György Ligeti freely acknowledged the influence of African music on his work—an influence that is seldom readily obvious, though it can be teased out by analysis.
After he listened to recordings of African drumming, Ligeti began exploring the use of various rhythms through multiplication of the basic pulse, a concept that resonated with the additive rhythms of the traditional music that he grew up with in Hungary.
In one of his few passages involving the use of an African-sounding instrument, the third movement of his piano concerto includes an Africanesque pattern played on bongos. He marked the part to be played very quietly, so rather than being foregrounded it serves almost subliminally to reinforce patterns being played simultaneously on other instruments. Unlike most African drumming, this bongo pattern evolves over time, so that its end is quite different from its beginning.
Ligeti’s works from the 1960s onward were distinguished by a palette of musical motives and ideas that he half-ironically referred to as Ligeti signals. Starting in the 1980s, he expanded this palette to include African devices along with others that share an extraordinary openness to external ideas and influences. He avoided copying these influences wholesale, instead working on a higher conceptual level. This abstraction implied an objective respect for the powerful ideas he was working with, as well as indicating a strong personality able to hold its own with them.
This according to “Ligeti, Africa, and polyrhythm” by Stephen Andrew Taylor (The world of music XLV/2  pp. 83–94; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2003-4435).
Today is Ligeti’s 100th birthday! Below, Mihkel Poll performs the concerto movement discussed above.
BONUS: RILM is a sponsor of the Ligeti Festival Transylvania celebrating György Ligeti’s 100th birthday! More information is here.
The Shakers built their first framed meetinghouse near New Lebanon, New York, along the Massachusetts border, in 1785; this structure assumed the central authority over the Shaker domain and became the architectural prototype for eleven other late–18th-century meetinghouses in New England.
The design of these structures had several distinctive elements, including a heavy timber frame, a sturdy wood-plank floor, double façade doors for separate male and female entry, leadership apartments above the private gable-end door and stairs, carefully gendered spaces throughout, a gambrel roof, and a singular unobstructed ground-floor space to accommodate dynamic communal dancing during worship.
The dance ritual influenced Shaker meetinghouse design and construction in two key ways: it required the adaptation of a mascular timber-frame technology that allowed a broad, uninterrupted floor space; and it necessitated substantial reinforcement of the flooring to safely meet the demands of the large, live weight loads of many worshipers moving rhythmically in unison.
In the floor are noticeable inserted cues, suggesting the arrangements of Shaker dance movements for a maximal dramatic exposure of the dancers’ bodies and faces to public visitors, as Shaker Sabbath performances were attended by large crowds of visitors and were a critical outreach to potential converts. The presence of triangular or fanlike cue patterns opening from the center area of the rear wall outward toward the front double doors in meetinghouses of the Mount Lebanon, Watervliet, Canterbury, Hancock/Shirley, and Harvard buildings demonstrate a level of consistency at villages across at least three states.
(click to enlarge)
It appears plausible that the Shakers’ use of pins specifically placed for dance formations originated at Mount Lebanon, but the idea may have had been even older and implemented already in Dutch barns near Watervliet. The use of dance-floor cues provided greater precision and coordination for public dance performances similar to that provided for marching bands by yardage marks on athletic fields.
This according to “‘Leap and shout, ye living building!’: Ritual performance and architectural collaboration in early Shaker meetinghouses” by Arthur E. McLendon (Buildings & landscapes: Journal of the vernacular architecture forum XX/3 [fall 2013] pp. 48–76; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2013-14581).
Scholars have long known that Wagner had a deep and lasting interest in Buddhism; less known are the specific insights garnered from Buddhism that are manifested in Parsifal. The key to understanding this connection is the enigmatic figure of Kundry.
Contrary to the common interpretation of Kundry as the incarnation of the will, and in light of Wagner’s admiration for Schopenhauer, she may be seen as the personification of desire. Desiring, which is different from wanting, is a fundamental aspect of Buddhism. As Buddha explained in his very first sermon, desire is the cause of suffering (dukkha). Buddhist teaching holds that suffering can only be overcome when desire is vanquished.
Kundry appears in three forms in Parsifal; these correspond to the three forms of desire in Buddhism. This interpretation aligns the work’s Christian, pagan, and Buddhist symbolism as an expression of the inner way that is shared by all who tread the path of religious mysticism. Through extensive study of Buddhism, Wagner came to understand the deeper side of all religions, a universal truth that all mediators of religious traditions come to understand.
This according to “Kundry: The personification of the role of desire in the holy life” by Pandit Bhikkhu (Cittasamvaro) (Wagnerspectrum III/2  pp. 97–114; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2007-20593).
Brahms’s correspondence reveals that he was very fond of railroad travel; nowadays he might be called a railfan.
In an 1881 letter to George Henschel, Brahms noted that he was spending the summer in the Viennese suburb of Pressbaum, observing that “I shall be only a short distance by rail, which, however, I always travel with great pleasure.”
Advising his father on taking a train to visit him in 1867, the composer wrote:
Now you get a ticket direct to Vienna by way of Berlin, Dresden, Prague. The ticket must be valid for 5–8 days. Be sure of both things! Costs about 30 thaler second class all the way.
There are only two trains. You can of course travel through in one go—in about 32 hours. That works only if you have rainy, cool weather! Otherwise you couldn’t stand it. But since the ticket is good for a week, you can also stop over for a day or half a day in each city, and look around it. But if so, go first of all to a good hotel and make use of porters and [public] servants for hire as guides. If you continue on right away in Berlin you must take a hackney to the other station. A policeman hands out the voucher at the exit.
Before you travel the night through, as is practical in the heat, drink a glass of grog so you sleep well. But take along very little, for example no scruffy things for the trip! No cigars, nothing new, nothing that is taxable. You’ll find every conceivable thing here with me. Don’t let that make your journey uncomfortable.
With the advent of railroad travel, musicians like Brahms enjoyed travel opportunities that previously were possible only through complex logistical arrangements, sometimes involving significant physical hardship. As a symbol of the industrial age, the railway did not threaten him; he was comfortable with steam propelling him, not least when he traversed the distance between Vienna and his beloved Hamburg.
James Brown had an uncanny ability to synthesize the talents of musicians from disparate musical fields into a cohesive ensemble. Still, many of his peers had little regard for his own musical abilities.
“He has no real musical skills…yet he could hold his own onstage with any jazz virtuoso—because of his guts” one of his former bandleaders explained. Indeed, many of Brown’s own players dreamed of eventually moving from pop to jazz, where their individual abilities would shine more brightly.
There is a certain irony in the fact that someone maligned by his colleagues for his apparent musical ineptitude would end up influencing the very musicians that they looked up to: Miles Davis, for example, changed the bebop world when he took the radical step of incorporating Brown’s rhythmic innovations into his music. Further, Brown’s influence is explicitly acknowledged by rap musicians, spawning developments in popular music that continue to reverberate around the world.
A compelling valorization of Brown’s approach is suggested by Gilles Deleuze’s account, in Différence et répétition, of the Idiot as the pedant’s polar opposite. As a musical Idiot, Brown’s naive immunity to conceptual rules or institutionally dominant forms of thinking—his capacity for thought without presupposition—enabled modes of conceptual originality that evaded the musically trained.
“Funk was not a project” he explained. “It happened as part of my ongoing thing…I wasn’t going for some known sound, I was aimin’ for what I could hear.”
Brown’s bravado and innovations were necessary because he lacked the musical and cultural capital of his peers. Deleuze’s Idiot is self-assured because he is not bothered with any image of thought that cannot see him; for Brown, reason yielded to experimentation because his poverty-stricken childhood had demonstrated that abstractions were useless for solving the immanent problems at hand.
Brown had a superlative ability to forge new connections, to make music work regardless of its orthodoxy. This is what Deleuze attributed to the great artist—one who could make new and unforeseen connections.
This according to “James Brown: The illogic of innovation” by John Scannell (New formations: A journal of culture/theory/politics 66 [spring 2009] pp. 118–133; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2009-17662).
Today would have been Brown’s 90th birthday! Below, the Godfather of Soul defies logic in his heyday.
Let’s celebrate this historic event by visiting an odd corner of the album’s reception history: a meticulous and complex theory claiming that it was conceived, constructed, and produced as a deliberate and calculated musical accompaniment to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, and that its sounds and silences will, if correctly decoded, reveal explicit and specific congruences with key scenes in the movie.
The theory’s origins can be traced to the mid-1990s, when fans began excitedly posting on Pink Floyd websites about synchronicities that result from simultaneously watching the film and listening to the album. Soon these fansites provided detailed instructions for experiencing these audio-visual parallels. Typically viewers are told to start the film and begin playing the album at the MGM trademark lion’s third roar; if the music begins at the moment that the words “Produced by Mervin Leroy” appear on the screen the synchronization is on track, and the coincidences begin:
Just after the words “look around” in Breathe, Dorothy turns around;
The words “balanced on the biggest wave” accompany Dorothy balancing on a fence;
At the words “no one told you when to run” Dorothy breaks into a trot;
Many aspects of the Munchkin scene are coordinated with Money;
The chimes in Time coincide with the appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West;
and so on, with different websites claiming as many as 70 to 100 moments of synchronicity.
Although the band members have dismissively refuted any association between the album and the film, enthusiasm for the theory continues unabated. On one level, this phenomenon may be an example of an urban myth. On another level, it may reveal much about how texts can generate multiple meanings that dispel the tyranny of the imposed explanation—one of the principal tenets underlying the relocation of the consumer as active rather than passive.
This according to “‘We’re not in Kansas any more’: Music, myth and narrative structure in The dark side of the moon” by Lee Barron and Ian Inglis, an essay included in “Speak to me”: The legacy of Pink Floyd’s “The dark side of the moon” (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005, 56–66; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-6807).
Below, we invite you to see how many coincidences you can discover!
Tall enough to pass as a teenager, he found a temporary job as a substitute cellist in an amusement-park orchestra, and when the former cellist returned he was offered a job playing violin. Piatigorsky accepted gamely, and found that he could play the unfamiliar instrument easily in undemanding passages; but for more difficult ones he had to revert to playing it between his knees, like a cello. For distracting attention from the conductor and eliciting unwelcome applause, the boy was fired.
Still lacking the funds to return to Moscow, he found a job in a café orchestra. To keep the underaged cellist from seeing the nude dancers onstage, the owner had him turn to face the wall of the pit and provided a mirror so he could see the conductor. When he quit in sympathy for a fired dancer he had developed a crush on, he was given a week’s pay.
Piatigorsky used the money to buy a train ticket as far north toward Moscow as he could; he finally arrived home after about 12 days of hitching rides on freight trains by night, sleeping during the day, and selling everything but his cello for food.
This according to Gregor Piatigorsky: The life and career of the virtuoso cellist by Terry King (Jefferson: McFarland, 2010, pp. 8–10; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-6179).
Today is Piatigorsky’s 120th birthday! Above, the cellist in his school uniform before he moved to Moscow. Below, excerpts from the film Heifitz & Piatigorsky (Kultur, 1953).
It was this annual celebration that brought the chapel to the attention of the Berlin artist and musician Carsten Nicolai, who was scouting for a location for an installation for the project 500 Kirchen—500 Ideen, which sought proposals for rescuing some of the many more or less abandoned Protestant churches in central Germany (2000 in Thuringia alone).
The resulting work, installed in 2017, is a sculptural piece entitled organ. A pyrophone built by Frank Fietzek in which gas flames generate sound by disturbing the airflow in 25 glass cylinders, the work/instrument is programmed to play a 12-minute piece composed for it by Nicolai. It has also been used for improvisation, and its presence has made the church a popular venue for various activities organized by both community members and visitors.
This according to “Klang-, Licht- und Wärmespender: Die Feuerorgel von Carsten Nicolai in der St. Annen-Kapelle Krobitz, Thüringen” by Elisa Wrobel (Organ: Journal für die Orgel XXV/4  34–36; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2022-15515).
Performed by Tonga men and boys in Malawi, malipenga involves competitive teams organized in a quasi-military hierarchy—titles include sergeant, captain, and kingi as well as doctor and nurse—dancing in rows and columns and wearing modified European costumes.
Rather than simply viewing it as a product of colonialism, malipenga should be understood in terms of the dynamic nature of ngoma traditions, an ongoing cultural feature that has survived the disruptions of the colonial period.
This according to “Putting colonialism into perspective: Cultural history and the case of malipenga ngoma in Malawi” by Lisa Gilman, an essay included in Mashindano! Competitive music performance in East Africa (Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2000, pp. 321–345; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2000-8791). Below, an example from 2018.
The medieval German town Hann. Münden was home to Johann Andreas Eisenbarth (1663–1727), a colorful figure who became a subject of folklore to the extent that fact and fiction are now difficult to untangle.
A celebrated surgeon who was bestowed with privileges by various members of German royalty, Eisenbarth had no formal medical credentials, nor was he ever officially awarded the title “Doctor”. Nevertheless, his skill and medical innovations are matters of historical record, not least his pioneering contributions to the development of cataract surgery.
Reputed to have traveled with an entourage of up to 120 attendants including musicians, acrobats, and clowns, he is said to have plied his trade in a carnival-like atmosphere. The loud music and revelry served both to attract large crowds—potential customers for Eisenbarth’s services and bottled remedies—and to drown out the cries of his patients, who underwent procedures including tooth extractions and amputations in an era before the advent of anesthetics.
In honor of this now semi-legendary resident, a mechanical clock was installed in the upper story of Hann. Münden’s Rathaus in 1980. After the stroke of noon and a brief pause, an automatic carillon plays the tune of the comical song Ich bin der Doktor Eisenbart as automata depict the doctor extracting a huge, bloody tooth from the mouth of a terrified, gesticulating patient restrained by a hammer-wielding attendant. In addition to these central figures, a juggler, an acrobat, and a flag-bearer suggest the festive nature of Eisenbarth’s medical procedures.
This according to “Dr Eisenbarth’s automated musical clock in Hann. Münden” by Mark Singleton and Sven Heinmann (The music box: An international journal of mechanical music XXVIII/5 [spring 2018] pp. 185–87; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-52039).
Today is Eisenbarth’s 360th birthday! Above and below, the good doctor in action.
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Seven strings/Сім струн (dedicated to Uncle Michael)* For thee, O Ukraine, O our mother unfortunate, bound, The first string I touch is for thee. The string will vibrate with a quiet yet deep solemn sound, The song from my heart … Continue reading →
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For it [the Walkman] permits the possibility…of imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment, it can all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FOWARD, PAUSE and REWIND buttons. –Iain Chambers, “The … Continue reading →