divided critical reputation).  He was particularly noted as an interpreter of Bach’s keyboard music, but I think I read somewhere that Gibbons was his own favourite composer (I’ve certainly come across that statement more recently), or perhaps I chose this album as it was the cheapest of his that I could find or because I already had quite a lot of Bach – on harpsichord, of course! – but not much Byrd or Gibbons.  In any case, I soon decided that while the sound of the piano may not have been what these composers had in mind for their music, it certainly worked well enough and I rather liked Gould’s interpretations.  I have yet to get round to listening to much of his Bach work but I would certainly like to.

The other main cause of my listening to piano versions of early keyboard music was the discovery of several online sources of free recordings of classical keyboard music, most of which was played on piano, that enabled me to explore some music that I wanted to check out without having to pay for the privilege.  I decided that, at least to start with, I’d rather listen to a free recording of, for example, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s keyboard sonatas on piano than pay for a version on harpsichord (aside from the fact that W. F. Bach probably would have had access to a piano, at least later in his life).

The main repositories I’ve been enjoying have been the Piano Society website (featuring recordings, mostly on piano but with a few on harpsichord or organ, by its members) and that of an Italian piano teacher called Claudio Colombo (featuring his own recordings on a digital piano).

In addition to some pieces that I’ve only been able to find (at least for free) on the piano, I’ve listened to piano versions of several pieces that I’ve also heard on the harpsichord, such as Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier” (aka “The 48”).  On balance I’ve decided that, while I’d still choose the harpsichord version if it was a straight-up choice between the two (i.e. I could only pick one of them and there were no other factors such as particularly nice album cover art to sway a decision), the piano is a perfectly good instrument for playing earlier keyboard music and it’s actually good to be able to hear the same pieces played on different instruments as the different sonorities tend to bring out different details in the music (it’s a bit like listening to two different performers/groups playing on the same kind of instruments, where you get to enjoy the nuances of their differing interpretations, only more so!).

So, once again, it appears that my (already fairly broad) musical horizons are expanding, which I think can only be to the good.  There remain a few genres of music that don’t greatly interest me (for example, hip hop, although I am a big fan of the related genre of chap hop, especially as performed by Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer).  Of course, given my recent experiences with opera, ballet and the use of pianos for early keyboard music, I’d hesitate before claiming that I’ll never be interested in any given type of music.


Not so bad

Shopping is not generally high on my list of favourite activities.

However, today’s trip to the supermarket (from which I’ve just returned) was made considerably more pleasant by two or three things.

The first was the free daily cup of coffee that Waitrose has taken to offering its customers, as one of the perks of using their loyalty card.  It’s not enough to entice me to the shop every day but it certainly adds an incentive to make the 15-minute walk down there (and, more significantly, the walk back up the steep hill bearing a load of shopping) when I actually have shopping to get.  It’s also great on the fairly rare occasions when I happen to be walking, rather than cycling, past the place while their café is open.  Perhaps I ought to modify the water bottle holder on my bike to take a coffee cup and see if I can get a nice long straw!  Anyway, I digress…

The other reason (or two, depending on how you count) was the combination of the beautiful weather we’re currently enjoying round here (sadly due to be gone by tomorrow, or so I’m told) and the small but rather pleasant patch of woodland backing on to my local Waitrose that offered a much nicer alternative to walking back along the road.

Actually, there’s another good thing about today’s trip, which is that I have a bottle of beer to enjoy this evening, but that wasn’t an immediate factor in the pleasure of the expedition itself.

I don’t think I’ll ever be very fond of going to supermarkets but it’s nice to be able to get some enjoyment out of it.

A better way to do it?

For quite a few years now, I’ve been using Lilypond as my software of choice for any music-notation-related tasks.

As well as being incredibly powerful (and fairly straightforward to get a basic handle on, at least for someone who had  quite a bit of previous experience typesetting mathematics in LaTeX, using a text editor; LaTeX and Lilypond have a lot in common, at least conceptually speaking), it has the attractive feature of being completely free.

The basic idea of Lilypond (which aims to be “a program that creates beautiful sheet music following the best traditions of classical music engraving”) is that you prepare a text file containing a description of the music that you want to typeset, written in a text-based notation complete with various markup commands, and then feed it through a processor that churns out a beatifully formatted page (or many pages, although I’ve usually only used it for fairly short pieces) of music.  The Lilypond website has plenty more detail if you want to know more about how it works.  One of the benefits is that you can easily do things such as transposing an entire piece of music into a different key, often with a single instruction (in fact one of my main uses for Lilypond is where I have a piece of music in one key that I need to transpose into another, either to make it a better pitch for singing or playing or to provide a copy for transposing instruments to use).  As well as producing PDF sheet music, you can get it to output midi files and I think there are converters available to turn Lilypond source into various other formats, although I’ve so far only ever had need for the basic PDF output.

This is somewhat different from most sheet-music editing software I’ve seen, which tends to take a WYSIWYG approach to the task, complete with a snazzy graphical interface. That’s all very well and good but one thing I particularly like about Lilypond (similarly to LaTeX for more general, mathematical or other tech-related typesetting tasks in contrast to a word processor; indeed, there is at least one music extension for LaTeX (or more accurately for TeX, for which LaTex itself is an extension), though I’ve not explored it) is the power  and (paradoxically, once you’ve ascended a shortish, if rather steep, learning curve) the simplicity, you get with the text-based approach, leaving actual realisation details to the processor unless you specifically need to over-ride them (OK, so the learning curve is actually potentially pretty long but it’s not so steep after the initial shock and you don’t need to master that much of the system to be able to do quite a bit of useful stuff).  Therefore, despite once or twice having a quick look at Denemo, a graphical front-end for Lilypond, I’ve always stuck with using my text editor of choice (usually either Vim or Emacs) and running my source files manually through the Lilypond processor.

However, the other day I came across another tool which seems to take a midway approach between the text-editor/CLI approach and the GUI one.  This is Frescobaldi, a “lightweight, yet powerful LilyPond music and text editor with a built-in PDF viewer”.  What you get is essentially a text editor that, while lacking many of the heavyweight features of Vim or Emacs, seems to have plenty of capability for editing Lilypond source code (including much nicer syntax highlighting than I’ve found for Lilypond in either of those editors – this is a very useful feature that has on many occasions helped me to find minor punctuation errors that have caused processing of the entire file to grind to a halt) and the ability to quickly generate a PDF file at the touch of a button; the PDF version is visible in a window to the side of the source file (and the processor log is visible just below it, which is also handy for debugging purposes), so you can see mistakes, edit them and have another run with the processor.  At least for smallish files, this is pretty close to real-time editing of the actual output files and retains the benefits of direct access to the source.  There are some other handy features too, such as autocompletion of function/variable names and a Lilypond help browser on hand (both of which are very useful as there’s quite a lot of stuff to keep track of and it can be difficult to remember the exact name or syntax of a given command).

In theory, Frescobaldi is probably a sufficiently powerful editor to be useful for other tasks than Lilypond editing.  However, it is very much optimised for that task and I’m unlikely to start using it for more general purposes (and I’m certainly not keen to give up the power of Vim for most of my text editing tasks).  The big question is whether the benefits brought by Frescobaldi for the purpose of Lilypond editing outweigh the loss of the Vim power-features that aren’t there.  So far the answer seems to be a resounding “yes”, so I think that Frescobaldi is likely to remain my tool of choice for Lilypond work for some time to come.

Incidentally the programme is named after Girolamo Frescobaldi, an early baroque composer known chiefly for his keyboard work, who was apparently quite a significant influence on later composers (including Bach himself).



When life gives you lemons…

Last night I had pasta for dinner.

That’s not incredibly surprising as it seems to be one of the mainstays of my diet these days – being a relatively cheap, quick and easy way to knock up a tasty, filling and reasonably healthy meal, with quite a bit of scope for variation.

The problem, though, is that I seem to have got stuck in a bit of a rut for my pasta preparation and there’s been relatively little variation of late, so I’ve been getting slightly bored with it (although, when it comes to the crunch – and I do like my pasta slightly al dente – I still enjoy eating it).

My usual approach is to more-or-less randomly select one of the two or so varieties of pasta I usually have in the store cupboard at any given time (last night it was tagliatelle, the other option being conchiglie), set that going in a saucpan (with, obviously, a fair amount of boiling water, as well as a little salt) and then use the 10 minutes or so while it cooks to knock up the sauce.

The sauce starts with a bit of olive oil in a frying pan set to simmer gently.  To this I add a chopped up spring onion and often some fresh or dried chillis (last night it was small Italian dried red chillis – just a couple to infuse a bit of bite into the oil), a chopped up anchovy fillet, a few capers and chopped up olives (green, at the moment – I usually seem to alternate jars of green and black olives), a crushed clove (or sometimes two) of garlic, some dried oregano and freshly-milled black pepper and, often (like last night) a fairly liberal dose of tomato purée.

By the time the pasta is cooked, this has all simmered down nicely so I drain the pasta, lob it into the frying pan (which I’ve taken off the heat by now), mix it all around and serve it up in a bowl that I previously warmed up either by resting it upside down on top of the pasta pan for half a minute or so towards the end of cooking or by draining the pasta water into it (either way, a quick wipe to remove the excess water leaves a lovely warm bowl ready to receive the pasta), then grate a bit of freshly grated Gran Padano cheese (which is stocked by at least one of my local supermarkets and seems to be pretty similar to Parmesan (or Parmigiano-Reggiano to use its Italian name) but significantly cheaper) on top and eat it, preferably with a slice or two of fresh bread and washed down with either water or, if circumstances allow, red wine.

As a basic method for preparation of pasta, this has (I believe) a lot to recommend it.  However, as previously alluded to, my recent pasta cookings have tended to stick to exactly the same pattern with little of the variation with which I usually like to spice up my cooking (and eating) beyond the shape of pasta and colour of olives used.

Last night, therefore, I was cooking away and thinking how I ought to try to do something a bit different with my pasta sometime soon.

Then I noticed another saucepan sitting on the worktop, in which I’d earlier brewed up some honey and lemon for the cold that’s been bugging me over the last few days (it’s getting a lot better now, thanks for asking).  This is a nice simple concoction which, as the name suggests, basically consists of one or two half-lemons (squeezed a bit to let some of the juice out into the saucepan) simmered in water for a while, with some honey stirred in (and often a bit of chopped up ginger too, if I have any to hand – which I didn’t yesterday) and then transferred into a mug for drinking immediately or a thermos flask to save for later.  The pan still contained the lemon chunks and that gave me a cunning idea.

Seizing one of the lemons, without stopping to think too much about what I was doing or what it might taste like, I sliced off a bit of the rind, chopped it fairly finely and tossed it into the frying pan (this was, as I recall, shortly before I was due to put in the tomato purée and after everything else had gone in).  The initial result was a wonderful citrus aroma that was released into the kitchen, which inspired me further to squeeze a few drops of juice from the lemon into the sauce.  When I came to eat it, I found that the lemon rind and juice had imparted a relatively subtle and definitely very welcome note (unsurprisingly, of lemon) into the taste.

Although this particular lemon had been boiled up in water, with honey, I doubt that the effect would have been significantly different if I’d used a raw lemon.  I might have got some of the effect with just a bit of lemon juice but I think I would have missed the particularly delightful whiff of the lemon rind first making contact with the hot oil, not to mention the lovely flecks of yellow in the sauce (which, admittedly, were somewhat masked by the addition of the tomato).  I’ll definitely be aiming to use lemons in my pasta sauces again in future – though not every time, as that would rather defeat the variation that I was aiming for!


Less song, more dance!

Not long ago, I mentioned that I was rediscovering the delights of opera.  That is still true and I am also beginning to take another look at ballet.

In some respects, I tend to think of opera and ballet in much the same way – both are art forms that have considerable overlap with classical music (and, to some extent with each other – certainly, I believe it was common in early French operas to have extended balletic interludes) and, in today’s public perception (at least within British culture) tend to be seen as rather high-brow or elitist, although for much of their history both were actually quite popular forms of entertainment for the masses.  They are both art forms to which I’ve had limited live exposure but have enjoyed what I’ve seen.

Unlike opera, where my interest until recently has  been almost non-existent except for watching live performances, I have quite enjoyed listening to, and sometimes playing, ballet music (mostly in the form of concert suites rather than complete ballets) over the years, with some of Tchaikovsky’s (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) and Khachaturian’s (Gayane, Spartacus and Maskerade) being among my favourites.  It is mostly the visual form, i.e. watching the dances themselves, that I am currently rediscovering.

My first encounter with ballet came through a workshop that I attended while I was at school (I think it was primary school but it may have been the early years of secondary – we’re certainly talking well over 20 years ago).  This was led, as I recall, by two ballet dancers (one male, one female) from some professional ballet company or other.  They gave us demonstrations of various techniques and got us to try a few basic exercises.  One of these involved each of us, in turn, running across the floor and then making a graceful leap, emulating a bird or an aeroplane.  My own attempt was one of the less graceful ones in the class and, as I recall, prompted a comment about jumbo jets from one of the instructors! (Perhaps this incident is partly to blame for the love of egregious wordplay that has probably been one of my strongest defining characteristics since my youth?!)

I have only, as I recall, ever been to the ballet twice.  Both occasions were on my school trip to Russia in the autumn of 1991 (which also provided my first opera experiences). The first one was in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and was an evening of excerpts from various ballets performed, I think, by members of the Kirov Ballet (although it was not at the Kirov Theatre).  The second was in Moscow, at the Kremlin, and performed by the Bolshoi Ballet.  This one was a complete ballet and I’m not entirely sure what it was but I think it was Don Quixote, a ballet with music by Ludwig Minkus (a fairly obscure composer – or at least one I’d never heard of – described, perhaps rather unkindly, in a book I was recently reading as an “official hack” who supplied “scores by the yard” for the Mariinsky (aka Kirov) Ballet).  I don’t have very clear memories of either event but I seem to recall that I quite enjoyed them, especially the Moscow one.

Given my previously-noted mental association of opera and ballet, and the also previously-noted fact that I have been re-exploring opera of late, it is probably not that surprising that my explorations should have strayed into the territory of ballet as well.  Via watching a few YouTube videos and then getting a handful of DVDs (which may well become the basis of a larger collection as the years progress) I have discovered that, while a lot of ballet music does work fine on its own (and, indeed, quite a lot of it was originally written with no thought to it being used for dancing), the visual dimension does add quite a lot to things.  It’s fascinating to watch, both for the grace, elegance and sheer athletic prowess of the moving bodies in their own right (both on their own and in combination with each other) and for how the dance and the music interact with and complement each other.

In order to deepen my understanding, and hence also my enjoyment, of ballet I’ve not only been watching and listening to it but doing a certain amount of reading about it.  I was able to remember a handful of terms (such as pirouette and pas de deux) from the ballet workshop I attended all those years ago, but I now at least have some idea when I’m watching a pas de chat or a fouetté (or 32 of them in a row, as in a famous bit from the “black act” of Swan Lake) and I know my arabesque from my elbow!

Working within one’s limitations

I find spreadsheets to be quite powerful and certainly very useful tools, and I use them quite a bit both at work and at home.

Most of the time I work with either Excel or the LibreOffice equivalent (Calc) but sometimes it’s quite handy to use the online (or, these days I suppose you might say “cloud-based”) Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) spreadsheet.

This has some benefits, mainly the fact that it is accessible from any computer with a working internet connection and gives you access to documents without needing to copy them manually from one place to another and have the appropriate software (other than a web browser!)  installed on all machines, but also has some fairly major limitations compared to more traditional and full-featured spreadsheets.  Possibly not the biggest, but one that I run into very often, is the lack of a “fill series” function (or at least one that I can find).

The ability to automatically fill data across a range of columns or rows is a very handy time- and labour-saving device.  Most often, copying the contents of a cell into adjacent cells below or to the right of a given cell is what’s needed and most spreadsheets not only provide commands for doing these but usually also give keyboard shortcuts (Ctrl-D and Ctrl-R respectively), both of which I use on a regular basis when I’m working with spreadsheets.  (Actually, as I recall, the default key binding for LibreOffice these days asigns Ctrl-R to “align right” but I have mine customised to use it for “fill right” instead, as I tend to make more regular use of that command).

There are various other fill commands, including “fill up” and “fill left”, most of which I rarely ever use, but one that is often quite handy, albeit not as often as “fill down” or “fill right”, is “fill series”. This can be used to automatically generate various sequences of numbers.  The ones I use most often are “linear” (used for an arithmetic progression – I usually just use it with an increment of 1 to generate a set of consecutive numbers, e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… ) and “date” (which, as the name suggests can auto-generate a sequence of dates).

Unfortunately, Google Drive’s spreadsheet seems to lack a “fill series” command.  It does, however have “fill down” and “fill right” (albeit only accessible via keyboard shortcuts – they don’t show up in the Edit menu, where most spreadsheets (or at least LibreOffice Calc and, as I recall, older versions of Excel) seem to keep a submenu of fill commands), as well as cut and paste commands (including several “paste special” options), so it’s not too difficult to come up with a workaround that, while marginally less streamlined than a proper “fill series” command is still far preferable to manually typing a whole series of figures.

The trick is to enter your initial value in one cell, then set up a formula in the next cell (down or across) to generate the next value in the series, use the available fill commands to copy the formula into the rest of the cells you want filled with the series (it will automatically adjust the cell references, so the value for the third cell will be generated from the value in the second cell – the one just calculated from the initial value – and so forth) and finally select the whole range of cells, cut and paste as values (one of the “paste special” options) to ensure that you don’t later get any weird effects from copying or re-ordering cells.

As an example, if you wanted a simple list of numbers 1 to 10 in the first column of a fresh new spreadsheet, you’d start by putting the value “1” (without quotes) in the first cell (A1), then move down to A2 and enter the formula “=A1 + 1”, which would calculate and insert the value “2” into that cell (while retaining the formula iteself in the background.  Next you’d select the range of cells stretching down from A2 to A10 and hit Ctrl-D to fill down.  It would copy the same formula into each cell, adjusting the references as it went (so A3 would contain the formula “=A2 + 1”, etc.) and you’d end up with the numbers 1 to 10 as desired.  If at this point, however, you decided that you wanted the numbers to run down from 10 to 1 and therefore told the spreadsheet to sort the values in reverse order you’d end up with some strange results because it would move the formulas around and get its knickers in a twist (not wishing to get too technical!).  To get round the problem, you should, before attempting to sort the data, select the complete range of cells, cut them (with Ctrl-X) and then choose “paste special” (either from the Edit menu or the right-click context menu) and select “Paste values only” from the submenu.  After this, if you examine the contents of the cells you’ll find (as you might expect) that the formulas have been replaced by plain old numbers and you can now safely sort or move them to your heart’s content.

Of course, if you only want numbers 1 to 10 it’s not that hard to put them in by hand, but if you want to go up to 100 or 1000 (or several million) it would get increasingly tedious, so it’s handy to be able to automate the process.

I suppose to be fair to Google, it’s (presumably) not setting out to be a fully-featured heavyweight spreadsheet and at least it gives you enough tools to be able to recreate the “fill series” functionality with the exercise of a little ingenuity.  However, it does have a “fill range” command (accessed via “Ctrl-Enter”) which I’ve not seen in other spreadsheets; this acts essentially like a combination of “fill down” and “fill right” by copying whatever’s in the top left cell of a selected rectangular range into all the other cells in the range (updating formula references as appropriate).  While this is quite nice, it’s much more obvious and quick to replicate this functionality using Ctrl-D and Ctrl-R, so I can’t help feeling that it would be more useful if the Google spreadsheet could implement “fill series” functionality and assign that to the “Ctrl-Enter” hotkey instead (on a positive note, that idea has enabled me to find a good keyboard mapping for  “fill series” in LibreOffice, which conveniently didn’t seem to be using “Ctrl-Enter” for anything).

La Dame Azure

As I write this, I’ve just finished drinking a cup of what is currently one of my favourite types of tea – Blue Lady from The Kent & Sussex Tea & Coffee Company.

I first came across this company, which has become my favourite online tea merchant, sometime last year while searching, as I recall, for a place to get Russian Caravan tea (one of my perennial favourites – although their blend is a bit more delicate than I’m used to for this one).  Part of the attraction is that they are based in my home county of Kent, not to mention that they sell a wide range of interesting teas, coffees and other infusions (such as a very pleasant Spicy Chilli Rooibos) at quite reasonable prices (and no, I’m not getting paid to write nice things about them!).

The company is based in the village of Pluckley, which (despite having lived in Kent for almost half of my life to date) I don’t recall ever having visited.  It has a reputation as a haunted village and is sometimes claimed to be the most haunted village in the UK (according to Wikipedia, this assertion was backed up by an appearance in the 1989 edition of the Guinness Book of Records, though the article doesn’t mention what happened in subsequent editions).  Supposedly there are at least 12 ghosts which roam Pluckley and one of them is the Blue Lady after whom the tea is named.

Sadly I’ve been unable to discover the story of the Blue Lady, although several web-based lists of Britain’s Most Haunted Places which mention Pluckley (with no reference to a Blue Lady there) also talk about a Blue Lady either at Berry Pomeroy Castle near Totness in Devon (see here – NB Pluckley’s item #2 on the list and the Blue Lady is at #7) or at Temple Newsam in Yorkshire (in this Wikipedia list, which is in alphabetical order per country).  The tea company website is vague on the point, merely referring to “the blue lady spirit who roams our most haunted village” and mentioning that some of the locals call her Lady Blue (so it’s possible that she isn’t officially called The Blue Lady).

In any case, the name seems to have provided the Pluckley-based tea merchants with a good excuse to come up with a fine tea, which they describe as “a is a citrus scented blend of loose leaf black tea with exotic flowers.”  That seems to me to be a good description and in fact the next bit of their description – “A tea to really excite the taste buds. A powerful citrus aroma with a sweet scented taste!” – is also, while subject to a certain amount of marketing hyperbole, a fair enough description.

Incidentally, for those of you who know me as more of a coffee drinker than a tea drinker (which is probably not actually true, although I do retain a strong affection and appetite for the umber nectar, without which I can scarce contemplating starting the day), although I have thus far mostly sampled the teas (including rooibos, though it isn’t strictly tea) of the Kent & Sussex Tea Company, I’ve also recently finished a pack of their Brazilian coffee beans.  I enjoyed this coffee very much and I look forward to tasting a few more of their wares on that side of the fence too.