Preparing John Adams’ “Transmigration”

This coming weekend will mark the culminating celebration of the centennial of the Pulitzer Prize, with a two day series of symposia and concerts at Harvard University. I’ll be singing on Sunday night, not coincidentally the 15th anniversary of September 11, as part of a performance of John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls.

The Adams work was commissioned for the first commemoration of the 9/11 attacks and was first performed September 12, 2002. It’s a powerful work that combines symphonic and children’s choruses, orchestra, and tape of voices reading names of 9/11 victims, fliers that were left, and interviews with families. From a performer’s perspective, the great thing is that the music is so rich and demands so much attention for pitch and rhythm that it’s very unlikely that we’ll get swallowed by the subject matter and become too choked up to perform—which might otherwise be a very real danger.

It’s going to be a very atypical performance for the TFC, as it is not a BSO performance and is held in an unusual venue for us—though not a new one for me, as I performed in Sanders Theater in 1993 with the Virginia Glee Club, almost 23 years ago.

Some free tickets are still available. It should be a hugely worthwhile event. I’m only sorry I won’t be able to see Wynton Marsalis in his part of the event the night before.

Reaping the whirlwind

Talking Points Memo: SCOTUS denies NC request to halt ruling blocking voting restrictions.

The Republican strategy to win elections is to prevent blocs of voters from voting. That’s the conclusion one reaches by looking at the combination of photo ID requirements, cutbacks to early voting, elimination of same-day registration, prohibition of pre-registration of young voters, and other measures that the NC GOP engaged in. These were all strategies that were found by a federal appeals court to “disproportionately [affect] African Americans” and to target “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Without addressing the constitutionality or morality of such a plan,* the question one has to ask is, for how long does the GOP plan to win elections by disenfranchisement, rather than by addressing the issues of those voting blocks and bringing them into the fold? It seems as though the answer is: for as long as they can get away with it. And if they can’t get away with it, their candidate suggests, they should switch tactics to outright voter intimidation.

The only bright light I see is this reliance on disenfranchisement and intimidation seems like a de facto acknowledgement by the party that it is losing its ability to win elections legitimately. In the long run, if the GOP does not win the 2016 presidential election, it’s going to have to either confront this fatal weakness and change course, or dissolve. Buckle your seat belts. One way or the other, 2017 is going to be interesting.

* There are certainly other voices that have done that; see these notes on specific blunders North Carolina lawmakers committed that left smoking gun trails to point to the intent to suppress African American voting;  memos sent urging the state to vote on the party line to restrict hours for early voting and keep polling places closed on Sundays, which are disproportionately when African Americans vote; and unexplained and unannounced changes in polling locations, among other issues.

Exploring EPCOT’s Horizons ride from the inside

I have a new obsession: reading the archives of the Mesa Verde Times blog. This pseudonymous walkthrough of a series of surreptitious behind-the-scenes tours of the late, lamented Horizons future ride at Disney’s EPCOT is fascinating as much for the old-school blogging as it is for the actual content. Which, don’t get me wrong, is plenty fascinating, as it consists of pictures of hidden areas of the ride’s sets and maintenance areas, Easter eggs left by the ride’s designers (you’ll never guess what the designers hid in the fridge of the Desert Habitat Kitchen, next to the sausages).

Start at the beginning and read up.

Digital Yoknapatawpha

UVA Today: UVA spearheads efforts to digitally map Faulkner’s world. Stephen Railton and the fine folks at IATH are continuing their project to create an interactive way to access Faulkner’s writing. Some of the visualizations, like the Location-Character Graph, look like they have the potential to revolutionize study of his writings.

Thirty thousand feet over Peach Springs, Arizona

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Living in a densely populated state like Massachusetts, it’s sometimes a shock to be reminded that we have such immense areas of uninhabitable land in the United States. There’s nothing like a flyover of the Grand Canyon to bring that home.

And there’s nothing like following it up with a flyover of Lake Mead and a landing in Las Vegas to remind oneself of just how much we’ve changed the landscape of this country. And how much water matters.

Separating the artist from the art

I was in an interesting Facebook discussion last night. One of my friends was struggling to reconcile love for the works of Edgar Allan Poe with increased evidence that he was a virulent racist.

It occurred to me, as I thought about my response, that this is not unlike being a lifelong student of Thomas Jefferson while acknowledging that he not only owned slaves but fathered children with one of them.

What I’ve come to increasingly understand—not “appreciate,” but understand—is that this whole country is tainted with racism and slavery. It’s like Bob Dylan said: “Seen an arrow on the doorpost / Saying this land’s been condemned / All the way from New Orleans / To Jerusalem.” We are, all of us Americans, complicit in the original sin of America. That doesn’t mean, to me, that you throw out the whole thing; it means that you appreciate the moments of beauty that have managed to poke their heads above the horror all around them.

New engineering degree requirements

Boing Boing (Cory Doctorow): For the first time, a federal judge has thrown out police surveillance evidence from a ‘Stingray’ device.

In the future, perhaps we should add a course in constitutional law to the requirements for an engineering degree. Or, better, a business degree. Or even better, as a requirement for employment in law enforcement.

The greatest nation on earth?

I’ve been reading a little more conservative thought recently, to try to understand the mindset of those who would support Donald Trump. One of the things that seems to put the noses out of joint of those I’m reading is any admission that America is less than perfect.

An example of this thinking is this post on the Old Virginia Blog, whose author, Richard Williams, seems generally more balanced than other conservative I’ve read. Beginning with a quotation from Gordon S. Wood, he reads the focus of some modern historians on the dispossessed (women, Native Americans, African slaves) as the “incessant denouncing of America,” which he reads as leading people to thoughts like the Twitter hashtag #AmericaWasNeverGreat. (The Newsroom episode from which the hashtag derives must raise his blood pressure through the roof.)

I think, to realistically assess where we are with America in our 240th year, you need to look at history with clear eyes, which has to mean acknowledging the histories of those we’ve dispossessed, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us. This is after all the “Great American Experiment,” as De Tocqueville famously observed, and that means a willingness to observe undesirable outcomes and learn from them, not simply ignore them.

But I also think it’s a mistake to not acknowledge the great things the experiment has produced. I can be proud of my country while still acknowledging the many, many people for whom it hasn’t worked—because I think we can work to make it better.

“…and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them”

Pitchfork: Blood and Echoes: The Story of Come Out, Steve Reich’s Civil Rights Era Masterpiece. One of Reich’s early experiments in tape loop composition, the composition treats the spoken testimony of 18-year-old Daniel Hamm, who was beaten by police for trying to protect Harlem school children from being injured by an overexcited patrolman.

Later unjustly incarcerated as one of the Harlem Nine, Hamm’s story lives in Reich’s composition. Beaten by six to 12 officers over the course of the night, they tried to refuse him medical treatment on the grounds that he wasn’t visibly bleeding. Hamm recalls that he reached down to a knotted bruise on his leg and “I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” Reich loops this appalling statement via two tape players, one in each stereo channel, that drift slowly into and out of phase, into what has varyingly been described as a “raga,” a psychedelic experience, early minimalism, and media overload. To me, it speaks as a reminder that Black Lives Matter is responding to something that isn’t a new problem.

Out of the background: James Armistead Lafayette

Sarah Wells: Why We Need to Talk About James Armistead Lafayette. A thoughtful blog post from a high school student about a lesser known figure from the American Revolution.

James Armistead, born a slave in the possession of Virginian William Armistead, secured the permission of his master to join the American army under the command of General Lafayette. He became a spy, serving as a double agent to get information both from Benedict Arnold and from Lord Cornwallis. After the war, with support from both William Armistead and Lafayette, he petitioned the General Assembly for his freedom and was manumitted.

James Armistead Lafayette’s story gives me pause—not merely because of the general lack of knowledge about his life, but because of the small window of time during which his manumission was possible. Though William Armistead sounds enlightened, the odds that James would have been freed had he not rendered such extraordinary service to the new Republic—and had a war hero on his side—seems extremely unlikely. I would guess that if his story played out around 1830 or later (when he died), the sentiment of the average Virginia slaveowner would not have been toward freedom.