Exciting Developments in Piano Technology

So it turns out that I haven’t been paying attention to what pianos have been getting up to in the 15 years since I bought a Roland digital piano.

First of all, the lines between acoustic (i.e., normal) pianos and digital pianos have been blurring: enter the digital hybrid. This can be a digital piano with acoustic characteristics, like a digital piano with a resonant soundboard in addition to speakers (for example, the Kawai CA901). This can be an acoustic piano with a digital mode, such as a so-called silent piano where engaging silent mode disengages the hammers and activates a small digital amplifier that outputs to headphones.

Kawai NV10s action

And some hybrid pianos really blur the lines, like Kawai’s Novus series (NV5s, NV10s) and Yamaha’s AvantGrand series: these are top-end digital pianos that don’t just use key actions that closely mimic an acoustic’s keys—in most cases they literally use the exact same keyboard parts as their acoustic uprights and grands. For someone interested in replicating the touch of a grand piano without necessarily having the room or funds for one, this is of immense interest, though the prices of the top-end hybrids get awfully close to those of their entry-level acoustic grands.

(See the Philadelphia Piano Institute’s guide to hybrid pianos; this 2009 Slate article doesn’t do the subject justice. There are also a ton of videos about digital hybrids on YouTube, mainly from piano stores who would very much like to sell you one: Merriam Music’s channel is very good and full of useful detail without being too hard a sell.)

Meanwhile, I’m shocked to learn that there has been some innovation on the grand piano front. Belgian piano maker Chris Maene has designed and built two unusual grand pianos. One is a straight-stringed instrument straight out of the 19th century, but with 21st-century part and build quality. (Modern pianos are cross-stringed: there is a difference in sound.) The pianist Daniel Barenboim commissioned it from Maene in 2011 and has since performed and recorded with it, and so, it seems, have other performers, now that Maene has gone into production with it.

Chris Maene’s Straight Strung Grand Piano (left) and Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand Piano (right).

The other, the Maene-Viñoly grand, is just trippy: the keyboard is curved and the strings radiate outward. It’s something I’d have expected to see on a luxury starship. See Kirill Gerstein perform Chopin on one here.

It’s Called a Music Nib for a Reason

Several fountain pen manufacturers offer a music nib as one of their nib options. It’s a variant of stub nib that was originally designed for writing musical notation: if you hold it properly, you can lay down thick lines for the beams and note heads and thin lines for the stems. But I expect most people who own pens with music nibs use them like a stub or calligraphy nib. “Friends who write music tell me that a pencil is actually the preferred writing implement for composing music, not a fountain pen,” says Tom Oddo of Goldspot; Richard Binder believes that modern music nibs are too stiff and otherwise “totally unsuited for writing music.”

Vintage music nibs were another matter: Jeff Peterson explores how vintage music nibs, which have more flex than modern nibs, were used in musical composition, both by looking at historical manuscript examples and by using them himself. He also explains why the stems on manuscript scores are on the wrong side of the notehead. “This is on purpose for speed and ease of writing. We write words from left to right, and because a music pen is held 90-degrees to the direction of writing, having stems on the left-hand side would require a pushing motion of the pen which would dig into the paper.”

The Secret of Roman Concrete

Roman concrete was durable and self-repairing, and quite a bit of it is still around, whereas modern concrete’s lifespan can be measured in decades. The assumption had been that this because of a key ingredient: pozzolanic ash. But a study published yesterday in Science Advances suggests that the Roman process hot mixed quicklime, leaving lime clasts in the matrix that, by dissolving when exposed to water and then re-forming, could fill cracks in the concrete. More at MIT News.

A Few Food Reads

Most of these links were first shared in my newsletter (to which you can subscribe here).

A Turkish professor believes that a plant found in central Turkey is actually silphion (or silphium), a plant used as a seasoning (among other things) in Roman times that was believed to have gone extinct. His theory is not without its detractors. See the National Geographic story from last September.

D Magazine’s review of Tatsu Dallas makes the tiny 10-seat omakase sushi counter sound like a religious experience.

After being forced to survive on them during World War II, France more or less swore off vegetables like Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi and rutabagas. (Seriously, rutabagas are a famine signifier in many parts of Europe.) Now these “forgotten vegetables” are making a comeback. Atlas Obscura in April 2020.

The Atlantic on how wildfires in 2021 have decimated the production of Turkey’s unique pine honey.

“A product of an unholy eggnog-fuelled tryst between a hot dog and a fruitcake—and I don’t mean that in a good way.” As It Happens on the (blessedly) limited-edition figgy-pudding flavoured Spam.

““Almost everything with the truffle label that is available in stores or served in restaurants is a lie and a fraud.” TasteAtlas’s Matt Babich on synthetic truffle flavour posing as the real thing.

The End of Dark Sky

Slate’s Russell Jacobs looks at the end of Dark Sky, a popular weather app that is shutting down and will no longer be supported after today. Apple bought it in 2020 and has since folded many of its features into the default weather app. While it had its devotees (it was never available in Canada, so I couldn’t use it), it was, at best, “sometimes accurate”: Jacob enumerates plenty of cases where Dark Sky’s forecast failed him in one way or another. (Predicted storms failing to appear is one thing; the opposite is much worse.) It turns out that their forecasts were based not on meteorological modelling but on image processing: it treated the weather systems on radar maps as shapes. Jacobs: “Dark Sky simply monitored changes to the shape, size, speed, and direction of shapes on a radar map and fast-forwarded those images. ‘It wasn’t meteorology,’ Blum said. ‘It was just graphics practice.’” My father the retired meteorologist is no doubt twitching as he reads this.

Plan 9: The Opera!

Ed Wood’s awful cult classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space, is being made into an opera—by none other than Thai composer Somtow Sucharitkul. It’s actually a good fit: Somtow wrote a lot of science fiction, fantasy and horror in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s before returning to composing; he even directed a direct-to-video horror film and is a self-described B-movie fanatic. And while it’s true that Plan 9 is terrible, it’s terrible in a way that might just work as an opera. The Hollywood Reporter: “‘I won’t use a single word in the libretto that wasn’t straight from the pen of Ed Wood,’ says Sucharitkul. ‘Whether the Bela Lugosi character will manage a plaintive, tragic aria, when he was silent (not to mention dead) during the entire production of the film . . . that will be a nice little Easter egg to come.’” (That should be something: here’s the Plan 9 script.)

Tom Lehrer in the Public Domain

Tom Lehrer is putting all his songs and lyrics, as well as performing, recording and translation rights, into the public domain, according to a statement dated 1 November 2022 on his website. “In short, I no longer retain any rights to any of my songs,” he writes. “So help yourselves, and don’t send me any money.” Everything is available to download from his website: songs from his albums as MP3s, and lyrics and sheet music as PDFs (in case being able to play “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” was a life goal of yours—and really, why isn’t it, if it isn’t?). But Lehrer notes that the site will be shut down “in the not too distant future, so if you want to download anything, don’t wait too long.”

And in Snake Clitoris News …

Okay, so apparently snakes have clitorises. The Guardian reports: “In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers found that snakes have two individual clitorises—hemiclitores—separated by tissue and hidden by skin on the underside of the tail.” Direct link to the study. Not surprising there are two: male snakes have two hemipenes, after all. And this actually might explain something we noticed in the female snakes in our care. Snakes are normally sexed by the differences in their tails: females’ tails are thin and taper sharply, whereas males’ tales are thicker and taper less, because that’s where they park their hemipenes when not everted. We’ve spotted in a few of our female snakes a bit of a bulge in their tail past their vent, which was confusing unless they went on to lay eggs or give birth (that’s kind of definitive). Was something wrong, or was it just some benign fatty tissue? Maybe it was this instead.

Beowulf’s Bespoke Typewriter

Over the weekend we picked up a typewriter I’d frankly been coveting for some time. A Hermes Ambassador is a fine enough acquisition in and of itself: it’s a massive, marvellously overbuilt standard typewriter with all kinds of bells and whistles, including a document feeder and two margin release keys (one for adding just a few extra spaces), plus support for a carbon ribbon and a motor. But this example, built in 1960, was something else: it has a keyboard that may literally be one of a kind.

Continue reading…

The Howard Waldrop Cinematic Universe

Waldrop at Readercon (2011)

It turns out that “Night of the Cooters” isn’t the only Howard Waldrop story George R. R. Martin is making into a short film. According to Deadline, George is producing a total of four short films based on Waldrop stories. In addition to “Cooters,” which premiered last July, “Friends Forever” (which I don’t recognize) is in post, “Mary Margaret Road-Grader” is filming now, and “The Ugly Chickens” is about to start shooting with Felicia Day in the lead role. The idea seems to be to collect them into produce an anthology film or series.

George bought the film rights to Waldrop’s stories four years ago, it seems, which probably went some way to ensuring that his oldest friend in sf stays fed (Howard’s talent for making the least amount of money from his work is legendary). As I said last week on social media, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that a Howard Waldrop short-film anthology is actually a real thing that is actually happening in this benighted timeline.