Tag Archives: Pittsburgh music

Deus ex Machina

I’d like to tell you a little story about data migration. No – wait a minute! Don’t roll your eyes and go away! It’s short, I promise.

A customer once asked me what we librarians do all day. I told him that, among other things, librarians organize and collect information that the public finds useful, keep collections up to date and accessible, and help customers navigate those collections. You can help me fill in the list of the abundance of other things that make our role in society invaluable. The following is an example of the things I just listed.

The Music Department houses a special collection that we call the Oral History of Music in Pittsburgh (OHMP). The OHMP contains over 300 interviews with Pittsburghers involved in all types of musical activities, from all types of genres: Pittsburgh Symphony instrumentalists, music educators, jazz musicians, music reporters, historians, folk musicians, DJs, you name it. The interviewer in all but a few sessions is a gentleman by the name of Maurice Levy – a dedicated volunteer, Friend of the Music Library, and retired math teacher.

Maurice initially recorded the interviews on cassette tape and made a list of the topics that were covered. Starting in the late 1990s, we burned CDs from each tape (first instance of data migration!).  We put all interview information, including topics, into a database at a “stand-alone” computer (a computer not hooked up to a network) so customers could search for specific interviews (data migration again!). In 2005 (or thereabouts) I asked my boss if the info on the stand-alone had ever been backed up. The answer was that it had not. I used a floppy disc (remember those?) to back it up. Less than a week later, the computer completely died (see where the deus ex machina comes into my little story?). I converted the data from the floppy, which was organized with software called “File Maker Pro” into a Microsoft Excel file (YES! DATA MIGRATION!). Then I copied and converted the information into a HTML marked up version (you guessed it!) and put it on the internet.

We are now looking into putting all of the interviews online, so customers can listen to them streaming. This will enable the interviews to be saved to our server as well. We will also copy them onto an external hard drive.

This is what I do all day.



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Speak Softly and Carry a Guitar: The Bitch Magnet Reissues

The 1970s and 80s were full of loud rock and metal bands with larger-than-life personalities.  Or to put it more bluntly, let’s say image-conscious bands full of egomaniacs, on stage with oversize drum sets, walls of amplifiers, and elaborate light and stage shows.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  I love Van Halen, for instance.

But what was special about the band Bitch Magnet in the mid-to-late-80s is that they could totally rock loudly with bombast and complexity but had really unassuming personalities as people and musicians.  They met at Oberlin College.  The two front men, guitarist Jon Fine and bassist Sooyoung Park, were both bespectacled nerds in casual clothes.  The band name was surely ironic.  Sooyoung’s vocals were more spoken than sung.  But over the stunningly great drumming of Orestes Morfin was a wonderful wash of guitar volume.

Fine wrote last year in an article for The Atlantic about his rock-induced hearing loss and stated:

Extreme volume is nerd-macho. I couldn’t bench-press 250 pounds—actually, I couldn’t bench-press half of 250 pounds—but my band was much louder than yours.

I implore you to not follow in Fine’s footsteps and to please wear earplugs.  But I recommend his music.

Amongst indie rock fans, Bitch Magnet and Slint also were known for having some songs using the soft-loud formula: usually very restrained verses with almost mumbled or whispered vocals and then choruses where the guitarist hits the distortion pedal and everything gets really loud.  Of course, soon after, this formula was turned into one of the most successful songs of all time by Nirvana with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Bands in Pittsburgh’s 90s indie rock scene such as Hurl and Don Caballero were clearly influenced by Bitch Magnet.  In fact, Don Caballero and Battles guitarist Ian Williams is quoted on the back cover of last year’s reissue of all three Bitch Magnet albums.  The reissues are long overdue and contain extras: unreleased songs, old photos, flyers, etc.  But perhaps the best part about a comprehensive reissue is that you can experience a band freshly out of context and in reverse chronological order.  I’d advise starting with Ben Hur, the majestic final album and working backwards through Umber before listening to the inchoate Star Booty.  Enjoy!

— Tim


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Paur Play

Once in a while, you hear in the news about how a librarian discovers something interesting hiding on the shelves, like the recent Paul Revere print found at Brown University.  Here’s my story (cue chung-chung Law and Order sound effect):

Before the longtime head of the Music Department, Kathie Logan, retired recently, we conducted a shelf inventory. One discovery was a packet of letters from the early 1900’s, held together with rusty straight pins. The only thing known about them was that they were written in part by the contentious conductor of the Pittsburgh Orchestra, Emil Paur (pronounced Power). Kathie did not recall anything about them. They might have come into the library before she arrived in 1984.

Paur, conductor of the Pittsburgh Orchestra from 1904 – 1910, was somewhat controversial in his day. Our Music Archives house a collection of scrapbooks from George H. Wilson, the manager of the Pittsburgh Orchestra at the time. All I knew was that Wilson did not get along with Paur, and actually quit the Orchestra because of him.

On closer inspection, I found 34 letters from 1905-1914 between Paur and William C. Hamilton. There were typewritten copies of what Hamilton sent to Paur, and original, handwritten responses from Paur to Hamilton. The contents of letters indicated a close personal relationship between the men, with Hamilton acting as Paur’s agent or manager, and describe the atmosphere and circumstances surrounding Paur’s tenure as the conductor of the Pittsburgh Orchestra. The letters include dealings with finances and personalities, “to be kept in strict confidence” gossip, machinations of Orchestra Committee members, warnings from Hamilton for Paur to stay away from this one or that one, and a lot of sour grapes. Obviously, Hamilton was a key player in the dealings and controversy at the time. Passages are peppered with family events and dinner parties.

I knew a little of the back story of Paur, but who was Hamilton? No, he is not found on Google. I went to look at A History of Pittsburgh Music, 1758-1958 by Edward G. Baynham.  This is one of the go–to Pittsburgh music reference books¹. He wasn’t mentioned in there either. I searched the Pittsburgh Music Information File.  Paur is there, but no Hamilton. I looked at A Short History of the Pittsburgh Orchestra, 1896 to 1910 by Richard J. Wolfe² and once again found nothing specifically about Hamilton. Then I went to the Concert Programs of the Pittsburgh Orchestra and found my first clue.

Here was my path:

Clue one –William C. Hamilton is named as an orchestra committee member in early concert programs.

Clue two – from the concert programs: There is a “S. Hamilton Co.” where tickets to the concerts are sold – is there a connection?

Clue three – There is a card catalog (yes, they still exist!) in the Pennsylvania Department that contains names with volumes in which biographies of Pennsylvanians can be found. Aha! Success! I found him (I had to wade through other William Hamiltons, but I did find my man) in Pittsburgh of Today: Its Resources and People by Frank C. Harper. William C. Hamilton succeeded his father Samuel Hamilton as the president of “S. Hamilton and Company,” a prominent music store in Pittsburgh from 1870 through to the 1940s. So there was a connection to “S. Hamilton.”

Clue four – I went to another card catalog (yes another one) in the Music Department for the detailed index to the Musical Forecast, a music magazine from Pittsburgh from 1921-1948. There is a small obituary and small blurb about W. C. Hamilton in those volumes.

Clue five – I went back to Baynham and read about Samuel Hamilton, W. C.’s father, and music entrepreneur.

From all this information, I was able to write a short blurb for the finding list that I posted online:  William C. Hamilton.

With my interest piqued, I went to the Oliver Room to look through George Wilson’s scrapbook all about Paur. Wilson was the manager of the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh, as well as the Pittsburgh Orchestra housed there. He also managed the Art Society of Pittsburgh. He rubbed elbows with the likes of Mr. Andrew Carnegie. Wilson’s family donated 45 of his scrapbooks to the library, including the one containing newspaper clippings and correspondence about his feud with Paur. Amazingly, Mr. Wilson saved all of the newspaper and magazine articles pertaining to the feud, including negative press, and (BONUS!), two letters from William C. Hamilton himself, full of vitriol toward Mr. Wilson, with Wilson’s script on the top of the letters reading “not answered.”

Some selected highlights from Mr. Wilson’s scrapbook Pittsburgh Music Archive #37, Box 11:

 From April, 1907, “Paur or Manager, and the Committee Chose Conductor” “Among the matters upon which the manager and the conductor failed to agree, it is said, was the action of the latter in bringing to public notice his abilities as a pianist, and the implied contention of the manager that the orchestra was becoming known as an organization for the exploitation of a piano manufacturing concern.”

[That piano manufacturer was none other than W.C. Hamilton]

From April 18, 1907, “More than Jealousy”  “Luigi von Kunitz, concertmeister of the Pittsburg Orchestra, issued a statement tonight in which he says he has been forced to resign from the organization because he would not obey private mandates from Emil Paur, the conductor. He charges that Mr. Paur is connected with some piano manufacturer, whose make he insists on the musician using.”

From the Pittsburgh Post [Gazette?], May 1907, “Pittsburgh Orchestra has Brightest Kind of Prospects” “Gustav Schlotterbeck and W. C. Hamilton [are] in full charge of organization’s affairs. W. C. Hamilton [will be] Acting Director, who will manage the affairs of the orchestra here. Gustav Schlotterbeck … will book orchestra and manage out-of-town engagements.

Did Hamilton in fact coerce orchestral musicians into using certain instruments to his own gain, as seemed to be the contention of Wilson? Mmmm. Maybe you’ll have to read this amazing original source material from just over 100 years ago for yourself.


1. This book started as a scholarly dissertation for Baynham’s PhD in history and was expanded upon and privately published afterwards.  It is extremely well researched, but unfortunately, doesn’t have great bibliographic notes, and is a fairly dry read.

2. This is another scholarly dissertation.


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Pittsburghers sing to spring!

While it often seems that Pittsburgh goes directly from winter to hot, humid summer, this year we are enjoying a real spring with lots of days requiring a light jacket or an umbrella.  To keep you in the mood, here are four recordings of classical music with spring themes recorded by Pittsburgh musicians, young and old:


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“Baby, you’re the one that I really miss…”

In my last post, I wrote about our Pittsburgh March Music Madness.  Now I can focus on whom is still in the contest and on whom, perhaps surprisingly, is not.

Joe Grushecky, The Clarks, and Donnie Iris seem to exemplify Pittsburgh’s hard-working, no-nonsense aesthetic but they lost out to political punks, neo-hippies, retro indie rockers, and indie prog rockers (Anti-Flag, Rusted Root, Modey Lemon, and Don Caballero).  Times change. 

Or perhaps times don’t change, as 1960s stars The Vogues (famed for their “You’re the One” song quoted above) squeezed by Wexford’s own Christina Aguilera in the voting. 

In the classical realm, I was a little disappointed that our imported musicians from Mexico and Iran, Cuarteto Latinoamericano and the adapter of Persian folk music, Reza Vali, lost out.  But our homegrown Chatham Baroque and River City Brass Band continue to perform and release acclaimed CDs.

As for Pittsburgh jazz, every one of the contestants is a titan.  (And I said “his” here because we intend to honor Pittsburgh’s great jazz women such as Mary Lou Williams [done], Maxine Sullivan [in progress], and more.)  But while Billy Strayhorn and Stanley Turrentine were great, Roger Humphries and Ahmad Jamal are artists that continue to give back to Pittsburgh.  Humphries could have stayed in NYC after achieving fame in the 1960s with Horace Silver on albums such as “Song For My Father,” “The Jody Grind” and “Cape Verdean Blues.” Instead, he returned and leads ensembles here such as the Roger Humphries Big Band, provides support to local players, and teaches.  Jamal is still going strong well into his 70s, has released albums in tribute to his former hometown, and will be performing here again in May.  (For more on Pittsburgh jazz folks, go here.)

The poll is somewhat silly, arbitrary, unscientific, etc., but if it gets you thinking about Pittsburgh music, everyone wins!  Keep voting!

 — Tim

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Pittsburgh March Music Madness

In the spirit of basketball’s March Madness, the primary season, and Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary, we created an online poll to try and get you to argue about the best musicians from Pittsburgh.

And yes, we intentionally made some huge omissions such as drumming legends Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke, the world-renowned Pittsburgh Symphony, grouchy and talented Oscar Levant, Lou “Lightnin’ Strikes Again” Christie, protest folkie Anne Feeney, 80s punks Half-Life, they’re-bigger-in-Europe-than-here rockers The Cynics, vocoder party starters Black Moth Super Rainbow, Lorin Maazel who just got back from conducting the New York Philharmonic in North Korea, pianist Mary Lou Williams, rap goofballs Grand Buffet, and on and on and on.

These omissions are good for two reasons. One, they mean that Pittsburgh has produced so many fantastic musicians that no poll or contest, no matter how large, could contain them. Two, I hope there are some folks on the lists that you’ve never heard of or that you perhaps have heard but didn’t realize had a Pittsburgh connection.

Go here to vote!  Go here to explore some more of our resources on Pittsburgh music.

 — Tim

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