Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story was easily my highlight of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Created by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan, and Christian Barry, it’s a beautiful and funny and touching story based on real life, and Caplan has a tremendous baritone voice. From the Folk Radio review:

Old Stock is the story of Chaim and Chayah, whose characters are based on playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s real-life grandparents, two Jewish refugees fleeing Romania in 1908. They arrive in Canada where they start a new life and eventually found a large family. Old Stock is, first of all, a reminder of the long history of immigration and the role it played in the history of North America. At the same time, it’s obviously a very poignant story in this day and age.

… The title comes from a speech by Stephen Harper, a Canadian politician who made the distinction between “old stock Canadians” and new immigrants. Caplan turned it around and used the odious expression as the title for a story about immigrants a hundred years ago.

The album based on the play is out now, and it’s just as good as I remember. It’s hard to pick favorites but Traveller’s Curse (above) and Minimum Intervals are standouts.

The play is now on tour around the world – check it out!

A bonus video showing off Caplan’s tremendous voice:

Do not let the Twilight Saga ruin Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” for you. The use of this piano piece over the ending of Ocean’s Eleven is bar-none the most beautiful execution of it in its 132-year history. For a movie as fun and bombastic and sharp as it is, there’s no reason why it needs to have an ending as poignant as it does. And yet! AND YET! These guys, that cash, Julia Roberts, the soft glow of the lights around the fountain…try not to shed half a tear at this band of merry thieves going their separate ways. (Soderbergh would go on to use a somewhat similar shot in Magic Mike XXL with fireworks and DJ Khalid’s “All I Do Is Win,” but note that this is the ultimate.)

Fran Hoepfner (former classical music critic at The Awl) looking back at the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy

Violin Hero: The Game

Is there any instrument that sounds more unpleasant in the hands of a beginner than the violin? Consider the piano. No matter where you hit the keys, you‘re guaranteed to be in tune, whereas if you’re off by just a millimetre on the violin, everyone will know. The guitar has frets that help delineate finger positions, while violins have nothing but a long, terrifying, featureless expanse. The cello? The strings are longer and the pitch is lower, so you have more room for error.

If it’s not your finger positioning, then it’s your bowing. And if it’s not your bowing, it’s too much — or too little — rosin. And so on.

Unless you’re unfortunate enough to have a child learning it, it‘s rare indeed to encounter the torturous sounds of a poorly-played violin. It’s for that reason alone, I think, that parents encourage their children to take up lessons. If they knew they‘d be exposed to hundreds of hours of frustrated, repetitive scratchings before hearing a hint of the heavenly tones that they hear on the radio or Spotify, they’d have bought a piano or guitar instead.

Yes, I learned the violin. How could you tell?

I do my best work when I solve my own problems. When I was at school, I spent a year in a ‘Young Enterprise’ scheme creating CD-ROM textbooks for biology, chemistry and physics exams because I found revising unbelievably boring (the company, of which I was Managing Director, instantly began in-fighting the moment a software publisher offered to buy the CDs).

More recently, Zombies, Run! — a fitness game for smartphones that makes running fun — was partly borne out of the months of pain and tedium that accompanied my learning how to run at university.

Learning the violin? That’s a special kind of pain, and it requires a special kind of solution. But it’d be worth it, because if you can make it through hundreds and thousands of hours of hard graft, you just might have a few moments of pure grace.

As with a lot of funny-but-mildly-offensive memes, High Expectations Asian Father has a kernel of truth to it. I saw a variation: “You can learn whatever musical instrument you want: Violin or Piano.”

I learned both.

I don’t know where these stereotypes come from, but the best origin story I’ve heard says that immigrants have always suffered from prejudice, and the Asian response was to pursue professions in which advancement depended purely on objective criteria. Becoming a journalist or an artist requires connections and is subject to people’s opinions, whereas becoming a doctor can be accomplished through aceing exams, whose results no-one can dispute.

The violin and piano, of course, both require a high degree of technical mastery, and they both are dominated by classical music — that is, music one can objectively decide whether it’s being played ‘properly’ or not, as opposed to all this modern pop or rap music, which changes so quickly it’s hard to trust your own opinions.

I was never a good violinist. After more than eight years of practice, I attained Grade 8 more out of sheer grit rather than natural aptitude; I may have produced a tolerable sound, but never one that was good.

Except for when I was playing in an orchestra. You might think that the only thing worse than hearing a beginner violinist is hearing twenty beginners play, but in truth, differences in pitch (“intonation,” my teacher would cry, “intonation!”) are evened out the more players you have. The tempo would still be all over the place, but even amateur orchestras could sound mostly OK with a bit of practice.

It was also much more fun to play in an orchestra. Unlike the terrifying, solitary experience of playing alone, you could lean on your desk-mate and the people in front of you (and, as a last resort, look at the conductor) to know when you were supposed to ‘come in’ after several bars of silence. It was really quite exciting, when you weren’t bored from repeating the same section a dozen times.

At most school and youth orchestras, you begin at the bottom of the second violins, then gradually advance up to the first desk position, and then graduate into the first violins; the second violins get all the dull harmonies that don’t sound like anything at all, whereas the first violins get the heroic melodies.

In my orchestra, no matter how terrible they sounded, violinists were typically promoted into the first violins in their last year, as a reward for their long service. As it happened, I was born early in the school year, meaning the conductors didn’t realise I was in my last year until too late, so I never played in the first violins. Instead, I spent a whole year as the leader of the second violins.

I don’t know that anyone enjoys being leader of the second violins, especially in a youth orchestra. You get the occasional heroic solo, but for the most part you’re looking after your younger charges — making sure they have their music ready, showing them when we’re supposed to come in with our harmony by exaggeratedly lifting your violin a couple of bars early, that sort of thing. It’s a responsibility without much reward, but someone’s got to do it, otherwise the orchestra stops working. For me, it was an instructive experience.

I also learned the piano for several years, but that was much more fun.

Perhaps learning the violin is not meant to be fun. Lots of things in life are not fun, but they are character building.

But this is absurd! It’s possible to take a skill that require thousands of hours of practice to fully master, and make it fun. It might take a lot of effort and time and entire new fields of technology like chess computers or virtual reality, but it is possible.

And I think it’s now possible for learning the violin. Continue reading “Violin Hero: The Game”

The Music of Civilization

We all know what music I’m referring to here – the marvellous and uplifting Baba Yetu choral music that greets you in Civilization 4. I don’t know how much it cost Firaxis to commission and record that music, but it gave Civ 4 a priceless sense of grandeur.

Civilization has always had an odd soundtrack. 4000BC starts with generic ‘tribal’ music that, after a few thousand years, changes into more martial ‘Roman’ music, then perhaps some ‘Gothic’ music. When you finally reach the Renaissance, you get some decent melodies from classical composers, but the era is sadly too brief and you end up with weird modern classical music until 2100AD.

They’re supposedly improving things for Civilization 5, but frankly I don’t think that the soundtrack is at the top of their priority list, and I have a bad feeling that they won’t be calling upon Christopher Tin (Baba Yetu’s composer) again. It was lucky they called him at all – it seems the collaboration is partly down to the fact that Soren Johnson, Civ 4’s lead designer, once roomed with Christopher Tin at Stanford.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of Christopher Tin’s music, so I’ll keep this post brief and leave you with some of his finer pieces (not just Baba Yetu, which I’ve written about before):

Civilization 4 Intro Movie, with a piece called ‘Coronation’.

The Dubai Fountains, set to the music of Baba Yetu.

Kia Hora Te Marino, a companion piece of Baba Yetu from Tin’s new album, Calling All Dawns.

Schubert and the Trout Quintet

Schubert, I feel, would have no sympathy for procrastinators. Before he died at the age of 31 – the age at which Beethoven wrote his first symphony – he wrote over 1000 pieces. More than 600 of those were ‘just’ songs, but they also included major works such as operas and symphonies. A friend of his said he was capable of writing seven songs in a day, with one of those seven being a masterpiece.

The most impressive fact from the Radio 3 programme I learned all of this from (which will sadly be no longer available very soon) was that the presenter, Steven Johnson, calculated the time it took Schubert to write his final three piano sonatas is equal to the time it would take for him to copy them; and these were some of the greatest works in piano music.

The reason I came across this programme was an article in the New York Times suggesting that listening to classical music requires both an ability to appreciate, and equally the patience to sit through, long pieces. I used to play the piano and violin to a reasonable standard (for an amateur), an achievement I would ascribe more to hard work and parental cajoling than any innate talent, and so I would consider myself somewhere in the middle of ladder when it comes to appreciating classical music. Put it this way – I don’t listen to Classic FM, but I don’t listen to Radio 3 either.

I tend to enjoy more melodic or dramatic pieces, a preference that causes my jazz-loving friend Alex much amusement when I ask him for jazz songs that ‘have more of a tune’ to them. This explains why I prefer Schubert’s wonderfully melodic Trout Quintet to his more complex Unfinished Symphony (which I also enjoy a lot). Feeling a little defensive about my apparently unadventurous tastes, I did a search for the Trout Quintet to find some commentary on it, and discovered that Radio 3 had aired a programme dedicated to it less than a week ago.

Schubert wrote the Trout Quintet at the depressingly young age of 22, as a commission from Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy music patron and mining engineer; Paumgartner suggested that he incorporate the melody from one of his extremely popular songs at the time, Die Forelle (The Trout), hence its name. If you like the Trout Quintet, it’s well worth listening to Die Forelle, which is quite a catchy tune.

Listen to a stream the fourth movement of the Trout Quintet (probably the most popular, and unsurprisingly my favourite as well).

Rock Band Exclusive: All Sorts of Merchandise

Improbably enough, I was on stage this afternoon with Alex Rigopulos of Harmonix (creators of Guitar Hero 1 and 2, and Rock Band) talking about how ARGs and music games were similar. During the course of the conversation, Alex revealed a few details about Rock Band which I am fairly confident haven’t been announced elsewhere. So, without further ado:

Rock Band will allow people to form bands over the internet, featuring avatars that you can personalise to a high degree. Yes, this is already known. But it will also automatically create webpages for these bands detailing their achievements in-game, the concerts they’ve played, their high scores, everything (similar to Halo). Even better, you’ll eventually be able to buy merchandise based on your band – imagine a T-shirt that has the avatars of all your band members on the front, with a list of your concerts and dates on the back.

Pretty sweet, eh? But how about a faux gold disc that has your band name and members on it? Or indeed, any number of bits of physical merchandise? Now, you could accuse Harmonix of just cashing in here, but I would disagree – people buy merchandise for books, TV shows, music, movies and sports – why not games? And why not have it personalised? I think this is a great way to bring games even further into the mainstream.

And remember kids, you heard it here first. Unless it’s been reported by another website earlier, in which case this post is pretty redundant.

(In other game fanboy news, I’m getting the chance to play Rock Band tomorrow, and I met the elusive Jade Raymond tonight at a dinner and drinks thing for speakers)

How It Ends

If you’ve seen Little Miss Sunshine, you’ll may remember the music. It was almost perfect for the movie – a wistful but sometimes happy mix of instrumental mariachi-esque and romantic music. It reminded me of a mix between Sufjan Stevens and Yann Tiersen, but in a good way (actually, Sufjan Stevens did have a couple of tracks in the movie). Alongside personal recommendations, movies and TV shows are where I hear new music from, so I sought out the soundtrack.

It turned out that practically all of the music was made by one band, DeVotchKa, who’ve been around for a few years now. They’ve been under the radar, but the success of Little Miss Sunshine has given them a much larger stage. Even so, when I went to a gig they put on at 93 Feet East in London, while it might have been pretty full, it certainly wasn’t completely full.

Now, I don’t go to a lot of concerts, so perhaps my bar is set a bit low, but then again I’ve seen a few acts who are supposed to be very good live, like Arcade Fire and the Kaiser Chiefs; I’ve been in front of the front row at Scissor Sisters; and I’ve been at smaller gigs with bands like Rilo Kiley. None of them even touched DeVotchKa.

I knew that it was going to be good from the moment they walked on stage. The reason is because this happened at the exact minute they were supposed to be playing. This might sound completely ridiculous, but I don’t think anyone likes having to wait around half an hour for things to get started. You might say that it’s the music that matters, not whether they turn up on time. I agree, but wouldn’t you like it if you could have both? Their performing on time showed that they were professional, and they had respect for their audience.

Professional doesn’t have to mean overplanned or deliberate. It doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous. What it means is that you are very, very good at what you do, and in this case, the band was very, very good at playing music; almost certainly classically trained. Tom Hagerman on the piano, accordion and violin looked nothing else than a city lawyer who’d inadvertently stumbled into Brick Lane, and yet he played with real verve and energy. Jeanie Schroder on the sousaphone and double bass, and Shawn King on the drums and trumpet were a little less visible but no less talented.

Besides being the band’s lead singer, Nick Urata plays the trumpet, piano, bouzouki and (this is the best bit) the theremin. Nick has a strange, haunting, romantic voice that he really belts out – I’m not really sure how he doesn’t lose his voice more often, really. He also has a wonderful stage presence, throwing himself into his singing, swaying around and regularly swigging from a bottle of wine.

The band played with genuine heart, and this led to an audience that frequently broke out into clapping and singing along. Granted, this is easier to do when your audience is only 150 rather than 1500, but it didn’t need any encouragement at all. More surprisingly, apparently this happens at every single concert they do. And in case you think I was simply starstruck, here’s a second opinion from someone who’s been to far more gigs than myself.

What am I trying to say here? It’s not just that I happen to like DeVotchKa a lot, and that they’re great at playing live. It’s that turning up an hour late, or storming off after three songs, or being completely disaffected and distanced – none of these things make you a better band. They don’t make you play better music. You might scoff at this, but it can’t be denied that crazy, self-destructive bands get all the press, and that this behaviour is in part tolerated because ‘it makes better music’.

Why not have both? Why not have great music, and a band that is professional and plays with heart? Or are we more interested in their foolish antics than what they’re supposed to do?

Yann Tiersen – a disappointment

A couple of months ago, I went to see Yann Tiersen play at The Scala in London. Mr Tiersen is, of course, the person behind the tinkling, cheery and immensely popular music to Amelie and Goodbye Lenin.

Shortly before the gig, I discovered that he probably wouldn’t be playing just Amelie-style music, but instead he’d be performing with his rock band. This was slightly worrying, but I had faith in him and I figured that he wouldn’t disappoint his fans by completely ignoring the music they wanted to hear… or would he?

In short, yes. Now, I can totally understand if Yann is fed up with playing Amelie-music all the time. No doubt he’s done those songs a thousand times now and thinks that he’s just being musically typecast. So I’m not at all surprised that he wants to try rock music. The only problem is that he’s not really very good at it. About 90% of what he played at The Scala was bizarre, non-melodic rock music that was heavy on the weird and annoying, like this:

Okay, so it’s not my style of music and maybe there are other people out there who love it. But not this audience. Most of the people were there to listen to Amelie-music, as evidenced by the guy I met from my college who said, “Yeah, I’m not a big fan, but I really liked that movie.”

Occasionally, Yann would taunt us by putting down his dreaded guitar and playing some nice music:

But of course, it would quickly degenerate into weird guitar thrashing. And this went on for two hours. I really wish he would’ve just played all the Amelie stuff at the start and then I could’ve skipped the rest. Still, hardly anyone left, perhaps hoping that he’d throw us a bone for the encore. But when Yann came back on stage at the end, he didn’t go to the accordion, or the xylophone, or the harmonica, or the piano – he went to his guitar.

“No more guitars, please!” moaned a French guy beside me. Sums up the entire gig, really.

Baba Yetu

Like other game designers, I don’t play a lot of games.

I do have a Wii and a PS2, which sounds typical enough except for the fact that the only games I play on the PS2 are Katamari Damacy and Guitar Hero; Wii Sports and Warioware for the other console. Clearly I like quirky and accessible games – not that I didn’t enjoy playing F-Zero X on my old N64, but it always made me shaky, like many other fast-paced or action games. As for Zelda on the Wii, well, consider this – most gamers dislike the long, non-interactive story scenes and prefer all the fighting. I’m the opposite – I begrudgingly slog through the fighting scenes in order to get to the story bits. I find most console games to be rather difficult to play, since they often assume a basic familiarity of the genre that in reality most people do not have.

I recently had dinner with a bunch of game designers at GDC, so I was interested in finding out what their game playing habits were like. Warren Spector, in between declaring that he will never speak about stories in games ever again (apart from in the following week at SXSW) said that he forced himself to play one or two hours of videogames every day, just to keep up to date on the different games out there.

This might sound funny to most people who would happily play videogames all day, but most people aren’t game designers. If you are, you can’t help but analyse games whenever you play them. So sometimes it really can feel like work, especially if you’ve spent the last ten hours arguing about story flowcharts or interaction points. Personally, I’m amazed that he can manage up to two hours a day, but then I was never a big console gamer, so maybe that’s the reason. I really ought to play more games though – there’s a lot to be learned from them, even for the weirdos working in the upstart ‘ARG’ genre.

The game on which I’ve logged the most hours is on the PC, and it’s called Civilization. Being highly addictive, it’d be tempting to throw it into the home-wrecking category of World of Warcraft, except for the fact that each individual game tends to last for around 6-10 hours – enough to provide a pleasant diversion for a rainy Sunday, but not enough to actually destroy your life (unless your name is Iain Banks, in which case it delays the completion of your novel for six months, until you physically destroy the CD).

The latest version is Civilization 4, and it’s definitely up there with the all-time classic of Civ2. One area where it bests its master, however, is the music. Civilization 4 has the best game soundtrack I’ve ever heard – or more accurately, the best game song, and it’s called Baba Yetu. Baba Yetu is a choral song in Swahili, performed by an acapella group. The lyrics come from the Lord’s Prayer. It’s really the antithesis of typical videogame songs, but it’s perfect for Civilization 4. Whenever I play Civ4, I’m uplifted by that song.

I won’t go into detail about its origins, because someone else has a great post about it already, with links to download the song, but when I was surfing YouTube for videogame music and came across a live performance of Baba Yetu at Video Games Live, I had to write about it. The performance does the song a disservice, especially with the male solo, but to hear even a bad recording of it played live is amazing. In the comments, someone says, “Listening to this one being performed made me and my three friends get a craving desire to play this game!”

That’s what good music should do.

(I went to a Video Games Live performance last year in San Jose. I fell asleep. Really. I blame jetlag, the bad acoustics and the fact that I had to shut my eyes to avoid being blinded by the fricking vicious green laser beams. Plus they didn’t play Baba Yetu.)

(I have a few friends who’ve sung in student choirs, and I know they’re always looking for interesting new music to try out. If that includes you, try Baba Yetu – I think it’d be a lot of fun to sing, plus you’d be able to expand your audience to game players…)