Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Yesterday morning I was cycling to work when the light and haze reminded me of being in smoky New Delhi - it was dark and grey, but oddly a bit yellow too. Grumpily acknowledging the return of the Basel monocloud™, I looked up at sky... only to see through the thin clouds that the sun was half-eclipsed by the moon. Oh, that's alright then.

Work has started again at the Egger shop, where I work at varying tasks ranging from mundane to extremely interesting in times when there aren't a lot of concerts - January and February I tend to be at the shop a lot.

The past two days I've been working with Edward. I don't like to make a habit of anthropomorphizing, but as the one of two CNC lathes that has a rotating head of blades (it's great fun to clean at the end of the day) I refer to it affectionately as Edward after the Tim Burton film of 1990. The machine is fascinating, controlling tools at the precision of around 1/100th of a millimetre (it says even finer and I'm sure that it's true in a vaccuum), following a long line of simple commands on an early 1980's computer. Running it involves loading the piece in and listening out for any irregularities - you can't see much once there's coolant everywhere (yuck) but from learning the machine's "song" for every program, I can hear if something is off. Over the course of a long day I can hear the knives getting a bit duller, if the coolant is not spraying in the right place, and of course if something very bad happens like the piece not spinning (if it's too loosely held, for intance) then there's a half-second of thudding before the knife breaks - possible to avoid by pressing the Big Red Stop Button.

The really interesting part of my work is of course when I am a musician-consultant - helping in designs and improvements, giving my reactions to new instruments as they're being made. Both musician and computer feedback influence the design of new instruments, and this past autumn I did some translation work which involved finally getting my head around the computerized acoustical modeling of brasswinds. We don't model the instruments to achieve acoustical "perfection" - that feels strange and sounds extremely dull and cold - but rather to see which instruments might be interesting to copy and to fix difficult intonation or unstable notes without losing character or warmth. We constantly check what the computer says how an instrument should feel with how musicians react to the instrument - in my experience they usually line up pretty well too.

I try to keep as steep a learning curve as I can at the shop, for the purposes of my own fulfillment and sense of progress, since I don't think I'll ever become an instrument maker. This I do by asking lots of questions: learning about the properties of brass and other metals, about historical production techniques, most often about the intricacies of the German language. When Gerd refused to explain to me why the mixture of lead, tin, cadmium and bismuth melted at only 80 °C, I took the next morning off and read about eutectic alloys myself. It turns it's a lot like adding salt to water to make it melt at a lower temperature than 0: the molecules (or ions) of the salt get in the way of the water bonding into solid form. You can learn more here if you're interested. That morning I also learned that steel is harder than either carbon or iron because those molecules nestle into each other more efficiently than with themselves, making for more bonds in the same space.

I need to try to go skating today, having bought a subscription to the local rinks after skating on Sunday morning with Alison - we had the rink to ourselves for the first half hour, which was very lovely indeed. Yesterday I also found some decent cross-country skiis and boots in a Brocki (second-hand shop) and bought them, either as my own pair or a second pair so that I don't have to go skiing alone. I suppose it depends a bit how much my visit to the dentist in Germany costs this afternoon.

I'm a bit miffed to see the counter gone from the bottom of this page, the website that ran it seems to have shut down. Not only did I give a little cheer when it hit 1000 visits (and over 2000 hits) but it was fascinating to see how people came to the site, which links they followed, and from what countries they clicked: Canada, USA, UK, Ireland, Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Netherlands, Australia, and India. I suppose I'll just have to start again with a new one soon.

Last night's impromptu festivities (the Bar du Nord was closed so we popped back to mine for a "quick pint" (... and the rest of the curry and then a wee dram)) and around ten-thirty finally had a go at improvising 4-part renaissance polyphony from a single tenor... I guess I'm back in Basel!

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