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

Cocktail Weekend: Appels + Oranjes

I invented this cocktail a while ago to use some bitters. That doesn’t sound promising, but bear with me.

When visiting my parents and sister in Western North Carolina, I’m always reminded that Asheville has a lot going on. Last year, our favorite local bakery, Rhu, reinforced that with a display of cocktail paraphernalia that included bitters from Crude, based in Raleigh. Of course I bought the sampler.

And it sat in my pantry for a while, until one night, out of desperation and boredom with the usual, I started riffing off the weirder things on the liquor shelf. Curaçao, or Cointreau? Sure. 100 proof apple brandy? Definitely. Orange and fig bitters? Yes. And rounding it all out, that oft-overlooked wunderkind, Lillet Blanc.

I’m not sure of the thematic connection to the Smashing Pumpkins other than the name, but I think it’s a refreshing alternative to the usual nonetheless. Do make sure, though, to get Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy (100 proof) rather than their “applejack,” which is more like flavored neutral spirits.

As always, here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

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

Eight UVa basketball players who sang

Basketball spot illustration, 1925 Corks and Curls, p. 274.

I started writing this post six years ago, and for some reason never finished. It felt like a good time to pick it back up, since we were robbed of the chance to defend our NCAA championship title this year.

As I began writing this in 2014, UVa men’s basketball is in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995. It’s pretty sweet, and it’s a good reminder that Virginia has its fair share of sports successes. The games have inspired me to dive into the archives, and I’ve found eight Virginia Glee Club alums who also played hoops for UVa. In chronological order:

George Harold Atkisson. From Quincy, Illinois, Atkisson (1887 – 1964) played center in 1906–1907 for Virginia.

Percy Rudolph AshbyA Hampton boy, Ashby (1888 – 1931) was an engineering student who was also at home on the court and on the track.

UVA Men's Basketball Team, in 1912 Corks and Curls
UVA Men’s Basketball Team, in 1912 Corks and Curls

Edward White Kearns. Born 1890 in Taunton, Massachusetts, Kearns wasn’t just a basketball player–playing at right forward, he was also captain of the team in 1911–1912, having played the previous year with Ashby. That year the team went 7 and 4, losing to Guilford, Georgetown (twice), and Washington & Lee (a blowout, 24 – 9).

Charles Cazeove Plummer. This engineering student from Mobile, Alabama (born 1899, died 1967) was also in the German Club, meaning that he was responsible for helping to plan and organize the germans, or formal cotillons, for the student body.

Carlysle Allen Bethel. Bethel (born 1904 in Richmond, Virginia, died 1996) appears to have been a well rounded athlete, as he played on both the football and basketball squad in 1923 – 1924.

Norman N. Adler. Born in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York, Adler was a basketball player, ran track, and was in the Navy ROTC program during the war years, graduating in 1944. He went on to become a physician, practicing in New York until his death in 1988.

Roger Dana Fraley. Fraley likely played on the team alongside Adler. Born in 1923 in Cleveland, Virginia, he appears to have been highly active at Virginia, as he was also a member of Alpha Tau Omega, the Raven Society, the Honor Committee, Alpha Kappa Psi, the semi-secret T.I.L.K.A., and the political organization Skull and Keys. He died in 2011.

Robert B. Roberson. The last (so far) singing hoops player on the list, Roberson, graduating in 1964, played varsity basketball and baseball and was also the sports editor of the Cavalier Daily, which is a pretty neat trick if you ask me.

The vinyl inheritance: really, really finished

I’ve written before about the project to rip all my vinyl, and about the various donors to what is currently a towering stack of unshelved records. But today I finished making my way through the very first group of donated vinyl, a set of about 100 records from my in-laws.

The last album, which sat untouched for almost a year, was a ten-record set of classical “greatest hits,” presented (though not played) by the great Arthur Fiedler. It’s got a little of everything around the world, if by “the world” you mean Europe (including Russia) in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s a Reader’s Digest compilation, which of course means it’s Pleasure Programmed® (though it didn’t come with one of the amazing “pleasure programmer” card inserts). In this case, it just means that the selections are organized geographically — not always by country of origin of the composer, given that the Hungarian record features works from Italian, German and Swiss composers, in addition to the inevitable Franz Liszt, but by “mood.”

But it’s a pretty good tour of the canon and adjacent islands anyway. My wife, who is not normally forthcoming with musical memories, noted that she used to spend many hours with this set. Guess I have something to do with my time now that we have many hours at home…

The Untitled Goose Game is the game we need right now

It’s a sign of how incredibly high our boredom levels are that we bought a Nintendo Switch this past week. It arrived yesterday and we hooked it up. Of course the games we ordered won’t come until later this week, but we checked out the online store and there it was.

“What’s the ‘Untitled Goose Game’?” Lisa asked.

I explained about how the mission of the goose is to be as obnoxious as possible to the people of the village.

“Get it,” she said.

After playing it for a while — and having The Boy play it — I ended up buying a copy for our Mac too. There’s something about being a butthead goose that is amazingly satisfying.