Category Archives: Nature

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, visual artist

When Mendelssohn Bartholdy was 13 a family trip to Switzerland afforded his first opportunity to devote himself to drawing; subsequently a sketch book was always an indispensable part of his holiday luggage.

Soon the prodigy’s musical career precluded other artistic activities, but after the death of his beloved sister Fanny when he was 38 he returned to Switzerland and completed a remarkable series of watercolors. These were among his final creative activities; he died in November of that year.

This according to the preface by Margaret Crum for Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1972), which reproduces items from the Bodleian Library’s collection.

Above, Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s depiction of Lucerne in July 1847; below, Piero Bellugi conducts the final movements of his sixth string symphony, written around the time he first started drawing.

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Filed under Curiosities, Nature, Romantic era, Visual art

Insects in rock ’n’ roll cover art

Insects in rock ’n’ roll cover art is an article and an online database by Joseph R. Coelho, who teaches in the Biology Program at Quincy University.

The article, which can be read online here, was published in American entomologist (L/3 [fall 2004] pp. 142–151). The database (here)  is part of a larger project called Insects in rock ’n’ roll music, which also includes lists of insect-related songs, albums, and artist names.

Above, a classic Iron Butterfly album cover. Below, ants dancing to Ant man bee from the legendary Trout mask replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band (Beefheart plays two saxophones simultaneously on this track).

Many thanks to the Improbable Research blog for alerting us about Professor Coelho’s work!

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Filed under Animals, Nature, Popular music, Resources, Science, Visual art

Old MacDonald’s ancestors

The earliest known ancestor of Old MacDonald had a farm is A charming country life in Thomas D’Urfey’s Pills to purge melancholy (1719–20); while the verses have no resemblance to the later song, the chorus of “Here a ___, there a ___, everywhere a ___” is structurally identical.

Further eighteenth-century versions appear in other collections, and in the nineteenth century others, always with the same stock chorus but differing in other particulars, emerged in blackface minstrelsy. A version from a 1917 book of soldiers’ songs produced in London gives the first direct predecessor of the modern version, with a similar tune for the chorus and an identification of the farmer as “Old MacDougal”; it also explains the nonsensical “ee-i-ee-i-o”—Old MacDougal’s farm was “in O-hi-o-hi-o.”

This according to “Farmyard cacaphonies: Three centuries of a popular song” by Vic Gammon (Folk music journal XI/1, pp. 42-72). Above, D’Urfey, who claimed—perhaps unreliably—to have written the original song. Below, Sesame Street’s justly neglected Old MacDonald cantata.

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Filed under Animals, Europe, Humor, Nature

Flute or food?

In 1996 Mira Omerzel-Terlep reported that a bone fragment excavated at the Divje Babe I cave site in Slovenia is considered to be the oldest man-made flute, dating from 45,000 years ago (“Koščene piščali: Pričetek slovenske, evropske in svetovne inštrumentalne glasbene zgodovine” [Bone whistles: Origins of the Slovenian, European, and world history of instrumental music], Etnolog: Glasnik Slovenskega Etnografskega Muzeja/Bulletin of the Slovene Ethnographic Museum VI, pp. 235–294). Further studies sought to demonstrate that the fragment had originally belonged to an instrument capable of producing a diatonic scale.

Other researchers were skeptical, though, and in 1998 Paola Villa et al. tried to put the speculation to rest, showing that the holes in the bone were the results of gnawing by animals (“A Middle Paleolithic origin of music? Using cave-bear bone accumulations to assess the Divje Babe I bone ‘flute’”, Antiquity LXXII/275 [March], pp. 65–79).

Still, the argument has not abated. In 2002 a pair of essays staking out the opposing camps was issued in Archäologie früher Klangerzeugung und Tonordnung/The archaeology of sound origin and organization; Musikarchäologie in der Ägäis und Anatolien/Music archaeology in the Aegean and Anatolia (Rahden: Leidorf); April Nowell states that the results of taphonomic testing offered no viable proof that the bone fragment was an instrument (“Is a cave bear bone from Divje Babe, Slovenia, a Neanderthal flute?” pp. 69–81) while Robert Fink presents research supports the theory that it was (“The Neanderthal flute and origin of the scale: Fang or flint? A response” pp. 83–87).

Although further scientific research on the topic has not been forthcoming, the controversy is alive and thriving on the Internet. Below, Ljuben Dimkaroski performs on a reconstruction of the alleged original bone flute.

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Filed under Animals, Instruments, Nature, Science

Avian music culture

The vocalizations of the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) include calls (e.g., food begging [above], alarms, cat scolding), calls incorporated into songs, and pure songs. The latter category may include melismas, ostinatos, transpositions, inversions, variations, and rhythmic effects such as additive and divisive patterns.

Cultural manifestations include duets, antiphonal and canonic effects, and unisons. They also mimic other birds and unexpected sources such as dogs, cats, humans, and machines.

This according to “Decoding the song of the pied butcherbird: An initial survey” by Hollis Taylor (TRANS: Revista transcultural de música/Transcultural music review XII [July 2008]). Below, a pied butcherbird duet followed by a solo.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Nature

Béla Bartók, entomologist

Béla Bartók is renowned as one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and as one of the founders of ethnomusicology. Less known is his love of animals, particularly his fascination with insects.

When he was a child he bred silkworms, and later he systematically collected insects, assembling a beautiful assortment. His son Béla Jr. recalled helping him with this hobby. “The most important instruction that he gave…was that no pain whatsoever was to be inflicted on the animals. And so he always took the appropriate drug with him on his insect-collecting expeditions. The insects, therefore, died and came into his collection without any suffering.”

This according to “The private man” by Béla Bartók, Jr. (as translated by Judit Rácz), which is included in The Bartók companion (London: Faber & Faber, 1993).

Today is Bartók’s 130th birthday! Above, a watercolor caricature of him as an insect enthusiast by his cousin Ervin Voit. Below, Zoltán Kocsis plays his “Mese a kis légyrõl” (From the diary of a fly, Mikrokosmos, BB 105, Sz. 107, VI/142).

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

Waiting for qi

Houqi (waiting for qi) was a technique employed by Chinese authorities in the fourteenth century to determine the onset of spring by measuring the emanations of qi, the active principal of life. A set of standard pitchpipes, each corresponding to a specific calendar period, was filled with ashes and buried in a sealed chamber; when the sun entered the second two-week period of a given month the seminal force of qi was supposed to rise and expel the ashes from the pipe that matched the calendar period.

Unfortunately, the method failed to produce the desired results, and a great deal of discussion over the millennia as to what kind of soil to use, where to place the pitchpipes, and so on, failed to improve it. Ultimately the great music theorist Zhu Zaiyu (朱載堉, 1536–1611) criticized houqi as a poor example of scientific method.

This according to “Origins of the controversy over the houqi method (候气法疑案之发端)” by Tang Jikai (唐继凯) in Jiaoxiang: Journal of Xi’an Conservatory of Music (交响:西安音乐学院学报), vol. 22, no. 3:101 (fall 2003), pp. 27–31. Above, a calligrapher’s rendition of the Chinese character for qi.

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Baroque birdsong

Along with its wide-ranging discussions of theoretical topics, the 1650 treatise Musurgia universalis by the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) includes what may be the first transcriptions of bird songs.

The illustration gives the nightingale’s song followed by those of the chicken, the cuckoo, the quail, and the parrot; the latter says χαίρε (“hello”). Vox cuculi is notated as the familiar falling minor third heard in cuckoo clocks (see below).

A facsimile edition of the treatise has been issued by Georg Olms (Hildesheim, 1970; reprinted 2006).

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Filed under Animals, Baroque era, Musicologists, Nature, Notation, Science, Visual art

Mozart effect redux

“Spatial performance as a function of early music exposure in rats” (Third triennial ESCOM conference: Proceedings [Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 1997], pp. 688–694) reports on an experiment in which 90 rats were randomly assigned to one of three groups: The Mozart group (30 rats) was exposed to a Mozart piano sonata 12 hours a day for 21 days in utero and 60 days after birth. The Glass and White Noise groups were similarly exposed to the music of Philip Glass or to white noise. The rats’ spatial performance in a 12-unit T maze was then assessed; the Mozart-bred animals ran significantly faster and made significantly fewer errors than the Glass-bred or white noise-bred animals.

In “Do rats show a Mozart effect?” (Music perception: An interdisciplinary journal 21/2 [2003], pp. 251–265), Kenneth M. Steele points out that the in utero exposure would have been ineffective because rats are born deaf. Further, a comparison of human and rat audiograms in the context of the frequencies produced by a piano suggests that adult rats are deaf to most of the pitches in the sonata.

“Spatial performance as a function of early music exposure in rats” (Third triennial ESCOM conference: Proceedings [Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 1997], pp. 688–694) reports on an experiment in which 90 rats were randomly assigned to one of three groups: The Mozart group (30 rats) was exposed to a Mozart sonata for 12 hours a day—21 days in utero and 60 days after birth. The Glass and White Noise groups were similarly exposed to the music of Philip Glass or to white noise. The rats’ spatial performance in a 12-unit T maze was then assessed, and the Mozart-bred animals ran significantly faster and made significantly fewer errors than the Glass-bred or white noise-bred animals.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Animals, Classic era, Curiosities, Nature, Reception, Science

Bees at the Opéra

Besides his training as a graphic artist, Jean Paucton, the prop man at the Palais Garnier in Paris, studied beekeeping at the Jardin du Luxemboug. In the mid-1980s he ordered his first hive, which was delivered to him at the Opéra, sealed and full of bees. He had intended to take it to his country house north of Paris, but when his plans changed the building’s fireman—who had been raising trout in a huge firefighting cistern under the building—advised him to place them on the seventh-floor roof at the back of the Palais Garnier.

Paucton gradually increased the number of hives to five, and from approximately 75,000 bees he annually collects about 1000 pounds of honey, which he packages in tiny jars, each with the label “Miel récolté sur les toits de l’Opéra de Paris, Jean Paucton”.

Thanks to the concentration of fragrant flowering trees and shrubs at the Bois de Boulogne, the chestnut trees in the Champs Élysées, and the linden trees in the Palais Royal, his honey has an intense floral flavor; it is sold at the Opéra’s gift shop and at the Paris gourmet shop Fauchon.

This according to “Who’s humming at Opera? Believe it or not, bees” by Craig S. Smith (The New York times 152/52,526 [26 June 2003] p. A:4).

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