Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
the daily events and musings of Jim.
It provides an easy way for his friends and family to check in on him,
and serves as a online repository for his random
thoughts, kaleidoscopic flashbacks, and writings on an array of diverse topics.
“Deconstructing Jim” is simply here to
entertain you, but not intended for college credit.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Briggs & Briggs

I sold vinyl.

For a period in the mid-1980's after the music department at Brandeis kicked me out for loitering, I had to find gainful employment. I ended up in retail sales selling phonograph records in Harvard Square.

A few of my more talented colleagues at Brandeis had been more fortunate. They landed professorships at Princeton, MIT, UC Davis, and Harvard. But for those of us who had to find alternatives, the family-run music store Briggs & Briggs readily accepted a steady stream of aspiring musicians and starving composers with open arms. We were classical music refugees looking for a home and a modest income. Briggs & Briggs offered us a community to live in, and minimum wage.

The Briggs & Briggs Music Store (Established 1890) was at the heart of Harvard Sq. Although it was said that Briggs never existed, the shop was owned and operated by the Humphreys family since 1927. The "old man" (or Mr. B) paced around pretending to be useful, while his sons would run the operation. Fred handled the sheet music and scores at street-level. His brother would manage the audio department downstairs in the basement. Given that the owners did not have any formal knowledge about music, it was up to the employees to run the show...and we did. But the Humprhreys were decent people, and what they lacked in musical knowledge was made up by their personal integrity and commitment.

Briggs & Briggs at 1270 Mass Ave in Cambridge in 1999

For me, the dusty and worn music shop looked like something out of the 1950's or earlier. Tucked away high on a shelf was an antique plaster statue of Nipper, RCA's iconic dog listening to his trademark Victrola ("His Master's Voice").

We also used an antique cash register, and had to calculate the total amount, plus sales tax on each purchase while simultaneously advising another customer on the pros-and-cons of available recordings of the complete Beethoven Sonatas.

The staff was comprised of an amazing collection of characters. There was Ruth - the soon to retire manager of the Record Department - who was functionally already in retirement. She would sit behind the desk with a scowl and flip through tattered and worn index cards - which served as the sole inventory system and product database. I never saw her smile.

Ruth's successor-elect and de facto heir to the Record Department Manager position was John. John was (and is) a modernist poet. A transplant to Boston from Texas, he had gone to university for law but some how ended up as a Bohemian artist, writing poetry and listening to classical music. His wife Anne, a musician and music researcher in the making would often drop by and join in on the excitement. John had an obsession with military history and terminology, and was apt to make analogies and comparisons as such. He thought strategically, but usually acted with benevolence and charm. However on occasion, when a customer got out of line or became obnoxious or unreasonable, John would put on his uniform and flex his military prowess.

One such episode occurred when a Harvard undergraduate returned an expensive multi-record set of an opera. He said that there was surface noise on the vinyl. As manager, John accepted the record back and allowed him to take a fresh shrink-wrapped copy of the set. The next day the student returned again complaining that the new set had the same problem. John politely explained that he would probably find the same issue with any phonograph record, but the student became obnoxious and persisted with his demand to exchange his "defective" records. Finally John exploded in anger and in non-compromising terms informed the student that he was no longer allowed to shop at Briggs & Briggs. He had been banned from the store. The student, having lost his battle, retreated in disgrace.

Many who worked at Briggs & Briggs, such as Ruth, had been there for decades. The Humphreys had grown up working in the shop and been there all of their lives. My short tenure began when Tom Ryan, a violinist, resigned to study early music in Europe with Kuijken. (Tom is the elder brother cellist Dan Ryan of Musician's of the Old Post Road).

Briggs & Briggs never advertised, never had sales, and never played music in the shop. It was considered too much of a distraction for the hardcore music aficionados who worked there or frequented as clients. It was a way of avoiding fist-fights over which recording to play. Silence is golden. But word-of-mouth advertising and random street traffic kept the store afloat. I do remember that Richard Dyer once wrote a nice article about the store for the Boston Globe.

For professional musicians, Briggs & Briggs was a consistent and dependable source of artistic nourishment. At some point every musician in town would be obliged to visit the store to purchase sheet music and/or recordings. There weren't very many alternative music outlets in the Boston/Cambridge area at that time. In an era before the Tower Records and HMV superstores came to Boston, Briggs & Briggs offered a solid selection and personal service.

I remember some of the notable musicians would stop by to acquire a new recording or just to chat. The late Patricia Zander, a pianist who accompanied the young up-and-coming cellist from Harvard named Yo-Yo. Conductor Ben Zander would drop in too, and he would usually create a stir. I remember that he was very forceful in his request to put a large poster for his forthcoming concert prominently in the window. John held his ground against it, although Zander exerted the force of a tornado.

Another time, after helping a customer find some Renaissance choral music, I took his credit card. It read "Nelson Goodman." I looked up and inquired "are you the Nelson Goodman - the philosopher?" He looked surprised, but replied "yes." When I told him that I had just finished reading his book Languages of Art and was very impressed with it, he came back and replied "that makes two of you - you and my wife."

I remember other "visitors" such as composer/conductor "Olie" Knussen, British musicologist Arnold Whittall, and Dutch pianist/accompanist Tan Crone (who studied at NEC).

Apparently, in the 1930's Duke Ellington had dropped into the store and played a few numbers on the piano.

Celebs would drop in as well. I remember chatting about leftist politics with Abby Rockefeller as she picked up some folk recordings prior to her visit to Cuba. One night Joan Kennedy (Ted's Ex) and her boyfriend walked in just seconds before the 6 PM closing time. Joan is an amateur pianist and classical music advocate. She autographed my coffee-stained napkin from Au Bon Pain before leaving, and to this day I still have it.

John stayed ahead of the curve by reading Gramophone cover-to-cover every month, and ordering all of the new releases as soon as they were available. This gave us a slight edge over our main competitor - the Harvard Coop - which was larger but less efficient and not as personal. The Coop did have a dynamite expert in vocal music - mezzo soprano Pamela Dellal - who trumped our expertise in operatic music quite decisively. But, Briggs & Briggs had a penchant for recordings of the more esoteric and obscure forms of expression: avant garde contemporary music, early music, world music, and anything off-beat and bizarre.

Often customers would come into the store looking for the most obscure and unobtainable items. John prided himself on going the extra mile to obtain these recordings on special order. But customers would often listen to WGBH's Robert J., who had a habit of playing and specifically recommending selections from CDs that were out-of-print, not distributed to stores (i.e. Musical Heritage Society), or just not available in America. For this reason Robert J. was the "bane of our existence."

Everyone had their own personal clientele. I remember a blind man who would come and consult with exclusively with John about recordings of classical piano music. He would listen exclusively to Haydn, Mozart, and perhaps SOME Beethoven. That was about it. John tried to get him to broaden his scope of listening, but ultimately the customer couldn't escape the comfort zone of that particular period of music. (I guess that if you are going to be limited to one stylistic period, that is not a terrible place to be stuck in).

My "clients" included Boston-area composers. I remember selling a truck-load of modern music records to a then emerging composer Susan Blaustein, including the complete Alban Berg set on DG.

Sales people from the record distributors would drop by periodically, or call in for their orders. I remember visits from Dennis Miller - composer, organizer of Boston ISCM, and presently a media artist and music professor at Northeastern University.

John would skillfully negotiate our purchases in such as way as to maximize the number of "promos" we would receive. In lieu of a decent salary, we would be fed a constant stream of new releases as demos, and my formative record collection of today was built largely with this perk. But even with this fringe benefit, we would often spend a sizable chunk of our meager weekly salary on additional records or scores, which the Humphreys would kindly provide to employees at cost.

For for lunch hour I would often step out the door and head over to the Yenching Chinese restaurant nearby for the bargain MSG lunch special. It's still there today. In nice weather I'd sit outdoors at Au Bon Pain, and watch activity around the Chess Master. Surprisingly, after all these years and changes in Harvard Square, the Yenching restaurant and the Chess Master (Mr. Murray Turnbull) are still around.

Turnbull has been sitting there since 1982, rain or shine, hot or cold. He keeps a "super-soaker" water gun by his side to ward off pigeons that aim for him or his chess board. The hat he wears is functional.

Sometimes for lunch I'd go just next door to Bartley's for a burger and fries. While the prices have gone up over the decades, the atmosphere and great taste remain. My favorite item was a burger on their menu with lettuce, tomato, onion, and Russian dressing.

Working at Briggs & Briggs was convenient too. I was essentially homeless, but fortunately for the duration I could sublet the rent-controlled apartment of composer Ezra Sims a few doors down the street at 1168 Mass Ave while he was out to the country on a fellowship. It was only a 2 minute walk to work. Alternatively I would house sit for wealthy people in Cambridge who needed a caretaker.

Sometimes it was hard to tell where the world of Harvard Square street performers ended and the sanctuary of the music store began (although there was a subway-like turnstyle that marked the boundary into and out of the record department). I recall that one regular customer, Mark DeVoto (now Professor of Music emeritus at Tufts University), grabbed a portable electronic keyboard and began banging out a vigorous blues. Everyone in the store, staff and customers alike, were greatly entertained.

Change is inevitable. A new technology was on the horizon. A thin silvery disk arrived one day, and mystified us all. It was called the Compact Disk or "CD" for short. Everyone looked at it with awe, and a degree of scepticism. How could this new media ever catch on? For one thing, it was so expensive, and so little music was available on it. It was also hard to display in the store with its awkward packaging, and the liner notes were so small that you needed a magnifying glass to read them. Yet the LP had replaced 78's. Perhaps the CD would eventually replace the LP. The sound quality was reported to be superior, and listeners wouldn't have to deal with annoying pops, scratches, and skips inherent with vinyl records. Another big selling point was that CDs don't need to be flipped over or changed as frequently as records. Our future as vinyl salesmen was about to change - forever.

John, who was ultimately promoted to Manager, was an early adapter of the CD, and for a time successfully rode the wave of new product releases in the digital format. After Christmas I left my position at the store to pursue other things, and was replaced in the record department by yet another Brandeis composer (Stephen Clarke?) with a penchant for Expressionism (he later set some of John's poems to music). Stephen had an artistic flair, and made beautiful custom signs for the record and CD bins. Eventually John left the store when his wife Anne got a teaching job in Chicago and transitioned the Record Department Manager role over to Steve (who is now at Barnes and Noble at the The Harvard Coop).

Briggs & Briggs was forced to leave the Mass. Ave. location across the street from Harvard in 1999. The landlord raised the rent beyond reason. It is now an Adidas sports store. The Humphreys downsized and relocated for a time into a storefront up the road in Porter Square. But this didn't last for long, and Fred Humphreys was forced close the store for good in the year 2000. All that remains is the memory.

You can read more about the demise of Briggs & Briggs, in the Harvard Crimson...


I am not John Adams

It has happened more than once. Over the course of the years people have approached me at contemporary music concerts and timidly introduced themselves. When they learn that I am not John Adams the renowned American composer, they usually back off in disappointment.

Once at a new music festival at Lincoln Center in the 1980's a young composition student approached me. He started talking to me as if I were John Adams. After I explained that I wasn't the composer he thought I was, he thought I was pulling his leg. He was certain that I was in fact John Adams, but did not want to admit it to him.

I've secretly wondered if any of my fans have approached John Adams and mistaken him for me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Rembrandt's "Nightwatch"

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1642)
Now, at the Rembrandt Square in Amsterdam...

Nightwatch 3D
22 life-sized bronze figures by Russian artists Alexander Taratynov and Mikhail Dronov created over a period of six years. It was created to celebrate the 400 years since Rembrandt's birth. The statues were created in Moscow and transported to Amsterdam in 2006.
It's nice to be there,"walk into the painting," and see each figure from differing angles. It's a unique visual experience. The original Rembrandt statue in the square stands high over the new Nightwatch figures, looking on from his pedestal with approval.

It's not a far walk over to the Rembrandt House (now a museum). He had quite an impressive operation going on in that enormous home/studio. I found it interesting that people slept in enclosed wooden box beds sitting upright. It was commonly believed that if you lied down, blood would rush to your head and kill you.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Biking in Amsterdam

The best way to get around in Amsterdam is by bike. Anyone can hang on to the front or back of a bike as an extra passenger. Here is a video of Willemien and Joseph pedaling through the city with Jasper and Guido...

Wearing a helmet is considered to be for wimps and rarely seen. Yet biking at night requires working head and tail lights - otherwise you might be fined.

Bike paths are ubiquitous, and each intersection across the countryside is indicated with a unique route number on a mushroom-like looking marker called the ANWB paddestoel (or wegwijzer). These numbers can be correlated to a comprehensive and detailed bike map in a book or on the web. Travel between any two points in Holland can be planned in advance and notated as a numeric sequence of intersections on a national grid. There is no guesswork about the distances since this is calculated for you.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Biking Across the Border

Yesterday we had a traditional Dutch breakfast with our friends. They live a small municipality called Didam in Eastern Holland ( The breakfast consisted of assorted breads garnished with butter and Chocoladehagel - or chocolate sprinkles. It is similar to what we know in Boston as "Jimmies."

It was decided that after breakfast we would all take a morning bike ride together, since the weather was so nice. Bikes were readied, and our two families drove off - seven people in all.

It was very scenic in the little town of Didam. The streets are brick, and the houses and shops small and quaint. For a Friday morning, there was little traffic on the street. Within just a few minutes we got into the countryside amongst the small farms with grass-thatched roofs adorned with farm animals grazing in the sun (sheep, goats, and cows).

A little farther out from town there were houses with horses of all types, shapes and colors. Some of the horses were really beautiful - tall and black. Others were miniatures, virtually the size of large dogs. I saw a family training one of their large black horses. It was on a rope and would prance around them in a circle with the father, mother, and little child standing in the center of it all.

Farther along we spied windmills amongst the canals and corn fields. We stopped for a rest and to drink some water and juice we had brought along.

Before long we were on a bike trail leading through the woods. It looked like a nature conservation area - very cool in the shade and surrounded by thickly wooded forest - although there were some gradually inclined hills which are very uncharacteristic of the Dutch landscape. Our host and certified tour guide Wouter told us a story about a wild boar he had encountered in these woods. You need to be careful to avoid the nettle on the sides of the bike path.

In the next leg of the trip we came into a little town with a bustling street market. I noticed that the signs were no longer in Dutch. Apparently, we had crossed the border into neighboring Germany.

From there we climbed a larger hill along a street of houses with thatched roofs. Some men were busy at work replacing the grass roof of one such house (rauchen verboten - smoking forbidden).

At the top of the hill was 't Pannekoekhuys, a restaurant run by a Netherlands ex-patriot. For the Dutch tourists he offers Pannen Koek and Poffertjes - or very small pancakes smothered in butter and powdered sugar. We all went for the Poffertjes. It was just what we needed after climbing the hill.

We noticed on the menu that it specified a portion of Poffertjes is exactly 19 pancakes (not more and not less). This seemed odd to us. Why not round it up to 20? After investigating this matter at home, we discovered that the standard Poffertjes pan has exactly 19 indentations...

The pancake restaurant - run by Dave Seegers and his family - is decorated with elves, gnomes, fantasy characters of all types, and stuffed animals.

In the summer months, bugs must be a problem for the outdoors patrons.
A humongous "Texas Fly-swatter" is available to anyone who needs it.

After our snack, we walked to a lookout point. A bridge could be seen in the distance. This bridge, which connects Emmerich on the north of the Rhine with Kleve on the south, was opened in 1965. It has a length of 1228 meters and a span of 500 meters making it the longest suspension bridge in Germany. Approximately 500 ships pass underneath it every day.

This whole area was a major battle ground during WWII. The town is called Elten. I later learned that Elten has alternately belonged to the Netherlands and Germany since the end of WWII. However, the area we had climbed is called Hoch-Elten.

At the pinnacle of Hoch-Elten is a church that was originally built in the 11th century, although it was bombed to the ground during the war. It has since been refurbished and carefully restored - a process that we observed never ends. St. Vitus Hoch-Elten has a beautiful sounding bell that rang 12 times for us at noon. We viewed the Sanctuary and interior space.

After regaining our strength, we got on our bikes and began the trip back to Didam in Holland. We went a different way this time, through different woods and farm lands which seemed even more spectacular than what we had seen before. There were some long hills to ascend, but the speedy coast down hill on the other side made the climb worthwhile. Not having biked much and being out of shape, I began to tire a little and lag behind the group. But since there was only one way to get home, I had to keep pedaling and stay up with the group. We finally made it back, and in the end our little mourning bike jaunt covered 32 kilometers! It was a simple and brief "morning bike ride" for our hosts. For me, it was the longest bike ride I've ever taken, but by far the most enjoyable. Although I am sore all over, and I pushed myself to the limit of what I can do physically, I really enjoyed the trip. Here is a short video clip of the group entering into Elten, Germany...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Food in the Netherlands

Traditional Dutch food is healthy and nutritious - which is probably a contributing factor to the Dutch being the tallest people on the planet today.

But I like the variety of the "ethnic" foods available everywhere in the cities of Holland.

One interesting phenomenon is the predominance of Chinese/Suriname cuisine. I'm told that it is a fusion between the foods of these two cultures - a melding sweet and spicy elements.

This place is near the Central Station in Amsterdam.

Indonesian food is everywhere (not to mention Chinese/Indonesian fusion). We ate at Aneka Rasa on the Warmoesstraat, and it was delicious.

I would also recommend the Diya Indian Restaurant on the van Woustraat in Amsterdam but beware, they do not accept credit cards.

In the city of Purmerend you can find a classy Thai Restaurant named Arissa Noo-di. Consult with the staff when placing your order about the degree of "spicy hot" you desire. It can be far hotter than American standards, and the spice in your dish might be excessive to your tastes.

For the traditional Dutch foods, you need to try raw herring (hold it by the tail) and broodje kroket. We were told that the Holtkamp Bakery shop in Amsterdam is renowned for it's kroketten...

Make sure it has cooled before you bite into it, their kroket is served steaming hot.

(McDonald's offers a McKroket on their Dutch menu, but it pales in comparison to a quality kroket as made by the masters at Holtkamp).

I love their Art Deco store front.

The pastries are to die for, but bring tons of cash. Holtkamp is a bit pricey.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Dutch Innovation

Sometimes the little things get your attention.

This 1.5 liter container of milk seems quite ordinary at first glance, but to a closer look.

The container features a handy pullout tab on the spout that makes it easier to open. (How many times have you torn the spout of a standard American milk container while opening it?).

There is also a transparent measuring window along the side of the container. You can immediately see how much milk has been used, and how much remains. It's marked off in 250 ml increments, so a measuring cup is not needed for food preparation.

This container of verse halvolle melk (fresh lowfat milk) was purchased at the Albert Heijn supermarket for 81 Euro cents (about $1.24 US).

Here is another example...

Notice that the drinking glass has a mark indicating the exact filling point to reach 0.2 liters.

No ambiguity here... you get what you pay for!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Cafe Life

On Thursday evening August 7th we met up with our friend Petra (seated second from the left). Petra had suggested that we meet at an outdoor cafe along the Keizersgracht.

The center of Amsterdam is relatively small, but I found it a nice coincidence that the cafe was practically in front of the grachten house I had lived in for the month of December 1984. The Walem Cafe (seen below in a 1984 postcard but still in operation) is at address 449 Keizersgracht. I lived on the top floor of the eighth grachten house down to the left. Number 433.

(Keizersgracht 447, 449, 451)

Here is a photo taken by Joseph of the view across from our cafe on the Keizersgracht.

A swan swam up to our table begging for some appelgebak.

This 1984 postcard shows the buildings
where the Keizersgracht intersects with the Leidsegracht.

Just to the right of our cafe at number 455 is the newer "Metz" building. Four canal houses were demolished in 1891 for this newer structure with a unique tower. The round glass-enclosed penthouse on the roof was added in 1933 and designed by the renowned Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld.

You can go up to the roof and get a nice view of the city from the Metz cafe.

Another favorite cafe that we revisited after many years was De IJsbreker (the Icebreaker) at Weesperzijde 23 along the Amstel river. This photo below was how it looked in 1920, but from the outside it looks very much the same today.

De IJsbreker was home to a small concert hall dedicated to contemporary music performance. It has an adjoining cafe where the public, performers, and composers could mingle before, after, and during concerts to consume large amounts of koffie verkeerd ("wrong" coffee) served in green cups with gold trim and strong Duvel Bier from Belgium.

It also was connected to an independent new music-friendly radio station the Concertzender. Willemien volunteered for them in the early '80s.

Today De IJsbreker cafe exists, and the coffee and appelgebak is as good as ever, but the vibrant new music scene has moved to the new and classy Muziekgebouw near the Central Station.

The "Brown Cafes" in Amsterdam are called so because of the nicotine-stained walls, but with the new smoking ban that just went in effect this summer, we found all public spaces to be smoke-free.

This photo is of the Hoopman Irish Pub (a brown cafe) in the Leidseplein.

And yes, at the age of 16 Joseph can legally order his own beer or glass of wine.

Even for those who live in Amsterdam their entire lives, it is unlikely that they could visit all of the cafes in the city. But it would be fun to try.


Island Life

A sunny summer day on a small private island in Loosdrecht, Holland....

Guido and Jasper

Jan and Jim

The summer house

Guido on the swing while Joseph mows the grass

A view of Loosdrecht from the yard

Video of Island Life

The Dutch sky

The cousins (Guido, Jasper, and Joseph)