Articles tagged with "music"

Mare Nostrum at Konzerthaus

Published on Mon 13 April 2015 under music

On February 21, the venerable Konzerthaus in Vienna welcomed a peculiar trio as part of its series "Jazz im Konzerthaus". The musicians call themselves Mare Nostrum, apparently due to the fact they all come from countries with substantial shorelines. The trio featured the God of Jazz Accordion himself, Richard Galliano, along with Sardinian trumpetist Paolo Fresu and Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren.

The gentlemen filled almost two hours with pleasing romantic tunes which nevertheless packed plenty of substance. The individual musicians' temperaments contrasted each other nicely, with Mr. Lundgren laying heartfelt backgrounds reminiscent of the likes of Debussy, Mr. Galliano embroidering melodic lines in his trademark style and Mr. Fresu contributing a more reserved, conservative jazz phraseology.

And yet, it was largely Galliano's show all night. He dominated the stage without imposing himself in the least, simply by virtue of his consummate musicianship. He is one of those improvisers who play as if they were talking, so natural and fluent is his melodic concept. Regardless of the tune, he always has interesting things to play and I don't think he's capable of producing a single boring note.

I wish I could say the same about Paolo Fresu but his playing somehow went right past me. Perhaps I simply wasn't attuned to his mood that night. I can definitely state, however, that at the start of the concert he wasn't attuned to his band-mates. His notes were distinctly sharp, so much so that I can't honestly believe it was intentional. He seemed to adjust his instrument after about four numbers which made him sound much better and rescued my overall impression of the concert.

In conclusion, I spent a most pleasant evening, as I usually do amid the Art-Deco splendor of the Konzerthaus. I wouldn't mind seeing Mare Nostrum again if they happen to stick together for some time. Come to think of it, I'd probably bet on Richard Galliano in any constellation at all. This one wasn't half bad.

Akai EWI USB and Linux, part 3

In part 1 and part 2 of my Akai odyssey, I've described getting the EWI to produce sound and configuring fluidsynth (plus QSynth) for optimum performance without latency. I was happy with my setup but after a while I started craving a little convenience.

Setting up a playing session is a silly affair involving the instrument itself, my notebook, a pair of headphones, 2 cables and 4 connectors. The same goes for winding things down after playing. It used to be even more obnoxious since I had to manually start and exit the QSynth software. I knew that Linux can react to USB hot-plug events and this reaction can be configured; so I decided to make QSynth start and stop automagically.

The system-du-jour for reacting to hotplug events in Linux is currently udev. Debian's wiki happens to have a very nice udev page which explains that all one needs to do is to put a line in a file under /etc/udev/rules.d. One can either use one of the existing files under that directory or create a new one, which is what I did just to keep things tidy.

Entries in udev rule files rely on an IF-THEN syntax where the IF part indicates in what circumstances the rule should trigger and THEN stipulates what should be done. The syntax is quite restrictive in that each rule has to fit on a line - i.e. no fancy procedural tricks. The IF part offers a lot of ways to pick up an event, though. One can specify the BUS on which the event happens, the NAME of the device, the ACTION that the event represents, expected environment variable values etc. I found the options quite extensive, making it easy to specify any event.

Having to run sudo udevadm control --reload-rules after each rule update was a bit annoying but what really held me up was figuring out which events the rule should react to. I found out that plugging the EWI into and out of the USB port caused entire cascades of events with different characteristics. I eventually settled on the following rules:

ATTR{idVendor}=="09e8", ATTR{idProduct}=="006d", ACTION=="add", RUN+="/usr/local/bin/ewi"
ENV{DEVNAME}=="/dev/snd/midiC1D0", ACTION=="remove" RUN+="/usr/local/bin/ewi"

The first rule fires when I plug the device in, the second one upon unplugging. Both rules launch the same shell script when invoked. The shell script itself looks like this:

if [ $ACTION = "add" ] ; then
 set -x 
 xhost local:username
 export DISPLAY=:0.0
 su username -c qsynth &
elif [ $ACTION = "remove" ] ; then
 killall qsynth

The "add" section contains incantations needed to properly launch a GUI program from a shell script. I picked them up in some forum and have unfortunately lost the link. Kudos to the original poster, anyway.

With this bit of scripting, my EWI is the very definition of Plug-and-Play, as well as Stop-Playing-and-Unplug ;-) . All is not perfect, though; one problem remains and it's completely unrelated to udev. Since I use legacy OSS emulation due to latency issues, I cannot run any other sound-producing application while QSynth is active (OSS doesn't support software mixing). I don't mind that just yet but as I get my fingerings in order and advance my playing I will need to resolve it. The saga continues...

Akai EWI USB and Linux, part 2

Part 1 of my Akai saga ended with the EWI producing sound, a disappearing symlink and a shocking latency. This was unacceptable.

To get a flavor of how things should work, I did something I hadn't done in months: boot into Windows. I dutifully installed the software from EWI's companion CD and tried a few tones. The software itself was nice, polished and simple enough, except that the latency was pretty much the same as under Linux! Google said one should install a different audio stack, "winaudio" or something, but I had no such inclination.

I pulled out the big guns instead. I installed 64studio on a spare partition. It's a specialized multimedia-production Linux with pre-configured JACK low-latency audio server etc. and I was certain that it would help. Except it wouldn't talk to my graphics card. Next up was Ubuntu Studio - same purpose, different vendor. It installed beautifully, had tons of pre-installed audio software including JACK and QSynth and... exhibited the same latency problem as my regular aptosid and Windows. It was back to the drawing board.

I knew it wasn't a hardware problem - when I ran fluidsynth in verbose mode it would print MIDI events very swiftly, only the sound was lagging. CPU load was negligible so it wasn't any slowness on my computer's part, either. I tried the only thing I could think of - further tweaking fluidsynth's options, this time on the output (audio) side. Lo and behold, when I chose the legacy OSS output driver the system started reacting like a caffeine-doped squirrel. Sound was coming out almost before I touched the pads. I had reached the Akai EWI nirvana.

The utterly perplexing aspect of this outcome is that I don't even have true OSS on my system; virtually no-one has these days. OSS on my notebook is just a special legacy emulation mode of ALSA, yet it performs better than ALSA proper. Go figure...

I had basically two options to resolve the disappearing symlink from /dev/snd/midiC1D0 to /dev/snd/midiC0D0. I could either automate its creation in a start-up script or I could remove the need for it, i.e. make fluidsynth talk to midiC1D0 as it should. The latter was obviously a cleaner solution so I started pursuing it. Tweaking the command line had been useless before, hence I downloaded the source code (apt-get source fluidsynth) and started looking around the error messages I was getting ("Unknown RawMidi" etc.).

It turned out that when fluidsynth documentation says I should specify a MIDI device, it doesn't really mean "a path to a device file" but rather "an ALSA device ID", at least when alsa_raw is specified as the MIDI driver. ALSA device IDs have a special syntax that looks like "hw0,0", with the first number identifying a sound card and the second one determining a feature of that sound card one wants to work with. I tried to formulate a device ID for midiC1D0 but couldn't figure it out.

Looking through the code, I noticed that when no MIDI device is explicitly specified fluidsynth deduces an ID from various ALSA settings, mainly the default sound card. It occurred to me that I could set the EWI as the default sound card. I remembered that ALSA reads user-specific configuration from ~/.asoundrc and a short trip to Google yielded this incantation: defaults.rawmidi.card 1. Having that line in my .asoundrc finally let fluidsynth talk to the EWI without a symlink hack. This wasn't as exciting as doing away with the latency but I felt satisfied that things were finally set up the way they should be.

In summary, all I had needed from the start was that single line in .asoundrc and a simple fluidsynth -m alsa_raw -a oss TimGM6mb.sf2 (I use the soundfonts provided on EWI's companion CD). It took a while to get there but I finally had a straightforward way to play the EWI through my notebook.

Once I knew what to set in fluidsynth I configured QSynth with the same settings to get a nice graphical UI for switching sounds and tweaking the effects (fluidsynth has built-in reverb and chorus). This was really comfortable and I became spoiled after a while. It started bugging me that I had to launch QSynth by hand each time I wanted to play. I knew that the computer should be able to do it automatically when the EWI gets plugged in. It should even be able to exit QSynth when the EWI gets unplugged. I decided to tackle that one as well to make my playing truly comfortable. It's a story for another post, however...

Akai EWI USB and Linux, part 1

As I've mentioned before, I recently came into posession of an Akai Electronic Wind Instrument, USB edition. To be of any use, this wonderful artifact must be connected to a computer running proper software. That on EWI's companion CD supports only MS Windows and Mac OS X so with my GNU/Linux notebook I was on my own.

I had obviously checked on-line for other people's experiences with the EWI and Linux before purchasing it but all I knew was that yes, it does work. I use a rolling-release Debian-based distro called aptosid (formerly known as sidux) which means I tend to be fairly up-to-date as far as the kernel and drivers are concerned. I wasn't expecting any major problems but I was ready for anything.

I started with the basics: I saved the listing of /dev and /dev/snd into a text file and plugged the EWI in. A bunch of messages in dmesg confirmed that the device was detected and recognized. Comparing the listing of /dev/snd with the previous version yielded /dev/snd/midiC1D0 as a new device and sudo cat /dev/snd/midiC1D0 produced a flurry of line noise as I tried playing the instrument. The low-level set-up, then, was exactly as it should be: pure plug-n'-play.

With my confidence boosted, I turned straight to QSynth which is a GUI front-end for fluidsynth, a powerful SoundFont-based command-line software synthesizer. QSynth has a nice setup dialog with separate tabs for the MIDI side (input) and the audio side (output). Unfortunately, the configuration options accurately reflect the mess that is Linux audio support, with four MIDI drivers and five audio drivers to choose from and fiddle with. To make a long story short, I failed to find a combination of settings that would work.

I needed clarity and precision, hence I turned to working with fluidsynth directly. After reading the manual, the alsa_raw driver looked like the most promising option for MIDI input as I had used ALSA to get a MIDI port on another computer going a few years ago. When I used alsa_raw without specifying a MIDI device path, however, fluidsynth would say "Error opening ALSA raw MIDI port". When I did specify /dev/snd/midiC1D0 as the MIDI device I got "Unknown RawMidi /dev/snd/midiC1D0". I somehow remembered that during my previous MIDI experiments the device was midiC0D0 rather than midiC1D0 so I tried ln -s /dev/snd/midiC1D0 /dev/snd/midiC0D0 and ran fluidsynth without giving it a device path. Bingo! I had sound!

There were two serious problems with this setup. First, the midiC0D0 symlink disappeared at every reboot, forcing me to re-create it over and over. More seriously, the audio lagged some 100 to 300 ms behind MIDI input, making the EWI so sluggish as to be unplayable. What was I to do? I will reveal the dramatic resolution of both issues in another post; stay tuned...

Akai EWI USB and me

Published on Fri 12 November 2010 under music

At the recent Bratislava Jazz Days, I was intrigued by the sight of Marián Jaslovský of Silvia Fourporation playing the Akai EWI 4000s electronic wind instrument. I used to play tenor saxophone as a hobby but I put it on hold a few years ago mainly due to the fact I had no way of practicing without disturbing the neighbors (I live in an apartment). The EWI seemed like a great way around that as it can be listened to via earphones. I had considered buying one before but I was put off by the expense. With my interest now re-kindled, I looked into the matter again and found the prices much more likeable. Crucially, I discovered the new USB variant.

The difference between the older 4000s and the USB model boils down to the latter being strictly a MIDI peripheral for a computer. It has no audio output (i.e. no built-in synthesizer) and it's powered only via its USB connection. Compared to its older sibling, the EWI USB is a no-fuss, light, inexpensive affair. Still, it is by no means a toy. It features a robustly built body with virtually no moving parts (there are touch-sensitive metallic pads instead of keys) and the sound one can produce is only limited by the quality of the synthesizer the instrument is plugged into.

Having spent some time with the unit since I purchased it, I must say I'm thoroughly satisfied. It feels very natural in my hands. The mouthpiece is completely different from the saxophone but I knew I wasn't going to replicate the experience perfectly anyway. The tactile feedback is different as well since the "keys" don't move but I find the experience very much similar to what I was used to. Touching a pad feels just like finishing a key-press in that there is a definite, solid limit to the motion of the finger. And when I set the software synthesizer to the right sound it really does feel just like an acoustic wind instrument, albeit not a saxophone. The feeling is quite thrilling and has to be experienced to be believed.

There are quirks as well, of course. The instrument cannot be simply picked up and played - I have to uncoil the cables, plug the USB cable into the EWI, plug the other end into my notebook, plug in the headphones - oh, and boot the notebook and log in, obviously. So there is a "transaction cost" to every session, one cannot just pick the thing up for five relaxing minutes. This would be different if I had a dedicated netbook just for the EWI as many people seem to prefer (especially those who also perform) but I don't really mind. I need hundreds of hours of practice to get back into form, anyway.

Another difficulty is the mouthpiece which puts up a lot of resistance. I once tried playing an oboe and this feels similar - it takes more energy to push air through the mouthpiece than was the case with my saxophone. I believe this is something I simply need to get used to but right now I often end up out of breath.

One last quibble I have with the instrument is the feeble neckstrap that simply doesn't do it justice. I already had to mend it with superglue. But that's really a minor point and I'm sure most wind players will have a quality neckstrap lying around.

One thing I haven't mentioned is the veritable odyssey involved in making the thing work with my computer. I use Linux so I knew it wouldn't be that easy; it wasn't and there are still a few details to work out. That's a topic for another post, however. My main point for now: the EWI wants to be played. When I come home from work and look at it I immediately feel like picking it up and taking a few practice runs. I find that simply priceless.

Bratislava Jazz Days 2010

Published on Sun 07 November 2010 under music

The pre-Halloween weekend is one of the year's highlights for anyone who lives here in Bratislava and likes jazz or good music in general. The reason, of course, is the Bratislava Jazz Days. I've been attending since 1994 and I have yet to be disappointed.

Bratislava currently markets itself as The Little Big City and BJD fits nicely into that concept. The format has stabilized in recent years: three nights (Friday to Sunday) on two stages with about four acts per stage per night. The two stages are on the opposite ends of a Communist-era venue called the PKO ("Park of Culture and Relaxation"). To get from one stage to the other, one has to cross a large lobby. That's where the beer is. It's also the place where people catch up with friends they may not have seen since the previous year. Getting together with friends is actually the most important part of the Jazz Days, although some people may not even realize it - after all, most of the time is spent listening to music.

The festival offers a great opportunity to expand one's musical horizons; that's why I buy tickets for all three nights and never worry too much about who's playing. The big names (Betty Carter, Kurt Elling, Courtney Pine etc.) do provide unforgettable experiences but the ticket really earns its worth when an Elias Meiri or a Karrin Allyson comes on stage and thoroughly charms the audience.

BJD 2010 brought about a slight change in scheduling. In previous years, B-stage acts had been timed to fill in the breaks between concerts on the main stage. This year's B stage got expanded (with longer shows and four acts per night instead of three) so one had to actually choose between them. A-stage line-ups were definitely more intriguing so that's where I ended up spending most of my time.

The festival's opening act was my good friend Sisa Michalidesová performing music she had composed for the movie "Zimní kúzelníci" (Winter Magicians) with an absolutely stellar band featuring some of Slovakia's best musicians (Michal Žáček on soprano saxophone, Peter Preložník on keyboards, Boris Lenko on accordion etc.). The work had been adapted for the band members and also to allow improvized solos but it wasn't quite jazz; as with many true masters, Sisa's music evades precise classification. It was compact yet diverse, evocative, perfectly arranged and beautifully played. The result was much more impressive than on the soundtrack CD and I was quite happy for Sisa.

Up next was the Polish singer Aga Zaryan who mesmerized us with her powerful stage presence. She has a beautiful, expressive face and a captivating voice that she commanded with calm confidence as she sang some quite challenging tunes from her repertoire. Her band was certainly up to the task, they blended with the singing to deliver a smooth, seamless experience. Aga Zaryan spends a lot of time in New York so her English was flawless (not necessarily the case with Slavic singers) though she could have performed more songs in Polish which I find very pleasant to listen to.

Ethereal singing was followed by accordion equilibristics soaked in passion and bittersweet nostalgia. Richard Galliano is widely regarded as the world's best accordionist and he provided ample justification for that view. His playing was out of this world, turning the instrument into sonic fireworks, bursting with cascades upon cascades of tones. Yet he proceeded with absolute ease, kind of "by the way", he never struggled with the accordion at all. He was fully focused on the point of the music, putting his soul into every note. Such a combination of virtuosity and sincerity is indeed rare in musicians and I couldn't help but be completely absorbed. Oh, and he had a band with him; they were fully absorbed as well. This was definitely Friday night's highlight, despite the fact that neither Galliano's genre nor accordion music as such count among my favorites.

Headliners at BJD occasionally fizzle out and so was the case with Zap Mama, a formation led by the Belgian singer of Congolese origins Marie Daulne. The band had great difficulty getting to the festival after having a flight canceled; they did start on time but with no sound check. It's hard to say if that had any impact or not but the performance was a bland fusion of light jazz with African and new-age elements, with a bit of theatrics thrown in that didn't quite work, especially after Richard Galliano. I left during the third song, happy to get home before 1 AM.

I couldn't attend on Saturday due to family commitments but they say Trombone Shorty almost tore down the building with his enormous energy. Oh well, maybe next time.

Sunday night started off with the Gustav Brom Big Band. I'm not really into big-band music but I do enjoy the way so many instruments blend into a cohesive sound - provided they actually do, of course. The Gustav Brom Big Band is a Czecho-Slovak affair with some rather excellent musicians (Radovan Tariška and Ondřej Čtveráček on saxophones etc.) constrained by the usual logistical issues of getting so many people together often enough. Still, their performance was quite impressive and a good way to get the evening going.

The American trumpeter Christian Scott with his Quintet brought out the serious stuff. Young yet very mature musicians produced an hour of intense, uncompromising, no-nonsense jazz at a very high technical level. The leader had a whiff of arrogance about him at times but he was earnest rather than flashy and he could definitely back it up with supreme playing. I must confess this late in the festival my ears were getting saturated and I couldn't perceive the non-trivial performance as well as I would have liked to. I know it was probably Sunday's highlight but it kind of went beyond me at that point.

Fortunately, Scott's quintet was followed by lighter fare in the form of veteran guitarist Larry Carlton's trio. Carlton is very obviously a skilled session musician who has no problem playing anything you throw his way, which made watching his own show all the more interesting. The set was colorful, with easy melodic numbers giving way to harder, more bluesy tunes. It was no earth-shattering experience but the musicians visibly enjoyed themselves and the intimate trio setting provided a nice epilogue to this year's festival.

Well, actually, Carlton was followed by Sunday's "headliners", Shakatak. It is a recent tradition at the Jazz Days to have a more pop-sounding act at the very end. I think it's actually very smart as those facing a busy Monday can leave early without much remorse. The strategy gives many people a sort of anti-climax feel, however, prompting an infamous sarcastic remark by an attendee that "next year they'll bring AC/DC" (the guy was fleeing from Level 42, by the way). Shakatak is a pop-jazz band that had a huge crossover hit in the '80s and they still happily tour the world thanks to that. More power to them, I say, but their show felt a bit worn so I left after about two songs.

As I'd mentioned before, I spent most of my time at the A stage. Excursions to the B-stage hall served as welcome diversions. The atmosphere there tends to be more muted, intimate, club-like. The bands were interesting especially on Sunday - the local Groove Brothers, a Hungarian world-music ensemble featuring hypnotic percussion duets, as well as Silvia Fourporation with its whimsical lyrics and a laid-back attitude.

I have to say this year's Jazz Days did a fine job of holding up the usual standards of their venerable franchise. Peter Lipa and other organizers at the Rock & Pop agency deserve much credit for keeping the magic alive; despite permanent worries about the future of the venue, Bratislava Jazz Days is poised to remain one of the top events for jazz fans in this neck of the woods.

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