Saving Jefferson

Statue of Thomas Jefferson, University of Virginia Rotunda. Photo © Tim Jarrett 2017.

A quick one today. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in various kinds of work, but this was too cool not to write about.

The Glee Club has thousands of known alumni and all of them have some sort of story to their lives. One who I didn’t know much about was Dr. Lawrence Thomas Royster (1874-1953), who was a member in 1893-1894 and 1896-1897. A physician, he taught pediatrics at the University of Virginia Medical School. And he saved Thomas Jefferson… or at least his statue.

While Royster was a student, in October 1895, the annex to Jefferson’s Rotunda, his library and centerpiece for the Academical Village, caught fire and burned. Efforts were made to keep the fire from spreading to the main Rotunda with little success, and the building burned completely, leaving just the brick shell behind. But while the fire progressed, students rescued what they could from the building, including books from the library and, notably, the enormous marble statue of Jefferson that had been given to the University by Alexander Galt in 1861.

Historian Philip Alexander Bruce writes of the rescue:

A few minutes before the explosion occurred, the fine marble figure of Jefferson by Galt had been lowered by ropes to the level of a table hastily pushed forward to catch it. So great was its weight that this support at once gave way under it; but luckily the fall to the floor did not damage the statue. Turned over on its face, it was rapidly dragged to the door opening on the front stairway, and just as there began the attempt to pull it through this narrow exit, the explosion shook the whole building. “The statue,” says Morgan P. Robinson, in his vivid description of the scene, “was gotten out on the staircase, and step by step, it was carried down the western stairs feet foremost. As the base of the statue was eased over each step, it would gather momentum, and gaining speed, would tear off the top edge of the next step, while, under the combined weight of the statue and twenty to thirty of the students, the whole staircase would tremble. It is conservatively estimated that it took from ten to fifteen minutes only to remove the statue from the library to the Lawn.”

Bruce, History of the University of Virginia, Vol. IV, p. 260, 1922.

The story is well known to me, but until today, I didn’t know that a Glee Club member was among the students who rescued the statue. Then, while checking my sources on Royster’s photo, I found the entry for the photo at the UVA Library and read the following:

A native of Norfolk, Virginia, where he was born in 1874, Dr. Royster received his prepatory education at Norfolk Academy and entered the University in 1892. In the memorable fire of 1895 he was one of the group of students who entered the burning Rotunda and lifted the Galt statue of Jefferson from its pedestal, drew it through the room on a mattress, safely eased it down the curving stair, and deposited it on the Lawn. The only damage to the statue was a slight chipping of the edge of the drapery. 

Bulletin of the UVa Medical School and Hospital, Fall 1942.

So, Royster was one of those responsible for saving the statue of Jefferson. And it’s interesting to note that, in this age of iconoclasm, the statue was not one of the post-Reconstruction Civil War statues. Instead, Alexander Galt, Jr., a native Virginian who took up sculpture after being inspired by the work of Houdon and studied in Florence, was commissioned to create the statue for $10,000, completing it in 1861. (Galt died in 1863 of smallpox while serving as aide to Virginia’s Confederate governor John Letcher.)

Exfiltration Radio: ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space

Feels like a good time to go to outer space! Here’s an hour of space-themed tunes for this Friday that veers from funk to jazz to whatever the heck that Flying Lotus track is. Enjoy!

  1. Also Sprach ZarathustraBerlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Bohm (2001: A Space Odyssey (Soundtrack))
  2. P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)Parliament (Mothership Connection)
  3. SpacePrince (Come)
  4. Leave the PlanetGalaxie 500 (On Fire)
  5. SpaceM.I.A. (MAYA)
  6. Space Is the PlaceSun Ra (Space Is The Place (Original Soundtrack))
  7. The PlanetsGary Bartz NTU Troop (Harlem Bush Music – Uhuru)
  8. Innerstellar LoveThundercat (It Is What It Is)
  9. Boom Boom SatelliteSigue Sigue Sputnik (Dress for Excess)
  10. See The ConstellationThey Might Be Giants (Apollo 18)
  11. Space Station #5Montrose (Historia de la Musica Rock: Locas)
  12. Hallo SpaceboyDavid Bowie (Outside)
  13. SatelllliiiiiiiteeeFlying Lotus (Cosmogramma)
  14. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In SpaceSpiritualized (Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space)
  15. Space SuitThey Might Be Giants (Apollo 18)
  16. DriftBrian Eno (Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks)

Historian’s tools: PDF to PNGs

One of the fun things about being the historian of a musical group in the 21st century is that there is so much of the group’s history that’s already digital. But that sometimes presents a challenge, too.

Take PDFs. The ubiquitous Portable Document Format is great for providing computer readable versions of concert programs and newsletters, but not so great for displaying on the Web for research. And recently I realized that I had a bunch of PDFs that I had never added to the Virginia Glee Club Wiki, the repository where the history of the Glee Club lives. What to do?

Enter Automator. This tool, which I use far too rarely, is a great way to take repetitive tasks and make them easy. I used it to build a workflow for turning PDFs into a series of individual PNGs for web display. The workflow, which is dead simple, is above. Basically: take a PDF, render PDF pages as images (a built in action), and copy to a destination folder. I think that the final step is no longer needed since copying the additional pages already adds a numeric suffix.

Saving the workflow as a Quick Action puts PDF to PNGs on the context (right-click) menu in the Finder for PDFs. So it ends up looking like this:

And that means I can take a folder full of PDFs and turn them into web pages like this.

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

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