Decomputerizing a thesis in the quest for typographic nirvana

(Some of the material here follows from the discussion of Caslon in my previous article on typographical refinements in LaTeX. You may also be interested in this article focusing more on page layout.)

Although Adobe Caslon Pro is near perfect, I was never completely happy with it, and with most digital fonts for that matter. It is too uniform and disciplined. The letters are sized and aligned to nanometer accuracy, the serifs are exactly the same, it’s like laser, like a robot. It is missing one of the vital characteristics of the original Caslon: the handmade letterpress look. The one faithful digital reproduction of the original Caslon (sample pdf), by Justin Howes, is no longer commercially available after he passed away from a heart attack at the age of 41 in 2005. So I reluctantly settled on Adobe Caslon Pro as the best compromise, and gradually began to accept and admire it.

William Caslon typeface specimen sheet 1741

One of the original specimen sheets of William Caslon, printed in London in 1741.

One day, I decided to visit my university library to see the original specimen sheet printed by William Caslon in 1741, in the library’s rare book collection. It was a timeless experience seeing and handling the specimen sheet itself, not a digital scan of it. It was like a live performance of the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein, versus an mp3 on the iPod. Sentiment was awakened again, and I began to look for a way to emulate letterpress printing in my PhD dissertation.

The so-called ‘Dutch Fell types‘ from c. 1670 quickly captured my attention, as they are the primeval typeface from which Caslon was derived and they predate Caslon by about half a century. It turns out that type engineer Igino Marini has embarked on a labour of love in the last decade to faithfully digitize the Fell types, empower it with all the advanced typographic features of OpenType, and make it freely available for the benefit of humanity. As a spinoff from this arduous project, the highly sophisticated mathematical kerning and letterspacing algorithm iKern was born of the same engineer.

Fell Types Specimen 1693 Oxford University Press

The very first specimen book of the Fell types, printed at Oxford University Press in 1693, when J. S. Bach was only 8 years old. Only four copies are known to exist. Furthermore, many of the original punches and matrices, some of which were made of wood, have been lost (Oxford University Press 1900), so these specimens are the only record.

Fell is quite a badass typeface, even by letterpress standards. It has an inconsistent x-height and ragged baseline, and no two serifs are the same. But the person who cast these types was no reckless driver. Inspect the characters and you’ll see that underlying all the noise is an exquisite sense of balance not only within any given character, but also in the `flow’ from one character to the next, making it quite comfortable to read despite the noise. Indeed, these qualities characterized similar typefaces widely used in northwestern continental Europe during the time, from the Netherlands (see Enschedé 1978) to Denmark (see Nielsen 1934), and would later go on to take the world by storm in Caslon, and they are still celebrated today. They have the spontaneity of a live performance of a great symphony, in which musical instruments played by humans are never perfectly in tune and occasionally quite far out of tune, and with all the harmonic transients at the beginning and end of every note that make the music breathe like a living organism.

If you compare Caslon and the Fell types glyph by glyph, there are mainly superficial differences. But I realized from viewing the blocks of text as a whole that there is a more significant, though subtle, difference at the level of words, lines and paragraphs. At reading-text optical sizes, the Fell types are slightly heavier in the vertical strokes than Caslon, giving the former not only a slightly darker colour on the page but also a slightly more `picket-fence’ look. In extreme cases, the `picket-fence’ effect can make a typeface harder to read at least to the modern eye (Gothic script comes to mind). This is the one reservation I had with the Fell types at their default letterspacing, compared to what I had been accustomed to with Caslon. The `picket fence’ can make the reader feel a little `held back’, especially in long passages of text. The abnormally large line spacing required for theses only exacerbates the imbalance between vertical and horizontal density.

Fell types English Roman and English Italic 1693 specimen Oxford

The English Roman and English Italic of the Fell types in the original 1693 specimen. Their digital reincarnation is being tried out in the main text of my dissertation. Note the slight `picket-fence’ effect of the English Roman text as a whole, caused by relatively thick vertical strokes, which I tried to alleviate by increasing the letterspacing (see main text below).

William Caslon 1741 Specimen English Roman

The corresponding English Roman from the Caslon specimen, showing slightly less `picket fencing’ because the strokes within individual letters are more uniform in weight.

Igino Marini has very kindly contributed his views, on my request:

The Fell Types project premise was that of reproducing as much as possible the original types without any other active interpretation. Applied both to the digitized shapes and the global spacing tightness. So I can’t say anything about the latter because I didn’t decide it. The punchcutter could. Eventually the original samples from Carter and Morison’s books were set even tighter. It’s obvious that a digital typeface, like Adobe Caslon, conceived in a different century, intended to be used at a different size on different media for a different audience may be somewhat different. The Fell Types were meant to be faithful not pleasant nor modern. — Igino Marini

After careful consideration, I decided to break one of the cardinal rules of typesetting: that one should never change the letterspacing of the lowercase letters, because it has already been perfected by the original creator for optimal appearance and readability. I am perhaps more liberal with this rule, as I believe that typography, like music, is an art that that might be subject to some nuances of interpretation. One should of course be wary of overdoing it. In this case I spaced out all the letters just enough that the vertical and horizontal `resistances’ of the text felt just about equal. The difference between the end result and the original is almost unnoticeable at the microscopic level, but at the macroscopic level there is in my eyes a very subtle and positive release of `pressure’ that allows the text to breathe and read more freely. It is certainly not as far-fetched as Leonard Bernstein’s controversially slow reading (rehearsal video) of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

IM Fell English Pro default letterspacing

Fell typeface at default letterspacing, exhibiting `picket fencing’ (but much less so compared to many other typefaces), especially with words like `community’.

IM Fell English Pro increased letterspacing

The same paragraph with increased letterspacing to reduce `picket fencing’. The difference is hardly noticeable but may reduce eye strain over long periods of continuous reading.

But it turned out that that wasn’t the end of the story. After spacing out the lowercase letters it was noticed that the italic type now looked too spaced out, because italic letters resembling handwriting are predisposed to be somewhat more connected together than roman letters. I therefore compressed the italic words back to their default letterspacing, which looked and read better. Then I noticed that the italics in the page headers, which were rendered at a smaller font size, looked too cramped. A re-examination of the 1693 specimen revealed that italics at smaller font sizes were actually set with a larger letterspacing, improving their readability. So I re-adjusted my headers to space out the italics there until they looked perfect, which required an increase in spacing larger than that applied previously in the main roman text. All in a day’s work for typesetting—they had an even harder time positioning every single character individually back then. When I awoke the next morning, the normal-sized italics in the main text looked too tight to my rejuvenated eyes,  so I re-adjusted them again. Now they look right. (When I screen-captured the following figure I hadn’t yet made this final adjustment.)

IM Fell English Pro Italic

Another issue I have with digital reproductions of old types is that they are inconsistent in an unnaturally consistent way—for example, the two `unknown’s and the two `know’s are identical to each other in the way the x-heights and baseline vary. In real letterpress printing, no two instances of the same character are exactly the same, because they are all individually cut. Perhaps next-generation digital font development standards could incorporate multiple instances of each glyph along with randomization routines to truly re-enact letterpress printing.

As it turns out, the Fell typeface goes quite well with inline math (and standalone equations) typeset in LaTeX Computer Modern (below). The style and x-height are very similar, but the slightly lighter weight of Computer Modern helps the reader distinguish math from text. As abest practice in typography goes, change only one parameter at a time.

IM Fell English Pro with Computer Modern inline math in LaTeX

IM Fell English Pro with Computer Modern inline math in LaTeX

Alas, looking back at it all, it might seem that I have taken things a little too far. There is veritable doubt as to whether a dissertation involving 21st-century computer modeling should resemble a book printed in the Renaissance. Have I broken another cardinal rule in typography, that of using an inappropriate typeface? Here are three possible justifications: (1) no harm echoing the earliest scientific accounts in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, in which Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1676 expounded upon the curiosity of animalcules that has fired the imagination of natural philosophers to this day; (2) an atmosphere of nostalgia for bygone centuries would not be wholly inappropriate in a thesis from a university that is more than 800 years old; (3) an even more extreme precedent for time-juxtaposition can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s timeless and profound motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the beginning of the film, a prehistoric landscape inhabited by ancestral apes is punctuated by the appearance of an unidentified object from a future so distant that it is undecipherable even to the spacefaring civilization of 2001 A.D.

2001: A Space Odyssey dawn of man prehistoric ape

A scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a juxtaposition of distant past and distant future even more extreme than pairing a 17th-century typeface and 21st-century computer graphics.

Well, I may end up falling back on good old Adobe Caslon Pro if all this 17th-century letterpress printing ends up freaking people out. The degree committee might even ask me to change the whole thing to Times New Roman…..

Literature cited

Enschedé, C. 1978. Typefoundries in the Netherlands from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century. Stichting Museum Enschedé, Haarlem.

Nielsen, L. 1934. Dansk Typografisk Atlas 1482–1600. J. Jørgensen & Co., København.

Oxford University Press 1900. Notes on a Century of Typography at the University Press, Oxford 1693–1794.

Some alternative ideas on page layout in thesis and book design

This is one of my articles discussing `subliminal refinements’ (coined by R. Schlicht, author of the `microtype‘ package in LaTeX) in typography and typesetting; this article focused more on typefaces and glyphs, this one on emulating 17th-century letterpress printing, while the one you are now reading examines page layout.

Page margins

Universal ratios found in nature are widely advocated for making decisions on page dimensions and margins in books. Perhaps the most prominent of them is the golden ratio, where the length:width ratio is approximately 1.6180339887. It turns out that in some typographical realizations of this ratio, all four page margins are of different width, sometimes increasing in a clockwise direction, determined by various geometric relationships. This setup, however, may look unbalanced to some eyes. An additional issue with the clockwise increasing margins is the jarring discontinuity at the corner of the page where the end of the incremental sequence (very wide margin, usually at the bottom of the page) meets the beginning (very narrow margin, along the spine of the book). Besides, having the narrowest margin along the spine seems awkward when one has to force the book flat to be able to read the text properly. This scheme has been used in a publication no less than Bringhurst’s seminal The Elements of Typographic Style, so there must be something about it that I do not yet appreciate; learning never ends. For now, though, I will explain my current sentiment.


[Exercise: rank the above in decreasing order of beauty: a human body, the golden rectangle God allegedly used to make the human body, and a regular tetragon. Photo of David: copyright Marcus Obal (licence). All images linked from Wikipedia.]

One of the amazing natural objects that are said to to conform to the golden ratio is the human body, but it is difficult to carry over that beauty to page layout because the golden ratio, if true, is only an underlying skeleton upon which the many features that really characterize the human body are overlaid, like curvature, muscles, facial contours and hair. When it comes down to setting text within the bounds of some straight-sided parallelogram, a square might be more elemental and attractive to some than a golden rectangle. It is alright to use ratios, but one should use them with judicious practical and aesthetic considerations pertaining to the task at hand. Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design may be useful here. Design thoroughly down to the last detail, but don’t let it get any more complicated than is necessary to do the job.

framed mounted photo

An attractive alternative model for page layout, in the form of mounted fine art hanging in my house. The uniformity and generosity of the four margins have a fundamental visual appeal, whatever the page dimensions—golden ratio or any other arbitrary ratio.

Back to page margins: so how about simplifying it to uniform margins on all four sides? This turns out to be none other than the classic look of mounted artwork that can hardly go wrong. The luxurious margins would set the text clear apart from its distracting external environment and give it space to breathe. I have taken this as a starting point and modified it a little. In my layout, the top and bottom margins are identical to each other but slightly wider than the side margins. This is because, unfortunately, the approximately 1.4 aspect ratio of the required A4 paper feels tallish (the golden rectangle is even taller at over 1.6). Although a towering text block tends to exude an air of lengthy, substantial discourse that is desirable in a dissertation, it begins to get too skinny with uniform margins all around. The right margin is wider than the left because it includes allowance for book binding; the end result should be identical left and right.

adobe caslon pro latex thesis book page layout

A page from my unfinished dissertation. It also shows my preferred style of page header and page numbering (see discussion below). Critics of this rudimentary style may deem it too spartan, but I feel that it presents the reader with the raw, untamed beauty of the type and allows him to assimilate its message free of distraction.

You may or may not have noticed that the dimensions of both the page (before book binding) and the text block (excluding header and footer) come close to my own favourite `universal ratio’, the Chandrasekhar limit. A white dwarf whose mass exceeds the mass of the Sun by a factor greater than the Chandrasekhar limit, a value of approximately 1.4, will become a supernova. The limit varies from star to star. In fact, the text block above is 1.5 because the star is spinning at abnormally high speed, generating centrifugal force that counteracts gravitation. Alas, I succumb to the temptation of universal ratios.

There is a popular practice of using extra-wide margins on the outer sides of book pages for accommodating occasional margin notes and oversized figures or tables. This actually goes back to the Renaissance (and perhaps even earlier), as seen in Archbishop Matthew Parker’s account (in Latin) of the University of Cambridge in 1572. The extra margin space may, however, cause visual discomfort if it is empty most of the time, making the page look unbalanced. These margins could be avoided when one’s particular subject matter is amenable to being presented in a continuous storyline. There are the reference books, however, that are not really meant to be read from cover to cover and in which the reader benefits from being able to locate and extract bits of relevant information easily and quickly. This is where mini-summaries, annotations, references and even auxiliary graphics in the margins, right next to the parts of the main text to which they pertain, can be a good idea.

The discussion illustrates an important philosophy in typography: that the design may obey or disobey the rules but it should always convey the message effectively. In fact, I even disagree slightly with this: in my opinion, it should convey your interpretation of the message in a way you, the typographer, believe is effective to the best of your logical and aesthetic judgement. One reader can be utterly convinced while another is utterly confused. You can’t please everyone but at least you can please yourself.

Page headers and footers (see illustration above)

The header text should probably not be in a SHOUTING or even SCREAMING type, such as FULL SIZE ALL CAPS or FULL SIZE ALL CAPS PLUS ITALIC (FULL SIZE ALL CAPS PLUS BOLD also occurs, but I haven’t seen FULL SIZE ALL CAPS PLUS BOLD PLUS ITALIC lately). The header is a somewhat repetitive if useful assertion of authorship and/or tool for locating chapters rather than the main substance of the literary work, so it should not be the first thing that grabs your attention when you arrive at a page. I reduce it to the same font size as the footnotes and make sure there is ample space between it and the text proper, instead of printing an extra black line to separate them (discussed further in the Decorations section below). The use of italic type, which can resemble handwriting, helps make it look as if I lovingly annotated the pages by hand. But be careful—not all typefaces have italics that look handwritten. Caslon, used in my layout above, has highly and variably sloped italics that serve this end beautifully.

Page numbers should be at the bottom for two reasons: to balance the header, and because the page number has a functional role that warrants a suitably unobtrusive location where it is easily accessible but only when desired. Sometimes both page number and lengthy page header are stuffed into the top margin, in combination with a ratio-inspired layout in which the top margin is considerably narrower than the bottom, creating a decidedly top-heavy impression akin to an overflowing glass of water—perhaps positively alluding to a `fountain of information’?

Sometimes page numbers are omitted from certain pages possibly on aesthetic grounds, such as the first page of every chapter (less of a problem if page numbering is at the bottom) and full-page illustrations. That is understandable, but extreme caution may need to be exercised in omitting page numbers or printing them in different locations on different pages, as it makes it difficult to flip through the book to find a particular page referenced by the table of contents, index or in the text. I have had books and magazines, including those about typography, riddled with so many missing page numbers that locating any given page, whether or not it is numbered, becomes an infuriating ordeal.

I have a soft spot for centering rather than left- or right-justifying the page number and page header. Even in the double spread of a book, each individual page, corresponding to a block of text, could do nicely with a self-contained symmetry that seems to have been more fashionable in the old days (see illustration above). The contemporary trend seems to be to offset everything—page number, text, illustrations—to either the left or the right or both. It is true that page numbers at the outer bottom corner are easier to see during flipping, but I am willing to compromise a little. Unless it’s a massive book, the difference is likely to be negligible from a mechanical engineering or reading experience point of view.

nonplanar Network graph triangle graphic design copyright Lin Yangchen

The emblem of a nonplanar graph, specially designed for my doctoral research on ecological networks. Non-Euclidean geometry (curves and rounded corners) is all the rage in design nowadays, but I prefer straight edges and incisive angles. Copyright Lin Yangchen.


I avoid using text boxes and ornamental dividers for practical typographic purposes such as demarcating supplementary explanations or separating sections. Good modern typography should achieve a large part of that by manipulating the spaces around characters, words, lines and paragraphs of text, without recourse to brute-force `beacons’ and `fences’. Ornaments are at their best in less practical roles, like beautifying the page and enhancing the appreciation of the subject matter. In all cases I make sure they don’t clutter up the page, creating special space for them if necessary. And to add that extra personal touch, I design the ornaments to my own artistic conception and to complement my particular subject matter, rather than use generic ones that come with the font or typesetting software.

Any illustration composed of lines, dots and/or text should be rendered as vectors, just like in the old days. Even the reproduction of the music score shown below, near the end of my dissertation, is a vector graphic, converted from the original raster scan using Illustrator’s Live Trace; blow it up to 2000% in the pdf file (not available here) and there is no pixelation or degradation of image fidelity whatsoever. It looks as if Bruckner actually scribbled his music on my page; this is achieved by manually tuning the Live Trace parameters to faithfully reproduce the variable stroke weight.

Bruckner Symphony No. 8 finale fugue autograph score excerpt

The deeply introspective fugue near the end of Bruckner’s monumental Symphony No. 8, in Bruckner’s own handwriting. I chose a section of the music where the First Violins and Double Basses are at rest, so that their two empty outer staves frame the notes in the inner parts nicely. Attention to detail need not be accompanied by profusion of detail.

Typographic refinements of thesis design in LaTeX

Long texts require a setting not unlike the way a marathon is run. Everything has to be comfortable—once you’ve found your rhythm, nothing must disturb it again. If you have text that is going to require long-distance reading, design it so the reader has a chance to settle in. — Spiekermann, E. & Ginger, E. M. 1993. Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works.

LaTeX is increasingly being embraced as one of the industry standards for professional-grade typesetting of documents of all ilks, not least for scientific literature, and has the additional virtue of being open source and freely available. The default settings of LaTeX are of very high standards, but manual intervention in some cases will bring it to an even higher level and transform it into an expression of one’s personal character while communicating the message effectively.

The concepts are applicable to all professional typesetting systems, although I mention LaTeX-specific packages or commands for implementing some of these refinements. LaTeX source code is beyond the scope of this article. If you have trouble making a desired refinement, I recommend searching the problem on the Internet. Also visit these great online communities for learning and discussing the finer things in LaTeX and computer programming, and

You may also be interested in my other typography and typesetting articles, Alternative Ideas on Page Layout and emulating 17th-century letterpresss printing.

Body text

LaTeX’s default typeface, Computer Modern, is very much to my liking but it has one or two details that aren’t perfectly to taste (mentioned later). My ideal of a body-text typeface is one that has a relatively smaller difference in stroke thickness between the horizontal and vertical parts, giving full-bodied letters more comfortable on the eye for long-distance reading, yet retaining an athletic figure. It should also have a relatively small x-height, allowing the correspondingly long ascenders and descenders to express themselves freely. A typeface that satisfies these criteria is the one cast by William Caslon c. 1722, one of the oldest English typefaces. Integral to the beauty of the Caslon typeface are its earthy wedge-shaped serifs, and adding to it are exquisite yet unobtrusive features like the cropped apex of A and the long flourish of Q. Indeed, an enduring maxim of British printers was ‘when in doubt, use Caslon’, a testimony to its dual qualities of utility and visual appeal. Original specimen sheet.

Adobe Caslon Pro cropped apex capital letter A

The distinctive cropped apex of the letter A in Caslon.

Adobe Caslon Pro long tail capital letter Q

The letter Q. These text samples also show the wedge serifs and robust strokes of Caslon.

Of the various modern-day digital incarnations of Caslon, I use Adobe Caslon Pro by Carol Twombly, which came with my student edition of Adobe Creative Suite. Other typefaces I have considered include Garamond and Jenson. Garamond is very elegant but the strokes are somewhat too delicate. The venerable Jenson, being an even more ancient typeface than Caslon, has a subtle affinity to handwriting that I think would be better reserved for more poetic texts than my scientific dissertation. In addition, Minion Pro and Palatino are very popular with those seeking an alternative typeface to the LaTeX default, but their aristocratic strokes and serifs don’t quite exude the organic down-to-earthness of Caslon that appeals to me and synergizes with the objective style of scientific reporting. Flowchart for typeface selection.

Regardless of whether the default LaTeX font is used, there are some typographical refinements that are not implemented automatically or by default, but are available for truly professional typesetting. They include microtypographical refinements like font expansion, letterspacing (as distinct from kerning) and margin kerning, all of which can be activated globally using the `microtype’ package, and selective ligatures. LaTeX uses certain ligatures automatically; such ligatures have to be disabled manually where they occur between morphemes, otherwise confusion may arise as to the meaning of the word. Some ligatures are off by default, for example the ae ligature, which should be manually enabled in certain words. List of legitimate ae and oe ligatures.

LaTeX wrong automatic cross-morpheme fl ligature in the word `briefly'

Automatic ligation should be disabled in certain words; in this example the fl ligature misleads the eye into reading `brie-fly’ instead of the correct `brief-ly’.

And the score of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata does not need bolder notes to mark fortissimos nor fractured notes to mark the broken chords. The score is abstract code and not raw gesture. — Bringhurst, R. 1996. The Elements of Typographic Style. (Widely regarded as the seminal work on the subject.)

Section headings

There are various ways of formatting heading text—italics, small caps, boldface, for example. The first two don’t particularly appeal to me as they are already being used in the body text and are insufficiently distinctive. Boldface can be pleasing and effective if used at tasteful sizes with tasteful amounts of spacing above and below, like the LaTeX default, but I wanted something more sophisticated.

Meet my favourite sans-serif typeface, News Gothic (Morris Fuller Benton, 1908). The slender strokes and tallish aspect give it an air of sophistication and unpretentiousness suited to the formal task of articulating the headings of a thesis, and differentiate it from the more popular sans-serifs like Arial and Helvetica (one of the relatively `dark, coarse and tightly closed’ typefaces described by Bringhurst as `cultural souvenirs of some of the bleakest days of the Industrial Revolution’). Although the letters of News Gothic are relatively narrow, they are comfortably letterspaced for optimal legibility. The weight is a little too light at normal text size but this becomes an asset at larger heading sizes where it stands out from the text by virtue of its size without creating overpowering and disruptive dark struts across the page. In my opinion, News Gothic and Caslon make an electrifying pair, the realism of 20th-century American newsprint juxtaposed with the baroque splendour of 18-century European scholarly texts.

LaTeX News Gothic heading format

Section headings in News Gothic typeface, showing reduced distance between successive baselines and manual non-hyphenated line breaks within multiline heading, all capitals, and vertical alignment of heading and subheading.

I use all capitals to distinguish the headings more clearly and also to create a subtle horizontal bar effect that grounds the heading solidly and complements the fluctuating topography of the main text. It is also important to override LaTeX’s smart autohyphenation in multiline headings and manually break the lines. They should be broken at grammatically appropriate junctures and such that the heading as a whole has a compelling geometry, essentially meaning that no two or more lines within the heading should be approximately the same length as one another. Before getting caught up in these manipulations, see to it that you have already made the heading as concise as possible.

Finally, reduce the leading, or distance between successive baselines, within the heading so that it becomes a single unified object that has no chance of being obfuscated in the vertical flow of the body text. The amount by which the leading is reduced should obviously balance well with the letterspacing of the heading, and in my opinion should not in absolute measurements be too different from the leading of the prose. Customarily, the height of the interlinear channel, or horizontal empty space between two successive lines, should be greater than the word spacing, in order to minimize the occurrence of rivers. As is evident in the illustration above, however, I have adjusted the leading such that the interlinear channel height is somewhere between the letterspacing and word spacing rather than greater than both of them. It seems to work here because there are at most only two or three lines in the heading, and it actually feels more geometrically homogeneous and pleasing when small and large spaces within a flowing line are `averaged out’ with medium spacing between lines. Furthermore, the constant height of the capitals helps the eyes stay on the line despite the tight leading, where ascenders and descenders of lowercase letters would have caused the eyes to stray from one line to another.

Bibliographic style

One of my favoured uses of (real, not fake) small caps is in author names, in both the body text and the bibliography. It gives an additional degree of recognition to the giants on whose shoulders I teeter. The small caps of Caslon are about as tall as the x-height, which I find appealing. Many typographers prefer higher small caps for more emphasis but I don’t like that because it disrupts the texture of the page, and when only lowercase small caps are used in an acronym one can’t really tell whether they are small caps or not; this is the one thing that bothers me about the otherwise near-perfect Computer Modern.

I use the small-cap author names with the ampersand for an even more elegant disposition. The use of the ampersand also reduces confusion when stringing references together in the text e.g. `A & B and X & Y’ versus `A and B and X and Y’. Even when using numbered citations as I do, it is occasionally necessary to spell out the authors on grammatical grounds.

bibliography reference citation style

My personal reference style with small caps, ampersand, colon, and thin space between multiple initials of a given author. Note the difference between the hyphen and the en dash.

Another tweak to the bibliography is the change of punctuation between the journal volume and page numbers from comma to colon. There are too many commas and/or periods already in most reference styles; the colon is not only a welcome relief but helps the eye track the volume:page component more readily.

One more refinement is the use of a thin space between the author initials. A regular space would make the capitals towering landmarks unto themselves, while leaving no space at all would result in a jungle. You might ask why `USA’ would be ok; that is because it refers to an entity that is widely known, and our minds have come to associate the overall shape of the acronym with that entity.

All of the above can be customized globally using the `biblatex’ package; there is no need for any manual formatting.

Typeface in scientific plots

I tend to plot graphs in my data analysis software and export them as pdf vector graphics to embed in LaTeX (occasionally I use R’s `tikzDevice’ package to generate native LaTeX graphics code directly from R, but that has difficulties with syntactically complicated plots like 3D surfaces with shadows and transparency). The default typefaces of those plots, however, may not go well with your chosen typeface in LaTeX. The default in the R Language for Statistical Computing, for example, is Helvetica, which clashes with the News Gothic in my headings and doesn’t match that well with Caslon either. I use Computer Modern instead of Helvetica, as the former is used in my math environments in LaTeX. It could be argued that while the numerical axis labels in the plot would rightly be in Computer Modern, the axis titles being text should really be in Caslon, but there are two factors working against this proposition: (1) it seems very difficult to make the R pdf graphics device use multiple font families simultaneously (`tikzDevice’ can do this since it uses native LaTeX); and (2) Caslon in the bottom x-axis would blend in with the caption text, creating the impression that the figure proper starts from above the x-axis, which is visually discomforting.

R lattice wireframe 3d plot

Computer Modern font in wireframe plot in R. I modified the source code of the `wireframe’ function to shorten the tick marks, right-justify the tick labels (needed because of the minus signs) and prevent the tick labels from overlapping with one another and with the tick marks (as the original function does not provide direct arguments for adjusting these parameters); this applies even if you are using the default Helvetica.

R uses the `extrafont’ and `fontcm’ packages to enable font families not automatically available in R, and MATLAB and Octave have their own routines as well.

Numbers and mathematics

Typography’s principal function is communication, and the greatest threat to communication is not difference but sameness. — Robert Bringhurst

You would have seen in the earlier illustrations that Caslon has old-style numerals with ascenders and descenders for the appropriate typesetting of numbers in the body text. These are not so suitable for mathematical expressions. Caslon also has the `capital’ numerals (properly known as lining figures) that are ok for math, but it does not have all the other mathematical symbols my equations require. Therefore I typeset all math in Computer Modern. If you do this you should ensure that any inline mathematical expressions in the prose, even an isolated number like `0.57′ that refers to some parameter value used in a model, are typeset in math mode using \[\] for example. Sometimes the distinction is quite subtle; for example in the phrase `simulated for 1000 time steps’, I consider `1000′ to be text, not math, and use old-style numerals accordingly.

Old-style numerals (text figures) and lining figures

Different kinds of numerals for different kinds of numbers. The visual contrast helps the mind put each number in the appropriate context and makes reading more efficient.

When one uses different typefaces for text and math, there is also the question of what typeface to use for any normal text embedded in equations. The convention is to use the typeface of the body text, but I run into an inconsistency here because I have opted to use the math typeface for text within figures, as explained above. It would therefore be more consistent to go against convention and use the math typeface for text within equations. There is no intrinsic problem with this—indeed I think it looks more harmonious—because Computer Modern is equally at home in text and math, as long as one calls `\textnormal’ within the math environment telling LaTeX to kern the characters as words rather than a string of mathematical symbols.

LaTeX math mode computer modern textrm textnormal

Using the math typeface for text (`consumers’) within math environments can produce a consistent look, as long as you tell LaTeX that it is a word rather than a string of variables. If it thinks they are variables it will space them too far apart. Notice that the equation number at far right is not in the math typeface.

There is actually a third kind of numeral, the so-called superior figure, with a thicker stroke suitable for footnote markers. LaTeX default uses mathematical superscripting of normal figures for footnote markers, which is not ideal because the normal figures are too thin at small sizes and placed too high for body text. Unfortunately too, most fonts do not have superior figures at all or have only a small subset. Adobe Caslon Pro is one of the few that provide the full set of superior figures from 0 to 9. If your font has superior figures, they can be turned on automatically for footnotes simply by loading the `xltxtra’ package.

Adobe Caslon Pro LaTeX xltxtra superior figure footnotemark

Correct typesetting of footnote marker using thick-stroked superior figure positioned lower than superscript position.

That’s all, folks

By all means break the rules, and break them beautifully, deliberately and well. — Robert Bringhurst

Hopefully I have given you a flavour of my selective typographical tweaks, revealing some of my own idiosyncrasies in the process and motivating you to conceive your own work of typographic art. There are substantial aspects of macroscopic document structure and design that I have left out of the discussion, but the same paradigm applies—let consistency, logic and beauty be your guiding lights.

Gunung Tahan: early exploration, first ascent, geology, natural history

Taman Negara crest rhinoceros

The coat of arms of Taman Negara (‘National Park’).

The face of Tahan suddenly revealed itself, rising from the depths of the mountain gorge like a colossal tsunami. The air trembled with the muffled roar of distant waterfalls. — the author on an expedition to Gunung Tahan, June 2002

This is an account of the early exploration and first ascent (1905) of Gunung Tahan (2187 m), the highest mountain in peninsular Malaysia, with anecdotes from published reports of various scientific expeditions.

Early surveys and first ascent

Robinson (1908a,b) gives an account of the early exploration of Gunung Tahan. The ‘first European to hear of Gunong Tahan’ was the Russian explorer Baron Mikluho-Maclay who in 1875 ‘noticed at some distance a remarkable mountain which was pointed out to me as Gunong Tahan’ (Skinner 1878). Sir F. A. Swettenham (1884), on a visit to the main range in Perak, reported:

Within a very few minutes of first sighting the mountain it was no longer visible, and even the cloud seemed to have merged in the haze of the horizon, making it difficult to believe that we had really seen there a far more imposing height than any I have yet beheld in the Peninsula.

The first two expeditions were sent by the Sultan of Pahang at an unknown date in search of magic stones at the summit. According to the folklore of the Orang Asli, a rhinoceros-sized monkey guarded two pots containing the ‘ibu mas’ and ‘ibu perak’. An approach via the 1000m Teku gorge was taken which seemed the most straightfoward. However, both parties were doomed to failure by towering precipices. The ‘first serious [but failed] attempt on the…enormous mountain…ranging in height…from 10,000 to 14,000 ft.’ (one estimate put it at 20,000 ft. (Scrivenor 1912)) was made only in 1890 by H. N. Ridley (Ridley 1892).

In 1893 H. M. Becher, who was ‘prospecting the district’, decided to camp on an island in the Tahan River. He disregarded the advice of the locals that ‘an island was not a safe place in a river like the Tahan’. ‘Shortly after dinner it was noticed that the river was rising rapidly and Mr. Becher…and the Malays…cast off in [a] hurry, leaving the other white man on the island, clinging to the bushes; for, by this time, it was all under water’. ‘Mr Becher stood up and tried to guide the boat with a pole, although they begged him to sit down and let them do it. As a result, the boat upset and he was never seen again.’ Years later Mr. Robinson would report that although the island was 6 feet above water, ‘all the bushes growing on it were bent down stream, showing that they were frequently submerged.’

Gunung Tahan Sungai Tahan Expedition boat Robinson 1905

Pulling boats up the Tahan River in the first successful expedition to Gunong [sic] Tahan, 1905 (Robinson 1908b).

W. W. Skeat was the first to get farther than the lowlands. After having ‘planted some durian and rambutan seeds’ somewhere along the Tahan River and ‘scaring away a rhinoceros’, he ascended as far as the spot known today as Gunung Pankin (1463 m) which he marked with a flag.

Herbert C. Robinson, Che Nik, Mu’min, Mat Aris and Bulang were the first to reach the summit of Gunung Tahan, at 10:15 on 16 July 1905, nearly two months after leaving Kuala Tahan (it is now a few days’ trek). They ascended by boat along the Tahan River until Kuala Teku (5th Camp), the confluence between the Teku and Tahan rivers, where they established what I regard as Tahan Base Camp, drawing inspiration from Himalayan mountaineering. Kuala Teku is arguably situated at the actual foot of Gunung Tahan (see altitudinal profile below). The track cleared beyond Kuala Teku in 1905, if I understand their report correctly, remains to this day. Leonard Wray (1853-1942), being afflicted with dysentery at Camp VI (later named Wray’s Camp), could not accompany Mr. Robinson farther up the mountain (Robinson 1908b). Robinson (1908b) on the climb from Gunung Pankin, the previous high point reached by Skeat, in the direction of Gunung Tahan:

Rather an alarming account was given [by the advance party] of the nature of the hills, and the difficulties encountered in getting along the ridges beyond Skeat’s flag. Several said that they were not brave enough to walk along them, and the Dato’ declared that it made him so giddy that he was unable to proceed.

Elevations above sea level were established by the 1905 expedition by means of an aneroid barometer. At 900 m, the last sounds of primates faded away (Robinson 1908). Although Mr. Robinson had determined the summit elevation to be approximately 7200 ft., the official figure in 1906 was 7050 ft. which was surpassed by Gunong Riam (Gunung Korbu) at 7160 ft. By 1912 Gunong Tahan was rightfully granted its stature of 7186 ft. (Scrivenor 1912).

On the way back, Mr. Robinson ‘had a rather exciting journey to Kuala Tahan, as the river was in heavy flood.’ In another expedition years later, ‘a race was held along the last reach to Kuala Tahan and was contested with great keen[n]ess and much noise’ (Strugnell & Mead 1937).

Kem Kor animal sound Gunung Tahan

Leitmotif of an unknown animal notated by the author at Kem Kor (750 m) at dawn, 1 July 2002. Pitches are relative.


Gunung Tahan lies within what is now Taman Negara, the only remaining large tract of virgin evergreen dipterocarp rainforest on the Malay peninsula. It is part of a 27,469 km^2 tract of forest stretching northwards to southern Thailand (Kawanishi et al. 2001). The biological diversity of this Pleistocene refugium is further boosted by the indigenous Negrito Batek Orang Asli (van der Schot 1990) according to the non-equilibrium model promulgated by Connell (1978).

The Tahan mountain range strikes southwards from Trengganu for approximately 120 km before being intercepted by Sungai (‘river’) Pahang. It continues as intermittent bumps in east Johore (including Gunung Belumut) and degenerates into Bukit Timah Hill and Mount Faber in Singapore (Scrivenor 1908). The Tahan massif itself is primarily a block of sandstone, mudstone and conglomerate (Komoo et al. 1985) partly metamorphosed at approximately 800◦C (Mottana et al. 1978) to massive or slightly schistose white (almost pure quartz) or red quartzite. Quartz veins, a few metres long and up to 20cm wide, are common (Komoo et al. 1985). Quartz crystals are also abundant (Soepadmo 1971), which may have been the origin of the magic stones legend (Scrivenor 1912). In contrast, Gunung Benom and the Titiwangsa range are dominated by granite at high altitudes.

Peninsular Malaysia Malaya mountain height elevation

Peaks in direct line of sight from the summit of Gunung Tahan. Data derived from Fullard (1957).

The Padang

Strugnell & Mead (1937) noted that the Padang, a high plateau on the Tahan massif, was an ‘ideal locality for military manoeuvres and artillery ranges could be sited almost anywhere’. Wooden huts with cement floors, tables and a library full of books were built on the Padang prior to 1924 and remained standing as late as 1937 (Strugnell & Mead 1937).

The Padang is disproportionately rich in butterfly species probably due to the invasion of lowland species by two complementary mechanisms (Kirton et al. 1990). Firstly, ‘planktonic’ species may be blown aloft by orographic lifting. Secondly, ‘nekton’ may engage in hill-topping which promotes mating through aggregation. Among the rare species restricted to high altitudes and common at the Padang (Kirton et al. 1990) are Chilasa agestor agestor Gray and Austrozephyrus absolon malayicus Pendlebury.

Prinia atrogularis waterstradti Hartert 1902 (Tahan Hill Warbler), endemic to the Padang, is very abundant. Its usual call is a shrill twee-twee although a pleasant song may issue (Robinson 1928). Like the butterfly Ypthima pandocus tahanensis, this orographic subspecies of P. atrogularis occurs only on Gunung Tahan. Wells (1990) has suggested that P. atrogularis waterstradti and similar subspecies were more widespread during the last ice age. In the present interglacial, the Padang, being the only adequate area of elfin scrub in the Malay peninsula, serves as a refugium.

Gunung Tahan tropical montane cloud forest bonsai mist

Tropical montane cloud forest on the upper ramparts of Gunung Tahan. Photo: Lin Yangchen

Lower down, evidence of hill genesis by compressive rock bending takes the form of anticlines and synclines in Sungai Tahan (Scrivenor 1908). Where the trail runs along the ridge one may come across ‘peculiar open spaces several yards square and absolutely devoid of leaves and rubbish’ (Skeat 1908). ‘They are nothing more than the playing-grounds of the Argus Pheasant’ (Robinson, footnote to Skeat (1908)).

Gunung Tahan mountain trek hike route map

The classic route to the summit. From an undated (probably c. 1970s) edition of the official Taman Negara guidebook.

Kuala Teku

Hydrology. The Tahan watershed drains an area of approximately 157 km^2 (Khan 1990). Sungai Tahan is a 6th order stream according to the Strahler scheme. Exponential regression of the bifurcation curve fits the equation y = 1092.3 exp(−1.2333x). At Sungai Melantai, the pseudo-monsoon forest formation may be due to the rain shadow of Gunung Tahan (Johnson 1969).

Leptotrombidium deliense, the known vector of Rickettsia tsutsugamushi, is very rare in undisturbed lowland forest in Taman Negara. Contraction of scrub typhus is therefore unlikely except in Orang Asli clearings (Dohany et al. 1980). Humans are incidental hosts to three endoparasites in Taman Negara (table below; see Ho & Krishnasamy 1990). On the other hand, it is unlikely that one would be affected by the unidentified contagious disease that in May 1905 exterminated the Selangor chickens meant for the consumption of Messrs. Wray and Robinson (Robinson 1908b).

Gunung Tahan parasites

A note by Hislop (1956):

These hornets made regular forays to pounce on bees,…alighting on the back of a grounded bee and attempting to sting it…a fierce battle would ensue, both contestants struggling furiously on the ground until the bee succumbed to the stings of its adversary and lay still. The ‘naning’ would then drag the dead bee about until it found a suitable place from which to become airborne…

Weigum (1971) witnessed near Kuala Tahan a seladang (Bos gaurus hubbacki) herd charging at a tiger. The tiger fled. Moll & Khan (1990) ‘observed the tracks of a tiger and a softshell [turtle] which had converged on a sand bank upriver from Kuala Tahan. There were signs of a scuffle but no blood and the turtle tracks continued on back to the water while the tiger’s returned to the forest.’

Gunung Tahan orchid orchidaceae flower monocotyledon botany

Tahan orchids. Photo: Lin Yangchen


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Coy-Choke, h. 1971. The importance of Taman Negara as a gene pool of major cultivated plants. Malayan Nature Journal 24:215–221.

Davison, g. w. h. 1982. Birds in Taman Negara. Malayan Naturalist 35:18–23.

de Laubenfels, d. j. 1988. Coniferales. Flora Malesiana: Series I, Volume 10 pp. 337–453 Kluwer Academic.

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Dransfield, j. & Kiew, r. 1990. The palms of Taman Negara. Journal of Wildlife and Parks 10:38–45.

Dransfield, j. & Whitmore, t. c. 1969. Palm hunting in Malaya’s National Park. Principes 13:83–98.

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Hislop, j. a. 1956. Notes from the National Park. Malayan Nature Journal 10:122–125.

Ho, t. m. & Krishnasamy, m. 1990. Ectoparasitic acari and endoparasites of small mammals in Taman Negara. Journal of Wildlife and Parks 10:54–61.

Holttum, r. e. 1964. Orchids of Malaya. Flora of Malaya Volume I 3rd ed. Botanic Gardens, Singapore.

Ismail, m. z. 1984. Checklist of fishes of Taman Negara. Malayan Naturalist 37:21–26.

Johnson, a. 1969. A forest quadrat in the National Park: the flora other than trees. Malayan Nature Journal 22:152–158.

Kawanishi, k. 2002. Population status of tigers (Panthera tigris) in a primary rainforest of peninsular Malaysia. PhD dissertation, University of Florida.

Kawanishi, k., Sahak, a. m. & Sunquist, m. 1999. Preliminary analysis on abundance of large mammals at Sungai Relau, Taman Negara. Journal of Wildlife and Parks 17:62–82.

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Kelsall, h. j. 1894. Account of a trip up the Pahang, Tembeling, and Tahan rivers, and an attempt to reach Gunong Tahan. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 25:33–49.

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Khan, m. 1971. The distribution of large animals in Taman Negara. Malayan Nature Journal 24:125–131.

Kiew, r. 1990. Pitcher plants of Gunung Tahan. Journal of Wildlife and Parks 10:34–37.

Kiew, r. & Chin, s. c. 1982. The effect of dam building on plant life in Taman Negara. Malayan Naturalist 35:23–25.

King George V National Park Survey Department, Federation of Malaya; map no. 126 (1953).

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Komoo, i., Leman, s. & Tjia, h. d. 1985. Gunung Tahan–Gunung Tangga Dua Belas: structural observations. Warta Geologi 11(6):261–264.

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Metcalfe, i. 1996. Pre-Cretaceous evolution of SE Asian terranes. Geological Society Special Publication 106:97–122.

Moll, e. o. & Khan, m. 1990. Turtles of Taman Negara. Journal of Wildlife and Parks 10:135– 138.

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Skeat, w. w. 1908. A personal reconnaisance of Gunong Tahan. Journal of the Federated Malay States Museums 3:77–90.

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Soepadmo, e. 1971. Plants and vegetation along the paths from Kuala Tahan to Gunong Tahan. Malayan Nature Journal 24:118–124.

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Strugnell, e. j. & Mead, j. p. 1937. An ascent of Gunong Tahan. The Malayan Forester 6:131–140.

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Performance issues: Bach’s Chaconne, Partita no. 2 BWV 1004, solo violin

(To listen to the interpretation closest to my personal musical ideal, scroll down to the video of Gidon Kremer.)

The Chaconne, after almost three hundred years (since 1723), remains one of the greatest works ever written for solo violin. It is thought to have been composed in mourning after the death of Bach’s wife; the opening section, played in a suitable manner, can sound very much like one weeping in sorrow, complete with the sniffing and choking of the giant chords. The protagonist stops crying for a while and goes on to brood at great length and depth on the tragedy, his musical utterances expounding sublime beauty of body and character even in death, and suffering periodic relapses of sorrowful outbursts (the distribution of intensities possibly conforming to some power law of nature).

The temporary switch to the major key in the middle of the piece is often described simply as a kind of respite from the depressing mood of the rest of it. That may be true, but I do not think this description does it full justice. I think it goes deeper: it is a reminiscence of the wonderful time spent in each other’s company in life, made so much more beautifully poignant by the ever-present chromaticism.

Such is the narrative and sound world I have conceived for my own playing of the Chaconne, helped in no small way by insights gained from performances of diverse character given by the great violinists of the world. I will mention some of the ones I found remarkable (Heifetz, Kuijken, Kremer, Gitlis), along with my personal opinions. The discourse will focus on larger-scale musical form and take a brief excursion into how acoustics can affect the music; for a rigorous monograph of the gory bar-by-bar details of technical challenges of the Chaconne and how different editors and performers have dealt with them, the attention of the reader is drawn to the doctoral dissertation by Carmelo de los Santos at the University of Georgia.

We start with Jascha Heifetz, whose performance is widely regarded as one of the reference interpretations of the Chaconne. It is the epitome of the romantic bravura style with luscious vibrato and big slides to high notes. Few other players pull off this style as spontaneously as Heifetz.

Jascha Heifetz

Additional insights into Heifetz’s Chaconne can also be had from a video of a Heifetz masterclass, where he emphasizes to the student the importance of bringing out the melody in the chords, something prone to neglect when one is caught up getting the notes to play clearly and in tune.

Three-dimensional mountains

Heifetz’s rendition has great authority in the community, but there is one aspect of it where I do prefer alternative interpretations. You may be surprised that it has little to do with his romantic style per se, which I think is one of the various musically legitimate ways of playing Bach in our era, although I don’t play that way myself. My main complaint is more basic: essentially that it stays almost uniformly loud and dramatic throughout, causing the mind to be gradually desensitized to the diverse and more subtle nuances of the music.

Although the melody does come forth clearly even in the chordal sections, because of the constant loudness it lacks the ‘third-dimensional’ contour. You can think of it as a flat landscape with a small hill or two here and there, versus a Himalayan mountain range. You can trace a convoluted and geometrically pleasing path on a flat surface but it remains two-dimensional, but it is a different matter (and perhaps more exciting) traversing deep river gorges and ice cliffs. One can imagine that a vast flat desert stretching as far as the eye can see can be equally awe-inspiring, but one might prefer mountains, especially when the notes of this particular work are themselves in constant undulation spanning the low and high registers of the violin.

Bach Chaconne Partita BWV 1004 first line score multiple stopping violin

(Reproduced from the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, available at IMSLP)

Take the first 8 bars (above) for example, where the melody is in the top line. Heifetz himself shapes it a bit more than the student in his masterclass; in the student version there is no discernible emotional high point at the top B flat in bar 7 besides the fact that it reaches the maximum pitch, and Heifetz doesn’t complain about it. Perhaps it could be argued that the pitch itself does the job and there is no need to make it go louder or slower, but I feel that pitch, dynamics and tempo could be synergized into a potent expressive force. One must of course guard against overdoing it and losing the momentum of the music, especially as it has only just begun. The word for it is understated, defined in the dictionary as ‘presented or expressed in a subtle and effective way’.

Intonation and temperament

Having less to do with interpretation and more related to technique is that many of Heifetz’s notes are out of tune. Not catastrophically so, but with sufficient frequency and amplitude that it gets distracting. This is exacerbated by the abundance of chords and arpeggiation, where intonation is especially important. The violin, as an instrument that allows the player to adjust pitch in infinitely small gradations, offers the possibility of playing pure-sounding intervals in which the frequency ratio between two notes is a rational number and the pitches exactly coincide with those in the harmonic spectrum, in contrast to the slightly less pure-sounding equal temperament (found on modern keyboard instruments for example) where the notes within an octave are snapped to equidistant intervals. Heifetz is out of tune even with respect to equal temperament; I just think that there is so much potential for the music have more of the sonorous quality by nailing those rational ratios in many more of the chords and arpeggios, certainly not a very tall order for one of Heifetz’s calibre. Accurate intonation in a solo violin piece also helps the listener to mentally reconstruct the harmonic structure when there is only a single line of notes. For all these criticisms, I do play much worse than Heifetz.

Baroque interpretation

We move on to the performance of Sigiswald Kuijken, an example of the ‘original’ version performed with a Baroque violin in Baroque style that is rarely listened to nowadays. It is truer to the dance that is the Chaconne, and less intense yet deeply contemplative and ethereal. I have no complaint about Kuijken; his interpretation is distinct from mine, but he convinces me. Presumably there are others who would say the opposite with Kuijken versus Heifetz. The bottom line is probably that it is a matter of individual musical taste; I admit I’m biased.

Sigiswald Kuijken

Gidon Kremer, my favourite, masterfully adapts Baroque musical form and elegance to the incisive and powerful timbre of the modern violin in an interpretation that is intense at times and ethereal at others, getting quite close to the narrative proposed in the beginning. Surprisingly, Kremer’s recording is hardly ever mentioned in online forums discussing the best versions of the Chaconne, while Heifetz usually appears at or near the top of the list.

Nevertheless, there are numerous details of articulation, dynamics, rubato and other parameters that I would play differently from Kremer, and I might even play them differently at different times. These details are often subtle and interdependent and are best conveyed by the universal language of music itself, assuming that I ever play it well enough to make a convincing recording. The more important thing is that a given performance flows—evolves—musically and emotionally from beginning to end.

Gidon Kremer

Acoustics and architecture

This particular performance, at the church of St. Nikolaus in Lockenhaus (see German-language documentary about its conception), is also a positive example of the critical but often neglected role of the acoustics and architecture of the music-making venue. I will digress a little bit here but will subsequently explain how this is specifically relevant to Bach’s works for solo instruments.

The sound of the violin or any other non-electrically amplified instrument for that matter is not a product of the instrument in isolation; it is a product of the instrument interacting with the room it is played in. One of the most fundamental considerations is reverberation, which is a function of room size, surface reflectivity, instrument loudness, note length and other variables. Play fast notes in a small room with overly reflective walls, and multiple sounds bounce around uncontrollably in a resounding but unintelligible mess. Put a single violin in a large hall covered with absorbent curtains, and even a fortissimo gets snuffed out of existence the moment it is played. But if one finds just the right conditions, one can create a sound that is clearly articulated yet sonorous.

I have found from my own experience of a room with an optimal combination of parameter values that contrary to what people say about the reverberation covering up your mistakes, it doesn’t necessarily do so, even with the fastest demisemiquaver passages in the Chaconne with a reverberation of two or three seconds. The secret is in the loudness, not the length, of the reverberation: there are combinations of room size and reflectivity where the reverberation is long enough to feel good but soft enough not to interfere with articulation. You can still hear those mistakes clearly, and it actually makes it more obvious when you’re out of tune, and therefore encourages more accurate intonation, because adjacent notes overlap just the right amount and the ear is able to superimpose them for comparison. Indeed, for Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo instruments, this overlap has another positive musical effect: it helps pseudoharmonize the music that has a predominantly monophonic texture. Of course, the optimal room size and reflectivity change with the average volume of the instrument and with the number of instruments.

What about architecture? When there is visual stimulus that complements the auditory, the performance envelopes the consciousness more completely and makes for a more fulfilling experience. It does not have to be opulent baroque architecture; it can be glass and concrete, but it has to be inspiring in design. A concert stage with curtains in the background, for example, may have highly justifiable practical acoustical rationale but does not come across as inspiring architecture to me. But it doesn’t mean that a good design cannot be dead simple. A bare concrete room with a few simple pieces of hanging art nicely spotlighted, for example, can feel infinitely profound; the idea is to create synergy, not distraction.

Computer programming

Back to the music itself, there is an article in The Strad where Ida Haendel shares her views on interpreting the Chaconne. One of her suggestions is to never slow down for the purpose of accommodating difficult notes. Sure, if you can handle it, but I think it is acceptable within reasonable bounds if it remains musically coherent. In fact, sometimes slowing it down makes it both easier and more dramatic, as can happen at large cadences with chords spanning all four strings. For an amateur like me, it makes the difference between a bad-sounding, out-of-tune performance (or giving up the piece altogether) and a performance that still sounds good and musical and inspires people. The thing to remember is not to keep doing the same thing throughout the piece—no matter how musical the individual instance, relentless repetition would make the emergent musical structure robotic, like looping or matrix algebra in a computer programme.

Haendel offers good reasons for minimizing embellishment, but my main argument for minimization is more closely related to the mood of the Chaconne in particular, rather than to more general arguments about Baroque performance practice. Simply, if we hear the Chaconne as a sad and tragic piece, then one wouldn’t have the desire to add trills and hula hoop turns all over the place. One of the instances in which this is most starkly demonstrated is the perfect cadence right at the end (below): in the video above, Kremer plays it without a trill (although he used to trill it in recordings made earlier in life), imparting a sinking feeling of finality, driving it ‘right into the ground’ as Haendel describes her take on the ending. Adding a trill won’t make it frivolous, but it does lighten it a bit, and this might work well depending on one’s overall conception of the music. I do it without the trill.

Bach Chaconne Partita BWV 1004 score ending violin

I play the final cadence without a trill.

There is hardly right or wrong; it is more important for one to come up with an interpretation that one believes in and has a powerful urge to convey to the audience. Even then, I don’t think I can please everyone; there will always be someone who doesn’t like it, and this is what ultimately makes music beautiful and timeless. I will leave you with one more performance worth listening to, by Ivry Gitlis. Although out of tune like Heifetz, its idiosyncratic and rugged ‘mountainous’ soundscape make up for it. In his words (quoted on his Wikipedia page), “don’t be so polite with the music, it’s like in love!”

Ivry Gitlis

Bach on the Biggest: the real BWV 565

A review of J. S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue BWV 565 played by Robert Elmore on the largest organ in the world (also see Wikipedia article) as recorded on Bach on the Biggest.

As one would expect of anyone given command of such huge forces, Robert Elmore has no qualms about drawing the 32-foot (and probably 64-foot) artillery and legions of higher registers—the depth and power is visceral, way beyond even that of Notre Dame, St. Paul’s or Passau. You are starting to imagine an enormous blob of sound devoid of any structure whatsoever, but nothing could be further from the truth. The antidote is in the articulation. Deciding which consecutuve notes to join smoothly or separate with a momentary break is a fine art, especially in organ music, whose characteristic ‘equilibrium’ tones make articulation even more crucial for the transmission of the musical message. Elmore does a spectacular job that draws inspiration from but transcends Baroque articulation tactics, imparting to the music a great deal of momentum from beginning to end. I have heard players fudge up the rhythm and pulse of polyphonic Bach on much smaller organs by drawing too many fat stops and failing to articulate with the utmost discipline, to the point that the notes are all but indiscernible, so Elmore gets double credits not letting that happen even at such high power settings.

Most players regulate their tempo quite cautiously according to Baroque performance practice, with restrained rubato at the few ‘legal’ spots. Not Elmore. When it is time to make a statement, Elmore liberally slows time down to make it; when it gets to the virtuosic runs he floors the accelerator and takes the listener on a roller coaster ride, at times a runaway roller coaster. At those speeds, one begins to perceive the emergent and magnificent large-scale shape and form of the passage rather than the individual notes which one can nevertheless hear are dexterously fingered. The listener is swept away by a hurricane, rather than having to psychologically drag the music behind him as is often the case when the music is played note-by-note like an etude. This instrument is big but certainly no pushover (pun intended) when it comes to agility. The acrobatics this monster is capable of are truly impressive.

Velocity per se is one thing; acceleration and deceleration—change of speed—heighten the excitement even further. Just like the adrenaline rush of a jetliner accelerating down the runway to takeoff speed, it is the speeding up and slowing down of music that heralds impending emotional regime change. Marry this with the immaculate articulation described above, and this performance of BWV 565 comes alive like an improvisation, not a precomposed work.

One of the most famous photographs (of 9 of the 33,114 pipes) of the world’s largest organ (the man is holding a pipe). Image linked from

Baroque performance practice brings forth the spirit of the music as conceived by the composer in the cultural circumstances of the time, but another hallmark of great music is its amenity to interpretation over the ages. Although the author deeply appreciates Bach on period instruments with period performance practice, music making is not all about conforming to stylistic convention all the time; it is about communicating to the audience and making them feel your way and go away with memories of a beautiful and coherent work of art. Elmore, too, brings out the best of the instrument on hand. That instrument is the biggest in the world, and it sounds as if it is the biggest in the world. Furthermore, it sings with that extra piquancy and spice because the pipes are slightly out of tune with one another—I call it a probabilistic temperament. There is another time and place for the exquisite Baroque sound.

BWV 565 turns up so frequently in all kinds of multimedia that I usually cringe when I hear it, but this performance had the opposite effect. The 565 is arguably about drama and grandeur, and Elmore doesn’t attempt to subdue it with a veil of Baroque elegance. Bach would be amazed or horrified, but certainly not unmoved, if he walked in.

Other recordings of the organ: 1 | 2

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Other resources by the author

Singapore’s oldest organ
Singapore’s only Danish organ
image gallery of organs around the world

Singapore’s answer to Notre Dame de Paris

Bevington and Sons 1912 organ of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore

The great organ in the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore, before it closed for major reconstruction in 2013. Photo: Yangchen Lin

This article is dedicated to Robert Navaratnam and Alphonsus Chern, without whom it would not have been possible, and through whose kindness and passion for their art I partook in many unforgettable experiences.

The text below is adapted from my 2005 paper in The Organ magazine, with additional photography and links to multimedia, about the organs of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Singapore. As back issues of magazines are generally difficult to find, I decided to make my writing available online to let more people know about this very special instrument.

* * *

The ‘Singaporean organ’

[text from The Organ 334:8--10 with edits and updates]

Singapore is a small tropical island state with only eleven functional pipe organs. Like the cosmopolitan population, however, these instruments constitute diverse styles. Despite having been a British Crown Colony until 1959, Singapore boasts not only English but also German and Danish instruments with romantic, neo-baroque and eclectic tonal concepts. Welch (1988) provided a brief account of most of the organs in Singapore; see also my complete survey of organs in Singapore in 2005 (go to p. 4 if your browser fails to auto-scroll). In the present article, the organs of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd are examined for their architectural and musical significance.

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd bevington navaratnam organ facade ruckpositiv Singapore

The decorative Rückpositiv added by Robert Navaratnam. Part of the original Bevington & Sons (1912) façade is visible behind. Photo: Yangchen Lin

The organ in the west gallery stands out in several respects. Although the Klais installation of 2002 in the Esplanade concert hall (McVicker 2003) might be considered the ‘industry standard’, the cathedral instrument possesses artistic traits that are less conventional. Welch (1988) suspected that the organ was the Cavaillé-Coll orgue de choeur exported to Singapore (Eschbach 2003), but cathedral records subsequently revealed that the organ was built in 1912 by Bevington & Sons of London. The non-extant Cavaillé-Coll instrument has been traced to the French missionary church of Saints Peter and Paul.

Asymmetry is a key aesthetic element of the façade that is not seen elsewhere in Singapore. Only the symmetric central section, typical of organs of the period, is Bevington’s work. The left and right sections of the façade were constructed by Robert Navaratnam, the sole organ builder in Singapore and titular organist at the Cathedral, using the limited resource of pipes that could be salvaged from the war-looted Hill, Norman & Beard (1931) organ in the Victoria Memorial Hall (Singapore). These sections accommodate stops added by him in the 1990s. Navaratnam served his apprenticeship at Emil Hammer (Hemmingen); German influence can be found in the decorative ‘Rückpositiv’ and the tonal modifications discussed later.

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Navaratnam organ pedal bass flute Laukhuff

Tuning scroll on the Pedal Bass Flute 8 (Laukhuff replacement). Photo: Yangchen Lin

Although the manuals and pedals have been replaced, the Cavaillé-Coll-style reversed console is original and unique in Singapore. [The original Bevington manuals had been replaced with those from Victoria Memorial Hall. Subsequent to this article, they were again replaced due to wear and tear.] Due to collapsed lead tubing, the Bevington tubular pneumatic action has been converted to electro-pneumatic and direct electric action (see Jonathan Tan’s article for details). Navaratnam was responsible for reviving the organ from its unplayable state in the 1970s to the lively musical instrument of today.

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Bevington Organ electro-pneumatic action Robert Navaratnam

Robert Navaratnam fixing a cipher in the direct electric action of the Trumpet 8 the pipes of which are hidden behind the Krummhorn 8 also on direct electric action. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Expectedly, an abundance of unison tone and lack of harmonic corroboration is observed in the Bevington specification. The ‘principal chorus’ on the Swell is softer but brighter than that on the Great because the Open Diapason possesses a fuller tone than the quasi-diapason obtained by drawing both the Gedeckt and Geigen on the Swell. Contrary to usual practice is the employment by Bevington of the Cornopean as the only reed where a Trumpet or Oboe would have been generally deemed more appropriate. In this case, however, the hornlike Cornopean blends more readily with the flues in the absence of mixtures.

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Bevington Navaratnam organ stop list

Disposition as of 2005, compiled by Yangchen Lin from interviews and historical documents. Reproduced from the magazine article.

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Bevington Navaratnam organ stops

Physical layout of the stops as of 2005. Diagram: Yangchen Lin, reproduced from the magazine article.

The manual divisions and Bourdon 16 are fed by two reservoirs arranged in series, the second acting as a booster and backup. Bevington pipework stands on the original Kegellade while the newer pipes are planted on unit chests. Flutes alternate with strings to minimise acoustic interference. Pitch layout in the Swell is opposite to that in the Great, with the more acute stops situated at the front. This reduces the risk of the Swell upperwork being excessively attenuated by enclosure and the position of the swell box at the back of the chamber. However, the brightness of the German Cymbel and mutations allows for their placement in a rearward extension of the swell box. The opposing pitch layouts of the Great and Swell may also account partly for the abovementioned brightness of the Swell ‘principal chorus’ compared to the Great.

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Bevington organ rohrquinte swell organ

Old Klais pipes of the Rohrquinte 1 1/3 in the Swell extension. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd organ Mixture IV Navaratnam

a close-up of the small and bright Mixture IV (old Klais pipes). Photo: Yangchen Lin

With the stops added by Navaratnam, the organ is one of the most versatile in Singapore. Solo possibilities are increased by the Krummhorn and the quint and tierce mutations all of which are gifts from Klais Orgelbau. The two octave-quint mixtures transform the romantic chorus into a neo-baroque plenum for the benefit of repertoire and modern-day congregational singing. One of the stops rescued from the Victoria Memorial Hall is the Bombarde 16 [originally named Trombone, being less assertive within the larger instrument there] which substantially reinforces the weak pedal department. This stop, originally on 10″ of wind, has been refitted with thinner Laukhuff tongues. [Subsequent to this article, the ageing Bombarde was replaced with all-Laukhuff pipework.] Despite the support of a pedal reed, however, a Principal 16 is needed to produce the true Gravität so prized by J. S. Bach.

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Bevington organ pedal bombarde pipes

The Pedal chamber dominated by the Bombarde 16 (lighted) which has since been replaced with new Laukhuff pipes (three of which can be discerned towards the left, being shinier and of smaller diameter giving rise to a brighter complement of harmonics). Bourdon 16 at upper right; Bass Flute 8 behind the Bombarde and just inside the façade. In the extreme foreground is the Mixture IV of the Great division. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Bevington organ pedal Bombarde 16 resonator

Resonators of the old Bombarde 16. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Bevington Navaratnam organ reed Bombarde 16

Bombarde 16: block, tuning wire, wedge, shallot and weighted tongue. Photo: Yangchen Lin

The coexistence of pipes from several schools (see disposition) results in a spicy, unblending tonal structure that may not appeal to some organists. However, in order to appreciate such a tonal structure, one only needs to consider the robust and dramatic sound of the symphony orchestra whose components were never ‘voiced’ to blend together. Anton Bruckner, whose monumental symphonies are based on organ textures, relied on the contrasts between orchestral instruments to promulgate musical ideas. Notwithstanding the tonal disjunction, the Bevington portion comprising the oldest playing pipes in Singapore can be heard in its original state except the Cornopean stolen during the war and the Swell Gedeckt 8 whose cork stoppers have disintegrated and been replaced with metal caps. The present Möller Cornopean, donated by The Diapason contributing editor Robert Coleberd, is the only specimen of the American Classic style in Singapore.

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Bevington Swell organ

The Swell box with shutters visible at upper left and a glimpse of the pipes of the Great division behind them. The quaint mitred resonators of the Cornopean can be distinguished. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Complementing the main instrument is a choir organ built in 1994 in the north transept. The case is the only complete example of Navaratnam’s work. Werkprinzip elements are present in the façade in the form of Brustwerk, Oberwerk and diminutive ‘pedal towers’. These, however, do not reflect the internal layout. Reminiscent of mediæval organs are the flat placement of pipes and the arrangement of pipe mouths in horizontal lines. The case has a triangular roof and stands on four stilts, much resembling the traditional kampong (village) houses found along the rural coasts of Southeast Asia. This scheme saves space, aids sound projection and achieves a pleasing synthesis of Europe and the Far East.

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Choir organ stoplist

Disposition of the choir organ as of 2005, compiled by Yangchen Lin. Reproduced from the magazine article.

Being the only acoustical space in Singapore containing two organs, the Cathedral is the only place where antiphony is possible. Magnificent effects can be created by juxtaposing the two sound masses emanating from opposite ends of the nave. Furthermore, the nave is the most reverberant among the Singaporean churches possessing pipe organs. Antiphony was recently demonstrated by the author and the cathedral organist in an unusual performance of the Introduction of Léon Boëllmann’s Suite Gothique. The Grand-Chœur sections were played on the gallery organ in alternation with the Récit sections played on the choir organ. It re-enacted an electrifying performance by Olivier Latry, Titulaire, that the author had witnessed in the organ loft at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris (see a photo of the organ’s interior).

Olivier Latry playing mass at Notre Dame Paris organ

Olivier Latry at Notre Dame, Paris. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Bevington organ console Singapore

As close as it gets to Olivier Latry at Notre Dame: cathedral organist Alphonsus Chern at the reversed console of the great organ of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore’s equivalent of Notre Dame. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Just as Singapore as a nation has grown from cosmopolitan roots, the organs of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd have evolved into a harmonious amalgamation of diverse tonal origins heralding the emergence of the ‘Singaporean organ’ alongside the English, German, French and other organ building traditions. The ‘Singaporean organ’ is capable of making great music under the command of great musicians, and is worth preserving as an element of Singapore’s kaleidoscopic cultural heritage for the enjoyment of future generations.


I am indebted to Robert Navaratnam, Father Adrian Anthony (cathedral rector) and Alphonsus Chern for their assistance.

Other resources

documentations by Jevon Liew | Wikipedia
Facebook page for the cathedral organ
recording by Alphonsus Chern

organ of the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission, Singapore
review of Bach on the world’s largest organ
my image gallery of organs around the world


Literature cited

Bevington & Sons Work Book 1905-1931 (Birmingham City Archives MS1963).

Eschbach, J. 2003. Aristide Cavaillé-Coll Vol. 1: Compendium of Known Stoplists Paderborn: Peter Ewers.

McVicker, W. 2003. Dream palace. Choir and Organ 11(3):30–35.

Welch, J. 1988. Organs in Asia. The American Organist 22(7):42–50.


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