Nerdy good times – a tárogatónist’s confessional

Nerdy-Good-Times

Quite apart from being unquestionably sexy and having a reputation as savvy trendsetters, musicians also have a nerdy side. When string players visit their favourite luthier to have their bows rehaired, they will talk with disturbingly fevered intensity about the relative merits of Appaloosa over Arabian horse hair required for the job. Pianists tie rubber bands to their fingers to increase dexterity, and are known to also have preferred rubber band manufacturers, about whom they argue on Internet forums. Of course, none are worse than oboists who have no social life whatsoever. How could they? They spend the greater part of their lives sealed up in basement cells shaving their reeds down to a microscopic fineness; then, emerge only to perform and complain about how much more work they need to do to achieve reed perfection. To a lesser degree, it’s the same for other woodwind players of reed instruments: As a rule, most reed players can’t tell a bad reed from a bad week.

By taking up the tárogató, I seem to have painted myself into a particularly arcane corner (even by musician standards), so it’s no surprise that I too find myself just as prone to the same sort of nerdy obsessiveness as what dogs players of other instruments. It was inevitable.

Studio

Working on Adam Hill’s “I Will Stay Here” for tárogató and electronics

When I commissioned my tárogató from Toth & Tarsa of Budapest, I was provided with a deluxe menu of options similar to what you might expect when purchasing a custom Tesla or investing in a teak plantation. I could choose the wood (cocobolo), the fingering system (I chose the German Albert system over the French Boehm only because I’d been playing a borrowed Albert system tárogató prior to investing in my own horn), and the mouthpiece style (I naturally chose one that would take a clarinet reed over one that took a soprano saxophone reed—there are no tárogató reeds).

My tárogató's birthplace - Budapest, Hungary

My tárogató’s birthplace – Toth & Tarsa, Budapest, Hungary

When my tárogató arrived, I was delirious with joy and didn’t mind some of its funky tuning (“hey, it’s a folk instrument!”) and its limited range (only two octaves compared with four on the clarinet). Gradually, however, that nerdy musician thinking started to peer into the room and make suggestions about how—if only I tweaked this or bought that—my playing would improve unstoppably.

All my neighbours are out of earshot of my practising, so it is to their good fortune that they missed out on the months of squawking that transpired as I attempted to extend the range of the instrument. While clarinettists can chose from a number of method books that contain vast anthologies of fingerings for every note on the clarinet (I have one such book with over forty fingers alone for the altissimo G#), the tárogatónist must contend with a miserable starter’s fingering chart displaying but one fingering per note. Working on the two new works I commissioned from Jeffrey Ryan and Adam Hill forced me to extremes, so thanks to them and a lot of aforementioned squawking, I have now amassed quite a handsome new chart of tárogató fingerings.

Tarogato-fingering-chart_Jason-Hall

Caution should be taken when attempting these fingerings as they have only been tested on the Albert system tárogató (nobody knows for sure what would happen on a Boehm system tárogató).

Just as tárogató reeds are not known to exist, tárogató mouthpieces are a rarity. You can’t just march into your local guitar and drums music store and demand to see their display of tárogató mouthpieces.

LOTR_tarogato

My tárogató came from Budapest with a pleasant sounding mouthpiece, but with nothing to compare it against, I really couldn’t be sure if it was good or not. My quest for a superior mouthpiece led me to Dr. Ed Pillinger of Middlesex, England.

Dr. Ed is a skilled craftsman who spends most of his days whittling away at custom clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces. But every now and then, some tárogató-wielding colonial who’s heard he makes a good Stowasser copy, rings him up. I now have two “Pillingers”: one is pitched at about A445 (European pitch), whilst the other is pitched appropriately for North America at A440. The doctor and I had to find a cure in the latter one when the former one proved untunable and untenable with piano (or anybody on this side of the pond).

Pillinger-mouthpieces

Photographed on arrival (nothing makes social-media light up like the arrival of new tárogató mouthpieces).

With all this nerdiness now becoming a fixture in my life, I was instantly smitten when clarinettist François Houle let me try his new Ishimori Kodama II ligature (the thingy that holds the reed onto the mouthpiece). Smitten enough that I couldn’t be stopped until one of these babies was flying its way to me from Japan (of all places).

Ligature-instructions

Ishimori & Co. wins “World’s Shortest User Guide” award for 2017.

All of these marvels together has done much to strengthen the tuning of the instrument (no more excuses) and improve my confidence in the upper register. I’ve yet to start affixing tape into tone holes, a laborious practice to coax individual notes into pitch by adding successive layers of electrician’s tape (or as I’ve recently learned, “Kapton tape” available at any fine purveyor of model train accessories). Tone-hole taping will undoubtedly commence once all the new equipment has had time to settle in.

Tarogato-setup

A marvel to behold – New Pillinger mouthpiece with even newer Ishimori ligature.

So if ever you have romantic thoughts of the life of a musician as some care-free communion with the muse, think again: Musicians are about the nerdiest people you’ll ever meet.


Jason plays a custom Albert-system cocobolo tárogató made by Toth & Tarsa of Budapest, Hungary, a replica Stowasser mouthpiece by Pillinger Mouthpieces of Middlesex, UK, a Kodama II ligature by Ishimori Wind Instruments of Tokyo, Japan, and Légère Signature synthetic reeds formulated by Guy Légère of Montréal, Canada.

Tarogato-Project-logo

On 30 April 2017 (4pm),
The Tárogató Project and St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar) presents
“REFUGE”
a concert of Hungarian music and stories (old and new)
of refugees to Vancouver.
St. Philip’s Anglican Church,
3737 27th Avenue West,
Vancouver, BC, Canada

Beauty amid darkness

Beauty-amid-darkness

With stories of refugees making subzero journeys across Canada’s shared border with the US, the world’s refugee crisis has just attained a new low. I’m not making hay out of blowhards like Trump and his band of orcs with this concert, but it certainly has made any artistic treatment of refugees timely.

The planned concert coincides with the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Sopron refugees to Vancouver, but I’m neither Hungarian nor a refugee. My connection is through the hauntingly beautiful tárogató—a national instrument of the Hungarians—which I play.
I was fortunate enough to receive a BC Arts Council grant to commission two new pieces for the tárogató, which I will perform on a concert at St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar) 30 April.

Jeffrey Ryan’s Arbutus for tárogató and piano is full of turbulence, optimism, and a most beautiful melancholy. In Jeffrey’s words, “In Arbutus…the bends and ornaments of traditional tárogató playing are an integral part of both soundworlds, and the piano’s tremolos are reminiscent of the cimbalom. The title, Arbutus, comes from the arbutus tree so common in British Columbia, but not native to Hungary, again reflecting the “newness” of the Soproners’ new home.

Adam Hill’s I Will Stay Here presents a different challenge, at least for me, of working with electronics. Adam layers spoken word recordings Hungarian and Syrian refugees with processed sounds of the tárogató (I previously recorded these for him). Even though this concert endeavours to steer clear of politics, Hill’s piece beautifully presents the very real-world challenge for me as a musician is to retain my humanity and focus instead on individual human journeys while playing against a pre-recorded accompaniment—much like the theme of the concert itself.

Read more about the Tárogató Project.

Canada has Learned to Welcome its Refugees

The SS Komaguta Maru—the ship that brought 354 passengers from India (including many of Sikh backgrounds) to Vancouver harbour only to be turned back by Canadian authorities—is a refugee/immigrant story that’s received a lot of media attention. After the ship was turned away, it returned to India where on arrival many of its Sikh passengers were murdered. This incident has left a sickening scar on Vancouver’s collective memory.

In 1914 (at the time of the Komaguta Maru incident), Canadian immigration rules were unapologetically racist, but they weren’t much better come 1956 when troubles in Hungary spewed 200,000 refugees onto the world stage.

The Canadian government was still holding onto its time-honoured immigration policies, which favoured stock from north-western Europe over all others. But as Soviet tanks crushed the nascent Hungarian revolution, the Canadian people themselves pressured the government to revise its policies about what constitutes a prospective Canadian. And so the characteristically Canadian way of opening our hearts and doors to others in need was birthed on the streets of Budapest.

In the early months of 1957, thousands of Hungarians arrived on over 200 chartered flights[1]. At the University of British Columbia, the entire teaching staff and student body from the University of Sopron’s Department of Forestry arrived en masse[2], thus forming (for a time) North America’s only Hungarian-language forestry classes[3].

2016 marked the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, and 2017 marks the anniversary of the arrival of Hungarian refugees to Canada. The Tárogató Project is fundamentally a refugee story.


[1] A Hundred Years of Immigration to Canada 1900 – 1999 (part 2). 1994, http://ccrweb.ca/en/hundred-years-immigration-canada-part-2. Accessed 27 Aug. 2016.

[2] Canada, Citizenship Government of. Forging Our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900–1977. 1 July 2006, http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/publications/legacy/chap-5b.asp. Accessed 13 Aug. 2016.

[3] The Sopron Division of the Faculty of Forestry. UBC, Faculty of Forestry, http://www.forestry.ubc.ca/general-information/ubc-forestry-history/sopron-story/. Accessed 27 Aug. 2016.

Tarogato-Project-logo

On 30 April 2017 (4pm),
The Tárogató Project and St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar) presents
“REFUGE”
a concert of Hungarian music and stories (old and new)
of refugees to Vancouver.
St. Philip’s Anglican Church,
3737 27th Avenue West,
Vancouver, BC, Canada

Refuge

It’s hard to retell someone else’s story and remain authentic. There’s always the spectre of cultural misappropriation lurking in the wings.

Tonight, I saw an adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth by Third World Bunfight, a South African opera troupe known for its grippingly contemporary interpretations of classic operas. The action is moved from Shakespearean-times Scotland to current day Congo and now it centres on a Congolese warlord and his ambitious wife as they murder their way to the top.

To complete the sense of present day verismo, a lot of multi-media give the sense that this live-action opera is happening online. Even the surtitles operate like a Greek chorus (never quite following Verdi’s original Italian words as surtitles ought to, but instead giving modern-day commentary and basically telling us the truth about what’s happening).

While the 12-member pick-up Vancouver Opera orchestra (sharing the stage with the singers but looking pale and out of place (and sometimes sounding it too), the singers themselves were a powerful presence. And why not? All hail as refugees from Congo’s many recent wars. It’s probably no coincidence that the drama follows the overthrow of the ruling clan of Kivu province where many of the singers are from. How they came to be such dynamite opera singers is a mystery.

That brings me to my challenge of mounting an Hungarian concert about refugees. I’m neither Hungarian, nor a refugee, so how can I find a voice that speaks authentically to the subject matter?

The answer is…give it away.

Before Christmas, I had a series of meetings with just the sort of people who can bring their real-life stories to The Tárogató Project. First, I met Gergö Péter Éles, a cultural emissary sent by the Hungarian government to investigate and report back on the cultural needs of the Vancouver Hungarian community. He’s interested in helping to assemble some of the stories from the Sopron Alumni, which are so needed. I’ve heard him play his disarmingly simple Hungarian shepherd’s pipes and he’s agreed to perform on them in the concert.

I also met two recent arrivals to Canada, both refugees.

Zdravko Cimbaljevic left Montenegro one day on business to Brussels and never returned. He was in fear of his life. His friends told him that all the landmark worked he’d done support LGBT causes would not be lost if he worked from afar. I also discovered that he’s been a force for change here in Vancouver, holding the August role as Grand Marshal for the Vancouver Pride Parade in 2013.

Farooq Al-Sajee is twice a refugee, first from Iraq and then from Syria. He studied music and English literature in Damascus and has a passion for both. He’s enthusiastic about The Tárogató Project and concert. I’m tempted to figure out a way to include him on the oude, but that would go against my Hungarian music only. We’ll see how that plays out.

What’s in a Story?

Last year, when I created Generations as a homage to the many generations that built St. Philip’s Anglican Church in Dunbar (to honour the church’s 90th anniversary), the idea came to me of tying together a narrative of music with a story line.

The first rule of such an approach is to avoid hitting the audience over the head with the story, so I left a lot to their intelligence and their own personal creativity to figure out.

The music selections where lightly connected to the idea of intergenerational connections (A string quartet by “Pappa” Haydn, Songs my Mother Taught Me by Antonin Dvorak, and the feature work, Timepieces by Jeffrey Ryan, which I had commissioned as a memorial to my own father).

This year’s concert part of The Tárogató Project springs from a similar idea—it weaves together three distinct stories:

1) The musical part is a journey through the literature (or some of it) of Hungarian music (from simple shepherd’s songs to grand Romance to newly commissioned works for the tárogató),

2) the next part explores the story of the Hungarian refugees, particularly those from the University of Sopron who came to Vancouver and made a positive impact on the city, UBC, and forestry practices in BC, and

3) the final story deals with the contemporary unfolding drama of today’s refugees and the challenges they face making their new home, Vancouver, home.

The music will weave its own thread leaving the other two stories to drive the narrative (and the music to provide meditation points).

The date is 30 April 2017 (4pm) at St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar).

Samples

Designing end-user documentation and training

One of the major problems I encounter with technical training and documentation is that it so often focuses on product features rather than real-world tasks users need to do their jobs. My approach is to start with learning objectives and an audience profile and then seeing how the technological feature fits in.

The following two samples (one for training and the other for technical documentation) describe the solutions I employed. They are followed by a new course design I create for a new course at BCIT where I teach.

CKD Patient Registration

With CKD Patient Registration (designed for clinical staff to enter important kidney care information into the clinical software system), the first challenge with training was economising the efforts taken to create and maintain the documentation. I always advocate for a single-source solution that organises information into chunks for re-use. While the ultimate solution is to use a topic-based authoring tool such as Madcap Flare, something similar can be obtained using less feature-rich software.

With the samples below, I started with that big picture of single-sourcing and drilled down to a lesson organised into different clinical scenarios for transfering patients. Although the Adobe Captivate elearning isn’t available to share here, I’ve included similar material (KCC Patient Transfers) that, for the first time, links the software features to real-world clinical procedures.

Selected files:

Webtech Driver Center User Guide

Audience profiling is an important part of training and documentation. For this next sample, we already knew that our audience (truck drivers and dispatchers) was highly visual and independent. I recommended building a guide that was down-to-earth, and I tied each procedure to a task in the order that the user might encounter it during a typical work day. It might seem obvious, but this approach replaced a rather stuffy technical writer style of documenting every feature whether or not the user was likely to use it (we stuck to documenting 80% and left the remaining 20% to Technical Support to address should the user need arise).

Selected chapters from the guide (I designed this document in InDesign using some of its responsive design technology to allow readers easy reader whether on a desktop or mobile device):

Course Design Samples

The following samples show a sample course design done for a course at BCIT.

Deborah Hazebroek, Technical Writer, ENBALA Power Networks Inc.

I appreciate the words of wisdom Jason shared in class about persevering and being open to all kinds of writing as a technical writer. Those words were valuable when I began my technical writing role as part of a sales team. It involves a lot of proposal writing, which walks a nice line between informative and persuasive writing. I’m using my strengths, but expanding the scope of my writing skills as well.

—Deborah Hazebroek, Technical Writer, ENBALA Power Networks Inc.

Celebrate Canada Day! 15 uniquely Canadian words

How-Canuck

For many new students in BCIT’s Technical Writing Certificate program, I am the first instructor they meet. They usually show up slightly nervous about their writing with all its rules for grammar and style. Sensing their nervousness I’ve devised a fun game to get them to think about the English language and its many variants.

Canada is long in geography but short in history so the fact that our country sports uniquely Canadian English spelling variants is a point of pride among many Canadians. For Canada Day, test your Canadian-ness with these 15 spine-tinglingly unique Canadian spellings.

Bard’s Merry Wives a Basketful of Summer Mischief

Bard’s Merry Wives a Basketful of Summer Mischief

Have you ever walked into a bar—say a blue-collar sort of bar—only to hear someone abruptly say something, strangely Shakespearean? “Argh. The bar wench has cut me off. Forsooth, I am undone.” It’s funny just for being so incongruous, but now imagine three hours of this sort of banter and you have set the stage for this year’s Bard on the Beach production of The Merry Wives of WindsorOntario.

Windsor, Ontario? Yes, Ontario although poor drab Windsor is not, has never been, nor will ever likely be quite so electrifying as you’ll find it here. Director Johnna Wright’s Merry Wives effectively transforms Windsor into a wild Wurlitzer of a town, pulling out all the stops of nostalgia to help you remember (or not, if you were there) the Sixties. It’s one part Shakespeare, one part Hairspray, a little of the old Cheers camaraderie mixed in with enough period Canadiana to rival The Beachcombers (although the writing’s much, much better).

The Merry Wives of Windsor follows the misadventures of one Sir John Falstaff, whom Shakespeare reprised from Henry IV by popular demand. This production (also a reprise from the Bard’s sold-out 2012 production) features all the dramatis personæ you’d expect from a 60’s sitcom: desperate housewives, a jealous alpha male husband, flower children, a toffee-nosed British expat dispatched to the Colonies, beatniks, a foppish Frenchman (though sadly not Québécois), the skipper, Mary Ann…no wait. But it’s the music, ah, cue the music.

As the line between actor and musician faded into irrelevance, the players traded soliloquys for guitars, grabbed a fiddle (naturally the Garter Inn had a house band), and even ponied up to the microphone to croon out a Patsy Cline torch song. All the singing and dancing had the audience clapping along too, even with the never-you-no-mind your Shakespearean iambic pentameters delivered occasionally in Fonsie voice. It was all in good fun. The show grabbed us out of our seats, whirled us ‘round the dance floor (in some cases literally) and didn’t let go until its shit-kickin’ epilogue.

Just as the TUTS production of Hairspray was acknowledged as last summer’s hit, you can wonder no further which production has it in the bag (or basket) for this year. Merry Wives is a basketful of mischief. So lace up your farthingale, brush off your 60’s Canadiana, and make haste thither to the Bard’s Merry Wives of Windsor before it sells out. It’s going to be a runaway hit.

Photo courtesy David Blue

Was Marx Right? — Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future”

In “Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future”, English journalist and broadcaster Paul Mason sets out in the third chapter to build on the theories of waves and cycles, and how Marxists leaned heavily on the idea of that capitalism was inevitability doomed to collapse. He starts in the near present (2008) with the resurgent popularity of Karl Marx, or “Marx-mania” as he puts it, and then works his way back bringing in the entire panoply of Marxist dramatis personnæ — many of whom were unknown to me.

According to Karl Marx, capitalism is beset by crises and breakdowns making it inherently unstable. While classical economists Adam Smith and Malthus explored the limits to capital as “barriers to expansion, decline of profit, and the fragility of stable growth”, Marxist theorists Rudolf Hilferding and Rosa Luxembourg by contrast awaited its doom.

My own curiosity had previously led me to Richard D. Wolff, an economics professor turned Marxist rock star in the wake of society’s disillusionment with the current state of capitalism. Among his followers he’s best known for the quip, “If you lived with a roommate as unstable as capitalism, you would have moved out long ago.”

Listen to Professor Richard D. Wolff’s widely popular monthly updates (May 2016):

Mason focuses on the theorists and activists of the early twentieth century and how their interpretations influenced the inter-war years and the rise of the Soviet Union. Luxemburg, who was critical of Lenin (but who was embraced by later communist acolytes), asked questions that we’re asking again today: “What happens when the whole world is industrialised?” and “What happens if it can’t create new markets within the existing economy?” She proposed that capitalism is not cyclical, but is in fact fatally flawed (a conceit held by Wolff and many others today). Observing the increasing financialisation of the economy, Hilferding concurred that “finance-dominated capitalism was proof of the system’s imminent doom”. Mason both praises these theorists when they moved toward concrete facts and criticizes them for their abstractions, particularly for ignoring the adaptive nature of capitalism.

Here’s Noam Chomsky on Rosa Luxemburg and Revolution (2013)

Mason ends the chapter describing the “perfect wave”, aka the typical wave structure of capitalism (I paraphrase here):

  1. The start of a wave is usually preceded by the build-up of capital in the finance system
  2. Once new technologies, business models and market structures, capital rushes in.
  3. In each up cycle, the economy has no trouble absorbing new workers into the workforce.
  4. When the ‘golden age’ stalls, there is a traumatic break point.
  5. Now the adaptations: attacks on wages, redistribution projects; and recessions become more frequent.
  6. If adaptation fails, capital retreats from the productive sector and into finance systems (as we’re seeing right now).

All of this of course is to pave the way for the premise of the book: “That there is a different route beyond capitalism”.