Monday, June 10, 2013

Carnival of Space #305

The 305th edition of the Carnival of Space is on view this week at AARTScope Blog. A few members of the diverse space and astronomy blogging community share stories ranging from fast-moving galaxies, to new Mars maps, to a method of turning x-ray astronomy data into music (visualization becomes musicalization!).

Friday, June 07, 2013

Ach, Bach! Und Schubert!

Do I really need more classical music floating in my Amazon Cloud? Probably not, since I already have more music than I can listen to in my lifetime, but Amazon keeps throwing out these crazy deals. This week it's a new Big Box collection from the Bach Guild, and this time it's Schubert, one of my favorite composers, 130 works (or movements) for 99 cents. Some 13 hours of music. Some of these are pretty rare recordings including a version of Symphony No. 7 which Schubert completed in sketch form (but he did not complete the orchestration himself).

And under the classic VoxBox label, another huge collection, Bach Complete Organ Works, played by Walter Kraft, 284 works (or movements), again for 99 cents (14+ hours). These are generally older recordings, remastered, repackaged, and re-released, but they sound great to me. Clearly it's some sort of promotion, but even when these sets go up to $4 or $8 they are still a great value.

Laura Mvula: Beyond Amazing

I discovered and bought Laura Mvula's debut album Sing to the Moon on April 19, and it immediately blew me away. It is still in heavy rotation in iTunes at home and in my car, and it still sounds surprising and fresh every time I hear it. What is it about her music? Part of it is her voice, which is smoky yet clear, an extremely expressive instrument, which she indeed uses as an instrument, with all sorts of tonal colors (the vocal harmonies are unusual and seductive as well). Part of it is the songs, which have structures and melodies that are just somehow different yet catchy and somehow familiar. She is not at all like Joni Mitchell, but her songs and sounds remind me of Joni's work from Blue through Hissing of Summer Lawns. Maybe a little of Paul Simon's Graceland too - again nothing like that work, except that it stands out as truly different, yet as delicious as any comfort food. Songs that are more than songs -- fully formed musical works that sound familiar yet somehow alien. Songs that have melodies, chords, and harmonies not that different from other popular music, yet totally unique. Mvula's work is like that - hard to describe, but just so pleasing to the ears, even after many listens.

Another part of it is orchestration. I read that Mvula is or was a composition student at a music school in Birmingham, England. Her songs are not the least bit "classical," but her use of woodwinds and strings is totally organic to the songs, not simply studio "sweetening." These songs are composed, but still loose and natural. Like Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov, she turns combinations of orchestral and vocal sounds into beautiful colors. It is not really pop, soul, jazz, R&B, world, or classical. It is Laura Mvula's music!

Yes, I'm in love. I almost wrote something about her back in April, but so much new music becomes just OK after an initial burst of excitement. But Mvula's music is like Willy Wonka's everlasting gobstopper, it just keeps going and going and going...

P.S. Check out her videos: Green Garden, That's Alright, and She. Wonderful.

iPad Astronomy

I love my iPad Mini. It follows me everywhere and is the most wonderful little tool for reading books and magazines, creating music, studying Japanese, and exploring the Universe, to name only a few frequent uses I have for it. I have around 13 astronomy and space related apps on my iPad right now, including my favorite "game," F-Sim Space Shuttle (I probably have bought a dozen more astronomy/space apps not currently installed - 32 gigabytes is not as big as it sounds). Back in April, I wrote about one of my favorite apps, Exoplanet. Recently I've found a few other astronomy apps that are really awesome. Here's some info on two of them.

Luminos is currently my favorite general astronomy or "planetarium" app. It is beautiful and packed with features, more than I have really managed to learn so far, although I can't say the interface is poor - it's just that there's a lot of stuff to see and do. It is comparable to Stellarium, the (free) planetarium program I have used the most on Windows, but of course more portable and with a touch-based UI. I like that in addition to the usual planets, stars, and deep-space objects, it also includes small bodies (comets and asteroids) and satellites. Everything is easily configurable for how much information to collect, update, and display.

Cosmographia is one of two really beautiful astronomy apps from Fifth Star Labs LLC (the other one is Sky Guide, which is based on real astrophotography and has the interesting feature of assigning musical tones to different types of sky objects when you touch them). Cosmographia is focused on the solar system, and it reminds me in some ways of my favorite (free) space flight simulator for Windows, Orbiter, though it doesn't include the user-controlled space flight aspects of Orbiter. It is wonderful for tooling around the solar system, exploring the planets and their moons, as well as various minor objects and spacecraft including including Cassini (Saturn), ISS (Earth), Galileo (Jupiter), the two Voyagers (now leaving the solar system), and several others. Each of these typically includes one or more "highlights" which are scripts you can select to run a simulation of an event such as a close fly-by of Enceladus by Cassini (select the spacecraft, then the circled i for info, then scroll down to the mission highlight links at the bottom).

This is the part that most reminds me of a replay in Orbiter (though in Orbiter you have the ability to define or change spacecraft encounters by flying the spacecraft yourself, assuming you have learned the operations and orbital mechanics needed to do this, as explained in my free e-book Go Play In Space). The planetary and spacecraft graphics are beautiful, and there is also extensive information on each of the objects. You have full control over time, so you can also use this app to see the positions of the planets at any given time and date, as well as control time acceleration to speed things up and observe the motions. The app is very configurable. You can see and control orbit trails, stars, asteroids, labels, etc. You can even watch Curiosity (MSL) approach Mars and enter its atmosphere - in theory anyway. If you choose one of these highlights, it works for a while, but when it gets close to Mars - poof! MSL just disappears, showing up as a labeled dot on the surface that you can't zoom into.  Aside from that small defect, this app looks and works great, and I highly recommend it to fans of the solar system and space exploration.

Monday, June 03, 2013