Beauty Born in Tragedy


concerto-iI’m posting yet another remix of the first movement of my Piano Concerto. It is, again, a vast improvement over the previous mixes. I still hope to hear the music performed someday by a real orchestra, and a real pianist.


I’m one guy with a few years experience of fooling around with a computer disk drive containing a handful of captured sounds that some sound engineer thought were “representative” of the instrument. They’re nice samples. Really nice samples. But they’re only samples. I piece them together like Lego blocks into something that sounds like music.

A real symphony orchestra is made up of fifty-some-odd people who have each been mastering their single instrument all their lives, conducted by a master musician who merely directs these other musicians to apply their human, musical minds and hearts toward making music together. They understand music — and they have the knowledge and skill to get just the right sound out of their instrument. A dramatic horn swell. A light violin spiccato. A mysterious timpani roll.

There is, in the end, no contest.

The piano concerto is my first major work, and like a first date, a first kiss, a first love, there is something about this music that has become an irreplaceable part of my being. It will never be quite right. It will never be entirely wrong.

It was born in tragedy, finished in calamity, and has always been solace.

The concerto began on a dark night sometime in 1986. In January of 1985, our almost-three-month-old daughter, Christina, died of SIDS in the middle of the night. As I fell apart, then slowly put myself back together (with help) and moved on with life, I would occasionally console myself by trying to recover some skill with the piano, which I’d stopped studying in high school.

One night my fingers started playing a rhythmic little tune. It was a strange experience: I heard the music in my head, and my fingers almost knew how to play it. I knew two things intuitively and instantly: I had never heard or played this music before, and it was the opening to the third movement of a piano concerto. It grew from there.

The second movement came next, a few years later, as a lullaby for my two sons.

The first movement came to me last, well into the mid-1990’s, as the sound of horns blowing through my mind. I had by then written my own MIDI sequencer for the Amiga computer, playing through a Korg M-1 keyboard, which allowed me to do very simple polyphonic orchestrations.

I remember walking across a frozen parking lot to meet friends for a New Year’s Eve drink (or three) in 1994 at an upscale little Italian bistro near my home. I needed a haircut. On a whim, I decided in the middle of that parking lot, between one step and the next, to let my hair grow until the concerto was finished.

My hair was almost shoulder-length in late 1995 when I cut a digital audio tape of original compositions, and made 100 copies through a little commercial studio in LaPorte Colorado, to give out as Christmas presents. I didn’t include the concerto: it wasn’t finished, and I didn’t have nearly enough raw processing power on the computer or the keyboard to perform it, anyway.

I got busy with other things, cut my hair, and stopped composing.

I finally finished the concerto in 2003.

I had bought a new keyboard, a Roland XV-88, and a new PC with a commercial sequencer, Cakewalk. I had all the good intentions in the world, but I was very busy with work.

I went in to see the doctor about a little problem with bleeding hemorrhoids. They told me it was colon cancer.

That’s a hell of a thing to be told on a Thursday afternoon. They wanted me in surgery Friday morning, but could not make it work with their schedules. So I was scheduled for Monday morning, first thing.

I knew that, though the odds were small, I might not wake up on Monday afternoon. What do you do with your last three days of life? My answer was: pretty much the same thing you’d do anyway. Three days isn’t enough time to write out your bucket list and do anything about it. You really don’t want to run around to all your friends and say, “I love you, good-bye.” You aren’t going to “get your affairs in order,” and besides, the last thing you want to be doing with your last three days is paperwork.

After surgery, and throughout chemo, I had a great deal of time to ponder my life, which at that point, consisted mostly of promises of great things yet to come. Promises that might not be kept, now, and by the way, weren’t all that great when you looked at them closely as an epitaph. As the chemo deepened and I found myself with less and less energy, I decided I’d use my good days to finally finish the concerto. I’d worked out all the piano parts by then by playing them over and over: I could almost perform the work, though now I didn’t have the stamina to get through more than a few measures at a time. So I recorded (as MIDI) in little manageable sections, and orchestrated it, and cut myself a CD.

As early summer moved into late summer and the chemo started truly kicking my ass, I would lie in bed, with my crappy little recording on my crappy little boom-box playing quietly into the night as I drifted somewhere between waking and restless sleep, and I would say to myself, “I wrote that.” It seemed like the one unambiguously beautiful accomplishment in my life. Everything else was tarnished or in doubt. My marriage had ended. My mother was gone, my father was slipping into dementia, my sister was long-since estranged. My kids were not doing well in school, and I wondered how badly I’d already failed them, and how much worse it would be if I up and died on them. My career — bah. A bunch of technical challenges solved to make someone else rich selling gizmos to the morally incompetent to increase their power over the rest of us, to be replaced at the first opportunity with the next new gizmo and forgotten.

But this — this was unambiguous. It was beautiful, certainly as I heard it in my mind through the muddled samples and the poor sound reproduction. Even if it was never heard by anyone but me, even if it was a sand castle washed away without a trace, I wrote this.

And yet, I also feel I didn’t write it, I merely wrote it down. It came from someplace outside me, yet inside me, in a way that’s impossible to adequately describe. Those of you who have been seduced by a Muse will know what I’m talking about.

I remixed the concerto a few years ago with Garritan sound samples on my brand new iMac. That’s the mix that has been up on this site for some time, and it’s a lot closer to what I hear in my head than the crappy little recording from 2003. But it’s still not right.

This one is a little closer.

Technical features. I’m still using Cuebase 7.5. These are the East West Sound samples, the Platinum Orchestra and Platinum Pianos collections. This piano is a Steinway D, and it’s pure chocolate gorgeousness.

I’m driving them, interestingly enough, with the same MIDI sequences dating back to my original 2003 performance, cleaned up here and there. I had to do finer cleanup on the piano part this time, because this sampled piano is so much more responsive to touch. A real Steinway keyboard feels nothing like a weighted electronic keyboard, and my fingering in 2003 was — well, sloppy. Lots of weak notes with the fourth finger.

As the samples become clearer and more realistic, I find that I need to do fewer audio tricks to try to get the sound close to right, and I’ve even been able to consolidate or cut parts.

Cutting parts is good if I hope to have it performed live at any point. Most conductors scowl when you call for two glass harmonica and choir of castrati. I think you have to be Andrew Lloyd Weber to get away with that.


And I’m very much looking forward to remixing the second movement, to which I’ve never done justice: I think this electronic orchestra can handle it.

Two for the Sink

This has not been an auspicious day.

Teddy is an early riser, and we are trying to figure out how to teach him not to greet us in the morning with his front paws on the bed. Well, actually, paws on the bed would be better: he just gets up on his hind legs — standing, he’s a little shorter than Marta — and then flops his paws down on whatever is near the edge of the bed, a kind of hail-fellow-well-met crushing handshake, slap on the back, and kick down the stairs all rolled into one.

Five-thirty this morning. Even God is only starting to twitch.

Then, as I’m trying to find the shower, Marta tells me the microwave is not working. Which is not good, not because it’s expensive (though it’s not cheap to replace a microwave), but because it’s plugged into some slightly dodgy wiring that could be very expensive to replace. It’s too dark, yet, to even try to go out and check the breaker box. So I pour out the last of the coffee and start a new pot.

When God finally gets up and turns on the lights, I go out, and sure enough, the breaker is tripped. And it won’t re-engage. So the breaker is bad, or there’s a dead short somewhere in the house wiring. Which was working just fine yesterday.

I could go on and on, but it was just one of those days. You’ve all had them.

So then the day was over, the electrician had fixed everything, and I went to pour myself a glass of wine. It continued to be one of those days.

The first try was the Francis Coppola 2014 Chardonnay. When you’re driving up 101 from San Francisco to Ukiah, you can’t miss seeing the Coppola Winery on your left just north of Santa Rosa, between Healdsburg and Geyserville. It’s pretty much the Six Flags of wineries, with everything from tasting rooms to swimming pools. Do check out the website: it’s phenomenal!

The Chardonnay — not so much. It has bitter notes.

Now, there is bitter, and there is bitter. Dark chocolate and coffee are bitter and delicious. This is the other kind. It embraced my tongue like a lover looking forward to starting yet another argument during make-up sex. Yes, all the basic elements are there: the lush body, the long legs, the floral notes, the memory of the sweetness of the past, when the grapes were young and unfermented. But underneath is the kind of bitterness that poisons all pleasure.

I passed it to Marta, and it almost didn’t make it past the sniff-and-swallow test. I think she regretted that it got as far as it did.

So my next try was the 2014 Old Soul Zinfandel, from Oak Ridge Winery in Lodi just south of Sacramento. I fell in love with Old Vine Zinfandels a long time ago. One of the best I ever tasted was something called Mersa, from somewhere near Healdsburg, and it’s on my list to find them now that we’re out here. Old vine Zins are dark, dark as black earth, black chocolate, black licorice, full of cherry and fig and raisin in the slow currents beneath the fruity surface of the Zinfandel grape.

This one — well, earth is a good description. Again, there is a bitterness, this time not of poisoned love, but of the grave. Old Soul indeed. Very old.

Marta trusted her nose this time, and barely touched the wine to her lips before wincing.

Now, had Marta not been tracking my impressions so closely, I’d have kept both bottles for another day, to see if the problem was me. Perhaps my too-early rising had left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Nah. Life is too short and great wines are far too numerous to give any of them second and third chances. Maybe I’ll try the brands again in a better year. Maybe I won’t.

At that point I decided it was a beer night. PranQster is from North Coast Brewing, up in Fort Bragg (an hour west of here), and it’s one of those Belgian monstrosities that doesn’t apologize for putting allspice and cream cheese into the brew.

This one is done very, very well. It isn’t a beer to chug with your buddies on a hot afternoon of working outside. But it’s a truly fine anodyne to bruised taste buds.


Well, I finally got hit. My site was hacked, probably through one of the websites I don’t maintain very aggressively.

Not too much damage, really, but I’ve killed some websites and updated this one. You’ll note a few good changes.

First, the Contact Themon page uses a new plugin. If you want to send me a message, please feel free. The old one did the job, but it looked terrible, I never got around to cleaning it up, and it may have been the way in for the hackers. The new one has a Captcha, so I don’t have to worry about bots trying to sell me Viagra.

Second, I’ve overhauled the comments section with new plugins. I never get comments — well, almost never — except for a bunch of pecker-heads who would use it to post spam: mostly trying to increase their link count for Google, I think, since the comments were long lists of packed web URLs. I responded by shutting down comments after two weeks on every blog post, since at the time, there weren’t a lot of WordPress options.

Now there are, and the new, improved comments are kind of cool.

You can log in via your Facebook, Google, or Twitter accounts. Or, you can leave a comment without logging in, but you need to leave your e-mail address and respond to a Captcha.

We’ll see if that makes the comments any more usable.

So the cloud of being hacked had a silver lining.

GMO Foods

UnknownMaybe I’m just feeling grumpy today, but I ran across a YouTube clip of Neill de Grasse Tyson on GMO foods, and I have to call out Straw Man on his comments.

An ideal straw man argument is one where you stand up and utterly demolish a stupid argument that was made by no one, ever.

A more typical straw man argument is where you shift an actual argument from the real core of the discussion, to something that is deceptively similar, but unrelated and much easier to argue. I’m afraid Dr. Tyson did this very thing. Or perhaps he just doesn’t understand the real concern, because it’s been so poorly stated.

So let me frame, more precisely, the core of the discussion about GMO’s. I’ll phrase it as a question: Is the current trend toward targeted genetic modification of foods in the laboratory harmful to our food supply?

This is a more specific question than the ambiguous, “Are GMO’s harmful?” But it has a much broader scope. It implies questions about technological risk, large ecosystems, farming monoculture, profit motives, government oversight, and large-scale epidemiology.

Let’s focus even more specifically on just one tiny part of the question: Should we be eating Roundup-resistant strains of food?

No one cares about seedless watermelons, or whether they were produced by transgenics, gene-snipping, grafting, or black magic. No one cares about the “natural” progenitor of maize (corn-on-the-cob) — it’s inedible. Lord knows, no one cares about long-stem roses. Except florists.

People do care about Roundup-ready food plants. That’s what they usually mean when they carelessly say, “GMO’s.”

The first thing to note is that you don’t plant Roundup-ready plants unless you intend to spray Roundup on them. In fact, you don’t pay for Roundup-ready seeds unless you intend to spray enough Roundup to stunt or kill other (less expensive) strains of the same plant.

What is Roundup? Its primary active ingredient is glyphosate. Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide — plant poison — that interferes with the plant’s ability to make certain proteins necessary for growth. It also affects certain microorganisms in a similar way, and other microorganisms (the ones that eat the stuff) in the opposite way.

The issue with “GMO foods” is not whether genetically-modified corn is inherently a Frankenfood that will cause us to sprout a third eye (useful) or a second anus (far too many of those around already), but whether its use is enabling and even promoting hazardous industrial agricultural practices that have adverse consequences for our food, our health, and our society.

No one will plant Roundup-ready GMO’s unless they intend to douse them in glyphosate. So the more correct question is, Should we eat food sprayed with killer doses of glyphosate? If the answer is, “No,” or even “maybe not,” then what is the point of a Roundup-ready GMO seed?

Let’s rephrase this more academically, and ask if the benefits of using glyphosate on food balance the risks.

What are the benefits?

Well, what is glyphosate intended to do? It kills weeds.

Why kill weeds? Weeds reduce food production under our current industrial farming processes, and it’s a substantial cost to eradicate them manually (that is, to pick the weeds) — that’s about it.

So without glyphosate, we would presumably produce somewhat less industrially-farmed food, or produce it less efficiently, which might raise prices. Of course, glyphosate isn’t free, nor are the Roundup-ready seeds, so that also raises prices. There’s some evidence that glyphosate damages certain essential microflora in the soil, rendering the soil less fertile over time, which means less food and higher prices, unless you pay for chemical fertilizer. Which, as I understand it, is wonderful weed-food, since “weeds” — especially the fast-growing kind — are specifically evolved to move into overly-fertile bare ground, like ashy forests after a fire.

We could call this the Monsanto Cycle: glyphosate -> fertilizer -> weeds -> glyphosate. With a side-business in Roundup-ready seeds so you can use the herbicidal war-zone to raise food.

This brings us to the real core issue underlying the whole discussion: should we trust Monsanto to keep us safe from harm through use of their products? The question isn’t whether GMO’s are safe, or whether glyphosate is safe, or even whether scientists, farmers, or the television psychics know the answer: the real question is whether Monsanto is safe.

There is a general perception that corporations cannot be trusted when their bottom-line is involved. It’s not an unfounded perception. The tobacco industry concealed evidence that smoking causes lung cancer for at least two generations. The oil industry has been burying data about global warming for decades. Goldman Sachs sold securitized sub-prime mortgages by the carload to suckers investors, while simultaneously taking short positions against those same investments. In all cases, it’s a matter of Profits First.

Would Monsanto tell us that it’s perfectly safe to give our children a glass of Roundup with every meal? That would depend on whether they felt it would increase or decrease their market share. It would have nothing to do with sick or dead children: children are economic externalities. Unless they become a public-relations problem.

Would Monsanto go so far as to lie about research results, and pay professional doubters to cast a shadow on any “unfounded rumors” that their products might be harmful? Given that other industries seem to have had no problem with doing exactly that, I think it’s supremely naive to think Monsanto would be any different.

So I would say, no, they can’t be trusted. Their products might be harmless — but they could be very nasty, indeed. And once the product has become a steady and successful seller, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep it high on the charts.

This has taken us a long way from the science of genetically-modified organisms, hasn’t it?

In fact, we are now so far from the science that I’m going to propose a little thought-experiment, just to clarify the whole thing.

Let’s ban glyphosate because it begins with the letter ‘g’. We spun the Big Ugly Gratuitous Government Economic Restructuring Wheel of Fortune (BUGGER WoF), the letter ‘g’ came up, and we picked ‘glyphosate’ out of a dictionary. With a dart. We’ve just banned it forever and ever: a Schedule I Controlled Substance. Possession Is Death.

Apart from the screams of doom and despair from Monsanto (which we can easily solve with, “Here’s a billion dollars, kid, now shut up and go away”) — so what? What exactly is the great boon to humankind we’ve just thrown out?

We’re all gonna starve? That’s ridiculous. We’re talking about weeds, not the Apocalypse, and they were pulling them up by hand in 1969, before Roundup was invented. And in 1869, and in 1069, and in 8969 BCE for that matter. Agribusiness will just hire more itinerant labor from Mexico and put them to work weeding in addition to picking and packing. They’ll of course cry salty tears about lost profits (and demand a billion dollars, too, it’s only fair), then they’ll raise prices and reduce some benefits and raid a pension fund (if there are any left), and that will be that.

I’m not sure I see any benefit to Roundup that doesn’t come down to a few more dollars in the pockets of big agribusiness. And from what I understand, it’s mostly big agribusiness: the small farmers are moving toward organic farming, because “organic” commands higher prices1

The risks? Oh. My. God.

Granted, they are all low-probability. Like the Fukishima reactor failure.

We have large-scale epidemiological risks based on an entire population consuming glyphosate in small quantities through pregnancy and an entire lifetime. A small uptick in autoimmune sensitivities in ten percent of the population would be impossible to detect in the laboratory, and almost impossible to detect in the population. Yet it represents huge medical costs and unnecessary human suffering. At the opposite extreme, we discover that after a generation or two, chronic glyphosate ingestion causes widespread male feminization and sterility; our population crashes in a single generation, and our civilization becomes one of those Ancient Mysteries on thirty-first century late night television — The Americans: Why Did They Vanish? Was It Alien Astronauts?

We have similar possibilities from the GMO food itself. A plant is a complex system. Put it under chemical stress (dump Roundup on it), and its biochemistry changes. Reduce or enhance its ability to respond to that stress (gene modification), and its biochemistry changes. Any of those changes could trigger epidemics of low-level dietary intolerance in humans, or even increased instances of truly dangerous allergic reactions.

We have potentially huge ecosystem changes from glyphosate-contaminated runoff from farms. Kill the tadpoles in the swamps, perhaps? Followed by mosquito plagues, which transmit everything from malaria to zikka. All kinds of species could die back or die out entirely throughout large geographic regions, radically changing the ecoscape. We can go back to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, or the more recent story about the reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone, for dramatic examples of how small changes have huge effects. Some of those changes could desertify large agricultural regions.

Then we have the nightmare of hybridization in the wild, especially with some of the more reckless genetic modifications they’ve turned loose. The threat is not man-eating killer tomatoes. The threat is corn that won’t tassel, creating a spreading blight that could recurrently wipe out the entire corn monoculture of the American midwest. The threat is hybrid species that are toxic to pollinators, like bees. The threat is the unexpected and the unforeseen and the potentially catastrophic.

Low-probability risks, perhaps, but with very big consequences.

Doing genetic research on all this stuff is one thing.

Turning it loose on the world through an utterly amoral corporate capitalist system dedicated to short-term profits above every other consideration, is nothing short of irresponsible.

Especially when the only real benefit is an uptick in corporate profits. For certain corporations.

I think there’s a legitimate concern, here.

Since I have called out Dr. Tyson by name, I would welcome a rebuttal. Though I rather doubt he will see this. It’s a very large Internet, after all, and I am only one small writer within it.


2016-08-26 10.54.56No, I’m not referring to a religious experience, but … well, almost.

I have a fair bit of luck out here “label shopping” for wine. Usually (and I do mean, not-always-usually) if a wine-maker puts some heart and money into the bottle, it’s a reasonably good wine, especially in the price-tier of wines I generally shop in. I stay away from the expensive stuff, because there’s really no point in developing a taste for something if I can’t afford to buy a second (or third) bottle of it. And those few occasions when the label is … well, misleading … I at least get an opportunity to trash the wine in a blog entry.

Saved, from Saved Wines in Oakland, Napa valley, CA, has an eye-catching bottle. The label is printed on the glass, not on a sticker, and in no less than three colors: white, grey, and copper. The pattern is pseudo-occult, an attractive (and mysterious) mish-mash of everything from an all-seeing eye in the center, to astrological symbols, to Norse runes, and the inscription that runs around the outside of the label reads: “Reverence of beauty + eradication of doubt through systems of superstition * Adversities exiled by incantations of compassion and tenacity of heart.”

We had guests visiting from Down Under, and I picked this off the shelf at the local grocery store for under $20 as something adventurous to try.

It’s a remarkable wine. Looking for the inscription on the web, to see if it’s some literary or historical reference, I stumbled across another review, which claims that this is a blend of Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Mixed Blacks, Ruby Cabernet, and Syrah. For a blend, that is a horrifically complex recipe.

The result is well worth it. Indeed, I can only think that the inscription refers primarily to the making of this wine, and if the recipe is a matter of superstition, then superstition certainly inspires a reverence for beauty, and dispels all doubt.