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Frogs and film scores

frogs

Spontaneously recorded music and natural noise, once they are chosen and ordered in a film’s soundtrack, acquire a dignity that was at first unexpected, entering into harmony, rivalry, and sometimes even conflict with the score composed for the film.

Between fake bad music created by a competent composer and real bad music appropriated in its raw state from the popular muse, between an impressionist nocturne for large orchestra and the authentic concerto of crickets and frogs, artificial music does not necessarily win out over the natural kind.

This according to “La musique prise dans le sujet, élement materiel du film et la musique composée pour le film, élément formel de l’œuvre d’art” by Roland Alexis Manuel Lévy, an essay included in Atti del secondo Congresso internazionale di musica (Firenze: Le Monniere, 1940, pp. 253–256; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1940-1).

Below, two short films present an opportunity to test Lévy’s hypothesis.

Related article: Cowshed soundscaping

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Filed under Animals, Film music, Nature

Le style ballets russes

The influence of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the worlds of dance and music has been well-documented; less known today are the reverberations that the company’s productions sent straight to the heart of Parisian fashion and interior design. Schèhèrezade, the hit of the 1910 season, epitomized the exoticism of “le style ballets russes” for designers and their galvanized patrons.

The first, and perhaps the foremost, to espouse the company’s saturated hues, sumptuous fabrics, and seductive Orientalism was Paul Poiret, who daringly introduced harem pants and turbans (inset), with boldly colored silks and velvets. Poiret also popularized brightly colored interiors, replacing conventional furniture with divans and tasselled cushions.

The company’s visits to London had a similar impact. “Before you could say Nijinsky” Osbert Lancaster recalled in Homes, sweet homes (London: Murray, 1939) “the pastel shades which had reigned supreme on the walls of the Mayfair for almost two decades were replaced by a variety of barbaric hues—jade green, purple, every variety of crimson and scarlet, and, above all, orange.” He added that the style’s adherents had “a tendency to regard a room not so much as a place to live in, but as a setting for a party.”

This according to “The wider influence of the Russian ballet” by Stephen Calloway, an essay included in Diaghilev and the golden age of the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-20723).

Above, one of George Lepape’s illustrations for Les choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape (Paris: 1911), a book commissioned and published by Poiret in a limited edition of 300.

Below, a reconstruction of Schèhèrezade.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Reception

Globalization of the Rising Sun

Most people know the The House of the Rising Sun as a 1964 hit by The Animals about a place in New Orleans—a whorehouse or a prison or a gambling joint that has been the ruin of many poor girls or boys—but few songs have traveled such an intricate journey.

The launch of the song’s world travels can be traced to Georgia Turner (above), a poor 16-year-old daughter of a miner living in Middlesboro, Kentucky, when the young folk music collector Alan Lomax captured her voice singing The Rising Sun blues in 1937. Lomax deposited the song in the Library of Congress and included it in the 1941 collection Our singing country.

In short order, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Josh White learned the song and each recorded it. From there it began to move to the planet’s farthest corners. Today, hundreds of artists have recorded House of the Rising Sun, and it can be heard in the most diverse of places—Chinese karaoke bars, Gatorade ads, and as a ring tone on cell phones. The song’s journey is a case study of how a cultural artifact moves through the modern world, propelled by technology, globalization, and recorded sound.

This according to Chasing the Rising Sun: The journey of an American song by Ted Anthony (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2007-6177). Below, Lomax’s original recording of Georgia Turner.

BONUS: The Animals’ classic recording.

Related article: Kumbaya: A song’s evolution

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Filed under Curiosities, Jazz and blues, Popular music

The signifyin(g) rabbit

Bugs Bunny has been recuperated as a queer cultural icon, a parodic diva whose campy excesses and canny games are profoundly though tacitly indebted to the African American rhetorical tradition of signifyin(g).

Interrogation of Bugs Bunny’s characteristic strategies of trickstering demonstrates the connections, both theoretical and material, between the queer camp of gender bending and the slippery strategies of resistance, the semiotic play of signifying as back-talk.

The rabbit of Seville (1950, directed by Chuck Jones and scored by Carl Stalling) presents specific situations of parody and allusion, illustrating the ways in which transvestic performance, inflected through camp, participates in a highly queer mode of phallic divestiture.

This according to “The signifying rabbit” by Eric Savoy (Narrative 2 [May 1995] 188–209; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-12504).

Below, excerpts from the cartoon classic in question, with live accompaniment!

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Filed under Humor, Opera

Hogarth and dance

William Hogarth explicitly positioned his aesthetic theory in opposition to those of his contemporaries.

He disagreed both with philosophical treatments that viewed beauty and taste in moral terms and with art treatises that relied on exemplification and lacked causal explanation; further, he attacked the mystification of the concept of grace in both approaches.

He argued that understanding beauty did not require initiation into a new body of knowledge: It simply involved exercising a natural reflective vision that finds pleasure in the forms of the human body and related designs and ornamentations.

It was natural, therefore, that—unlike other aestheticians of his time—he drew extensively on dance examples in his treatise The analysis of beauty: Dance, particularly in its use in deportment training, belonged to a sphere of relatively everyday polite culture, as opposed to the rarefied and mystifying culture of art appreciation. Anyone open to dance and deportment could learn how to appreciate them, just as anyone open to Hogarth’s theory could apply its illuminations to their everyday lives.

This according to “An aesthetics of performance: Dance in Hogarth’s Analysis of beauty” by Annie Richardson (Dance research: The journal of the Society for Dance Research XX/2 [winter 2002] 38–87; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2002-11454).

Above, an illustration of a country dance from Hogarth’s treatise (click to enlarge). Below, an English country dance that he might have seen—or participated in!

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Filed under Dance, Visual art

John Cage’s microtonal rāgas

John Cage’s 18 microtonal rāgas are found in Solo for voice 58 from Song books (1970).

To perform them, the dhrupad and experimental music specialist Amelia Cuni decided to apply experimental procedures to dhrupad vocalism and to elaborate her Indian music background in a new music context. She also wanted to explore an influential contemporary composer’s take on rāgas and step back from her personal involvement with the tradition and observe it from another perspective.

In collaboration with the Berliner Festspiele and several other contemporary music venues, Cuni’s interpretation of Solo for voice 58 was premiered in Berlin in 2006 and has been performed since then at several European and U.S. festivals.

This according to Cuni’s “Chance generated ragas in Solo for voice 58: A dhrupad singer performs John Cage” (Journal of the Indian Musicological Society  XLI [2011–12] pp. 127–54; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-23192).

Today is Cage’s 110th birthday!

Below, a studio recording of Cuni’s realization; a full live performance can be viewed here (the performance starts at 10:00).

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music

Moroccan insult contests

Marrakech

A performance that occurred almost daily in a public square in Marrakech in the early 1980s traded on ethnic identity for fun and profit.

The performance began with an Arab duo singing in Arabic; as a crowd began to gather around them, a Berber—a member of a rival ethnic group—leaped into the circle with a song in Tashlit. After a few moments of cacaphony a shouting match began, with the Berber and one of the Arabs trading insults while the other Arab took one side and then the other, upping the ante.

“Monkey, block-headed windbag, long-fingernailed King Kong, hick, salt stealer, son of a whore!” Each string of insults was preceded by an ethnic designator, and audience members were encouraged to contribute money to the aggrieved party to demonstrate their own ethnic pride. Occasionally fisticuffs between audience members ensued.

The high point of the performance came when the monetarily losing antagonist was figuratively turned into a donkey and the winner climbed onto his back and called for his instrument; victory, however temporary, meant both being on top and singing one’s own song there.

This according to “Saints, prostitutes, and rotten sardines: The musical construction of place and ethnicity in a Moroccan insult contest” by Philip D. Schuyler, an essay included in Ethnomusicological encounters with music and musicians: Essays in honor of Robert Garfias (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, pp. 249–259; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-5436).

Above and below, examples of street music in Marrakech.

Related article: 50 best literary insults

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Humor

Prokof’ev’s bad dog

In 1917 Sergej Sergeevič Prokof’ev briefly returned to one of his childhood interests: writing fiction.

He considered what this pursuit entailed. “My style caused me concern,” he wrote. “Did it have individuality or was it awkward?”

Ultimately he concluded, “If there’s an idea, then the style will be subservient to the idea. If I have an idea, that means I’m an author.”

One of his short stories, Пудель: Мерзкая собака (The poodle: A bad dog) was published in an English translation by Three oranges (3 [May 2002] pp. 6–9; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2002-9136. The full text is here). A surprise twist at the end is a wry nod to the composer’s interest in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Below, Prokof’ev’s good dog.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Animals, Humor, Literature

Women and gramophones

A letter published in the June 1925 issue of Gramophone noted the magazine’s general absence of women correspondents: “are the sweet little things too shy, or what?” A response published in August of that year dismissed the idea of women enjoying the gramophone: “ladies…want to be seen and also to see. They don’t want to listen. That will never interest them.”

The October issue included a letter from a woman reader who noted that women have less money at their disposal for entertainment than men, and that when she attends concerts she sees many women, including poor ones, listening attentively. “I can only conclude,” she wrote, “that certain of your correspondents have been singularly unfortunate in the circle of women they have drawn about them.”

The letters are reprinted in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2012-7059). Below, a gramophone recording by the incomparable Josephine Baker.

Related article: Gramophone ethics

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Filed under Curiosities, Mass media, Reception, Women's studies

Debussy and gamelan

Claude Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music from a relatively small group at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle; he finally heard a full ensemble at the 1900 Exposition.

While he generally disapproved of the Orientalism of earlier Romantic-era composers, he found tremendous inspiration in gamelan music—not in its surface exoticism, but in the details of its structure, texture, and modality.

Exposure to Javanese gamelan music was one of the important catalysts in the flowering of Debussy’s mature style, and it left its mark on his work in a much broader and more profound way than is generally supposed.

“Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play,” he wrote, “and if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.”

He also wrote of “Javanese rhapsodies, which, instead of confining themselves in a traditional form, develop according to the fantasy of countless arabesques.”

This according to Echoes from the East: The Javanese gamelan and its influence on the music of Claude Debussy, a 1988 dissertation for the University of Texas, Austin, by Kiyoshi Tamagawa (RILM Abstracts 1988-4625).

Today is Debussy’s 160th birthday! Below, “Sirènes” from his Nocturnes, a piece in which Tamagawa demonstrates extensive influence of gamelan music; this influence may be best discerned in the two-piano version presented here.

Related article: Historic Balinese gamelans

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