Thursday, January 21, 2010


This remembrance of the late Hildegarde and Sibley Watson was originally published December 15, 2002 in the Times-News of Hendersonville, NC.

Last month, I was poring over traditional Appalachian carols, characteristic French noels, German Lutheran alternative tunes to well-known carols, English hymns by Arthur Sullivan and Gustav Holst, even a carol by jazz great Dave Brubeck (in 5/4 time, no less, with drums). From my pile of Christmas music, out popped a little carol for voice and piano inscribed to me by American composer David Diamond. Entitled “A Christmas Tree,” this 1970 composition is a setting of a poem of the same name by E.E. Cummings. The music is most appropriately dedicated to Hildegarde and Sibley Watson.

Suddenly my thoughts leapt to an entirely different topic: the movie The Fall of the House of Usher filmed in 1928 in Rochester, NY. David Curtis calls directors James Sibley Watson Jr. and Melville Webber “the first truly avant-garde American filmmakers.” This 14-minute film and the later Watson film Lot in Sodom remain landmarks in filmmaking. The cinematography is by Watson and goes beyond the effects used by Murnau and other German expressionists. The use of miniatures, superimposed images and the almost total avoidance of subtitles are outstanding for the silent film era. The adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story is by Sibley Watson, Webber and E.E. Cummings.

In 2000, The Fall of the House of Usher was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry to preserve America’s best films. Dale Davis of the New York State Literary Center remarked on the relationship of the films to Watson’s other major achievement, the literary journal The Dial. Along with Scofield Thayer, Sibley Watson had revived the transcendentalist political magazine The Dial and converted it into a literary journal that was without equal in its period (1920-1929). The journal was the first to publish E.E. Cummings and Marianne Moore’s poetry and the first to publish T.S. Eliot in America. Ezra Pound, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal and Thomas Mann reported from Europe, as The Dial published American authors Hart Crane, Amy Lowell, Kahlil Gibran, Sherwood Anderson, and Van Wyck Brooks during the first year alone. It was from that aesthetic background that Watson entered filmmaking.

My first exposure to The Fall of the House of Usher is unforgettable. In 1975 James Sibley Watson seldom left his house in Rochester due to illness, but his vivacious wife Hildegarde was very much present in artistic circles. Discovering one day at a dinner party that a number of her younger friends had never seen her husband’s movies, Hildegarde arranged a special showing at the George Eastman House for a month later. Hermine Weill, another grand lady of Rochester, hosted a dinner after the screening, and (almost fifty years after the filming) two-thirds of the cast attended! Melville Webber had passed on, but Hildegarde Watson and Herbert Stern came to dinner and reminisced about the filming. Herbie even wore the very clothes that he had worn for the film.

Composer David Diamond (in the 1970s on the faculty of Juilliard School of Music but living in Rochester five days of the week) knew of the intimate connection of E.E. Cummings to the Watsons. Scofield Thayer, James Sibley Watson, and E.E. Cummings had attended Harvard College together, and Cummings had lived at the Watson house in Rochester for several years to assist with The Dial. So it was particularly meaningful for Diamond to dedicate a setting of a Cummings poem to Sibley and Hildegarde Watson. And my copy of “A Christmas Tree” will always bring back to me a rush of memories of composers, poets, filmmakers, and actors that I knew during my twenty-five years in Rochester.

© 2010 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #465
January 22, 2010

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Early on, I recognized several things about high-tech digital approaches to the distribution and storage of serious music:

(1) The rapid evolution of the Internet would result in a transition in the preferred formats for transmission and storage.
(2) The market for popular music would dictate the “winning” formats.
(3) Niche markets such as classical music and jazz would have to accommodate.

Consider the storage of recorded music. In my time, I have owned 78 rpm shellac discs, 45 rpm and 33-1/3 rpm vinyl Long Playing discs and digital Compact Discs. My music library consists of some 600-odd CD’s and 100 LP’s that I haven’t the heart to abandon. I don’t intend to transcribe the CD’s or LP’s to MP3.

I am not a Luddite. I first used a mainframe computer 50 years ago using machine language. At Xerox, I had on my desk a $75,000 research prototype of the world’s first personal computer beginning in the early 1980’s. My administrative assistant had a duplicate unit at her desk, and we used the Arpanet long before the World Wide Web was conceived.

MP3 simply does not have the audio quality that I require. MP3 is optimized for playing rock, rap and C&W music on low-cost players. For serious jazz or classical music aficionados with high fidelity equipment, there are higher-quality music recording formats. If I transcribed to them, the quality would be there but I wouldn’t know what to do with all the commentary printed on liner notes and CD inserts. So for the time being, I continue to buy CD’s ... usually chamber music purchased after concerts directly from the artists ... and think about shifting to digital storage.

But I have shifted from listening to National Public Radio on my Bose radio to listening to simulcasts on my Imac. The icon for WCQS (88.1 Asheville) is in my Itunes menu, and so are icons for WNCW (88.7 Spindale) and WDAV (89.9 Davidson). I am researching the purchase of external speakers with higher audio quality. Speakers have always been the weak link in any high fidelity system, and you can’t spend too much money on upgrading them.

Listening online to a variety of NPR stations, both in North Carolina and nationwide, makes me realize how many have shifted emphasis to programs such as Talk of the Nation, Car Talk and This American Life. News, humor and commentary seem to be crowding out classical music and jazz on these stations.

One North Carolina station stands out with its continued commitment to classical music. That is WDAV, associated with Davidson College. General Manager Benjamin K. Roe arrived at WDAV in July 2008 after twenty years with National Public Radio in Washington, DC, where he was producer of Performance Today and served as Director of Music and Music Initiatives. Among his accomplishments there was an Internet portal that provides access to streaming music on NPR stations nationwide.

Since Roe’s arrival, WDAV has taken over production of National Public Radio’s World of Opera and in collaboration with South Carolina ETV/Radio will co-produce a new program Carolina Live, a weekly two-state regional review of classical performances similar to Performance Today. WDAV shows signs of becoming the Carolina regional powerhouse for classical music programming.

Other stations continue to provide gems of programming. Dana Whitehair, General Manager of WNCW 88.7 Spindale, recently emailed me to say that at 8:00 pm on Monday, 1/18, WNCW will re-broadcast the 1983 Eastman Philharmonia world premiere of Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World. This piece celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. in the same way that Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait celebrates the 16th President, through narrative readings that punctuate the piece. I attended that 1983 concert in Rochester, NY, conducted by David Effron and featuring baseball great Willie Stargell narrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. passages in an exemplary fashion. This is a fine piece of 20th century music. You may be sure I will be listening online Monday night, MLK Day.

© 2010 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #464
January 16, 2010