Monday, August 22, 2016

Electricity Generation: A reposting from April 2014

In the light of recent revelations on the Muskrat Falls fiasco, I thought this earlier post was worth a second glance. Obviously NALCOR never considered options other than MF...

Electricity Generation

More musings. I haven't got facts and figures this time. I am still convinced that Integral Fast Reactors (I misspelled that in the previous blog) are the way to go. Far safer than current methods, using heavy or light water which rely on pressurized steam, and which leave a residue of fuel cells that need to be kept cool for thousands of years.

This time I want to ask questions about wave and tidal power. With Newfoundland and Labrador's highly indented shoreline, it would seem obvious that such methods should have been explored. While tidal difference on the east coast of the island is not as dramatic as that in the Bay of Fundy, it is sufficient to warrant examination. The type of installation that the French put in place in Dinard shows what can be done, and that site has been producing electricity for 50 years.

In the Bay of Fundy, a dam could not be built, but turbines anchored to the sea bed did produce electricity for a short while, but the tidal flow was so strong, the units were destroyed in short order, and the project abandoned.

Smaller projects on the island's south coast would, I am sure, prover feasible and profitable, especially if built close to the transmission line from Bay d'Espoir. Similar projects could be built on the North Shore of Labrador, providing power for coastal communities. Wave power could also be used in coastal communities.

The feasibility of using wind power has already been discussed and demonstrated, with some interesting solutions proposed to deal with the problem of intermittent supply.

The main problem remains in the heads of politicians. When vanity trumps sanity, no amount of evidence or common sense can prevail.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Gryphon Trio at the Tuckamore Chamber Music Festival 2016

Monday night 15 August saw the welcome return of the Gryphon Trio. A near capacity audience in the DF Cook Recital Hall was testimony to the support in the St. John's area for high calibre chamber music, and the special place this trio holds in the hearts of music lovers.

The concert did not have a thematic title (the Trio's name is sufficient to draw in an audience without the need for spin), but in retrospect appassionata would have been appropriate, with two of the evening's offerings bearing that musical notation. More of that later.

The Tuckamore Festival brochure never offers program notes to help the audience prepare for performances, although sometimes a pre-concert talk is given. On Monday night pianist James Walker pithily described the circumstances surrounding Debussy's early work, his Piano Trio in G major, composed in 1882, but then "lost" for almost exactly one hundred years before re-emerging in 1982. Arnold Schönberg was not impressed when he first heard it, classifying it as juvenilia, a slur which may have contributed to the work not being performed very frequently since. The Gryphon Trio, clearly, think otherwise, and judging by the physical state of the scores they were playing from, have made it a part of their repertoire, at least for the moment.

Just at the end of his teenage years, Debussy was hired as a music teacher to a wealthy, aristocratic family. He was to teach the younger children the rudiments of music, develop the musical talents of a twenty-seven-year-old daughter during the day, and play duets with the mother in the evening. After travelling for part of the year the family settled in one spot and in short notice a 'cellist and a violinist were hired. Here (may I imagine?) was the beginnings of a double trio: Debussy, mother and daughter; Debussy, violinist and 'cellist. I don't know how long the arrangement lasted, but if you are looking for a narrative to underpin Debussy's composition, it is not hard to find. The first movement opens with a simple theme of five notes that do not make a tune but offer endless possibilities for variation. 'Cello and piano, piano and violin answer each other in a series of duets as the composer/piano interacts with the mother/'cello, then daughter/violin. The mood is, in contemporary spin parlance, sunny, the composer is contented to be in bucolic surroundings. The second movement moves into a slightly more sombre mood; there are clouds on the horizon, as yet unspecified. The scherzo in the third movement might be considered to be a series of images of the younger children in the family running around, with the composer joining in. The final movement, however, with its sudden changes in tempo and key, perhaps portrays the complications that arise with the introduction of two other performers in the real life situation: the original trio has superimposed upon it a trio of musicians resulting in the trio composition by Debussy. Fanciful? Perhaps.

James Parker yielded the microphone to Dr Andrew Staniland for the introduction to the two short works that concluded the first half of the concert. As he explained, "14 Seconds" is the fifth movement of a fourteen movement work Dark Star Requiem chosen to open the 2010 Toronto Luminato Festival. The libretto for this oratorio/opera was drawn from a series of poems written by Jill Battson in reaction to the AIDS epidemic that was sweeping, apparently unchecked and unstoppable in the 1970s and 1980s. The title alludes to the chilling statistic that world-wide, one person died from AIDS every fourteen seconds. Staniland has taken on a seemingly impossible structural limitation of composing fourteen short pieces, each lasting fourteen seconds. I have yet to hear the complete work, but this extract does provoke a question that has received a fair amount of debate: when faced with a massive trauma (Auschwitz is the perennial choice) is art even possible? Theodor Adorno posed the question (somewhat baldly, and later retracted it because it was so often cited without the full context of his argument). AIDS cannot be put in the same category as the extermination camps of the the Second World War, but it was a trauma that affected many individuals with enormous impact. The sole clue to the structure of the piece, which was, I am sure, a first hearing for the majority of the audience, was provided in Staniland's introduction: a theme and variations. The theme is simple, repeated, harshly accented notes on the piano at first, taken up by the 'cello and violin. If you are looking for narrative, then perhaps the sound of a heart monitor next to a dying patient, the pulse rate quicker than normal as the body tries to fight the spreading disease and the mind tries to cope with that realization. The first few movements are clearly marked off with a slight pause, the trajectory the music might be creating cut off abruptly. But as the work progresses, there is no pause, not the slightest relief. There are key changes, changes in rhythm and pace, but each fourteen seconds barely has time to establish itself before the next "life" moves to centre stage. Towards the end, the mood becomes more intense; is this rage against the dying of the light? Until finally, the beat of the heart monitor flatlines... a single note, high in the 'cello's register, morendo.

For the second of Staniland's pieces, "Solstice Songs", the audience was given no help. While the composer had indicated that it was to be performed attaca, with no break between to the two pieces, there was a pause while the trio, some more quickly than others, removed the first score from their stand and set up the second. It did give the audience time to take the impact of "14 Seconds", but we had no preparation. The musical notation the program simply said: "Lively, Dance-like", and while it lived up to the first, I defy anyone to dance to this music! I certainly enjoyed the music, as did the Gryphon Trio who bounced with the sudden stops and starts, fortissimo to pianissimo. But I will need to hear it again. Once again, the finale was characterized by passionate playing.

On the question of hearing contemporary compositions more than once, Dr Staniland, in his introduction to last Saturday's performance of new works by Tuckamore Young Composers, said how fortunate they were to hear their composition performed twice, once in the composers segment at 7pm, and again in the main concert at 8pm. He also observed that their new works were, in the second performance, being presented in the company of some of the Western tradition's greats: Brahms, Dvorzak, Fauré, and the like. It is a mark of Staniland's stature that his compositions tonight stood up well in the context of Debussy and Mendelssohn.

The second half of the evening consisted of the single work, Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Trio no.2 in c minor, op.66. This is a late work, composed just a few years before his death and shows the complexity of a mature artist's mind at work. James Parker's playful introduction offered up a narrative drawn from the Jason Bourne series of action dramas: first movement "full of car chases, explosions, narrow escapes; the second movement "a peaceful interlude in a Mediterranean luxury hotel (James Bond?); I can't remember Parker's characterization for the third movement; and, the fourth movement, more dramatic action, accelerating to a triumphant conclusion. My narrative would substitute a Victorian melodrama for Jason Bourne, with the villain tying the heroine to the railway tracks and... you get the picture. Such narratives do help the concert-goer who has no formal musical training (and perhaps little concert experience such as myself) to grasp complex artistic creations which take thirty minutes to unfold.

In response to a much deserved standing ovation, the Gryphon Trio gave us Piazzolla's "Autumn". I have become a fan of tango dancing, both the balletic, dancing-with-the-stars routines by young performers whose joints do not seem to obey the laws of physic, but especially those where the dancers are my age, their movements more gentle, but the sexual innuendo all the more powerful for being understated. So it was with last night's performance: the rubato passages only ever-so-slightly slowed, then quickened, the lingering slide of the trailing foot referenced by the glissando on violin and 'cello.

What a night!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Tuckamore Chamber Music festival

After a long gap in posting, I'm going to try my hand at something different: music reviews. I have no formal training in music, but I do know what I like, and what I don't want to see or hear repeated. For my first attempt, here are my observations of Friday night's offering at the D.F. Cook Recital Hall: "In My Love and In My Song".

While the title made obvious reference to the two song cycles "An Chloé" (Mozart) and "Sechs Gesängen"(Schumann), the other pieces seemed not to fit: "Valse" by Rachmaninoff, Hungarian Dance No. 15 by Brahms, and Beethoven's String Quartet No.7. This last, at a stretch, might have found justification in its dedication "To my brother", an expression of filial love, but a change in programming saw it replaced by the same composer's Op 74 "The Harp".

I am not familiar with this work (it was a first hearing for me), but for a quartet of players, who had not had much time to gel (this is the first week of the festival) their ensemble playing was remarkable. Given the foreshortened preparation time, the high level of co-ordination in the rapid scalar passages, and the syncopated rhythm sections in the final movement was breathtaking. Sensitivity in the pianissimo sections was to the fore, and the changes in prominence for each of the voices were seamless as each instrument sang clearly above the understructure provided by the other three. The exuberant finale brought out the obvious enjoyment the four individuals have in making music together, enjoyment conveyed readily to an appreciative audience.

Sophie Leblanc's performance of selections from "An Chloé" was preceded by a welcome introduction to the texts, since no translation had been provided to the audience. Her playful, even flirtatious depiction of the textual context of the songs prepared the audience well for her flawless singing: impeccable German diction, musicality, and an appreciation for the dramatic possibilities of the varying fortunes of the characters in the songs. Each of the four chosen presented love in a different light: "Dans un bois solitaire" shows the would-be lover alone; in "Abendempfindung" the lover discovers the gloomy mood of the dusk matches his mood; "Wie unglücklich bin ich nicht", with the double negative pointing to an uncertain positive, has the lover finding happiness, but not sure of its permanence; and "Der Zauberer" finds the lover robbed of his heart by the beauty of the beloved. Mozart found inspiration in simple, folksy tunes that he endowed with matching simplicity and wit.

Schumann in like manner chose to stay in the folk tradition of the Gesängen, rather than the more elevated art-song form of the Lieder. Again, Ms Leblanc provided a brief synopsis of each of the songs. The first five depict the unfortunate ones in love: "Herzeleid" (Heartbreak), "Die Fensterscheibe" (The Window-cleaner), "Der Gärtner" (The Gardener), "Die Spinnerin" (The Spinner), and "Im Wald" (In the Forest). In the first and fifth, the protagonist is not specified, but the emotion suffered could be shared by all, the heartbreak of a lost love in the first, the loneliness of the not-yet-loved in the fifth as the protagonist observes pairing up in nature -- two butterflies, two birds, and two deer -- and wonders implicitly when he or she may find love. The sixth song "Abendlied" (Evening Song) contrasts the first five by offering a more positive outlook on love, the title indicating a more noble approach, a Lied, and the choice of major key a more joyful outcome.

Rather than choosing the traditional accompaniment of piano, Ms Leblanc went for the twentieth century arrangement by the German composer Aribert Riemann for string quartet. Susan Waterbury played first violin, Nancy Dahn second (reversing the pairing in the Beethoven), Dov Scheindlin viola, and Vernon Regehr 'cello. The combination worked very well and I will seek out a recording of this version.

The only question mark I had for the evening concerned Ms Leblanc's constant reference to the score. Since the two song cycles are not arduous examples in the soprano's repertoire, why were they not memorized?

Finally, a word on the two pieces for piano-four hands. Rachmaninoff's "Valse", while posing some challenges for the upper hand, is not technically difficult. The composer's somewhat sardonic treatment of the waltz genre -- you can't dance to the music, and the lumbering, fortissimo section may have been an allusion to the brutal aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution -- turns the piece into a salon novelty rather than a serious concert offering. Brahm's Hungarian Dance no.15 similarly works best in a salon setting, though concert versions have become popular. Is it possible, as the late John Herriott was fond of pointing out, that such compositions for four hands, often played by tutor (male) and student (female), offered an opportunity for close physical contact, in public, under the guise of music-making? No such possible interpretation could be made for Friday evening's performance as Timothy Steeves and Robert Kortgaard gave us only fun-filled panache.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Electricity Generation

More musings. I haven't got facts and figures this time. I am still convinced that Integral Fast Reactors (I misspelled that in the previous blog) are the way to go. Far safer than current methods, using heavy or light water which rely on pressurized steam, and which leave a residue of fuel cells that need to be kept cool for thousands of years.

This time I want to ask questions about wave and tidal power. With Newfoundland and Labrador's highly indented shoreline, it would seem obvious that such methods should have been explored. While tidal difference on the east coast of the island is not as dramatic as that in the Bay of Fundy, it is sufficient to warrant examination. The type of installation that the French put in place in Dinard shows what can be done, and that site has been producing electricity for 50 years.

In the Bay of Fundy, a dam could not be built, but turbines anchored to the sea bed did produce electricity for a short while, but the tidal flow was so strong, the units were destroyed in short order, and the project abandoned.

Smaller projects on the island's south coast would, I am sure, prover feasible and profitable, especially if built close to the transmission line from Bay d'Espoir. Similar projects could be built on the North Shore of Labrador, providing power for coastal communities. Wave power could also be used in coastal communities.

The feasibility of using wind power has already been discussed and demonstrated, with some interesting solutions proposed to deal with the problem of intermittent supply.

The main problem remains in the heads of politicians. When vanity trumps sanity, no amount of evidence or common sense can prevail.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I recently took part in a focus group discussing various aspect of electricity service in Newfoundland and Labrador. We looked at some fairly innocuous questions such as cost, value for money, maintenance or improvement of infrastructure, and so on. Many of the participants, including me, strayed from the intended pathway by introducing the issue of Muskrat Falls, but the moderator always dragged us back to the rather mundane list of prepared questions. We were there for two hours, but it was clear to me that a discussion or debate on Muskrat Falls alone would have taken up twice that time.

Now I don't intend going over what has already been said on that matter. Instead I want to raise a different aspect of the generation of electricity: the use of nuclear power. Until recently I was totally and absolutely opposed to the use of nuclear fission for this purpose. The examples of Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukiyama were enough to convince me that the dangers associated with the operation of nuclear reactors, and the intractable problem of the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, far outweigh any potential benefits in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Certainly, the cost of building and maintaining such reactors seem to lead to higher prices for the consumer. And those price increases have been mitigated by enormous government subsidies which, by sleight of hand, have been disguised as not coming from the pockets of taxpayers.

So what changed my mind? I came across an article on a blog called Brave New Climate (http://bravenewclimate.com) and read an item on Internal Fast Reactors (IFR). I had never before heard of such animals, and was intrigued to read more (I'm still reading the wealth of information that site contains). In simple terms, this form of nuclear fission can use existing spent fuel rods, or a form of uranium that has not been enriched to weapons grade, to generate electricity in a set-up that is designed to run virtually untended and that will in the event of a natural disaster -- flooding, earthquake -- shut itself down.

So, why has this technology not received wider publicity or support? It's hard to say. But one factor that has been cited is cost. In the facilities that were built (no more than one in any country up to now), the cost comparisons were skewed in favour of the Light Water or Heavy Water Reactors (the Canadian preferred type), because the experiments were small scale. There may have been another reason: IFRs do not produce weapons-grade material for nuclear bombs.

I'll contact the author of Brave New Climate to see if I can reproduce here some of his material, since his explanations of the technical aspects of IFRs are very clear.

One immediate benefit that comes to mind is that, if the technology can be cost-effective on a medium scale, we don't need to flood vast areas of Labrador, nor construct an absurdly long transmission line to bring electricity to markets in eastern Canada or the NE United States.

More to come.

Friday, May 25, 2012

My blog on the fishery got sidetracked.... (Is this a common problem among bloggers?). Since my last post, I have been thinking a little more about the structure of the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery, and here are a few, random comments:
1.  It seems that (I can't find confirmation of what I read) the Federal Government has slipped into the Omnibus Bill a statement that the fish in Canadian waters  in the North Atlantic will no longer be recognized as a Common Property Resource. With this designation, the fish in Canadian waters are deemed to be the property of the Canadian people, and thus nominally under the control of the Federal Government. This designation is important since it forms the ground for regulations governing quotas and disposal, that is it is the basis for setting the amount of fish caught, species to be harvested, and where the fish may be processed. There is overlap with provincial jurisdiction; the NL provincial government, for example, determines licences for fish plants and whether fish can be exported processed or whole.
But, without the designation of Common Property Resource, fish harvesters will be free to take what they can since no one entity owns the fish.
2.  It is becoming clearer to me that the decline, and slow recovery of the fish stocks, especially cod is not open to a simple explanation. Actions of fish harvesters have contributed: extensive use of draggers disturbing the sea-bed where cod spawn; the switch, after the cod moratorium, to shrimp fishing which reduced the available food supply for cod; the extensive over-fishing of caplin off Iceland which again reduced food supply for cod; and the continued high level of foreign fishing for cod on the noase and tail of the Banks.
However, another factor, which I have not seen discussed, is the effect of con trails, or vapour trails from transatlantic flights that reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the ocean surface, thereby reducing the growth of plankton and other minuscule entities that form the bottom of the food chain. When, during the three-day hiatus in flights following the 9/11 disaster, it was observed that temperatures rose, there seems to have been little follow-up to see what other effects might have been produced. A study elsewhere (in Israel, I believe) did show that there was an increase in the amount of beneficial sunlight reaching the ground.
3.  The recent closure of five fish plants in NL (and the confirmation of two further closures) raises certain questions. On the one hand we are told, by plant owners and the government, that there is not enough product to keep the plants going. But at the same time at least two of the plants have applied for permission to export unprocessed fish to China.

I'll leave this blog for now, and look forward to receiving comments.