Category Archives: Music

Living with Social Anxiety

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a long time. Probably a few years by now. I think it’s probably about time to out myself.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’ve dealt with mental illness. But I’ve never gone in depth about it. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest one is just that it’s really frightening to reveal that kind of personal information.

I’ve had trouble with two related things. I’ve written before about the fact that I’m being treated for depression. What I haven’t talked about is the fact that I’ve got very severe social anxiety.

To me, the depression isn’t such a big deal. I’m not saying that depression isn’t serious. I’m not even saying that in my case, my depression wasn’t/isn’t serious. But for me, depression is easily treated. I’m one of the lucky people who respond really well to medication.

Back when I first realized that something was wrong, and I realized that what I was feeling (or, more accurately, what I was not feeling) was depression, I went to see a doctor. On my first visit with him, he wrote me a prescription for Zoloft. Two weeks later, I started feeling better; between 5 and 6 weeks after starting to take the medication, I was pretty much recovered from that episode of depression.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever totally recovered. There’s always a lingering residue of depression, which I’m constantly struggling against. It doesn’t go away, but it’s manageable. As long as I’m aware of it, it doesn’t have a huge impact on my life.

On the other hand, social anxiety. For me, that’s a really big deal. That’s the thing that shapes (and warps) my entire life. And as hard as it is to talk about something like depression, talking about SA is much harder.

As bad as people react to depression, the reaction to social anxiety is worse. Depression is commonly viewed as more weakness than illness. But social anxiety is treated as a joke.

It’s no joke. For those of us who deal with it, it’s a huge source of pain. It’s had a huge effect on my life. But I’ve always been afraid to talk about it. The thing is, I think that things like this are important to talk about. Our society has a huge stigma against mental illness. I really believe that needs to change. And the only way that it will change is when we stop treating it as something to be ashamed of, or something that needs to stay hidden. And that means that I’ve got to be willing to talk about it.

Social anxiety is part of who I am, and I can’t escape that. But I can talk about what it is. And I can, publicly, say to kids who are in the same situation that I was in 30 years ago: Yes, being like this sucks. But despite in, you can live a good life. You can find friends who’ll care about you, find a partner who’ll love you, build a successful career, and thrive. Even if your SA never goes away, even if there’s always some pain because of it, it doesn’t have to rule your life. You can still be happy.

The first thing I need to do is to explain just what SA is. But I need to be very clear here: like anything else that involves peoples’ inner perceptions, I can only talk about what it’s like for me. Different people experience things differently, so what it’s like for me might be totally different from what it’s like for someone else. I don’t mean to in any way cast any shade on anyone else: their feelings and perceptions may be different from mine, but they’re just as valid. This is just my experience.

So. What is social anxiety?

It’s very difficult to explain. The best I can do is to say that it’s the absolute knowledge that I’m freak, combined with a terror of what will happen when anyone finds out. I know, on a deep physical level that if people figure out who/what I am, that they’ll hate me – and worse, that they’ll actively turn on me, attack me, harm me.

It’s not true. I know perfectly well that it’s not true. I can feel like this even with my closest friends – people who I know will always support me, who would never do anything to hurt me. But deep down, on a level below conscious thought, I know it. It doesn’t matter that intellectually I’m aware that it’s not true, because my physical reaction in social situations is based on what my subconscious knows.

So every time I walk into a room full of people, every time I walk into a store, every time I pick up the phone, every time I walk over to a coworker to ask a question, that’s what I’m feeling. That fear, that need to escape, that certainty that I’m going to mess up, and that when I do, I’m going to be ostracized or worse.

What makes it worse is the fact that the way I behave because of the social anxiety increases the odds that other people will think I’m strange – and when people see me that way, it increases the stress that I feel. When you’re putting a substantial part of your effort and concentration into squashing down the feeling of panic, you’re not paying full attention to the people you’re interacting with. At best, you come off as distant, inattentive, and rude. At worst, you’re seen reacting in odd ways, because you’ve missed some important social cue.

It’s not a small thing. Humans are social creatures. We need contact with other people. We can’t live without it. But my interactions are always colored by this fear. I have to fight against it every day, in everything I do. It colors every interaction I have with every person I encounter. It’s there, all the time.

When people talk about social anxiety, they mostly talk about it as being something like excessive shyness. I hope that this descriptions helps make it clear that that’s not what it’s really about.

Where’d this craziness come from?

For me, it’s really a kind of PTSD, or so a doctor who specializes in SA told me. I feel really guilty saying that, because to me, PTSD is something serious, and I have a hard time putting myself into the same basket as people who’ve gone through real trauma. But in medical terms, that’s what’s happening.

I’ve written about my past a little bit before. I had a rough childhood. Most of the time when you hear that, you think of family trouble, which couldn’t be farther from the truth for me. I had a really wonderful family. My parents and my siblings were/are great. But in school, I was the victim of abuse. I was a very small kid. I’m fairly tall now (around 5’11”) when I started high school, I wasn’t quite 5 feet tall. At the beginning of my junior year, I was still just 5’1″. So, I was short, skinny, hyperactive geeky kid. That’s pretty much the formula for getting picked on.

But I didn’t just get picked on. I got beaten up an a regular basis. I don’t say that lightly. I’m not talking about small stuff. The small abuses would have been bad enough, but that’s not what happened to me. This was serious physical abuse. To give one example, in gym class one day during my senior year, I had someone tackle me to the ground; then grab my little finger, say “I wonder what it would feel like if I broke this?”, and then snap it.

That was, pretty much, my life every day from 5th grade until I graduated high school. Everything I did became a reason to abuse me. If I answered a teachers question in class? That was a reason to beat me: I’m making them look bad. If I didn’t answer a question in class, that was a reason to beat me: I should be satisfying the teacher so that they don’t have to.

It wasn’t limited to school. My house was vandalized. The gas lines on our grill were cut. A swastika was burned into the street in front of my house. We had so many mailboxes destroyed that we literally build a detachable mount for the mailbox, and brought it in to the house every night. Then in retribution for depriving the assholes of the privilege of smashing our mailbox, they set the wooden mailbox post on fire.

Hearing this, you’d probably ask “Where was the principal/administration when all of this was going on?”. The answer? They didn’t really give a damn. The principal was an ex-nun, who believed that you shouldn’t punish children. If one children hits another, you shouldn’t tell them that hitting is wrong. You should sit them down and talk to them about “safe hands”, and what you need to do for your hands to be safe.

After the finger-breaking incident, my parents really freaked out, and went in to see the principal and assistant principal. Their reaction was to be furious at my parents. The AP literally shouted at my father, saying “What do you want, a god-damned armed guard to follow your kid around?”. (To which, I think, the response should have been “Fuck yeah. If you’re doing such a shit job protecting your students that the only way to stop them from having their bones broken for fun is to hire armed guards to follow them around, then you should damn well do that.”) Unfortunately, my parents didn’t believe in lawsuits; they wouldn’t sue the school, and they just didn’t have the money to move me to a private school. So I got to suffer.

(Even now, I would dearly love to find that principal… I’d really like to explain to her exactly what a god-damned idiot she is, and how ashamed she should be of the horrible job she did. A principal’s number one job is making sure that the school is a safe place for children to learn. She failed, horribly, at that – and, as far as I could tell, never felt the slightest bit of guilt over all of the things she allowed to happen in her school.)

So now, it’s literally 30 years since I got out of high school. But it’s very hard to get past the things that were pounded into you during your childhood. The eight years of daily abuse – from the time I was 10 years old until I turned 18 – basically rewired my personality.

The effects of that are what made me the way I am.

How does social anxiety really affect my daily life?

Socially, it’s almost crippling. I don’t have much of a social life. I’ve got a small group of very close friends who I don’t get to see nearly enough of, and I have a very hard time meeting new people. Even with people that I’ve known for a long time, I’m just not comfortable. Sometimes I really need social contact, but most of the time, I’d rather be alone in some quiet place, where I don’t need to worry about what other people think. I’d really like to be able to socialize more – in particular, there are a lot of people that I’ve met through this blog that I think of as friends, who I’d love to meet in person, but I never do. Even when I have the change, I usually manage to muck it up. (Because I always believe that people are looking for some reason to reject me, I see rejection in places where it doesn’t exist.)

Professionally, it’s been up and down. It definitely has held me back somewhat. In any job where you need to promote yourself, someone with SA is in deep trouble.

At one point, I even lost a job because of it. I didn’t get fired, but that’s only because I quit when it became obvious that that’s what was coming, and there was no point sticking around waiting for it. My manager at the time found out I was getting treated for SA. From the moment he found out, he stopped trusting anything I said about anything. To make matters worse, at the time, he was in trouble for a project that was literally 2 years overdue, and he needed a scapegoat. The “crazy” guy was the obvious target.

As an example of what I mean: one of the times he accused me of incompetence involved actors, which is a programming model that I used in my PhD dissertation. Actors are a model of concurrent computation in which everything is asynchronous. There are no visible locks – just a collection of active objects which can asynchronously send and receive messages. (I wrote a post about actors, with my own implementation of a really silly actor-based programming language here.)

We were working on a scheduling problem for our system. Our team had a meeting to discuss how to implement a particular component of that. After a lot of discussion, we agreed that we should implement it as an actor system. So I wrote a lightweight actors framework on top of our thread library, and implement the whole thing in actors. My coworkers reviewed the code, and accepted it with a lot of enthusiasm. My manager scheduled a private meeting where he accused my mental illness of impairing my judgement, because what kind of idiot would write something like that to be totally asynchronous?

So I left that company. Fortunately, skilled software engineers are in high demand in the NYC area, so finding a new job wasn’t a problem. I’ve had several different jobs since then. SA really hasn’t been a huge problem at any of them, thank goodness. It’s always a bit of a problem because my natural tendency is to try to disappear into the background, so it’s easy for people to not notice the work I’m doing. But I’ve mostly learned how to overcome that. It’s not easy, but I’ve managed.

When job-hunting, after that terrible experience, I learned to be careful to learn a bit about what the work culture of a company is like before I go to work there. I’ve tried to work something into conversations with people at the company after I have an offer, but before I accept it. It gives me a chance to see how they react to it. If I don’t like their reaction, if it seems like there’s a good chance that it’ll cause trouble, I’ll just take a different job someplace where it won’t be a problem. Like I said before, it’s a good time to be a software engineer in NYC – I can afford to turn down offers from companies that I don’t like.

So, yeah. I’m kind of crazy. Writing this is both difficult and terrifying. Posting it is going to be even worse. But I think it’s important to get stuff like this out there.

Despite all of this, I’ve wound up in a good place. I’m married to a lovely woman. I’ve got two smart, happy kids. I’ve got a great job, working with people that I really, genuinely like and enjoy working with, and they seem to like me back. It’s been a long, hard road to get here, but I’m pretty happy where I am.

This has gotten to be quite long, and I’ve been working on it on and off for a couple of months. I think that I’ve got to just let go, and post it as is. Feel free to ask questions about anything that I can clarify, and feel free to share your own stories in the comments. If you want to post something anonymously, feel free to email it to me (markcc@gmail.com), and I’ll post it for you so that theres nothing on the blog that could identify you.

Also note that I’m going to tightly moderate replies to this post. I’m not interested in having my blog turn into a place where jerks can abuse people sharing painful personal stories.

Friday Random Ten (2/28): Music for the new site!

I haven’t done one of these in quite a while. The new home of this blog seems like a good excuse to start again.

  1. Adrien Belew, “Troubles”: Adrien Belew did an absolutely fantastic set of three solo albums of divinely weird music, called Side One, Side Two, and Side Three. This is the first track off of the third: Belew playing funky blues. Pure fun.
  2. Genesis, “Afterglow”: Old Genesis; is there anything better to an old proghead? I love Wind and Wuthering – it’s the best of the post-Gabriel Genesis.
  3. Marillion, “The Hollow Man”: and we transition from a sad old Genesis song, to a sad old Marillion song. Hollow Man is a beautiful, simple track, which really shows off Hogarth’s vocals, and Rothery’s guitar.
  4. Gogol Bordello, “Harem in Tuscany”: After two sad songs, this is a wonderful change. Eastern European Gypsy Punk!
  5. Do Make Say Think, “You, you’re a history in rust”: Great post-rock. Very dense, atmospheric. Perfect music to work to – grabs you, draws you in, engages you, but doesn’t distract you..
  6. Reddy, “Hamster Theatre”: This one, I struggle to describe. I’ve been told that genre-wise, they’re “Rock in Opposition” – but the only other group I know that anyone calls RiO is Thinking Plague, which shares members. This is mostly instrumental, with elements of rock, jazz, and European folk. Played on band featuring sax and accordion. I don’t know what the heck it is. It’s definitely not something I want to listen to frequently, but when I’m in the mood, it’s terrific.
  7. Djam Karet, “The Great Plains of North Dakota”: Anyone who knows me – especially anyone who’s read any of my past FRTs, knows that I’m a big old proghead. Instrumental prog, though, is frequently a bit of a tough sell for me. Too often, far too often, listening to instrumental prog is rather like watching someone masturbate – content free, emotion free, done solely for the gratification of the performer. Djam Karet is one of the instrumental bands that is not like that all: they’re absolutely brilliant.
  8. Sylvan, “The Fountain of Glow, Pt. 2”: More prog. For some reason, I just can’t get into Sylvan. I can’t say what it is about them, but even though they seem like they should be right in my musical territory, they just don’t work for me.
  9. NOW Ensemble, “Waiting in the Rain for Snow”: One of my more recent musical loves is post-classical music. There’s a wonderful little label based out of NY called “New Amsterdam”, and I’ve learned to pretty much buy all of their albums, sight unseen, as soon as they come out. They’re hard to describe – but 20th century classical chamber music blended with rock is enough to give you a sense. NOW is one of New Amsterdam’s house ensembles. They’re towards the more classical end of the NA spectrum, with a mimimalist feel. Absolutely brilliant stuff.
  10. William Brittelle, “Powaballad”: After NOW, I had to listed to another New Amsterdam artist. And this is amazingly weird in comparison to NOW. It’s still that same basic family – very much the rock/classical chamber fusion, but much of the rock side mixed in, with a much less traditional classical structure.

Friday Random Ten

I haven’t done an FRT in a while. I’m really trying to get back to posting more regularly, and I’ve always enjoyed talking a bit about the crazy stuff I love to listen to.

  1. Marillion, “If my Heart were a Ball”: Very appropriate that in my first FRT in a while, Marillion would come up first. There’s just something about these guys, I can’t get enough of them. This is the live version of this song, from the “Live at High Voltage 2010” recording. I love this song on the original recording, but the version they played here is even better.
  2. Gordian Knot, “Shaman’s Whisper”: Wow, but I haven’t listened to this in a while. Gordian Knot is what instrumental prog rock should be. It’s got complexity and skill, but it’s also got soul. This is music, not wankery.
  3. Spock’s Beard, “The 39th Street Blues”: not a bad track, but this album always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s heavy-handed preachy stuff, written by Neil Morse right after his turn to born again christianity.
  4. Parallel or 90 Degrees, “Threesome” : Interesting track from Andy Tillison and Po90. I really love the album that this came from, but this is my least favorite track. It’s got a very heavy electric fuzz effect which always gives me a headache.
  5. Squackett, “Stormchaser”: Here’s something really super. Steve Hackett (of old Genesis) and Chris Squire (of Yes) got together and recorded an album. Amazingly, it really does sound like a blend of Hackett-era Genesis mixed with early Yes. I really like this.
  6. Sonic Youth, “Stil” : I’ve adored Sonic Youth from the first time I heard them. I’ve never been a big fan of much of anything punk-related, except for these guys. I particularly like it when they’re screwing around experimenting with free improvs. This piece comes from one of their collections of experiments, called “SYR2”. Not something that mainstream rock fans will enjoy, but I think it’s brilliant.
  7. Takenobu, “Dark in the City” : This is something that a friend of mine from work turned me on to. I don’t really know how to describe it. Sort-of mellow alt-rock with layered string accompaniment? I don’t know, but it’s so beautiful.
  8. Steven Wilson, “Significant Other” : I learned about Steven Wilson because of Porcupine Tree. But I’ve learned to basically buy everything that he does. From prog-rock to psychedelia to experimental jazz, from original music to remixes of classic old albums, everything that he does is pure gold. This is from Insurgentes, an album that I just can’t stop listening to. You can definitely hear that it’s the same guy who led Porcupine Tree, but it’s got a really unique dark sound to it.
  9. vonFrickle, “Cranium Controller” : Remember what I said about Gordian Knot? vonFrickle is an instrumental prog band that frequently strays into the wankery area. A lot of their stuff is fantastic, but it’s often complex showoff because they want to show off how they can do this awesomely complex stuff, not because the awesomely complex stuff actually sounds good. This track is one of those that feels like complexity for the sake of showing off.
  10. Steve Hogarth and Steven Wilson, “A Cat with Seven Souls” : What do you get when you take the lead singer of my favorite band, and blend his style with one of my favorite all-around musicians? It’s what you’d expect, which is pretty amazing.

Friday Random Ten: from Prog to Neoclassical, with some Blues.

I haven’t posted one of these in a while, but I’m currently stuck waiting between very long and slow compiles, so I figured why not?

  1. Echolyn, “Make Me Sway”: Brilliant track by Echolyn, one of the very best american neo-prog bands. One of the things that’s so distinctive about Echolyn is the way
    that they use complex vocal harmonies better than anyone else.
  2. Umphrey’s McGee, “Miami Virtue”: Ick. What a disappointment. I’d heard great things about Umphrey’s, and got their Mantis album, which was pretty good. So I got their latest album, “Death by Stereo”, which is absolutely atrocious. Ugh.
  3. Tinyfish, “I’m Not Crashing”: Now this was a great discovery. I know nothing about them, but someone pointed them out to be on Twitter, and when I grabbed one of their albums, it knocked my socks off. This is seriously terrific neo-prog.
  4. ProjeKct X, “The Business of Pleasure”: Weird. Very, very weird. This is one of Robert Fripp’s experimental instrumental gatherings of musicians. It’s strange stuff, but if you (like me) like interesting oddness, this is one of the most amazingly bizzare and yet great pieces of work you’ll find. Is it rock, jazz, or something else? Yes.
  5. Cynic, “Nunc Sans”: progressive death metal with strong jazz influences? Yup.
  6. Owl, “Sky Rocket”: Meh.
  7. Gong, “Sold to the Highest Buddha”: How did I go for so long without learning about Gong? This is one of the very best of the Manchester prog bands. Amazing stuff, which never takes itself too seriously.
  8. Jason Ricci and New Blood, “I Turned Into a Martian”: I don’t normally like blues much, but… Jason Ricci completely redefines what you can do with a harmonica. Despite not being a fan of the format, his playing is amazing, and he put together a great band to back him.
  9. NOW Ensemble, “Change”: This is a big change of pace from the rest of this list. Here in NYC, there’s a really great organization called New Amsterdam Records. NAR is a non-profit label dedicated to promoting the NYC post-classical scene. The NOW Ensemble is my favorite of their stable of artists. Beautiful music by up-and-coming composers, brilliantly performed. I’ve embedded a Youtube link to a couple of their pieces below.
  10. Steve Reich Ensemble, “Clapping”: This is a perfect demonstration of the beauty of simplicity. This piece consists of two people clapping the same pattern – but one periodically shifts by a beat, so that the pattern overlaps with itself in different ways. Embedded below is a ten-person variation on it.

Friday Random 10

In case you haven’t noticed, the blog in general has been very slow lately. I’ve been overwhelmed, both by work, and by being the administrator for Scientopia. That’s helped turn blogging into more of a job than a hobby. I’m trying to make some changes in how I’m doing things to try to make things fun again.

It’s been a hell of a long time since I did one of these. In fact, I think this might by the first random 10 I’ve posted on Scientopia!

  1. Crooked Still, “You Got the Silver”: Crooked Still is a very nice, mildly progressive bluegrass band. Beautifully performed bluegrass music, with a very distinctive style.
  2. Sonic Youth, “Alice et Simon”: this is a really intriguing track. Sonic Youth is a band with a very distinctive sound and style. This track has all of the trademarks of SY – and yet, it’s very different from their typical sound.
  3. Mogwai, “Danphe and the Brain”: absolutely typical Mogwai. And that’s a very good thing. Mogwai is one of the very best post-rock bands out there.
  4. The Tangent, “Grooving on Mars”: a live track from the Tangent. The Tangent started off as a collaboration between Roine Stolte (from the Flower Kings) and Andy Tillison (from Parallel or 90 degrees). Stolte left, and the Tangent has become very much Tillison’s band. They’re fantastic. There’s a strong Flower Kings influence (for obvious reasons), but also a very visible connection to old Genesis, and a variety of other influences. The main problem with the Tangent is that Tillison has some really annoying vocal ticks. But this is an instrumental track, so it doesn’t even have that to hold against it.
  5. Punch Brothers, “Ride the Wild Turkey”: Ok, so remember I said up above that Crooked Still was mildly progressive? Well, where CS tries to gently probe the boundaries of what bluegrass is, Punch Brothers attacks them with a hydraulic sledgehammer. It’s hard to say whether Punch Brothers is a bluegrass band with classical influences, or a classical chamber ensemble with bluegrass influences, or a bunch of post-rock geniuses playing with bluegrass. But whatever they are, they’re one of the very best bands in the world. Brilliant musicianship, brilliant compositions, brilliant arrangements… Just all around a thoroughly and delightfully amazing band.
  6. The Books, “Idkt”: this is one of my favorite recent discoveries. The Books are a post-rock group that work with found sounds. All of their tracks are built by playing instruments against a backdrop of found sound. They use everything from the voice tracks of old elementary school documentary filmstrips, to traffic noise, to numbers station broadcasts, to the sounds of doors opening and closing in a hallway. They take those found sounds, and they find the music in them. It’s an amazing thing. They’re really not just fitting these sampled sounds into their music; their fitting their music into the found sounds.

  7. Naftule’s Dream, “The Unseen”: progressive klezmer. If you like Klez, this is not to be missed.
  8. Build, “Imagining Winter”: Lately, I’ve been buying a lot of music from New Amsterdam records. They’re a not-for-profit label that’s operating out of (I think) Brooklyn, which specialized in what they call post-classical music. It’s basically the same sort of stuff as post-rock, but with a very strong classic influence. Build is a very, very good example of the post-classical style. I strongly recommend visiting New Amsterdam’s site. They’ve got samples and free download tracks of just about everyone on the label – so you can get an idea of what they’ll sound like before you buy them. It’s fantastic, innovative music, being built on a model that allows the musicians to survive in the internet world.
  9. King Crimson, “Sleepless”: my favorite example of how catchy, dance music doesn’t need to be insipid bullshit. This is King Crimson, at their progressive best – and it’s bouncy-catchy-fun-engaging music, while also being complex, intricate, and experimental.
  10. Sunday Driver, “Snow Song”: This is a band that’s really hard to describe. They connect themselves with the Steampunk movement in fiction, but I find it hard to find that in their music. To me, they sound like mid-80s Kate Bush with influences from Indian music. Not something I feel like listenting to every day, but very interesting, and terrific if I’m in the right mood.

My Newest Flute, made of… Plastic?!

This is rather off topic for GM/BM, but there’s a teeny bit of physics mixed in.

One of the things that I do for fun, other than writing this blog, is playing the flute. I don’t play the modern flute: I play traditional Irish music on the wooden flute. For traditional Irish music, you’re mostly playing tunes that were written for pipes, which aren’t chromatic – and as a result, for Irish music, you don’t actually need any keys. Just the main six finger holes are enough. I bought a really magnificent wooden flute, custom made by an amazing craftsman named Patrick Olwell.

But sometimes, I want to be able to play other stuff. So for a very long time, I’ve wanted a wooden flute with keys, a flute that could play chromatically so that I could play any kind of music I wanted. The problem is, a decent keyed wooden flute costs a fortune. They generally cost at least $4,000, and most of the good makers have a waiting list. For Pat Olwell, that waiting list is between three and seven years.

So for a very long time, I’ve been looking for a way of getting a keyed, chromatic wooden flute. I’ve bought four different antiques from Ebay, all of which needed lots of work to be playable, and none of which were really salvagable for chromatic playing – their keywork is just too messed up for me to fix.

I’d heard about M&E, a plastic flute made by a guy named Michael Cronnoly. His flutes are much less expensive, and they’ve got a very good reputation.

But… Plastic?

I’ve seen several acoustic studies that claim that the material the instrument is made of isn’t that important. In a wooden flute, the physics show that the head joint is the only part of the flute that really has a significant influence on its sound. But the head joint of a wooden flute is actually lined with metal. So the wood isn’t really having too much influence on the sound.

But…

The first flute I bought was a Dixon polymer. The thing is, frankly, a piece of junk. It’s incredibly heavy; the tone is mediocre at best; the embouchure hole is awful… It’s really not a great instrument. That’s my only prior experience with pseudo-wooden flutes, and it really wasn’t a good one.

Plus, I grew up playing the clarinet. There’s a similar argument about acoustic materials for clarinets. In a clarinet, the tone is formed in the mouthpiece and barrel: they determine how it will sound. Most people (including me) play on mouthpieces made of hard rubber or plastic – so the primary sound-producing piece of the instrument is plastic. The barrel of a wooden clarinet is (obviously) wood, so according to the physics/acoustics, that’s the only piece of wood that actually has any measurable acoustic effect. And the physics of this isn’t sloppy stuff put together by an instrument company trying to sell their plastic clarinets: to the limits of my ability to understand it, it’s good, solid stuff.

And yet, I’ve played a whole lot of clarinets, and by god, there’s nothing like a grenadilla wood clarinet. Even the best clarinet makers, even when I put my wooden barrel on a polymer body, it doesn’t sound the same. Of course, that’s subjective, and we humans are notorious for hearing what we want to hear in a subjective situation. And, by god, I’m a math geek. I’ve seen the math, and it’s correct.

But still, I really do believe that my wooden clarinet sounds better than any plastic I’ve ever played. So why? If the math says it shouldn’t, why does it? I’ve never been sure, but my suspicion is that it’s a matter of craftsmanship. No one makes plastic clarinets with the kind of care and craftsmanship that they put into a good wooden clarinet. My good clarinet is
built around what they call a polycylindrical bore. What that means is that the body isn’t actually a long cylinder from the mouthpiece to the bell: the exact diameter varies. So you’ve got a very complex shape, and every contour of that shape has an effect. That distinction, the math supports very clearly: change the shape of the body, and you are affecting the waveform of the sound.

Anyway… I finally decided to try one of the M&E plastics. One thing about wooden flutes is that the shape isn’t as complex as a modern boehm clarinet. It’s a conical bore, with very straight lines. So if you made it really carefully, with a really clean, well crafted bore – well, maybe it would work! My plan was to find out about how much it cost, and how long the waitlist was, and then to order one when the next royalty check from my book came in. So I wrote to Michael through email about his polymer flutes. He sells them for just 500 euros, which is astonishingly cheap. (Like I said, the wood ones go for $4000, and most of that cost is the keywork – a custom made keyless costs around $1500; a keyed more than double that.) So I was planning on getting one, if he’d let me return it if I didn’t like it.

And then, he offered to give me one in exchange for building a new website for him. I accepted. So the flute I’m talking about here was given to me by Michael. I didn’t pay for it. But I did not make any promises about what I would say about it.

I’ve had Michael’s flute for a few months now, and… I really can’t believe how good it is. Every time I play it, I’m absolutely stunned by how wonderful it sounds. Over the years, I’ve bought a couple of antique flutes that needed repair… none of them were in good shape – they needed keywork, but they were playable. My M&E has them beat, hands down. It’s not quite up with my Olwell – but it’s amazingly close. Seriously, it comes very close to my Olwell in both sound quality, and sound flexibility. And that’s simply shocking: this flute costs one-half of the cost of a keyless Olwell – and yet, fully keyed, it manages to come close. I’m not going to give up my Olwell for keyless playing, but… if I were starting over and buying a good flute for the first time? I’m not completely sure, but I’d probably go with the keyed M&E.

It’s got excellent sound flexibility. By working with my embouchure, I can easily range from a great reedy sound to a very clear, bright, almost whistle-like sound. It’s very stable in both octaves, and easy to break between. The low D isn’t quite as strong as the low D on the Olwell – it takes a bit of work to get a good hard low D, but it is definitely doable.

For most of the range, the intonation is terrific. All of the standard notes are well-tuned. The only tuning glitch is that the keyed notes on the foot – the low C and C-sharp, are very sharp. But that’s easily fixed – with the foot pulled out on it’s joint just a quarter inch or so, they sound right-on, and it doesn’t seem to effect the low D. Still, that’s a problem. Really, that low key foot should be a quarter inch longer. This really bugs me: in general, everything about this flute is so wonderful, there’s so much care about the aspects of the flute that affect its sound, and yet… the foot is too short. I don’t understand it. You can easily work around it – but it’s frustrating and frankly, kind of sloppy.

It’s very comfortable to play. I’m not sure how he did it, but compared to either an old Rudall and Rose (the style of antique flute I’ve bought) or a new Pratten-style Olwell, the hole size and spacing are very comfortable, without any loss of sound quality. It’s also light. Based on what I knew about polymers before, I was expecting it to be a heavy instrument. It’s heavier than my keyless Olwell, but lighter than my keyed 19th century flutes.

The workmanship is mixed. In terms of things that affect the sound quality, it’s very good. The embouchure hole is cut cleanly, and shaped very well. The fingerholes are clean and well positioned. The keywork is very sturdy and well made, and easy to work with. Pads and springs are all set up properly – the key-springs have the correct tension to keep the pads securely closed while keeping it easy to work the keys quickly. The low foot keys have a roller to make it more comfortable to quickly shift between the low notes in common scale patterns.

Cosmetically, it’s a bit iffy. There are a few scratches around the embouchure hole. Nothing obvious, and certainly nothing that has an effect on its playing. But it’s a tell-tale sign that there’s not quite the same degree of care in making it as you’d find in one of the custom flutes from someone like Pat Olwell.

The joints are strange. Instead of doing something like a wood flute, and putting in a cork ring, he just shaped the polymer into the joints. So the joints are tight, bare polymer. They’re a bit hard to put together, and grease on the joints doesn’t stick particularly well, you’ll get globs of grease getting squeezed out of the joint inside the flute when you put it together. It came with some sort of grease in the joints that’s unpleasant – more like a vaseline than a cork grease. After experimenting a bit, I’ve found that traditional cork grease really doesn’t work well on the plastic – you do need to use something stickier, like a petroleum jelly. This is the one thing about the flute that I really don’t like: the bare polymer joints are, without a doubt, inferior to a corked joint.

The keywork is very nicely done. It’s post-mounted keys. The keys are well made, with good post positioning, good key positioning, springwork set up to make the keys close solidly, without being too tense to open easily. The padwork is excellent. (Which is a bit of a bugaboo of mine. As a long-time clarinetist, I’ve done a lot of pad work, and I’ve found that a lot of people are really sloppy about how they set pads. These are leather-covered pads, set solidly and levelly.)

There are metal rings around the joint edges. The rings around the joints are a bit messy. Again, it’s cosmetic, not functional. But when you look closely around any of the rings, you can see that the polymer isn’t quite flush, and many of the rings have a bit of scratching around them.

The end-cap on the headjoint is ugly. It’s a molded replica of a Rudall&Rose cap, with M&E added on the bottom. Frankly, it’s ugly and cheap looking. Very disappointing, because over all, until you look very closely, the flute is beautiful. There are minor cosmetic problems with the joint rings, but overall, it’s lovely. But that end-cap? It looks terrible. It’s totally unimportant, but for a couple of extra bucks, I’ll bet you could make a much nicer looking endcap.

The material is interesting. The thing that M&E is known for is making pseudo-wood flutes. That is, it’s built in the style of a wooden flute, but they actually use a polymer. It’s black, and it shows the marks of being worked in a way that really looks a lot like wood. Honestly, if I was looking at someone else playing it, I probably wouldn’t guess that it was polymer unless someone told me.

When you pick it up, you know it’s not wood. It doesn’t feel like wood. The main difference is that it feels too smooth – there’s no grain to it. And up close, you can see that the color is too uniform. In real wood, when you look closely, you can always see a bit of color variation. This is just perfectly, uniformly, black. But in terms of weight? It feels like a wooden flute. It’s just a hair heavier than my Olwell – which makes sense, given that it’s carrying full keywork.

It feels rock solid. As an experiment, I tried to scratch the inside of one of the joints with my fingernail. It’s much too hard to scratch like that. It’s a good, solid material. Like most plastics, it’s weatherproof – so you don’t need to worry about humidifying the case, or oiling the wood. And, unlike my Olwell, there’s no variation in playability with the weather. My Olwell sounds different during the winter, due to the dryness of the air. There are noticeable day-to-day variations in how easily certain notes – particularly that all-important strong-low-D – sound. In the M&E, it doesn’t vary: it’s uniformly great.

Of course, the most important thing is the sound. This sounds like a wood flute. It really does. It sounds better than any of the beaten-up real wooden flutes that I’ve acquired. As I said, in terms of sound, it’s not quite up there with my Olwell, but I think that that’s more a matter of workmanship than material. Pat makes a magnificent instrument, and making something not quite as good is absolutely not a critique of M&E.

Being realistic, M&E is selling keyed polymer flutes for 500 euro. Pat made me my keyless wooden flute for something around $1500. For a keyed flute, Pat (and most other makers) charge in the $4,000 range. The M&E is unbelievable when you work price into the equation. It’s better than any of the antiques I’ve played. It’s as good as real wooden keyed flutes by some of the other makers (Sweet and Healy) that I’ve tried. It’s not as good as an Olwell, but for 1/5th the price, and no waiting list? It’s worth every penny it costs and more. It’s a really lovely flute, with a beautiful sound. The workmanship is great where it counts. The cosmetics could use a bit of work – but when you consider the price, that’s really no big deal. Still… if he charged six or seven hundred euros, he’d still be under a fifth the price of a good wooden keyed flute, and he’d be able to fix up some of the cosmetics. I’d definitely be willing to pay an extra one hundred euros for cork joints. (I really hate the uncorked tenons!)

If I had the money, and I could get an Olwell keyed flute tomorrow, I’d probably go for it over the M&E. But given that coming up with money to buy an instrument for my hobby isn’t easy, the huge price difference, the multiyear waiting list? M&E wins. I’m very happy with my M&E. And given a choice between the M&E and pretty much anything but an Olwell? I’d take the M&E happily. I would happily pay Michael for this flute, and I just might end up buying one of his F flutes, to have something with a smaller finger reach.

M&E’s current site has sound samples in realplayer format. I’m working on setting up a new site for M&E. Assuming he approves the design, it should be up by next week. I’ll have updated sound samples in mp3 format, and Michael even sent me a video of Matt Molloy (one of the finest Irish flutists in the world) playing an M&E, which will be on the new site.

Friday Random Ten, 4/23/2010

  1. Stellardrive, Inlandsix: Reasonably good instrumental prog. They’re
    not particularly exceptional, but they’re decent.
  2. Gong, “The Octave Doctors and the Crystal Machine”: Gong is a
    perfect example of one of the differences between the great prog bands,
    and a lot of the neo-progressive stuff. I can’t quite describe exactly what it
    is – but you listen to a band like Gong, and you never get bored. You can listen
    to it over, and over – and it’s always interesting. Even though the individual
    features of the music are similar to what a lot of less brilliant bands do,
    they manage to put them together in a different way. I can listen to a neo-prog
    band like Jadis or Frost once or twice a month; if I listen to them more than
    that, they start to bug me. But I can listen to Gong twice a day, and never
    lose interest.
  3. Parallel or 90 Degrees, “Backup”: One of the really great neo-progressives.
    Po90 is Andy Tillison’s other band, and they are brilliant. Not as brilliant as
    groups like Gong, but pretty damned amazing.
  4. Jadis, “All You’ve Ever Known”: Here’s exactly what I’m talking about.
    The beginning of this Jadis track is actually sort-of like the Gong track above.
    But somehow, it’s dull when Jadis does it. Listening to them right after
    Gong and Po90, they frankly sound terrible. I really like Jadis, but they can’t
    hold a candle to the prog greats.
  5. And So I Watch You From Afar, “If it Ain’t Broke, Break It”: Really good
    post-rock. ASIWYFA is on the louder end of post-rock, and they’re really good
    at it. They’re one of my most recent post-rock discoveries, after being recommended
    to me by a reader of the blog, and I’m really enjoying them.
  6. Genesis, “Your Own Special Way”: And now, my favorite band of all time.
    I love Genesis. Even after Peter Gabriel left, they still wrote some of the
    best prog rock of all time. There’s a reason why so many neo-prog bands were
    inspired by them. Even when they’re doing a song like this, which is basically a silly sappy ballad,
    they make it into something really special.
  7. Jacob Hoffman with Kandel’s Orchestra, “Doina and Hora”: an incredibly old
    recording of traditional klezmer, led by probably the greatest Klezmer xylophone player
    ever. If you have any appreciation for Klezmer, this will absolutely knock your
    socks off.
  8. The Flower Kings, “Soul Vortex”: Ah, the Flower Kings. The only
    neo-progressive band that I’ve found that’s really as good as the original
    prog guys. Whatever that elusive “it” that the great bands had that made them
    endlessly listenable was, Roine Stolt and the Flower Kings have it.
  9. Transatlantic, “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”: On their latest album,
    Translatlantic added a disk of covers of their influences. Naturally, no
    group made up of members of the best neo-progressive bands could possibly
    not include a classic Genesis track. It’s a very faithful cover, and
    it works really well.
  10. Marillion, “Forgotten Sons”: An old favorite of mine: one of the
    lesser known tracks from Marillion’s very first full album. From the
    very start, Marillion was really something special.