the blog of musician Dinuk Wijeratne

Month: May, 2012

Cast your vote! A poll for symphony musicians

In immediate response to a recent article in ‘Counterpunch’ entitled ‘The Democratic Maestro: Claudio Abbado’s Return to Berlin’, in which the columnist casually referred to the Berlin Philharmonic as a ‘band’, a classical musician colleague of mine raised a point of contention that may well shake up post-concert pub talk for, oh, perhaps a few minutes.

[polldaddy poll=6244562]

Herbert Von Karajan: “Classical music is so cool. Can you see from where the light is shining?”.

Michael Tilson Thomas: “Classical music is so cool. I have a parrot”.

Software priest marries Mac and BBC iPlayer

Amen to that. Rather than rave ad nauseam about the BBC and the cult of Mac, I’ll keep this down to a short shout-out to my favourite (free!) software discovery of 2011:

Get iPlayer Automator!

For Mac. Obviously. Windows users, I do believe that there is a version for you but its interface is terribly un-user-friendly, prompting the hosts of its download page to note: “Life is, as usual, more complex for Windows users.” So you’ll just have to switch to Mac ;)

I love the fact that what could otherwise be a very dry, utilitarian, download page for the Mac version instead opens astutely and more humanly with a mission statement. Curiously, this reminded me of the famous TED Talk by Simon Sinek, in which he explains how inspirational leadership attracts followers when it is able to communicate articulately WHY it does what it does….not just WHAT it does or HOW it does it:

“The goal of Get iPlayer Automator is to allow iTunes and your Mac to become the hub for your British Television experience regardless of where in the world you are.”

It has done just that for me, living in Canada as I do, the BBC’s world-class content agonizingly out of reach of my download jurisdiction until now. Not only does it allow me access to a plethora of quality TV and film, the software has been somewhat life-changing for me in that I can now enjoy as just many radio programs in my car, courtesy of my iPod touch. Load up and listen, it has simply transformed my driving experience.

The interface of the Mac version of Get iPlayer Automator has a simple elegance, and installation of the software is absolutely straightforward. I’ll leave you with instructions for use. You can download it here. Feel free to leave a donation for the designer via PayPal :)

  1. Open the software, and allow it a short while for it to perform a cache update. This is when it checks for new source data, scads of daily content from the BBC.
  2. In the search bar, type in the name of the program you wish to download. The BBC iPlayer website will have all the information you need.
  3. Select it and hit ‘Add To Queue’
  4. You can repeat steps 2 and 3 to queue up more programs.
  5. Hit ‘Start’, the green button in the top left corner. Downloading should begin immediately and work its way through the queue.
  6. The ‘Preferences’ menu offers a nifty, time-saving feature: ‘Add Completed Downloads to iTunes’. Boom.

NYC diary: exhausted, I’m spending the night in for a change

I’m in New York City again this week. As usual it amazes me how, with little or no planning at all, one can attend utterly unique events back-to-back. On Sunday night, it was to Avery Fisher Hall (yes, the one where you can hear Mahler 9 complete with incessantly ringing cellphone) for the Essentially Ellington concert.

On Monday night, I was at the United Nations General Assembly Hall (yikes yes, the one we’re used to seeing daily on TV) to celebrate the International Day of Vesak, a Buddhist holy day. After accepting, last-minute, an invitation from the Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN, it felt somewhat surreal to find myself sitting in that space, listening for hours to speeches by delegates from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, and Indonesia.

And on Tuesday night, it was for the groundbreaking Spring for Music Festival to witness the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra make their debut at Carnegie Hall (yes, the one you have to practise to get to).


I’d like to mention Sunday’s Jazz evening in some detail. This celebratory concert was the high-spirited culmination of the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival. Annually organized by Jazz-at-Lincoln-Center, it is just one part of one of the most innovative jazz education events in the world. How fortuitous for me, during my listening-to-everything-Ellington-phase, that I was able to hear the three finalist high school bands perform selections from Duke’s magnificent oeuvre in front of, and alongside, their mentors: the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO). Their standard of performance was astounding, and they had been whittled down from over one hundred applying bands from across the USA.

The evening’s program had been designed so cleverly: in the first half, the band finalists each performed a couple of Ellington pieces, including one which would feature a soloist/mentor from the LCJO. For me, Walter Blanding stole the show.

In the second half we got a real treat: the LCJO played an entire set of Ellington. Yeah baby. As you can imagine, by this point I was in Ellington heaven. If you’ve never heard this ensemble play, then just know that they can simmer, cook, and boil your house down in no time at all:

Wynton was particularly low-key on Sunday night. But hey, he was there and he took a solo. Btw, I’ve read many sick bios in my time, but his is the sickest.

Sitting there on Sunday night, I couldn’t help think that we were one of the most educated Jazz audiences the LCJO would ever play for. I mean, pressed into the front rows of the venue were hundreds of high school musicians – no doubt the cream of the USA’s youth Jazz elite – who had just spent an entire year scrutinizing the very repertoire that their heroes and mentors were now performing live in front of them. The youth knew every riff and every rhythm of this music. Whenever a soloist pulled out a killer solo, they would swoon in harmony with every phrase. Before long, the air was filled with cheers and whoops from the audience that were so precisely timed, it was hard to imagine that these vocals were not part of the original musical fabric. But wait, maybe they were….this was a live concert of the LCJO playing Ellington.

Ancient Persian poetry through a vocoder

This July 12th I appear again at the Halifax Jazz Festival, certainly one of my favourite musical forums for creative expression and appreciative audiences. I am proud that ‘my city’ can create such a wonderful, artistic atmosphere in this annual event, that also capitalizes on the fact that Nova Scotia is a darn great place to spend the summer. Ah yes, the Haligonian Summer. Heaven knows we wait long enough for it. Bring on the warm waterfront vibe!

I am debuting my new electro-acoustic project, that I still haven’t found a name for (yikes, suggestions please, our publicity people need the name yesterday). I’ll be on keys, and I’m putting together a wikid little band whose featured artist is a both a top Canadian DJ and one of the great turntablists of the world: Skratch Bastid. I’m so looking forward to working with him.

I’ve decided to write three large, contrasting pieces for the set. Totally new territory for me since I’m putting together samples that DJ Skratch Bastid will hopefully enjoy scratching the crap out of. The acoustic instruments on stage will play over and around this. For the first piece, entitled TSIMO (right now can’t be bothered to explain the convoluted ‘why’), I’ve chosen to set a quatrain from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, as translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Killer lyrics, if you ask me:

I sent my soul through the invisible, 
some letter of that after-life to spell,
and by and by my soul return’d to me, 
and answer’d: “I myself am heav’n and hell”

For the coda (conclusion) of TSIMO, I don’t particularly want to inflict people with my singing, so instead I went through several steps to create an alternative sound that would still communicate the text:

  • Firstly, I recorded myself speaking the text in my best Sir-Laurence-Olivier-Shakespearean-soliloquy voice (or Sir Ben Kingsley, if you prefer someone who can orate as well and is still alive. By the way, his On Point interview is fantastic).
  • Secondly, I took my software scissors to it and chopped up the whole poem into very short phrases.
  • Thirdly, I had to synchronize the phrases, even individual words and syllables, to a click-track running at the tempo of the song (120BPM). This is a painstaking and time-consuming process that also includes time-stretching certain vowel sounds to fit the click-track. This is all done to make the vocals, well, ‘cook’. Nothing whatsoever to do with cuisine, but frankly I can’t think of a better verb for sounds that lock right into a groove . A great film that has crisp cuts akin to the rhythms of a great piece of music, has editing that ‘cooks’.
  • Finally – the fun part – I fed the vocal samples through a software vocoder, making me sound as though I’ve been turned into an android that speaks in harmonic tones. I had to pick the harmonic tones. They’re actually chords from a Schubert string quartet. This is what I ended up with:

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/45430316″ iframe=”true” /]


The main thing to bear in mind, when listening to a ‘mock-up’ for a show like this, is that it is only a condensed exposition of material that will ultimately be embellished live in various ways. Notably, all ‘loops’ which repeat, such as ‘heaven and hell’, will most likely be scratched many times over by our esteemed DJ. Which means that a recorded 2-minute coda will probably double or triple in length in live performance.

On musical temperament

To all those orchestral musicians now hoping to count their bar rests down at the local pub: I suspect you’d probably only pull this off with reasonable accuracy if you’ve had some serious dance training with Merce Cunningham.

Disc of the month, May 2012 – Live Ellington gets me hot ‘n’ bothered

This past academic season, I taught composition at Acadia University while my esteemed colleague Derek Charke (of recent JUNO fame) was away on Sabbatical. It was a sincere pleasure for me to work with the students of the department. The personal perks of travelling to the gorgeous town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, each week included the two hours of solitude I got to spend in the car. Prime opportunity for listening to lots of music, my favourite NPR show (On Point), and all the awesome BBC  radio shows I download onto my iPod (more on how I actually rip these later, evil laugh). Naturally this post can take me on any number of tangents from here on, but I’ll stick to the point and mention that one of the BBC programs on vintage Big Bands got me a serious Duke Ellington habit. I’ve had this addiction before, in college. It’s rather pleasant, I warn you. Needing my Ellington fix, I come across a totally random CD in the Acadia Library entitled ‘Hot Summer Dance’. It’s a winner for me in every sense. I listened to it non-stop for several days.

I should say that Ellington ‘Live’ is very special indeed. It’s not as clean as some of the studio stuff, but boy does it have fire. Has there ever been another Big Band of Big personalities, crammed into one unified unit, led by such vision to create such electric performances? The problem is that capturing them ‘live’ is not easy by any means. Enter producer Bob Thiele, who has somehow mic-ed up these guys with startling intimacy. We get the sense of the largesse of the venue’s acoustic – a ‘hot’ summer dancehall – and yet the intimacy of the band is right there: their comments to each other; Duke’s count-ins (gotta love ’em); the breathiness of the wind playing in all its glorious nuance. At last we have stereo depth from a live Ellington album.

I could go on an on, but you should listen to a track for yourself.

There are no decent clips out there, so I uploaded a favourite track to Youtube. It’s not on iTunes, but you can buy a hard copy from amazon.com. Interestingly, I decided not to choose an Ellington original, but his arrangement of a popular standard. The magic of this ensemble is all there: the sheer creativity of the groove, almost lop-sided sounding; Duke’s articulation on the piano, endearingly shaky; Jimmy Hamilton’s first phrase (swoon); the way the orchestration builds organically and effortlessly toward that first big tutti.

Primeval thoughts

Of course I just had to look up the word on my handy mactionary widget. I have no idea whether these posts are likely to be ‘ongoing’, and they may even be too random for a ‘narrative’. However, I do know that I have been craving a quietly tucked-away bit of webspace in which to interact with my numerous young-musician colleagues, not to mention my fans and friends. I rely upon you all for my inspiration. Keep feeding me please.