Florence

In college I took a music history course and it just so happened that our professor was an expert on the music of an Italian baroque composer named Claudio Monteverdi. We ended up spending a lot of time on early Italian baroque music and I can still remember the lectures about the Gonzagas, the Medici, of Venice, and of Florence… Mantua… Ferrara…

Places, you might imagine, I’d never been and had no hope of ever seeing.

Several years ago I had the fortune of visiting Italy for the first time, and from Rome, we eventually made it to Florence. A couple years later, on a whim, I join my high school friend in Venice and return to Florence. The return to that city really affected me. It was as if the first time was bewondermewnt; upon a return, it was like returning to familiar things, but different. The respect I’d once had for the architecture and history was deeper; it was if I’d left something earlier I didn’t know I missed.

I never studied or played jazz in school. Perhaps I should have. But since college I’d discovered the standards and have a love, especially, of the classic tunes. Who hasn’t heard of Autumn Leaves? The Mercer-Prévert piece is one of the most classic standards. My high school hero Nigel Kennedy has played it on the violin in his 1984 album, Nigel Kennedy Plays Jazz, which in retrospect, is kinda cool. I’d only learned of Kennedy with his 1989 release of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

So, in this video, the guy on bass is a Korean tourist who just so happens to have an itch to play. And he starts jamming with some street musicians. The quality of the music is pretty good; so good, I wonder if it is staged. But no matter, it’s a rendition of Autumn Leaves and there is plenty to enjoy. Until, that is, the camera turns.

The first time I saw this video I began weeping. I knew it was likely shot in some European city, but I’d never guessed which one.

I’d walked past that spot maybe 8-10 times. Florence. The Duomo. That music.

Sometimes we have to forget about what’s happening around us and make the space to enjoy something. I hope you enjoy this. I have nothing to do with it, other than for it to have one day appeared in my YouTube list and made me smile a mile wide.

Autumn Leaves in Florence

Domaine de Chantilly

Most people probably think of sweet, whipped cream when you hear the word “Chantilly.” (Or else, the town in northern Virginia.) It took my some time, really, to think about a movie I liked and to do a little research.

Scene from a View to a Kill with Christopher Walken and Grace Jones

I’ve been a fan of the 007-James Bond movies since I was a kid; it was always a special treat when they’d show them on television. Then I’d go to the theater to see the new ones. Then I bought the “complete” movie set on Bluray. And I tell you all of this not because I want to debate my favorite Bond actor, but because I’ll admit which is my favorite movie. (I’m not sure anyone with any real critic chops agrees with me, but I stand by my choices.) My favorite Bond movie, at least those without Daniel Craig (Casino Royale is pretty good), is the 1985/6 production with Roger Moore: A View to a Kill.

I just remember at the time thinking Christopher Walken, playing Max Zorin, was a very convincing portrayal of a madman. All Bond villans tend to have their eccentricities, but there’s also something comical about these artifices, too. From a fluffy white cat, to a third nipple, or a short dude with a razor-studded hat, all these traits reek of the absurd. Sure, Zorin was supposedly the product of a mother who had been treated by a Nazi doctor/hormone specialist. I just think Walken was a better actor in many ways.

And the movie had Grace Jones. You don’t forget her.

In the film, Bond has to travel to Zorin’s horse estate, as there is a “sale” going on. Bond travels with a companion who acts as his valet. They encounter Jenny Flex, upon driving up to the estate. It’s magnificent on screen, and maybe some ten years ago, I read that they’d used a real estate in France. The building in the movie is the chateau and stables at Domaine de Chantilly. Low and behold, it’s thirty minutes away from Paris by TER train.(The train leaves from the Gare de Nord.)

(The movie also features a scene in which Bond chases after Mayday, played by Jones, before she escapes by leaping off the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Bond lands, chasing her, in a wedding cake inside a bateau mouché.)

Supposedly Walken wasn’t their first pick. I am not sure Roger Moore was, either. But the movie’s done. And beyond the Chateau de Chantilly, it features a lot of time in another one of my favorite places—San Fransisco. Let’s just forget that they never really made silicon chips in Silicon Valley. The movie includes a beautiful French estate and chip factory, a convincing underground mine scene, and views of the Golden Gate Bridge from a custom blimp.

Since I knew I’d be in France, and I hadn’t seen it yet, I wanted to visit Zorin’s lair. Or, well, the Domaine de Chantilly.

So off the train, you can wait for a taxi. Or do what we did, on a particularly comfortable morning, and walk the two kilometers or so to the Chateau. You just may see people riding horses. It’s a big deal. Just as was portrayed in the movie, the Chateau’s neighbor is a large horse stable (now, its own museum). And you’ll pass a large horse track before you get to the Domaine, proper.

The stables, seen above, connect almost immediately, on the other side, to “downtown Chantilly,” which would be a great place to stay for a few days, given fine accommodations and a gastronomic restaurant.

I got tickets for just the Chateau tour (there was more to do in Paris that afternoon). The gardens are another part of what your ticket entitles you to see, however perhaps early October wasn’t the best time of year for the gardens. Thankfully the clouds parted ways before we parted the Domaine.

I knew somewhere in those gardens is where Stacy Sutton’s chopper had landed, before she struck a deal with Zorin in his sumptuously-appointed office. In reality, the gardens feature the pools and fountains. The view from the sky is impressive; in total, the gardens did not rival those as Versailles.

From there, almost everything I remember from the movie was a memory. The real Chateau is home to its last owner’s collection of art and books. And wow—I didn’t know it was the largest collection of paintings in all of France after the Louvre.

This large salon felt as if there was too much art—it was crammed onto the walls. Quite a collection.

I recommend the included audio guide tour to learn more about what you’re looking at. The guide doesn’t cover every piece of art; instead, the guides more or less cover the rooms and what’s contained within.

The tallest portion of the chateau, on the right, is the chapel. It was a magnificent yet intimate gem of the estate.

The duke who owned the estate before leaving it to the French Institute also had a significant book collection.

Not photographed: several prized volumes encased in glass.

As the image above indicates, sometimes you have to look up. No ceiling was plain at the chateau; the art and design of the ceilings were so varied and all interesting.

In all, my visit to the Domaine de Chantilly, although fueled by my interest in a 1980s James Bond film, turned out to be far more interesting than I’d imagined. It’s smaller than Versailles, but in many ways, there’s more to appreciate. Gardens, great art, wonderful architecture. If I had more time for a slow lunch, visiting the equestrian museum would have been an ideal way to spend the afternoon.

Ambronay

This town plays no significance to what any of us may know or think of France. It’s so small that even French people—at least those whom I spoke to—shook their head. “Where is that? Ambronay?” The truth is that it’s located in Ain, seemingly halfway between Switzerland on one side and say, Mâcon, to the west.

Yet I knew the name well. As it turns out, the small town has allowed its name to be used as a music label. And the abbey in town has been a fixture each fall for a music festival of baroque music, 2019 being its fortieth year. Music festivals bring together a lot of top artists and fans together in a short span of time, in one location, in a series of concerts. And this year, I got to go.

Ambronay Town

Officially called the Festival d’Ambronay, it features concerts on the weekends, roughly just longer than a month, from September to October. I’d arrived in France via the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. Eventually a car rental from Dijon took me past Bourg-en-Bresse (where I stopped for their famous chicken) before arriving in Ambronay itself. I’d purchased two tickets at home, but found they didn’t ship them to the U.S. They were thankfully waiting for me when I arrived, amid the bookstore and CD shop they’d erected inside the former abbey’s walls.

Abbey interior

The abbey itself wasn’t exactly new to me. I’d seen so many concerts featured at this festival across past years that I felt I’d know the space. But as tall as the space appears in the picture above, the depth of the building, it’s length from back to front, wasn’t so intimidating. I found its overall size to be quite reasonable compared to what I’d imagined it would look like, seeing it on video. The first recital would be the one I was most anxious to see, an Italian violin recital by Enrico Onofri and the Imaginarium Ensemble.

Before I discuss the music, where you’d stay and where you’d eat became a concern. It was obvious that this music festival was low key and I imagine many of the audience members did not travel far to enjoy the festival. We ended up staying about an hour away in the small town of Vonnas, known as “Village Blanc,” after the famous three-star Michelin Chef who has taken over the town with shops, restaurants, and hotels. An e-mail from the festival officials alerted us to the prospect of a catered dinner. We bought-in, after having to leave a message about our intention to dine there several nights in advance. The meal was not superb, but it was many times more enjoyable than the McDonald’s meal I’d endured several years before, attending a concert in Lyon (yes, they have a baroque series of concerts, too).

harpsichord in situ

The concert by Onofri included a continuo group of cello, harpsichord, and lute. The opening piece was an early one for violin alone, and didn’t use continuo. I immediately realized why the abbey had become a noted musical venue: the acoustics were very favorable. Onfori’s violin was amplified considerably against the stone walls and ceiling of the space. My seat off to the side was ideal, as the violinist faced us the entire time, seemingly only a few steps away from where we sat. The repertoire wasn’t anything new for Onofri, who already has several CD releases featuring this genre of music; the concert featured pieces by composers such as Vivaldi, Bonporti, Veracini (representing the late baroque), but also Corelli, and a handful of masters that came before him.

This concert was special to me in part because I’ve counted a recital by Onfori and Imaginarium’s harpsichordist, Mr. Doni, as one of the top musical performances of my life. It took place in the mid-1990s at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the concert featured early Italian violin sonatas. It was my first opportunity to see Onofri play. Everything about his style spoke to me; he seemed to bring this ancient music to life in a way other musicians seemed to have missed. Last week he still uses a scarf tied to the endpin of his instrument, but no longer ties it around his neck.

Having the opportunity after the concert to attend his talk and hear him answer questions was cool. I was the only one asking questions in English. I’m hoping I got most of what was said. (He has a good command of both French and English, in addition to his native Italian.)

He was kind enough to be photographed with me.

me, photographed with baroque violinist, Enrico Onofri

After dinner, we attended a larger event, the performance by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques of Handel’s opera, Julius Cesar. I was fortunate to hear Rousset in his other major role as a harpsichord soloist when he came to Washington, D.C. several years ago. The Handel performance was for us wasn’t ideal, as we had seats behind the orchestra, but we had the aid of a HD monitor tied to one of the abbey’s large columns, so we could get the front-row perspective. France 3 did an excellent job of moving around the orchestra, highlighting the singers and instrumental soloists. The sound, again, was amazing.

All in all, it was an incredible experience. Beyond the music, the experience was significant because it was a journey. I’d read about, heard, and listened to recordings that came about from this music festival for years. To finally attend was a type of personal pilgrimage, to join musicians and music lovers who also understand the power of this repertoire of music.

Ambronay won’t be on most American tourist’s stops if they travel to France, but I found both the journey and the destination to be first rate. Highly recommended.

Tips

We rented a car from Dijon, which is where we stayed before the concert date. Car rentals tend to be easy at larger train stations and airports in France. We arranged to drop off the car at the Lyon Airport, bypassing the traffic of the city of Lyon.

The car was modern and featured Apple Car Play. I used Google Maps the whole time to navigate from the efficient highways (autoroutes) into, and through, small towns. As an American, I’d recommend reviewing some European road signs before you travel.

Parking in Ambronay wasn’t a problem; the festival folk had identified areas to park near the abbey.

Food and snacks are available at the abbey. If you plan in advance, there is a one-star Michelin restaurant in town, right in front of the abbey. Be prepared to fetch your seat ahead of the announced time; they start their concerts on the dot, just like the French TGV trains.

It may be possible to train your way to Ambronay; we did not investigate that. For healthy, young people, the walk around town posed no challenges. We did not encounter any taxis in town, therefore, having a car made things simpler.

The festival will try and collect a nine Euro fee for sending you the tickets; their system assumes you’ll want them sent. I chose this but then found out that they wouldn’t ship the tickets across the ocean. Thankfully they refunded my shipping fee later.

Be sure to book tickets in advance to get better seats.

Knowing by Doing

This past week I have been supervising the hand-out of new 1:1 technology to our students. It isn’t the first time I’ve done this, but this year I wanted to take a particularly strong hands-on role with the roll-out or deployment, as we call it, of devices. I did several introductions to high school students, and when it came to our elementary students, I enjoyed seeing how quickly fifth graders took back to their iPads.

But most fascinating was watching the third graders.

We use iPads and students use the on-screen keyboard. Our early forays into using iPads at the middle school level taught me that students, with daily use, could quickly become quite proficient at typing with the on-screen keyboard (at landscape mode) at a speed that impressed me. I never attempted to measure the speed, but it was impressive enough at the time to inspire me to think that I’d never seen students on borrowed laptops type that fast in the 8th grade.

So today our third graders, who had plenty of iPad experience in the 2nd grade using individual iPads that stayed in the classroom, got a spiel from me and my associates on caring for the iPad. Rules on how to take care of it. And then we all signed into our accounts and kicked the tires on the devices.

And there they were: eighteen kids, spread around a media center, looking for the symbols on the keyboard they needed to type in order to login to their accounts. Last year they’d used Seesaw. This year it would be Google Drive and Schoology. There were a few students who were pros. I knew they must have devices at home. The QWERTY keyboard was nothing new.

But for so many, it was something new, that keyboard, hunting, and pecking for the right symbols. “Which one is my password?” “Is this an e-mail address?” “How will I ever remember this?”

It’s easy for some of us to remember a long string if we know the formula.

Their user accounts look like an e-mail address, complete with an @ symbol. We explained the formula. The number. The last name. The first initial. The @ symbol. Then our division’s geographical domain name. You could see the smiles on some faces as a once unintelligible string of symbols started to make sense. But I was far more interested in watching them type.

Some students had no real clue where the right letters were. Some needed help adjusting the keyboard to display numbers. No one was yet an expert.

Yet, the day before, watching 5th graders, they input those addresses faster than I could compute. They knew where all the letters were. They were masters of the on-screen keyboard.

Did we teach them? Not directly. We don’t use any kind of typing program. It’s only through daily use (or we could say daily practice) that they master the keyboard.

“Third graders. Behold. Today as I watch you all type these new addresses in, you all are a bit slow. The addresses seem very long. This is all brand new. By the time you’re in the fifth grade, you’ll be speed demons. Trust me. All it takes is some practice.”

As an educator, and a former music student, I should have expected as much. Play your scales enough and you’ve mastered them. The keyboard, virtual or real, wasn’t terribly different. But the powerful reminder was that there are things we’ll do over and over that will just come with time. Mastery takes practice. Seeing a fifth grader assimilate to their daily device in just a few minutes helped reinforce the power of the 1:1 program, that students would come to use this tool as a daily amplifier of their potential. Maybe not yet with the finesse a top chef has with their knives, these students are well on their way to bending these tools to help them ask questions, dream in different and interesting ways, and write what they will through taps on glass.

Sometimes our jobs are as simple as providing the opportunities for experience, for practice. We can always get better, and we will.

Sorbet

There aren’t a lot of secrets to making good sorbet: a mixture of fruit, sugar, and… whatever else. Good sorbets come from good fruit. It’s simple, so quality matters.

While I’m interested in trying sorbets from non-traditional ingredients, this guide focuses on using fruit.

Ice cream maker
The cooled mixture is whirring in the ice cream maker; its color changed to pink as air is being introduced into the mixture.
  • 1 lb. fruit (in this case I used .5 lb strawberries and .5 lb red raspberries)
  • 1.25 cups sugar
  • lemon juice
  • vodka

Put everything into a blender and mix. Then take the mixture and strain out the seeds of the fruit. I strain out 80% or so of the seeds and do not strain the last bit, just to have a little “authenticity” to the mixture.

Cool down the mixture in the refrigerator. Then pour the mixture into an ice cream maker until solid.

Using a little alcohol helps with a texture I like; you shouldn’t taste it.

sorbet, outside

Use this basic recipe to create your own sorbet creations.

BLT Tartine

One of my favorite cookbook authors is Patricia Wells (and the other has to be Dorie Greenspan). In her book, Salad as a Meal, she focuses on interesting salads and this recipe was included, although, technically, it’s an open-faced sandwich.

Grill or toast a piece of excellent sourdough bread. I like Billy Bread.

Salad in a bowl
Mix together chopped tomatoes, lettuce, bacon, and the dressing before topping the bread.

She calls for making a creamy dressing, and calls for not going with mayonnaise, despite that recipe being a page away from this dressing. She calls for mixing yogurt with lemon juice, then lemon salt (lemon zest mixed with salt). I added chives and piment d’espelette to that. It’s creamy without a lot of guilt.

With the dressing, mix good quality chopped tomatoes, lettuce, and crumbles of freshly-crisped bacon. Top it all onto the bread. Easy.

You can be American and pick it up, crunching into it, recognizing familiar flavors. Or, be more French, and use a fork and knife. Makes an excellent first course.

Video with Diverse Voices

In this post I am going to discuss how I was inspired by videos I saw, and how I used those ideas to create my own. I made two videos in July-August, 2019, for the convocation exercises at Goochland County Public Schools.

Tools: iPhone 8 (set at 24fps/4K), iPad Pro, two lights, green screen; Canon 7D
Editing: Final Cut Pro X on MacBook Pro

Background

Earlier this summer I experienced videos produced by Apple. One was a video of students sharing anecdotes about teachers. The flavor of the video was humorous and uplifting, and the students were shot against a lit, white backdrop, seated on a plain stool. All the focus was placed on the students and the shot reminded me a lot of Apple’s famous media campaign of Switchers, shot against a white background. (In the Switchers commercials, the talent was standing).

I produced a video of students talking around the topics of creativity and learning. None of the recordings were rehearsed or written out. In some cases, after hearing what students shared, I re-stated their responses in a more concise way and had them repeat that. Students stood against the backdrop of a green screen.

In another video Apple produced, they captured the perspectives of teachers. Again, the feeling was uplifting and the stories captured helped convey a positive feeling about teaching and learning. In this video, also against a light background, the talent was treated with some kind of filter. I can best describe the filter used as squiggly lines in a limited tonal palette. It looked very creative and I hadn’t seen this effect used before, nor was the filter used something I could easily identify. The video also included moving text effects, as if the words were being written out in beautiful cursive.

In my video capturing teacher voices, I wanted to hear why teachers liked working in our school division. The stories were not rehearsed or written out. I had subjects sit in a low-backed chair.

In both videos, I had a second camera person capture the shots with an iPad Pro for secondary shots. Audio was used from the iPhone recording.

Emulating Another Video Production—Why?

I’ve done a lot of video projects. Less than a year ago I captured student voices against backdrops at the school; a brick wall, outside, against the backdrop of the football field, in the school’s learning commons. The shots did as much to convey the school as they did diverse student opinions. The shots, however, felt somewhat naive, with both background and the subject being in good focus. In hindsight, I would have liked to have used a different aperture setting to blur the background somewhat. The picture below captures the major aesthetic of my video: the comic filter is used to manipulate the talent and the background is white, but not bright white. This allowed contrast with, in this case, the teacher’s outfit.

When I saw the videos produced by Apple, I realized how in their removal of any backdrop or distraction, the words and ideas conveyed by the talent was very clear and direct. The videos also made an impression on me in how they were different than most I’ve seen with people talking. The teacher video was creative in an interesting way. For better or worse, I tried emulating some of these ideas, to carry some of their strengths in our own work. Focus on the honest words of real people and take away distractions.

My videos helped put the emphasis on the people and their words even though they are bound by the location where they work or attend school. Using an improvised green screen, you can see shadows in the screenshot below. I used the selection of multiple parts of this green screen using Final Cut’s keyer effect.

Green Screen

Without having a pristine white backdrop and excellent lighting for capturing our voices, we used a green screen. In one video I replaced the background with an off-white backdrop; in the other, I replaced the background with a nearly black gradient from dark gray to black. Comments were that both were interesting. The student video used the black background; the teacher video used white.

I used a two light setup on the talent. A soft professional video light lit the scene and a smaller spot light lit the face of the talent from the side.

To produce the filtered look I had remembered from the Apple video, I played around with a lot of different settings within Final Cut Pro. None of them came close to the effect I was after, however I decided that a combination of the halftone filter and the comic effects gave an interesting enough change to the appearance of the talent. At full opacity, these effects were too artificial. But when the blending level was set between 25-35%, the effect was subtle enough to convey that “artsy” look without making things appear silly.

Without any halftone filter, I used the comic effects on the student video as well. Students appeared against a mostly dark background, using a subtle gradient.

Other Elements

Talking heads the whole time might make for a boring video. In the introduction to my student video, I used the secondary footage shot with the iPad and Canon cameras to show the filming taking place in situ, with the green screen unaltered. This served as an introduction to show that we’d pulled in students to share their stories.

In the teacher video, I started with text effects in the video and music to help set the stage. The video was designed to help viewers gain perspective that together, we are all focused on the same thing. The introduction of the first teacher when it happens is a little bit of a surprise after 1.5 minutes of moving text.

The video ends with teachers talking about our Core Values. To segue between the teacher “interviews” and the perspectives on core values, we used drone footage taken above our different schools, some capturing students and moving buses over the past school year. This helped, I thought, ground the diverse perspectives and show they come from across our five schools.

Mistakes and Lessons Learned

The audio from the iPhone was tainted by the sound of the video light. I used digital audio filters and settings within Final Cut to improve the sound, but use of a better quality microphone system would have been ideal. Without someone to hold a boom mike over the talent, the placement of a digital stereo microphone (such as the kind by Zoom that records to compact flash or SD card) would have been adequate, off screen. Finally, use of an all iPhone setup with a clip-on microphone to Bluetooth would have worked too, although you would have seen that in the video.

Using the backup cameras (iPad Pro and Canon 7D) at different resolutions and frame rates was not ideal. While the sound from the Canon, without an extra mike was not bad, it is a difficult camera to use for video because there is no auto-focus. (In this case, having shots that didn’t really move made the process easier.) The iPad’s camera was not nearly as good, nor could it shoot at the same settings as the iPhone camera. Ideally, using two iPhones would have been superior.

Mixing video footage from the different sources was relatively easy to do in Final Cut Pro.

While I am very happy with the content of these videos, and have an excellent tool in Final Cut Pro, I am looking forward to improving the quality in the future. A lot of folks on YouTube are not using iPhones, even though you can shoot feature films with the device. This guide is but one on some recommended camera upgrades and includes information on microphones, too. And if you’re going to capture moving scenes, and not stationary people as I did in this video, DJI’s new gimbal, the Ronin-SC, looks to be a great choice, especially if you have an auto-focus video-capable DSLR. Their Osmo line would no doubt be ideal using an all iPhone setup.

Headphones and the iPhone

The geek in me appreciates gadgetry. I have bought a lot of Apple equipment (my first, which my parents bought me, was the Apple //e, with a green monitor, and the DuoDisk drive for writing to two floppies at once). And the one thing I was on the fence about, what today seems, is the most popular Apple gadget after their phones, were the AirPods.

The AirPods seem like a risky investment. They look like the (free) wired headphones that came with your iPhone. So why do they command such a high price?

Losing the wires is magical, but there were wireless headphones before the AirPods. I’m willing to say that I think wearing AirPods is a cultural statement, at least for teenagers, it’s a status symbol. The white things hanging from inside your ears are iconic and wearing them shows you want the best in high tech. The price tag, no doubt, is commanded in part because of the technology in those things. While they appear at first glance like the regular earphones minus the cord, there’s a lot of tech required for charging, for working in sync, for stereo. (My first wireless earphones, from Beats, used a cord to connect the two sides, which made the wireless implementation technically easier.) And when I finally succumbed to the purchase of my own pair, I was pleasantly surprised of the sound quality.

They sounded good!

John's AirPods

I’ve used mine for music listening, but more often, they’re really nice for use with, say, my iPad, when I’m watching YouTube or a video streaming service. No wires. I can walk around, carry the iPad or iPhone with me, and the music is with me too. And since I’m whole-hog into that Apple ecosystem, to be able to put them in and take a walk (you can run if you like) without a phone, using the connection between the AirPods and my Apple Watch—the first time I did that, it did feel magical. There’s music in my ears. No wires, no “thing” to hold. (Perhaps the Walkmans of the 1980s and the iPods of the early 2000s programmed us that music on the go has to come from some kind of box we hold.)

I wanted more.

I’ve tried a lot of different “things” to listen to music: beyond speakers, I’ve tried in-ear earphones, noise canceling headphones, over the ear headphones, and of course the class of devices like Apple’s, which I think we’re calling ear buds. This is the time for the disclaimer: I want high fidelity when I listen to music. I’ve experienced it and it became a requirement. I went to music school. I just want good sound.

But everyone knew, you couldn’t get good sound on the go.

Getting great sound from something that goes into your ear is possible, but those things are expensive. I’m not willing to pay over $1000 for something that I’m going to have to deep clean with a pick later. While still pricy, good over the ear headphones, such as my Sennheiser 650HDs, are really good, but they require some juice. They’re really at their best with an amplifier that can drive the resistance they pose with their drivers. Plugged directly into my phone, they’re flat and can’t get very loud.

Plugged into a home amplifier, I appreciate their open design; your ears don’t get sweaty, because they’re open; it also means that sound escapes, which at least a few times, made it seem like I wasn’t blowing my eardrums when I had the volume too loud.

Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to listen with these?

In the house this is very feasible but then you’re tethered to one chair, close to the amplifier. And then the music source needs to be close-by, too.

My Current Solution

Another disclaimer: this solution isn’t for everyone, and I do realize it’s kind of crazy right now. Remember, a few months ago I was using Apple’s AirPods.

So the product I’m using now (which has since been bettered with an upgraded design, called the Cobalt) is the AudioQuest Dragonfly (Red). Your friends will think you have a race car-red colored USB stick. But it isn’t a USB stick. It’s a miniaturized digital to analogue converter (DAC) and headphone amplifier. And despite all of that technology sounding dicey, fitting into a USB stick-sized thing, it sounds awesome.

And it drives my big Sennheiser cans.

headphones with DragonFly and Apple USB Camera dongle

So, with my computer, you plug in the DragonFly into a USB port and you have better sounding audio. Plug in your headphones and you’re good to go. You can use any headphone, really, from a truly portable one to the 300 ohm monsters too.

But wait—there’s more. The DragonFly can be used with a cell phone!

Except, look at that photo. With my Sennheiser 580s, I had to buy an adapter to go from the 1/4 inch plug to the 1/8 inch plug, which is heavy. Then that goes into the DragonFly, which seems dwarfed in the photo with Apple’s version 3 of their Lightening to USB Camera adapter. I have to connect all that malarkey to my phone to enjoy the bigger headphones.

Why?

Well, while there’s a big path there from music to your ears, it does sound good. And if anyone sees me with this contraption of wires walking outside, they know I’m pretty darn serious about my audio. (For the record, I do take this outside, but not for walking; I’ll use it sitting on the patio.)

For those of you with a USB-C equipped phone, such as one not from Apple, AudioQuest is making a USB-C dongle of themselves which is far more better equipped for mobile usage. (Me thinks this could all have been made less dorky if AudioQuest only chose to make an Apple-branded version with the lightening adapter.)

So, all of that said, the music many people listen to on a mobile device is compressed. It’s MP3s or compressed MPEG-4 files, such as those from Apple Music, or streamed via Spotify. With this setup, you (or at least I) can start to hear the limitations of that compressed music.

Of course, you can rip CDs and push those via iTunes to your iPhone. But more recently I’ve changed my setup at home and it makes this use case of big headphones with several adapters in tow, while at least not truly portable, at least worth the effort.

CD quality and beyond

Several years ago when I gave up my MacPro at home (the big cheese grater (original cheese grater), the one that could store four drives of data), I had to come up with a new solution for my music collection. The new 1TB iMac wasn’t going to cut it.

I bought a network-attached storage server (NAS) and I can access my music over the network.

I still used iTunes as my player. I have a big CD collection, so all of that was ripped on the computer. I was on the fence with streaming services. (For me, with my primary interest in classical, services like Apple Music or Spotify weren’t as appealing, and they didn’t offer CD quality sound.)

Today I use software called Roon. Their server software runs on my iMac; it indexes all my music sitting on the NAS, and adds value through their rich catalog of metadata (for instance, it knows my albums and knows details about them, like who mastered a recording, where it was recorded, and they provide access to information about the performers). I then need the client software to playback my music, which can live on my phone, my iPad, or my computer.

And today, you can “stream” the music to endpoints on your home network. This includes my phone or my iPad, but also a network streamer like the Auralic Aries, or a Sonos speaker, or to my reference DAC, the PS Audio DirectStream with its network bridge card.

So, using Roon, I can listen anywhere inside my house.

Roon running on my iPhone. Currently it’s configured to control playback on the DAC/streamer connected to my loudspeakers.

Sitting outside on the patio, with my phone, I have access not only to the music loaded on my phone, but to my entire music collection, at the native resolution of every file. And more recently, I’ve begun a subscription to Qobuz, a French high-fidelity music streaming service (compare this with Tidal), which seamlessly integrates with Roon.

So with this mess of wires and my big over-the-ear headphones, I can move about the house and listen to anything, all in high fidelity.

Does it rival a big tube-powered headphone amplifier? No. But the convenience is worth the compromise. It’s not as convenient as the AirPods, but I think we only have to wait. In five years, I’ll probably laugh at having so many wires and dongles hanging from my phone.

(But did I mention it sounds really good?)

(Wearing and Experiencing) Scent

Awareness

I can remember the first bottle of something smelly that was to become mine. It was some kind of aftershave in a light brown bottle, plastic, and I knew immediately it was the cheaper, knock-off version of a scent I’d more than likely would have referred to as “cologne.” I don’t remember the name precisely, but if my memory hasn’t completely left me, it was some sort of cowboy or rustic man type of scent.

And it was horrible.

I was a teenager and I was starting to shave and my mother packaged this up for me for Christmas. And while I have no doubt violated the rule for which this served as an excellent example, it taught me that buying gifts of a personal nature, such as how you’re going to smell, is best left up to the person wearing it. (And not your mother.)

I know, my mom was very thoughtful. But the experience didn’t scare me away from wearing scents. It also probably didn’t help. My dad was the one in the house that applied something. For so many years it was just one thing, Polo, in the green bottle. Polo was there for the long haul, after his shorter affair with Aramis. (And I can remember that in the 1970s, when I was younger, and both my parents had less resources to spend on how they smelled, it was Old Spice.) My dad, I thought, smelled good, or at least the trail of him, the one he’d left going down the staircase before going off to work, before I’d even woken up. The aftershock of scent he left behind probably inspired me to want to wear something myself.

It was never Polo. (I didn’t want to smell like my father; I was my own Crumb.) My mother insisted I never wear it, because after so many years, she’d grown sick of it. “Anything but Polo.”

I get it, not everyone wears a fragrance. It’s not everyone’s thing. Some people don’t want to be like my dad, leaving a trail of what Ralph Lauren wanted to smell like, around the office. But for me, smells are so interesting and intriguing. That’s not to say that I think all smells are good smells. But I do tend to think that I may have a higher sensitivity to smells and as a type of sensory experience, I like smelling good things.

For some, it’s touching interesting things, or seeing beautiful colors, or tasting different textures. (These all sound good to me, to be honest, and perhaps I’m glutton for indulging all of my senses.) In the end, a quality scent—something that doesn’t offend you—can trigger a substantial range of emotions. Smells for me can transport me to different places or time and that sensation of mental transportation is… fun.

Goals

So in choosing to wear a scent, I don’t want to offend others. (And true confession, there have been times I have overdone it. There was an incident in high school. I wanted to smell good and I’d brought a sample to class and applied it in class. It wasn’t something I was used to, and in fact, it was a woman’s perfume, and I wasn’t used to the strength of a parfum compared to, say, after shave. The Spanish class soon became overwhelmed with my application of that scent and I had to leave, so embarrassed, trying to rub it off with wet tissues. And more recently, I am sure there’s been a day (or two) that I may have offended others with too many spritzes of one scent, or another.)

I want to experience the scent myself. Maybe it’s selfish, but I picked these scents and I want to get a whiff from time to time.

And I think it adds a dimension to my being. Just the same as how you prepare yourself for the day, your clothes, your hairstyle, all of that. I hope people who look at me aren’t offended. And I hope people who can smell me aren’t offended either. Just enough, perhaps, that when you’re close, you notice. And smile.

Department Store Finds

By the time I was a high school senior, I’d discovered several scents (I’ll generalize here and call these things, no matter they fall into any class, from after shave to perfume, the same, a scent) and had determined at least a couple resonated with me. Dior’s Fahrenheit was one. All the cool kids were wearing Calvin Klein’s Obsession, or Davidoff’s Cool Water. I’d like a Chanel scent, but the Fahrenheit was one that I’d determined was mine. I’d discovered it, I liked it, and I boldly wore it.

The bottle was cool too.

The whole interest in scents continued in college, except now it seemed there were a lot more options. I tried different things and began to really notice other guys wearing scents as well. After college, I met a gentleman and he had two scents that I thought were obscenely indulgent: Versace Blue Jeans and Cartier Pascha. These weren’t as easy to find at your typical mall department store. And I wondered why they seemed more interesting. Sadly, they were all more expensive.

Not Satisfied

So having something to spray on you during all these years was relegated to special occasions. A date? Or Sunday at church. When I got dressed up for something, I’d go looking for a bottle. But then I asked myself a question. Why limit yourself. Why not everyday? And why not more than one bottle?

I know what you may be thinking. In life, we have constraints and have to control ourselves. This hobby might get expensive, and had my goals really changed? What changed was the decision that smelling good was something I wanted to do, it was becoming a part of my personality, my persona, my personal culture. I guess I liked the reactions I’d get, someone smiling, and telling me I smelled good.

It wasn’t vanity, all I’d done was buy something and spray it.

It was knowing that my choice may have added a little joy to someone else’s day’s experience. They’d walk past and go, “oh, that was nice.”

Yeah, I am not sure I was buying it either. It isn’t about being altruistic and leaving a trail of good smells behind you for the benefit of others. I just loved scents. It took me awhile to be comfortable with this. That it wasn’t too weird to like good smells.

Recommended Scents

There are a lot of places today to find out about scents. I don’t feel weird anymore having this affinity to things that smell good. I’ve watched YouTube videos, read scent blogs, and read reviews. It’s a thing. And I’m not ashamed to having fallen into it.

I am not really interested in doing full-on reviews of scents; instead, I’d like to share a few that really stand out to me that maybe, just maybe, you’d like to try.

  • Ouds - I pronounce this without trying to sound pretentious, as “ewww-d,” and the derivation of this scent may make you actually say “eww.” Real oud comes from a fungus growing inside wood. Oud is a class of scent, and sometimes it’s used alone, or in combination with other scents. Fragrances that use real oud tend to be expensive, but the chemical copies aren’t necessarily bad. The first oud I encountered was a big one, and it was expensive. I still have the bottle (and it isn’t done.) Francis Kurdjian’s original Oud was my first experience and I was hooked. It was otherworldly and had, for me, a rather formal sense about it. It wasn’t an everyday scent, instead, you’d save it for dressing up, or wearing that velvet dinner jacket. I’ve also liked those from Tom Ford, such as the Oud Fleur, which combines to main scents together (oud with rose).
  • Hermès Jardin de Monsieur Li - I am sure mostly women wear this, but for me, it’s very unisex. This series by Hermès (with other gardens) isn’t overly aggressive. But this one in particular transports me (not necessarily to an oriental garden). When I need to feel calm or too many things are going on, this one grounds me. Inhale slowly and deeply. The world will be alright.
  • Etat Libre d’Orange is a boutique house based in Paris and has all matter of weird and bizarre scents (and descriptions). My favorite is the Son of God, and the sweet note and tropical and lime notes take me far away. It doesn’t linger long, which is a shame, but at the time of application, it’s a real treat.
  • A-Men by Mugler - So I have the original one, which has notes of chocolate in it, but there are now several variations which, as I’ve read, have some positive reviews. These are unique and strong fragrances so be careful, just a couple spritzes will do. I tend to think of these as fall and winter scents. Very unique.
  • John Varvatos (Original, for men) - Like Fahrenheit for Men, this one was something I’d found perusing the counter at a department store, soon after working in Virginia. It probably had just come out. I’ve bought a bottle probably three times, and while I don’t routinely wear it anymore, I still have a weakness for its blend. Some of his relaunches are good too.

Taming a Luxury

So I know it’s a luxury to be able to pursue a hobby like this, at least for most. Of all the issues in the world, how we smell probably won’t rank at the top of anyone’s list. And with anything, you could potentially go overboard.

But all these years I’ve learned a lot about what goes into these things and the science and art that’s required to produce beautiful, beguiling and ultimately interesting smells. And I’m glad I’ve taken the time. Exploring this world doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive to be enjoyable. Start with something new. Take some sniffs. Get a sample. Get some opinions. Then commit for awhile. Try adding scent as a new dimension to who you are. Just be sure you like it, and those you’re closest to, can stand it.

Getting to choose what we smell like, considering the sources for so many scents can come from all over the world, is indeed a luxury. But no more so than an extra pair of shoes, a decorative hat, or yet another windbreaker.

Then there was Florence

When I traveled to Florence, Italy, staying in the hills above the city, with a great view of the Duomo, I kept noticing these large bottles of scents with sticks in the bottles—they were scent diffusers. I’d seen them before, here stateside, but these weren’t the same. The bottles were giant, compared to the ones you’d find here, and they were appropriately sized for scenting large spaces. The reeds coming out were big. And the scents were, well, extraordinary.

The most famous brand at the time, it seemed, was Dr. Vranjes. In my last trip to Florence in the summer of 2018, other brands seem to be in higher fashion, such as Aqua Flor. One step into their shop overwhelmed my travel companion. He couldn’t stand it for more than five minutes. “I have to get out of here.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s too much, I’m overwhelmed. I’ll meet you back outside when you’re done.”

photo of an Aqua Flor diffuser

Of course, I was overwhelmed too, in a good way. I couldn’t get enough, they all smelled so good. I took a chance with one of their stronger concoctions, Porpora. (It’s also the name of a composer of vocal music, so I thought there was a little synergy there.) The scent is soaked up into the reeds and then air passing by helps spread the scent into the room. So, in a way, these diffusers help scent an entire room. And by placing a different diffuser in different rooms, you can experience a cavalcade of different scents as you move about your home.

John in Florence at the Aqua Flor store.
The author, who found the Aqua Flor store by nose first; the large diffuser outside leads you to the entrance to the store. They also sell parfum and scented soaps.

I am biased; I think the brands native to Florence are special, but if you can no doubt get started by exploring some options here stateside. I know these are expensive, but the good ones last for some time and the refills make the whole enterprise more affordable over time.

New Workflows (Geeking Out on the Phone)

You know the saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop since 1991 (version 2, I believe), when it fit onto a floppy disk. I really don’t have a need or desire to use another tool, especially when I feel I want complete control.

Some years ago my mind was gently changed when I saw Aperture, from Apple, which excelled at editing RAW photos. I used it until finally it seemed it was no longer being updated. I have several Aperture vaults saved somewhere.

What made Aperture special, if I remember, was that it used the GPU on the computer to help drive the “speed” by which you could make edits. It wasn’t so much for doing creative things, but adjusting lighting and setting RAW exposure settings.

Then my mind was changed a little more when Snapseed came out (before it was purchased by Google). Suddenly, on vacation, I was importing photos into my iPad (my iPad?!) and editing them there. It felt weird. Like, what’s going on? I’m using this mobile computer to do like really creative editing?

So, yes, I evolved somewhat. I was open to some casual editing on a mobile device using sliders and the such. Then this summer at the ADE Institute, they challenged us to do some things that made me feel uncomfortable. Let me explain. Nothing inappropriate. But I wasn’t used to doing image manipulation quickly in an app designed for delivering presentations.

It felt weird. Keynote? For image editing?

Of course, Keynote (and by extension, Numbers and Pages) is a powerful app. And while I use it primarily for designing presentations, this evening I started playing. Making Memoji characters and using Instant Alpha to take away the white background. And then playing with backgrounds. Exporting the things to JPEG and then heck, why not, posting the result as my Twitter avatar?

I know what an incredibly powerful computer my cell phone is, trust me. But doing this little thing, making an avatar, cutting it out, and putting in a background, and then exporting it just so, and seeing it there, felt transformational. It wasn’t the iPad, it wasn’t Photoshop on my Mac. It was a cell phone that did all of this. And again, maybe it’s not that impressive to you, but it took just a minute and a half to do this.

It’s 2019. I know (I’m getting older). But this just felt cool because it was so effortless. Perspective matters.