Residence Act (ch. 28, 1 Stat. 130)

Vidal Washington cover

Across the room someone struck a chord on the grand piano. The room went silent. As in most Washington drawing rooms, the piano’s essential function was to serve as an altar on which to display in silver frames the household gods: photographs of famous people known to the family.

—Gore Vidal, Washington, D.C.

Announcement: thanks to my wife’s brilliance (asking her to marry me remains one of the very few good decisions I have made in my life), in a few weeks, Soho the Dog HQ will relocate from the greater Boston area to Washington, D.C., capital and swamp. We’re packing up the files, the audio archives, the gilt Art Nouveau rotary hotline, the cache of exotic spirits, and the Casiotone arsenal; and later this summer, we’ll hit the road with Roving Correspondent and Traffic Reporter Mabel in tow.

What am I going to do? Do what I’ve always done: make it up as I go along. I was telling someone the other day that acquiring a Library of Congress reader’s card is as far as I’ve gotten in plotting the next iteration of my wayward career. But, at the very least, I look forward to quieting the room via underutilized pianos, whether figuratively or literally. Come August, drop a line if you’re in the DMV.

This mysterious beast that eats lighthouse keepers

Fang Rock editing comments

As noted on the Twitter a few weeks ago, I have a new book coming out this July: A study of the Doctor Who serial “Horror of Fang Rock” for The Black Archive series from Obverse Books. A venture outside the usual subject matter around here (though Peter Maxwell Davies does make a guest appearance) but anyone who knew me as a dorky kid knows that there was no chance of me passing up the opportunity. I’m currently working through the final edits, of which the above image provides a fairly representative example.

Recent columns have finally been posted here as well, with some more articles on the way, all of which have been completed with the help and hindrance of Soho the Dog’s new Roving Correspondent and Traffic Reporter Mabel:

Mabel 2-15
Look at that nose for crackpot hermeneutics! She’ll fit right in.

Breathe above it

Sanford Sylvan died this week. Like a lot of people, I first heard him on records—the early John Adams operas, especially—and on television, those Craig Smith-Peter Sellers Mozart operas that were taped for PBS. It was an indelible impression. When I would compose for voice, most of the time, I had in my ear a kind of generic vocal sound, but if I was setting English, particularly tricky, prosaic English, I heard Sandy singing Chou En-Lai.

When I was a staff accompanist at the Boston Conservatory, part of my brief was playing piano for masterclasses Sandy regularly gave there. Unusually for the Conservatory, the singers for the class were a mix of classical and musical-theater students, and, unusually for anywhere, Sandy’s approach didn’t vary between the two. Handel, Debussy, Porter, Sondheim, Schoenberg, Boublil and Schönberg, what have you—his coaching always orbited three centers. The text had to be crystal-clear, in understanding and delivery. The emotion always had to be active: a verb, not an adjective. And the breath was paramount.

The other thing that he always communicated to the class, mostly (but not always) implicitly, was that singing wasn’t just your talent, or your passion, it was your job—and, like any job, doing it well required its own habits and practical considerations. He encouraged and even ordered students to do all that stuff that other musicians regard as crazy-singer things: wearing scarves in summer, toting around a water bottle, being on vocal rest. If someone came in with their shirt pinching their neck, Sandy would tell them to do what he did, which was buy shirts a collar-size up or two. (Dress for the job you want, &c.) His repertoire of instructions were applicable to any singer, any style. If someone’s resonance was trapped in the back of their throat, Sandy gave them an image resonating with both forward movement and poise: Down the front steps. (I still use that one.) If the breath was getting high, the diaphragm not fully settling on the inhale: Feel the floor. (I still use that one, too.) And he was particularly insistent on maintaining daylight between feeling an emotion and portraying one. It’s not your job to feel sad, he would say. It’s your job to make them feel sad, and he would point to the audience. But often a singer would get caught up in the emotion anyway. Sandy had practical advice for that, too: Breathe above it. He had a knack for finding the one thing to fix that would fix a multitude of other things, and he had an unfailing kindness and generosity that made everyone feel like they could and would get better at the job.

I am and have always been a somewhat cynical person. That might be why what most impressed me about Sandy, what I found so gratifying, so nourishing about being around him, talking with him, randomly running into him (usually at Tanglewood) was that he seemed to be altogether free of cynicism. He wore a kind of equanimity like a scarf, a sense that, whatever frustrations and anxieties the world threw at you, you could always breathe above it, and exhale something beautiful. Another word for it is grace.

Who’s prepared to pay the price

For research (some fruits of which may emerge soon), I’ve been spending another stretch buried in post-World War II, mid-century magazines. And I ran across this ad for Ella Fitzgerald’s 1956 Cole Porter Songbook album:

Fitzgerald Porter Songbook ad 1956.jpg


The drawing is by David Stone Martin, for many years Norman Granz’s go-to artist for album covers. (If you have more than a couple jazz albums from the 50s and 60s, Martin probably did one of the covers.) But the interesting data point here is the suggested list price: $9.96. That is a lot of money; adjusted for inflation, the album went for about 90 2018 dollars. Record albums—some albums, anyway—were not always the disposable-income commodities that they would eventually become.

Just for fun, a few other random gleanings:

Jeri Southern Birdland ad 1956.jpg

Fargo sales ad 1957

Bourbon Vegetarian 1962

Black Orchid Chicago ad 1958

The one sensible inhabitant of the village

A minor historical datum: A review by “D. C. B.” (Lady Dorothy Pratt) of the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, published in the June 20, 1945 issue of Punch:

punch grimes review

The opera’s musical skill is praised on extravagantly English terms—”One can only liken its glittering exactness to that of a Pope or a Bryden, for Mr. BRITTEN chooses a sound as they would choose a word”—but the bulk of the review is given over to Lady Pratt’s disapproval of the subject matter and its treatment.

Mr. BRITTEN and his librettist, MONTAGU SLATER, are followers of the pseudo-Freudian school of psycho-analysts who lavish their affection on the pervert and for whom any sordid criminal is a hero. To win sympathy for him they have endowed Grimes with visions and aspirations and described him as suffering from “social maladjustment.” “Social fiddlesticks!” as the White King would have said….

No. Instead of trying to whitewash a Grimes, Mr. BRITTEN might have taken for his theme the wickedness of a system which allowed children from the workhouse to be sold to anyone who could pay for them, or hired out to work in factories until they died. This would, alas, have a topical interest, for similar evils exist in our own day.

If the insistence on clear, old-fashioned demarcations of right and wrong was characteristic of Punch, the pivot to a modicum of social consciousness was not. I love how palpably the contrast embodies the tension between the magazine’s essential conservatism and the overwhelming sense, as World War II reached its end, that society had to change, that there was no going back to the old ways of doing things. A month after Lady Pratt’s review appeared, British voters handed the reins of government to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, laying the cornerstone for the modern British welfare state. The result was a surprise at the time, but an inevitability in retrospect. Even the Tories whose worldview Punch distilled had to admit that the old world was gone. Arthur Bryant, the popular historian of past English glory, offered a stoical sigh: “We can’t return, even if we wanted to, to the social and economic framework of 1939,” he wrote, “for it no longer exists.”

The month after that, the war ended in two bursts of novel atomic fire. (Evidence of the era’s disorientation: Punch cartoons wrestling with the new atomic reality drawn by E. H. Shepard, better known as the illustrator of Winnie-the-Pooh.) For all its musical ingenuity, the provincial setting and concerns of Peter Grimes feels far removed—perhaps deliberately so—from such global cataclysms. The opera was more commonly heard and seen as a postwar expression of renewed, essential Englishness: Britten’s realization of his national heritage, sparked by the war’s dislocation, but somehow parallel to, or even outside of it. Lady Pratt’s review, though, is a reminder that art—and the reaction to it—is never just about art.

Full enjoyment of felicitie

Cage trapdoor

Catching up on recent scribbling:


How classical took control of the jazz in Rhapsody in Blue.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 28, 2018.
(Special thanks to Joshua Kosman for the request.)

The image at the top is my favorite slide from a talk I gave at the Radcliffe Institute last month. Here’s my second favorite:

Playboy hi-fi ad 1962
I know it’s supposed to be a stereo-equipment showroom, but I think it’s more fun to imagine that it’s actually the guy’s apartment, and his date is slowly backing toward the door, having realized the depth of his addiction.

Also from the talk—an earworm of unusual ruthlessness. You’ve been warned.

Loud as the rolling sea

Robert Honeysucker died, suddenly, last week. If you passed through Boston at some point in the past 40 years with even a passing interest in classical music and opera, you probably heard Robert Honeysucker sing. He did it all: art song, oratorio, pops concerts, church music. Amidst the tidal crests and troughs of opera in the city, he was a constant, ballasting presence. In big concerts and small, in big parts and small, if you saw his name in the program, you knew that portion of the show, at least, was going to be excellent.

I played piano for Bob’s voice studio at Boston Conservatory from 2002 to 2008. My God, it was fun. There was a ton of sight-reading: Bob was forever having his students try out repertoire, and some of it was pretty esoteric, songs, arias, oratorio excerpts that he had encountered in his singing career and filed away, waiting for the ideal opportunity. Late Amy Beach songs, the likes of Celius Dougherty, the parts of the Henry Purcell book that usually got skipped over in favor of “Music For a While”—he was always hoping to find them a home in some student’s consciousness. If a student had even a hint of a chance of handling Charles Ives, out came the 114 Songs. Willis Patterson’s Anthology of Art Songs by Black American Composers—populated by composers who, for the most part, Bob knew personally—was a world unto itself in this regard: few of them ever made it as far as juries and recitals, but not for lack of trying. (That book and those lessons got me interested in a lot of those composers. My fascination with Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, for instance, sprang from the occasional airing of Perkinson’s “Melancholy,” a twisty, tricky John Fletcher setting from the Patterson anthology—tryouts that invariably ended with Bob’s sonorous verdict: “No, you’re not ready for Perk.”)

It was indicative of his idea of what singing ought to be. I never really thought of him as a new-music singer, but, on the other hand, he sang plenty of premieres, and was always learning some new piece of rep. The only thing that got him noticeably angry in lessons was if students hadn’t learned their music. Technique was a lifelong project; the voice was a protean thing. But preparation—that was on you. If the music was there to be sung, you learned it and sang it. That’s the job. Still, even his disapproval was, more often than not, avuncular. (He was an imposing guy with a big voice—he probably figured that was intimidation enough for undergrads.) His quintessential operatic-baritone bearing—serious, dignified, composed—was softened by how obvious it was that, most of the time, he really enjoyed what he did.

By the time I knew him, he was a Boston institution. More than once, I found myself running through some inspirational number with him, in preparation for some civic commemoration or other that required his presence. He still sang opera, but usually either smaller parts or in concert settings. (The only major role I ever heard him do on stage was Zurga in Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles in 2007; the production was of variable, but Bob sounded great, as he always did.) He could summon oratorio gravity at will; hearing him sing Verdi was like seeing planets align.

Because of parenting, and moving, and life, I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. I had been meaning to send him a note thanking him for planting the Perkinson seed I was able to harvest a couple weeks ago, and then the news spread through the Boston-singer grapevine over the weekend, and I profoundly regretted my procrastination. He was gracious and generous, sharp and affable. And he made the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time he sang. Rise and fly, sir.