The influence of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the worlds of dance and music has been well-documented; less known today are the reverberations that the company’s productions sent straight to the heart of Parisian fashion and interior design. Schèhèrezade, the hit of the 1910 season, epitomized the exoticism of “le style ballets russes” for designers and their galvanized patrons.
The first, and perhaps the foremost, to espouse the company’s saturated hues, sumptuous fabrics, and seductive Orientalism was Paul Poiret, who daringly introduced harem pants and turbans (inset), with boldly colored silks and velvets. Poiret also popularized brightly colored interiors, replacing conventional furniture with divans and tasselled cushions.
The company’s visits to London had a similar impact. “Before you could say Nijinsky” Osbert Lancaster recalled in Homes, sweet homes (London: Murray, 1939) “the pastel shades which had reigned supreme on the walls of the Mayfair for almost two decades were replaced by a variety of barbaric hues—jade green, purple, every variety of crimson and scarlet, and, above all, orange.” He added that the style’s adherents had “a tendency to regard a room not so much as a place to live in, but as a setting for a party.”
This according to “The wider influence of the Russian ballet” by Stephen Calloway, an essay included in Diaghilev and the golden age of the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-20723).
Above, one of George Lepape’s illustrations for Les choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape (Paris: 1911), a book commissioned and published by Poiret in a limited edition of 300.
Most people know the The House of the Rising Sun as a 1964 hit by The Animals about a place in New Orleans—a whorehouse or a prison or a gambling joint that has been the ruin of many poor girls or boys—but few songs have traveled such an intricate journey.
The launch of the song’s world travels can be traced to Georgia Turner (above), a poor 16-year-old daughter of a miner living in Middlesboro, Kentucky, when the young folk music collector Alan Lomax captured her voice singing The Rising Sun blues in 1937. Lomax deposited the song in the Library of Congress and included it in the 1941 collection Our singing country.
In short order, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Josh White learned the song and each recorded it. From there it began to move to the planet’s farthest corners. Today, hundreds of artists have recorded House of the Rising Sun, and it can be heard in the most diverse of places—Chinese karaoke bars, Gatorade ads, and as a ring tone on cell phones. The song’s journey is a case study of how a cultural artifact moves through the modern world, propelled by technology, globalization, and recorded sound.
This according to Chasing the Rising Sun: The journey of an American song by Ted Anthony (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2007-6177). Below, Lomax’s original recording of Georgia Turner.
On 8 September 2022, the world learned of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest ruling monarch. As one of any number of public displays of gratitude to her seven decades of service, communities across the globe, large and small, sang God save the Queen, the first song in the world to serve in the function of a nation’s anthem. A kind of prayer en-masse, the singing of the text is an expression of national devotion.
Christopher (Kit) Kelen, in his article “‘And ever give us cause’: Understanding the investments of the Ur-anthem God save the King/Queen” (National identities: Critical inquiries into nationhood, politics, and culture XVII/1  45–61; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-86813), explores the kind of work the anthem’s text does to construct a sense of nationalism and national commitment, in a British context and beyond. A glance at the abstract brings the essay’s scope and goals into focus:
This close analytical reading of the lyrics of God save the King/Queen seeks to understand what the functional survival of this song reveals about the rhetorical-affective investments of national devotion in the British sense; it examines the lyrics’ meaning in the context of the general definition of anthem and the generic classification of anthems worldwide. Because of the song’s international distribution, and status as Ur-anthem, it provides insight into the nature of the speech act entailed in the prayer-type of anthem and the nature of anthem quality (defined as that soul-stirring effect which certain combinations of music and lyrics achieve, most typically in the service of national affiliation) more generally. Theories of nation and nationalism serve to frame affective relations between nation, state, and citizenry as implied by, fostered by, and used in anthems.
The three public performances of God save the Queen below vary in terms of setting, historical moment, and function. But each one reveals, in its own way, the anthem effect about which Kelen writes. They produce a sense of national closeness and identity, reverence, and pride, demonstrating how lyrics and music can be combined to stir the soul.
A performance that occurred almost daily in a public square in Marrakech in the early 1980s traded on ethnic identity for fun and profit.
The performance began with an Arab duo singing in Arabic; as a crowd began to gather around them, a Berber—a member of a rival ethnic group—leaped into the circle with a song in Tashlit. After a few moments of cacaphony a shouting match began, with the Berber and one of the Arabs trading insults while the other Arab took one side and then the other, upping the ante.
“Monkey, block-headed windbag, long-fingernailed King Kong, hick, salt stealer, son of a whore!” Each string of insults was preceded by an ethnic designator, and audience members were encouraged to contribute money to the aggrieved party to demonstrate their own ethnic pride. Occasionally fisticuffs between audience members ensued.
The high point of the performance came when the monetarily losing antagonist was figuratively turned into a donkey and the winner climbed onto his back and called for his instrument; victory, however temporary, meant both being on top and singing one’s own song there.
This according to “Saints, prostitutes, and rotten sardines: The musical construction of place and ethnicity in a Moroccan insult contest” by Philip D. Schuyler, an essay included in Ethnomusicological encounters with music and musicians: Essays in honor of Robert Garfias (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, pp. 249–259; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-5436).
Above and below, examples of street music in Marrakech.
A letter published in the June 1925 issue of Gramophone noted the magazine’s general absence of women correspondents: “are the sweet little things too shy, or what?” A response published in August of that year dismissed the idea of women enjoying the gramophone: “ladies…want to be seen and also to see. They don’t want to listen. That will never interest them.”
The October issue included a letter from a woman reader who noted that women have less money at their disposal for entertainment than men, and that when she attends concerts she sees many women, including poor ones, listening attentively. “I can only conclude,” she wrote, “that certain of your correspondents have been singularly unfortunate in the circle of women they have drawn about them.”
The letters are reprinted in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2012-7059). Below, a gramophone recording by the incomparable Josephine Baker.
While he generally disapproved of the Orientalism of earlier Romantic-era composers, he found tremendous inspiration in gamelan music—not in its surface exoticism, but in the details of its structure, texture, and modality.
Exposure to Javanese gamelan music was one of the important catalysts in the flowering of Debussy’s mature style, and it left its mark on his work in a much broader and more profound way than is generally supposed.
“Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play,” he wrote, “and if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.”
He also wrote of “Javanese rhapsodies, which, instead of confining themselves in a traditional form, develop according to the fantasy of countless arabesques.”
This according to Echoes from the East: The Javanese gamelan and its influence on the music of Claude Debussy, a 1988 dissertation for the University of Texas, Austin, by Kiyoshi Tamagawa (RILM Abstracts 1988-4625).
Today is Debussy’s 160th birthday! Below, “Sirènes” from his Nocturnes, a piece in which Tamagawa demonstrates extensive influence of gamelan music; this influence may be best discerned in the two-piano version presented here.
In the mid-1990s a staff member at the American Folklife Center received a note asking if the Center would be interested in an old LP of a cowboy singer named Romaine Lowdermilk. Not having heard of the singer, she stopped by the office of the director, Alan Jabbour. “Romy Lowdermilk!” he exclaimed, “Who’s got a recording of Romy Lowdermilk?”
Jabbour knew the name only through accounts of the singer (1890–1970), who had written and published several popular cowboy songs (including Goin’ back to Arizona, which Patsy Montana performed as Goin’ back to old Montana). Lowdermilk had stated that he never made a commercial recording; this LP appeared to be a unique record of his singing. The owner generously supplied the disc in 1999 and the Center digitized it, assuming that it was a solitary specimen.
The discovery of an exact copy in 2006 led to a full unraveling of the story. Lowdermilk had recorded several songs in a recording studio in 1951; the studio then had copies pressed on demand for the singer’s clients at Rancho Mañana, the Arizona dude ranch where he worked.
This according to “Long-lost twins: The curious case of the Romaine Lowdermilk discs” by Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXXVI/3 [summer 2006] pp. 11–12; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2006-10837).
Below, Patsy Montana’s recording of Goin’ back to old Montana. In a letter to John I. White, Lowdermilk wrote “Patsy Montana liked it and wanted to sing it on her road appearances, so I just called it Goin’ back to old Montana and she recorded it for Victor and it was on the juke boxes for quite a spell. You can sing it Back to California or Oklahoma or Wyoming—or any damn place you want to go back to. So I figured it was an all-around western. I got paid for it by WLS, so I didn’t really care where the singer went back to.” (Quoted in Ten thousand goddam cattle: A history of the American cowboy in song, story, and verse [Flagstaff: Northland University, 1975; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1978-3562].)
More stories about the American Folklife Center are here.
David Teie has composed music for cats, and he has published, along with two colleagues, a report on a scientific study demonstrating this music’s efficacy.
The report presents two examples of Teie’s cat music in counter-balanced order with two examples of human music, and evaluates the behavior and response latencies of cats to each piece.
The cats showed a significant preference for, and interest in, species-appropriate music compared with human music (Median (IQR) 1.5 (0.5-2.0) acts for cat music, 0.25 (0.0-0.5) acts for human music (P<0.002) and responded with significantly shorter latencies (Median (IQR) 110.0 (54-138.75) s for cat music, 171.75 (151-180) s for human music (P<0.001). Younger and older cats were more responsive to cat music than middle-aged acts (cubic trend, r2 = 0.477, P<0.001).
The 1623 printing of François de Lauze’s Apologie de la danse et la parfaicte méthode de l’enseigner tant aux cavaliers qu’aux dames was not motivated solely by artistic concerns.
Some of the introductory materials—a letter to the author’s patron the Duke of Buckingham (George Villiers, 1592–1628), three curiously attributed dedicatory poems, and a mythologically inspired frontispiece (above)—appear to contain coded messages referring to the political and amatory activities of Buckingham and others; they may even have been tools of espionage.
This according to “Deciphering de Lauze” by Martha Schwieters (Proceedings: Society of Dance History Scholars [Riverside: Society of Dance History Scholars, 1999] pp. 69–78; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-35200).
Below, a gavotte of the type described by de Lauze.
More articles about early dance treatises are here.
The vocalizations of the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) include calls (e.g., food begging [above], alarms, cat scolding), calls incorporated into songs, and pure songs. The latter category may include melismas, ostinatos, transpositions, inversions, variations, and rhythmic effects such as additive and divisive patterns.
Cultural manifestations include duets, antiphonal and canonic effects, and unisons. They also mimic other birds and unexpected sources such as dogs, cats, humans, and machines.
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