Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Foothill Fanfairs

Knowledge comes but wisdom lingers.

---Alfred, Lord Tennyson

What is beyond, is that which is also here.

---Ancient Indian aphorism

The Emperor's chief carpenter, Ch'ing, once made a music stand so perfect that all who saw it marveled. When Lu asked him to reveal the mystery of his art, Ch'ing demurred, saying: "No mystery, your Highness, though there is something. When I am about to make such a stand, I first reduce my mind to absolute quiet. Three days in this condition and I am oblivious to any reward to be gained. Five days, and I am oblivious to any fame to be acquired. Seven days, and I become unconscious of my four limbs and body. Then, with no thought of the Court in mind, all my skill concentrated and all disturbing elements gone, I go into the forest to search for a suitable tree. It contains the stand in my mind's eye, and then I set to work."


If you've ever been in a choir, particularly the church variety, you may appreciate Dave Walker's cartoon, from the UK's Church Times.

On Saturday, in San Rafael, California, there will be a national competition you may not be aware of. It's the 24th Annual Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival. Actually this is the final contest, as there already have been 8 elimination contests held in cities all over the country. Now the winning groups there are being flown to Marin Veterans' Auditorium for this big deal over the weekend. It's interesting there are hundreds of these groups involved, and probably not too many are of the barbershop variety anymore. As you can see from these photos and group descriptions, the music is all over the place , but you can be sure of one thing: most of these participants have heard of Phil Mattson and The Foothill Fanfairs.

A couple years ago I stumbled into the best argument I know for writing personal stuff on the Internet. I merely related the coincidental sighting of a name of a musician on a CD set a friend generously gave me, with an LP I had bought years earlier. The name Michele Weir connected me to somebody name Phil Mattson, then I began to find out things about him, and finally I thought somebody somewhere might be interested in this so I wrote about it. What followed here, elsewhere I post, and in emails has been a continuous flow of messages from people who studied and performed with this great teacher. Most recently I heard from someone named Roy Turpin, who happens to be a therapist now out in California (isn't everybody?) and he has provided me a rare opportunity.

A month ago Gene Puerling died. His passing went largely unnoticed in the media, but those of us who love acapella singing know he formed The Hi-Lo's in the early 1950s, and then Singers Unlimited a decade later, and we mourned appropriately. Phil Mattson appreciated the Puerling genius, which was a style and technique completely original, and had the brilliance himself to begin teaching it to young people. Well, I suppose some folks must have thought he was crazy to attempt it...because certainly those of us who also loved Puerling thought such singing clearly was impossible---even where there it was on records. It really was impossible, because Gene began to experiment with multi-tracking and eventually had 4 singers sound like 8, then 12, or a whole choir. Phil's challenge may have been tougher, because he used real people...and they were kids.

Roy wrote that when he joined The Fanfairs, which was the name Phil Mattson gave his choir, he couldn't read music. This was over 20 years ago at a community college in California called Foothill. Today it is among the most highly credited schools in the country---and though Phil Mattson isn't teaching there anymore, you still can become a Foothill Fanfair. In fact the whole Fine Arts & Communication program at Foothill is awesome! The Fanfairs, as with many college groups like this, began to record what they performed, and there must have been 6 volumes or so. Roy said the group of 12 singers became so popular in the area that the number of performances they did interrupted his studies.

Quickly Phil decided to form a professional group of 6 graduates from the program, and this was the PM Singers which recorded initially for Bob Thiele's Doctor Jazz, and almost immediately was nominated for a Grammy. While Fanfairs material is very rare and costly, you still can purchase the 2 PM Singers releases on CD. Oops, I was going to send you to, but I see they're out of stock. Well, how about Michele Weir's site then? She's probably still got some---and her schedule shows she might actually be around during May. The LP I found originally now is called Night In The City.

One of the albums The Fanfairs created was A Tribute To Gene Puerling. Here, on 8 cuts, Phil Mattson took Puerling arrangements for both The Hi-Lo's and Singers Unlimited, and turned them into performance possibilities for 12 college students, each singing incredibly difficult dissonant lines. The result of course are gorgeous, huge "fat chords," as Roy calls them...and some positively heavenly singing. Roy still has all the LPs, and a couple weeks ago got a new turntable and began to transfer them to MP3. He sent me the Puerling album, which of course I've been wanting for a long time, and over the weekend it arrived. Gene Puerling came to Foothill College to be involved in the project, taught some workshops, became friends with Phil, and wrote the liner notes. Here's what he said~~~

"The Fanfairs are responsible for setting quality performance standards which vocal jazz ensembles across America are following today. Each member of The Fanfairs is a full-time music major at Foothill College... All study applied voice as well as an instrument. In addition, all members gain experience performing para-professionally as soloists, arrangers, and teachers...
"My thanks to the talented Fanfairs for their on-going commitment to high quality performances in person and on this record. It goes without saying, that their dedicated conductor, Phil Mattson, is certainly one of the prime reasons for the success of this great group, and indeed, for the whole exciting field of vocal jazz.
Carry on!
Gene Puerling"

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Redemption Of Spring

Lose your mind and come to your senses.
---Fritz Perls
It gets late early out there.
---Yogi Berra
A mystical experience is not any more unique than a modern experiment in physics. On the other hand, it is not less sophisticated, either....The complexity and efficiency of the physicist's technical apparatus is matched, if not surpassed, by that of the mystic's consciousness....A page from a journal of modern experimental physics will be as mysterious to the uninitiated as a Tibetan mandala. Both are records of inquiries into the nature of the universe.
---Fritjof Capra
I stepped out my front door this early morning and started down the driveway. Head lowered in thought, time to fetch the Sunday paper in the box down by the road, when I heard the first spring song of a wood thrush in our woods. He must have come back yesterday. I notice the juncos are packing up and moving out to the North woods for the summer. I looked around and the world was transformed. There hadn't been much rain yesterday, but it was slow and steady...and enough to bring on the first real burst of new leaves. The daffodils are mostly done, tulips in full blast, and redbud coming on at its usual leisurely pace. I'm sure there's plenty more wild flower action in the forest and by the creeks. But that thrush's song lifted my spirits to a healing high.
I just had read an email from my sister, describing her early retirement from administration in local public health in our hometown. The job had become more than tedious, with constant and increasing mandates "to do more and more with less and less." It had become dangerous to one's health, life-threatening. Retirement at 59, with 32 years of service...and she listed 3 others in community and environmental health who did the same thing in a matter of months. No double-dipping for these people, they've had it. How many others who chose careers of public service, before Reagan declared government work a waste of money and Gingrich labeled its workers bureaucrats to be gotten rid of, have done the same thing over the last decade? How many thousands, tens of thousands, from the top ranks of the CIA through the military and into the social agencies? Every level of government affected by budget cuts and increased paperwork to prove accountability.
I met one the other night. His name is Rick Sahli, and he's an environmental attorney in Columbus. He was on a panel at OU discussing the Legal Dimensions of Environmental Justice. Beginning in 1983, he worked in the Ohio Attorney General's office on environmental law, and 5 years later became the Deputy Director of the Ohio EPA. On the strong foundation of a promising and socially helpful career, he watched, in 1991, the new Republican governor, George Voinovich, transform the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency into a corporate advocacy group. Voinovich may have repented somewhat by now, but back then he was just following the neocon agenda. Mr. Sahli resigned and since then has devoted his skills and service to grassroots organizers---mostly neighborhood folks being terrorized by industrial waste and toxins.
How can it be we've become a country in which people opposed to government and its services are touted as patriots? I was thinking these things before the wood thrush roused me from my doldrums. Besides, I've been suffering a bad cold that came on yesterday. I haven't been sick a day in the past year, but it seems when I catch "what's going around" these days I start getting death thoughts. I know I'm an old man now, but what happened to the kind of sickness that can be diagnosed? Each time I get something now I think this may be the Big One---the virus nobody can treat, the flu resistant to all our antibiotics. At one point yesterday I started coughing---this dry, unproductive hack---and I found myself preparing to give up the ghost. Overnight it loosened up, but then I had that drowning feeling of pneumonia. Oh well, one thing you learn is that when death comes it probably won't be so bad. You just have to let it happen.
Whittier said, "And where the shadows deepest fell, the wood thrush rang his silver bell." Ah yes, Whittier had the same thing happen. Anybody with a middle name of Greenleaf must have wandered the forest paths too. Isn't it wonderful how a bird can reach into your soul and stir your hope once more? This one got me to look around and see new life coming again. This old beautiful planet that has been so forgiving of us, that she still comes back no matter how reckless we've been. It's certainly especially true in this part of Appalachia, where we mine for coal and love our gasoline toys. And where, nevertheless, Spring is more lovely than anywhere on Earth.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Jeff Goodell Shines The Light On Big Coal

The puzzled ones, the Americans, go through their lives
Buying what they are told to buy,
Pursuing their love affairs with the automobile,

Baseball and football, romance and beauty,
Enthusiastic as trained seals, going into debt, struggling —
True believers in liberty, and also security,

And of course sex — cheating on each other
For the most part only a little, mostly avoiding violence
Except at a vast blue distance, as between bombsight and earth,

Or on the violent screen, which they adore.
Those who are not Americans think Americans are happy
Because they are so filthy rich, but not so.

They are mostly puzzled and at a loss
As if someone pulled the floor out from under them,
They'd like to believe in God, or something, and they do try.

You can see it in their white faces at the supermarket and the gas station—
Not the immigrant faces, they know what they want,
Not the blacks, whose faces are hurt and proud —

The white faces, lipsticked, shaven, we do try
To keep smiling, for when we're smiling, the whole world
Smiles with us, but we feel we've lost

That loving feeling. Clouds ride by above us,
Rivers flow, toilets work, traffic lights work, barring floods, fires
And earthquakes, houses and streets appear stable

So what is it, this moon-shaped blankness?
What the hell is it? America is perplexed.
We would fix it if we knew what was broken.

---"Fix" by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, from No Heaven. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.

America is so concerned about Big Oil! The owners at Big Coal like it that way. They do their mining in the light of day now, but still they're most comfortable working in the dark. Underground movements...where no one can see. Why be concerned about coal? Isn't that some old issue from the 19th century...that just kind of went away? Like the locomotive? Like that big old pile in everybody's basement, dumped loudly through a little window from the coal truck, well into the 1940s? Gone the coal companies abandoning the little towns, full of worker families, all across the hills of Appalachia? Take a look at this~~~

Yeah so? Electricity? The fossil fuel burned for electricity generation is coal. "Electricity Generation." I like that. We're the Electricity Generation, but how many of us think of coal as our plug-in connector? Jeff Goodell didn't. He grew up in Silicon Valley, he told us in Athens Wednesday night, and never saw a lump of coal until he was 30 years old. Nobody in Silicon Valley thought coal was behind the screens of these computers. He lives in New York now and tells us no one in New York thinks of West Virginia mountains when they flip a switch. The trouble is, as we've learned at Ohio University during its tremendous presentations this Earth Week, coal releases twice as much carbon into the atmosphere when it's burned than anything else. But I thought everything everybody's heard lately is about Clean Coal. What's going on here?

Jeff Goodell writes for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Washington Post, and just about anywhere else he wants to. He's that good. In answer to a question about the media, in the lecture hall of the Scripps School of Journalism the other night, he told us he got a call from the Today Show when that gold mine in South Africa collapsed. They wanted to send a limo for him to be the talking head about it. "Gold mine? What gold mine? Why call me?" The answer: "You're in the rolodex. You're the mine guy." Are coal mines the same as gold mines? He told them he wouldn't do it. He's the "mine guy" because, as David Roberts at Grist puts it, "In 2001, around the time Dick Cheney's secret-recipe energy plan made its debut, Jeff Goodell was in West Virginia reporting on coal's rising fortunes. He'd been sent to do a story for The New York Times Magazine, but the material spilled over into a new book, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future. It's a journey from the mines of Wyoming, across the plains by rail car, into the belly of the turbines in the east, and all the way to China, following the tale of the black rock that still, after all these years, afflicts and enables us."

Big Coal remains Goodell's claim to fame, even though he'd written other books earlier that had sold well. But they had been about Silicon Valley, which he knew since childhood. Coal was all new, but this man is a research and investigative journalist, something in this country, alas, that is becoming as rare as a diamond, black or otherwise. I've talked to a lot of people around here who, even though they didn't hear his talk, have heard of him and know his writing. I'm glad to hear that but if you don't, allow me to point you in the direction of a few high points you can find on the Web.

Here's a good example of his writing from last August, called What It Costs Us, from the Washington Post~~~

"Underground coal miners work in the darkness, invisible to most of us, and when they die -- also in the darkness, from methane explosions or rock falls or any of the hundreds of other hazards they face every day -- their deaths usually merit just a few paragraphs in the local newspaper."The attempted rescue of trapped coal miners, on the other hand, is often headline news. Networks love the real-time drama of the rescue efforts -- it's reality TV from the heartland, complete with anguished family members, heroic workers and dodgy mine owners. Sometimes, these stories have happy endings."

Did you know the average American uses energy each and every DAY that requires 20 pounds of coal? The readers of Big Coal learned that. Here's an excerpt~~~

"The coal industry is very good at touting new technology and less good at actually doing anything about it. There is new technology that's available now, called IGCC, integrated gasification combined cycle, a kind of gasification of coal. But the industry has resisted building these plants. They prefer to tout these plants that are ten or twenty years down the road and continue building the same old thing."The fact is that carbon dioxide from coal plants has gone up about twenty-seven percent since 1990, and they're continuing to go up. And global warming is an increasing, very urgent problem We need to cut emissions, most scientists agree, by fifty percent or more by the year 2050. And the coal industry is going in the opposite direction ... The fact is that coal can only be considered clean by the narrowest of definitions. It's true that the levels of air pollution of sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxide that Joe [Lucas, executive director of Americans for Balanced Energy Choices] have fallen. But one of the things he doesn't mention is that the coal industry fought tooth and nail against all of those laws that required those reductions during the '70s and '80s and '90s, spent millions of dollars lobbying against them."

Carbon emissions. That's all we hear about these days regarding global warming or climate change or whatever it is. Legislation starting up everywhere and talk of a carbon tax. What about those people who say this warming stuff is just a natural cycle? OK maybe. But let's take a core sample from some Antarctic ice and compare the amount of carbon dioxide in the air in 1000 AD to what it is now~~~

Here's a link to that Grist article, which actually is a lead-in to a neat interview with Jeff Goodell. I like it because you can sense the very hip attitude and delivery that makes him a favorite for talks and TV and stuff like that~~~

Last October he wrote a piece for Rolling Stone about James Lovelock, the direst of predictors about climate change. Here it is~~~

Finally here's NPR's Fresh Air interview with him from last June, so you can hear what he sounds like~~~

Somebody asked him if he ever does any presentations for children. He appeared surprised at the question. He grinned and confided he has 3 kids at home. Obviously, he said, he's an expert in that too. Then he concluded he'd love to, but nobody's asked him. Someone should.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

HopeDance And Waking Up

No more "evidence" of collapse is needed; it's happening here and now and with dizzying speed. I no longer feel a need to "convince" anyone; I'm simply sitting back and watching the inevitable unfold, and as I report the daily news, I can scarcely keep up with the events that have turned prophets into historians.
---Carolyn Baker, historian and psychoanalyst , her valuable site
We Bring Democracy To The Fish
It is unacceptable that fish prey on each other.
For their comfort and safety, we will liberate them
into fishfarms with secure, durable boundaries
that exclude predators.
Our care will provide for their liberty, health, happiness, and nutrition.
Of course all creatures need to feel useful.
At maturity the fish will discover their purposes.
---Donald Hall, from White Apples and the Taste of Stone. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.
The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.
---Rachel Carson
The photo is called "Kelley's Tiger Lily," though that isn't what the flower really is, and can be found at
The news about climate and economy are so disturbing every day, that even people who never talk to me about current affairs are doing so now. People acknowledge impending disaster and don't know what to do. What is there to do? Are we doomed?
This must be brief this morning, as I have taken so much time to read. But among the first articles to show up was something Carolyn Baker sent along to subscribers during her fundraiser. It's from a free magazine in Southern California apparently, which is called HopeDance. I couldn't find it at the actual site so I don't know when it was written. It is lengthy but it leads one through the "syndrome" of waking up from this lifestyle of convenience most Americans anyway have fallen into over the last 50 years. It's not impossible and in fact it ain't even so hard. Take the time and you'll feel better at the end~~~
Beyond that, the news is more scary than ever. Hopefully Paul Krugman's column yesterday already has been recommended to you. He explained what's happening to the price of grain and why~~~
For those climate change skeptics who advocate the cosmic ray theory, scientists Sunday from Lancaster and Durham Universities offered proof the theory isn't correct, and it's carbon emissions after all~~~
Even worse, James Hansen, head of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, said yesterday even our most extreme goals for carbon reduction aren't good enough. He lays out what he projects now~~~
And the World Health Organization put out its predictions yesterday about how climate change will bring new outbreaks of disease and death. In fact, as surely you know, it already is happening~~~
Time to get busy...with that first step you can take in this Dance.