Monthly Archives: December 2014

Last Blast

Pratt_steam_whistlesTonight is New Year’s Eve, and the 50th and final celebration of a Brooklyn tradition:

“Many years ago, I bought a whistle from the Lackawanna Railroad, so I wanted to hear what it sounded like and thought the only time I could make noise was New Year’s Eve,” says Conrad Milster, chief engineer at Pratt Institute Power Plant.

Being discontinued mutually by Pratt Institute & Conrad Milster mainly for lack of appropriate staffing during Christmas break, the 50th and final year of this New Year’s celebration will sound more fun than ever with as many as 15 whistles blowing off steam.

“It just degenerates into the most God-awful shrieking and howling and hooting and clouds of steam and everyone is blowing whistles and having an absolutely grand time,” says Milster.

PrattSteamEngineTurbinesConrad has been Chief Engineer at Pratt since 1958. In that position, he oversees the Pratt Institute’s historic power plant, a visually striking American Society of Municipal Engineers landmark. Built to serve the Institute in 1887, the boilers transitioned from coal to oil apparently some time in September of 1888. Modifications and improvements happened over the years, and this plant has served the school for over 127 years.

PrattSteamEngineASMEcoverIn 1977, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) designated the plant a landmark, an intact example of how we have harnessed fossil fuel to power a school since the nineteenth century. Conrad has been generous with his time and the plant he runs, leading guided tours of the plant for my SUST 401 students, and he has also used the plant to entertain onlookers. My first experience with his steam whistles was not New Year’s Eve, but a mid-afternoon performance in the fall of 2012 to celebration Pratt’s 125 anniversary. It is indeed a tremendous din, a cacophony worthy of ringing in a new year.

It all started roughly 50 years ago, when he bought an old steam whistle and kicked off the New Year’s custom.
“I thought, I’d like to hear what this whistle sounds like,” Milster recalled. “When can I make noise? New Year’s Eve.”

He and a half-dozen buddies hooked up the piping and let it scream at midnight. They liked it so much, they did it again the next year and again, the year after. Crowds came. Old gearheads started offering their own whistles for the chorus.

More than 1,000 people showed up last year, and big crowds are expected for the swan song.

Milster declined to say exactly why the tradition is ending, saying only that “it was decided the whistles will end this year.”

“I’m 79,” he said. “I’ve been working all my life, so maybe it will be nice to take it a little easy on New Year’s Eve.”

And he isn’t sad — not yet, anyway.

“Maybe after we blow the last whistle on New Year’s morning, I’ll get a little nostalgic,” he said.

The calliope, a steam-powered instrument, is a fan favorite at Pratt Institute’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration. Doyle Murphy The calliope, a steam-powered instrument, is a fan favorite at Pratt Institute’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration.

This year’s nine-whistle arrangement includes a siren rescued from the SS Normandie, a doomed French vessel that was the fastest ocean liner in the world until the Queen Mary’s debut in 1936.

The Normandie apparatus, a three-pronged whistle in the center of the arrangement, uncorked a baritone blast on Tuesday as Milster and his crew tinkered with the fittings and valves.

They’ll use a steam-powered organ called a calliope to warm up the crowd starting at 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and the whistle will sound an opening blast at 11:30 p.m. But the real show will begin at midnight exactly.

That’s when Milster will pull the ropes on the valves for the last time, filling the night with sound and clouds of steam.

Pratt is lucky to have Conrad, and I am hoping for good weather so his last blast can be celebrated in style. Here’s to that and to a happy and healthy 2015 for all reading this.

The Best Music of 2014

Here are the best records I heard from the past twelve months.

damalibra_clawMy favorite record of the year is Dama/Libra’s Claw (Northern Spy). Joel RL Phelps (whose GALA was my favorite album of last year) lends his voice and lyrics to Stuart Dahlquist’s elegiac drones. The gorgeous result sounds like the two have been collaborating for decades. “Stravinsky” and “Thine” suggest a natural merger of their individual strengths to create soundscapes as deep as oceans. Much of Claw is built upon droning organs, making the break into steel drums midway through “Been to the Water” all the more effective.

Dama/Libra’s brief tour this autumn proved that the remote collaboration (Phelps and Dahlquist traded tracks back and forth between their home bases in Seattle and Vancouver) translated wonderfully to a live setting with an expanded band. Wake, shine, always, rise: here’s hoping the collaboration results in more music in the coming years. Hear “Only Medicine” or buy Claw from Northern Spy’s website.

davidkilgour_endtimes_900pxThe Heavy Eights, End Times Undone (Merge)
The first record to hint that there is going to be a Kiwi flavor to this list (as is often the case with me). End Times Undone is exhibit A for why I’ve had a soft spot for music from New Zealand. As he’s done since starting the Clean more than thirty years ago, David Kilgour leads his quartet in making beautifully, slippery, chiming music. Whether he’s in the Clean, the Great Unwashed, the Heavy Eights or guesting on one of Robert Scott’s projects, his melodic sensibilities are always welcome. See a couple of videos from End Times Undone at Merge’s website.

wussy_atticaWussy, Attica! (Shake It)
The best record Chuck Cleaver’s made since the Ass Ponys’ brilliant 2001 album Lohio, Attica! brings some of the grand country sounds and melancholy imagery of late-period Ass Ponys to the dual vocal approach of Wussy. The other touchstone I hear is fellow midwestern roots-rockers the Mary Janes in some of the epic arrangements and the timbre of Lisa Walker’s voice. Gorgeous. Preview or purchase Attica! from Wussy’s Bandcamp page.

thegary_farewellfoolishobjectsThe Gary, Farewell Foolish Objects (Sick Room)
This Texas trio made my list last year with the pummeling Remains. Farewell Foolish Objects is a recognizable continuation of that approach (including following having one track with a cello on the earlier album with one track featuring violin here), but is also a more melancholy, moody set of songs. This is the best music out of Texas I’ve heard this decade, in any genre. Preview or purchase Farewell Foolish Objects from the Gary’s Bandcamp page.

paulkelly_merrisoulPaul Kelly Presents, The Merri Soul Sessions (Pledge Music AUS)
Paul Kelly has been among my favorite songwriters for about a quarter century; 1989’s So Much Water So Close to Home saw him giving in to the inevitable Raymond Carver comparisons with his astonishing economy and attention to narrative detail. On this record, Kelly goes for a Brill Building approach, writing and producing a handful of 60s-soul-themed singles for a handful of Australian singers, first released as a series of singles, then as an album. He sings lead on one as well, with the result being his best-sounding album this century. Preview a couple tracks from the album from Pledge Music’s website.

Gotobeds_poorpeopleThe Gotobeds, Poor People Are Revolting (12XU)
The term “pop-rock” gets thrown around a lot, but rarely does it fit the sound of a band as much as it does with the Gotobeds. I dare you to listen to this snarky, taut, high-energy album once and not come away humming one of its songs. Fun; preview or purchase downloads of Poor People Are Revolting from the Gotobeds’ Bandcamp page.

mftkdMotherfucker, Tae Kwon Do EP (self-released)
Like the Gotobeds, there’s not a second or note wasted on Tae Kwon Do.  This rocks harder. Taut, hooky hard rock from an Athens, Georgia trio of women who waste no time. Two minutes and change of heavy riffing, then they’re out. Repeat the formula a few times, and the EP ends with you wanting more. I want to see a 20-minute set from them as I bet they are excellent live. The EP is available from Motherfucker’s Bandcamp page.

fakelimbs_powerpatricianFake Limbs, The Power of Patrician Upbringing (BLVD)
Fake Limbs are, I can confirm, excellent live, as I saw them before the release of their debut Man Feelings and then again this year promoting their second album. The crushing onslaught of this Chicago quartet continues on its second album. Fans of the Jesus Lizard will appreciate this, and everyone should appreciate frontman Stephen Sowley (who is one of the few humans to make David Yow seem shy by comparison). Preview or purchase the album at Fake Limbs’ Bandcamp page.

thumbscrewThumbscrew, Thumbscrew (Cuneform)
This NYC instrumental trio featuring guitarist Mary Halvorsen, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and bassist Michael Formanek alternate between improve and composed music that falls somewhere between free jazz and 70s prog. You can preview the album via the track “Cheap Knock Off” on the band’s Bandcamp page, and also check out the three members’ various projects via the JazzRightNow website (written by my friend and colleague Cisco Bradley).

chills_bbcsessionsThe Chills, BBC Sessions (Fire)
So…that inclination I have for the rock of New Zealand means I am the target demographic to lap up this issue of recordings made by the Chills at the peak of their powers c. 1985-88 in the BBC’s studios. Yes, I’ve heard and memorized these songs since well before this century started, but I’ve heard few of these tracks. A terrific document as we wait for the followup to 2004’s excellent Stand By ep. Listen to the wonderful version of “Rolling Moon” or purchase the album at Fire’s website.

amandaxamnesiaAmanda X, amnesia (Siltbreeze)
My Kiwiphilia may also explain the presence of this album here, even though it was made in Philadelphia and not Aotearoa. Amanda X is not The Magick Heads, but fans of that band may enjoy the harmonies and delicious guitar tones. Decide for yourself; amnesia is available to preview or buy at Amanda X’s Bandcamp page.


A few of these records may also be found at a new resource: Jon Solomon’s Comedy Minus One records began the “PRF Distro” shop this year to feature some of the impressive musicians affiliated with the Electrical Audio discussion forum. Should some of the titles I listed above appeal to you, see if there’s more music you’d like to hear from the link.

Tenure-Track Interdisciplinary Environmental Positions at Two Schools

Two of my erstwhile academic departments have tenure-track positions available. I can vouch for both places having great colleagues. They are distinctly different campuses (one in Chicago’s South Loop, the other in the northernmost part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), but both are excellent places to research and teach environmental social sciences.

Before I moved to Pratt in 2012, I helped found the Sustainability Studies program at Roosevelt University in Chicago. RU is looking for a sustainability scholar with a social science background (sustainability, urban planning, environmental studies, or a related field in the social sciences). The deadline for applying is January 5, 2015. You can see full details about the position at the link; here is an extended description of the job:

Roosevelt University is seeking an Assistant Professor of Sustainability Studies for a tenure-track position beginning 15 August 2015. Applicants should have the ability to teach multiple courses in the Sustainability Studies (SUST) undergraduate curriculum as well as general education, honors, and/or special topic courses related to their areas of expertise. Teaching load is six courses per year. Courses are offered at Roosevelt’s Chicago campus as well as online.

Duties: (1) Teaching courses within the SUST major as well as one or two courses per year in an appropriate academic department within the College of Arts and Sciences. (2) Assisting with SUST program development through curriculum enhancement and assessment, service learning project development, community outreach, and online social media writing. (3) Maintaining an active scholarly research program within one’s primary academic discipline(s) and/or the emerging field of sustainability studies. (4) Advising undergraduate students. (5) Performing departmental, college, university, and professional service.

My first job out of grad school was a one-year position in Michigan Technological University’s Department of Social Sciences. Although there’s been natural turnover in the department since I left over ten years ago, it continues to attract some of the best scholars in STS, environmental history, and industrial archaeology. The campus is located in Houghton, a short drive from the northernmost point in the Upper Peninsula. It is an excellent location for cross-country skiing, hiking (including on nearby Isle Royale), and wildlife sighting. In our third month at Michigan Tech, Jen and I saw a black bear cross the road in front of us. (The bear was not in Houghton, but on the road to Marquette. Wildlife in town is considerably less intimidating. You should, however, be prepared for snow.)

Michigan Tech is searching for an assistant professor “specializing in environmental justice, industrial communities/deindustrialization, health, food systems, or gender.” Click the link for the full job description. Review of applications begins January 15, 2015.

Clicking through the links will give prospective candidates an idea of the people, courses, and projects of these two programs. I encourage qualified people to apply.