Saturday, November 30, 2013

Musical Gluttony 2013?

I was just thinking about what a music fanatic I am. I am constantly looking for and/or listening to music. I don't go to very many concerts these days (a few a year), but I do spend a lot of time creating music (writing and recording), and in June I also hosted a special rock and roll birthday party for myself with around 50 friends and family. It was a blast. Here are a few highlights of my musical year 2013.

Creating & Performing

My third album Look at You was mostly a 2012 project as far as writing and recording the songs, and I wrote about that back in January when i got copies of the CD's and released it on CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon, etc. Although it hasn't exactly been a hit, I have gotten a lot of favorable comments, and I think it's my best work so far. You can stream all of the songs from this and my first two albums on my SoundCloud page. I've been writing a lot of new songs this year, and though only a few are complete, I'm hoping to start work on a new album project in early 2014, working as usual with my friend and producer Roger Lavallee. He's the key to turning the things I hear in my head into real sounds.

Roger was also the "music director" for my  special June birthday party, He asked his friends Greg Olson and John Donovan to play drums and bass to form a temporary backing band with Roger, my friend Rob Simbeck, and myself on guitars and vocals, and my brother Doug Irving on keys and vocals. We did around 10 of my songs (e.g., my own "Lady Heartache") and a bunch of classic covers including Jumping Jack Flash, Light My Fire, Back in the USSR, Rob Simbeck's "Born & Raised on Rock & Roll,"  and many more. I've got a few video clips on YouTube (click the hyperlinked song titles above). It was really a lot of fun.

Live Music

Other than my own party, I only got to a handful of live music events this year, including fine concerts by alt/indie bands Alt-J and The XX (where I also discovered a new favorite band, Lord Huron). Locally I really enjoyed The Brit Wits and and an acoustic evening featuring Roger Lavallee and Bill Beck.

Musical Gluttony?
I just took a look at my Amazon digital orders for 2013 (which isn't even over yet). I've placed 104 MP3 orders so far this year. That's a lot, but quite a few were single songs, and perhaps a dozen were free sampler collections. Most of the classical music I bought (21 albums) was in large composer or theme-based MP3 collections (16 of the 21), each containing 99-300 tracks (songs or movements), usually bought on sale for $1 to $5 for the complete collection. This probably added some 3000 MP3 files at a cost of perhaps $50. But I also bought 34 non-classical, non-free MP3 albums, plus 15 CD's, probably another 700 songs, perhaps around $300 for all those, considering that I usually buy music when it is on sale as a new release or Amazon promotion.

This does not include a bunch of free or nearly free music that I got from Freegal, NPR, Noisetrade, SoundCloud, Paste Magazine, and other online sources. So it's not hard to understand how I came to have some 31,000 MP3's in my Amazon Cloud library, most of which I have also downloaded to iTunes. This begs the question of how I manage to listen to even a tiny of fraction of this flood of music. It's a lot of shuffling, but I would guess that there are large chunks of music that I "own" but have not yet heard, especially the hundreds of Baroque and classical pieces in the VoxBox and Big Box collections.

Best of 2013
This is not any sort of comprehensive "best of" list. Even with the flood of new music that I  receive, I don't hear enough of what's new to really judge. I do pay attention to artists and genres that I like, and I am helped by NPR, Paste, SoundCloud, etc. (and occasionally by Pandora and even the old-fashioned FM car radio) to learn about new stuff I may like. Of course Amazon's recommendation software also does a good job of figuring out what I like based on my browsing and purchasing history. Here is my personal top 9 (I tried to add #10 but could not really pick one).
  1. Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon - Probably the best new artist in 2013, at least of what I've heard. Still sounding so fresh and original. I wrote more here.
  2. Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams - Sort of country rock, but spacier, with great lyrics, melodies, and arrangements.
  3. Donovan, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden - I rediscovered this album a few weeks ago. It was a favorite of mine in my junior and senior years of high school. Sometime in 1968 (probably summer), I convinced my mother to let me join the Columbia Record Club, which offered cheap multi-record intro offers with the requirement to buy a certain number of albums at list price (tough for a high school kid with little money). This 1967 album was part of the intro package I received (others I recall include Strange Days by the Doors, Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel, Disraeli Gears by Cream, and Vincebus Eruptem by Blue Cheer). As I hear it now, I can see that Donovan probably influenced my early songwriting more than anyone besides the Beatles (later I would appreciate and emulate Paul Simon, James Taylor, and Cat Stevens, among others). I had not heard some of these Donovan songs in maybe 40 years, but I still could sing along with every lyric.
  4. Dawes, Stories Don't End - Another almost-70's-country-rock band updated for the 21st century. Great stuff.
  5. Big Schubert Box (Bach Guild, still 99 cents!) - It's tough to pick a favorite from among various huge classical collections I bought for mere pennies. This is a great one, as are Rachmaninoff Complete Piano Music (VOX BOX), Sibelius Complete Symphonies (Bis), and Chopin Piano Works (VOX BOX).
  6. Alt-J, An Awesome Wave - Strangely hypnotic or hypnotically strange? Yes, on many levels, and a great live show too.
  7. Paul McCartney, Wings Over America - Another rediscovery after watching a concert film from this great 1976 tour. I had the vinyl album in the late 70's, but it was lost and forgotten. McCartney is truly amazing (I saw him live in Boston in 2002).
  8. Led Zeppelin, Celebration Day - Another oldie but goody, Led Zep's London reunion concert in 2007. Wish I could have been there. Plant's voice doesn't quite have the ultrasonic range of of the original recordings, but it's still a powerful instrument, and Page's guitar playing is always amazing.
  9. The Wild Feathers - This is brand new, since I just learned about the band and bought the album last night, but I have a good feeling about this band. Another sort-of-country-rock band with impressive songwriting, arrangements, and harmonies. I'm glad the 70's are cool again.
There were a few things I was psyched about that turned out to be disappointing. These included Hummingbird by Local Natives (love their first album), John Mayer's Paradie Valley, and the recently much-hyped Reflektor by Arcade Fire, a band I realize that I only occasionally like.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Bulgaria, Bad Knees, and Japanese

October and November tend to be my busiest business travel months, with at least one trip each to Europe and Asia. In October I did a customer visit tour in "only" four countries: UK, France, Bulgaria (sunset in the hills near Sofia, above), and Czech Republic (though I slept one night at the Vienna airport and drove through part of Slovakia). London, Nice, Manchester, Wales, London, Sofia, Vienna, Paris, and then home. This is a light five-day schedule for our European distributor.

Not much chance for fine European dining on this type of trip (unless gas station sandwiches and airline lounge snacks are your thing), but it's actually kind of fun. Although most business discussions are in English, I do try to practice a little French now and then, mostly in restaurants and by buying and reading science magazines like this recent special Mars issue of Science et Vie.

A special wrinkle on this trip was a bad knee. After months of increasing pain, I was recently diagnosed with a torn meniscus in my right knee. I was worried about long flights, big airports, train station stairs, and long car rides, but most of it went OK with the help of a new rolling backpack computer bag and a special effort to pack light. The fact that I don't have to carry books anymore helps a bit on this - I have hundreds of Kindle books on my iPad Mini, iPhone, and Kindle, and now the airlines even let you use these small devices in "airplane mode" from gate to gate (at least inside the US). After an MRI and two orthopedic opinions, I will have arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus next month. So I should be good as new (plus or minus a few decades) by January.

I spent last week in Japan, after working several weeks to prepare for optical/software presentations and product demos that I don't typically do in my day to day work these days. Since long ago I studied and still enjoy optics and pretending to design lenses (we call these "demos"), I look forward to these fall trips when I get to meet with some of the Japanese engineers who have designed many of the camera zoom lenses, DVD player lenses, and what-not that I have bought and used over the years. This trip involved even longer flights as well as many trains and train stations. In spite of all the stairs in the subway stations, my knee felt pretty good, which made me realize (this week) that most of my knee pain is triggered by driving, not by walking and climbing stairs.

I still like to play with Japanese when I'm in Japan, and thanks to the iPhone and iPad, I can now carry around the best Japanese dictionary I ever owned, which happens to be a free app called Imiwa? (the name means "what about the meaning?"). I use this to refresh my fading knowledge of Japanese, taking notes on various interesting words or phrases that I hear or see. I also bought a few copies of a children's magazine that I haven't bought in many years, Takusan no Fushigi ("A World of Wonders" in English). Intended for Japanese children 8 years and up, each monthly issue focuses on a particular non-fiction topic, from a museum of curiosities in Paris, to the life cycle of a certain moth, to the workings of Air Traffic Control (ATC, October 2012, at left), among many others (hundreds of titles published since the 1980's when I first discovered them when exploring Japanese bookstores on my early trips).

Just for fun, I read the ATC one on my flight home (cool because I like flying stuff as well as Japanese). A key point is that most of the kanji ("Chinese characters") are printed with furigana, small phonetic characters that give the pronunciation. Japanese adults don't need these, but Japanese children (and I) do for all but the basic kanji, of which I know around 200 or so. Since I know how ATC works (from private flying and from listening to United's channel 9 for many years), it was fairly easy for me to follow the text, which consisted mostly of radio exchanges between pilots and controllers (although in fact ATC in Japan and in most of the world is done almost entirely in English, because the many international pilots cannot understand Japanese). I still had to look up probably every fourth or fifth kanji-based word (many flight-related words in Japanese are adapted from English and spelled phonetically in katakana, so those are easy to read).

This trip was also the first time in 31 years of travel to Japan that I tried fugu (known as blowfish or pufferfish). I've wanted to try it for years, but it's too expensive for an expense report, and no one ever invited me! Fugu has a bad reputation because its liver is deadly poison, and if it is not prepared properly, the poison can contaminate the meat, and you can die (this sometimes happens to amateurs who try to prepare fugu at home without special training). Restaurants are of course very careful, and it is actually quite safe, and pretty tasty. It is cut almost translucently thin for sashimi (photo above - it is light pink, but the dark pattern of the plate shows through making it look gray in places in the photo), but we also had it in soup, fried, and broiled. Oishikatta! (It was delicious.)

This was also the second time I had tried hirezake, a rather strange drink. It is warm sake with the fin of a fugu soaking in it. It sounds strange (ok, it IS strange), but it tastes pretty good. So I guess technically, I had "experienced" fugu once before. It's also popular enough that you can buy it in individual cans from some drink vending machines. Japan has many vending machines that dispense small cans of cold or warm beverages (typically coffee or tea). In this case, the sake is warm, and the fish fin (possibly not always fugu?) is in a separate small container on top that you add to the sake yourself. I guess you don't want that super-soggy-fish-fin taste in your hot Japanese rice wine, do you?