Undersea Libretto

I finally got around to figuring out how to use some recording interface I bought more than a year ago and tested it on my theremin. Then I fiddled around with the recording in audacity (wikipedia link) and decided to see if I could make a film out of some footage I had downloaded a long time ago from the Prelinger archives, which have a ton of interesting ephemeral film. It was an enjoyable, although time-consuming exercise in finally learning how to use the iMovie program that came with my iBook. The results can be seen at the link above, if I copied the code right. The idea is sort of related to a text I have been working on that I call the Undersea Libretto, which is inspired by B-movies and the deep ocean, and Haruki Murakami without all the cooking, and other things. It was a useful exercise for me, because there are things I like about this little film that are missing in the text, and it has suggested to me ways to improve the text.


The soundtrack is theremin, run through a Boss delay pedal, and then messed around with in audacity (edited, and slowed down in parts, mostly). It was fun to make, I hope I can find the time to do more of these.

In your head, in your head, zombie, zombie, zombie

Mr. Cordyceps was reminded by his wife that a parents’ evening was scheduled at their daughter’s school that same day; she had forwarded to him an e-mail from said daughter’s home-room teacher with the pertinent information, which included room number, time, and an invitation to dine afterwards at a nearby Italian restaurant, which invitation Mr. Cordyceps and his wife had gladly accepted. Immediately after reading the pertinent information contained in the forwarded e-mail, Mr. Cordyceps forgot it again, like an opening scene from some alternate universe anti-matter Mission Impossible episode.

Normally, this social event would have been a source of distress for Mr. Cordyceps, suffering as he does from social anxiety and tinitus, as well as debilitating exhaustion after 6pm. However, the previous day at the airport, he had happened across a self-help book at an airport news agent entitled “Fuck It!” (the book was so titled, not the bookshop), which purported to distill millennia of Eastern wisdom down into that sentence. Mr. Cordyceps decided to experiment and apply that phrase to his daily life, beginning with the decision of whether or not to purchase the book.

His wife turned out not to be thrilled by his surprise reception for her at the airport, so he applied the phrase again. It worked, he was refreshed by the resulting lack of frustration over her dismay.

So when the evening of the school visit approached, he leaned on the phrase hard. There were genuine grounds for worry, many things could go wrong. Their daughter was new at the school, and it was a posh place. The oldest school in town, proud of the quality of the families who sent their children there. Most of the other parents had already known each other for at least four years, they would be newcomers, possibly viewed askance, or at least with skepticism. And there was the matter of his table manners. Mr. Cordyceps had recently observed himself dining and realized that he had the table manners of a starving homo erectus.

The Plain People of Ireland: You just said homo erectus.

Mr. Cordyceps and his wife arranged to both park at a park and ride facility and proceed together to the school, but neglected to arrange a meeting time. As a result there was a slightly tense moment at five pm when his wife called from the park and ride to say that she had arrived and where was he, and he was on the verge of sliding into a dither before putting his new phrase to work. Somewhat calmed, he informed her of her options: she could wait 15 minutes for him to drive there and pick her up, or meet him at the school. Had he parked there, he would have needed 30 minutes to get there anyhow, he told her. Later they discussed the matter briefly and agreed that their decision to meet at the school was the best possible choice, since she had arrived so early; if they meet at the park and ride in the future, they will have to do so half an hour after he gets off work so he can walk down.

Despite all that messing around, they were still the first ones at the school. Then the others arrived and the meeting began. Coincidentally they sat at their daughter’s desk, so they were able to rifle through her things prior to the meeting. The desk was covered with graffitti, but so were all the other desks. Mr. Cordyceps considered adding, “I love my dad” but then applied his phrase, because getting in trouble for writing on a desk would not be a good start to his new relationship with the school.

The home room teacher explained various things. Mr. Cordyceps understood about 75% of what she said, and about 50% of what the other parents said. This was due primarily to his tinitus and general deafness, he decided, but he had to wonder how much was due to the scores of 32 and 33 that he had gotten that day on two test-yourself-for-Aspergers tests he had taken that afternoon on the Internet. 30, according to the tests, corresponds to borderline Aspergers, or suspicion of possibly having Aspergers, or thereabouts, but Mr. Cordyceps was well aware of his ability to suss such tests while taking them, which may have resulted in him achieving a score higher than would in truth correspond to his actual position on the spectrum; moreover, he recalled a conversation with a wonderful German friend years ago who had been in a frustrating relationship with someone who really did have Aspergers and who had assured him that he did not have it; therefore, he concluded that at most a small percentage of his not understanding was attributable to his test scores.

Other teachers came in and explained to parents the importance of participation and homework and organization and neatness. In general, it seemed like a good school; both Mr. Cordyceps and his wife were satisfied and reassured, although Mr. Cordyceps had found the Latin teacher a bit scary, a youngish, slender, sexy blonde woman with a prominent jaw and unnerving tendency to stress the fact that the pupils came from good families, which made Mr. Cordyceps dread dining with the other parents later that evening.

Nevertheless, dine they did. First they walked to Mr. Cordyceps’ car to put in a fresh parking pass because you are only allowed to park for up to two hours on the street in that district of town, and only with a parking pass filled out in the window, after which you have to leave or put in a fresh pass (that is what Mr. Cordyceps believed, and in fact when he met a husky, uniformed woman later that night checking parking passes and writing tickets and asked her how long one was allowed to park, she confirmed this, saying “one is allowed to park for two hours, but we tolerate three,” which he found charmingly Viennese). They had to walk clear around the block to do so, about which his wife complained. She knew a shortcut, so the walk back to the restaurant was shorter.

In the restaurant it was very crowded and noisy. The acoustics were terrible, and all noise (kitchen and conversation) was focused at the corner in which they sat. Mr. Cordyceps was on his best behavior. He observed the others and did what they did. He found it difficult to arrive at a comfortable sitting posture, and tried out several. Luckily his wife’s hearing is fine and she is a good talker; he smiled and nodded. When the waiter came, he ordered Merlot, so did his wife and another woman sitting across from him. From this he concluded that the Merlot had been a socially-acceptable choice, while entertaining the possibility that the others had themselves been unsure what to order and opted on the I’ll-have-what-he’s-having choice, which he found slightly humorous given his profound lack of wine knowedge.

The Merlot was okay. Mr. Cordyceps was sitting next to the only other man in the group, but he did not talk to him because he would not have been able to understand what the other man said, and besides the other man was apparently engrossed in a woman with maroon hair and deep in conversation with her. Mr. Cordyceps studied the menu, looking for an entree that matched the color of his tie (off-white, stupidly, given that they were eating in an Italian restaurant) and would be easy for a hungry homo erectus to eat politely.

Plain People of Ireland: Fuck it.

Mr. Cordyceps decided on pizza. No, not pizza, because that involves a lot of fork and knife action, which allows far too many opportunities for mishaps, such as when one has a knife that is insufficiently sharp and pushes the pizza from the plate, or when one does not slice 100% all the way through the crust of the pizza and instead of raising just one bite to one’s mouth lifts the entire pizza. Risotto would be a good decision, and his wife did recommend the shrimp risotto, which she had eaten on a previous occasion, but Mr. Cordyceps was not hungry for risotto. Pasta, which he loved, was out, due primarily to the tomato sauce, which did not match his tie, but also to the twirling it onto your fork process involved, which also bore excessive slapstick potential.

Mr. Cordyceps applied his new phrase and decided on spaghetti aglio, olio e pepperoncino. Pepperoncini? The woman across from him ordered that as well, so he felt more comfortable. In a worst-case scenario, he would copy her methods of eating it. And, in fact, he did just that. When the food was served, the spaghetti came with a spoon, which Mr. Cordyceps knew was to be used as a base for twirling the noodles onto your fork. He had also heard that this was not an authentically Italian way to eat one’s spaghetti, and endeavored at first to eat his spaghetti fork-only.

All this time, it was impossibly noisy. It was a wall of sound. It was an Einst├╝rzende Neubauten wall of posh restaurant conversation and tinitus. Mr. Cordyceps focused on his spaghetti with a laser-sharp concentration. At home, he basically got the whole plateload of spaghetti twirled around his fork all at once and sort of gnawed it off in as few bites as possible, but he knew that would not be well-received here. Everyone else was using their spoons, so he did as well. He noticed that they did not try to minimize the number of forkloads they ate. On the contrary, they were eating relatively small bites, so he also did. Despite this, he was the first to finish, as he was eating only and not eating and talking. There was a lot of oil at the bottom of his plate, and there were a lot of garlic slices. He avoided the oil, which guaranteed nothing but grief, tie-wise, and concentrated on the garlic.

The woman across the table mentioned a town. Mr. Cordyceps understood his wife to say, I don’t think I’ve ever been there. He decided he had misunderstood her, since she went there a lot to go shopping with the girls. Then she looked at him. Apparently she had thrown him a conversational bone and he was expected to pick it up and manipulate it somehow. Oh, I’ve been there, he said. I even played a concert there. He explained that he had composed a piece for voice and theremin and performed it in a concert location there. The other parents they were talking to were all musicians of one stripe or another. Mr. Cordyceps’ wife mentioned that he played the cello. He added, badly. His wife accused him of tiefstapeln. Everyone smiled. Mr. Cordyceps considered adding, And the singing saw, but ultimately did not.

Trapped there in his snow globe of noise, the look on the other woman’s face told him that he had just scored a status point somehow. He wasn’t sure what for, thanks to his scores of 32 and 33, but he thanked his wife internally. He resolved to thank her externally as soon as he got a chance, but he forgot.

Then they paid their bill and went home. There was a small problem getting his wife back to her car, as it was impossible to get there from where they were, by car. The closest he could get her was the station, from which she had to walk a few meters. Nothing remarkable; afterwards it occurred to him that he should have walked to her car and let her drive his, but that would have entailed the problem of him finding where she had parked her car, and she did ultimately make it home safely so in the end all was well. He applied his phrase again.

Then he went to sleep, and slept until the rain woke him in the morning, after which he lay in bed a few minutes listening to it. It was the most beautiful sound.


PS The Irish Times is celebrating the 100th birthday of Brian O’Nolan by reprinting some of his columns, bless their hearts.

Thanksgiving 2010

So much to be thankful for.

We had enough food for everyone this year. Every year we worry there won’t be enough, and there’s always too much. The turkey, although smaller than usual, and slightly injured in one spot from trying to escape through a fence (organic), was plenty big and turned out well. I thought the apple pie could have been a little juicier, but it was pretty good. The pumpkin pie looked a little funny but tasted good. Alpha’s corn soup was delicious, as was everything else. Her biscuits were especially fluffy this year. None of the guests got into a fight. The barfing cat barfed twice, but no one noticed. It was nice seeing everyone. I generally do better with smaller groups, though. More than two people and it gets hard for me to follow conversations, and I’m a lousy host repartee-wise, but you can’t have everything. We fired up the theremin and the singing saw after dinner and half of us spent some time jamming, including my cello teacher Alena, and Ute, and her friend Rich, and his daughter Megan, an 11-year old thereminist who also bakes awesome cookies.

Here is a recording Ute made of Megan on the theremin, accompanied by me on the saw:


So anyway, the concert.

So I composed some music. You may remember, I asked people here for recordings of them reading their receipts in various languages. It was a composition for soprano, recorded voices and theremin. And cash register. The English title is The Cashier’s Ascension. It is about a cashier who goes to heaven.

The people who organize the composition workshop at the local music school are my heroes. They work hard and, more importantly, accomplish a lot. Imagine how cool it is for kids to have composition demystified, and have their compositions taken seriously and performed no matter what.

Imagine that.

The workshop has been going for about five years now, and a selection of compositions from that period were played at the Klangturm in St. P├Âlten last week. Compositions, I gather it’s a big deal if your composition gets performed more than once. And here we were getting performed for the second time!

The Klangturm also has a facebook page here. And there are photos of the concert here. The one of the guy with the theremin, that’s me. The woman next to me is the soprano who sang for me, and the woman in the yellow jacket is the heroic organizer, Cordula B. (After the concert, she performed with Wolfgang F. who played two turntables, while she played a flute with microphones attached inside and out. It was really fantastic.)

(I generally don’t list people’s names on my blog in case they don’t want to be associated with it, is the thing, google searches and all).

Anyway, so I really did this. I wasn’t just making it up. I still have to check whether a recording was made. It didn’t look like it, though.

Next time.

I almost didn’t get to play, I was supposed to go to Slovenia on business again.

But then I got to go after all. And I found the place, and we played and I didn’t get tangled up in all my cords and cables. I had two effects pedals (chorus and reverb), and they had power cables as did the theremin, mixer and speaker, etc.

The singer has a really nice voice. She’s quite good. I’m always surprised when she agrees to sing with me.

The piece starts out with cash register peeping (recording) and voices reading receipts in various languages. Most prominent at the beginning is Muireann reading in Irish, and novala in German. And several English voices. And then a big mix of everyone.

And then the recording stops, and it’s just theremin and soprano, going to heaven after suffering and dying. Now and then some weird clicking sounds that result from attenuating a recording of less than one second of a Danish singer saying the “T” sound out to several minutes.

In the beginning, we just stand there for 2 minutes while the recording plays. The audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Then, at the end, they’re not sure it’s over. That’s kind of neat.

Then, after the concert, kids come up and ask about the theremin. I feel like Johnny Appleseed Thereminseed. They ask how it works and I say it was invented by accident in 1920 when Lev Theremin tried to make a burglar alarm, and I try to explain about radio waves and antennae and more or less resist saying stuff like, “Well I don’t know how Lydia Kavina does it, I just wave my hands and noise comes out.”

So, anyway. That was that.

The big night

Re: #8 on my list of 50 things down below there (which has been updated and more or less completed), as John Cage writes in his book “Silence”,


Excuse me, that Red Bull belch made my eyes water. Taurin or something. That’s what I get for drinking the large can.

John Cage writes, composing, performing and appreciating music are three different, unconnected things. Id est, it would be totally legimate for me to compose such a piece, and no doubt an audience could appreciate it, but my guess is it would be the performance part where the whole thing falls apart.

Not so with my latest composition, which is going to be performed tonight. The composition is done, a duet for theremin and soprano, with a background tape of the voices you sent in (both natural and highly distorted). It has been rehearsed, and works. My biggest problem is avoiding being enthralled by the singer’s beautiful voice and forgetting to make sounds on the theremin.

I am curious about the reception it will receive. It will be recorded, and videotaped, and I will post something if I can work out all the rights and stuff.

Originally, I had hoped to get someone else to play the theremin part, but it seemed fair to me that the composer play his own composition, no matter what Cage said.

Wish me luck, or to break a leg or whatever thereminists say.

Rupture an eardrum!

Reverse a chakra!

Get a shock!

From Lydia Kavina to crackling in a single weekend

Left five minutes earlier this morning because Beta had to get to work, and traffic was so much lighter we got into town fifteen minutes earlier. I’m generally happy to have the chance to drive her places, because since she’s moved out and only comes home for visits such drives are the only chance we get to hang out.

Which is fine. I hear it’s good for kids to have their own life.

I’ll see her again on the weekend, she’s coming home to visit our new kittens. Our old cats are very huffy at the moment, but they’ll get over it eventually – the kittens are identical to them, only smaller and cuter.

Gamma and I had a very interesting weekend. On Saturday, we drove to Hainburg, near the Slovak border, to visit an exhibition on historical electronic instruments at the Kulturfabrik Hainburg and a concert featuring several interesting instruments, and musicians, including Lydia Kavina (I got to shake her hand, but neglected to have my picture taken, alas – she’s Lev Theremin’s grand-niece) on theremin, and even a string quartet. It is a very nice venue – a remodeled tobacco factory, the exhibition was great and included hands-on exhibits. It was organized by the Institute of Media Archeology, an interesting group who however might want to update their main page, I see.

The main thing I learned from our trip was to always chew your schnitzel well. Gamma had kind of a near-death experience in the restaurant at dinner. We were talking, and then we’re playing charades, with me going, “Necklace? Neck? What?” and her going, “hrck hrg ptooey!”. After a few seconds that felt longer to both of us, I figured out what was going on and was going to grab her and pat her on the back or do the Heimlich maneuver, but she managed to herk the meat back out.

She later said she could have herked it out sooner, but was a nice restaurant so she was a little shy about herking out meat.

As far as the exhibition and concert go, it was nice to be introduced to the concept of media archeology, for one thing – the idea of reviving, or documenting, technology related ideas from the past. They had a trautonium there, for example, and a video about it. The soundtrack to Hitchcock’s “The Birds” was played on a trautonium, after Hitchcock decided regular bird noises weren’t scary enough. It’s a beautiful instrument in the proper hands.

I took a few pictures, including of a vintage theremin, and will eventually upload them if I remember.

There was a very good what… video and music selection available from two monitors. Gamma and I listened to “Switched on Bach” for example, which came out around 1968, when I was younger than she is now. It holds up pretty well.

Gamma was pretty tired by the time the concert started, but I enjoyed it greatly. It’s one thing to read about the instruments, or just to look at them, and another to hear them playing music actually composed for them. Russisan composer Iraida Yusupova was present for the debut performance of her “Beautiful Theremins in Beautiful Ambients” for two theremins, piano, oboe and string quartet.

My biggest disappointment was that I could not attend a theremin workshop presented the following day due to social obligations that involved eating a large dumpling filled with Grammeln, which apparently translates as crackling, meaning the crisp browned skin of roast pork or the residue that remains after animal fat has been rendered, and is one of the most delicious dishes in the world. On sauerkraut.

We were with my in-laws, visiting some friends of theirs. It was a pretty boring Sunday for Gamma, sitting around all these old people; she was probably wishing she was back looking at gramophones and Moog synthesizers, but the older I get, and the older everyone else gets, the easier it is to forgive their shortcomings and so on, because you never know. And it was a lot of fun to hear everyone bicker, and contradict each other while they tried to give my wife, who was driving, directions to the place.

Our host was a retired helicopter pilot, and at one point he showed us an old picture of his group in the military, a graduation picture or something similar, and asked us if we could pick him out of the group and was surprised it was so easy for me, because he had been younger and more slender forty or so years ago. And they reminisced about the other men in the picture, saying things like, “he crashed, and he crashed. And he crashed, and so did he.”