Groovin’ High

You’re probably thinking hey John, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard about your recording project. What’s going on with that? Well I’m glad you asked.

First of all, all my bands have been on hiatus for the month of August, because everyone in the band is on vacation sometime during the month, usually two or more of us.

Ken and I are putting together a new group and we’ll start rehearsals in September. As you know the old rock band broke up back July when Gina quit in a tantrum after escalating bad behavior. The direction for the new group is fairly open right now, but we both agree we’re tired of playing the same old bar covers and want to do something a bit more experimental. Rush and Steely Dan are high on our list of influences. The drummer is gonna be Steve, who sat in on our last gig. Vinny the guitar player, who is anti-experimental by nature, and pro-play-the-same-songs-over-and-over, decided to play bass in a heavy metal band.

But we found a new guitar player, this dude Glen. He actually auditioned with us about a year ago and had a great sound and energy and fit in with the group, but left after one or two rehearsals. He randomly ran into Ken not too long ago, and explained the reason he didn’t stay with us is that he couldn’t stand Gina (a trend emerges; there was a drummer before Adrian too …) but if there’s ever a new opportunity give him a call.

Meanwhile the jazz group actually rehearsed once without Gary, and with Steve on drums (I think they rehearsed once without me too) so it was pretty much a jam session. I actually brought my alto sax to get in shape on it. Why you ask?

Ah, well back to the recording project. 2018 was a very productive year for Zing Man Studio, having mixed and released a jazz record Haven Street, and completed the third Buzzy Tonic record Elixr, which was eight years in the making. In early 2019 I completed and released a remix and remaster of the previous Buzzy Tonic record Face the Heat, with greatly superior sonic quality.

Since then I’ve been writing, arranging and practicing new material for the fourth Buzzy Tonic record, and I have more material than I can use, so there’s some decisions two be made. Side two will be drawn for a set of songs that cluster thematically, and are a bit unusual for me in that the lyrics are more worked out than the music. In any event I don’t want to start recording until I can sing and play thru the songs on the piano and know them well.

Closer in is a set of songs that may become side one. Two are covers: The Story Lies by Martin, and Who Speaks on Your Behalf by the Cheshire Cat. More on these as the are further along, but you should know I usually do a couple songs I didn’t write between albums, just to try my hand and something and see what I can learn. It also helps me overcome the limitation that whatever I write always sounds like me. So it’s a chance to bring in different sonic and songwriting ideas. Sometimes these make it on the record, sometimes not. Martin has always been very generous about letting me use his material; there’s a least one song of his on every Buzzy Tonic record.

The Story Lies is a song Martin wrote a long time ago, one that I always liked, with a dark and funky vibe, great chords and a great lyric. Speaks on Your Behalf is my favorite song by The Cheshire Cat, a sort of power-prog-pop anthem. The Cat were the best band to come out of Buffalo in the late 80’s and early 90’s, who somehow despite all their talent never got famous. Ah well. Both these songs feature pretty heavy electric guitar, so I might reinterpret the guitar parts on the keys, or I might try and record some guitar parts of my own.

The third song is a new original Plague of Frogs. I can best describe it as a sci-fi battle mini epic, sort of equal measure Bi Tor and Snow Dog by Rush and I.G.Y. by Donald Fagen. Yes, seriously. It’s gonna be about ten minutes long, and the other two are five each, so that’s an album side.

But then along came the wildcard, a song out of the blue, that I’ve now been working the whole year, and it looks like it’ll take me to the end of the year to finish it. It’s another ten-minute song, so I’m actaully on pace to do about twice my usual recording output.

The song is Sun of the Son, and even though it’s not a cover, it might as well be. I wrote it thirty years ago (wow!), in the late ’80’s for Event Horizon, my prog-jazz-fusion band at the time. When Event Horizon performed it, it grew to be a twenty-minute epic with long improvised sections within a larger end-to-end structure including odd meters, exotic modes, and some tricky unison passages. It just grew and grew into a real magnum opus. I played synth along on it with Scooby, as well as the sax, and Mark played bells as well as drums.

We recorded it around Christmastime 1992, or maybe in the new year of 1993 as part of our second album. By this time the band had broken up and I had moved to New York City to go to grad school for computer art and media, since was pretty clear none us were gonna make as rock stars and it was time get on with life. As luck would have it, just before I left town I was in a recording session with another band and the studio had a barbecue with a raffle, the prize being ten hours of free recording time.

Believe or not Jeannie won the raffle and so became executive producer for the record. We had no money so we had to get the entire project done within the ten hours. I was home on break and we got the band back together for a couple rehearsals and went in and laid down the tracks in a marathon session staring around midnight (that was the catch with free studio time, you had to do it when the studio was available.) No overdubs, no edits, no nothing. I left two hours for mixing and mastering, so that pretty much consisted of setting some levels on the tracks and master compressor and letting it roll down to two tracks. Bam, done!

The band was together for about five years, so we all knew the material well and got some great performances. But obviously it was not as tight or polished as it could have been if we, well, had more time. For Son of the Sun, we actually did two takes cuz there was a train wreck around the fifteen-minute mark of the first take. Man that was hard to pull it together and start over at 5:30 AM.

So anyway, this song as been with me all these years. Last year I tried to bring it in to my new jazz group Haven Street. My idea was to recast into more of a Latin montuno feel. Some of the guys liked it, some though it wasn’t really our sound, and in any event we could work up three or four other songs in the time it would take to do this one. I could see that, so I tired to cut it down but couldn’t see how without losing something vital. I ended up writing a new song, Wolf Whisper, which came out of experimenting with how to make the middle section of more amenable the sound of the new group. The new song sounded nothing like it, but being made for the group, the guys like it much better. Life goes on.

Then one night when I was going thru old files on my computer, sifting thru all the old half-written fragments to see if there was something I could use to go with all the lyrics I have (see above), I came across an old MIDI rendition of Son of the Sun that I must’ve laid down sometime in the ’90s, when electronic music was my day job, that I’d totally forgotten about.

It wasn’t that great musically or sonically by my current standards. All the instruments were MIDI, and the bass and drums sounded pretty stiff. But it did capture the entire complicated structure and was a workable foundation for a new version. I had to go for it.

On thing I did was trim it down to half its original length, from 19:30 to 9:45. I cut out a long, atmospheric intro with a bells solo, and I brought the jam sections in the middle down to a minute or two each. This still left quite a bit of music. Then I re-tracked the piano part, which is the spine of the song, to sound less mechanical, and re-tracked a second keyboard (my part back in the day) which is now basically vibes.

Then I focused on the drums, giving them more human feel and dynamics and changing the groove and hits where necessary. I’ll probably take one more pass at that once the other instruments are in place. I learned the bass part on actual electric bass and recorded that. I’m not at the level of a cat like Jim Wynn, who played on the original recording, as far as free expressiveness goes, but it’s solid and has a good pocket. Still to come is a new synth part, which will pull together several synth pad, bass and lead parts from the MIDI demo.

Next is time for the sax part. I wrote the song on alto. But I must say I never really dug my alto playing and was always drawn to the tenor; it just felt more like my natural voice. Also being in Eb is a pain; it kinda feels like driving on the wrong side of the road or writing in a language without types. For another thing I went to the same high school as Jay Beckenstein and was tired of people comparing us to Spyro Gyra when I was trying to do something much heavier.

In 1992 was was finally able to afford a tenor because I was moving to NYC and had sold my car. Once I got it I never looked back. (That horn turned out to be a great investment BTW, a Mark VII Selmer, and I still have it.)

But the saxophone is a weird instrument, very asymmetrical to play across different keys, and you have to decide whether to play in a higher or lower register when moving to a different horn. (Playing Charlie Parker on the tenor has the same problem.) When I adapted SotS to tenor, there was a part that required me to go into the high altissimo range for a fast, tricky run of 16th notes that modulates midway thru. I came close on the record, but didn’t quite nail it. Then there’s another section I have to play down the octave cuz it’s even higher, and I never liked that way that changed the sound.

So I was never quite satisfied with the recording for that reason as well. Now when I went to practice it on tenor I still couldn’t nail that one riff, so I decided to give it a go on alto.

I’m happy to say that my alto sound and feel is much better than I remember. I guess this is not too surprising. My alto sound is the prototype for my tenor sound, and was as big and loud as I could make it, with a wider bore Dukoff mouthpiece and number four reed, to go head to head with an electric guitar. (Kieth played a Les Paul thru a Marshall amp with a Rockman effect unit and the last band he was in before he joined us was a Metallica cover band.) It turned out to be the right move going back playing alto for this song, and I’ve been having great fun woodshedding. I’m well on my way to laying down the definitive take.

In fact, I have all the composed sections down, and am now in the question of how to approach the solos. Doing this song I’m actually breaking a longstanding rule of mine, that is not to try and do jazz on the computer. The thing that makes jazz work is the live interaction between listening, responsive human musicians in the moment, and that’s just impossible to recreate. At worst it comes off like a bad CG fight scene in a superhero movie. At best of course it’s a creative opportunity.

So I’m searching for alternatives. Ken and Erik have both offered to lay down tracks for me on the bass and drums respectively. But even though they’re both great players, doing it overdubbed onto an existing track may not work out so well.

One thing is I’m letting myself be influenced by Kamasi Washington. All his records have a very textural, layered, groove-oriented sound that might be a useful touchstone. As for other influences …

As luck would have it again, the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Art and Music Festival was last weekend. Jeannie watched a documentary on it that focused on the behind the scenes planning and logistics, and the narrowly-averted humanitarian crisis due a crowd an order of magnitude larger than planned for showing up.

Someone made a playlist on Spotify reconstructing the entire concert from the bands’ setlists. Where there was no concert recording available from Woodstock they substituted another version. I got thru a good chunk of it, up to Santana, and listened to alot of great music I’d never heard before.

The thing that caught my ear was Ravi Shankar, who I’m familiar with but haven’t listened to in depth in a long time. (Mark from Event Horizon was a big fan and had studied Ragas and the Tabla.) I went on a deep dive, and this led me to Terry Riley, who was one of those guys I’d always heard about (e.g. as the Riley in The Who’s Baba O’Riley) but never really knew well. He’s considered one of the godfathers of electronic music composition. In the 60’s when he did alot of his pioneering work, he said his goal was to combine Indian Ragas with Miles Davis style modal jazz, using electronics. Here was the perfect template for computer jazz, and very compatible with the Kamasi vibe too.

So we’ll see how it goes, but I think at this point it’s just a matter of laying down the tracks and finishing it.

A Journey to the East, Part VI

The next day was Sunday, the last full day of our trip. We rented a car – a black Mercedes sedan, very slick – and drove out into the countryside to the town of Mör, where my father was born and grew up. This was a very special part of the trip for me personally because I still have family there and so we visited them for the day.

My dad left Hungary as a teenager along with my grandparents and my Uncle Steve amid the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War II. They lived in Germany for a year and then emigrated to Canada. He did not go back to visit until after the the Soviet Union collapsed and Hungary was under democratic government, in the 1990’s.

My grandparent’s house in Mör was bombed and destroyed during the war. My grandmother’s sister was their next-door neighbor and the two families shared a yard. That house stayed in the family. Apparently my father kept in touch with his cousin Rosszi, who lives there now. So they invited us to visit. In addition to Rosszi was her daughter Zsuzsi and husband Laci, and their son, also Laci. They are the nicest, warmest people you could ever hope to meet, especially as we’d never been there before and they’d never met us. They invited us in and treated us like, well, family.

My dad must have kept in touch with Rosszi because she had lots of pictures from over the years and knew exactly who we were: photos of Jeannie and me from our wedding day, of my Mum and Dad visiting when we’d just bought our house and Lizzy was a baby, and going further back of me and my brothers when we were kids, of my parents looking young and glamorous in the early 1960’s, and then of my dad and uncle as youths in Hungary, and my grandparents when they were young. Some of these I haven’t seen in a long, long time, many I’d never seen.

Zsuzsi speaks some English, and young Laci is fluent, so he acted as translator. His English is excellent, with an accent halfway between proper received British and hollywood American; he reminds me of a cross between a blonde Harry Potter and my brother Martin when he was that age, particularly his sense of humor. Laci is studying computer science at Budapest University. Alot of engineers and computer scientists in my family, especially on my dad’s side. And Hungary is of course known for its mathematicians, physicists and that sort of thing, so it’s good to see someone of the younger generation carrying on in that tradition.

Meanwhile I’d been boning up on my Hungarian language skills, so I understood a fair amount, but as with German, if I have to string more than an few words together it’s hard to do in real time. As it turns out, most of the Hungarian words I know are for food, so that was useful. My most used word was probably köszönöm.

So they took us around and we saw the church where my grandparents were married and my dad was baptized, we saw the school they attended as kids. There’s a local landmark called Lamberg-kastély, the former home of a local noble family, that is now a library and a museum of the area’s history. The town is small and this was all a short walk from their home. After a tour there, which included some surprise origami, we went to lunch at a local German restaurant that had Hungarian food too. We started with húsleves with csiga tészta for everyone, and uborkasaláta, then wienerschinzel with mushrooms, potatoes with a fried egg on top, and things like that. All very good. We saw the local cemetery where my great grandparents, the common ancestors of us and Rosszi’s family, are resting in peace. For my kids this was connecting back five generations, across three centuries, which is pretty amazing when you stop to think about it.

Mör is a famous wine making region, and when the Szingers lived in Hungary they had a farm and vineyards and made wine from the grapes they grew and sold it mainly to hotels and taverns, and that was the family business. Apparently this goes back to the time when they came down the Danube from Germany in the 1700’s. Our family’s land was collectivized long ago, but winemaking lives on, so we saw the vineyards up the hillsides on the south-facing slopes, alot like Napa Valley in California. We saw the presshouses at the bottom of the hill. These have large tunnels going into the mountainside to serve as cellars to keep the wine cool. I’m told the Szinger’s one was uses as a shelter during the war.

When we got back to the house, Laci senior, who is a carpenter, showed us his workshop. It was connected to a building that was also used in winemaking and contains an old, old wine press. The thing was the size of a truck and probably 100 years old. My dad had built a model of the traditional wine press they used, so I had and idea of what it was and how it operated. Still the size of the thing was impressive. The main arm was made of a tree trunk well over a foot thick and probably twenty feet long. Although it hadn’t been used in a long time it was still in working order. Interesting to ponder what might have been if history had not intervened.

Back in Budapest that night it was our last fancy Hungarian meal, again at the Italian/Hungarian place next door to our hotel. I accidentally ordered three orders of the desert plate with three kinds of strüdel! All in all not a bad mistake to have made.

We were up bright and early to catch a cab to the airport. The first part of the trip was nice and relaxed. We even had time to pick up some palinka and at the duty-free shop in Budapest Airport. We had a connection to make in Amsterdam (county number six). There was almost an hour to catch the next flight after we landed, but for some reason the gate wasn’t available for our plane, so we sat on the tarmac for a half hour or so, until the situation became a bit desperate. It led to a mad dash thru Amsterdam airport, which is huge. Then Michelle got caught in some security station because the machine wouldn’t recognize her as the person in her passport photo! We made it to the gate just in time. Then that plan sat there for another half hour. Ah well I was in business class and they immediately offered me a cold beer. Coming west we lost six hours and so even though it was a seven hour flight we landed in the afternoon, an hour after we took off.

We got back home and all’s week that ends well. That was two weeks ago already and we’re back into the day to day routine here. We’re still figuring out were some of the souvenirs should go, and of course I have thousands of pictures to look thru and organize, but that’s a project for this fall. It was as great trip and a fantastic experience, and wonderful to get a sense of the geography, culture, architecture, history, language, music, all that great food, and to connect with family and learn something about my own heritage, and to be able to share it all with Jeanne and the girls. I hope I get a chance to back to that part of the world again some day.

A Journey to the East, Part V

Next morning bright and early we were on the train to Budapest. We crossed into Hungary only a stone’s throw from Slovakia. When we rolled in, the first thing you noticed was train station was a bit more run-down than anything we saw in Austria, where everything was so well-kept it was like a real-life Epcot Center. In Hungary you could see bits of graffiti and peeling plaster and scaffolding around underway restoration work, but overall it gave things a well worn, liven-in charm and was still nicer than say New York City.

Our hotel was right downtown about a block from the Danube, between the Chain Bridge and the Elizabeth Bridge, on one of those old narrow streets. One either side of the hotel was a restaurant. We had lunch at the one closer to the river while we waited for our room to be ready. At last, genuine, and great Hungarian food! We all got töltött káposzta, which was served in a bowl with szalonna and kolbász. Wow, out of this world.

After lunch we set out to explore. We walked down the waterfront and crossed the famous Chain Bridge, one of the first modern suspension bridges, predating the Brooklyn Bridge by almost fifty years, and the first permanent bridge across the Danube. I must say it’s a beautiful structure. From there were were are the foot of yet another funicular, this one leading up to Buda Castle, historic home of Hungarian kings. This was a cool complex of medieval castles dating to the 13th century and and more modern, palace and government type buildings from mainly the 18th century. We walked around the grounds alot before entering from the back. By this time Jeannie and Michelle were tired from the heat and went back to the hotel.

Lizzy and I kept on exploring. A couple blocks away, on the top of the hill was St. Matthias Church, which was perhaps the most beautiful of all the churches we saw, built in the gothic style in the 1200’s to the 1400’s but the stone is bright white rather than the more typical black-grey. Just past that was a place called the Fisherman’s Bastion, which is sort of a park and café with castle-wall style architecture, providing great views of the city and photo ops, looking down on the Chain Bridge and Parliament across the river. There was a group of street musicians playing violin there.

That night we went out dinner at restaurant on the other side of the hotel, which had both Hungarian and Italian food, also very good. They had great deserts including rates. They had a plate with three different kinds, one turns with spices, one alma with mak, and one cseresznye and dió. Yum yum. We walked around the neighborhood that evening looking at shops and the Danube. Budapest is a very beautiful city. Like Vienna it’s close to two million in population. But it has hills and bridges, plus the general density and rhythm, that remind me alot of San Francisco.

Next day we headed up to the famous Hosök tere, or Heroes Square. It was a about a two kilometer walk up Andrássy Avenue, a broad and pleasant historical boulevard. The square itself holds a set of statues and monuments; in the center is the original seven Magyar chieftains who came together the form the kingdom of Hungary after their conquest of the Carpathian basin in the ninth century and subsequently made Árpád their king, and around that is a row of monuments to kings of Hungary through the ages

After that we were all hot and tired so we took a cab back to Parliament, a truly massive and impressive neo-gothic building. One thing I really wanted to see was the crown of St. Stephen, which we learned was housed inside. Unfortunately, the wait to take the tour was several hours. If we had known we could have gotten tickets ahead of time. Instead we saw what we could see in the lobby of the visitor center and walked around the outside. After that is was St. Stephen’s Basilica, yet another ornate and beautiful church.

Later that afternoon we went to the Hungarian National Museum, which was absolutely fascinating (at least for me; the girls had had enough museums at this point so we split up again). It’s mainly about the history of Hungary and contains quite a few national treasures (and was the former home of the crown of St. Stephen). The building was similar the art museum in Vienna, which a great grand staircase taking up the whole middle of the building and leading you up to start at the top. There were two wings upstairs corresponding to the medieval period, from the era of King Árpád thru the Turkish invasion, and then the last few hundred years from the rise of Austria-Hungary on to the present day. On the lower level was another section that went all the way back to the stone age, thru the Avars, Celts and Romans.

That night we went on a dinner cruise on the Danube. It was super scenic and very nice, with great food and music. The food was a buffet with lots of stuff including more goulash, ragout, palacinta, kolbász, gombóc, various meats, mushrooms, potatoes, and of course more töltött káposzta, and all sorts of deserts. There was a music group consisting of the two violinists and a bass, playing everything Mozart and Strauss to gypsy dances and Csárdás. On the other side of the boat was a cimbalom player but we didn’t get to hear much of him until the cruise was almost over cuz we didn’t know he was there until we got up and walked around after dinner. Again we ended the night walking around the waterfront.

A Journey to the East, Part IV

We were on the train when we realized Vienna waits for us. Coming out of Salzburg there were still alot of mountains, but they eventually gave way to rolling hills and broad valleys. The houses changed from chalets with broad eaves and balconies to another style whose name I don’t know, with walls painted in cheerful colors and always red clay roofs, and the occasional array of solar panels.

Our hotel was a funky building several hundreds of years old, with the entrance under an arch and deep down inside a space that was something between an alleyway and a courtyard, leading back in from the street and dividing the building into two halves. There were a couple of restaurants in the there with both indoor and and outdoor space. One was perfect for dinner that night and the other for breakfast the next morning.

The first stop for the next day was the Schönbrunn Palace, which was the main summer residence of the Hapsburg monarchs for over 300 years. Wow. Not only was it a genuine, bona fide palace with of apartments for the emperor and his family, and huge ballrooms where every bit of surface was a work of art, and as an added bonus, we finally understood what the ceramic stoves we’d been seeing in other places were all about — they were actually heaters for the rooms. Anyway, not only all that, but it was also the seat of government for a major world power. If the other castles were designed to impress and communicate wealth and power, this place was at a whole ‘nuther level. Everything about it was huge. It was a ten-minute walk from the front gate to the front door. And the back yard was a sprawling gardens with groves and paths, sculptures and fountains, a hedge maze, a zoo, and yes even a couple cafés. We spent the better part of the afternoon in the gardens, even solved the hedge maze. By then the weather was getting pretty hot, and remained so the rest of the trip.

The only thing I can compare it to is the Capital and the Mall in Washington, D.C. And now that I’ve seen the prototype, D.C. looks like a weird temple to the abstract concept of democracy, as opposed then some idiosyncratic persona of a particular ruler like in Vienna.

I should mention that the two most important rulers who lived there were the Empress Maria Theresa, back in the time of Mozart and the Holy Roman Empire, and Emperor Franz Joseph, who was also King of Hungary, who reigned from the mid-1800’s until near the end of World War I. Between the time of those two monarchs, a host of other nobles such as Marie Antoinette resided and ruled, with the Hapsburg at the center of an increasingly complicated and fragile web of alliances and powers struggles that extended through Europe and into Africa and the Americas. Napoleon came and went, Germany became a nation, and the industrial revolution happened, along with Adam Smith and Karl Marx. At the of Franz Josef’s day everything finally fell apart for the Austria-Hungarian Empire and all over Europe, and the last vestiges of the feudal systems that provided the world order for Christendom since the fall of the Roman Empire were finally swept away. Yay capitalism!

I must say it was interesting visiting the three cities in Austria in the order we did, because the stories told in the various museums and castles were all interconnected, and flowed into their final climax in Vienna.

For example Salzburg, which was a power center in an earlier time, suffered a major economic downturn in the 16th century because its gold mines we suddenly unprofitable after the bottom dropped out of the market due to the influx of looted gold from Mexico. Later on Franz Josef’s brother was Emperor od Mexico. Small world.

Also I should say Vienna is a much larger city than either Innsbruck of Salzburg, which are basically small towns of 100,000 or so. Vienna is close to two million. Also this was my first ever wholly urban vacation. On other trips I’ve visited say Albuquerque or San Francisco or Montreal, bit then also spent a few days skiing or hiking in the mountains or that kind of thing. This trip it was pretty much all cities. Nevertheless, we did a ton of walking. Most days we were over ten kilometers, and our highest day was eighteen.

I had tried to learn some German for the trip, and indeed heard people speaking it everywhere. The knowledge I had helped with reading signs and menus and that kind of thing. Listening in conversation was a bit harder cuz people speak fast, and speaking — well it was hard to string more than a few words together without taking time to think of the next word. My most commonly used word was “danke”. But it turns out everyone’s English is quite good, so it didn’t matter much.

That night we met up with my cousin Peter. Peter was born and raised in Ontario, Canada, and we were close when we were growing up, the closest of all my cousins. Even more itinerant than I was, Peter toured the States with his rock band in the days of his youth, lived in Florida for a decade or so, then Vancouver, and has been living in the EU for the last couple years. Like me, all of his grandparents were born in Hungary, which means he’s eligible for citizenship there. His girlfriend Kati is also Hungarian. She’s a friend of the family and stayed at my house for a few days when I lived in Brooklyn. Lizzy was a baby and Kati was a teenager on her first trip to Canada and the US, visiting New York City with my Uncle Ron, Peter’s Father. It was nice that she remembered me. And of course it was great to reconnect with Peter, we instantly picked up our rapport. It turns out Peter loves living in Europe, and Austria is much more chill than North America and work-life balance is much better. Even if you’re a kid with your first job at McDonald’s you get five weeks vacation.

We met in the old downtown, right in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We has some time to kill before meeting up so we walked around the downtown and checked out a few of the big churches. St. Stephens was one, and it was gobsmackingly gorgeous outside and in. They must have been tuning the pipe organ because the whole time we were in there you could hear a single note being played for a minute or so, followed by another note a half-step up. There was another church around the corner, just as ornate if not quite as huge, and notable for a great big dome on top, complete with a little dome inside, with a painting of a dove representing the Holy Spirit at the very zenith.

So anyway, we met up with Peter and Kati and went out to dinner at a traditional Austrian restaurant, so more pancake soup and wienerschintzel. Yum yum. They also had a really good csirkepaprikás palacinta appetizer. When we were done with dinner it was raining out, so we went down the street to a nearby café and continued hanging out and talking. A little while later the rain ended and we went for a walk around the city. When he first moved to Austria Peter worked as a tour guide, so he was able to tell us alot about what we were seeing and is an engaging storyteller like his Dad. We ended up in a square in front of the city hall, where the Vienna Film Festival was going on with free outdoor screenings on a great big screen and a huge sound system and seating adjacent to an outdoor cafe. The movie was a performance of the Berlin Philharmonic doing what they do best: Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, that whole bag. Very good music and alot of fun.

Next day we started at the Hofburg, which we’d passed thru the night before. This was the former winter royal palace complex in the city the current seat of the national government. Across the plaza, much like the Smithsonian in the U.S.A., is a pair of museums, right on the Ringstraße, one for art and the other for natural history, founded by Franz Josef in the 1800’s. We picked the Kunsthistorisches, and it was the best art museum yet, considered on of the best art museums in the world. It held paintings by Rapheal, Rembrandt, Dürer (finally), Brughel (most famously the Tower of Babel), Michelangelo, lots of Rubens, and tons of others, with a heavy concentration on the renaissance. The building itself was impressive, with a grand marble stairways and an octagonal dome.

After that we walked around the Volksgarten and down the Ringstraße. Jeannie wanted to see the Danube, but it turned out it’s no big deal, basically just a canal that cuts through the city, at least in the neighborhood where we were. There was a cute little fake beach bar there.

That evening we met up with Peter again and went out to Prater Park, an amusement park embedded in a larger park in the heart of the city. The part itself dates back to the 12th century and the classic rides in the amusement park are from the 1800’s — original steampunk and very well maintained. Of course like everything else in Europe there’s just layer on layer of newer and older stuff. We ended up in a Biergarten, enjoying dinner and the summer evening ambience and quite a few beers.

Next morning we were up bright and early for the final leg of the journey, to Budapest.

The Return of D&D

It’s getting late in the summer, which means soon the kids will be off to college. This year it’s not just Lizzy, but my two nieces Katie and Valerie. What this means for me is that we had to hurry up and finish our D&D campaign.

You’ll recall that last year while on on a cruise, I started a D&D campaign with Michelle and my four nieces and nephews to alleviate the boredom of days on end at sea trapped on a boat and inevitable insanity or worse that’s sure to follow. Well would you believe they all wanted to continue the campaign? And so it came to be, back by popular demand.

The module we played last summer was The Isle of Dread. This summer, in keeping with the theme of adapting 1980’s original AD&D to 5th edition rules, we played White Plume Mountain, in which the party explores a semi-dormant volcano seeking to recover stolen relics, and perhaps learn the whereabouts of the powerful and possibly undead wizard Kerpatis.

Some of the party kept their characters from the previous adventure and some developed new ones. In particular Katie is now playing a Dwarven Paladin, who is a good partner and foil for Carmine the Invincible, Lou’s straight-up Dwarven fighter. Meanwhile Michelle had a really interesting character in a cleric who worshiped Thor, with lots of thundering and hammering special powers, but she traded that in for a Halfling Rogue specializing in burglary in the classic Baggins mode. However Valerie was a new Cleric, and Abbie was an edgy Elfin Bard, chaotic neutral. Phillip kept on with his wizard, and leveled up enough to get spells like Fireball and Lightning Bolt, and so is coming into his own as a force to be reckoned with.

We did the first session back in July, combined with a barbecue. Then this last session was out on Long Island, and we had to get to the end by the end of the night, so it ended up being a pretty long night.

I moved the story along pretty fast; we jump cut straight from the seaside tavern where the party accepted the adventure straight to the smoldering foot of White Plume Mountain, hundreds of miles away. The dungeon is full of tricks and traps, lava and geysers, strange magic and unusual creatures, so there was much more than your typical hack’n’slash and the party needed to keep their wits. They rose to the occasion admirably and wreaked major havoc while keeping their hides alive. Michelle in particular figured out how to effectively burgle in the middle of combat and more than once the party escaped with the treasure and their lives rather than fight it out to the bitter end. Still the monsters were pretty tough and more than once a party member fell and required extreme instant healing. As a DM I must say there’s an inherent disadvantage when you’re the final boss such as a giant decapod (look it up) or vampire: even if you have alot of hit dice you only get a few attacks per round, while there’s six of them all trying to kill you at once.

The quest of this module was to recover three powerful magic weapons. The first one was a strangely cursed sword, which Abbie kept. The second and third were a mace and axe, great for a cleric and a dwarf respectively. There was also a fake ring of wishes, which piqued the party’s avarice. Richly and predictably, the party fell to arguing whether they should return said relics to the patrons who hired them on the quest, or keep them for themselves and return to the city by some circuitous route. Katie pointed out that she and Lou are lawful good, so there’s potentially a test of alignment in the offing. I have a few ideas as to what may happen next. Hopefully we’ll pick this up over Thanksgiving.

A Bustle in Your Hedgerow

As much as I’d love to keep on reliving our vacation, we’ve been back home a week and there’s lots going on here. We’re mostly unpacked but we got a pretty good amount of souvenirs, some of them still need a home. Which predictably kicks of a whole defragging the house project.

Things are busy at work all of a sudden, even though alot of people are still out on vacation. We’re converting our whole product to run on Docker containers so everyone has to get up to speed. Lots of training sessions.

I gave Michelle her first driving lesson the other day. Laps around to parking lot of the local high school, and pulling in an out of parking spaces. She did great.

The weather has been really hot this summer, but also there’s been a good amount of rain. So the yard is like a jungle, everything growing like crazy. I mowed the lawn the day we left for our trip and it was overdue by the day we got back. I’ve spent four major sessions in the last few weeks trimming and weeding and pruning and edging, on top of the usual routine. And due to the extreme heat it’s not fun to stay outside for even a half hour, let alone doing hard physical work in the full heat of the day for hours on end. Been trying to do more in the mornings and evenings.

The neighbors behind us have a willow tree that’s gotten pretty big and is hanging down over our hedgerow and into our yard. I bought a tool that’s basically a mini chainsaw on a ten-foot pole in the spring to help prune back the tree. And then from the next neighbor’s yard up sprang a vine that was growing up into the tree. There are several trees in the neighborhood being choked to death by out of control weeds, so I didn’t want to let this go. So another major effort. This was back in July. But the willow grows so fast it’ll need it again soon.

Then in the other corner of my hedgerow were more vines coming from the neighbors on the other side. When I went to take these out I discovered a wasp nest under the eave of my neighbor’s garage, right at the corner of my property, and got stung up. I swear, these hedges use to be so well maintained but my neighbors are letting theirs get all overgrown. Someday I’m going to have to tear mine out and replace it with a fence.

To top it all off there’s a new species of weeds I’ve never seen before, that gives my fingers blisters when I pull it. On the plus side our sunflowers and tomatoes are doing great.

A Journey to the East, Part III

The train ride from Innsbruck to Salzburg came down out of the mountains, passed thru southern Germany, then climbed back up and re-entered Austria. So country number four. Traveling by rail you can get a glimpse of the regional economic activity as expressed by inventory of raw materials stacked up by the railroad sidings. There was a good amount of lumber in particular. Everything seemed a bit more human scale than at home, where it seems to be all massive depots dealing in huge quantities of shipping containers and not much else.

We arrived in Salzburg in the evening, in time for dinner. The hotel here was smaller than Innsbruck but had a similar décor, and a nice restaurant with pancake soup – another favorite Austrian dish. Michelle was particularly excited by this, but we all enjoyed it.

We slept in in the morning and had cappuccino and croissants and the hotel bar. Back on the tourist beat, our first stop was Hohensalzburg Fortress. Our cab driver drove right up to the bottom, thru the old town squares, scattering tourists in front of us like pigeons. To get up to the castle meant a ride on a funicular railroad. This on was apparently in in service since the 1800’s, with several upgrades along the way to the carriages, and built on top of an older, water-powered system dating back to the 1600’s.

Hohensalzburg was probably the largest and best preserved castle we saw, with large parts of it intact from the 1500’s. Of course it was built upon older castles, with parts going back to the 1200’s and the original foundations for the keep dating from the Romans. It too had it’s collections of paintings and artifacts, including a hall of puppets and puppetry, as well as a very well preserved chapel. Salzburg was a bit unusual in that it was for a long time ruled by a line of Archbishops as head of both church and state, in a quasi-independent province of the Holy Roman Empire. Images of the double-headed eagle abounded everywhere in Austria. The castle is high on a rocky hill and offers excellent views of the city and surrounding mountains and countryside.

Down at the town square again we had a lunch of beer and pretzels. The was a band playing there, consisting of a clarinet, accordion and standup bass, playing folk music. They were very good. The annual music festival was happening while we were in town, with events in all the churches and concert halls and castles. Alot like the Montreal jazz festival but for classical. Most of the venues were hundreds of dollars a seat, so we didn’t take in any of those, although the programs looked quite impressive. We did catch some free events, like the trio in the square at lunchtime.

Then there was another museum – I think it was called the Salzburg Museum – right in the main square with the statue of Mozart, with more artwork and artifacts. Honestly at this point it’s all running together in my mind, I’d have to look at the pictures we took. In any event we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the old town, looking at shops and stuff.

Salzburg Cathedral was pretty spectacular. High Baroque style, overwrought with ornament o every available surface, yet somehow very elegant. For one thing, everything about the design was systematic, reflecting a deeply evolved expression of a total worldview. For another, it had five banks or organ pipes. One was up in back in the usual place. The other four were arrayed around the four corners of the large central open space, do doubt capable of producing genuine quadraphonic sound.

We had dinner outdoors at a restaurant in one of the squares. As we moved further east goulash began to appear on the menus as well as schnitzel, and spätzle as well as potatoes.

Next day we started at Schloss Mirabell and the Mirabell Gardens, which was a short walk from our hotel. The palace and gardens date from the 1600’s. The gardens are beautiful, full of flowers and paths, and feature a large number of sculptures depicting figures and scenes from Greek mythology. Jeannie was really keen on the gardens since The Sound of Music was one of her favorite movies since the time she was a little girl. It was a perfect sunny day for enjoying them.

In the afternoon we split up and Jeannie and visited the Mozart house while the girls went looking at shops. The Mozart house was fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that building is over 700 years old, and so you get a sense of medieval urban architecture for a well-to-do private residence, with it’s courtyards and kitchens and apartments and all. Technology may change but the house design was still comfortable and not totally unfamiliar.

Mozart was of course a boy genius musical prodigy of the 1700’s who went on to become a great composer, and this was the house he grew up an and lived until his mid-twenties. His father was also a famous composer and taught young Wolfgang and took him on tours all over Europe to play for the likes of the Empress Maria Theresa. The house was full of artifacts including manuscripts, musical instruments, travel paraphernalia, and models and drawings of costumes and stage sets for his various operas. There was also a listening room with some of the highest fidelity speakers I have ever heard. I did not know that young Wolfgang’s first instrument was the violin and he switched to piano later when he decided to learn how to compose. I also didn’t know he had a sister who was supposedly the better keyboard player, and they toured together as a brother and sister act until she grew up and married.

He also has a chocolate and liqueur named after him.

A Journey to the East, Part II

We got off the train in Innsbruck. The train station was very nice, slick and modern yet still welcoming. It was a few blocks walk to the hotel. We’d all gotten new luggage with wheels, which made it pretty easy. The lobby was sleek, classy and warm, all decorated in stone and wood. The hotel was pretty big relatively, maybe the tallest building in the city. We were all the way up top on the 14th floor. There was a balcony at the end of the hall and it was worth a look. Innsbruck is surrounded on all sides by mountains.

Our fist stop was Schloss Ambras, a castle in the hills on the edge of town and former seat of power of the Tyrolean Hapsburgs, notably the Archduke Ferdinand II, Emperors Maximillian I and later Leopold I. The first thing we did when we arrived we get some lunch. Since we were in Austria, it was the first of many wienerschnitzel, served here with potatoes and beer. Very yummy.

The castle itself, like most castles in the area was rebuilt several times, with much of what you see constructed in the 19th century atop older layers going back to the 16th century and parts going back hundreds of years before that. Schloss Ambras is notable for its collection of art and artifacts. One wing was full of paintings mostly of nobles (and their dogs). There was a fully preserved and/or restored chapel with magnificent paintings and carvings on all available surfaces.

Another hall contained a huge collection of arms and armor, with over 50 full suits of armor for foot and mounted combat, and armor for horses as well as humans. Apparently Leopold had a giant in his service at one time, because one suit of armor was for a man eight and a half feet tall! He died died around age 30 from complications of his giantism.

Another gallery, called the hall of wonders, contained all kinds of crazy artworks and artifacts. Sculptures carved out of red coral were really trendy for a while. Also 500 year old taxidermically stuffed exotic creatures including sharks and crocodiles.

By the time we got back to the hotel we were in need of refreshment, so we hung around the bar enjoying schnapps and Austrian beer. A little later we went out for dinner, again walking around and exploring the old town. The pattern in all these European cities is the same; since they’re so much older than anything in the States, predating the invention of the automobile, the new city has grown up around the old town, and it’s surprisingly well integrated. The old towns are all very charming, clean neat and safe, with shops and restaurants for locals and tourists alike. Everyone speaks English and is super helpful. It’s almost like a real-life Epcot.

We had a restaurant in mind, but when we got there we discovered it was closed until September. By this time it was getting late, so we ended up at the local Hard Rock Cafe. I was able to get an Austrian-style burger, with bacon and a fried egg on top of everything else.

The next day we explored the Alps. I’d never been there before and had really underestimated the scale and grandeur. I’ve had several friends who’ve been there in the winter and told me that’s the time to go. Obviously Innsbruck is famous for it’s Alpine skiing, so it’s on my bucket list.

We started again by walking thru the old town, one end of which was just a block from our hotel, and getting breakfast as a sidewalk café, cappuccino and croissants. From there we walked to the edge of town (it’s a small town) and caught a ride up the funicular railway into the hills. Funiculars are a big thing in Europe; basically halfway between a train and an elevator, it’s a pretty evolved technology. From there we took a gondola up the mountain and a second gondola up to the summit.

The views were spectacular. The clouds came and went with several opportunities for clear, long distance viewing. Just breathtaking. The mountains are wild and rocky, and you could look down into valleys where sheep and goats and cattle graze, and giant golden eagles circle lazily overhead, with the occasional lone cabin, and beyond that dense forest and beyond that even more mountains until forever. You really felt as if dragons might live on to this day somewhere in there.

We hiked around until we had our fill, and took the gondolas and funicular back down into town. Then it was back to the train station and on to Salzburg.

A Journey to the East, Part I

After months of planning and preparing, we took off on a Thursday night from JFK airport for our big trip to Europe. We arrived in Zürich, Switzerland the following morning. The plan was to work our way east via rail thru Innsbruck, Salzburg, Vienna and Budapest. I should point out that Jeannie handled all the research on logistics and the reservations, and deserves special thanks, especially cuz almost everything came off without a hitch and turned out awesome.

The flight itself was comfortable and uneventful. The movie was about superheroes that had lots of explosions but made no sense to me cuz I didn’t see the other 20 or so movies involved in the setup. Something something time travel and a do-over for the apocalypse. Since I’m six and half feet tall and have accumulated tons of air miles over the years I decided to splurge and go business class, and so I was actually able to stretch out a bit and get some sleep. Plus they had some really fine whiskey. When I woke up we were just coming off the ocean over France. Looking out the window you could see how the land usage patterns were different than the States. Much less rectangular, with lots of little villages dotting irregular patches of farmland and forrest like constellations. Eventually the terrain became more and more mountainous and soon it was time to land.

It was a pretty quick cab ride from the airport to the hotel, and so we checked in. Amazing that four people and our luggage fit into a Prius wagon. The hotel was really nice; we had a two-room suite with one room for Jeannie and me and the other for the girls. It was a European style hotel with only four floors or so and a handful of rooms on each floor. We were all tired from the flight so we took a bit of a nap, and then got up and went out to explore the neighborhood. I was expecting a thoroughly modern city, but we were staying in the old part of town. So it was a mix of new and old, with a charming and laid-back vibe, with hills and streetcars, much closer in tone to San Francisco than New York City. We walked past the university, which was up on a hill some nice views. Within a few blocks we got to the historic district which was mainly closed to vehicles, and full of 500 year old buildings and little town squares with fountains. We stopped for lunch, which was quiche and cheesecakes and cappuccinos, in a little outdoor café. Very lovely.

Our destination was a few blocks more: the Kunsthaus Zürich, one of the city’s art museums. I’m a big fan of Albrecht Dürer, and they supposedly had a big collection of his work there. Unfortunately it turned out that most of it was lithographs and because the paper is old and sensitive to light, that stuff is not on public display and I would have had to call ahead to arrange a viewing. Ah well. There was lots of other cool stuff including Mondrian, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, alot of Dutch Masters from the Renaissance, and alot of paintings of chalets and mountains and cows by Swiss artists. Some interesting sculptures too. Lizzy said it reminded her of the Albright-Knox gallery in Buffalo, and it was of the same scope and scale. All in all very cool.

It was raining when we were done so we took an uber back to the hotel. We were a bit jet-lagged out so we took another nap. When we went out again it was time to look for dinner. At first we were thinking of getting fondu. The hotel restaurant was listed in the city guide as a great fondu place, but unfortunately it was closed because, you know, August in Europe. So we walked around the city to see what we could find.

At first we went down to the river, just a few blocks away, and followed that out the mouth of the lake, where there was a park where we watched the sunset. Quite beautiful. After that we headed back into the old downtown, where there were quite a few restaurants and cafés. We did find a fondu place but they couldn’t seat us for almost and hour, so instead we went to an Italian place nearby. The food was really excellent, and not very different from the Italian food you get in the States. With a nice bottle of wine it was just the thing.

Of course we had to stop in a shop and load up on chocolate.

We only had one day in Switzerland. So even though we’re all about clocks and chocolates and cheese, and were especially passionate about neutrality, next day were up bright and early to catch the train to Innsbruck, Austria.

The plan was to take trains each leg of the trip, and I must say it worked out great. The train stations are all right downtown, a short walk or cab ride from the hotels and all the interesting stuff. And there’s not alot of waiting around and standing in line like there is in an airport. So, quick and easy.

The train system was Austria Railjet. The trains are fast too: they get up to 200 km/hr. And they’re very smooth and comfortable compared to Amtrack, Metro North or the Long Island Railroad. Don’t even mention the New York City Subway.

Switzerland, Austria and Hungary are each smaller than New York State in both area and population, so everything is pretty close together. The total distance from Zürich to Budapest is about 1000 kilometers, about the same as from New York to Detroit. This first leg was the longest leg of the trip, about three hours.

And it was a spectacularly scenic leg of the trip. We could have paid extra to be in the observation car, but it was pretty amazing as it was. I’ve never been to the Alps before and had no idea what to expect. I’d compare them the the Sierras in California and Nevada in terms of height and scale. But they must be very new as far as mountains go; erosion has not had time to do much work. The peaks are very jagged, like rows of crooked teeth, with cliff and ravines everywhere. Add to that the fact that this place has been settled by humans for thousands and thousands of years, so the land was not blank like the mountains back home. Instead there were little villages in the crevices and less steep hillsides, and the odd house or church or ruins of a castle in the most improbable spots. Overall the effect was surreal.

We passed thru Liechtenstein on the way. When we were planning the trip we’d considered having lunch there just to say we did it, but there were no train stations in Liechtenstein. There was one on either side of the border in Switzerland and Austria. So then the plan became to head down to the bar car and have a toast. But the country came and went so fast we didn’t even have time for that. Ah well.


I just got back from a long, long trip to central Europe. It was an amazing time but it’s good to back home again. There’s alot to unpack, literally and figuratively, so it’ll take a few posts to get thru it all.

For now, rewinding a bit, the day before we left I saw Claypool Lennon Delirium at the Capital Theatre in Port Chester. The nucleus of the band is Les Claypool of Primus fame and Sean Lennon, son of John and Yoko, doing joyous psychedelic rock with a group rounded out by a keyboardist (synth, clav and mellotron) and an excellent drummer. Les and Sean split the lead vocals and the arrangements included lots of vocal harmonies and a good balance of melodies and jamming. They did mostly originals, but to give you an idea of their sound, the three covers they did were Astronomy Domine by Pink Floyd, In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, and Tomorrow Never Knows by the Beatles, all of which they really made into their own.

I know Les Claypool best from his work with Primus, and of course the music for South Park, but I haven’t heard from him in a while. He’s a wildly creative bass player, and his style has evolved and matured alot to be less of a lead instrument taking up all the available space, and more fitting into to the groove in various ways, simultaneously anchoring and going beyond, but still sounding very much like him. Sean is a really good guitar player. He plays a Strat with a whammy bar and uses alot of tone and and phrasing bends in his solos, so I’d compare him to someone like David Gilmour. But he’s also capable of fast shredding riffs. He doesn’t use it like a metal guy though; he has in own thing going. In any event the two of them have great synergy and the whole show and the music was just fantastic.

Co-headlining with CLD was The Flaming Lips, who were not at the same level musically, although they opened with a rendition of Also Sprach Zarathustra, which was a promising start. The singer had an annoying habit of interrupting himself to demand the audience make more noise. Still they were fun and notable for their use of giant inflatable props, and they seemed to have something of a cult following.