Thursday, February 14, 2008

Name That Instrumental Tune

What’s the composer of instrumental music to do? The title of a song is usually defined by the lyrics. But when there are no lyrics, there is nothing to hang one’s hat on. Nothing that intuitively determines a title. How does a composer of a purely instrumental song put a label on his creation?

In the old days, it was good enough to name instrumental music by the type, key signature, and serial number. Is it the fifth symphony in C-minor? Then I guess the name would be “Symphony #5 in C-minor”. Gee, that was easy.

Somewhere along the line, opus numbers came into being. But they were often added posthumously. Composers really didn’t care about opi. (Actually, the plural of opus is “opera”, but it’s not nearly as funny. And who would believe it, anyway?)

Occasionally, some descriptive word would get attached to a piece of music. That’s why we have a “Moonlight” sonata and a “Revolutionary” etude. These names filled the need to identify the songs, but they really weren’t the “names” of the songs.

In the 19th century, some popular composers realized that their songs actually needed marketable names. John Philip Sousa attached names to his marches like “The Washington Post” (it was actually commissioned by the newspaper) or “Stars and Stripes Forever” (it really has lyrics, but nobody cares).

Scott Joplin earned a whopping $360 in his lifetime for “The Maple Leaf Rag”. A better title wouldn’t have helped. And “The Entertainer” was certainly entertaining enough; it just wasn’t real popular until Marvin Hamlisch rediscovered it in “The Sting”.

So what’s a modern instrumental composer to do to title his songs? Here are a few hints.

Make it memorable
Use real words, even if you put them in some strange context. There may not really be such a thing as a “Pink Elephant”, but it would make a cool name for a song.

Make it appropriate
Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” works because the song really does feel good! “Grazing in the Grass” may not make you want to graze, but it sure makes you feel like you should be doing “something” in the grass. And it’s a whole lot better title than just “That Song with the Funky Cowbell Part”.

Make it unique
There are probably a million songs named “I Love You” or some generic title like that. If you do a Google search and you find your song title, you have some more thinking to do.

Make it personal
One of my favorite instrumental titles is “Tuesday Morning”. I bet you can tell when that song was written. Of course, it means something to the composer. Whether it means anything to the listener is irrelevant, because it’s so easy to implant yourself into the song’s history.

Have fun with your titles. It’s usually the first thing that your fans encounter — even before they hear the music. Never forget that the melody makes the song enjoyable, but the title makes it memorable.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Richard, the Space Tourist

Some over-achievers have all the luck. Consider, for example, the case of Richard Garriott. At a time when most people his age are entering mid-life crises, he’s getting ready for the adventure of his life. And I am extremely jealous.

Growing up, Richard had a dad with the coolest of jobs. His father is Owen Garriott, astronaut. How cool is that? Owen has the distinction of not only being one of the few that worked on the short-lived Skylab mission in the 70s, but who also got to fly on one of the very first Shuttle missions in the 80s. He was there while nasa made the transition from the heydays of Apollo to the truck-and-bus missions of the Shuttle.

As for Richard, he became one of the first truly pioneering and successful PC game programmers. While in high school and college, he made a name for himself writing computer games and giving them away to friends. He soon parlayed that into a business, paying for his college education with the games he sold.

He wrote the first in what was to become a blockbuster series of “Ultima” games. One after another, Ultima sequels were churned out with Richard writing or producing every one of them. Sell a few million copies; make a few million dollars.

The son of the astronaut had become a computer entrepreneur. And in his early 40s, he had more money than he new what to do with. And all the time to spend it.

What’s a fella to do? Follow his dad’s footsteps into space! Lucky guy.

Just about the time he amassed his fortune, NASA and the Soviet space agency started working with private companies to create something that Arthur C. Clarke had dreamed about for decades: space tourism. For a cool thirty million dollars, you can be on top of the world as they light a candle under you and catapult you to a week’s visit on the International Space Station. How could Richard refuse such an opportunity?

Already five men have had their turn. Richard gets his chance in October, 2008. Of course, it’s not all fun-and-games. While on the space station, he will perform vital research into the commercial applications of the effects of weightless on extremophile bacteria. Pretty heady stuff.

Along the way, he has also made a name for himself as an accomplished magician, having appeared on the cover of MUM, the magazine of the Society of American Magicians. And he has served as the corner man for boxer Jesus Chavez. In his spare time, he built a haunted house museum at his home in Austin, Texas.

My mid-life crisis is coming along just fine; thanks for asking. I can look back on my life — I’m about the same age as Richard — and think about what I would could have done differently. My dad wasn’t an astronaut. Every computer game that I’ve written has been a commercial flop. People laugh at my magic tricks. And nobody reads my blog.

But Richard is still an inspiration to me. As soon as I make my first thirty million dollars, I’ll start my weightlessness training in preparation for my trip to the moon. Gee, I better start saving my pennies right now.

Friday, February 08, 2008

A Tribute to Some Lovable Space Junk

It’s fifty years old and it’s a piece of junk. In another couple hundred years, it’s destined to be destroyed in a violent and fiery blaze of glory.

But it’s a lovable piece of junk. And maybe — just maybe — it deserves to be on some nation registry of history things.

It’s Vanguard 1, currently the old piece of space junk orbiting the Earth. And it’s celebrating half a century of weightlessness.

Vanguard 1 was the fourth artificial satellite put into space by man. The previous three long ago succumbed to the Earth’s gravity and atmospheric drag. But Vanguard 1 is still up there, having completed almost 200,000 orbits so far. It circles the Earth every two hours and fifteen minutes in a highly-elliptical path that takes it almost 2500 miles from the Earth at its highest before dipping to a low of about 650 miles.

And it’s that “low” that’s eventually going to kill it. With every orbit, it briefly touches the very outer limits of our atmosphere. So briefly that it will still be up there another 200 years or so. But eventually, it will run out of inertia and become nothing more than a shooting star for my great, great grandchild to wish upon.

It’s not much to look at. It’s roughly spherical, about six inches in diameter. Six short antennae protrude, one from each side. On Earth, it weighed less than three and a half pounds. In space, it weighs nothing.

It’s shiny on all sides, the first satellite to be solar powered. That was revolutionary at the time, and it allowed Vanguard 1 to transmit a good radio signal for more than six years. At a time when most satellites were burning up in the atmosphere or blowing up on the launch pad, trusty little Vanguard 1 was still up there, beeping its location to anyone who wanted to tune to its 5 milliwatt signal.

Even today, it’s being tracked optically and through radar. Its symmetrical shape and unique orbit has given us valuable information about the limits of the Earth’s atmosphere and the precise shape of the Earth. By tracking slight variations in its orbit, scientists determined that the Earth is slightly “pear” shaped; the southern hemisphere is a tiny bit bigger than its northern cousin. And by watching the orbit degrade slightly through the years, we can measure the extent that upper limits of the atmosphere rises and falls with the sun’s 11-year cycles. Such serendipitous research wasn’t imagined when it was launched. At the time, they were just happy to get it off the ground in one piece.

Vanguard 1 was launched on March 17, 1958, at a time when the Russians were beating us at everything and President Eisenhower was looking forward to retirement and to handing the reigns of the presidency over to Vice President Nixon in a couple of years. From its unique vantage point, it has watched as Man has gone to the moon. It watched Skylab orbit the Earth and fall back in the ocean. It has watched more than a hundred Shuttle missions and witnessed two Shuttle disasters. It has waved an antenna at the International Space Station a time or two.

Its beeper has fallen silent over the years. And the mirrored finish of its solar panels probably isn’t as glossy as it used to be. But it continues to circle the Earth proudly, knowing that it’s the granddaddy of all the satellites. Perhaps, before it’s too late, we can send a spacecraft to meet it in its orbit, gently pluck it, and bring it back home. It would be a fitting tribute for a piece of space junk that deserves a little more respect than most.

After all, Vanguard 1 is a survivor.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

My Office, My Playlist

Several years ago, Muzak (the corporation, not the irritating genre) had a saying something to the effect of “People are more productive when listening to boring music”. And with that, they sold hundreds of thousands of installations of Muzak (the irritating genre).

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, I worked in several offices that had piped-in music — Muzak, adult-contemporary radio, and god-awful country music. It was alternating annoying and soothing, but mostly it was irrelevant. The problem was that nobody could agree on what it should be — what style, what volume, or even if it should exist at all. It seemed like the only one that was happy was the office manager who picked the music.

The revolution toward personalized playlists started with Walkmans and portable CD players, but it really took off with iPods. Now we can add streaming Internet radio, satellite radio, and CD ripping to PCs to the mix. It seems that everybody is plugged in. And that’s fine with me.

I’m constantly amazed at the variety of tastes that exists in the officeplace. When the listener is shielded knowing that nobody else can tap into his style (by virtue of ear buds, tucked away into his aural cavities), all inhibitions are lost.

There are times that I have “peaked” into my co-workers’ playlists. The only thing I can be sure of is that I can never predict what other people are listening to. My own playlist (mostly smooth jazz with some light classical mixed into it) is no match for the mixture of heavy metal, country, blues, and American Idol mush that I know everybody else is listening to.

And that’s fine with me. Individualism is good. It empowers the office worker, giving him a sense of importance. His it department can tell him what version of Microsoft Office he has to deal with. His boss can tell him what font he has to use in PowerPoint presentations. His finance department can tell him what receipts he has to turn in after a business trip. His hr department can tell him what documentation he has to gather before he can fire his slackered subordinate.

But, by golly, nobody can tell him he can’t listen to Def Leppard while he works on his client’s latest proposal.

What harm can possibly come from that?