Ewan MacColl and the BBC

Ewan MacColl

Many aficionados of Scottish traditional music regard Ewan MacColl as one of the foremost singers of his generation; fewer know of his pioneering radio work.

The ballad of John Axon was recorded and broadcast by the BBC in 1958 as the first of a group of programs known collectively as  Radio Ballads. It tells the story of a railway accident in which the driver John Axon died heroically while attempting to avert disaster.

In the program, four actual ballads carry the narrative, supplemented by several self-contained songs that illustrate the story rather than tell it, sections of recitative that provide insight into the minds of Axton and his fellow railwaymen, and the recorded speech of Axon’s widow and workmates. Although MacColl and Charles Parker are often credited jointly with the authorship of the program, strong evidence suggests that MacColl wrote it in response to an idea suggested by Parker, who served as the producer.

This according to “John Axon: Ewan MacColl’s tragic hero?” by Mick Verrier (English dance and song LXI/3 [fall 1999] pp. 2–4).

MacColl would have been 100 today! Below, one of the songs from the show, with Peggy Seeger on the banjo.

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Mashup aesthetics

grey album

The aesthetics of musical mashups lie in a particular kind of technical virtuosity and set of listening skills, rather than in the creation of something entirely new or original. The art is to succeed in finding two tracks that fit together musically, resulting in successful songs in their own right.

Mashups are characterized by two underlying principles: contextual incongruity of recognizable samples and musical congruity between the mashed tracks.

Contextual incongruity often creates a humorous effect, which explains why many listeners react with smiles and laughter when hearing a new mashup. In successful mashups, the combination of musical congruity and contextual incongruity results in the paradoxical response: “these two songs should definitely not work together…but they do!”

This according to “Contextual incongruity and musical congruity: The aesthetics and humour of mash-ups” by Ragnhild Brøvig-Hanssen and Paul Harkins (Popular music XXXI/1 [January 2012] pp. 87–104).

Above, DJ Danger Mouse’s The grey album from 2004; below, The Evolution Control Committee’s The whipped cream mixes from 1994. Both are analyzed in the article.

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Slime mold music

Physarum polycephalum

Die Lebensfreude is a pioneering piece of music composed with the aid of an amoeba-like plasmodial slime mold called physarum polycephalum.

The composition is for an ensemble of five instruments (flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano) and six channels of electronically synthesized sounds. The instrumental parts and the synthesized sounds are musifications and sonifications, respectively, of a multi-agent based simulation of physarum foraging for food.

Physarum polycephalum inhabits cool, moist, shaded areas over decaying plant matter, and it eats nutrients such as oat flakes, bacteria, and dead organic matter. It is a biological computing substrate, and has been enjoying much popularity within the unconventional computing research community for its astonishing computational properties.

This according to “Harnessing the intelligence of physarum polycephalum for unconventional computing-aided musical composition”by Eduardo R. Miranda, an article included in Music and unconventional computing (London: AISB, 2013).

Many thanks to the Annals of Improbable Research for bringing this to our attention! Above, the co-composer; below, the work’s premiere.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Nature, Science

Search the Liber usualis

Liber usualis

The Liber usualis is a valuable resource for musical scholars; as a compendium of the most common chants used by the Catholic Church, it is particularly useful for identifying the origins of chants used in polyphonic compositions.

Using Optical Music Recognition and Optical Text Recognition, Search the Liber usualis presents a scanned, searchable version of this important resource. Published by the Distributed Digital Music Archives & Libraries Lab and sponsored by the Single Interface for Music Score Searching and Analysis  (SIMSSA), this is a proof-of-concept demonstration for the larger task of providing search capabilities for all digitized musical works.

Below, a Palm Sunday antiphon with scrolling notation.


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Schweitzer and Bach


Albert Schweitzer’s transcendentalism goes beyond talent and imagination—it is the literal embodiment of truth. When listening to his performances of Bach’s organ works one feels that in every important detail one is listening to Bach himself.

Schweitzer had studied with Charles-Marie Widor, the leading authority of his day, and he was familiar with German organs from Bach’s era; but his connection to the music was far deeper than that of an apt pupil.

Part of the reason for this is Schweitzer’s own resonance with the composer’s character, particularly regarding the relationship between spirituality and service. Rather than interpreting Bach’s works, Schweitzer revealed them.

This according to “The transcendentalism of Albert Schweitzer” by Archibald Thompson Davison, an essay included in The Albert Schweitzer jubilee book (Cambridge: Sci-art, 1945, pp. 199–211).

Today is Schweitzer’s 140th birthday! Below, performing Bach’s fantasia and fugue in g minor, BWV 542.

BONUS: Practicing at home, with kibitzing from a friend.

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Inebriated zebra finches


zebra finches

Speech impairment is one of the most intriguing and least understood effects of alcohol on cognitive function, largely due to the lack of data on alcohol effects on vocalizations in the context of an appropriate experimental model organism.

Zebra finches, a representative songbird and a premier model for understanding the neurobiology of vocal production and learning, learn song in a manner analogous to how humans learn speech. When allowed access, finches readily drink alcohol, increase their blood ethanol concentrations (BEC) significantly, and sing a song with altered acoustic structure.

The most pronounced effects were decreased amplitude and increased entropy, the latter likely reflecting a disruption in the birds’ ability to maintain the spectral structure of song under alcohol. Furthermore, specific syllables, which have distinct acoustic structures, were differentially influenced by alcohol, likely reflecting a diversity in the neural mechanisms required for their production. Remarkably, these effects on vocalizations occurred without overt effects on general behavioral measures, and importantly, they occurred within a range of BEC that can be considered risky for humans.

Results suggest that the variable effects of alcohol on finch song reflect differential alcohol sensitivity of the brain circuitry elements that control different aspects of song production. They also point to finches as an informative model for understanding how alcohol affects the neuronal circuits that control the production of learned motor behaviors.

This according to “Drinking songs: Alcohol effects on learned song of zebra finches” by Christopher R. Olson, et al. (PLOS one IX/12 [23 December 2014] e115427).

Above, a female zebra finch reacts to a (perhaps inebriated) male; below, a (perhaps sober) zebra finch with a fastidious friend.

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Sherrill Milnes, farm boy

milnes 2012

In an interview, the U.S. baritone Sherrill Milnes recalled growing up on a dairy farm in Illinois.

“It was down and dirty. Small family. Manure. Everything. Milking cows. Dairy is tougher than grain or beef. Twice a day the cows have to be milked. You’re sick? Too bad. You have to do it. You sprained your ankle and it’s swollen? Too bad. You have to do it….I suppose it created a certain work ethic that was undeniable”

When he started to focus on singing as his career he sang to the cows, and even practiced dramatic bits while driving the family tractor.

“I was in the early stages of my career and practicing the different laughs of the various operatic characters…and, at one point, I looked over and there was a car stopped with about four heads sticking out the window looking at this insane person, driving a tractor, laughing [makes the different laughs]. Well, I didn’t do that for days—I kept looking around to see if any cars were coming.”

Excerpted from “A conversation with Sherrill Milnes” by Leslie Holmes (Journal of singing LXVI [September–October 2009] pp. 97–101).

Today is Milnes’s 80th birthday! Above, in October 2012; below, singing “Oh, de’ verd’anni miei” in a 1983 production of Verdi’s Ernani.

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Elvis and boogification

elvis 1956

Most rock critics view Elvis Presley’s career as a progressive sell-out to the music industry, a transition from folk authenticity (the Sun singles of 1954–55) to a sophisticated professionalism epitomized by the ballads and movies of the 1960s.

This Faustian view is in essence just as romantic as the rags-to-riches American success legend—its apparent obverse—but there are major problems with such an analysis. In reality, the processes of creation, production, and consumption in modern mass societies are too dynamic and interactive to permit rigid historical, typological, or evaluative dividing lines.

In post-war America, a pure “folk” role, untouched by commercial influences, had become impossible. The performers that the young Elvis heard and learned from—gospel singers, bluesmen, and country and western stars—were commercial artists. Presley was a commercial artist from the start, and the continuities in his vocal style are more important than any rupture. His two most notable contributions to the language of rock and roll singing are the assimilation of romantic lyricism and a technique referred to here as boogification.

Contrary to most blues singers, Presley’s tone is full and rich, his intonation is precise, and his phrasing is legato. However, this lyrical continuity is subverted by boogification—producing syncopation and cross-rhythms—where he adds extra off-beat notes not demanded by words or vocal lines, splits up syllables or even consonants, and slurs words together, disguising the verbal sense.

This according to “All shook up? Innovation and continuity in Elvis Presley’s vocal style” by Richard Middleton, an essay included in Elvis: Images and fancies (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1979, pp. 151–161).

Today is Presley’s 80th birthday! Above, rehearsing for The Milton Berle Show in 1956; below, live in his home town that same year.

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Heavy metal cookbooks


Heavy metal, a genre once considered a dangerous and transgressive force in popular culture, is now increasingly constructed as a light-hearted source of fun, comedy, and entertainment in a growing number of popular cultural forms.

Nowhere is this development clearer than in the recent phenomenon of the heavy metal cookbook, whereby domestic cookery is (sometimes seriously, sometimes comically) reimagined as part of a metal identity. Such cookbooks reveal not only how transgressive cultural forms can become incorporated and domesticated by the mainstream, but also how transgression can be repurposed to suit the changing lives of music fans as they age.

This according to “Hamburgers of devastation: The pleasures and politics of heavy metal cooking” by Michelle Phillipov (International journal of community music VII/2 [2014] pp. 259–72).

Above, the cover of Hellbent for cooking; below, the members of Warrant discuss a popular dessert with a friend.

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Mozart: New documents



Mozart: New documents is a collaborative project for the digital publication of new Mozart documents discovered since 1997, the date of the second supplement (the Neue Folge) to Otto Erich Deutsch’s  Mozart: Die Dokumente seines Lebens (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1961). This website is intended as an open working draft, and the editors welcome contributions and feedback from readers, who will receive explicit credit and acknowledgment.

Digital publication allows rolling out the content of the site over a period of months; it initially included 37 documents with commentaries, and at least 70 were scheduled to be added over the ensuing months. By the time the site is completed, it will include well over 100 new documents and addenda, and research is still ongoing.

When the site has reached a point of relative stability, it will be moved to a more permanent home with an institutional base; options for the print publication of some or all of the documents and commentaries on this site are under consideration.

Below, a recent contribution to Mozart documentation.

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