Sarah was ninety years old

In the course of listening to all the music in my iTunes library at least twice (a multi-year project!), this morning I came across Arvo Pärt’s 1991 album Miserere. It’s a touchpoint for me—it was the first album of his music I ever bought, probably the first Hilliard Ensemble album I ever got, and one of the first albums of modern classical music I ever bought. (I think the first modern classical album I bought was the Kronos Quartet’s Black Angels.)

As I listened to it, I remember being simultaneously profoundly moved and confused by the third track, “Sarah was ninety years old,” scored for three voices, percussion, and organ. The piece begins in contemplative solo percussion, which gradually picks up intensity until the first vocal entrance, then repeats, until finally the long stretches are ended by the entrance of an organ and a soprano solo that spirals up into ecstasy (as Sarah conceives and bears a son at the age of 90).

Something that had puzzled me from my first listen was just exactly how it was that the percussion didn’t drive me nuts. The percussion consists of four-beat patterns of high and low tones, continuing initially for over five minutes before voices enter. How does it pull the listener in?

I think I figured it out listening to it this morning. Turns out, it’s math. The percussion part runs through permutations of three low tones and one high tone, with varying repetitions. So the first section goes:

  • L L L H (4x)
  • L L H L (4x)
  • L H L L (4x)
  • H L L L (4x)

And then it repeats, but now each permutation is only repeated three times. Then two. Then one repetition of each permutation, at high urgency and with a fierce percussive attack.

Then: the voices arrive.

And we realize that we have been counting the repetitions and that our breath has been quickening in anticipation of what happens when the pattern ends.

The work is literally minimalistic, but it’s also highly meditative. I don’t think anyone online has specifically written about how Pärt creates this effect, so I figured I’d share.


“A musical entertainment in the Town Hall”

It’s been some time since I’ve posted any narrative about my work researching the history of the Virginia Glee Club. That’s honestly because a lot of it has been fairly uninspiring heavy lifting: looking up death dates of alumni from the 1930s, transcribing rosters from bad photocopies of Corks and Curls, and so on. But this week, as I tried to put some narrative around the first decade of the Glee Club’s history (which for this purpose we’ll describe as 1871 to 1880), I ran into another one of those interesting corners that pops up from time to time.

This time the question that I found myself asking was: what were all the musical students at the University of Virginia doing between the demise of the Claribel Club in 1875 and the coming of Woodrow Wilson’s incarnation of Glee Club in 1879?

Turns out, they were putting on minstrel shows.

To summarize: between 1876 and 1878, the Virginia University Magazine published notes about three different minstrel performances. The first note, published in October 1876, noted that some students intended to form a “negro minstrel troup” to perform for the local audience and also for the “young ladies, orphans and lunatics” of Staunton, Virginia. The following year, we are told that a “repetition with slight variations of the long-to-be remembered minstrel performance of last year” will be held in the Town Hall, for the benefit of the Rives Boat Club. (The Town Hall, later known as the Levy Opera House, would be the site of a Glee Club performance in 1894; the Rives Boat Club was in existence at least through 1889 and appears to be the distant forerunner of UVa’s crew team.) In 1878, the performance returned and once again benefited the Rives, though the Magazine noted that attendance had fallen off the previous year. There is no mention of a show in the years following, during which the Glee Club returned, though there is evidence, in the form of a program, that a troupe re-formed and performed in 1886 or 1887.

This isn’t the first time we’ve bumped up against minstrel traditions in researching the history of the Glee Club, and it likely won’t be the last. But it’s fascinating to me to see how the threads intertwine, and see the Glee Club in a larger context. That 1886 program lists Glee Club president Sterling Galt as one of the performers in the minstrel program, along with J.R.A. Hobson and W.P. Brickell.

I’ve looked for minstrel troupe programs in the library catalog; while the 1886 program is there, there’s no record of the 1870s performances—they may have been lost in the Rotunda fire. But I hope to find more information about the performances some day. The dividing line between outright minstrelry and the banjo and mandolin performances—and membership—of the Glee Club appears to be pretty faint. Understanding the complexity of the interplay between Southern culture, race, and music in the formation of the early group provides a fascinating glimpse into student life in the dawn of the Glee Club’s years.

New mix: My timing that flawed

Midsummer, so time for another mix. At some point I’ll break this meta-thing I have where the mix starts out party and ends up somber, but this will not be the mix to break the pattern.

A few track notes in line below.

  1. Blind Man Can See ItJames Brown (In the Jungle Groove). This is a classic James Brown groove with nothing much else going on, but it’s on here for the first 30 second snippet of Brown talking with the drummer. Dag-a-dag-a-dag-a…
  2. Jungle GroveBuckshot LeFonque (Music Evolution). I had written off Buckshot LeFonque as a kind of lazy exercise after the first album. I finally got around to checking out the second (and last) platter Branford’s gang waxed, and I’m glad I did. This track features some seriously hot playing as the group plays some live jungle.
  3. Blue Line SwingerYo La Tengo (Prisoners Of Love). Yeah, I know, there are probably a bunch of live cuts of this that are better, but this is the one I first learned to love.
  4. Lotus FlowerRadiohead (The King of Limbs). Get your Thom Yorke dance on.
  5. Song Of The StarsDead Can Dance (Spirit Chaser). Get your mid-90s cultural appropriation dance on.
  6. The Great CurveTalking Heads (Remain In Light). I think this is the only track on this album that hadn’t previously made it onto a mix tape.
  7. OptimisticRadiohead (Kid A). To think that I once considered this the happy song on this album.
  8. IdiotequeVirginia Sil’hooettes (Best of BOCA: The First 20 Years). I know, I know. But honestly I was blown away by what these Hoos could do in the studio.
  9. Ascension DayTalk Talk (Laughing Stock). I’m still not sure what this song is about, but I do know that I haven’t been able to stop playing this album since I finally picked it up a few years ago.
  10. Total TrashSonic Youth (Daydream Nation). Is it bad that reading Kim’s autobiography made me want to listen to Sonic Youth songs that weren’t sung by Kim?
  11. You Get What You DeserveBig Star (#1 Record – Radio City). Ditto the comment on track 6.
  12. Nicotine & GravyBeck (Midnite Vultures). Okay, here we go. I enjoyed this album ironically when it came out, now I just enjoy it. “I’ll feed you fruit that don’t exist/I’ll leave graffiti where you’ve never been kissed/I’ll do your laundry, massage your soul/Then turn you over to the highway patrol.”
  13. BeykatYoussou N’Dour (Joko From Village To Town). I could listen to Youssou sing anything, even a track that would be at home on a Europop radio station.
  14. Rose ParadeElliott Smith (Either/Or). Haven’t been able to let go of this one.
  15. Prïtourïtze PlaninataBulgarian State Television Female Choir (Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares). Another album I came to late, and can’t stop listening to.
  16. Love Will Tear Us ApartJune Tabor & Oysterband (Ragged Kingdom). Surprising how well this works.
  17. Nothing But HeartLow (C’mon). Fighting through.
  18. Cherry Chapstick (Acoustic Version)Yo La Tengo (Today Is the Day! – EP). Have loved this tune for a long time in its original form. The acoustic is wistful and summer afternoonish.
  19. Into DustMazzy Star (So Tonight That I Might See). Another track that echoes around my head when it’s quiet. 
  20. Fading AwayThe Church (Gold Afternoon Fix). This may not have been the album that The Church wanted to make—stories of their fights with the producer and their despair at LA and their label are plenty—but it’s still an album that I know almost every track on.
  21. Bye Bye Beauté (Coralie Clement) – Nada Surf (if I had a hi-fi). Not the first time I’ve bought an album based on a cover. I originally wasn’t taken by too many songs on this cover album but this one kept at me, thank goodness.
  22. A Mother’s Last Word To Her Daughter Washington Phillips (The Half Ain’t Never Been Told, Vol. 1). Very little dulcimer work in the gospel music I’ve heard. This is a fascinating track to sign off this mix as we go and see the King.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford: the Berea recordings

Bascom Lamar Lunsford, courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr

Bascom Lamar Lunsford, courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr

Thanks to Tyler, I’m spending the morning listening to archival folk music recordings and grinning from ear to ear.

I’ve written about cousin Bascom Lamar Lunsford before. In the years since the CD reissue of the Anthology of American Folk Music, which features several of his songs, quite a few folk artists have approached his tunes anew, with varying levels of success (check out Frank Fairfield’s version of “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground“). But nothing’s like the real thing.

So I was thrilled to get a link from Tyler on Facebook pointing me to the digital archives at Berea College with a collection of forty-two Bascom Lamar Lunsford archival recordings, plus a few large group songs and a newsreel, available for free listening and download. The quality of the recordings, made for Columbia University in 1935 and archived by Berea, isn’t great — there’s reel-to-reel noise on most of them, and the otherwise revelatory performance of “Mole in the Ground” is marred by uneven recording or playback, leading the pitch to wander all over. But hey–free Bascom Lamar Lunsford! Go listen!

More reading: a Bascom Lamar Lunsford/University of Virginia/Virginia Glee Club connection.

Listen: “Swannanoa Tunnel” by Bascom Lamar Lunsford from the Berea archive

An appreciation of John Oliver

Boston Globe: Tanglewood chorus director Oliver to step down.

I auditioned for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus almost ten years ago. In that audition, I showed my lack of symphony and opera experience by singing a work by Landini — a good audition piece for an early music ensemble, woefully out of place for a symphony chorus. But John Oliver took a risk on what he heard and invited me to join the chorus. And he let me continue to participate through travel, at least one blown reaudition, and the appearance in the chorus of many other more qualified singers.

In the process, he has taught me a great deal as a singer, including:

  • Sing with the whole body as an instrument. Be aware of the resonant space in your head, the position of your body, the depth of your breath.
  • Language matters deeply. Articulating precisely conveys not just words but meaning.
  • Memorization allows you to inhabit the music deeply and fully — and sometimes builds electricity in the performance via sheer terror.
  • Connect with the conductor and the audience.
  • Be committed completely. Don’t settle for less, in yourself or others.
  • There isn’t one “correct” interpretation of a musical work. Be open to what others bring to it.

There is much to be said for John’s tenure as founder and director of the TFC, and I’ll write it someday. For today, I’ll  just note my gratitude for this acerbic, demanding, opinionated… and secretly generous man, and for what he taught me as a singer.

New mix: In ragtown like I always was

It’s another new year, another mix. As always, this is no more or less than what happened to be kicking around my iTunes for a long period of time, so I make no claim for it hanging together. Except I’m kinda happy about the string of tracks from #2 through #13 and parts of the last stretch.

Some track specific notes:

“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”: Yes, yes he does. You can’t have this track, with James Brown yelling out “This is a hit!”, in a playlist and not have it leading off.

“Rotating Head (raga version)”: A tabla-heavy remix of a song most familiar from the “Ferris Bueller” soundtrack, this picks up the groove from Track #1 and takes it into…

“Seen and Not Seen”: Groove city. Check the way the handclaps, bass, and guitar work together. Much like the way the next groove builds…

“Autumn Sweater”: Here the groove is all drums and bass, especially bass. Love what James McNew does with the bassline during the break here.

“Electricity”: A break from the groove for a guitar based rocker. I had forgotten this album until Shuffle brought it back to me. A great track.

“Masanga”: An obscurity, this popped up on a compilation of sub-Saharan guitar that I found on Bandcamp over a year ago. I love the purely guitar driven groove. Seriously propulsive and fun.

“I Love This Life”: Also propulsive and fun, but almost all synths, I slept on this track from The Blue Nile for a long time. I’m not sure what “ragtown” meant to Paul Buchanan, but when I listen to this track I feel like I understand.

“The Statue Got Me High”: A non-sequitur but a fun one, and a great singalong.

“Mod Lang”: Gee, there’s a “groove” theme going on on this mix, which is unusual for me. I love how Chilton takes a handful of lyrics that are almost nonsense and weaves them into urgency.

“Courage”: A PG rarity that was released alongside the 25th anniversary reissue of So a few years back. Too lyrically heavy and overtly structured a song to fit comfortably on that album, I don’t know if it works well here either but I couldn’t cut it.

“Rain”: Groove, man. Complete with the backward bit at the end.

“JC”: Shift of tone to a minor key with a fair amount of distortion.

“After the Flood”: This track is the still heart of this mix. I stumbled across Talk Talk by accident, more or less, thought they had been on my list of bands to find for a long time thanks to the late lamented Lists of Bests. This is an incredible track, building from almost inaudibility up through some killer organ work into a long burn of a distortion guitar solo. I have listened to this one for days at a time.

“Try Not to Breathe”: Taking a breath, this is a song I didn’t think so much of until I was recovering from surgery a year ago. Then it made a lot of sense.

“No Love Lost”: The rare Joy Division song I like more as an instrumental, but there’s still something compelling in Ian Curtis’s delivery here.

“Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake”: Boy, Nika can really do apocalyptic, can’t she? Even if we don’t totally understand what she’s singing about.

“Svatba”: The transition from Nika’s wordless outro to “Lick the Palm” into the Bulgarian voices here was a happy shuffle accident.

“Accordion”: Another happy accident, another supremely bizarre rap from MF Doom.

“Super Mario”: Well, as long as we’re doing bizarre, I figure an a cappella version of an 8 bit videogame theme qualifies.

“Gallows Pole”: If there’s a theme wending through the back half of this, it might be covers vs. authenticity. The ballad, which started out as “The Maid Freed from the Gallows” in the Child ballads before being recorded as “The Gallis Pole” by Lead Belly, is colored by Plant’s rock god delivery until it’s hard to tell at the end who is swinging from the gallows pole, and whether the pole is literal or metaphoric. A neat trick.

“Tall Trees in Georgia”: Again, covers and authenticity. When Eva Cassidy was alive, she was lauded as a vocalist but not so much as an authentic jazz talent (I remember one review saying “She even covers Buffy Ste Marie!”). It’s a moving performance nonetheless.

“They Won’t Let Me Run”: A beautiful groove for an ugly story. 

“Holocene”: Was totally obsessed with this song for about 18 months.

“Let It Down”: Tension release necessary after the last few tracks.

“Rill Rill”: Speaking of authenticity, how about copping “Can You Get to That?” for this song about teenage girl angst? Well, yeah, and it works, so the hell with authenticity.

“(Won’t We Have a Time) When We Get Over Yonder”: Another Bandcamp find, this one is a different kind of groove entirely, almost an incantation until one of the Jordan River Singers slips over completely into a Spirit induced holler. And that leads to…

“The Times They Are A Changin’”: I was disappointed with the rest of this album only because it doesn’t live up to its title the way this lead off track does. “Times” is truly one of Dylan’s most gospel-like songs to begin with, and this version pulls out all the revival stops. A fantastic cover.

  1. Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, Parts 1, 2 & 3James Brown (Star Time)
  2. Rotating Head (raga version)English Beat (Lives of the Saints 5)
  3. Seen And Not SeenTalking Heads (Remain In Light)
  4. Autumn SweaterYo La Tengo (I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One)
  5. ElectricitySpiritualized (Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space)
  6. Masanga (Congo)Jean Bosco Mwenda (Hata Unacheza: Sub-Saharan Acoustic Guitar & String Music, ca. 1960s)
  7. I Love This LifeThe Blue Nile (I Would Never – EP)
  8. The Statue Got Me HighThey Might Be Giants (Apollo 18)
  9. Mod LangBig Star (#1 Record – Radio City)
  10. Courage (Radio Edit)Peter Gabriel (Courage)
  11. RainThe Beatles (Past Masters, Vols. 1 & 2)
  12. JCSonic Youth (Dirty)
  13. After The FloodTalk Talk (Laughing Stock)
  14. Try Not To BreatheR.E.M. (Automatic for the People)
  15. No Love LostJoy Division (Substance 1977-1980)
  16. Lick the Palm of the Burning HandshakeZola Jesus (Conatus)
  17. SvatbaBulgarian State Television Female Choir (Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares)
  18. AccordionMadvillain (Madvillainy)
  19. Super MarioBYU Vocal Point (Best of BOCA: The First 20 Years)
  20. Gallows PoleLed Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin III (Remastered))
  21. Tall Trees In GeorgiaEva Cassidy (Live At Blues Alley)
  22. They Won’t Let Me RunJohn Vanderslice (Cellar Door)
  23. HoloceneBon Iver (Bon Iver)
  24. Let It Down (Bonus Track)George Harrison (All Things Must Pass (Bonus Track Version) [Remastered])
  25. Rill RillSleigh Bells (Treats)
  26. (Won’t We Have a Time) When We Get Over YonderRev. W.M. Anderson & the Jordan River Singers (When the Moon Goes Down in the Valley of Time: African-American Gospel, 1939-51)
  27. The Times They Are A Changin’The Brothers and Sisters (Dylan’s Gospel)

A dream of Christmas: the Glee Club Christmas Concert’s first ten years

Oldest known Glee Club Christmas Concert program, from 1943

This year marked the 74th annual Christmas concerts of the Virginia Glee Club. Started during wartime in 1941 by Glee Club conductor Harry Rogers Pratt and continued through to the present day without interruption, this concert series has been the longest running musical tradition at the University of Virginia. I thought I’d look back and see what we know about these concerts and their evolution.

The first Glee Club Christmas concert was held in 1941 under the direction of Harry Rogers Pratt. We don’t have any documentary evidence of this concert; somehow no one associated with the University saved the program, at least not that we’ve found. But we have a College Topics (forerunner of the Cavalier Daily) article documenting the existence of the second concert, in 1942. The concert was to include a procession down the Lawn, “several Wassail songs,” and an audience singalong.

The 1942 concert was Pratt’s last performance as Glee Club director; he resigned the following spring to focus on war efforts. His successor, Stephen Tuttle, continued the tradition during wartime and arguably made the Glee Club Christmas concert what it is today, with a mix of audience carols, familiar and new holiday music, and interesting collaborations. We have the program from the 1943 concert, and it’s interesting reading. Arguably a little heavy on Holst and Bach, there are a few jewels among the items chosen, including a Tuttle arrangement of the Spanish carol “Hasten, Shepherds” that would show up performed by the Virginia Gentlemen in the 1967 Christmas performances. While composer and music department head Randall Thompson was accompanist for the performances, none of his works were programmed; that would change in years to come.

The other noteworthy thing about the 1943 performance is the inclusion of the Madrigal Group. Comprised of women associated with the University community, this group of thirteen women appears to have been UVa’s first women’s chorus! (I previously wrote about the Madrigal Group in 2011; sadly nothing came of my appeal for information.)

We don’t have a program from 1944, but the performance is attested in College Topics, including a roster of the Madrigal Group (which included a few members who had sung in 1943). 1945 continues in much the same vein, including a performance of Randall Thompson’s Alleluia (first performed by the Glee Club in its fall concerts that year).

The postwar years saw a massive swell of membership in the Glee Club, but the Christmas Concert formula remained remarkably stable, albeit with one major change, the departure of the Madrigal Group — there’s no attestation of the group’s existence after Christmas 1945 (save for a brief revival of the name in 1957). Over time, as Tuttle’s tenure in the directorship lengthened, his influence on the repertoire increased, with Renaissance composers like Orlando di Lasso and Josquin appearing alongside the customary Bach in 1947. This concert was also the oldest for which a recording survives, according to the UVA Special Collections library.

In 1948, during Tuttle’s Harvard sabbatical, Henry Morgan stepped in and delivered a fine entry in the canon, with a program that differed in specifics (a new Peter Warlock carol, a new carol by Morgan himself) but overall fit the general formula that was by now well established. I don’t have the 1949 program in the Glee Club archives, but 1950 continued along the same track, with new carols (“How Still and Tiny,” a Polish carol, makes its first appearance this year) joining the well established English and French numbers.

In the first ten years, the formula for the Virginia Glee Club Christmas Concert was well established: audience carols, familiar and unfamiliar tunes, larger works, guest groups, and lots of reflective holiday works. That you could take any of these programs from the first ten years and perform them without modification today suggests the longevity of the formula, and helps to drive home why these concerts became an annual tradition.

“Rugby Road” revisited

Thanks to the horrific article in Rolling Stone detailing the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student at Phi Kappa Psi, I’ve been thinking a lot about my alma mater this week. As part of that, I’ve revisited a piece I wrote in 2011 about the song used as a framing device for the article, “From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill.” I spent some more time thinking about the piece last night after my Virginia Glee Club Wiki article about the song was linked from the New York Times yesterday.

Late last week, the current president of the Virginia Glee Club announced that he had taken an executive action to ban the performance of the song during his presidency. Left unreported in the Cavalier Daily article was the fact that he had also called for a vote of the membership to consider a permanent ban on the song; the ban was instead reported as “temporary,” prompting a storm of comments accusing the president of disingenuity or worse.

I wrote a letter to the president of Club and to other Club alumni last night about the issue and my thoughts regarding the prospect of a permanent. On reflection, I’m opening up the letter to a broader audience. I welcome reasoned discussion in the comments or elsewhere.

I have long jokingly said that those who criticize “Rugby Road” for sexism miss the point, since the first stanza celebrates the sort of conflict between faculty and student that led to the murder of John A.G. Davis by a rioting student. But of course, Davis’s shooting in 1842 led to a very public examination of the issues of student behavior, lawlessness, and entitlement that led to the tragedy, and to major changes in the course of the University’s history. By contrast, the issues raised in the second stanza, to say nothing of the apocryphal subsequent stanzas, are just now being publicly examined by the entire University community. This may well be this generation’s equivalent of the John A. G. Davis moment.
My feelings as an alum? By the time I came along, “Rugby Road” was only performed after midnight at the Clubhouse – we knew it wasn’t made for daylight. While there is a case to be made for celebrating history and for songs of revelry, my personal belief is that times have changed and the time for this song has passed. I am usually one to argue for preserving tradition, but not now. I am glad you retired the song; as a Club alum and the brother of a Women’s Chorus alumna, I hope it stays retired.
That said, the thing that makes me most proud of you guys and that gives me most hope for the University is that fact that you acted as a student leader, and not on the orders of an administrator or faculty advisor, to retire the song. The culture of self governance that grew from the tragedy in 1842 can still act in positive ways. Indeed, it is the only possible force for long term changes to student behavior. Thanks for showing that it still works.
The whole University is struggling to understand how the events alleged at Phi Kappa Psi, and especially the lukewarm response of the administration, could have happened at Mr. Jefferson’s University. In the process of our self-reflection, I think many of us, myself included, are becoming aware of aspects of the culture long taken for granted that contribute to a culture that protects attackers and blunts justice. I think it’s important to support the University, and particularly its current student population, as they work with best intentions to address those aspects of the culture, and not to tear them down.

More on the Parker-Morrell-Dana House

Stone building 1865

When I wrote about our most distinguished neighborhood house, the Parker-Morrell-Dana house, I compared a modern day photo to an 1865 one from Lexington’s Cary Library and evinced surprise at the large number of alterations, including changing Doric to Ionic columns and changing the shape of the parapet windows. How, I asked, had the local historic district permitted such alterations?

Of course, they didn’t. The library had mislabled a photo of the Stone Building as being the Parker-Morell-Dana house. In retrospect, the giveaways were obvious, and I probably would have caught it myself if I had used the modern day shot of the Stone Building below, rather than the front facade shot that I used instead.

Stone building 3

But that’s the Stone Building. The Parker-Morrell-Dana House is something else again. Here’s an undated print of the front of the house, courtesy the Cary Library (again).

Dana house

In this picture — probably not from 1865 — you can see all the features that were present in my modern day photo, including the Ionic portico, the conventional square windows, and even the brick sides of the house (if you look very closely. You can also see one of my favorite features: the elongated window frames, made to look as if the facade had triple sashed windows like the ones on Jefferson’s Pavilions at the University of Virginia. But the bottom third inside the frame is just regular siding.

So anyway, that’s the story of how a mislabeled photograph led me astray. As they say, we regret the error.

The historic survey form from the 1970s has more information about the house and its history.

Update: Just heard from the library and they’re correcting the exhibit.

New house, new neighborhood

One of the big surprises of our new place (well, not so new any more — we’ve been here almost three months) was that it was in a neighborhood. A very old neighborhood, established almost 200 years ago. As I wrote in my last post about the house, there’s been a house in this location for almost 300 years. There was building all around this area then, but it really got going in the early 19th century.

Follen Church

Follen church

About 120 years after the old Robbins house was built where our place now stands, the Follen Church Society called their first minister, and built their unique octagonal church building four years later, in 1839. The Follen Church feels like the center of this little village here in East Lexington. The bells chime every hour. And all the other civic buildings are spread out around it.

Yes, civic buildings. And the Follen Church isn’t even the second oldest one. There are a little cluster of them here, or not far from here. Fire station, a little further up the road. Then there’s…

The Waldorf School

Adams school

Originally the Adams School, this is the second school building in and around this site. The original Adams School building, dating to 1890, was just across the street where a parking lot now stands. The “new” building, constructed in 1912, has been home to the Waldorf School of Lexington since 1980. The school stands far back from Massachusetts Avenue, just south of the Follen Church. It’s got a town park behind it with a playground, soccer field, tennis and basketball courts too.

The Stone Building

Lecture hall

The Stone Building is not to be confused with a stone building. It’s a fantastic Greek Revival building that is the second oldest civic building in the cluster. Built in 1833 by Eli Robbins as a lyceum, it housed quite a few notable speakers over the years, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and Josiah Quincy, Jr. It was used as a branch library until a burst pipe in 2007 caused significant damage, causing the structure to close. It’s still closed, though some repairs were done to contain the damage; plaster was stripped from the entire ceiling and some walls in the first floor, but carved decorative lintels around the windows are still intact, as visible in a video shot inside the building in 2008. You can read the architectural recommendations made five years ago.

“Brick Store”

General store

Now owned by the Waldorf School, the “Brick Store” was the original East Lexington post office. Built in 1828, it’s the oldest of the civic buildings in the East Lexington area. It’s also the building that abuts our property, though we’re separated by a parking lot and a stone wall.

Parker – Morrell – Dana House

Parker morrell dana house

This last stop on our tour is the first building I noticed in our neighborhood, and the oldest of the buildings on this tour — but it’s not a civic building, it’s a private residence. Abutting the house on the other side of the cul-de-sac from ours, this fairly magnificent Greek Revival home dating from the early 19th century has apparently always been a pillar of the surrounding community. Built around 1800 for Obadiah Parker, it was converted into its current temple form in 1839 for furrier Ambrose Morrell, who was Eli Robbins’ neighbor and business rival. It’s worth noting that it has undergone some changes over the years; while it currently sports Ionic order capitals on its front porch columns, a photo from 1865 shows a plainer order — maybe Doric — as well as other alterations that have been made, such as the removal of a side entrance and the removal of clapboards on the sides to show the original Federal brick façade. Even more striking is the removal of the quarter-lune windows in the triglyph. I’d love to find the meetings of the historical committee meeting that let that one go down. (Update: Of course the historical committee didn’t allow such a change. See my next post for an explanation of the confusion.)

So yes, our little cluster of buildings on the side of Mass Ave is architecturally delightful and complex—and fun. And that’s even before we talk about the bike trail, the Great Meadows, Wilson Farm…

The Brahms Requiem at 41

Symphony Hall, orchestra rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem.

Symphony Hall, orchestra rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem.

(By which I mean, of course, my age, not the age of the work.)

I last wrote about Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem in 2009, at the end of a run in which we performed the work in Symphony Hall, issued an official recording, and reprised it at Tanglewood. It was a different time: James Levine was at the relative height of his powers and I was singing more regularly with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

We reprised the work a few years later under Christoph von Dohnányi, in a totally different performance. By that time I wasn’t blogging as regularly so I don’t have any notes from that run. I remember a few things, though: his tempi were brisk, his interpretation totally unsentimental, and his demands on the chorus’s diction were fierce.

This run, which concluded a week ago, was to have been conducted by the great Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, with whom I was fortunate to sing a few times. But he passed away this summer, and the task of filling his shoes went to Bramwell Tovey. The chorus had sung with him before, but I had not, and had heard about his affability but not much about his musicianship. He turns out to be, at least with the Requiem, a conductor concerned not so much with putting an individual stamp on the work than with seeking how the text determines the flow of the piece. To that end he, like Dohnányi, asked the highest level of diction and pitch precision from the chorus. Our chorus conductor, Bill Cutter, helped with that, pitilessly letting us know when we could be doing better.

For this performance, my third time through the work, I had a pretty good idea of what some of the major challenges would be for me. I wrote about some of them in the post from Tanglewood:

I found what may be the real culprit of the sixth movement, for me at least. It’s not just the overall arc of the piece, but specifically the tenor part immediately preceding the fugue, where all choral voices respond… And the text is sung at absolutely full volume over some of the thickest orchestration in the work, and in the high part of the tenor range.

This is the rub, at least for me. The need to support the voice is strong, but at that volume and emotional fervor it’s very easy to tip over from supporting to tightening, and then the battle is lost and the voice closes progressively until it is difficult to get any sound out at all. Once that happens the following fugue is unsingable.

Well, friends, I’m here to tell you that I had the right problem area, but the solution was both easier and harder than I thought.

The hard part was in placing my voice properly. I have never had more than a few hours of formal voice instruction since I got my full instrument, and so it takes me a while to learn things that I suppose most voice majors know inherently. (The hazards of being a sciences major and not taking advantage of the meager vocal instruction offerings at my undergrad, among other things.) Sometime over the past few years, though, I managed to learn about two important concepts in voice placement: singing toward and through the mask, and keeping the ceiling of the vocal chamber high. What follows is an embarrassing amateur’s assessment of how this works; I welcome correction.

The “mask,” or the frontal bones of the face, is where a good portion of the resonant overtones of the voice develop, due in no small part to vibrations through the sinus cavities (yes, they’re good for something besides infections). But the voice must be directed through this part rather than being allowed to linger in the back of the vocal chamber for the resonance to take effect. Once it does, the difference is startling: a brightness and sharpness to the sound that cuts through surrounding noise for far less vocal effort. The challenges are in keeping the sinuses clear (no small task thanks to the common cold) and managing the position of the facial muscles that support singing so that the placement happens properly.

The full vocal chamber, otherwise known as the front of the face, the cavity of the mouth, and the back of the throat, is important in developing the fullness of the sound. Again, my amateur guess is that this has something to do with developing the right resonant frequencies. It turns out that for me, one of the most important parts of this process, in addition to the mask, is keeping the soft palate, which forms the ceiling of the vocal chamber, high and out of the way. If it comes down, producing sound on pitch is much harder, the sound is muddied, and if you’re singing through the mask and not taking advantage of the full chamber you get a sharp thin sound rather than a penetrating fuller sound.

This leads me to the other thing that was much easier in solving the problem. One of the things that makes keeping the soft palate in the proper place extremely hard is not being prepared for the next vowel sound that is being produced. If you are unsure about whether an e or an ah is coming next, the palate doesn’t know where to go, and producing any sort of sound at all becomes a challenge of brute force.

In this context, my prior problem about my voice “tightening” had a simple diagnosis: I was not comfortable with the text. By that point in movement six my memory was generally unreliable so I couldn’t anchor the Den es wird die Pasaune schallen. I finally figured out what was going on in one of our rehearsals when we started on the second repetition, Der Tod is verschlungen in den Sieg, sung on virtually the same tune, and I had no difficulty in keeping the voice from tightening. Why? I knew the words better! I didn’t have to force the sound, and that meant I could keep the palate high and the muscles in the proper place! All I had to do to make this a general solution was focus on ensuring that I had the right words!

So for this run I managed, most of the time, to keep the apparatus such that I was producing the right sort of sound throughout, and it made all the difference in the world. I even sang in my church choir the following morning; usually after a Brahms Requiem run I’m a ragged baritone for at least a week.

Lessons learned?

  1. Stay conscious of the mask and the ceiling of the chamber.
  2. Learn the damned text. First, if possible.

This should be fun as we head into the Rachmaninoff that we’ll sing next. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to learn that much Russian.

Symphony Hall, 2014

Symphony Hall, 2014

Fresh From delicious today

Senate Control Could Come Down To Whole Foods vs. Cracker Barrel | FiveThirtyEight
Entertaining analysis showing, perhaps, only that marketers are better at understanding the country’s political segmentation than political campaign planners are.

Aunt Maria’s Vermont Maple Sugar Pie, 1945 – A Vintage Pie Recipe Test – The Mid-Century Menu

The Questa Project | I Love Typography
Seriously cool new font family, worth checking out.

Powered by Fresh From

New house, new history

The fence in front of our house is more than 150 years old, but the house itself is only 67 years old.

That was one of the surprises I had when researching the history of our new house. It sits on a main thoroughfare of Lexington, down the street from a church, meeting hall, and old village grocery store, and I always wondered how it was that there was relatively new construction here. It turns out the answer was simple: they moved the old house.

On our lot in 1716, Stephen Robbins built his homestead, and the Robbins family lived here through the mid-19th century. Around 1850, his family built the fence in front of the house, the one historical structure on the property. It’s sturdy, built of wrought iron and granite posts, and it isn’t going anywhere.

Unlike the Robbins house. After a long history (among other things, the house was apparently a station on the Underground Railway), the house moved on—literally. In the 1940s, Helen Potter bought the place for $500, then spent more than $3,000 to move it up the street, where it still stands today. In its place, the Cataldo family built our brick Colonial, completing it in 1947.

The Cataldos have been in town since the early 20th century. There’s a good oral history by one of the brothers that talks about the early days of the family, including Anthony Cataldo, who founded the Depository Trust Company of Medford and who purchased the depot building for a bank branch when the Lexington West Cambridge Railroad stopped running.

At some point before 1993 the property changed hands, and the biggest alteration was made: a subdivision of the property (and maybe the adjacent property) resulted in the creation of a cul-de-sac and three old-looking modern Colonial houses that surrounded it. Aside from the demolition of an old barn that once stood on a corner of our property, the biggest change to our house was a remodel that left us with gold fixtures in the bathrooms. 

Fast forward twenty years. After a few owners, the house was purchased by a nearby school eight years ago and became a rental property. When they realized they needed cash for renovation projects, the house went on the market and we snapped it up. Now comes the fun part of its history: making it ours.

New house, new start


The Jarrett House North has moved. I don’t mean this blog, though given my relative silence here for the last too-long-to-count you’d be forgiven for thinking all the action was going on elsewhere. No, I mean our physical house. Ten years to the day after buying our first Massachusetts home, we became the owners of this 1947 Colonial in Lexington. After ten years in a Cape, I still can’t get over all the space. I mean, we certainly made that little Cape as spacious as we could. But it’s no match for center hall, full second floor, full attic. Even with only a half-finished basement it’s still a lot of room. So of course, we’re still in boxes despite having moved six weeks ago. But we’re getting used to the place and the neighborhood. And what a neighborhood! East Lexington was a separate village once upon a time and we’re right at the center of it all. I’ll post a little about our neighboring architecture soon. And the grounds are astonishing — after having to cut down a bunch of diseased trees at the old house, to have a bunch of healthy horse chestnut trees, maples, a gorgeous plane tree, and even what I think might be an apple tree is a fantastic blessing. So even on a rainy day, I can sit here and look out the window and say: we lucked out.

Fresh From delicious today

Doom & Gloom From The Tomb — "Guilty" – Lou Reed / Ornette Coleman When Lou…
Yes please.