Whimsy, jokes, whatever

This is the "Olde Curiosity Shoppe" page.

Devoted to the principle that you are not dead until you are completely professional. Content may come from unascribed sources, emailed to the web-master.  Or from seeds growing in the compost of his mind. Or both.

Flask iconIncidentally, I'm the web-designer, Anton Erasmuson, which explains the A E shapes, I was once an organic chemist. My spiral motif in the footer may be seen to be derived from something curling out of a flask ...
                           .... with new and interesting properties.

Curiosities will be added here, and the olde ones will fall off the bottom.

This next bit was to note the incorporporation of the orchestra required up to have a Common Seal. Which is a curious term, a touch archaic, and begged for explanation...

The Common Seal

Common sealHVO has a common seal. For those of you without the prussic ink of accountants ingrained into your pores, for those without those special slate blue tinted 'gimlet generating' spectacles that lawyers have, you commoners might quite reasonably be expecting a diatribe about the fur trade round about now. As you surely glanced at that particularly smug pup to the right before reading this, I would not be surprised if you are not already bewailing just how common seals are, and why don't they ever seem to have a box of tissues handy when they sneeze. I've never seen one cover its mouth yet. Maybe to snigger, but they don't  snigger politely. But less of walrusses, and more about sealing wax...

A "common seal" is a stamp that implies documents have been issued with the authority of the duly elected officers of the orchestra. It is not legally necessary anymore for us, but it serves a special purpose: it is a physical symbol of the right of office. It marks an occasion, and embodies common purpose.

Common seal of HVOHere is a picture of ours.

To save you holding a mirror to read the text, a mirror image has been inset on the right.

"The Common Seal of

Plus an inkpad, as we are a classical orchestra, so we have gone for the classical look.

All of which should lead up to an important musical question - what should you play at the AGM when the Common Seal  is handed to the secretary to hold for the preparation of documents of import.  Best hope of anything hummable is "Grey Seal' by Elton John. OK, that dates back to 1969, and isn't memorable, but it is on the album "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", which is. So it is nearly memorable. Palimpsest memories. That's not exactly strong competition, so feel free to suggest alternatives.

Left at the Symphony Workshop (29 August 2010) ...

One mug, black, rounded rectangular cross section.
Now claimed, but here is how it was listed.

Lost IDPE mugOne black mug with "idpe" on it. That could mean "I Don't Play Encores" but as the email address on the mug is of an IT recruitment firm, other possibilities are virtually certain.

This photo has been artistically arranged on manuscript music to reassure the owner that it is being sympathetically looked after. It is in isolation for the moment, but after a decent interval, will be introduced to other mugs in an attempt to socialize it.

This is may not work as it may have spent too much time playing with computers.

In contrast to the above genuine background (pictures do not lie), the obverse of the mug may be seen, regretfully obscured by sea spray, against a stormy sea and wintry sky. The object here is to verify to the owner that the mug has been washed quite thoroughly by 2 weeks exposure at the end of Tynemouth pier. The process was monitored at regular intervals by our ever-vigilant quality assurance agents, Black Backed Gulls Inc.

Mug on end of pier

This picture is a smaller version of the original by Ian Britton. That one is a lot more believable than this pastiche, but hey, when you are looking at mug shots, you know you are dealing with the criminal classes. 

History of Orchestral Warfare - part 5. The Mortar Bassoon.

Part of a series ostensibly explaining the position of instruments in an orchestra.  Part five explained the need to keep cellos away from percussion.

Bassoon The mortar bassoon was one of the most insidious orchestral weapons of the Napoleonic period. It is credited with the elimination of the Archbishop of Mainz as an internationally feared patron of music, also with the extinction of the Gargoyle Grouse, and also with the complicated trade-offs that have left the bassoons just in front of the mallets of the percussion in the typical layout of an orchestra.

If you do not know what a bassoon is, I've pictured one at right. It readily lends itself to being thought of as a cannon-like gas ejector weapon, and best reserved for players on our side, with private-school officers in charge.

For those of you who do not know what a mortar is, let me complicate matters. It is thought of by some as a mix of soggy sand and cement to join bricks together. That's the stuff that keeps universities together, unlike the lecturers. Others think of a mortar as a heavy bowl for pounding minerals into powders in a apothecary process known as compounding your problems. (Financial managers have borrowed the term.) But here we refer to the third meaning of mortar, a cannon for lobbing exploding shells up into the air and down onto an entrenched enemy. The bottom rests on the ground, on a little plate such as a mortarboard, and the tube is pointed at an angle of about 45 degrees towards the target.  Drop in explosive; drop in bomb; ignite.

The light portable versions are meant to launch a bomb up over an obstacle and down onto someone you really don't like. In this case, the obstacle is the strings and conductor, and the target could be say a smug and complacent webmaster sitting in the audience. Back when the weapon was invented, there were no webmasters, but users had no shortage of targets.

Somewhat over 200 years ago...

The mortar bassoon was invented just prior to the upheavals of the Napoleonic era, probably in 1787, somewhere in the Rhineland-Palatinate area. The principle was simple enough - use a bassoon as a mortar cannon to launch eggs - but there were formidable technical problems. The explosive had to be of very low brisance; a soft explosion that preserves both the integrity of the bassoon and also of the egg. If this was not a sufficient problem, there had to be no residual smell of gunpowder or other suspicious material. It was a secret weapon, and it's effect came from an inability to prove it had been used. The noise of the weapon was hidden by the percussion, but a dissipating smell of gunpowder would have been a giveaway, as would a large cloud of smoke. Nor could a search of musicians equipment be allowed to turn up evidence.

The solution was brilliant, and can only have come about by the usual ARGH combination of Ability, Resources, Grievance and Happenstance. The procedure was first to knock a nearly smoked out pipe into the bassoon, thus leaving a few embers of tobacco on the bottom. Then a pinch of very fine snuff was dropped in, leading to a flour explosion once it drifted to the bottom. Wikipedia gives 1785 as the first recorded instance of a flour explosion and they can be devastating. It doesn't have to be flour, just any very fine organic powder. The trick was to use a very small pinch of snuff, and immediately drop the egg in. This mildly compressed the air, and then the explosion, more like a bag being burst, popped the egg back up into the air. There was a small smoke haze, but as the smell was that of burnt tobacco, it went unnoticed.

There was little evidence after the event. Tobacco amid the gentlemen players was hardly unusual. Whilst smoking during a performance would seem unprofessional these days, tobacco was regarded back then as an excellent medicine. Better to puff it than snuff it you might say.

Accuracy was a problem, but this was mainly a matter of distance rather than angle. Plus, a decisive hit was not essential. The target was a member of the audience. Essentially, a small egg would drop out of the sky and splatter. If you missed your target, you got his friend. Naturally, it was not an indoor weapon. Rather, whilst playing al fresco, with birds swooping and the audience dozing in the sun, an egg would drop on a senior member of the audience. Various birds would be eyed with disfavour, the more erudite pointing out which were cocks, and therefore probably innocent. Cherchez la femme. The haze of suspicion would be allowed to dissipate, and then perhaps half an hour later a second bombard. No more. Whilst there was inevitably some prating sage nearby explaining how it was not at all extraordinary, and quoting some ancient Greek, there was no need to be foolhardy.

The greatest danger came from fellow musicians spotting the minor disturbance. To counter this, bassoons requested that they play well back, and they had no objection to being near the percussion. This unwanted position was readily available, and soon became a standard orchestral placement, for what seemed obscure administrative reasons. Usually a conductor would vaguely explain that percussion were usually ex-military, and bassoons seemed to be quite happy with them. "It's a cannon thing or something. What goes round comes round, ha ha."

This left a small revolutionary sub-group in a fine position to lob, as lobbying was far too dangerous. By the early 1790s, when revolutionary France was in full fervour, and Jacobins flitted from university to slum pub and back, the practice of bassoon mortaring had spread. One victim was Prince-Archbishop von Erthal of Mainz who fled the city, albeit in the face of invading French troops, but hastened by the loss of face from egg bombardment and subsequent loss of morale in his superstitious troops. The Republic of Mainz that followed was short lived. Scrambled eggs can stop hunger, but do not constitute a good diet.

Alas for the Gargoyle Grouse...

Gargoyle grouseOne tragic consequence was the extinction of the Gargoyle Grouse. What I have not mentioned was the need for a particularly thick-walled egg of a fairly precise size. This problem was solved by the simple process of talking to cooks. The Gargoyle Grouse was a minor subspecies that dwelt mainly around The University of Mainz. They had become somewhat endangered, and the scavenging of their eggs for the bombards made matters more critical. Until then, there had been a tradition of academic protection. They were only allowed to grace the plates of the high table. Once Mainz was occupied, boasting by the bassoons brought the existence of delicious birds to the attention of the soldiery.

The closely related Sage Grouse illustrates what happened. That grouse got its popular name from a visiting American artist some 10 years earlier, whilst Benjamin Franklin was ambassador to France. The Contessa da Pocatello had asked the artist the name of a bird he was painting. "Sage Grouse, I believe ma'am." "Is that because it is particularly delicious when cooked with sage, Mr. Bannister?" "No ma'am. It's because it looks like some of the more pompous of them sages up at that university." The Sage Grouse survived because it was a rural rather than a town bird.

As the Gargoyle Grouse also looked like a particularly pompous academic, it became fair game for the soldiery, who ate it out of existence. This also ended the practice of bassoon mortaring at Mainz, which must have helped the survival of the players. One of them wrote details of the practice in a private Memoire, written in about 1850. This became the basis (when discovered in 1974) for re-appraising why the position of the bassoons stabilized near the percussion, and why that standard position spread with the success of the Napoleonic armies. It began as revolution, was spread with Jacobin fervour, and became permanent with the fall of Napoleon and the need to maintain a low profile.

Is it still a threat?

What of the mortar bassoon today? It passed out of ready use with the passing of the thick-shelled Gargoyle Grouse. Nevertheless, conductors fear that someone will find a way to force-feed snails to the related Sage Grouse and build up the shell.

The safe modern position is to ban all smoking and especially snuff taking in orchestras. It may seem draconian, but it's for your own safety. Otherwise, some day when you are listening to an orchestra play the 1812 (which is not merely noisy but celebrates the defeat of Napoleon), and it is outside to allow the use of mock cannons, you just might have an egg land on you. "Gross!", someone will exclaim, or maybe it's "Grouse!"

Just check to see if the caller is just in front of the percussion, and innocently smoking a pipe...

Early Keyboards

Keyboards to a musician are alternating bands of ivory and ebony, each a testimony to our ability to loot nature until matters become, well, black and white.  Today I hope the white is melamine rescued from a milk factory, and the black is a carbon sink. However, to a webmaster, a keyboard is a rectangular array of squares, a set of springs where the ideas welling up can be bounced about. Then shake and stir until the metaphors are properly mixed.

Did you know that early keyboards had the arrow keys explained? We are talking years and years ago, pre-millennium, perhaps even a decade back.  Here is photographic evidence...

Keyboard arrow keys

Of course, it was only a matter of time before some Silicon Valley control freak decided that the end really was nigh and ordered the text removed to stop the paranoids figuring out what they really should be worrying about - the millenium bug.

It was all so long ago. Which is why no-one today knows why you you have plain arrows. They had an attempt to fix it, some high powered geek meet. Two minutes into it, someone asked 'Why is the End in the middle?' and was told 'Because the Credits take as long as the movie'. This was immediately followed by 'Why is it when I press Page Down the page goes up?' and before you could say 'Escape' the meeting was in free-fall.

I suppose you are not interested. It's not musical.  OK, I'll go away and look up why the other keyboards have 88 keys. Off the top of my head, I'd say key widths were determined by the size of a sabretooth tiger tusk, and the number 88 by how thinly you could slice two tusks up.  Needless to say, sabretooth tigers died out once pianos became popular. I'm not sure, but I think Mozart wrote a requiem for them. (Reques Cat in Pace. That's Late Italian Latin. Requiems are usually about the late something or other. ) Mozart and Beethoven and Bach killed off the sabretooth tabby.

It's all part of the ecological impact of music. Some things are beyond polite conversation, such as why guitar strings used to be called 'catgut'. However, the three little tigers at Auckland Zoo should be safe enough. Not only are strings made from polyvinylhesitate these days, but the rise of rock music has meant that steel strings are where it's at. As a result, there are fewer suspension bridges being built, but what would you rather have? A mind-shattering, deafening, laser-riddled concert by the "Extinct Perfumes" or a boring second bridge linking North Shore to Auckland Central. Easy choice isn't it?

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