Sunday, November 22, 2015

Rake versus divot

The Bluegrass Mass came and went, and it has been truly wonderful to go back to working on the music I had sort-of set aside back in August to do that gig.  I have two recording projects going now, and I hope to have something in that arena to share before too long, but this post focuses on dirt.

Prairie planting this year is complete.  I wasn't really going after huge areas (for the first time in years!), but going through what has already been done and adding some things, as well as planting in a few spots where I'd had to go after some evil and left a blank area.

I did decide to try a bit of an experiment, though.  Before 2013, when I got the Palouse Conservation District grant and some professional advice, I had usually planted the seeds I had collected or bought by digging a little divot, a shovelful, turning it on its side, chopping up the dirt (the soil here is so lovely that it would generally just crumble into a perfect planting medium), like this...

I had gotten results from several species using this method, and it seemed fine for places where I didn't want to disturb other plants. 

However, knowledgeable people I met as a result of the PCD grant told me that the best way to prepare an area was to rake it to expose the dirt, put the seeds on top and rake a little bit of soil over it, like this...

They were right that many species preferred the raked area method, especially those, like clarkia, cinquefoil, and delphinium, that had tiny little seeds.  But the fact is that this method has not given me as good results on several species.  In the last two years I have not gotten a single gaillardia or helianthella, species that I had previously gotten to grow in my divots and that I would like to have many more of, so this year I have gone back to divots for them.  We shall see...

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Things you say yes to

The view outside, just now...

The smoke, dust, and wind are enough to keep me inside today, but there's plenty of work inside too.

About a month ago, Richard Kriehn, of Prairie Home Companion fame, came back to the Palouse for a concert promoting his new CD, and I had fun sitting in with the banjo on a few tunes.  At that point he mentioned that he had been hired to come back in late October/early November to perform a special concert with the local Palouse Chorale Society (a local community choir who do a series of concerts throughout the year)--a "Bluegrass Mass" (we both raised our eyebrows simultaneously at this term), for mixed choir and bluegrass band.  He said that there was a whole written-out part for banjo, and who else can play unusual banjo music, read music, and be able to follow a conductor?  He couldn't think of anyone else who could do this gig.  The piece is The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, text by Marisha Chamberlain and music by Carol Barnett. 

Last year my gig like this was the local orchestra's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni.  Somehow (and I suspect there's a story here), they had gotten to a couple of weeks before the first performance and not realized (?) that there is this important mandolin solo in the beginning of the second act.  Or was there someone who didn't work out?  How did they not get this to me three months ahead?  I always get these calls, "Do you know someone who...?"  Well, in this case the person they really needed was in fact, Richard Kriehn (see above), but he had moved to Minnesota, so I bought new strings for my mandolin, memorized the lovely little part in a few days, and had my first experience playing classical music with an orchestra.  I have to say that listening to Mozart, sitting amongst the woodwinds, was very lovely. 

So, somehow the Palouse Choral Society decided to perform this "Bluegrass Mass" without realizing that the score had major problems.  For example, parts that aren't written, but at least I have three months to prepare.  I knew that if I didn't say yes to this, they couldn't possibly get anyone else to do it.  Has anyone ever heard a performance of this piece?  I just can't imagine how it could work, maybe there is some session banjo player in Nashville or something, but most of those players don't really read.  So, I took on another minimum-wage music job, because not only did this piece have some very difficult passages composed for the banjo (but they fit, sort-of, though the notation is vague), but...major chunks of the music do not exist...Here is a good example (the published part on the top, my arrangement written out below)--

The composer wrote that odd little phrase that appears a couple of places, and though there seems to be tablature underneath, this has been generated automatically by the Finale notation software--I use the same software and I recognize the nonsense that feature produces.  But at least you get the notes in those spots!  Elsewhere, as you can see, you get slash marks and a few chord symbols.  The first movement is mostly written out, though the tablature is useless, but the rest of the movements are more like what you see above.  I have had to write out an entirely new part, and the director of the chorale may be surprised when I insist on being credited as an arranger here.  If I have to get minimum wage, I want credit for the work!  If you are a banjo player who is reading this because you somehow linked to it, send me a message and I will send you images of all of the pages I arranged/transcribed.  You will need them. 

Anyway, Richard fortunately had located mp3 files of a recorded performance with a bluegrass band called Monroe Crossing, who originally premiered this piece.  It was obvious that this banjo player prepared a part--it was not some improvised bluegrass thing--in fact, the weirdest part of this project is that the music really isn't bluegrass at all--it uses bluegrass instruments but... It's more like Bartok-meets-American folk music.  In a few spots I was able to pick up the part by ear, or come up with the equivalent texture.  In the movement above, and throughout, I just composed a new part as this banjo player must have done, but this would not have been possible without the recording.  For variety (and since this isn't bluegrass anyway), I found a couple of movements to do in clawhammer style.  We'll see how it goes...


I found a Facebook page dedicated to this piece--really to Monroe Crossing and their various performances of this piece with choirs around the country, and I posted a question about all the missing material in the music.  Mark Anderson, the bass player for Monroe Crossing, responded...

Mark from Monroe Crossing here. We premiered the piece. When Carol delivered the piece to us there were sections of the work that were intended to be open to interpretation within chords, sketches, or scales. I would believe the intent was to provide a Bluegrass improvisation. As the bass player I can use the example of "Art Thou Weary?" which is just the chords and I play it differently every time. In the spirit of the piece, find what works for you during those parts.

"Art Thou Weary?" is the piece in the image above.  The funny thing here is that this piece is not at all bluegrass, and with the changes going on, a player would be a fool to just think they were going to throw an improvisation at this thing.  "Find what works for you during those parts" is a little like "you get to be the arranger, but no one's paying you for that!  Have fun!"  So, I pressed him a little, saying that NO WAY did their banjo player just improvise a part on this--obviously they had prepared parts and the publisher is selling this thing without everything you need to make a performance.  You don't even get the CD, keep in mind (Richard had to find that...).  I mentioned a moment in "Art Thou Weary?" where they inserted a passing diminished chord that isn't even in the music...Then, I got...

Sorry, we put a lot of effort into our version of the piece and don't give it out. The diminished [chord] in Art Thou Weary isn't in our piece either, we thought it fit. It is the composer's intent that people find their way. We look forward to hearing your version. 

Oh, OK.  This is an interesting intersection between art and commerce.  "We were hired to arrange this for bluegrass band, and now we tour performing it.  The music is being sold, but it leaves out about 80% of what you have to do, but because we make money at this, we don't want to help you do it.  You're on your own."

I have an entirely different analysis of this piece.  It wasn't composed by Carol Barnett.  She wrote some of it--the choir parts and these bare-bones sketches of instrumental parts, but really the whole thing is collaborative, with the members of Monroe Crossing really composing the instrumental parts.  Except that if they don't provide their work, then every new set of musicians must become arranging/composing collaborators.  Conventions of European classical music (the tradition Ms. Barnett is working in) say that a single composer writes the music, but that didn't happen here.  So she can only claim, and the publisher can only publish, what she did, (and actually, the bits of instrumental music she provides are inadequately notated, at least in the banjo part...).  In my opinion, this should have been published collaboratively, with Monroe Crossing's contributions credited and integrated.  And of course that means they would have to be paid royalties, etc.  If the spirit is that other musicians (like me) have freedom to interpret Monroe Crossing's arrangements (as is indeed traditional in American vernacular music), that can easily be explained in the music, but it is wrong to expect musicians who are hired to deliver a performance to spend hours/days just composing and writing out their part.  I think it is unethical to sell this incomplete score/parts to choir directors, who naturally think that they can hire some musicians to do something like this, when what they are really setting up is a system that exploits musicians who must become low-paid/free arrangers in order to fulfill their professional responsibilities.

Friday, August 21, 2015


It has been very dry around here, and I've managed to take a photo that includes blue sky without too much smoke from all the fires in the region.  We haven't had rain for months and the temperatures have been hotter than usual, even for August.  So, I was surprised when I went out in the prairie today to see so much green.  Nothing out here gets watered, but native plants put their roots down deep into the soil where there is still some moisture, apparently. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Did I Invent the Frappuccino?

In 1986, I was without a music gig (long story) and I went to work as a barista and waiter at a really nice dessert place in Seattle called Pacific Desserts, right next to Seattle Center.  Among their many truly-wonderful treats, they made a rich chocolate ice cream with Guittard chocolate, and they served Starbucks coffee.  Starbucks back then wasn't what it is now.  They mainly sold only to restaurants in the Seattle area, and the only two Starbucks stores in the whole world were in Pike Place Market and the University District.  They were obsessed with quality, the coffee was outstanding, and if you used Starbucks coffee in your restaurant, you could expect secret Starbucks agents to come once in awhile and order an espresso drink.  They were always very friendly, but they would get a coffee, critique your work (complements, too), and they had really good advice!

I had a great manager who cared that we made top-of-the-line espresso drinks, and he encouraged experimentation.  My masterpiece was the "Buzz Bomb."

I mixed a doppio ristretto shot of espresso (so a double, but I only use the first 1.2 ounces or so of the espresso) and 1.5 oz. of half-and-half together and chilled them in the freezer for 20 minutes.  We had an milkshake maker and I took a hulking scoop of the Guittard chocolate ice cream, put it in a frozen stainless steel shake cup, poured the chilled espresso mix over it and zipped it into a tiny milkshake.  They were SO GOOD, and you could sorta feel the air rushing around your eyeballs after you enjoyed one.

Anyway, one day the Starbucks guy came in, and I said that he had to try a Buzz Bomb.  He was skeptical but once he had a sip, his eyebrows raised and he looked me right in the eye, nodding, "This is very good, very good..."  True story.

I imagine any strong chocolate ice cream could work for this, but I use Tillamook Mudslide which is a very rich chocolate with pieces of dark chocolate (semi-sweet, I think).  The pieces get pulverized and the flavor is very close to the Pacific Desserts chocolate ice cream.  Because we don't have a commercial shake maker we put a stainless steel pitcher in the freezer and do the job with an immersion blender.  Put your glasses in the freezer, and be sure you chill the espresso/half-and-half mixture for 20 minutes.  If you use a regular blender, be sure to put the glass/blade part in the freezer first.  Making two at once seems to work better than one at a time, and then I use three little scoops of ice cream.   

Friday, June 5, 2015

The natives are restless

Needle-leaved navarretia (Navarretia intertexta), blooming this afternoon.

I have been clobbered by an evil stomach bug that has lingered now for four days, but I finally felt up for a little walk, and I wanted to check on a patch of small white flowers on sort of spiny stalks, just a couple of inches tall at most.  They've shown up elsewhere, and when these sweet furry green things became sorta sharp brown things, I assumed they must be evil.

When I saw them again this year in a spot in the second-year prairie, I had recognized that native annuals (like the previously-mentioned Midget phlox) were showing up in this area.  I thought that I had better identify everything, so I can walk through in the next week and pull the stray Prickly lettuce and mustard (thankfully, there is much less of this as the years go by).  They do have sweet tiny flowers, and before they become little sticker things, they make a lovely little patch like this...

And, sure enough, consulting my Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest (Turner and Gustafson), there it is on p. 161.  It looks like it will provide some needed competition to all of that Epilobium you can see sprouting around it.  We'll see how this goes, but my theory is that these annuals fill in and provide cover for the perennials that are coming up everywhere.  There's actually quite a bit of native grass species throughout, but they are still only little green threads.  After the perennials mature, these annuals remain ready to take advantage of any opportunity.  Now they're getting an unusual opportunity and I hope they behave themselves, but I think it is just this sort of biomass that creates an actual prairie as it composts.   

And here's a shot of clarkia and Oregon sunshine in all its glory as I walked back to the house...

Monday, June 1, 2015

Late Spring bloom...

Oregon sunshine, clarkia, Wyeth buckwheat, and yarrow blooming in the prairie today...

These images are all from my "second-year" prairie, the areas that I planted 18 months ago with the Palouse Conservation District grant.  There are some plants in this area that have been here for awhile--the Arrowleaf balsamroot (past blooming now, but you can see the large leaves on the right side of the photo) is fifteen years old--but most of this area was replanted with natives when I received the PCD grant.  This area is where I took the previous post's images of Midget phlox, which I didn't plant, but it was somehow inspired to show up here.  It is still blooming, but you can't really see it in this image--they really are tiny flowers.

One of the great successes of the PCD replanting was Taper-leaved penstemon (below), which I think is spectacularly beautiful.  This one blooming here was planted as a plant in a pot (from the Idaho Native Plant Society sale last year), but I also purchased a bunch of seed and there are many, many penstemon sprouts all over the place on the property now.  I am really looking forward to seeing drifts of this fabulous flower in the future!

One of the plants that I planted in this area years ago was this Gaillardia aristata, which has now grown into a substantial clump.  This is a plant that you can buy in a lot of nurseries--supposedly it is the same species--but the cultivar generally has redder petals.  I think the local native version is more beautiful.  The seeds for this one came from a population that grows a mile east of here.

I have to go through this entire area to pull seed heads off of cheatgrass and other annual grass species, but it is basically finished, as far as substantial planting is concerned... 

Friday, May 15, 2015

A gift

Midget phlox (Phlox gracilis), blooming in the prairie...

I have seen these tiny annual flowers in the middle of our property for years, pretty little pink flowers, mostly, though there are white ones, too...

They are the sort of tiny plants you can see all over native Palouse prairie remnants, but not in the more cultivated parts of my prairie restoration effort.  Until yesterday, I had not identified them, but they seemed so delicate and sweet that I assumed they must be native.  I pulled out my handy field guide last night, and there they were--I wouldn't have guessed that they were phlox of some kind.  Along with another annual, Blue-eyed Mary, which I have written about previously, I have been able to save them from my weed control efforts and it is an inspiration to see them coming back in the second-year prairie.  They are plentiful enough that I hope they spread their seeds throughout the property...Though you can't buy these sorts of plants from any supplier, I suspect their role in the prairie ecosystem is important, since they fill in and keep invasive species out, and they appear to react with the soil, making it more receptive to other native plants.  It seems like such a gift for Nature to plant them for me!

It has been awhile since I posted a shot of the five-year-old prairie restoration area in the northern part of the property.  Not much blooming there that you can see at the moment (the Midget phlox turns up south of this view), but it is healthy and thriving...There are actually quite a lot of nine-leaf lomatium there and other good things, but they get lost amongst all that Idaho fescue.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Back in business!

I just finished making a little wooden pad for the laptop so it can stay cool sitting on that nice antique South Persian mat (Khamseh Federation, late 19th c.).  After nearly two months (!), Palouse River Music is back to recording.  I hope it's another thirteen years before I have to go through all of that again!

Sunday, March 29, 2015


When the grass widows are blooming, it's Spring.  For signs of excitement in the prairie, though, it's best to go to spots like this that have been established for a few years.  The areas I planted last fall are still pretty bleak (below). 

 In areas I planted in fall of 2013, there's more activity...

Close up, this second-year growth looks like what you might expect in the first year at this point, but a prairie unfolds at a very slow pace...Below, the wide-bladed leaves are Western groundsel, and the five-bladed leaf to the right is an Upland larkspur.  I hardly saw any larkspur last year, but in those areas now are numerous drifts of it.  It just takes this long to get going, and may not bloom until next year or the year after.

For comparison with images I've shot of this area in previous years, this is what a planting looks like in the second year.  Patience, patience...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


It was not even a month after I had bragged in the previous post about how I had nursed my c.2002 computer and recording system past their planned obsolescences, and saved thousands by doing so at no loss of quality.  Had my backup G4s...oh yeah...

First the main hard drive failed in the computer.  Dead.  The backup G4 was a "great machine" (words of the excellent Mac service guy at our local Moscow, ID dealer, VGH--good people...), but ultimately it had been made a year too late to work the version of ProTools I had.  Just like that, my system was toast.  Except that this realization took about two weeks.  At least I'm backed up, and they say that I will be able to open my version 5.3 files in...version 11.3 (!)  But a new computer meant that I could no longer use my perfectly wonderful fancy audio interface because current ProTools doesn't support the old interface.  They had me.

I was surprised how vulnerable I felt when I realized that my last 13 years of work clings to electrons in a backup and back-backup drive here, and until a few days ago, I actually wasn't sure that my files would open.  I've spent some time thinking about what I could recall if I had to.     

Above, work has stopped this morning while I wait to hear back from my helpful "sales engineer" for why the HD PCIe card doesn't quite fit into the slot designated for it in the Sonnet chassis, so I can thunderbolt that bad boy into the HDX interface.  Why don't these things ever go "click, click, click--GREAT!--Back to work!"?

So it's Irish fiddling until I hear from the guy.  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Vintage Pro Tools

My workspace, this evening...

This Pro Tools "rig" was put together in 2002 and is the guts of my recording studio.  This is Pro Tools version 5.3.1 (currently, the official Pro Tools is version 11.3 about to go to 12), running on a Mac G4 using Mac OS 9.2.  I'm using the fancy "HD1" D/A interface that was the hot new thing in 2002; it was so new that my dealer was required to sell me the old version and then fall all over himself apologizing that he couldn't offer me the new HD1 because he had to be silent about its existence, and then he changed everything out and his diligent complaints to the company got me a "free" $1K reverb program along with the new cutting-edge high-definition digital recording setup.

Soon after I had this system up and running, Apple released OSX, and everyone I knew was hot for the new software upgrade.  Some little voice inside me said don't do it!  So, I didn't upgrade.  OS 9.2 was so stable.  Everything finally worked together perfectly.  I had just gotten to the point where I had unlimited top-of-the-line professional-quality audiophile multitrack recording time.  I think it would be hard for any professional musician who was making music in 2000 not to appreciate the creative power that was made available by Pro Tools HD on a Mac G4 running OS 9.2.  It was a major technological revolution.  I had a Waves bundle, I had Reverb One...why would I want to change anything?!  I had work to do! 

So, from that point on, I never upgraded and I've been making records and doing projects ever since.

Had I gone to OSX, the first thing that would have happened was that my "Waves Bundle" would have ceased to function.  Doesn't sound like much, does it... but it has all the functions--plug-ins--that make a recording device into a studio.  Compressors of various sorts that can bring out he musical sound quality of a recording, equalizers that are endlessly-adjustable tone controls for any recording--for example, you can easily take out a nasal sound that you hear close to a singer's face, but you don't hear ten feet away.  Anyway, I never calculated the exact figure, but I think the immediate cost to me would have been something like $5K.

In 2012, in the midst of a CD project, I had two interesting disasters that alerted me to my peculiar technological situation.  First, one day I went in the studio to do some editing of the previous night's session (fortunately I had backed it up), and my computer completely died.  Not just the "mother board" had died, but the MOTHER of all motherboards, the "logic control board" had died.  I was a bit panicky.  But I took the computer into the local Mac repair place, and the guys had an old G4 sitting right there--I bought that computer and they had everything transferred in a couple of hours, and I was back out the door and better than ever for $250.  Right away I jumped on eBay and bought another G4 for $150 just to keep in the closet ready to go.  It does seem amazing that you can buy a computer that cost over $2K in 2002 for $150 ten years later.

Then one day a few weeks later I went to work and all of a sudden I get an error message from the fancy "Reverb One" program, saying that "the date on this computer is incompatible with the operation of this software."  Hunh?!  So, I changed the date on my computer to the previous day and everything worked.  Yep, the designers of Reverb One had determined that surely no one would be using this software ten years after they released it, so from there on, my computer has always been in January of 2012.  In the image above, there's a little sheet of paper to the left of the keyboard that lists the first week of 2012, so that I can periodically switch the date back and match the day of the week.

So, on the phone last week with Mark, my helpful Sweetwater Pro Gear customer representative, I determined that my suspicion was correct, that while the current Pro Tools is "faster," there's a lot more "processing power," in fact, the sound quality is not any better.  And if I decided to upgrade, my set up is so old that while I'd get a certain amount of trade-in value for my old HD1 converter, essentially I would have to start over with everything.  New computer, new interface, all new software...Something like $15K.  More expensive than it was in '02.  I can buy A LOT of used Mac G4s on eBay for $15K...

Score one for the Luddites...