Category Archives: Curiosities

Père Castel’s ocular harpsichord

 

The Jesuit priest Louis-Bertrand Castel had his hour of fame in the 18th century thanks to his ocular harpsichord.

Starting from the idea of a physical analogy between sound and color, Castel conceived of a harpsichord that would diffuse a music of colors organized into a scale on the basis of their natural correspondence with sounds. In this way he sought to reveal the rational principles that determine the order of nature, grounding art in reason. Art would thus bear witness to a divine intelligence compatible with reason, and the music of colors would be a form of revelation.

In addition, this development would rescue people from boredom, the languor that takes away their feeling of existing, by ensuring continuous movement and surprise, renewing the pleasure of variety, and satisfying the natural inconstancy that goads them relentlessly to seek other objects of pleasure. From this to the preaching of a libertine art was a matter of a single step, which Castel took without realizing it. For him, amusement had achieved a respected place in the world.

This according to Le Père Castel et le clavecin oculaire by Corinna Gepner (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2014).

Today is Castel’s 330th birthday! Above, a caricature of Père Castel and his instrument by Charles Germain de Saint Aubin; below, a brief discussion.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

Kumi wudui vocal culture

 

Ryūkyūan kumi wudui (組踊, Japanese kumi odori) uses a variety of codified vocal techniques to identify the gender and social class of each character. Degrees of musicality, variation in timbre, and pitch inflection are all understood as emblematic of particular character types.

These vocal techniques are constructed within Ryūkyūan society with reference to the Ryūkyūan language, class system, and gender relationships. Many parallels can be drawn between the ways vocal identities are constructed in kumi wudui vocal culture and in other world theater traditions.

This according to “Listening to the voice in kumiudui: Representations of social class and gender through speech, song, and prosody” by Matt Gillan (Asian music XLIX/1 [winter–spring 2018] pp. 4–33).

Below, some examples of kumi wudui vocal types.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Dramatic arts

Dance video games and media ecology

 

What happens when machines teach humans to dance?

Dance video games transform players’ experiences of popular music, invite experimentation with gendered and racialized movement styles, and present new possibilities for teaching, learning, and archiving choreography.

Dance games are part of a media ecology that includes the larger game industry, viral music videos, reality TV competitions, marketing campaigns, and emerging surveillance technologies. The circulation of dance gameplay and related body projects across media platforms illuminates how dance games function as intimate media, configuring new relationships among humans, interfaces, music and dance repertoires, and social media practices.

This according to Playable bodies: Dance games and intimate media by Kiri Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Above, a Just dance session; below, a Dance central session. Both game series serve as case studies in the book, which draws on five years of research with players, game designers, and choreographers.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Popular music

Asante gold-dust weights

Until the second half of the mid-19th century, the Asante and related peoples of Ghana and the Ivory Coast used small brass castings made by the lost-wax process as weights for measuring their gold-dust currency.

These weights, made in large numbers by professional metal workers, came in all shapes and sizes. There were two sorts of weights: those which represent miniature objects, creatures, and activities from local life, and those in non-representational, geometrical forms.

Many of the representational weights depicted musical instruments, either on their own or being played, and activities which traditionally took place to the accompaniment of music. The great majority of these weights show only two types of instruments: ivory trumpets, and various types of drums.

This according to “Music and gold-weights in Asante” by Malcolm Donald McLeod (British museum yearbook 1980, pp. 225–42).

Above, a weight depicting a pair of atumpan drums of the Akan people; below, the atumpan in action.

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments

Gershwin and Berg

Most fans of George Gershwin’s music would be surprised to learn of his admiration for an early atonal masterpiece: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. He visited Berg in Vienna, and the score he owned of Wozzeck was one of his most prized possessions; he traveled to Philadelphia in 1931 to attend the work’s American premiere.

Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess is heavily indebted to Wozzeck. These debts primarily involve structural processes, understanding structure as patterns of discrete events shared by the two operas. Motives and chords play a role in the discussion, alongside musical events that range from the large—a fugue or a lullaby—to the small—a pedal, an ostinato, or some detail of counterpoint.

Beyond the presence in both operas of a lullaby, a fugue, a mock sermon, and an upright piano, the greater relevance of these parallels and others is to be found in the ways in which Gershwin situated them in comparable musical contexts.

This according to “Porgy and Bess: An American Wozzeck” by Christopher A. Reynolds (Journal of the Society for American Music I/1 [February 2007] pp. 1–28).

Today is Gershwin’s 120th birthday! Below, the atonal fugue depicting the murder of Crown from Catfish Row, his suite from the opera.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Opera

From virginal to Tangentenflügel

 

A small polygonal virginal built by Franciscus Bonafinis in 1585 was ingeniously converted to a tangent piano in 1717; this was accomplished simply by replacing its jacks with shorter slips of wood and moving its strings so that they lie directly over the jack slots, producing an instrument with struck rather than plucked strings whose sound varies in loudness with the force applied to the keys. The instrument is now at the Metropolitan Museum.

Instruments employing this principle were well-known in the eighteenth century—the trend culminated in the Späth & Schmahl Tangentenflügel.

This according to “En route to the piano: A converted virginal” by Edwin M. Ripin (Metropolitan Museum journal XIII [1978] pp. 79–86).

Above, the Museum’s depiction of the instrument; below, Aleksej Borisovič Lûbimov performs on a tangent piano.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

Bhad Bhabie arrives

 

In 2017 a Florida teenager went from a notorious segment on the Dr. Phil show to signing a major-label record deal as a rapper.

A September 2016 episode of the daytime talk show featured a segment called “I want to give up my car-stealing, knife-wielding, twerking 13-year-old daughter who tried to frame me for a crime!” with Danielle Bregoli and her exasperated mother. Soon after airing, a clip from the episode went viral on social media. In it Bregoli dared audience members to “cash me outside, howbowdah?” (catch me outside, how about that?) The phrase—part Florida, part Brooklyn, part misconceived black vernacular English—entered the pop culture lexicon.

Having achieved her 15 minutes of fame, Bregoli was written off by most as yet another fly-by-night social media star, but music executive Adam Kluger saw something more. A pioneer in dealmaking between artists and brands, he was known for negotiating deals where pop stars were paid for endorsing clothing, dating apps, porn sites, and psychic hotlines, through product placements and other sponsored content in song lyrics and music videos.

After a string of high-profile successes, Kluger became estranged from the music industry after a deal gone bad. Following an extended vacation, he plotted his return and his revenge: “I’m going to find something that’s just so obscure, and I’m going to make it popular…I’m going to pull every trick I’ve ever pulled with brands and make someone into a walking, talking brand to prove my worth.”

Setting his sights on Danielle Bregoli, a rap music career was chosen as the best avenue for a more lasting and more remunerative form of celebrity. With her proven talent for turning a memorable phrase and her passion for rap music, the Bhad Bhabie persona (pronounced “bad baby”) was born.

This according to “The big business of becoming Bhad Bhabie” by Jamie Lauren Keiles (The New York times magazine 8 July 2018, pp. 38 ff.).

Above and below, These heaux, Bregoli’s first single, which made her the youngest rapper to have a single debut on the Billboard Hot 100.

BONUS: The clip from Dr. Phil.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music

Cuba’s corneta china

 

As one of the four main ethnic groups in Cuba, the Chinese people have made notable cultural contributions. Among the most significant of these is the corneta china, a shawm derived from the Chinese suona.

The instrument is no longer played by Chinese Cubans; rather, the corneta china has been appropriated by other ethnic groups—particularly in the eastern region of the island, where it is played almost exclusively by performers of African descent. Despite a short-lived attempt to reintroduce the instrument in Cuban performances of the Chinese Lion Dance in the 1980s and early 1990s, the corneta china and its originators have followed separate paths.

This according to “The Chinese community and the corneta china: Two divergent paths in Cuba” by Rolando Antonio Pérez Fernández (Yearbook for traditional music XLVI [2014] pp. 62–88).

Above and below, the corneta china in action.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, West Indies

African pianism and musicology

 

The African pianism developed by the Nigerian composer Akin Euba (above) is not well-suited to the research style of traditional musicology, and the limitations of conventional musicological perspectives and analytical models for research on this cultural phenomenon are obvious.

Ethnomusicology and other disciplines such as cultural anthropology may provide approaches and viewpoints that can be adopted in musicological research on African pianism.

This according to “My understanding of African pianism/我对非洲钢琴艺术研究的一些认识” by Li Xin, an essay included in Dialogues in music: Africa meets Asia/亚非相遇: 中非音乐对话 (Richmond: MRI, 2011, pp. 59–68, 345–353).

Below, Kingsley Otoijamun performs an excerpt from Euba’s Scenes from traditional life.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Africa, Curiosities

Psychedelic vegetables

 

In 1967, in the hands of Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, the incongruous, semantically complex figure of the vegetable came to illuminate aspects of psychedelic consciousness and—partly by design, partly by accident—the link between LSD and Anglo-American popular music.

Their vegetable imagery also illuminated the scope and limits of changes in the relationship between creative artists and the Anglo-American popular music industry in the mid-1960s; and in retrospect, the figure of the vegetable cast into relief the counterculture’s utopian and dystopian dynamics as manifested in these songwriters’ personal lives.

This according to “The vegetables turned: Sifting the psychedelic subsoil of Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett” by Dale Carter (Popular music history IV/1 [April 2009] pp. 57–75).

Below, one of the songs discussed in the article—Wilson’s Vegetables, which is rumored to include the sound of Paul McCartney chewing celery.

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Filed under Curiosities, Food, Popular music