Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Glass From The Past

It's never too late to recall a great performance ...

Are you one of those people who saves their theater programs, and maybe tickets, as memorabilia? Me neither. But I did save a postcard advertising a performance by Phillip Glass that was given at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach perhaps ten years ago. It popped up among some papers recently, and it seemed I could instantly hear the reverberations of that night echoing through time.

I'm fortunate enough to have seen three performances of Glass's music, including the one I wrote about (here and here) at the University of Miami in 2008. The first time was back in the 1990's at Gusman Hall in downtown Miami, when Glass performed solo piano pieces and a duet with a soprano sax.

The piano playing that night was interesting in its use of expressive devices normally considered the realm of more traditional, even romantic, music. Variations in volume and phrasing, rubato (subtly modulating the tempo), and song-like lyricism -- all gave the lie to the perception of Glass's music as mechanistic or automated. The duet was notable for the use of a row of ten or twelve music stands that held the unfolded score for the saxophonist. Throughout the performance he gradually moved his way from left to right across the stage rather than turning pages. It was a practical solution that also served to let us know how far through the piece we were, rather like the progress bar at the bottom of an Internet video (which didn't exist yet at the time).

Glass has been known for some interesting collaborations, such as the ones in Songs From Liquid Days which includes Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, and the Roche sisters. But an especially fruitful partnership is the one that brings us back to that Miami Beach concert. The music for The Screens, a play by Jean Genet, introduced the rest of the world to Foday Musa Suso, Gambian master of the kora. (Jazz fans may have noticed his collaborations with Herbie Hancock on the albums Village Life and Jazz Africa.)

The kora bears a resemblance to the Indian sitar. Both use large gourds as a soundbox and have long necks with multiple strings. But they are held and played in entirely different ways. The sitar player cradles the gourd with the sole of one foot, strums the strings with a plectrum worn on the finger of one hand, and selects and bends the notes by pressing the main melodic string against a metal fret, somewhat like a guitar. The kora player, on the other hand, holds his instrument upright before him, grasps it by a pair of handles, and plucks its 21 fixed-pitch strings with the thumbs and index fingers of both hands. It's really more like a European zither, and its native music is like what we know from the kalimba, or thumb-piano, which is also from Africa.

Blending and extending this instrument through the addition of other Western instruments, including piano, flute, synthesizers, bass, and reeds, is the task that Glass undertook in order to build a unique sound for The Screens that would resonate with its Algerian setting. No doubt it helped that the kora's forte is exactly the sort of hypnotically repetitious, rhythmically based "loops" that Glass himself is known for. Suffice to say that the experiment was a resounding success -- so much so that they occasionally got together in performance to reproduce it long after the recording was widely known.

Glass informed us that night that we shouldn't expect an exact reproduction of what we might know from the album. Incorporating large elements of improvisation, the performances varied widely. So much so that he said they had more or less decided between them that whenever they got together to play, whatever came out would be The Screens.

So there it is, a flow of music still flowing after all these years like a river in its bed, drawing its wavering line in the sands of my memory. Here's a sample. Enjoy. (And look for the website fmsuso.com on the gourd.)

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Phone Envy, Phase Two

If you have any doubts that the pace of technological change is still accelerating, just upgrade your phone ...

Less than two years ago I first joined the smart-phone world (as I recorded here). The gizmo that accomplished this was an HTC Aria running Android 2.2. It was no iPhone, but it had the advantage of a 100% subsidized price from AT&T at a time when a reconditioned iPhone was going for $99. In other words, it was free.

This little jewel became my constant companion, singing and reading to me as I made my way to and from work each day, answering my questions, finding my way, sending my emails and messages, uploading the photos I took with its camera. Its weight in my shirt pocket became as familiar as the feel of the wallet on my hip.

Then about 8 months ago it slipped out of its comfy perch and landed face down on a pebble on a concrete floor. Don't talk to me about Gorilla Glass. If you hit it right, it breaks. It's GLASS! Miraculously, the pieces of the screen held together, and with a plastic protector over it the thing still worked almost perfectly -- which was just as well, because replacing this free phone before my 2 year contract was up would have cost me $350. Ouch!

Since then I've been peeking once in awhile to see how close I am to the end of the contract and what phones I might be able to get as a replacement. Last week the time came, and the result -- while not as revolutionary as the whole smart-phone concept -- is another leap in performance and usability.

The case in point is an HTC Vivid (certified reconditioned), which came out in the last quarter of 2011, and was available at the same price point (0.00) as the old Aria. Of course, out of gratitude for this free gift I spent $52 for two pieces of plastic. One is called a "case" and the other is a "screen protector."

While you might argue that the screens should come with protection, and that a case around the case should not be necessary, these items qualify as "personalization" and give you the opportunity to customize the look and feel of your mass produced device. Needless to say, these purchases also subsidize the "free" phone, along with the $480 I will spend over the next two years for the required data plan that comes along with it -- which of course is on top of the monthly phone charges.

But how can I complain? Just look at the difference between the old and new phones:

Speed: My old processor poked along at 800Mhz with a single core. The new phone has a Qualcomm Snapdragon dual core. Twice as good, right? No, actually more like three times as fast because the Snapdragon cooks at 1.2Ghz.

Space: With only 256 megs of RAM, 512 megs of ROM, and a dinky 2 gigabyte SD card, my old phone was cramped. I quickly ran out of space for apps, and the SD card could hold only about a dozen albums from my vast music collection. The new Vivid has 1 gig of RAM and 16 gigs of onboard storage, or about 4x the memory and 8x the storage even before I add an optional SD card, which can increase it by up to 32 gigs more. I can still recall paying $160 back in the 1990's for a whopping 10 gig hard drive to add to my PC. The cost per gig of the thumbnail-sized SD card is now about $1, and this phone will fly loop the loops around that old desktop computer.

Size: First a 2G network connection, then 3G, now 4G -- faster, yes. More power consumptive, yes, that too, but not so much. The real power hog on the new beast is the screen. According to the Vivid's own confession in its statistics, the screen uses over 60% of the power, at least the way I use it. But at 4.5" it sure is easier on the eyes than the old one which was less than 3". At 540x960 it's bigger than an iPhone, though not quite as high res. The iPhone claims 326ppi while the Vivid is about 245ppi -- but after all, 300ppi is good enough for laser printing, so what do you want? With my eyes I can't see the dots anyhow.

Video: Speaking of the screen, it's suddenly big enough to make watching videos interesting, so I've added Netflix and Ted Talks to my list of apps. And while my old camera was 5 megapixels, the new one has dual cameras, 8 megs rear and 2 megs front -- so necessary for those Skype video calls. (Another SciFi dream comes true. Back in the 1960's comic-strip cop Dick Tracy traded in his old 2-Way Wrist Radio for a new 2-Way Wrist TV. That happened because radio was no longer fantastic enough.)

Audio: And speaking of media, the Vivid comes with Beats audio -- which as it turns out is only a marginal improvement in sound quality. As far as I can tell it's just a kind of equalizer setting that you can't even adjust. (That, and a way to sell really expensive fashion-statement ear buds.) As soon as I get around to it I'll be looking for a new media player with a more complete equalizer that I can adjust for different kinds of music. But I guess after investing $300 million in Beats, HTC is pretty much obligated to include it with all their products.

Android: Which brings us to the operating system itself. Online specs seemed to indicate this phone ran Android 2.3 but could be upgraded. I felt a little dubious about that after my experience with the old Aria. That came with version 2.2, but when an upgrade was offered by AT&T (via email and text message) it involved downloading an update package to a PC, then installing an installer program (Windows only), connecting the phone to the PC with a USB cable, being prepared to lose everything on the phone if it didn't succeed, and praying. After reading the instructions I said to hell with it and continued using the old version for the rest of the phone's short (see above) life.

The first pleasant surprise was that the Vivid arrived with Android 3 (perhaps as a result of being "reconditioned"). And then as soon as it woke up it immediately offered to install an "important security update" right over the air. Still not completely trusting this process, I figured the time to try it was before I wasted hours tweaking the settings and installing all my apps. But nothing could have been simpler. Truly, a COMPLETE IDIOT could do it. Just touch the button and wait for the process to complete. At the end the phone reboots, and voila -- not version 3.1 but 4.0 instead!

One Ring to Rule Them All: Yes, one major version per year since 2010. And the newest one is really pretty nice, very smooth animations, easier screen manipulations, and improved media experience. One footnote here -- HTC and Android ran into patent problems with Apple over the use of the "slide to unlock" feature, so they came up with an alternative where you "pull a ring" instead. Which kind of demonstrates how small the nits are being legally picked. But I like the ring. It also offers shortcuts to the most likely destinations, such as Phone (after all, underneath all the bells and whistles it is still a phone). The moral of this story is that if someone sues you for patent infringement the best thing to do is to invent something better.

The Future: If such progress continues I expect that in 2 years I will be able to upgrade to a quad-core processor running at 2.5+ Ghz, with 4 gigs of RAM, 250 gigs of storage, Android 6.0, a high-def 3D screen with optional goggles and surround-sound headpiece, and further wonders we can only imagine. And the price? Still zero.