Blogging Pachelbel #5 — Royal Philharmonic

Well, now we come to the commercial recordings. Everything that comes before seems to me to be a serious effort to convey the content of a piece of Classical (upper-case C) music. This recording is quite clearly a commercial rather than an artistic endeaver.

Notably, this recording lacks both artistic integrity and musical quality.

Surprisingly, this very version, at 2:45, is available on a number of recordings. The surprise comes to me not because of the execrable content, but because of the fact that it’s not even a complete recording — it just fades out without completing starting about 2:30.

Then there’s the actual content. Sigh. It’s an arrangement, and there’s nothing wrong with that, per se — I’m an arranger myself, and consider it a high calling. A good arranger is worth her weight in gold (as so many Hollywood and Broadway composers will attest).

No, this is an arrangement where a reason for its existence I can’t even conceive. Imagine, if you will, a 6-year-old not-very-gifted pianist. Imagine this youngster hears Pachelbel’s Canon once (in any version, original or not). Imagine again that this youngster spends 6 minutes at the piano noodling around in order to try to recapture what was heard.

Then imagine that someone orchestrates the results verbatim and puts it in front of the Royal Philharmonic.

The result would likely be superior to what is presented here in this recording.

The arrangement starts out promisingly — we begin immediately with the first full statement of the first couplet of the canon theme given to an oboe. It’s lovely — who doesn’t like a well-played oboe melody? — and certainly a completely justifiable arrangement.

But things go awry pretty quickly — instead of getting a second oboe at the 3rd measure, playing the canon theme the first oboe had just played, while the 1st oboe continues the canon, we get THE VERY SAME THING, REPEATED.

OK, it was lovely the first time — why shouldn’t we hear it a second?

Then comes the third couplet, and we get a flute, and YES! it’s playing the initial canon theme, while the oboe plays a third lower.

Alas, our joy is quickly extinguished when we realize that the original 4th-oriented bass has been abandoned in favor of a step-wise bass line. While it’s certainly possible to create a lovely texture with such a bass line, it’s completely IMPOSSIBLE to do so if you use as one of the voices above it the SECOND COUPLET OF THE CANON, which is, of course, simply an octave above this new step-wise bass line.

Allow me a moment to shudder.

While we can certainly forgive our 6-year-old pianist a string of parallel octaves (who notices parallel octaves on piano, anyway, eh?), any professional producing an arrangement for a professional orchestra certainly knows better.

That said, we are hopeful, and anticipate that the introduction of new couplets from the original canon or the return to the real bass line will eliminate the egregious problem.

But no! Our 6-year-old orchestrator values consistency over beauty, and, instead of moving on to something different, repeats the egregious parallel octaves once again.

At this point, is there any reason to go on? No. Of course not. The parallel octaves receed into the background as different voicings are used and different snippets are borrowed from the canon, but only on the 8th couplet do we get a return to Pachelbel’s actual bass line, along with a nice introduction of the full string section, playing the third couplet of the canon (m. 7 of the original). Well, that’s settling in nicely after a false start, so maybe things will work out after all!

But no, instead, the previous couplet simply repeats in the strings (instead of going on), and the couplet from m. 19 of the original is introduced in THE TRUMPETS.

I can’t go on, even though there’s only 8 or 10 measures left in the truncated version with the fade-out that someone somewhere along the line seems to have concluded is all anybody needs to hear of “Pachelbel’s Canon” (and I DO emphasize the quotation marks there).

I don’t understand why anyone associated with this recording would not want to kill themselves. I cannot comprehend how any professional arranger could commit such a far-less-than-amateur arrangement to paper. I cannot conceive of the justification for putting it on the music desks of a professional orchestra. I can’t comprehend how the conductor of such an orchestra, even if a ringer brought in for the recording session, could accept a paycheck for conducting a recording of such absolute crap. I can only imagine how spirit-crushing it must have been for the members of the orchestra to have to hack through such obvious bullshit.

In short, I guess I don’t understand the professional music world.

I guess that what I do understand is that you can’t kill crap once it’s committed to tape — the record companies will re-issue it endlessly, complete or not, and unsuspecting lovers of music will end up hearing such dreck and never know how beautiful music really could be if it weren’t for spineless hacks and soul-less record company executives.

One thing about this post worries me greatly, and that’s that my description of it sounds so bad that it will prompt people to spend the $.99 to buy the MP3. PLEASE DON’T. It’s bad, and an epic fail. But rewarding the folks who produced this dreck with purchases of the MP3 seems to me to be counterproductive.

Blogging Pachelbel — An Interlude

I thought it might be helpful to include here within my Blogging Pachelbel discussion the messages I posted to the AMSList starting on Sept. 20th. What follows is an edited version of the content of those posts.

Recently while wending my way through my usual political blog reading, I came across a post from Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos titled “Mozart and copyright,” the topic of which is a decent consideration of the terrible side effects of modern long-term copyright.

Leaving aside the fact that Mozart and other composers of his time suffered greatly from the lack of any copyright protection at all, one line caught my attention. It is a quotation from a 2002 article by Adam Baer, writing at titled “Wolfgang Amadeus Copycat: Did Mozart plagiarize?“, and considers the case of “Der wohltätige Derwisch,” one of David Buch’s discoveries in the late 90s in regard to Singspiele related to Schikaneder’s theater (and, hence, at least indirectly, to Mozart). In the course of considering whether or not to call Mozart a “plagiarist” Baer says:

Usually, fear of being called derivative–one of classical music’s most serious insults–is enough to keep composers from out-and-out plagiarism. But it does happen, and the borrowers aren’t always second-tier hacks, either. Beethoven used Pachelbel’s Canon in the rondo of his Op. 28 Piano Sonata somewhat sneakily….

I have searched through the rondo of Opus 28, and can only see a conventional passage of descending steps in arpeggios, starting in m. 16. Based on some other web discussions, it seems quite clear that this is the passage that is intended. See this quotation from comments in a discussion of Mahler’s use of the bass line:

Yeah – Bach, Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven all “quote” it. I don’t even believe that Pachelbel invented it.

Example: 4th Movement of Beethoven Op.28 – the arpeggiated chords are exactly the same.

This is so very wrong — the chords are not exactly the same as those of the Pachelbel chaconne bass. It is neither the same bass line, nor the same progression as in the Pachelbel canon, and of course, even if it were the same bass line, calling a use of the chaconne bass on which Pachelbel wrote his canon a “quote” is problematic in at least two ways:

  1. The bass line is fairly inconsequential in regard to what is remarkable about Pachelbel’s piece — it is the CANON that is the point, which is why it’s not called Pachelbel’s Chaconne.
  2. It’s a conventional bass, in any event, one which was used frequently (Purcell’s Three Parts on a Ground uses 6 of the 8 notes of the ground, for instance, and is scored for the same instruments) — it was no more creatively “owned” by Pachelbel than “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman” was owned by Mozart (a point one of the commenters in the Daily Kos article makes).

This doesn’t even get into the question of whether or not Beethoven knew Pachelbel’s Canon. I strongly doubt that he did, and even if he did, I don’t think he would have seen the passage in the Rondo of Opus 28 as being a quotation of it or a use of Pachelbel’s material.

Finally, to my questions:

  1. Does anyone know the source of this Pachelbel/Beethoven fairy tale? The Baer quote in the Slate article, which in regard to Mozartean subjects is based on real research that was fairly recent at the time it was written, implies to me a “scholarly source” for the claim. Is that an incorrect reading of it?
  2. Has anyone written a historiography of Pachelbel’s Canon? While it’s been part of the musical culture as far back as I can remember (i.e., to the early 70s), I don’t know anything about the actual history of the piece, its dissemination or transmission, except what can be gleaned from discussions of it on the Web since it was revived in modern times.

One website tallies the mentions of Pachelbel in the New York Times over its entire history and finds very few mentions before the 60s and 70s (not entirely unexpected), and points out that the canon itself wasn’t mentioned in the Times until 1971, but was clearly well-known by 1977.

Another site attributes the revival of the canon to Rudolf Baumgartner and the Lucerne Festival Strings in the mid-1960s (and cites complaints about the tempo, which are attributed to a page where the tempo criticism is now absent; it does appear, interestingly enough for a conversation originally motivated by a discussion of “plagiarism,” on a page at

I find it striking that if you search for the Pachelbel Canon on YouTube, there are virtually no performances there in the original instrumentation (though one of the very strongest is by the group Voices of Music), but there are tons of “variations” on the canon (more properly, variations on the chaconne bass), some of them quite hideous and others quite interesting.

Another rewarding discovery while Googling around on this subject was Canon Rock. I was fascinated by the whole thing and avidly watched/listened to a half dozen or so of the versions posted on YouTube.

It occurred to me while listening to those that in popular culture, the piece is a chord progression, not a canon. That is, most of the non-classical arrangements of it completely omit the polyphonic material that makes it a canon, and simply noodle about on the harmonic progression (and many of those ignore the flat 7 secondary dominant that plays such a prominent part at the end of the original, which seems strange to me, given how important the subdominant is in modern popular music). “Canon Rock” actually uses a lot of melodic source material from the original, but treats it as a harmony and melody, with no real canonic treatment. One has to admire these renditions for the players’ phenomenal virtuosity, if for nothing else.

The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet’s set of variations, on the other hand, mines the piece for many aspects that are varied, including canonic textures not found in the original, as well as variations that seem to me not to be drawn from the original at all. It’s a tour de force of various styles (from bluegrass to rock and any number of other styles I’d be hard-pressed to put a name to), and incredible virtuosity and exhibits far, far more types of variation than any other “popular” version I’ve encountered. It’s also nicely light-hearted, which is a refreshing change from so many of the arrangements that take the piece exceedingly seriously.

And on a lighter note, most have probably already seen it, but the “Pachelbel Rant” by Rob Paravonian will generate a chuckle from just about everyone. Indeed, at the end of his “rant” he quotes a whole boatload of popular pieces that use the canon chord progression in some form or another — I couldn’t even identify most of them, partly because they went by so fast, but also because I’m just not “with it” enough.

Pavonian’s string of quotations highlights a rather remarkable fact: there’s a huge number of songs that use the progression, or versions of it (either the bass line and chords, or the step-wise version). One website makes an effort to account for them all, but I’m not sure how exhaustive or accurate it is (I’d argue that a lot of the cases where people hear the canon progression are a different but similar progression).

Blogging Pachelbel #4 — Ettore Stratta

I have read in various places that this is the recording that was used for the 1980 film Ordinary People [Note: since writing this, I've found that Ordinary People used the original Paillard recording, not this one], which many credit with really bringing the piece to the popular audience outside of its previous popularity among fans of Baroque and light classical music. I intend to do some research on that to see if I can pin it down or not. For now, a few comments on this performance:

The text used is exactly the same as in the Muenchinger/Stuttgart recording, i.e., with two extra measures of continuo vamp at the beginning and the 8-measure “bleeding chunk” cut of mm. 27-35. Otherwise, the performance is remarkable for being utterly unremarkable, I’m afraid. Other than an interesting tendency to push ahead of the average tempo of the whole performance (46BPM) before the cut and the tendency to fall below it after the cut, there’s not much else to say. The string sound is clean and modern and the balance between bass and the other voices about right. There is no artificial mucking about with the balances between the parts — for the most part, they are just allowed to speak for themselves (which seems about right to me).

If this is indeed the recording that brought the work to the wider audience [it is not], I don’t think that’s a tragedy, as it’s not bad at all. But it is rather inoffensive, which is a drawback in and of itself, I think. When you consider that the Musica Antiqua Koeln and Hogwood recordings came out within a couple years of the release of Ordinary People, it’s pretty clear that things were on the move stylistically, and while this recording holds up fairly well in comparison to the recordings of the 60s and early 70s, it’s a world away from what was soon to come from the Early Music movement in the 80s and 90s.

Blogging Pachelbel #3 — Paillard

[Editorial note: when I wrote this I was under the impression that the recording I was listening to was the original 1968 version, but I've since found out that I was using the 1989 re-recording, which is shorter by a whole minute. When I get access to the 1968 version, I'll replace this entry with my review of it and add an additional entry about the 1989 recording, in the chronologically appropriate location on the blog.]

There is actually a lot to like about this recording, to be honest. After a rocky start balance-wise (the introduction of the 3rd couplet is almost inaudible) and a momentary abandonment of the canonic texture in the middle (guess where?), the sound of the strings is quite clean, with a relatively cool (perhaps French?) approach to the piece. The tempo is quite steady throughout, tending to sag a bit below the 37BPM average at the beginning, but regaining that later on.

But of course, there has to be mucking about with the music in the middle, just as in the other two recordings considered so far. In this case, no measures are dropped, but the two couplets of the canon at mm. 27-30 are never audible. Instead, at m. 27, a completely unwarranted harpsichord solo begins. It does not replicate the figuration of the canonic part, nor is it canonic. It’s just four measures of repetitive noodling about before the strings creep back in at m. 31. The harpsichord continues playing its noodling as the lower parts re-enter following the first violin, and when the 3rd violin enters with the repeated-note couplet, the harpsichord basically vanishes back into the background.


Well, there was clearly something about either the passage as originally written, or about the perceived shape of the piece that those who planned all three of these performances saw in common. My guess is that after the increased activity of the 32nd notes starting in m. 19 and the gradual withdrawal of that rhythmically active melody ending with m. 26, that the next few couplets were somehow seen as too much activity before the start of the big crescendo to the end.

But it seems to me to be entirely the case that this idea of two parts with a dynamic arch shape in each is artificially imposed on the piece. It seems to me that the 32nd-note passage should be neither as loud nor as active as these recordings make it, and that if that is the case, the radically softer passage in the middle no longer needs to be shoehorned into the piece.

Worst of all for me here is that the music that Paillard and his cronies come up with here to replace what Pachelbel wrote is BORING — the harpsichord figuration is just repeated over and over, with nothing interesting going on in it at all. Now, it is possible that the actual violin parts are being played very softly by one or two players, but if they are, the dynamics are so soft or the balance of the recording so drastic that the music is just not hearable. But it’s also completely possible to make the 16th-note passages that follow the 32nd-note passages soft and understated, as is beautifully shown in a video performance by Voices of Music (San Francisco). There is nothing artificial about the way Voices of Music players handle this passage that seems to have given so much difficulty to Baumgartner, Muenchinger and Paillard. Perhaps it’s because they were using an orchestra, but in that case, judicious use of solo/tutti might have gotten the job done. Or maybe our present-day players are just a lot better at the style than they were back then.

But jumping ahead to another recording, I have found a performance that plays the passages that these recordings excise — 101 Strings plays the music as written, with no changes except for adding a harmonization to the initial continuo statement and, perhaps a viola part (it’s not particularly audible if it’s there). But the treatment of the passage from m. 27 to m. 34 perhaps suggests why these earlier performers cut it or drastically altered its content. The 101 Strings whacks every 16th note in this passage as if it were pesante. Compare that to the treatment in the Voices of Music video, where each 16th note is bowed, but there is a variety of articulation from slightly detached to light portato to legato. It seems to me that modern string players have historically depended on taking multiple notes in a phrase under a single bow as their only method of playing legato. Whenever they see unslurred notes, they see one bow per note and they seem to me to interpret this as NON-LEGATO. Now, that may be an appropriate articulation in some passages, but in others, legato is more musical, i.e., groups of notes that are connected (though not under the same bow). To me, it’s quite obvious that there are breaks at the leaps and the notes within each range should be smoothly connected (even though each is taken under its own bow). But in the 101 Strings recording, these notes are aggressively detached and heavily weighted.

It’s ugly. It’s unpleasant. And if it’s the only way musicians of a certain era could conceive of realizing music notated in a particular way, then I can see why they thought something needed to be fixed. I’d much rather hear the Baumgartner or Muenchinger or Paillard versions than the 101 Strings travesty (and that’s not the only recording that exhibits this defect).

After all that, there are two other aspects about this recording that are quite different from the two previously discussed. The Baumgartner pretty straightforwardly apportioned the three string lines between three violins, with a fairly understated viola part that is never obvious (I’m not even entirely certain there is one). The Muenchinger/Stuttgart recording adds some octave doublings here and there, but doesn’t muck around much with the disposition of the original parts.

This recording quite famously adds the pizzicato viola line at the beginning. It’s sappy but effective — not at all inappropriate for an orchestral transcription, in my opinion. In a performance for the intended forces, a chamber group, you might very well have a continuo group with a plucked instrument like a theorbo that might fill in some figuration in just such a manner (though I’d expect our present-day theorbists to be substantially more imaginative in their figuration and rhythmic subtleties).

The other unique aspect of this recording in comparison to those that I discussed previously is that it extensively re-orchestrates the ending, adding octave doublings both above and below. Specifically, in the couplet introduced by the first violin in m. 49, the violins play with a double octave above the written notes. This makes for a spectacular splash of sound when they go up to the high D, and it only intensifies as the other parts get in on the act. Doublings an octave lower (presumably in the violas) are also heard in the octave leap couplet comprising the last 4 measures of the canon.

As orchestration goes, these additions are fairly effective, but I particularly see the added 8va passage as guilding a lily that was already quite stunning. But not even 101 Strings does this, and splashy string sound was supposed to be their trademark!

Blogging Pachelbel #2 — Muenchinger/Stuttgart

Had I listened to this recording before the Baumgartner, I would have been scandalized, because this recording makes a cut around the same place as in the Baumgartner, but, as ugly as the Baumgartner recording is, the cuts here do much more violence to the essential nature of the piece.

It seems obvious that the Baumgartner recording is related to this one as both recordings screw around in exactly the same locations. The Baumgartner omits the opening continuo-only statement of the ground — this recording includes it, but instead of going straight into the canon in m. 3, it orchestrates a second statement, before starting the canon in m. 6. I’m not sure what problem was being solved here, but if the Baumgartner was cutting something that was too bare, this recording eases us into the full texture a few voices at a time.

Then there’s the question of the cuts, which happen in the same location, but whereas the Baumgartner carefully maintained the integrity of the canon and just omitted the same 8 measures of the canon in each part, this recording simply jumps from m. 27 to to m. 35 in all the parts at once. This means that the first violin plays the full canon except for 4 of the couplets, but that the 2nd and 3rd violin skip a different 4 couplets! So, while two couplets (mm. 27-30 in v. 1) are never heard, two of the other couplets cut from violin 1 are heard only in the 2nd and 3rd violins. The couplet introduced in v. 1 in m. 31 is heard only in the 2nd and 3rd violins, and the next couplet only in the 3rd violin.

In investigating the historiography of the Canon, one of the things that has struck me is the degree to which popular culture seems to have latched onto the harmonic progression of Pachelbel’s Canon more than the intricately woven contrapuntal texture. For instance, the amazing Canon Rock phenomenon partakes of the harmonic progression and uses the canonic theme as melodic material, and the passages where the canon is in thirds with itself certainly get used as an opportunity to show off guitar virtuosity. But there is never any true canonic imitation.

Most of the keyboard transcriptions are far worse about this, even though a keyboard player ought to be able to recreate a fair amount of contrapuntal texture. It’s clear that the canonic texture is not primarily what people who respond to Pachelbel’s piece by creating their own versions are moved by, since the canonic texture almost never appears in these transcriptions/arrangements. And the general public still loves these pieces, despite the richness in the original that has been bleached out.

I had attributed this to garden-variety musical naïveté, but now that I’ve heard some of these early recordings of Pachelbel’s Canon that were prepared and played by professional Classical musicians who have every capacity for understanding contrapuntal textures, it seems quite obvious to me that the popular imagination is not alone in responding mostly to the harmony and melody. The balances in both the Paillard and Baumgartner recordings, along with this one, tend to highly emphasize one of the lines as the clear MELODY at any point, and it’s this aspect of the musical conception, I think, that leads to such cuts as the one we see here that is completely devestating to the contrapuntal texture.

Now, of course, it doesn’t sound bad, because the canon is designed so that you can pretty much mix and match any of the parts and it will come out all right (that’s the nature of the ground bass, within limits, of course). And, indeed, had I not been watching the score scroll by in Finale while listening, I’m not sure I would have noticed. I certainly did miss the repeated notes in the Baumgartner, but thought they were just made into accompaniment figures so that I had simply missed them. In this case, I would have been less likely to notice, given that it’s the three couplets before the repeated notes that are omitted.

But I can’t help but wonder exactly what it is that leads to these cuts. What is wrong with this passage that it gets taken out in two of these early recordings? I’m pretty much at a loss for an explanation, myself.

Blogging Pachelbel #1 — Baumgartner

I’m skipping Fiedler right now because it’s not available for MP3 download, and the CD won’t arrive for a few days.

This is a stunningly slow recording. It clocks in at 6:16 to begin with (the only slower recording is the Paillard), but that’s without 10 measures that are cut from the performance. First, it skips the first two measures of the bass. It then starts to slow and then slows down some more, exhibiting a woozy-headed, completely unsteady tempo, like molasses. The ugliness of the bass line stands out — it’s too strong for the middle parts, and not in tune enough. The balance is very strange, as though the conductor is afraid of letting the lines come to the fore as Pachelbel wrote them. This badly mucks up the balance so that some of the new canonic entrances are inaudible until the third violin gets its statement. This results in some very weird textures and tends to suppress the figuration in certain voices.

But to me the most shocking discovery was that this performances entirely cuts the two couplets of repeated notes and the two couplets before that (mm. 27-34). At 3:06 in the recording:

  • v. 1 cuts from m. 27 to m. 35
  • v. 2 cuts from 29 to 37
  • v. 3 cuts from 31 to 39

This is my favorite part! And I thought all string players loved playing repeated notes under a single bow! It’s one of the loveliest sounds strings can have, a heartbeat-like pulsing that is quite lovely. But this recording sacrifices it to no end that I can imagine.

The ending is grandiose beyond belief, and just unpleasant. It’s as though the conductor misread the composer as Wagner.

Except that Wagner had better taste, and a much more finely tuned sense of historical musical style.

Blogging Pachelbel

I’ve been obsessed the last few weeks with the history of Pachelbel’s Canon. I got interested because my viol consort had originally planned to do Purcell’s Three Parts on a Ground (Z. 731), which is for the exact same instrumentation, and I thought we should get the Pachelbel under our belts while we were at it. For various reasons we decided not to do either piece, but I’d gotten fascinated by the historiography of the Canon. This weekend I started buying every MP3 version of it I could find that was a serious attempt to present the Canon, and not variations on the Canon’s chaconne bass.

I’ve figured out the timings for all the ones I have and the average beats per minute (BPM), and now I’ve just started listening through them to get a sense of how the different performances differ. I’d started taking notes, but I realized it would make more sense to just blog the whole process as I go along, and do it one performance per blog post.

Here’s the list of the recordings I’m looking at, in roughly chronological order (it’s tough to say on some of them since they are re-issues of re-issues and don’t have the original release dates so far as I can tell):

[Editorial Note: Since originally posting this, I've come up with additional information on recording dates. I've updated a few major items here, but will not get back to this project until the weekend, when I should have significant revisions based on additional information received very gratefully from many helpful correspondents.]

Ensemble/Performer Version Est. Date
Fiedler Sinfonietta Orchestral ?1940s, R1991
Baumgartner, Festival Strings, Lucerne Orchestral, 8mm. cut 1966, R1968, R1969, R1976, R1978, R1981, R1984, R1986, R1991
Münchinger/Stuttgart Orchestral, 8mm. cut 1967, R1978, R1989
Paillard 1968 Orchestral arr. 1968, R1979, R1984
Ettore Stratta Orchestral, 8mm. cut 1970s, many re-releases, lastest R2002 (is this the Ordinary People version?)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestral arr. with winds and brass, non-original bass line, incomplete in all downloadable versions (fadeout after c. 2:30) ?1970s, R2008
London Philharmonic Orchestral ?1970s, R2008
101 Strings Orchestral ?1970s, R2008
Gerhardt/National Philharmonic Orchestral ?1970s-80s, R2007
Vienna Baroque Ensemble Orchestral ?1970s-80s, R2009
New Bach Collegium Orchestral (tutti/solo?) ?1980s, R1989, R1999, R2009
Hogwood Original 1981 (1983?) R1994-95
Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel Original 1981, R1995
London Baroque Original 1981 R1998 R2005
Leppard Orchestral 1981-82 (83?) R1988
Slatkin Orchestral 1982-83 (84?), R2008
I Musici Orchestral 1983, R1990
English Concert Original 1986 (1985?)
Taverner Players Original 1988, R1993, R1996, R2004-05, R2006-07
Paillard 1989 Orchestral arr. 1991 (recorded in 1989), R1995
London Chamber Orchestra Orchestral 1989 R1994
Orpheus Orchestral 1990
Manze Original 1993
Royal Philharmonic/Carney Orchestral 2009 [new release?]

That’s a lot of recordings to review, but so far, it’s been fairly fascinating, discovering all the surprises, the parallel octaves and fifths, the shocking cuts, the ridiculous tempos (both fast and slow). Fun stuff!

Next post in this series: Blogging Pachelbel #1 — Baumgartner

“Neuroenhancing” Drugs

I was just reading Margaret Talbot’s article in this week’s New Yorker about so-called “neuroenhancing” drugs, titled “Brain Gain: The underground world of ‘neuroenhancing’ drugs.” I am struck by what seems to be an underlying assumption among many of those who find these drugs useful, that life in general works a lot like college. Anyone who’s been out of college for a couple of years quickly realizes that most of the real world doesn’t work like exams and papers that are due on certain dates and that you could pull all-nighters to complete.

When I was an undergraduate, I never pulled an all-nighter. I always felt that the facts that I might cram into my head during the extra time would be offset by the lowering of my level of functioning due to tiredness. It is true that I did sometimes stay up all night writing papers, but that’s because you got the thing onto paper and didn’t have to then perform the next day. It wasn’t until grad school until I stayed up all night writing a paper that I then had to read out loud in a seminar the next morning. Now that was gruelling!

I can’t help but think about recent activities with my viol consort, The Teares of the Muses. We just gave two concerts (last Saturday and just last night, on Tuesday), and the group is a nice mix of players ranging in age from 20 years old to mumble mumble mumble over 50. I’m 47, but I can say that I am able to absorb more in a rehearsal than the college kids in the group. This is not because I’m mentally more acute, but because I have a much greater store of musical experience to which I can connect new musical ideas that come up in rehearsal. When I first play a new piece, I already have a store of musical experiences playing other pieces that I can connect the new one to. The student players are much newer to this repertory, and are very often encountering the musical style for the first time. They don’t have any background of musical memory in which to contextualize what they are playing, and the result is that they are less reliable from rehearsal to rehearsal in terms of what they absorb and retain.

This is no criticism of them — they are very talented and work extremely hard. It’s just that experience really does count for something that couldn’t possibly be overcome by them by simply enhancing their native memorization or cognitive abilities — they lack the store of experience and knowledge to connect new musical experiences to, and thus are at a disadvantage in comparison to the oldsters (I’ve been playing viol for 20 years). They might be (and are) more technically adept, but that doesn’t make up for long experience of the musical style and the ability to play with others in an ensemble.

That’s why I’m not so worried about losing out to youngsters on these new drugs — they lack the foundation to truly be able to capitalize on the enhanced mental acuity.

Planes Crashing in your Back Yard

A plane taking off from La Guardia airport this afternoon ditched in the Hudson River around 48th Street at a little before 3:30pm this afternoon. This happens to be the stretch of the Hudson visible directly outside my window.

I posted some pictures of the view from my bedroom window recently. Here is a picture taken today at 4:15pm indicating the approximate crash site:

Site of USAir plane crash

And here’s a close-up showing the flashing lights of the rescue and police along the West Side of Manhattan:

Rescue and recovery flashing lights

The picture doesn’t really capture it, because not all the lights are on at once, but the whole Westside Highway as far as I can see is lined with flashing lights. At this point (4:50pm), NPR is confirming that miraculously everyone was rescued from the plane and has survived. The rescue was begun by New York Waterway ferries that sidled up to the floating plane within minutes of the crash landing (a resident of a tall building on the Upper Westside who witnessed the entire crash was interviewed on one of the local TV stations, and she said it was about 8 minutes from the plane coming to rest before the ferries started taking people off the plane).

It appears that pilot and crew training saved a lot of lives today — the landing was described as a picture-perfect water landing by those who witnessed it — and it seems that the crew got everyone off the plane very quickly, with most of them not even getting wet (though from pictures I saw on the TV, it seems that some of them may have gotten their feet wet standing on the partially-submerged wings of the plane waiting to board one of the rescue boats).

Since the landing around W. 48th Street, the plane has floated down the river and gradually sunk into the water (though the last footage I saw showed the tip of the tail and the top of the cockpit still above water), and last I heard it was down around Greenwich Village (the reporter said Perry Street).

A remarkable event.

Why I despise Microsoft

I read in The Register today about Microsoft’s release of a plugin for Firefox that will allow you to view Open XML documents (MS’s controversial XML-based document format). But the article in The Register gave no download link, so I thought “Grrr. Annoying Register writers — don’t they have any sense?”

So, I went to MS’s download site, and put in “OXML Firefox” and got no matches. I tried some variations and got nothing. So, I went to Google and searched on “microsoft Open XML plugin for firefox” and expected to see a link somewhere at the top of the search results. No dice — all the links were for third-party websites. So I went to a reputable one (ZDNet) and expected to find a link. Once again, as with The Register, no link at all.

Now I was getting *rilly* annoyed. So I saw a link that I’d missed at the bottom of the first page of results — it was a Microsoft press release and on MS’s website. “Eureka!,” I thought — “that will surely be it!” The press release itself offered nothing, but there was a list of links at the right and the first link was to “Open XML Document Viewer,” and so I thought “Eureka!” again. But when I went to the page, it wasn’t on MS’s website — it was an open-source project, and I didn’t think it could possibly be the right site for this well-publicized plugin, since it listed only 448 downloads.

So I went back to Google and visited the first link that Google had brought up, a website I’d never heard of, (hence my skepticism in not going there first). It took me right to a download page, and I clicked the DOWNLOAD button. This (as is so often the case) took me to a second page that listed download sites, but there was only ONE download site, so I had trouble finding the link. Finally, I clicked it and started the download. In the meantime, I’d alread downloaded the viewer from the OpenXML Viewer Project’s website’s download page, and when the SAVE prompt popped up for the download, I noted that the file name was the same as for the previous download. I renamed the file and then compared the two, and, of course, they were identical. *sigh*

This whole frustrating process left me with a number of questions:

  • Is MS trying to hide the fact that this is a non-MS project?
  • Are all the media outlets not providing a link because…um, well, er, because?
  • And why do download sites not have code that checks it there’s only one download site to choose from and automatically initiate the download from that single website, instead of offering the user the opportunity to “choose” the one site (which confused the hell out of me, because I couldn’t see the link).

One might get the idea that MS is not all that enthused about promoting this thing.

Oh, last lesson: always trust Google to give you the right answer at the top of the results page.