What I Learned About the Coolest Mashup Ever: The Stroh Violin

During my many years as a musician, I spent all my time at the back of the orchestra. I wasn’t hidden behind the other players for lack of talent, but because I’m a trombonist. Trombone players, and all brass instrumentalists, play tucked away behind the strings. Not only that, for every one trombonist in the orchestra, there are about five times that many violins. The reason? Brass instruments are much louder than strings. Despite my very visceral knowledge of the sonic strength difference between brass and stringed instruments, I was still floored when I heard 99% Invisible tell the story of the Stroh violin.

99% Invisible is one of the best podcasts I’ve found for evoking a sense of wonder while exploring everyday technology, old and new. The most recent episode I enjoyed, Mini-Stories, was especially fun since it covered so many cool topics: sack cloth sewing culture, the diaspora of fauna via the Colosseum, and then the tidbit that totally tickled me, the Stroh violin.

Imagine a violin in which the traditional wooden body is replaced by a brass horn. Like a griffin or a hippogriff, the Stroh violin seems almost mythic as an unlikely mashup. A violin and a trumpet.

Why does such a weird and wonderful invention exist? We already have a tried and true way to make violins heard over trombones: hire a slew of violinists!

99% Invisible did a beautiful job recounting the origin of the Stroh violin. In short, during the very early days of the recording industry, primitive recording equipment detected sound via a big brass bell (think of an old-fashioned Victrola, only recording sound instead of playing it). Turns out these brass bell recorders did a spectacular job detecting brass instruments. Trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba were recorded with ease. Unfortunately brass bell recording technology wasn’t so great at picking up stringed instruments. Early innovators attempted all kinds of creative ways to solve this problem, one of which was the griffinesque Stroh violin.

The Stroh violin recorded so well that the technology spread to a variety of stringed instruments. There were Stroh cellos and violas, Stroh guitars, Stroh ukuleles and mandolins. I’m dying to explore an instrument museum and see them all!

Of course advances in recording technology rendered the Stroh violin mostly a museum curiosity. But as I surf YouTube to satisfy my new Stroh obsession, it’s clear that the unique sound of the Stroh hasn’t been entirely forgotten, and a few eclectic musicians still put the unique timber and tone of  these vintage wonders to interesting use today.

Two Nights, Three Bands

This week good things came in threes. I was lucky to attend concerts by three fantastic bands: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, and Pink Martini with China Forbes.

The trombone player in me was thrilled that each band featured a trombonist playing his heart out!

Seeing three bands in as many days offered an unusual opportunity to notice how the different character of each band made them shine.

Our first evening we saw Trombone Shorty raise the audience to their feet with New Orleans-influenced, jazzy, brassy, hip-hop/funk.

Trombone Shorty’s live performance was all about dance and improv. From the first honk of the bari and tenor saxes, the musicians on stage started to dance, and never stopped. I spent their whole set on my feet, clapping and bopping in my best attempt at close quarters dancing. Trombone Shorty, himself, was an awesome performer, bursting with energy and raw joy. The Orleans Avenue band matched his energy. Each member’s improvisational performances felt celebratory and unique. Long, interactive jams created a live experience that carried the audience far beyond anything heard on recording.

Next, the Alabama band, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, followed Trombone Shorty. They mixed funk with soul and took the night in a whole new direction.

Watching the roadies precisely cover, tape, and prepare the stage was a heads-up that this band knew how to orchestrate their performance. I couldn’t believe how tight the band was live. Every note and gesture had been choreographed and polished to perfection. The band programmed their set with great care, building the energy to a boil, and letting it simmer back down.  The audience became absorbed in their retro grooves and Paul Janeway’s stunning vocals.

Two days later we treated ourselves to an evening of Pink Martini. The size and enthusiasm of the crowd at the gates surprised us. We’ve loved the band since our days living in Italy, but had no idea Pink Martini was so popular in the U.S.

Pink Martini’s stage presence is exactly like their music: warm, encouraging, heart-felt, and with just the right touch of humor. Part of Pink Martini’s flair is getting excited about writing songs in different languages and cultural styles. Pink Martini brought audience participation to a whole new level, inviting Arabic, Turkish, and French audience members to jump up on stage and perform music that celebrated their native cultures.

China Forbes’ controlled vocal virtuosity has nothing left to prove. She gracefully stepped back from the spotlight time and again to feature fellow band members, which added so much texture and interest to the performance. To my delight, Robert Taylor’s Bolero trombone solo opened the concert. The most warmly tender, heart-rending performance of the whole concert came from conga percussionist, Miguel Bernal, singing “Yo Te Quiero Siempre.”

Joy, precision, and warm-heartedness. Lots of different emotions packed into two concerts. And two concerts is quite a lot in the space of three days! But these bands will be playing in my head, and on my home speakers, for months to come.

Scandinavian Summer

A story of summer and winter has haunted me since I was a little girl. One afternoon our elementary class gathered for an assembly in the school gymnasium. The occasion, meeting a real, live author. He promised to read us an historical fiction story that he had written, himself. I was at the edge of my seat.

He read us the story of a boy who ignores his parents’ admonition to leave his beloved puppy safe at home. Instead, the boy smuggles the puppy in his coat pocket, bringing him on an expedition to the lake, where he and his big brothers harvest ice for the farm ice house. I’m sad to say the puppy met an unfortunate end at the bottom of the icy lake. The story ends with the little boy eating ice cream the following summer, made from ice that was collected the day he lost his best friend.

The name of the author who chose *that* story for the elementary assembly, is lost in the mists of time.  But the idea of winter saved up in the ice house of our hearts, to later chill our summer, has never left me.

Now that I’m grown up, and can choose books that don’t involve drowned doggies, I enjoy going on reading adventures to learn about different parts of the world. This January our household did a deep dive on hygge, the art of Danish-style wellbeing and happiness. Reading about comfy socks and candles made us feel cuddly and cozy all through January and February.

The Little Book of Hygge excited us with fun suggestions to bring hygge to our home, even though we’re not lucky enough to live in Denmark. One  hygge idea was Danish music. Lucky me, Wiking specified some artists to explore. That was the first time I searched Apple Music for Agnes Obel.

As spring faded into summer, our hygge candles were still flickering, but we’d lost enthusiasm for wool socks, and I had completely forgotten about Agnes Obel.

Then one hot day, as I was dusting to GooglePlay radio, this cool, dreamy, yet deeply engaging sound made me cast aside my dust rag and race for the iPad. Who was the originator of this enchanting, icy music?

Agnes Obel.

Citizen of Glass is sadly sweet, soothing and intriguing at the same time. It’s like entering Narnia to find that it’s winter, preserving a snowball in the freezer for summer. Or like crunching a chip of ice that has survived to the Fourth of July in a prarie-era ice house.

My Scandinavian summer hasn’t been all about the Danish songstress. I’m on a Swedish author reading kick, too. I just finished The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, and I’ve just started The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Both these books have been full of intrigue. But, thank goodness, there are no puppies or icy lakes.

My July with Tidal

I became an expert at packing jewel cases back in the years we were moving to Italy, NYC, and other apartments in between. The trick to packing an extensive CD collection is: don’t be greedy, use a medium box. A box of CDs is heavier than one jewel case in my hand seemed to suggest. There was such satisfaction finding just the right box to accommodate those tightly packed, uniform cases. So much neater than the messy Tetris of cramming other haphazard possessions into square boxes.

Stacking massive numbers of jewel cases is no longer a big issue in our household. These days music organization means juggling our many subscriptions to streaming music services.

Our household has tried an awful lot of them: Rdio (now defunct), Spotify, GooglePlay, Apple Music, Deezer, Pandora, YouTube Music, Tidal. I’m often unsure which service to access when I’m craving a particular song. Is my favorite K-Pop tune on Spotify? Maybe, but Apple Music is sure to have it. I miss being subscribed to Deezer, their “Flow” feature always knew what I wanted to listen to before I did, and their catalog of French music was fantastic.

This summer with the advent of JAY-Z’s 4:44, we decided to give Tidal a second chance, and we resubscribed. The first thing we noticed were catalog holes for beloved K-Pop hits and Euro favorites. The second thing we noticed was how awesome the music sounded. Tidal HiFi on my good headphones or stereo system provides a better sound experience than any other service we’ve tried.

My dream is to find The One music service that becomes home base. One app, one subscription. Despite its delicious HiFi, Tidal has a long way to go before it could become The One.

I want two things from a streaming music service: 1. play the specific song, album, or artist I want to hear (and I’m eclectic!); 2. help me figure out what I want to hear when I’m feeling open to suggestions.

When I signed up for the Tidal account, Tidal gave me a multiple choice test. Which of their chosen artists did I like? A couple, but most of my personal favorites didn’t make the list. And when I browsed by genre, the only way to view tracks and albums was by latest release date. The message was clear: what’s trendy and new is what I’m supposed to consume.

Tidal is trying to train me to be one of the cool kids.

And you know what? In the sea of Tidal Rising and Tidal created playlists, I find the occasional interesting new artist. Here’s my find of the week (link from Spotify, which shines at social and sharing):

Some of the trendy new stuff pushed at me is pretty good. Does that make me one of the cool kids, now, Tidal? Maybe. The more I hang with Tidal, the more I miss my Deezer summer of 2016, when the important thing was what I liked, not what made me trendy.

My hubby and I have wandered the world in search of a place to call home. We’ll meander from one subscription music service to the next, searching for the same. Thank goodness it’s easier to subscribe to two different music services than to live in two different places.

My experience with Tidal this summer has showed that it’s comforting being surrounded by music I love, but it’s also tons of fun going outside my comfort zone to try new things. Musical life is happiest when I’m free to do both. I wonder which service will be the next to improve the algorithm balancing familiar and new. Can’t wait to subscribe.

Old and New: Tsugaru-jamisen Rock

I will never forget walking down the streets of Turin, Italy, with my husband, in search of classical Japanese koto and shakuhachi music. One Italian music seller, eager to help us, got so excited she offered to track down an actual shakuhachi instrument. We explained we only wanted recordings of the instruments, so we could experience the sound. Importing an actual shakuhachi to Italy was a bit beyond our budget.

Although traditional Japanese recordings were tough to find in Italy, every corner newsstand carried Japanese manga, in translation. Italy was an interesting place to become Japanophiles. But you know a better place to indulge our love of all things Japanese? Tokyo. We were so thrilled to have the chance to visit there this May.

We’ve had some of the most moving entertainment moments of our lives with Japanese pop culture: manga and anime, video games and video game soundtracks.

And there’s something about traditional Japanese culture that’s so deeply peaceful and beautiful. Celebrating cherry blossoms in the spring, our experience at Mt. Takao, where we hiked amid shrines and temples to a beautiful vista at the summit.

It’s impossible to spend any time, either in Japan or with Japanese media, without noticing the striking juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and modern, in Japanese culture.

The Wagakki Band goes all out to celebrate this juxtaposition of old and new. They play classical Japanese instruments– but don’t expect classical music. This band rocks.

Wait, can the koto really rock? Check out the video to their song, Senbonzakura.

Two of the instruments played in Senbonzakura are the classical Japanese instruments whose music we longed to experience back in Italy. The shakuhachi is the instrument with the beautiful, breathy sound, that looks roughly like a recorder. The koto is the horizontal, harp-like instrument that comes in several sizes. There are also special Japanese drums, wadaiko, which you may have heard referred to more commonly as taiko drums.

The instrument I didn’t know is the tsugaru-jamisen. It looks like a squared off guitar with small body, long neck, and wide tuning pegs. It’s known for its percussive playing style. I’ve known the sound for years, as played by the Yoshida Brothers. But finally seeing the tsugaru-jamisen jamming to the beat brings a huge smile to my face.

The blend of modern bass, guitar, and drum set with these traditional instruments makes a compelling sound. The video to Senbonzakura shows that this musical blend is no accident. From the instruments to the composition, from the dancing to the outfits worn by the musicians, it’s clear that The Wagakki Band is having a blast playing with the juxtaposition of old and new.

Band photo:

Author Daiima

This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

New Heart, Only a Heartbeat Away

During my teen years, when kids form deep attachments to their favorite bands, I was forming deep attachments to classical orchestral music. I bought every album I could find by my favorite trombone soloist. I told high school friends that, if I had to get married someday, it would be to trombonist, Christian Lindberg!

It wasn’t until I met the man I would actually marry, that I began to explore the world of music beyond the trombone. A critical step in my non-classical education was a trip to the music store. I trailed my future husband around the store, at a total loss what to pick. The selection of my first ever pop album came down to a choice between his suggestion of two artists: David Bowie, or Sheryl Crow.

I didn’t know much about either artist. My handsome guide was a Bowie fan, but I had seen the video to Sheryl Crow’s Everyday is a Winding Road, and really liked it. My hand reached out for the Sheryl Crow album, and the rest is history. Sheryl Crow went on to become the soundtrack to my grown-up life. If I look through my iTunes library, her albums C’mon C’mon and Wildflower have more tracks hearted on them than not.

This weekend, for the first time ever, I got to hear Sheryl Crow perform live, on the tour for her brand new album, Be Myself. She walked on stage playing that very first song I’d heard and liked, Everyday is a Winding Road.

The great thing about an album is that you can listen to it anytime: as a celebration, while you dry your tears, or just dancing around the house dusting. But live performance brings a whole new dimension to the music you love. I learned that the track Long Way Back was the later-in-life companion to Everyday is a Winding Road. Knowing that, I heard the music and lyrics in a whole new way. Every musician on stage was such a fantastic live performer. An awesome onstage dual guitar jam at the concert gave me a new favorite song: Heartbeat Away.

When I got home I couldn’t wait to heart the track in iTunes. I couldn’t ask for anything more from a live concert than to come home with a new favorite song, and a more personal and visceral connection music I already loved.


Am I a fan of One Direction?

One warm night in April, my husband called me out of the bathroom. I came, dripping toothpaste, to see what all the fuss was.
The fuss was Harry Styles performing on Saturday Night Live. Styles and his band gave a fantastic life performance. Thanks to streaming video, we were were watching SNL neither on Saturday nor live, and we enjoyed the live renditions of Sign of the Times and Ever Since New York over and over.

In the weeks before the album release, we went a little Harry Styles crazy. We read his interview in Rolling Stone. We listened to an interview by the guy who interviewed Harry Styles.
Styles makes a good story. Famous pop idol from British boy band (One Direction) strikes out on his own, and has more to say when he writes and performs than anyone expected. The 23 year old’s songs show a love of the music that came before him, and strike deep emotions across a wide spectrum audience. This May finally having the whole album to experience was such a joy.
But the story doesn’t stop there.
Fast forward about two weeks after the Styles album release. I’m playing music around the house non-stop for hours and hours on end, trying to cover noise from a construction project. The music was meant, more than anything, to soothe our unnerved kitty cat and relieve his stress from the noise. I gave over curation of the household soundtrack to Google Music and my cat.
The Google Music station that calmed him the most was Reflections of a Singer-Songwriter, featuring Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon. Nothing wrong with our cat’s taste in music, but as the same songs started to repeat, I lost interest in the tracks.
Except for one. There was one song which, the more I heard it, the more I fell in love. It was a simple, heartfelt ballad. There’s nothing I can point to that makes it special, other than its sincerity and sweetness.

By the end of the day I was obsessed. I had to figure out what song this was, who wrote it, and how I could find more of their music.
The song was This Town by Niall Horan. To my great disappointment, he’d only written two songs. We went into research mode, who is this guy, Niall Horan? Why does he have so few songs?
Turns out Niall Horan is just getting started with his solo career. But he’s hardly new to the music scene. Niall Horan was a member of One Direction.
One Direction, the same boy band that launched Harry Styles.
I was surprised and delighted to learn the connection. To be honest, I’ve never listened to One Direction. I’m outside their target demographic. To encounter two new solo singer/songwriters, who speak straight to my heart, each in their unique idiom, then to find they came from the same band, makes me more than curious to dig into One Direction. I don’t know whether or not I’ll connect to their music. At the very least, I can make note of each and every one of their members, and start watching for them to appear on the solo scene!

Photo credit:

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


English: One Direction performing in Glasgow

Source https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcen27/21406455113
Author https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcen27

The Phantom of the Opera Made into a Movie!?

Lately as I’ve been falling asleep, melodies learned by heart in childhood have been playing in my head. As a girl I was totally and completely obsessed with the musical, The Phantom of the Opera. I listened to the original cast recording over and over and over again. I read the book by Gaston Laroux. My family drove more than four hours so I could see the musical performed live. Looking back, it’s not such a mystery why the story gripped my imagination. I was a young musician with great potential, overflowing with passion for my art, and I had no idea how to navigate a career in the professional music world. If only I’d known that I, like the Phantom‘s protagonist, Christine, would never find true happiness in that world.

My well-worn Phantom of the Opera cassettes are long since lost, but I checked in with streaming music services to see if I could find the album. To my surprise, in addition to the original cast recording, I came across a film soundtrack. Someone actually made a movie out of the musical! Since I (still) know the original cast recording by heart, I  was eager to compare film soundtrack with my beloved, original cast recording.

The film version rocked up the score a little, but not too much. Andrew Lloyd Webber excelled at telling his story with music, and not much needed to be changed. I’d had so much trouble imagining the role of Christine without original cast member, Sarah Brightman, for whom the role was originally written. In the film soundtrack, Young Emmy Rossum’s Christine was less virtuosic than Brightman’s, but I actually preferred it. Rossum imbued her singing with so many different colors and emotions. She could be shy and girlish, flirty, terrified, womanly– and that’s from listening to the soundtrack, never having seen the film– she expressed everything in song. Likewise, this Raoul expressed a lot of personality using a more subdued, character-driven singing style. I was less convinced by the Phantom in the film soundtrack. My Phantom will always be Michael Crawford. His over the top theatricality embodies the the character, the obsessive recluse, lost in the melodrama of his own misery, living in the margins of the world of the stage.

Having heard the soundtrack, I would absolutely watch the movie. I have a feeling finding it online will be a whole lot easier than the four hour drive made to see the musical on stage all those years ago!

A Whole New Experience: Sgt. Pepper’s Remixed

This Memorial Day we were home cooking ramen while listening to NPR podcast, All Songs Considered. The host interviewed Giles Martin, who just remixed a super deluxe edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, slated for release June 1st. Giles is the son of George Martin, the famous “Fifth Beatle,” who was part of the magic during much of the Beatles’ recording career.

My husband revealed a happy surprise, he’d pre-ordered the remix. What better way to spend the credits marinating in our Amazon account? Not long after this revelation, there was a knock on the door, and the album arrived on our doorstep— not only on a national holiday, but earlier than expected!

Deluxe doesn’t begin to describe the box set extraordinaire that arrived at our doorstep, but let’s get to the good part: the music.


The first thing I noticed was how prominent and professional sound effects were in the remix. The spliced calliope in Mr. Kite, and the animal sounds at the end of Good Morning, are striking examples.

I could hear each pizzicato in the background orchestra. My husband was blown away by the brass.

In his interview, Giles Martin discussed how he was able to uncover Ringo’s drums in the course of the remix, revealing textures and sounds lost in both the stereo and mono versions of the original album. True, but he also unearthed so much personality from George’s guitar. George’s solos sing in any mix, but there were so many little comments from that guitar I’d missed before. Some of the character I associate with George’s solo work were right there in Sgt. Pepper, all along: those humorously snide asides, tiny twangs like a lifted eyebrow, that express so much intelligence and attitude with the slightest gesture.

The depth of character of all the voices, singing or instrumental, was at a whole different level than the original recordings. A sound, or a note, isn’t made of a single pitch, but is actually the sandwiching of many different complementary pitches. These pitches are called overtones, and it’s the unique combination of these hidden sounds within a sound that gives a voice or an instrument its character and tone quality. Giles Martin did some real magic to coax those hidden overtones into peeking out, so the listening experience of the remixed album is a new and exciting experience.

You can check out the remixed Sgt. Pepper’s and a video interview with George Martin on Amazon.