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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Software of Note

From the Tech Vault Dept.: I was a beta tester for the very first version of Finale, one of the top two music-engraving programs. It’s now in its umpteenth iteration (Finale 2012), and remains difficult to learn but an incredible convenience when it’s finally in your fingers. Here’s my ancient assessment of the program’s second version.


MUSIC ENGRAVING IS like conventional page-layout and typesetting: a lot of effort goes into producing an effortless-looking result. Computers offer handy programs for both types of publishing, but the market for music-engraving software is limited by the specialized requirements of the job. You have to know music, for one thing: both the standard rules of reading a score and the specialized rules for writing and – most particularly – setting up a publishable page.

Version 3 for the Mac, which
looked pretty similar to the
IBM PC's version 2.
Composers and music publishers need sophisticated tools for clearly-notated, good-looking output. With the computer's ability to understand information sent to it by a specially-configured musical instrument, computer notation becomes a time-saving, powerful device.

Finale for the PC is a year-old product that has been around longer still in Macintosh form. The recently-released PC version 2.0 smooths speed and notational problems of the first release (bug fixes and fewer redraws are among the changes) while offering a few enhanced features. It’s a high-end product that answers all professional needs.

But it’s a bear of a program to learn. Out-of-the-box ease of use isn’t a requirement for this kind of application, and the ten or twelve hours you’ll spend mastering its basics are an acceptable part of the price you pay for computer convenience. When you consider how long it took you to learn music in the first place, the time spent exploring Finale will seem like a pleasant interlude.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Rain Before It Falls

From the Bookshelf Dept.: British writer Jonathan Coe attracted attention in the U.S. with the publication of The Winshaw Legacy (known in the U.K. as What a Carve-Up!), and continues to turn out excellent literary fiction that can be both hilarious and touching. His most recent novel is The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. Here’s my review of the one before that.


“YOU CAN’T TALK about the serious and the comic separately and still be talking about life,” observed Peter DeVries, “any more than you can independently discuss hydrogen and oxygen and still be talking about water.” Yet when a writer writes more than a passage or two of funny stuff, we rush to affix a label. Although considered a comic novelist, most of DeVries’s books have a darkness at the center; to similarly label the likes of Thomas Berger and Joseph Heller is also to miss the point.

Being British, Jonathan Coe comes from a tradition in which many comic writers (P.G. Wodehouse, Tom Sharpe) rarely get serious, but Coe takes his place alongside Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis in his ability to uphold the DeVriesian dictate of chemically integrating your water.

The Rain Before it Falls is Coe’s fifth novel to be published in the U.S.; his debut here, The Winshaw Legacy, is a hilarious portrait of the Thatcher era as seen through the misadventures of a novelist-cum-biographer whose involvement with his subject proves more intricate than expected. It was funny and biting enough to forgive the plat contrivances that fueled its finish, but such contrivances grew even thicker in his next novel, The House of Sleep. Emerging alongside the mordant humor, however, was a crisp, elegant style, a narrative ease that blossomed in The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, the two interconnected books that followed.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Home Again

Across the USA Dept.: Time to park this bus, don’t you think? Here’s the wrap-up to the series of pieces – now strewn across this blog – that I wrote for the Schenectady Gazette in 1989. This one was written on Oct. 1, between Binghamton and Schenectady.


ITINERARIES ARE FOR THE BIRDS. (I write this while watching flocks of them in sculpted motion, an arrowhead pointing south.) We traveled ten thousand miles over the course of 30 days without making a single hotel reservation. The camper – a small, sturdy  Volkswagen – offered a lot of freedom, but even with a plain old car I’m not sure I’d do it any other way. Isn’t “tell ‘em where to go” something of an insult?

We left Sept. 1 and are returning on the first of October, a nice time of year to see just about any place in the country. And we still managed to drive through all kinds of weather, from a snowstorm in Yellowstone National Park to hot, dry sunshine in the Napa Valley.

Home is just up the highway. We’re gathering the little scraps of recollection that didn’t fit anywhere else. Like the night my wife saw a flying saucer hovering over Kentucky.

You have to understand how spooky a rural road can be at night to appreciate the picture. She was at the wheel, taking us around the hairpin turns on the side of a mountain in Pike County. Low clouds scuttled across the highway, misting the windshield. And then it came into view. Perfectly saucer-shaped, hovering over a ledge, a long lighted ladder descending from its belly to the ground below.

Monday, February 25, 2013


Guest Blogger: Heywood Broun. Here’s how Broun is introduced in the original volume, which also is titled Nonsenseorship, an anti-Volstead Act screed comprising essays by some of the best of America’s humorists:
Not that we consider HEYWOOD BROUN agonized, cynical, or outraged. Indeed, masquerading as a stalwart foe of inhibitions, he starts right out, at the very head of the parade, with a vehement advocacy of prohibition. His plea (surely, in this setting, traitorous) is to prohibit liquor to all who are over thirty years of age! He declares that “rum was designed for youthful days and is the animating influence which made oats wild.” After thirty, presumably, Quaker Oats . . .
– George P. Putnam
Heywood Broun finds America
suffering from a dearth of Folly.
Illustration by Ralph Barton

A CENSOR IS A MAN who has read about Joshua and forgotten Canute. He believes that he can hold back the mighty traffic of life with a tin whistle and a raised right hand. For after all it is life with which he quarrels. Censorship is seldom greatly concerned with truth. Propriety is its worry and obviously impropriety was allowed to creep into the fundamental scheme of creation. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that no right-minded censor was present during the first week in which the world was made. The plan of sex, for instance, could have been suppressed effectively then and Mr. Sumner might have been spared the dreadful and dangerous ordeal of reading “Jurgen” so many centuries later.

Indeed, if there had only been right-minded supervision over the modelling of Adam and Eve the world could worry along nicely without the aid of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Suppression of those biological facts which the Society includes in its definition of Vice is now impossible. Concealment is really what the good men are after. Somewhat after the manner of the Babes in the Woods they would cover us over with leaves. For men and women they have figs and for babies they have cabbages.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ruben, I’ve Been Thinking

From the Vault Dept.: By the time I moved to Schenectady in 1980, Ruby’s Diner already was a fixture. Here’s a piece I wrote about it in 1987. With Albany’s Miss Albany also gone, we’re completely bereft of the classic railroad-car emporia.

A RAILROAD CAR moved down Erie Boulevard, traveling over pavement. It was 1936. Seventeen years before, this street had been a canal. The variety of vehicular traffic was remarkable.

Ruby's Diner. Polaroid photo
by Franny Wentzel
In this case, the car was split lengthwise and down the middle, stretched, patched and settled on a foundation in which a kitchen was constructed. Within ten years it was advertised as the “De Luxe Dining Car of the Mohawk Valley.”

It’s still pretty de luxe, in a homey sort of way. But to diner freaks, Ruby’s Silver Diner is one of the few in the Northeast that maintains the atmosphere of a good old-fashioned center-of-town eatery.

The book Diners of the Northeast celebrated it among some pretty exclusive company, the requirements being good food, good atmosphere and the railroad-car look. While many of them were built to look like railroad cars, this one actually was purchased from the Delaware & Hudson line – for $100.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Friday, February 22, 2013

Capital Rep’s "November"

From the Vault Dept.: As Albany’s Capital Repertory Company prepares to present another premiere, this of the musical Single Girls Guide (book by Gordon Greenberg, music and lyrics by Tommy Newman, running March 5-30), I dug from the archives my review (and wisp of a preview) of a not-by-David-Mamet November that crossed the Capital Rep boards twenty-goddamn-seven years ago. Time to put me out to pasture, don’t you think?


A WRITER’S MIND is like an aspirin bottle. There’s an absorbent layer that sits over a handful of curatives freely offered, or at least for a modest fee.

Don Nigro
But that cotton wool absorbs everything: If the writer is not selective about the information  received, he can wind up with a head full of other people’s ideas.

This is especially dangerous when the writer seeks to interpret his surroundings in terms of the characters who inhabit those surroundings. There are characters and conflicts so germane to American culture that they have gone from archetype to cliché. That process was intensified by the easy escape and accessibility of movies; with television humming hypnotically in every household, cliché is in danger of being confused with culture.

Don Nigro, author of Capital Rep’s world-premiere play November, may have assimilated more mass-produced drama than is good for his creative spirit. He brings nothing new to the situations in which his characters find themselves, which is fine: there are only so many plots available to anyone and they should be recycled. But that is when good characterization is needed to provide the necessary new illuminations.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Larry Adler Plays Woodstock

From the Vault Dept.: In a blog post last year around this time, I expostulated on the life and career of mouth-organ virtuoso Larry Adler, noting that one of the times I’d seen him perform was “at some point in the 1980s when he played at a theater in Woodstock.” I’ve now unearthed my review of the 1985 concert.


There isn’t another performer living who can boast of having had works written for him by Vaughan Williams, Milhaud, Benjamin, and others of similar magnitude; having played with the Dorsey Brothers, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and other jazz greats; having been granted permission from Ravel to play “Bolero” in any style he pleases; having a stand-up act as funny as his playing is superb -- and to have made a specialty of that most unclassifiable of instruments, the harmonica.

Larry Adler
Photo by Gjon Mili
Larry Adler can boast of all that, and his talents were well displayed in his Monday evening recital at the Woodstock Playhouse with illustrious jazz pianist Ellis Larkins.

The concert was billed in advance material as being classically-rooted; the program promised and named standards by Gershwin and Porter and others: what we got was Adler’s own array of selections to give us a little bit of the many types of things he plays (and he is quick to explain that he prefers to term his instrument the “mouth organ.”)

There were standards, many of which were accompanied by stories from Adler’s colorful life. His first recording, for example. was at the behest of a gangster who befriended him: Moe “The Gimp,” singer Ruth Etting’s boyfriend, who hauled young Adler into a studio and demanded that he be allowed to join in. This was followed by one of Etting’s favorites, “If I Could Be With You.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reformers: a Hymn of Hate

Guest Blogger: Dorothy Parker. A stalwart of the Algonquin Round Table, as fierce and precise in her prose as she was in her fiction and poetry, Parker set a standard for the urban, ascerbic voice. This piece comes from a 1922 anti-Prohibition collection titled Nonsenseorship that also featured contributions by the likes of Heywood Brown, Ben Hecht, and Alexander Woollcott, all in celebration of legal toping. Parker’s poem is startlingly apposite today.


They raise my blood pressure.

Dorothy Parker hating Reformers
Illustration by Ralph Barton

There are the Prohibitionists;
The Fathers of Bootlegging.
They made us what we are to-day —
I hope they're satisfied.
They can prove that the Johnstown flood,
And the blizzard of 1888,
And the destruction of Pompeii
Were all due to alcohol.
They have it figured out
That anyone who would give a gin daisy
    a friendly look
Is just wasting time out of jail,
And anyone who would stay under the same roof
With a bottle of Scotch
Is right in line for a cozy seat in the electric chair.
They fixed things all up pretty for us;
Now that they have dried up the country,
You can hardly get a drink unless you go in and order one.
They are in a nasty state over this light wines and beer idea;
They say that lips that touch liquor
Shall never touch wine.
They swear that the Eighteenth Amendment
Shall be improved upon

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Future of Cybersmut

From the Vault Dept.: How quickly the future rockets into the past! Here are some prognostications from 1997. Technology changed far more quickly than I could have imagined. And New Machine is no longer, so don't go looking for the website named below.


SO THE CITY that gave us radio and TV makes the national news once again--for strip clubs. Schenectady has a hard time choosing its battles. Technology and sex remain continual bedfellows, however, and there’s nothing like the come-on of erotica to inspire new and different uses for our gadgetry.

Isis Nile
Aren’t computers kind of expensive to be used as sex toys? Sure. So are strip clubs. Not long ago I made my way to one of the neighborhood’s clubs, a juice bar whose dancers suffer no state liquor authority restrictions. When the evening was over I’d spent five bucks to get in, nine on juice, ten on tips, and endured a particularly unexciting lap dance with a woman whose many piercings looked more painful than enticing. Forty-nine bucks.

And I was being parsimonious, which calls for a lot of sales resistance. These women are more persuasive than even the most aggressive time-share hawker, because they’re selling the promise of sex and they know how to customize it to your taste even as they deny you the actuality.

But for less than $49, you can now do it to a CD-ROM. NMP Interactive, creators of the immensely popular Seymore Butts series, is exploring the concept of sharing your fantasies with a machine-based porno star. Their best-selling disc, The Dream Machine, showed you a succession of spicy scenes, and Isis Nile put together a list of your likes and dislikes so that she could properly entertain you in a film clip at the end of your journey.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Luncheon at Iron Horse

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: My penultimate posting from the series of pieces I wrote in 1989 celebrating a cross-country car trip with my wife, Susan. We’d met Joy Sterling, who is now CEO of Iron Horse, at wine events in Albany, and thus won an invitation to lunch at their winery. This was written on September 14, 1989, and published in the Schenectady Gazette three months later.


WHEN YOU’RE INVITED for lunch at the Iron Horse winery, it’s like being asked to Barry and Audrey Sterling’s house. In fact, you eventually are asked to their house for post-prandial coffee on the back porch, which is surrounded by the vines and vegetables that contributed to your meal.

Iron Horse Vineyards | Photo by Andy Katz
But first there’s the assembly on a patio outside the offices. You’re poured champagne – we tasted the 1985 Late Disgorged Brut (more about that later) – and you’re introduced to the other guests.

The Sterlings have created their very own piece of the Champagne region of France. They want their sparkling wines to be the equal of the best French product (they probably want it to be superior of same but are too modest to come right out and say so).

There’s a château-like ambience about the place, or so I’ve decided. Having never been to France I can’t be dead sure, but those fancy Bordeaux estates had better look like the Sterlings’ property or I’m going to be very disappointed.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Honey of a Show

From the Jukebox Dept.: As I labor to finish a review of the musical “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” which finishes a run at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady today, I recall another jukebox musical I visited over 20 years ago. Here’s the review, followed by a preview piece that ran the week before.


LIKE THE HAIRDO from which this show takes its title, “Beehive” has the potential to be a lot of fluff starched into an orderly-looking but ultimately silly arrangement.

It’s not. Were it marketed to sell its true strength, we probably wouldn’t be as interested. Mindless fluff sells, and the first half-hour of “Beehive” is engagingly vapid (how can it pretend to be anything else when it starts with an extended version of that excruciating novelty song, “The Name Game”?)

Over thirty songs from the 1960s are sung by the six women in the cast, who also impersonate the original singers with a consistent degree of skill.

The girl groups sequence hammers home just how insipid the woman’s point of view in music had become (how could it fail to do so after a decade of Doris Day?)

Then everything changes. Diana Ross and the Supremes emerge with a smoke-machine-enhanced medley in which still-vapid songs take on an angry edge. Dominant female personalities began making a difference.

Dominant black female personalities, that is. Over in white-girl land, the singers were still keening about boyfriend problems. A wonderful send-up of the cloying stuff sung by the likes of Brenda Lee and Connie Francis constitutes the core of “Leslie Gore’s Christmas Party,” in which a weeping Leslie (Elena Ferrante) is consoled – uselessly, ironically – by the hit songs of three similarly well-known friends (wait ‘till you see Judith Walton’s hilarious Annette Funicello).

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Visit from St. Pete

Recording the St. Petersburg Quartet in Troy, NY
6 June 2001 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, February 15, 2013

Older Than His Old Man

Musical Stages Dept.: Loudon Wainwright III performed in Albany not long ago, as he tends to do at least once a year. Here’s my Metroland review, including the missing final paragraph.


“I KNOW YOU’RE OUT THERE,” said Loudon Wainwright III, peering from the stage into the gloom of the well-filled house at the Egg’s Swyer Theater. “My demographic.” The 66-year-old singer-songwriter has long presented material so close to his own life that his coeval fans share a sense of growing up with him.

Loudon Wainwright III
Which means that those of us anywhere near his age could appreciate the patter-song list of drugs that, as he further explained, “I’m either on or will be taking later tonight.” As the song concludes: “You’ll need something stronger than your Advil and Aleve/If you want to eat and sleep and piss and crap and shtup and breathe!”

The comic side of Wainwright was honed by his love of Broadway show masters like Frank Loesser (whose publishing company put out Wainwright’s early work); the folk side grew under the influence of Woody and Pete by way of Dylan, as the young Westchester County resident hit the coffeehouses as one of the “New Dylan” generation.

But his work soon veered to a unique brand of confession, shot through with irony, given to literate imagery and wordplay as it charted the travails of marriage and fatherhood and dealing with one’s own parents and, yes, even roadkill.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Three Questions

Ardor Dept.: Let me show my love (and sling-free right arm) by offering dating advice to men for Valentine’s Day.


I ALWAYS SUSPECTED there was a secret. One day while in high school I discovered that my fellow-students had paired off, evidently in my absence. Even many of the pathetic losers, of which I was a de facto member, had a someone on the other side of a handclasp.

Only recently have I learned that there are three questions, often characterized as “stupid” or “simple,” guaranteed to turn women on and make them your slaves. Even better, the questions were discovered by “rogue scientists,” suggesting that a respectable combo of brains and unscrupulousness were at work. And we all know that mankind’s greatest scientific achievements can be credited to the Lex Luthors of the world.

Which means that romantic success is not a question of whether you as a human being appeal to the woman you fancy; it’s a question of manipulating her into your amorous clutches with the secret knowledge that can be yours for one low price of $69.99.

That’s all it costs to have Vin DiCarlo to teach you how. At least I think it’s all – I haven’t got the funding to explore the process of buying the so-called course. Like me, you may have been deluged recently with e-mails hawking the DiCarlo system – lately termed “Pandora’s Box.”

“Discover what she wants to hear,” cries the Pandora-hawking website. “It’s like you can read her mind!” Further along the page, you learn: “This is not a gimmick … it's based on cutting-edge psychology combined with real-world application. I was sick and tired of seeing rich or good-looking guys get all the girls … and nothing I tried or found online ever worked. I learned ‘the hard way’ why most ‘systems’ for meeting and attracting women don't work!”