Though the halfway point of my residency at the Library of Congress fell technically on the First of July, the effects and feelings of a quickly approaching end to my time here did not fully arrive until this week. The notion sprang to mind when I validated my third time card, meaning that six of my ten weeks were officially gone beyond reproach. It has certainly been a memorable experience thus far, and those six weeks have slipped by with the speed that only eager enthusiasm can bring. Now begins the ever faster descent to the culmination of my archival stint and departure from Washington D.C.
But first, a nominal recap of what I have been doing—and will continue to do—here at the Library until I depart for brighter shores in the first week of August.
For the past six weeks I have been pouring over archival content from the incomprehensibly large Leonard Bernstein Collection. Don't let the website fool you; it is big. VERY big. Depending on how you count some of the more peculiar contents, 30,000+ items big. Ironically, the limited representation of its contents on the website is precisely one of the reasons that I have been fortunate enough to find employment in this predicament. Take this excerpt from the mission statement of the Library's fellowship program -
...the Library of Congress furthers its mission to provide access to a universal record of knowledge, culture and creativity as exemplified by its collections...
In 2017 the Library will be launching an entirely new, vastly updated and expanded Bernstein webpage to coincide with the Bernstein Centennial world-wide celebrations. My job, in short, has been to identify and process content that will theoretically be available on the updated website. I have been working with two rather different mediums: printed photographs, and audio recordings --
Within the Bernstein Collection there are roughly 17,000 photographs that span the entirety of his life, both personal and professional. There are large prints, small prints, professional images, polaroid snapshots; a seemingly endless variety of photographic content concerning all things Bernstein. This summer, I have been pouring over the photographs in a chronological manner to select examples for inclusion in the Centennial website updates. To this end, there are a number of criteria that I have to look at to determine whether or not any given photograph is worth including -
Sifting through the photographs of the Bernstein Collection, in the context of this project, is a muddled hunt for buried treasure. A perfect example might turn up only to be sent into the copyright rejection pile. Or worse yet, instead of an original it is simply a photocopy of a photocopy, with no indication of where it came from and quality far too lacking to digitize in any useful way. Up to this point I have located around 300 new images that should find their way onto the site next year. It will more than quadruple the number of images currently available, but is still only a fraction of the thousands in the collection. Hopefully, passing time and the headwork I have done in establishing a workflow will see that number continue to rise in the coming years.
I cannot give you a convenient number to illustrate how many audio recordings there are in the Bernstein Collection, but I can assure you it is a fair number indeed. Initially, I was slated to process 75 recordings that consisted mainly of interviews. Like all plans, that plan quickly shifted course due to the digitization constraints of the recorded sound division and my schedule. To regroup, I worked with my supervisor to draft a new list of prioritized recordings for digitization that encompasses interviews, speeches, lectures, home recordings, rehearsals, and more. After narrowing the focus down to about 50 key recordings, the processing effort was put into motion. Much like the photographs, there are a number of things to consider in choosing recordings, but unlike the photograph processing the audio recordings are not intended to be linked to any particular subject. The focus is merely getting as much audio content onto the website as possible, where there is currently none available. The workflow for the audio recordings goes something like this -
So far I have processed about 35 hours of original recordings from the collection. The only things that will surely make it on the site are the sparse home-recordings. Everything else is subject to the scrutiny of the legal counsel regarding its permissions and access.
As far as the fellowship program goes, the grand finale and ultimate showcase of the efforts of Library fellows come forth in the Display Day program, to be held on July 27th. At this event, I, along with numerous other fellows working throughout the Library's divisions, will be setting up display tables to showcase what we have done during our time at the Library. This event is open to the public but generally draws in congressional staff and other federal folks to see the fruit of our temporary labors in the Library collections. I am not sure quite what to expect, but it should be a fun chance to engage some members of the non-musical world with the fascinating story that is Leonard Bernstein.
I have, of course, not spent every hour of my time in this interesting city sitting in my sterile cubicle. The sheer magnitude of sights and sounds available within a compact radius of my domicile practically necessitates an appreciable level of adventures. I would be lying if I said I have made it to all the best-known spots. There are, after all, dozens of 'best known' spots around the Hill and walking around in the summer swelter is only appealing for so long. I have, however, been to a fair number, and there are still a few more weekends to check a few more marks off the list. The balance between resident and tourist is a delicate one to strike. Some days, it is struck more readily than others.
This past weekend—including that most esteemed American celebration of Independence Day—the tourist strain struck with full force. Through a combination of sheer luck and the marvel of modern avionics, I was able to capture one Shannon on her way home from a five-month stay in China for the holiday weekend. The weather was most agreeable: wet, but cool, and we scuttled all around town. The highlights were of course the public dress rehearsal for the "Capitol Fourth" concert, and the fantastic fireworks launched from the reflecting pool. It rained near constantly for the whole weekends adventures, but the skies cooperated when it mattered most and not a single event was cancelled or delayed. They are entirely unrelated to the general purpose of this blog, but serendipitous inspiration compels me to share a few quick moments: sitting on the Capitol west lawn during the concert, soaking in the rain at the Lincoln Memorial waiting for the sun to creep behind the clouded horizon, and a delightfully poorly composed tidbit of the fireworks show.
Four weeks will surely pass in what seems like the blink of an eye. I doubt any updates will follow until I have planted my feet back firmly on South Dakota soil. You can expect, then, that the organological life will once again be in full swing. The usual array of trombones, keyboards, and other instrumental endeavors will return to the forefront of my daily doings. The summer has been an appreciated departure from my immediate focus, but as always, instruments are calling me back, building the anticipation for my return to the National Music Museum.
Relativity is a peculiar thing. A year is oft considered a long span of time, yet it can pass by faster than reasonably imaginable. This is certainly no new phenomenon; after all, Einstein blubbered about it for decades to some small height of acclaim --
Ignoring for today how very little I know about that whole 'physics' idea, it is still very much a fact that the first year of my program at the National Music Museum has come to a resolute close. Everything ended well, but I can't help but feel as if it occurred somehow outside the conscripts of reality. Where did the time go? Halfway done, it's all downhill from here (hopefully not quality wise), yet it feels as if a million and one things linger unexplored on the horizon of my ongoing organological education. The thesis of course, weighs heavy on the year to come, but the world of musical instruments is one of such vast richness that it is difficult to stay attuned to any one particular discourse.
Completing a degree is only a drop in the bucket in the unraveling of our world. So much remains unsaid about the instruments themselves, but also about the field as a whole. Where is organology going and how is it going to get there? What part in that future am I gearing up to play? What is going to remain when the time comes to pass the torch on again to those who carry on that future into successive generations? If all goes well, the trombone will obviously play a very large part in that future, but for now the future begins with soaking in the present.
This past week—mixed in between the trials and tribulations of moving into a new abode in downtown Vermillion, and preparing to flee the city for one long summer's duration—the NMM hosted the annual meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society. It was my first AMIS meeting, and though I spent numerous hours throughout the day running around at the command of my venerable superiors, it was unique and fascinating experience. For four days Vermillion was rife with inhabitants from all regions of the organological spectrum. Professionals and amateurs, young and old, mixed, mingled, and shared their passions and quirks with the rest of the instrument-loving lot. All in all, it was equal parts informative, eye opening, overwhelming, and exhausting.
Much to my disappointment, there was not an overwhelming majority of trombone-centric discussion. In fact, there was very little. Even so, I learned a great many things about the field that forms the basis of my long-term academic and professional future. The numerous avenues of research, interpretation, and transmission of historical and technical knowledge shared at the meeting illustrated perspectives I had not previously considered. They shed light on approaches beyond those encountered in my relatively limited experience, and spawned reflective retrospection on the broader necessities of attempting to preserve this particular sort of historical or cultural heritage. They also illustrated some pitfalls that I can actively avoid throughout such an adventure. More practically, they provided real-time benchmarks of how I can better my own pursuits through all aspects of the interplay between organology, culture, and society as a whole.
Perhaps more important than all the new tidbits of historical information now weaving their way through my cerebrum was the chance to finally meet and interact with the multitude of individuals whom I previously only knew vicariously through reputation and reading. Individuals who will undoubtedly play key roles in the years still to come. Some of the encounters were brief at best, and only began to plant the seeds of invaluable connections, but like any sapling they will grow deep and take strong hold with proper attention and the passing of time. Which brings us back, full circle, to Einstein and his blatherings. That time, I can only imagine, is going to pass in the blink of an eye. Soon enough it will be May 2017, and another AMIS meeting will be right around the corner, one year closer to the great beyond that is "real life." For better or worse, this also means that the clock is now ticking away towards formulating and synthesizing a work that will find its way into the the ranks of the 2017 program.
For now, I find myself sitting in my native Houston, enjoying a brief exit from the hectic life. In a few days time I will be once again boarding a big old jet airliner to carry me far away to Washington D.C. From there, only one weekend remains until I begin my three-month residence at the Library of Congress, exploring yet another new (to me) facet of that which we affectionately call history. Expect more to come on that matter in due time. Also, expect some extensive content additions to the site as a whole, since homework and research papers no longer have a stranglehold on the 5—9 portion of my life.
It is looking very much to be the beginning of one trombonetastic summer, however quickly it may (relatively) fly by. Until we meet again, NMM.
For a number of months the B2 key has been sticking on my Yamaha P250 stage piano. I wasn't sure if it was a matter of something being broken, or simply needing to be cleaned, but I went ahead and ordered a new key. I considering just ordering an entire new set of keys—this thing is almost twenty years old after all, and plastic can only take so much beating—but that urge was promptly restrained by the total cost of such an endeavor. After a few weeks of waiting and carefully avoiding unexpected drones any time that key came into play, the replacement arrived and it was time to dig into the deep dark underbelly of the near-retro behemoth.
Opening up the P250 is easy enough (as long as you have ample, sturdy space to go about flipping it over and setting it down): you simply remove six screws from the underside of the chassis and the whole top cover, along with its attached circuit boards, etc., opens up in clamshell style revealing the keyframe and other inner workings.
One thing that I had not considered, but immediately became painfully aware of, was the huge amount of dust and other nonsense that accumulated inside the body over the years. If it weren't for the mesh fabric on the speaker grills, there probably would have been a fine particulate cloud jettisoned from the speakers every time a note was played. Luckily I had plenty of spare time that evening, so I went ahead and cleaned out the whole darn thing.
After getting rid of more dusty paper towels than realistically should have been involved, it was time to get back to the main task at hand: get my B back in working order! Removing keys from the P250 action is only slightly more annoying than opening anything that comes in one of those sealed, plastic security packages. To remove a key, one must first slip a thin metal tool (I used a butter knife) between two keys and depress a flap that holds the keys in place. While the flap is depressed, the key is free to slide forward about 5mm. After sliding forward, the key has to be jimmied in some logic-defying manner that will simultaneously clear the key of its front and rear attachment point. This wouldn't be so difficult, but the movement of the key is limited at both the front and rear, and hampered by the alignment-spring attached to the hammer assembly.
Once I got the key off, I discovered even more evidence of the years gone by - caked and partially solidified lubricant on the hammer assembly, as well as dust and more grime. It was obvious at that point that this was not going to be a one-key operation. If I am going to clean one, I might as well clean them all, right? It certainly sounded like a good idea at the time. From there things got a little goofy, and eventually I was standing in front of one keyless keyboard.
Unexpectedly, all this previously neglected maintenance resulted in a keyboard that felt ten-fold better under the playing fingers. The action became so responsive that all the difficulties I previously had executing some demanding Rachmaninoffian literature disappeared into thin air! Well, not really. It felt slightly better, and Rachmaninoff is still an unconquerable nemesis.
Either way, it was an evening well spent. If anyone ever needs to know how to work on a P250 action, you know where to find me.
P.S., I realize this continues a trend of an entirely trombone-less blog. For whatever reason, the most noteworthy events of the last few weeks have been keyboard related. Do not fret, I'll be sliding plenty of trombone references in as time marches on.
After making my way home for a short break between Work A (the museum) and Work B (Sondheim's Assassins) I took a brief interlude to noodle on the piano as I often do. I opened up the first book of music that caught my eye, ever so carefully positioned my hands, and proceeded to strike out a few sonorous chords as one often does. This time, however, the chords struck back, with a harsh vengeance. I was awestruck. I could not believe what was happening—or at least, what I thought was happening—and immediately froze.
Don't worry, I was not physically injured by some manner of finger-chomping keys, but the implications of what happened might actually be far worse for my long-term health. Some time, some how—between working on tuning a piano this afternoon, and playing one this evening—a spiteful switch was inadvertently flipped somewhere in my subconscious that has rendered equal temperament entirely unbearable to my musical ear.
If so, why did it happen so suddenly, and with such an unfortunately-timed delay? Will it go away? What am I going to hear tomorrow if I sit down at the Wolf and try to play Beethoven? Will I be just as horrified listening to someone else plink out chords as I found myself? I am, at the same time, frightened and fascinated; what is the next step here? Short of buying some manner of complicated, enharmonic, micro-tonal control surface (or perhaps an archicembalo....) I suppose only time will reveal the extent and nature of this unsettling development. I still have a lot of equal temperament related work to finish, but for now I sit here consequentially frustrated with the fact that I cannot bring myself to do the one thing I do most often at home—play the piano.
It is rather hard to believe that mid-April is looming on the immediate horizon with the end of the semester following shortly in tow. Of course this time of the year brings along with it the usual quandary of exams, papers, projects, long nights, less-than-plentiful sleep, etc. However, the one thing riding at the front of my mind is the coming summer.
Back in January I was scouring the internet for fellowships, internships, or any other sort of program that might keep me occupied during the summer and fall conveniently in line with my future aspirations. I filled out more applications than my letter-writers probably appreciated, but c'est la vie....After weeks of waiting turned into months, I finally heard back regarding what was undoubtedly one of my top-choice applications. After one unexpected phone interview, a few cursory emails, and a few more weeks of waiting, I was officially notified that I had been accepted as a Library of Congress 2016 Junior Fellow.
What exactly does this mean? Well, a few things, of course. First and foremost, it means I will be spending 70 working days at the Library of Congress main branch in Washington D.C. My time there will be spent working with Mark Horowitz, curator of the Leonard Bernstein Collection, in an effort to analyze, catalog, digitize, and annotate a portion of the collection, as well as reworking content and establishing plans to revamp the digital presence and accessibility of the collection as a whole. No, it isn't quite related to trombones or harpsichords or some other nonsense I somehow entertain myself with, but it is going to be a fascinating and unique chance to experience, learn, and network at the worlds largest library. It will also place me on the East Coast within relatively easy access to some of the best collections of musical instruments the U.S has to offer.
Housing arrangements are all in order, plane tickets have been reserved, and now it is just a matter of finishing out the semester in one piece. Knowing myself, it should be smooth sailing. D.C, here I come!
Over the preceding months I have been making a rather breakneck tour de force of the many temperaments used in Western music. For the most part, this has involved: first, exploring them theoretically in writings, recordings, and other media; second, applying them to non-historical instruments housed at the NMM (primarily a Wolf copy of the NMM's Germain harpsichord); and finally, transferring the decidedly "best" or "most appropriate" temperaments to various historical instruments on display throughout the museum.
More recently I have been spending a lot of time with the Pythagorean-Just-derived circular temperaments of Baroque western Europe: Werckmeister, Schlick, Vallotti, the preponderant "Bach" schemes, etc. The era of music and temperaments that most dominates the "historical performance" scene. Slowly approaching circular regularity a la equal temperament has been an interesting chronological adventure. Abandoning entirely the sweet purity of the major thirds, however, has been a painful, uphill struggle. Yes, there is a time, place, and piece for every temperament to shine. Yes, Bach's Well Tempered Clavier is a monumental masterpiece of Baroque fashion that both implores and is implored by an irregular, circular temperament. Yes, being able to play in every key with aurally passable results grants expounding freedom in composition. That being said, not a reason in the world can override the harmonically gravitational elephant in the room that is the pure major third.
Enter the French temperaments. Running contrary to the general continental trend, the French were as peculiar in their Baroque temperaments as they were in most other matters of art, life, love, and politics. Unlike the Pythagorean-comma splitting of the circular temperaments that Bach and his contemporaries founded their compositions upon, the French made every effort to remain true to the sanctity of the syntonic-comma meantone third. They arrived at circularity in a manner that preserved, at the least, three of the pure major thirds that make standard 1/4 syntonic comma meantone so gosh-darn hypnotic. The ear-grating "wolf" fifth of the meantone temperaments (the Diesis) was split between a number of its neighbors, eventually resulting in a remarkable temperament — fully circular, albeit irregular, with no wolf and the qualities of 1/4s.c. meantone faithfully preserved in the central diatonic keys. The Tempérament Ordinaire.
Today I made my first practical foray into coaxing a full instrument into the ordinaire. Using the beat-rate scheme from Di Veroli's Unequal Temperaments I partitioned out the lower 8' on the Wolf from c' and shortly after filled in the full compass. It felt a bit sacrilegious de-tuning the wonderful, nearly equal Barnes temperament I had set last week, and reverting to narrowly tempered fifths from the many pure (or close to) ones took some minor re-acclamation, but in the end it seemed well-justified.
Pure thirds. Oh how I have missed their sublime tranquility. And now I have them back, in a circular temperament no less. Obviously the practicality of the ordinaire depends entirely on your repertoire and expectations—it would never work for Bach—but for the noodling I so often do, it seems to present a presently ideal balance between the beauty of meantone and the functionality of the Pythagorean-Just circular temperaments. Sure, the distant keys are less consonant than Valotti would deem acceptable, but they are useable, and that is more than good enough in many, many cases.
I took a short video with my phone of a random French-repertoire excerpt. I cannot recall offhand what it was, so feel free to let me know if you recognize it.
Every once in awhile, even the busiest of people find themselves with an enjoyable slot of unoccupied time. This three-day Easter weekend turned out to be one of those very times. Usually I would jump on any chance I get to take a break from the hustle and bustle of academic life, but for no particular reason I was feeling a bit motivated today. Instead of truly lazing about, I decided to go ahead and hit the ground running with one of the many random ideas that popped into my head. Hence, this website now exists.
As I am writing this, I find myself very much in the grudging infancy of putting together a site that will provide any useful (or interesting) information. In the long run, I hope this website will fulfill a number of uses: a compiling record of my activities, accomplishments, and inevitable failures in the world of organology, a central host for images and thoughts on the instruments that pass through my unstable stable, and a continually expanding resource for any individual whose organological interests happen to align with my own. These interest, in due time, will be made abundantly clear by the content spread throughout the rest of the site. Spoiler alert: there will probably be a lot of trombones.
I do not doubt that the concept and content of this site might very well shift radically over time. It would be rather silly to lay out a rank of rigid stipulations at this point, and who knows where the next two, five, ten years will take me. For now, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. Or better yet, enjoy some John Dowland, as I have been for most of this evening.