Report on the March 17 meeting

We played:

  • Loeillet, Opus 1, Sonata VIII, Poco
  • Gervaise, Dix Bransles de Champaigne
  • Cavendish, Come, gentle swains
  • Dowland:
    • Lachrimae Antiquae
    • Lachrimae Antiquae Novae
    • Lachrimae Gementes
    • Lachrimae Tristes
    • M. Thomas Collier his Galiard
    • Captaine Digorie Piper his Galiard
  • Spoken Vegetable Round
  • Purcell, Wine in a morning


We’ll continue dropin rehearsals at the usual time (7:45) and
roughly through the end of March. Then we’ll be rehearsing for
the Walk for Hunger, and
the meetings will be limited to the people signed up for that.

We have four people (me, Sue, Anne, and Ishmael) signed up to
play the Walk for Hunger. We could use a couple more, if there’s
anyone out there who likes the idea of playing for tens of
thousands of people in the open air.


I read Lavinia,
by Ursula
while in Fall River
over the weekend. It was about as good as you’d expect if
you’ve read LeGuin’s other “Anthropology Fiction”. The review
which brought the book to my attention said that it
wasn’t as good as The
Left Hand of Darkness
, but the reviewer had looked at it again before
filling out her Hugo Award ballot, and decided it was definitely
one of the best five new books she’d read last year.

My personal favorite of Leguin’s is The
, but I agree with the assessment.

As always, the writing is superb. The phrase that sticks in my
mind is a reference to an aging woman as being “in the twilight of
the mind”. It probably struck me more because I was with my 86
year old mother, but it really seems like a kinder way to
describe what happens than “senility”. In my mother’s case, her
mind still works as well as ever on what she’s actually
concentrating on at the moment, but she just doesn’t seem to be
able to think of anything besides what she’s concentrating on at
the moment.

As far as her reconstruction of how Vergil might have wanted to
finish the Aeneid, as I remember Aeneas from my Vergil course with
<a href="Professor
in 1972, I didn’t see him
as someone who would have agonized over having committed a war
crime. But the scene where Vergil wonders whether his friend
the Emperor Augustus will get the point does ring true.

Following up

I’m back at home, mostly unpacked, and typing this on a real
computer, with an X-windows system that I know what it’s going
to do when I try to copy and paste, where emacs has psgml
installed, and there’s a clicky keyboard at the
right height. And it’s now past when I normally post, so I
thought for a quick post I would write some followup posts, and
save anything strenuous for tomorrow.

Pianos are out of tune

Saturday’s post
on tuning drew an official comment with a book
recommendation. It also drew an email from my friend Ishmael,
who works in a lab at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear
. A colleague of his has written an article
claiming that there’s a neurophysical basis for the stretched
octave. His research subjects for this article are cats, who
tend in my experience to have rather wierd musical tastes, so I
don’t know that this is relevant to why equal temperament was
adopted as the standard tuning by humans, but you can read it
and decide for yourself.

Ishmael also reminded me in the same email that we both play in
lots of contexts where the official tuning system is completely
irrelevant because enough of the performers or instruments
aren’t capable to keeping to a system. This is probably
historically true of an awful lot of music. Which is why many
tuning discussions seem pretty off-the-wall to most practicing

Concert construction

Last Wednesday’s
about the concert program drew an email from one of the
participants. He agreed that more instrumental music would have
been good, and also said that a wider variety of instruments
(more serpent, some crumhorns) might have helped.

I’ve loved you so long

I said in my
post about this movie
that I’d had A la claire
running through my head a little bit wrong since I
saw it. I eventually got out my book of French folk songs and
learned it.

Nokia 810

In my post on my
new Nokia 810
, I may have forgotten to mention that it
works much better than the Nokia 770 did as an MP3

I also found a new application for it — because of the foldout
stand, I was able to set it up on my bedside table in Fall River
as a traveling clock.

Blogging in my 59th year

This post
drew a couple of comments, including one from Mike Cane, whom I had
cited as part of my inspiration for doing this.

He remarks that he’s sure the energy he put into it has
shortened his life, and he doesn’t know how people do it on a
longer term basis.

I think my one post a day isn’t quite as energetic as Mike was
doing — it doesn’t seem any harder than practicing a musical
instrument every day, which I’ve done for several decades. Of
course there is a limit to how many things you can do every day,
and this is cutting into some of the others.

Solar powered Christmas lights

Last Christmas, my sister decided her yard looked drab compared
with all the neighbors’ Santas and reindeer. So she bought some
. They looked fine when we
assembled them out of the box, but that evening as night fell, one
of them glowed weakly, and the other didn’t light up at all.

We hoped it was because we’d set them up in the afternoon and they
hadn’t had a full day to charge the batteries, but the next day was
the same, so we tried putting them on the south side of the house,
which was a little better but still not very much light for very

I’ve been thinking about that because the lights are still there,
and now, in mid-March, they’re working fine. They come on at dusk,
and are only starting to weaken when I walk the dog at bedtime.

In June and July, they’ll probably run for a good part of the

So the moral of the story is that if you want to use solar power to
celebrate, the summer solstice or either equinox is a better bet than
the winter solstice, at least here in southern New England.

Why pianos are out of tune

I recommended How
Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)

by <a href="Ross

last week
without having read it, so this week I decided to read it.

The description of “how” equal temperament took over is a bit
vague, but the “when” is extremely detailed without being dry
and scholarly, largely thanks to the entertaining biographies of
the major players.

Where I would have really liked more detail is in where to go
to listen to non-equal temperaments. He does recommend 6
degrees of tonality
and Beethoven
in the temperaments
by Enid Katahn as CD’s for hearing a
piano tuned in non-equal temperaments. But his
arguments about “why you should care” seem to be the standard
“early music” ones: Beethoven did it on this kind of piano and
so should we. I’d be surprised if they convinced any of the
people who believe that Beethoven really wanted his sonatas
played on a modern Steinway, and was just stuck with those silly
fortepianos that were always breaking strings.

I actually think you can make a case that it isn’t equal
temperament that makes modern pianos out of tune, but rather the
other way around — there’s no possible way to make a modern piano
in tune, so that’s why equal temperament, which is “easier” in
ways that Duffin explains in detail, became accepted.

Piano tuning

I think Ross Duffin doesn’t really realize how out of tune any
modern piano is, even when just tuned by a good tuner to exactly
the frequencies that are theoretically accepted as the best


There’s one issue that he does explain in detail, and that is
that the octaves are in fact wider than the doubled frequency
Pythagoras and Helmholz and all tuners before the metal framed
piano believed in.

Many people’s eyes glaze over when I try to explain this, even
though I think it’s one of the most elegantly complicated
explanations in the history of musical acoustics. So if your
eyes glaze over on complicated explanations, feel free to skip
to the next section.

The short answer for why a note on a piano is more than twice
the frequency of the note an octave below it is that with a
string as stiff as a piano string the
overtones are sharper than the harmonics.

That is, with a light string like a harpsichord or guitar has,
when the string vibrates in two sections to produce the first
overtone, the lengh is in fact almost exactly half the length of the
string, making the frequency twice the frequency of the string’s
fundamental tone.

On a piano, however, the string is so stiff that when it
vibrates in two sections, the actual vibrating length is
noticeably less that half the length of the string. And the
difference is even more pronounced with the higher

So if you tuned a piano so that the fundamental of a string
was precisely twice the fundamental of the string an octave below
it, you would have horrible beats between the first overtone of
the lower string and the fundamental of the higher string, and
even more horrible beats between other pairs of overtones.

So one of the things piano tuners do is figure out how much
they have to “stretch” each octave to minimize these beats
formed by the out-of-tune harmonics.


If you’ve looked at piano pieces, you can see that pianists
play octaves all the time — there are whole genres of piano
music where the left hand is doing nothing but play a walking
bass line in octaves. So if you have to tune octaves out of
tune, there’s no way anyone is going to ever hear a piano as in
tune no matter what theoretical temperament the tuner uses.

But it gets worse than that — not only are the octaves all
sharp — all the unisons are deliberately tuned out of tune.

Only the bottom notes of the piano are played by one string —
the others are have two or three strings (usually) hit by the
hammer. (The soft pedal works by shifting the hammers over so
that only one string is played instead of all two or three.)

Most piano tuners believe that the piano sound is richer if the
two or three strings that play one note are tuned a little bit
differently from each other, to produce something like one beat
per second.

And of course, if you think about the description above of why
the octaves have to be out of tune, you can see that even one
string played all by itself is producing overtones that are “out
of tune” by any theoretical tuning system based on simple

Alternate history

So I think the history of the acceptance of equal temperament
as the dominant tuning system may be something like this:

During the late Renaissance and Baroque eras, people played
music that became more chromatic and more based on harmonies and
played in a wider variety of keys. So tuning systems wer invented with
more compromises in order to play
the wider variety of notes and intervals. This is much better described in Ross Duffin’s 150 page
book than I can do here.

During the nineteenth century, pianos became larger and louder,
and therefore needed to use stiffer strings, so tuning them to any
system based on single frequencies and their ratios became

Pianos also became the dominant instrument, so that most
singers and other instrumentalists were most likely to perform
with a piano as accompaniment rather than with an organ or a cello.

It became increasingly difficult to tell the difference between
the non-equal temperaments favored by the nineteenth century piano
tuners (even when they said they were tuning equal temperaments)
and an equal temperament. And the equal temperament is easier to
train people to tune. So starting in 1917, all piano tuning
manuals advocated equal temperament, and most instrumental
instruction included at least methods for dealing with playing
with an equal tempered instrument, even if they believed some
other kind of tuning was preferable for solo playing.

However, piano tuners (and pianists) do in fact believe that
piano tuning is an art, not a science, so when they’ve finished
tempering all their fifths and stretching all their octaves and
detuning all their unisons the way the manual or their tuning
course told them to, then they play the piano and fix
anything that doesn’t sound right to them. I haven’t looked up
the literature, but I’m pretty sure that this often results in a
tuning where a very large fraction of the strings are vibrating a
a frequency very different from what a computer program will tell
you is an equal tempered scale.


None of which is to imply that I didn’t enjoy Ross Duffin’s book a lot, or that you shouldn’t read it if you’re interested in its subject matter.

Cream of Parsnip Sweet Potato Soup

This was the soup of the week after the Cantabile Band
rehearsal last Tuesday.

I talked to someone at a party in January who had also just
gotten a farm share for the first time, and she said the
associated purchase she had enjoyed most was an immersion blender,
so you can make blended soups right in the pot without other
dishwashing. So I was at the hardware store for something else
last week and I bought a Cuisinart
Smart Stick Hand Blender
. As was also true of my cuisinart
bread machine
, it came with a nice booklet of sample recipes, one
of which was for a parsnip-sweet potato purée. I still had
a bunch of small sweet potatoes from the farm share, so I decided
to modify it to make a soup.

I had about 5 small sweet potatoes, and a pound of parsnips.
I peeled them and cut them into small chunks and put them to simmer in my
2-quart cast iron pot with water to more than cover and salt and
pepper. I sauteed an onion, some garlic and some peeled and sliced
fresh ginger root, and added that. When the parsnips and sweet
potatoes were soft, I took the blender to the mixture and then
left it on the back burner, which has an especially low simmer.
Then after the rehearsal, I added some half-and-half. If you’re
cooking vegan or for the lactose-intolerant, I don’t think the
half-and-half is necessary; it was a pretty creamy soup before I
did that. But I’d bought it with the parsnips, so I decided to
use it.

One thing to note about soups: the recipes all minimize the
cooking time, and then say to use broth, which has previous
cooking time built into it. If you just simmer you soup for
several hours, the vegetables that are in it make the liquid into
broth. In the case of my after-rehearsal soups, the cooking is
usually done around 6 PM, and the eating is after 10 PM when
rehearsal ends, so there’s always several hours of simmering. So
I don’t bother making broth separately.


I saw the movie Milk
last night, on DVD from Netflix.

I usually watch movies with as much acclaim as that one had, so
I’ll be able to talk about them with people. In this case, I was
interested in the subject — I did do left-wing politics (mostly
Cambridge rent control) in the
period covered by the movie, so I was interested to see how
Hollywood would deal with it. Also, I always found it surprising
that the Gay Rights movement took off when it did, because as
someone peripherally involved in the local opera world, I had very
shortly before that been at parties attended largely by gay men,
and I wouldn’t have taken the positive side on any bets on their
ability to work with either women or black civil rights people.

The writing and acting are pretty good, so the award
nominations are justified. Josh
, who plays the assassin Dan
White, is particularly good as a man whose rage grows gradually as
he’s increasingly out of his depth in a situation he can’t
control. (I assume it was a deliberate decision not to ever show
him eating a Twinky.) He was intermittently brilliant in W,
and is consistently so here.

Clearly, nobody would expect any in-depth coverage of the
content of late seventies left-wing politics. I assume that the
word “Marxism” did in fact come up in gay rights circles, but I
wouldn’t expect it in a Hollywood script. What did disappoint me
was that there was no coverage, either verbal or visual, of the
actual work that goes into building a movement. There was one
argument about the content of a flyer, but when the activists are
standing around the store-front campaign office, there’s nobody
stuffing envelopes or making phone calls, or even holding lists of
addresses or phone numbers in their hands. So we’re going to have
to wait for the good European cinematographers to show us what an
political movement actually looks like. Like most such films, the
writers and actors do know how to depict the drunken sensation
of crowd-swaying rhetoric.

As far as how the gay rights movement hooked up with women and
blacks, that does get a little bit of coverage. The scene where
the female campaign manager comes in and takes over the
ultimately successful campaign for Supervisor is really
well-done. But there’s no depiction of any of what led to
Harvey Milk’s Gay Rights bill being co-sponsored by a black
woman, although they do include the scene where it passes and
Milk and the woman embrace.

So I would say to watch this movie if you’re interested in the
subject matter, but don’t expect it to enlarge your
understanding of the politics of the time.

Blog schedule

I’ll be at my Mother’s house in darkest Fall River, Massachusetts, for the next three or four days. I’m
expecting to have a good enough internet connection to continue
with this blog, but if I miss days, it’s because something didn’t work