Monday, October 28, 2013

Birth of a Genre: The Origin of the English Oratorio

I've written before about my love of classical music and my slowly-growing collection of oratorios. While most people my age are keeping up with the popular music scene, much of my music collection has passed its two-hundredth birthday already, and in some cases is pushing three hundred.

Case in point: last month I got Handel's oratorio Esther, originally composed in 1718 (and thus coming up on 295 years!). Most people only know Handel for his Messiah, but he actually wrote a total of 29 oratorios, 25 of them in English. In fact, Esther is the very first oratorio in English rather than German or Italian. Not just the first English oratorio Handel wrote, but the very first one ever. Handel had already achieved a measure of fame in writing Italian (and non-vocal) works, so this departure from his usual fare was unusual, and only done because it was a private commission. It was originally staged as a private performance only, and wasn't revised and publicly performed for over fourteen years.

(The story of how that happened is interesting; Handel had revised the original 1718 composition slightly two years later and this copy apparently fell into the hands of another music company sometime in the intervening eleven years, who then proceeded to put on what was essentially a pirated performance in 1731 which was a huge success. Handel responded by doing some more revisions and adding some new content and putting on a performance of the new and revised Esther the next year in 1732. [The recording I got is a reconstruction of the 1720 version, as best can be determined, however.])

When it was finally performed for the public, however, Esther's success helped show Handel that there was a lively market for classical music that the up-and-coming English-speaking middle class of Britain could actually understand. He came out with his second oratorio Deborah a year later in 1733, and their popularity helped convince Handel to make the switch from Italian to English works. Although he continued to write Italian operas for another ten years after this, of the twenty-three oratorios he wrote after Deborah only one of them was in Italian.

Anyway, I wrote this post because I wanted to examine the first ever English oratorio. I've had Deborah in my collection for some years now (it was the second oratorio I ever got, actually), and it's interesting to compare them. You see, I've always found Deborah to be rather slow and dragging, overall. I admit, I tend to prefer faster tempos in general (and Deborah has a few energetic fast pieces), but I think I can appreciate a good slow piece as well (and Deborah has some sublime ones). It's just that it tends to have a lot more of the latter than the former, and takes a lot of time for anything to happen. I had long unconsciously expected that Esther, being the first oratorio Handel wrote, would also be a bit slow and plodding. I figured that Handel was still finding his feet with these early oratorios, before he got better and wrote such masterpieces as Messiah, Saul, and Belshazzar.

The truth turned out to be a bit more complicated. For one thing, I hadn't really realized just how important the librettist is the finished product. Handel didn't come up with the words to his works himself, he simply set to music words provided him by a librettist. And different librettists had differing levels of competence in composing poetic English that can be sung easily. Some librettists worked with Handel over multiple years and provided the librettos for multiple oratorios (some of the better writers were in this category, thankfully), but the librettists for both Esther and Deborah were one-shots, making it impossible to compare them with anything else fairly.

The point is that Esther, although it also has a bit of plodding in its first half, has some surprisingly fun and peppy rhythms. Haman's first aria has to be the most upbeat and cheerful song about genocide I've ever heard. Once the second half rolls around the action picks up a bit and there are quite a few really good arias in quick succession through the remainder from Mordecai, Esther and Ahasuerus. It helps that it's a bit shorter than the norm for a Handelian oratorio – most run about two CDs long, while Esther only about three-fourths that.

Although I wouldn't classify it as one of Handel's masterpieces, Esther is a decent piece of oft under-appreciated music. After all, if it hadn't been performed without his permission and shown Handel just how popular music in English actually was, he might not have switched from writing Italian works, and we might not have the Messiah we have today. The list of oratorios in English is not over-large, and Handel is responsible for quite a sizable chunk of it. I always find it interesting seeing where things come from, and the origin of the English oratorio is a personally enjoyable subject.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mentos and Diet Coke: An Explosive Combination

Some of you are probably familiar with what I'm about to write about from the title, others not. The “Diet Coke & Mentos Experiment” as it's come to be called is a fun experiment anyone can do with a minimum of equipment.

The experiment itself is quite easy to perform: procure some Mentos candies (the minty kind) and an unopened bottle of soda. Contrary to the experiment name, the soda in question doesn't need to be either diet or Coke (any opaque soda should theoretically work), but in practice it's good to use diet because it's going to go everywhere, and there's no sugar in diet soda so it doesn't leave a sticky, sugary mess when it's done.

Anyway, all you need to do at this point is set your bottle of soda (the 2-liter size works well) down somewhere it can stand up and a good ten feet or so away from anything you don't want to get showered in it. Then, with some Mentos in hand, unscrew the cap, quickly drop the Mentos in, and run! Shortly thereafter (we're talking no more than two seconds) a geyser of soda should erupt from the top of bottle in spectacular fashion for a few seconds.

Back in 2007 there were some videos on the fledgling website YouTube of some guys setting up chains of soda geysers in such a way that one's eruption would trigger the next, and so on down the line like a sweet, eruptive form of dominoes. They used some special equipment they'd made which screwed onto the tops of the bottles and let them drop the Mentos in with a quick-release system. I came across the video below, and decided to try it myself (with a single bottle of soda).

You can find out more about the making of this particular video here from the website of the guys who made it if you're interested.

I'm talking about this because last month I discovered that one of my co-workers had never tried the experiment before and was interested in doing so. Right after that, quite by chance I came across a variant of the quick-release devices used in the video meant to allow people to perform the experiment for themselves, so I snapped it up and together we set up the following demonstration just outside the office.


Pretty neat huh? We only used two Mentos in the quick-release magzine (which can hold up to five or six), so it wasn't the longest lasting eruption, but it's still pretty cool. You're probably wondering why exactly it does that. The short answer is that no-one is entirely sure, but we're pretty sure it's not a chemical reaction, as you might think; rather, it's a physical one. Soda, as you're no doubt aware, has a lot of carbon dioxide dissolved in it to give it its “fizz.” Mentos candies, for some reason, act as catalysts to bring that carbon dioxide out of solution by providing surface area where the dissolved gas can collect and precipitate out. It's similar to what happens when you shake or jolt a soda, which also causes the carbon dioxide to precipitate out of solution. As anyone who's tried to open a soda too soon after shaking it, all that carbon dioxide tries to forcefully exit the area as rapidly as possible, and often ends up carrying a significant amount of the soda along with it.

It's not only Mentos that can cause this reaction; dropping just about anything into a bottle of soda will cause at least a little fizzing. Mentos just happen to do it really, really, well on account of their surface structure having lots and lots of little tiny pits that make it very easy for dissolved carbon dioxide to collect and precipitate out.

Anyway, if you've got the time and inclination, give it a whirl! You can drink any leftover soda (it'll merely be a little flat), and eat the Mentos left at the bottom too if you want. It's a very fun experiment that's sure to get some remarks from onlookers.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Art of Powerbocking, and (Re)Learning to Walk

“The art of what?” I hear you say. Well, not actually hear you, but I'm betting something like that is going through your head if you aren't familiar with powerbocking. I know the feeling, because I've only been familiar with it for about a month now.

Powerbocking is...difficult to define. The best definition I can think of is that it is an “extreme sport” along the lines of skate-boarding or roller-skating. It's all about people taking a piece of equipment and seeing what it allows them to do.

Or in this case, two pieces of equipment. Powebocking (or bocking, for short) requires a pair of powerbockers (or bockers, or bocks, or powerstilts, or...they have many names). Powerbockers are basically special boots with large fiberglass leaf springs attached that you strap onto your legs and walk around in about eighteen inches taller.

Or run, jump, or back-flip around in, depending on your preference and skill level. There's no external power involved; they rely entirely on your muscle power to function. They merely allow you to store more of the energy of your muscles in the springs, which basically act as (powerful mechanical) extensions of your Achilles' tendons. The best analogy I can think of would be that it's similar to having a pogo stick strapped to each leg. They tend to make the wearer end up looking like some sort of futuristic chimeric faun with the legs of a robotic gazelle.

Powerbockers were invented by a German aerospace engineer by the name of Alexander Böck back in 2003 and were eagerly adopted in Europe where they were first sold (hence the name “bocking” applied to the sport by practitioners). There are many different powerbocking clubs in Europe whose webpages you can find online. In contrast, adoption in the Americas has been much slower, to the point that I hadn't heard of them, ten years after they came out.

Why am I writing about this topic? Because I myself have now got a pair of bockers and have taken up powerbocking.

The fiberglass springs that make up the most important part of the bockers are seen here covered in the black and yellow alternating duct tape stripes I added to protect them. The black platforms halfway up are where your feet go (seen with the buckles for strapping them in), and the assembly at the top wraps around the leg just below the knee. At the very bottom are the rubber “hooves.”

I got my bocks about three weeks ago now, and have been enjoying them ever since. I quickly realized that despite the ease with which people reportedly pick them up, and my naturally good balance, they aren't just strap-on-and-go; I spent my first two sessions with them taking a few tentative steps and falling over (onto the soft grass of the front lawn, and with full protective gear, so no injury sustained).

At first my brain didn't know what to do. I would try to walk as I would normally, and immediately trip and fall. Powerbockers interfere with your normal muscle memory; your lower legs essentially become eighteen inches longer and end in small surfaces rather than your normal large-support-area feet. Although manufactured as light as possible, they're also still a good couple of pounds' extra weight on each foot. But the amazing thing about brains is, they can take new information, and adapt, even – perhaps especially – unconsciously. Those first two session were essential calibration sessions, my brain taking in every scrap of information about the new weights and moments of inertia of my new mechanically-imbued legs. So when I had my third session, something incredible happened: I was able walk (slowly) around the yard multiple time without falling once.

Ever since that session I've been getting better and better. My first walking was wooden and stiff-legged, which turns out to be surprisingly tiring. Two sessions later I found I had transitioned to a much more natural gait, which was a lot easier. It's been an interesting process of re-learning to walk. (I sympathize with toddlers a lot!) Thankfully, walking is something I do literally every day of my life, so my brain has almost 24 years’ worth of experience to pull from and use when coming up with a new walking model that allows me to walk with such different leg configurations.

The old aphorism that “you have to walk before you can run” certainly applies here, but I've recently begun to tentatively jog short distances. In fact today I spent an hour outside on my bocks, running up and down the road in short bursts. It's a slightly terrifying sensation, since you're vividly aware that you're simultaneously nearly two feet taller, have less balance surface, and move at a pretty good clip for even a small expenditure of energy. However, it's also absolutely thrilling, and I love it. That was really a large part of what made me want to get into bocking in the first place. I'm not exactly into the whole back-flipping, extreme tricks thing – but the idea of running fast with mechanical assistance viscerally appealed to me. (It's commonly reported on various bocking sites that experienced bockers can run up to 20 miles per hour [~32 kilometers per hour], something I'm rather looking forward to trying.)

I also hope to eventually get someone to get some footage of me bocking so I can put it up here, once I've gotten better and can do something more interesting than just walking and jogging around. Anyway, a hui hou!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

New Car!

Although this post is a bit late to the punch, as of the beginning of August I now have a car instead of the moped I've been using to get around town.

It's a Honda Civic LX, 2013 model, silver in color, and I love it. I've gotten progressively more and more tired of riding around Hilo in the rain, and have been thinking it'd be nice to be able to explore some more around the island.

To be clear, I haven't actually bought it, I'm just leasing it through the beginning of 2015 (which works out well since I expect to be attending graduate school somewhere else by the time 2015 rolls around).

It's got all kinds of nice features, like keeping me dry as I'm going about town. And air conditioning! And I can directly attach my phone with all my music on it to the sound system via auxiliary cable...very nice. Oh, and great gas mileage – I get about 27 miles to the gallon, which is pretty good considering nearly all of my driving is in the extremely hilly city of Hilo.

For those of you curious what it looks like, have some pictures: