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American Originals

Among the composers represented at the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra “American Originals” concert I attended on May 12, two stand tall for their groundbreaking work.

Charles Ives (not Burl Ives), composer and insurance executive, was the son of Civil War bandmaster George Ives. George Ives was a musical tinkerer, who taught his son to actively listen to whatever was going on around him. Born in 1874, Charles Ives grew up in rural New England. The music of his youth—hymn tunes, parlor ballads, marches—appears as quotes throughout Ives’ compositions. The intense listening his father taught is there, too. If the choir of his home church sounded like it was singing in two keys at the same time, then Ives wrote music that incorporated two simultaneous keys.

Saturday night the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra performed Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” A string orchestra played on stage, while a woodwind quartet and solo trumpet performed from the back of the auditorium. The three groups kept their own tempo and key, the trumpet asking and the flutes responding to questions that have no answers. Ives’ biographer Jan Swafford wrote of Ives, “Obsessed by the past, he wrote a music of the future.”

The Edgewood Symphony Orchestra presented a new arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” made by John Wilson for trumpeter Roger Dannenberg and the Orchestra.

Duke Ellington was born in 1899, twenty-five years after Ives. While Ellington and Ives both shared a belief in the importance of the vernacular—melodies “hummed while men are at work and at play, and that are handed down from generation to generation,” as an Ellington interview from 1930 states—it is the contrasts between these two creators that feeds my curiosity. Specifically, each composer worked in a method unique to his temperament.

Ives composed in virtual isolation. Much of his music was imagined and lived in his own fantasies before taking form on the page. In contrast, Ellington’s creative output nearly always reflected his daily work with his orchestra. Rehearsals with his players shaped his compositions. Pieces were continually tempered and amended by his musical associates.

Ives musical laboratory was the whole world around him, his experiences steeped in the cauldron of memory. He invited no one else to share his musical pondering. Ellington tried out his compositions on everyone with whom he worked. Today we would say he workshopped his music.

Though neither of these men represented mainstream ideas about how a composer works, Ives and Ellington have emerged as two of our greatest American originals.

For further reading:

The Duke Ellington Reader

Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music


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Songsters, Writers, Rovers

In California last week a friend taught me a hobo song. The tune flew back to Pittsburgh with me and followed me to work at the library. I still wake in the night with the melody teasing my sleepy brain. “Hobo’s Lullaby” is a beautiful song.

“Hobo’s Lullaby” was written by Goebel Reeves (born 1899). Teen-aged Reeves adored vaudeville and hobos. He traded a middle-class life for the adventure of roaming the U.S., singing, yodeling, and recording under pseudonyms, including “The Texas Drifter.” He wrote and performed autobiographical songs, and limited his chances for a lucrative career by refusing to settle in one place for more than a few months—a dedicated hobo.

Other musicians who hoboed are Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Utah Philips. Writers who hoboed include James Michener, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac (fictionalized in The Dharma Bums), and Jack London.

Hotel de Gink (hobo hotel) — preparing Muligan stew, photo Library of Congress, between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915

In its depression-era heyday, hobodom implied an itinerant lifestyle, usually lived by riding the rails (no ticket required).

Hobo, tramp, and drifter, often used interchangeably, are slang terms, lacking definitive etymologies. However, hobos defined themselves like this—hobos worked, tramps worked only when made to, bums did not work at all.

Jack London wrote in The Road (1907) of his adventures riding the rails.

It began to look as if I should be compelled to go to the very poor for my
food. The very poor constitute the last sure recourse of the hungry tramp.
The very poor can always be depended upon. They never turn away the
hungry. Time and again, all over the United States, have I been refused
food by the big house on the hill; and always have I received food from
the little shack down by the creek or marsh, with its broken windows
stuffed with rags and its tired-faced mother broken with labor. Oh, you
charity-mongers! Go to the poor and learn, for the poor alone are the
charitable. They neither give nor withhold from their excess. They have no
excess. They give, and they withhold never, from what they need for
themselves, and very often from what they cruelly need for themselves. A
bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog
when you are just as hungry as the dog.

Also last week in California, I listened to “West London,” a song by Charles Ives, that musically illustrates and elevates a poem by Matthew Arnold.

Crouched on the pavement close by Belgrave Square,
A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied;
A babe was in her arms, and at her side
A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.

Some laboring men, whose work lay somewhere there,
Passed opposite; she touched her girl, who hied
Across, and begged, and came back satisfied.
The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.

Thought I: Above her state this spirit towers;
She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate.

She turns from that cold succor which attends
The unknown little from the unknowing great,
And points us to a better time than ours.



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Mirror to the Past

Just as the Civic Arena tore apart the relationship between downtown Pittsburgh and the Hill District neighborhood, that dome, known as The Igloo, is being torn apart now. In 1960-61, black and white images of the dome’s construction  were captured by a local studio and Pittsburgh Courier photographer. From 1937 to 1983, Teeny Harris snapped photos of events and locales central to the African American experience in Pittsburgh. His images hold a mirror to Pittsburgh’s past. Since 2001, Carnegie Museum of Art has archived nearly 80,000 Teenie Harris negatives, with nearly 60,000 images scanned and cataloged to date.

Sit with me at Carnegie Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story. In a darkened gallery, a jazz soundtrack—newly commissioned and recorded for this installation—sets an appropriately bouncy mood. Seven bigger-than-life projections flash on and off, each projection releasing a volley of images. Nearly 1,000 Harris photographs are grouped in seven themes: “Urban Landscapes,” “At Home,” “Style,” “Crossroads,” “Gatherings,” “Words and Signs,” and “Rise and Fall of the Crawford Grill.”

The Crawford Grill jazz club, the first incarnation of which was demolished for construction of the Civic Arena, once crowned the Hill District. Do you see that glittering piano on the stage, tiled entirely with mirror? Who is the woman playing and singing? Look, there’s Satchel Paige seated at the bar, regaling a group of friends. According to the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper of July 26, 1941, “Satch’ is shown telling . . . how he struck out Joe DiMaggio three times and beat Dizzy Dean four out of five. Satchell is slated to pitch in the East-West game Sunday.”

With seven scenarios projected at one time, we could spend hours in this room before we’d see all the available Harris photos. Catch the ones you missed, or revisit favorites on the Museum’s web site. Each image is carefully annotated. Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to add their own knowledge of identities, locales, and circumstances to the archive.

Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story
Carnegie Museum of Art
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA
through April 7, 2012


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2012: Out With the New

Merce Cunningham.

A household name? In the world of modern dance, yes. Outside that world, probably not.

Cunningham, born in 1919, formed a dance company in 1953. With music director, composer John Cage, he turned dance on its head. In an entirely new way of envisioning dance, movement was separated from music. Choreography, sets, and music were developed independently of one another and brought together after completion.

Pure movement was Cunningham’s passion. Audience members who expected to witness a story, with traditional elements of conflict, climax and resolution, were frustrated. Successful observers, however, checked preconcieved notions at the door, including assumptions about dance music. Beginning with Cage, Cunningham collaborated with more than fifty exploratory composers of the late 20th century.

“Hi, Merce!”

It’s October 2007. I can still hear the voice of one of his dancers as she aborted her on-stage warm-ups in Chicago to take a phone call from wheelchair-bound Cunningham in New York. Though no longer able to dance or even travel with his company, Cunningham phoned them before every performance. From my view from the orchestra pit at Chicago’s Harris Theater, I am grateful for my first and only opportunity to experience these provocative works of movement and sound.

When Cunningham died in 2009 at age ninety, he left a plan for his dance company. The dancers would continue to perform his work on a “Legacy Tour,” with their final performance in New York City, December 31, 2011. If you were there, good for you. If not, it’s too late to see Cunningham’s choreography performed by the company he trained. The new ended with the last day of 2011.

Though the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs no more, it’s not too late to read about, listen to, and view recorded dances and interviews. The library houses a treasury of material for those curious about Merce Cunningham’s work.

Music for Merce, 1952-2009, a ten CD set published by New World Records, is available to check out, and also to listen to at the Main Library on the streaming music database, DRAM, the Database of Amercian Recorded Music.




Cage/Cunningham, a documentary film by Eliot Kaplan, captures a heartfelt portrait of the fifty-year collaboration between composer John Cage and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham.




Merce My Way: The Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Photographs, by Mikhail Baryshnikov, features still photographs snapped by a famous fellow-dancer that capture dress rehearsal movement by Cunningham and Company.




Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, chronicle and commentary by David Vaughan, is the most comprehensive book of Cunningham’s life and work through the mid-1990s in the library’s collection.




Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham, by Carolyn Brown, offers a dancer’s perspective of the Cunningham Dance Company’s formative years in a revealing memoir by one of its original members.








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With Apologies to Clement Moore

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1912

‘Tis the night before traveling, and all ’round the town
Not a dry leaf is stirring, the garden is brown.
The sweaters we packed in the suitcase with love,
In hopes that Jack Frost will descend from above.

The children are nestled too warm in their beds,
While visions of snow angels dance in their heads.
And mamma in her t-shirt, and I with no cap,
Sit in the kitchen and plan our attack.

In the morning we’ll rise, board the 28X—
Will the airport be crowded? I dread these long treks.
Away to real winter we’ll fly in a flash.
To northwest Minnesota—should we bring more cash?

Moonlight on the lawn looks like new-fallen snow
But it’s 60 degrees in December, you know!
When we get to the airport, I hope I don’t weaken,
I’m feeling quite nervous and ill. You’re a beacon!

Will the plane ride be easy, lively and quick?
We’re flying Southwest piloted by St. Nick.
More rapid than reindeer, they’ll serve us hot tea.
Remember the old days, when breakfasts were free?

[Next morning] We’re off! All is calm, all is bright.
The bus isn’t crowded, I think we’re alright.
To the top of the hill! To the top of the sky!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away . . . sigh.

We’re landing already. Aunt Bea will be circling
The parking garage, and with Bing she will sing
“White Christmas.” It’s snowing! I bet the pond’s frozen.
How soon can we skate? Do you think we’ll see penguins?

And then in a twinkling, we’re here at the farm.
The house smells of cabbage, roast turkey, and glögg.
As I take off my boots, and am looking around,
From the yard Uncle Edmund comes in with a bound.

He’s dressed all in wool, from his head to his foot,
His clothes are all tarnished with pitch and with soot.
A bundle of wood he has wrapped in his arms
Split for the old stove—Aunt Bea’s cooking charms.

The kids want to hurry, get out in the snow.
Hey now! Bundle up, since it’s twenty below.
It’s too cold to snow, but that looks like a flake.
May we build a bonfire on the shore of the lake?

Soon gathered at table, it’s time for some supper.
Thank goodness we’re all here, raise praise for each other,
And lift up your glass with a toast of good cheer
Happiest holidays, brightest New Year!



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———————Old Friends———————


Michel de Montaigne, philosopher, inventor of the essay form

Andrea Palladio, the most influential architect of the Western world,

and Montaigne’s contemporary


Carnegie Museum of Art Cafe

MONTAIGNE:  Signore Palladio! We meet in the New World. It’s Carnegie Library that brings you to Pittsburgh?

PALLADIO:  Monsieur Montaigne, I am honored to meet you at long last. Ah, but no. No library for me. It is the Heinz Architectural Center of the Carnegie Museum of Art where I briefly reside.

MONTAIGNE:  Oui, and I am in permanent residence in the arched hallways of this Library, where some of your ideas appear to have been, how shall I say—borrowed?

PALLADIO:  My influence is everywhere. Was I not famous enough that you visited my home in Vicenza in 1580?

MONTAIGNE:  Indeed, but I couldn’t find you!

PALLADIO:  You looked in the wrong place. (Gestures downward.) By the time of your visit I had gone, let us say, underground.

MONTAIGNE:  Ah, pity. Your demise prevented you from reading my first published Essays. But me? I was quite aware of your splendid architectural writings.

PALLADIO:  But . . .

MONTAIGNE:  No, no. My Italian, she, he . . .


MONTAIGNE:  It. It is good. You know, I adore conversation. We have much in common, much to discuss—a fascination with the classical world, our unconventional, risky writing. After just missing each other four centuries ago, let us open this bottle of wine I brought from my Bordeaux estate, and cut into this comte I ordered.

PALLADIO:  And with it, let us order some Risotto, made with the excellent rice grown in my home province.

MONTAIGNE:  My friend, this Thursday evening you and I will be reunited in a rare view of your drawings . . .

PALLADIO:  . . . and a discussion of your essays.

TOGETHER:  A toast! We shall be bound together!

Bound Together Book Club, a collaborative program of Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, this Thursday features a gallery talk and walk through Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey*, followed by a lively discussion of How to Live: Or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.

Thursday, December 8, 6:30 – 7:45 PM

Space is limited. Call 412-622-3288 to register.

Meet in the Museum of Art lobby.

*This exhibition includes original drawings by Palladio, and is not likely to ever travel again. See it now through December 31, 2011.



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Comfort AND Joy

I distrust the term “comfort food,” which evokes images of casseroles thickened with canned soup, or joyless food whose sole asset is that it is steamy hot. Main Library’s cookbook collection (6,000+ titles) includes 104 titles with “comfort food” in the title or subject heading. Of eleven cookbooks in the “comfort food” category added in 2011, I present one strong recommendation.

 Saveur: The New Comfort Food – Home Cooking from Around the World. The pages of this book offer more than 100 recipes for comforting foods from around the globe—spring rolls, empanadas, potato latkes, hummus, huevos rancheros, Korean fried chicken, kimchi pancakes. Many are recipes of fare prepared by home cooks. Though the dishes are not fussy, these recipes don’t cut corners. Many require planning ahead. The beautiful design of this book includes hunger-coaxing photographs and sidebars offering cultural and historical information.

Saveur, the food magazine “for people who experience the world food-first,” has published four cookbooks. A copy of Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian sits on my cookbook shelf at home. Page after page sports cheery images of a culture in love with food. Although “comfort” is not part of its title or subject headings, the culinary culture it portrays satisfies both body and soul—comfort food.



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Rivers, Dammed and Redeemed

1855 Colton Plan Map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cincinnati, Ohio


There are two kinds of rivers. One meanders over a broad course, navigable by boats and barges. Rivers like this run slow and long, like the ones that surround my home town, Pittsburgh. The Allegheny totals 325 miles, the Monongahela, 128. The Ohio rambles a thousand miles before it finds the Mississippi.

The other type of river tumbles down steep hills. Icy, swift, and relatively short, with headwaters high in the mountains, traffic on this kind of river is limited to white water rafting.


Fast or slow, short or long, almost every large river in the U.S. is dammed. Seventy-five thousand large dams (higher than 6 feet), and many thousand smaller dams interrupt our country’s rivers and streams. Dams alter water temperatures, reduce water levels, and change the flow of rivers, causing coastal erosion. Some block fish from migrating. Today, many dams are old and unsafe, or no longer serve their original purposes. Only three percent now generate electricity.

With more miles of rivers and streams than any state in the continental U.S., Pennsylvania features 3,200 dams. Many were built more than 100 years ago to supply power for grain mills. Others provided water for drinking and irrigation, flood protection, and hydroelectric power. In 2010, thirty dams were removed in Pennsylvania, more than in any other state.


A national dam removal movement is gaining momentum. Benefits of dam removal include restoring river health and clean water, revitalizing fish and wildlife, and improving public safety and recreation. Currently in the U.S., more dams are being removed than built. By the end of this year, 1000 dams will have been removed in the U.S.

Map of the Elwha River and tributaries with dams. Image US National Park Service.

News from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, where I grew up, landed on the front page of national newspapers last month. The Elwha River, which supplies water to the region, is the site of the largest dam removal project in North America. After two years of preparation, contractors started the three-year process of simultaneously removing two huge dams (210 and 108 feet tall), which will open 70 miles of wild salmon habitat in pristine Olympic National Park. These dams were erected in 1913 and 1927, without fish ladders, so for 100 years the ecosystem of the largest watershed in the Park has lacked fish life. Hiking beside the river, you might not notice anything missing. But without fish, the river contains no food for native black bear or bald eagles.

Prior to construction of the dams, which were erected to supply power to timber and paper industries, the National Park Service estimates that 400,000 salmon migrated annually up the 45-mile river that links the Olympic Mountains to the Juan de Fuca Strait and the Pacific Ocean. The Elwha River currently supports only about 3,000 salmon, confined to five miles of habitat below the lower dam.

The effort to restore the Elwha is the product of more than 20 years of planning and collaboration on a local and national level. The project will help draw the map for future dam removal and river restoration throughout the nation.

Hydroelectric power plant and dam on the Elwha River near Port Angeles. 1914. University of Washington Digital Archives, photographer Asahel Curtis, 1874-1941.

Elwha Dam, 2005. Photo by Larry Ward, Lower Elwha Fisheries Office, Wikimedia Commons.

Elwha Dam Web Cam. This image is updated every hour or so, making it possible to follow the Dam's dismantling.



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Here Lie Frightening Strangers, Dark Secrets, Chilly Nights, Haunting Ghosts

From goulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night – Good Lord, deliver us!

The Cornish and West Country Litany, 1926

Autumn began this morning. I offer this collection of (mostly) recently published, seasonal novels to put you in the mood for darkening days and lengthening nights.     
Harwood, John
The Ghost Writer
By following clues in ghost stories written by his grandmother-which are included in the novel-a librarian works to piece together a crime his mother may have committed, and the past and present merge in a horrifying way.
Herbert, James
The Secret of Crickley Hall
This haunted house tale includes a kidnapped child, orphans, gloom, mist, and bumps in the night.
Kernochan, Sarah
Jane Was Here
Jane appears in a New England town minus her memory, yet she seems to know the place. Reincarnation might be at work as past and present collide.
Kiernan, Caitlin R.
The Red Tree
The Red Tree is the journal of a novelist who moves into an old house in Rhode Island in order to live alone and complete a novel. Her writing project is interrupted when she finds a manuscript in the basement that contains haunted legends of the red oak tree she can see from the kitchen window, and she becomes obsessed with the tree and its history.
O’Nan, Stewart
The Night Country
Ghosts haunt the survivors of a Halloween car crash in O’Nan’s evocative tale.
Rayne, Sarah
Property of a Lady
A fresh version of a classic ghost story, featuring a haunted house, recurring nightmares, and family secrets.
Simmons, Dan
History and horror overlap when Charles Dickens and his real-life friend and fellow novelist Wilkie Collins pursue a ghostly presence named Drood, the inspiration for Dickens’s last, uncompleted novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Stott, Rebecca
Time and space, past and present tangle in this ghostly thriller, which moves between Isaac Newton’s infatuation with alchemy, and the death of a Cambridge historian who was writing a study of suspicious circumstances surrounding Newton’s appointment as a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1667.
Waters, Sarah
The Little Stranger
A proud, poor family lives in a grand house with peeling wallpaper and creaking pipes. They become friends with an unmarried physician, who falls for the daughter and the house, though possibly both are haunted.

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The Vac. The Bucket.

Who is that person vacuuming her porch ceiling, then dragging the vac into the front garden to reach the awning? Who is that lady prowling her yard, bucket of soapy water always at her side? It’s me, enemy of stink bugs.

If you haven’t been bothered by the prehistoric little shield bug, I am happy for you, and jealous. Many hours of my summer gardening time have been spent interacting with BMSB nymphs (“brown marmorated stink bug” babies). By interacting, I mean holding a small bucket of soapy water below the leaf or fruit where the baby bug perches. Nudging the leaf causes the bug to drop into the sudsy mixture.

In my front garden, nymphs appeared last summer on a butterfly bush. I cut the plant down. It grew back, and early this summer the bugs appeared again. Two years in a row were enough—goodbye to that shrub. The problem soon moved to a neighboring rhubarb patch. In Pennsylvania, females continue to lay new egg masses June to September, which explains why I have observed nymphs of varing sizes on the same rhubarb plant.

This year I’ve unwillingly shared my garden produce with BMSBs. Stink bugs don’t have mouths (they don’t bite or sting). They feed by penetrating leaves, stems, and fruits with a piercing/sucking kind of mouthpart. I’m upset, even despondent at times, about losing tomatoes, peppers, chard, and rhubarb. And I’m concerned for farms and farmers.

BMSBs are not picky eaters. I’ve read that they eat 90 to 600 different types of plants. Vulnerable Pennsylvania crops include peaches, apples, green beans, soybeans, and pears. This year stink bugs have infested fields of corn. Thirty-three states report BMSBs. Wine makers are concerned that just a few bugs in their grape harvest will taint the flavor of wine, making it worthless. Even cows are reported to refuse silage that contains stink bugs.

Brown marmorated stink bugs are native to Asia, where they damage crops and overwinter in buildings. They arrived in the U.S. in 1996, on a wood pallet in Allentown, PA. No known natural predators in this country keep the BMSB population in check. One thing is different in their native lands, though. There a predatory wasp lays its eggs on BMSB eggs which destroys them. Scientists are testing to determine if importing wasps is the answer to our problem, but that will take a few years. Predators in this country include birds, spiders, and praying mantises, but they are ineffective combatants, because they feed on a variety of things.

A four-year-old neighbor thinks the black spider-like baby stink bugs are cute. She does not like the idea of killing them. But I know they develop into flying nightmares, that after wiping out my garden, when the weather gets chilly they’ll flatten themselves and enter homes through even extremely narrow openings. That’s not my idea of cute. Yes, I am armed with my vacuum and my sudsy bucket, and I am on a mission.



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