Steven Kemple, who was featured last year in CityBeat’s Cool Issue for his innovative programming as the Main Library’s music librarian, runs a monthly Listen to This! session there at which the group (it’s open to anyone) hears in new ways selections from the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s vast collection of recordings.
The sessions have been inspired, sometimes wittily so — North Korean music when Dennis Rodman visited that country, for instance. Or timely — when all of the underappreciated singer Harry Nilsson’s albums were reissued a while back, Kemple scheduled a Nilsson marathon.
But even by his high standards, the most recent Listen to This! was brilliant. Using a computer program, Kemple randomly selected 14 LPs — vinyl albums — from the collection. Then, on a portable record player, he played selections/excerpts from each — accompanied by group discussion. The informal name for the presentation was “Record Roulette.”
Those present consistently found unexpected connections in the different recordings, and also made serious and insightful observations. Even when you might think they would treat something like a joke — during an excerpt from The Speechphone Method, for instance, on which speech specialist Hazel P. Brown read pronunciations of words.
One person noticed how the way we say certain words has changed since this record’s 1959 release. And careful listening to Brown’s list-reading of words began a long conversation, not quite an argument, about whether she had a slight New England accent that softened some "R"s.
The evening started with the album Ballads by Niles, from the traditionalist balladic Folk singer and Kentucky native John Jacob Niles (who studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music — now University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music). The late Niles, popular in the 1950s, doesn’t get much airplay these days and several in the group weren’t familiar with him. Especially jarring, at first, was the high voice — it made some think of Tiny Tim — as he started singing “Mattie Groves.” But as it became clearer that Niles was using different voices to portray different characters, and that he had an operatic, storytelling approach to folk music, he impressed all present. This was a real find.
The other records from which we heard excerpts were:
·Songs of Corsica featuring Martha Angelia (It prompted a discussion about the Corsican language.)
·The Trial of the Cantonsville Nine by Daniel Berrigan, S.J. (This was a play based on an act of disobedience in 1968 — the burning of Selective Service-related files — by Catholic activists to protest to Vietnam War. Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, was one of the nine. That was a long time — the younger members of the listening group weren’t familiar with it.)
·“March from the River Kwai” by Mitch Miller & His Orchestra, from The 50’s Greatest Hits (The whistling prompted a suggestion for a night of whistling songs.)
·Africa: Ceremonial & Folk Music (We discovered the wrong record had been in the jacket for who-knows-how-many-years — we heard the jazzy track “Americanization of Ooga Booga” by South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela.)
·Classical Russian Poetry read in Russian by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and English by Morris Carnovsky
·“April Come She Will” from Collected Works of Simon & Garfunkel, the closest to rock ‘n’ roll the night got.
·From the seventh realm, a Modernist classical work from the 1920s by Arthur Fickenscher for piano and string quartet (This unfamiliar work, from an unfamiliar composer who pioneered microtonal music, was moving – and had us wondering how many other 20th century composers are out there waiting for rediscovery.)
·Pianist Ronald Smith on a 1977 recording of Twelve Studies in All the Minor Keys, Opus 39, by 19th century French pianist and composer Charles Alkan
·The Best of John Williams (Hoping to hear Star Wars, we discovered this John Williams is the classical guitarist, not the film composer. Entertaining nonetheless.)
·In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, performed by the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center under the direction of Jules Irving (Interestingly, the computer picked two plays about political trials of post-war American leftists. Oppenheimer, one of the chief architects of the A-bomb, was persecuted in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism for wanting international control of the bomb. From what we heard, the 1964 play had interesting and unusual multimedia aspects, possibly a precursor to the John Adams opera Doctor Atomic.
We were ready to end with some silly pop by now, maybe the Chipmunks or Weird Al Yankovic, but instead the computer chose for us Three Short Operas by Bizet and Romberg’s The Student Prince from a Readers Digest collection, Treasury of Great Operettas.
Afterwards, we discussed it’d be great to have these “Record Roulette” vinyl sessions on a regularly scheduled basis, maybe every other month, so they could build the larger following they deserve.
Kemple posts information on a Facebook event page.
Meanwhile, his remaining June events at the Main Library — at 7 p.m. — are a lecture next Wednesday, June 11, by noted Cincinnati musicologist David Lewis on Mamie Smith, the famed Cincinnati-born singer of early 20th century Blues and Jazz; a multi-act Experimental Music at the Library session on June 18 with headliner Wrest, a free jazz trio with percussionist Ben Bennett , saxophonist Jack Wright and bassist Evan Lipson; and on June 25 another Listen to This! session.