My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Mon, 30 Apr, 2007

Composer Harold Shapero Birthday Concert

My father's eighty-seventh birthday concert took place on a drizzly grey Sunday, April 29. It has been chilly, wet, and grey almost all week here in the Boston area, and even at the end of April the leaves have barely budded on the trees. Nevertheless, more music lovers than expected made their way to a church in Arlington, Mass., to hear the Lumen Contemporary Music Ensemble (in an older review here) play new music, including some pieces composed specially for my father's birthday. The Lumen Ensemble is a group of composers and performers, most of whom are music professors, who organize concerts of their own work and pieces they have commissioned. This is an independent, self-starting group not connected with any university or music institution. "Lumen" is a way new classical music can be developed and played when there is no traditional "patronage."

The Congregationalist church was a fine example of the austere Yankee Protestant style, all off-white and rectangular, though there was a grand pipe organ and three stained-glass windows at the front. The organ wasn't played during the concert, though. All the pieces were for single players or small groups. The concert began with a solo saxophone piece, played by the sax virtuoso Ken Radnofsky, composed by Lumen-ary Pasquale Tassone especially for Shapero's birthday. It was a set of variations on, of course, the familiar "Happy Birthday" tune. This was followed by another dedicatory piece, "Harold in Italy" (sharing only a title with the famous Berlioz work) for saxophone and piano. This piece, composed by Lumen leader James Ricci, had some nostalgic and poignant moods, though it finished with a rollicking tango. After Ricci came a new piece by Shapero, "For Two Clarinets." This clarinet duo had been a commission that was rejected by its original designatees, so this was its first performance.

The first half of the concert concluded with a longer, and much more somber piece by Lumen member Armand Qualliotine. a setting of a Italian poem by the tragic twentieth-century writer Giuseppe Ungaretti. It was sung, in an Italian and English version, by the powerful soprano Lucy Tucker Yates, accompanied by Radnofsky's saxophone as well as cello and piano. This poem of sadness, loss, and pathetic hope and memory, also served as a memorial to one of Lumen's founders, the composer Donald Martino, who died in 2005.

After the intermission, Harold Shapero himself took the stage and after a short introductory talk, performed some of his current project, the "Bagatelles" for piano. These short pieces are ways to explore musical ideas in a small "sketch" form. There was also an intriguing excerpt of one of these pieces transcribed for electronic percussion. More Shapero followed with a solo cello piece originally written in honor of Harvard's finest piano professor, the late Luise Vosgerchian. "For Louise" was a clever set of variations on the old Maurice Chevalier show tune "Every Little Breeze Seems to Whisper Louise."

Next came ilLUMENated composer Betsy Schramm's "Light Excelleth Darkness," a sonata for trumpet and piano. This was played by Mark Ponzo on trumpet and JeongSoo Kim on piano. This was a strong, bracing piece in three movements. Schramm was followed by another piece by Qualliotine, a piccolo solo called "My Little Muse," played by Jill Dreeben. Its piping had a haunting lilt, reminding me of what an ancient Greek shepherd's flute might have sounded like. The concert concluded with "Ode," by Pasquale Tassone, which alternated instrumental with vocal movements. It was based on a verse by Wordsworth, again about grief and hope.

I enjoyed all the many and varied pieces in the concert, and was happy to hear new classical music played with enthusiasm and excellent skill. I am reassured that at least in some parts of the USA, new works by contemporary composers can still be heard in live performances. Despite what some doubters say, despite all the cultural pressures against it, new classical music continues to be made, by American composers of all ages, from up-and-coming young folk to my own father, still writing music at age eighty-seven.

Posted at 3:07 am | link

Fri, 27 Apr, 2007

The Other End of the World

The traveler from Kansas went eastwards until there was no more east to walk on, and there before her was the blueness against the sky blue, flatter than the Great Plains, extending out to a horizon even longer than the prairie. Go any further, and you'd be sailing to Ireland. There on the rocky coast of Massachusetts' north shore, the visitor from the landlocked steppes finally saw the ocean. Cormorants paddled and dove into the waves, while gulls squealed and wheeled overhead. A fresh sea breeze ruffled through her heartland knitting, which she always takes with her. Thus I fulfilled my promise to my friend.

My mother, who grew up by the ocean and always loves a visit to the coast, came along for the ride. We ate fried fish and seafood at a fine local restaurant. We had picked a beautiful day to visit, perfect spring weather and a blue sky painted with soft clouds. The shops and cafe's in the resort towns were not fully open yet, but we managed nevertheless to do some quality shopping.

The next day, I took my friend on a thrilling tour through Boston and Cambridge. She saw firsthand the roiling chaos of Boston driving, as well as the newsstands of Harvard Square where I spent so many hours when I lived there. We sat in a coffee house watching the local species of academic-humans, of which I was and ever shall be one no matter where I live or what I do. I enjoyed being the tour guide, and spoke a proper Bahston Dialect while explaining things to the Western visitor.

On Thursday, she returned home to Lawrence, Kansas and her beloved husband Ron, having seen quite enough of the black-clad pretentiousness of Harvard but full of good memories of the Boston area and my family. I'm glad that I was able to show her my part of the world just as, long ago, I first gazed on the empty land horizon and visited her mother and siblings in a remote little prairie town. We're even now. What a country.

I am still in the Boston area but unfortunately all my remaining days are booked with important events. On Sunday, I hope to attend a concert in honor of my father's eighty-seventh birthday. Massachusetts Electron readers, I'd love to see you but at least for this visit I don't have the time.

I leave you, and Kansas, with this image of my friend contemplating the blue Atlantic horizon.

Posted at 4:22 am | link

Tue, 24 Apr, 2007

Kansas comes to New England

She thinks she might not be in Kansas any more. Perhaps it was the angle of the golden late afternoon sunlight, or the rugged rocky cliffs and hills covered with still leafless trees and tall dark pines. Or perhaps it was the people's accents. But Kansas has come to New England at least for a few days. My prairie friend rode in my Orange Car all the way up from our Pennsylvania retreat and we are now staying near Boston.

Retreat went well in that I got outside, did a lot of walking in beautiful weather, and saw some interesting birds. I didn't expect to see any warblers, but I did indeed see a small flock of Palm Warblers, early migrants. I also saw a nice pair of Ruby-Crowned Kinglets and actually got close enough to see the bright red tuft of feathers on the male's head. There were plenty of turkey vultures and a Cooper's Hawk. I also observed orgies of mating toads and a sweet trio of baby foxes. Some religion was done as well, though my fellow devotees did a lot more of it than I did.

In 2003, I went to visit my friend's mother and other family in their home place of Arkansas City, Kansas. Now she is doing the same with mine, meeting my folks in the house where I grew up. Yes, this is Massachusetts, and it isn't much like Kansas at all.

On Tuesday or Wednesday I will bring the denizen of the landlocked prairie to the North Shore of Massachusetts, where she will see picturesque towns and maybe eat some lobster. It's interesting for me to watch another person experience for the first time what I have spent most of my life with. But instead of the green ocean of the Kansas flatlands that I marveled at, she will see the real blue Atlantic.

Posted at 2:26 am | link

Thu, 19 Apr, 2007

A Visitor from Kansas

My friend from Lawrence, Kansas has arrived and we have been seeing the sights in Washington, DC before we head up to the annual retreat of our religious group. I'll be doing a lot of hosting and administrating and managing people over the next two weeks, not to mention traveling.

Since my friend has some Native ancestry and has many friends in the Indian community, her main goal for this visit to DC was to see the National Museum of the American Indian, which just opened last year. We visited there on Wednesday afternoon. I was much impressed by the architecture of the museum, which is composed of all curved lines. It was designed by Indian architects inspired by traditional Native buildings such as hogans and kivas, but it also strongly resembled Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, especially in the interior spiral. The dome that covered the great central interior space also reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome, whose design is sometimes attributed to the Roman emperor Hadrian. I can confidently assert that the Emperor Hadrian had nothing to do with American Indians, but Frank Lloyd Wright did have some knowledge of Native styles, especially Maya and Aztec.

The Museum also has a cafeteria which attempts to serve foods which would be familiar to the Natives of various regions. This doesn't necessarily mean Native recipes, but it does use indigenous ingredients such as squash, beans, venison, berries, and corn. I tasted things from my own original region of New England and the Northeast: baked beans and a venison "terrine."

I also brought my friend to my usual hangout places such as Starbucks and Barnes and Noble, as well as my workplace. I often make packages of Trader Joe's non-perishable goodies to send to her and her husband in Kansas, because there is no Trader Joe's in Kansas, at least not yet.

Today, Thursday, we are heading up into Pennsylvania to prepare for the religious retreat. I hope to spend a lot of time outside, walking in the beautiful woodlands which belong to the retreat "campus." It's a little early for migrant birds, but there will always be something to focus my binoculars on. After all, birdwatching is a religious experience, too.

I've brought some spiritual reading with me. It is David Berlinski's A Tour of the Calculus, a fanciful, even poetic look at mathematics which is quite different from the mechanical cranking of derivative problems.

After the Retreat, my friend and I hope to proceed further northward to New England and my parents' neighborhood. Born and raised in Kansas, my friend has never seen the Atlantic Ocean. I hope to remedy this lack next week.

Posted at 3:55 am | link

Sat, 14 Apr, 2007

The Mysterious Tailor Shop

Another picture for my upcoming show is done. As with the rest of them, this is an architectural portrait. The building shown here is an old house which has been converted into a business, in this case a tailor shop. It is another of the older buildings on the main street of Falls Church which will soon be removed to make room for "urban development." Note the imitation white stone front which was added to what was once the front porch, to make a display area with big windows. Though this is only a tailor shop, I found something mysterious about it, especially in the slanting light and long shadows of a winter evening just before sunset. It's got that "Edward Hopper" feeling about it. He's always been one of my artistic inspirations. If all goes well, this and many more "character buildings" will be in my June show.

Posted at 12:48 am | link

Thu, 12 Apr, 2007

Adventures in MacLand

It has been two weeks since Macarios the iMac entered my household. Since then, I have gazed raptly into the expanse of its screen, a technological marvel which makes even my older, faded pictures look grand. And the space images from the Hubble Telescope are even grander. Let there be pixels as the stars of the sky or the sands of the sea. Macarios the blessed will resist corruption and viruses and spyware. Meanwhile, my Webmistress has returned and has set things aright so that I, and you, don't have to stumble over punctuation or chunky error symbols.

I still haven't set up some important pieces of hardware, namely my scanner and my Wacom electronic drawing tablet. Only today did I learn how to connect my portable music player which is not an iPod to the machine and download my music. And even then, the music setup is far from ideal. Music encoding software, whether for MP3's or other formats, assumes that the listener listens only to single pop songs which are no more than four minutes in length. The software doesn't respect the sequence of songs on an entire album, not to mention movements in a symphony or cantata. In order to listen to my music in logical order rather than in fragments, I will have to re-arrange every album that I brought into my system. Is this a comment on what our modern society has done to our attention spans? Back in the 1870's, the audience happily sat on their well-fed butts for hours while listening to Wagner operas grind along. Which brings us back to the wide screen, perhaps.

If you were expecting ecstatic rambling about how wonderful Macintosh is, I will disappoint the hardcore Macfanatics. The Mac user interface has its own clunky moments, just like Windows does. Once I've learned where they are and how to improve them, things will go more smoothly. As for the programs, Adobe Illustrator does some things better than CorelDraw, such as color blends, and some things much worse than Corel, such as color selection and management. At work, new management has decided that we should phase out the computer-created sign backgrounds which we have used for the last few years, because they want a "hand-done" look for for the illustrations and designs as well as the lettering. This means that I will no longer be bringing a computer to work. The Macpower which now fills my studio will instead serve my own purposes.

I kind of agree with the new management about the "hand-done" quality, though the entire graphic appearance of our current society and media is completely and slickly computerized. I have yet to see a piece of digital art, even by the best artists, that does not somehow look like it was created on Photoshop or on Painter 9. It's the smoothness and regularity that gives it away, even when the fancy "artistic" programs add in some form of texture to make it imitate a work on "real" paper or canvas. It will be a challenge to me to try to create something on this new machine which doesn't look "Photoshopped."

Meanwhile I have just finished another piece in my "Falls Church Architecture" series which I hope to put in the June show. When I get my scanner working with the new system I will show it to you. It doesn't look like digital art, because it isn't. The only things that can take me away from the enchanting screen are ordinary paper, ink, pencil, and watercolor. And, of course, derivative problems.

Posted at 3:22 am | link

Wed, 11 Apr, 2007


I found this new word while reading an article about the effects of amphetamine drugs on people. If you use these drugs, or have certain neurological disorders, you may engage in punding, which is defined in Wikipedia as "activity characterized by compulsive fascination with and performance of repetitive, mechanical tasks, such as assembling and disassembling, collecting, or sorting household objects." (Please excuse the Ôs as well as the delay in entries, as I am still having technical difficulties with the new computer and the blogging software.) I realized that I also do punding (or is that "I pund?") I'm not on amphetamines (thank Ghod) nor do I have any neurological disorder (yet) but I still have the behavior. For instance, I love cleaning the plastic sign clips from work, which get grubby with residues of various sorts. I wash them in dish detergent in the sink, rinse them, then shake the water off and set them out to dry on a towel on the floor. I can do dozens at a time, laid out in crystalline clear plastic ranks on my floor like some sort of shell game. I like sorting paints or papers or markers or colored pencils in my studio, even if other places in my home are all cluttered.

According to the Wiki article, " People engaging in punding find immersion in such activities comforting, even when it serves no purpose…" I also find it comforting, although I don't do it as long as the addicts or sufferers do. I love order and want to make more of it. In a world where most things are not under my control, I take satisfaction in knowing that I can at least clean some plastic or put a collection of cards in a neat arrangement. Maybe no one knows I do it, but at least I have made a little bit more order in my world, even if it is meaningless order.

I'm currently doing derivative problems. (No, I have not forgotten calculus at all!) Once I learned the rules of how to get these derivatives, finding the derivative of f(x), at least in these simple problems, is a mechanical and repetitive process, varied only by negative or positive exponents, or ratios and extra sub-functions. I enjoy math problems for the same reason I enjoy punding. I know that my solving those math problems serves no purpose in the long run (that is, I will not go on to be a productive scientist) but it is a way for me to assert my power to create order in my little sub-division of a world in which disorder is always, and necessarily, increasing.

Posted at 5:39 pm | link

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