The Penguin Makes Music

My fourth and final overview of open-source software for creative people involves music. In my youth I had many years of musical training, which until recently was going to waste. It’s not that I didn’t have the means – I own several electronic pianos – but I wasn’t motivated to play on a regular basis. Linux changed that, by making it easy to compose my own music, which makes things a lot more interesting.


Linux has no shortage of musical tools available on-line. One thing that differs from the other areas I’ve discussed so far is that with music, one must use several tools in tandem. This is more in the spirit of the UNIX/Linux tradition of discrete components, rather than an all-in-one application such as “The Gimp” image editor or Libre-Office Suite. This allows for more flexibility but also makes things more complex. I’ll list the open-source tools I use for creating music, and you can be the judge.


JACK (the JACK Audio Connection Kit) is a sound daemon (server) which provides the backbone of all music applications listed below. It’s like a virtual patch-board, allowing the interconnection of audio and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data between “JACK aware” applications. Unfortunately, not all programs are configured to use JACK, which is why it’s not yet the de facto Linux sound system. Because it takes control of your system’s audio, you will need to turn it off to play sound from your web browser, for example.

* QjackCtl

This is a graphical tool for controlling JACK without the use of typed commands. QjackCtl creates a list of audio devices, both hardware and software, that can be used as inputs and outputs. It lets the user define input and output connections between them, like a virtual patch bay. It’s not strictly necessary but makes JACK a lot easier to use.

* Fluidsynth

In order to create music on a computer, you either need to record sound from an external device, or to create sounds using a digital specification. “Sound Font 2” is a popular format for the latter; it’s been widely distributed on-line. Like JACK, Fluidsynth doesn’t have its own graphic interface. I found it interesting that Fluidsynth’s default sound fonts contain all the same instrument voices (piano, organ, guitar, trumpet, etc.) as the built-in selections on my Yamaha electronic keyboards. I’ve also found free sound fonts on-line which can produce other sounds such as percussion.

* Qsynth

This is a graphical front-end application for using Fluidsynth, much as QjackCtl is an interface for JACK. I haven’t used Qsynth extensively, except to select sound fonts (voices) for the MIDI sequencer application I’ll describe next.

* Rosegarden

This is the program I spend most of my time using. Rosegarden is a application for music composition and editing. It includes a MIDI sequencer, which can be used as an input to capture notes played on a MIDI instrument (such as my aforementioned Yamaha keyboards.) To do this, I invested in a bit of hardware, the E-mu Xmidi 1×1, a specialized cable which connects the twin round MIDI connectors on my instruments to a USB port on my computer. (I ordered one from for under $30.) If you’re new to this technology, I should note that a sequencer does not record sounds but notes (pitch, duration, attack, etc.) which can be mapped to any sound. This allowed me to make my piano sound like a guitar, ukelele, and an electric bass. As an alternative to Qsynth, you can install the Fluidsynth plugin, which allows you to map an instrument voice to a given track directly in Rosegarden.

Once your melodies and harmonies have been captured, you can edit them in several formats, including the standard sequencer matrix display and old-fashioned music notation. Having had classical training, the latter is my preferred method. This allows me to capture a melody on paper simply by playing it on the piano. Since I’m not very adept in improvisation, it really helps to have the music in front of me. Thus I can improve and embellish on that first performance, re-recording and re-printing it as many times as necessary.

Sadly, I had issues with bugs. In the Linux world, we install applications from the Internet using a command called “apt-get”; this fetches a version of the program created specifically for your current version of Linux. Because I use an older installation of Ubuntu (14.04) and don’t want to update until the next stable long-term Ubuntu is released next spring, I was “stuck” with Rosegarden 13.06. This worked fine for composing, but there were problems when exporting my musical tracks as sheet music. Therefore I downloaded and built a newer Rosegarden (15.12) from source code. It’s a task not for the faint hearted, but it fixed most of my problems.

* LilyPond

If you want to print out the musical scores you create in Rosegarden, the LilyPond program is the best way to do it. LilyPond is a music engraving program, which produces high-quality sheet music from the LilyPond-format (.ly extension) files you can export from Rosegarden. It’s a command line program which accepts a file called “” and converts it to “somefile.pdf” in Adobe Acrobat format, which allows it to be viewed onscreen or sent to a printer.

As I stated earlier, Rosegarden 13 had a bug in producing the lilypond “ly” input files. This caused the Lilypond program to become “confused” about how music was to be broken up into measures, to the point that it would sometimes make a line of music run right off the page! I was able to edit the “ly” files in a text editor to fix these issues, but that was a time-consuming annoyance that made it well worth upgrading to Rosegarden 15.

* JACK Timemachine

If you want to convert your new music into an MP3 file that can be played on your phone or iPod, there are a few more missing pieces. Rosegarden lets you play your music files over your computer’s speakers, but to hear it on another device, you need a “recorder” application such as JACK Timemachine. When you launch this program it appears as a device in the configuration list of Qjackctl. You connect the output of Rosegarden to the input of JACK Timemachine, and then play and record your piece, which is saved as an audio file in 64-bit WAV (w64) format.

* Sox and LAME

Bear with me; we’re on the home stretch. The aforementioned JACK Timemachine is a very simple program that only records music in one format. To change it into a more usable file, you need a music converter such as Sox (Sound Exchange) the “Swiss Army knife” of audio file conversion. Sox is a command-line tool that allows you to convert the w64 files into more playable formats such as WAV and OGG. Unfortunately the popular MP3 file format is patented and technically requires royalties to be paid; therefore Sox (being free of charge) does not include the MP3 plug-in. For do that you must recompile the Sox program from source with an MP3 plugin (requires a fair bit of computer expertise) or better yet, install the “LAME” MP3 encoder to do that last conversion. Why Sox can’t include this function, and yet it can be in LAME as a separate program, I have no idea. Leave that one to the lawyers.

I apologize for this long post and hope it hasn’t been too intimidating. If open-source music tools are complicated, they make up for it in their flexibility and power. Best of all, they’re free, with plenty of help available online. Remember, most of these open-source programs are also available for Windows and Mac. Happy composing!


Review, Book of Mormon (The Show, That Is!)


When I heard that Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame were doing a musical comedy based on the Book of Mormon, I had high expectations. This week I finally saw the show, and they did not disappoint me.For those who don’t know, the play is the story of two American Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda. One is a narcissistic over-achiever, the other an Asperger-ish compulsive liar. This, combined with the hellish conditions and cynical inhabitants of the village they’re sent to, makes for some very hilarious and un-PC hijinks.

It’s interesting, when you’ve been listening to the sound track for a long time, to see what the actual show is like. I ended up going twice, because my girlfriend Arlys’ employer changed the date of a conference we’d been planning around. Rather than trying to sell the original tickets and risk not seeing it at all, we bought two more. On Tuesday night I saw it with family, and on Thursday with Arlys. Both times it was fantastic, with top-notch acting, singing and dancing. Seeing it a second time was an opportunity to notice the details and laugh at the jokes I’d missed the first time. Not that I’d have gone twice otherwise, because even high in the second balcony, the tickets weren’t cheap.

I realize that all traveling Broadway shows are pricey these days. It’s just a shame that when a show appears on a college campus (the Gammage at ASU) that the students can’t afford to see it. My son, an ASU freshman, was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t notice too many other people his age when we were there. In any case, the performers all did an excellent job and deserved to be well paid. They were accompanied by a top-notch live orchestra. It’s worth noting that Parker and Stone are among the world’s richest comedy writers (at least, according to one of those Internet “top ten” lists.) I sure wouldn’t complain as the money rolled in.

The Book of Mormon is probably the most politically incorrect musical to ever win nine Tony awards. Besides plenty of vulgar language, it lampoons a major religion, albeit a religion that’s overwhelmingly white and conservative. It gets an equal amount of comedic mileage from the horrible problems of modern Africa – war, famine, AIDS, and female genital mutilation. To the writers’ credit, they didn’t throw in any lines that blamed this on the white man. They did, however, have the African characters complain that foreign missionaries would tell them lovely stories and then leave without fixing anything. The part about an insane general trying to force circumcision upon helpless women was probably furthest from reality. From what I’ve heard, African women are usually the ones who are the most adamant about subjecting their daughters to this barbaric practice.

It was fascinating how much actual Mormon / Latter Day Saints doctrine made its way into the show. The opening historical background sequences reminded me of time long ago when I went to the visitors’ center of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City (or Sal Tlay Ka Siti, as the Africans call it.) Of course, it’s all presented in a satirical, cartoonish fashion. My favorite song is “I Believe,” in which Elder Price begins by singing about the standard Christian dogma we all know – that God created the universe, that Jesus died for our sins, that there’s some good in everyone. He continues with the more unusual Mormon beliefs – that ancient Jews sailed to America, that God lives on a planet called Kolob, and that in 1978, God “changed his mind about black people.” Another of the best musical numbers had the sci-fi obsessed Elder Cunningham being chastised by Joseph Smith, Lt. Uhura, hobbits, and Yoda.

I’ve heard very little about LDS reaction on the show, which seems to portray Mormons as well-intentioned but bumbling do-gooders. When I first heard of the show a few years ago, the reviewers claimed that it was popular among younger Mormons, though I personally don’t have any close friends in the church I’d feel comfortable about asking. I definitely wouldn’t recommend the show to anybody who’s offended by profanity, sexual humor, or mockery of religion. To everyone else I say, for Christ’s sake, see it!

(Picture of Salt Lake Assembly hall is from Wikimedia Commons.)



The “Real Words” of our National Anthem

On this July Fourth I’d like to say a few words about the US national anthem. Many of you are no doubt aware that this year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the lyrics, written by Francis Scott Key as “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” Few people know that the song has four verses, because we seldom hear any but the first these days. Far fewer people are aware of the origin of the melody, a popular English drinking song from the 1700’s.

Yet another little-known fact is the controversy that surrounded the adoption of the song in 1931 as the nation’s official anthem. An article that appeared in the Daily Beast on last July 4th tells some of this fascinating story. The song has been the target of criticism for a melody that is difficult to sing (with a range of an octave and a fifth) and for its lyrics that celebrate militarism.

By the way, today’s history-challenged young people may not know the story behind the war that inspired Key’s poem. The War of 1812 was the nation’s first major war after the American colonies secession from the British Empire. In grade school I learned that this second war was Britain’s fault for restricting our trade with France and conscription of American sailors into the Royal Navy.

In junior high school I was fortunate to have a teacher named Frank Lewis, an offbeat-looking man (he wore coke-bottle glasses and a 50’s style pompadour) who helped inspire my own passion for history. In his class, we learned that another over-riding reason for the war was the desire of certain American politicians to violently annex British holdings in Canada (the southeast portion of the current country) and Florida. They were known as War Hawks, birds of prey with the distinctive cry, “Canada! Florida!” They got their war, which ended in a stalemate. At least 5000 American and British soldiers and sailors died and untold numbers of civilians, all for naught. It’s not a glorious episode in our history, which is why I prefer the original lyrics of the song.

Speaking of the original song, its creators were members of a London men’s club called the “Anacreon Society.” Anacreon was a poet from classical Greece whose works extolled the virtues of “wine, women and song.” As such these words are at least as appropriate for us Americans. Back in 1835, French writer Alexis de Toqueville observed that “the drinking population constitutes the majority in your country, and that temperance is somewhat unpopular.” Here without further adieu is the first verse of the famous “Anacreon in Heaven” (which you can listen to here):



as Sung at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand

Words by Ralph Tomlinson, music by John Stafford Smith


To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,

A few sons of harmony sent a petition,

That he their Inspirer and patron wou’d be;

When this answer arriv’d from the jolly old Grecian

“Voice, fiddle, and flute,

“No longer be mute,

“I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot,

“And, besides, I’ll instruct you like me, to intwine

“The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.


Remember these words on this Fourth when you hear the line about the “land of the (formerly) free and the home of the (occasionally) brave.” And if you haven’t seen it, watch this clip of Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat singing the words of the fictional Kazakhstan national anthem to this tune for unsuspecting rodeo patrons. He was lucky he didn’t get himself lynched!


Presenting “Out Loud”

After a three month hiatus, it’s high time I return to my blog, though this entry will be a relatively short one. In early November I became quite busy with my writing projects, which turned out to be much more demanding then I expected. All my marketing activities ground to a halt, though I now have something important to promote, which I’ll get to shortly.


First of all, I was attempting to meet my personal goal of finishing my second novel, Fidelio’s Automata, by the end of 2013. Although I made a valiant effort at editing and cleaning up the draft manuscript, I was forced to set it aside. I’m recently resumed that project and hope to be done by the end of this month. I’ll keep you posted.


My second, more urgent project is a theatrical production, which is called OUT LOUD! Stories from the Gayborhood. The show boasts five contributors of different short works, including three scenes by myself and my girlfriend/collaborator, Arlys Holloway. The latter are excerpts from our work in progress, a musical comedy about on-line dating called One Good Man. When I took up writing a few years ago, I never expected it to go in that direction. Frankly, if I’d have realized how challenging writing a musical would be, I probably would not have attempted it. (By the way, many thanks to JR McAlexander with his invaluable assistance with the music.) Despite several weeks of chronic sleep deprivation, it’s been an enjoyable and educational experience.


Now, after two years of preparation, OUT LOUD! is finally coming to the stage, with seven talented local actors playing over twenty roles. Besides our own musical numbers, the show features works of fantasy, young romance, and drama, by playwrights Ben Gill, B.D. Heywood and Lori Hicks. Like us, they’re newcomers to writing for the theater, and we owe a debt of gratitude to our facilitator, mentor and director, Richard Schultz. (Shameless plug: Gill, Heywood, Hicks and I all have novels published on Amazon.)


The title makes obvious the show’s lesbian/gay theme, and in fact, it is a benefit for the One Voice LGBT Community Center in Phoenix. All the works have gay/lesbian characters and/or writers. Though Arlys and I have a more conventional orientation, we are proud to support the cause of equality for the LGBT community. Though gays and lesbians have achieved much in recent years, there has recently been a resurgence in bigotry around the world, especially in the Middle East and in Putin’s Russia. Vladimir would no doubt consider our show “homosexual propaganda,” which is his standard smear on anyone who opposes his agenda of making gays into scapegoats for his country’s problems. (Though I do appreciate his opposition to the neocons’ Syria war plans – but that’s another topic.)


For those who would rather support Truth, Justice and the American Way, showings of OUT LOUD! will be February 6, 7, and 8th at the Phoenix Center for the Arts, 1202 North 3rd Street at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $10 and $25; to buy in advance, call 602-254-3100, and for more information, Warning: these works have mature subject matter, so it’s not for children or for the easily offended. We invite those of a more eclectic bent to join us for an enjoyable evening of original theater by local Arizona writers.


Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

t’s amazing what people will write plays about these days. That’s a good thing, because it’s pretty difficult to come up with an original idea. When you’ve got one, you run with it. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is one of those “crazy” ideas. It’s a musical about the life of America’s seventh president, and it’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill historical play.

My girlfriend and I saw the play on June 15th at Phoenix Theatre. It was hilarious, irreverent, profane, and only occasionally historically accurate. In other words, we really enjoyed it. It has a rock ‘n’ roll score, which a friend described as “My Chemical Romance does Broadway.” In lieu of an official review, I’ll just say we thought the acting and singing were superb, especially Caleb Reese, of the local rock band “The Instant Classics,” as Old Hickory (which, the play informed us, was actually a nickname for Jackson’s penis.) The music, which included the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” was pretty catchy. The song, “Populism, Yeah Yeah” is still stuck in my head.

As I said before, if you want something that’s true to historical fact, this isn’t the play for you. Jackson struts around like a rock star, wearing a jacket with “AJ” and a lighting bolt in sequins on the back. He calls his friends “bro,” contacts constituents on a red telephone, and refers to his rivals in the Whig Party as “Republicans,” though the GOP wasn’t founded until 1854. In the play Jackson’s parents both perish on the same night. In real life, their deaths were 14 years apart.

In the most important respects, however, the play captured the spirit of the man- brash, egotistical and amoral. The word “bloody” in the title refers to the wars he fought, and to his appalling treatment of Native Americans. Most of us know that Jackson fought “the bloody British in the town of New Orleans”, which the play does mention. (Sadly they didn’t – or perhaps weren’t allowed to – use the iconic Jimmy Driftwood song.) Jackson was also a “hero” of the Creek and Seminole Indian Wars, and as President, he was responsible for the Indian Removal Act, which led to the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, written by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, is showing at the Phoenix Theatre (located at Central and McDowell) though June 23, 2013. Depending on your location in time and space, this information may not do you much good (assuming you are out there) but if you get a chance to see this play, I’d recommend it.