Outsourcing composition

Kreider 2007

Johannes Kreidler’s 2009 conceptual performance piece Fremdarbeit (Outsourcing) was composed, as the title suggests, by means of hiring foreigners. Kreidler  payed a composer in China and a computer programmer in India to study his previous work and produce a chamber composition in his style.

This according to “Fremdarbeit: Kompositionsaktion für Ensemble, Sampler und Moderator–Ein Gespräch” by Carolin Naujocks (Positionen: Texte zur aktuellen Musik 93 [November 2012] pp. 26–29).

Above, the composer with the performance artist Leowee Polyester in 2007; below, a documentary about Fremdarbeit with English subtitles.

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Happy birthday to Hornbostel– Sachs!


Systematik der Musikinstrumente: Ein Versuch is 100 years old this year! This system of musical instrument classification, devised by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, is still the most widely used by ethnomusicologists and organologists. It was issued in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie XLVI/4–5 [1914] pp. 553–590; the first pages of the system are shown above (click to enlarge).

The system is based on one devised in the late 19th century by Victor-Charles Mahillon, the curator of musical instruments at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles/Koninklijk Conservatorium Brussel. Mahillon divided instruments into four broad categories according to the sound-producing material—air column, string, membrane, or the instrument’s body. For the most part, Mahillon’s system was limited to instruments used in Western classical music; Hornbostel and Sachs expanded Mahillon’s system to make it applicable to any instrument from any culture.

The Hornbostel– Sachs system is formally modeled on the Dewey Decimal Classification for libraries. It has five top-level classifications, with several levels below those, adding up to over 300 basic categories; it was updated in 2011 as part of the work of the MIMO Project – Musical Instrument Museums Online.

Below, perhaps the grooviest time you’ve ever had with instrument classification.

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Hating a nonexistant celebrity


An Internet questionnaire aimed at measuring Hungarian responses to Hungarian celebrity culture gathered responses from 7317 people; the results are reported in “National characteristics of Hungarian celebrity culture” by Andrea Viniczai, an article included in History of stardom reconsidered (Turku/Åbo: Turun Yliopisto, 2001, pp. 90–96).

Several of the statistics that were generated could give pause; for example, respondents overwhelmingly voted that celebrities should be scandalous (97%), while fewer than 20% believed that they should be likeable, intelligent, or decent (see above).

Particularly notable were the responses to a fictitious celebrity—Lukács Bíró, Vinczai’s dentist—among a group of 29 well-known names. 25% of the respondents claimed familiarity with Bíró, and 60% of them expressed dislike for him. He was the 8th most rejected person in the group.

Below, Jimmy Zámbó, a formerly extant, but still potentially hateful, Hungarian celebrity who is profiled in the article.

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Capricornus strikes back

Samuel Capricornus

In 1657 Samuel Capricornus was summoned from Pressburg (now Bratislava) to take up the position of Kapellmeister to the Stuttgart court of Duke Eberhard III of Württemberg—to the surprise and disappointment of the organist of the Stuttgart collegiate church, Philipp Friedrich Böddecker, a distinguished composer in his own right, who had hoped to obtain the job himself.

Disputes quickly arose between Capricornus and Böddecker, as well as Böddecker’s brother David, a zinck player, who complained that Capricornus had required him outside the provisions of his contract to play the quart-zinck and to sing “such high-pitched, difficult passages” (so hohe und schwehre Stückh) that he was unable to comply “because of bodily weakness, short breath, and also declining vocal ability” (Leibsschwachheit, kurzem Athems, auch vergehende Stimme halber); and furthermore had insulted him publicly, saying he played the zinck “only like a cow-horn.”

Capricornus responded with a lengthy complaint of his own, presenting a gloomy picture of conditions in the ducal musical establishment and accusing the organist Böddecker of gluttony and drunkenness (Fressereien und Saufereien) and of being at the center of a whole network of intrigue against the Kapellmeister; moreover, “[he] did not deal especially gently with his inimical rival from the organ bench, and used all the arts of dialectic and learning to convict him of musical ignorance.”

This according to “Samuel Capricornus contra Philipp Friedrich Böddecker” by Josef Sittard (Sammelbände der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft III/1 [November 1901] pp. 87-128), which includes a complete edition of Capricornus’s grievance letter as found by the author in the ducal archives.

Below, Capricornus’s Adesto multitudo coelestis.

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Leonard Cohen and performing ambiguity

Leonard Cohen 1960s

Leonard Cohen’s recordings and performances in the 1960s were situated ambiguously between popular and art culture.

This division had traditionally been maintained through a strict hierarchy of socially enforced aesthetic barriers, but in the 1960s and 1970s popular genres staked a claim to high culture status by framing their creators as autonomous artists. In film this was achieved through auteur theory, where the director was viewed as the sole creative force, and in popular music through the rise of singer-songwriters such as Cohen, who both composed and performed their own material.

Another means of authenticating popular music in the 1960s was through the mythologizing of performance. In happenings and other gatherings, performance was valued for its apparent immediacy and lack of premeditation. On the other hand, performance is also understood in precisely the opposite manner—a clever performance is by implication not genuine, but calculating. This ambivalence is expressed repeatedly in Cohen’s own songs and performances.

This according to “Racing the midnight train: Leonard Cohen in performance” by Stephen Scobie (Canadian literature 152–153 [spring–summer 1997] pp. 52–68).

Today is Cohen’s 80th birthday! Above, sometime in the 1960s; below, performing Suzanne, an iconic song from that era, in 2009.

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Men with guitar cases


An experiment tested the assumption that music plays a role in sexual selection.

Three hundred young women were solicited in the street for their phone number by a young male confederate who held either a guitar case or a sports bag in his hands or had no bag at all.

Results showed that holding a guitar case was associated with greater compliance to the request, thus suggesting that musical practice is associated with sexual selection.

This according to “Men’s music ability and attractiveness to women in a real-life courtship context” by Nicolas Guéguen, Sébastien Meineri, and Jacques Fischer-Lokou (Psychology of music XLII/4 [July 2014] pp. 545–49).

Above, Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, perhaps providing a rule-proving exception; below, a study of men’s reactions to a man with a guitar case.

Related article: Sexual attraction by genre

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Bobby Short, saloon singer


Bobby Short, the cherubic singer and pianist whose high-spirited and probing renditions of popular standards evoked the glamour and sophistication of Manhattan nightlife, liked to call himself a saloon singer.

His “saloon” from 1968 to 2005 was one of the most elegant in the country, the intimate Cafe Carlyle in the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There for six months each year, in a room where he was only a few feet from his audience, he sang and accompanied himself on the piano.

Over the years, Short transcended the role of cabaret entertainer to become a New York institution and a symbol of civilized Manhattan culture, attracting a chic international clientele that included royalty, movie stars, sports figures, captains of industry, socialites, and jazz aficionados. In Woody Allen’s films a visit to the Carlyle became an essential stop on his characters’ cultural tour—including a memorable scene in Hannah and her sisters that featured Short.

This according to “Bobby Short, icon of Manhattan song and style, dies at 80” by Enid Nemy (The New York times, 21 March 2005).

Today would have been Short’s 90th birthday! Below, “You must remember this…”

BONUS: The Hannah sequence.

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“The star-spangled banner” turns 200

star spangled banner

Around 1775 John Stafford Smith wrote a melody for verses celebrating the Anacreontic Society, a London amateur musicians’ supper club. With its stirring tune, The Anacreontic song soon escaped the confines of club ritual, appearing in popular song collections and inspiring parodies in London’s many theaters.

By 1790 the melody had become part of the core of the active U.S. broadside tradition; by 1820 Anacreon, as the tune was then known, was the vehicle for more than 85 sets of American lyrics.

A number of these songs were nationalistic, praising early presidents and articulating partisan conflicts. The tune became widely associated with U.S. patriotism, making it a natural choice for Francis Scott Key for his commemoration of the nation’s surprise victory in the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. Originally titled Defense of Fort McHenry, the song quickly became a U.S. patriotic favorite as The star-spangled banner.

This according to “A star-spangled biennial” by Jerry Blackstone, Mark Clague, and Andrew Kuster (Choral journal LIV/9 [April 2014] pp.6–17).

Today is the song’s 200th birthday! Above, the actual flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the battle, as restored by the Smithsonian Institution; below, the original song, followed by two iconic performances of the U.S. national anthem.

Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl, 1991.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, 1969.

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A Cuban instrument atlas


Instrumentos de la música folclórico-popular de Cuba: Atlas provides a definitive overview of traditional instruments in Cuba, including discussions of their history, construction, musical characteristics, function in society, historical dissemination, and performance practice.

The accompanying atlas shows the numeric dissemination by county for every traditional instrument played in Cuba on geographical maps of the island. The set was issued by the Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana (CIDMUC).

Above, two of the atlas’s pages (click to enlarge); below, a Cuban group that features an unusual instrument—a leaf between the guitarist’s lips!

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Peter Maxwell Davies and sonata form

Peter Maxwell Davies

Throughout much of his career, Peter Maxwell Davies  has had a preoccupation with sonata form. He has exploited the tension between this form and his other conflicting musical preoccupations, such as a penchant for continuous development and an abhorrence of exact repetition.

In his earlier works, Davies at times referred to the presence of a “ghost” of sonata form, whereas more recently he directly states that some of his pieces are in this form. Throughout its evolution the salient elements of sonata form have been contrast, conflict, and resolution, all three of which apply in an examination of Davies’s use of it.

In his second Taverner fantasia, the first movement appears on the surface to be in sonata form, but is actually driven by other principles such as recurring chordal material. The opening movement of the first symphony has the general outline of a sonata form without adhering to its contrasting thematic implications. The more recent third quartet combines the formal and harmonic implications of a pre-Beethovenian, essentially binary, sonata form, with a highly complex and idiosyncratic serial technique derived from magic squares.

This according to “The ghost in the machine: Sonata form in the music of Peter Maxwell Davies” by Rodney Lister, an essay included in Peter Maxwell Davies studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) pp. 106–28).

Today is Sir Peter’s 80th birthday! Below, Davies conducts the BBC Philharmonic in his first symphony.

BONUS: How to pronounce the composer’s last name.

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