Category Archives: Humor

Cathy Berberian and pop art

 

In the 1950s and 1960s the musical avant-garde developed a new type of vocal composition that incorporated everyday vocal sounds, such as gestural utterances or expressions of affect, into aesthetic parameters. Cathy Berberian took center stage in this development thanks to the extraordinary range of her vocal capabilities; she inspired numerous composers to write in this emerging style, and was herself engaged in the creative process.

Berberian’s composition Stripsody (1966), a sounding glossary of typical onomatopoeia of comic strips, can be understood as a musical pendant to the paintings of pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Her creative process was closely intertwined with input from the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, who was a close friend of Berberian and her former husband, the composer Luciano Berio. Eco encouraged her to create a composition out of her interest for comic onomatopoeia, and he acquainted her with the Italian artist Eugenio Carmi, who created the first visual transformation of her vocal glossary.

The connection to pop art, however, is not restricted to the aesthetic approach; in form and content, Berberian and her Stripsody relate to pop art characteristics on several levels: (1) with her appearance, performances, and image, Berberian stylized herself as a pop icon; (2) with Stripsody, she took exactly the same path that Umberto Eco described in Apocalypse postponed, from avant-garde music through pop art to comic strips; (3) several components of Stripsody allude directly to typical popular themes that can also be found in the works of contemporaneous pop artists; and (4) the work directly quotes comics that enjoyed pop-icon status.

This according to “Musical pop art: Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody (1966)” by Marie Louise Herzfeld-Schild, an essay included in Music and figurative arts in the twentieth century (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016, pp. 150–65).

Today is Berberian’s birthday! Above and below, performing Stripsody.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Humor, Performers

Drink, song, and disorder

 

“For a simple urban boy like me, the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell.”

Thus declared the government minister Kim Howells during a debate in the British Parliament, as he responded to arguments predicting a decrease in musicians’ employment opportunities as a result of his plan to make all performances of music on premises where alcohol was sold subject to licensing by agencies of the State.

The plan that Howells introduced came to fruition in the form of the Licensing Act 2003. While this Act was presented by its proponents as a modernizing piece of legislation, it can be placed in a long history of British attempts to rein in the unruly side of music making, alcohol consumption, and the conjunction of the two—a history that has been marked by regulation in the name of public order and moral improvement.

This according to “Drink, song and disorder: The sorry saga of the Licensing Act 2003” by Dave Laing (Popular music XXXV/2 [May 2016] pp. 265–69).

Above and below, The Wurzels—three Somerset folk singers whose song I am a cider drinker was a number three hit in Britain in 1976.

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Filed under Humor, Politics, Popular music

Sad news

 

The British artist Rod Summers created the audiotape collage Sad news with razor blade, splicing block, and tape in 1979; it alternates between snippets of BBC News reports and a distinguished male voice saying “I’m sad, very sad.”

Summers put the piece in a self-published compilation as part of his cassette underground project VEC Audio Exchange, and sent 63 copies around the world. Copy no. 40 was sent to the Canadian audio artist Dan Lander, who found it “profoundly inspirational” in the way that “it offered such a simple, yet powerful message by stating the obvious and letting the news speak for itself.” He places the work in the same period and category as the Scratch video movement and works by Negativland.

The humor (and sadness) of the piece arises with the surprise of the initial interruption and then continues with a fascination with the subtle applicability of further interruptions, and how repetition itself begins to take on different guises.

This according to “Where does sad news come from?” by Douglas Kahn, an essay included in Cutting across media: Appropriation art, interventionist collage, and copyright law (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011, pp. 94–116).

Below, the piece in question.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor

Mark Twain on opera

 

Mark Twain’s reactions to grand opera are epitomized by a passage from A tramp abroad in which he described a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

“The banging and slamming and booming and crashing were something beyond belief. The racking and pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time that I had my teeth fixed.”

“There was little of that sort of customary thing where the tenor and the soprano stand down by the footlights, warbling, with blended voices…no, it was every rioter for himself and no blending. Each sang his indictive narrative in turn, accompanied by the whole orchestra of sixty instruments, and when this had continued for some time, and one was hoping they might come to an understanding and modify the noise, a great chorus composed entirely of maniacs would suddenly break forth.”

“We only had one brief little season of heaven and heaven’s sweet ecstasy and peace during all this long and diligent and acrimonious reproduction of the other place. This was while a gorgeous procession of people marched around and around, in the third act, and sang the Wedding Chorus. To my untutored ear that was music—almost divine music. While my seared soul was steeped in the healing balm of those gracious sounds, it seemed to me that I could almost re-suffer the torments which had gone before, in order to be so healed again.”

“There is where the deep ingenuity of the operatic idea is betrayed. It deals so largely in pain that its scattered delights are prodigiously augmented by the contrasts. A pretty air in an opera is prettier there than it could be anywhere else, I suppose, just as an honest man in politics shines more than he would elsewhere.”

Excerpted from “Mark Twain on opera” (The NATS journal XLIII/3 [January–February 1987] pp. 19, 49).

Above, the author around 1880, the year A tramp abroad was published; below, the “little season of heaven” at Bayreuth in 2010.

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Filed under Humor, Literature, Opera

How to destroy an organ

 

Part of the U.S. Army technical manual published on 13 November 1963 dealt with the installation, operation, and maintenance of the Hammond organ, which was then the instrument of choice in chapels on army bases.

One of the chapters details the destruction of the organ in the case of the capture or abandonment of the instrument to an enemy, urging all concerned to memorize the procedures so the manual will not have to be consulted in an emergency.

The chapter (above) is reprinted in “Your tax dollars at work for you” by Rollin Smith (The American organist LI/7 [July 2017] p. 88. Below, one way to do the job.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Instruments

Lead Belly and the folklorists

When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.

The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below left), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.

This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.

This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15).

Today is Lead Belly’s 130th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.

 

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Humor, Jazz and blues, North America

“Scrubs” musical fantasies

Despite its hackneyed premise—a group of medical students trying to get ahead in the competitive hospital environment—the television series Scrubs had something special: a judicious selection of accompanying music.

Sometimes the choice was linked to the musical biographies of the prominent figures, and other times the lyrics referred directly or indirectly to the development of the plot, to particular events, or to important characters. The frequent fantasies involving the main character, Dr. John Dorian, are riddled with emblematic musical references to the pop–rock music of the last 60 years, offering a rich and representative sample of what the last three generations were listening to.

This according to “La inserción del número musical en las series de televisión: El papel de la música en Scrubs” by Judith Helvia García Martín (Cuadernos de etnomusicología 3 [marzo 2003] pp. 204–19).

Above and below, a fantasy sequence involving James Brown’s The payback.

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Filed under Humor, Mass media, Popular music

The Marx Brothers at the opera

 

The Marx Brothers’ film A night at the opera is best known for its travesty of the high-society manners of the opera house and its sendup of Verdi’s Il trovatore. Underneath this farce, however, the film suggests deep affection for opera—a stance prompted, ironically, by the demands of the studio system.

The Hollywood movie is the heir and rival of opera as an entertainment medium, and both its follies and splendors are rooted in the immigrant experience of early–20th-century America.

This according to “The singing salami: Unsystematic reflections on the Marx Brothers” by Lawrence Kramer, an essay included in A night at the opera (London: Libbey, 1994 pp. 253–65).

Above and below, classic Marxian mayhem.

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Filed under Humor, Opera, Performers

Elgar’s rabbit

A white rabbit named Peter joined the Elgar family in 1905. He appears in numerous items of correspondence and is credited, as Pietro d’Alba, with writing the words for Elgar’s songs The torch and The river.

Elgar also welcomed musical criticism and suggestions from Peter; for example, after conducting the London premiere of his second Wand of youth suite in 1908, the composer wrote to him:

My dear Peter,

Your idea—the vigorous entry of the drums—was splendid. Thanks.

Yrs affectly

Edward Elgar

This according to “Peter Rabbit: The biography of an inspired bunny” by Martin Bird (The Elgar Society journal XXI/1 [April 2018] pp. 32–39).

Below, the composition in question; Peter’s contribution begins around 15:30.

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Filed under Animals, Humor, Romantic era

Beethoven’s coffee

A visitor to the 39-year-old composer’s Vienna apartment described Beethoven’s personal habits in notoriously disparaging detail—a picture curiously contrasting with the same reporter’s observations of his fastidious attention to his favorite beverage.

“For breakfast he had coffee, which he usually prepared himself in a glass machine. Coffee seems to have been his most indispensable food, which he prepared as scrupulously as the Turks. Sixty beans were calculated per cup and were often counted, especially when guests were present.”

This according to “Beethoven’s 60 coffee beans” by Leonardo Ciampa (The American organist LII/3 [March 2018] pp. 50-51).

Below, a highly caffeinated performance by Peter Schickele.

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Food, Humor