Mind Your Language

We’re taking a trip to Europe later this summer for vacation. Last time I went to Europe was quite a few years back, when my cousin Tommy was studying for his PhD at Oxford. Jeannie and I visited him and went to London and around southern England, and to Paris via the Chunnel, which was pretty new at the time. Tons of fun.

This time we’re doing central Europe starting in Switzerland and working our way East thru Liechtenstein, Austria, and maybe Bavaria to Budapest, Hungary. There are several reasons for this itinerary. One is that Jeannie really likes mountains and has always wanted to see the Alps. Another is that it’s an interesting part of the world with lots of history. In particular the Szingers are from Hungary, and before that are of the ethnic enclave known as Transdanbian Schwabians, which means we came over from southern Germany and settled in Hungary sometime after the Battle of Vienna and before of Austro-Hungarian Empire, sometime in the 1700’s as far as we know. Apparently whole villages just packed up and travelled on rafts down the Danube. This is on my Dad’s side. On my Mum’s side — well Hungary has a long, rich and diverse culture, so there’s alot to trace back. Anyway, while Jeannie has been doing practical research on things like flights and hotels I’ve been taking a deep dive into the history of the region, to get a sense of context.

One really interesting part of it is the prehistory of the Magyars in the time the were an semi-nomadic Asiatic tribe of horsemen, and only migrated to (or invaded) Europe sometime around 1200 years ago (or 1600 if you count the Huns and Magyars as brother tribes, as the legends hold). All this stuff is really fascinating and try I’ll get to it in a future post, or perhaps make a concept album out of it. We won’t be going to Asia on this trip, but it’s important to help understand where the language is coming from.

For now the important thing is I’m trying to learn a bit of the languages we’ll encounter on our trip. I’m learning both German and Hungarian at the same time. I found an app called Duolingo which is very well designed and effective, based on daily practice of drilling lessons, much like learning a musical instrument and a repetoire of songs.

I feel like I have a pretty good aptitude for languages. I know at least twenty computer programming languages, I know a bunch of musical instruments and genres, and I’ve studied linguistics back in the day. As for human speech, I picked up a smattering of Spanish when I lived in California, and a bit of French before went there, but nothing approaching fluency. But of course it takes time and practice and repetition and most of all exposure. I’ve always admired people who speak multiple languages, but as an American, well we live in a huge country with mostly one language, and no regional media to speak of, so there’s not much everyday opportunity. Even at work all the foreign-born people speak their own language amongst themselves and don’t share very much. I learned “lak” means 100,000 in some parts of India.

I must say German is much easier to learn than Hungarian, at least at the level of using the training app. German mostly the same rules of grammar as English, and most of the words are single substitutions. Many of them are almost the same: Mann is man, Brot is bread, Wasser is water, and so on. Der Bär trinkt ein Bier. Just say it in English with a German accent and your halfway there. Only thing you gotta watch out for is there’s four different ways to say “The”.

Hungarian is completely different. As I mentioned before the Magyars came relatively recently to Europe, so it’s one of the few European languages that’s not part of the Indo-European language group. It’s related only to Finnish, Latvian and maybe some tribal languages deep in the steppes of Asia. Hence the reading up on the history. It’ helps that I’ve been listening to Hungarian all my life. Everyone in my family spoke it growing up and I still remember some words and phrases from when I was a kid. But even though I have an ear for sound I’m far from fluent.

Like I said, everything is really completely different. The grammar, the sentence structure, the pronunciation, the spelling and writing, the roots of all the words, the sound and rhythm, a few loan words from French and English aside, just everything. I’ve gotten far enough now to appreciate the logic of it, and to begin to be able to understand it on it’s own terms. But translating from English to Hungarian or vice versa is alot more work than German. You have turn the sentence inside-out, and often a single word in Hungarian translates to a whole phrase in English, and usually there’s more than one possible way to translate a word, phrase or whole sentence. Often there’s not a one-to-one mapping of a word. Shades of meanings and different ways of splitting up a field of related concepts.

All this has got me thinking about my own language on a whole ‘nother level. It reminds me of studying English in second grade or so, when the focus as on grammar, spelling and vocabulary. I’m also thinking alot about how concepts map to words and how language is such a powerful and flexible tool. And like I said, the way words and thoughts map from one language to another.

It’s also really interesting to see yourself get better at something in a short time. Sentences that were impenetrable to me a month ago then became something I could pick thru and understand, and then on to something I just recognize and know. This is the way I practice music too. There’s usually some very specific thing to learn like a song or a new pattern, and a larger background of deeper skill, understanding and proficiency.

So I’ve been studying two languages every day for a couple months now. So I’ve gotten past the barest beginning part and starting to get into the real depth. Turning the corner to building vocabulary. I’m sure I’ll be nowhere near fluent, cuz holding a real conversation is a whole ‘nuther level. But hopefully I’ll be able read and hear and understand a bit, and communicate when necessary. Maybe someday I’ll be able to read more of their poetry.

Rock Out

In other news my rock band G Force has broken up. Before you get too upset I can tell you that by the last few gigs it was becoming a real drag. The music wasn’t happening and the crowds weren’t digging it. The musicians in the group had pretty much decided our other singer was not really all that great, especially when it came to harmonies, and her habit of acting like she was in charge was not especially tolerable. The last thing she said to me, at the end of the last gig, was “I can’t stay and help break down the equipment cuz I have to get up and go the beach tomorrow”. When I called her out on this, she up and quit. Too bad. We didn’t always agree on things but it was an interesting dynamic and a fun ride.

The last gig was with my friend Steve on drums rather than our regular drummer, and this was a real shot in the arm. Vinny, Ken and I had already been discussing doing a reboot, essentially leaving to form a new group, but I wanted to wait until the rest of our July gigs were over. Now those gigs are cancelled and we’re deciding how to move ahead. Steve is into being our regular drummer so it looks like we have the core of a group. We’ll certainly do material that’s more fun and interesting to us, but at this point it’s pretty wide-open. I’d like to get another vocalist besides myself, so that probably means holding auditions once we’re ready, unless somebody knows someone at it comes together that way.

Memorizing Jazz

My jazz group Haven Street played a most excellent gig a few days ago at The Barn at Quaker Hill Country Club, up in Pawling NY. It’s a very nice place, reeks of old money, with pictures of F.D.R. and Babe Ruth on the wall, and a grand fireplace with cultural and historical artifacts from around the world, going back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, embedded in the facade. The venue was a large restaurant and lounge adjacent to the bar. The hall had a nice stage and a high ceiling and the acoustics were superb.

We started playing at a moderate volume because right in front of us was a large party of diners including a few little kids, and we didn’t want to blow them away. Musically the band was really good, and the crowd was digging it. The kids got up and danced and people came out from the bar to hear and see us better. Man I swear the group keeps sounding better and better.

One thing I’ve been doing recently is memorizing all our material, our originals and a good bunch of standards we have in heavy rotation (All The Things You Are is still a real M.F.). I feel like people in general used to memorize things alot more, now it’s a dying art cuz everyone always just looks stuff up on their phone. But it’s a skill worth cultivating.

I’ve always memorized songs in the rock group, where I sing and play keys. One reason is the songs tend to be simpler. Another is that I’ve never been able to sight read piano music unless it’s a single melody line or a just a chord progression; if there’s complicated parts written out for both hands, I usually have to read thru at least once and break it down and put it back together before I can play it at speed. And of course when you’re singing it’s a drag to have to look at the words. At this point I know hundreds and hundreds of songs, although not all of them are sharpened up to perform on any given day.

In the jazz group I only play sax. It’s a melody instrument and it’s easy to read a single line. The downside is that you come to rely on the chart and never really REALLY get to know the song. Now that I’ve undertaken the task, I can’t believe it took my this long get around to it; I memorized everything for Event Horizon back in the day. Of course I do know much of the material, and I’m familiar with lots of standards, but we have are some intricate passages (especially in some my own tunes like Lift Off), and I don’t always know what note a song starts on, or maybe some of the chords in the bridge, or whatever. Now it’s all being pulled up into the conscious level. Since jazz tends to modulate alot I’m thinking about the songs much more in terms of their structure and harmonies, and how the melody note relates to the chord. This is natural on piano but easy to skip over on sax. As a bonus suddenly my soloing has gotten more 3-D.

We’re pretty much taking August off because all of us are taking vacation in that time. We have a couple gigs lined up in September and October at two of our favorite venues, The Bean Runner Cafe in Peekskill and the Green Growler in Croton. More details on that coming soon. Meanwhile the push is on to find more gigs, and it’s time to start thinking about heading back into the studio to record a second album. We have an ample amount of material that’s now been road tested in front of a live audience.

Weather Report

This has been the hottest July I can remember. It was super hot in Niagara Falls on the 4th, and I feel like it’s pretty much been 90 every day, except a couple that had torrential rain. The last two days have hit 100. Man that’s hot. We’ve had the air conditioning running day and night for three days straight.

We went to the beach this morning, which was a good way to beat the heat. Swimming in the ocean was refreshing; the water was probably 30 degrees colder than the air. We went to the beach a few weeks ago and the air was much cooler, probably 75 or 80, and the water felt about as cold in comparison.

I skipped mowing the lawn this weekend cuz if you’re not swimming it’s not very pleasant to be outside for more than a few minutes and probably not good good for you to be out an hour or more. Tomorrow is supposed to get back to normal.

By coincidence I’ve been reading alot lately about the trends in peak oil and climate change, and I’m wondering if there’s an over/under out there for how long it will before Miami and Brooklyn go the way of New Orleans a few years back.

On the upside we’re generating enough solar power to cover our excessive air conditioning usage. Since we got solar it’s got me thinking about electricity in a whole new way. We now have virtually unlimited free power, at least within the context of running a household, and if our power demands ever increase we can just slap a few more panels up on the roof. Meanwhile gas is sure to get up to 5 or 10 bucks a gallon eventually. So I’m thinking the next car I buy is going to be a plug-in hybrid, and hopefully every car after that. I don’t know if anyone makes a good PIH SUV but with luck I have a few years left in my current car so there’s time to find out.

Take Me Home Country Roads

I just got back from a nice trip upstate, visiting my parents and celebrated the 4th of July. Lots of good barbecue and even cabbage rolls. Martin and his family were up there too. The weather was very hot.

I’m planning a trip to Europe later this year that includes a visit to Hungary. I’ve been learning Hungarian (as well as German, more on all this in a future post) and my Dad, being fluent in both languages had been helping me out. He translated a poem by the famous poet Sándor Petöfi for me, although right now I only recognize about one word per line and am still working out the basics of the grammar and nuances of the usage of common words. But I was able to pick thru it.

My Dad has a cousin living in the town he grew up in and I made contact. I discovered the house he used to live in is still in the family. It was destroyed in WWII but apparently they built a new house on the old site. So my Dad started making me a handdrawn map, and I pulled up google street view. The whole thing was kind of mind blowing.

On the 5th we went up to Niagara Falls. It was very crowded. We went to ride the Maid of the Mist. The lines were long and the management of the situation was very bad. I’d been there years before and at that time they gave you a ticket with a time to show up and it all ran very smoothly. Now there’s apparently new management and they just have you wait around in a single giant crowded queue for hours with no shade and no place to sit. It was so bad Michelle fainted and bumped her head and had to go cool off in the Visitor Center, and missed the boat ride altogether. And afterwards it was even worse, with another chaotic queue just to get back on the elevator to go back up the cliff, with people cutting line and hopping over fences and very bad crowd control. Oy!

That evening we visited my friend Chris down at Lake Chattaqua. I hadn’t seen Chris in years and it was good to catch up. He was the former keyboard player in my 80’s and early 90’s prog fusion band Event Horizon. He’s looking well and still playing music, going thru changes in life as we all are. He’s in the process of buying a grand piano and putting together a new home studio.

The scene at the lake is very nice, total cottage country. There was a little row of restaurants and bars on the waterfront with live music. Reminds of Lake George. There was a band there, a power trio and everyone sang. Excellent harmonies, I wish my rock band sounded that good. The surprise hit of the night was Never Been Any Reason by Head East. They totally nailed it.

On the ride home we were caught in the jaws of a huge stormfront for most of the drive. Hours and hours of the most torrential, tempestuous downpour you’ve ever seen. Very nasty. Finally we broke free and it was nothing but blue skies. But then after we stopped for lunch the storm caught up to us and the last part was raining again.

Global Jukebox in the Classroom

Just before my trip we completed a a major round of work on The Global Jukebox. We’re adding an education portal; we now have a working prototype. You can see it at:


Just scroll down to the bottom of the landing page to find the entry point.

We’ve been partnering with a group called City Lore to create this section for use as a classroom tool in the New York City Public Schools. We created an experience where students can search for the musical roots by listening to the music of different cultures, then create and share a playlist of songs from cultures associated with people in their family tree. We demoed it the other day with City Lore for a group of teachers doing a day of professional development. It went quite well; they were keenly interest in the app and the Jukebox as a whole, and afterwards was an interesting and productive discussion. This was the culmination of a long period of planning and work, and it’s good that it paid off. must say also that it’s been a long while since I gave a demo and it’d lots of fun.

As part of the project we’ve added a visual designer to the team to skin the portal and reskin the site. Her name is Alona and she’s doing great work and I finally got to meet here F2F at the demo. The next phase of the project for me will be integrating her comps into the actual software, while Martin will be focused on backend integration. Hopefully we’ll be pretty much there in the next few weeks, to give us some time for testing and tweaks before the start of the school year.

July Gigs

July is gonna be a busy month for gigging out.

Haven Street, the jazz group is playing at:

Thursday July 18 – The Barn at Quaker Hill Country Club, Pawling

I must say the last few jazz gigs have been really good and they keep getting better. My new song Wolf Whisper is coming along, and Gary brought in a really cool new song last week. The venues and audiences have been really warm and receptive too.

Meanwhile the rock group G-Force has three gigs coming up:

Saturday July 13 – Barney McNabbs, Tucakahoe
Friday Jul 19 – Boulevard Bar, Queens
Saturday Jul 27 – Man Overboard, City Island

Barney Mcnabbs is a place we know and is fun to play. For this gig we’re having my friend Steve sit in on drums since our regular drummer can’t make it. For the gig in Queens we have Jay sitting in on bass since our regular bassist Ken can’t make it. Steve and Jay are both excellent musicians. For Man Overboard we’re back to our regular line up. We played that place a while back and they liked us even thought that gig we weren’t at our our best musically, with two sub players and a brand new drummer.

I’m hoping for some good gigs; it’ll give us all a positive energy boost. Our last few gigs have been spotty, with a couple rained out and a couple playing to mostly empty rooms, the aforementioned disaster, and a couple decent gigs including the last one at Victors, which is one of our favorite places to play and always has a good crowd.

Why aren’t we winning over crowds everywhere we go? That’s a good question. Having sub players slows down our ability to to work new songs into the set. Maybe our choice of material has something to do with it. It also hinders us in drilling down to focus and get the songs really tight. If you’re gonna do tunes everyone knows you really gotta kick ass at it. Ah well. Kenny and Vinny remain excellent and lift up the level of the whole thing.

In any event we’ve been working hard and it’s bound to come together at some point. So as I say I’m hoping for some magic and it just might happen one of these nights.