Category Archives: Curiosities

Lilliput in Greece

In 1975, during the transition in Greece from military dictatorship to democracy, the composer Manos Chatzidakis was appointed director of the Third Program of Ellīnikī Radiofonīa and asked the choreographer and director Reggina Kapetanaki to help him create an educational radio show for small children.

The result of this collaboration was Edō Lilipoupolī (“Here is Lilliput”), set in an imaginary world loosely based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s travels. The show’s locations and characters could often be identified by older listeners as satirical references to Greek places and people, and songs composed for it became popular vehicles of political commentary. Sometimes the satire bit too deeply for the government, which accused the creators of producing Communist propaganda, but Chatzidakis, thanks to his personal prestige, was generally able to protect them. The program ran until 1980.

This according to “Children’s songs as socio-political comment in the Greek radio show Edō Lilipoupoli” by Aikaterinī Giampoura, an essay included in Radio art and music: Culture, aesthetics, politics (Lanham: Lexington Books 2020, 235–54).

Below, an album compiled from various episodes.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Mass media, Pedagogy, Politics

Taarab and mpasho

The Swahili word mpasho is related to the verb -pasha, “to cause to get”, and it refers to someone “getting the message”.

In the popular genre taarab, mpasho performances involve sending and receiving powerful communications—often competetive and antagonistic in nature—through song texts. The subject may be an individual, an organization, or social group, any of which may respond with their own mpasho performance. The phenomenon arose among women singers, most notably Siti binti Saad (above).

This according to “Hot kabisa! The mpasho phenomenon and taarab in Zanzibar” by Janet Topp Fargion, an essay included in Mashindano! Competitive music performance in East Africa (Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2000; 39–53). Below, Siti binti Saad’s Wewe paka (You are a cat, 1930) sends a message about unwanted sexual advances that would resonate with today’s #MeToo movement.

Related article: Taarab redux

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies

Ballerinas and honeybees

The relational and cooperative labor of a corps de ballet illuminates the ways the dancers’ embodied knowledge and decision-making processes constitute a vital part of a production’s impact.

Two key aspects of dancers’ performances as a corps de ballet are collaboration and cooperation, which are components of eusociality, a term used to describe the highest level of organization of sociality, commonly observed in honeybees. Through embodied experiences and dancers’ decision-making, a corps de ballet operates in ways that are similar to democratic decision-making processes in honeybee behaviors.

This according to “Cooperation, communication, and collaboration: The sociality of a corps de ballet” by Kate Mattingly and Laura Kay Young (Dance chronicle XLIII/2 [2020] 132–44).

Above and below, La royaume des ombres from La bayadère is widely considered one of the world’s most demanding corps de ballet numbers.

BONUS: A short film on honeybee eusociality.

Related article: The postmodern ballerina

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Dance

Vincenzo Bellini, zampognaro

When he was growing up in Catania, Sicily, Bellini undoubtedly heard the peasants from the far side of Mount Etna who came to town every Advent with their zampogne (bagpipes). The young prodigy was influenced by these traditional musicians in several ways.

The bagpipers’ improvisations helped to shape the seemingly meandering and unpredictable melodies that Bellini became famous for. Also, the balance between the drones and the chanters influenced his handling of accompaniment and melody. Finally, the music of the bagpipes found its way into Bellini’s uses of modality, his chromaticisms, and his oscillations between major and minor keys. The Mediterranean vibrancy of his slow music was particularly grounded in the traditional music of his youth.

This according to Vincenzo Bellini, zampognaro del melodramma by Salvatore Enrico Failla (Catania: Maimone, 1985).

Today is Bellini’s 220th birthday! Below, a modern-day incarnation of the Sicilian Advent zampognaro.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, Opera, Romantic era

Bat City music

This Halloween, let’s visit the home of the largest urban bat colony in the world—Austin, Texas, where a group of Mexican free-tailed bats arrived in the early 1980s and found a highly suitable breeding environment.

Now nicknamed Bat City, Austin has forged links with the city’s more official nickname, Live Music Capital of the World. The annual Bat Fest combines a music festival with the bats’ nightly emergence, literally turning the latter into a performance event, and the city’s many bat-themed musical groups include the Bat City Surfers, a “horror surf punk” band whose members self-identify as descendants of bats.

This according to “Bat City: Becoming with bats in the Austin music scene” by Julianne Graper (MUSICultures XLV/1–2 [2018] 14–34); RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-47414).

Above, bats flying in front of the iconic Frost Bank Tower in downtown Austin. Below, the Bat City Surfers hold forth.

More Halloween-related posts are here.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Popular music

Liszt’s monster instrument

In September 1854 Liszt wrote to the cellist Bernhard Cossmann “My monster instrument with three keyboards arrived about a fortnight ago and seems to be a great success.”

The 3000-pound instrument, a seven-octave grand piano plus two five-octave harmonium keyboards, was built by Alexandre Père et Fils and Pierre Érard to Liszt’s specifications. Although the critic Richard Pohl reported having heard the composer play this piano-harmonium, apparently it was never heard in concert until Joris Verdin (left) presented a recital on the instrument, newly restored by Patrick Collon and the Manufacture d’orgues de Bruxelles 150 years after it was built, at the Wiener Musikverein.

In addition to the piano and pumping pedals seen above, the original version included a 20-note pedalboard and an attachment allowing an assistant to pump the bellows while the player used the organ or piano pedals; these are lost and have not been reconstructed.

This according to “Liszt’s monster instrument revisited” by Wayne T. Moore (The diapason XCVI/5 [May 2005] p. 15). Today is Liszt’s 210th birthday!

Below, Professor Verdin demonstrates Liszt’s monster instrument.

More posts about Franz Liszt are here.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, Romantic era

Antonín Dvořák, railfan

Dvořák had tremendous admiration for technical inventions, particularly locomotives—in the U.S. he might be called a railfan.

“It consists of many parts, of so many different parts, and each has its own importance, each has its own place,” he wrote. “Even the smallest screw is in place and holding something! Everything has its purpose and role and the result is amazing.”

“Such a locomotive is put on the tracks, they put in the coal and water, one person moves a small lever, the big levers start to move, and even though the cars weigh a few thousand metric cents, the locomotive runs with them like a rabbit. All of my symphonies I would give if I had invented the locomotive!”

This according to Antonín Dvořák: Komplexní zdroj informací o skladateli / A comprehensive information source on the composer, an Internet resource created by Ondřej Šupka. Many thanks to Jadranka Važanová for her discovery and translation of this wonderful quotation.

Today is Dvořák’s 180th birthday! Below, the EuroCity 77 “Antonin Dvorak” leaving Prague for Vienna.

Related article: Johannes Brahms, railfan

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Filed under Curiosities, Resources, Romantic era, Science

Beyoncé and the politics of looking

A close reading of Beyoncé’s Video phone illuminates the strategic interplay of subjectivities in a video that essentially disrupts and complicates heteronormative notions of viewing.

In this analysis, the workings of female power versus the male gaze lead to a theoretical conception of gender that contextualizes masculinity and hegemonic femininity. Ultimately, it is in the aestheticized landscape of Video phone that a counter-argument to mainstream heterosexual male imaginary emerges, one where the posthuman figure, in all its hyperreality, is musicalized in a way that defies all conventions.

This according to “Gender, sexuality and the politics of looking in Beyoncé’s Video phone (featuring Lady Gaga)” by Lori Burns and Marc Lafrance, an essay included in The Routledge research companion to popular music and gender (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017, pp. 102–16).

Today is Beyoncé’s 40th birthday! Above and below, the video in question.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies

LimerickSoundscapes

LimerickSoundscapes is an urban soundscapes project based in the small, multicultural, and post-industrial city of Limerick, Ireland, which is currently undergoing a process of urban regeneration following decades of challenges (high unemployment rates, rapid demographic shifts brought about by global migration, social disenfranchisement in marginalized neighborhoods, gangland criminality, and considerable stigmatization by the national media).

Facilitated by an interdisciplinary team involving ethnomusicologists, urban sociologists, and information technology specialists, the project combines ethnographic approaches from urban ethnomusicology with mapping practices from soundscape studies, through an evocation of critical citizenship to generate a soundscapes model that has the individual as a networked, social being and creative critical citizen at its core.

LimerickSoundscapes invites participants from a wide range of backgrounds, sourced through pre-existing routes and pathways—including clubs, charities, educational organizations, and societies—to engage in basic sound recording training on small, handheld devices. These sonic flaneurs or citizen collectors make short recordings of the sounds of their city, which are shared on an interactive website.

For the ethnomusicologists on the research team two tensions emerge. The first is around the research model, which makes collectors critical collaborators; this has implications for the open, creative, and participatory process by having an underpinning social activist agenda. The second relates to stepping outside the bounds of musicking and how that changes the more traditional role of the ethnomusicologist.

This according to “Sonic mapping and critical citizenship: Reflections on LimerickSoundscapes” by Aileen Dillane and Tony Langlois, an essay included in Transforming ethnomusicology. II: Political, social & ecological issues (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021, 96–114; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2021-3523).

Below, music in a Limerick pub.

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Returning to “La source”

Four historic performances of Arthur Saint-Léon’s ballet La source, spanning 150 years, illustrate how—through the sacrifice of a feminized nature—the work represented the biopolitics of sex and race, and the cosmopolitics of human and natural resources.

In 1866, when La source debuted, the public at the Paris Opéra may have been content to dream about its setting in the verdant Caucasus, its exotic Circassians, veiled Georgians, and powerful Khan. Yet the ballet’s botany also played to a public thinking about ethnic and exotic others at the same time—and in the same ways—as they were thinking about plants.

Along with these stereotypes, with a flower promising hybridity in a green ecology, and the death of the embodied Source recuperated as a force for regeneration, the ballet can be read as a fable of science and the performance as its demonstration.

Programmed for the opening gala of the new Opéra, the Palais Garnier, in 1875 the ballet reflected not so much a timeless Orient as timely colonial policy and engineering in North Africa, the management of water and women.

Its 2011 reinvention at the Paris Opéra, following the adoption of new legislation banning the veil in public spaces, might have staged gender and climate justice in sync with the Arab Spring, but opted instead for luxury and dream.

Its 2014 reprise might have focused on decolonizing the stage or raising eco-consciousness, but it exemplified the greater urgency attached to Islamist threat rather than imminent climate catastrophe, missing the ballet’s historic potential to make its audience think.

This according to One dead at the Paris Opera Ballet: La source 1866–2014 by Felicia M. McCarren (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2020-54905).

Above, Eugénie Fiocre in La Source, depicted by Edgar Degas circa 1868; below, an excerpt from the 2011 production.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Performance practice