Working On A 450 MHz Pentium II with 256 MB RAM

This post will be brought to you by my youngest child and my wife's bird, who are jointly responsible for the destruction of my laptop's keyboard. To be fair, the bird only removed the Delete and Page Down keys, which I almost never use; my son removed the left Alt key, which I use with great frequency, being an Emacs aficionado.

We've used up most of the spare computers in the house. The big desktop? Running TV for the kids. The ThinkPad? Broken hinge. The Aspire One? Where did we put the power cord for that, anyway? The only thing left was ancient: a 450 MHz Pentium II desktop machine marked as having 64 MB RAM that we inherited from the former occupant of a house we lived in. Judging by the "Designed for Microsoft Windows 98" sticker and the Windows ME product key stuck to the side, I'd guess it dates from about 1999.

Take 1: Puppy Linux

I figured that I could run everything on the big desktop over X forwarding (I run Linux on all my machines), so if I could get X running on this relic, I'd be in business, and it would give me an opportunity to use my IBM Model M. I started with my go-to light Linux distribution, Puppy Linux, which I've run on systems not much more powerful than what I was looking at. I stuck it on a USB key and shortly was reminded that booting from USB was not widely supported in 1999. A dig for a Puppy CD turned up an old, bare-bones version that I thought would be perfect. It installed the first try, and booted to a terminal — but no X. I messed around with Xorg configuration for a while, and finally gave up and shut it down. When I turned it on to try more later, the problem was magically fixed: X! That weirdness persisted, by the way; every improper shutdown my son would precipitate was followed by tinkering with Xorg configuration until I realized that immediately rebooting an extra time always fixed the problem.

A more important problem for me was that running anything over X forwarding was dog slow — especially Qt applications. I tried turning off compression, which made it worse, and switching between trusted and untrusted forwarding, which did nothing much. I was able to work some small improvements by changing the Qt theme and changing the Qt graphics engine from 'raster' to 'native', but it really wasn't enough; even many GTK apps were difficult to use.

Take 2: Debian

Things had to get better, and it didn't seem to me that a computer even of these low specs should be performing quite so badly. I decided that I'd try a different operating system that let me know more what was going on. Obviously, that meant Debian! I downloaded a netinstall image for 8.0 and burned it. Using the text-based installer, I installed the base system only, deselecting the desktop environment and print and ssh servers. The installation went quickly, and soon I was at a terminal.

All I really needed was X, a terminal emulator, and a light window manager; I decided that I'd add ROX as well so I had a file manager that could provide me with a desktop and panel. I issued:

apt-get install openbox rox-filer xterm xinit

and was in business. xinit started X and an XTerm, I manually started openbox-session and rox --rox-session, and we had a usable desktop! I tried out X forwarding, and the difference was amazing; where it was almost unusable before, it felt almost local after. I only wish I knew what made the difference.

Postlogue: Making it easy, making it complete

Of course, you don't want to have an XTerm sitting on your desktop running your window manager; you want to have a desktop with a single command. A simple ~/.xinitrc file containing the following:

openbox-session &
rox --rox-session

was enough to make that happen. I saw no need for a login manager; I don't mind logging in textually and typing xinit to start X.

The system performed so well for its initial purpose that I felt I should make it usable in itself; that required a web browser, a text editor, and a PDF viewer, at least. The text editor was no challenge; Emacs installed fine and runs fine; I'm using it to write this. Same with XPDF for PDF files. A browser is a bigger challenge in every sense, however; Google Chrome relies on processor features mine does not supply, and Iceweasel (Debian's rebranded FireFox) swapped so hard it was all I could do to close it. The next choice was Dillo, a minimal browser based on the FLTK toolkit, and it installed without problems. It's a somewhat limited browser: it can't handle frames, it supports only a subset of CSS, and there's no JavaScript, but it is fast and light, and it is great for browsing documentation.

So, a script that will install this whole system starting from a base installation of Debian would be pretty short:

# `apt-get -qq` limits output and assumes yes to all prompts

# install the display-essential stuff
apt-get -qq install openbox rox-filer xterm xinit

# create an X init settings file
echo "openbox-session &
rox --rox-session" > ~/.xinitrc

# install basic software
apt-get -qq install emacs xpdf dillo

# start the display
xinit &

On completion of the script, you should be in a working and usable X system. To start it in the future, all you need to do is log in and issue xinit.

Studying Counterpoint with Thomas Morley

In my school days, I never studied counterpoint formally; it wasn't offered as a course, and the semester that I set out to take it as an independent study, the professor came down with pneumonia. I can't say, based on my initial session with him, that I was disappointed not to study with him — but that's a story for another time.

I have a better teacher now, though. He's Thomas Morley, dead these four hundred years, the composer of some of my favorite music from Elizabethan England: the Consort Lessons, the Canzonets, and any number of other delicious pieces. Morley, near the end of his life, wrote A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, an instructional work in dialogue form, covering the rudiments of music, sight-singing, counterpoint in two or more parts, and more general composition. I've been working through the section on counterpoint — or as Morley calls it, descanting; he reserves the word counterpoint for strict note-against-note writing — and it's a great way to learn. Not only is Morley a fine composer, he's also a good writer and teacher.

Learning from this book makes me regret the demise of the instructional dialogue in pedagogical literature. Badly done, it's nothing but an annoyance; one work on psalm-singing comes to mind, where the student's questions are little more than topic headings, e.g. "What be the several clefs?", but Morley is a master of the form. His teacher, Master Gnorimus, is erudite, witty, occasionally biting, but encouraging and helpful; the student, Philomathes, is diligent, sometimes overconfident, and inclined to be more critical of his teacher than of himself. Their interplay adds a personal element that engages me, and seeing Philomathes' occasional embarrassment at making the same mistake in three different places consoles me when I find I've done the same.

So much for the form of the work — what about the content? I was initially skeptical of Morley's rules, because they seemed over-simplified, especially when writing for more than two voices. I compared them with other works of the sixteenth century, and found my concern justified: especially as regards treatment of the perfect fourth in multi-part writing, Morley's rules did not accord with the practice of Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, or many others. Next, however, I compared Morley's approach with other English composers, and found them much more closely in accord; it seems that between continental and English part-writing there was a real difference in the handling of dissonances between the upper voices, and that may account in part for the richer sound of English music of that time. Morley's own writing follows his rules very closely, which may seem unsurprising, but I've read enough theoretical writing from practicing composers to have found otherwise. I found a spot in one of the three-voice Canzonets that broke his rules soundly — and then I found it mentioned in the text as a youthful error, caught after it went to the printer.

Morley precedes Fux and his ilk; the species approach was unknown to him, but he covers note-against-note writing (his use of the term counterpoint); binding descant, which refers to a syncopated mode of writing which alternates placing one note against a note of the plainsong with placing a single note against two of the plainsong; and free counterpoint. He also briefly discusses other strict relations: 2-to-1, 3-to-1, 4-to-1, and more complex ones like 5-to-2, 7-to-3, and so on, but that is a side discussion of the practice of others, and not, in Morley's mind, practical or useful. I'm inclined to accept his opinion.

If I had a complaint about Morley's book as a self-teaching guide, it would be the lack of material for practice. Most of the examples are against a single plainsong — a tour de force of contrapuntal inventiveness, to be sure, but not calculated to provide the student with a rich source of plainsongs for the student to work examples over. I have been drawing plainsongs for my exercises from 16th- and 17th-century psalm tunes, and it has mostly been satisfactory, barring a tendency in the later psalm tunes to outline triads, which doesn't really fit with the style Morley is aiming at. Still, the challenge is good, and the tunes are generally well-formed and interesting melodic lines, which encourages me to try and write similarly good companions for them.

I've been studying from Alec Harman's edition, which modernizes the musical notation and a few terms, but the original is not a bit intractable, if you take the trouble to become familiar with the quirks of 16th-century music engraving. The original is available for free at IMSLP, and used copies of the Harman edition can be had for a few cents from Amazon.

Sacred Harp

I love going to Sacred Harp singings. I don't get to go a lot these days, what with young kids and a number of other things on my plate that I think deserve more attention, but when I do, I have a wonderful time. Here's what goes on at a singing:

When you go to a singing, you step into a large room with benches or chairs arranged into a square with an open area at the center — they call it "the hollow square". Each side of the square corresponds to a voice part; basses are men, most altos are women, and the remaining two parts, treble and tenor (or lead), are sung in octaves by men and women. Treble and tenor have about the same range, but tenor has the melody. You choose your part based on your voice range and personal preference; my voice is a little high for bass, and a little low for tenor, but I like the feel of the bass lines, so I sing bass. You sit where you choose; most beginners choose tenor.

Usually, your first time, you can borrow a book. They're not all that expensive, though, and if you have any taste at all, you'll probably want one of your own. The words are hymns, and many of the tunes are recognizable variants of common hymn tunes, but the music is not written like the hymnals you are likely to see in your average church, to the extent that your average church uses hymnals at all these days. Instead, they're written in open score, one voice part per staff, across pages that are broader than they are tall. Most disconcertingly, the notes aren't round, either; their shape differs based on what degree of the scale they are in the key of the tune in question. The major scale, then, looks like this, with the solfège symbols used to sing it:

The familiar tune, Old Hundred, looks like the below. Note that the tune is in the third line, the tenor — this is from the 1911 edition, but it's about the same now:

It sounds like this:

Music geekery to follow:

It seems confusing at first, but it's pretty straightforward once you get used to it. In a major scale, the whole-steps between degrees 1, 2, and 3 are sung to fa, sol, la; then there's a half-step up to the next fa, which begins a whole-step fa, sol, la sequence where you'd usually expect it, on 4, 5, and 6. Finally, there's another whole-step up to 7, which gets the syllable mi. Then the pattern starts over again for the next octave. The minor scale is the same, except it starts on the second la of the major scale. Accidentals are mostly ignored, to surprisingly good effect. (The whole system is, as I understand it, derived from the Lancashire fasola, a four-syllable solfège system simplified from the old English method of Playford and Morley.) To learn to read the music, all a person needs is to look at what shape the notes are, and whether the next note is higher or lower by a little, or a lot.

Once most people are settled in, someone may open with a prayer, depending on how formal a singing it is. (I'm always surprised by the number of non-religious people who love Sacred Harp singing, but they're of course heartily welcomed; Sacred Harp singings are open to anyone.) Then the singing starts. Someone will step into the open middle of the square and call out the page number of the tune they will lead. People will find it, someone skilled at setting the pitch for tunes will sing the starting pitches, and a wave of the leader's hand and a confident bellow starts things off.

The first time through a tune, we sing the shapes; that is, instead of the printed words, everyone sings the syllables of their part in a glorious mishmash of fasola. Then, we sing the words. First of all, you may notice that it's deafeningly loud, everyone singing at the top of their lungs. Next, you may notice that it's exhilarating!

After the tune ends, the leader will sit down, and the next person will do the same. Usually leading goes around the square, section by section, person by person. Even if you're brand new, you'll probably be asked to come to the center and lead. You could demur, but I wouldn't recommend it. Usually you can come to the center with a more experienced leader, and hear the sound from the best spot: the center of the square. (Leading isn't hard; watch how other people wave their hands, and you'll see the pattern.) If you thought it was exhilarating before, this will lift your hair off!

It goes on and on, you get hoarse and tired, and you're happy to stop for a break when that happens. Break is over when a few people sit down and someone starts leading a tune. You'll go home exhausted and with your throat sore, and probably want to do it again soon.

Here's one last tune, one of my favorites: William Billings' David's Lamentation:

Doesn't that sound like a good way to spend some time?