This week, we take a little musical interlude. I am having a lovely dinner with Gil Hova, board game designer, podcaster, and ludologist. And I am not sure we talk about board games at in this segment. The conversation naturally went to both of our love of music, specifically the more … unusual aspects of music. So, stay “tuned” for talk of temperaments, timbre, and Theremins.
DTD: But I still just absolutely love music.
Gil: Oh sweet. What are your favorite weird instruments?
DTD: So, I was a… Believe it or not, I was a professional Baroque recorder player.
It’s true. I played weddings and stuff. You need a recorder player at a moment’s notice? I’m your guy.
Gil: Oh cool, OK.
I have no idea why that popped into my head, but “Music for a Found Harmonium” was written by Simon Jeffes and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. A harmonium is a keyboard instrument that uses air and a metal reed to generate the notes. Kind of like a harmonica.
Gil: Yeah, I never saw it, amazingly.
DTD: The song is way better than the movie, but they’re both good.
Gil: So how do you, how do you tune those things? Because… are they even equal temperament?
Gil: The baroque recorder.
DTD: Oh, they are whatever tune they come in. [laughs] You don’t mess with them. If the whole thing sounds way off, then you can lengthen it by opening it up. But it is not an exact science by any means.
Tuning a recorder is a strange process. First of all, if you blow louder, the recorder tends to increase in pitch, and likewise blowing softly will reduce the pitch. In a pinch, you can loosen the connection between the headpiece and the body, lengthening the recorder, and making the pitch lower. Most of the time, the rest of the instruments just tune to the recorder. And, by the way, the small piece in the mouthpiece that creates the whistle is called the “fipple“.
Gil: Oh, there you go. Yep, Yep.
DTD: There you go, recorder [holding one up].
Gil: But that’s a modern recorder, right?
DTD: This is a modern one. This is not a baroque recorder.
Gil: Yeah, yeah. That looks plastic and modern.
DTD: Yeah, I still play every once in a while, but… There was a there was a guy in New York, actually, I did a couple lessons with. Because – New Jersey kid, you know, you went into New York. I was a weird, kid. I didn’t really like going into New York. It was too much for me. It was overwhelming.
Gil: New York’s a lot.
DTD: And yeah, I would go in for lessons sometimes, and that was a long, kind of tough trip for me as a kid.
Gil: Yeah, and where in New Jersey where you coming from?
DTD: Most of the time I grew up in Central Jersey by Westfield, Scotch Plains, Plainfield.
Gil: Yeah, yeah. Right.
DTD: Route 22 corridor.
Gil: Yep, Yep, by the world’s tallest water sphere.
DTD: The world’s tallest water skier?
My ears are not the greatest. Probably from years of recorder playing. Like rock stars when they get older.
Gil: Water sphere, the world’s tallest water sphere. That’s in Union City, NJ.
DTD: Oh yes, I could picture it in my head. I know exactly. I didn’t realize.
Gil: Yep, Yep. They must have really good flushing toilets.
DTD: Well, very fast.
Gil: I spent a year in Garwood, so I know a little bit about it. There’s a really good Mongolian place there.
I can only assume Gil is referring to the Magic Grill. Delightful.
DTD: OK, yeah. I haven’t been back in so long. I kind of ran away from New Jersey when I was… after high school. I went to college in California, because it was about as far as I could get without learning another language. And just kind of stayed.
DTD: Yeah, the East Coast, high-paced, in your face life really made me uncomfortable. And California just fit a lot better for me, so I just ended up staying.
Gil: Yeah, you seem more like a California person. I’m totally a New York person. I love it here, like I love the city.
DTD: Oh sure.
Gil: But yeah, I could totally understand that, it’s so understandable.
DTD: Yeah, I get it. It just never was quite for me. I tried. You know, all my friends in high school were like, “Hey let’s sneak into the city. We’ll take the train in. We’ll go do this and do that.” And just they loved it, I didn’t.
It only took about an hour to escape to New York City when I was a kid. Much different than escaping from New York.
Gil: Then you gotta take the train out, and just wait at Penn Station forever for a train. Because I was doing that the other way, Because I grew up on Long Island, so I had to wait for the LIRR. Once you missed that 1:00 AM, train and the next one was at three, oooooh…
DTD: That’s a long wait in a bad place.
Gil: Penn Station is so awful.
DTD: Yeah, any of them. Grand Central was not pleasant. This is before a lot of the cleanup, so I was trying to hang out in New York in the 80s, early 80s. And it was it was ugly.
Gil: Yeah, yeah, definitely.
DTD: That was a tough place.
Gil: I want to get back to instruments, though, because I love weird music. So are you interested mainly in medieval instruments, or are you interested in more modern, weird instruments?
DTD: I like a little bit of everything, so I’ve got a Theremin.
The theremin is one of the first electronic instruments, invented by Leon Theremin. It is best known for adding a “science fiction” quality to music – think of the opening to Star Trek or Rick and Morty.
Gil: Uh huh.
DTD: And I’ve taught myself banjo. And that was my first string instrument. Absolutely love banjo. It’s just fun.
It is hard not to feel joy playing the banjo. Even if you are as bad as me.
Gil: Yeah, Banjo is not weird at all to me.
DTD: No, no, no. That’s not particularly weird, but I have… For a long time, I was given variations of recorders, so I’ve got a reed saxophone. I’ve got a glass flute. I’ve got a ceramic recorder. You know, these strange variations.
DTD: I’ve gone through a lot of saxophones, tried to teach myself alto sax. I can play it. I’m not good at it. I’ve gone through several bagpipes, which I’m no good at. Because it’s essentially a wind instrument.
Gil: Uh huh. Not a reed.
DTD: Well, there’s a reed, but it’s an internal reed so you don’t need any skill to actually make the reed vibrate. Like an oboe, or I played bassoon.
The pipes of the bagpipe have an enclosed reed, both the chanter pipe (melody) and the drone pipes (harmony). This means the reed is in the middle of the instrument and the player’s lips never touch it directly. Single reed instruments, such as the clarinet have one reed, which rests on the player’s lower lip. Double reed instruments, such as the oboe or bassoon, have two reed tied together, which go between the player’s lips.
Gil: Uh huh.
DTD: Oboe and bassoon, you really need a lot of skill to get that reed pressure. Clarinet and saxophone are more forgiving with a single reed on your lip, but a crumhorn or a bagpipe… You blow into a recorder, but the reed is in the middle of the recorder. So, the player is not touching the reed at all.
Crumhorn and bagpipe are enclosed reed instruments. The enclosed reed gives the instrument its characteristic buzzing quality.
Gil: Hmm. Oh, that’s interesting, OK? So, they still are reed instruments, in a way.
DTD: They are. They have the buzz. You know, they sound like a reed instrument. But you don’t have control over that actual reed.
Gil: Got it, got it. How about weirder saxophones, like a bass saxophone?
There is a subcontrabass saxophone that is a staggering 9 feet tall.
DTD: I have, I played tenor sax, and I had played around with a bass sax. I prefer bass clarinet, is a really weird instrument. I have a great bass downstairs that I can’t play, but I think everybody should have a great bass. Because you know, if you’re having a rough day and you just walk over to the great bass, and just pluck it. It just feels good.
Gil: When you say great bass, do you mean like a double bass?
DTD: A double bass.
Gil: Yeah, oh yeah, yeah.
DTD: They’re just delightful. They’re just fun.
Gil: String bass in general, like I have an acoustic bass guitar that’s just fun to play. Basses are just so fun to play. They’re simple, but they sound amazing, they sound full.
DTD: You feel it.
Gil: They’re so satisfying. I’m terrible. Like I’m awful at it, but I still enjoy it.
DTD: You don’t have to be good at it, it’s just fun. I’ve stopped being good at any of these things, since I was 16.
Gil: Now, in terms of weird instruments, have you ever got to play any of the Harry Partch instruments?
Gil: Oh my gosh, you know about him, right?
Gil: Harry Partch was a composer. I think he grew up in the great depression, and at one point he was 18 years old, and he just took all his compositions that he’d been working on so far, and he burned him. He threw him the fire. He’s like, “These are no good. These are not me.” And he started jumping trains and living the hobo life, and he wound up in the desert, like in Roswell.
Gil: And he was like, “In order to create truly view American Music, I need to just create a, I need to create a new form of music. But, in order to do that, I need to create new instruments. But in order to do that, I need to create a new tuning system.” And he went all the way back to the beginning, and he wound up with this orchestra of like mainly percussive instruments that sound really weird.
DTD: I gotta look that up.
Gil: Yeah, he’s fascinating, really fascinating.
DTD: I’ve dug into temperament, and tuning styles and theory. I had a ton of theory when I was a kid, and that just fascinates me no end.
Temperament is a difficult concept for non-musicians. Different notes are different frequencies, and in western music we have decided that doubling a frequency brings a note up an octave. The problem is that doing simple math on frequencies almost, but not quite, makes the notes we like. The way to compromise, to fudge the math, is called temperament. And there are several different ways to do this. The famous “Well Tempered Clavier” refers to temperament. A Clavier is a keyboard, by the way.
Gil: So, like, that music… I think Kyle Gann called it the cosmic joke. You know, this this idea that you can have, what’s the tradeoff in music? You can have temperament, or you can have something else, but you can’t have both.
DTD: Right, but they’ve tried to make temperament styles to compromise both together. And you lose thirds, is usually what you lose. And thirds are super important because that tells you whether something feels major or feels minor. So yeah, these older instruments, especially in the Baroque and medieval times, couldn’t do it. They had not invented even temperament, which is the standard today. So, they did all sorts of wacky stuff.
Gil: Yep, Yep, Yep. But it’s so interesting to hear about. Oh yeah, so you can either have consistency or you can have mathematical correctness, but you can’t have both. If you’re mathematically correct, then the music is always going to drift.
DTD: Yes, the further out you go, your octaves are not octaves.
Gil: Yeah, yeah, because things are not going to resolve the same way. It’s so weird. It’s such a weird concept. But it’s really, really enjoyable. But yeah, Harry Partch. I think he did a lot of pure temperament stuff.
DTD: So, real experimental kind of music.
Gil: Yeah, super experimental. There was, there were a lot of competitors to the Theremin back in the day. There was one called… I’m going to butcher this pronunciation. It’s in French, the Ondes Martenot, I think it’s called.
The Ondes Martenot is an early electronic instrument invented by Maurice Martenot. Ondes means “waves”. The player wears a metal ring around one finger, then slides it along the wire under the keyboard producing eerie electronic sounds.
Gil: And it’s also an electric instrument, but it was meant to model, I think it was meant to model more of a cello than a than a human voice. Because the theremin supposed to be like a soprano, but Ondes Martenot is supposed to be more cello like, and you either played it with a keyboard, or by moving a ring back and forth. Like if you played it with a keyboard, it would move a ring across a wire. And it had that similar “woo-ooo” sound. Edgard Varèse used it in one of his compositions, which is how I heard of it.
DTD: Wow. There’s some weird ones. The one that I would kill to have would be a real glass harmonica. Do you know about these things?
Also referred to as a Glass Armonica.
Gil: Is that the bowls of water?
DTD: Yes, it’s a variation of that. So it’s really cumbersome to have a bunch of bowls of water and spin your fingers on them. So what they do, is you make one really fine crafted, exacted glass structure. That kind of looks like a cone with a thin end, and then getting bigger and bigger and bigger. But it does it in frets, in jumps. And this glass thing is submerged in liquid.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote K. 617 and K.356 (K.617a) for the glass harmonica in 1791. The K designation is a method for cataloguing the musical works of Mozart.
Gil: Uh huh.
DTD: And a motor spins it, and you put your fingers on it, and it makes noise. And where you put your finger is different parts of the different sized glass bowls.
Gil: Oh my gosh.
DTD: Yeah, it was… Benjamin Franklin either invented it, or it was his favorite, or he publicized it. He’s involved with it. But it’s called a glass harmonica, and it’s breathtaking.
The glass harmonica sounds like you made a complicated instrument out of spinning your fingers on wine glasses.
Gil: Yep, there’s a picture of it with the spinning disks.
DTD: Spinning disks is probably the more clever way to say it, rather than a really weird structure.
Gil: Benjamin Franklin invented his mechanical version of the instrument in 1761. So, I think they were probably turned by hand.
DTD: It could be. I think his was pedal turned or something.
Gil: That would make sense. Yeah, probably not electronic at that time.
DTD: But just watching some people play this, you know, wet their fingers, and then just lay their fingers on this rotating disc. It’s got the look of a harp almost, the way they’re playing it. And it is ethereal, weird noise.
Gil: Well, it says that there are rumors that using the instrument causes both musicians and their listeners to go mad.
DTD: Yes. But wasn’t that everything in the 1700s? Pretty much any activity, there was rumors that you would go mad?
If it was fun, it was bad for you.
Gil: Um, [reading from Wikipedia] “The disorienting quality of the ethereal sound is due in part to the way that humans perceive and locate ranges of sounds. Above 4 kHz people primarily use the loudness of the sound to differentiate between left and right ears and thus triangulate, or locate the source. Below 1 kHz, they use the phase differences of sound waves arriving at their left and right ears to identify location. The predominant pitch of the armonica is in the range of 1–4 kHz, which coincides with the sound range where the brain is ‘not quite sure’, and thus listeners have difficulty locating it in space.” But that’s weird, because human speech is about 2 1/2 kilohertz, so that seems weird to me.
DTD: Yeah. It’s pretty bizarre. I don’t know, it’s just gotta a whistling quality. You know, it’s like twirling on wine glasses. And in general, you’ll have some people who think it’s cool, and one relative who wants to tear their ears off, and tells you to stop.
DTD: So, you know about the Nightmare machine?
DTD: This really weird guy made a musical instrument, that its sole purpose was to make the creepy scary noises in horror movies. And it’s called the Nightmare Machine.
The true title is the Apprehension Engine, which is much better than my brain’s phantom memory of “Nightmare Machine”. The Apprehension Engine was made by Mark Korven, and it makes terrifying noises, mostly for film and television.
DTD: And it has, you know, fingers on a blackboard, and scraping metal wires, and it’s another just bizarre instrument. But I think it’s just this one guy who made it.
Gil: I mean, on that note, there’s the water phone, which Reality TV would not be the same without the waterphone.
DTD: What’s the waterphone?
Gil: A waterphone makes these noises like a [vroom] kind of sound, so anytime you see a reality TV show, and somebody says something cutting, and there’s a kind of [vroom] sound, that’s someone playing a waterphone.
It makes a great “mystery reveal” sound. I won’t lie, I may have ordered one from Amazon.
DTD: I love the history of these things. Like I was, I was listening to the history of early rap and hip hop, and it turns out that there was one musical piece that was sampled way more than anything else, and almost every…
Gil: Oh yeah, the Amen break, probably.
DTD: It might be, but it ended up being the instrument for almost all 80s to 90s rap and hip hop, was one 50s song.
Gil: Yep, Yep. What it is, it’s the drum break from the song “Amen Brother” and that powered almost all songs from the 80s and 90s.
This is a fantastic story in and of itself.
DTD: You know more about it than me.
Gil: No, no, it’s fascinating, and the guy, the drummer, never got a dime.
DTD: I believe it.
Gil: Really sad, yes.
DTD: So. So my dad had his fingers in a lot of things over the years, and in the 80’s he wrote a music compression system. This was before MP3. And word got around that he had this compression system, and Bell Labs was sitting on it. The lawyers wouldn’t let it out. Dad wanted to just release it wide, and basically do what MP3 did.
The compression was called ‘pac’. Just like mp3 it was just for audio compression, taking into account what frequencies the human ear can detect, and how sound works.
DTD: But Bell Labs was sitting on it. It was AT&T at the time, and they said “no”. But word got around, and my dad started making a jukebox and collecting music, and using his compression on this. And musicians from New York City would come to my dad’s house to basically complain about how they could hear that their music was compressed.
Gil: Uh huh.
DTD: Which was bull. [laughs] But there was this cavalcade of eclectic musicians coming through my parents’ house at that time. And to my bad luck, I had just gone to college in California, so I missed 90% of it.
Gil: Oh, that’s too bad. So yeah, I remember when CDs came out, the hipster thing to do was complain about how ‘cold’ it sounded. And it was like, “Well, I personally preferred that sound.” I really, I’m not a huge fan of vinyl. I think it’s a pain in the ass to listen to, and I don’t like how it distorts the sound. I mean, people say it sounds ‘warmer’.
Gil: But to me it’s too distorted.
DTD: They always use the word ‘warmer’ and I don’t really know why.
Gil: I know, I know what they mean. There is a warmth to it, there’s a softness to vinyl. But I don’t like that softness. I prefer the crispness and the precision. If you want to say that’s cold, that’s fine.
DTD: I remember my first CD player. I just put on really good headphones, you know, the big, huge cushy things, that we had back then. And I would just get lost in these early CDs, because the music was so perfect.
My favorite at that time was Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms. I remember the CD was rated as ‘DDD’ – digital recording, digital mixing, digital mastering.
Gil: Yep, in a way that you couldn’t get lost on vinyl, because every 30 minutes you have to get up and flip.
DTD: Well, it was every 60 on a CD, so…
Gil: Yeah, and you could walk around with a CD with headphones on. You couldn’t do that with vinyl. You could do it with a cassette, but cassettes sounded like crap, and still do. I don’t understand people who listen to stuff on cassettes nowadays. I mean, why? Cassettes sounded like garbage back then, and sound like garbage now? Like what’s the appeal?
DTD: It’s not even like 8-tracks, which are kind of cool looking. Cassettes look dumb.
Gil: I would give that 8-tracks look cool, but they still sound like crap.
DTD: It’s true, but I mean you could go “Chunk!”, and they were really kind of, kind of impressive like that.
They gave a very satisfying noise when you jammed them into the player. Of course, sometimes they broke.
Gil: Yeah, yeah, I mean it is super satisfying. But what I really liked about CDs back in the days, I would actually re-order the tracks, and I would find a better order to the tracks. Like, sometimes I get an album and I wouldn’t be happy with it.
DTD: They work better for you.
Gil: And then I realized that reordering the album, reordering the sequence, made the album far better. Because the group would put like a bunch of super friendly tracks up front and the more interesting tracks back there. So I would shift them around, and I realized, “Oh, this is far better.”
DTD: So, weird music stuff. Do you know the story of The Shaggs?
Gil: Oh yes! Oh, my god, the Shaggs!
The story of the Shaggs is amazing. In short, a man was told by a fortune teller that he would have 3 daughters, and that they would be famous musicians. So when he had 3 daughters, he locked them in the house, and forced them to learn music. However, he would not let them listen to modern music, and did not let them go outside. Eventually, he paid to have one album pressed, and thus was born the Shaggs. The music has an innocent quality, an experience of music, without knowing anything about music. I beg everyone to read about this amazing trio.
DTD: Do you like The Shaggs?
Gil: No. No, I do not like the Shaggs. But, like Roger Ebert said once in his reveal of Pink Flamingos, he said that “Pink Flamingos exists outside critical commentary, like the weather.” And the Shaggs do as well. Like the Shaggs don’t care whether you like them or not. The Shaggs exist.
Pink Flamingos is an equally controversial movie, created by John Waters in 1972. To say it is bad is to rethink your conception of “bad”, or even “movie.” The movie is famous for showing its star, Divine, eating…well, something intensely foul.
DTD: So, the Shaggs is the John Waters film of music.
Gil: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty good analogy. The Shaggs exist, and so be it.
DTD: I really do like maybe two of the songs. I hear an innocence without talent. That I can only equate to punk, because punk was energy without talent.
Gil: That’s like super early Punk, though, you’re talking about.
Gil: The Sex Pistols were super calculated, though. Like, there’s something very arranged with the Sex Pistols.
DTD: Later. I thought early Sex Pistols was just a lot of energy, and there were mistakes, and there’s… You know, they didn’t care. Moving forward without any reservation. I liked early punk. You know Kenny at Dice Tower?
Gil: I don’t think I do.
DTD: Kenny is the background “does everything” guy. He’s the IT guy. He’s the arranger. He does everything. Anyway, he self-published a 1970s punk magazine back in the day, and he knew all these people. It’s just fascinating talking with him.
Kenny does everything, does it well, and is the nicest guy I’ve met. Plus he can eat you under the table. I promise.
DTD: I think he’s kind of neutral on Linux. I think he thinks Linux is fine. He doesn’t have opinions one way or the other on it. He written a couple other operating systems, but he does use some Linux machines at home, so I don’t think he’s against that. He’s very anti-Apple. I’m not exactly sure why. He just hates them. He’s talked to Wozniak a bunch of times. He’s not a fan. Yeah, he’s a weird dude who basically wires his own hardware when he has something that he wants done. So, the house has about 40 Raspberry Pis in it.
Gil: That’s so neat. It’s really cool.
DTD: It’s bizarre. He has a 1950s Wurlitzer jukebox that’s running on Raspberry Pis.
Gil: That is really cool! I respect that.
DTD: No, he’s a weird dude. He’s very strange. He’s got his beach house in California, and he just hangs out there, and does what he wants.
Playing music, watching sumo, and feeding the seagulls.
Gil: You get to see him when he goes to California?
DTD: Oh, he’s in California.
Gil: Oh, he lives in California now.
DTD: Yeah, so he’s probably 3 hours from me.
Gil: He followed you.
DTD: They moved. My dad was headhunted by Google and went and worked for them for a good five or ten years. And then said there were too many young people. It was like being in “nerd camp.” And so, he retired. So now he is a zero-pay employee at Google. They can call him whenever, and he consults and stuff like that. But yeah, he just does weird stuff.
Gil: That’s pretty neat.
Next week we wrap up Hamburgers with Hova, and as the evening deepens, we talk about Gil’s love of those miniature mustelids, domestic ferrets, board games currently on Gil’s drawing board, and we wrap back around to food, glorious food. Specifically, the philosophy of pizza.