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


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.

Integrating the Virginia Glee Club in 1961

1961-62 Glee Club in the 1962 Corks and Curls, page 159
1961-62 Glee Club in the 1962 Corks and Curls, page 159. Courtesy University of Virginia Library

On Saturday afternoon, we were wrapping up a tour of Virginia Glee Club archives in the Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. I had just taken about 50 alums, friends, conductors and family through the items, which I knew quite well having reviewed all of them—and donated some of them myself. We had also just ceremonially donated former Glee Club director Donald Loach‘s collection of concert programs to the library, and I was feeling pretty good about myself as a historian.

Then an alum asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. “Do you know who the first African-American member of Club was?”

After a pause, I replied, “No, but we should.”

The Virginia Glee Club is part of the larger story of the University of Virginia, and that story includes discrimination against African-Americans. It wasn’t until 1950 that Gregory Swanson, a graduate of Howard Law School, applied to take graduate courses at the University of Virginia, was denied admission, sued and won, becoming the first black student at the University—only to drop out in the summer of 1951. The University’s president, Colgate Darden, said he “was not well prepared for the work.” In the early 1950s two other African Americans followed in Swanson’s footsteps, and Walter N. Ridley became the first black student not only to gain a degree at the University but also the first black student to receive a doctorate from any Southern university.

It took the undergraduate schools a few more years, but in September 1955, following on the heels of the 1954 Brown vs. Board decision, three black students matriculated in the engineering school. Theodore Thomas and George Harris dropped out by the following spring, but Robert Bland continued on and was the first African-American undergraduate to graduate from the University in 1959, nine full years after the struggle for integration started. Also at the end of the fifties, Edgar F. Shannon took over as University president, and that’s when things started to get rolling.

I knew that the first black Glee Club member had to have joined sometime after 1959. I knew the story of David L. Temple, Jr., class of 1969, who was a member of Club from 1967 to 1969 and desegregated the fraternity system at the University, but I believed the first African-American member of Glee Club came earlier.

My second thought was that he would have joined during Don Loach’s first season as conductor, 1964-65. There’s a story in our archives that the Glee Club went on tour that fall, only to have their bus refused service in a truck stop on Route 29. After the tour, Loach raised the issue with President Shannon, and subsequently the truck stops got integrated. It’s a great story, and I assumed that this young man (whose name I’m still working on identifying; I have a bunch more candidates to work through with yearbook pictures) was the first student. (Update: I was closer than I thought. See below.) But as I was flipping through the 1965 yearbook, I found a picture of one of the graduating students of the Class of 1965 and knew we had found our candidate.

In 1961-1962, the group picture of the Glee Club for the first time has a black face. (That’s the picture up above.) The young man standing on the second row to the left side of the stage of Old Cabell Hall is Edwin S. Williams, of Smithfield. He stayed in the Glee Club for two seasons—as did most members, since it could only be taken as a graded course for two years—and completed his BA in chemistry, graduating with the class of 1965. And I believe, based on the evidence I have so far, that he was the first African-American member of the Virginia Glee Club.

There’s certainly more of his story to be told, and I will continue to look for more information. But one of my first questions is: if the truck stops on Rt 29 were first integrated in 1964-65, what did Williams do when the Glee Club got on a bus in 1961-62? I think we have a lot more to learn, but I’m glad we’ve taken the first step.

Update April 28: Donald Loach filled in the missing pieces by confirming that Edwin S. Williams was still in Glee Club in 1964-1965—was the baritone section leader, in fact—and was the Club man not served at the truck stop. So the stories are connected! And we need to fix our roster information.

Bathroom equality: Virginia and North Carolina

Associated Press: Court overturns Virginia school’s transgender bathroom rule. The rule, implemented by the Gloucester County School Board, prohibited a transgender teen from using the boy’s bathroom. The 4th Circuit of the US Court of Appeals ruled that the school board not only violated Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination in schools, but also ignored a US Department of Education rule requiring that transgender students must be allowed to use the restroom corresponding to their gender identity.

The case as decided by the appeals court seems cut and dried. The case argued by the school board, and behind North Carolina’s hysterical anti-LGBT law last month, seems more rooted in fear and bigotry than in the law. The concept that transgender students are more likely to commit sex crimes in public restrooms than GOP lawmakers is a fallacy, and in trying to protect against this strawman case, the rights of transgender people are being sacrificed.

Put more simply: you’re a transgender boy, born female. Under North Carolina law you are told you must use the women’s room. How long until there is a massive outcry from women afraid that you are there to cause them harm? The net effect is to deny you the use of any public facilities at all, which is clearly discriminatory.

It would have been cheaper, and more intellectually honest, for the North Carolina GOP (and the Gloucester County School Board) to simply erect signs in hospitals, public schools, and airports that state “No transgender people.” Or, given the way the rhetoric is coming from GOP presidential candidates these days, “No transgender or Mexicans.”

In the words of I.F. Stone, “is it necessary to repeat after 2,000 years all the things you people learned in Sunday school?! How — how absent-minded — how forgetful!”

Patriot’s Day 2016

Captain Parker on the Lexington Green, Patriot's Day 2016
Captain Parker on the Lexington Green, Patriot’s Day 2016

I rolled out of bed early this morning and had the dogs walking down Massachusetts Avenue by 5:30. A jogger ran past and I said good morning.

“Seen any Redcoats?” she asked.

“Not yet,” I replied.

She went on her way and I stopped to think about it. It’s a little odd living along the route of Paul Revere’s ride, and even odder when the town stops completely so that grown men, dressed in Revolutionary costumes, can point cap guns at each other and play dead.

But, I realized today for the first time, the reenactments are an amazing gift. The thought of British soldiers marching along in front of my house made me feel irrationally anxious, as though it were my family really in danger. That feeling of invasion, of disruption—I’m pretty sure that Captain Jonathan Parker felt some of that as he prepared to face the Redcoats.

And the feeling as the Redcoats turned and marched away when our family finally got within sight of the Green, the Minutemen already playing dead, slumped on the wet grass…

It’s one thing to read about and even be able to explain the events and causes of revolution. It’s another to experience them at an emotional level, affecting your neighborhood.

Last note: as we walked up Mass Ave toward the Green, hearing the drums of the British, the crack of muskets, it was as though we were just feet away from history. And then there was a giant boom: cannon. It was indeed the shot heard ’round the world. And next year we know that we have to wake up even earlier to go and see it.

At least the pancakes were good.