Archive for the ‘music’ Category

2016 pruning, remembering Poppy

March 12, 2016

Today was the day for the annual spring pruning, and it was a great occasion to remember my grandfather, who died peacefully earlier this week at the age of 95.  William F. Herman (‘Bill’ around town, ‘Poppy’ in the family) was a big part of my life as a kid, and his love of growing things inspired me to plant the orchard when we moved back east over 10 years ago.

Pops and my grandmother, ‘Ummy’ grew up and lived their professional lives in eastern Massachusetts, but spent a lot of time in Maine – her father was an avid rod-and-gun sportsman. In the sixties they bought a slice of land on a remote island in the midcoast, two miles beyond the end of the electric power lines near the village of Five Islands.  When my parents decided to settle down after some years of teaching mountain-climbing in the mountains out west, Um and Pops invited them to homestead on the land in Five Islands, and I grew up off the grid, surrounded by the natural wonders of the Maine coast.

In 1983, Pops retired from a 25-year career at Polaroid, and my grandparents joined us in Maine.  By then electricity had come to the North End, and my father built them a passive solar home.  Though rocky and overgrown, the land had been a farm until early in the 20th century, with stone walls, foundation holes, and odd bits of pottery and rusted iron in evidence. Over the years the family cleared land and planted gardens, berries, and apple trees, and some of my earliest memories of my grandfather relate to agriculture.  He kept a very neat vegetable garden, which he would weed in khaki pants and a button-up shirt (he’d shower and put on a jacket and tie for dinner every night until he was far along in years). He grew masses of vegetables – great sweet corn, bowls and bowls of shell peas, and so many cucumbers and tomatoes that he put a wooden box at the end of the driveway and wrote ‘Help Yourself’, to the joy of the neighbors.

The garden was surrounded by semi-dwarf apples – Cortland, Winesap, Rhode Island Greening, Red Delicious, and he showed me how to prune the trees.  There was also a big wild tree behind their house that was saved in the construction, and it gave great green apples that were my favorite kind when I was a kid. In the fall we would collect the fruit in bags, and Poppy, Ummy, Joanna, and I would press them using a hand-crank cast iron press that had belonged to my great grandfather – the same press that Alexis, Holly, Becky, and I used back in Cider Year 1.  I think he tried to ferment some a couple times, but it was a casual attempt in a plastic milk jug and I don’t remember anyone thinking it tasted good.

In all the years of living and romping around as a kid, I can’t remember Poppy ever raising his voice.  He became a respected character around town, serving as selectman and sometimes as moderator at the old-fashioned town meeting. An engineer by training, he loved to keep careful records – of the amount of firewood he burned each month of each winter down to the tenth of a cord, of the number of quarts of blueberries his waterfront bushes produced, and of gallons of maple sap we collected each spring.  He taught himself to play ragtime piano by ear, and made some pretty nice oil paintings in an engineer’s realistic style – I think he said Norman Rockwell was his favorite artist.

If I drank another pint of this 2014 cider I could probably go on all night, remembering Poppy teaching me how to build kites and drive a tractor, and ‘messing about in boats’, fishing for mackerel in the Sheepscot river out of a 13′ Boston Whaler – he loved the water though he famously would never swim no matter how hot the summer. As the years went by, Poppy’s world gradually compressed; the boat trips shorter and the garden smaller and weedier, but he stubbornly kept at it. I remember a couple years ago when I was working in the orchard, I looked back toward the house and saw him at the edge of the field, using his old-fashioned scythe instead of a cane – he’d take a couple of swipes at the overgrown brush, then lean on the tool to catch his breath.

As Poppy slowed down my parents increasingly picked up the slack, mulching and pruning the berries, planting the corn, and splitting the firewood. And in 2006 I asked him if I could clear some land off to the the south to start a new orchard for cider apples, and he was happy to let me get started. For as long as he could walk, he’d totter up the woods road to the orchard gate to see what I was up to, and we’d talk about trees and plans.  I’m grateful to my grandparents for the opportunity to grow up in a unique and beautiful part of the world, and for the sense that tending and caring for the land is a project that can last more than a lifetime, and build connections across generations.





December 4, 2011

Jeff and Ellen sent an email the other day alerting us to a concert at the Portland high school of a unique musical group called Childsplay. It’s a big group of musicians who all (the fiddlers and violists, anyway) play instruments made by one guy – Bob Childs, formerly of Maine, now in Cambridge MA. There were some familiar faces, including Lissa Schneckenberger, Keith Murphy, and Hanneke Cassel, and a bunch of other great musicians I didn’t know. I’ve been pretty busy and not fiddling much, so it’s good to see a show and get some inspiration to play more.

Tunes for St. Pats

March 17, 2011

Had to bust out the fiddle in honor of St. Padraig, and play some Liz Carroll tunes – ‘That’s Right Too’, and a current favorite, ‘The Golden Legs’ (you can get the gist of both from the free snippets on Amazon). Another great Liz Carroll tune, ‘Lost in the Loop’, is high on my to-do list.

Halloween pedal-power smoothie mayhem

November 17, 2010

Not exactly fiddle tunes, but inspiring none the less – kids at a charter school in Hoboken trade in their halloween candy for smoothies that are made on a pedal-powered blender. Check it out.
(gotta pay to embed videos on wordpress)

Back to the fiddle; Malcolm Gladwell

November 14, 2010

I’ve been busy with work and away from the fiddle for a few weeks. Just now getting back to it, easing in with a couple of mellow but beautiful jigs, Kerfunken (or Kerfunten), which is I’d heard so many times on a Martin Hayes album but never thought to play, and Le Tourment, which I learned from Jeremiah McLane and company. I was in a bookstore a week or two ago and read the first couple chapters of Outliers, a book that proposes that exceptional ability in a given specialized field (like playing fiddle, or programming) is largely a matter of putting in the time practicing – at least 10,000 hours, according to the author. If true, it’s sort of comforting and depressing all at once – comforting because it suggests that sounding like Martin Hayes might be literally within reach, if I dropped everything else and played constantly from now until somewhere around 2015; depressing because given the amount of practice I currently fit in, I’ll be sounding pretty good about the time I die of old age. I wonder about the 10,000 hour thing, though – a working year is about 2000 hours, and there are a lot of people who do the same job for longer than five years. If that’s all there was to it, every engineer over the age of thirty would be a bloody rocket scientist. Maybe engineering is too non-specific to be comparable to, say, playing celtic fiddle, and it could be true that after five years of, say, designing injection molds or doing DOE for drug trials, most people will be pretty darn good. But it’s probably more of an emergent evolutionary phenomenon than a recipe, though – anybody who has put in 5000 hours at some task and still sucks at it will probably be fired, or transferred to a task that matters less if they screw it up.

Human Microclimates

August 13, 2010

Gardeners, especially gardeners living in challenging climates, are familiar with the concept of microclimates – small areas that by virtue of their aspect, soil type, proximity to water, or other geographic feature offer growing conditions significantly different from the prevailing climate of the surrounding area. I think a similar phenomenon might be more important than we realize in providing conditions for humans to thrive as well.

I start from the notion that one’s geographic location is a dominant factor in quality of life. For instance, of the people I went to college with, the vast majority either stayed around Cambridge, or moved to the SF bay area. It becomes a sort of mental rule of thumb – Boston and SF must be the places where technologists and nerd hippies can thrive, to the near exclusion of other options. There are small islands of possibility around Madison, Ann Arbor, and Boulder, and a couple of modest outposts in the Northwest, but at least anecdotally an overwhelming fraction of the people I know have gravitated to one of the two poles. But a large city can’t be homogeneous enough to be a real predictor of happiness, which like healthy organic produce is bound to derive from a more specific match between the organism and its immediate surrounding ecosystem. I propose that much of what really dictates quality of life is sufficiently ecologically specific and geographically concise as could aptly be called human microclimate.



March 16, 2010

One of the things about learning to play the fiddle is that most of the time you’ve got a tune stuck in your head.  Lately it’s been one called Arizona, by Vermont guitar/mandolin dude Keith Murphy. It’s beautiful, flowing and bouncy at the same time; you can hear it on Becky Tracy’s album, Evergreen.

Learning fiddle tunes

November 9, 2009

With cider season wound down, I’ve got more time for playing fiddle, and I’ve been learning some new music, so I thought I’d write a post about resources for learning tunes.  The stuff I play is a mixed bag centered roughly around  traditional New England dance music, which has Irish, Scots, Quebec, Cape Breton, and Appalachian influences.  I started off learning by ear, but I’ve gradually gotten better at decoding “dots” and learning tunes from books, to the point where learning from written music feels like cheating – learning by ear is generally considered by hardcore trad music types to be a superior way to internalize music.  Anyway, here are some books that I consult regularly:

  • The Portland Collection #1 and #2 – a huge amount of contradance music in two volumes, with comments, versions are reliable for the most part, except old time players snark about the settings of old time tunes
  • Fiddler’s Fakebook – lots of tunes from various traditions.  Over half  of the time a tune I’m looking for will be in this or one of the Portland books.
  • Waltz books, #1,2,3 – all waltzes, all the time.
  • New England Fiddler’s Repertoire – “NEFR” thin book, lots of good tunes, mostly older I think.
  • Along the River – Collection of tunes from w. MA and s. VT; I don’t use it much
  • Jerry Holland’s Collection, volumes 1 and 2 – not just Jerry Holland’s (recently departed) compositions, a lot of music that’s played up Cape Breton way;  good stuff
  • Appalachian Fiddle, Miles Krassen – includes helpful material on learning, chording and double stops, 58 tunes.
  • Beginning Old Time Fiddle, Alan Kaufman – also has useful intro material, 38 tunes

At least as useful as books are online tune collections:

  • – extensive collection of mostly celtic tunes (dots, ABC, MIDI), with active and useful discussion
  • – an extensive collection of French-Canadian tunes (dots, also plays MIDI I think)

Accessing and modifying tunes digitally is fairly straightforward nowadays thanks to the abc format, which is pretty much what it sounds like – there’s a header that describes the type of tune, key signature, etc., then you type letters (and other characters to indicate timing), and software (for instance freeware ABCexplorer) converts it into nicely formatted sheet music, and plays a sterile but recognizable midi version back to you.  Using these tools, I transcribed my first tune, Cracked Pot by Maine fiddler Greg Boardman, and put it up on thesession (see )

As for learning by ear, I recently shelled out $50 for The Amazing Slow Downer, a piece of software that processes mp3s and other music files, to change the tempo without changing the pitch; this is really handy for trying to decode what musicians are doing on fast-paced recordings.

YouTube is great for finding recordings (widely varying in quality of course) of a new tune I’m trying to pick up. and have fragmentary but useful collections of traditional celt stuff, which is great for picking up new tunes, and I’m told that Rhapsody is pretty good, but haven’t gone that route.

Between all these resources and tools, the only thing keeping me from improving on the fiddle is time!

Enough with “consumers” already

August 6, 2009

I can’t be the only one who is driven nuts by the constant media use of the term “consumers” in place of “people”, “Americans”, or  “citizens”.  As an engineer I tend to pay more attention to matter and energy flows, technologies of transformation, and evolutionary biological tendencies than to the language that frames discussions.  But it is not hard for me to imagine that a people constantly hearing themselves described with language better suited to feeder hogs might eventually suffer creeping slothfulness and lack of imagination.

Sure I consume things; chiefly a couple pounds a day of bread and beans and cheese; a couple dozen MJ of electricity, a few gallons of water, and a couple liters of gasoline, and the last thing I want to do is to downplay the significance of that consumption in terms of ecological impact, but it is hardly how I want to define my relationship to society, not what I want as my epitaph – “Here lies Ben: he was a good consumer”.  I don’t want my primary role in society to be one of dutifully buying whatever schwag my fellow man puts up on offer, the better to prop up the economy and fend off recession.

And so I shout (electronically speaking): CONSUMPTION BE DAMNED! – I am not a cow, not a hog, not an overfed mis-shapen broiler hen, KFC-bound.  I yearn to be a producer, a transformer, a creator, and I want to see my fellow citizens likewise engaged.  I seek to produce the basic substance of life – when it is complete in full production the orchard should produce around 20,000 pounds of apples per year, enough to feed 3-4 people.  If carefully managed the surrounding woodlands will sustainably produce several thousand board feet per year of high quality saw timber, suitable for building and repairing houses, boats, furniture, and barrels (for the cider).  The world is in desperate need of clean, renewable energy, generated in quantity proportional to the need, and for many years it has been the goal of my professional efforts to develop technologies capable of producing this energy, as economically as possible and at a meaningful scale.  On an individual level, the same compulsion leads to projects like the pedal-electric bike, which saves 130 MJ of gasoline a day and uses a mere 2-3MJ of electricity while delivering much-needed exercise.

This visceral desire to produce likewise explains why I find myself compelled to spend a hundred dollars worth of time making fifteen dollars worth of bread, and why I have an irrational urge to grow the grain for that bread myself. And it transcends the practical.  Nowadays the internets are happy to deliver for free a nonstop stream of high quality professionally-made music, any flavor I choose and without the din of commercials.  I will never produce music of that quality, but nonetheless there I go almost every night, sawing away on the fiddle, trying to create some of my own.  And I want you to do it too; I want to sit with my friends in the shade of an apple tree and play music, eat the bread we baked, and drink the cider we brewed.  I want these things even if they don’t increase the GDP or reduce unemployment, even if it means I’m a lousy consumer.

Fiddling for a contradance

February 1, 2009

Friday night my classmates and I played for a contradance in South Strafford, VT, and it was an absolute blast!  It was the culmination of a series of music classes given by an accordionist named Jeremiah McLane, and the dance followed a public dinner given by the active locavore food group.  Dinner consisted of all New England ingredients, and consisted of shepard’s pie, roasted vegetables, Waldorf salad, fresh rolls, sweet cider, and bread pudding with custard and berry sauce.  The downstairs room of Barrett Hall was packed, and the food was really good. It felt old fashioned and modern all at once – it seems as if at least that part of Vermont has attained a sufficient critical mass of crunchy people to rediscover the sort of social structure that dominated in a pre-TV era.

Afterward the dance started upstairs.  The band was nine people: three fiddles, two accordions, a flute, a hammered dulcimer, a guitar, and a keyboard.  Having never played for such an event before (besides sitting in as a minor contributor to Flagstaff’s “Just Desserts” dance band and chocolate appreciation society), I was a bit nervous, but had brought some bottles of this fall’s cider and passed it around to help settle the nerves.  There was a lot of fiddling around with the sound system – Jeremiah who plays in several bands once remarked that a musician is fated to spend a third of his time messing around with the sound system, and another third playing with crummy sound.  It was the first time I’d dealt with monitors, which make for a strange experience – you hear yourself playing and it sounds sort of like it’s coming from your instrument, only much louder.  The sound guy tries to put an appropriate combination of all the instruments into the monitor mix; what I heard was mostly the three fiddles and the rhythm (guitar and keyboard) without much flute or accordion, but it was perfectly sufficient – there have been times in practices where I was sandwiched between accordions, and had the strange experience of playing loudly and hearing my fiddle make accordion sounds.

Anyway, the sound guys did a great job, and we started in to play.  We had a few sets of reels, a couple sets of jigs, an a set each of polkas and marches, as well as a couple of waltzes to end the first and second halves of the dance.  Playing contradance music is challenging, at least for an amateur of modest ability such as myself – the nature of the dancing is that the tunes must be played up to a certain tempo to be enjoyable, and especially for the notey-er reels it sometimes feels like hanging on for dear life.  But one we got a few sets into the dance and I realized I wasn’t going to crash completely, I relaxed a bit and found that I was having a lot of fun.  It seemed the perfect number of instruments and ability balance for my level of skill – there were times when the others carying the melody seemed to get in trouble and I could hear myself coming through clearly from out in the hall, giving me the thrilling-but-nerve-wracking feeling that I was carrying the melody torch over Sue and Rob’s reliable rhythm; other times I lost the thread of the tune or wasn’t sure we whether we were going to A or B, and was comforted to hear my companions carrying the melody staunchly forward.  Overall there were a couple thin spots but we never had a train wreck as a band, and my correspondants in the audience (Alexis, our friends Joshua and Kelsey, and well-wishers from our Thursday night music get-togethers) reported that the music was solidly danceable.  My fingers though tired never cramped to the point where I couldn’t carry some reasonable approximation of the tune.  Jeremiah was directing and would call out various melody instruments to be featured with the rest dropped out; I got a turn through one of my favorites, an infectiously manic French-Canadian reel that opens with a two-measure syncopated broadside and contrasts nicely in the beginning of the B part with three nice long descending notes useful for catching ones’ breath.  In the heat of the moment I had the impression that I pulled off a satisfactory if workmanlike rendition and kept more or less to the beat; I’m looking forward to hearing the disk that the sound guys cut to see how a more objective memory fares.

Anyway, it was a blast, and I want to do it some more.  As I understand it there is no shortage of minor dance events that are looking for a band that won’t charge much (or anything), and that the greater challenge is keeping the members of a large band focused and practicing.   For journeymen musicians such as ourselves there is strength in numbers and a 9-member band is none too many; the holy grail would be to attain a sufficient level of skill that 3-5 people could reliably carry a dance; obviously it would also be easier to find times when everyone could get together for practice.