Monday, July 26, 2021

the music of the birds

Every once in a while, I've seen an exciting paper about birdsong in the news releases, but, somehow, the thought I should do something about birdsong hasn't resulted in action, until now. The work that made it happen was the PNAS paper on duetting wrens, which I discuss in some detail. As a less than perfect musician I am very impressed by the extremely rapid turn-taking between wren duet partners, which amounts to up to 300 events per minute. Playing three notes on a beat at 100 beats per minute is something I can manage on a good day with a following wind, but I might struggle doing it precisely on time in a duet situation, while paying attention to an equally fast-moving partner.

Another exciting thing I learnt is that the mockingbird doesn't just mock, it sticks together borrowed parts in original ways, just like any human composer would. Oh, and there is a cellist in there as well.

My musical musings on birdsong are out now:

Tuning in to bird behaviour

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 14, 26 July 2021, Pages R879-R882

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

The rapidly alternating duet singing in plain-tailed wrens is one of the most impressive examples of cooperation in birdsong. (Photo: © Melissa Coleman.)

Friday, July 16, 2021

a pioneer of sado-populism

Some thoughts on

The first emperor – Caesar Augustus and the triumph of Rome
Anthony Everitt
John Murry Publishers 2006

Half way into the series Domina (about Augustus’ longest-serving wife, Livia Drusilla), I realised I needed some help to find my way through the imperial family clan, so started reading Everitt’s book in the middle, matching the historic events I had reached in the series, around 30BCE, after he had seen off Mark Antony. And after finishing both, I went back and started from just after the murder of Julius Caesar, seeing that I read Robert Harris’s excellent trilogy on Cicero not too long ago and had a reasonably good idea of what happened before 44 (looks like I haven't reviewed Harris's trilogy, but I mentioned it here).

From 44 BCE to 14 CE, the story is how a republic ruling over much of the known world is overthrown and replaced by an autocratic regime that was to last several centuries. Funny how my school books portrayed this as an entirely positive event and somehow didn’t dwell much on the mass murder of all supporters of the republic, including, most famously, Cicero. Everett doesn’t spare us the details of the “proscription” based on incentivising slaves, family members and everybody else to murder the blacklisted individuals. Strangely, he still uses the word barbarians for the populations beyond the boundaries of the empire without pausing to reflect on the barbaric things the Romans did to their own fellow citizens.

So, basically, let’s imagine the January 6 storm on the Capitol (in Washington, not Rome) had been led a bit more efficiently, and the invaders had murdered all Democrats in the House and put rewards out for the heads of all Democrat politicians in the rest of the country. The Trump clan would rule by default over several generations and get to write the history of events. In analogy to the Augustus story, people two millennia down the line would be led to believe that this was entirely a good thing. Because, you know, the old republic was corrupt, and you can’t run an empire efficiently if you have to debate everything in the Senate first. Also, all those people who didn’t look like the dear leader’s family were just barbarians. Scary thought.

Everitt wrote and published this biography at a time when the Trump presidency was just a joke in the Simpsons, and western democracies still appeared much more stable than they look now. For our more troubled times, there are many warnings in the book. For instance, it is worth noticing how carefully Augustus avoided the impression that he might want to install a dictatorship – although effectively he did. Learning from the mistakes of his adoptive father Julius Caesar, who had pardoned his enemies and flagged up his role as a dictator, Augustus took no prisoners, but otherwise operated within the legal framework of the republic, drawing his real power from the legions who were loyal to him and the military talents of his friend Agrippa. Today, as ruthless populists again threaten democratic rule, it is worth looking out for the subtle ways in which they can hoover up power that they may never give up again.

I’ve recently seen the term “sado-populism” being used on twitter (in the context of Johnson ending England’s covid measures regardless of the suffering that will cause). That could be discussed as a thread linking Augustus to the present day.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

the world of RNA

The round-up of German pieces published in June to July 2021 is entirely made of RNA, from recreating the RNA world to saving the world with RNA vaccines and therapies.

RNA-Welt: Wie aus Chemie Biologie entsteht
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 55, Issue 3, June 2021, Page 153
Restricted access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: coming soon

Die neue mRNA-Medizin
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 69, Issue 7/8, July/August 2021, Pages 60-61
access via Wiley Online Library - appears to be open access right now, probably because it's covid-related.
related content in English: The renaissance of RNA therapies
Also on the lovely cover (this is my second NCh cover story this year - a collateral benefit of the pandemic):

As it turned out, the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel also ran a cover story on RNA therapies at the same time. They probably put ten reporters on it, so I expect it will be a bit different from my story.

Monday, July 12, 2021

the world before Columbus

There have been apparently conflicting findings regarding the vegetation of Amazonia before the European conquest of the Americas. Some studies suggest a lot of the land was cultivated by the indigenous people and we're just looking at the regrowth that took hold after the population crash in the 16th century. Others find areas of land that have remained undisturbed for millennia.

As this has implications for the conservation and stewardship of the surviving rainforest, I had a closer look at these findings in the context of the multiple crises hitting the Amazon right now. The contradiction is resolved in my latest feature which is out now:

The Amazonian world before Columbus

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 13, 12 July 2021, Pages R821-R824

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Illegal slash-and-burn land clearing combined with drought conditions are threatening large parts of the Amazon rainforest, even in protected areas. (Photo: Felipe Werneck/Ibama (CC BY-SA 2.0).)

Sunday, July 11, 2021

trios for flute, violin, cello

As the orchestra I joined back in 2017 is now reduced to a maximum of four people showing up to play every week (outdoors, while summer lasts), I have been obsessing about chamber music a bit, to make sure we don't get bored. Following up on the duos for cello and flute, here's a list of a some trios we have enjoyed playing in the last two months. I'm dreaming of scaling this up to reach the Schubert octet one day ...

My nascent collection:

Corelli: 2 Chamber sonatas for two violins & BC: op 2 No. 4 in E minor, op 4 No. 9 in Bb major.

Haydn: Four London trios for two flutes or violins and cello Hob IV
Very accessible to amateur players and extremely lovely, these are from Haydn's second visit to London in 1794 and may have served as a sandpit where he tried out ideas for his later symphonic works. I discovered the Edition Peters set of trios 1-3 at Oxfam exactly when I needed it. A bit later I also found a different edition including all four trios from Southern Music that also includes parts for Bb clarinet, viola and bassoon (but has the slightly covid-unfriendly aspect that the two flutes are supposed to read from the same score). Combining these two sets, we could turn the trios into very colourful sextets ...

YouTube recordings (see also my new playlist):

London Trio No. 1
London Trio No. 2
London Trio No. 3
London Trio No. 4

Haydn, Trio No. 4 in F for flute or recorder, violin, cello or piano, op 11 No. 4 (Schott). First published by Hummel in 1770, this is presumably an adaptation of one of the 128 baryton trios, but it’s not No. 4.

JB Loeillet, sonata No. 1 G major for two violins & piano

Borrowed sets:

JS Bach, Trio sonata Eb major, BWV 1031
Matthew Locke, Suite in G from Tripla concordia
JB Loeillet trio sonata in F major
JC Pepusch, trio sonata Bb major
JJ Quantz, trio sonata A minor - haven't played these two Quantzes yet, tried a different one though.
JJ Quantz, trio sonata C minor

Telemann triosonata in C minor
A. Corelli Triosonata in d minor from concerto grosso in c minor op 6 no. 3

It amuses me that these three stellar soloist took time out of their world tours to have a bit of fun with the Haydn trios.

Although at least three of the trios were published in Haydn's lifetime, they fell into oblivion and had a somewhat romantic rediscovery. In 1878, a Berlin antiquarian and manuscript collector died - Haydn's complete autograph of the London trios was found among his belongings and transferred to the Berlin Staatsbibliothek. Published in 1909 on the occasion of the centenary of Haydn's death, they arrived just in time for the last flourishing of Hausmusik before it was wiped out by the advent of broadcasting and recorded music.

Edits and updates:
26.7. added the Corelli (just found at Oxfam)

Thursday, July 08, 2021

how many more will die?

As the UK govt. (henceforth referred to as the Death Eaters) has now switched its Covid "strategy" to pouring fuel on the fire, I wondered how many more will die as a consequence of this reckless disregard for public health.

They say hospitalisations and deaths are now uncoupled from the case numbers thanks to the vaccination, but that's another lie. They are still coupled, just with a larger factor. If the risk of death was 2% before vaccinations, it may end up at 0.2 percent with everybody vaccinated and 90% protected by the vaccine. But let's look at where the factor stands now.

Dividing the cases in the seven days up to 23.6. (79,481) by the deaths in the seven days up to 7.7., i.e. two weeks later, that's 161 deaths, I get a factor of 494, so a 0.2 % risk of dying if you had a positive test. Not a risk I'd fancy taking, but 10 times better than before the vaccines.

This number has improved in the last five weeks:

9.6. 284
16.6. 382
23.6. 415
30.6. 489
7.7. 494

This looks like a move in the right direction, but note that the last weekly increase has shrunk significantly, so it looks as if we may have reached the limit of the improvement that we can get out of vaccines. Worth keeping an eye on that number.

So let's assume that of the people tested positive, on the order of 1/500 will die. So two million further infections by the end of this month (as admitted by the Death Eaters) may mean 4,000 additional deaths. Another 8 million in August (remember more than 20 million people will still be not fully protected), even if the curve will go down then, another 16,000. So I reckon 20,000 additional deaths before the third wave recedes are a realistic estimate.

Or if you prefer your horror in daily doses, 160,000 daily cases by August 7 would mean 320 daily deaths around August 21. The associated burden on the health system may well mean that we'll need another lockdown to avert collapse. And then there is the even bigger issue of long Covid, which the Death Eaters studiously avoid to mention.

And this is still under the optimistic / unlikely assumption that the virus doesn't evolve. In fact though, it does evolve, and it may very well find a way around the vaccine. As many people have pointed out, if you wanted to do a huge experiment to evolve a virus that is resistant to vaccines, letting it run wild in a partially vaccinated population is exactly the way you would do it (assuming you had no care for ethical concerns whatsoever).

This number looks a bit too high ... a recent anti-vaxxers demo I stumbled across at Carfax, Oxford (own photo).

Some fresh resources:

Mass infection is not an option: we must do more to protect our young (Deepti Gurdasani et al. in The Lancet)

Thursday, July 01, 2021

summer holiday

Plague Year(s) Bach Project, interval

I think after 16 months of suffering my attempts at playing Bach, dear old Heinrich deserves a holiday. Also, we are regularly playing chamber music in Florence Park now, so I'll obsess about that instead (here's a list of duos for cello and flute, I'll post trios some other time). Seeing how the UK is effing up the covid response for a third time, I expect we will be back to lockdown Bach come September.

In June, I almost managed to memorise the second half of the Gigue in D minor, just a few loose bars left to tie up. I also shifted the Courante and Sarabande in G to the next level, so the first suite is now beginning to take shape. Just need to find a way of doubling the speed of the Courante.

So after 16 months with 446 practice days, 12 movements studied, and 462 bars memorised, my list now looks like this:

1) movements I've studied for a month, then put aside for now
1.1. Prelude
1.2 Allemande

2) movements memorised in a significant part
3.4 Sarabande (1/3)

3) movements memorised in their entirety
2.4 Sarabande
2.5 Minuet I&II
2.6 Gigue
3.6. Gigue

4) movements memorised and synchronised with metronome
1.3 Courante

5) movements recorded on video and also performed in public
1.4 Sarabande
1.5 Minuet I&II- VIDEO
1.6 Gigue(ooops, need to upload the video, watch this space!)
3.5 Bourree I&II - VIDEO

It's all downhill from here ...

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

blooming Bloomsbury

Book of Bloomsbury

Edward Gordon and A.F.L. Deeson

Published in 1950 by Edward Gordon (Arts) Limited, 9 Great Russell Street, WC1

Back in the 00s I was affiliated with Birkbeck College London as a science writer in residence, which is why I have kept a soft spot for all things Bloomsbury. So I couldn't resist this antiquarian edition of a guide to the architectural history of the area, and I enjoyed reading it as it filled in a lot of background knowledge regarding streets I know from my ramblings half a century after the book was published. In lieu of a review, I'll just type out what to me was the highlight of the book, the description of St. Pancras station (which I have, of course, seen quite a few times since the Eurostar terminal moved there).

The station, the authors inform us

"opened in 1873. What a glorious, fantastic, ridiculous sight it is! However much one may be inclined to scoff at the Gothic grotesque, so pretentious yet only a humble railway station, one cannot help being overawed by its mad magnificence. Glance up at its pinnacles and towers, its multitude of steeples and crazy battlements clustered together in a perfect orgy of uselessness. Who can fail to be impressed? Who is so unimaginative that they look upwards without a whole host of fancies taking wing in their brain? St. Pancras Station, rightly viewed, is a medieval fortress, an ogre's castle, a challenge to the prosaics of the twentieth century. A piece of empty pomp, a grandiose hotch-potch of bad taste? It is all that perhaps, but it is also a fairy-story, a common-place everyday thing transformed into a romance in the Chesterton tradition. To fully appreciate the weird wonder of St. Pancras visit it late at night or in the small hours. It has rained earlier and now a fresh wind is blowing down the empty street. Look up at the towers and ornate chimneys with the swift-moving clouds behind. There is a moon, riding on her back across the sky and lighting the brave spires with a silvery but fitful light. Surely in that patch of dark shadow thrown by the nearest tower onto the shining wet roof there is a flurrying movement? A witch pale and grim on her broomstick, flitting with marvellous dexterity between the erratic lumps of masonry, her black cloak billowing behind her? Look at those little windows at the very top, so small, dirty and neglected that by day it seems scarcely possible they could light real rooms, surely the moon's passing gleam reveals, for a fleeting moment, a white figure moving back and forth? A princess in distress in the giant's castle or merely the ghost of some long-dead and forgotten claimant in one of those legal actions against the railway companies which were so common during the last century?"

My first excited reading of all those negatives framed by question marks left me unsure whether the writer hated or secretly loved the structure. On rereading it now I realise they simply had a blast trying to reflect in their writing style the exuberance of the architecture. In the rest of the book, even though there are some battle scenes with angry mobs storming Georgian mansions, and quite a few violent deaths reported, there's nothing quite like this outburst of the imagination.

Personally I always appreciate the station as a fairytale castle each time I see it, and I'm glad it survived into our century and got a very thoughtful refurbishment when it became St. Pancras International.

Update 8.7.2021: The book mentioned the London tram system which I had never heard of before, as an attraction to visit before it disappears. Less than a week after I posted this, there was an article in the Guardian about a tram reopening for visitors.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

more chamber music for cello and flute

When I revisited our ancient noteflight scores of duets we arranged for cello and flute, I also remembered the list of duets that I had discovered online back then and that I found helpful for some initial directions. Back in 2011 it was hosted on the comprehensive flute website of jazz flautist Larry Krantz and credited to Julia Larson Mattern and others. Sadly it is no longer online, so I've used the copy I kept as a starting point to make my own list by adding in youtube links and dropping those items of which I could not find any performance. I also removed the comments from the original list and added some of my own. Oh, and I made a YouTube playlist.

Work in progress. Surely there must be more music that works well for cello and flute? Suggestions welcome.

So here's what I've got in alphabetical order:

1. Beethoven - Three Duets (published by Kalmus) Lovely music from a young Beethoven, written for clarinet and bassoon but available in several other combinations too. We played four or five of the 9 movements back then, some in arrangements derived from an edition for violin and viola, see the list of our scores. YouTube performances of duo No.1: Duo Dare plays first movement only, but clearer sound than this recording of the whole duo.

2. Besozzi, Alessandro - Divertimento in F (published by Urtext Premiere Publication) YouTube I thought this sounded a bit lame? (Besozzi has lots of trios though, which I'll still need to check)

3. Cambini, Guiseppe - Six Sonatas (published by Amadeus) YouTube

4. Carter, Elliott - Enchanted Preludes (published by Boosey and Hawkes) YouTube

5. Carrick, Richard - La Scene Miniature (self published) for piccolo and cello a quartet version with composer on piano.

6. Danzi, Franz - Three Duos, Op. 64 (published by Musikverlag Hans Sikorski) I'm loving the Danzi, might buy a copy Duo No.1; Duo No. 2; Duo No. 3

7. Doran, Matt - Sonatina (published by Western International Music) first movement; third movement

8. Febonio, T.G. - Rustic Airs and Folk Dances (published by ALRY) a selection of the pieces

9. Fiala, Joseph - Duo Konzertant in F Major (published by Amadeus) first movement

10. Handel - Acht Stücke (published by Amadeus) NB I have this edition, not clear where the pieces come from, no opus number etc. can’t spot any of them on youtube.

11. Heiss, John - Five Pieces (published by Southern) YouTube

12. Hofmann, Leopold - Divertimento (published by Amadeus) YouTube

13. Jevtic, Ivan - Musica per Due (published by LeDuc) YouTube

14. Tann, Hilary - Llef (published by Oxford University Press) YouTube loving the haunting sound of this.

15. Uebayashi, Yuko - Suite for Flute and Cello YouTube

16. Vali, Reza - Folk Songs (set No 9, published by MMB Music, Inc.) YouTube Fascinating but way beyond amateur standard.

17. Villa-Lobos - Assobio a Jato (Jet Whistle) One of many recordings available on YouTube

18. Whiteman, Lauren - Six Haiku (published by ALRY) a selection

Flautist Martha Long and cellist Marilyn de Oliveira performing Folk Songs Set No. 9 by Reza Vali. A still from this YouTube video

Saturday, June 26, 2021

delta taking off

With July and the rescheduled re-opening of everything in the UK approaching, let's do some back-of-the envelope calculations again to see what may happen in July and August, seeing that the UK govt. seems to think the vaccination programme is a magical solution to everything, including the exponential spread of the delta variant.

As per today's figures, there have been 32.2 million second doses, meaning that in two weeks time, when those second doses have all done their magic, there will still be 34.6 million people not completely protected. Some will be partially protected by a first dose, but, on the other hand, in some 10% of the doubly-vaccinated people the protection won't work, so let's assume these two imperfections cancel out and we will have 34.6 million unprotected people on Saturday July 10th (which happens to be the day before some football game planned to take place in Wembley Stadium).

Cases are currently increasing at more than 50% per week - earlier this month the figure had peaked at 66% and dipped to 31%, so 50% is a good midpoint between these extremes and easy to calculate. Going up by factor 1.5 each week means factor 2.25 in two weeks, so a doubling time of less than two weeks.

As per today's govt. figures, there were 98,460 new cases in the last 7 days, which gives us 14,065 for our 7-day rolling average of daily cases. Times 2.25 makes 31,650 new cases on the Saturday before the final.

Let's carry on in 2-week steps assuming (generously) 200,000 second doses are given every single day (2.8. million in two weeks):

24. 7. 71,208 daily cases, 31.8 million still unprotected.

7.8. 160,217 daily cases, 29 million still unprotected

21.8. 360,490 daily cases, 26,2 million still unprotected

4.9. 811.100 daily cases, 23.4 million still unprotected

18.9. ? 1.82 million daily cases, 20.6 million still unprotected

OK, so that last step in September is the one where I'm reasonably optimistic that it won't happen - with more than 2/3 of the population protected, the virus won't find another 1.8 million susceptible people it can infect. Especially because millions will already have had it. But before that, I wouldn't bet against the delta variant or expect any miracles from the vaccines.

Hundreds of thousands of cases in late August appear possible, and even with the mortality reduced to 1/1000 thanks to the vaccine protecting most of the previously vulnerable groups, this translates to hundreds of daily deaths. As we had in January, and last year in the first wave.

I made an assumption that may prove to be too optimistic, namely that the vaccine remains as effective as it is now. Letting the virus run free while conducting mass vaccinations against it is essentially an experiment in virus evolution. Given hundreds of thousands of opportunities to mutate, it may very well find a way around the vaccine. And then we will be back to square one. (It doesn't have to become completely resistant, even if it reduces vaccine protection from 90% to 45% we're facing a major disaster.)

To me the lesson is you shouldn't try to race an exponential function, unless you have exponentially growing power yourself, which would be unlikely. You need to catch and confine it while the case numbers are manageable, which the govt has failed to do for the third time in 18 months. As I was writing this post, the health secretary has handed in his resignation, but not for dismally failing to protect the health of the population.

first checkpoint 10.7.: I predicted 31,650 new cases for today. The 7-day rolling average falls a bit short with 30504, but the daily figure is above the prediction, with 32367. Second doses haven't come close to the 200k per day rate I assumed, so protection is generally less than anticipated.

Monday, June 21, 2021

mRNA therapies coming soon

One of the major changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic is that it lifted medical applications of RNA out of obscurity and to global stardom. Just imagine, trying to promote an mRNA in a lipid nanovesicle as a therapeutic in December 2019. You would have had to work very hard to persuade people that it's probably safe and might actually work. Now you can just point to the mindboggling fact that hundreds of millions of people have received vaccines based on this principle - within six months.

Given that all the experts in the field are currently either busy developing new products or already counting their billions, I went through the back catalogue of RNA therapeutics that were in development before Covid happened, on the assumption that these will now find it much easier to find funding and get approval and actually reach the market.

My feature on those other, non-Covid medical applications of RNA is out now:

The renaissance of RNA therapies

Current Biology Volume 31, issue 12, pages R763-R765, June 21, 2021

access to full text and PDF download
This is currently on open access as part of the general Covid-19 info policy from Cell Press. Should that change, it will become open access again one year after publication

Any problems with the link above, try the:

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

mRNA researcher at the German company BioNTech, which in collaboration with Pfizer brought the first mRNA vaccine to regulatory approval. The company also develops treatments for cancer and other diseases based on mRNA. (Photo: © BioNTech SE 2021, all rights reserved.)

Saturday, June 19, 2021

sous le kiosque a musique

Ce qu'on peut rigoler
Par les beaux soirs d'été
Sous le kiosque à musique
On entend l'orphéon
Les tambours les clairons
La fanfare et la clique

I'm regularly using Oxford's only bandstand this plague year summer, both for chamber music and for folk sessions, so I am often reminded of one of my favourite French songs, an ancient one from the 1930s, which gently mocks the culture of widespread amateur / semi-professional music making for which these structures were built. I'm loving all the attention-grabbing flourishes and fanfares in the melody which are obviously a parody of the type of light music you might have heard at a bandstand on a summer evening in the early 20th century. Now that this culture has gone the way of the dinosaurs (along with the ophicleide mentioned in the text) and bandstands are mostly silent, I wonder what the authors of the song might have to say about it.

I've known the song since forever in the version performed by Georges Brassens (1921-1981) in a radio programme dedicated to the popular music of his youth: Georges Brassens chante les chansons de sa jeunesse (also available as CD).

Looking it up right now, there seems to be a general block in place forbidding users in the UK to access this recording. If you're outside the UK, you may be lucky to be able to listen to it on Soundcloud here.

I never knew the original version, only now I unearthed this one from jazz band leader Ray Ventura (1908-1979) which I'm assuming must be the version Brassens heard in his youth.

The only modern cover I've found is this one, which looks like a music teacher made it for kids, but it does have rolling lyrics, so if you want to learn the song it's a good resource (there are also chords provided here). According to this video, the composer is Marc Lanjean, and the lyrics are by Maurice Vandair.

Lyrics are also here (wrongly attributed to Brassens).

I've poked the very amazing Pomplamoose via twitter, I think they should definitely cover this.

Not our local bandstand, but one I saw at Romsey on a day trip earlier this year.

There is also a lovely flickr group called Bandstands Worldwide where you'll find some amazing structures (loving this one in Hove) as well as the occasional contribution from me.

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