Moving to Oxford

It’s official: we have visas and plane tickets to arrive in the U.K. on September 9! My wife (Kathleen) and I will be based in Oxford, where I will continue to work part time as a software engineer and be looking for musical opportunities. If you need a viola, violin, or piano player in Oxford, London, or the surrounding areas, contact me! I will be collaborating frequently with our good friend, violinist Jessica Miskelly. We both love playing chamber music and would be delighted to hear from you.

Chamber Recital

We’re hosting a chamber music recital on Friday, September 4, 2015, 7:30 p.m. at Tates Creek Presbyterian Church. I’ll be performing with a number of other friends, with music including Dvořák’s “American” Quartet and York Bowen’s Fantasie Quartet for four violas. We’ll also be premiering a piece I just finished, Fairy Tales for four violas. The title is reminiscent of Schumann’s Märchenbilder.


I recently entered the Rapido! Composition Contest. They have an interesting condition: the piece submitted must be written during a two-week period that the contest is open. The first day, they email contestants the constraints for the piece. This year, the requirement is a 4-6 minute theme and variations for violin, clarinet, and piano. I composed furiously for two weeks and finished a piece that I am very happy with. Now I’m back to working on a quartet for four violas, which I hope to premiere in September.

Creating video game sounds

I recently discovered some awesome tools for creating synthesized sounds. The sounds they generate are just like the sort of things you hear in an 8-bit Nintendo game.
First there is BFXR. You can easily get started by clicking the presets on the left. They aren’t “fixed” presets, but rather random distributions, so if you click “Explosion” repeatedly it generates several sounds that resemble explosions. Then you can manipulate the various synthesis parameters. The “Mutation” button jiggles the parameters a little bit. Way cool!
Then I found LabChirp, another fun tool with a similar purpose. LapChirp focuses on layering several synthesized shapes. It’s not quite as freakishly easy to use as BFXR, but it’s powerful and it also has a randomizer function to help you get going.
Two great programs for creating new sounds for your next homemade video game!

Kronos Quartet: Floodplain

Ran across this when I asked Pandora for “Iranian Traditional Music”. So apparently Pandora didn’t have much of that, but it tried at least, and Kronos Quartet’s Floodplain album does have some Middle-Eastern flavored tracks. One of the things I love about the album is how the pieces combine the exotic sounds of world folk music into richly-composed works. This isn’t the sort of wallpaper you sometimes get with folk or popular styles; it’s full-fledged art music that explores non-Western idioms. Some of my favorite tracks are “Nihavent Sirto” by Tanburi Cemil Bey and “Mugam Beyati Shiraz” by Rahman Asadollahi.

Best music for programming

Different activities call for different music: Think about the kind of music we use for jogging, the kind we play at funerals, the kind we hear on the elevator, and the kind we appreciate in concert halls.  But what type of music is best for putting on in the background while programming?

Personally, I often like something that is more emotionally stable than symphonic repertoire, but not as repetitive as popular music.  If I’m solving a particularly difficult problem, I might want silence to give it my full attention.  But most software development involves some amount of mundane implementation work, where you already know the outcome, it’s just a matter of making countless small decisions to get there.  For that activity, I find it is nice to have something a little cerebral and a little bit interesting to make up the difference between a partially and 100% engaged mental state.  When my brain is 100% occupied, I can achieve flow and be optimally productive.

Baroque music is great for this.  The Baroque aesthetic usually requires a single “affect”, or sentimental state, for an entire movement.  This provides stability and avoids distracting emotional dynamics.  But within a stable framework, the music moves and changes, often with a steady running or motor effect, spinning out an idea over time.

At the moment, my favorite composer for programming is Dieterich Buxtehude, the Danish / German organist who is most famous for teaching Bach.  Pandora happily churns out mellow but thoughtful organ music on “Buxtehude radio”.  Arcangelo Corelli is another favorite.  A great example of the kind of piece I mean is “La Folia”, for violin and keyboard.   The piece is a passacaglia form, based on a repeating chord progression.  Over the course of the work, Corelli explores a surprising variety of textures and figurations within a fixed harmonic language.