Classical Music and The Human Voice

a musical travelogue

All musical compositions mentioned in my article are linked to corresponding YouTube video clips. Clicking a musical link should open new browser tabs or windows for you. Musical quality is very good. You can alternately search for and audit most or all of these selections on Amazon, iTunes or similar sources.

Here is a mercifully brief history of my evolving discovery of the human voice in classical music. If you have an audio pipe to “hi-fi PC speakers” or a home entertainment system, now is the time to switch to it.

I’ve been a classical music buff all my life. I still could just never bring myself to understand opera! 99% of it always sounded like glorified yodeling to me. You see, I understood completely that exposure to the genre is the key to understanding it. It was just the exposure to opera that I studiously avoided.

These days, even old dogs learn new tricks. With the help of the amazingly complete YouTube libraries, here are some musical “stops” on my discovery of the human voice in classical music.

non-operatic classical vocals

I somehow did learn that the human voice is potentially the grandest musical instrument of them all. As early as high school I fell in love with two non-operatic classical vocals:

Much, much later I was introduced to the Renaissance church music of Lassus and Thomas Tallis. As you’re no doubt already aware on some level, those abbey monks contributed a lot more to the future of our culture than the fundamentals of wine-making. I’m not even religious in any accepted conventional sense, but I don’t know how one can listen to Lassus and NOT feel a profound reverence for the human spirit. I give you:

Thomas Tallis: A more muted composer who wrote in English for the courts of Henry the Eighth and Queen Elizabeth. Tallis speaks of devotion, solace, and perhaps of loss and regret, but all with incredible clarity and precision of expression.

This led to my introduction to the astounding modern twentieth century Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Listeners who know nothing else of Arvo Pärt’s music would generally recognize this piece. It is longish (9:50), but listen how hauntingly Pärt blends human voice and human instrumentation into a single unquenchable voice in these pieces from Berliner Messe.

Igor Stravinsky: Best known perhaps for his “Firebird” symphony and “Rite of Spring” ballet, many listeners find the music too dissonant and cacophonous. I happen to like Le Sacre du Printemps, “Rite of Spring.” Incredibly, he also wrote some of the most soothing music in the western world, and I give you two quite different short clips of his work Pastorale:

    • Pastorale: piano by Stravinsky himself (2004)
    • Pastorale: with Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano

Compare Stravinsky’s Pastorale with Arvo Pärt’s instrumental piece Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror).

Classical opera arias I like:

This first one (by Verdi) is something I gloried in as early as junior high school. I heard it on our local FM station – but never found out what it was. I forgot all about it until I heard it again a few years ago. “Aida” is an opera, all right, but this is an orchestral part. It is one of those pieces most people “know” but (sadly) can’t identify:

The second piece is known to tens of millions of TV viewers. British Airways used a muted orchestral version of Delibes’ “Lakmé” (Flower Duet) in a 1980’s TV commercial.  It doesn’t do justice to the original. Fast-forward to around 2009-2010, for a TV ad for Kohler, a high-end manufacturer of faucets and shower-heads [clip here]. A plumber finishes installing a “smart” shower-head and tests it by getting into the running shower, turning its awesome music system to “Lakmé,” and singing along with the operatic passage. He then dries himself off and leaves the bewildered homeowners.

You will recognize it instantly:

The thing is, Lakmé is bona fide opera, and I like it. At least, I like that part of it.

Finally, we return to today with a clip in that great body of classical music that is non-operatic but uses the human voice integrally as part of the story. Of “Powaqqatsi” by modern composer Philip Glass as part of a film score, Wikipedia writes: “Here, human voices (especially children’s and mainly from South America and Africa) appear more than in Koyaanisqatsi, in harmony with the film’s message and images.”

The film and the music may have different meanings for different listeners. For myself, the songs in the score draws me back to my backpacking days in the high Sierras. The mighty mountains surround me with their booming presence. The delicate verdant meadows and wildflowers sing to me. I am transported through time. It is my own time, but for the moment, it is eternal …

The following short clip appears to be the actual trailer for the 1988 movie. Segments of many different tracks in the score are spliced together but they are effective in conveying the power of the idea. The video is spectacular too. Turn up the sound!

One small step for man …

Other References

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“Rains Down In Africa”

Well now, that’s only the name of the great old song by the group Toto. It’s playing on my system in Phoenix right now. No one’s around to complain about the sound volume. It’s 11PM Mountain Time. I like to point out my body clock is on Pacific time. Even though my body clock says it’s 10PM, I’m not passing up an excuse to say the time change leaves me unrecovered from jet lag. Never mind that I drove down to Phoenix. Never mind that the Pacific storms always follow me down here. We’ll get the snow in Flagstaff tomorrow. We’ll get the rains down in Phoenix. This is a ramble.

I discovered the pool has been losing water – fast. Too cold for swimming, but when the water level is down 6 inches or so, the system takes in air and loses its prime. I think I found the leak, a PVC aerator pipe. My pool man says there’s a shutoff valve we can use to turn just that nonessential part of the system off. That would be nice. Excavate to repair that one section, you might as well rip up the whole east side concrete pool walkway and replace everything. That could run a grand without blinking an eye.

So the pool guy comes tomorrow and then the electrical guy comes Tuesday for the annual “free” electrical inspection, and to fix a back porch light circuit that’s probably infested with spiders. Just contemplating all this surely makes apartment or condo life sound more attractive to the retired leisure set.

The drive to Phoenix was uneventful – 10.5 hours. It’s the first time I’ve been “trapped”: by tomorrow Gorman (Tejon Pass) will probably have plenty of snow. You might be able to get past the LA basin via the Mojave and Bakersfield. But the Tehachapi Pass is still expecting rain and snow right now. I’ve only driven in the snow once or twice as a kid, don’t have chains or know how to put them on, and I’m not interested in learning. I was returning Saturday anyway.

As the current iTunes WAV server plays on, it’s just Another Brick In The Wall.

One of the songs I’ve bookmarked for my “Favorites” playlist is named Long Toi, found in the CD album of the same name by artist Duc Thanh. I have no idea how I found it, but I like it. Actually, I find I enjoy the whole album. Instrumentation is traditional Vietnamese, featuring (I think) a 16-string zither. The songs are traditional folk. You can tell it’s pop music, but with a different cultural zing – many westerners might take it in the spirit of a travelogue movie and say, “how cool!”

Some of my other musical tastes, like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, do drive many of my friends nuts. I may no longer care for driving in the snow, but I still like adventure.

I was also thinking about the year I served in Vietnam, way back when. I was proud enough to serve my country.  What a shame how it all turned out.  Dove or Hawk, most of us realized  at some point we had no national idea what in hell we were supposed to be doing over there. Everybody had their own theory.  Some still do. Fact is, history shows we neither defended our own country in Vietnam, or theirs.

Just now the haunting Beggar for the Blues is playing, on the ’60’s album Bashin’ by Jimmy Smith. If you really like blues, Smith’s keyboard jazz mastery on that big theater organ, the incredibly excellent backup orchestra and percussion of Oliver Nelson (or any of those three alone), the CD is still available at Amazon and other purveyors. I digitized this cut from the original vinyl. Personally, I think Smith often goes over the top with the keyboard, but this guy could play jazz, and this cut is a must for any collection.

Another one to look out for, if you even think you like jazz piano, is Summertime, from the CD The Best of the Ray Brown Trio – also currently available from the usual sources. Also don’t miss Brown’s wistful, dreamy, evocative cut That’s All. Even friends who say “normally I don’t care for jazz” write that Brown’s keyboard is not to be believed until heard. Utterly astounding playing – and truly wonderful music too.

All in all, it’s a wonderful night for “cocooning” – staying warm and dry indoors. Go. Put on one last good record or CD. In another half hour or so, it’ll really be time for bed. G’night!

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Letter to Stereophile Magazine

I wrote the following letter to Stereophile magazine in reply to another letter to the editor. My reply was was published in the December 2007 issue.


I would like to chime in on the side of all of us “crybabies, whiners, and other sniveling jerks out there” [letters, Patrick Bajtka, Oct 2007]. I am certainly used to bandpassing content and filtering out personal soap-boxing. So I agree with Mr. Bajtka that you’re doing a good job with the magazine. But unsolicited personal rhetoric is still annoying, because it gets in the way. And it’s also annoying because it’s presumptuous. Whether I agree or not, the author is thinking I might magically find his personal political opinions relevant to the music or equipment I’m thinking of buying.

I really do enjoy a lot of the work of Phillip Glass, so when an acquaintance suggested I look at the DVD for Powaqqatsi, I went to Amazon and read the peer reviews. Now, here’s a case where the reader is pre-sold on the music; for me it was just a question of which “-qatsi” DVD to try. Most reviews that I saw would have me think Powaqqatsi is a thinly disguised leftist commie pinko plot to one end only: to defame the whole idea of capitalism. One writer took it upon himself to explain for the benefit of all that wealth is good and probably intrinsically so; folks mired in the rut of a third-world slum or caste system would do well to look at certain political philosophies in the USA for a get-real explanation of how they’re going to feed the family tonight.

And I do think wealth is simply ducky, though I don’t have a lot of it, and I could probably have articulated the Amazon reviewer’s political position better than he did, though I mostly disagree and just don’t give a rat about his opinion anyway. Worse, I didn’t find out anything about whether the DVD could possibly be interesting — once you filtered out all the editorializing. One reviewer actually did remember to mention the music. I think the word he used was “lame”. Hell, I just bought the DVD to find out for myself if I can supply meaning to the video that fits the music.

Alex Forbes
Castro Valley, CA

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Magnum/Dynalab MD-90 Analog FM tuner

Back in April 2005 we wrote an article on high-end audio equipment entitled “Audio Advisor“. We wistfully mentioned an FM tuner we had our eye on:

DynaLab MD-90 Analog FM Tuner

At that time, we wrote:

We only listen to a couple of FM stations regularly – classical, and an oldies Big Band station. Unfortunately, both stations transmit out of a shoe box; reception right here in the SF Bay Area is pretty bad. We bought a half-wave indoor-outdoor FM whip antenna, and then a modest FM preamplifier, and this helps. We might get the Magnum/Dynalab MD-90 Analog FM tuner for Christmas (replacing the mostly adequate FM front end in our Denon).

We finally bought it about six months ago. We didn’t buy it from Audio Advisor, because their price had gone up. We found an excellent little shop in Texas, Galen Carol Audio, and have been completely happy with our order. This posting is just to let you know that we really like it, and appreciate a huge improvement in sound quality.

Listening to low-power SF/Bay Area FM stations in our reception-poor area in Castro Valley, California is hardly worth the bother and irritation with a conventional all-purpose stereo receiver or “home entertainment center”. I can’t find licensed transmission power published for classical FM station KDFC, but I do see they have added a digital commercial-free sister station and I wish I hadn’t seen that.

For conventional FM signals. my Magnum/Dynalab gives me great signal to noise ratio (no hiss or static), great stereo separation, and a really clean sound. It makes listening to FM a pleasure again. And I really appreciate the analog tuning with two meters (one for signal centering anf one for signal strength), which makes it possible to accurately fine-tune from a good signal to a great signal.

The third meter, on the left, is multipath distortion. Less is better. This doesn’t seem to be an issue with my classical station and quarter-wave indoor whip antenna.

If you like one of those megawatt popular stations that reach hundreds of miles down into the Central Valley, then a state of the art FM tuner is probably a waste of money for you. For my musical tastes, listening to FM boils down to listening to the one classical station in our area, or nothing at all.

FM reception in metropolitan Phoenix does not suffer from the same issues, and their classical station produces a superior signal. When my audio gear finally migrates there, for my retirement years, I’m hoping the Magnum/Dynalab will still produce an improved signal whose difference I can hear and appreciate.

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“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” Ramble

The off-topic title for this Sunday morning ramble came, inappropriately enough, from the Sunday morning broadcast of our local classical station. KDFC, 102.1 FM, has a quaint and commendable custom of providing air and interview time for up and coming youth performers. And this ramble is really mostly about growing up.

If you want an uplifting message (and you like classical music), there are few things so cheering as a 13 year old girl with braces performing, let’s say, Saint-Saens Havanaise , with the practiced and sensitive polish of a seasoned professional violinist. These kids are great. They talk like the kids next door, but they approach their studies with the all-embracing enthusiasm and diligence of NASA scientists preparing for a moon launch. These kids are heroes in the making.

This morning featured a very young lady from Poland auditioning in the United States. Her violin work blew me away. What struck me is that she left the US without even knowing if she’d been accepted for study at The Perlman Music Program (she had).

Perlman? Even to an unschooled amateur classical enthusiast like myself, violin + Perlman has to equal Itzhak Perlman, one of the most gifted performers of all time. Of course I didn’t know he’d started a music school too.

Perlman is a musical “hero” to a fraction of that small minority of Americans who love classical music. If classical music people had to form political action groups to survive in this country, like other minorities, would they be allowed to marry or serve in the military?

Perlman happens to be one of my few heroes. It is said that everyone has to have heroes. I never owned any Sandy Koufax baseball cards. I don’t revere any late or great US Presidents, though Lincoln would be my first choice.

The KDFC connection served as a reminder that everybody has heroes, even me. Mine happen mostly to be legends in music, aviation, aerospace and technology, and literature. My own Profile lists Frank Lloyd Wright, Rosa Parks, Randy Schiltz and aviator Bob Hoover. This list is hopelessly incomplete, I fear.

If you like baseball, to be reminded of your heroes, all you have to do is turn on the radio or TV. All I have to do is turn on my stereo, or board an airliner from anywhere to anywhere else, or peer through binoculars or telescope at any planet, star, nebula or galaxy visible in the northern hemisphere. These activities remind me of the mental leaps of individual discovery that made my entertainment, travel and stargazing possible.

Everybody’s heroes are a reflection of what they like and admire, I guess. I’m long past that wonderful, naively innocent age where we actually fancy that our heroes are “better” than yours. While it’s surely possible to set your sights too low in picking heroes, it is best to never lose sight, at any age, of the idea of having them.

The distinguishing characteristic of “hero” is excellence, not what trade or discipline we happen to aspire to. In the right context, fictional Paul Bunyan can hold his own against real-life Neil Armstrong in the hero business.

People who pooh-pooh other peoples’ heroes often don’t get the significance of their own heroes, if in fact it can be said they have any.

When I was a kid in the 1950’s, cowboys were fashionable heroes among my own age group, even though we didn’t have any particular cowboy names in mind. “TV cowboys” weren’t real. Nobody I knew, anyway, was saying they wanted to grow up and marry a gal named Dale, acquire a jeep named “Nellie Belle”, a horse named “Trigger”, and sit around on the old fence post singing schmaltzy slide guitar ballads.

As adults, we learned that the only way real cowboys could gain fame is to turn Outlaw. Most cowboys died ignominously poor, young and unsung.

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys“: this old Willie Nelson standby tells it all, both in truth and fiction. Classical music tells the story of human aspiration at the highest level of abstraction. Country-western music tells the same story at the level of hard-won practical experience.

Country-western also reminds us we don’t always get what we wish for, something Classical rarely explores. In closing answer to Willie, I give you the lyrics to Waylon Jenning’s song, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”

So, kids: if you want to grow up to be a classical violin virtuoso, astronaut, astronomer, NYFD fireman, interstate trucker, programmer, physicist, dentist or pharmacist, go for it. If you want to be a cowboy, it’s still possible I guess, but NASA isn’t ready for you yet. It’s not which heroes you pick, it’s what you do with your mind and spirit on all those long lonely hours on the dusty trail.

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Stereophile Sticker Shock

Have you ever got a free airline upgrade to First Class, only to find yourself seated next to world-class billionaires Bill Gates or Larry Ellison? I never have, but I had an eerily similar experience while reading alone at the dinnertable this evening.

You see, I’m now a paid subscriber to Stereophile magazine. I thought it was a good idea at the time.

I used to think I was a stereo enthusiast. I own Klipschorn theater speakers, which I still have down in Phoenix. I owned a Crown (Elkhart, Indiana) amp and preamp, with the lowest THD in the business (in 1980). The Crown had a heat stroke in Phoenix one year, and was designed before 5-channel stereo (e.g. front, rear, center, subwoofer, etc.), so nowadays I just run off a mid-range Denon home entertainment receiver.

I can’t keep up with the new stuff, so thought I’d subscribe to an enthusiast magazine to see what’s new. Reviewed in my first issue:

  • a CD/DVD player that doesn’t support SACD and apparently can’t reproduce a 1 KHz sine wave at 16-bit sampling rate, $6,500
  • a moving-coil phono cartridge, boasting a vintage alnico magnet, $2,850
  • a McIntosh C1000 preamplifier system, a venerable old brand we can trust, $8,000 (tube) or $9,000 (solid state)
  • a “monoblock” power amplifer system. $39,990 the pair
  • full-size dynamic headphones, $450

Gee, do you think the $699 I paid for the Denon was too much? It may be no Crown, but most of the time it sounds really good to me.

The stereo equipment above would sound great in the cabin of the Fairline Squadron 66, an 80,000 pound, 66-foot power yacht that sports twin Caterpillar C30 1,550-hp diesels. It gets 175 gph at full power. Actually, that’s an upgrade from the standard 1,360 diesel inboards, at $3,048,000.

Now, I would also like to fly to Florida for that little stereo listening test. We can pick up a used 1979 Beech King Air for about $1,395,000.00 but I bet we could make an offer.

OK, Larry has a private jet, and he races a 78-foot yacht. Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google have a 767 measured not in feet but meters (48.5), dwarfing Ellison’s Gulfstream V (29.39 meters). When buying the World’s Greatest stereo system, you have to think small somewhere.

Back to reality. If I pass on the Fairline and the twin Beech, I can still buy the stereo if I absolutely sabotage my 401K retirement savings. I’ll make out fine, too, enjoying nothing but the purest of music, at least until the air conditioning craps out, or the car needs new tires, or we run out of shampoo, and and I can’t afford to take care of it.

I’m writing this in My Notes ’cause we don’t have a Stereo department at I’ll tell you what – I don’t think we’re going to have one, either.

I still like my music, but don’t call me a stereophile. Somehow I think that Denon better last me a long time.

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Music For All Seasons

I sit here on this warm sunny day on our balcony, and it is just not the same. Mr. Hummingbird flits about the old eucalyptus, hoping to find some foolish crow to harrass. Nothing is happening. There’s a faint hint of mare’s tails up in the north bay. Their beauty excites only mild interest. The Harley-Davidsons roar by on the boulevard below. This is definitely a biker town. Ttheir illegally loud modified pipes just do not properly annoy.

A CD mix of my old classical favorites plays quietly inside, in the living room. We have never been ones to crank the volume up. Played as background music, I can hear every note just fine, thank you. Rondeau (Mouret) – if you go back that far, you would know it as the theme from Masterpiece Theater. Fair mood or otherwise, the Brandenberg Concertos never fail to please, and they can be played an infinite number of distinctive ways. There’s plenty of Vivaldi on these CD’s. Sorry, no Beethoven’s 9th or Also Sprach Zarathustra – these days I tire more quickly of fanfare, bluster and heroics.

I am pleased that I am capable of being pleased, but every waking moment holds a malaise. Bob is still in the hospital. I am alone here. Oh, sure, we are managing our managed health care quite proactively. I suspiciously ask: am I listing to my old favorites to fill a void, or because they are my old favorites? Both, I suppose. This silly kind of circular introspection has to go. I like my music in all seasons.

It seems just a week ago that we both thought we could see the first signs of autumn color. Today, it could be late spring. A cool 66 degrees in the shade still means shorts weather when you are determined to hang on to summer as long as possible.

I should not be hanging on, as it were, but planning ahead. I see wheelchairs and walkers in our future. There is a strength issue as a side effect of the Chemo and the cancer we’re fighting. Football players may walk out of artificial hip operations the same day, but not our Bob. I don’t have any personal discomfort issues at all with frail bodies and low energy levels. Our goal is to build him back up and see the Chemo through to what we hope and expect to be a joyous conclusion. We’re fortunate and grateful to have a wonderful oncologist who follows everything and leads the way ahead. All this is something we go through, so to speak, so that we can sit together on the back porch in Phoenix, in retirement, and listen to the songbirds. I like to putter with the pool. Next year we both plan for Bob to have the strength to get in it.

The high north bay cirrhus has advanced so that it’s nearly over the balcony. So to speak, we hang in a delicate balance between summer and winter. When it gets cold, and Chemo patients get terribly cold, I see lots of firewood for the old fireplace in the coming months. Too bad we can’t reposition global warming right where we need it.

My ears perk to the noble Bach piece Allein Gott BWV664. It only amazes how some music endures hundreds of years, while most contemporary music fades and falls back into the soil after a brief run of a few months. Enjoy the wildflowers, but keep your focus on the horizon. My resolve is refreshed in expecting we can and will do both.

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Audio Advisor

Blast from the past – high end audio gear!

Have you ever been an ardent audio enthusiast? Are you now? Remember the old vacuum tube amplifiers? Remember Marantz? Remember the old Kloss table radio? There is a free catalog that lists all this, and much more. You can look, just for the fun of it, or actually buy this equipment.

DynaLab MD-90 Analog FM Tuner

We only listen to a couple of FM stations regularly – classical, and an oldies Big Band station. Unfortunately, both stations transmit out of a shoe box — reception right here in the SF Bay Area is pretty bad. We bought a half-wave indoor-outdoor FM whip antenna, and then a modest FM preamplifier, and this helps. We might get the Magnum/Dynalab MD-90 Analog FM tuner for Christmas (replacing the mostly adequate FM front end in our Denon). Only $995.

We’re gearing up for retirement: how can we justify this when we already have almost all the audio gear we want? As Audio Advisor points out, if you don’t have a really good FM section, you’re not likely to listen to it much.

If you miss the old tube amps: they don’t make the appropriate vacuum tubes in the USA any more, but they do in Russia. See the fine selection of tube amps and components, for only a few thousand scoots.

Need accessories – stands, shelves, headsets, modern speakers, cool table radios, incredibly high end CD/DVD players? They’re listed.

You won’t find this stuff in CostCo (though CostCo discounts some fine merchandise). You won’t find it in Circuit City, or, if you do, you won’t likely find informed salespeople to guide you through an intelligent selection process.

We used to spend hours in the 1970’s just hanging around an Oakland shop called Pro Audio — and ended up buying some pretty sophisticated equipment from a really knowledgeable sales staff. There are not many shops like this left. Yes, we know there are a few: we were really impressed with Universal Electronics, which retails out of the midwest and Phoenix. isn’t selling or promoting ANYTHING, so please don’t write us about “our products”. Just for fun, visit and be prepared for a blast from the past – really high end audio gear!

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“Volare” 1958, the ramble

This is the story of how I discovered the hit song “Volare”, or “Nel Blu, Dipinto di Blu” (Volare) by Domenico Modugno. His only US hit, this sing was #1 in the US for 5 weeks in 1958. This was the first foreign-language single to top the singles charts in the rock era. “Billboard” magazine declared it #1 for the year 1958.

Speaking of 1958, in those days we – none of us – ever, EVER messed with the tuning dials on our parents’ radio consoles. Our household was solidly a Classical family; there was one radio station in the Bay Area as far as my parents were concerned, and it may have been KPFA. I had basically never heard a “popular” music station. Apart from hearing “Listen to the Mockingbird”, Connie Francis, and Rosemary Clooney, friends would sing parts of Bobby Darren’s “Splish Splash (I’m taking a bath)”. I had no idea what pop music was about. I was around 14.

Speaking of radios, the transistor was invented by GE in 1950 but had few practical applications in 1958. The “transistor radio” was still an oddity. A friend in junior high school had one. It was the size of a lunch pail. I had no radio of “my own”.

Speaking of transistors, in 1958 I read an article somewhere on how to make your own crystal radio “set”. After a couple of false starts, I got one to work. After bedtime, I turned on the light and experimented with it. The first song I ever tuned in on that darned thing was “Volare”.

And I fell in love with that song. It represented a whole new world to which I had only very limited access. The one station I was able to receive played it twice. Since the lyrics are in Italian, I assumed I was receiving some kind of transocean broadcast on a nighttime “skip signal”. None of you who know nothing of radio theory will have any idea what I am talking about. But, this was my curious introduction to popular music.

Speaking of “crystal sets”: I wound about thirty turns of fine copper wire around an empty toilet paper tube. When you let go of the wire, it all unravels, so I did it again and varnished the wire to the tube so it would stay. Next to that, you wind a smaller coil of about twelve turns – varnished, of course.

This is the tuning coil. One end of the short winding goes to a “long wire antenna” – I stuck something out the bedroom window and tied it to a tree. The other end goes to a water pipe – “ground”.

I had a really bad set of earphones – a “headset” – that I think came from an A.C. Gilbert toy. In series with the long winding, you were supposed to hear the radio signals. But the signals had to be “detected”.

The “detector” was supposed to be a specific kind of radio crystal. I had read somewhere that in a pinch a Galena crystal would do. I had one of these in my rock collection. You hook that up in series with the headsets. On one end of the crystal, you “scratch around” with the point of your copper wire until you receive a signal, completing the circuit with the headsets at the same time.

Please note that this remarkable contraption had no batteries, amplifier, volume control or even tuning. While I supposed I was receiving a signal from Europe, what I was actually receiving was the one strongest transmitter in the SF Bay Area. And I could receive no other.

It worked because point of contact of the copper wire to the lead oxides on the surface of the Galena (lead sulfide) were forming the world’s most primitive diode. This technology goes back to my grandparents’ time; I didn’t invent it, but merely rediscovered it first-hand. And “Volare”, as well.

And speaking of my grandparents’ time, it’s come full circle. Many of you will find much of this narrative to be a head-scratcher. The music was different. Attitudes were different. What hasn’t changed: life was fun, exciting and worth discovering and living. It still is.

Speaking of reminiscences, what sparked this one was a CD I picked up at Amazon. By legendary guitarist Chet Atkins, it featured tunes from his album “Caribbean Guitar” (circa 1964) and other hits of the era. Two of those songs were “Volare”, and “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise”.

“The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise” (Words by Eugene Lockhart / Music by Ernest Seitz) dates to 1923, even yet an older era. The best cuts that I ever heard of this wonderful song were both Dixieland renditions. One was by Riverboat Five (Mercury, cira 1955). The other was by a private group featuring Pops Foster on bass, an Aussie named Cyril on the ivories, and Bob Neighbor on cornet. We have come full circle again, now to even older generations. I can only count myself as lucky to have spanned generations that knew and loved so many different kinds of wonderful music.

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KCEA-89.1FM (SF Bay Area)

We shared the following news with a friend. I realized we shouldn’t hog all this good stuff to ourselves. Fogies old and young in the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area, listen up:

We discovered a “new” radio station, at the low end of the band, KCEA-89.1 KM. Owned and operated by the Menlo-Atherton High School.

They play nothing but Big Band. 24 hours a day. We’ve been listening to nothing but for a week. Check it out.


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