Posted by: sofistic | June 8, 2009

The Kantele: Finland’s National Instrument

I’m enchanted by the Kantele, Finland’s national instrument.

I first ran across it while following a thread on a discussion group about the Sutton Hoo lyre, an ancient instrument from the region that is now England. You can read about Sutton Hoo here .  The connection between the Sutton Hoo lyre and the kantele is, in my opinion, supported in two ways:  First, because of the connection between Scandinavian cultures and early England, and second by the construction methods.

Before getting into the ancestry of the Kantele, have a look and listen to a few examples:

This first example is a piccolo Kantele made by British luthier Michael King.  He explains the construction and demonstrates playing technique for the small five-string and the larger ten-string versions.

This next example shows how elaborate the Kantele can get.  They can have up to thirty-eight strings, with sharping levers like a Celtic harp, and a damping lever similar to a piano. It could be argued that this is really a Gusli or a Zither (in general, see below).

Organologists (specialists in the history of instruments) place both the Kantele and Lyre in the zither family, although there is some dispute about that because of the way the strings are attached at the bridge.  Some think that if the strings are spread across the soundboard it is a zither, while if the strings are bunched together at the connection to the soundboard it is a lyre.

In the case of the Sutton Hoo lyre, and the small five and ten string Kantele, the strings are attached to the soundboard in a centralized space on the soundboard.  In this case, they might both be thought of as a lyre.

If you want some history of the Kanele and it’s relatives in the Baltic harp family look here:

Kantele description on Wikipedia

Here is a site with the history and folklore of the Kantele:

Folklore, construction and playing technique

So, do you see why I am enchanted by the Kantele?

Sometime soon, I plan to build one. As with most instruments that are not mainstream (yet), plans are hard to come by. What I usually do is get a picture of one that has at least the overall length posted, or the scale length, ideally, and then print it, superimpose a grid and scale it up on butcher paper. More about that in a later post.

Posted by: sofistic | January 24, 2009

DRM – My Turn To Rant


As a former musician, this is something that has been bubbling under the surface for me for decades.

It started years ago when I copied my first audio CD to tape.  The idea that BMI or ASCAP had a lock on music pissed me off.  Not only did they have a death grip on ordinary citizen’s access to information, they were ripping off the musicians as well.  The same held for publishing companies who owned the copyrights on musician’s sheet music.

The numbers of musicians who made tons of money during their performing careers and then died in poverty is appalling.  There were some who were smart enough and had resources enough to own their own recording and publishing firms, but they were few compared to the masses who became destitute while the producers and distributors became wealthy.

Then came Digital Rights Management (DRM).  It gets very complex, both legally and technically, but basically it has to do with restricting the end user’s ability to copy and/or distribute media of any kind, audio, video, still art and text.  It works the other way around too.  In many cases an artist can’t have access to, nor distribute, their own creations.

Here is what Wikipedia says  in the opening paragraphs of an extensive article about it:

Digital rights management (DRM) is a generic term that refers to access control technologies used by hardware manufacturers, publishers, and copyright holders to limit usage of digital media or devices. The term is used to describe any technology which makes the unauthorized use of media or devices technically formidable and generally doesn’t include other forms of copy protection which can be circumvented without modifying the media or device, such as serial numbers or keyfiles. It can also refer to restrictions associated with specific instances of digital works or devices.

Digital rights management has been and is being used by content provider companies such as Sony, Apple Inc., Microsoft and the BBC.

The use of digital rights management is controversial. Advocates argue it is necessary for copyright holders to prevent unauthorized duplication of their work to ensure continued revenue streams.[1] Some opponents, such as the Free Software Foundation, maintain that the use of the word “rights” is misleading and suggest that people instead use the term Digital Restrictions Management. Their position is essentially that copyright holders are attempting to restrict use of copyrighted material in ways not covered by existing laws.[2] The Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other opponents, also consider DRM systems to be anti-competitive practices.[3]

If you want to read the entire article (and I think you should), Look here.   Fortunately — and I never thought I would say this — we have hackers who can circumvent these goon tactics.  Even Steve Jobs doesn’t agree with it in principle, and Bill Gates thinks it is not used in the right way (whatever that means).

The Heart of the Matter:

The heart of the matter isn’t the technology, nor even the legal structure supporting it.  It is a perversion of the philosophy of patents and copyrights.  I would be willing to bet that most people think that patents and copyrights are used to make money by giving exclusive rights to inventors and creators.  Wrong.

Burn this in your mind indelibly:

The ultimate use of patents and copyrights is to improve the lot of society, and to give the inventor or creator a limited exclusive right to the invention or creation in order to get a fair return on their investment, after which it enters the Public Domain.

Those are my words, but if you want more evidence of the veracity of that statement, let’s go back to the Founding Fathers of the U.S.
Here is Thomas Jefferson:

“Inventions… cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody… The exclusive right to invention [is] given not of natural right, but for the benefit of society.” –Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, 1813. ME 13:334

The source of this quote is from the University of Virginia collection of Jefferson’s writing.  it is well worth reading his letters as well as those of others. Here’s the link: Jefferson on Politics and Government

And, just to clinch it, here is Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution:

To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;

There are many others, but I will let this suffice as a representative example.

The Future:

Although these goon tactics have dominated the last desperate attempt by large production and distribution entities to maintain control of their income streams, it is my opinion that there has been a real and lasting paradigm shift.

The short of it is that the last vestiges of the Industrial Age model are imploding.  It used to be just a dream among musicians, dramatic performers, writers and visual artists that they could gain control of their own destiny.

Over the years I have been on many discussion groups where the participants were building their own studios in their homes or garages.  It was a breakthrough when several musicians all over the world could collaborate on a simple album.  But Internet bandwidth limited them.  That is no longer a problem.  also, hardware used to be big, expensive and difficult to use.  That is no longer a problem.

Distribution and advertising used to be a problem.  Now a musician or performing group or writer or graphic artist can use Youtube, Myspace or similar services to get their creations out to market.

Several things seem to be on the horizon.  Here is what I think will happen.

  • The artistic market will be directly from artist to consumer.
  • Organizational structures will go from hierarchic to network (they already have).
  • Large collaborative projects will be ad hoc and evaporate when the project is complete.
  • Some legal mechanism will emerge to allow ad hoc corporations to form and dissolve on a short-term basis, leaving behind only trackback structures for any future business or legal transactions.
  • The concept of a corporation as a person will be severely challenged, if not dissolved.
  • “Cloud” collaboration will become routine. (see below)

Links to examples:

Here is a site that allows musicians to collaborate with projects called “Kompoz.”
Kompoz Music Collaboration

And here is a site for Indie movies and many other collaborative video productions:
Vimeo video sharing

OK, I’m done now. Back to the Music and Electricity theme.

Posted by: sofistic | December 7, 2008

Regional Music: Oregon Musicians

UPDATE: October 24, 2013.

I found that the links to Myspace were all dead in this post, so I found the groups on Youtube and updated the links to go there.  I’ll continue to update dead links in other posts.


I don’t know if it is my proclivity these days, or if there is an actual resurgence of the floor show band.

Periodically, I scan different regions of the world on both Myspace and Youtube, most frequently in the United States, Canada, the UK and Europe.  I have only recently begun to scan South America, Africa and the Orient, as different countries become more connected.

Today is a tour of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, specifically, some of the bands in Oregon.  Although there is the usual flotsam and jetsam of punk, thrash, reggae and other stuff left over from the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, there seems to be a shift in this region toward big bands, and specifically floor-show type bands.

I have read that the resurgence of big bands during the period from about 1997 to 2007 ran its course, and the only viable ones left are the Brian Setzer Orchestra and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.  But the big floor show bands in the Oregon region seem to be doing quite well.  Most of the ones I looked at either had a component of the big Cuban bands or of Eastern European influence.  Other components that keep popping up are the indie groups who like to do mashups of early U.S. romantic, jazz, classical, and punk (huh?).  You’ll see what I mean later.

So, let’s start with a nice warm Cuban big band.

Pepe and the Bottle Blondes:

When I first heard this, I was hooked from the first cowbell hit.  Here is how they describe themselves:

The group was formed in October 1995, This eclectic ensemble was created with the idea to bring back the old ‘Copacabana style’ dinner theater. Pepe integrates original wardrobe designs, dialogue and choreography with his “twelve piece” Latin/Swing band, bringing onto the stage the artistic edge reminiscent of Musical Theater. Combining the three-part harmonies of the Bottle Blondes with the percussion and horns of Pepe’s own Latin orchestra, Pepe & The Bottle Blondes create a strong performance that echoes the indulgence of 1950s’ nightclub chic.

Take a listen to them and let me know what you think.
Pepe and the Bottle Blondes

The Vagabond Opera:

This group is really into Eastern European drama.  The opening tune, “I Wish I was Marlene Dietrich” is only the beginning.  The use of minor keys and a tinge of klezmer fills out their sound.

Here is how they describe themselves:

European Cabaret! Vintage Americana! Balkan Belly Dance! Neo-Classical Opera! Old World Yiddish Theater! Welcome to the six-piece, Portland, Oregon-based Vagabond Opera. Based in the Pacific Northwest, yet encompassing the world, Vagabond Opera delivers passionate offerings of Bohemian cabaret. Paris hot Jazz, gut bucket swing, Tangos, Ukrainian folk-punk ballads, Klezmer and vigorous originals meet a world of riverboat gambling queens, Turkish belly dancers, and the enigmatic Marlene Dietrich.

Vagabond Opera
Whew!  That was intense.

Pink Martini:

This band is very smooth, but some of the lyrics are just, well a little disturbing, especially the tune “Eugene.” In some ways they remind me of early Chicago music.  I love the horns, guitar and voices together.  Then they throw in some Latin tunes, and the sound is filled out.

Here is their description of themselves:

Somewhere between a 1930s Cuban dance orchestra, a classical chamber music ensemble, a Brazilian marching street band and Japanese film noir.

So, here they are:
Pink Martini

Stolen Sweets:

The Stolen Sweets model themselves after the sister acts of the 1920’s and 1930’s, especially the Boswell Sisters.  Their tag line is “Music your grandparents parents listened to.”

Here is how they describe themselves:

The Stolen Sweets formed in 2005 with the intention of reviving the songs of 1930s sister act, The Boswell Sisters. Comprised of vocalists Jen Bernard, Lara Michell and Erin Sutherland, guitarists Pete Krebs and David Langenes (both of whom sing) and double bass player Keith Brush, The Sweets’ repertoire has expanded to include material from the 1920s -1940s. Their arrangements are still inspired by the Boswells’ tight 3-part harmonies, frequent tempo changes and “knowing shrugs and raised eyebrows,” as noted by the Oregonian’s A&E.

And here they are:
Stolen Sweets

Cherry Poppin Daddies:

And now, we fast forward in this journey of bands emulating past music to some time in the transition from World War II to the 1950’s.  This group has an interesting mix of the end of the big bands and the beginning of rock and roll.  Then they throw a little reggae into the mix and add some flamenco and something like Link Wray licks.  They finally end the set with Zoot Suit Riot.

Here they are:
Cherry Poppin Daddies

Parenthetical Girls:

I really don’t know what to make of this group.  There is something compelling about their willful mashup of sentimental pop, modern classical and angst, that keeps me coming back to them.  Sometimes their material calls up distant memories of The Velvet Underground, soft-rock opera and Brian Eno.

Their album, entitled Entanglements, is, in their words:

An orchestral song cycle of grand sonic ambition, Entanglements is an eleven-song, linear narrative of ascendancy, adolescent sexuality, quantum mechanics, consent, and other moral ambiguities – all set to an elaborately orchestrated folio of Modern Classical and timeworn, traditional American pop forms.

Borrowing from the string-swept sentimentality of unlikely populists like Van Dyke Parks, Scott Walker, Jack Nitzsche, and Burt Bacharach, Entanglements draws colorful lines across the expanse between these orchestral pop antiquities and the more formidable strains of Modern Classical composers – its hues distantly reminiscent of names like Krzysztof Penderecki, Philip Glass, and Gavin Bryars. The result – as blended with Parenthetical Girls’ already messily dripping palette – is an unsettlingly relentless emotional offensive; a gasping, restless confluence of cerebral and sentimental disparities, bound for their mutual allegiance to the uncannily timeless soundtrack that engulfs them both.

The stuff is creepy and compelling at the same time.  So, with that said here they are.
The Weight She Fell Under

The Midnight Serenaders:

This group plays jazz-era and depression era music, pure and simple.  I could listen to their stuff all day.  They have a front man playing rhythm guitar and a front woman playing ukulele.  In addition is a clarinet and sax player, a trumpet, and a Hawaiian guitar and a bass.

Here is a description of them:

The Midnight Serenaders perform an infectious blend of old-time jazz and early swing, offering up a sweet collection of songs and tunes from the early 20th century. Fronted by guitar slinger/crooner Doug Sammons and ukulele-plinking chanteuse Dee Settlemier, this Portland, Oregon-based sextet energizes audiences, and transports them on a melodic, swing-crazy journey to the dance-happy era known as “the Jazz Age,” where a catchy melody was queen and rhythm ruled the land.

Get ready for some good old time music with these folks.
Here they are doing “Comes Love”

Wrap Up:

There are just too many good bands in the Oregon Region and I only had time for a small fraction of them.  Perhaps in another post I will include some of them.

Posted by: sofistic | January 31, 2008

What can you do with a cigar box guitar?

Before I get started, I want to pay a little tribute to Shane Speal, the self-proclaimed King of the Cigar Box Guitar. I have never met him except through his Yahoo group, the Cigar Box Guitar Forum. Shane has been promoting building and playing cigar box instruments for around ten years now. His frame of reference, as with most of the rest of us on the group, is that people are weary of consumerism, and want to build and play something we made with our own hands. The group began sometime in September 2003, I believe, and it has grown steadily until it now has about 2,400 members. You can find the link to it in the blog roll and in the second post in this series. There are many builders on the group; some are hobbyists interested in experimental music, while others are building commercially.

Many are musicians who have run their course with factory-made and high-end instruments. Some are even luthiers who have gone through a “conversion” and no longer make anything but primitive instruments — some from cigar boxes, and some from other found objects like cookie tins or wine presentation boxes, or even discarded refuse from construction sites. Some even do dumpster diving to get their materials. The motto for the group is “there are no rules.”

Stacy Puckett
One of my favorite players is Stacy Puckett, out of the Chicago area. He does mostly soft rockabilly, but some of his new material is leaning more toward “Prim Rock,” (primitive, or primal, rock). My two favorite tunes of his are “Going to the Place,” and “You Can Amaze Me.” Here is his Myspace link:
Stacy Puckett and the One Man Poverty Band

This is a group from Denmark, and I really like their “Thrash Noir,” as they describe it. The lineup is clarinet, bass clarinet, sax, drums, and two guitar players, playing various configurations of guitars, including a cookie tin guitar. It seems everyone doubles or triples on some kind of instrument. My personal favorite is Black Sea Outline, but I also like Ejes Bakken af Nogen. So, here is Bazookahosen.


Rollie Tussing
Rollie Tussing is out of Portland, Oregon, and is an award winning slide player and one-man band. Most of the time he plays a resonator guitar, mostly a Dobro, but he frequently plays cigar box guitar and other guitars. On the set below, the song titled “Subverso Stomp” is done with a CBG. My favorite tunes are “Lay my Burden Down,” and “Beulah Land,” both of which are played with a resonator guitar and friends playing supporting instruments. Frequently, Rollie will hold workshops for high school students in the Portland area so they can build their own CBG’s.
Rollie Tussing, One Man Band

Shane Speal, King of the Cigar Box Guitar
Here is the guy who pretty much single-handedly brought the cigar box guitar back to life. Shane frequently describes his music as “Prim Rock.” He has been instrumental (no pun intended) in putting together or encouraging CBG shows and festivals.

Cigar Box Guitar Headquarters
This isn’t any one musician or builder, but a compilation of samples, links and information about many people involved with instruments made from all sorts of things: cigar boxes, crutches, planks of wood, etc. Many thanks to Ted Crocker for putting this collection together. And, speaking of Ted Crocker, he built the guitars used in the movie, “Honeydripper.” Check it out, the trailer is here

And here is the cigar box guitar headquarters.

There are really too many good builders and musicians out there building and playing cigar box guitars for me to do justice to them in a short blog piece, but I hope this has given you an idea of what you can do with a cigar box guitar. Get involved, use your imagination, you can make your own musical instrument and make real music with these things. They aren’t toys or novelties.

Posted by: sofistic | January 27, 2008

Local Musicians

I started this blog because a lot of people on a discussion group I belong to wanted some kind of consolidation of information about building instruments and the associated electronics. But this post is different. It is about local musicians in my little corner of the world, Humboldt County, California.

I was listening to a local radio station (KHUM) and they were talking about a new compilation CD they had produced featuring local musicians, and I decided to track down some of them and find out what they sounded like. I was astounded. I had heard of the study by the National Endowment for the Arts, which found that Humboldt county had more artists per capita than any county in the US, and these musicians convinced me that the findings were accurate.

Before we get started, I want to say that in most cases, the arrangement and execution is tasteful, and sometimes brilliant, and the engineering is nearly always impeccable. Another note: in my opinion, the sound quality on Myspace is far superior to Youtube.

So, kick back, relax and listen to a sampling of what can happen in an art-rich environment like this place. With each of the musicians or groups below, I will write a brief description, if I am able (you’ll see what I mean later), and then provide a link to the music itself. Most of the links are to Myspace, but some are from Youtube or some other source. If you are from some other geographic area, I urge you to scout around for local musicians. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the wealth of talent surrounding you, even in small, low density locations.

The Delta Nationals:

I don’t think it is possible to put this group into any category; they are all over the map (the title of one of their albums). The nearest thing I can think of is the Amazing Rhythm Aces, for those who don’t remember them, here is an example.

Amazing Rhythm Aces: The End Is Not In Sight

The Delta Nationals are much more than the rather type-cast ARA, however. The lineup is keyboard, guitar, bass and drums, but they do things with that combo that makes them sound much bigger than they are. Frequently, the keyboardist splits the keyboard, often with an organ sound on one end and a piano on the other. On one tune, he gets an authentic accordion sound, with an unabashed but light electronic, almost techno sound on the other end. Very often, the guitarist will play either in unison or in harmony with the keyboard.

On one tune, they sound like a cross between a big band and the Texas Playboys, while on another they render a convincing Bossa Nova. And then there is that sweet little tune called the Loleta Waltz, named after a little village nearby. In my own listening, I found it necessary to re-orient my head space for each tune, since they are so different from one another. But after a little adjustment to get into the sense of the tune, I quickly became comfortable within the story line of it. So, here you have it,

The Delta Nationals

Huckleberry Flint
Huckleberry Flint is a straight-up old timey string band. Their execution, is clean and tasteful, and it shows that they have played together for a long time. But in this sampling, I think the lead singer was over mic’d, and that results in a kind of splatter. The selections need good engineering to watch for these kinds of things. All in all, though, it is good listening, with reasonable definition of the instruments and voices, and good balance. The bass could be a little stronger, in my opinion.
So, here they are:

Huckleberry Flint

The Absynth Quintet
This group is simply amazing! Something between David Grisman and Django Reinhart. The lineup is bass, drums, banjo, mandolin and guitar. The acoustic instruments are obviously electrified, and they use effects minimally and tastefully.  Every one of them is a virtuoso on their instrument, and frequently they play in fast paced harmony, often using percussive effects on the stringed instruments. Most tunes sound as if they were recorded live; I don’t know who the engineer was, but the recording is precise and exacting. It just doesn’t get any better than this on all levels.
You have to listen to this!:

The Absynth Quintet

This group appears to split their time between Humboldt county and Hawaii. Again, I can’t really categorize them. It seems to be somewhere between Dave Mathews and CSN. They have opened for some really big acts. They are quite listenable, but like the Dave Mathews band, I just can’t get all excited by them, although I do like them more than DMB.
Here they are:


Blushing Roulette

I don’t know quite what to make of this group. Their lineup is cello, guitar and a minimal trap set (or a drum machine). Sometimes they have small bits of piano or keyboards sprinkled in among the chord lines. The lead singer reminds me of Iris Dement. I don’t know if this is characteristic of them, but the Myspace samples consist almost entirely of minor keys with downer lyrics. Now, I’m a big fan of mournful tunes if they are delivered in a convincing way, but this sounds more like whining to me. Still, the arrangement is good, and the melodies are well put together. And the idea of guitar and cello together is a really good one. The recording is adequate for demo purposes, but not of the high quality demonstrated by those already mentioned.

So, make up your own mind. Maybe I’m just being a grumpy old man today.

Blushing Roulette

The Rubberneckers
You can almost see the raw wood floors, the blinking beer signs, the smell of beer and cigarettes, the guys with pearloid snap button western shirts, and guts that hang over huge belt buckles. They bill their music as “whiskey drenched cow-punk,” and that just about says it all. Don’t ask me how I know these things. Suffice it to say that I was a young musician once upon a time. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around country and punk at the same time. The music is what it is; the recording is done with the same sentiment.
Here are

The Rubberneckers

Sari Baker Trio
There is something about this act that I just can’t grok. The melodies are attractive, there is a mild hook in most tunes, the musicianship is good but not by any means stellar. The lead singer’s voice sounds like a blend of just about every country and folk singer you have ever heard. There is one tune, though, that caught my attention: “Here I am.” It has a lot of potential in my opinion. It just needs something. I love the progression and the phrasing. It just needs something.. something.

Sari Baker Trio

Eileen Hemphill-Haley
Elieen Hemphill-Haley has a strong delivery, and to my ears sounds similar to Anne Murray. But her material is more in the folk vein, and her consistent use of a resonator guitar accompaniment gives her performance a unique quality. Here is Anne Murray doing Danny’s Song
And here is Eileen Hemphill-Haley doing
Life is a road You decide.

Summary and other Resources
This is just a very small sampling of the excellent musicianship in Humboldt County. Although I have had some critical comment, I still believe that for such a small geographic area, we have some of the best that any community has to offer.
Here are a couple of links that you can explore to get a feel for the flavor of this regional subculture.
One of the local radio stations is my favorite, KHUM. When there is a disaster such as an earthquake or a severe winter storm, they are always on the air, and we use our emergency radios to get news and updates.
KHUM, Radio Without The Rules

Humboldt Folklife Society is a good resource for announcements about local folk and bluegrass music and musicians.

Humboldt Music compiles not only local musicians and their work, but announces national and international musicians who will be visiting venues in Humboldt County.

I hope this has been an enjoyable trip for you. Please leave comments, suggestions and links if you like.

Posted by: sofistic | January 14, 2008

Cigar Boxes for Instruments

For many years, inventive makers have fashioned their instruments from cigar boxes. In the last several years, it has become fashionable to make purses out of them too. It is easy to see why this is so. The designs on cigar boxes are curious and quaint, and their iconography often harks back to simpler times. But using cigar boxes for instruments, or other things is not really that new. Look at this web site showing how to build a crystal radio using a cigar box, with the caption,

A very earnest young man uses a cigar box radio that he built himself. Picture taken in the early 1950’s.

Boy with cigar box crystal set

Midnight Science site

And here is a collection of some of my cigar boxes, destined to become stringed instruments and kalimbas.

Cigar box collection

(click for a larger detailed view)

Here is a closeup of one that is too small for a stringed instrument, and I really hate to ruin the picture, so I don’t know what I will do with it.

Closeup of a small cigar box

(click on picture for a detailed view)

There is a very active Yahoo discussion group devoted to cigar box guitars, owned by Shane Speal, and the membership is growing rapidly.

Cigar Box Guitars

So, as you can see, interest in building DIY stuff is growing.

Posted by: sofistic | January 14, 2008

Tap, Tap. Is this thing on?

This is the first post about music, electricity and all manner of other things. In upcoming posts there will be discussion about musical instruments, especially home made instruments, and electronics associated with instruments.