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March 2007

LP to CD

Robert Gotcher asks how I convert lps to cds, and I thought I would answer in a post rather than a comment, so it can be found again more easily, as it's going to include some links that are worth remembering.

First: Erik supplies this link, which is extremely thorough (thanks, Erik).

Second: here's a brief overview. I'll assume you have the equipment to play lps--a turntable and an amp. In addition, you need

  • a computer with a cd burner and an audio card that has a line-in input jack
  • a cable that will take a pair of stereo outputs from your amp to your computer. This will almost certainly be RCA-type jacks on the amp and probably a 1/8" stereo headphone jack on the computer, unless you have a fairly high-end audio card. You can get this cable for $5-20 at Radio Shack.
  • audio recording and editing software (more about that in a minute)
  • cd burning software

Short version of procedure:

  • connect stereo to computer
  • open audio software and hit "record"
  • play the lp
  • after recording, use the editing functions of the audio software to (at a minimum) split the resultant sound file into separate files for each track
  • burn the track files to an audio cd

Sounds fairly simple but in reality it can be quite time-consuming. In particular, you can get bogged down for quite a long time at the editing stage if you decide you want to clean the recording up at all, which you probably do unless it's a brand new lp with no scratches, dirt, etc. I almost drove myself crazy on the first few albums I did when I discovered that I could see, and then manually delete, clicks and pops. That's fine if there are only a few, but if you've got multiples per second it's like that scene in Rain Man where he tries to count all the toothpicks (or whatever it was) that have fallen on the floor.

In fact one might question whether it's worth doing in many cases. If the album has ever been re-issued on cd, the chances are fairly good that if you're patient you can eventually find a used copy on Second Spin or eBay or somewhere for under $10 including shipping. Whereas I can easily spend two to five hours getting one lp onto cd. Is it worth it? Sure, if you really like it and it's not on cd, or you can't or won't pay for a cd. But if it's, say, Close to the Edge, unless $8 or $10 will break your budget, it may make more sense to buy it (chances are good that the commercial release will sound better, too, unless it's one of those digital remastering disasters).

I use the CoolEdit software which the guy at Erik's link uses. I recently found a $20 plug-in for it which does click/pop reduction automatically. It seems to work very well and will make it more feasible to do this more often.

There are some other free or inexpensive audio editing packages. I tried an evaluation version of something called WavePad recently and it looked pretty good but I didn't really get to use it much before the eval period expired. I will track down the link for that and some others and update this post with them later.

Also, I've seen mention of an all-in-one gizmo which includes a turntable and cd burner and attempts to make the whole process straightforward. Sounds questionable to me, because of the editing, but intriguing. I think the cost I saw mentioned was in the $300-400 range.

Oh, and one more step that I always include: the raw audio (.wav) files are so big that you probably won't want to keep them around, but I convert them to mp3, so I can play them on my mp3 player and also have an archive copy if I ever want to burn the music to cd again (albeit with some slight loss of quality).

Update: Here is where you can download Wavepad. There's a free version and a Master's Edition that costs $50 as of right now, although I think it was higher a few weeks ago--they say this is a March special.

Also, the same company has a program specifically tailored for vinyl-to-cd conversions. Looks promising. Sometime after Easter I will probably download the trial version and give it a whirl.

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Music of the Week — March 11, 2007

Van Morrison: Common One

The reader who signs himself “Jack” quotes—strikingly in the context—a lyric from this album in a comment on this month-old thread, prompting me to avail myself of it as another Music of the Week entry which I can write about without listening to again. Jack shortens the line a bit: where he has “It ain’t why why why, it just is,” there are actually a good many more “why”s, maybe a dozen or so. Not, in print, impressive, but very effective when you hear it sung. I could not begin to count the number of times I’ve thought of it when considering the sheer strangeness of life.

This is a neglected and under-rated album. After the brilliant records of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Morrison’s work had tended toward the decent but unexciting, and I for one had pretty low expectations for this album when it appeared in 1980. I listened to it a few times, wasn’t much taken with it, and put it aside, except that the insistent “why why why why…” kept recurring to me.

It was only a couple of years ago that something moved me to take it out again, copying the lp onto cd, listening to it on my daily commute a number of times over several weeks, and revising my opinion of it upward by quite a bit. On the surface it’s much less striking, less tuneful, less immediately engaging than some of Morrison’s acknowledged masterpieces, but it has a new combination of serenity, depth, and swing. It has a sort of pastoral jazzy feel—the AMG review mentions Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way but parts of it, especially the opener, “Haunts of Ancient Peace,” make me think of a Sketches of Spain with a British Isles vibe. There’s proof that he hasn’t lost his rock touch in “Satisfied,” which has one of the most irresistible grooves you’re likely to come across. Common One can get under your skin if you give it a chance. Give it a chance.

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For ISB Fans

The discussion about the Incredible String Band got me curious about what Robin and Mike have been doing for the past twenty years or so, so I went over to AMG to look and got a big and intriguing surprise: Robin is now recording for ECM. If you don't know, ECM is very much a connoisseur's label, known for the high quality of its releases, including very elegant graphics. There are two albums, The Seed-at-Zero and Skirting the River Road. From the reviews (both very favorable), the latter sounds more interesting to me. I'll definitely have to check it out. ECM's prices are kind of high--rarely am I willing to pay $18 for a cd, but this might qualify.

Mike has only a handful of releases since the ISB days, and no bio at AMG. I'm sure Google would turn up more information. I suppose he was in some ways the lesser musical talent, but some of my favorite ISB songs, like the one that quotes Traherne, were his work.

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Sunday Night Journal — March 25, 2007

Discovering Traherne (2)

I mentioned last week that this has so far been a rather unreflective Lent for me. The main problem is the medium by which you’re reading this. It doesn’t do any good, or not much, to turn off the television and stop the flow of hysterical “news” from that source, or to silence the pop music, if you’re still spending an inordinate amount of time reading news and commentary and mere gossip on the web. There are several social or political questions on which I’d really like to comment, but with a great effort of will I’m going to shove them aside until after Easter, and focus on Traherne.

The Traherne work which was rediscovered in 1897, the Centuries of Meditations, seems to be the source of the greatest enthusiasm for his work. It’s a series of five sets of one hundred brief meditations (except that the fifth Century is incomplete). I have deliberately refrained from reading any more about this work until I have read the work itself, as I prefer to have my first encounter with a writer relatively uninfluenced by the opinions of others. I won’t be surprised, though, to find out that certain parts of the first Century in particular are popular outside Christian circles—for instance, its use in the song lyric I quoted last week. It would be possible to portray him as a naïve and perhaps soft-headed spiritual optimist, perhaps even as a New Ager. I can easily imagine him being treated in the sentimental way that St. Francis was in the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Indeed a Catholic reader can hardly avoid thinking of Traherne’s spirituality as somewhat Franciscan, but as with Francis, the cute and cozy image can only be maintained by excluding and ignoring a great deal of what was clearly most important to the man himself.

Unlike Francis, of course, Traherne is known to us primarily as a writer, and it’s not his spiritual insight alone but his poetic articulation of it that make him so appealing. What I appreciate most in him so far is his emphasis on gratitude for the mere fact of existence and its simplest constituents. From the first Century, number 2:

Is not the vision of the WORLD an Amiable Thing? Do not the Stars shed Influences to Perfect the Air? Is not that a marvellous Body to Breath in? To visit the Lungs: repair the Spirits: revive the Sences: Cool the Blood: fill the Empty Spaces between the Earth and Heavens; and yet give Liberty to all Objects?

The great joy in life is the contemplation and love of all things, and that love is no insipid or detached benevolence:

That violence wherewith som times a man doteth upon one Creature, is but a little spark of that love, even towards all, which lurketh in his Nature. We are made to love: both to satisfy the Necessity of our Active Nature, and to answer the Beauties in every Creature. By Lov our souls are married and sodderd to the creatures: and it is our Duty like GOD to be united to them all. We must lov them infinitely but in God, and for God: and God in them: namely all His Excellencies Manifested in them. When we dote upon the Perfections and Beauties of some one Creature: we do not love that too much, but other things too little. Never was anything in this World loved too much, but other things too little. Never was anything in this World loved too much, but many Things hav been loved in a fals Way: and in all too short a Measure. (2-66)

To answer the Beauties in every Creature: this is an idea which may be found in some of the great theologians—I’m not well enough read in them to be sure—but it certainly doesn’t get, in Christian conversation in general, the emphasis and the winsome expression found here. I take “sodderd,” by the way, to be some variant or early form of “soldered”—which, I just discovered, is an etymological neighbor of “solid.”

He condemns ingratitude as strongly as he praises gratitude: where there are ingratitude and un-love, there is Hell. After speaking of Hell as the place where all blessings are lost, he adds:

But it was no Great Mistake to say, That to have Blessings, and not to Prize them is to be in Hell. For it maketh them ineffectual, as if they were Absent. Yea in som respect it is Worse then to be in Hell. It is more vicious, and more Irrational. (1-47)

Next week, a look at Traherne’s striking views of God’s reasons for creating.

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Music of the Week — March 25, 2007

Arvo Pärt: Kanon Pokajanen

I’ve heard only a fairly small portion of Pärt’s music, so I can’t say that this is his masterpiece. I do feel justified in saying that it is a masterpiece. I’m sorry that I was not able to get this note onto the web well before Lent was over, as Kanon Pokajanen could hardly be bettered as a devotional assistance for a time of penance. The only reservation would be whether the pleasure it provides works too much against the penitential intent.

Pärt, as anyone who has even the least acquaintance with contemporary music knows, is among a group of Christian composers sometimes called the Holy Minimalists. Like most labels, that one is not without some usefulness as long as you don’t expect too much from it. This music can be described as minimalist in that it uses a small number of building blocks which are themselves relatively simple: melodic fragments or motifs, too brief to be described as themes in the manner of those usually found in a Classical or Romantic symphony. An analog from that repertoire would be the famous four-note theme from Beethoven’s 5th symphony. But whereas Beethoven combines that motif with others and spins yards of complex stuff out of them, Pärt relies on careful placement and repetition. It’s almost as if someone had written a thousand-line poem using only, say, fifty nouns and ten each of verbs, adverbs, and adjectives.

There is very little here that one would come away humming, and yet it creates a musical and spiritual world that, taken on its own terms, lacks for nothing, though it takes some getting into, some acceptance of those terms. My reaction upon a first casual listen was that it all sounded the same. And it is roughly 84 minutes of unaccompanied choral music without much dramatic variety in comparison to, say, a baroque oratorio. Aside from variations in the material itself, there are louder and softer passages, and passages which are either all male or all female or mixed, and these are used in a way that’s closely integrated with the structure of the text.

As I don’t intend to write a lengthy essay, I’m not going to try to describe the work in greater detail. It is crucial to note, though, that it’s a setting of an Orthodox litany called the Canon of Repentance, and that the musical resources are entirely at the service of this text. I don’t see how one could get deeply involved with the music without entering, at least for the moment, into the mind of the litany. To one who can do so it is a truly remarkable work. One of the notes I made after a third hearing is that it’s the sound that would be produced by the deepest core of the soul, especially the Christian soul conscious of sin.

There’s one mild frustration for me: the text is in Old Slavonic. With most Western Christian musical works, the texts are in Latin or in one of the commonly-studied European languages. If you have even a smattering of the language, you can see the details of the way words and music fit and work together, so that you know the placement, and feel the individual significance, of each word. That won’t be possible for most of us with the Kanon—we’re presented with several paragraphs of translated text which take five to ten minutes to sing, but we can’t tell exactly which words are being sung at any moment (although one does soon learn to recognize certain refrains, such as “Glory to the father, and to the Son…”).

The performance, the recording, and the packaging are all up to the usual ECM standards, which is to say near-perfect.

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Back When Men Were Men...

...and computers were computers, John Backus and associates developed FORTRAN, formally released in 1957. He was also the "B" in "BNF," for Backus-Naur Form, a very elegant notation for describing formal grammars (e.g. computer languages). (Not that I was ever very knowledgeable or proficient with things at that level of abstraction, but I think it's cool.)

Rest in peace.

My own involvement with computers doesn't go back nearly that far--only to the mid-'70s. Computers couldn't do nearly as much, and making them do it was harder, but to me it was more fun. Part of the appeal, I have to admit, was that of being in on a very arcane secret. But I could have contentedly spent my career writing assembly language.

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Music of the Week — March 4, 2007

The Allman Brothers Band: The Allman Brothers Band

No, I have not been listening to this album. Yes, I have kept pretty well to my liturgical/devotional music-only plan for Lent. But I'm not yet prepared to write about any of those works, so I'll take this opportunity to feature some music that I don't have to listen to, because my opinion of it solidified long ago.

This is the best blues-rock album ever made. There are many subjects upon which men of good will may have differing opinions, but this is not one of them. The only reasonable and permissible argument is that some combination of live tracks from At Fillmore East and Eat a Peach might be as good. Not better. I have spoken.

I don't understand how AMG could give Idlewild South five stars and The Allman Brothers Band only four and a half. Life is full of little mysteries.

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Sunday Night Journal — March 18, 2007

Som Great Thing: Discovering Traherne

When the encounter with a single sentence sends you looking for more of a writer’s work, it must be a pretty striking sentence. And naturally you wonder if his other work is going to live up to the hopes produced by the one sample. My Lenten reading involves just such an investigation. The writer is Thomas Traherne, my judgement as of now is so far, so good, indeed very good, and the sentence is this one:

You never Enjoy the World aright, till the Sea it self floweth in your veins, till you are Clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars.

Actually the sentence goes on for a while, but this stands alone well enough, and is the fragment I heard back in 1969 It occurs in a song called “Douglas Traherne Harding” by the Incredible String Band, an eccentric and eclectic band which, if any musicians ever did, deserved to be called “hippie.” They were too eccentric for most people’s taste, but those who liked them liked them a great deal (and I for one still do). They borrowed styles and instruments from all manner of times and places, throwing them all into a kaleidoscopic mix. Lyrically they specialized in a sort of free-ranging poetic mysticism which meant a lot to me back then, as did this song in particular. It spoke of something paradoxically unattainable and yet still to be hoped for. It gave me a powerful taste of what C.S. Lewis called “joy,” although I’ve never thought that the best word for it. One of the brightest memories I have from that dark time is of standing on a strip of sand in the salt marshes at St. Mark’s near Tallahassee, with the water lapping at my feet and the late golden sunlight all around, and that song running through my head.

Eclectic and new-agey, probably gnostic, as they were, the String Band maintained a respect for Christianity, and the song also contained a reference to that rather striking figure from Luke 11:34, “when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light” (it’s much more pedestrian, of course, in recent translations). And I think they helped prepare the ground for my return to Christianity after I had thrown it over in my teens.

I didn’t learn until many years later that the author of that sentence was a man whose name I knew only as that of a minor 17th-century poet. And it was only a year or two ago that I bought this book, a selection of his religious writings, and only this Lent that I’ve begun to read it. So far this year Lent has been remarkably busy and unreflective, so I haven’t read as much as I’d intended. But I’ve already found passages to which I am certain I will return again and again for as long as I’m able, like this one (I’m preserving the non-standard spelling of the book, which I’m glad the editor chose to do):

We lov we know not what: and therefore every Thing allures us. As Iron at a Distance is drawn by the Loadstone, there being some Invisible Communications between them: So is there in us a World of Lov to somwhat, tho we know not what in the World that should be. There are Invisible Ways of Conveyance, by which som great Thing doth touch our Souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel your self Drawn with the Expectation and Desire of som Great Thing?

I think he’s a writer who will prove very important to me, or perhaps I should say more important than I’d realized, since he had already exercised a definite influence. I can’t compare this edition with others, as it’s the only one I’ve seen, but this one is very fine, and includes a fascinating introductory essay. It seems that much of Traherne’s work was lost for two hundred years, and began to be recovered only at the end of the 19th century. One manuscript was snatched from a burning pile of rubbish in the 1960s, another discovered in 1997. Providential, at least, I’d say.

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Music of the Week — March 18, 2007

Choir of St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church: This Is the Day

This disk was a gift from my friend Daniel Nichols and is the work of the choir where he is a parishioner: St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church in Barberton, Ohio. The subtitle describes the music: Seasonal Chants of the Eastern Christian Church. It’s a series of pieces that cover the liturgical year. If it’s representative of the music to be heard in a typical Eastern Catholic or Orthodox church, the reaction of Latin Rite Catholics may be, or should be, envy. This is very beautiful music, a cappella, as I understand is the Eastern custom, performed by a choir which I assume is composed of people who are not professionals but who sing well and enthusiastically.

As best I can tell—the package does not include notes on the music—the selections are a mix of the traditional and the composed. One or two sound to me as if they could be folk tunes. Some are in English, some in Slavonic, with a couple rendered in both languages, providing an interesting contrast. Modern English simply isn’t particularly well suited to music and poetry. It sounds somehow dull and out of place, and although one appreciates being able to understand the text, there’s a certain sense of disjuncture between it and the music.

Of course I don’t know how representative of the Eastern tradition at large this music really is, but I can’t help comparing it to that of the Western Church. The first thing that comes to mind, naturally, as I alluded to before, is the enormous contrast between this and the usual pop style of the average American Catholic parish. In that comparison there is no contest: the Byzantine music is in an altogether different and superior class, suited for serious worship, and I can see why so many Latin Rite Catholics switch over to one of the Eastern rites. (I notice a lot of decidedly non-Eastern names in the St. Nicholas choir: Miller, Baker, Keegan, Smith, Chadbourne.)

A digression: sometime recently I ran across a statement on liturgical music by (I think) a 19th century pope who mentioned, among several things that liturgical music should not sound like, “the music of the theater.” And it hit me that the style which much of the contemporary Catholic hymnal most resembles is not folk music, not even the somewhat ersatz commercial folk-style music of the ‘60s, but rather “the music of the theater”, i.e., Broadway-style show tunes. Exhibit A: “Ashes,” which often gets Lent off to a grumpy start for me (yes, I do try to take it as a penance). Granted, the best of the old Broadway songs are very good indeed, but as a genre musical theater leans inherently toward schmaltz.

Compared to traditional Western liturgical music, the Eastern style (at least as represented here) seems more earthy and solid. It appears that preserving the clarity of the text for the listener is a higher priority than is sometimes the case with Western liturgical music beyond Gregorian chant. I’d say this music is simpler—there is little counterpoint, and the rhythms tend to be more regular, the melodies more straightforward. I don’t know much about harmony but I think that’s simpler, too. The music also seems in a sense stronger, and definitely more vigorous: more masculine, one could reasonably say. And although it’s beautiful and undoubtedly very effective in its liturgical setting, I think I’m an incorrigible Westerner. Fortunately I live not too far from the diocesan cathedral which makes good use of the Western liturgical music tradition (the real one, not the post-1970 one, which I have indeed heard referred to, rather chillingly, as “traditional Catholic music”).

A note on the disk insert says that additional copies may be obtained by writing or calling the parish:

St. Nicholas Church
1051 Robinson Ave
Barberton OH 42203
330-753-2101

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