Helen Keller, Beethoven Fan?

HelenKellerRadioAstonishing post in the San Francisco Classical Voice about a 1924 letter that blind, deaf, and mute Helen Keller wrote to the New York Symphony (the rival of the New York Philharmonic before they eventually merged in 1928), recounting the experience of tuning in to a  broadcast of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the radio:

Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm.


What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibration, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roil of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voices leaped up thrilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still.


Really? Congrats to San Francisco Classical Voice Writer Janos Gereben for this bit of sleuthing – the letter was apparently in the Helen Keller Archives of the American Federation of the Blind.  But I’m rather surprised that this story has never come up before – and the skeptic in me wonders is Ms. Keller did not indulge in a bit of a creative flight of fancy.  I don’t tend to think of a 1920s-era radio as capable of “surround sound,” but it sure is fascinating notion to imagine that someone who was doubtless as hypersensitive to vibrations as Helen Keller could actually pick out and detect a symphony that way.   Can anyone corroborate this?

Storytelling: “129 Cars”

I'm reminded of Ernie Boch: "Ask for the keys, it's yawh cah!"

I’m reminded of Ernie Boch: “Ask for the keys, it’s yawh cah!”

From time to time I like to share pieces of audio or video production that I think is especially fine or noteworthy.  For me, it usually boils down to storytelling, hence the slug.

As someone with a family background in the car business, I found this episode of This American Life to be especially good, particularly since it’s a subject and personality area that does not turn up often in pubradio land.  It’s called “129 Cars,”  and somehow it seemed just right to be listening to it on a Saturday afternoon driving from one vast parking lot to the next in a pre-Christmas shopping frenzy…


513: 129 Cars

129 Cars

November Numerology: JFK and the meaning of 11/22

Think piece I wrote for WCRB Classical New England for this rather remarkable day on the calendar…\

November Numerology: JFK and the Musical Meaning of 11/22

Avant Gershwin

WASHINGTON – The reason I’m posting from downtown D.C. this morning has to do with the lady on the left — jazz vocalist Patti Austin, who helped to usher in the New Year with a dynamic all-Gershwin concert at the Kennedy Center last night. Patti’s two-set show, backed by a crackerjack octet (piano, guitar, bass, drums, sax, trumpet, ‘bone) was part of Toast of the Nation, NPR’s annual all-night New Year’s Eve jazz party. Yr Hmble Srvnt was on hand to produce the show for the net.

In my previous life coordinating this production was Tension City; the logistics of pulling off six live shows through multiple timezones is only dizzying when it’s not downright frightening. By comparison, spending a day backstage at the KenCen with old friends and terrific musiciains, old pros all, was pure pleasure.

That’s not to say there weren’t the usual hiccups and anxieties that arise anytime you’re producing live radio. To be sure, there were. But it was all redeemed by the music on stage: some really interesting arrangements of Gershwin standards, mostly drawn from Austin’s recent CD called Avant-Gershwin. The disc has been getting a lot of buzz — a pair of Grammy nominations, and USA Today critic Elyse Gardner even had it down as her Top Album of the Year, edging out Junior Senior and Springsteen’s Magic. — and if we didn’t get the memo, Patti was there to remind us. (As a veteran showbiz producer, she’s not the type to let these PR moments pass…..)

But the praise is hard-won and well-deserved. Her voice was in top form, and the arrangements by Michael Abene are clever, quirky, and swing. You can check out a couple of the CD cuts (recorded with the excellent WDR Big Band) here. The Kennedy Center show was the first time that Austin has taken the show on the road with a pared-down octet, and the results were pretty impressive, particularly for the second set that we broadcast live to the nation. Though I have to say that my lasting memory was a haunting version of But Not For Me, featuring just Patti and pianist Mike Ricchiutti.

But don’t take my word for it: check out the whole concert on the new NPR Music site.

Update 1/2/2008: Critic Mike Joyce talks about Patti’s “Star Jones Moment” in his review of the concert in today’s Washpost. You can read the review here.

The Rest of the Toast

WASHINGTON – Don’t want to sign off from D.C. without tipping the hat to the other performers I heard playing on New Year’s Eve, sitting in the back as a guest in NPR’s Studio 4A control room. Among the memories:

*Forget Auld Lang Syne…the Trio Da Paz, (joined by the redoubtable pianist Kenny Barron) playing at the Jazz Standard in New York, welcomed the New Year at Midnight (on the East Coast, anyway) with a performance of the Antonio Carlos Jobim standard Chega de Saudade, featuring vocalist Maucha Adnet.

*Nachito Herrera (see earlier post) and the Steele Family Singers doing a Cuban-tinged tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in Minneapolis.

*And an absolutely cookin’ set from the Convergence Sextet, led by trumpeter Greg Gisbert, at the great jazz club Dazzle in Denver. (This one was also recorded and broadcast in 5.1 Surround Sound, something we also did to ring in 2005.)

Unfortunately, for this jet-lagged traveler, (48 hours removed from the departure gate at Heathrow Airport), the blowout wrap-up show featuring the Count Basie Orchestra and vocalist Ledisi at the new Yoshi’s in San Francisco will have to be an online experience…way past my bedtime at that point.

Arcane Radio Trivia

Yes, the techno-electro-tainment world is spinning faster and faster – witness iPhones, HSDPA, (Huh? you don’t know the acronym for High-Speed Downlink Packet? Read Jeremy Wagstaff’s amusing column in Friday’s Wall Street Journal), and the cool new T-Mobile service that lets you toggle between Wi-Fi and cell connectivity (e.g., free calls from hotspots!). But radio still makes my heart skip a beat – especially when a find a blog as delightful as Arcane Radio Triviawhich delivers on its promised premise:

There are 14,000 licensed radio stations in America. about 16% of those are non-commercial. That 16% squeezes in more variety than life itself. I am obsessed. I can admit that now.

And in just a few minutes of wandering the site I learned about radio roots of the great bass singer (and voice of Tony the Tiger) Thurl Ravenscroft; the longest-running R & B show in America (The Group Harmony Review on WFUV, and that the great bluesman Elmore James was promoted from the radio-repair bench to rhythm guitar in Lillian McMurry’s radio shop/record label empire in Holson, Mississippi. Okay, the spelling and grammar make me cringe from time to time, but I can admit it, too – go to work for a ten-watt radio station and you’re hooked for life. Now added to the RoeDeo BlogRoll, so you can get your daily fix, too…

Praise for George: Gone, or HiDing?

All right, this blog hasn’t been around all that long, but it’s already outlasted a radio format here in the RoeDeo listening area: George 104, which came – and went – in just over two months. (76 days, to be exact – from January 22 to April 7, 2007) George, (as noted earlier in this space) was the hastily-assembled pop/rock/dance oldies format that was thrown up after owner Bonneville engineered a novel play with public broadcaster WETA: Bonneville dumped DC classical icon WGMS, WETA switched (back) to all-classical, and for good measure picked up WGMS’s Program Director (Jim Allison), its extensive record library, and even its call letters – (now used by WETA’s repeater station in Hagerstown, MD). Of course, George was a pretty low-overhead operation, (“a CD player in the back room” according to some grumblings), and pledged to go ad-free for its first 104 days in a bid to build audience. It didn’t even get that far.

So wha’happen? Turns out George isn’t completely gone – it’s now available as an HD – only channel, (103.5 – 2), next door to Bonneville’s perennial ratings champ WTOP with perhaps with lamest web site in the business. George was cleared out to make way for Praise 104.1– a new gospel format from Radio One, who are now “renting” the frequency from Bonneville. Believe it or not, it’s the first Gospel FM station in the DC area, which must be some kind of first. So perhaps that will bring a little stability to a frequency that has gone through FOUR format changes and call letters in a year’s time. Ahhh, radio…a nice stable industry.