Obrecht and the sphinx

The symmetries of Jacob Obrecht’s Missa “Maria zart” can be deconstructed into constituent elements, like a puzzle, to re-create certain stages of the composer’s working methods.

Described by Rob Wegman as “the sphinx among Obrecht’s Masses”, the work ideally lends itself to this approach because of the simplicity of the melodic and rhythmic layout of its cantus firmus. These characteristics may have inspired the composer to write even more geometrically than is usual in his oeuvre.

This according to “Looking at the sphinx: Obrecht’s Missa “Maria zart” by János Bali (Journal of the Alamire Foundation II/2 [fall 2010] pp. 208–30).

According to some sources, today is Obrecht’s 560th birthday! Below, an excerpt from the work, conducted by Prof. Bali.

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Jazz and unexpected stimuli

Creativity has been defined as the ability to produce work that is novel, high in quality, and appropriate to an audience. While the nature of the creative process is under debate, many believe that creativity relies on real-time combinations of known neural and cognitive processes.

One useful model of creativity comes from musical improvisation, such as in jazz, in which musicians spontaneously create novel sound sequences. A study used jazz musicians to test the hypothesis that individuals with training in musical improvisation, which entails creative generation of musical ideas, might process expectancy differently.

Researchers used EEGs to compare the brain activity of 12 jazz musicians (with improvisation training), 12 classical musicians (without improvisation training), and 12 non-musicians while they listened to a series of chord progressions. Some of the examples followed typical Western chord progressions, while others followed atypical ones.

Jazz musicians had a significantly different electrophysiological response to the unexpected progressions, indicating that they had an increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events.

This according to “Jazz musicians reveal role of expectancy in human creativity” by Emily Przysinda, Tima Zheng, Kellyn Maves, Cameron Arkin, and Psyche Loui (Brain and cognition CXIX [December 2017] pp. 45–53).

Below, the Miles Davis Quintet plays Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti, a work often cited for its use of unexpected chords; above, Davis, Shorter, and Herbie Hancock in 1964.

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Filed under Curiosities, Jazz and blues, Science

Roman Catholic liturgical reform

The question of music for use in the Catholic liturgy was a hot button issue in Catholic circles for a good number of years after Vatican Council II, particularly in the U.S.

The result of the upheaval following the Council has been a radical shift in the musical content of the service, mostly involving a cantor leading the congregation in some sung Mass parts and several hymns that are dispersed over the liturgy. This discontinuity in the tradition thoroughly ignores both the Church’s intentions for musical reform as reflected in documents from the late 19th century to the late 20th century, and efforts ​in the U.S. dating from before 1963 that were inspired by several popes.

Just after the Council, in 1966, several of ​the most distinguished international scholars and church musicians ​met ​in Chicago and Milwaukee to discuss the state of the reform. Many ideas were presented and plans were made​, but all for naught. A group of liturgists, relying on their own readings of the Council—and, for the most part, little musical knowledge—nimbly redirected the reform, mostly due to their connections with U.S. Bishops and widespread confusion (even among the bishops) about what exactly the Council and subsequent documents said. ​The result has been the overwhelming musical banality in self-designed liturgies that can be widely witnessed in Catholic churches in the U.S. and beyond.​

This according to a series of seven ​ articles by Richard J. Schuler (above) originally published as “A chronicle of reform” in Sacred music in 1982 and 1983 and reissued in Cum angelis canere: Essays on sacred music and pastoral liturgy in honor of Richard J. Schuler, 1920–1990 (Saint Paul: Catholic Church Music Associates, 1990, pp. 349–416).

Below, an example of the reformed Mass as it may have been envisioned.

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Ben Stonehill, zamler

 

Born in 1906 in Poland, Ben Stonehill (Steinberg) immigrated with his large family to Rochester, New York, while still a young child; in 1929 he moved to New York City, where he eventually became proprietor of a small floor-servicing business.

A fluent Yiddish speaker who cherished his cultural heritage, Stonehill was also a devoted zamler, a collector of folklore. In 1948 he learned of a major gathering point for new refugees: the Hotel Marseilles in upper Manhattan.

Lacking recording equipment but determined to pursue his mission, Stonehill took a sales job at a local wire-recorder dealership and emerged from the showroom with a salesman’s demonstration model. Nearly every weekend that summer he hauled this machine by subway from his home in Queens to the Hotel Marseilles to record songs and stories from the hundreds of survivors he encountered in the hotel lobby.

Stonehill documented an unparalleled cross-section of music then current among Jewish displaced persons (DPs), from traditional Hasidic nigunim to prewar folk and popular songs in Polish, Yiddish, and Russian; from Soviet propagandist ballads to Zionist pioneer anthems; from songs recalled from ghettos and camps to lyrics relating the experiences of recent DPs. His inventory eventually listed 1054 separate titles.

In 1964 Stonehill realized a long-held dream by delivering a lecture on folksong at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. The following year, terminally ill, he abandoned his book-in-progress and bequeathed his recordings (by then copied to magnetic tape) to YIVO, the Library of Congress, and other collecting institutions. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum acquired a set from the Library of Congress in 2005.

This according to Ben Stonehill (2008), part of the Holocaust Museum’s series Music of the Holocaust.

Above, Stonehill around the time he began his recording project. One of his recordings can be heard here; a Library of Congress presentation about his life and work is here.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, North America

Mose Allison and “Parchman Farm”

In November 1957 Mose Allison recorded what would became his most celebrated and requested piece: Parchman Farm, a wickedly clever blues written from the viewpoint of an inmate at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary. But by the mid-1960s Allison had ceased performing the song, reportedly disturbed by audience reactions to it.

The adverse reactions were prompted by the song’s surprise ending, where the seemingly sympathetic prisoner-singer suddenly declares “I’m a-gonna be here for the rest of my life, and all I did was shoot my wife.”

Such responses to a song whose title evokes the Jim Crow South, and whose author is a white performer whom many listeners have assumed to be black, are worthy of closer scrutiny. In addition to its surface appeal, Parchman Farm possesses subtextual layers replete with complex, troubling questions about race, gender, and power, particularly as these manifest in popular discourses about blues.

Allison returned to the topic in 1964 with New Parchman, which offers an implicit critique of the ideology informing the 1957 work.

This according to “One Parchman Farm or another: Mose Allison, irony, and racial formation” by John Kimsey (Journal of popular music studies XVII/2 [2005] pp. 105–32).

Today would have been Mose Allison’s 90th birthday! Above, recording in the mid-1960s; below, the original Parchman Farm and its sequel.

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Filed under Jazz and blues

Ilmari Krohn and Finnish ethnomusicology

Ilmari Krohn was the founder of the Finnish school of ethnomusicology, and he was one of the first to develop lexicographical methods for the classification and study of traditional music.

Krohn derived support and inspiration from the Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, which pioneered the collection of Finnish folklore and the publication of Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. He was also influenced by the historic-geographic method in folklore, originated by his father Julius and his older brother Kaarle.

The main focus of Krohn’s approach was on the collection, classification, and publication of traditional songs, not ethnography or the musicians themselves. The principles Krohn laid were later adopted by Bartók and Kodály, and then spread to a number of European countries.

This according to “History, geography, and diffusion: Ilmari Krohn’s early influence on the study of European folk music” by Erkki Pekkilä (Ethnomusicology L/2 [spring–summer 2006] pp. 353–59).

Today is Krohn’s 150th birthday! Below, a 1977 recording of his Rukous (Prayer).

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Europe

Ša‘bī and politics

Commonly associated with Cairo’s working class, ša‘bī (شعبى ) is a politically charged musical genre with a long history of bawdy humor and trenchant social critique. While the cultural elite may see the term as an index of the backwardness of the uneducated masses, for many Egyptians ša‘bī evokes a sense of identity, tradition, and heritage.

One of contemporary ša‘bī’s foremost practitioners of social commentary and political dissent, Ša‘bān ‘Abd al-Raḥīm (شعبان عبد الرحيم, above), stormed into popular culture in the early 21st century by mobilizing the genre’s potential to tap into the pulse of the Egyptian-Arab street. By 2002 ‘Abd al-Raīm’s brazen sociopolitical commentary had turned him into the unlikely hero of millions of Egyptians and Arabs.

This according to “‘I’ll tell you why we hate you!’ Ša‘bān ‘Abd al-Raīm and Middle Eastern reactions to 9/11” by James R. Grippo, an essay included in Music in the post-9/11 world (New York: Routledge, 2007, pp. 255–75).

Below,   ‘Abd al-Raīm’s Obama, which excoriates George W. Bush while poking fun at the notion that the newly elected Barack Obama will save the Arab world like Saladin.

 

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Filed under Politics, Popular music

Recorders in 1960s pop

While the recorder is still best known as an early music instrument, its revival in the 20th century led to its adoption as a modern concert instrument by a number of composers, and even in jazz.

The recorder also figured, at least briefly, in the British pop music boom of the mid-1960s, when Klaus Voormann played it on Manfred Mann’s Semi-detached suburban Mr. James and Trouble and tea, and Brian Jones played it on The Rolling StonesRuby Tuesday (above and below); the latter featured “a very obbligato recorder part which weaves intricate counterpoints over the basic melody in a very effective and interesting way” according to Richard D.C. Noble, who reported on the phenomenon in “The recorder in pop: A progress report” (Recorder and music magazine II/5 [May 1967] pp. 135–36).

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, Popular music

Luther and Bach

Martin Luther’s influence on J.S. Bach was profound; Bach’s library contained two expensive collected editions of Luther’s writings, which exerted demonstrable impact on his works—not least on the third Clavierübung.

Scholars have long puzzled over the dramatic changes that Bach introduced at the work’s engraving stage. These changes largely involved the addition rather than the removal of material, and the only explanation for wishing to enlarge the collection—a decision that caused enormous problems with the scheduled production and publication dates—must be the way in which Bach viewed his success in having fulfilled the overall objective: providing musical items reflecting Luther’s catechism.

It is easy for such a scheme to follow the letter of the law through settings of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Sacraments, but not so easy for it to capture the spirit. Luther’s doctrine stands apart by virtue of its clear insistence that the law must embody a human experience “from the heart”.  All such experience, whether painful or pleasurable, requires this essential attribute. Through their clear spiritual resonances, the new movements provided a fitting frame for a collection of music inspired by Luther’s teachings.

This according to “J.S. Bach’s prelude and fugue in E flat (BWV 552, 1/2): An inspiration of the heart?” by Roger Wibberley (Music theory online IV/5 [September 1998]).

Today is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-five theses, now considered the start of the Reformation. Below, Hans-André Stamm performs the celebrated prelude and fugue.

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Filed under Baroque era

Music and visual cultures

In 2017 Brepols launched the series Music and visual cultures with Late eighteenth-century music and visual culture, edited by Cliff Eisen and Alan Davison.

In this volume, nine prominent scholars employ a set of interdisciplinary methodological tools to come to a comprehensive understanding of the rich tapestry of eighteenth-century musical taste, performance, consumption, and aesthetics. While the link between visual material and musicological study lies at the heart of the research presented in this collection of essays, the importance of the textual element, as it denoted the process of thinking about music and the various ways in which that was symbolically and often literally visualized in writing and print culture, is also closely examined.

This series will include monographs and thematic collections on issues concerning music iconography and interactions between music and visual arts. The series editor is Zdravko Blažeković.

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Filed under Classic era, Iconography, New series