My Medieval Summer Part Three: Hammond Castle


Hammond Castle

Gloucester, Massachusetts



Without conscious intention on my part, this summer involved a nostalgic trip to the past. My MA is in medieval history, but I abandoned that quest nearly 40 years and instead pursued a Ph.D. in U.S. history. Truth be told, though, I’ve always had a soft spot for medieval studies. In June, I visited Musée de Cluny and Ste. Chapelle in Paris and a few days later, ventured to the magnificent 13th century ChartresCathedral



In September I continued my trip in the Wayback Machine (WABAC in the old Mr. Peabody cartoons) in an unlikely medieval site: Gloucester, Massachusetts. That’s where John Hays Hammond  Jr. (1888-1965) erected Hammond Castle in the 1920s.



As such things go, it began with a rich person and obsession. Hamond came from wealth and as he traveled around Europe, he collected a few things that were more grandiloquent that the tea towels, scarves, bric-a-brac, and chocolates most of us acquire in Europe. His goal was nothing less than to recreate a castle and cathedral in Gloucester based on Chartres. 



That didn't quite happen. First of all, Chartres was never a castle. Secondly, Hammond Castle is a classic mishmash: part Gothic cathedral, part medieval castle, and part French Renaissance chateaux. It houses things Hamond bought in his journeys, plus lots of stuff–like an entire shop and home–that he had shipped over. Nor did his towers and Great Hall reach the 121-foor height of Chartres, but his 81-footer is pretty impressive.



Hammond added to his collections as his wealth increased. Among other things, he was an inventor whose work in radio waves and unmanned flight pioneered in remote control devices and presaged drones. He studied with Alexander Graham Bell, idolized Thomas Edison, did a lot of work for the defense department, and was on the board of directors of RCA. 




The Gloucester of his days was a thoroughly blue-collar (and often gritty) fishing port. I doubt that he hobnobbed much with the locals, as he was also a bit of a bohemian. He married a female artist but was bisexual, which would not have set well with locals back then. Not that they knew; Hamond's friends and social set led lives walled off from the hoi polloi. 



Another way Hammond made money was through building concert organs. If you’re thinking, “Oh cool, Hammond organs!” don’t make the same mistake that I did. These are not the instruments used by rock n’ roll and studio musicians. His were used in much more formal settings and were more akin to what you see in cathedrals and symphony halls. He filled the wall cavities with (literally) thousands of organ pipes. What are the odds that two unrelated individuals named Hammond built organs? One hundred percent in this case! 



The photos (best viewed in full-size mode) show that Hammond Castle is an eclectic place. It’s simply a matter that John Hammond Jr.. collected bigger things than most of us and had a lot more money at his disposal. It would drive a purist crazy, but the best way to approach is to enjoy each detail in its own right and not try to imagine how it would have looked in any particular time period. It displays objects from ancient Rome through the Renaissance and that, my friends, is a whopping span of about 1,800 years!  --Rob Weir














Mike Thomas, Rembrandt Trio, Pol Brennan, Tri Nguyen: New Music for October 2023




Mike Thomas
might be the only country artist who was actually born in Tennessee, albeit Knoxville rather than that town that begins with N. He’s also intriguing because he tried to carve out a musical career back in 2004, walked away for 13 years, and came back for another go. His new album Diamonds is a good reason to familiarize yourself with Thomas. Some reviews have noted it has a “vintage” vibe, which is the case in several ways. There’s a bit of blue-collar Merle Haggard in Thomas’ songs. “Room on the Dance Floor” opens with the line I don’t go to the parties/I don’t run with the crowd/I’m a working man/With a family now, but the song’s narrator admits he wonders what other directions his life could have taken. Discontent? Quite the opposite as it slides into a remembrance of the woman he was lucky enough to meet on that dance floor. In many ways, though, the most vintage part of the music is its evocation of gritty rock n’ roll, which is why he also draws Tom Petty comparisons. Or perhaps some John Cougar Mellencamp. On one level, “Bricks, Boards & Stones” is a country smorgasbord–tractor, dogs, God–but it’s another standup guy song–I still miss her when I’m gone–with the theme that the right decision is the hardest one to make. The title track is definitely old-style country with its pedal steel-forward arrangement, but again Thomas celebrates a working stiff who’s glad he wasn’t born rich: How would I know which way to run? There’s a lot of power and gravel in Thomas’ voice, and fire in his pen. 

The Rembrandt Trio is a bit of a sly joke as it is anchored by a Dutch pianist named Rembrandt Freichs. To add a few more punchlines, he is trained in jazz and classical music and sometimes plays tunes so artfully structured they evoke that other Rembrandt. Freichs doesn’t like to be tied down, though, so his band has four members counting himself–another little bit of whimsy?–and includes two Iranian musicians that make sure he doesn’t go too longhair on us. One is vocalist Mohammad Motamedi whose keening is definitely not classical or Dutch. The latest project is titled Intizar–Songs of Longing, the first part of which is a Turkish word that means wait. Intizar uses urgent piano notes to frame Motamedi’s expressive vocals that skirt the boundaries of operatic intonation. By contrast, “Az Khoure Javanan”(roughly, the priest is good) places Freichs at the keys of an organ for a somber song that feels like it was torn from a 14th century songster. Mohamedi sings in Arabic, his voice adorned with laryngeal vibrato to produce an effect that’s somewhere between a Marian chant and a Muslim call to prayer. “In the Middle of the Garden” is a 15-minute composition that is equal parts meditative piano, background bass, understated percussion, and lung-emptying vocals. If you’re the kind of person who appreciates ensembles capable of sharing musical space with symphonic orchestras, there are astonishing moments on this record. 

I recently attended a farewell concert from the Donegal band Clannad. I reckon after 50 years it’s time to come off the road. Of course, musicians never actually retire. If you know Clannad, you are aware that it’s a Brennan family band–Enya is the little sister. Flautist Pól Brennan has been a Clannad mainstay, but he has also had an active solo career that involves film scores and collaborations with musicians around the globe. You can now add composer and arranger of orchestral suites to the list. The Irish Revolution is his take on events that took place between 1919-21 that ultimately gave rise to the Irish Republic. The cost was that predominately Protestant Ulster remained part of Great Britain. (Partitions are generally fraught, hence “The Troubles,” clashes between Catholics, Protestants, and their allied armed groups.)  The Irish Revolution is reminiscent of the compositions of Shaun Davey (The Brendan Voyage, Granuaile, The Relief of Derry, etc.) That is to say, it is an instrumental work that seeks to evoke moods that take us from the decision to revolt to the partition. It’s tricky, as the composer has to match sounds to what an audience is likely to infer. Quick, frantic-sounding string notes and pounding drums are perfect for “The IRA Goes to War,” as is the drumming that alternates from sounding distant-to-near. “Volunteers and the Brigade” has a more mournful and ominous edge to it, an effect achieved by using darker-toned violas and cellos. “War Grinds On” is a combo of the previous two with repeated bass notes and background timpani and metal sheets creating thunderous effects that drive home the feeling of a constant slog. Is it a bit heavy-handed to use vaguely villainous tones for “Ulster Unionists?” Probably, but there are few neutrals on the subject. Or on “Partition,” which is literally a tragic air followed by piano and violin that’s both hopeful and melancholy.   


Since I’m on the topic of instrumental music, let me give a shout out to Vietnamese pianist/composer Tri Nguyen. He also plays a Vietnamese zither called the dan-tranh, which he has mounted in such a way that he can switch between the two instruments akin to how splits his time between Saigon and Paris. On Duos Alone he crosses East-West borders musically. I have seldom heard a pianist who plays the high, plinky white keys as much as Tri Nguyen, but he uses them to draw upon the higher-pitched sounds one often hears in Vietnamese music. Another reason for doing so is that it frees his righthand to roam the lower parts of his instrument. I’ve not seen supporting material for this assertion, but I imagine it helps him establish the album’s seemingly contradictory name; that is, it sounds at times as if two different pianos are at work when it’s really just him. I’m going with the sentiment that if my take isn’t true, it ought to be. “Weeping Mango Leaves” has a splash of zither to go with the piano; if you listen carefully and if you close your eyes, you can imagine rainwater running off a forest canopy. Its flirtation with bent notes is deliberate; after all, even steady rain changes. You’ll hear more zither on “Scent of the River,” but as soon as he puts his hands on the keyboard, you’ll notice that Tri Nguyen has a definite affinity for water. It’s a lovely piece made all the more so because its delicate melody doesn’t always go where we’d expect Western music to wend. Bach fans will be intrigued by his take on one of Johann’s arias in a variation Nguyen calls “Sigh of Sorrows.” Most of the music on Duos Alone is quiet and mood–it was composed as tribute to his departed mother, which might be his reason for the album title–but classical fans will also hear some echoes of Ravel and Vivaldi. 


Rob Weir  



The Singularities a Complex Swan Song?


The Singularities ( 2022) 

By John Banville 

Alfred a Knopf, 307 pages 




Some physics postulates rest more on reason and incomplete observation than incontrovertible evidence. Singularities like black holes–distortions in space-time–are said to be infinitely dense, but how do we prove that? Quantum entanglement–two linked particles that react spontaneously even when separated by vast distances–remain mysterious. The multiverse? Of course, a singularity is also a unique thing. 


You don't need physics to read The Singularities, just appreciate entangled lives and how altered circumstances distort human time. This is John Banville's 20th novel* and perhaps the 77-year-old Irish literary giant’s swan song. Dedicated Banville readers will  recognize Freddie Montgomery, the antihero of a past trilogy. In The Singularities, he emerges from prison after 25 years for a murder he committed during a burglary gone wrong. Freddie’s a hoodlum, but he never intended murder. He felt he deserved his time in the penitentiary; he did not enjoy it, but neither did he detest it, even if that meant buggery, violence, and boredom non-disciplined minds would perceive as black holes. 


It's time for a new identity: Felix Mordaunt, a surname suited for his altered straits. Though his intellect is keener than most, he’s no kingpin anymore and must leave town by squeezing into a Sprite lent by a former crime partner who now presents as a respectable auto dealer. Mordaunt drives to Coolgrange estate, which was once his but is now called Arden. It is owned by Adam and Helen Godley, he the son of a deceased famed/infamous mathematician of the same name. Adam the elder’s  Brahma theorem postulates that, “knowledge of the nature of reality” alters it, because “each glowing new discovery... brings about an equal and opposite darkening, the punching of the hole and the wall of the great sphere that is time and space.” This has implications for multiverse theory, hence Godly was either a towering genius or anathema depending on how academics line up.  


William Jaybee—the name a lampoon anagram of the author's birthname of John William Banville—is a professor at an Oxbridge-like university. He is among those who views Godley as an abomination. When we first meet Jaybee, his opinions about Godley are deliciously arch and vicious. He's in good company; none of Banville’s academics have high regard for anyone other than themselves! 


Felix secures diminished employment at Arden, the new owners unaware of his identity, but his entry isn't as debased as Jaybee’s. When Godley’s son approaches the portly prof to write his father’s official biography, he is dismissive. But unfettered access to Godley's papers, assurances he can write whatever he wishes, residency at posh Arden, and scads of money lead to reassessment. The fact that Jaybee is besotted with Helen–a fanciful vanity–also helps. 


These entanglements are the tip of the iceberg. There’s also Mourdant’s perverse pleasure in annoying his nosey landlady and his compromised cover when Anna Behrends appears. She’s a former mistress and crime partner who also slept with Freddie's deceased wife. Adam the younger is sullen and haunted by his sister’s suicide, and both Anna and Helen fancy some under-the-sheets activity with Freddie/Felix. The game is afoot! 


Banville walks the tightrope between mystery and comedy with great aplomb and never tips his hand if we are to see his novel as a satire on manners or an exploration of theoretical geometry and physics. Jaybee is the Falstaff of the piece, but other clown princes abound. 


Banville has mastered the art of literary snark. Imagine Jaybee’s crisis when maybe he can’t eviscerate Adam Godley. The Singularities also has a lot of such tragi-comedic moments. Not to fear though; Freddie’s the top dog when it comes to misanthropy. The opening chapter in which he leaves jail is an absolute masterpiece of mixed messages, one that induces you to laugh aloud, but suspect that Freddie is about to shove a stiletto into someone's back. 


The novel occasionally lags. Banville’s venture into arcane theory would have been more accessible in small splashes rather than deep dives. All we really need is the rudiments of the Brahma theorem controversy; too much produces tone changes that feel like showing off rather than illuminating our protagonists. But to reiterate a point I've made elsewhere, I prefer books that are too smart over those too dumb. In his own fashion, John Banville has created a multiverse even when he stays in this dimension. 


Rob Weir 


* He wrote others under nom de plumes.