Monday, June 30, 2008

jazz bassist Dave Carpenter dead at 48

LA Times
Dave Carpenter, 48; jazz bassist co-founded Santa Monica-based Lounge Art Ensemble
From a Times Staff Writer

June 30, 2008

Dave Carpenter, a jazz bassist who worked with scores of legendary names, appeared on more than 200 recordings and was a founding member of the Lounge Art Ensemble, died June 23 of a heart attack at his home in Burbank. He was 48.

Most recently, Carpenter had been playing in a trio with pianist Alan Pasqua and drummer Peter Erskine and had just released an album called "Standards."

A native of Dayton, Ohio, Carpenter was born Nov. 4, 1959. He first studied the trumpet but switched to the bass at 12.

After studying music at Ohio State University, he launched his professional career playing with three giants of jazz: Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman.

"Woody's band was the best, musically, because of the history that was in his repertoire, while Buddy was more like a life education," Carpenter told The Times some years ago. "I got so much confidence working with him."

Carpenter moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s and found work as a studio musician with leading names including Herbie Hancock, Celine Dion, Ringo Starr, Hubert Laws, Michel Legrand and Barry Manilow.

In the mid-1990s, Carpenter joined drummer Erskine and saxophonist Bob Sheppard to form the Santa Monica-based Lounge Art Ensemble and performed frequently in venues around Southern California.

The group took existing jazz standards, put new melodies on top of the chord changes and came up with new titles.

"Dave Carpenter made any piece of music sound and feel better by his incredible musicianship, uncompromising beat and unerring ability to choose the right note at the right time," Erskine said. "His musical presence will be sorely missed by all who knew and heard him."

In addition to his jazz and pop music work, Carpenter was interested in classical music and worked as a soloist with the Los Angeles and Berlin philharmonic orchestras.

Survivors include his wife, Valerie, and two brothers.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Whistle of Death: Researchers re-create pre-Columbian sounds


Researchers re-create pre-Columbian sounds
Noisemakers made of natural materials were integral part of life
By Julie Watson
The Associated Press
updated 9:18 a.m. PT, Sun., June. 29, 2008

MEXICO CITY - Scientists were fascinated by the ghostly find: a human skeleton buried in an Aztec temple with a clay, skull-shaped whistle in each bony hand.

But no one blew into the noisemakers for nearly 15 years. When someone finally did, the shrill, windy screech made the spine tingle.

If death had a sound, this was it.

Roberto Velazquez believes the Aztecs played this mournful wail from the so-called Whistles of Death before they were sacrificed to the gods.

The 66-year-old mechanical engineer has devoted his career to recreating the sounds of his pre-Columbian ancestors, producing hundreds of replicas of whistles, flutes and wind instruments unearthed in Mexico’s ruins.

For years, many archaeologists who uncovered ancient noisemakers dismissed them as toys. Museums relegated them to warehouses. But while most studies and exhibits of ancient cultures focus on how they looked, Velazquez said the noisemakers provide a rare glimpse into how they sounded.

“We’ve been looking at our ancient culture as if they were deaf and mute,” he said. “But I think all of this is tied closely to what they did, how they thought.”

Velazquez is part of a growing field of study that includes archaeologists, musicians and historians. Medical doctors are interested too, believing the Aztecs may have used sound to treat illnesses.

Noisemakers made of clay, turkey feathers, sugar cane, frog skins and other natural materials were an integral part of pre-Columbian life, found at nearly every Mayan site.

The Aztecs sounded the low, foghorn hum of conch shells at the start of ceremonies and possibly during wars to communicate strategies. Hunters likely used animal-shaped ocarinas to produce throaty grunts that lured deer.

The modern-day archaeologists who came up with the term Whistles of Death believe they were meant to help the deceased journey into the underworld, while tribes are said to have emitted terrifying sounds to fend off enemies, much like high-tech crowd-control devices available today.

Experts also believe pre-Columbian tribes used some of the instruments to send the human brain into a dream state and treat certain illnesses. The ancient whistles could guide research into how rhythmic sounds alter heart rates and states of consciousness.

Among Velazquez’s replicas are those that emit a strange cacophony so strong that their frequency nears the maximum range of human hearing.

Chronicles by Spanish priests from the 1500s described the Aztec and Mayan sounds as sad and doleful, although these may have been only what was played in their presence.

“My experience is that at least some pre-Hispanic sounds are more destructive than positive, others are highly trance-evocative,” said Arnd Adje Both, an expert in pre-Hispanic music archaeology who was the first to blow the Whistles of Death found in the Aztec skeleton’s hands. “Surely, sounds were used in all kind of cults, such as sacrificial ones, but also in healing ceremonies.”

Sounds still play an important role in Mexican society. A cow bell announces the arrival of the garbage truck outside Mexico City homes. A trilling, tuneless flute heralds the knife sharpener’s arrival. A whistle emitting cat meows says the lottery ticket seller is here.

But pre-Columbian instruments often end up in a warehouse, Velazquez said, “and I’m talking about museums around the world doing this, not just here.”

That’s changing, said Tomas Barrientos, director of the archaeology department at Del Valle University of Guatemala.

“Ten years ago, nothing was known about this,” he said. “But with the opening up of museum collections and people’s private collections, it’s an area of research that is growing in importance.”

Velazquez meticulously researches each noisemaker before replicating it. He travels across Mexico to examine newly unearthed wind instruments, some dating back to 400 B.C. and shaped like animals or deities. He studies reliefs and scans 500-year-old Spanish chronicles.

But making replicas is only part of the work. Then he has to figure out how to play them. He’ll blow into some holes and plug others, or press the instrument to his lips and flutter his tongue. Sometimes he puts the noisemaker inside his mouth and blows, fluctuating the air from his lungs.

He experimented with one frog-shaped whistle for a year before discovering its inner croak.

Renowned archaeologist Paul Healy, who made an important discovery of Mayan instruments in Belize in the 1980s, said many of the originals still work.

“A couple of these instruments we found were broken, which was great because we could actually see the construction of them, the actual technology of building a sound chamber out of paper-thin clay,” he said.

Still, their exact sounds will likely remain a mystery.

“When you blow into them, you still can get notes from them, so you could figure out what the range was,” Healy said. “But what we don’t have is sheet music to give us a more accurate picture of what it sounded like.”

Bassist Victor Wooten on NPR

Promoting his new solo album, with some demonstrations of some of his techniques here at NPR.

Jazz: When Ambassadors Had Rhythm

New York Times
June 29, 2008
When Ambassadors Had Rhythm

HALF a century ago, when America was having problems with its image during the cold war, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the United States representative from Harlem, had an idea. Stop sending symphony orchestras and ballet companies on international tours, he told the State Department. Let the world experience what he called “real Americana”: send out jazz bands instead.

A photography exhibition of those concert tours, titled “Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World,” is on display at the Meridian International Center in Washington through July 13 and then moves to the Community Council for the Arts in Kinston, N.C. There are nearly 100 photos in the show, many excavated from obscure files in dozens of libraries, then digitally retouched and enlarged by James Hershorn, an archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. There’s Dizzy Gillespie in 1956, charming a snake with his trumpet in Karachi, Pakistan. Louis Armstrong in ’61, surrounded by laughing children outside a hospital in Cairo. Benny Goodman in ’62, blowing his clarinet in Red Square. Duke Ellington in ’63, smoking a hookah at Ctesiphon in Iraq.

The idea behind the State Department tours was to counter Soviet propaganda portraying the United States as culturally barbaric. Powell’s insight was that competing with the Bolshoi would be futile and in any case unimaginative. Better to show off a homegrown art form that the Soviets couldn’t match — and that was livelier besides. Many jazz bands were also racially mixed, a potent symbol in the mid to late ’50s, when segregation in the South was tarnishing the American image.

Jazz was the country’s “Secret Sonic Weapon” (as a 1955 headline in The New York Times put it) in another sense as well. The novelist Ralph Ellison called jazz an artistic counterpart to the American political system. The soloist can play anything he wants as long as he stays within the tempo and the chord changes — just as, in a democracy, the individual can say or do whatever he wants as long as he obeys the law. Willis Conover, whose jazz show on Voice of America radio went on the air in 1955 and soon attracted 100 million listeners, many of them behind the Iron Curtain, once said that people “love jazz because they love freedom.”

The Jazz Ambassador tours, as they were called, lasted weeks, sometimes months, and made an impact, attracting huge, enthusiastic crowds. A cartoon in a 1958 issue of The New Yorker showed some officials sitting around a table in Washington, one of them saying: “This is a diplomatic mission of the utmost delicacy. The question is, who’s the best man for it — John Foster Dulles or Satchmo?”

Powell arranged for Gillespie, his close friend, to make the State Department’s first goodwill jazz tour, starting out in March 1956 with an 18-piece band and traveling all over southern Europe, the Middle East and south Asia.

The band’s first stop was Athens, where students had recently stoned the local headquarters of the United States Information Service in protest of Washington’s support for Greece’s right-wing dictatorship. Yet many of those same students greeted Gillespie with cheers, lifting him on their shoulders, throwing their jackets in the air and shouting: “Dizzy! Dizzy!”

When Armstrong arrived in the Congo as part of a 1960 tour through Africa, drummers and dancers paraded him through the streets on a throne, a scene captured by a photograph in the exhibition. As late as 1971, when Ellington came to Moscow, an American diplomat wrote in his official report that crowds greeted the Duke as something akin to “a Second Coming.” One young Russian yelled, “We’ve been waiting for you for centuries!”

The stars were happy to play their parts in this pageant for hearts and minds, but not as puppets. After his Middle East tour Gillespie said with pride that it had been “powerfully effective against Red propaganda.” But when the State Department tried to brief him beforehand on how to answer questions about American race relations, he said: “I’ve got 300 years of briefing. I know what they’ve done to us, and I’m not going to make any excuses.”

Armstrong canceled a 1957 trip to Moscow after President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to send federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce school-integration laws. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said. “It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.”

Administration officials feared that this broadside, especially from someone so genial as “Ambassador Satchmo,” would trigger a diplomatic disaster. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told Attorney General Herbert Brownell that the situation in Arkansas was “ruining our foreign policy.” Two weeks later, facing pressure from many quarters, Eisenhower sent the National Guard to Arkansas. Armstrong praised the move and agreed to go on a concert tour of South America.

The jazzmen’s independence made some officials nervous. But the shrewder diplomats knew that on balance it helped the cause. The idea was to demonstrate the superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union, freedom over Communism, and here was evidence that an American — even a black man — could criticize his government and not be punished.

The photographs in the exhibition evoke this time when American culture and politics were so finely joined. Curtis Sandberg, the curator at Meridian International, said that during the three years it took to prepare the show his staff would frequently gaze at the photos and say, “Why aren’t we doing something like this now?”

But in today’s world what would “something like this” be?

Jazz was a natural for the cold war. Soviet citizens who hated their government found anything American alluring, especially jazz (and later rock), which was such a heady contrast to Moscow’s stale official culture. The same was true, to a degree, in some of the nonaligned nations, which were under pressure from both superpowers to sway toward one side or the other.

The pianist Dave Brubeck recalled in a phone interview that, when his quartet played in 12 Polish cities in 1958, several young musicians followed the band from town to town. When he went back to Warsaw just a few years ago, one of those followers came up to him — Mr. Brubeck recognized his face — and said, “What you brought to Poland wasn’t just jazz. It was the Grand Canyon, it was the Empire State Building, it was America.”

What aspect of American culture would present such an appealing face now — not to potential dissidents in Poland or Russia but, say, to moderate Muslims in Syria or Iran? And in a multipolar world, what would make them turn to the United States as an alternative to their own regimes?

Even in its heyday jazz diplomacy, like any sort of cultural diplomacy, was at best an adjunct to the more conventional brand. As Penny M. Von Eschen wrote in her 2004 book, “Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War” (Harvard University Press), the audiences abroad “never confused or conflated their love of jazz and American popular culture with an acceptance of American foreign policy.” The biggest impact on hearts and minds comes, as always, from what the American government does.

And yet the State Department has a program in jazz diplomacy now. It’s called Rhythm Road, it’s run by Jazz at Lincoln Center (a three-year contract has just been renewed), and it sends 10 bands (mainly jazz, some hip-hop, all of which audition for the gig) to 56 countries in a year.

It’s scaled more modestly than the program of yore. For one thing, no jazz musicians — for that matter, few pop stars — are as famous as a Gillespie, Armstrong or Brubeck in his prime, and the jazz musicians in Rhythm Road are not well known even by today’s standards. The program’s goals are more modest too. There is no pretense of competing for geo-cultural primacy. But that is what gives this program its cogent post-cold-war spin.

The State Department doesn’t tell the musicians what to do, but some of them, either jointly or on their own, have decided to emphasize not their music’s peculiarly American quality but rather its resonance with the countries they’re visiting.

When the saxophonist Chris Byars took a band to Saudi Arabia this year, he played the music of Gigi Gryce, a jazz composer of the 1940s and ‘50s who converted to Islam and changed his name to Basheer Qusim. “When I announce that I’m going to play compositions by the American jazz musician Basheer Qusim, that gets their attention,” he said. “Afterward several people came up, very appreciative, saying very intensely, ‘Thank you for coming to our country.’ ”

Before the bass player Ari Roland went to Turkmenistan last year, he learned some Turkmen folk songs. His band played jazz improvisations of these songs with local musicians — the first time such mixing had been allowed — and a 15-minute news report about the concert ran on state television several times the next day.

“They saw Americans paying homage to their cultural traditions,” he said. “Several people at the concert came up and said, in effect, ‘Wow, you’re not all imperialists out to remake the world in your image.’ ”

The Jazz Ambassadors of a half-century ago did some of this too. Gillespie played sambas in South America. Goodman played a Burmese oboe with local musicians in Rangoon. But the intent was to showcase the unique — and superior — vitality of the United States. The task today might be, once more, to highlight that vitality but to show that it — and, by implication, America itself — might fit in harmoniously with the rest of the world.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Master Japanese Taiko drummer Oguchi dies


Master Japanese drummer Oguchi dies

By YURI KAGEYAMA, Associated Press Writer2 hours, 16 minutes ago

TOKYO (AP) — Master Japanese drummer Daihachi Oguchi, who led the spread of the art of "taiko" drumming to the U.S. and throughout Japan, has died after being hit by a car, an official at his ensemble said. He was 84.

Oguchi was crossing the street when he was struck by the car Thursday. He was rushed to the hospital but died of excessive bleeding early Friday, said Yuken Yagasaki of Osuwa Daiko, the group in Nagano prefecture (state) in northern Japan that Oguchi had led.

Oguchi helped found top U.S. taiko groups, including San Francisco Taiko Dojo, which has performed in Hollywood movies and on international tours since its founding 40 years ago.

A former jazz musician, Oguchi was one of the first to elevate the traditional folk sounds of taiko to modern music played in concert halls, not just festivals and shrines.

He led and starred in the performance of drumming and dance at the closing ceremony of the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

"Your heart is a taiko. All people listen to a taiko rhythm dontsuku-dontsuku in their mother's womb," Oguchi told The Associated Press at that time. "It's instinct to be drawn to taiko drumming."

Charming, fiery and vivacious, Oguchi had been scheduled to perform with Kodo, a well known taiko group, later this year, although he was in failing health in recent years.

Along with Kabuki theater and "ukiyoe" woodblock prints, taiko is one of Japan's most popular — and respected — art forms in the West. Part dance and part athletics, modern taiko can be dazzlingly visual and acrobatically physical.

Taiko, especially the big ones that tower over the drummers, make dramatic booming sounds. A taiko drum is made from a single hollowed out tree trunk with cowhide strapped tightly across it.

"In taiko, man becomes the sound. In taiko, you can hear the sound through your skin," is the way Oguchi described it in the AP interview.

Thanks partly to Oguchi and his followers' efforts, hundreds of taiko groups, both professional and amateur, have sprung up not only throughout Japan but also in the U.S., Brazil, Europe and other nations.

Oguchi also was one of the first composers of modern taiko, writing catchy tunes based on historical themes, such as samurai storming on horses, and helping make taiko a household word in Japan.

Yagasaki said other details such as funeral arrangements and information on Oguchi's family won't be available until later Friday.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Albanian Custom Fades: Woman as Family Man

New York Times
June 25, 2008
Albanian Custom Fades: Woman as Family Man

KRUJE, Albania — Pashe Keqi recalled the day nearly 60 years ago when she decided to become a man. She chopped off her long black curls, traded in her dress for her father’s baggy trousers, armed herself with a hunting rifle and vowed to forsake marriage, children and sex.

For centuries, in the closed-off and conservative society of rural northern Albania, swapping genders was considered a practical solution for a family with a shortage of men. Her father was killed in a blood feud, and there was no male heir. By custom, Ms. Keqi, now 78, took a vow of lifetime virginity. She lived as a man, the new patriarch, with all the swagger and trappings of male authority — including the obligation to avenge her father’s death.

She says she would not do it today, now that sexual equality and modernity have come even to Albania, with Internet dating and MTV invading after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Girls here do not want to be boys anymore. With only Ms. Keqi and some 40 others remaining, the sworn virgin is dying off.

“Back then, it was better to be a man because before a woman and an animal were considered the same thing,” said Ms. Keqi, who has a bellowing baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes downing shots of raki. “Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman.”

The tradition of the sworn virgin can be traced to the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a code of conduct passed on orally among the clans of northern Albania for more than 500 years. Under the Kanun, the role of a woman is severely circumscribed: take care of children and maintain the home. While a woman’s life is worth half that of a man, a virgin’s value is the same: 12 oxen.

The sworn virgin was born of social necessity in an agrarian region plagued by war and death. If the family patriarch died with no male heirs, unmarried women in the family could find themselves alone and powerless. By taking an oath of virginity, women could take on the role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move freely.

They dressed like men and spent their lives in the company of other men, even though most kept their female given names. They were not ridiculed, but accepted in public life, even adulated. For some the choice was a way for a woman to assert her autonomy or to avoid an arranged marriage.

“Stripping off their sexuality by pledging to remain virgins was a way for these women in a male-dominated, segregated society to engage in public life,” said Linda Gusia, a professor of gender studies at the University of Pristina, in Kosovo. “It was about surviving in a world where men rule.”

Taking an oath to become a sworn virgin should not, sociologists say, be equated with homosexuality, long taboo in rural Albania. Nor do the women have sex-change operations.

Known in her household as the “pasha,” Ms. Keqi said she decided to become the man of the house at age 20 when her father was murdered. Her four brothers opposed the Communist government of Enver Hoxha, the ruler for 40 years until his death in 1985, and they were either imprisoned or killed. Becoming a man, she said, was the only way to support her mother, her four sisters-in-law and their five children.

Ms. Keqi lorded over her large family in her modest house in Tirana, where her nieces served her brandy while she barked out orders. She said living as a man had allowed her freedom denied other women. She worked construction jobs and prayed at the mosque with men. Even today, her nephews and nieces said, they would not dare marry without their “uncle’s” permission.

When she stepped outside the village, she enjoyed being taken for a man. “I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman,” Ms. Keqi said. “I could go wherever I wanted to and no one would dare swear at me because I could beat them up. I was only with men. I don’t know how to do women’s talk. I am never scared.”

When she was recently hospitalized for surgery, the other woman in her room was horrified to be sharing close quarters with someone she assumed was male.

Being the man of the house also made her responsible for avenging her father’s death, she said. When her father’s killer, by then 80, was released from prison five years ago, Ms. Keqi said, her 15-year-old nephew shot him dead. Then the man’s family took revenge and killed her nephew. “I always dreamed of avenging my father’s death,” she said. “Of course, I have regrets; my nephew was killed. But if you kill me, I have to kill you.”

In Albania, a majority Muslim country in the western Balkans, the Kanun is adhered to by Muslims and Christians. Albanian cultural historians said the adherence to medieval customs long discarded elsewhere was a byproduct of the country’s previous isolation. But they stressed that the traditional role of the Albanian woman was changing.

“The Albanian woman today is a sort of minister of economics, a minister of affection and a minister of interior who controls who does what,” said Ilir Yzeiri, who writes about Albanian folklore. “Today, women in Albania are behind everything.”

Some sworn virgins bemoan the changes. Diana Rakipi, 54, a security guard in the seaside city of Durres, in west Albania, who became a sworn virgin to take care of her nine sisters, said she looked back with nostalgia on the Hoxha era. During Communist times, she was a senior army officer, training women as combat soldiers. Now, she lamented, women do not know their place.

“Today women go out half naked to the disco,” said Ms. Rakipi, who wears a military beret. “I was always treated my whole life as a man, always with respect. I can’t clean, I can’t iron, I can’t cook. That is a woman’s work.”

But even in the remote mountains of Kruje, about 30 miles north of Tirana, residents say the Kanun’s influence on gender roles is disappearing. They said erosion of the traditional family, in which everyone once lived under the same roof, had altered women’s position in society.

“Women and men are now almost the same,” said Caca Fiqiri, whose aunt Qamile Stema, 88, is his village’s last sworn virgin. “We respect sworn virgins very much and consider them as men because of their great sacrifice. But there is no longer a stigma not to have a man of the house.”

Yet there is no doubt who wears the trousers in Ms. Stema’s one-room stone house in Barganesh, the family’s ancestral village. There, on a recent day, “Uncle” Qamile was surrounded by her clan, dressed in a qeleshe, the traditional white cap of an Albanian man. Pink flip-flops were her only concession to femininity.

After becoming a man at the age of 20, Ms. Stema said, she carried a gun. At wedding parties, she sat with the men. When she talked to women, she recalled, they recoiled in shyness.

She said becoming a sworn virgin was a necessity and a sacrifice. “I feel lonely sometime, all my sisters have died, and I live alone,” she said. “But I never wanted to marry. Some in my family tried to get me to change my clothes and wear dresses, but when they saw I had become a man, they left me alone.”

Ms. Stema said she would die a virgin. Had she married, she joked, it would have been to a traditional Albanian woman. “I guess you could say I was partly a woman and partly a man,” she said. “I liked my life as a man. I have no regrets.”

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

American diplomat becomes music star in Paraguay

Miami Herald

Posted on Tue, Jun. 24, 2008
American diplomat becomes music star in Paraguay
Becoming famous in this poor and isolated nation would not seem like a huge challenge. But even here, U.S. Ambassador James C. Cason seemed an unlikely candidate for national celebrity.

That was before he learned the obscure Paraguayan Guaraní language, recorded a music album of indigenous folk songs and sold 1,000 tickets to a concert in a downtown theater. Now, in the final year of his four-decade diplomatic career, Cason has suddenly become the toast of Paraguay, or at least the country's most unusual pop star.

''He's been on TV and in all the newspapers,'' said Nelson Viveros, 16, who traveled to meet the ambassador recently in Encarnación, by the Argentina border. ``It's strange, but people love it.''

Until January, it appeared Cason, 63, would go quietly into retirement in Miami, whose Cuban-American community he knows and where he was considering running for office or seeking a job related to Latin America.

Paraguay is the last foreign service posting for the New Jersey native, following assignments in Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia, Panama, Uruguay, Italy, Venezuela and Portugal. Before moving to the capital city of Asunción in 2005, he spent three years as chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Cason made a name for himself in Cuba, too, earning a reputation as an aggressive critic of the Castro government. He organized workshops for dissidents, distributed short-wave radios across the island and once displayed a mock jail cell to bring attention to the plight of political prisoners.

Cason had little on his resume to suggest a career in show biz. He never sang professionally, played no instruments and understood no Guaraní, spoken by 96 percent of Paraguayans.

He did not begin studying Guaraní until his last month in Havana, hiring a Paraguayan medical student to tutor him for three hours a day. In Washington, awaiting Senate confirmation, the State Department located a replacement instructor, a Paraguayan who once taught Peace Corps volunteers.

Using a pair of out-of-print text books, Cason, already fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, arranged three months of private lessons.

''I've never been to a country where I couldn't speak the language,'' Cason told The Miami Herald. ``These words are very hard to retain. It's pure consonants. You've got to just bang them into your head.''

In low-key Paraguay, the new ambassador showed hints of showmanship on his first hour on the job.

Upon arriving in December 2005, he stepped off the plane wearing the traditional hand-embroidered Paraguayan ao poi dress shirt and greeted local reporters in Guaraní, delivering a three-page speech. Not even embassy staff knew he had studied the language.

In Asunción, he recruited his third tutor and began watching Guaraní TV and filling his iPod with vocabulary lessons that shared time with the Beatles, Buddy Holly and Whitney Houston on his playlist. He soon discovered Guaraní music, translating 1920s songs about emigrants longing for Paraguay and Paraguayan soldiers who march into battle afraid their girlfriends will stray in their absence.

Singing in Guaraní did not occur to Cason until a few months ago, when his wife Carmen, an admirer of the ambassador's Peter, Paul & Mary renditions around the house, recommended that he hire her piano teacher for voice lessons.

As Cason tells it, his hidden talent was soon discovered.


But even in little Asunción, it seems being ambassador helped in navigating the music scene. The piano teacher, for example, turned out to be Benito Román, the choral director for the UniNorte opera. After only a month of lessons, Román mentioned his new protégé to the country's most celebrated soprano, Rebecca Arramendi.

Before long a duet had been scheduled for a 10,000-seat amphitheater in Itá.On stage in a straw hat, Cason warned the audience that he was an amateur vocalist, before joining in four songs.

''I'd never sang in my life in front of anybody, in any language,'' Cason recalled. 'But when I sang the first line of the first song, they all started screaming and cheering. I said, `OK, I can do this.' ''

Not all reactions have been as positive.


In a review of the CD release show in the Ultima Hora newspaper, a critic noted that Cason ''sat on a stool with the lyrics in front of him'' during the entire performance, appearing ''nervous or unsure about the tune and pronunciation of Guaraní.'' The newspaper La Nación was more direct: The ambassador, it said, ``sang in the monotone of a tired bird.''

Following the show in Itá, Cason said, fan mail poured into the embassy -- as did invitations to festivals and for a (nonsinging) cameo as a cardinal in the opera Tosca. The songs he had performed in Itá went into heavy rotation on local radio stations.

A short time later, after a government tour of the Itaipú dam, Cason surprised the band at a local restaurant by leading a group of ambassadors in a sing-along. Then, at a rural festival and cattle auction, he gave another impromptu gig.

Though he does not leave his post until the fall, he is already planning his life in Miami, where he hopes to sell his album and perform with visiting Paraguayan musicians, possibly inviting local Cuban bands to jam.

Cason insists that he decided to record the album as a souvenir, a gift for his two sons and proof that he had once spoken Guaraní. Still, in April, he recruited a platoon of professional violinists, guitarists and accordion players, some urged out of retirement, to join him in the studio. He spent $2,500, logged 32 hours of recording sessions and even wrote a song, Campo Jurado, the album's opening track.

''Paraguayans cry when they hear it,'' Cason said.

To generate buzz for the CD release, Cason did the Paraguayan interview circuit, giving more than 15 interviews to magazines, newspapers, TV and radio shows. The Gran Teatro del Banco Central sold out; outside, tickets sold for 50 percent above face value.


Between the ticket and CD sales, Cason has raised more than $20,000 for scholarships for English language classes in Paraguay, according to Livia Melgarejo, spokeswoman for the Centro Cultural Paraguayo Americano.

It is not as clear if he has succeeded in his other mission: improving the U.S. image here. Just two months ago, Paraguayans elected Fernando Lugo to be the country's first leftist president in more than six decades.

On a recent tour of Encarnación, however, it was clear that Cason himself has become a popular figure.

At one stop, the opening of a rural English language center, the ambassador's voice filled a lobby crowded with fans.

''He recorded a CD in our language. That was something,'' Juan Horacio Duré, secretary of health for the regional government, said after meeting the ambassador.

``I've never before met any U.S. representative who could speak Guaraní.''

Sunday, June 22, 2008

George Carlin Dies at 71

In honor of Carlin, here is his routine on the Ten Commandments:

And the Band Honked On: Elite musicians teach in public schools

New York Times
June 22, 2008
And the Band Honked On

Correction Appended

THE classroom filled with the sounds of a band struggling to be born, a cacophony of squealing and buzzing. Middle school students in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood were trying to produce the note F.

It was early in the school year. A young professional French horn player named Alana Vegter, a thoroughbred musician trained by elite teachers, took a handful of trumpet and trombone players into an equipment supply room. Speaking in the flat tones of the Chicago suburb where she grew up, Ms. Vegter tried to coax notes out of each player. A tall sixth-grade trumpeter named Kenny Ocean, his pants sagging around his hips, played too high, then too low. A smile spread across his face when he hit it right.

“You see, every time you do it, it gets easier,” Ms. Vegter said. On her cue they all bleated together. “I’m starting to hear everybody making nice, healthy sounds,” she said, half in praise, half in hope.

So began Ms. Vegter’s year in Ditmas Junior High School, Intermediate School 62, in the Kensington section of Brooklyn. It was a year that would teach her the satisfaction of tiny victories in a place where homelessness means that some kids cannot take their instruments home to practice, where chronic asthma forces some to switch from wind instruments to percussion, where the roar of a lunchroom leaves a newcomer stunned.

Ms. Vegter, 25, was there as part of a well-financed experiment by some of the nation’s most powerful musical institutions. The experiment is called, clumsily, the Academy — a Program of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School and the Weill Music Institute (the institute being an arm of Carnegie).

In its second season, which ended this month, the academy extended fellowships to 34 graduates of leading music schools to receive high-level coaching and lessons in a two-year program. They play concerts on Carnegie’s stages and participate in master classes. Part of the deal is a commitment to teach one and a half days a week at a New York public school, which pays the academy $13,200 for the service.

The idea is ambitious: Mold a new kind of musician in a time of declining audiences and — seemingly — dwindling relevance for classical music. Performers focused intently on artistic development are being asked to step outside themselves and spend time away from their instruments.

“We are working to equip musicians who will continue to grow,” said Clive Gillinson, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall. “We’re looking at the life of the musician of the future, what it could be and what it will be. If we can enable musicians to become utterly fulfilled, they will end up contributing far more to society and to music.”

It is a noble goal, and maybe a tall order, given the glut of musicians who continue to pour out of music schools to face a life that has always been tough psychically and economically — whether for a Mozart groveling before royalty or a modern-day conservatory grad struggling through orchestra auditions in the provinces.

The academy is also intended to give a concrete boost to music education, which is held to be in serious decline: both a cause and an effect of the diminishing stature of classical music.

The program had its growing pains. One fellow was asked to leave for blowing off his teaching commitment. Others scoffed at the mushiness of teacher-training sessions. And a year spent following Ms. Vegter at Ditmas showed how high-minded concepts can run smack into reality.

At the same time the year demonstrated how one talented musician could be made wiser as a player and person, and how a little personal attention from an emissary of high culture could improve the lives of children.

MS. VEGTER, WITH HER AUBURN HAIR pulled back in a ponytail, has the carriage of a jock and the looks of a prom queen, which she once was. But her jock world was band, and her town of 13,000 people, Lemont, Ill., is band country. It is a community where music education works.

The majority of middle schoolers are in band. Competitions begin in the sixth grade. Band boosters pay for travel, instruments and uniforms. Band alumni come back for homecoming. The Lemont High School band won the state championship in its division from 1998 to 2005, including three of Ms. Vegter’s years there. Four of her classmates are professional musicians. “People respected it,” she said.

She was held in awe by fellow students in high school. “She was probably one of our top one or two or three all-time that we’ve had,” said David Nommensen, her band director.

Ms. Vegter’s father owns a carpet-cleaning company. Her mother died when she was 16. Inspired by a French horn-playing baby sitter, she began the instrument at 10 and showed immediate talent.

At DePaul University in Chicago she studied with Jon Boen, the principal of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She played in the school band and orchestra and in the respected Civic Orchestra of Chicago, a training ground of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She went off to Juilliard for her master’s degree, one of two horn players admitted as graduate students that year, and studied with the exacting Julie Landsman, a co-principal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

On the cusp of a career Ms. Vegter displays the idealism of the young. “I am a musician simply because music is what makes me most happy in life,” she wrote this spring in an e-mail message distilling her feelings. “Nothing else measures up. Not a steady paycheck, not social status.”

Her instrument is fickle. Yet “when everything lines up and playing the horn feels easy,” she said, “I feel so incredibly alive.”

Ms. Vegter is realistic about her prospects. She wants to play in a major orchestra but knows how hard it is to win a spot. Yet she remains sunny. “People who work hard and mean well tend to have things work out,” she said. Whatever happens, music will remain a large part of her life, she said.

BY LATE OCTOBER all the fellows had been assigned schools and teachers to work with. For Ms. Vegter, it would be Meghan McDevitt. She too was a 25-year-old product of a Midwestern suburb — Hudson, Ohio, near Cleveland — and a self-proclaimed band nerd.

Ms. McDevitt was hired in 2006 by I.S. 62’s principal, Barry Kevorkian, to revive a moribund band program. She had her work cut out for her when she arrived that year and walked into the band room. “I opened the doors, and we had instruments from 50 years ago,” she recalled. “I said, ‘O.K., let’s go.’ ” The school allotted her $20,000 to buy new instruments. She teaches three bands and a general music class, and gives individual instruction. The work, she said, has proved exhausting.

Ms. McDevitt is one of 958 music teachers for 1.1 million students in New York public schools.

The Education Department says it has increased the amount of arts education, including music, in recent years. It did not provide figures on how many students receive music instruction but said 69 percent of middle schools offered music during the 2006-7 year. Thirty-one percent of seventh graders and 25 percent of eighth graders received some music education. But nearly one out of five schools had no full-time arts teacher.

Music education — all arts education — was gutted during the city’s fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s. Before that almost all children in the system were exposed to music, whether chorus, band, orchestra or general classes, said Richard Kessler, executive director of the Center for Arts Education, which supports arts education in the city’s schools. They filled the ranks of all-borough and all-city ensembles, took private lessons and theory classes and played chamber music on weekends.

ON OCT. 16, MS. VEGTER’S FIRST DAY of school, she took the subway from an apartment on West 71st Street in Manhattan that she shares with a roommate, riding the Q train to the Cortelyou Road stop. She passed a halal butcher, a Dominican hairdresser and a Mexican restaurant in a classically hodgepodge New York neighborhood, where Orthodox Jews in long coats share the sidewalks with Muslim women in head scarves.

Turning the corner, Ms. Vegter walked into a 1956 brick building formally called the Ditmas Educational Complex. It has four minischools, including one for the performing and visual arts, and a mostly black, Latino and Asian student body. Some 97 percent of the students are eligible to receive free lunches. Fliers in eight languages are posted in the vestibule.

In the afternoon she stood before the 650-750 band class, as the class for more promising sixth and seventh graders is known.

“Today we have Ms. Vegter,” Ms. McDevitt said. “She’s from Carnegie Hall.” She asked Ms. Vegter to demonstrate her instrument.

“I’m going to play something by Mozart,” Ms. Vegter said. “I’m sure you’ve already heard of him.”

Swaying slightly with her eyes closed, she played the opening notes of Mozart’s Fourth Horn Concerto. Her burnished sound filled the basement room, where a heavily scratched upright piano with a half dozen black keys broken off stood against a wall. A bass drum rattled slightly.

The children sat facing their black music stands, some of them staring at her. She stopped and smiled to sluggish applause.

“I actually do this for a living,” she said, pulling a card out of her sleeve: she had recently played in the backup band for Kanye West at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. That drew a stirring of smiles and “Wows.”

The questions began pouring out. Did she tour with other famous musicians? Was she famous? Were her parents musicians? How old was she? Did she want to travel as a child?

“How long do you plan to play?” asked Armani Kingsberry, a sharp-eyed boy with braids assigned to the snare drum.

“I guess for my whole life,” Ms. Vegter said. “I can’t really imagine my life without it.”

After class she described her fears: “I really want to make an impact in the classroom, just as I do other things well. The scariest part is that I may not make a difference.” The contrast with her upbringing was driven home. “I hate to think there are people who don’t sleep on beds,” Ms. Vegter said.

AT SCHOOL, MS. VEGTER WORKED to have her students produce the most rudimentary of sounds. Outside, she was near the highest technical level of her profession.

In November she performed with other fellows at Weill Recital Hall as part of an academy concert series, a perk of the program. She played one of the horn’s most challenging chamber works, the Ligeti Horn Trio, with violin and piano, which had never been played at Carnegie. The piece requires extraordinary agility, the ability to play with exquisite softness both high and low (especially tough on the horn) and a mastery of complex rhythms. Ms. Vegter had practiced so hard that there was a cut inside her lower lip.

She said she felt a divide between the worlds of Ditmas and Ligeti but also knew that one allowed the other to happen, because of the fellowship.

The sizable audience included many fellows. Ms. Vegter’s father, Thomas Vegter, was there too, with three other couples from Chicago. She came onstage in a sleeveless black top and black slacks, businesslike as ever.

When playing she kept the slender fingers of her left hand, which control the valves, high in the air. Her brow furrowed; her eyebrows jumped with the notes; her tone vibrated slightly. She responded to the applause with two stiff bows. She came out into the audience and greeted her father, a tall man with a rugged face, with a quiet “Hi, Dad.”

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Mr. Vegter said. “I was almost crying.”

EARLY IN THE TERM Ms. Vegter’s classroom work seemed to bear little relationship to the sophisticated training offered by the academy. She was struggling just to remember names, tapping out beats, unsticking trumpet valves, showing what valve to press.

She was struggling against frustration too. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “I only spend so much time there, so I can’t really expect a ton.” Kenny, who had shown flashes of talent, had been out for a week. For the first time she found herself disciplining disobedient children.

In November her teaching grew more sophisticated. She had the trumpeters finger their notes silently. Then they played in a cacophonic unison. “I want to hear the front of the notes,” she said. “We want to make sure the notes have bodies. Not only fronts but bodies.” And later: “Connect your stomach to the front of your mouth.”

Outside school, there had been a big development: Ms. Vegter’s fiancé, Ben Gartrell, a doctor awaiting his residency assignment, had proposed after a nerve-rackingly long dinner. She said yes.

THE TIME HAD ARRIVED for the 650-750 band to perform, at the Christmas concert. It was a cold, sleety evening in mid-December. The kids wore black pants and white tops. Bryan Sanchez, a trumpeter and one of the group’s best performers, had a crisply ironed white shirt.

In a classroom before the concert, band members warmed up, practiced and goofed around, trying one another’s instruments. Five of the 16 members were absent. Some of the kids were worried the other students would make fun of them.

“Don’t get nervous,” Ms. McDevitt said. “Do what you have to do.”

With Ms. Vegter and the visiting Dr. Gartrell in the back, the curtain opened slowly. Ms. McDevitt walked onstage and conducted “Hot Cross Buns,” with a bass drum thumping. After lukewarm applause, the curtain closed. When the players went to sit in the back of the theater, they wore big smiles of relief.

BACK AT DITMAS after the Christmas break Ms. Vegter picked up her work with Gary Zeng, a tiny sixth grader not much bigger than his chosen instrument, the tuba. Before class one day she tried to coax out a note. No luck. She had Gary sing it, then asked him match his voice to her trumpet. “Yeah!” she said when he finally did it. Then she tried to have him play the note on his tuba. Nothing doing.

“You can only say something in so many ways, and then you run out of ways,” she said later.

The members of the 650-750 band drifted in and settled in their seats, including Usman Ali, with his familiar spider-web-patterned jacket, sitting next to Bryan, his fellow trumpeter. Bryan’s grandmother, Sara Esperanza Ramirez, who cares for him, had given him a blue trumpet purchased on eBay for Christmas so he would not have to risk having the school instrument stolen on the way home from school. “It’s a little dangerous,” she said.

Playing “Bring On da Band,” the group showed improvement. It was still plodding along, with notes not always coming out and intonation approximate, but there were real lines of music.

As thunder rumbled, a tired-looking Ms. Vegter sat on the end of the trumpet row and said little. She still wasn’t sure whether she was helping. She also had doubts about ambitions to develop musicians in city schools. “It’s unrealistic,” she said. What can work for the students is to “make their lives a little bit better through music.”

But little things made her feel appreciated: Gary Zeng’s continuing lunchtime visits, the occasional smile at her in the hallway, a growing connection to the students. “I can tell you one personal thing about every one,” she said.

MS. VEGTER HAD BEEN WAITING for the chance to take some kids to her house, Carnegie Hall. Few had heard classical music of any sort, much less been there.

Their young Brooklyn eyes took in the gold leaf and shimmering lights, shyly but intently. They clapped softly, following the audience’s lead, as the concertmaster made his ritual walk through the ranks of musicians, took the A from the oboe and tuned the orchestra.

The field trip had not started spectacularly. Ms. Vegter had obtained 16 tickets from Carnegie. But only four children showed up for the trip at Ditmas. Kenny Ocean had shown up too early and left.

At least this was better than a field trip to the Apollo Theater in Harlem last fall to hear an orchestra. Then, late buses caused the students to miss all but 10 minutes of the concert and kept them waiting 90 minutes to go home.

On this Sunday in January, the performance was a young people’s concert by the Fort Worth Symphony featuring “Peter and the Wolf,” with John Lithgow as the narrator. Ms. Vegter showed a sense of proprietary pride.

“I think that’s Julie, one of my friends’ mother, who plays flute in the orchestra,” she told one student, Samantha Rhodes. To another, Jonathan Saint Surin, she said: “This orchestra is from Texas. They came all the way here to play.”

Gary, the tiny tuba player, kept his coat on and leaned precipitously over the railing to watch.

The orchestra plunged into Reznicek’s “Donna Diana” Overture. Jonathan, wearing an oversize white shirt, kept his hands clasped. Samantha, in white stockings and high heels, held her program, thumbs on top. In “Peter” Samantha tapped her forefinger on the program when the flute came in. Gary leaned forward when the wolf theme reared ominously.

Afterward it was off to Starbucks for hot chocolate before the subway ride home.

ALREADY FOUR MONTHS AT THE SCHOOL, Ms. Vegter had never actually played at length for the students. Late in January she arranged for two other academy brass players to join her in a trio performance at an assembly.

Erin Lynch, the dean of students, delivered a stern warning to the auditorium. No talking, no hoods, no gum chewing. “I want you to listen and enjoy,” she barked in a bullhorn voice.

Ms. Vegter talked briefly about the horn — how its coils, if stretched out, would reach 14 feet (a number she improvised) — and played some notes. The next piece came from the Renaissance period, she said. “We’re talking super, super old,” like an “old-school Nintendo compared to a Nintendo Wii.”

Teachers stood on the aisles, scanning the rows for miscreants. Many students sat slumped in their chairs, and the fidgeting grew as the period went on. But Gary and Samantha sat attentively. The trio played music from “Star Wars,” a tango and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”

Another batch of students came in for a second round. Ms. Lynch yanked a portable video game player out of the hands of Kelvonne Williams, an eighth grader whose jaw was wired shut. (A fellow student had punched him after a football game.) The corn-rowed Kelvonne, wearing jeans and a dark hoodie, at first looked peeved. But he watched the trio fixedly, his hands clasped in his lap. He let out a broad smile at the “Star Wars” theme.

“It was interesting, the way they played it,” he said of the performance. “I was listening to the melody and stuff.” The best part? “The guy over there, what was he playing? I forget.” It was the trumpet.

MS. VEGTER KEPT UP HER COMMITMENT, going to Ditmas one or two days a week. She and Ms. McDevitt were still disappointed with the progress of Kenny, the tall sixth-grade trumpeter. He continued to lack focus, despite obvious talent.

Steve Garwood, a saxophone player, had been disruptive since Ms. Vegter’s first day, when he took his neighbor’s saxophone crook and refused to give it back, incessantly repeating, “I am a gangsta.” But Ms. Vegter said his behavior improved after she gave him some personal attention. She found him crying one day. Steve, who wears a stud earring, said he was terrified of punishment at home for getting into a fight. Ms. Vegter asked an administrator to intervene. “He craves something to grab onto,” she said.

Armani was flourishing, assuming leadership of the percussion section and perfecting a drumstick twirl. He hated to make mistakes. Omar Butt, a seventh grader, had recently been out with asthma, and his mother had him taken off the clarinet because of the ailment. He now played bells and said he was disappointed. “I like the clarinet,” he said.

Ms. Vegter seemed more at ease, unafraid to be tough. At class on April 1 she did not let a sax student get away with playing less than the full length of the notes. “We have to work on blending,” she told the saxes. “If you hear yourself, it’s too loud.” She chastised one student for making fun of another’s mistake. “What we need is positive encouragement,” she said, later hitting on the idea of having each section applaud an individual player.

Professionally things were going well for Ms. Vegter. She was landing a lot of freelance jobs, with the Symphony in C of Camden, N.J., the Harrisburg Symphony, the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra and the Syracuse Symphony. “Things are fun,” she said.

IN EARLY JUNE Ms. McDevitt’s bands played in the school’s year-end performance. Ms. Vegter sat in with her French horn. The hall was packed with families, mothers nursing babies and grandparents holding bouquets. The most raucous reception was reserved for the dancers.

Ms. McDevitt’s bands played ably, despite a faulty sound system, interrupting school bells and a seventh-grade percussion section that got off track. Kenny failed to show up, as did a half-dozen other players in each band. Kenny said that he was sick, and that his father would not let him come. A steady hum filled the room, and the response paled in comparison with the enthusiasm for the dance numbers.

So Ms. Vegter’s year at Ditmas came to an end. She said she hoped to return next year, for the kids. “They need me,” she said. “They appreciate me.”

But it did not look good. Financing cuts by the city meant there was no money to pay for her position, said Mr. Kevorkian, the principal. “I happen to love the program,” he added. “I thought Alana did a great job, not only for our children but for Meghan.”

He said he still hoped enough money would be restored to bring Ms. Vegter back. Meanwhile she was beginning her new life in New York with Dr. Gartrell, who planned to spend a year working here before his residency. The week after the concert she signed a lease on a one-bedroom apartment on the East Side. Her last academy concert for the year was on June 13.

THE ACADEMY’S administrators learned some lessons: for one, it is not easy finding talented musicians willing to make the teaching commitment. Overall, Juilliard’s president, Joseph W. Polisi, said he was pleased at the connection the fellows had made with the students while keeping the artistic level of the concerts high.

Ms. Vegter, for her part, said she realized that she could never engage in Ms. McDevitt’s grueling career. But she said she learned other lessons as well: how to be more patient, how to communicate better, how important a little focus can be for attention-starved children.

“It’s not just about teaching them the notes,” she said. The need was driven home by a question from a troublesome sixth grader, who asked out of the blue if she was going to leave. “I’m not going anywhere,” she told him.

She acknowledged another surprising result, that “sharing what I love with other people sometimes is more satisfying than playing.” After a concert, she said, the connection with the audience is broken.

“With kids it’s sustained,” she added. “It’s one thing I’m doing in the world that makes me feel like I’m making a difference.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 22, 2008
The cover article this weekend about a horn player who helped teach students at Ditmas Junior High School in Brooklyn how to play instruments misstates the percentage by which New York City’s financing cuts reduced the school’s budget. The school lost 1.4 percent of its financing, not 13 percent.

Has modern life killed the semicolon?

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Has modern life killed the semicolon?
By Paul Collins
Posted Friday, June 20, 2008, at 4:51 PM ET

When the Times of London reported in 1837 on two University of Paris law profs dueling with swords, the dispute wasn't over the fine points of the Napoleonic Code. It was over the point-virgule: the semicolon. "The one who contended that the passage in question ought to be concluded by a semicolon was wounded in the arm," noted the Times. "His adversary maintained that it should be a colon."

French passions over the semicolon are running high once again. An April Fool's hoax this year by the online publication Rue89 claimed that the Nicolas Sarkozy government planned to demand "at least three semicolons per page in official administrative documents." Parliamentarian Benoist Apparu was in on the joke—"The disappearance of the semicolon in Eastern France is absolutely dramatic," he gamely proclaimed—and linguist Alain Rey (barely) kept a straight face for a video calling Frenchmen to arms. Reporters were taken in, since, like every great hoax, it was plausible enough to be true. Le Figaro has proclaimed, "The much-loved semicolon is in the process of disappearance; let us protect it," and there was even a brief attempt at a Committee for the Defense of the Semicolon—a modern update on the Anti-Comma League that France had back in 1934. French commentators blame the semicolon's decline on everything from "the modern need for speed" to the corrupting influence of English and its short, declarative sentences. It's a charge leveled for years stateside, too, with Sven Birkerts bemoaning the Internet's baleful influence on semicolons a decade ago.

Has modern life killed the semicolon?

The semicolon has a remarkable lineage: Ancient Greeks used it as a question mark; and after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 font set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe. Though London first saw semicolons appear in a 1568 chess guide, Shakespeare grew up in an era that still scarcely recognized them; some of his Folio typesetters in 1623, though, were clearly converts.

Back then, the semicolon wasn't for interrogation or relating clauses; punctuation was still largely taught around oratorical pauses. The 1737 guide Bibliotheca Technologica recognizes "The comma (,) which stops the voice while you tell [count] one. The Semicolon (;) pauseth while you tell two. The Colon (:) while you tell three; and then period, or full stop (.) while you tell four." Lacking standards for how punctuation shades the meaning of sentences—and not just their oration—18th-century writers went berserk with the catchall mark.

Take this extraordinary passage from Samuel Salter's Sermon Before the Sons of the Clergy (1755):

It is evident then; that, if Atossa was the first inventress of the Epistles; these, that carry the name of Phalaris, who was so much older than her, must needs be an imposture.—But, if it be otherwise; that he does not describe me under those general reproaches; a small satisfaction shall content you; which I leave you to be the judge of. ... Pray, let me hear from you; as soon as you can.

This chaos couldn't last: By the 1793 New Guide to the English Tongue, modern usage peeks through—"Its chief Use is in distinguishing Contraries, and frequent Division." Yet the older implication of a thoughtful pause always underlies the semicolon's appeal. Even as punctuation became more orderly, poet Samuel Coleridge mused that "the semicolon is far more common in the elder English Classics. ... It was perhaps used in excess by them; but the disuse seems a worse evil."

As Coleridge hints, semicolons hit a speed bump with Romanticism's craze for dashes, for words that practically spasmed off the page. Take this sample from the 1814 poem The Orphans: "Dead—dead—quite dead—and pale—oh!—oh!"

Yet in 1848 Edgar Allan Poe declared himself "mortified" by printers once again using too many semicolons. Poe may have the distinction of being the last writer to complain of the semicolon's popularity. By 1865, grammarian Justin Brenan could boast of "The rejection of the eternal semicolons of our ancestors. ... The semicolon has been gradually disappearing, not only from newspapers, but from books—insomuch that I believe instances could now be produced, of entire pages without a single semicolon."

1865? But surely that's a century off: Isn't modern life to blame?

Not exactly: From the 1850s onward, it's virtually impossible to find anyone claiming a prevalence of semicolons in writing. We now lived, complained a critic in 1854, in a "fast era" that neglected punctuation; by 1895, the Times took it for granted that "[m]any writers have adopted the plan of punctuating as little as possible." What these writers intuited had an empirical basis: A 1995 study tallying punctuation in period texts found a stunning drop in semicolon usage between the 18th and 19th centuries, from 68.1 semicolons per thousand words to just 17.7.

Researcher Paul Bruthiaux notes the steepest semicolon drop-off came in the mid-19th century—a finding that matches the gap between Poe's 1848 complaint and that 1865 "rejection." Technology is a leading suspect in rapid aesthetic shifts, so consider what debuted in the 1850s that might radically change language usage: the telegraph.

Poe's 1848 comment came just three years before the founding of Western Union. The next decade saw lines strung across the country to create what science writer Tom Standage fittingly dubs the "Victorian Internet." And that's precisely when semicolon usage begin to slump.

Perusing telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion. Punctuation was charged at the same rate as words, and their high price—trans-Atlantic cables originally cost a still-shocking $5 per word—meant that short, punchy lines with minimal punctuation were necessary among businessmen and journalists.

By the new century, simplified punctuation migrated into textbooks; one 1903 guide recommended that "Boys and girls ... should as a rule use a period when they are tempted to use a semicolon." When the California State Board of Education adopted this textbook three years later, the mark's capitulation was perhaps inevitable. Harper's could decry the semicolon as "almost forgotten among proofreaders" in a 1924 article titled Our Passion for Haste, and the Atlantic that year could bemoan the "spot plague" of periods. So, too, in 1943, when the Times editorialized against "the war that is being waged in some quarters on the semicolon." Their favored villain was now "the writer of action fiction. ... The semicolon is the enemy of action; it is the agent of reflection and meditation."

The semicolon has spent the last century as a fussbudget mark. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell disdained it; Kurt Vonnegut once informed a Tufts University crowd that "All [semicolons] do is show that you've been to college." New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was "semicolon boy." And though semicolons have occasionally made news—tariff bills have imploded over their misplacement, and a 1927 execution hinged on the interpretation of a semicolon—the last writers to receive much notice for semicolon use have been a New York City Transit employee and the Son of Sam. In 1977 the NYPD speculated that "the killer could be a freelance journalist" because of his "use of a semicolon" in his taunting letters. (Decades later, columnist Jimmy Breslin still marveled that "Berkowitz is the only murderer I ever heard of who knew how to use a semicolon.")

Semicolons do have some genuine shortcomings; Slate's founding editor, Michael Kinsley, once noted to the Financial Times that "[t]he most common abuse of the semicolon, at least in journalism, is to imply a relationship between two statements without having to make clear what that relationship is." All journalists can cop to this: The semicolon allows woozy clauses to lean on each other like drunks for support.

Yet semicolons serve a unique function, so it's tempting to think that some writers will always cling to them. When grading undergrad final papers recently, I found a near-absence of semicolons, save for one paper with cadenced pauses and carefully cantilevered clauses that gracefully stacked upon one another, Jenga-like, without ever quite toppling. Yet English was not this student's first language.

He was an exchange student—from France.
Paul Collins teaches nonfiction at Portland State University. His latest book is The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Russian monastery anticipates the familiar toll of ancient bells

Christian Science Monitor
Russian monastery anticipates the familiar toll of ancient bells
After 78 years, a set of 18 iconic bells rescued from a Moscow monastery will return home.
By Amy Farnsworth | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

from the June 13, 2008 edition

Cambridge, Mass. - As the chiming of bells rang through Harvard University's campus among a field of caps and gowns last week, it was the final time they would be heard – the end of an era for the university, but also a new beginning.

For the past 78 years, the 18 bells have hung high above Harvard's buildings, chiming on Sunday afternoons and every year at commencement. This summer, the bells will return home to ring at the Danilov Monastery in Moscow from which they were rescued in 1930 at the height of the Stalinist era, at a time when antireligion campaigns sought to destroy monasteries and melt down their ironwork.

In a world where artifacts are often stolen and seldom returned, the story of the Danilov bells is rare.

It all began in 1929 when American philanthropist Charles Crane was prompted by his agent Thomas Whittemore to save the bells from destruction. He purchased them from the Soviet government, which "was apparently desperate for money and was selling off everything of value – imperial Bokhara rugs, artwork, and church property," says Luis Campos, a Harvard alumnus and history professor at Drew University in New Jersey who has been researching the bells. They were transported by train from Moscow to Leningrad, he says, and then shipped to the US.

Weighing in at 25 tons, the bells were installed in Harvard University's Lowell House residence hall and atop the Baker Library. Students embraced the art of bell ringing with the formation of the Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers, later taking trips to Russia to experience the art firsthand.

"They really are the only four existing bell sets from the prerevolutionary times that weren't destroyed during the Stalinist era," says Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard and master of Lowell House.

For the Danilov Monastery, now the home of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the homecoming of the bells is a matter of spiritual significance. "[The bells] are described as singing icons – that they have voices and tongues that are singing to God as they are ringing," says Professor Campos. "There is no way to replace these bells. They are an organic set and they have their own history from the place they were hung. They were very much a part of the religious community."

Hierodeacon Roman, the chief bell ringer at the Danilov Monastery, had only seen and heard the bells on the Internet until he visited Harvard in 2004, where he had a chance to ring them for the first time. "We've been anticipating [this] for a long long time in our monastery," he said, describing the event as being of "miraculous" importance and praising Harvard's cooperation.

The first request for the return of the bells came in 2002 and picked up momentum as Harvard alumni and the monastery made a case. Last September, Harvard returned the bell from the Baker Library and replaced it with a new bell. This summer, the university will begin disassembling the other 17. A new set of bells created at a foundry in Russia will replace them – all financed by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.

To commemorate the bells' return to Moscow, Harvard held a two-day event last week, inviting bell-ringing alumni and members of the monastery, among others, to recount the history, cite appreciation, and hear the bells for the last time on US soil.

The exchange of the bells has led to an ongoing friendship between Harvard and the Danilov Monastery. Harvard students and faculty will visit Russia, and members of the monastery will visit Harvard to teach Russian bell-ringing classes. "It's not just about moving metal back and forth across the ocean," Campos says. "It's about forging relationships between people."

'Virtual Maestro': An Orchestral Guitar Hero?

Play a 'Virtual Maestro' on the Wii
'Virtual Maestro' lets players use Wii controller to conduct orchestra
By Chloe Fussell
updated 5:33 p.m. PT, Thurs., June. 19, 2008

LONDON - You may be a wicked axe man thanks to the "Guitar Hero" videogame by Activision Inc, but are you ready to take on a whole orchestra?

Two U.S. professors have created "Virtual Maestro," which allows a player to use the Wii console made by videogame company Nintendo to conduct the Verbier Festival Orchestra... well, a recording on a 42-inch plasma screen of them anyway.

But if you want to play, you'll have to get off the sofa and get down to a classical concert.

The game was brought over from the United States for trials and was a hit this week with audience members in the foyer of London's Barbican centre.

Young concert-goers waved the console around — some wildly, others shyly — to Rossini's William Tell Overture, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 5.

"It's pretty fun to use, but also great to watch others play it," said Barbican visitor Owen Powell, as he watched gamers leap about in the throes of conducting.

"For so many people, classical music is about a crusty music hall," said Ann Drew from banking firm UBS, which sponsors the game and the Verbier Orchestra. "The design was intended to bring a new, different experience to concert-going."

The game will tour Europe and organizers hope to set it up in venues before concert performances.

The company which created "Virtual Maestro" is aiming to develop it further, but the sponsors say there are no plans to allow budding Karajans and Gergievs to play it on their Wiis at home any time soon.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pentagon to Consult Academics on Security

June 18, 2008
Pentagon to Consult Academics on Security

Eager to embrace eggheads and ideas, the Pentagon has started an ambitious and unusual program to recruit social scientists and direct the nation’s brainpower to combating security threats like the Chinese military, Iraq, terrorism and religious fundamentalism.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has compared the initiative — named Minerva, after the Roman goddess of wisdom (and warriors) — to the government’s effort to pump up its intellectual capital during the cold war after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957.

Although the Pentagon regularly finances science and engineering research, systematic support for the social sciences and humanities has been rare. Minerva is the first systematic effort in this area since the Vietnam War, said Thomas G. Mahnken, deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy planning, whose office will be overseeing the project.

But if the uncustomary push to engage the nation’s evolutionary psychologists, demographers, sociologists, historians and anthropologists in security research — as well as the prospect of new financial support in lean times — has generated excitement among some scholars, it has also aroused opposition from others, who worry that the Defense Department and the academy are getting too cozy.

The Pentagon put out its first requests for proposals last week. Minerva will award $50 million over five years. Another set of grants administered by the National Science Foundation is expected to be announced by the end of this month.

Mr. Gates, a former university president with a degree in Soviet and Russian history, has a particularly personal stake in the program, Mr. Mahnken said. “He was a beneficiary of the investment made by the government during the cold war,” he said, adding that Mr. Gates was determined to repair the “bridges that used to exist between academics and the government that have fallen into the river.”

Cooperation between universities and the Pentagon has long been a contentious issue, and the recent death of Michael V. Bhatia, the first death of a civilian scholar working with combat troops in Afghanistan, has raised academics’ sensitivities on the issue. Mr. Bhatia, a 31-year-old graduate student in political science, was working on a completely different project when he was killed by a roadside bomb last month.

“I am all in favor of having lots of researchers trying to figure out why terrorists want to kill Americans,” said Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist at George Mason University. “But how can you make sure you get a broad spectrum of opinion and find the best people? On both counts, I don’t think the Pentagon is the way to go.”

Mr. Gusterson is a founder of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which was created because of a growing unease among scholars about cooperating with the Defense Department.

The American Anthropological Association, an 11,000-member organization, has also told administration officials that while research on these issues is essential, Defense Department money could compromise quality and independence because of the department’s inexperience with social science. “There was pretty general agreement that this was an issue we should weigh in on,” said Setha M. Low, the organization’s president, who contacted dozens of anthropologists about it.

In its written call for proposals, the department said Minerva was seeking scholars who can, for example, translate original documents, including those captured in Iraq; study changes in the People’s Liberation Army as China shifts to a more open political system; and explain the resurgence of the Taliban. The department is also looking for computational models that could illuminate how groups make what seem to be irrational decisions, and decipher the way the brain processes social and cultural norms.

Mr. Gates has stressed the importance of devoting resources to what he calls “ ‘soft power’, the elements of national power beyond the guns and steel of the military.”

Toward that end, he contacted Robert M. Berdahl, the president of the Association of American Universities — which represents 60 of the top research universities in the country — in December to help design Minerva. A former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and a past president of the University of Texas at Austin, Mr. Berdahl knew Mr. Gates from when the defense secretary served on the association’s board.

In January Mr. Berdahl and a small group of senior scholars and university administrators met in Washington with Defense Department officials. Also there was Graham Spanier, the president of Penn State University and the association’s chairman. He said the scholars helped refine the guidelines, advising that the research be open and unclassified.

As for the issue of Pentagon financing, Mr. Spanier said, “Peer review is a good idea, but there are many different ways to do that.” He added, “We have pledged to go back and recommend individuals who could help in that process.”

“The beauty of Minerva,” Mr. Spanier said, “is that it provides a lot of opportunity for people in the social sciences and humanities to solve national-security-related questions.”

Mr. Berdahl said some participants favored having the National Science Foundation or a similar nonmilitary federal organization, rather than the Pentagon, distribute Minerva money. “It would be a good way to proceed, because they’ve had a lot of experience with social science,” he said.

In a speech to the Association of American Universities in April, Mr. Gates said, “The key principle of all components of the Minerva Consortia will be complete openness and rigid adherence to academic freedom and integrity.” At a time when political campaigns have treated the word elitist as an epithet, he quoted the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s statement that the United States “must return to the acceptance of eggheads and ideas” to meet national security threats.

“We are interested in furthering our knowledge of these issues and in soliciting diverse points of view, regardless of whether those views are critical of the department’s efforts,” Mr. Gates added.

In response to Mr. Gates’s speech, the American Anthropological Association sent a letter to administration officials saying that it is of “paramount importance” that anthropologists study the roots of terrorism and violence, but adding, “We are deeply concerned that funding such research through the Pentagon may pose a potential conflict of interest and undermine the practices of peer review.”

Mr. Gusterson, who says he is worried that the Pentagon will end up scaring off some voices and limiting the full range of opinion on a subject, said the project was “assigning the recruitment task to the agency that doesn’t know how to do this and ignoring the ones that do.”

“One reason the State Department misread Vietnam so badly in the early 1960s is that the liberal experts on East Asia were purged under McCarthyism,” he said. “I fear that a conversation about the sources of violence and terrorism run under the auspices of the Pentagon might be similarly misshapen.”

John D. Kelly, chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Chicago, said the research subjects were good. But he cautioned that by focusing, for example, on military technology, “we might simultaneously misunderstand what’s happening in China and cause the Chinese to feel that we have identified them as a threat.”

Anthropologists have been especially outspoken about the Pentagon’s Human Terrain Teams, a two-year-old program that pairs anthropologists and other social scientists with combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in which Mr. Bhatia was participating at the time of his death.

As for Minerva, many scholars said routing the money through the National Science Foundation or a similar institution would go a long way toward easing most of their concerns.

To Mr. Spanier of Penn State, the answer to scholars who oppose Pentagon financing is simple: “Those who don’t want to do their research in the context of Department of Defense funding shouldn’t apply.”

Afghan bomb kills scholar from Mass (May 08)

Boston Globe
Afghan bomb kills scholar from Mass.
Ex-Medway resident was aiding Army's work

By James Vaznis, Globe Staff | May 10, 2008

A 31-year-old former Medway resident, who was a specialist in the politics and culture of Afghanistan, was killed by a roadside bomb in a remote region of that country along with two US soldiers on Wednesday.

Michael Bhatia, a Brown University graduate and a doctoral candidate at Oxford University in England, had been in Afghanistan since November, helping the Army's 82d Airborne Division to understand the country's tribal customs. He is among a handful of academics who have partnered with the US military in so-called human terrain teams to establish peace in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"He's as much of a hero as any soldier out there," said Steve Fondacaro, program manager for the military's Human Terrain project. "He willingly left a comfortable environment, where he could have continued to be the great scholar he was . . . Michael Bhatia is responsible for hundreds of people being alive today."

Bhatia was considered among his peers to be a scholar's scholar - always on the hunt for that last interview or piece of information that would solve a long-standing dispute in a war-torn area. His family said he made at least eight trips to Afghanistan since his 1995 graduation from Medway High School, and colleagues said he also had been to the volatile areas of the Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, along with East Timor and Kosovo.

During that time, he co-authored two books, including "Afghanistan, Arms and Conflict: Armed Groups, Disarmament and Security in a Post-War Society," which was released last month. In conducting hundreds of interviews with Afghan fighters and other Afghans, Bhatia captured the essence of who they were and the conflicts that entrapped them, in several series of photographs.

Yet with all his success - which also included being a Marshall Scholar and recipient of at least two prestigious fellowships - Bhatia remained humble, said his sister Tricia.

"He was never one to brag about what he was doing," said Tricia, of Medway. "He wanted to talk about you. . . . He had a way of making everyone feel special. He was the glue that brought people together."

She and her parents, Manik and Linda, are heartbroken over his death.

"They took him away too soon," she said. "He had such a passion for life."

The attack took place as a convoy of four military vehicles traveled on a dirt road in a remote region in hopes of brokering peace among two tribes, Fondacaro said. The Humvee, in which Bhatia and four others rode, headed the convoy. The improvised explosive device killed Bhatia and two US soldiers immediately, while critically injuring two other soldiers, Fondacaro said.

A Department of Defense spokesman declined to confirm the details of the attack, including the deaths, citing a military policy of not releasing information until 72 hours after an event.

His death, which became a topic of several blogs in the last two days, shocked colleagues and friends. Up until a year ago, Bhatia was a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown.

"He was exuberant, enthusiastic, and full of life, which makes his death all the more difficult to fathom," said James Der Derian, director of the Global Security program at the institute, in a phone interview. "The research he did was exceptional. A lot of people would go to do survey work . . . but he had this unique ability to really listen and see, and that came out in his research and photographs."

Tad Heuer, a roommate at Brown, said Bhatia loved going to war-torn areas.

"I think he really wanted to know how these conflicts began and how to make them stop," Heuer said. "He really saw Afghanistan as a place in the world that hadn't received the attention it should have."

Bhatia's sister said his interest in Afghanistan evolved from a childhood fascination with Russian history. "Everybody knew he was exceptional at an early age," she said. "It's heartbreaking to think that the life he had in front of him is gone."

Harry Potter devotees put tales to music (Wizard Rock)

From the AP/MSNBC

Harry Potter devotees put tales to music
‘Wizard rock’ genre has do-it-yourself aesthetic
The Associated Press
updated 3:20 p.m. PT, Wed., June. 18, 2008

POTOSI, Mo. - Jen Leffler first escaped into the world of Harry Potter as an adolescent in suburban Chicago. A decade later, the love affair continues. Only now, it means taking road trips to concerts across the country.

Inspired by the characters and story lines from J.K. Rowling's intricate fantasy world, hundreds of bands devoted to the Potter experience have formed in recent several years.

The genre has its own name (wizard rock) and fashion sensibility (checkered scarves and askew neck ties replicate the Hogwarts school uniform) as well as a do-it-yourself aesthetic (most acts book their own shows).

With a decidedly youthful and literate audience, bands such as Draco and the Malfoys, Tom Riddle and Friends and the Moaning Myrtles are as likely to gig in public libraries, bookstores or church basements as at rock clubs.

But the movement has grown big enough to support its own summer festival circuit. On Memorial Day weekend, more than 300 devotees gathered at a YMCA summer camp lodge in the Ozark foothills for Wrockstock 2008, a wizard rock extravaganza featuring 15 bands over three days.

Later this summer, similar events will happen in New York, Chicago and even De Pere, Wis., near Green Bay.

"A lot of people don't have a lot of friends where they come from," said Leffler, who plans to move to Louisville to join a friend she first met online in a wizard rock discussion forum. "And then they find 200 friends here."

While the band names and lyrics pay homage to Rowling's elaborate fictional universe, the music is all over the map, from pensive singer-songwriters with acoustic guitars to blue-eyed soul and banjo-inflected country.

"People might assume that music based on Harry Potter would be kind of gimmicky and shallow," said Matt Maggiacomo, the one-man band known as the Whomping Willows.

Maggiacomo, 29, is a veteran of the Providence, R.I., music scene. But it wasn't until he discovered wizard rock that he was able to quit his day job as technical writer and focus on music full time. A crowd of 500 rapt listeners attended his first show.

"This was my first show where everyone was focused on the music," he said. "A lot of times (before), there were 15 people in the crowd, and they were focused on getting drunk, or talking to other people."

The Missouri festival attracted fans from as far away as Scotland, Wales, Quebec, British Columbia and South Africa — many of whom were visiting the country for the first time.

With books finished, scene could be short-lived
Forget about New York or the Grand Canyon. For those first-time visitors, the wizard rock community is the real attraction, said festival organizer Abby Hupp.

"They come here and have a sense of belonging," she said. "If you see that even total strangers will love you, it changes you. You become a more open, happy person."

At Wrockstock, the music came with a message. The merchandise table had not only concert T-shirts and compact discs but bracelets calling for an end to genocide in Darfur and literacy-promoting bumper stickers.

As founder of the nonprofit Harry Potter Alliance, Boston resident Andrew Slack taps into the wizard rock world to promote social activism among what he calls the real-world minions of Dumbledore's Army, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry student group that rose up to fight intolerance and defend the teachings of their wise professor of the same name.

"Literature has in recent decades been a solitary experience," said the 28-year-old former sketch comedian. "But it can also be a communal one."

For Slack, that means voter registration booths at wizard rock concerts, or flyers alerting audience members to the threat of media consolidation or global warming.

"We're taking the messages of art and putting them into the real world in a tangible way," he said.

With all seven Potter books now complete, some wizard rock fans fear that the scene could be short-lived.

"There's only so much you can sing about now that it's over," Leffler said.

Yet with three more movies (the seventh and final book will be made into two films) and Florida theme park still on the horizon, most Potter acolytes don't expect the cultural filament to burn out anytime soon.

"I don't think it's going to last forever," said Slack, who didn't read his first Potter book until after graduating from Brandeis University in 2002. "But the Harry Potter fan culture is never really going to go away."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Capitol Records fears for its sound from Hollywood project

Los Angeles Times
Capitol Records fears for its sound from Hollywood project
Excavation would occur just feet away from famed echo chambers beneath the Hollywood tower. EMI is appealing an approval of the project as recording pros fret.
By Bob Pool
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

June 18, 2008

They were singing the blues in the legendary Studio A at Hollywood's Capitol Records tower.

"Losing this place would be a big deal. There's nothing better than this anywhere in the world," said recording engineer Al Schmitt.

Schmitt, a 19-time Grammy winner, was standing over the banquet-table-size mixing board in the Vine Street studio's control room. Punching a button on the console, he played back a silky smooth track recorded minutes earlier by jazz singer Roberta Gambarini. The sound was flawless.

Those involved in Hollywood's thriving music scene fear that's about to change.

A developer plans to build a 16-floor condominium and 242-car underground parking garage next door to the landmark cylindrical Capitol Records tower.

The Los Angeles Planning Commission has signed off on the project, but Capitol Records' parent company, EMI, has appealed to the City Council to overturn the approval. The council's planning and land-use committee is scheduled to consider the issue Tuesday.

Musicians, producers and sound engineers warn that the project would produce noise and vibrations that will make quality sound recording impossible at Capitol's famed studios.

At risk are Capitol's unique echo chambers: concrete bunkers that allow recording engineers to sweeten tracks with a rich reverberation.

The eight chambers are built 30 feet underground and are about 18 feet from where pile-driving and excavation work would be done for the condominium project.

"There is nothing like these echo chambers anywhere. Nobody can replicate them," Schmitt said.

He ought to know. He has mixed and recorded for the likes of Elvis Presley, Henry Mancini, Rosemary Clooney, Sam Cooke, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Ray Charles, Madonna, Steely Dan, Quincy Jones and George Benson.

"I come here 200 times a year," said Schmitt, a Bell Canyon resident. "This is a big deal. That intrusion could shut this building down. It would be a shame to have the history of this studio gone like that. People want to come here to work."

Some travel across the country to use the studios.

"We're here from New York to do this," said record producer Larry Clothier. "We can record in New York; that's where everybody lives. We could, but it wouldn't be the same. The chambers under here are legendary. They're the best in the world. Nothing can replace them. It would be a travesty to lose them."

Next door in Studio B, musicians were recording for the Rockettes' Radio City Christmas show. Producer John Porter bemoaned the disappearance of Hollywood's recording studios.

"The sad thing is there were a lot of historic studios turned into parking lots and office buildings without anybody saying anything," said Porter, of Malibu. "There aren't that many rooms left set up to accommodate as many musicians as this one."

Capitol's Studio A and Studio B can be combined into a single room with space for 75 musicians. That allows the recording of movie soundtracks and orchestral music.

Studio workers said such items as Frank Sinatra's chair and favorite microphone are still in use in Studio A. So is Nelson Riddle's wooden conductor's stand and Nat King Cole's piano.

Designed by architect Welton Becket, the 150-foot-tall Capitol Records tower opened in 1956. From the beginning, elimination of noise and vibration from the building was a goal.

To prevent the hum of fluorescent lighting, the fixtures' ballasts were mounted outside the studios. The heating and air-conditioning system used "decoupled ducts, sound traps and soundproofed vents," as the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society report put it in 1957.

Exterior walls are 10-inch-thick concrete. A 1-inch air gap separates the outer wall from the studios' inner wall, which in turn stands on a floor which "floats on a rubber-tiled, 3-inch concrete slab. This upper slab floats on a layer of cork, which rests on the 6-inch concrete foundation slab," according to the engineering journal report.

The studios' interior walls were built with shutter-like baffles. One side is birch wood, which creates a hard sound, and the other is fiberglass, which has a softer sound. Ceilings are suspended beneath thick, rock-wool, soundproof insulation.

The echo chambers were even trickier to build. Designed as trapezoidal rooms by recording artist and sound expert Les Paul, they have 10-inch-thick concrete walls and foot-thick concrete ceilings. With speakers on one side and microphones on the other, they can provide reverberation lasting up to five seconds. Sound engineers "use them like an artist's palette," as one Capitol worker put it.

As the City Hall showdown has grown closer, the chorus of Capitol supporters has grown louder.

Council committee members have been flooded with letters, such as the one from Professional Musicians Local 47's Linda Rapka, who pointed out that during the last few years Los Angeles has lost the Todd A-O scoring stage, Cello Studios and the Paramount scoring stage.

Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, national executive director of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, warned that the proposed condominium project could result in "an enormous loss to the music and entertainment community."

Added Maureen Droney, executive director of the Producers & Engineers Wing of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences: "One cannot overstate the importance of Capitol Studios within the Los Angeles music scene and, indeed, to the history of recorded music."