Thursday, 31 August 2017

Musical Modes for Practical Guitarists

Recently I watched a number of You Tubes explaining the various modes of a scale. This one set me off.

 I’m going to be the first to say that Mr Beato is a better composer, guitarist, music theorist and probably all-round human being than I am. Just so we get that clear. I'm just not sure that it’s helpful to call anything, well, I can’t write it, so I’ll show you the screen

It’s the one at the bottom, that minor seven diminished flat-3 Locrian double-flat 3rd, double-flat 7th. No. This is madness. Let's start over.

A musical key is a bunch of notes, in no special order. Once you insist on an order, in which each note is higher than then one before it, until you get to the note an octave higher than you started, you have a scale. So the notes {C, F, E, D, G, B, A} are the notes of the key of C, and when played in the order make up the scale of C major.

The order that generates the familiar do-ray-me (tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone) sequence of intervals is called the “Major” scale and the (Western tradition) default order to play the notes of that key.

What happens if we take the same notes and play them in a different ascending order? Say ? Try it, and play the sequence at mid-tempo. What you’ll notice is that the last interval - C to D - seems to want to reach out for something more. It doesn’t resolve and land you ‘home’. It sits there waiting for you to do something more. That’s how I feel, anyway.

Now play A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A. That should sound dramatic and dark, but also the A sounds like ‘home’, though a darker home than sunny C. This is because this sequence is a Natural Minor sequence.

It makes a difference which notes we start and end on. Even though the notes are the same. That’s the basis of the idea of modes. However, instead of being sensible, and doing this:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C : C Major / C in the Ionian mode
D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D : C in the Dorian mode
E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E : C in the Phrygian mode
F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F : C in the Lydian mode
G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G: C in the Mixolydian mode
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A: C Natural Minor / C in the Aolian mode

We have this mess:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C : C Major / C Ionian
D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D : D Dorian
E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E : E Phrygian
F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F : F Lydian
G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G: G Mixolydian
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A: A Natural Minor / A Aolian

In the first list we focus on the key, and the mode tells us in what order to play the notes. In the second list, we focus on the starting note, assume that we would play the major key on that note, and issue instructions about how to modify that major key. In the first reading, "play in the Lydian mode" means "treat the fourth of the key as the home note". In the second reading, it means "play in the major key corresponding to the fourth of the original key, and oh yes, sharpen the fourth of that new key".

I know which one I'll go with. And the composers and choristers of early Church music, where modes originated, agree with me. That's how they thought of, and used, modes. There were no "keys" in the 12th Century. Modes live in a simpler musical world.

The academic approach is the source of the lunacy in which a guitarist, faced with a sequence of Fmaj, Gmaj and Cmaj chords, is told solemnly that they need to play in F Lydian, G Mixolydian and C Ionian. Which means they need to play in F but remember to sharpen the fourth, G but flatten the seventh, and then plain old C.

Or they could just play in the key of C over all the chords, which is what they are actually doing.

One of the first, and still the best use of modes in jazz, is Flamenco Sketches

from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue C Ionian (natural major scale) (notes of C, starting on C) A♭ Mixolydian (Major with a minor 7th) (notes of D♭ starting on A♭) B♭ Ionian (notes of B♭) G Harmonic Minor over D Phrygian Dominant (alternates over bass notes D and E♭) (notes of B♭) G Dorian (notes of F)

The single most dramatic moment in everyone’s solos is the change from B♭ Ionian to D Phrygian. SAME NOTES! We only hear the difference because the soloists play the mode at the start of each change so that our ear gets attuned to what’s going on. As for the second change, it’s Miles’ standby C - D♭ trick (aka “shift up a semitone”, which is easy on the guitar, but I suspect rather more tricky on the saxophone) disguised by starting on A♭ instead of just sliding up the fretboard one step while carrying on.

To repeat, I'm not claiming that the academic approach is wrong. I'm claiming that it's horribly confusing, carries way too much overhead, and that in practice, I bet even the best players translate "E Dorian" to "D-major+E home note" rather than "E major flat 3 flat 7."

I know music theorists are rolling their eyes, huffing and preparing to tell me I will never work as a real musician, and that any pupil of theirs who can't figure out what notes to play instantly on being given the instruction "C Aolian, sharp 1, sharp 4, sharp 5" should have their guitar taken from them. 

It would still be easier to tell them to play in the key of C and make the chords sound good.

Monday, 28 August 2017

How I Intend To Spend My Weekday Evenings

One of the reasons I felt bad about June and July was that I felt I was wasting a lot of time, or rather, I was doing X when I thought I should have been doing Y. Looked at one way, an employed single person feeling that they aren’t being productive enough is silly, especially when I do all my own shopping, cooking, washing and cleaning.

From 05:30 to around 18:30 my life belongs to work, commuting, cooking and other prep-work. Make that 20:00 if it’s a gym day. Since I go to bed around 21:30, where I read until I fall asleep, that gives me about three hours, or ninety minutes, in which to squander time. Let’s not forget that I’m reading for around an hour a day on trains.

What should I do in that time? Gardening, in the summer; more reading; learn to read music (again) on the guitar; watch a couple of episodes of a box set; (insert whatever project you’ve been thinking of here). What do I do? Watch You Tube videos, read blogs, doodle some ideas on what is widely suspected to be an unsolvable mathematical problem, play guitar for a while, and, you know, all the other ways a man passes time. Except drinking. I don’t do that.

What I did do before my social circle moved elsewhere, was go out for a drink with a couple of the lads, or maybe to the movies, or I’d watch television, or maybe a video from Blockbusters. Look carefully, and some of those things can’t be done with a 21:30 bedtime. Except the video.

But sometimes I get to the end of the day, and I’m frazzled. I don’t have the energy to undertake any more organised activity requiring engaged, structured attention, or the ability to remember what the character dynamics are between the central characters. (This is why I can watch Elementary or even Californication like eating candy, because there are two central characters, and two supporting characters, and I know they all like and respect each other. But I still have to be in the mood.)

So those hours somehow vanish. And while I don’t feel bad, I can think “I should have gone to that 18:15 movie at the local cinema” or “why didn’t I curl up with the headphones and listen to (insert name of any 19-th century symphonic composer except Brahms here) (insert number, usually between 1 and 9) Symphony properly.

I have many theories about this, of which the one I probably believe is plain old moral weakness, and all the others are rationalisations. Let’s go with lacking a plan, and moral weakness.

So here we go: Every day on arriving home, I will shower and change immediately - unless I’m going to hit the garden or I did all that at the gym.
Once a week I will watch a movie - either at the local Cineworld, or a streaming art movie, or even in the West End
Once a week, probably gym night, I will watch a box set episode or two.
Once a week, I will listen, on headphones, to one of the many symphonies or concertos I have on CD Once a week, I will have a couple of hours listening to new music on Tidal
(Reading can accompany listening to music, or vice-versa.)
Friday night is for shopping, washing and reading to musical accompaniment
Blog posts fit in with all this.
And at some point I have an evening meal to make
A sudden attack of binge watching a really good series counts as any of the above
Polishing shoes, ironing or other such counts as well.

If I do this, I will not allow myself to feel that my time has gone wasted.

I will not watch random You Tube videos, nor will I follow links on my regular websites.

If in doubt I will have an early night.

Or fold scarves.

Weekends are kinda the same, but with added gardening and maybe visits to Kingston on other shopping destinations if absolutely unavoidable.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Magazines You Can Only Buy In Soho Bookshops (1)

There are a handful of newsagents in Soho that stock all sorts of offbeat magazines. For quite a while back before everything was on the net, I would buy one or two just because. The only magazine I buy and read regularly now is Art Monthly. I kept many of these offbeats for quite a while, and recently decided to clear them out. But first I took photographs of the front covers. This is the first batch.

Links to those still going:

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Nice People Play The National Lottery

Single Mum of Colour? Check.
Gay Latin Male? Check.
Sturdy White Working Mother of Two? Check
Daddy of Colour with Princess Daughter? Check.
White Diamond Geezer Family Man? Check.
Athletic Single Middle-Aged White Devoted Daughter? Check.
Gay White Social Worker? Check.
Retired White Devoted Daughter? Check.

The Missing Demographics?

1) Straight Professional White Men
2) Twenty-Something Girls

This feels research-driven. The National Lottery asked people who they had helped, or thought they would help, with the money they won or might win. The research subjects duly gave Right Answers, and the agency devised this campaign, as much as an attempt to position the Lottery as for Nice People who will spend the money on Good Causes, and not just for people desperate to get out of debt, and who shouldn’t be gambling in the first place. The people in this poster are all nice. Nice people play the Lottery. Well, that's what they want you to believe.

The Devoted Daughters are a surprise. I wouldn’t have guessed they were a sizeable segment.

Why no Straight White Men? One theory is that the Liberal Elites who run advertising are part of a plot to marginalise Straight White Men and to privilege women and minorities. The real reason is the research says middle-class white men don’t go near the Lottery. That’s why there are no white professional men in the picture: wasted communication resource.

Here's another reading. Straight White Men can provide for their families without the Lottery. The Lottery is for women and minorities who are underpaid: because gender pay gap and discrimination. So maybe in a way this poster is affirming the Liberal Elite frame after all.

Why no 20-something girls? Because 20-something girls are not about family, and the Liberal Elites don't want them to be about family. That's one suggestion, but the real reason is, I bet, that 20-something girls don't play the lottery either. Because deep down, 20-something girls know that the Lottery is for women and minorities who can't command a decent salary.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Goals and Systems

Scott Adams, who is way richer and smarter than me, has a saying: goals are for losers, systems are for winners. It's been taken up by a few folk recently. It sounds plausible, especially when Adams explains it, but there's another half to the story.

Goals and systems go together. The goal gives the system a purpose, the system makes the goal achievable. Goals without systems are fantasies; systems without goals are futile. Olympic competitors have a goal (“do my best in the race on the day”) which is carefully not about winning medals, and a system of training, dieting, sleeping, and for all anyone knows, motivational movies, to help them achieve that goal. Oh. The medal thing? Well, if their best gets them one, with the accompanying sponsorship and advertising deals, that’s a bonus. It’s not what they are doing it for.

At the very top levels, as I’ve written before, it’s all about the process, not about the prizes.

Someone who says they have a goal, but doesn’t work a system to get there, doesn’t have a goal. They have an idle dream. Someone who says “My goal is to run the London Marathon in under three hours next year” when they can barely run for the bus now, is not “setting themselves a goal”. They are fantasising. Or just being silly. We nod along with it because we’re polite. We don’t really think they have a goal.

There are three kinds of goals: goals that bring prizes, like winning an award, getting a promotion or a raise, or bedding the blonde; goals that don't have prizes, like benching 100kg, visiting Paris, or bedding the blonde; and states, like being fit and healthy, being informed about the arts, or writing for a living. And let’s distinguish these from tasks which are closed-end activities with a well-defined result that you wouldn't do unless you had to.

Being an author is a state-goal; writing a best-seller is a prize-goal, and cleaning the shed to write in, is a task.

A state-goal needs maintenance: after a while the maintenance becomes the goal. I “go to the gym”, I don’t “aim to get muscled-up”.

We can win prizes by sheer dumb luck alone, as in a Lottery, but mostly prizes are won by talent and effort, and the sheer dumb luck of someone deciding to award you a prize. You’re not in control of whether you win a prize. You are, mostly, in control of whether you can work at something every day. At this exact moment of post-modern capitalism, winning any prize takes a lot of work, and hence requires the temperament, wider life-style and sacrifices to do that work. You want that promotion to the grade above the crab-basket? Put in the hours, put in the work, learn the self-management, self-presentation and social skills. As for what you have to do to win an Olympic Gold… Prizes worth having require a lot of work.

A handful of Prizes put one into a Pantheon: Nobel Prize winners, Fields Medallists, Wimbledon and Formula One champions, all have the same relaxed confidence that musicians who had played with Miles Davis had or have. The glow of the unquestionable elite.

At the other end are the non-prize goals: whether these are rewarding depends on your state of mind. One man might be thrilled with his trip up to the observation deck of the Shard, while another, in the middle of a potentially nasty re-organisation at work, might wonder what he is doing there. One man may bench 100kg and glow inwardly at having proved something to himself: another might add another 5kgs the next time.

Therapists and psychologists see a lot of people who don't get a feeling of satisfaction from whatever they do. Those therapists conclude that everyone feels that way, and pronounce goals of any kind to be inherently unsatisfying and meaningless. As opposed to True Love, and Family, and Intimacy, and Being Accepted, and all that stuff.

Someone who thinks that getting some gee-gaw, attaining some goal or winning some prize will change them are, of course, being silly. It’s not the prize that changes them: it’s the process of getting the prize. It’s the changes in character, confidence and emotional state needed to be at the prize-winning level, that are the real benefit of the prize. Not the money, celebrity and appearance in the Honours List. Although the money, celebrity and gong are worth having.

Regular people are puzzled by those of us who have state-goals. Why do I want to be fit and in shape? As if it must be for another purpose, such as impressing girls or playing a sport, the purpose of which is, of course, to win a prize. Regular people understand prizes, but not states. Unless that state is "happiness". Whatever that means to them.

Successful people, by contrast, have systems and goals, the goals are states of which the system is an important part, and the state offers a chance of winning prizes (promotions, investment returns, sex with pretty girls, money) as well. Elite athletics is an endless stream of competitions: competing is a state, and every now and then, they get to stand on the rostrum and bag some sponsorship or advertising. Writing is a state, and if the writer is lucky, he gets a best-seller.

The really unfortunate people are those who work systems that don't put them in a desired state and don't offer the chance of winning prizes.

They’re called “employees”.

Yep. That would be me.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Good and Bad Subscriptions

Finally, in this five-part series that just grew like Topsy, let's look at how subscriptions such as Prime work.

First, let’s explain how an honest subscription offer works. At one end is the Financial Times: you can subscribe to it at the same cost as you would pay over the counter, but they offer delivery. If you want online services, you pay for those as well. Very few products can get away with a zero per cent discount, and the FT is one of them.

Then there’s the Cineworld Unlimited card. It’s £210 a year for the basic card, which gets you a regular seat for as many movies as you want, plus discounts on hot dogs, ice cream and popcorn. Given that a ticket costs around £11 now, you’re in profit at the twentieth film. So you need to see two films a month. Every month. If I was in my twenties, I could do that. Now? I doubt they show a film a month I want to see. My guess is that most Unlimited card holders see between fifteen and twenty-five films a year - not counting repeats and the Bollywood audience. Those discounts on the ice cream? I bet they make us buy more. This sort of offer makes money two ways: first, the films left unseen, the people who see fewer than breakeven; and second, that people take Unlimited as a way of seeing more films. They go from, say, ten to, say, twenty.

Then there are magazine subscriptions. Men’s Health offers eleven issues for £33 against a counter cost of £43.89, and that includes delivery. That’s a 25% discount. I bet their research tells them that the the majority of readers buy it between four and nine times a year, and that very few buy it more than that. Marginal costs of production are fairly small - it will be printed in Eastern Europe or China - so the calculation is about the increased revenue from sales plus the increased revenue from advertisers. The math isn’t hard to do, but get it wrong and the publisher loses money.

All of these are honest models. The subscribing customer gets what they would have got over the counter, usually delivered and at a discount to the counter price. The company gets greater sales, and in the case of the Unlimited-style offers, more revenue per customer.

Now let’s talk about Prime and Netflix. How does something get onto Prime? An Amazon buyer is talking with one of the networks. They are going over the autumn releases, and quibbling about discounts for Amazon. Then the buyer says something like “We could ease the discount a little if you could give us something for Prime”. That’s ‘give’ as in beer. Gratis. So the network throws in a handful of straight-to-DVD duds and kids stuff. That’s what appears in the Prime program. For stuff that needs delivery, the "free delivery” comes out of the manufacturer’s end: maybe Amazon promises to optimise where it appears in return. Or whatever else. Netflix does the same. You didn’t think you would get the good stuff free when it still sells in DVD discount stores for £5? Did you?

Ah. But what about House of Cards? Or Orange is the New Black? Sure, great value if you bail out after a month of binge-watching. Doesn’t make the rest of their catalogue any less bargain-basement. With the Netflix / Prime type of subscription service you are not getting the good stuff at a reduced rate, as you are with the magazine or Unlimited type of offer. You’re getting the stuff that studios and networks are willing to let go for free. Or may be promoting.

Monday, 7 August 2017

TV and Movie Streaming

Moving on to TV and Movies, let’s talk about subscription services. The final post in this series is about that Prime and other subscription services work and why. Let’s just say that Prime Video looks like the bargain shelves in Blockbusters. I don’t get The Long Goodbye for free, and I have to stump up for MUBI to watch Two or Three Things I Know About Her. It looks like I can watch all the kids movies I want. So let’s just toss Amazon in the bin.

You know how Amazon is really J C Penny on steroids? The streaming services - Apple, Netflix, Amazon - are Blockbusters on steroids. That’s why looking at what they offer always reminds me of walking round Blockbusters, or Fopp in Covent Garden, with the difference that Fopp has, and Blockbusters had, art movies. Blockbusters worked because some people were prepared to wait a while to see the latest movies, but mostly because all of us would watch something that was cheap to rent and looked “okay” but that we would not splash out a full-price cinema visit to see. Streaming services make money because of those grim Sunday afternoons when you’re bored and will watch anything. Amazon’s in the bin because Prime doesn’t actually apply to any movies I want, and do you notice how hard it is to find out what Netflix actually has to offer, and if any of the films or programs have an additional charge? So did I. Let’s give Netflix a pass. If you like it, you pay for it.

I'm going to stick with cut-price box sets from Fopp.

It’s Curzon Home Cinema I really want. I’ve ranted about their crazy commercial decisions before, but hey, let’s rub it in. When it started, they used the browser and I could plug an HDMI cable to my laptop and watch on my TV. Then they revamped the service, and now the Curzon app does not support any form of output re-direction. No Air Play. No Lightning to HDMI for the TV. Who the heck wants to watch a film on an iPad? Even Amazon’s iOS app supports Air Play! Ah, but wait. Curzon has an app for the Apple TV. That’s £139. Since I’m a Curzon member, £139 is about 10-12 movies depending on when I go. And it costs to rent the movies, so breakeven is way down the line. And they all come out on DVD anyway, and eventually for about £5-£10. This is not looking good for Curzon Home Cinema. I’ll just watch the movies when they come out instead. (Note: this is only because I work in central London. If you’re outside the M25 in a town with no council-sponsored art house, then it’s a bargain.)

So if I'm going to get an art-movie subscription, I’ll get MUBI instead. Ya na na ya na. (In this case, it’s the commitment to watch at least one art movie a month that’s the stumbling-block.)

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Music Streaming for Cheapies

Enough about hardware and software. Onto music streaming.

The cheapie option would be to use a free service. I did that for about twenty minutes a couple of years ago when I tried Spotify or Rdio or one of those. Ads are annoying on actual radio, which is why I listen to the BBC and Chill, and no less annoying on a streaming service. So I’m paying.

I really liked 8Tracks. I can still use it, though since they went public and got copyright religion, in the UK it plays via You Tube. And only when I’m running the You Tube site on my Mac. I like it because I could click in a random playlist that suited my mood and hear music from acts I would never otherwise hear about. Most of the time it was pleasant wallpaper, which was exactly what I wanted, and every now and then something would jump out at me, and I would buy the CD. That’s what I want. So I’ll listen to that over the Dragonfly and headphones now and then.

And before we talk about sound quality, can I just say “Royal Albert Hall”? Possibly the most famous music venue in the world, because of the Proms, and its acoustics are, well, blurry is a good word. Nearly all the Prom concerts are pretty much sold out.

Radio One streams over DAB at 128 kps, and the World Service at 64 kps. Your telephone land-line gives you 64 kps (56 kps in the USA). Radio Three is broadcast between 160-192 kps. So anyone offering 320 kps is offering twice the quality of radio. Next up is streaming CD-quality FLAC files, and that’s going make you glad you have unlimited downloads. A WAV file at 1411 kps takes about 11 MB/min and FLAC compresses between 50%-60%, so  Beethoven’s Ninth, which is around 75 minutes long, is around 412 MB of music data. Signalling overhead and some re-transmission may add up to 30%, so allow another 125MB for a total of 637MB. At 320kps for the music, that’s 178MB, and at 96kps for the music, it’s 53MB. Watch the quality setting when you’re streaming on your mobile data plan.   

Pricing. For all the providers, the basic service, at 320 kps, is £9.99 / month. CD-quality streaming is £19.99 / month. You don’t decide of a price is low or high by looking at the competition. You decide by looking at the generic alternatives. Radio, for instance, is free but has irritating ads and talking heads. Not a good comparison. I buy about 3-4 CDs a month, usually classical, not usually new releases, sometimes a box set of (say) Mozart symphonies. Let’s say I spend £40 a month on CDs. Not all of those will get played a lot afterwards. Some are purely experimental - what does this modern composer sound like? Very occasionally I will hear something in Fopp and be immediately stricken - SOHN’s first CD was like that. A new full-price classical CD is about £15. I very rarely buy those. To look at £20 / month as “twice the price of Spotify” is to miss the point. It’s “two spec CD’s I may never play again”. It’s also about the price of a ticket in the stalls of St John’s Smith Square to hear the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Tidal and Qozum’s £19.99 / month for CD-quality is a well-judged price. I suspect that I will buy fewer, or better targeted, classical and / or jazz CD’s, because I’ll be experimenting over the streaming service. I’ll happily stream 320 kps at £9.99 / month over my home broadband connection.

So now, which service? I want one with good playlists. And a decent list. And I’d prefer to avoid the reputational issues of Spotify. Also, the cool kids at work voted 2:1 in favour of Spotify over Apple Music. So. That's Millennials. This leaves leaves Apple Music, Tidal and Qozum.

The audiophile subscription service of choice, so good that it’s integrated into Roon, is Tidal. I’m tempted to say that if it’s good enough for Roon, it’s probably good enough for me. It pays artists more, and I doubt it’s making Jay-Z richer right now. So that’s my choice. Tidal Premium. Via the iDevice and the Dragonfly. I’ll let you know how that goes.