Exfiltration Radio: new faces, new sounds

I’ve been listening to a lot of classic Blue Note recordings recently—thanks to a bad HDTracks habit—and what struck me the other day is how the composition of the recordings changes the further back you go. What had become a jazz-funk fusion label by the 1970s was principally a hard-bop label in the 1960s with an incredible stable of performers (even if you could expect to find some of them, like Bobby Hutcherson or Grant Green, on recording after recording during the period). But if you look even further back, the label was unearthing and recording new artists in the early to mid-1950s, like Jutta Hipp, Horace Silver, Gil Mellé, Kenny Drew, and others, on albums that bore the common title New Faces, New Sounds.

So this session of Exfiltration Radio digs into our current crop of new faces and new sounds, with a setlist that is heavy on the current crop of London jazz geniuses (Theon Cross, Nubya Garcia, Sarah Tandy), a few new faces from around the edges of Bandcamp (Joe Fiedler’s nutso take on Sesame Street, Chip Wickham’s meditative cuts from Qatar, the absolutely intense Damon Locks, the Lewis Express), the intense hard bop of Connie Han, the stretch music of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah—and a few old souls, including the drum-led trio of Jerry Granelli playing the music of his colleague Mose Allison, and the Afrofuturist spiritual excursions of Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids.

Do not attempt to adjust your set!

  1. X. Adjuah [I Own the Night]Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (Axiom)
  2. For the O.G.Connie Han (Iron Starlet)
  3. The Colors That You BringDamon Locks – Black Monument Ensemble (Where Future Unfolds)
  4. ActivateTheon Cross (Fyah)
  5. Tico TicoThe Lewis Express (Clap Your Hands)
  6. People In Your NeighborhoodJoe Fiedler (Open Sesame)
  7. Baby Please Don’t GoThe Jerry Granelli Trio (The Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Vince Guaraldi and Mose Allison)
  8. TimelordSarah Tandy (Infection In The Sentence)
  9. Dogon MysteriesIdris Ackamoor & The Pyramids (Shaman!)
  10. La cumbia me está llamando (featuring La Perla)Nubya Garcia (SOURCE)
  11. Blue to RedChip Wickham (Blue to Red)

Exfiltration Radio: your transfer, your hand, your answer

There have been such a lot of mixes this year! It’s almost as if we’ve doubled down on music making to compensate for the otherwise almost complete lack of normalcy.

This time I revisited an old mix in progress that had been kicking around my iTunes—er, Apple Music—library for at least seven or eight years. Originally titled “Unrepentant Throwbacks,” this one went after a certain strain of college rock that emphasized guitars, odd lyrics, borderline competent vocals, and weird band names. You know, like R.E.M..

Only there were probably hundreds of bands that mined the same lode that they did, who never looked beyond their original sound and never got the major league deal. I asked some friends on Facebook and got over 100 great suggestions, which I couldn’t fit into this sixty-minute slot. I’ll post the full list later; it was awesome.

Anyway, hope you enjoy this sixty minute blast of nostalgia, which for some of you will take you back to before you were born. And see you again, sooner than you think.

  1. Fun & GamesThe Connells (Fun & Games)
  2. Do It CleanEcho & The Bunnymen (Songs To Learn & Sing)
  3. I Want You BackHoodoo Gurus (Stoneage Romeo)
  4. Watusi RodeoGuadalcanal Diary (Walking In The Shadow Of The Big Man)
  5. Talking In My SleepThe Rain Parade (Emergency Third Rail Power Trip: Explosions In The Glass Palace)
  6. With Cantaloupe GirlfriendThree O’Clock (Sixteen Tambourines/Baroque Hoedown)
  7. Kiss Me On The BusThe Replacements (Tim [Expanded Edition])
  8. I Held Her In My ArmsViolent Femmes (Add It Up (1981-1993))
  9. Voice Of HaroldR.E.M. (Dead Letter Office)
  10. Writing the Book of Last PagesLet’s Active (Big Plans for Everybody)
  11. Think Too HardThe dB’s (The Sound of Music)
  12. SparkThe Church (Starfish)
  13. My Favorite DressThe Wedding Present (George Best Plus)
  14. Muscoviet Musquito – Clan of XymoxClan of Xymox (Lonely Is an Eyesore)
  15. Tripped Over My BootStorm Orphans (Promise No Parade)
  16. Baby JaneWaxing Poetics (Manakin Moon)
  17. UntitledR.E.M. (Green)
  18. Embodiment Of EvilMeat Puppets (Up On The Sun)

Toolkit links – zsh

I’ve been teaching myself Python this summer, to support some of the things I need to do for my product. And while much of my learning experience conformed to the stereotypes about developers (cough Google cough StackOverflow), there have still been a few useful things I’ve learned along the way that were worth linking and writing down.

Maybe the most useful things I learned were at the humble shell. Here’s a few things I picked up and how I applied them:

Updating the path in MacOS Catalina – after installing a newer Python version, I couldn’t figure out why pip and other commands weren’t working. Path update to the rescue! Adding the directory where the Python install places the unversioned symlinks did the trick.

Searching command history in zsh – I have no idea how I lived this long without knowing this was possible. I was searching backwards to find this syntax…

Recursively zipping only certain files in a directory – Let’s say you have a code scanner in the cloud and you want to feed it all the code, but none of the git history, media and other fun stuff in the directory. This command to the rescue! And ultimate that led me to…

zsh functions – shell aliases on steroids! These little command shortcuts are tasty and addictive. Here was my zip function:


vczip () {
        zip -R $1.zip '*.py' '*.html' '*.js' 'requirements.txt' '*.json' '*.lock' '*.ts'
}

And then calling it is just as simple as typing vczip zipfilename in the appropriate directory.

Hardly rocket science, but definitely productivity enhancing.

Exfiltration Radio: À Paris en France comme dans la Rome antique

Guru and trumpeter Brownman

I had to do a presentation at work, and someone asked me the question I’ve been waiting for all my life: “What’s your walk-on music?”

I answered, immediately, without hesitation: “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” by Digable Planets.

See, the jazz-inflected hip-hop that was being made in the early 1990s, when I was in college, was the first hip-hop that I learned to appreciate. Before then I was as casually racist about “rap music” as any kid raised on classic rock radio in the South. But then began my great awakening. I don’t remember what the first thing was; probably Gangstarr’s “Jazz Thing” on the Mo Better Blues soundtrack. Eventually it completely got under my skin, with the result that this was a playlist that was a complete joy to put together.

Sure, a lot of it is the Native Tongues groups — Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest. There’s also a lot of groups influenced by the scene, like Us3 (the Blue Note hosted group that actually played their samples), the Roots (of course), the crazy MF Doom + Madlib collaboration Madvillain; and latter day follower Kero One. And off to the side stands Gangstarr and Guru, who arrived at the combination of jazz and hip-hop through their own path.

There’s also a lot of actual jazz in these tracks, whether sampled (Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on “Rebirth of Slick”, Lou Donaldson on “Le Bien, Le Mal”, Roy Ayers on “Borough Check”, Grant Green on “Vibes and Stuff,” Bill Evans on “Raid”, Jimmy McGriff on “God Lives Through”) or live: Ron Carter playing along with MC Solaar on “Un Ange en Danger” and Roy Ayers (again!) playing with the Roots on “Proceed II.” Both of the latter are on the fantastic compilation Red Hot and Cool, which I can’t recommend highly enough, especially for the tracks from the Pharcyde and the Last Poets, neither of which I can play on the radio.

Wherever the music comes from, that funky music will drive us til the dawn. Let’s go! Let’s boogaloo until…

Please do not attempt to adjust your set. There is nothing wrong. We have taken control as to bring you this special show, and we will return it to you as soon as you are groovy.

  • Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)Digable Planets (Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time & Space))
  • Proceed IIThe Roots with Roy Ayers (Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool)
  • Manifest (Alternate)Gang Starr (No More Mr. Nice Guy)
  • Because I Got It Like ThatJungle Brothers (Straight Out the Jungle)
  • I Got It Goin’ OnUs3 (Hand On The Torch)
  • Plug Tunin (Last Chance To Comprehend)De La Soul (3 Feet High And Rising)
  • Kool Accordin’ 2 a Jungle BrotherJungle Brothers (Done By the Forces of Nature)
  • Vibes And StuffA Tribe Called Quest (The Low End Theory)
  • Borough CheckDigable Planets (Blowout Comb)
  • Un Ange En DangerMC Solaar with Ron Carter (Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool)
  • Raid (Feat. MED)Madvillain (Madvillainy)
  • Give Thanks (feat. Niamaj)Kero One (Windmills of the Soul)
  • God Lives ThroughA Tribe Called Quest (Midnight Marauders)
  • Le Bien, Le MalGuru Featuring Mc Solaar (Jazzmatazz Volume 1)
  • Exfiltration Radio: jazz in inner space

    It’s that time again… time for the Godfather to grace you with an hour of weird music. Today’s playlist comes from the cusp of jazz’s transition into fusion and dives into the music that came around In a Silent Way, still one of the most revolutionary recordings in jazz.

    In this 1969 record, Miles had reached the end of standards, the end of modal changes, the end of the post-bop revolution he had led with his second great quintet. He was listening to other innovators, working beyond jazz, especially Jimi Hendrix. And most importantly, he was continuing to surround himself with musicians who innovated, listen to them, and push them to take their performances beyond where they could on their own. (He also sometimes claimed authorship of those songs, but that’s a different story.)

    The sound at the back of this new direction in jazz was the electric piano (usually a Fender Rhodes) fed into the echoplex and joined by musicians who were playing, as Miles said on the back cover of Zawinul, “cliché-free,” not relying on changes or modes but on rhythm and vamping and atmosphere and sometimes incredibly gorgeous scraps of melody that come and go in the middle of the track like smoke.

    One of the things that’s hard to appreciate just by looking at the track titles is how much of this music was made by the same handful of musicians. Let’s take a look:

    Herbie Hancock (electric and acoustic piano) plays on “Doctor Honoris Causa” (which Zawinul dedicated to him for his honorary doctorate from Grinnell), “Mountain in the Clouds,” “Opus One Point Five,” “Filles de Kilimajaro,” his own “You’ll Know When You Get There,” and “In a Silent Way.” Miroslav Vitouš (bass) is on “Causa,” “Mountain,” “Orange Lady,” and “Water Babies.” John McLaughlin (electric guitar) is on “Mountain” and “In a Silent Way.”

    Billy Hart is on “Causa” (percussion) and “You’ll Know” (drums). Joe Henderson (tenor sax) is on “Mountain” and his own “Opus One Point Five.” Jack DeJohnette (drums) is on “Mountain,” “Opus One Point Five,” and “Water Babies.” Chick Corea plays electric piano on “In a Silent Way” and drums and vibes on “Water Babies.”

    The great Wayne Shorter (tenor sax) is on “Orange Lady,” “Filles De Kilimanjaro,” his own “Water Babies,” and “In a Silent Way.” Airto Moreira plays percussion on “Orange Lady” and “Water Babies.” Ron Carter is on “Opus One Point Five” and “Filles.” Tony Williams plays drums on “Filles” and “In a Silent Way.” And Joe Zawinul plays on “Causa,” “Orange Lady,” and his composition “In a Silent Way.”

    It’s not surprising that some of the tracks seem to blend seamlessly into each other. It’s more surprising how distinctive the musical identity of each track is. Definitely worth an hour, and then many more checking out the albums these came from.

    Do not adjust your set; there is nothing wrong.

    1. Doctor Honoris CausaJoe Zawinul (Zawinul)
    2. Mountain In the CloudsMiroslav Vitous (Infinite Search)
    3. Orange LadyWeather Report (Weather Report)
    4. Opus One Point FiveJoe Henderson (Power To The People [Keepnews Collection] [ Remastered ])
    5. Filles De Kilimanjaro (Girls Of Kilimanjaro)Miles Davis (Filles De Kilimanjaro)
    6. Water BabiesWayne Shorter (Super Nova)
    7. You’ll Know When You Get ThereHerbie Hancock (Warner Archives)
    8. In A Silent WayMiles Davis (The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions)

    Finding faces from 84 years ago

    “Glee Club,” 1930s, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

    My latest exercise in madness has been an effort to index all the images on the Virginia Glee Club History Wiki. In doing so, I took the opportunity to link images to their sources where I could and to find some more context, including trying to identify individuals in photos. Which brings me to the photo above.

    There might be no more momentous photo from the early years of the Glee Club. It’s one of the better photos of legendary Club conductor Harry Rogers Pratt (conductor from 1933 to 1943), a showman who took the group to New York City, got them their first radio gigs, and instituted the Concert on the Lawn, among other achievements. And just over his left shoulder, eyes closed, is one of the more famous Glee Club alums, at least to UVA graduates, Ernest Mead. The two professors together had about 80 years of teaching UVA students between them.

    But who were the other students with them? I decided to find out. Thankfully Corks and Curls came to the rescue.

    The man on the left is the easiest guess. Since Mead was only in the Glee Club in 1936-1937, that narrowed the field, and my first guess proved correct. Say hello to Mac—or McDonald Wellford, president during that year. The only reason I was able to make the identification was thanks to a fraternity brother, Mr. Bosher, who donated photographs to the UVA online exhibit “100 Years on the Lawn” (sadly, the exhibit is no longer available and was not archived. Boo!) Wellford, like many a Glee Club alum, went on to practice law, and was the commissioner of accounts for the chancery court and the circuit court of the City of Richmond from 1963 to 1994.

    After that it gets a little squirrelly, but thanks to Corks and Curls I was finally able to identify the other two men. Next to Mac stands Chester Harris Robbins, of Worcester, Massachusetts, who sang in the Glee Club from 1933 to 1937.

    And at the end is the distinctive visage of Kenneth Seaman Giniger, who had the most colorful career of any of the alums. While a student, he instituted the Jefferson Society’s Woodrow Wilson Memorial Banquet, with guests including five US senators, the University’s president, a Supreme Court justice, and the governor of Virginia, to say nothing of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson (Edith Bolling Wilson), who was elected as an honorary member of the Society by the end of the evening, the first woman to be so honored. After serving in World War II, Giniger became the assistant to the director of the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency in 1951-1952. And then he went into publishing, forming the K.S. Giniger Company and writing inspirational books. He might be the only person to receive both the French Legion of Honor and the Norman Vincent Peale Award for Positive Thinking.

    So, quite a gathering in one unassuming photo!

    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.