Weekend entertainment: Super Mario HTML5

I started my kids on Super Mario Brothers, which we own in emulation on the Wii (the only game console I own). I’m still trying to teach my son which way to hold the Wiimote to play the game, but my daughter is pretty conversant already with the game. So I can already tell I need to practice if I want to stay ahead of them.

Super Mario HTML5 looks like a pretty good way to do that while I’m away from the Wii. The gameplay is pretty close, at least for the two levels I’ve played so far, with the exception that the sky and ground expand to fill the browser window.

Bandcamp find: Yussef Kamaal

Increasingly my new music hunting has been on Bandcamp, where I’ve found some amazing music just by browsing and sampling. Other than Grand Banks (of course), it’s been fantastic for getting archival records, out-of-print Jim O’Rourke, and new jazz.

An especially rich vein has been jazz from London groups. I first stumbled across Ill Considered, by saxophonist Idris Rahman, late last year. Last weekend I went back to the site and discovered Brownswood Recordings and Yussef Kamaal. The latter, a group featuring Kamaal Williams (aka Henry Wu) on keys and Yussef Dayes on drums along with an assortment of session musicians, make experimental groove-based jazz-funk that wouldn’t have been out of place in Herbie Hancock’s early to mid 1970s discography—except for the hip-hop inflected drums, a common thread in the Brownswood recordings I’ve heard, and in fact in most of the really exciting 21st century jazz I’ve found.

Infuriatingly, Yussef Kamaal were one of the musical groups caught up in President Trump’s travel ban. Denied entry to the United States in March, they missed the opportunity to perform at this year’s SXSW.

The debut album from Yussef Kamaal, Black Focus, is engaging and rewarding, and a fun listen on a snowy day like today. Recommended. I’m also enjoying the live sets by the group on Youtube, including the group’s very first show, the Boiler Room session.

Finding the first Testament of Freedom recording (part 2)

(This is Part 2 of the story of how I got my hands on a copy of the 1943 radio transcription record of the first performance of Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom. Read Part 1 for context about the recording.)

Finding the record on eBay was a heady, exciting moment, tempered by two things: it wasn’t complete, and I wasn’t alone.

I have learned over the years that, while they don’t draw hundreds of bidders, works of history from the University are of enough interest to a small number of collectors that bidding can be competitive. I knew that I could probably win the auction if I paid enough attention—though I’ve lost my fair share of items, I’ve won more than I lost, thanks to a sixteen-year-old paper by one of my grad school professors. I knew that there was at least one other bidder, so I set an alarm for the last day of the auction and waited.

The completeness point was a little more concerning. The available information about the recording indicated that it was a three-record set (not uncommon in the days before 33 1/3 RPM records), but this was only one record. Thankfully, the photo of the label indicated that it was the last movement, easily my favorite of the four. Though Thompson’s setting of Jefferson’s text still plods in places (like any time the word despotism is sung), there is a note of real challenge to the opening words “I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance…”

The day of the auction arrived and I won, despite a flurry of bids earlier in the day. (The odds are good that the other bidder is reading this; sorry and better luck next time!) Now I just had to get the record. And here Fate intervened and made me wait.

The auction ended New Years Eve, one of a series of bitterly cold days with highs in the single digits. The next day the seller contacted me to tell me that he would mail the package a day later, since it was so cold his truck wouldn’t start. I could sympathize, having had to jump-start my own car so that I could take it to the garage to get a new battery. So I waited and watched as the package was shipped—two days before a huge storm that dumped 17 inches of snow on Lexington, Massachusetts.

Perhaps because of the storm, the package took a … circuitous route from New Hampshire to Lexington:

But it finally arrived earlier this week, and to my delight, while the original sleeve was in poor shape (the seller thoughtfully put the record in a new sleeve), the record looked like it was pretty good. Now all I had to do was to listen to it.

Here we had a small snag: my otherwise-wonderful Denon DP-45F turntable has no 78RPM setting. But I was going to digitize the record anyway. So I played it back at 45RPM, and then (as I noted earlier this week) used Amadeus Pro to speed up the playback by 173.3% (78/45). I tried noise reduction but didn’t like what it did to the tone of Thompson’s piano, so I left it alone.

Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by the performance. Listening to Thompson’s solo piano introduction to the movement, one is reminded of the historical moment in which the work was written. This was April 1943, more than two years into World War II, and many of the young men singing the work were painfully aware that Jefferson’s words about dying with light and liberty on the advance were not going to be hypothetical for them. The following vocal entrance is appropriately hushed, and the Glee Club declaims Jefferson’s text with clarity and good pitch. The reintroduction of the first-movement “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” is not strident (as in the 1945 BSO/Harvard Glee Club performance) but nuanced—perhaps because the Virginia men only had to be heard above a piano, not a full orchestra. Only the final chord shows vocal strain in the high tenors.

And here it is! As noted above, the only manipulation was speeding up the playback to restore normal speed, and to join the two halves of the recording into one—which fortunately was pretty straightforward. Enjoy!

Finding the first Testament of Freedom recording (Part 1)

Concert program from the 1943 premiere of Randall Thompson’s Testament of Freedom

Sometime in late 1942 or early 1943, University of Virginia president John Newcomb commissioned a new work from the head of the music division (not yet the McIntire Department of Music), composer and professor Randall Thompson, to commemorate the 200th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, which would be celebrated April 13, 1943. Thompson looked for appropriate texts for the occasion and found them in Jefferson’s own letters.

In January 1943, Thompson had taken over the directorship of the Virginia Glee Club as Harry Rogers Pratt stepped down to focus on the war effort. The Glee Club provided, presumably, a solution to a significant challenge: how to mount the forces for a concert with a student body that was perpetually being shipped off to war. The Glee Club, while reduced greatly by the war effort (the 1942-1943 group officially numbered 45, down from 130 in 1940-1941), at least still performed. And Thompson knew them, having conducted them in his “Tarantella” the preceding spring. Accordingly Thompson composed the new work for men’s chorus and piano.

The actual concert was held on Founder’s Day and featured “music proved to have been owned or known by him,” according to the program notes from the concert. Significantly, the concert was broadcast nationwide on the Columbia Broadcasting System, and was recorded for later playback over the Armed Forces shortwave in Europe. It was a hit; Thompson’s obituaries noted it as his best-known work, and it was used in 1945 by Serge Koussevitzky (with the Boston Symphony and the Harvard Glee Club) to mark the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I have long known that copies of the recording existed—in fact, a few years ago I found mention in a contemporary issue of College Topics, the precursor to the Cavalier Daily, that the Glee Club  was privately selling “records … being made by Columbia Recording Corporation” that featured “reproduction of the first performance of [The Testament of Freedom] last April 13 with Stephen D. Tuttle conducting and the composer at the piano.” I figured I would have to go to the University to hear its archival copy.

And then I checked eBay, as I’m wont to do, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw the listing:

“1943 Randall Thompson/Univ. of Virginia Glee Club Testament of Freedom 78”

I couldn’t let it go. I had to be able to listen to it.

Tomorrow: getting, and listening to, the record.

The Boston Symphony and Harvard Glee Club, Testament of Freedom, 1945

Just found an Italian archive site that provides a tantalizing glimpse of the first major-orchestra performance of Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom, as recorded by RCA (presumably following close on the BSO premiere of the work in April 1945). (You can view the full catalog record of the recording, in Italian, here.)

And by glimpse, I mean listen—though you can only hear a 30-second preview of each of the six sides of the six-record set (from the 78RPM era). To hear the samples, click the Play button beneath the scan of the record label in the center, then hit the Next button (right triangle) in the header and click Play again. It’s clumsy but it works.

And interestingly, side 5 raises doubt that Harvard’s Glee Club in 1945 was substantially more musically sophisticated than its Virginia counterpart. The opening of the last movement, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time,” is here shouted with uneven pitch and vowel pronunciation (direct link to a downloadable 30-second sample). I hope to be able to compare the recording to the Virginia Glee Club’s 1943 premiere soon.

Time for another Mickey Mouse copyright law rewrite?

Ars Technica: Why Mickey Mouse’s 1998 copyright extension probably won’t happen again. The article, which Lawrence Lessig pointed to, is a little skimpy on the research. OK, so the RIAA and MPAA say they’re unlikely to pursue another copyright term extension. I still say we’re likely to see legislation that shows up at the last minute to keep 1923 era works from entering the public domain.

Why? Because it’s happened before, twice, and because I can’t believe the borg-that-is-Disney would voluntarily let go of the opportunity to monopolize the monetization of its collective intellectual property without a fight.

I might be wrong about this, and it’s possible that their ongoing absorption of Lucasfilm, Marvel, and other entertainment properties are a way to diversify so that they can survive losing exclusivity over some of their earliest art. But I’m not holding my breath, until I see Disney swear that they aren’t going to lobby for another round of copyright exclusions.

Reasons to shop at the UVa Bookstore

UVA Today: The Gift That Keeps Giving: Bookstore Donates Annual Surplus to Students in Need. When your non-profit is running almost a half million surplus every year, where can applying that money have the most impact? If you’re the UVA Bookstore, the answer is taking the entire profit and donating it to Access UVA, which allows kids from disadvantaged economic backgrounds to attend the University of Virginia.

I’ll be doing more shopping there, knowing this.

The Spectre of a Meltdown

Webkit.org: What Spectre and Meltdown Mean for Webkit. Detailed technical explanation of how the Spectre attack reads system memory it’s not allowed to, and the changes Webkit is making to address the problem. This is important given the foundational position Webkit holds on the web—it impacts Safari on iPhone and iPad, Safari, the Apple Watch, and the built in browsers on thousands of iOS applications.

Linkblog for 8 Jan 2018

Quirkspace: 78 RPM Records. One user’s tips for recording 78RPM records when your turntable only supports 33/45 RPM, including settings in Amadeus Pro.

Stereophile: My Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2017. Fred Kaplan runs down a list of great jazz releases from last year, including both new and historical releases. Totally agree about the Cecile McLorin Salvant release.

Gaffa: Lou Reed og Laurie Anderson: DR Koncerthuset, København. A review of late-period Lou Reed, from 2009, four years before his death, in concert with Laurie Anderson. From the review, this was a true collaborative show. There may be a bootleg of the performance floating around out there…

The Boston Pops files: The Duke at Tanglewood

I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.

We come to the end, for now, of this series of posts about the records I’ve found featuring Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops in their 1960s-1970s heyday—primarily because, with one exception (a reissue of the Carmen Ballet), we’ve come to the end of my LPs. So I figured we should go out with a bang. This is The Duke at Tanglewood, a 1966 record of a 1965 performance of Duke Ellington and a rhythm section playing with Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops through orchestral arrangements of some of Ellington’s greatest compositions, live from the Shed at Tanglewood. I ask you: how could I resist?

Ellington wrote the liner notes for this release, and I can’t disagree with his concluding line: “Ah, but it was a wonderful night for the piano player.” The Duke is in fine form here, dropping a magnificent piano solo atop “Caravan,” dialoging with the orchestra in “The Mooch,” and generally having a great time.

It was not as wonderful a night for the orchestra. Though in some pieces (“Caravan,” notably), the Richard Hayman orchestrations broaden the palate of Ellington’s compositions tremendously, in others his tendency to knock the corners off syncopations dulls the impact a bit — Squaresville! In terms of sound and verve, the Boston Pops brass, though mighty, is no match for a Duke Ellington horn section. And some of the arrangements (“The Mooch”) can seem a bit thick. When more restraint is used, as in Hayman’s great arrangement of “Love Scene,” the results are striking.

Overall, though, it’s the most thoroughgoing of any of the collaborations we’ve reviewed on this trip through the Pops discography, and ultimately the most successful.

The full album is available on Youtube. Enjoy!

The Boston Pops files: Encore (Fiedler’s Greatest Hits)

I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.

In yesterday’s post, we looked at the impact of the long running Evening at Pops series on the Pops’s repertoire and programs: namely, more pop music and celebrity involvement. (Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that these trends contributed to Evening at Pops, which then accelerated the pop music.) The shift was profound, so much so that when the Pops changed their recording contract from RCA to Deutsche Grammophon in 1970, they issued only their more “classical” recordings on DG; and issued their “pop audience” recordings, like yesterday’s and today’s, on DG’s child imprint Polydor. So records like today’s, 1971’s Encore: Fiedler’s Greatest Hits, automatically tip off which part of the Pops they represent simply by checking the label. (It’s probably not surprising that I haven’t come across a single “serious” DG-label Pops recording, but have several of the Polydor ones.)

So, Encore. If you read yesterday’s post about Julia Child’s Evening at Pops record, the format for Encore will look familiar: a side of pop material, a side of light classics. And the pop material is even more pop than usual: we get the “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet,” two Bacharach/David tunes (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”), the theme from Midnight Cowboy (presumably the only time the Pops has programmed the theme song to an X-rated motion picture), and “Aquarius” from Hair. (Yes, really.)

Side B finds us in more familiar Pops territory: samba, waltzes (Strauss and Richard Rodgers), a Sousa march, and, the sole non-dance “light classic” on the program, Khatchaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” Compared to the version that appears on Pops Festival (which was in turn anthologized from elsewhere), this version wears Army boots — it’s heavy, driving (at least 20% faster than the older take), and with a corresponding lack of detail in the performance. “Sabre Dance” was a “greatest hit” and appears to have suffered one of the fates of greatest hits—a certain fatigue and contempt on the part of the performers.

Here’s the Pops’ take on “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” Enjoy!

The Boston Pops files: Evening at Pops with Narration by Julia Child

I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.

In yesterday’s review of American Salute, we started to see the Boston Pops crossover machine in full swing as Chet Atkins joined the Pops and Arthur Fiedler for a few tracks on this album of Americana. Today’s 1972 record—a recent eBay find for me—is deep in the heart of crossover-land: it’s a document from a 1971 performance of Evening at Pops with a headliner celebrity narrator—the inimitable Julia Child, no less—and a bunch of lowercase-p pop songs, alongside the lightest of light classics.

Let’s start with Evening at Pops. Most modern audiences outside the Boston area probably trace their knowledge of the Boston Pops to this television program, which aired over PBS from 1970 to 2005 (that this is the year I joined the Tanglewood Festival Chorus can only be ironic coincidence). Wikipedia calls the program “the public television version of a variety show,” and this is a fair description, judging both from the contents of this record and the curiously wistful timeline captured on the program’s last website.

(Aside: I remember watching with my parents when I was a kid. It was one of a handful of true “hi-fi” TV experiences I had as a kid; since the program was often simulcast on both public television and public radio, my dad would turn down the TV volume and turn up the radio volume so we could get the program in full stereo accompanying the cramped visuals on our little 19″ TV. Ah, those were the days…)

In terms of programming, there are a few surprises here. The opening is a full-orchestra arrangement of John Morris’s great (second) theme song for The French Chef, Julia Child’s breakthrough PBS cooking show. I don’t know how many times the Pops performed the kids’ classic “Tubby the Tuba,” but Julia makes a hysterically sympathetic narrator in her trademark burbling tones—and adds a unique punchline all her own at the end. The Sesame Street gang also appeared in the 1971 Evening at Pops lineup, so an arrangement of the theme song follows “Tubby.” It’s in turn followed by “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” in an incredibly timely arrangement of the November 1971 hit based on a Coke jingle.

The second half of the record is more familiar Pops fare: we get two Leroy Anderson numbers (“Bugler’s Holiday” and “A Trumpeter’s Lullaby”), “Jalousie,” two Tchaikovsky movements from the Nutcracker (“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Dance of the Toy Flutes”), and as a closer, “76 Trombones.” Almost all this fare could be found on earlier Pops recordings like Pops Festival.

So if you look at the overall program, it’s really a standard Pops program, with the celebrity narrator guest elevated to headliner. But by this time “standard Pops” was only about 50% light classics and was relying increasingly on pop songs and other pop-crossover fare. We’ll see that in tomorrow’s record as well.

Here’s Julia Child reading “Tubby the Tuba” from the TV broadcast. Enjoy!

The Boston Pops files: American Salute

I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.

We’re nearing the end of the Boston Pops records; just a handful more to go. And this is where it gets interesting, folks. We’re in the early 1970s and this is when the Pops really put the pop in their name. On the surface, 1972’s American Salute doesn’t seem that different from the 1971 Fiedler’s Favorite Marches compilation I reviewed last week, but there’s a very interesting difference lurking behind the cover…

Both covers feature Al Hirschfeld caricatures of Fiedler—this one in an attractive Statue of Liberty get-up. Both have some marches — in this case, “American Patrol,” an 1885 march by F.W. Meacham. Both even feature some lesser known classical works, in this case Morton Gould‘s 1942 “American Salute” and William Schuman’s “Chester” from New England Triptych. And then there’s the tracks on either side of “Chester” — the “Tennessee Waltz” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” both of which feature the guitar of Chet “Mr. Guitar” Atkins.

Let’s let that sentence sink in for a minute. Not only did Richard Hayman arrange Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” but Chet Atkins played guitar on it, as well as on “Galveston” and “Alabama Jubilee.” What happened?

As it happens, this album was the third to feature a collaboration between Atkins and Fiedler’s Pops, following The Pops Goes Country and Chet Picks on the Pops. Fiedler and Atkins shared a common interest in bursting free of their genre restrictions and “crossing over.” In these recordings, Atkins took his “Nashville Sound” to its logical conclusion: replacing anonymous backing string players with a full orchestra. And Fiedler was canny enough to recognize a collaborator who would broaden the audience for his Pops orchestra far beyond fans of “light classics”… though, some would argue, not without a cost.

Here’s the recording from the album of that “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” When we get back, we’ll be in the thick of the Pops’ mass popularity, with a visit from a very special guest and a whole new venue.