Instruments for nerds

Q. What’s the definition of a nerd?

A. Someone who owns his own alto clarinet.

Alto clarinets get no respect.

When I was in the sixth grade, having taken clarinet lessons for about a year and a half, I was assigned to play our school’s new bass clarinet, and I liked it a lot despite my being not a whole lot larger than the instrument case. But the next year, when I went to junior high school, there were more incoming bass clarinetists than the bands had need or instruments for, so after a couple months back in the soprano clarinet section, I started on alto clarinet and played that for the rest of that year and the next.

Now, even the bass clarinet is not exactly the world’s most familiar instrument. Most people when they see one think it’s some sort of saxophone. And indeed the modern bass clarinet was developed by Adolph Sax, but whereas a saxophone is a conical bore instrument — thinnest at the top and then gradually widening toward the bell — and usually made of brass, the bass clarinet is (like the regular “soprano” clarinet) cylindrical — the same diameter all the way through, except for the bell — and aside from the neck and bell is usually made of wood or, for student instruments, plastic or hard rubber. (The shape difference isn’t merely visual aesthetics; it accounts for most of the differences in tone between clarinets and saxophones.)

Bass clarinet

The alto clarinet looks pretty much like the bass clarinet, but smaller, halfway in size between the bass and soprano; the three sizes are a family, or rather part of a family.

Alto clarinet

There also are E♭ and A♭ clarinets, shorter and higher pitched than the B♭ and A sopranos; the G clarinet; the basset horn, similar to an alto clarinet but with an extended lower range; the contra-alto and contrabass clarinets, an octave below the alto and bass, respectively; and a lot of other oddballs rarely seen.

The E♭, B♭, A, and bass clarinets are common in orchestral music. The little A♭ is, so I understand, used mostly in Italian marching bands. The basset horn enjoyed popularity in the 18th century but fell out of favor, but it was apparently one of Mozart’s favorite instruments and he wrote a few pieces for it, and a couple of later composers did too, so while it’s rare it has credentials. The contras are pretty uncommon, but do find a good deal of use in movie and TV soundtrack music.

The alto, hardly anyone likes. It’s used almost nowhere but in wind bands, and pretty rarely even there. Many music directors have no use for it. They complain about the quality of its sound, and they say it can’t do anything that could equally well be done by the sopranos and basses.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me those arguments are specious. If an alto clarinet doesn’t sound good, it presumably is either because of the instrument or the player. Sopranos, basses, and basset horns all sound fine; there’s no inherent reason an alto shouldn’t sound fine, too, provided it’s been designed, built, and maintained well. But there’s the chicken-and-egg problem; the instrument gets no respect, so no one puts enough effort into making them sound good, so they get no respect. Add to that the tendency school directors have of keeping the really talented players on soprano and putting the not-so-good ones on alto (and bass) (yes, I’m looking at me here).

And yes, the alto’s range can be covered on the high end by the soprano and on the low end by the bass. But the viola is in a similar relationship to the violin and cello, and the tenor sax to the alto and baritone. People don’t go around — well, not as many people, anyway — advocating tossing violas and tenor saxes into the trash.

At the high school music concerts I’ve been to lately, there’ve been quite a few violas, and several tenor saxes. Not an alto clarinet in sight, though.

Nor were there any when I went to high school. We’d moved to a new school district, and I told the band director I played alto clarinet. He pointed to the top level of the instrument shelves and said “Our alto clarinets are up there. We don’t use them.” Turned out the be all right with me, though, because there was a vacancy in the bass clarinet section; if I’d known that, I wouldn’t even have mentioned the alto clarinet. I happily played bass for those four years, even though a year or two later the band director changed his mind, got the alto clarinets down off the shelf again, and assigned a couple of clarinetists to play them.

It wasn’t until some years later I learned a bit about the history of these instruments. Because of the length of its bore, it’s hard to make a viable bass clarinet without a lot of long key levers, springs, and pads, technology that wasn’t really developed until about the early 1800s. Not that people didn’t try; after all, bassoons had been around a long time before that, with a bore even longer than that of a bass clarinet. Bassoons make the long bore more tractable by folding it in half: it goes down from the gooseneck-shaped bocal to the bottom of the instrument, through a u-bend, and back up to the bell at the top. That helped early bassoons manage without long key levers; so did tricks like making the wooden walls of the tube thick and drilling the finger holes at an angle, so that they were widely spaced inside the instrument (where the spacing matters acoustically) but close together on the outside (where you need to reach them with your fingers).

But bassoons aren’t very loud or resonant, and especially for outdoor use they don’t provide a very strong bass section to a wind band. And in the 18th century valved brass instruments hadn’t been developed, either; there were no sousaphones! It turns out cylindrical instruments can get an octave lower with the same bore length than conical ones, so it must have seemed a natural idea to try to build clarinets an octave lower than the standard ones, and to make them bassoon style, with a folded bore, to make them easier to handle while marching. Heinrich Grenser gets the credit for the earliest known example in 1793. Here’s one from about 40 years later by Catterini:

Glicibarifono by Catterini

Other makers built similar instruments, and others before and after experimented with other designs, including this oddity from Nicola Papalini.

Bass clarinet by Papalini

As for alto clarinets, the closely related basset horn goes back to the mid 1700s, but the earliest reference to a more or less modern alto in Europe is one played by Iwan Müller in 1809.

Oddly enough, though, the bass and alto clarinets may have been independently invented in the United States. George Catlin was making musical instruments in Hartford, Connecticut, and by 1810 was making something he called a “clarion” which was in fact a bassoon-shaped bass clarinet, similar to but different from Grenser’s and others being made in Europe. Whether he developed it on his own or knew of the European basses isn’t known. Apparently he and his students built and sold a fair number of these.

And there’s one extant instrument at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that’s cataloged as an “alto clarion”; while it has no markings, it bears a strong family resemblance to Catlin’s basses, but is smaller — an E♭ instrument, that is, a bassoon-shaped alto clarinet, dated circa 1820. It’s one of the oldest alto clarinets in existence.

Alto clarion, attributed to George Catlin

I’ve never really gotten the appeal Pinterest has for some people as a social media platform, but I do find it useful as a repository for interesting images, and one of my Pinterest boards is “Oddwinds“: unusual woodwind and brass instruments. Somewhat weirdly to me, one of the most often repinned pictures from Oddwinds is the Catlin-style alto clarion. Why? I have no idea. The bassoon-shaped bass clarinets get much less attention.

So maybe, if Selmer wants to start selling more alto clarinets, they should try making them bassoon shaped. Something in that might just appeal to people for some reason.

Then again, the most-repinned Oddwinds picture is a quarter tone clarinet.

Quarter tone clarinet

And I doubt Selmer could sell many of those.

Disclaimer: Not all photos are mine. Click through for copyright and licensing.

Other Disclaimer: I own my own alto clarinet.



A few games

I don’t play lots of computer games. I especially don’t much play games requiring speed and hand/eye coordination, because I don’t have enough of either. So I tend to favor puzzle games, and I’ve played three of them lately.

One was Botanicula (Mac version), which came out in 2012, and which I probably bought in 2012 but for whatever reason didn’t really start playing until a few days ago. Okay, so I’m a little behind the times. I’ve enjoyed Amanita Design’s previous games, and I particularly liked Machinarium. There was one scene, maybe a couple, in Machinarium with arcade-like play. I got through it, though. Didn’t like that aspect, but I managed. As for the rest, I thought it was really charming and fun.

I was hoping to say the same about Botanicula. But the five main characters aren’t as engaging as Machinarium’s robot; the overall plot, such as it is, isn’t enough to hang all the puzzles on; and a lot of the puzzles are too much of the “click on random stuff and see what happens” and not enough of “figure out what to do and do it”. But what really killed it for me was, probably about two thirds of the way through, I hit two scenes, almost consecutive, which I simply could not do because they required more dexterity, speed, and precision than I could manage. After a while it became clear that if I ever could get through those scenes at all, it would only be via repeating them over and over and over and over and over again, and putting up with a whole lot of anxiety and frustration. That’s not the kind of game play I want in what’s supposed to be a means of relaxation. Once I realized that I quit the game, and I don’t think I’ll try playing it again.

Earlier on I played The Room II (Android version), a sequel to (wait for it) The Room, the game, not the movie. I liked the original a lot and the sequel didn’t disappoint. It’s not a perfect game; I’d prefer something with more of a plot, rather than just solving one puzzle after another until it’s over, and the puzzles could have used a little more diversity; after a while a lot of them seemed kind of the same. The Room II is neither extremely challenging nor long — I didn’t time myself but I don’t think I spent more than a couple of hours or so at it. On the plus side, it’s visually stunning. And at three bucks, well worth the price.

Even cheaper is 2048, which is free. It’s a somewhat mathematical game, so I wrote it up on MathematRec.


ThreeMen In aB oat

Years ago, back when I was running the Monty Python Special Interest Group of American Mensa (but that’s another story), a fellow MPSIG member recommended Jerome K. Jerome’s novel Three Men In a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). I read it, I enjoyed it. Some years later I read Connie Willis’s time travel novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which, rather obviously, was influenced by Jerome’s book; it’s a wonderful and very funny story, one of my favorites.

The Kindle edition of TSNotD is currently selling for two bucks so I picked it up, and decided to also get the Penguin Classics edition of TMiaB in Kindle format too. And now I’m telling you why not to do likewise.

As Carl Frank notes, there are formatting problems in Chapter 8. I bought the book anyway, figuring it was cheap enough and if there were problems in one chapter I could deal with them or get a refund. I found these problems did not make the chapter let alone the book “unreadable”. They affect only a few pages and all that’s wrong is a very badly placed left margin which leaves a very narrow text. Bad, annoying, but it can be read. I did indeed complain to Amazon about this and they credited me the price of the purchase.

What bothered me more was the frequent problems with spaces, or lack thereof, scattered throughout the book — or at least the first few chapters. “Hesaid” where it should be “he said” and the like. At one point “at one” should have been “a tone”. These errors certainly don’t make the book unreadable, either, but they do make it an unpleasant experience. Somewhere around chapter 4 I gave up and used my refund toward the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the combined Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel. So far it is a far more readable edition (albeit without chapter entries in the table of contents).



Valentine’s Day night 13 people were planning to arrive in Kauai. — Sue, Al, Heather, Kenny, me, Dorin, Bob, Mitchell, Sam, Rachel, Steve, Pat, and Tom (mother in law, MIL’s fiance, wife, son, me, sister in law, SIL’s husband, SIL’s two sons, other SIL, other SIL’s husband, MIL’s sister, MIL’s sister’s partner) — for a week’s stay built around Sue and Al’s wedding on the beach on Tuesday. Incoming Northeaster froze the eastern seaboard, we got about 8″ snow in Syracuse instead of the 2″ forecast, presumably lots of planes got stuck in Atlanta and so on; the flight out of Syracuse for the first nine of the above travelers got canceled and we were told we couldn’t get seats on a flight out until Wednesday. But we could get out of Chicago on Monday. So… we rented a 12-seat van and drove to Chicago. Stopped at Pat & Tom’s house near Buffalo for pizza on the way… they were still scheduled to fly to Hawaii Saturday. Rachel and Steve flew out of DC Friday and arrived that night. 2014-02-14 13.39.04

Saturday Al traded in the van for another vehicle, something cheaper and better working. The first van had marginal windshield wipers, was losing oil, and had a heating system that couldn’t seem to do anything other than blast very hot air at floor level, at least where I was sitting. I was either chilly or baking.

We also checked out of the hotel we stayed in Friday night (we only had reservations for one night, made at a time we were hoping to fly out on Saturday) and moved into another one.

The weather forecast for Monday didn’t look great, and all sorts of plans were proposed, including driving on to Las Vegas, getting Sue and Al married there, and then on to LA and fly to Kauai from there, but we stuck with the plan to spend the weekend in Chicago and try to get to Hawaii on Monday.

We spent Saturday in the great city of Chicago doing… well, just about nothing. Other than changing vans and hotels, we ate three meals. Did laundry. (Did I mention we didn’t have winter clothes besides what we wore?) Hung out. Recharged after Friday’s stress. Lunch at White Castle, dinner at the hotel restaurant. I captured some Munzees. The women had a bachelorette party in the hotel that night. The men, or two of us at least, turned in early.

Sunday afternoon most of us spent at the Field Museum. Sue the Tyrannosaurus was pretty cool, but I’ve always had a softer spot for Apatosaurus and Triceratops so particularly enjoyed seeing those.

For dinner, after deciding against going into the place we’d been headed, we instead went to Cucina Biagio based, I think, solely on seeing its sign along our route. Turned out to be one of the best meals I’ve had in a while, even though I kind of liked the looks of everyone else’s dinner better than my ravioli. The manager, Tony, spent a long time chatting with us, ending up with his singing Sue an Italian love song and then showing us the celebrity pictures on the wall. He’s a character. No plans to get stuck in Chicago again anytime soon, but I’d consider going back there if I did.

Monday we got up at about 4 am for our flight to LA, which was delayed about an hour waiting for the captain to get there. We were sitting in separate places all over, me isolated in a middle seat, a cramped flight but we got there. Lunch at LAX, more Munzees, and then we caught our flight to Lihue. Arrived about on schedule. Steve and Rachel picked us up in our two rental vans and drove us to the house we’d rented for the 13 of us. Very nice place, right across the road from the ocean.

I went on a couple walks Tuesday, both directions with respect to the shore. Found two geocaches, my first ones west of Rochester NY, and captured a few more Munzees. Saw some crabs and sea turtles, and something that clings to rocks whose identity I didn’t know until Heather googled it up (shingle urchins), but no whales.IMG_2337

A wedding happened.

Then dinner at the Sheraton. We had a choice of three entrees but I think 12 of the 13 of us chose the swordfish… good choice, too. Bob had chicken.

I saw some whales from the porch Tuesday morning, and then on a walk more crabs — hermit and otherwise — and shingle urchins, and snails, tiny bivalves, some fish, a sea urchin, and some different rock clingy things.

A lot of the volcanic rocks on the shore have features I don’t understand: elongated holes, maybe about 4 cm wide and deep and 10 cm long. Not particularly aligned with one another. Not clear if they riddle the volume or are only on the exposed surfaces.

Wednesday in the early afternoon Sue, Al, Heather, Kenny, and I took a drive to Waimea Canyon for a bit of scenery-gawking and, on the way back, shrimp-devouring. IMG_2420In the evening we all went to Wailua for a luau.

Thursday early Pat and Tom left for a day trip to Oahu. After breakfast I started off on a little walk that turned into a multi hour expedition to Poipu, looking for a multicache there. I had some trouble getting started, because I hadn’t paid enough attention to the directions, and I had some trouble with the final stage, because I’m an idiot. Really, it should have taken me about a minute, especially once the cache owner verified the final coordinates for me. Instead it took, ah, much longer. In fact long enough that I went for a lunch break — a fairly long walk to get a puka dog and lemonade, then back again. Finally a local came along, not a geocacher but she knew about the cache and gave me a hint. Then it became as obvious as it should have been in the first place.

Meanwhile I’d seen some nice ocean scenery and spouts from a pod of whales. On the walk back to the house there was a monk seal (endangered species) resting on the sand in the middle of a public beach, with a yellow rope barricade around it and signs saying not to approach it. IMG_2453Got back to the house at 3:15. Heather, Kenny, Sue, and Al had gone shopping in Kapa’a, and the Laufers were out ATVing, so I napped on the porch until they got back and disarmed the alarm. Dinner was burgers and dogs at the house. In the evening we found out Tom was having a kidney stone attack; he went to the ER on his return to Kauai and was there until early morning, I guess.

Rain Friday morning, after a couple sunny days. There were dolphins across the street, and a whale much closer to shore than the others I’d seen. In the afternoon some of us drove out to Kalaheo where I went into Scotty’s Music and came out with a new Islander tenor ukulele. IMG_2462Mitchell looked at a couple of ukes, too, but they were more than Dorin wanted to pay, and I think he’s going to get my Makala tenor. Meanwhile he got a cabasa. There were a couple of other stops for souvenirs; I bought a dirt shirt and an aloha shirt. The rain having let up, though the clouds were still with us, we went to the beach when we got back. It was the first and only time I went swimming on this trip, though I’d gotten my feet wet a couple times earlier. I wish I’d gone more than that once.

We cooked pizza for our last dinner Friday night, and sat on the porch playing ukes and percussion and singing songs.

Saturday morning we vacated the house, stopped for ice cream and to look at the Spouting Horn (and more dolphins), and went to the airport. Pat and Tom excepted, we all flew to LA, then Sue and Al went from there to Tacoma, Rachel and Steve to DC, and the rest of us to Syracuse via Chicago, arriving around noon Sunday. Tired, lagged, stressed, hearing impaired from blocked up ears. But a good trip.


The Rest of Interröbang Cartel: What might have been

My “Best of Interröbang Cartel” selection was constrained in part by the capacity of a CD. You remember CDs? I still don’t have a car with an aux input, so CDs have their uses. Anyway, there are 19 songs on the list, and I am not so in love with prime numbers that I’d intentionally stop there.

If Beethoven’s Ninth had been a few minutes longer I could’ve put a twentieth song on there; what would it have been? Who knows? I probably wouldn’t even pick the same 19 today as I did that day, or yesterday.

If I’d been feeling sufficiently immodest, it might have been swt’s and my “I’m Not a Tuba Player, But I Play One On TV” (from Supermarket), a cross between Lawrence Welk, Gordon Lightfoot, and Keith Emerson with backing vocals by jgwh, or Charlie’s version of my lyrics in “Schrödinger’s Car” for House Made of Awesomeness. Or Taly and Charlie’s “Retract Your Lies”, slated for Aspartame Placebo. Or, from Right of Reply, Taly and jwgh’s “Kitten Knittin’ Blues”.

Or something else.

I’ve just mentioned several albums that never got completed. There was no decision to terminate IBC; we just sort of dissipated. There were plans for several future albums we never finished. Luxury Potato’s “Kiss Me, Cruel Fortran” is represented on my “Best of” CD, as is one for Aspartame Placebo, “Truck Stop Birthday”.

An a.r.k post by John Salt was the source for a list of song titles which Kibo suggested should form an album called Bad Coelacanth. Lyrics were written mostly by Tim Chmielewski, and nine songs were recorded.badcoel_cover

(Cover art by Sanspoof.)

Right of Reply arose from a challenge Talysman set himself to write lyrics based on people’s LiveJournal interests. Seven of them were recorded.


(Cover art by Talysman)

Another project was called Rules for Dysfunctional Patterns, a concept album based on this weird text (section II). The subsection headings were to be our song titles. I had good hopes for this album; I wrote lyrics for three of the songs, and recorded a fourth as a microtonal post-rock instrumental. But that was as far as it got.

I always thought we should do an album called Needs More Wagner but I was pretty much alone in that.

There were a number of other songs, designated either for still other albums such as House Made of Awesomeness and Through Siberian Fields of Cheese


(Cover art by Talysman)

or as “singles”. In fact there were enough songs for two or three complete new albums altogether, just that they didn’t fit together conceptually.

Of course bands break up and reunite years later all the time. It’s not impossible IBC’s unfinished business will be completed someday. Meanwhile, [nearly?] all the songs so far recorded — and many unrecorded lyrics — may be found via the wiki, and you can listen to IBC on


The Best of Interröbang Cartel: Playlist

Here’s the complete list of songs I chose, with links to the wiki pages and MP3 files. Some of the MP3 files won’t play in Chrome for me. They play in Firefox, or if I download them. No idea why.

  1. The Sun! She Explode! (mp3)
  2. Pumpkin, Mrs. Farnsworth (London Share House Mix) (mp3)
  3. Love of Stones (mp3)
  4. Captain Marvel’s Lament (mp3)
  5. The George Hammond Consipiracy (mp3)
  6. Zoo Heaven (mp3)
  7. Not Bitter Blues (mp3)
  8. Kiss Me Cruel Fortran (II, original version) (mp3)
  9. How to Be a Texas Ranger (original version) (mp3)
  10. Hole In My Black Levis (mp3)
  11. Planting Geraniums (mp3)
  12. Ballad of the Eire Canal (A Capella) (mp3)
  13. The Robot Song (Dalek version) (mp3)
  14. The Robot Song (Data version) (mp3)
  15. Truck Stop Birthday (mp3)
  16. She’s a Geek Freak (mp3)
  17. Staffordshire Bull Terrier Portraits (mp3)
  18. Rewind (Simonian Mix) (mp3)
  19. Chalice of Fire (mp3)

needswanger_cover supermarket_cover allhail_cover luxpot_cover aspl_cover


The Best of Interröbang Cartel: Chalice of Fire

My “Best of IBC” CD concludes with “Chalice of Fire”, from Wanger. The lyrics by Matt McIrvin long predate IBC — 1997, even before Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire — and were written to illustrate the kind of 1980s song “that was about absolutely nothing at all and made no sense, and nobody would even think that you were cerebral or quirky or David Byrne, provided that every individual word in the song was a sufficiently rad-i-kool word.” Casey gave it a perfectly flawless setting. It may not have been, as Matt hoped, the anthem of a generation, but it was perhaps the anthem of IBC.

It’s not about Unitarianism. Well, not consciously, anyway.

Chalice of Fire (mp3)


The Best of Interröbang Cartel: Rewind (Simonian Mix)

My memory’s a little hazy, but as I recall, sometime in the early 2000s, someone started posting some strange messages to Usenet; it seems, he said, he was a time traveler, stuck in the early 21st century unless he could get the parts to fix his time machine, and he really needed any surplus electronics people could spare. He was either a prankster or a genuinely delusional person… or, I suppose, a real time traveler. I hope not the second, because the responses he got were nothing a mentally troubled person should be subjected to.

But I like this song that was inspired by it all. Talysman wrote the lyrics, and he recorded the “Eltonian Mix”. jwgh and Kerri collaborated on the “Simonian Mix”, and later jwgh and Charlie put together the “ROKK!” version. All three were on Supermarket, and my favorite is here.

Rewind (Simonian Mix) (mp3)


The Best of Interröbang Cartel: She’s a Geek Freak

Merry Christmas! No, IBC never did a Christmas album.

Here’s a non Christmas song. Some IBM songs are spare and simple, maybe a voice and a guitar, maybe came together in a few hours. And then some are elaborate productions, the products of weeks or months of work. This is decidedly one of the latter.

Chris Reuter used and defined the term “geek freak”. Casey thought it’d be a good IBC title. I agreed, and wrote some lyrics. Major Zed liked them so much he immediately wanted to do a complete rewrite. I collaborated with him on that, and then he did the recording. It was included on Supermarket.

This one’s unique in that the lead vocals are entirely synthesized. My voice and Zed’s are used, heavily processed, in the intro/outro and bridge.

On the wiki, this song has even more footnotes than “Kiss Me, Cruel Fortran”. It is the finest song I know that mentions Grassman bundle surgery.

She’s a Geek Freak (mp3)

or, Wallpaper paste must be good for something

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