Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Toy Piano

In Garlic Theatre's new show, There's A Monster In My Piano, there is a toy piano.  It's a wonderful little thing with a wooden body and beaters with an 'old-fashioned' plastic look.  It's French made and, without knowing the make and model off hand, I'd guess it was built in the 1950s.    The 'strings' are metal rods and there are no dampers.

I have been sampling the instrument, note by note, with varying attack and collecting various sounds for use as effects. Playing the piano softly is a challenge as too little force fails to throw the hammers against the rods. My favourite sound effect is created by tipping the piano backwards so the hammers fall against the rods in a random fashion.

To give a flavour of the instrument I recorded a snatch of Bach (I ran out of notes with which to play further) and a 12-Bar.  Perhaps I should have picked it up off the floor first; my piano playing is generally bad but seldom this awful  The battery on top of the piano in one of the pictures is AA, just to give some idea of scale.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

I would have liked to have stayed longer than the 21 hours I spent in the spectacular temple city of Madurai.  A number of factors, including a dispute between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu over a dam, made us get on a train to Trivandrum in the small hours.

Another British cock-up, although not on the scale of Partition, is reverberating down the centuries.  In the late 19th century the British oversaw the building of a dam in the kingdom of Travancore (modern day Kerala) for the irrigation of the lands to the east of the Western Ghats (then the Madras Presidency, now Tamil Nadu).  The Mullaperiyar was bequeathed to Madras for a thousand years. In a nutshell, the Keralans think the dam is in need of repair but don't want to pay for it as it's not their dam and they don't benefit from it.  The Tamils believe the dam is in good condition and don't want to pay for unnecessary repairs.  Obviously, a burst dam would be catastrophic for the Keralans and things have become rather heated.  There have been border skirmishes and all the roads were closed.  The only way in and out was by train.

I took a picture of this intriguing machine but had no time to enquire further.  Since I've returned I found clip on Youtube (where else?) featuring a demonstration. Predictably, but wonderfully, there are a number of similar clips.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Poole Puppet Festival

You learn something new every day, as the saying goes.  On Saturday I took part in two performances of The Chalk Giants at the Lighthouse in Poole and discovered that it was the first day of Poole Puppet Festival.  It included a display of some particularly fine puppets, workshops for children and 'have-a-go' puppets too.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Two more from the natural world

Whales: Apparently their stress levels increase in line with engine noises from shipping.  It interferes with their communication with other whales.  Hardly surprising, really, but still good to have some firm evidence.  Time to revert to sail?  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16926005

Monkeys: The 'silent' Tarsier monkey from the Philippines is actually very talkative.  It just speaks at a frequency far above the limit of human hearing. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2098329/Philippine-Tarsier-monkey-talks-ultrasound.html It's worth clicking the link just to look at their eyes.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Insect asides

A couple of insect related items caught my ear recently, courtesy of BBC radio.  The first concerned bees and one Huw Evans, an electronic engineer turned bee-keeper.  He has been recording the sound inside his hives and analysing it in an attempt to predict swarming.  He can also monitor the health of his bees in a non-invasive manner.  Looking inside the hives to check on the bees just upsets them, unsurprisingly, and has a negative effect on honey yield.  The full article, with audio clip, is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16114890

The piece of news was the recreation of the sound made by crickets 165 million years ago in the Jurassic period.  The radio piece gave us a few chirps but the on-line article at http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/16878292 is silent.   The researchers recreated the sound by examining a fossilised cricket. What is particularly interesting is that they believe they can use the sounds to make further assumptions about the other sounds in the forest.  This is because the insects would have to make their sound cut through the rest of the jungle noise to reach their prospective mate.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The first lesson

When I bought my flute from Vunugoptal I tried to teach him a tune and he tried to teach one to me.  Neither of us had much success.  I had wanted to play The Lark in the Morning - a particular favourite - but could neither remember it nor conjure it out of the Keralan air.  I settled for The Maids of Mitchelstown.

I don't know what tune he tried to teach me but I distracted myself by trying to mimic the sighing quality of his playing.  I was taught to cover the holes of the flute with the pads the last phalange of each finger.  This is a very western, classical style of playing but it makes impossible the kind of glissando that Venugoptal achieved with such grace and lack of effort.  He did this by using the pads under the second phalange of the fingers on his right hand.

I was also confused by the fact that he took his root note from the middle of the instrument - the top three holes being open, the bottom three closed.  He maintained that his flute was in C while to my mind it was in G.  This caused me some problems in our next meeting, my first 'formal' lesson.

Venugoptal's teaching involved me learning and transcribing tunes.  The first one uses a scale:
D Eb F# G A Bb C# D

Just to give you a sense of my own confusion, the first note of lines 3 and 4 of the transcription should be a G, the second F# etc. Venugopal demonstrates the tune in the clip. His playing is rather stilted but he wouldn't let me record him just 'playing', only demonstrating the tunes. The accompanying pictures are completely gratuitous but I haven't found a way of posting audio without pictures. My apologies for the noise caused wind hitting the microphone - we were outside.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A voice project

As part of my work on the soundtrack for 'There's a Monster in My Piano' for Garlic Theatre I am collecting true stories about, and people's early impressions of,  pianos.  This has involved sticking a microphone in front of my interviewees and so I am learning the knack of helping them relax while keeping my own mouth shut. An excellent discipline.

I didn't have much to do with pianos as a child myself.  I was just getting interested in the unplayed instrument in our sitting room when we moved abroad and left it behind.  But one teenage episode sticks in my mind.  I was a boarder at a minor public school (private school, if you live across the pond) and weekends could really drag.  So I had plenty of time to walk up the steps onto the stage in the memorial hall.  But the lid of the grand piano was closed and this was the most direct route:

Step 1: the piano stool
Step 2: the top of the piano
Step 3: the stage 

The music teacher, also a boarding master, was young and keen and when he saw a chalky footprint on the top of his pride and joy he was livid.  He determined the shoe size and print pattern (basketball boots were the 'trainer' of the day) and went on a Cinderella-style hunt for the perpetrator. Fortunately the story doesn't have a fairy tale ending. It was a nervous time but I was never caught because:

Step 1: I hid the offending boots at the first rumour of trouble
Step 2: Though tall for the times, I had taken the precaution of growing feet small enough to pass for those of a much younger boy 
Step 3: I had had the foresight to be made a prefect and so, as part of the establishment and old enough to know better, I had placed myself beyond suspicion

I have met a number of non-players with piano related tales to tell.  If you have a tale to tell, as a pianist or not, do let me know.