Monday, December 17, 2007

The Beethoven's Birthday Storm

It was not much of a snow-event and not, certainly, as bad as some areas had been hit in other parts of the country, but here at Chez Dr. Dick, it was bad enough. The forecast as usual had been iffy, changing back and forth from snow to ice and sleet back to snow to rain and/or freezing rain to the usual grab-all "wintry mix" (or as I once said on-air, "fleet and sleezing rain"). Given that I'm not much of a fan of winter weather -- or for that matter, weather in general (or come to think of it, much of anything) - it was not going to be a pleasant weekend.

It began on Saturday as a Big Delay. Scheduled (as much as one can schedule the weather in Outlook) to begin sometime Saturday morning, by late afternoon it was still a no-show. And the forecast was still vague, no doubt not to panic holiday shoppers. Still, when I stopped at the store after work on Friday night, it was clear lots of people were planning to feast on bread and milk regardless.

So a friend and I went out to engage in a bit of what turned out to be non-shopping, finding stores that were pleasantly not bursting at the seams, then grabbed a bit of dinner before heading over to the Harrisburg Borders. When we left, the sleet had begun and it was a quick trip home before things deteriorated any further.

When I went to bed, the forecast was leaning more in favor of a rain event. Fine.

I woke up to the sound of the cracking of wood. After realizing we had momentarily lost power overnight - only for a split second, perhaps - I looked out the window to see nothing but ice. Ice coating the branches of the maple tree outside my bedroom and study windows, ice coating the branches of the Japanese maple and kousa dogwood in the back yard (see photo), the front lawn coated in what looked like crystal shards, the large crimson king maple out front looking like it had a six-inch buckskin-like fringe of icicles hanging off the lower branches.

On the back porch were several birds - juncos, titmice, chickadees and a female cardinal - so I quickly rushed some fresh birdseed out into the feeder with more scattered across the floor of the porch.

The cracking of wood that I heard might have been branches from the oldest batch of silver maples, trees I've never been happy with, but they were saplings on the lot when my parents began building the house in the late-50s, since then spawning other batches in various parts of the yard. It looked like there was a new trunk but it turned out to be a sizeable branch standing kind of parallel to the trunk but upside down (see photo, below).
There was more sleet, there was more freezing rain, then there was a downpour of just plain rain which apparently was freezing on contact and, once in a while, a snow flurry.

The lights kept flickering, the power going out just for a second but enough that I got tired of seeing the computer reboot before my eyes or having to reset the alarm clock and the microwave every hour or so. Then there was another fierce crack of wood, louder than the others I was hearing all morning and afternoon.

I was most concerned about the maple tree on the east side of the house. It had been a puny three-leaved seedling, a freebie when we bought the ginko, when we planted it and by now if it wasn't too close to the house, it was overhanging too many of the wires running the edge of the property. But that loudest crack was actually half of one of the other silver maples, this one on the western side by the old woodpile, which now stretched out across the yard, lying in front of the mound of forsythia. Smaller branches littered the lawn and fairly sizeable ones will need to be pulled out of the forsythia, though nothing, it seems, will ever harm the forsythia (in time, unchecked, I'm sure there would be no back yard, just one mound of forsythia working its way toward the house).

Eventually, the squirrels showed up at the feeder, later than usual. There are three of them, apparently one family since any more than those get chased off with a great deal of chattering and tail-fluffing. Squirrel Ives easily fills the feeder while the younger one, Hoover, works over the porch-floor. A white-footed one, Nureyev, is capable of making amazing leaps into the Japanese maple.

Though not today. Making it to one of the thicker branches in the middle of the tree, he barely managed to hang on -- looking like the kitten in the famous '70s "hang in there" posters -- and with considerably less grace than usual, pulled himself up onto the branch and worked his way cautiously to a spot he could jump more easily onto the ground. He left without further comment.

Once the freezing rain had apparently stopped (and the sun shone perversely for a few fleeting moments making everything sparkle brilliantly enough to almost take your mind off the potentially treacherous situation), it was a matter of waiting for the high winds - gusts up to 40-50mph in the follow-up forecast. Would the power stay on?

Thousands of people in the area were without power - 46,000 still, the day after the storm - with the prospect of it not being restored till Tuesday or Wednesday night. (Update - as of Wednesday morning, 12-19-07, 2300 in the Harrisburg area were still without power.) One friend told me about the number of trees damaged or ruined by the storm at his place, much worse than mine. The clean-up and its cost were things you tried not to think about: it was enough to be waiting for what else could happen before it was officially over.

At one point, a parade of township firetrucks, ambulances and something called a "Mask Unit" drove through my neighborhood, apparently looking for any tree damage that would need to be reported to PPL or the road crews, prepared to take anyone to the hospital in an emergency, ready to report damage to anyone's house from falling trees. Fortunately, on my short street, they were able to just keep on truckin'...

Another casualty for me was the Christmas Concert by the Susquehanna Chorale which I had planned on attending that afternoon. Though a member of the chorale told me the roads "were wet, not all that bad," I chose to stay in, reading too much on-line about falling trees and branches, then watching chunks of ice (some several feet long) cascade off the wires and branches, shattering onto the roadway. I didn't feel I wanted to try dodging stuff like that with my car, so I got some soup and hot chocolate before settling down on the couch to listen to a late Beethoven quartet (Op. 131 with Guarneri).

For me, in the new old house, it was my first major storm and I will remember it, no doubt, like the first major storm after I had moved into Harrisburg to my first midtown apartment in the early-80s, when the forecast called for flurries and we had something like 24 inches of flurries on Lincoln's Birthday. This one will be the Beethoven's Birthday Ice Storm of 2007.

And winter doesn't even begin until this weekend! Bah humbug, indeed!

- Dr. Dick

Saturday, December 15, 2007


While there are times I wonder if it was wise bringing in a pregnant stray cat (and there have been times, kittens being kittens, that I was convinced it wasn't -- with nodding assent from the Big 3), there were times in the past weeks where there was never any question. Here are three pictures of Kittens at Rest, a rather unusual state and enoyable on all accounts.

At the top is the mother of all kittens, Frieda Farrell, on the right with her son Baker in profile. Though she's no longer officially "feral," she's not exactly the most acclimated of cats: she still won't let me near her (since mid-August, I have only touched her once and that was the second time since I brought her in in April), but she loves to curl up on the one chair, stretch out on a rug, even play around the scratching post. She's not really the Greta Garbo of Cats, either, but at least she's not spitting and hissing at me any more, like she was up until she was spayed.

Meanwhile, on another chair, this one with the red background, are Charlie and, in the foreground, Guy Noir.

On the gray background, an office desk kind of chair they love because it swivles and rolls around easily, are Abel and Blanche.

With four male tabbies, three of them orange, it's difficult to tell them apart, given the lighting and their positioning.

Guy is the cream tabby (hardly 'noir') who at times is known as Guy Noodge for his incessant kittenish brand of curiosity, usually at times when I am most hoping for the chance to concentrate on composing or reading.

Abel, Baker and Charlie, so named at birth because there was no way of telling them apart then, have developed into distinct personalities. Curiously, I find myself going back to the early pictures and wondering if I had labeled them correctly.

Baker is just a bit more reddish than Abel but 95% of the time, I can't tell them apart without looking at their faces. Each has a V-shaped wedge on each cheek, opening toward the mouth (this would seem to be a standard tabby marking) and Abel has two darker spots inside this wedge. Baker's dots are underneath the wedge. When they're running past you and you want to know who just knocked over the wastebasket, it's tough getting them to sit still long enough so you can check the wedge...

Generally, Baker has the quieter and sometimes sweeter personality. Abel is more out-going and, frankly, more likely to get into mischief. Charlie, the largest of the five, has no white on him (Abel and Baker have white chins), the pinkest nose and lips and a tail on the verge of being fluffy (he also has his mother's curious tail-marking that almost looks like a wound, a zig-shaped Harry-Potteresque configuration, wherein, probably, lies a tale). He's also got the sweetest disposition of the kittens, too, and purrs like an outboard motor. He would make a great dog in the way he always wants to be right next to you: judging from the size of his paws, I'm wondering if he might not be a Lab in disguise...

At the left, helping me blog, are Guy Noir and Charlie.

Blanche (originally as in Guy & Blanche Noir), the smallest of the litter, can be a combination of all the others' personalities. Her expression is usually quizzical, since (being a tortoise-shell and basically a black cat with peeks of orange seeping through and small patches of white on her chest and belly) it's hard to see she actually has a nose and a mouth, just big round eyes.

She also went into heat for the first time the weekend after Thanksgiving, something no one in this household was thankful for. Confining her to the bathroom where she was born, I called the vets and made "the arrangements," setting up the requisit shots-and-bloodwork visit followed by, ten days later, the surgery. She will not be going into heat again.

Naturally, now, it is the turn for her four horny brothers, but we'll save that (and them) for another day...

After the move, which finally occured in mid-November (the official unpacking has yet to begin), an old box-spring found its way into the bedroom which the kittens had, before they were left loose in the house, called home. This of course gave them every right to check out everything. Not only does it give them a great vantage point to watch the nests of white-capped sparrows and tufted titmice under the bedroom window, they can also oversee everything else that goes on in their room.
Small wonder I often find myself, walking around the house or sitting at the piano trying to compose, feeling I'm being watched.

The other night, off sick from work, I had curled up on the couch hoping to read a few more pages of Ian McEwan's Atonement (before I probably decide not to see the movie after all), and soon found myself surrounded: Max had draped himself over my left arm, Blanche was in her usual fuzzy bandolier stretched across my chest, making reading impossible, and Guy, Abel and Charlie had heaped themselves next to my right hip, all of us taking up barely a third of the full length of the couch. There was no one who could take the picture for me and no sense in getting up to find the camera.

Oh well, another day and back to work, after I check out what that noise was in the living room....

-- Dr. Dick

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Toward a More Fugue-Efficient Car

Johann Sebastian Bach, in addition to the time he spent composing every day, always enjoyed tinkering in his workshop, whether he was trying to figure out ways of improving the clavichord, a kind of lap-top harpsichord, or working on a new book, “The Idiot’s Guide to Writing Cantatas for Every Sunday in the Church Year.” It was usually late at night, after the city of Leipzig had gone to sleep and the various Bach children had all been put to bed, that he loved most to sneak down to the basement.

His latest project was designing a more fugue-efficient car which he figured would be a major contribution to society, given the cost of supporting the arts these days. But he knew it was becoming hopeless because the younger generation had lost the knack for fugues: a simple melody with simple harmony was all they needed to make it run smoothly if not very far.

Those huge vans took whole symphonies, though, and proved to be time-consuming for the average motorist but yet everybody had to have one until they realized how difficult it was to write a symphony every couple of days. Even Haydn had given his van up for a smaller car that ran on variations.

And then Bach heard that Philip Glass was working on a new kind of engine system that could get several more miles out of just a single chord progression and didn’t even need a melody!

What did it matter to people like that, having something designed to run on the finest intellectual principles?

He had just recently perfected the fugue-injector engine with its dashboard application allowing you to insert the written-out fugue which is then transferred to the fugue tank where it is converted into fuel. This he found to be a big improvement over the original harpsicarburator engine which had a keyboard attached to the steering column but he found it distracting to be improvising fugues while driving (especially when Anna Magdalena would call him on his cell phone).

After he had started on the design, he quickly discovered that simple two-voice fugues, nothing terribly adventurous but suitable for beginning drivers, didn’t get you very far and were basically only good for quick trips to the store and back. For the daily commute, he needed at least a three-voice fugue with two good modulations in it. If the middle entries employed a good statement by inversion, then he added a little stretto before the final statement, he might be able to run a few errands on the way home, too.

Originally, he wanted to call it the Well-Tempered Car. Unfortunately, the engine frequently needed to be tuned which caused most of the fugues to burn slower than usual. Several times he found himself on the side of the road with his pitch-pipe trying to crank the engine back to A-440. Frustrated, he wondered “why bother,” watching everybody whizzing by in their Scarlatti Sonatas and Mendelssohn Cars Without Words.

But then he came up with another idea and that night he was back in the workshop.

Just the other week, he’d developed the compact version which he allowed the boys to drive around the neighborhood: this was the Clavicar which was capable of running on basic canons and two-part inventions, good for beginners.

Once when he was in a hurry, he let little C.P.E. write a fugue for him but the boy, who was usually as bored by fugal exercise as he was by aerobic exercise, had made too many mistakes – a botched tonal answer and a deceptive modulation that contained hidden parallel fifths – which just spun the engine off to the curb and poor Bach had to sit there and write out a whole new fugue just to make it to his rehearsal on time.

He found that you can’t just quickly dash off the same old/same old, either. Even though a fugue is a fugue, it has to be well-constructed with good material to really get some mileage out of it: too much “free counterpoint,” as they call it - he always thought it was just “filler,” watering your craft down with empty additives - and the car starts stalling at intersections or making rude gastrointestinal noises when it reached quarter-note = 120.

So each night, before going to bed, he would write a couple of fugues to get him through the next day. With any luck, he might go a whole day on a good double fugue - that would be great but it didn’t always happen, especially if he was behind on the weekly cantata. Invertible counterpoint was always effective but sometimes when you’re rushed you can make some miscalculations which could gum up the works and Bach, even though it would never happen to him, knew that his sons, for instance, would never have the discipline to manage one of those every day: maybe for a holiday trip, but not your daily commute.

There had been a fine five-voice fugue with two counter-subjects that he was able to drive around on for almost a week. And there was that whole series of fugues he’d written on a theme submitted by Frederick the Great’s Energy Secretary which got him all the way to Berlin and back, even though they laughed at his ideas...

Maybe one day, ja, like their father, C.P.E. and Wilhelm Friedemann and all of their generation will be able to master the fugue in all its many possibilities. His dream was to finish a collection he called “The Art of Fuel,” containing only the finest of those fugues with which he’d gotten the best mileage. It’s a dream that keeps him going.

- Dr. Dick

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© 2007