Category Archives: Curiosities

Sonic control devices

 

For almost 60 years, media technologies have promised users the ability to create sonic safe spaces for themselves—from bedside white noise machines to Beats by Dre’s Hear what you want ad campaign, in which Colin Kaepernick’s headphones protect him from taunting crowds.

Noise-canceling headphones, tinnitus maskers, LPs that play ocean sounds, nature-sound mobile apps, and in-ear smart technologies illuminate how the true purpose of media is not information transmission, but rather the control of how we engage our environment. These devices give users the freedom to remain unaffected in the changeable and distracting spaces of contemporary capitalism, revealing how racial, gendered, ableist, and class ideologies shape our desire to block unwanted sounds.

In a noisy world of haters, trolls, and information overload, guarded listening can be a necessity for self-care, but our efforts to shield ourselves can also decrease our tolerance for sonic and social difference.

This according to Hush: Media and sonic self-control by Mack Hagood (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

Below, the Beats by Dre/Kaepernick commercial.

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Musiri’s moustache

 

The revered Karnatak vocalist Musiri Subramania Iyer only acted in one film: Thukkaram (1938), in which he portrayed the 17th-century Hindu poet and saint Tukaram.

The shooting of the film ran into an unusual problem. The hero had to sport a bushy moustache, and in those days makeup materials were crude and even primitive. Moustaches and beards were stuck to the actor’s face with spirit gum, and when the gum dried the skin would burn and pull, the degree of irritation depending on the sensitivity of one’s skin.

Musiri suffered unbearable irritation, and he threatened that he would walk out if he had to endure the suffering any longer. Left with no choice, the producers permitted him to grow his own moustache. The shooting had to be stopped while Musiri waited for his lip hair to grow to the degree of bushiness required by the script.

This according to “Filmsinger in saint’s clothing: Tuka-ram” by Randor Guy (Sruti 176 [May 1999] pp. 35–38).

Today is Musiri’s 120th birthday! Above, a publicity shot for the film; below, an excerpt.

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Sad news

 

The British artist Rod Summers created the audiotape collage Sad news with razor blade, splicing block, and tape in 1979; it alternates between snippets of BBC News reports and a distinguished male voice saying “I’m sad, very sad.”

Summers put the piece in a self-published compilation as part of his cassette underground project VEC Audio Exchange, and sent 63 copies around the world. Copy no. 40 was sent to the Canadian audio artist Dan Lander, who found it “profoundly inspirational” in the way that “it offered such a simple, yet powerful message by stating the obvious and letting the news speak for itself.” He places the work in the same period and category as the Scratch video movement and works by Negativland.

The humor (and sadness) of the piece arises with the surprise of the initial interruption and then continues with a fascination with the subtle applicability of further interruptions, and how repetition itself begins to take on different guises.

This according to “Where does sad news come from?” by Douglas Kahn, an essay included in Cutting across media: Appropriation art, interventionist collage, and copyright law (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011, pp. 94–116).

Below, the piece in question.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor

Competitive krumping

 

Krumping, a 21st-century incarnation of break dancing, embodies both competitive and spiritual dimensions that manifest in the circle harkening back to the African American ring shout. Krumping is a type of serious play that combines aspects of street fighting, moshing, spirit possession, and even striptease, wherein dancers may confront anger, pain, and sadness.

In krumping competitions, one dancer sits in a chair while the other performs to the seated opponent with boastful moves of intimidation. Though the dancers are not allowed to touch each other, they get as close as they can—close enough to feel their opponent’s breath and sweat, to make their blood burn and boil. As a locus of spirit possession, krumping competitions become contests of physical and emotional revealing.

This according to “The multiringed cosmos of krumping: Hip-hop dance at the intersections of battle, media, and spirit” by Christina Zanfagna, an essay included in Ballroom, boogie, shimmy sham, shake: A social and popular dance reader (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009, pp. 337–53).

Above and below, excerpts from Rize, a documentary from 2005.

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Dance

Mellie Dunham and Henry Ford

 

While Henry Ford’s mind looked toward the mechanized, industrialized future, his heart was in the past—a world where life was simple, and entertainment meant old-time music and dance with one’s family and neighbors. An amateur fiddler himself, Ford enthusiastically encouraged participation in these pursuits, and was always on the lookout for contacts with outstanding old-time fiddlers.

One such contact was Mellie Dunham, a snowshoe maker, farmer, and fiddler in rural Maine. Thinking that a letter from Ford was just another order for snowshoes, he put it aside until he had time for it. When he finally opened it, he replied to Ford that he was too busy with farm work to accept the auto maker’s invitation to visit him in Detroit.

Local newspapers caught wind of the story, and eventually it took the state’s governor to persuade Dunham to make the visit. The fiddler departed Maine in December 1925 to great fanfare, in a Pullman railroad car provided by Ford. After the trip, Dunham formed a band that toured the vaudeville circuit making as much as $1500 a week, until he eventually went back to his snowshoe business in Maine.

This according to “Henry Ford: A penchant for fiddling” by Matt Merta (Fiddler magazine XXV/1 [spring 2018] pp. 13–16).

Below, Dunham plays a medley of old-time reels.

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“Once upon a time in Shaolin”

 

 

In 2007 the innovative young Wu-Tang Clan producer Cilvaringz took an incendiary idea to his mentor RZA. They felt that the impact of digitization threatened the sustainability of the record industry and independent artists, while shifting the perception of music from treasured works of art to disposable consumer products.

Together they conceived a statement that would unleash a torrent of global debate–a sole copy of an album in physical form, encased in gleaming silver and sold through an auction house for millions as a work of contemporary art.

The execution of this plan raised a number of questions: Would selling Once upon a time in Shaolin for millions be the ultimate betrayal of Wu-Tang’s fans? And could anyone ever justify the selling of the album to the infamous Martin Shkreli? Opinions were sharply divided over whether this was high art or hucksterism. Was it a subversive act of protest, an act of cultural vandalism, an obscene symbol of greed, or a profound mirror for our time?

The album’s journey from inception to disruption proved to be an extraordinary adventure that veered between outlandish caper and urgent cultural analysis, a story that twists and turns through mayhem and mischief while asking questions about our relationship with art, music, technology, and ultimately ourselves.

This according to Once upon a time in Shaolin: The untold story of Wu-Tang Clan’s million dollar secret album, the devaluation of music, and America’s new public enemy no. 1 by Cyrus Bozorgmehr (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017).

Above and below, the album in question.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music

Homer Rodeheaver, trombonist-evangelist

 

Homer Rodeheaver used his gifts as a trombone player as a tool for evangelism, and is particularly associated with what is known as the third great awakening.

Rodeheaver established a legacy by influencing, inspiring, and encouraging others to use the trombone in large-scale Christian evangelism. His missionary work took him, always with his trombone, to many parts of the world, and included a supposedly successful attempt to preach from an airplane with his trombone in tow.

This according to “Homer Rodeheaver: Reverend Trombone” by Douglas Yeo (Historic Brass Society journal XXVII [2015] pp. 57–88).

You can listen to a recording of Rodeheaver playing the trombone here.

BONUS: Rare footage of Rodeheaver with Billy Sunday; Rodeheaver starts conducting audience hymn singing with his trombone around 2:00.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers

How to destroy an organ

 

Part of the U.S. Army technical manual published on 13 November 1963 dealt with the installation, operation, and maintenance of the Hammond organ, which was then the instrument of choice in chapels on army bases.

One of the chapters details the destruction of the organ in the case of the capture or abandonment of the instrument to an enemy, urging all concerned to memorize the procedures so the manual will not have to be consulted in an emergency.

The chapter (above) is reprinted in “Your tax dollars at work for you” by Rollin Smith (The American organist LI/7 [July 2017] p. 88. Below, one way to do the job.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Instruments

Cymbals and symbols in ancient Greece

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses an astonishing bronze figurine, perhaps unearthed in Cyprus: a nude woman playing a pair of cymbals, standing on a frog (inv. no. 74.51.5680). It was probably the handle of a mirror, and the craftmanship is typical of ancient Laconia.

Scholars have never explained the relationships between all the represented elements, but the figurine is obviously related to ancient Spartan music, or at least to its soundscape.

We may wonder whether there is a link between the frog and the cymbals in terms of sound. Did ancient Greeks perceive the croaking as a percussive sound? In Greek antiquity, frogs seem to be associated with several types of instruments.

Since the figurine might come from Cyprus and it depicts a nude woman, it is usually interpreted as Aphrodite. However, if it is a Laconian piece of art, it seems more relevant to recognize here one of the main goddesses of Sparta, Artemis Orthia. She stands on a frog, because her sanctuary was located in the marshlands of Sparta, a place appropriate for batrachia. This place had a specific soundscape of croaking frogs and water sounds. Further, there are remains of feline paws on her shoulders; the archaic Artemis is the mistress of wild beasts.

In the sanctuary, archaeologists found cymbals and auloi dedicated to the goddess for apotropaic purposes. It may be opportune to compare this piece with Asian drums decorated with frogs, which were used to ask for rain fertility: perhaps the cymbals associated with croaking had the same function in ancient Spartan marshlands.

This according to “Croaking and clapping: A new look at an ancient Greek bronze figurine (from Sparta)” by Sylvain Perrot (Music in art XLIII/1–2 [2018] pp. 175–83)

Below, an illicit visit to the sanctuary.

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Filed under Animals, Antiquity, Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments, Nature

“White Christmas” and fantasy proneness

 

In an experiment, 44 undergraduate students were asked to listen to white noise and instructed to press a button when they believed that they were hearing a recording of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas without this recording actually being presented.

Fourteen participants (32%) pressed the button at least once. These participants had higher scores on fantasy proneness and the Launay–Slade Hallucination Scale (LSHS) compared to participants without hallucinatory reports. Both groups did not differ in terms of imagery vividness or sensitivity to social demands.

Logistic regression suggested that fantasy proneness is a better predictor of hallucinatory reports than are LSHS scores. This might imply that hallucinatory reports obtained during the White Christmas test reflect a non-specific preference for odd items rather than schizophrenia-like internal experiences.

This according to “Another White Christmas: Fantasy proneness and reports of hallucinatory experiences in undergraduate students” by Harald Merckelbach and Vincent van de Ven (Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry XXXII/3 [September 2001] pp. 137–44). Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this study to our attention!

Below, White Christmas and fantasy proneness in Hollywood; wait for the dialogue around 2:00!

Related article: White Christmas goes viral

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