On Doo-Wop, The Scourge Of Robots and Beyonce, and The Anacrusis


Doo-wop is a fascinating little inlet of American Music that was sort of absorbed and overcome by the popularity of guitar driven music. When Doo-wop was at its populist peak the most popular instrument wasn’t the guitar, it was the saxophone. If you go back to old recordings you’ll find that guitar solos are quite rare – the saxophone is usually the one stealing the limelight. But it didn’t take long for guitar to become the center of North American music and it’s only recently that it’s finally being displaced by robots and Beyonce.

The anacrusis is a forty dollar word for, “the pickup” which is a sixteen cent word for a note that precedes and leads into the first downbeat of a phrase (It’s the and of, “….and go!”). They’re everywhere. In big band music, the drummer plays a very important anacrusis in setting up big shots with a sharp crack (a rimshot) on their snare drum; the iconic “Da-da-da-DUMMMMM!” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has THREE NOTES in its anacrusis; and the gasp of the audience before their roar when an event flies off the rails is also an anacrusis of sorts.

In Doo-wop, you’ll somtimes hear a voluminous, “Yeah” from the bass singer that sounds like a herd of cattle passing a bicycle. This is Doo-wop’s own special anacrusis, and the inspiration for this blog post. In the example below – a famous and filthy song – you can hear a prolific example at 0:45

At 2:12 in this famous recording by the Monotones we have a unique take on the phenomenon that sounds more like a llama hurtling itself through an open window:

I’d love to have an explanation for where this phenomenon comes from but it seems to be one of those unexplained little quirks of the genre. The art form clearly has a cappella origins; perhaps with the addition of instruments, the bass singer’s duties were becoming more and more overtaken by their instrumental counterparts and the, “YEAH” was a vocal uprising in the unseen battle of the basses. In rehearsals leading up to the BIG SHOW, the singer would be quietly stewing, planning his attack, only to unleash a hellish fury in performance that left the audience and performers indifferent in the face of a looming saxophone solo.




Choral Music Cycle Path

In the summer a young man’s fancy turns to bicycles, choral music, and attempts to suppress coughing fits that resemble violent convulsions. To honor this sacred ritual, I dashingly (Some might say handsomely) cycled the eighty-or-so blocks to Ryerson United Church for The Vancouver Peace Choir’s spring concert. Given that I rode this same route last weekend to hear Pro Coro – and that I’ve ridden it numerous times to hear the Vancouver Chamber Choir – I thought that as a service to Vancouver’s choral community, I would humbly submit this bike route for maximum enjoyment of our art form.






Our trip begins at the epicenter of Vancouver’s craft beer district and proceeds south along Commercial Drive. A speedy exit is necessary as the local saying, “Where are we going? And why are we going there when they serve better beer here?” will completely derail any exit.



Who likes door prizes? Remember, you’re a cyclist. Your love of door prizes is now only rivaled by your love of having real teeth. Turn down tenth if you love solid food!


Not yet inhibited by your legs turning into molasses, you’re probably wondering at this point why you didn’t just listen to the chap in your party who made the excellent point about staying where the beer was being served. A left turn off tenth on to Arbutus is a temporary distraction. Also, you are probably hungry.


Such trickery! A quick feint to the left putting you on King Edward and then a full on right hook on to Angus Drive is the powerhouse combination that turns this bike trip from an amateur hour frozen soup sculpture into a work of art that rivals the proper use of semi-colons.


Forty sweaty minutes later – Ryerson!

Summary Of The Absolute Most Fun Show To Go To

Once again, OperaFeHk delivers comedic and musical gold!


OperaFeHk‘s Absolute Most Fun Show To Go To is a chamber opera written by myself that was performed this past June. The tall tale of the show is that the collective’s chief protagonist, a house with hippopotamus legs, has been cast singing the lead role in my new opera. During the overture, the conductor makes a series of unholy changes to the score: the flute is replaced with a whistle, the viola is replaced with a banjo, and the oboe is replaced by a whoopie cushion. Incensed that his changes don’t create spontaneous brilliance, the conductor storms off stage. When he returns, his baton is poking out of his chest and he collapses in a heap of ego. At this point, the opera becomes a murder mystery and the two leads set out to unravel the mystery of who killed the conductor.

Here’s a brief summary:

The most obvious suspects are the instruments who were recast during the overture. The viola is interrogated, but she was too manically depressed to motivate herself to lash out; the flute was… too high; and the oboe confirms her status as a diva who wouldn’t stoop to such barbarism.

After unsuccessful, yet hilarious interrogations, the conductor miraculously comes back to life and accuses ME of committing the crime! I’m hauled off in chains at the show’s conclusion.

More to come! Watch this space.

On The Resurrecting Of Overplayed Bagatelles

I work in a music store and I’ve lost count of the number of times someone came in and eighty-sixed the first six or eight notes of Fur Elise. Lacking a musical background, but with some digital dexterity and an ear, most of us can learn the first few measures by ear. And this joyous process of discovery, most likely stumbled upon innocently in a moment of genuine curiousity, is what causes eyes to roll and hackles to rise.



Fur Elise has become, is, a massive landmark in piano pedagogy. Before it’s well-trodden measures, most of our repertoire has the flavor of the teaching piece. That is to say, most of what we play up to this point has an inuitively felt, if not immediately definable, pedagogical purpose. Children are very apt at recognizing this distinction as they’ll have spent the majority of their life up to this point being taught things by adults. While they may not immediately reject the lectures of their elders, the path for them to do so is clearly laid out for them as they proceed into their teens, and they are likely to feel and express this rejection on a molecular level while they’re still tots.

I don’t know why I don’t like it.  I just don’t.” said every child ever.

Fur Elise is often their first encounter with something that isn’t totally pedagogical. For the first time in their musical education, they’re discovering something rather than having it spoonfed to them and it earns a special place in their musical memory. The broad ubiquitousness of this experience is what is most amazing to me.

I found a YouTube video of Valentina Lisitsa performing it as the last of a set of four encores. The audience’s reaction is noteworthy and very telling. Expecting a fourth, even more bombastic encore than the three that preceeded it, she instead trots out the most frequently performed student recital piece of all time. The chuckles and laughs from the audience die away almost immediately as a conditioned choke chain snaps from the violent whiplash of a thousand minds being blown.

Here’s the link.

Composition Utensil Roundup

A pencil may be an insignificant morsel to an i-device toting technophile but to my fellow luddites, it’s a very big deal:  A firefighter has their hose, a sniff-tester has their nose, and without a pencil a composer can’t compose.

So what makes a good pencil?

The Eraser

Will it hold up to enthusiasm amidst a eureka moment or will it crumble like a triscuit? Is it’s potency calibrated properly to it’s lead so that it doesn’t leave a nasty smudge?  Or worse, does it erase at all? Does it smell funny? Obnoxious? Serious?

To test the erasers, we erased approximately identical squiggles with 20 moderate swipes of each.  We evaluated the amount of rubber shorn and how much erasing was actually accomplished.  Also important, is the amount of rubber that is actually left on the page after an erasure.  If it’s a significant amount, valuable time is wasted brushing and blowing it off.  As they say, less is more.

The Lead

Does it break three times during sharpening (This also has to do with the quality of the wood)? Is it dark enough or light enough (People have their preferences)? Does it slowly leak poison into the wielder’s system?

Evaluation of the lead was more ambiguous but it was at least 50% dependent on how well it was calibrated to it’s eraser.  Gorgeous lead, for instance, can be held back by an eraser that isn’t tough enough to erase it without tearing the page.

I sourced a gaggle of utensils from my desk, between some feral couch cushions, and a forgotten pocket in my backpack.   Meet the contestants:


Papermate Classic HB2


Mostly a disappointment.  The beautiful lead is neutered by the eraser’s shoddy quality.  It barely survived one application.  The Papermate is best reserved for stabbing yourself in the teeth because the wood is also of dubious quality.  It provides little structural integrity to the lead which causes many breaks during sharpening.


 Venus HB “The Canuck”


 Even though the eraser held up better than the Papermate I was immensely disappointed with this contribution to the contest.  The lead is sub-par when compared to the Papermate which is probably why I had slightly better results the eraser.  If nothing else, you can say that it holds up better under pressure.  The wood seems to be of a better quality as it sharpened readily without breakage.


Staedtler 3B


I appreciate Staedtler’s commitment to fine lead and sourcing their wood from sustainably managed forests but I need an eraser on my pencil.  Staedtler manufactures an eraser separately that arguably deserves evaluation but part of what makes a pencil a powerful tool is the fact that it combines the abilities to create and destroy into one device.  A pencil without an eraser is like an arch-villain without a maniacal laugh. Note: Staedtler’s norica model ships with an attached eraser.


Shitty Dollarstore Pencil


Honorable mention goes to the Dollarstore pencil.  The eraser is well calibrated to the lead and you can’t go wrong with an eye-catching style that makes all the viola-babes say, “Wow! What do THEY have in THEIR pocket?”.  Style with a decent amount of substance.


A Dinner Fork


I’m hungry.

Girl Guides Canada


The winner of our contest is the unlikely contribution from Girl Guides Canada.  The understated design seems to convey an assuredness that’s welcome in the composer’s nook.  The rubber of the eraser is easily the best of the lot.  It has enough give to erase effectively but is sturdy enough to prevent breakage.  Also, the wood seems to be of very high quality.

Ladies, I salute your efforts!  You can order these pencils off their website or by following this link.


Stile Antico Reprised


Last night, I managed to slather on a tie and a generous helping of pants before getting out the door to attend Vancouver’s second meeting with England’s Stile Antico (Whom I have previously gushed about in this space).  The group has pretty much cemented it’s status as a early-music juggernaut.  Even if there was some scandalous vocal disaster on stage it would be petty to bring it up as you’d have to be a loose caboose to think that such an event was in any way telling what the group is capable of and what their standards of performance are.  They know they’re good and we know they’re good so there’s probably a conversation out there with a little more meat on it.

I do have to say one thing about choirs in general before moving on to something else; some part of me feels like choirs in this flavour should somehow extract themselves from our line of sight while performing.  I don’t mean it as a disparaging comment, they’re perfectly agreeable to look at, it just feels like the medium is straight-jacketed by a convention of modern performance practice rather than thinking about how to best use the space to deliver the message.  It feels more natural to me at a choir concert to avert my gaze from the stage or let my eyes become unfocused and heavy and I wish choirs would work with this instinct and cultivate it rather than stand motionless on an empty stage just because that’s the way it’s done.

In what was probably the only noticeable misstep of the evening, William Byrd’s In resurrectione tua was tantalizingly short.  It seemed to hint at a gloriously epic encore but we were instead served a small apértif that, while beautiful, felt proportionately small.

Great concert, where were you?

Apples and Onions, Sigur Rós and Schöenberg, And The Constant Reinvention Of The Wheel

If you were to bite into an onion and taste an apple I bet you’d have a hard time attenuating your praise for said onion.  You’d also likely experience a rush of emotion akin to relief and make a sound not unlike a bag of cement flying harmlessly past your earlobe.  After all, it’s not everyday one gets to enjoy the sweetness of rosacean nectar while being forcibly fed a bag of onions.

An interesting thing about this language contraption, or rather this contraption we’ve been convinced to call language, is that it’s easy for anyone to contrast a pile of gibberish with perfectly ordered prose and be able to declare with as little hesitation as they have credentials that one is language while the other is a mass of a mess.  A train of thought certainly follows that gibberish is gibberish;  I declare that nothing interesting ever happens on that train.  The real meat of the nectar is to be quaffed by allowing gibberish’s infectious properties to run wild-but-checked like eleventeenth stage compositional cancer.  In the proper context, a raft of flotsam and jetsam can float you over a fourteen volume sea of pages that seem to gesture rudely to the finite by broadening even after the author‘s demise.  As often as not, the word doesn’t exist to elucidate your point and a unique opportunity is to be found in employing the more guttural gestures of the pen when stabbing to the point.  Douglas Adams knew it and addressed it in The Meaning Of Liff.  When supported by well ordered prose, even a flamblastamagoo of characters can have meaning and moreover, can cut to the point faster with the added advantage of personal colour.

In order to keep my curdling brain from melting and pouring out my nostrils, I like to draw parallels between the worlds of text without music and music which sometimes has text.  They often run parallel to one another in facepalmingly conventional ways.  Examples that have at least something to do with what I mentioned above include groups like Sigur Ros‘s untitled album of 2002 being written entirely with an invented language or Arnold Schoenberg‘s not-as-academic-as-you-might-think adventures in pantonality.  The touch of personal color that Sigur Rós and Schoeberg bring to brunch can be as surprising and memorable as onions that tastes like apples and it’s the musical moments where their worlds collide unwholesomely with our own that we have an opportunity to realize that the horizon isn’t as near as we think it is.  There’s an infinite world waiting to be discovered in an immortal and fervent tumble off the edge of the sea.

On April 19th, the Vancouver Chamber Choir will serve up an onion of my own called mother goose’s melody.  I’ll disgorge more details over the coming weeks leading up to the concert as I expect it to be extra sweet.


The Superfluous Liner Notes Of Jim Reeves and Other Problems You Have

One of my favourite guilty pleasures is going to Sikora’s Classical Records and spending money I don’t have on records I don’t have shelf space for.  People who know me know that I like to listen to records over playlists shuffled from a digital device  but that’s a subject for another blargh post.  Our victim today is the record pictured below that was left on my doorstep by an unnamed prankster.


The record gets a special place on the wall in my kitchen because of the syrupy orgy in the liner notes (Complete text below).  As someone who takes great joy in writing about music, I like to read the writings of others.  Often, when I read concert reviews in the Georgia Straight or Exclaim! I rudely cuss under my breath because the writer seems more interested in writing about what the musicians are wearing and what kind of beer the crowd is drinking rather than what the music is doing.  But beneath that knee-jerk reaction I do offer a misting of sympathy.  Writing about vibrating air molecules is hard.  I learn a great deal when someone offers a picture frame through which we can conceptualize music and actually talk about it in a way that avoids dunking ourselves into the masterbatory bliss of hyperbole.  On the back of the Jim Reeves record pictured above, Pat Twitty’s liner notes invite us to slink behind the beaded curtain…

“There are no words eloquent enough to describe this album.  It is beautiful beyond description…”

All stop and shut up.  It would be pendantic of me to point out the oxymoronic aspect of this opening sentence but I will anyway:  Why?  Why would you give the game away right at the beginning? Why should we read anything that follows? If that statement is to be processed with any part of our brain instead of being smeared on our turntables why would we read anything that follows?

“There are no words eloquent enough to describe this album.  It is beautiful beyond description.  And why is this so? There is a reason.  The reason is a man named Jim Reeves.  He is a rare find in the field of music because he has been a ‘great’ in the country and western field, the popular field, and in religious and inspirational music.  But the reason this album defies description is simply because the man singing these songs surpasses himself as the great performer he is.  He is more the individual than the artist; that is saying quite a bit when you speak of Jim Reeves.

Notice, if you will, that the title song, ‘We Thank Thee’ is Jim’s own expression.  It is not titled, ‘I Thank Thee’  but ‘We’; obviously he has a special meaning here.  Jim has an ardent fan who says he is, ‘touching home base when he records these songs’.  She continues, ‘These songs reach Jim where he lives; he loves them…. can’t you tell?’.

The fan is Jim’s wife, Mary. And the answer is, ‘Yes, Mary, we can tell’.”

All of that writhing verbage seems to beg the questions, “What kind of pants was Jim wearing when he recorded the album and what kind of beer am I drinking?”.  All stop and shut up.

They can’t all be gems

They can’t all be gems, but one would hope that they could at least be spit-shined to opaqueness.  In the decades not long enough past, there was a modestly spread phenomenon known as the family band.  Usually, they came into being as  a sub-sect of a branch of North American organized religion.  On one extreme, you’d find the Partridge Family.  On the other,  this…..

You are perfectly within your right to run screaming into the streets.