New Toys

When I was young, I used to spend my spare money on music. It started out with albums recorded on vinyl, then there was the expansion to cassette tapes to record albums borrowed from friends, and then, in my final move, by the time I graduated with my doctorate degree, I also graduated to digital audio on CDs. It was a long time ago. I still have a massive collection of albums in all of these formats. Music was perhaps my most significant monetary indulgence. Through my growing process, I went through three iterations of good amplifier systems and speakers – each acquired after some serious research into the technology.

But there also existed another side of my genetic makeup and upbringing that would tend to pull me back from this hobby. Money was not to be wasted. It has been many years since I upgraded anything in the home entertainment system to the extent I used to be tempted to do when I was younger. Technology has left me behind completely! Everything is dated. I have no capability for using the newer digital audio/video interfaces that are available on devices to their best advantage. I never bought into Blu-Ray or HD-DVD even though the kind of work that I used to do was foundational to the development of these technologies. We still have a DVD player in the house that is decades old, but that is it! HDTV did come to the house early only because I worked on the technology. Surround sound technologies have advanced significantly since my time.

And music is also delivered to me through newer means these days.

Having said all that, I have to happily acknowledge that the music of the old days is still in me – even though I have mostly tended to neglect its presence. It was just recently that I found myself in the kitchen with my smartphone and tiny Bose bluetooth wireless speaker, listening to classic rock being streamed to me from a Spotify account. The conditions for listening to the music were not that great. I was listening to monoaural sound whose fidelity was less than ideal due to lossy digital compression techniques being used, and it was being played through a tiny listening device – not exactly the conditions under which one listens to rock music amplified for its full impact.

But the circumstances did not seem to matter. I was taken back to the old times. I was cooking up a storm to the beat of Deep Purple and Machine Head.

I could still feel it in my bones – never mind the new technology.

The familiar lead-ins…

The beat, almost hypnotic, slowly building up – the rhythm taking over, the body moving to the music on the kitchen dance floor – occasionally with spatula or knife in hand. Can spices and the cutting board be tackled when in a groove with some degree of serious headbanging going on?

Awesome base lines, guitar riffs that seem to go on forever, out-of-the-world chords from the electronic keyboard wailing away, the urgent and high-pitched voices of the singers, a perfect percussion keeping up the beat and preventing it from careening out of control – a potent mix – familiar patterns emerging…. WOW!

The hand gradually moves to the volume control buttons on the playback device – higher and higher it goes – damn it, how can one listen to this stuff without blasting it through the speakers!

The familiar verses emerging from my inner space – Come on, come on, lets go space trucking!

For that instant in time, I was transported to a different mental space. It is more than just a happy moment.

And I wondered, how could anybody not be moved by this sound – and especially in the kitchen while cooking…

And then I am back to my sane place, to the understanding that every generation probably thinks the same way about their own familiar music. I am indeed listening to grandfather rock!

The irony is that one is in much better shape to indulge in the fantasy of high-end A/V equipment during these later years of life, but the mind has moved on to a different state of equilibrium directed by practical matters of daily life. And frugality continues to be part of my DNA. You might be tempted to think that this is an indication of maturity. That is arguable. One can occasionally break out of ones state of equilibrium – one can be taken back to the carefree space quite easily without the encouragement of drugs and alcohol. It is OK I think – as long as variances can be managed.

I still have my vinyl, cassette tapes, and CDs – some of this stuff not touched for decades. I am tempted to once again listen to what I have been missing. What long dead neural pathways in my brain will be brought back to life one wonders.

And then there are the other new toys and indulgences that one has been drawn to in the later years of ones life. I smell another blog!

A Busy Time

I got back from my trip to India just a short while ago, but it seems like an eternity has passed already. The pace of life has been intense the last couple of weeks.

The first week of my return, with the singing event with the chorus happening at the agricultural fair in the evenings, was quite tiring. My last day of singing was particularly busy, but also enjoyable. We ended up singing more than we usually do. The crowds on the streets were heavier in volume than at the beginning of the week, and, in most locations, people would actually stop on the street to listen to us sing. (Some would stop just to take our picture, seemingly not paying attention to the music itself, but that is par for the course at the fair.) We even had requests from people – including one invitation late in evening to sing at the rabbit barn! One of the highlights of the evening was when we sang The Cup Song to a bunch of little kids who were minding a booth. They joined us in the melody.

Two days after my last singing day at the fair, we were up early in the morning, at 3AM, to get ready to make our way to the airport, heading for a wedding in Golden, CO. The purchase of the least expensive airline ticket that we could find meant that our flight departed before the sun was up.
The routing to our final destination of Denver included a stopover in Atlanta for a change of flights. That detour made the journey much longer than it could have been.

That day turned into a long one, including a late evening out in the time zone that we had ended up in, two hours west of where we had started the day. There was a welcome event that evening to set the stage for the wedding the next day, after which we set off in search of the local Target store to get some supplies for the rest of the trip.

The day of the wedding started off very early, one of the factors being that the body had not had a chance to adjust to the change in time zone. I was up before the sunrise.

The wedding events were spaced out throughout the day, ending in an evening reception at a club located in the foothills of the Rockies, overlooking the high plains of Colorado. It was indeed a unique and wonderful setting for a wedding reception.

The day after the wedding, we set out on a drive through Colorado that lasted three days. The drive included many different adventures that I hope to write further about. It was both a challenging and exhilarating tour. I am also happy that we came out of the whole trip without anything untoward happening to us – since events did not nearly always follow an expected path. It is good to remind oneself once in a while that we are not really always in control of things even though we think we are.

We arrived at Denver airport early in the evening on our last day of travel to catch a late evening flight back home.

Evening gradually faded into the nighttime soon after our departure from Denver.We arrived at BWI shortly after midnight, overflying parts of the city of Baltimore on our way in for landing.It was the early hours of the morning by the time we got back home and went to bed.

And now it is back to our old routines. Suffice it to say that we were in a very different space both physically and mentally just a couple a days ago.

And now further travels await!

The Birdland Jazz Club

I was treated to my first ever visit to a jazz club in New York City for Fathers Day. The Birdland is known for its historical association with jazz, with many famous musicians having performed there over the years. The club is named after Charlie “Bird” Parker. It has been at its current location near Times Square since 1985. The club has operated in a few different locations in Manhattan over the years.

Our entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of local musicians who have an regular and ongoing gig at the club. Eric Comstock, a pianist and singer, was accompanied by Sean Smith on Bass. They were joined by Barbara Fasano, a singer who also happens to be Eric Comstock’s wife, for a portion of the show.

I enjoyed all aspects of the evening – the music, atmosphere, food, and drinks. It was a perfect blend in spite of a small miscalculation on my part regarding one of the items in the above list.

Once You Get Started (11/22/2014)

An oldie….

The time was the early 1970s. We had already moved to the last house that we were to occupy during our stay on the beautiful IIT Madras campus.  My cousin had also moved in with us, into our home at B-8 Delhi Avenue, near the Shopping Center and the Staff Club.

It was a beautiful place.  There was greenery all around us. There were trees all around our home.  There were the woods in front of the house.  We had a beautiful garden.  Although I did not appreciate it at that innocent age, it was an idyllic set of conditions on campus.  Life was good.  We grew up in a happy set of circumstances. We made friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

But those days must have also been a major displacement for my cousin, with his parents and brother having moved to the United States, and with his having to move in with us on the IIT campus.  Thank goodness that he also had lots of friends from the neighborhood and from school.  He managed without complaining in spite of having to share a room with me, a most immature person with his own teenage issues.  (Although I am no longer a teenager, I wonder how much of that immaturity still follows me.)

One of the things I remember from those young days was the fact that my cousin used to get “things” from his parents in the US.  Since I was into music, I appreciated sharing the little Mitsubishi combination Cassette player/shortwave radio that his dad had sent him.  (I remember tinkering with the device and even connecting it to the amplifier that I had made at home.)  I remember that my uncle also brought some music for me to listen to, including cassettes of the latest music from Neil Diamond and Led Zeppelin.  But the one thing that subconsciously impacted me the most was probably the cassette tape he brought back with a recording of music from radio stations in the US.  The tape was most likely put together by my cousin’s brother.  I listened to this music over and over again and it got ingrained in my brain.  Later on in life I heard some of this music with a warm sense of familiarity.  It took me back to a happy place.

Fast forward to the year 2014…  As a middle-aged parent of two wonderful girls who have tackled the teenage years of their own lives with aplomb, as a person dealing with the issues that are typical of middle-age, I still find myself listening to the music of the 70s.    An extended exercise regime that I have taken up (to address at least one of my middle-age issues) has brought me to the treadmill in the basement of our home on a regular basis.  While on the treadmill, I end up listening to 1970s music playing on one of those music channels I get via my TV service provider.  The 70s channel playlist includes all kinds of songs that take me back.  Then there was this moment a few days ago when I heard this song that I had not heard for very a long time.  The memory cells were awakened in some long-forgotten corner of my brain.  It was a song from the cassette tape that my uncle had given us a long time ago!  I was back in an old forgotten place.  I made sure I remembered the name of the song as it flashed on the TV screen while I was running.

Later on, in front of the computer monitor, I listened to the song once again. (Youtube is a wonderful thing!)   I realized that the song that I was listening to was not in a style of music that I spend too much time with, but I also realized that I was listening to something that was unique and notable.  I was listening to 70s funk music in its purest and most raw form.  And the nature of this song was something unique, something that had caused little details to get stuck in the back of my head even though I had paid little attention to any of it.   The video also reminded me about how times change, and how music changes with the times, about how styles change with the times, to the extent that we might even forget some of the unique stuff that we grew up with.   I have a feeling that most of the folks that I am sending this e-mail to have no exposure at all to the kind of music I am talking about in this particular instance, but I am going to share the music anyway, in the hopes that at least one person will appreciate it.  I am sending this e-mail to people in different age groups, and I am curious as to the age group of the people/person who is most likely to react to this.  Or perhaps I am in a place of my own and nobody else cares.  It does not matter. The song is “Once you get started” by Rufus and Chaka Khan.

Dig that funky music!  Dig that far-out keyboard riff!  Dig that awesome bass guitar line!  Dig those bell-bottoms!

Here is a picture I took during a walk that weekend in 2014! It was a time during which a bunch of friends used to join us for these walks. Alas, that does not happen any more.

Songs In The Key Of B♭

I went for a practice session of our Barbershop chorus for the first time in a long while yesterday. The last time I had sung with the chorus was at the fair, before my trip to India. After an absence from the scene of slightly less than two months, after weeks of not practicing, and being away from the three other parts that also make up the Barbershop chorus, it felt like I was learning to sing once again. It was a mortifying experience. I did not have the energy to hold the high notes, or even sing complete songs. I was tentative in trying to find my notes. I had been hoping to play a supporting role during my first practice, leaning on some a strong lead singer who had been at practice more regularly than me. That was not to be. I was thrown into the fire.

I was reminded in real time that what I was doing was not a simple thing. Since childhood, I have had the false impression that I could sing, but the more I learned about singing, the more I realized that I did not know what I was doing. People were being very kind when they listened to me. But now, I believe I can honestly claim that my skills are not as bad as they used to be. I believe that I am improving. I can perhaps claim that I am an integral part of a craft that can bring some pleasure to others. It has taken me many years to get this far, and perhaps in a few years time I could even realize how bad I really am at this moment in time when I am writing this blog. All of this will be a part of the learning experience, an experience that will go on as long as I can join others in trying to create a joyful sound.

With support from the director of the chorus, my singing ability started coming back to me slowly as the practice session continued. The director had been intending to cut the practice session short because we did not have a strong lead singer. Instead, we actually continued singing through to the original end time of the rehearsal.

I settled for this basic barbershop polecat song when it came time for me to sing in a quartet.

A lot of barbershop songs are sung in the key of B♭.

A Break From The Fair

Our chorus has been singing at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair for many years. We stroll around the fairgrounds singing to people in different locations and settings. This year we committed as a group to being at the fair every day. I am singing on six of the nine days of the fair. I resume today after a one-day break yesterday.

It has been a mixed experience so far, but mostly fun. Summer evenings in the Washington, DC, area are quite hot and humid, and the instability in the air often leads to heavy thunderstorms that can prevent us from strolling around outside. We could end up in some indoor location or the other where one has to wear a mask all the time. Also, it can be quite noisy all around you when you are trying to sing outdoors. All in all, we do not have the best conditions for practicing the craft. But when the four sections of the chorus happen to sync up perfectly in song, it can be musical magic regardless of where you happen to be.

Our activities at the fair take place at a time of the evening when one is forced to consider having one’s dinner at the fair itself. It is mostly carnival food that is available. It is probably not very good for my system, but it can also be quite tasty. The going fare is stuff like funnel cake, cotton candy, popcorn, deep-fried Oreos, hot dogs, ice-cream, etc… For more filling food, one can find places with hamburgers, pulled pork and chicken sandwiches, sausages, etc… And you can get a bonus with a large serving of cheese and/or bacon on something that is already not good for your heart. (The Texas-style hamburger was recommended to us!) Or perhaps you like cheese sandwiches by themselves from the The Big Cheese! The crepe food truck seems to be an exception to the usual fair food. I will visit it today. I did have a Gyro on Tuesday. Yum! You can forget about vegetables at the fair. I have not yet come across a place where you can get a salad.

One cannot forget that this is ultimately an agricultural fair. Farmers come from all across the region, even neighboring states, to show and tell – and to buy and sell. There are all kind of animals, including cows, goats, sheep, pigs, etc.., in the different buildings. You cannot avoid the smell if you are wandering in this section of the fair. And watch where you step! There are events held in small arenas where the animals are the stars of the show. You can probably buy a cow if you were so inclined!

The carnival section of the fair, with its loud noise and bright lights, and its rides and shows, is probably the part of the fair that draws in many of the young people to the fair. We mostly stay away from this section!

There is even a blacksmith in action near one of the entrances. A glass blowing company does demonstrations with their full setup in another location. Local vineyards, and distillers of other spirits, also make a showing, as do political and religious organizations.

In the end, this is also a community gathering. There are competitions for arts and crafts, and for even different kinds of foods – mainly baked goods. There is an old-timers building where you can even see contraptions from the local farms from times past.

Unfortunately, this year’s fair has been less crowded than usual – so far. This is probably due to the coronavirus, and perhaps also due to the weather. This is not a good situation for the vendors. One hopes that the last few days of the fair brings an improvement to the situation.

This year I noticed that more people than usual at the fair seem to remember us from our presence in past years. And some people actually do look forward to hearing us sing for them. That is cool!

Singing In The Time Of Covid

Everybody in our chorus is vaccinated. We try to be more careful than usual when performing, and especially if we are forced to be indoors.

We are singing at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair all week. We stroll around the fair grounds and sing to people. Conditions for singing are not ideal, but it is a lot of fun in its own way!

We are Harmony Express, a barbershop style mixed a cappela chorus.

Note that it is impossible to blow a pitch pipe with your mask on!😀

The Man Who Sold The World

This is an album I used to listen to when growing up in Chennai.

It must have been in high school, or during my early days of college, that Dad bought a stereo system for the house. Installed in a central area of the house for all to enjoy, it included a record player, a combined AM/FM receiver and amplifier, and a couple of good sized speakers that were attached to the wall at ear level. I remember the delivery of the system to the house, and one of the people accompanying the equipment telling me about how The Beatles were experimenting with the use of stereo sounds in those days. Soon enough, I was keeping an ear open to try to discern the differing sounds coming from the two speakers for albums like Abbey Road and Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

There was a HMV record store on Mount Road that I used to go to regularly to check out the new music albums coming in from the west. Good quality recorded music for the home was only available on vinyl at that time. Consumer cassette decks were just coming into vogue, and they did not deliver the same musical quality as a vinyl record. They had a music room within the music store where you could listen to music, to help you decide whether or not to buy a particular album. A lot of the music I bought from the store was unfamiliar to me. I was listening to it for the first time. I really loved spending time looking at the record jackets. I would buy different genres of music. I think I even bought an album of country music once. I think the cost of a LP record was less than Rs. 50 at that time. I was given a certain amount of money that could be spent on music.

While Dad had indulged us (and especially me) by getting us the stereo system, it seemed like he was not particularly fond of its impact. He especially did not like come home from work to the sound of loud music playing on the speakers. You could see it on his face. We did not need to hear a verbal complaint. The volume of the stereo system would be reduced right away. It was not a time for rebellion.

I remember the fact that vinyl records and the temperatures of Chennai did not go well together. Some of the records would warp because of the heat, and you could easily see what was going on while the records were playing. The needle on the record player is supposed to stay in its place while the record is moving, but this would not be the case with a warped record. I devised a means to try to flatten the records. It involved the use of a big and supposedly flat drawing board from one of my Engineering Drawing courses and a pile of heavy books. I would go to the terrace where the sun could beat directly on the surface of the board, and place the vinyl record on the drawing board under the pile of books. The whole apparatus stayed on the terrace through the heat of the day, exposed directly to the sun. The hope was that the vinyl would become more pliant and straighten out in the heat.

I am not sure that this technique actually worked, but I did detect a certain sense of skepticism in my Dad’s response to my efforts, and a mention that perhaps I did not understand the value of money. Anyway, its all good..

I did not know anything about David Bowie before this time. I do not think his music even made it to the mainstream in the common rooms of the hostels that I visited in college. I am not sure what provoked me to buy this particular album. It seemed to have all the musicality of a mainstream album, but it also had an edge to it that one was not used to hearing. There was a sense that the artist was exploring his craft, and trying different things in his music. The songs were all very different from each other. There was no single overall groove to them. If you were listening to the album for the first time, you could be taken by surprise when you moved from one song to another. Even the musical shifts in the middle of a song could catch you by surprise. It felt unconventional for someone like me whose exposure to contemporary western music was limited to what was broadcast on the radio waves in that part of the world. That stuff tended to be “smoother”. Anyway, the music drew me in and stuck in my head (like spiders from Mars😉). Once I got the album, I must have listened to the music endlessly, and I know that even my younger brother was drawn to some of the songs. Later in his career, David Bowie went on to make music that was more in the mainstream, and therefore more “popular”, but this is the album that I will always remember him for.

For some reason or the other, the song The Man Who Sold the World has been playing in my head very recently. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to indulge myself and listen to the album in its entirety on YouTube. Boy, it really took me back! Hope the album can grow on you too! (Hope the album does not get moved from its current Internet location any time soon.)

The Man Who Sold The World

The Summer Slip Sliding Away

Days, weeks, and months go by in the time of COVID-19. We have our daily routines, including work and volunteering, and the occasional trip to the grocery store. We have to be careful with all of this. There have been no summer trips, no official vacations so far this summer, a big change from our usual annual routines.

It has been cool the last few days. There has been no need to use the air-conditioner. We have kept the windows open – to listen to the birds outside, and watch the deer relax in our backyard.

I have been sitting on the deck the last few evenings. I ask myself why I did not start doing this earlier, in all the years we have lived in this house. The plants, growing in pots on the deck, are yielding produce these days. They are a nice sight to see. These are grape tomatoes.These are bell peppers.The trees that I planted as saplings in the backyard many years ago have survived the deer, and have grown to tower over the backyard, and also provide shade on the deck in the late evenings. One evening, as I sat on the deck, my entertainment was provided by a flock of bluejays on the branches of the cherry tree, with a chickadeeand what appeared to be a juvenile tufted titmouse (I could be wrong)making their appearance once in a while. The bluejays were creating a cacophony as they called out to each other across the backyard.

There were no birds on the trees the next evening. I waited and waited with my camera! I think I might go out to the deck today too, maybe with a beverage in hand in addition to the camera!

The “books” that were on hold for me at the county library finally became available after a couple of weeks of waiting. This is the year I discovered digital books. I read books on my smartphone these days because of necessity. The physical libraries had been closed for a while. Reading a book on the smartphone takes getting used to. Reading actually feels a little different from when reading a physical book. I am still figuring out how to bookmark pages reliably on the different digital readers, or even flipping between pages in a flexible way when I want to refer to something that I read earlier on in the book. I still tend to lose my place in a “book”.

I have been watching a lot of episodes of American Experience recently. It is actually a little depressing to see the various ways in which discrimination and injustice have taken place, and continue to take place, in American society. Many of us are not aware of some of these unsavory sides of the history of the country. We live in the little bubbles that we find ourselves in today and are happy to stay there. Here in the US, the people in power (typically the white man) find it hard give up some of that power. There is the sense of superiority. People in power find it hard to treat people fairly. Systems are rigged against the weak, sometimes even when that reality is recognized. Many times the system can be cruel. This is truer than ever today. But the struggle continues. Politics is in the news with the upcoming elections. The choice is very clear this time.

Thanks to my friend Joe, I have been doing a lot of math puzzles these days. I really enjoy them. This is the last one we tackled.Perhaps you will also find it interesting!

I cannot seem to keep up a good routine when it comes to exercising regularly. Rainy days and laziness mess up the attempts to create a rhythm. And it is so difficult to get back to something that you have even been away from, even for a few weeks. Each time I start running after a break, I have to take it easy with the pace, and wait for my body to adjust. It takes at least a couple of runs. Nothing is routine in that sense. Morning walks still continue. Sunrises begin later and later as summer progresses, and there is now the chill in the morning air. Feels nice.

Here is the song that inspired the title of this blog. One of the things I still regret not having done when I was young was going for this concert in New York City. I was a graduate student at Stonybrook, not too far away, when it happened.