Testament of Freedom record: more details

I wrote two posts from 2018 on finding a copy of part of the premiere recording of Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom (part 1, part 2). Recorded at its initial performance on April 13, 1943 in Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia by the Virginia Glee Club and rebroadcast over the Columbia Broadcasting System, the recording of the work is significant for all sorts of reasons—the commemoration of Thomas Jefferson’s 200th birthday, the premiere of one of Randall Thompson’s most significant works, the occasion of greatest music-historical significance that the Glee Club was ever involved with, the connection to World War II.

Over the past few months I’ve gotten a few questions in the comments that I thought I’d answer here.

Can you supply label scans of these discs?

I didn’t originally take photos of the labels, but here they are.

I am a music researcher into Columbia Electrical Trancription 16″ record pressing that feature matrix numbers. Alas, this is not one of those. The record I received was a 12″ 78RPM record that featured just the last movement. Apparently there was, at one point, a multi-record album of which this was just the last piece.

Would I be willing to digitize the entire performance? I would, if I had it. As it turns out, as noted in the original post, the record I have is just the last movement, and judging from the College Topics article it was part of a set. I suspect the only place that has a full set of all the discs of the original recording is the University of Virginia Library. That said, they have already digitized it and could probably arrange access.

“Nusrat, he’s my Elvis”

I started doing one of those “post an album cover a day” things over on Facebook, and because I’m bad at following directions I’ve been doing a couple a day and also writing about what the albums meant to me. In the process I’ve found a lot of cases where I could have sworn I wrote something previously about albums that meant a lot to me, but … crickets. So I’m treating those cases as writing prompts and you get to read them. Ha-ha!

So, Nusrat. I because aware of the great legend of Qawwali the way most Westerners probably did initially, through Peter Gabriel. Just as “In Your Eyes” boosted the Western stardom of the remarkable Youssou N’Dour (previously), Nusrat appeared on Gabriel’s Passion, the (slightly-more-than-a) soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. I consumed the album the summer between my junior and senior years in high school—actually bought it in a record store in Blacksburg while I was at the Virginia Governor’s School for Science at Virginia Tech. I don’t know that I fully appreciated what Nusrat was doing on “Passion,” but I at least knew who he was.

The packaging of the album, which was the first release on Gabriel’s Real World label, also hooked me. The front covers—all bold images, with titles and artists only present via stickers—combined with the rainbow stripe along the side. The rainbow was actually an indexing system, with each stripe standing for a continent or region and an icon in each showing what regions the recording was from. So I kept an eye out for Real World recordings and started frequenting the world music sections of the record stores I visited.

Fast forward a few years. I had become friends with Tyler Magill through the Virginia Glee Club, and he was a more voracious listener and musical cosmonaut than I had ever dreamed possible. So when he and his housemate Burt started raving about the insane things that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was doing on his albums, I finally bit the bullet and purchased my first of his recordings, Shahen-Shah.

Calling me unprepared is probably an understatement. The harmonic language of the music was familiar enough on first listen; most of the works seemed to be variations on a few simple chords, with harmonium and choir underpinning the melodic improvisations. But what improvisations! Nusrat or his disciple Ali would essay the melody, and then flip effortlessly into a vocal run across one or more octaves. The rhythmic complexity beneath the apparently simple surface was mesmerizing. I must have listened to “Kali Kali Zulfon Ke Phande Nah Dalo” a dozen times. (It later made an appearance on one of my best early-90s mixes.)

The reverberations Shahen-Shah made through my life were pretty deep. I sought out all the Nusrat I could and dug deeper for more world music. I used some of Nusrat’s tactics, particularly flipping to a different modal scale in the middle of an improvised run, in my own singing, particularly when we performed Babatunde Olatunji’s “Betelehemu” in my fourth year. And one memorable autumn night I attended a performance by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party in Washington, DC. (It was mesmerizing. I have at no other time in my life been the only white American in the room, but by the end we were all on our feet singing along with “Jewleh Lal” and “Mustt Mustt.”)

And my love for Nusrat deepened my love for Jeff Buckley when I heard the extended version of his great Live at Sin-É, when he declared, “Nusrat? He’s my Elvis,” and went on to deliver an absolutely perfect rendition of “Yeh Jo Halka Saroor Hae.”

So yeah, feels like a good day to pull out some Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan again.

Kronos Quartet, Black Angels

It was the summer of 1990. I had just graduated high school. I had a little pocket money, from graduation gifts and maybe from a job, though I can’t remember which one. (I had stopped working at Sam’s Comics and Collectibles several years prior. Maybe I carried on at CEBAF for one more summer.) And most importantly, my parents had given me my first CD player, an all in one CD + cassette + (rarely if ever used) radio. So I went shopping for music, at the little store at the corner of Denbigh and Warwick (Tracks? Mothers? I think it might have been both at one time or another).

Though I’m fuzzy on some of the surrounding details, I still remember the first stack that came home with me that summer, which included Branford Marsalis’ Crazy People Music and the Kronos Quartet’s Black Angels. I still can’t say what attracted me to the latter. I had probably heard someone talking about the nerve of the string quartet from San Francisco that played Hendrix and Monk, and had an ambient sound piece on one of their albums called “A Door is Ajar.” (It is exactly what you think it is.) But nothing prepared me for this.

Black Angels” was an avant-garde composition protesting the Vietnam War, written by George Crumb in 1970 and incorporating amplification, percussion, chanting and more. It’s completely mind-blowing and I suspect that my mind never fully recovered from the initial threnody, “Electric Insects.” But it’s followed by a realization of the great 40-voice Tallis motet “Spem In Alium,” performed in overdubs; Istvan Marta’s “Doom. A Sigh,” which sets the quartet alongside two Romanian women lamenting the disappearance of their traditional village life; a quartet setting of Charles Ives’ 1942 anti-war song “They Are There” alongside the composer’s own voice; and a shattering performance of the Shostakovich Quartet no. 8.

By the time the disk finished, I was a lifelong fan of the Kronos Quartet; of avant-garde classical music; of Tallis; of Shostakovich; of the string quartet form. And of music. I think this disk was the first time I really realized the power of unfamiliar sound to pull my mind out of its normal travels.

I ripped the CD years ago and don’t play it as much any more, but this spring I found a rare LP copy on Discogs and listened to it again. It’s still as powerful 30 years later.

Again, gone to the devil, again

I’m not convinced that Diablo II wasn’t made for these times.

I started re-playing the original Diablo, thanks to the open source program Devilution, about three weeks ago. I made it all the way through and thought, what’s next? Do I re-play on a higher difficulty? And I did. But after two run-throughs, I was bored.

I then remembered that, in the box where my original Diablo game disk was, there was a two-CD case, containing my Diablo II disks, and, importantly, with the license code on the front.

Turns out that Blizzard will allow you to convert the old pre-download license code to a new modern license code that will allow you to play older games as fresh downloads. And that the Diablo II codebase still works on all Mac OS versions up to (and not including) Catalina. And that I still have one Mac running Mojave.

So I’m now about ten days into Diablo II. I’m partway through Act III, playing with an Amazon who’s pretty good with a bow and OK with a sword. I die a lot; I once had to spend all day getting killed over and over again in the Act II finale by Duriel before I wore him down enough to destroy him. (Amazons don’t do well against Duriel, but I beat him without hiring a mercenary, the old fashioned way: by dying a lot.)

And it’s amazing. The game ticks all the right boxes for my brain chemistry: sometimes exciting but basically mindless, never ending, just frustrating enough.

But I’m eager to get to the end of it. Because it turns out that in these days, while I have a lot of aggravation to get out, I also don’t have a lot of spare brain cycles. It would be nice to get those back.

Right after I go after Mephisto.

Signs of life

Cygnets with their parents, Mill Brook pond, Lexington, MA, May 1. 2020

It can get a little maddening being cooped up. Work, teach the Boy, cook, sleep, repeat. April – er, May – showers added to the mix make it harder since you can’t even take a breath of fresh air in between. 

But sometimes the rain lifts for a few minutes, and you can go outside. And you walk down the street toward the park, and you think, what on earth is that sound? It’s not a leaf blower or a motorbike, but it’s loud. 

And you get to the pond and you realize two things: first, the swan couple on the pond have hatched this year’s crop of cygnets, and they are remarkable. 

And second, that noise is the peepers. Saying, hey. The winter is over. I’m not hibernating in the mud any more. Hey, cutie!

And you know, it occurs to me: there’s hope. 

Life in Plateville

One silver lining to spending all our time at home is that I’ve started to tidy up various dark corners of the house out of frustration with the general shape that everything is in. A quick glance at my blog will show that I get sucked into different projects and make significant progress on them before stepping aside and working on something else. As a result there are stacks of books and LPs in various corners, and piles of projects in various stages of completion in the basement and on the home laptop. The good news is that this means that I can always feel productive by picking up a project and working on it for a bit; the bad news is that I’m never done. (That might be a feature, not a bug.)

So we come to the topic of this post, my small Lego addiction. While I’ve written about Lego on this blog before, I don’t think I’ve ever documented Plateville, my small Lego town. It lives on a table in the unfinished room in the basement and consists of a single town square, 96 studs by 128 studs, ringed by modular buildings and open on the back for … well, something secret, that I’ll write about when it’s a little more finished.

Most of the fun of the town lies in the eccentric minifigs who live there, but there have been a few special additions; see if you can spot any below.

Meadow lands, or locally sourced Zoom backgrounds

Swan on the pond of the Mill Stream, Lexington, MA.

In these days of confinement, I’ve taken to occasionally grabbing a little fresh air in our extended backyard. Certainly around the house—though after Monday’s windstorm, most of my efforts there are around picking up fallen tree limbs—but also in the fringes of the park behind our street, and in Arlington’s Great Meadows.

The meadows are wetlands, fed by Mill Creek, which passes down from Moon Hill, through the fields of Wilson Farm, and under Massachusetts Ave, stopping long enough behind the Parker-Morell-Dana house to form a pond that swans (above) nest and swim in every spring through fall. The friends association has built a series of trails around the edges of the wetlands, and you can explore through the woods and across a few boardwalks that span the wetlands.

Of course, this is more challenging in our social distancing time, so I’ve taken to exploring secondary trails that lead to random interesting points: an old sewer system manhole, a patch of solid land around the roots of birch trees surrounded by slightly marshy grass, and of course lots of birds.

It can be downright peaceful, if you get far enough away from the Minuteman Trail that you don’t hear the bicycles going past. So sometimes I can forget everything that’s going on and just watch spring arrive.

And yes, the above (Creative Commons licensed) photos are not bad as Zoom backgrounds. 😊

Gone to the devil, again

If you’re like me and staying home is starting to get tedious, you could do worse than checking out DevilutionX. It’s an emulator for the original Diablo game engine, so all you need is the data file from your CD and you too can get lost for hours. I’ve been playing it on the Mac, but there’s apparently a version for Android, Linux, Windows, and even the Switch.

Apple Music annoyances, again

Another round of bugs with Apple Music in MacOS Catalina. These were more subtle issues that cropped up in the months after I first took the plunge and updated my library. Well, actually, just one issue, but it’s a big one:

Playcounts get forgotten: This one is driving me nuts. Apple Music does a great job of tracking play counts like it’s supposed to… until you quit and restart it. Then play counts go back to zero. Someone on the Apple Discussions thinks it’s restricted to tracks that came from a source other than the Apple Music service, which is pretty much every track in my library thanks to Bandcamp, HDTracks, and my CD and vinyl ripping projects.

Some of the other bugs have been straightened out as I’ve cleaned up my library and Apple has released new updates. I hope this one gets cleaned up because it’s maddening.

Burning down the house

I never thought I would say this, but having the extra time to fix dinner every night is starting to get boring. Not that I don’t like cooking but I seem to get in a rut, and sometimes I just simply don’t have the energy.

So last night I was looking forward to revisiting a recipe I had made previously, a simple one: broiler chicken roasted in a cast iron pan with ramps and garlic. Sadly, it appears to still be too early for ramps here (if social distancing will permit them to be harvested at all), so I substituted some scallions.

I didn’t remember how incredibly smoky the house got as a result of the cooking method, which calls for preheating a cast iron skillet at 500° for 45 minutes, then cooking the chicken for 30 minutes before adding the ramps/scallions and some garlic. I ended up having to disconnect every smoke alarm in the house and open a few doors and windows to clear out the smoke.

But it was delicious, and it redoubled my resolve toward one goal: someday, when we renovate this kitchen, I’m getting a range hood that vents outside. Dreams…

You Are the Everything

Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing
I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me
Eviscerate your memory
Here’s a scene
You’re in the backseat laying down, the windows wrap around
To the sound of the travel and the engine
All you hear is time stand still in travel
And feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn’t end
But slowly drifts into sleep
The stars are the greatest thing you’ve ever seen
And they’re there for you
For you alone, you are the everything

I think about this world a lot and I cry
And I’ve seen the films and the eyes
But I’m in this kitchen
Everything is beautiful
And she is so beautiful
She is so young and old
I look at her and I see the beauty of the light of music
The voices talking somewhere in the house, late spring
And you’re drifting off to sleep with your teeth in your mouth
You are here with me
You are here with me
You have been here and you are everything

Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing
I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me
Eviscerate your memory
Here’s a scene
You’re in the backseat laying down, the windows wrap around
To the sound of the travel and the engine
All you hear is time stand still in travel
And feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn’t end
But slowly drifts into sleep
The greatest thing you’ve ever seen
And they’re there for you
For you alone, you are the everything
For you alone you are the everything

Cocktail Weekend: Appels + Oranjes

I invented this cocktail a while ago to use some bitters. That doesn’t sound promising, but bear with me.

When visiting my parents and sister in Western North Carolina, I’m always reminded that Asheville has a lot going on. Last year, our favorite local bakery, Rhu, reinforced that with a display of cocktail paraphernalia that included bitters from Crude, based in Raleigh. Of course I bought the sampler.

And it sat in my pantry for a while, until one night, out of desperation and boredom with the usual, I started riffing off the weirder things on the liquor shelf. Curaçao, or Cointreau? Sure. 100 proof apple brandy? Definitely. Orange and fig bitters? Yes. And rounding it all out, that oft-overlooked wunderkind, Lillet Blanc.

I’m not sure of the thematic connection to the Smashing Pumpkins other than the name, but I think it’s a refreshing alternative to the usual nonetheless. Do make sure, though, to get Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy (100 proof) rather than their “applejack,” which is more like flavored neutral spirits.

As always, here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

New Mix: Exfiltration Radio 13, Positive Vibrations

Illustration credit: “Monty Stark/Stark Reality,” Espontaneo on Flickr.

As I wrote last month, our twice-a-year Hackathon would have started yesterday, if not for the Current Unpleasantness, and this mix would have been on the “air” (or our virtual radio station) at 10am this morning. Following in the steps of previous volumes “The Low End Theory” and “The Mighty Hammond,” this is a jazz mix that focuses on the contribution of one instrument, the vibraphone.

For me, the vibes are the instrument that makes midcentury jazz cool—not in the sense of Joe Cool but in the elegant, restrained tone they bring in the hands of a master like Milt Jackson. It was therefore a surprise a few years ago to find their avant-garde side, first in the hands of Bobby Hutcherson (who plays on four tracks in this set), then my more recent discovery, Walt Dickerson. I had to cut the set for time, but there are some pretty significant modern vibes players out there too who are well worth checking out, including Joel Ross.

I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed putting it together, and remember, stay positive.

  1. Delilah (Take 3)Milt Jackson And Wes Montgomery (Bags Meets Wes!)
  2. First Things FirstRed Norvo (Hi Five)
  3. Wait Til You See HerGeorge Shearing Quintet (I Hear Music)
  4. MarsGil Melle (New Faces – New Sounds)
  5. Serves Me Right (Take 5)Cannonball Adderley (Things Are Getting Better)
  6. Death and TaxesWalt Dickerson (Spiritual Jazz 10: Prestige)
  7. Soul Sauce (Guachi Guaro)Cal Tjader (Talkin’ Verve)
  8. LatonaBig John Patton (Let ’Em Roll)
  9. Jean De FleurGrant Green (Idle Moments)
  10. Searchin’ the TraneBobby Hutcherson (Spiritual Jazz Vol. 9 – Blue Notes, Part One)
  11. The Original Mr. Sonny Boy WilliamsonArchie Shepp (On This Night)
  12. VisionsSun Ra and Walt Dickerson (Visions)

Guide to the players:

  • Milt Jackson (tracks 1 and 5) — most famous as the longtime vibes player of the Modern Jazz Quartet, he appears to have played with everyone in the classic post-bop era.
  • Red Norvo (track 2) — 1950s bandleader, played with Frank Sinatra on a few tours
  • Marjorie Hyams (track 3) — American jazz vibraphonist who played with everyone from Woody Herman to Mary Lou Williams to George Shearing
  • Joe Manning (track 4) — not much is known. Recorded on Gil Mellé’s first Blue Note session.
  • Walt Dickerson (track 6, 12) — jazz post-bop and avant-garde player noted for his collaborations with Andrew Hill and Sun Ra
  • Cal Tjader (track 7) — probably the most famous non-Latino player of Latin jazz. Brought cool to soul jazz.
  • Bobby Hutcherson (tracks 8-11) — bandleader who guested on many 1960s Blue Note and some Impulse sessions, including these featuring Joe Henderson, Grant Green, and Archie Shepp

Eight UVa basketball players who sang

Basketball spot illustration, 1925 Corks and Curls, p. 274.

I started writing this post six years ago, and for some reason never finished. It felt like a good time to pick it back up, since we were robbed of the chance to defend our NCAA championship title this year.

As I began writing this in 2014, UVa men’s basketball is in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995. It’s pretty sweet, and it’s a good reminder that Virginia has its fair share of sports successes. The games have inspired me to dive into the archives, and I’ve found eight Virginia Glee Club alums who also played hoops for UVa. In chronological order:

George Harold Atkisson. From Quincy, Illinois, Atkisson (1887 – 1964) played center in 1906–1907 for Virginia.

Percy Rudolph AshbyA Hampton boy, Ashby (1888 – 1931) was an engineering student who was also at home on the court and on the track.

UVA Men's Basketball Team, in 1912 Corks and Curls
UVA Men’s Basketball Team, in 1912 Corks and Curls

Edward White Kearns. Born 1890 in Taunton, Massachusetts, Kearns wasn’t just a basketball player–playing at right forward, he was also captain of the team in 1911–1912, having played the previous year with Ashby. That year the team went 7 and 4, losing to Guilford, Georgetown (twice), and Washington & Lee (a blowout, 24 – 9).

Charles Cazeove Plummer. This engineering student from Mobile, Alabama (born 1899, died 1967) was also in the German Club, meaning that he was responsible for helping to plan and organize the germans, or formal cotillons, for the student body.

Carlysle Allen Bethel. Bethel (born 1904 in Richmond, Virginia, died 1996) appears to have been a well rounded athlete, as he played on both the football and basketball squad in 1923 – 1924.

Norman N. Adler. Born in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York, Adler was a basketball player, ran track, and was in the Navy ROTC program during the war years, graduating in 1944. He went on to become a physician, practicing in New York until his death in 1988.

Roger Dana Fraley. Fraley likely played on the team alongside Adler. Born in 1923 in Cleveland, Virginia, he appears to have been highly active at Virginia, as he was also a member of Alpha Tau Omega, the Raven Society, the Honor Committee, Alpha Kappa Psi, the semi-secret T.I.L.K.A., and the political organization Skull and Keys. He died in 2011.

Robert B. Roberson. The last (so far) singing hoops player on the list, Roberson, graduating in 1964, played varsity basketball and baseball and was also the sports editor of the Cavalier Daily, which is a pretty neat trick if you ask me.