Reading: Mountains of the Mind - a thought dump

Having just finished the brilliant "Captain James Cook: A Biography" by Richard Hough, I am now most of the way through "Mountains of the Mind" by Robert MacFarlane. This combination has been immensely inspiring and enriching to me as a geologist, artist, antipodean dweller...in no particular order.

Cook sailed the seven seas on amazing voyages and saw things that no others had seen. Completion of the task of charting the coastlines of all the continents (except Antarctica but he was close and circumnavigated it for the first time). The first nourished global perspective if you like having gotten close to completing the map of the earth. As adaptable as our minds may be, it is this planetary situation that shapes us the most and its manifestations are nearly all that we interact with. This is something so funamental that we are obliged (perhaps) to have it reflected in it our own nature.

Then comes the Mountains of the Mind...a fantastic progression through the chapters is certainly to a geologist's liking. Cook managed the 2.5D conception and charting of the coastlines in the late 1700s. In the 1800s mountaineering and mapping gave us the third dimension as altitudes and contours were established in large swaths of the globe. During this century Hutton and Darwin gave us conception of great geological and evolutionary time, the until-then missing dimension.

The 1900s provided refinement of all these dimensions with advancement of the microscope, the telescope, radioactive dating, plate tectonics. The documantation of the full dimensionality of our landscapes is something like complete to a particular resolution with fine-scale details and active change being areas in need of constant attention. The Mountains of the Mind really takes the funtamentals of this 3-century-history and examines the way that this interaction between man and planet is ultimately the mirror for our own mind....the circumstance of our existence...the context for life...the interactions of the human condition with the physical. How can we communicate these conceptions about the land? Do we all have a non-verbalized (possibly subconscious) understanding of this that is deeply engrained?

The valleys and oceans of our thoughts can be tested, challenged, sculpted and crystallized against views into the magnificence of it all. Our knowledge of the earth is the fabulous backdrop to the further worlds of the imagination and provide all our metaphors for understanding. I am reminded of this connection very clearly in the words of many passages from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, talking of our feelings of being 'human...all too human' as we place ourselves in context on top of a mountain!

The Mountains of the Mind takes us on a journey through the history of mountaineering. From the evolution of thought from fear to awe to obligatory exploration. From the early conceptions of geological processes to great time. Ideas on ice(!). Human spirit, collaboration. Achieving undoubtedly great things. For me this was a great summary of how it is possibly to put the world together in ones mind independendly of education and socialization. I probably got a taste for this aged 9 on top of peaks of the lake district. It was the the longest day of the year and Dad took me up there to overnight on the cold craggy mountaintops where we huddled in rocky gully watching the sun rise through dramatic peaks at about 4am. Leaping forward to the present I'm still viewing things the same way.


The drums....the drums....the drums

Sometime recently, it has occurred to me that it is easy to steer clear of definitive connection with rhythm in our lives. So the aim was to take up drumming in some form. [An aside: Shortly after this realisation, we spontaneously got into the didgeridoo...another instrument that is extremely simple at it is an aerophone i.e. an instrument which only vibrates air in an uncontained vessel, in this case with the lips alone. See our post on making a dideridoo out of PVC pipe]. Now we have a djembe drum, which is one of the most basic (and hence, essential in our scheme of things) musical instruments. This is technically a membranophone. Chordophones are encompassed by the acoustic guitar and idiophones, the fourth of four major musical instrument classes is to be simulated in our second instrument...the Octapad.

The Octapad has been around for 30 years with very similar design, constantly being upgraded with the latest technology (it is something that has been in constant demand in the music industry). It is simply eight rubber square pads with a series of controls. These are hit with drumsticks and can be assigned almost any sound, but with a focus on timpani and a variety of world drum arrays. We can record several drum patterns in a phrase and repeat and overlay in order to djembe, strum a guitar or wobble a didge along to...kind of a drum machine with a human touch and a fabulous way to get self-created rhythms into the living room. 

Each of these instruments can be played alone but they each work well with each other allowing for many sound permutations.

We then set out to learn about didging (see the other page) and djembe-ing and also in general about drum patterning. The most instructive of these were the djembe patterns, which really geled all our ideas and instruments together in some fantastic heart-beat-type rhythms. The notation is, for example:  | B - T B | T T - - | which translates as 2 x 4/4 bars of Bassnote, muted, Tap, Bass etc which can  become very tonally rich on the djembe with practice. We are currently practicing some of these basics and looking at the diversity of phrases.

The challenge now, while driving around the bush, will be to find a good naturally termite-hollowed branch for an authentic didge and also another Aboriginal aerophone: the bullroarer, which is a short piece of wood tied to a rope which whirs as it is spun around your head!


Music mayhem...advice on sorting out music, genre classification, making a collection useful!

Classification of music into genres is very interesting and potentially very useful, the problem is that the files you obtain when downloading MP3s or ripping a CD into MP3s come with auto-assigned genres, artists etc. My aim was to find a system which enabled me to reclassify files quickly and apply a series of tagging options that allowed quick retrieval of usable lists of songs for the purpose of generating decent playlists. See below a list of steps you can follow and below this a couple of finer points I have learned.

I have finally come up with a solution that requires Winamp (version 5.6 or higher) and a file converter of some kind e.g. Tuneconvert. The converter allows you to convert all your music files from wma, m4a, wav etc. into mp3. Winamp requires this for the storage of ratings...a very important feature as most ratings disappear when you use the files on a different device, i.e. they need to be stored.

The reason for choosing Winamp is that it has a very intuitive and information-rich and adaptable graphical user interface. Here you can display a list of genres next to a list of artists next to a list of albums, clicking on each to filter your search results down to the required list. From this list you can rate (storing rating to file if checkbox is ticked in the options) and retag the files and drag them into a playlists. It is also possible to 'autotag' a list of files and 'calculate replay gain' which allows the program (once the checkbox is ticked in the options) to playback at a volume that doesn't need constant adjustment.

Once you have tagged your files it is then possible to 'massage' your collection down to a manageable list of genres, artists and albums with ratings stored in each file...see 18 steps below. From this position playlists flow naturally e.g. by clicking a particular genre and sorting by rating, simply select and drag the highly rated songs into a new playlist and then hit randomize. Unfortunately the playlist is stored with a specific path, so it is then necessary to save the playlist as an m3u file in a fixed directory (e.g. 'playlists' in your music directory). Then open the file in something like Wordpad and replace 'X:\Music' with '..' which changes the directory from playlists into the root directory of all your music...this is then usable on other devices.

Here is a quick example of how to deal with say 1000 music files which haven't been 'tended to' before (it is best not to do more than 1000 files at a time as this process will take a very long time! If need be, separate your directories into Artists A-B, C-D etc to create subfolders of manageable size):

1. Get all your files into a 'music directory'.
2. Setup your file converter to spit out mp3s into the source directory.
3. Search out all the m4a, wma, wav, etc. files and dump them into the converter.
4. Search out all the m4a, wma, wav, etc. files and delete them (you have mp3s of these now, so no worries).
5. Download and run Winamp 5.6 or greater.
6. Add media to library from your folder of mp3s.
7. Select all and right-click and 'send to autotag'. Apply all except for ones in the 'unsure' category, which you can check individually.
8. Select all and right-click and 'send to calculate replay gain' (make sure the option is checked which automatically writes replay gain results to files).
9. Clear the Winamp Library (WL) and add the media again to load in all the new tags and results.
10. Set up WL to show 3 columns beside each other genre-artist-album.
11. Observe the list of genres and try to keep to a manageable number, say 50, reclassify particular artists if required and assign genres to 'no genre' entries. ***see MORE ON GENRES.
12. Observe list of artists. This can be long, although for classical music it is nice to have the 'composer' listed as artist rather than many orchestras...it depends how well you want to distinguish different performances of the same piece. Also decide if you want to merge 'featuring additional artists' into the principal artist to make this list more usable. Try to re-tag 'Various Artists', 'VA', '(no artist)', 'unknown', 'unknown artist' etc.
13. Observe the list of albums. These items are not functional unless they have three or more songs contained. Try to create some artificial 'compilation' albums to house the dangling entries...possibly using genre as a guide. All variants of 'Best Of', 'Symphonies', 'Piano Concertos', 'Greatest Hits', 'Live', 'Acoustic', 'Remixes', etc. can be merged as the artist is known independently of this. Also consider merging 'Disc 1,2,3' albums into one (search for 'disc' and then sort by album name to see which these are).
14. Steps 11-13 are an iterative process and you may want to revert some of the re-tagging as you go (just send those particular files to 'auto-tag' again).
15. Rating: if you know a few genres, artists or albums that you are really keen on then right-click and rate....say at 2/5 stars. This makes these songs become automatically prominent in your playlist generation later. There is then the lengthy process of rating your songs which is easier, the better you know the titles of all your music files since you don't have to play them to find out if you like them or not! You need to check the option to store rating in file, otherwise these will be lost if you move the files.
16. Generate your own playlists by finding genres or a collection of artists (ctrl+click to pick out particular artists) then sorting by rating. Follow the Wordpad procedure above to make this playlist universal on other devices.
17. Find some of your favorite songs (sort all by rating) and then select them (using ctrl+click) then click 'generate playlist' at bottom of WL and a playlist will be generated online based on the characteristics of these songs.
18. Randomized playlists should play well as they are all highly rated and related and also playing back at a consistent volume level. About 25 great playlists of 100 songs each should keep you going a long time. More than this and you get back into the issues you just resolved in the WL of too many items to deal with!

***Genre Issues: I have found these difficult to grasp BUT worthwhile. If you want to utilize these as a filtering tool then it is always going to be a kind of personal battle to find what works for you. It is also dependent on the particular flavor of your music collection. E.g. if it is classical music biased then you may have sufficient songs to make it worth separating out artists (i.e. composers) from different periods: Baroque/Classical Era/Romantic Era/20th C-Contemporary Era. Or if you have a particular wish to occasionally play one of these genres then you may create them even with as few as 20 songs. Less than this and genre loses value as they might as well be an album. If you are laden with one of these genres, then it is worth separating further e.g. choose artists/albums from particular time periods like Classical Era Early/Mid/Late. Or Rock ==> Alternative Rock, Blues Rock, Hard, Soft, Folk, Funk, Grunge, Goth, Glam ad infinitum. For 1000 songs about 30 genres with 30 songs in each would probably be the most functional.

On functionality: elimination of 'no genre', ridiculous genres like 'general pop', 'various artists', 'no album' means you can actually select music you want to listen to in many ways. A third might be unrated, a third with 1-2 stars based on album/artist and then rest would be the highlights of the collection individually selected 3-5 stars.

On duplicates: I have found that it is worth getting rid of duplicate songs since playlists generated in this way will tend to yield repetitions. Sort all music by title and scroll down. When you see two artists next to each other in the list, then it is likely that this song is a duplicate especially if it has the same play time within a second or so.

On Soundtracks: I am a fan of these. As a result I have chosen to disregard individual song genre and create large 'soundtrack' and 'TV soundtrack' genre listings. This allows easy access to a useful and easily searchable album list. So, as long as the tracks are sorted by track number, good playlist progressions are generated and in this case the ratings are ignored.

Good luck if you choose to venture down this path!

How to make a didgeridoo out of PVC pipe...20 easy steps to success.

This whole process of 20 easy steps takes about 2 hours once you shop for some basics. You'll need: 150 cm of PVC pipe, a pipe connector, 100 g beeswax, a cleaned tin can, a pot of close to boiling water, hack-saw, wood file, measuring tape, halved plastic bottle (clean). Optional extras: permanent marker pens, spray paint primer, spray paint, beeswax lip balm, guitar for tuning, Youtube videos on extra 'wobble' and breathing techniques.

1. Saw a piece of 3-4 cm wide PVC drain-piping down to approximately 120 cm length (eventually it will be 117 cm = D or 104 cm = E tone). File off any shavings of plastic produced.

2. Use a pipe connector for a mouthpiece (this way it can be placed on another pipe of different length for different notes and sounds without the need to create another mouthpiece.

3. Place about 2 golf balls-worth of beeswax and into a cleaned and dried tin can.

4. Place can into pan of water close to boiling point (can is to protect pan from the wax).

5. Take off the heat and take can out of water onto a bench.

6. Take the connector and dip into about 1 cm of the beeswax at the base of the can (you may need to use a pair of pliers to hold the connector low enough).

7. Keep dipping and extracting, allowing layers to cool for a few seconds onto the connector until the beeswax hardens. Reheat the beeswax (I needed to do this 3 times) and continue...it takes about 40 dips!

8. Once a 1 cm thick layer has been deposited and it is still warm start to mould the wax so that there is an even surface (i.e. get rid of the ridges and valleys and drips on the surface by pressing them away).

9. The hole should be about 3 cm wide and taper in then out to join the plastic on the inside.

10. Use an old plastic bottle cut in half with hot-enough-to-only-just-dip-your-finger-in water to dip the mouthpiece in to resoften the beeswax to continue moulding.

11. Mould the inside of the beeswax so that it is slightly oval-shaped (about 3.5 cm wide x 2.5 cm tall to fit the mouth).

12. Push the narrow part of the oval (i.e. the top and bottom) in towards the plastic about 0.5 cm (to fit the teeth/gums).

13. Pinch the sides of the oval so that they make side guards to your mouth for a good seal.

14. When finished, rest in cold water for a minute so that it hardens. Then test out connected to the main tube and reshape if required.

15. Cut the total length of the didge down to tune to an E or D. Higher pitch than an F starts to be tricky to play.

16. Decorate the pipe (not the mouthpiece!) with spray paint (a primer layer may be required) and permanent markers making sure that these dry properly.

17. To detach a firmly fixed mouthpiece you may need to try to bend the connection a little so that it clicks and loosens in order to take it off.

18. If you're struggling to get a good sound, try to make sure you have  good seal with your mouth against the beeswax and then just 'blow raspberry'. Beeswax lipbalm applied to your lips and/or the mouthpiece can also help with the seal. If still no joy, then play a D/E note (e.g. bottom string on guitar) and encourage your raspberry down to that note.

19. You actually end up breathing out quite slowly and can sustain about 20s of sound in one breath. Play around with your 'wobble' and introduce some of your voice/throaty-gargling for effects...diaphragm pulsing is good for playing with drums.

20. Circular breathing is the next challenge for me. I am also looking out for a termite-hollowed branch out in the Aussie bushland to try for an authentic material didge if possible.