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.