Category: Music

Marian is on the move

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If you have followed our previous coverage of Marian Call, you know that she's our favorite wandering geek-minstrel and catalyst of casual fun. Well, Marian's on the move in her Portland to Portland (and back!) tour, which has already taken her from the Pacific Northwest to New England. At this very moment, she's on her way down the coast toward DC. She'll meander across Penn and Ohio on the way to Minestrone, Wisconsin, Colorado, Utah, and finally end up (of course) in Portland again (on the way back to Alaska).

Braving the same trip is flightless wingman Scott Barkan.

Marian and Scott will be playing in a variety of small venues and at house concerts, and she'll be vending worthy goods. If you enjoy folksy singer/songerwriters with a novel, quirky edge, you should go see her. That's what I plan to do. It's Elementary!

Taffer Style

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This is a relatively self-indulgent post, but hey– blog!

This is fundamentally a gaming site, founded and sustained by gamers, and I was once, and remain, a rabid fan of the gaming franchise that began with Thief: The Dark Project, continued with Thief II: The Metal Age and Thief: Deadly Shadows, and will soon resume with 2014's Thief. These are the high water mark in first-person, hybrid, potentially non-violent, stealth-based, story-rich games.

A recent discussion of satire, parody, and pastiche in the comment section of another thread here reminded me that I wrote a handful of Thief-themed pastiches back in the early aughties. To share them with others who might like them, to store them in our database, and to revisit them with wistful nostalgia, I reproduce them below. Each is set to the theme of a pop song. Note well: these are only meaningful if you've played the games, and they're best read with the corresponding tunes playing in the background. :) The songs are Barbie Girl, All Star, Mickey, We Didn't Start The Fire, Uptown Girl, Cheers, and U Can't Touch This.

In one sense, the message of this post in a nutshell is "Ain't I a clever chap!" But if you, too, love the Thief games, then in joining the nostalgia perhaps you'll revisit some fond memories of your own.


A Marian Call sighting

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Marian Call with retro cell phone. Photo by Scott Adams.

Marian Call with retro cell phone. Photo by Scott Adams.

For our previous coverage of Marian Call, click this tag. If you're unaware of her, start here.

Not long ago, I took a little trip to Silver Spring to see Marian Call in her natural habitat– the house concert.

The venue was the smallish common room of a co-op apartment house. Some had brought beer or wine. Others pizza and sweet shortbread cube thingies. Some came in groups, some in pairs, some alone. The room was decorated in the inconsistent, individual way that you might expect. On one wall hung a crazy quilt. On another, a painting of ethnic women, laborers, chopping logs and hauling bundles of wood. On a third wall, drawings apparently made by children residing in the co-op. On the fourth, schematics for the layout of the communal gardens and shrubbery. From the ceiling sagged sound dampers, billowing sails of a sideways schooner. At one end of the oblong space, amps and equipment littered a makeshift stage. Subject was first spotted in the vicinity of the sweet shortbread cube thingies.

Eventually grokking this part of the local customs, I sidled up to the buffet counter and introduced myself. Marian Call is a person of average height and decidedly Tigger-like demeanor. Awash in pre-show adrenaline, she bounced rapidly on her heels with endearing enthusiasm and declaimed rapidly on a variety of topics. She spoke of her admiration for the US Postal Service (for this concert was a part of the now-finished Postcard Tour, a format described below). She explained that the only part of the Smithsonian Institution that she had had the opportunity to enjoy (apart from a brief detour to see the Apollo lunar module) was the National Museum of the American Indian (she has a more-than-casual interest in first nation history and issues), where she only had time to enjoy the quasi-native food before rushing off to realize some larger purpose.

She spoke of Prague as symbolic of the tourism she may someday have the chance to enjoy; it was the one point (other than CERN!) in her European tour where she had had a couple of days (still not really enough time) to catch her breath and absorb broader overlapping contexts. She emphasized that touring, even in Europe, is not like a vacation; it's her job, and it seems like a job since it consists mostly of preparing to perform, performing, recovering from performing, travelling, and tending to the business and communications that make her endeavor sustainable. I found myself a silent choir of one as she sang the praises of procrastination ("It helps me get things done!") and sleep ("No more all-nighters!"). She very kindly mentioned that my essay about her lyrics gave her a morale boost when one was needed.

All of this took not more than five minutes, and then it was showtime.

She opened with the karaoke song, performing it with hilarious exaggeration to the delight of her crowd, which numbered 40 or 50. After another crowd-pleasing participatory number, she sang a few of her newer works, some commissioned and others spontaneous and irrepressible in origin. One of these, featuring the line "There's the paper and the pen and me; the storm stole the electricity,"  offered an unplanned magical moment. Since well before the show, half the building had been without light because of a power failure, and even the meeting hall was still semi-dark. But just as Marian sang that line, the power suddenly returned. The audience mumbled its wonder, but Marian maintained composure. After the song, she quipped, "I'll be taking this song on the road to restore critical infrastructure across the land."

Official tour postcard

Official tour postcard

The first set of seven ended with one of my favorites, Got To Fly, and then came the intermission. This was a time to buy wares, of course, but also a time for creativity. This show was part of Marian Call's Postcard Tour, which entailed having people at one show make postcards for Marian to carry to people at the next show, and so on.

During the break, people made their way to the stage to take a postcard from her burlap sack of cards inscribed by others, and also to write on fresh postcards for her to bring to others. (She has uploaded some examples to her tumblr.) I wrote a witty, illegible verse about artistic inspiration on the one I contributed. The one I received was from Alicia in Portland, Oregon:

card from Alicia in Portland

card from Alicia in Portland

"Strangers with similar interests"– that's the head of the nail, right there, Alicia. Well done.

After the postcard frenzy, Marian's sideman, Scott Barkan, offered an intermezzo. His own album, Flightless Bird, is available at Bandcamp, and is noteworthy not only for its magnificent cover art by Benjamin Dewey of Portland, but also for Scott's heartfelt, pessimistic, and strangely vulnerable lyrics. He treated us to three songs: Break it to Me Hard, Flightless Bird, and Bad Dreams. What struck me most about his blend of TomWaitsian vocals and TommyEmmanuelesque fingerstyle guitarmanship (which threw his instrument out of tune after every song, but for a good cause!) was the paradoxical precision with which he executed works that are constructed to seem rough and raw.

Scott's informal self-presentation lends itself to the notion that he must spend every waking, offstage hour developing the technical musicianship that enables him to pull off that sort of performance– and, for that matter, to deftly support some of the musical challenges Marian Call sometimes folds into her own compositions. Here's a representative sample of Scott Barkan, from his performance at CERN. If you like what he provides, I encourage you to buy his album!

In any case, Scott's a humble guy and didn't seem to mind ceding the stage to Marian, who resumed her station and dealt us another great set. Afterward, I deferentially nudged my way past a particularly enthusiastic, comicbookish groupie who seemed to have a lot on his mind, and I enjoyed another brief, awkward chat, wherein I praised Marian's appreciation of the analog and she showed me a photo of her former not-so-smart phone, a cousin of the one I still use.

The Postcard Tour is over now, but all along the way– in alcoves and bathrooms and the occasional sound studio, Marian has been piecing together the elements of another album, and now she's ready to send it into the world: Sketchbook

She describes it as "A new record of intimate songs from the road, on love, lightning, time, and hope.  Small and focused in scope, deep like diving." She gave us a sneak preview of some of these songs at the concert, and they're lyrically rich musical morsels of the kind and caliber we've come to expect from this bouncy, brainy, optimistically brooding artist.

The physical copies of Sketchbook sold out almost instantly when she announced their availability for pre-order, but the album is also available in digital form on bandcamp:

To celebrate this auspicious occasion, I'd like to give away three digital download codes for Sketchbook, which will be released tomorrowish, or thereabouts. Our last Marian Call giveaway depended on being first in line, but I'd like to do things differently this time. So I'll gather all requests first, and then I'll discover the winners among them by using (If you've previously won a giveaway here, I'd ask you refrain and let others vie.) To submit your request for one of the three download codes, you may either tweet me at dcbyron with the hashtag MCSketchbook xor email the word MCSketchbook to me at david at (Don't do both!) It's about 3:00pm EST. I'll collect these until 3:00pm EST tomorrow (01 Dec), and then notify the winners.

Popehat Goes To The Opera: Così fan tutte

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It's time for the second edition of Popehat Goes To the Opera. In our last episode, I talked about Wagner's rather self-serious but entertaining Tannhauser. This time, the subject is Mozart's Così fan tutte.

As before my companion text is Sir Denis Forman's hilarious and insightful A Night at the Opera. And which recording of the opera do I recommend? It's not even a close call — definitely this remastered 1962 version by Karl Böhm with, among others, the masterful Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Giuseppe Taddei.

Why Così? Why an opera the title of which is generally translated as "women are like that" or, to modern ears, "bitches, amirite?" Why an opera with a silly plot about fiancé-swapping?

Because it's undeservedly obscure to non-opera-lovers, the music is heartbreakingly beautiful, it's a good illustration of dramatic, operatic, and social conventions, and it illuminates how we approach troublesome texts from different eras. Moreover, it continues the theme I began with Tannhauser — much opera is dramatic junk wrapped in musical genius.


Popehat Goes To The Opera: Tannhauser

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It's time to introduce a new feature: Popehat Goes To the Opera.

Anything David writes about art here is not to be missed. Patrick's discussion of film is always worth a read. Many of my colleagues talk about games. But what do I contribute to art or geek culture?1

Practical reasons have hindered my contribution. I'll never be able to write about culture the way David can write about art. I'll never have a talent for relating games to politics like Derrick. And let's face it: gaming has passed me by. I barely have free time to play games, and my heart belongs to ones so primitive you could play them on a modern wristwatch.2

But I do have one geeky interest that bears exploring, Popehat-style: a somewhat esoteric taste crammed with all the history and minutiae a fanatic could want, with high barriers to entry and too few followers.

I refer to opera.

So: without further ado, the first chapter in a new series seeking to expose our readers to opera and explain why it appeals to me, one opera at a time. I start with a favorite, an opera that embodies the best (gorgeous music) and the silliest (ridiculous operatic conceits) of the genre: Richard Wagner's Tannhauser.

Open Sesame?

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Here's NBC News on the first openly incarcerated-related muppet:

Alex is blue-haired and green-nosed and he wears a hoodie – you might think he’s just another carefree inhabitant of Sesame Street. But there’s sorrow in Alex’s voice when he talks about his father.

“I just miss him so much,” he tells a friend. “I usually don’t want people to know about my Dad.”

My wistful muse is piqued. Everybody sing!

Takin' your Dad away
On his way to a detention suite.

We can tell you how to get,
How to get to Sentencing Street.

Come and play.
Everything's A-OK.
Social workers here
Make sure you eat.

We can tell you when you'll get
When you'll get to Sentencing Street.

It's a penal playground ride
Once the guidelines are applied
To criminal people like–
(What's probation like?)
To people your Dad is like!
Just be dutiful….

Takin' your Mom away
On her way to a detention suite.

We can tell you how to get,
How to get to Sentencing Street.
How to get to Sentencing Street.
How to get to…


Marian Call the DJ

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Marian Call will be spinnin' the discs for KRNN this Wednesday night for a couple of hours from 8pm PST (11pm EST).

She says she'll be playing "music by [her] favorite artists — several Alaskans, several utterly obscure artists, and a few very popular ones".

MC puts the work in 'quirk' and the cover in 'discovery' and the fun in 'latifundium'! So if you're so inclined and you've got the time, feel free to stream netwise at .


Merry Christmas

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If I still made mix tapes, this is the one I'd have made this year.

Supremes: My Christmas Tree.

Carla Thomas: Gee Whiz It's Christmas.

Darlene Love: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).

Elvis Presley: Blue Christmas.

Mahalia Jackson: Silent Night.

Vince Guaraldi: Christmas Time Is Here.

Eartha Kitt: Santa Baby.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan: Baby It's Cold Outside.

Roger Miller: Old Toy Trains.

Buck Owens: Christmas Ain't Christmas.

Joey Ramone: Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight).

Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song.

Feel free to play it.  Sorry about the advertising.

A Christmas Hymn

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I believe I first heard the advent hymn a solis ortus cardine in the 80s, when I was living just up the road from the Benedictine Abbey of S. Martin in Ligugé, France. The monks there were known for their chants, so I picked up their Chefs-d'oeuvre Grégoriens (on cassette tapes back then). It served well as a soundtrack for my quasi-total immersion in the middle ages.

Here's what Wikipedia offers about the song:

A solis ortus cardine … is a Latin poem by Coelius Sedulius (died circa 450), narrating Christ's life from His birth to His resurrection. Its 23 verses each begin with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, making the poem an Abecedarius…

The first seven verses, with a doxology verse by a different writer, were used from the early Middle Ages onwards as a Christmas hymn. They write of the striking contrast between the grandeur and omnipotence of the Word of God (the second person in the Holy Trinity) and the vulnerable humanity of the child in whom the Word became flesh.

Although I have a sentimental attachment to the version by the Choeur des Moines at L'Abbaye de Ligugé, I think this video by the Schola Gregoriana Monostorinensis in Transylvania presents the lovely melody at its best:

A solis ortus cardine
ad usque terrae limitem
Christum canamus principem,
natum Maria Virgine.

Beatus auctor saeculi
servile corpus induit,
ut carne carnem liberans
ne perderet quos condidit.

Caste parentis viscera
caelestis intrat gratia;
venter puellae baiulat
secreta quae non noverat.

Domus pudici pectoris
templum repente fit Dei;
intacta nesciens virum
verbo concepit Filium.

Enixa est puerpera
quem Gabriel praedixerat,
quem matris alvo gestiens
clausus Ioannes senserat.

Feno iacere pertulit,
praesepe non abhorruit,
parvoque lacte pastus est
per quem nec ales esurit.

Gaudet chorus caelestium
et angeli canunt Deum,
palamque fit pastoribus
Pastor, Creator omnium.

Gloria tibi, Domine
Qui natus est de virgine
cum Patre et Sancto Spiritu,
in sempiterna saecula.