Category Archives: Curiosities

Roll over, Stradivari?

Old Italian violins are routinely credited with playing qualities supposedly unobtainable in new instruments. These qualities include the ability to project their sound more effectively in a concert hall—despite seeming relatively quiet under the ear of the player—compared with new violins.

Although researchers have long tried to explain the mystery of Antonio Stradivari’s sound, it is only recently that studies have addressed the fundamental assumption of tonal superiority. Results from two studies show that, under blind conditions, experienced violinists tend to prefer playing new violins over Old Italians. Moreover, they are unable to tell new from old at better than chance levels.

In two separate experiments, three new violins were compared with three by Stradivari. Projection was tested both with and without orchestral accompaniment. Projection and preference were judged simultaneously by dividing listeners into two groups.

The results were unambiguous. The new violins projected better than the Stradivaris whether tested with orchestra or without, the new violins were generally preferred by the listeners, and the listeners could not reliably distinguish new from old. The single best-projecting violin was considered the loudest under the ear by players, and on average, violins that were quieter under the ear were found to project less well.

This according to “Listener evaluations of new and Old Italian violins” by Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, and Fan-Chia Tao. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 8 May 2017).

Above, detail from Antonio Stradivari in his atelier by Antonio Rinaldi; below, a report on one of the experiments, including excerpts from interviews with Fritz and Curtin.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

Rhythm and experimental psychology

 

In the laboratories of 19th-century experimental psychologists, new concepts of precision-oriented, mechanically regulated musical time emerged as a positive ideal—one that led to the ubiquity of the metronome in the training and practice regimes of classical musicians and pervasive understandings of “good” and “bad” musical rhythm in the 20th century.

Most notably, Wilhelm Wundt included a metronome in the assembly of clockwork instruments employed in his research into the variables of human perception and action. His experiments helped to shape and define modern concepts of rhythm, radically shifting the concept of musical rhythm from a subjective, internal pulse reference to an objective, unerringly precise phenomenon independent of human agency.

At the turn of the 20th century, other psychologists, such as Carl Seashore, disseminated these scientific ideals to a wider public through important music publications, and by the 1920s such ideals were becoming pervasive among both amateur and professional music practitioners.

This according to “Refashioning rhythm: Hearing, acting and reacting to metronomic sound in experimental psychology and beyond, c. 1875–1920” by Alexander Bonus, an essay included in Cultural histories of noise, sound and listening in Europe, 1300–1918 (Abington: Routledge, 2017, pp. 76–105).

Above, Dr. Wundt (seated) and colleagues in his psychological laboratory, the first of its kind, ca. 1880; below, an abridged version of György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes.

BONUS: For the purists, a complete performance of Ligeti’s work.

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Filed under Curiosities, Source studies

The Hormel Girls

In 1946 the Hormel company created a unique organization to employ World War II veterans as musicians to market food products.

Over a seven-year period the Hormel Girls, a drum-and-bugle corps, conducted door-to-door sales, worked with local retailers in cities and towns across America, formed a professional orchestra and a choir to enhance their stage shows, and produced a weekly national radio broadcast.

This was possibly the most successful musical-marketing strategy in the history of partnerships between music and industry. The women received outstanding pay and benefits, the company doubled its profits during the group’s existence, and the performers were professional-level musicians on a par with members of other professional ensembles of the era.

This according to “The Hormel Girls” by ­Jill M. Sullivan and Danielle D. Keck (American music XXV/3 [fall 2007] pp. 282–311). Top, the group ca. 1947; center, in 1952. Below, Elisa Korenne’s Hormel Girls, illustrated with vintage photographs.

 

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

HipHop Academy Hamburg

HipHop Academy Hamburg’s rappers, dancers, and beatboxers use hip hop as a platform of integration, shaping feelings of belonging and perceptions of dual identities.

The Academy’s 2013 production DISTORTION examined migrant descendants’ places in Germany and provoked audiences to contemplate the new faces of the nation. This symbiosis of hip-hop and contemporary dance performed macro- and micro-political integration, illuminating how the boundaries of German national identity are disrupted by the presence of interculturality.

This according to “Ich fühle mich Deutsche: Migrant descendants’ performance of integration through the Hamburg HipHop Academy” by Emily Joy Rothchild, an essay included in Transglobal sounds: Music, youth and migration (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016, pp. 155–76).

Above and below, excerpts from DISTORTION.

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Dance, Pedagogy, Popular music

Helen May Butler, American bandleader

Helen May Butler’s career provides a welcome counternarrative to the men’s professional bands—such as John Philip Sousa’s—that were the rage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Butler had the professional and musical clout to attract the top female talent needed to form a first-rate professional ensemble. Her Ladies’ Military Band rose to prominence during a time when being a professional woman required sacrifice, in terms of both family life and customary female identity. Butler’s perseverance and tenacity in creating an accomplished ensemble of women in a male-dominated field is an important and inspirational addition to the history of both U.S. concert bands and the women’s movement of her time.

This according to “Helen May Butler and her Ladies’ Military Band: Being professional during the golden age of bands” by Brian D. Meyers, an essay included in Women’s bands in America: Performing music and gender (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, pp. 15–49).

Today is Butler’s 150th birthday! Below, an undated photograph of her Ladies’ Brass Band, which toured between 1901 and 1912 (click to enlarge).

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May Day and mayhem

On this first day of May, let’s look at a vivid depiction of Dublin May Day customs from a ballad that was first published in 1843, though it was already flourishing at least 60 years earlier.

De May Bush takes place amid a longstanding feud between the Liberty and Ormond factions—weavers and butchers, respectively—and revolves around the tradition of selecting, cutting, and guarding a handsome May Bush throughout the night before May Day. The vigil involved much revelry and drinking, and on this particular occasion the butchers fell asleep and the weavers stole their May Bush. The butchers’ leader exacted revenge in the form of driving a bull into the heart of the weavers’ turf to wreak havoc and create mayhem.

Like the song itself, the action depicted is a performance genre; the theft of the bush resembles the recurrent motif of the abduction of a bride. The butchers and the weavers were just as capable of manipulating multivalent social language as they were of ribald, full-bodied expression in song—complementary performance genres that meet around the May Bush.

This according to “May Day and mayhem: Portraits of a holiday in eighteenth-century Dublin ballads” by Cozette Griffin-Kremer, an essay included in The flowering thorn: International ballad studies (Logan: Utah State University, 2003, pp. 101–27).

Above, an Irish hawthorn, a popular choice for the May Bush; below, a tourist video shows decorated May Bushes in Galway.

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Filed under Curiosities, Europe

Alfred Pringsheim, beer-mug thumper

At the time of the 1876 Bayreuth premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Alfred Pringsheim, the future mathematician and father-in-law of Thomas Mann, then a 25-year-old postgraduate student, displayed a sometimes unseemly fervor for Wagner’s masterpiece.

In October of that year he fought a duel with pistols with the Berlin theater critic Isidor Kastan, who Pringsheim believed had insulted Wagner (fortunately no one was hurt), and after the premiere of Siegfried he fell into an argument with the Shakespeare scholar Friedrich August Leo in a tavern, leading him to hit the professor on the nose with a beer mug. The latter incident earned Pringsheim the nickname der Schoppenhauer (the beer-mug thumper).

This according to “Der ‘Schoppenhauer’ und das Pistolenduell: Alfred Pringsheims kämpferischer Einsatz für die Bayreuther Sache” by Dirk Heißerer, an essay included in Alfred Pringsheim, der kritische Wagnerianer: Eine Dokumentation (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2013, pp. 63–80).

Below, Pringsheim’s arrangement of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll for strings and piano.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Romantic era

Richard Wagner, animal lover

In 1879 Richard Wagner joined the growing movement in Germany opposing the cruel medical practices of animal experimentation with an open letter published in the Bayreuther Blätter.

His arguments for the pointlessness of these experiments were original; they followed from his experiences with traditional medicine and his well-developed critique of civilization. His contemporary allies, however, ignored these arguments and simply used the Wagner name.

The open letter led directly to Wagner’s much-discussed essay Religion und Kunst, in which, among other things, he paints a horrific scenario of the unimpeded development of science and technology.

This according to “Richard Wagner als Gegner von Tierversuchen: Ein visionärer Zivilisationskritiker” by Ulrich Tröhler and Joachim Thiery (WagnerSpectrum XI/1 [2015] pp. 73–104). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above, the composer with his dog Pohl; below, no horses were annoyed during this performance.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Opera

Spoof articles

Many reference works for music—and presumably other topics—contain articles about fictitious characters. Sometimes writers for these works slyly slip them by their editors (an article on “Verdi, Lasagne” was almost typeset for printing in The new Grove dictionary); others are incorporated with the collusion of all parties.

For an example, look up Otto Jägermeier in Komponisten der Gegenwart (available through RILM music encyclopedias) or in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (available through MGG Online). You will find that Jägermeier composed, among other intriguing works, an opera called Der Idiot with a libretto by Fëdor Dostoevskij, and a work for solo clarinet called Psychosen. The name Jägermeier is a play on Jägermeister, a popular German cordial (above).

RILM is not above adding a spoof article or two to its database. Of course we won’t tell you which ones they are, but we’ll give you a hint: One includes a reference to the very real and wonderful Malcolm Bilson, who favors us with a Mozart concerto below.

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When women play

kulintang

In many societies musical roles are divided along gender lines: Women sing and men play. Men also sing and women sometimes play; yet, unlike men, women who play often do so in contexts of sexual and social marginality.

Contemporary anthropological theories regarding the interrelationship between social structure and gender stratification illuminate how women’s use of musical instruments is related to broader issues of social and gender structure; changes in the ideology of these structures often reflect changes that affect women as performers.

This according to “When women play: The relationship between musical instruments and gender style” by Ellen Koskoff (Canadian university music review/Revue de musique des universités canadiennes XVI/1 [1995] pp. 114–27; reprinted in A feminist ethnomusicology: Writings on music and gender [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014]).

Above and below, kulintang, a women’s instrumental genre discussed in the article.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Instruments, Women's studies