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.

A little about me

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Chapel Hill, NC, United States


Art (27) Birthday (3) Book Review (4) Boston (39) CD Review (2) Celebrations (10) Concert Review (39) Dreams (4) Education (5) Employment (11) Factoid (26) Family (28) Flashback (40) Flying (6) Food (22) Friends (8) Fun (14) Health (3) Holland (5) Movies (9) Music (261) Nature (12) NY (8) Obit (8) Poetry (6) Random thoughts (99) Science (12) Sports (6) Tech (34) Travel (27) Weird stuff (28) Woodwind Quintet (1)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Noah's Ark

Breaking news...

This is a functioning replica of Noah's Ark built by Dutch contractor Johan Huibers in the Netherlands. Built approximately to scale, it is however 1/2 the length and 1/3 the width of Biblical dimensions. The ark is 150 cubits long, 30 cubits high, and 20 cubits wide. That's two-thirds the length of a football field and as high as a three-story house. It has the same capacity as 500 train boxcars. For more information you can go to the ark's official website.

Music, Cognac, and Poetry

Music, Cognac, and Poetry have a lot in common.

Music is made from vibrations in the air produced by resonating instruments in thoughtful and appealing patterns of sound. Composers render musical ideas through skillful selection and careful arrangement of these sounds in time and space, and then distill them for maximum expressive affect.

Cognac is made from what the French call eaux-de-vie (literally, "waters of life"). A subset of white grapes from the Cognac AOC region are carefully selected and doubly distilled in traditionally shaped Charentais copper stills. It must age in porous oak barrels for at least two years (VS), four years (VSOP), or from six years to twenty years (XO, or Extra Old).

Poetry is made from language, but like Music and Cognac, it filters and selects only from the most meaningful and poignant original sources. Poetry achieves its’ magical transformation from common word to highly-refined artistic expression through an age-old process of Alchemy. Distant personal memories, fleeting thoughts and emotions, and alternative perceptions of reality are all elevated to our attention by the poet, and served with a distinctive bouquet.

One can achieve great pleasure – even intoxication - from any of these carefully refined and crafted artistic experiences: Music, Cognac, and Poetry. I recommend all of them.


I’m reading a book of poetry titled “Zero Degrees at First Light" by the New York-based poet Chris Potter, published by David Robert Books (ISBN: 1933456442).

I first read the collection a few years ago, but keep coming back to it to digest individual poems to delve deeper into their richness.

Collectively the poems provide a kaleidoscopic, yet focused, view of a life with remarkable transparency, candor, and honesty. There is wisdom in Potter’s keen photographic eye, perceptive wit, and Zen-like self-awareness.

Its’ elegant writing seems to elicit emotions and memories that were either forgotten or buried deep in my soul. I find that many of these poems (46 in all) ring true, and miraculously provide a mirror to my past as well.

The title poem - “Zero Degrees at First Light” - which begins the book with the downbeat of a musical prelude, is uplifting, buoyant, and (in my reading) supercharged with the creative energy of an artist about to dive eagerly into her daily work. It’s about the noise and turbulence all around us, and how we react to it.

There is quite an assortment of themes throughout the collection, which toll like bells: impending war, loss, family, home, teaching, fine food, music, nature, and the Hudson Valley of New York state. As a poet, Potter skillfully turns the mundane (stripping paint, melting butter, or a missed left turn onto Maple Street) in something psychologically meaningful. She reads people and Nature like tea leaves.

I grinned from ear-to-ear reading the tightly composed English sonnet about the closing of the Ichi-Riki Japanese restaurant in Nyack, NY. She rhymes “hobby” with “wasabi” while reflecting with wry humor about the passing of twenty years of her life.

“On Teaching Romeo and Juliet for the Sixteenth & Final Time“ is also a sonnet, but skillfully adopts the archaic form and rhythmic structure to accentuate the experience of teaching 9th Grade English at a public high school. It is technically impressive, but the rigid poetic form highlights the humor of the moment. The Bard would be proud.

I find the poems about her childhood in suburban NY state to be particularly poignant. I can visualize her aging aunt, grandfather, grandmother, and parents with vivid clarity. She writes about her musician husband too, and the poem "Driving Home, We Listen to an Organ Recording of The Ride of the Valkyrie" is wild, funny, and boisterous. It’s one of the many musical references we find throughout the collection, including a tragically sad poem titled “Talking to Beethoven, 1967.”

The poem "Swimming Laps at the Y" is hypnotic, like a ritual meditation from the East. Structurally the stanzas (or laps in the pool) increase and contract. It breathes naturally. The number of lines in each of the seven stanzas imply symmetry and a numeric uniqueness: 4-5-6-9-7-2-5. Potter is very conscious of poetic structure, and of course is very sensitive to the impact and use of the sound of words.

The final poem or postlude - “Conjoined Twins” - seems to be about separation, and at some level about being isolated from people close to us – perhaps even from ourselves. It serves as a final cadence to the book - a kind of introspection about the act of creating poetry and how, in this case, it is our inseparable twin. It's a fitting way to conclude the cycle.

I see a symmetry between the first and final poems in the collection. They function as logical bookends, and provide the reader with important transitional entry and exit points to this collection of fascinating and loosely interrelated statements about life.

Along with the experience of good music and fine cognac, I recommend it.


Sunday, September 28, 2008


It's a bird....

It's a plane...

No, it's Birdman!

The news organizations seem to have missed this item. This past week while most Americans were distracted with the Presidential debate and the financial crisis, Leonardo's dream was realized in Europe.

A model of
Leonardo da Vinci's
flying machine

On September 25th, 50-year old Swiss pilot Yves Rossy flew solo across the English Channel like Buzz Lightyear with a $285,000 jet-powered carbon fiber wing strapped to his back. The historic trip from Calais France to Dover England was captured live by National Geographic for a future TV program.

I'm sure we will hear more about it eventually, but I've got to hand it to Mr. Rossy, he certainly knows how to have fun and put on a good show. There are parallels between creating a piece of experimental art and his breathtaking aeronautic adventure. Both are risky ventures born of a creative mind aimed to inspire the public. Although Rossy's chosen from of expression - which could easily qualify as Performance Art - comes with inherent physical risks, the fundamental goals and objectives of any artist are the essentially the same. We are all actors on the big stage, vying for your attention, praise, and applause.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Musical Interlude

The first movement of Donald Martino's Serenata Concertante (1999)performed at a memorial concert for the composer by alumni of New England Conservatory at Jordon Hall. Jeffrey Means conducts the octet for Flutes, Clarinets, Flugel Horn/Cornet, French Horn, Percussion, Piano, Violin, and Violoncello.

Martino's Parisonatina al'Dodecafonia (1964) for Violoncello performed by Ashley Bathgate.

Part I

Part II


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Rush Tickets

As college student in Boston I lived in a dorm room close to historic Symphony Hall, which opened its doors on October 15, 1900. It was designed with acoustical principles in mind and is regarded as one of the three finest halls in the world (the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Musikverein in Vienna are the other two). With the exception of the wooden floors, the Symphony Hall is built of brick, steel, and plaster which have ideal properties for the reflection of orchestral sound. It seats 2,625 people during the regular season and 2,371 during the Pops season. This season the building will have more light. Its windows had been covered over during WWII to camouflage against possible air raids from our enemies, and were just returned to their original translucent state.

I soon discovered the Boston Symphony Orchestra offers Rush Tickets. Sponsored by a generous grant that was permanently set aside specifically for this purpose, rush tickets make the BSO readily available to anyone in the public who wants hear this leading orchestra.

The tradition of discounted BSO tickets has a long tenure. It existed back when centenarian composer Elliott Carter was a student at Harvard, and he one wrote about how he took full advantage this and was able to experience the orchestral repertory up close and in person. Although the fixed ticket price has increased over the years from the $3 that I paid in 1973, it is still a great bargain at today's ticket price of $9. (My memory is fading, but I may have initially paid as little as $1.50 to purchase BSO rush tickets. Composer Robert Ceely just emailed that as as student at NEC during the Serge Koussevitzky era, rush tickets were only sixty cents. He attended every week).

Here’s the scoop:

Rush Tickets are only available at the main BSO box office at the Massachusetts Avenue entrance on the day of the concert and for performances on Tuesday & Thursday evenings and Friday afternoons. (You can’t buy them online).

For Tuesdays & Thursdays evening performances at 8pm, rush tickets go on sale at 5pm - $9.00 - cash only! (up from $8.00 last season).

For Friday afternoon performances at 1:30 PM, rush tickets go on sale at 10 AM. They will only sell one ticket per person, but you may go back into the line again an get additional tickets if it is not too long.

Rush Tickets are NOT sold for Friday or Saturday evening concerts (Which is different than it was in the 70’s when I attended every week on Saturday).

The choice of seats for rush tickets can vary. They tend to be the same every week, and many hard-core attendees get into the line early and request their favorite spots. (There is a camaraderie amongst the regulars, some of which have been attending concerts regularly on rush tickets for decades). I’d estimate that a few hundred tickets are available in the general pool, but many are single seats, with obscured vision under the balcony, or in the infamous “jump” seats on in last row of the second balcony on the sides. I’ve often wondered why they call them “jump” seats, and if the anyone has ever leaped off of the high balcony in a act of suicide during a musical climax. But there is no record of this ever occurring.

I’ve attended many BSO concerts on rush tickets over the years, and heard countless great works of music and historic performances by conductors and soloists, but these are far too numerous to list here. Let me just say that attending the BSO frequently has been one of the great advantages of living in the Boston area. The ability to do this with rush tickets makes it more affordable for the common man.

On days when there is a renowned conductor or soloist, you would be wise to get into the queue well before the ticket office opens. There are occasionally performances where all to the tickets for the general public are sold out and only rush tickets remain. But in general I estimate that it is easiest to obtain tickets without an excessive wait in line for the Friday afternoon concerts.

Occasionally you have to wait in the freezing weather to get your ticket, which is part of the experience (no pain, no gain). I remember waiting in line in the bitter sub-zero November weather with my son Joseph in 2005 to purchase two of the last remaining rush tickets to hear the famed American mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson perform the premiere of her husband Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs. It was a spectacular concert, and regrettably it turned out to be Lorraine’s last performance in Boston before she succumbed to her long battle with cancer.

If you don’t like to wait in the queue and prefer to purchase an affordable ticket in advance, you can always attend a BSO Open Rehearsal. Open rehearsals which are scheduled for one of six Thursday mornings or four Wednesday evenings in the 2008-09 season. They are open to the public at a deeply discounted price from the regular ticket prices. If you get to Symphony Hall early, you can sit anywhere you want. General admittance and seating is on a first come, first served basis. But be aware that these performances are working rehearsals in which the conductor may stop the orchestra to rehearse specific passages of the music. There is no guarantee that the entire program without interruption will be performed during a rehearsal.

It’s interesting to see how musical sausages are made. The Boston musician’s union (Local 9-535 of the American Federation of Musicians) has a lot of power, and by contract the open rehearsals last the regulation rehearsal time from 7:30 to 10 PM – not a minute longer. Open rehearsals have been a bit of a sticking point, since all the dirty laundry is potentially on display for everyone to hear. Under the standard trade agreement between management and the members of the Orchestra, nobody is allowed into a rehearsal except by a majority vote of the orchestra. However the musicians voted to allow students and the public to attend a limited number of rehearsals (six Thursday mornings and four Wednesday evenings in the 2008-09 BSO season).

While I prefer rush tickets, I have also attended many open rehearsals to observe how difficult pieces are put together. It’s a good idea to sit close to the stage, so that comments made by the music director can be heard. I like to sit on the edge of the upper balcony just over the stage with score in hand. Last season I watched and listened to Maestro James Levine rehearse the Berg Violin Concerto and the Mahler 9th Symphony. He would stop often, and work on the details of balance and articulation. Often the piece is still in a quite raw form, but you can observe the process of it becoming more polished. It’s interesting for musicians to observe, but too often the meticulous attention to detail and frequent interruption drive the elderly casual listeners batty. Many of them descend on Symphony Hall from senior citizen homes and are not overly enthusiastic about hearing Berg or Schoenberg in the first place. Add to that the painstaking efforts of musicians working under the stress of an all-to-short rehearsal period, and you can see the signs of frustration coming from the public.

Often the “audience” at open rehearsals consists of music students and professional musicians. As I looked up from my score of the Malher 9th Symphony last year, I noticed Gustavo Dudamel coming into balcony near me with a few members of his acclaimed Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, an orchestra consisting mainly of children and teenagers from slums of Venezuela. They had just performed at a sold out concert in Symphony Hall the night before. Dudamel saw that I had the score in hand and we exchanged glances and said “hello.” From what I hear, the now 27 year old is a wunderkind on steroids and regarded by some as the finest conductor in the world. Together we watched James Levine shape and mold Mahler. Dudamel will have to do it himself when he becomes Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic next year.

Keep in mind that high society has always supported orchestras. The BSO is no exception. The top ticket price to attend the Opening Night “Gala” is $2,500. If you would like to hear the majority of the concerts this season (25 Saturday evenings) and have the best seats, a subscription will cost you $2,725. On the other extreme you can secure less-than-desirable season seats for $725 per person, but don’t forget the added expense of parking in that area of town. That's not exactly what the average person can afford.

I wish I could say that the BSO 2008-09 season will be extraordinary in terms of its programming. They have come down a notch and frankly given-in to the public’s recent clamoring for less Schoenberg and modern music. Levine, back on the podium after having a cancerous kidney removed this summer, has toned down his aggressive new-music stance, and more of the tried and proven orchestral war horses have made it into this year’s concert schedule at the expense works by 20th and 21st century composers.

But there are still some concerts of interest, including works by Boulez, Messiaen and world premieres by Gunther Schuller, Elliott Carter, and Leon Kirchner. Perhaps the highlight will be one of my personal favorites, the Ives 4th Symphony conducted by Alan Gilbert in March.

The Dutch will be represented by Bernard Haitnk (BSO Conductor Emeritus), cellist Pieter Wispelway, and violinist Janine Jansen.

The BSO brochure reads “Wispelwey brings his historically informed approach to Haydn’s popular Cello Concerto number 2.” Does this comment imply that all of the other BSO performances – past and present – are not “historically informed?”

I have not heard violinist Janine Jansen, but from her photo I wonder if she is related to Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

Mr. Spock
Ms. Jansen

Put away your iPod and go to hear some live music. There is no substitute for the excitement of a concert. Support your local musicians, whoever they are.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Uncle Arnold and Aunt Aurelia

I come from a large family. Each of my parents had many sisters and brothers.

My dad's siblings included Louis (b. 1900), Charles (b. 1902), Frank (b. 1910), Victor (b. 1916), Helen (b.1917), Elia (b. 1914), Jean (b. 1912), Aurelia (b. 1906), and Mary (who was born in 1905, but died that same year of influenza).

Aurelia’s husband was Arnold Johnson, but they had no children. They were fixtures at our family celebrations, along with other uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends, and various guests.

Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving were times when our large family congregated.

This photo of Aunt Aurelia (or "Aunt Ray")
was taken in Florida in 1975

Here is Aurelia with my cousin Audra

Uncle Arnold was a quiet, soft spoken and gentle man. He and Aurelia lived in Greenwich Village, but they liked to come visit us in the “burbs” to escape the heat of NYC in the summertime. Arnold in particular loved the outdoors, and would volunteer to pull weeds from the garden while Aurelia would collect fresh tomatoes and make her famous tomato sauce with a recipe that she inherited from her mother.

Arnold had a voracious appetite, and could eat us out of house and home, although he somehow managed to remain thin as a rail throughout his life. He also had a fondness for good wine and scotch whiskey, but never acted or displayed his intoxication. My mom theorized that “he had a wooden leg.”
My uncle Arnold, in the center of the photo, eating voraciously

Arnold listened more than he talked, but when he said something, it was deliberate and well-considered. He had the aura of a learned professor, but also seemed down-to-earth. Arnold had an interest in art and music, and sincerely wanted to learn more about what my brothers and I were up to. On one visit, Uncle Arnold had read the liner notes of a John Cage album I had left lying around. He found it fascinating, and wanted to listen to the music to hear what “Chance Music” sounded like. I found him to be very open minded, clear-headed, and logical.

Thanksgiving dinner. Seated in the back row (left to right) is Arnold, Aurelia, Larry, aunt Elia and her husband Joe. Seated in the front (left to right) is my mom, Ricky, me, and aunt Helen

Arnold and Aurelia had vacationed in Florida at Sanibel Island where together they amassed a large collection of sea shells. Arnold, an amateur painter, skillfully created collages with these flowers or shells, and also painted numerous more traditional landscapes of the Florida coastline in both oil and watercolor. He loved fly-fishing, a sport he had acquired during his youth in the Pacific Northwest. It was obvious that he found solitude in painting and enjoyed the fresh air of the outdoors. They were both avid bird watchers and naturalists. This collage titled "With Love" was made with dried flowers...

Up to my teenage years, that is all I knew about my uncle Arnold. He was a mystery, and I had no idea what he did for a living. My parents had done a very good job of suppressing that part of his history.

One summer day, while the family sat on the back porch sipping lemonade, I asked uncle Arnold how he got interested in painting. He replied, “I picked it up in prison.”

I didn’t understand. “What? You were in prison? I can’t believe it!”

The cat was out of the bag. My father blushed and uncle Arnold looked at him with an expression that indicated “Sorry, what do I say now?”

Over time I gradually learned more about Arnold’s past, and his political activities as a leftist.

They say that blood is thicker than water, and my parents (registered Republicans and rather conservative) liked my uncle as a person, but were not in agreement with his views. There was probably a tacit agreement between them to avoid all discussion of his activities and politics in an effort to “protect” us from any possible repercussions.

Vestiges of McCarthyism still existed in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Folk singer Pete Seeger was banned from performing in my town by the American Legion because he had been a member of the Communist Party. The scars, pain, and ruined careers of people associated with the party were still fresh in people’s minds. Frankly, the Communist Party was a hot potato that no one wanted to touch, and its’ leader in America was sitting on my porch sipping lemonade.

To be more accurate, uncle Arnold wasn’t THE leader of the Communist Party USA, but he was the number two man, working closely with Gus Hall who held the title of General Secretary. The CP-USA had 60,000 members and was growing as a major legitimate American party in the early 1920’s. It was closely associated with the labor movement and the creation of trade unions in America. During WWII many Americans identified with Socialist ideals, and sided with our nation’s ally against Hitler, only to be disillusioned later when the atrocities of Stalin became known.

One day I did a simple library search, and found a US Government publication with a report from a Senate investigation. It had a photograph of my uncle Arnold and Gus Hall standing along side Leonid Brezhnev in the Soviet Union.

I made a photocopy of the document had showed it to my parents, who grabbed it out of my hands and tore it up in anger.

We rarely spoke with Arnold and Aurelia by phone, since it was assumed that their line was tapped. Even letters to and from were mentally self-censored since we would never know who was reading them.

I would learn more about the life of my aunt and uncle when I visited them at their apartment in New York. Uncle Arnold, weak and in ill health, had retired in 1979. Matters of family always overshadowed politics. But as they attempted to clear the enormous clutter of their one-bedroom apartment, interesting items would be imparted to family various members. For example, I have a commemorative booklet of mint postage stamps that Arnold received as a memento from the first Communist Party Congress in Cuba in 1975. It contains postage stamps issued by Cuba in the 60’s and 70’s. I’m sure he met Castro, but he never dropped names or bragged.

However, my aunt did tell a story about how her husband had been at an International Congress in Leningrad, and afterward wanted to visit the Hermitage Museum to view the artwork. He was disappointed when he learned that the museum would be closed that day, and he would not be able to return. Senior Communist Party officials then arranged for him to have a private viewing of the artwork in the Hermitage, for which uncle Arnold was very appreciative.

Aunt Aurelia with my dad in January of 1989. Arnold's artwork hangs on the walls of the NYC apartment

My uncle Arnold and aunt Aurelia both combated illness in their final years together, but they managed to maintain close contact with family members, friends, and neighbors. There were some difficult years after he had a stroke and had to go into a nursing home. Aunt Aurelia fell into depression, but was supported by her sisters – Helen in particular. “A&A” as we called them always maintained a kindness and compassion for the disadvantaged. They also never gave up believing in the party line.

Cousin Robert, Aurelia, and Willemien looking at photos in 1989

Sometime after my aunt and uncle died, the CP-USA held a memorial service at their dingy headquarters in NYC and invited my family. There were speeches by party officials and some of my relatives. Behind the podium stood a large poster of Karl Marx. I remember a humorous story that Gus Hall told about my aunt Aurelia… “She was a city girl, but one time when she and Arnold were meeting with farmers in Kentucky, Aurelia asked the farmer about his livestock. She said, ‘I see the chickens, pigs, goats, and cattle, but where are the veal?’” My brother Larry spoke emotionally about his aunt and uncle, and the changes the world had gone through. The memorial service featured an art exhibit with the many paintings my uncle had made over his lifetime, and Gus Hall mentioned that they could be purchased and all funds would go to support the operations CP-USA.

Gus Hall speaking at the memorial service

On the right is a painiting by Arnold Johnson of a sunset. It was on display and for sale at his memorial service at CP Headquarters in NY.

In 2006 the CP-USA cleaned out the non-descript large Manhattan building they owned on 23rd street, and donated all of its’ documents, photos, and memorabilia to the Tamiment Library of NYU. Speaking to the Associated Press, Michael Nash, director of the Taminent Library indicated that 20,000 books, journals, pamphlets, and a million photographs had been removed from the party’s offices. The Tamiment Library specializes in scholarly research documenting the history of American labor and the Left. Among the documents donated are directives smuggled in from Moscow with secret code words used for communication during the Cold War.

I have written a short bio about my uncle Arnold based on information drawn from a number of different sources.

Arnold Samuel Johnson was born in Seattle Washington on September 23rd, 1904. His parents had moved west from Minnesota, where both had come as immigrants – the father from Sweden, the mother from Finland. When he was twelve, the family moved to Hoquiam, Washington where he graduated as the valedictorian of this 1922 High School class. The family moved to Los Angeles where he entered Christ College (now Chapman College) and graduated magna cum laude. He then left for Washington D.C. where he worked nights in a legal office while studying law for a year at Washington University. Later, he took a degree at Teacher’s College in New York and a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary (B.A. 1932), where he was drawn to Christian Socialist philosophy.

In 1929-30 he was secretary to the lecturer Sherwood Eddy, who conducted a series of tours – including to the Soviet Union – for Congressmen, educators, and others. In 1931 he visited the Soviet Union for the first time.

In 1931 Johnson went to Harlan County, Kentucky as a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union. The backwoods miners of Kentucky, hard hit by the depression, had attempted to organize to improve their conditions. The coal bosses fought back viciously, bringing in squads of hired killers, and bribing police and judges to ride roughshod over their most basic civil rights. Blood flowed freely. Johnson naively decided to talk with the mine operators to improve conditions. He was issued a warning “Get out of the county within 24-hours or stay here forever.”

He ignored the warning. As Johnson was walking along a Harlan County road, a man driving a horse and wagon overtook him. “Want a lift?” the driver asked, and Johnson mounted the wagon. They rolled along for several miles, and John told the man what he’s learned of the Kentucky miners struggle. Then Johnson looked at his watch apologetically, and said to the driver, “my time is up.” The driver then replied, “Yeah, I know your time is up, because I’m the guy that’s supposed to bump you off. Now get down.” Johnson got off of the wagon and expected to be shot. But after a moment, the man said “but I guess I’ve plumb changed my mind” and drove off down the road. However, Johnson was later arrested in Harlan County on criminal syndicalism charges.

As the Great Depression intensified, Johnson decided to work with the quickly mounting ranks of the unemployed. In 1932 he became the Ohio organizer with the Unemployed Leagues. Johnson officially joined the Communist Party in 1936, and was the Ohio State party secretary from 1940 to 1947. In 1943 he ran for the Cleveland Board of Education as a Communist candidate and received 43,000 votes. He later ran for Mayor of Cleveland. In 1947 moved to New York and became the party’s National Legislative Director.

On June 20th, 1951, he was arrested on the Smith Act. The indictment reads that he authored an article on the Fourth of July that contained a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “All that serves labor, serves the Nation. All that harms labor is treason to America.”

The nine-month federal trial began on March 31st, 1952. He was convicted, and sentenced to 29 months in jail by Judge Edward J. Dimock in the Federal Court at Foley Square, NY. On February 2-3, 1953, at the end of his extensive closing remarks at sentencing, Johnson said to the court “your decision to jail us does not make us guilty. I am confident that the American people will not yield the Bill of Rights and their desire for peace so easily. They will know that we are innocent and that they are also the victims of this frame-up.”

Johnson served his sentence on the Smith Act conviction from 1955 to 1957. He took up painting in prison to pass the time.

He was indicted on two other occasions. In 1962 under the McCarran Act for refusing to register as a Communist Party member, and in 1970 by the House Internal Security Committee for refusing to cooperate with the investigation of the New Mobilization Against the War in Vietnam.

He served as Vice Chairman of the New York State CP, where he ran for Governor of the State of New York.

While Public Relations Director for the CP, he received and responded to Lee Harvey Oswald’s inquiries about the CP-USA in 1963. These letters are at the focal point in various conspiracy theories about the JFK assignation. They support the view that Oswald acted on his own initiative.

After suffering a stroke and a heart attack, he retired form the Communist Party USA in 1979, and died in 1989.

His papers are maintained at the Tamiment Labor Library, at New York University.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Father Bordi

We had some interesting people hanging around our house in the 60’s and 70’s. My mom was a social animal, and she made new friends and connections wherever she went, especially if they were involved with music.

Consequently the house was full of music of different types. One time folk singer Pete Seeger dropped by. Somewhere I still have some photograph records of authentic Sicilian folk music that he lent us (sorry Pete, I’ll return them someday!).

We also had a small but dedicated enclave of opera enthusiasts, some of which had secret ambitions to be on the stage. Our friend Jon Nielson was a self-employed visual artist by trade, but knew the Italian operatic repertory well. Without any formal musical training (and virtually unable to read music) he was able to sing an operatic duet from La Traviata at a house concert with my mom.

As a kid, I remember taking a ride in Jon’s Volkswagen bus and listening to his FM radio (which was not standard in American cars) to the Metropolitan Opera Saturday afternoon live broadcasts (which were sponsored by the Texaco Oil Company. They began broadcasts in 1940 and it continued for 63 years).

And then there was Father Bordi, the singing Priest...

Although we were less than devout Roman Catholics, my family attended a small Italian church named Our Lady of Pompeii intermittently. Mass was conducted in Latin, but this Diocese also catered to the Italian community in the village by making all announcements in their mother tongue. Father Anthony, a Roman from birth, put on a very good show every Sunday, with plenty of incense and loud organ music supplied by Father Bordi.

Father Bordi had a flair for the dramatic. He was a high-strung Italian, who’s hands and arms would gesture to add meaning to the few words in English knew. Bordi was an assistant to Father Anthony, who micro-managed every aspect of the church with a stern and unforgiving authority. (I know well, since he gave me a long and brutal penance after confession).

But Father Bordi was not of that mold. He was an artist. He played the organ, painted, drank wine, and secretly aspired to be an opera singer. He and my mom got along just swell, and they talked about the opera, music, art, and life in general. My mom was a small town celebrity of sorts, and she sang every October in the church basement for the annual “Spaghetti Dinner” - the big church fund-raising event. Father Anthony’s brother-in-law would accompany my mom on the accordion, as they strolled from table to table performing the standard Italian classics.

Father Anthony (standing on the left) at the Spaghetti Dinner with his brother-in-law who played the accordion.

My mom also organized a lot of outdoor concerts, and she would call upon the talent she could find to perform pro bono. These concerts took place at the new riverside park and at outdoor Italian street festivals in the center of town. Acts might include a mandolin orchestra (made up of US Post Office employees), herself, and a group of children in traditional Italian costume dancing the Tarantella while vendors nearby sold their sausages, Italian slush, and pizza.

The variety shows occasionally included some big names too, such as Eddie Layton who was the house organist for the NY Yankees for three decades. When he was not playing the the 50,000-watt Hammond organ at Yankee Stadium, he could be found on his miniature replica tugboat on the Hudson River with my little brother Ricky helping out as chief engineer, and unlicensed psychologist.

But the performer who made everyone look and take notice was Father Bordi.

Bordi’s personality changed when he got on the stage and had the mike in his hands. He would sing his arias without accompaniment, but had a large and commanding voice. Sure, it was a little out of the ordinary to see a Catholic Priest on the stage singing operatic love songs, but what the heck, this was the 70’s and anything was possible. His superior, Father Anthony, seemed to tolerate Bordi’s musical indulgence as long as it didn’t turn into a real career. He kept Father Bordi on a short ecclesiastical leash, so to speak.

One day, when I was in the beginning of a long transition from being a rock guitarist to a classical musician, Father Bordi came by our house. He brought with him the piano-vocal score of the Verdi Requiem, which he immediately put on the piano stand in front of me. It was a hot summer day, and he stripped off his priest’s collar and black shirt. As I looked at him in his white undershirt, and he said “let's make music.” The rehearsal didn’t go very well. I was not familiar with the Requiem, and he was singing at triple fortissimo (as he always did) in our living room. His voice could fill Carnegie Hall.

Although nothing came of our collaboration, it was clear that his vision of Heaven involved himself performing the tenor solo of Verdi's great masterpiece for a large audience. For Father Bordi, the Verdi Requiem was a devine synthesis of religious and artistic expression.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Me and Tennessee

Today’s blog is about the historic encounter between two great names of the literary world: Tennessee Williams and me.

Tennessee Williams, the great major American playwright who won Pulitzer Prizes for his plays A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. In addition, both The Glass Menagerie (1945) and The Night of the Iguana (1961) received the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and his play The Rose Tattoo (1952) received a Tony Award. Many of his plays were made into movies, and they in turn have won many distinguished awards and honors.

Yours truly (Jim) has been posting on the blogosphere for over two months. I have an estimated following of nearly two dozen intermittent readers.

While I go by the name of Jim today, at the time of this story I had the misfortune of being called “Frosty.” I had been given this nick-name by one of my relatives (cousin Robert, I think) because of my pale-white skin and emaciated look.


The world used to be a smaller and much simpler.

In 1955 my parents lived for a short time in a brownstone in an area of Manhattan known as Sutton Place.,_Manhattan

Zipcodes did not exist yet, but the building's address was 316 East 58th Street, New York 22, NY. Here is a photo of the building from the side-rear. (It was torn down in the 1960's).

When we lived on 58th Street it was just a decade or so after the end of the great war, and America was growing in leaps and bounds – both economically and culturally. In 1955 Micky Mantle hit his 100th home run, and NY city seemed to be at the center of the universe.

Manhattan has many distinct neighborhoods, and Sutton Place was (and still is) a small residential area in the shadows of the Queensboro 59th Street Bridge. I vividly remember taking the electric trolley over the bridge and back again with my father. It was a great ride over Roosevelt Island.

Here are some photos of my brother and I playing in the neighborhood.

On the left I sit my my art deco stroller, while Larry (on the left) climbs a street lamp with his friend.

The photo on the right shows Larry (still using training wheels) pulling little "Frosty" down the street. My younger brother Patrick Jr. had not yet been born.

Here are some family photos of mom and the boys over on the West Side of town. We're "all dressed up with nowhere to go." I like my bow tie and white shoes. It looks like Larry is holding a box of Cracker Jack.

In the background of the second photo is the memorial to Christopher Columbus erected in 1892 by the resident Italians in America. It is located at the intersection of Broadway and 8th Avenue at 59th Street. The sculpture at the top of the monument (not seen in this photo) was created by Gaetano Russo. It's near the entrance to Central Park.

Whenever the circus was in town, they would transport the elephants down the city streets to the old Madison Square Garden. It was quite a scene. I count about 20 elephants in this photo alone.

Back then telephone numbers reflected what neighborhood you lived in, for example SU was the two digit prefix for Sutton Place, MU for Murray Hill, or in the boroughs it could have been CL for Cloverdale and NI for Nightingale. At some point the phone company added a seventh numeric digit just after the two prefix letters to accommodate direct dialing on rotary phones. By the 1950’s a typical seven digit number might have been MU3-7263, but you could still determine which neighborhood someone lived in by the alphabetic prefix.

(A slight digression… in 1956 my parents moved 20 miles up the Hudson River to suburbia where the telephone exchange was known as OWENS-3. All seven-digit phone numbers in that town began with OW3. Attempting to dial my friend for the first time, I kept getting the Operator. After several attempts, she lost her patience and scolded me. I had repeatedly been dialing Zero rather than the letter “O").

Today many celebrities, such as Woody Allen, live in the multi-million dollar brownstones up and down Manhattan’s East Side. The same was true in 1955, although the real estate was much more affordable. My mother told of seeing Marilyn Monroe in the corner supermarket in Sutton Place. The movie actress could have been buying milk, bacon, and eggs to cook breakfast for her soon to be husband, playwright Arthur Miller.

Miller’s friend and fellow playwright Tennessee Williams lived in the area too, although he may have been a resident of Murray Hill which was nearby. Williams was easy to spot, and always dressed impeccably in a three-piece suit and adorned with a pocket watch secured by a chain. He spoke with a southern drawl, and had a casual familiarity with my mother who would greet him on the street as a neighbor. He was always polite and courteous, but never inquired about my mother’s southern accent or how she too ended up living in NY city far from her home in the south.

October 31st, 1955 fell on a Monday. I was not yet two years old, still in cloth diapers, and dressed-up in a little tiger costume. As my mother was parading me around the neighborhood for my first Halloween, Mr. Williams walked by.

As the story goes, I was pushed up to Tennessee Williams, and I shyly said “twik or tweet.” My mother described his reaction in great detail… the renowned playwright, at the height of his career, felt obliged, but very uncomfortable in the situation. He reluctantly reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a large handful of silver coins that sparkled under the streetlamp. He hunted through his large wad of change looking earnestly for a nickel or dime he could part with, but only saw silver dollars, half dollars, and quarters. After what must have seemed like an eternity, he finally gave in and handed me a quarter. He said "have a nice evening" and walked on his way.

Here I am in my tiger suit with my mother (left) and brother Larry (right). (The young lady in the center is not related).

That’s the story about how I met the great American writer Tennessee Williams in New York.


Thursday, September 11, 2008


When I was teaching I'd often begin the first class session by asking each of the students to say their name, and tell one interesting fact about their life. When they finished and it was my turn to speak, I'd say my name and then reveal that I had attended the famous Woodstock music festival of 1969. This piece of information usually was met with disbelief and a touch of scepticism, and I would often hear the comment "you don't look like a hippie."

The 40th anniversary of the historic three-day music festival will be next year, so it is not a bad time to tell my Woodstock story.

In retrospect, it is pretty amazing that my conservative parents allowed their 15-year old son to go there alone. I was a huge Jimi Hendrix fan and read that he was scheduled to perform on Sunday August 17th. I had seen the advertisement in the NY Times, and subsequently purchased my ticket by mail for the performances on that day only. The $8 ticket was a little on the expensive side, but rock concerts in general were pricey in those days. Given the lineup of artists scheduled to perform, it seemed like a no brainier.

Even before the music festival got underway, the news media made much ado about the enormous crowd of "hippies" descending on a small town of Bethal NY. The New York Thruway became a parking lot, and the overall handling of the event was beginning to look like a disaster.

But by Sunday the situation had changed. The first two days of the festival had turned out to be peaceful and orderly. The concerts were transformed into an open and free public event because the crowds had overwhelmed the security fence. Local officials were caught totally off guard, and were completely unprepared for the masses of people, which were estimated to reach 200,000. Yet even the local police conceded that everyone appeared to living up to their ideal of "peace, love, and happiness." No one had actually seen anything quite like this before. It was a social phenomenon, and it got the attention of the entire world.

I must have been very persistent. My parents finally gave in, and on Sunday morning my dad drove me up to the concert site just outside Max Yasgur's 600 acre dairy farm. He let me out of the car and said that I should come back within a few hours. I quickly disappeared into the swarm of people.

As I walked down a farm road toward the outdoor natural amphitheatre the reality of the situation struck me. Or, I should say that the "unreality" of it hit me like a ton of bricks. There were swarms of young people, with long hair and 60's attire everywhere. It was a virtual city of alternative culture. And then, as I walked past two police officers who were politely observing the crowd, I broke into an uncontrollable laughter. It suddenly struck me that the new alternative society here was inverted. The "hippie" minority, which under normal circumstances would be very wary of uniformed policemen, was in this context an overwhelming majority. The police had no option but to tolerate things that normally would have been considered illegal in NY State. Things like drugs and public nudity were tolerated, and the police knew they couldn't do anything about it.

Still in disbelief and laughing uncontrollably, I walked right past the two policemen who were standing beside their cruiser and managed to say hello. They smiled at me and must have thought to themselves "This guy is on a really good LSD trip. Is he OK?" That thought made me laugh even harder. I walked on.

I strolled past some interesting sites, including an assortment of old school buses that had been colorfully painted and converted into roving hippie homes. Curtains hung in the windows, and aluminium stove-pipe chimneys sprung from their roofs. You could smell pot in the air. It was a hot humid day, and a nearby small pond was busy with nude bathers. It seemed clear that Woodstock was more than just about music.

I found my way to the open amphitheatre and entered near stage-left - not far from the front. Given the size of the crowds, I had a fairly good view of the stage. The music had not yet begun. There were endless announcements coming from someone on the stage. I think farmer Max Yasgur addressed the crowd. Huge speakers were mounted high on scaffolding and the sound could be heard quite well over the helicopters that would periodically come and go. I found a very small spot where I could fit and sit down, and joined the crowd as just another ant in the humongous ant-colony.

Sitting in the mud with 200,000 strangers in close proximity was an interesting experience. It was a mass of humanity, yet everyone seemed oddly pacified and dazed. No one talked. These people had been there much longer than I, and clearly looked worn from it. The sun was hot, there was not much food to go around, and basics such as toilets and drinking water were in short supply. It felt a little like being in a refugee camp, although I had no idea at the time what that was.

I noticed that a black market had developed - not for drugs since those were free to all - but for food, water, and cigarettes. Someone was trying to sell a watermelon for $5 (inflation adjusted, this would equate to $21.37 in today's dollars).

One of my strongest memories is of the persistent smell of mud. The crowds had turned what had been a grassy pasture into brown wet earth. My brand new red shirt and white pants quickly became torn and covered with it. There was no way of avoiding getting dirty, you just had to go with with the flow.

After what seemed like an endless wait, the music began. British blues singer Joe Cocker was going to perform, but his band started with a few warm up numbers first. I could see Joe Cocker very well, and he looked as if he was having convulsions. His arms would flail around uncontrollably in the air as he belted out his songs (35 years later I would learn that he was actually playing "air-guitar"). It was a good set, and it ended with his unique rendition of the Lennon-McCartney song "With a Little Help from my Friends." You can watch the performance on YouTube...

After Joe Cocker performed the sky darkened, and the sound of thunder rumbled in the distance. The wind had picked up, and we could see that it was going to rain hard. People on the stage were frantically covering the microphones with plastic bags. It didn't look like I would be able to stay long enough to hear Jimi Hendrix, so I decided to return to my father who was patiently waiting by our gold Buick Skylark station wagon.

I never occurred to me that I wouldn't find my way back. I'm not sure how I navigated a crowd of 200,000 people on unknown turf and ended up back at where my father had left me. He seemed very relieved to see me, and wanted to "get the hell out of here." We picked up a hippie hitch hiker on his way downstate, who entertained us with his stories.

By the time I arrived home, I was exhausted and dehydrated. My clothing had been reduced to rags. But I was glad that my father drove me. He had some good stories to tell back at the office the next day.

My Woodstock experience has stuck with me. The concept of a large outdoor venue for music has always been intriguing. Pumping decibels of sound with powerful speaker systems to thousands of people who are communally sitting together in a natural outdoor amphitheater seems like a sensible thing to do. It is just the right setting for musical works of immense magnitude.

A piece such as the Universe Symphony by Charles Ives would be well-suited for this venue. The spacial elements he conceived but couldn't yet realize would work nicely with the audio technology available at a modern outdoor rock concert.

The same could be said of the unfinished work Mysterium by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. At the head of the 20th century, he anticipated multi-media happenings with light shows, a hippie-like mysticism, and experimented with altered states of consciousness induced by chemical enhancement. Mysterium was planned to be performed outdoors to thousands of people in the shadows of the Himalayas over the course of seven days. Oh yeah, it would be followed by the Apocalypse.

Nearly forty years after the fact the vision of Woodstock and what it stood for lives on. There is now a museum, arts center, and 15,000 seat outdoor theater near the site where this historic music festival occurred. It's called the "Museum at Bethel Woods."


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Minimalism Reconsidered

Labels are misleading.

For example, I see little or no similarity in what has been called Minimalism in the field of music and Minimalism in the visual arts. In my view, you can find elements in the music of Morton Feldman, Toru Takamitsu, and Anton Webern that share the Minimalist aesthetic of clean design, directness, avoidance of aperiodicity, embellishment, and noise. As different as these "pre-Minimalist" composers are from each other, any one of them could be a sympathetic companion to the Minimalist movement in art that began in painting and sculpture in the 1970s.

But in the field of contemporary music, Minimalism has been a significant cultural event. Like it or not, the presence of Minimalist music has gone from experimentation by a few non-establishment downtown composers working in lower Manhattan, to the international musical mainstream in just a few decades. I’ve observed it first hand, and am not oblivious to this monumental shift in musical culture or the reasons behind it. In the interest of simplicity, I will limit my discussion to the primary American proponents of Minimalist music, although there is currently a thriving sub-category of composers labeled as “Eastern European Mystic Minimalists.” These composers include Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt.

I have known about Minimalist composers since the late 1960’s and early 70’s, when Philip Glass and his ensemble performed regularly in Greenwich Village. Tim Page, the music critic with the Village Voice, would often review these concerts at The Kitchen and at other small venues. Glass, was a Juilliard graduate who attended concurrently along side Joshua Rifkin, the well-known pianist, conductor, and musicologist. Glass, upon his return to NY from studies in Paris was looking for work. He ultimately supported himself as a plumber and NYC taxi driver while composing in his spare time. These side-line professions were later to become part of the Glass mystique.

In 1974, curious to learn what this music was all about, I purchased a ticket for what has since been called by John Rockwell (music critic for the NY Times) a historic concert. It was the first complete performance of Glass’s “Music in Twelve Parts.” The venue was Town Hall. This was the first time his music would be presented in an “uptown” venue (although technically it was “mid-town”). The concert was indeed a happening. The near-capacity audience was very different from the new music concerts I usually attended by ensembles such as “The Group for Contemporary Music” at Columbia University. These concert-goers were young and trendy, NYC hip, and looked ready and eager to hear something new and avant-garde. As I looked around the hall, most member of the audience had their eyes closed and seemed to be using the drone of the loud pulsating music as a way to facilitate self-induced meditation or trance.

Experiencing Minimalism through their ears was an eye opener for me. It surely was a way of listening that was very different from what I was accustomed to, and I was simply not able to experience the music as they did. Personally I found Glass’s music to be too loud, harmonically static, needlessly repetitive, devoid of form and content, totally lacking any semblance of melodic line, and missing even the most basic elements of contrast and forward harmonic motion. At the end of the evening, the ensemble ended together - cold, randomly, and for no musical rhyme or reason at all. Everyone was quite amazed (and in my case relieved) that the musicians could end at precisely the same time, since there was no other clear indication that the work had completed its course or come to a logical conclusion. Although the concert had gone on for many hours with the same monotonous drone, I couldn’t deny the cultural significance of the moment. It was perhaps THE inflection point of a change that would dominate the world of musical composition for the next three or four decades.

In America the battle between the dominant “isms” of the Schoenberg and Stravinsky legacies went well into the 1970’s, with Minimalism slowly but steadily making major in-roads as a major player (Remember that Stravinsky lived until 1971). In November of 1976 the Glass-Wilson opera “Einstein on the Beach” filled the Metropolitan Opera house for two sold out performances at a time when “serious” productions of operas by modernist composers was unheard of. Other Minimalist composers/performers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich were getting more attention too, and in time they made their way to major recording labels. But there was always serious friction between the academic musical community, and the band of renegade outsiders who the critics conveniently lumped together under the label “Minimalists.” They didn’t fit the mold of having a PhD and a university professorship. They did not descend aesthetically from either the Schoenberg or Stravinsky lineage. They were more akin to electronic rock musicians on a road trip than what the establishment considered as part of the standard profile for an American composer.

I remember attending a Terry Riley concert sponsored by the Fromm Foundation at Sanders Theatre at Harvard in the early 1970’s. The Fromm concerts at Harvard did (and still do) offer a diversity of musical viewpoints. The Riley concert was very well attended, but Earl Kim (a distinguished composer from the Harvard faculty) and his wife conspicuously stormed out of the hall about 10 minutes into the performance. I’m sure he knew quite well what Riley’s music would be like before attending, but he was making a strong visual and political statement by walking out in disgust. In his view (and by implication the view of the musical establishment at Harvard), this was not contemporary music, and perhaps not even music at all.

Jump ahead 34 years… Philip Glass has become the establishment. In 2007 he was invited to represent American composers at the re-dedication of Lincoln Center for a nationally televised PBS broadcast Live from Lincoln Center "Lincoln Center Special: A Gala Night at Alice Tully Hall." At that event he sat down at a Steinway grand piano to perform his solo Etude. I swear that he arpeggiated the same insipid nonsensical chords that I heard him play at Town Hall three and a half decades earlier. Glass (now with the aid of a cadre of assistants) has composed a large catalog of musical works for chamber ensemble, chorus, orchestra, and - according to his own words - “has written so many operas that he has lost count.” Glass has guest appeared on popular TV shows such as NBC’s Saturday Night Live, and made millions of dollars from movie scores, concerts, and recordings. He is in fact a household name, surpassing Bernstein or Copland, at least with the younger generation. In terms of public recognition and support, Glass has outpaced virtually all of his contemporaries in the field, and acquired a cult status usually associated with mega-pop stars. NY Times critic John Rockwell played a significant role in popularizing Glass.

Those are the facts. But should this cultural shift in music be considered a victory for Minimal-ism over the other “isms?”

Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about another composer often identified as a proponent of Minimalistic music.

In 2007 “Minimalist” composer John Adams delivered a speech at Paine Hall, Harvard. It was an acceptance speech for a distinguished music award presented to him by the university’s president. He read a section of his forthcoming book of memoirs and commentary on American musical life (“A Rhythm Among Harmonie”), and referenced his tumultuous years as a composition student at Harvard, and how he found the prevailing “isms” of academia in the 1970’s stymieing. He said “those were dark times.”

John Adams is not that much older than I, and our musical development, studies, and personal journey as students in Boston were nearly contemporaneous. We must have known some of the same musicians and teachers, and attended some of the same concerts. We were educated with a similar methodology and in a similar cultural context. He studied at Harvard with Kirchner. I studied at New England Conservatory and Brandeis with Martino and Boykan. At the core, we are both products of the same musical upbringing and social network.

When Adams referred to “those dark times” concerning Boston’s new music scene in the 1970’s, I had to think that we must have been on different planets. I found almost everything about contemporary music in the Boston of that era to be fascinating, exciting, and intellectually intriguing. Gunther Schuller was making history as President of New England Conservatory, the Boston Musica Viva regularly premiered new works by Boston-area composers, and other new music groups played a diversity of compelling works. Conard Pope and Rodney Lister had curated an innovative concert series of new music at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Great pieces were being written by composers who just happened to hold academic positions for their livelihood. While they may have worked at the one of many colleges, conservatories, or universities in town, they were serious composers first and foremost. I see nothing dismal or lacking in the music of Kirchner, Kim, Shrifrin, Boykan, Martino, Schuller… (and the list goes on). So I don’t quite understand what Adams found boring, lacking, oppressive, or lethal to his creativity. The Zeitgeist of that time was a good one, not evil, ominous, or dark.

If you live long enough, you will see history repeat itself. Now that Minimalism is the establishment, another disruptive style of music will likely ensue. I have listened carefully to the form of Minimalism that Adams has adopted, and heard it evolve over the years. I’m not sure that he still has a lot in common with Glass, Reich, or Riley. He is really a devotee of another kind of “ism” – that of Stravinsky. Although there certainly are a lot of repetitive patterns in Adams’ music, there are also meaningful chord progressions, a sense of musical form in the traditional sense, and at times a semblance of melody. He is willing to take chances and experiment. Adams, and many of the “neo-minimalists” have adopted the surface texture - the driving regular rhythm of Glass – and creatively adopted it to their own methods and style. He seems to have found his voice and niche in stage works. Yet, by riding the cultural wave of the Minimalist bandwagon, he has been able to gain the acceptance of a larger audience while striving to continue the tradition of Stravinsky’s middle period. There is nothing wrong with that. But I have always been wary of those who make pronouncements about moving on to the future while trashing where they came from.

Like Glass, Adams is now a member of the establishment too, although he’d prefer not to admit it. When he won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2003, he emailed a reporter for the NY Times downplaying the significance of the distinguished award. He said “no composer of any value has won the Pulitzer in recent years.” He was apparently trying to distance himself from the entrenched composers of academia, which happen to include his own teacher Leon Kirchner. Yet, Adams could now easily find employment at any university he would want to teach at, and was on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory for a decade.

Today, in 2008 Minimalism in music is little more than a hollow buzz word. Composers have taken what they want and need from it, and moved on from there. A few composers have reacted by calling their music "Maximalist." Younger composers, like Boston’s own Michael Gandolfi incorporate elements of Minimalism in their unique style. In a work commissioned by the Boston and Atlanta Symphonies, Gandolfi’s “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” uses repetition in a manner similar to what Baroque composers did to articulate a pulse and set a clear harmonic rhythm. It is a monumental work, in sixteen movements grouped in three parts, lasting nearly seventy minutes. Clearly the application of Minimalist techniques has made an impact, and there are some striking examples of positive results in American music of the past few years.

But perhaps the seeds for Minimalism in music go back farther into music history. If you take for example the first prelude (C major) from Book I of JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the arppegiated chords bear a striking resemblance to the surface patterns of any keyboard work by Philip Glass. But there is so much more to Bach, and I suspect that his music will be long lasting and survive when labels such as Minimalism and Maximalism have been forgotten. From this perspective, repetitive patterns, pulsating rhythms, and the subjugation of melody is nothing new. Nineteenth century orchestral music is full of orchestral devices that predate and inspire Minimalist works written today. The list of early examples is lengthy. In this sense, music is coming full-circle again.

Like I said, labels are misleading.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A letter to the New York Times

An article by Ann Midgette was printed in the NY Times in 1993 regarding the Pulitzer prize in music.

I wrote the following letter to the editor (although it was never published)...


In the April 9th, 2003 edition of the New York Times, the article entitled Dissonant Thoughts on the Music Pulitzers by Anne Midgette poured fuel on the fire of an apparent controversy regarding the Pulitzer Prize in music. At the head of her article she states that “the Pulitzer Prize is known as one of the greatest honors of American journalism, arts, and letters. But not of American music.” I strongly disagree.

While the monetary aspect of the award is less than what someone would earn bagging groceries part-time at the local supermarket, for more than half a century the Pulitzer has stood as the single most important symbolic indicator of significant accomplishment in the field of music composition. As a public, we owe this respect to our composers, and should continue to recognize them each year in this manner.

Any annual award to a single composer with both national and international press coverage is bound to be controversial – but more from the inside than from the outside. How do you select a new work from only one composer each year to reflect the richness of our contemporary music? The award has in fact been presented to composers of a wide variety of musical styles over time. I can’t think of a more diverse list of composers. Historically the honors role includes household names like Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Ned Rorem, Gian-Carlo Menotti, William Schuman and Virgil Thomson. The list is also inclusive of composers of semi-popular music - such a Morton Gould, Wynton Marsalis, and more experimental practitioners such as Henry Brant. Now that John Adams - a minimalist composer with significant stature - has won the 2003 award, the Pulitzer in music has even more diversity, representation and legitimacy.

I am very puzzled and concerned that Mr. Adams, as represented by his quoted comments in the article, has attempted to devalue the Pulitzer Prize in music. He says “Among musicians that I know, the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism. Anyone perusing the list of past winners cannot help noticing that many if not most of the country's greatest musical minds are conspicuously missing." He goes on to say that “ ... most if not all of these genuinely creative spirits have been passed over year after year, often in favor of academy composers who have won a disproportionate number of prizes."

By implication, I interpret these comments by John Adams to mean that the Pulitzer doesn’t posses the glitz of the Hollywood Oscars, or the excitement of a pop artist winning a Grammy, because it also embraces the likes of Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions, Roger Reynolds and Donald Martino. Common sense and artistic integrity say that we should not rule out anyone’s success. It would be an injustice if we were to transform the role of the Pulitzer Prize to exclude hard working composers who happen to be employed at a university. This would presumably apply to the music of Leon Kirchner (Mr. Adams’ teacher at Harvard), who won the Pulitzer in 1968 for his Third String Quartet.

There is a marked arrogance in Mr. Adams’s words and stance. He comes across as ungrateful about the award and negative about the work of his colleagues. If the Pulitzer has lost any of its prestige, it is because of behavior like this. John Adams is presumably at liberty to renounce his Pulitzer and send the money back to its Trustees.