Sometime in October 1939 Woody Herman and his band traveled to the Vitaphone Studio in Brooklyn to begin work on a ten-minute film short.
Probably within a week or two they returned with their instruments, but not to play them—this time they were there to mime playing as the recordings from their first session were played back! The film was issued with a phonograph record to be played during projection, creating an early example of what is now called lip-synching.
The producers also added some stock clips of an audience whose formal dress and staid demeanor indicate that they were a world away from any jazz performance.
This according to “Celluloid improvisations: Woody Herman and his orchestra” by Mark Cantor (The IAJRC journal XL/1 [February 2007] pp. 22–30).
Today is Herman’s 100th birthday! Above, a still from the second session; below, Herman leads the band in the finale of the Vitaphone film, King Oliver’s Doctor Jazz.
In August 1928 representatives from the German record companies Odeon and Beka were sent to Bali; their efforts resulted in 98 recordings on 78 rpm discs of a wide variety of examples of Balinese music.
As it happened, at that time Bali was undergoing an artistic revolution. A new style known as kebyar was rapidly gaining popularity, and older ceremonial styles were literally disappearing, as their bronze instruments were melted down and reforged to accommodate the new style’s requirements; the Odeon/Beka recordings preserve several musical traditions that were later lost.
These were the recordings that inspired the young Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who first heard them in 1929. McPhee went to Bali in 1931 and remained there for nearly a decade; his activities included making painstaking transcriptions of Balinese pieces.
This according to the commentary by Edward Herbst that accompanies the CD The roots of gamelan: The first recordings—Bali, 1928; New York, 1941 (World Arbiter, 1999).
Above, a Gamelan gong gede group in Denpasar around the time the recordings were made; this tradition dates from the 15th century. Gong gede survives today, as the video below attests.
Related article: Debussy and gamelan
The serinette (after the French serin, canary) is a very small barrel organ that was used to teach repertoire to pet songbirds in the 18th century. These instruments were made in England, France, and Germany.
In 2007 an independent organ and barrel organ builder affiliated with the mechanical instruments center of Waldkirch in Baden-Württemberg embarked upon a series of modern reconstructions of the serinette. His main sources were the description of the serinette found in Dom Bédos de Celles’s L’art du facteur d’orgues (Paris, 1778) and two instruments from Mirecourt.
This according to “Serinetten französischer Bauart aus Waldkirch” by Achim Schneider (Das mechanische Musikinstrument: Journal der Gesellschaft für selbstspielende Musikinstrumente XXXVI/107 [April 2010] pp. 6–9; the author is the organ builder in question.
Above, La serinette by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin; below, occasionally vertiginous views of a working serinette.
To honor Brahms’s 180th birthday, let’s recall the article about his birthplace that ignited a musicological firestorm!
In “Brahms era chileno” (Pauta: Cuadernos de teoría y crítica musical, no. 63 [July-Sept 1997] pp. 39–44), the Argentine composer Juan María Solare states that Johann Jakob Brahms (1806–72), accompanied by his wife, Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen (1789–1865), took part in a tour of South America as a performer in the orchestra of the Alsterpavillon in Hamburg, and that Johanna gave birth to Johannes Brahms in the village of Copiapó, northern Chile, on 6 February 1833.
He further states that the birth is documented in a letter that Johanna wrote to her sister in Hamburg, but which was lost and eventually ended up in the archive of an obscure village in Patagonia, where it can still be seen; the birth was concealed from German society, and Brahms was baptized under a false place and date of birth upon his parents’ return to Germany.
Later, in an interview, Solare clarified his intention: He wrote the article as a piece of speculative fiction, a type of writing that Pauta sometimes publishes; but since the journal also presents peer-reviewed research, the piece was mistaken for authentic musicology, generating widespread controversy among Brahms scholars.
BONUS: Brahms was from New Orleans:
James Brown’s public acclaim as a musical visionary was often counterpointed by the private disdain of many of the trained musicians in his bands, who scorned his musical illiteracy.
An unorthodox valorization of Brown’s approach to composition is suggested by Deleuze’s account, in Différence et répétition, of the idiot as the pedant’s polar opposite. As a musical idiot, Brown’s naive immunity to conceptual rules or institutionally dominant forms of thinking—his capacity, in other words, for thought without presupposition—enabled modes of conceptual originality that evaded the musically trained.
This according to “James Brown: The illogic of innovation” by John Scannell (New formations: A journal of culture/theory/politics 66 [spring 2009] pp. 118–133). Today would have been Brown’s 80th birthday! Below, the Godfather of Soul defies logic in his heyday.
“I was about six when I started smoking cedar bark and grapevine, and rolling up Bull Durham” writes Willie Nelson. “I was trading a dozen eggs for a pack of Camels.”
“Then I ran into beer and whiskey, pills, and then pot. By then I was twenty-five years old and my lungs were killing me….So then I said to myself, “Hey, you’re not getting high on cigarettes, and they killed half your family….”
“So I started quitting everything. No more cigarettes at all. I started running again and getting back in shape.”
“I took my cigarettes and threw them away. I rolled up twenty joints and put them in the cigarette package, and every time I wanted a cigarette, I smoked a hit or two off a joint instead. One joint would last all day and it worked for me.” (Roll me up and smoke me when I die: Musings from the road [New York: HarperCollins, 2012] p. 121).
Today is Nelson’s 80th birthday! Below, the book’s namesake.
The Hindi film song Thoda resham lagta hai (It takes a little silk), written by Bappi Lahiri for the 1981 film Jyoti, was long forgotten before it was rediscovered in 2002 by the American producer DJ Quik.
Based around an unauthorized 35-second sample of the recording, the Truth Hurts song Addictive prompted Lahiri to sue Dr. Dre (the executive producer of the song), Aftermath Records, and Universal Music (Aftermath’s parent company and distributor) for $500 million.
Beyond Lahiri’s claims of cultural imperialism, obscenity, and outright theft, DJ Quik’s rearrangement of the song was, in turn, adopted by music producers, including Lahiri himself, in a wide variety of international genres, including Indian, American, and Jamaican contexts. Yet even as this well-traveled tune evokes different historical and local meanings, it evokes an eroticized Other in each context, including its original one.
This according to “It takes a little lawsuit: The flowering garden of Bollywood exoticism in the age of its technological reproducibility” by Wayne Marshall and Jayson Beaster-Jones (South Asian popular culture X/3 [October 2012] pp. 249–260). Above, a screen shot from Truth Hurt’s Addictive video, which is not available for linking; below, the song in its original context. (Yes, that’s the voice of the great Lata Mangeshkar!)
Already a cello prodigy with a full scholarship to the Moscow Conservatory, at the age of ten Gregor Piatigorsky found himself stranded in Astrahan’ due to one of his father’s failed enterprises.
Tall enough to pass as a teenager, he found a temporary job as a substitute cellist in an amusement-park orchestra, and when the former cellist returned he was offered a job playing violin. Piatigorsky accepted gamely, and found that he could play the unfamiliar instrument easily in undemanding passages; but for more difficult ones he had to revert to playing it between his knees, like a cello. For detracting attention from the conductor and eliciting unwelcome applause, the boy was fired.
Still lacking the funds to return to Moscow, he found a job in a café orchestra. To keep the underaged cellist from seeing the nude dancers onstage, the owner had him turn to face the wall of the pit and provided a mirror so he could see the conductor. When he quit in sympathy for a fired dancer he had developed a crush on, he was given a week’s pay.
Piatigorsky used the money to buy a train ticket as far north toward Moscow as he could; he finally arrived home after about 12 days of hitching rides on freight trains by night, sleeping during the day, and selling everything but his cello for food.
This according to Gregor Piatigorsky: The life and career of the virtuoso cellist by Terry King (Jefferson: McFarland, 2010, pp. 8–10).
Today is Piatigorsky’s 110th birthday! Above, the cellist in his school uniform before he moved to Moscow. Below, excerpts from the film Heifitz & Piatigorsky (Kultur, 1953).
Related article: Cellist, interrupted
After Queen’s 1985 tour of Spain, the group’s frontman Freddie Mercury amazed his fans by declaring on Spanish television that the Spaniard he most longed to meet was Montserrat Caballé.
Mercury hoped to collaborate with the legendary diva, and in March 1987 he finally arranged a meeting in the Garden Room of the Ritz Hotel in Barcelona with a grand piano, state-of-the art recording and playback equipment, and a sumptuous buffet. She later described the scene:
“We spent the whole time listening to music, eating, and improvising…Barcelona as such did not exist at that time—it was only a musical sketch of just a few bars that Freddie sang. But I liked it and he promised to develop it for me to celebrate the Olympic success.” (Barcelona had just been selected for the 1992 Summer Olympics.)
Mercury worked quickly on the song, and Caballé’s recital in London later that month dovetailed with a recording session at his home. Working until 6:00 in the morning, they produced what effectively became Barcelona’s unofficial Olympic anthem.
This according to Montserrat Caballé: “Casta diva” by Stephen Taylor and Robert Pullen (London: Gollancz, 1995, pp. 302–05).
Caballé is 80 years old today! Below, the official video of Barcelona.
Stravinsky has been widely characterized as enigmatic, a composer whose stylistic transformations were impossible to anticipate. He cultivated this image, not in a disingenuous way, but because his eccentricity was central to his self-definition.
More than any composer of 20th-century art music, Stravinsky was able to make the leap from a rarefied intellectual world to the status of a pop icon, widely respected by people who largely did not understand his music. He needed to be public, accepted, and popular, and a surprisingly large proportion of his archival documents reflects his efforts toward these goals.
Television producers in Europe and North America found in Stravinsky the ideal nonconformist film icon: droll, quirky, conversational, contentious, and pedestaled as the epitome of the rebellious hero. He was drawn to them as well, as a natural performer who needed and commanded the spotlight.
This according to “Truths and illusions: Rethinking what we know” and “Film documentaries: The composer on and off camera” by Charles M. Joseph, two essays included in Stravinsky inside out (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 1–34 and 162–195, respectively).
Below, the composer works the camera with some of his favorite things to say about Le sacre du printemps.