31 May 2008

Four Hands On-Deck: Peloquin-Hidalgo Duo at Bargemusic

The pianists, Marc Peloquin and Roberto Hidalgo (a.k.a. ‘Split-Second Piano Ensemble), gave an imaginative and exciting recital last night at Bargemusic at Fulton’s Landing in Brooklyn, to an enthusiastic audience of about 120 people.

 Paul St George’s Brooklyn – London ‘telectroscope’, open thru 15-JUN

  • ThomsonSynthetic Waltzes (1925)
  • LavistaSimurg (1980)
  • BurkeAlchemy (2007)
  • CrumbMakrokosmos IV (1979)
  • BarberSouvenirs (1952)
 Bargemusic programs, historical percentages by genre, on Instant Encore
Bargemusic is a vintage-1900 boat moored just south of the Brooklyn Bridge that is the venue for an extensive program of chamber music that runs year-round. Violinist-violist Olga Bloom and her supporters present more than 200 chamber music performances on the boat each year in the main salon, which has a seating area about 15 x 9 meters in size and a 5 meters-deep stage on the outboard/stern side.

The Virgil Thomson duet is a character piece, with abundant evocations of Americana; post-World War I moods; descriptive specificity of a self-prepossessed nationalism; and the supremacy of ‘idea’, in a way that seems sweet and untenable these days.

Simurg is Mario Lavista’s solo piano work that is a meditation on ideas in author Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings. In the book, the simurg is the ‘king’ of all birds. (From Lavista’s composition, we must conclude that the simurg is a raptor of unusual size. The simurg spends much of its pianistic time waiting, 13 minutes of atonal, percussive lurking-for-something-to-kill. It is obvious Hidalgo inhabits this creature with gusto; the piece provides an opportunity for aggression, indulging in acting-out that must ordinarily be kept in-check in normal civil society. I suspect the simurg may be the urbane Hidalgo’s alter-ego… ) The indolence of this piece accurately replicates the milieu in the Borges chapter on the simurg. Some imaginary beings are sentient, perhaps more so than many humans. But, by contrast, the imaginary simurg seems to have difficulty imagining its own purpose, other than doing what it does—lurking and killing, manifesting and preserving its malevolent power. It is anti-sentient: unfeeling, uncaring, destructive. (In Iranian legend, the simurg is so old that it has seen the destruction of the world three times already. The frightening timeliness and cautionary political relevance of this nihilistic image in today’s world could not have been clearer.)

 Roberto Hidalgo
Peloquin’s world-premiere performance of Stephen Burke’s Alchemy revealed this post-atonal piece to be a sculptural essay in chromatics—ethereal, with no clear time-signature. The sustained pedal caused some of the passages to be pretty muddy, although the geometry/acoustics of the barge performance salon did Peloquin no favors in this regard. Alchemists notoriously search and search and fail to ‘find’ [the method to transmute lead into gold], a failure for which Burke takes them to task. The succession of Burke’s sculptural ‘mass-of-sound’ gestures reveals the quixotic nature of alchemical self-deceptions—truthy assertions of dubious trajectory, hermetical inquiries without a discernable rationale or story, abstruse but diverting exercises that, in the end, disserve humankind. (Stephen is a 1984 graduate of The Juilliard School, not the Steve Burke who is a prodigious video-game composer, including the score for Kameo: Elements of Power (Xbox-360).)

 Wright, Alchemist
The Crumb piece was superb. Makrokosmos IV is a 28-minute tour-de-force in 4 movements, for 4 hands playing a miked-amplified prepared piano (3 stainless steel rulers inside, laying on the tuning pins). Prolific sonic textures involving both pianists repeatedly up and off the bench and reaching inside the piano to pluck, damp, de-tune, thump upon, and otherwise tamper with the inner workings of the instrument to create myriad effects.

 Four Hands
At one point, even the page-turner was engaged to knock on the cast-iron armature of the Steinway and assist in evoking imagery of super-nova celestial processes. The emulation of stellar coronal flares was particularly impressive. It’s a violent-but-beautiful universe according to Crumb, and Peloquin and Hidalgo gave a faithful rendering of that naturalistic/pantheistic viewpoint, assisted with a single cardioid dynamic mike running into a 60-watt Roland guitar amp with a little bit of added reverb. (In a way, the Crumb piece was a continuation of the anti-anthropocentric political re-calibration that was introduced in the Lavista piece, Simurg. It is a universe in which humankind does not have a pre-designed, God-given place; indeed, in which humankind has no cosmic friend at all; beauty in the here and now, with difficulty and no possibility of redemption. )

 Marc Peloquin
The Samuel Barber piece, Souvenirs, is an amusing 4-handed character piece that is seldom performed in public settings—receiving here on the barge a convincing reincarnation in the hands of Hidalgo and Peloquin. (Barber evidently had a sardonic fit at the age of 42 when he composed this duet, a critical comment on the esoteric/illogical quality of what is collected: the very nature of what it is to be a ‘souvenir’ and what it means to ‘collect’ such things are lampooned. The ‘Hesitation Tango’ is itself worth the price of admission.)

 Peloquin (left) and Hidalgo (right) at Bargemusic
Peloquin and Hidalgo performed a wry, over-the-top Brahms Hungarian folkmusic send-up as a dazzling-humorous encore, as the barge swayed gently in the East River chop. One of the nicest chamber music outings ever for a delighted crowd ranging from 8 to 80 years old, in a charming, unusual venue. The illustrious and extroverted Olga Bloom gave warm, personal thank-yous to each of us as we departed via the gang-plank. Bravo!

 Brooklyn Bridge

 Olga Bloom, Mark Peskanov

28 May 2008

Assistive Technologies 2: ‘Disability Arts’ and Special User Interfaces

 Mouse alternatives, for persons with disabilities

Y  ou can’t just listen to music; you have to make it.”
  —  Tod Machover, MIT, TED mp4.
T  he image of the ideal care setting today is one that nurtures physical, social, and creative activity—incorporating arts such as music, dance, and painting as beneficial agents for sustaining health... We are building care settings that are spacially generous and offer services that motivate activity, companionship, and the will to enjoy.”
  —  Elizabeth Brawley, Design Innovations for Aging and Alzheimer’s.
Disability Arts is a term that needs to be understood within the context of the whole Disability Rights Movement. It’s a matter of distributive justice and fairness, toward those who are affected by disabilities of various kinds. I recently came across the TED website, which, among its many many mp4s, has more than 300 recorded talks that have something to do with music. If you click on the image below (of cerebral palsy sufferer, Dan Ellsey, performing one of his compositions for an audience at MIT this March), you can watch a 20-min video of an example of assistive technologies to enable disabled individuals to compose and perform their music.

 Dan Ellsey performing, MAR-2008, MIT
Ellsey uses a software app called Hyperscore™, developed at MIT Media Lab. The compositions need not be electroacoustic ones like this one; however, performances by disabled persons may often utilize MIDI and waveform-sampled libraries or hyperinstruments or other means of emulating traditional acoustic analog instruments.

 Hyperscore™ user interface  Hyperscore™ rendering of harmony
This blog post is not primarily about Ellsey or MIT Media Lab, though. It is a continuation of the previous post on ‘assistive technologies’, and aims to help you fill a gap in currently available access to music-making by persons with significant motor impairments, by providing some links and information regarding some relevant products. There are many new, affordable, portable, easy-to-use devices intended to allow persons with disabilities to play music on a MIDI synthesizer or keyboard. The primary target group for these devices (and for this CMT blog post) is disabled persons who are already using computers, communication devices, and powered wheelchairs. A suitable switch interface and controller can connect large-actuator switches (like the SmartBox ones pictured at the top of this post) to any MIDI synthesizer/sequencer. Besides the software and pointing devices and so on, be sure to ‘sweat the small stuff’ as well, such as Grid-2 software-controlled switches or foot-switches to control multi-outlet powerstrips, to simplify turning equipment on and off. Usability does not just concern the software or PC UI; it concerns the user interface for the whole system or environment that the disabled person is going to use.

 SmartNAV™ user interface
Hands-free pointing devices are very helpful in mitigating musculoskeletal or motor disabilities. SmartNAV™ is one of the better ones recently introduced. SmartNAV™ is available through a number of distributors here, here, and here. The SmartNAV sits on top of your PC monitor and replaces your conventional mouse and lets you control the mouse-cursor by moving your head.

Originally designed for game control, the SmartNAV head mouse enables users to access Windows, Microsoft Office™ apps, and other programs all hands-free. You can also control Grid-2 or other software controlled switches with the SmartNAV, which is a faster alternative to a switch or direct access for some users. The SmartNAV device consists of a sophisticated infra-red camera that you place above your screen. This follows a small reflective dot so that you can move the mouse pointer by moving your head. The pointer movement can be adjusted for speed and sensitivity.

To use the SmartNAV, you simply place a small reflective dot on your forehead or glasses and position yourself so that the IR sensor on top of your monitor can detect motion of the dot. (A baseball cap is also available, incorporating a reflective dot on the peak and rear, although other kinds of hats or headbands will work equally well if you prefer not to put a dot on your forehead or eyeglasses.) The SmartNAV comes with the Sensory Software WordWall™ program. This allows you to left-click, right-click, drag, and so on, by ‘dwelling’ (resting the mouse pointer over one spot on the screen).

 SmartNAV medicare coverage
SmartNAV™ is a bit expensive (about $400 to $500, depending on the options and accessories you choose), but it’s rugged and well-designed. The new Model 4 SmartNAV has 1280x480 pixel resolution with a 41-degree field-of-view, so that it works well with hi-res monitors and the UIs of conventional software. The pointing spatial resolution and ergonomics are good enough to make using many PC apps pretty efficient. I have not yet tried it with Finale™, Sibelius™, or sequencing software, though. The dense control surfaces of those apps’ user interfaces might be a bit beyond what SmartNAV™ is suitable for. But, for simpler UIs with fewer and larger controls (like Hyperscore™), SmartNAV is fine.

 Tod Machover, MIT

27 May 2008

Assistive Technologies: Wheelchair Transfers to Piano with ‘Slide Board’

 BeasyTrans™ transfer board

M  y mother who is 86 is now wheelchair-bound. Transfers are difficult for her, and her severe osteoporosis means that any fall carries a high risk. But she desperately misses playing the piano. She was a music teacher for many years, and playing music is perhaps the very most important thing in terms of quality-of-life for her. She used to play in the morning before breakfast, for a couple of hours in the morning, a good hour or two in the afternoon, and then after dinner for at least an hour before bedtime. She does not have much upper-body strength, and she is a bit overweight. But she is just not herself since the wheelchair plus her diminished mobility have prevented her from getting safely and easily from the wheelchair onto a chair of the proper height or a piano bench. I can’t seem to get her out of this deep funk she’s been in since the wheelchair. Are there any products that might enable her to do transfers safely from the wheelchair to a chair at the piano, or enable her to do it with the help of a caregiver who is not very strong? I’m at my wits’ end. And the people at the Assisted Living facility where my mom now lives, while they are well-intentioned, seem to know nothing about assistive techniques for musicians. They do fine with your garden-variety Alzheimer’s or stroke victim, but nothing at all for something so simple as a frail, elderly pianist.”
  —  Anonymous.
There are actually quite a few practical assistive-technology options these days, to enable your mother to continue to play—with the caveats you mention about the caregivers’ and your mom’s limited upper-body strength to accomplish safe transfers. The links below may enable you to explore (with your mother and with her caregivers) which one(s) might be best.

Besides the ‘assistive-technology’ devices, the following factors should always be considered for wheelchair transfers in general. Some of these you already mentioned in your email.

  1. Determine if the assisting person is physically able to help an individual complete the transfers safely.
  2. Encourage the individual being transferred to assist as much as possible.
  3. If the person to be transferred is not strong enough to assist very much, use a ‘gait belt’ for the safety of both the person being transferred and the person assisting with the transfer. (A gait belt is a heavy strap or harness which is placed around the waist of the individual to be transferred so that the assisting person can have a safe hold without pulling on clothes or arms and without straining her/his back.)
  4. If the individual to be transferred has sufficient arm strength, use a ‘slide board’ (a narrow, long wooden or plastic board with a smooth surface). Placed under the upper thigh, it allows the individual to push with their arms and slide themselves over the slide board ‘bridge’ to the destination sitting surface (see photo above).
  5. Raise the height of sitting surfaces for ease and safety when transferring (place an extra cushion on the piano bench or chair).
  6. Practice with an extra person standing-by to assist. Do this for a sufficient number of times, until a routine is established for minimally-assisted transfers and both the person being transferred and the caregivers are confident and proficient. Periodically observe and re-observe transfer technique, to be sure that the person and her caregivers do not become complacent in regard to proper transfer technique or begin taking unsafe short-cuts.
  7. Remember, if you are doubtful about completing the transfer safely, call for more assistance rather than risk injury to the individual or to yourself.
[Slide boards and gait belts are available at most medical supply stores.]

The slide boards I’ve found work best are the heavy-duty ‘S-shaped’ plastic ones like the BeasyTrans™ product. They enable the wheelchair to dock with the [modified, weighted] piano bench or chair at a convenient angle, such that the caregiver is not cramped or colliding with the piano. Slip-resistant foam pads on the under-side of each end of the plastic slide board increase stability during transfers and, when the person’s weight is on the board, insure that the board has a good frictional hold on the wheelchair and on the destination chair surfaces. Wooden slide boards are okay as well, but they may be more difficult to clean and tend not to work as smoothly as the plastic ones. Make sure that the slide board you get is at least 65 cm long. Shorter ones make the transfer to and from a piano bench or chair more awkward, in my experience. And, if the slide board has a top unit and a bottom unit with a ‘bearing/slider mechanism’ in between, a shorter board’s mechanism may be prone ‘stick’ if the difference between the wheelchair’s height and the piano seat’s height is significant. If possible, you and your mom may want to ‘try before you buy’ in a medical supply store.

    Basic Guidelines for Wheelchair Transfers
  • Make certain the wheelchair wheels are firmly locked/braked.
  • Encourage the individual to ‘scoot’ toward edge of chair/seat as much as possible.
  • Position yourself into proper body mechanics stance (knees bent, arch in lower back) while holding onto waistband or gait belt, before you begin to assist in transferring the person.
  • Be sure the individual understands where he/she is going to move to.
  • Ensure that the individual is ‘ready’ to begin the transfer.
  • Prepare the individual for a coordinated transfer by asking her/him to move ‘on the count of 3’.
  • Have the individual push up with arms from sitting surface as able.
  • Avoid allowing the individual to attempt to put arms around neck or shoulders of the transfer assistant as this may cause neck or back injuries.
  • Maintain proper body mechanics while pivoting with the individual.
The piano bench or chair that is the destination for the ‘to’ transfer is another issue altogether. Most benches or chairs have a poor center-of-gravity and are too prone to tipping over. A local machine shop or cabinetry maker can be engaged to make different legs for your mother’s favorite piano bench or chair, to attach ballast weights at floor level (say, 5 kg steel or lead weight per leg) with ‘block’ feet 10 cm square or more so that the chair will not tip. You may want to have a ‘grab bar’ added to an existing bench that you have, so that there is an obvious and reliable grip for your mom to aim for as the transfer proceeds. (Grabbing the piano around the keyboard is obviously not safe or reliable.)

 InvaCare™ transfer bench
Alternatively, you may wish to try one of the ready-made rehab ‘transfer benches’, which are usually used in showers for bathing. These are relatively inexpensive and can be fitted with a nice-looking, comfortable cushion and adjusted to a proper height for use at the piano. The visual aesthetics may not be quite as nice as a normal piano bench, but functionally it will serve the purpose well. Surprisingly, not many rehab therapists think of using a piece of equipment designed for the bath in locations outside the bathroom. It’s just a piece of furniture! No reason not to have two—one in the shower, and one at the piano!

 Bath grab-bar, which machine shop can modify to attach to piano bench
I hope this information helps! (The suggestions above are pertinent not only to piano but to transfers to benches or chairs used by people who perform on other instruments as well. Pertinent to wheelchair-bound individuals of any age, not just older people.) The dignity and mental and emotional health of your mom depend on your meeting this challenge together with her. Continuing to play as long as possible is very important. I know this first-hand. My own maternal grandmother who had severe Alzheimer’s was able to continue playing piano long after she was unable to participate in conversations or recognize family members. Her memory for piano pieces she had memorized in the 1920s through the 1970s was, most amazingly, intact. Alice’s interpretive ability and phrasing, etc., were also preserved until just a few weeks before she passed away. The praise and appreciation she received from other nursing-home residents and family members kept her spirits up, offsetting the losses and frustrations she experienced in other dimensions of her life. Thank you so much for your email/question!

26 May 2008

Tempi and Saliency: Psychophysiology, or Why Deceptive Cadences Are Not Always Deceptive

 Sloboda book

W  e do not doubt that attention, recurrent computations, and complexity are important aspects to understand consciousness. However, we propose that these aspects are often trivially necessary rather than sufficient. For example, often it is assumed that consciousness emerges not before several hundreds milliseconds after stimulus onset. Hence, given the short time constants of membranes of neurons, recurrent connections are obviously necessary to store and process the stimulus before consciousness is reached. Complexity is for sure of primary importance for consciousness because networks with the same number of neurons can create trivial as well as complex behavior depending on their connectivity. Therefore, the important question is which kind of connectivity or which exact degree of complexity, determined with which mathematical norm, is sufficient for consciousness ...”
  —  Michael Herzog (Laboratory of Psychophysics, Lausanne), Michael Esfeld (Dept of Philosophy, Univ Lausanne), and Wulfram Gerstner (Computer Sciences and Brain-Mind Institut, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne), Neural Networks 2007.
This is a quick post-script on the topic of the previous CMT post, about psychophysiology of modality and tempi.

It turns out that Tibor Bosse and collaborators at the Vrije University in Amsterdam have recently been developing mathematical models of attention, mostly for military applications. Some of these models (and the differential equations underlying them) resemble hydrodynamic models used in cardiovascular physiology (‘windkessel’ models; in German, windkessel means elastic reservoir) and in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

 3-element windkessel electrical model
The effect of stimulus rate and its interaction with stimulus type on brain activity during the visual or acoustic stimulus has been investigated using fMRI. Different brain regions show differential responses as a function of time and as a function of the ‘tempo’ or stimulus rate. These results differentiate functionally specific responses in rate-dependent and rate-independent areas.

 4-element windkessel electrical model, with inductance-inertance element
The best approach to the dynamics, though, is probably not a ‘lumped-parameter’ analytical one, like simple windkessel models. Instead, nonlinear wave-front propagation models (Stefan moving-boundary differential-equations) or stochastic network representations may be more realistic as mathematical formalisms. An intermediate approach, such as mathematical approaches used to solve equations for liquid flow through porous media (like aquifers), may be useful, to represent the mesh-like connections and multi-path propagation of signals related to our brains’ perception of musical suspense and resolution (cadences). Have a look at Herzog’s and colleagues’ paper in the recent special issue of the journal Neural Networks and at Tibor Bosse’s papers for a glimpse of how feasible such a quantitative cognitive modeling project is these days.

The results of fMRI (and, presumably, of mathematical modeling of the rate-dependent effects) may enable us to better understand the inter-relationships between tempi and our apprehending meaning in music. For example, so-called ‘deceptive cadences’ to vi (or VI in the minor key) and similar progressions are normally treated in a time-independent way, as a prolongation of the dominant. But in some instances it is better understood as prolonging the tonic, through I-vi. Understanding it in that way, though, depends not only on the context but also on the tempo. In general, the second alternative only if the vi is a middleground harmony or key region and the tempo is relatively slow. Otherwise, we choose the first way as more compelling. The underlying idea of the expansion of the V is that tension in the dominant is not resolved by the deceptive move to vi, but actually heightened; it is only when the true tonic arrives that the tension is removed. But if the tempo is sufficiently slow, the mind anticipates everything. The mind calculates and re-calculates and gauges and re-gauges all the possibilities. The deceptive cadence becomes instead a meta-commentary on irony itself.

 Haydn Sonata Deceptive Cadence Example
In Five Graphic Music Analyses, Schenker showed that the Haydn Sonata analysis includes an extended prolongation of vi within the V that is the underlying harmony of the entire development (see the bass of the top system for the V; see mm. 81-111 of the other levels for the vi, which changes to VI (as V/ii) near the end of the passage).

By definition, a deceptive cadence is any phrase the ends in a way that is different from the anticipated outcome. Deceptive cadences can be disruptive, creating ‘Wow !’ moments in music. Usually, deceptive cadences require a melodic line and an accompaniment. A cadence is deceptive only if the melody ends up on the proper note to end the phrase, but the accompaniment contains unexpected harmony underneath. For example, if your song is in C-Major, you might expect the phrase to end up on a C Major chord, with the melody playing a ‘C’. If, though, the melody ends up on a ‘C’, but the harmony is an A-Minor chord, then this is an unexpected harmony and therefore a deceptive cadence.

Deceptive cadences are an example of how composers blur one phrase into the next. In a deceptive cadence, the melody is finishing off the phrase, while the harmony/accompaniment has already moved ahead, to the beginning of the next phrase. But if the tempo is slow enough, the synapses have had time to caucus with each other and anticipate everything. The ‘Wow!’ is of a totally different type. And the blurrings are no longer blurrings at all: they become meta-commentaries on what transitions are about, and why.

 Cadwallader-Gagne book; Mozart (K. 457) I, mm. 46-52
In Mozart’s piano sonata (K. 457, I), there is the tonic of mm. 36-41 leading to II6 in m. 46, suggesting the imminent arrival of an authentic cadence. But instead we get a deceptive cadence in mm. 47-48 that delays resolution to the mediant key. The delaying effect resets our expectations and inhibits our reaching conclusions so quickly or relying on them so much once we’ve reached them. Cadwallader and Gagne’s book is excellent in its extensive coverage of effects like these. They don’t talk about Glenn Gould’s peculiar treatments of Mozart, though.

In Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations he takes a much slower tempo for the aria/sarabande that bookends the variations, or Variation 7, for example. In the recordings of Haydn’s six late piano sonatas (Hob. XVI: 42, 48-52) he plays the slow
movements very slowly, and with more interpretive inflection. His interpretive eccentricities came not from perversity but from a deep fascination: a love that demands a lingering largo; an experimenter's desire to find out nature’s secrets by way of stop-motion photography; an introspection that was selfless, timeless, otherworldly. To Gould, the slow, measured tempi were tools to reveal hidden profundities—in much the same way as they are to Simone Dinnerstein, for example.

In summary, my idea of ‘funnels’ or hydrodynamic windkessel mathematical models for representing the psychophysiology of generation of musical meaning is, evidently, not so rash or novel after all. True, nobody has yet applied these techniques with fMRI and musical stimuli, in the way that Bosse and others have done with visual stimuli for naval and aviation psychophysiology. But the maths and experimental methods are today up to such a task. Cheers!

 Dayan-Abbott book

 Parasuraman book