Sunday, April 13, 2014

Cantiga del Fuego

How is it that this fiery and passionate affair,
ignited by cinders,
consumed my life so completely
and yet was over before forty days were up.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Román népi táncok, Sz. 56, BB68: Arrangement Notes

The Concert, 16 March 2014: This semester's concert by GENUS began and wrapped up in the Conservatory's concert hall. It was marketed by Randy's dashing profile as the Man, Consumed By Wanderlust, Embarks On An Odyssey To Eleven Countries Around The World. My assignment for this round is Bartók Béla's Román népi táncok. The song has been filed in as the second last piece in the concert as well as the encore (to everyone's horror). It was only on the day of the concert that I was aware that the title of the piece had become Six Romanian Dances, but if that means that our emcee Ajay doesn't trip up his sexy baritone voice in the weird Hungarian consonants, I think it's a fair compromise.

Background to the Piece: Bartók Béla composed the first Six Romanian Dances in 1915, based on folk tunes gathered from Transylvania. Transylvania was a region in the Kingdom of Hungary at the time of composition, but was lost to the Romanians in the Treaty of Trianon of 1920. It was at this point when the slightly bummed Bartók presumably shrugged and changed the title from Romanian Folk Dances from Hungary to Romanian Folk Dances. This also why explains why this Romanian piece has a Hungarian name like the composer's, and why five of the movements have two unpronounceable titles instead of just one.

The Six Movements and Where They Come From:
All six songs can be nailed down to a map of Transylvania, or the half of Romania situated to the north and west of the Carpathian mountains.

1. Bot tánc / Jocul cu bâtă / Stick Dance: from Mezőszabad village (now Voiniceni)
2. Brâul / Sash Dance: from Igriș (village within walking distance from Bartók's hometown)
3. Topogó / Pe loc / Standing Still: also from Igriș
4. Bucsumí tánc / Buciumeana / Dance from Bucsum: from Bucium
5. Román polka / Poarga Românească / Romanian Polka: from Belényes (now Beiuș)
6. Aprózó / Mărunțel / Fast Dance: First part from Belényes, second part from Nyágra (now Neagra)

Working Material: The arrangement relied heavily on the piano original, to which the scores are available free of charge on the IMSLP database. Arthur Willner's string orchestra arrangement also accounted for some of the inspiration; I referred chiefly to the 2010 rendition of this piece by Danubia Orchestra and the folk group Muzsikás, who have unrepentantly butchered this piece from its original state, even adding their own movement between Dances 5 and 6:

The work on the guitar ensemble arrangement started on the day of the concert Food for Thought in 18 September 2013. A workable draft was produced in November, and then playability issues were mopped up in the finalised version in 15 January 2014, after negotiation with section leaders.

Technical Issues:
1. Instrumentation:
Wan Ching was roped in to lead the ensemble in movement 2, play a solo in movement 3, and follow along the ensemble in movements 5 and 6 with the Yangqin, a close approximation to the Hungarian hammered dulcimer. Anna led the ensemble in the later half of movement 3 and then movement 4 and then closes with all the rest in movement 6 with the glockenspiel. Movement 3 is extended by half a movement to make space for the Yangqin solo. Everything else was guitars. There were no percussion parts.

2. Speed: 
It appears that the tempo indicated for the later movements was the main reason why people hated the song so much at first. I used Bartók's metronome marks in the piano scores, which most piano players already don't follow. Ultimately, the ensemble decides how fast they would play the songs.

Robert, our conductor, has taken the liberty to play movement 6 part 2 faster than part 1, despite Bartók's recommendation to take it one notch slower.

3. Rubato
I put some segments of movements 2 and 3 for the Yangqin player to play not to any specific tempo, but in any way she damn well likes. This is because I found the movement 2 original to be boring and want to spice it up, and also to force everyone to look at the conductor when they play. The short (angled) fermata at the end of the first two lines are recommended to be held for just long enough for the audience to start feeling impatient and cheated, but not longer.

The speed at which the movement 3 Yangqin solo is to be played is up to the player. Anything other than a regular beat is fine.

4. Chords: 
Chords are chosen according to those in the piano scores. I used the fretboard function in Sibelius 6 to determine if a chord is playable. Even then, a lot of changes had to be made to the chords after the first print to make them easier to play. I have known that the alto players to be allergic to chords, so have minimised chords in alto parts. Much apologies to the basses.

Heng Zhong (Prime 2) accompanied the glockenspiel in the second half of movement 3 with strummed chords. Those things are seriously easier than they look in the scores. Also to whoever plays this part, I don't actually recommend looking at the scores, but instead to write down something like this that fits on a post-it note:

... | Bm | " | G | " | Bm | D/A | " (+G#) | " | D/A | ...

The strum rhythm written in the score is just a recommendation, and one can afford to throw that page away after he has learned the chords by heart and figured out his favourite strumming pattern.

Signed off
8 April 2014

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Album Dream

A photo album was left in my bag. It was an album with pictures of her. Her parents had compiled it to document her childhood, with pictures of her when she was two, when she was four, then so on into her teenage years up to the point when she left her home and her country. It had an ornate red and white patterned cover. The pictures were arranged so that as you flipped the album through, you would go earlier and earlier in time. It was a mistake, I thought. How could it have ended up here? I should return it to her. I put it on my table. And then that was where it ended.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Lenten Passage

Almost closing time at the pub. I have prepared the bar for closure, but two clients linger still. They are old clients: Archangel Mike and Beelzebub. In most days Mike and Bub tend to come and go separately, and one would often come in just after the other has left, almost as if they hate the sight of each other and want to avoid running each other as much as they could. Today, however, they are sitting side by side and deep in conversation, as if they were old friends. How unusual... But a good businessman follows the will of his clientele, and so I fill them both up with drinks and do not ask too many questions.

"Finish up your booze and scoot, we're closing in five," I signal. But the two men throw me insolent soppy grins and wave me to ask me just to accommodate them a little longer. Their drinks have been half-finished for the last hour. Mike had vodka, Bub a cocktail.

Presently Mike gets off the bar stool. He cranes his neck to the left and right. He shakes his arm through. He does a small jog. He says to Bub, "Ah, I have put on some weight! I should get myself more exercise."

"Yes, you do, Fatso!" laughs Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies.
"Want to spar?"
"Yes, let's do it!"

Mike seizes Bub by the collar and hurls him over the counter, just as I instinctively duck under it. Bub crashes into the glass-rack -- Alas! There goes my set of glassware. There are shards all around outside now, raining around me and barely missing me.

Bub rights himself on the floor full of broken glass. He fixes his gaze at Archangel Michael and lets out a laugh, a horrible, reptilian voice, booming, reverberating across the pool table, the TV room and all of the pub. He leaps back over the counter with one leap! Ah, now he has pinned Michael down, by the leg across his neck. With a somersault Michael wrenches himself free. I stop watching and try to shield myself again. Crash! There goes the pool table. Crash! again! That was probably the television.  I shake my head in dismay.

At this moment, Mike grabs hold of a cue and it turns into a flaming sword. One! He strikes the Prince of Darkness. Two! Bub is now floored, and Mike is now holding the sword over his throat, ready to drive it down. Will the Forces of Good prevail at last? Apparently not! Bub has taken hold of a pool ball in each hand; he lets them fly at Michael's face. Thud! The first ball misses Michael and goes out through the window pane, and as it flew it balloons in size and starts to billow with smoke and the cries of tormented souls. That window is shattered. Oh my, and so were all the others! The neighbour's car's alarm is sounding also, oh dear! The second ball strikes the Archangel in the chest, driving him to the far end of the lounge, where he now lies supine.

There is a brief calm. I can now hear the sparks of electricity coming from the busted television set. Some of the lights are now flickering. The barrels have been knocked over, and the house brew is spilling out onto the floor. What a mess! I stand myself up finally, treading the mixture of cider and glass slivers. My bar is wrecked. My bar is wrecked! I fly into a rage! Who are these spiritual beings to do such a thing to my place? Who do they think they even are?

"Get out, both of you, out!", I holler.
"I don't want your meddling here! Oh, how can I stand even having a soul when every time it turns out this way? Who will pay the repairman now? Every f-cking Lent!"

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Letter of Sultan Mahmoud Ali Al-Ababwa

Wherein our fabled folk-hero, the Sultan, finds his match

The Mongols and the Khazars I have run through by the sword,
The Bulgars they tremble at my sight;
In vain the Muscovites scheme against me.
But before you, my Queen, I am defenseless.
I am defeated by your mere presence;
Tormented by thoughts of you, I cannot sleep nor eat.
You are a pearl of Alexandria, you are a beacon atop the Hindu Kush.
Your name is written in the clouds,
Alas, how can I ever find solace?
O great demoiselle, if you would only be mine,
You shall have all my lands between Tarshish and the Bosporus
You shall enjoy the riches of the lands, the adoration of all the nations.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Adventures of Professor Oliver and the Principle of Uniformitarianism

Professor Oliver read the student's answer. The student had not deigned to fill in any of the blanks; instead, he had opted to scrawl the phrase "THE PRESENT IS THE KEY TO THE PAST" repeatedly, haphazardly, and in big bloody letters across the page. Hnph! Professor Oliver snorted, evidently unimpressed. Nevertheless, he relented and gave the student one point for sympathy.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Adventures of Yusuf Al-Muʾtaman ibn Hud and Giovanni Ceva

Wrote the great Yusuf Al-Muʾtaman ibn Hud, the King of Zaragoza, in his magnum opus, the Kitab al-Istikmal: "... Thus, I have proven that if these three ratios on the triangle give a product of one, then these three lines in the triangle meet in a point!"

After having read this proof, the scholars in his court exclaimed: "Truly, this is an important proof! O, great King Yusuf Al-Muʾtaman ibn Hud, you are indeed called the Sage of Zaragoza; your name shall be spread far and wide, even down all the generations!"

Six hundred years later, in a dusty university room in Mantua, the Jesuit Professor Giovanni Ceva realises, with a serendipitous spark of inspiration, the same truth that had been discovered by the great Yusuf Al-Muʾtaman ibn Hud. He publishes it and we now name it Ceva's Theorem because his name is easier to pronounce.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Adventures with Brahmagupta and his Algebraic Proof

Question: Prove Brahmagupta's Formula i.e. that if a cyclic quadrilateral has sides a, b, c, d, and semi-perimeter s, then its area K is given by (...).

Answer: (...)

Professor's commentary: Everything is correct here. However, the proof is not very interesting as you have opted to prove it algebraically rather than with graphical explanation. In fact, it is really boring. In fact, my cat has just thrown up on my trousers and then died out of boredom after having read your proof. I am enraged! Zilch marks for this assignment.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Wisdom of the Ancients

The people of the South were a great civilisation, mulled the Witchdoctor. Indeed most of us here today have our lineage going back to somewhere from the south. That was when there were more people living south of the Arctic circle than there were to the north of it. And there he collected his thoughts and nodded to himself as if making a conclusion. Yes.

Did you mean, asked the young man, that at some point, the Taimirians were not always Taimirians?

Yes, yes, said the Witchdoctor. I think if you went south from here, into the desert and just keep going south, eventually you will reach where the Chinese people used to live. Are you a Dungan, son?

Yes, replied the young man, I've been told as much by my mother.

Then you should know the Chinese. The Dungans come from there. All Dungans do. Have your parents told you that as well?

That is nonsense, scoffed the man. The Dungans have always been in Taimiria, we were never been to or lived anywhere else. That was what we were taught!

The older man smiled cryptically. Doesn't it ever trouble you that you Dungans look awfully similar to the people in Lena?

The younger man stood up, obviously displeased. If all you would do today is to heap abuse on me and my family instead of telling me something useful, I think I should go and consult some other sorcerer.

At least sit down and finish your tea before you go, you hot-blooded young man, replied the Witchdoctor soothingly. The other wizard will be telling you the same truth about the Southern peoples, if that is what you ask for. Do you know why when a boy is determined to become a Witchdoctor or Engineer or any other sort of magician, they send him somewhere far off and forget about him for twenty years? Do you know why some of us is so reluctant to speak like a normal person when asked a question? It is because that the truths are so difficult to accept by commoners like yourself that we have learned to behave this way. Are you going or not?

The young man sat down, still fuming. You're not going to expect me to believe everything you say, are you?

No, I cannot, said the Witchdoctor. You are not a wizard. The wizard truth belongs to us, is believed only by us, and only we can make good use of it. All you need to do is to enjoy the fruits of our work, but if you are curious enough to pry into them, maybe you should become a wizard yourself! 

I am a witchdoctor of this tribe. I am a wizard who can heal the sick; indeed I am trained to do so. When I was a novice, my training stint started in the college at Archangel, a city of two months' journey away in the west, perched cosily by the Little Ocean. For the first four years, each novice learns the same things. Quite a lot of it is basic, layman content, like bridge-building. Others include electric arts, biomancy and piezotics, which are not. We learned Algebra, which is a language that all novices learned to use, but no one has ever managed to learn to speak, because this language is so arcane that it is much easier written than spoken, and I think that it is only possible to write it.

And why do you use such a language, when instead you can just choose a dialect that most people speak? asked the young man.

Wisdom of the ancients, son, the Witchdoctor beamed. The Southeners know what they are doing. Algebra grants an instant path to enlightenment the way the commoner's language can never do. A wizard armed with Algebra can outperform a diligent town council in tasks such as erecting a monument or predicting the weather, even finding the best price for furs and spices in the market... that is, if the people there would be so kind to let him do it.

If there were such a tool so powerful as you say, why should you tell it to me, an outsider? Would you or any other wizard keep it to yourself, to secure yourself an advantage? The young man asked.

It is not teachable. The Witchdoctor shook his head. I have heard stories of wizards being extorted to pass on the secrets of Algebra to one of the local kings. None what they taught him could retain for any length of time; the king forgot it as soon as he woke up the next day. You could imagine his rage. Silly man, he killed them all for nothing. So I can teach you and I am quite sure it will be futile. That's unless you can understand it, but in that case, you would be a wizard now.

Seeing the incredulous look on the younger man's face, the Witchdoctor continued: The wisdom of the ancients. That, young man, was the way of world a long time ago. Everyone knew some of the wizard truths; that is to say everyone was a wizard. It was by magic that life was brought to inanimate objects that laboured away for humans, leaving them to the more savoury pleasures of life. It was by magic that the agrarians' crops could grow reliably, year after year, so that no one starved to death because of drought or disease. But alas, it was not long after when the desert came and swallowed everything, and cities were slowly abandoned as the edges of the sand seas passed over them. If you went far enough south, you can still see those empty husks of the countless great towers and bridges that belonged to the old Southerners, and you would understand that what wizards can do now is but a small sliver compared to what those people were capable of.

The young man furrowed his brows for a good while, trying to take it all in. Finally, he came to some semblance of a reckoning, and interrupted: And the desert, that was something you couldn't magick away, what with all the miracles that the ancients can pull off?

No, laughed the Witchdoctor. We couldn't magick the desert away, even the wizards who are the best in deserts. It must have been impossible to do, because not even them could do so much more than impede its advance for a short while.

The Witchdoctor leaned back in his seat and heaved a long sigh. We used to be gods! What could we not do back then? The great empires of the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians, where are they now? All dead, scattered, forgotten by their descendants (He eyeballed the young man pointedly) who huddle around a stale lake and cannot think ahead for a day beyond tomorrow...

I have no idea what they put in your heads in Archangel, but I don't believe a word that you have just said, the young man remarked. But it makes for a good story, so thank you.

The old man sat up in alarm. Are you going so soon? You would like some more of my tea; I am sure of it!

References: Taimiria (region) / Lena (region) / Archangel (city) / Dungan people