Category Archives: Curiosities

Not Luka Sorkočević

In 2015 the Hrvatska pošta produced a stamp honoring the eighteenth-century Croatian composer Luka Sorkočević, inadvertently illustrated with an image of the U.S. president Thomas Jefferson.

The mistake was discovered just before the stamp’s release, and the entire run was withdrawn and destroyed, though one post office had sold 22 examples of it prior to the release date.

In view of the events and given the fact that apparently no copies had yet reached the philatelic market, a 2018 advertisement from the auction house Barac & Pervan noted that this stamp should become widely sought after; and since this rarity is also important for the American philatelic market, its value is expected to increase over time.

This according to “Unissued stamp from 2015 supposed to show Mr. Luka Sorkočević” (Barac & Pervan 2018). Below, one of the composer’s symphonies.

Comments Off on Not Luka Sorkočević

Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Iconography, Reception

The Mills violano virtuoso

 

Nobody knows how many of the 2,500 violano virtuosos manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company between 1912 and 1926 exist today, but one ended up in the Smithsonian Institution in 1959, where it was designated one of the eight greatest inventions of the decade.

A complex instrument, it contains a 44-note piano with bass strings in the center and treble notes on either side in addition to a real violin. An electric motor with variable speeds simulates the action of bowing through the use of electromagnets.

Arthur Sanders, a specialist in mechanical instruments, was engaged to oversee the instrument’s restoration. “I assumed theirs had been in operating condition when they got it,” Sanders later noted, “but the grease had jelled, the oil had become gummy, and it needed new strings.” Mr. Sanders worked on it with some spare parts from similar instruments. “Even the curators from the fossil section came around,” he said, describing what must have been an exciting moment for the famous museum.

This according to “Making music with machines” by James Feron (The New York times 17 June 1984, pp. 507, 529). Above and below, the rare double violano virtuoso.

Comments Off on The Mills violano virtuoso

Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

Athanasius Kircher’s global reach

Musical commodities frequently accompanied European explorers, soldiers, merchants, and missionaries who traveled to Asia in the early modern period. During this time, numerous theoretical treatises and musical scores—both printed and manuscript—were disseminated throughout Asia.

One of the most significant of these musical imports was Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia universalis, which provided far-flung missions with vital information on music theory, history, organology, composition, and performance. An unexpected letter to Kircher from Manila, sent just four years after the treatise’s publication in Rome, provides testimony to its importance:

“I am so obliged to Your Reverence not only for the great kindness with which Your Reverence treated me in Rome, but also for the instruction that Your Reverence gives me all day in these remote parts of the world by means of your books, which are no less esteemed here than [they are] in Europe.”

“Here in Manila I am studying the fourth year of theology, and I see for myself the many marvels that Your Reverence recounts in his books. I have been the first to bring one of these, that is, the Musurgia, to the Indies, and I do not doubt that it will be of great usefulness to the Fathers of the missions, where music is taught publicly. Father Ignatio Monti Germano, Rector of Silang, wants to read it, and I will send it to him shortly.”

This according to “The dissemination and use of European music books in early modern Asia” by David R.M. Irving (Early music history XXVIII [2009] pp. 39–59).

This year marks the 390th anniversary of Kircher’s ordination! Above, the frontispiece to the first volume, engraved after a drawing by Johann Paul Schor; below, Kircher’s celebrated musical cure for a tarantula bite.

Related article: Baroque birdsong

1 Comment

Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities, Reception

Père Castel’s ocular harpsichord

 

The Jesuit priest Louis-Bertrand Castel had his hour of fame in the 18th century thanks to his ocular harpsichord.

Starting from the idea of a physical analogy between sound and color, Castel conceived of a harpsichord that would diffuse a music of colors organized into a scale on the basis of their natural correspondence with sounds. In this way he sought to reveal the rational principles that determine the order of nature, grounding art in reason. Art would thus bear witness to a divine intelligence compatible with reason, and the music of colors would be a form of revelation.

In addition, this development would rescue people from boredom, the languor that takes away their feeling of existing, by ensuring continuous movement and surprise, renewing the pleasure of variety, and satisfying the natural inconstancy that goads them relentlessly to seek other objects of pleasure. From this to the preaching of a libertine art was a matter of a single step, which Castel took without realizing it. For him, amusement had achieved a respected place in the world.

This according to Le Père Castel et le clavecin oculaire by Corinna Gepner (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2014).

Today is Castel’s 330th birthday! Above, a caricature of Père Castel and his instrument by Charles Germain de Saint Aubin; below, a brief discussion.

Comments Off on Père Castel’s ocular harpsichord

Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

Kumi wudui vocal culture

 

Ryūkyūan kumi wudui (組踊, Japanese kumi odori) uses a variety of codified vocal techniques to identify the gender and social class of each character. Degrees of musicality, variation in timbre, and pitch inflection are all understood as emblematic of particular character types.

These vocal techniques are constructed within Ryūkyūan society with reference to the Ryūkyūan language, class system, and gender relationships. Many parallels can be drawn between the ways vocal identities are constructed in kumi wudui vocal culture and in other world theater traditions.

This according to “Listening to the voice in kumiudui: Representations of social class and gender through speech, song, and prosody” by Matt Gillan (Asian music XLIX/1 [winter–spring 2018] pp. 4–33).

Below, some examples of kumi wudui vocal types.

Comments Off on Kumi wudui vocal culture

Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Dramatic arts

Dance video games and media ecology

 

What happens when machines teach humans to dance?

Dance video games transform players’ experiences of popular music, invite experimentation with gendered and racialized movement styles, and present new possibilities for teaching, learning, and archiving choreography.

Dance games are part of a media ecology that includes the larger game industry, viral music videos, reality TV competitions, marketing campaigns, and emerging surveillance technologies. The circulation of dance gameplay and related body projects across media platforms illuminates how dance games function as intimate media, configuring new relationships among humans, interfaces, music and dance repertoires, and social media practices.

This according to Playable bodies: Dance games and intimate media by Kiri Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Above, a Just dance session; below, a Dance central session. Both game series serve as case studies in the book, which draws on five years of research with players, game designers, and choreographers.

Comments Off on Dance video games and media ecology

Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Popular music

Asante gold-dust weights

Until the second half of the mid-19th century, the Asante and related peoples of Ghana and the Ivory Coast used small brass castings made by the lost-wax process as weights for measuring their gold-dust currency.

These weights, made in large numbers by professional metal workers, came in all shapes and sizes. There were two sorts of weights: those which represent miniature objects, creatures, and activities from local life, and those in non-representational, geometrical forms.

Many of the representational weights depicted musical instruments, either on their own or being played, and activities which traditionally took place to the accompaniment of music. The great majority of these weights show only two types of instruments: ivory trumpets, and various types of drums.

This according to “Music and gold-weights in Asante” by Malcolm Donald McLeod (British museum yearbook 1980, pp. 225–42).

Above, a weight depicting a pair of atumpan drums of the Akan people; below, the atumpan in action.

1 Comment

Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments

Gershwin and Berg

Most fans of George Gershwin’s music would be surprised to learn of his admiration for an early atonal masterpiece: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. He visited Berg in Vienna, and the score he owned of Wozzeck was one of his most prized possessions; he traveled to Philadelphia in 1931 to attend the work’s American premiere.

Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess is heavily indebted to Wozzeck. These debts primarily involve structural processes, understanding structure as patterns of discrete events shared by the two operas. Motives and chords play a role in the discussion, alongside musical events that range from the large—a fugue or a lullaby—to the small—a pedal, an ostinato, or some detail of counterpoint.

Beyond the presence in both operas of a lullaby, a fugue, a mock sermon, and an upright piano, the greater relevance of these parallels and others is to be found in the ways in which Gershwin situated them in comparable musical contexts.

This according to “Porgy and Bess: An American Wozzeck” by Christopher A. Reynolds (Journal of the Society for American Music I/1 [February 2007] pp. 1–28).

Today is Gershwin’s 120th birthday! Below, the atonal fugue depicting the murder of Crown from Catfish Row, his suite from the opera.

Comments Off on Gershwin and Berg

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

From virginal to Tangentenflügel

 

A small polygonal virginal built by Franciscus Bonafinis in 1585 was ingeniously converted to a tangent piano in 1717; this was accomplished simply by replacing its jacks with shorter slips of wood and moving its strings so that they lie directly over the jack slots, producing an instrument with struck rather than plucked strings whose sound varies in loudness with the force applied to the keys. The instrument is now at the Metropolitan Museum.

Instruments employing this principle were well-known in the eighteenth century—the trend culminated in the Späth & Schmahl Tangentenflügel.

This according to “En route to the piano: A converted virginal” by Edwin M. Ripin (Metropolitan Museum journal XIII [1978] pp. 79–86).

Above, the Museum’s depiction of the instrument; below, Aleksej Borisovič Lûbimov performs on a tangent piano.

Comments Off on From virginal to Tangentenflügel

Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

Bhad Bhabie arrives

 

In 2017 a Florida teenager went from a notorious segment on the Dr. Phil show to signing a major-label record deal as a rapper.

A September 2016 episode of the daytime talk show featured a segment called “I want to give up my car-stealing, knife-wielding, twerking 13-year-old daughter who tried to frame me for a crime!” with Danielle Bregoli and her exasperated mother. Soon after airing, a clip from the episode went viral on social media. In it Bregoli dared audience members to “cash me outside, howbowdah?” (catch me outside, how about that?) The phrase—part Florida, part Brooklyn, part misconceived black vernacular English—entered the pop culture lexicon.

Having achieved her 15 minutes of fame, Bregoli was written off by most as yet another fly-by-night social media star, but music executive Adam Kluger saw something more. A pioneer in dealmaking between artists and brands, he was known for negotiating deals where pop stars were paid for endorsing clothing, dating apps, porn sites, and psychic hotlines, through product placements and other sponsored content in song lyrics and music videos.

After a string of high-profile successes, Kluger became estranged from the music industry after a deal gone bad. Following an extended vacation, he plotted his return and his revenge: “I’m going to find something that’s just so obscure, and I’m going to make it popular…I’m going to pull every trick I’ve ever pulled with brands and make someone into a walking, talking brand to prove my worth.”

Setting his sights on Danielle Bregoli, a rap music career was chosen as the best avenue for a more lasting and more remunerative form of celebrity. With her proven talent for turning a memorable phrase and her passion for rap music, the Bhad Bhabie persona (pronounced “bad baby”) was born.

This according to “The big business of becoming Bhad Bhabie” by Jamie Lauren Keiles (The New York times magazine 8 July 2018, pp. 38 ff.).

Above and below, These heaux, Bregoli’s first single, which made her the youngest rapper to have a single debut on the Billboard Hot 100.

BONUS: The clip from Dr. Phil.

Comments Off on Bhad Bhabie arrives

Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music