Henry David Thoreau was the only nineteenth-century American writer of the very first rank who paid prolonged and intense attention to sound-worlds, particularly non-human ones. As a naturalist, his fieldwork involved not only botany but also sound-collecting.
Thoreau’s writings illuminate how he understood music as sound. He discussed ambient sound and animal sound communication in acoustic ecological niches; he understood that sound announces presence and enables co-presence; and he developed a relational epistemology and alternative economy based in sound. His responses to the vibrations of the environment through prolonged and deep listening make him valuable for sound studies today.
This according to “Thoreau’s ear” by Jeff Todd Titon (Sound studies I/1  pp. 144–54).
Today is Thoreau’s 200th birthday! Below, one of Charles Ives’s meditations on the man and his work.
From her time as a young performance poet in New York in the late 1960s to her current position as punk rock’s éminence grise, Patti Smith has foregrounded the image of the poet as privileged seer.
Smith’s romantic impulses can be viewed within the context of her activity in the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church, the preeminent public face of the East Village poetry scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Her complex negotiations between her understanding of the poet as visionary and the adamantly playful, diffuse, and collaborative aesthetic characterizing downtown New York’s poetic community fed into the development of her performative stance as proto-punk rock icon.
This according to “‘Nor did I socialise with their people’: Patti Smith, rock heroics and the poetics of sociability” by Daniel Kane (Popular music XXXI/1 [January 2012] pp. 105–23).
Today is Smith’s 70th birthday! Above, performing in the early 1970s; below, her iconic 1974 recording of Hey Joe.
Virgil Thomson first met Gertrude Stein in the winter of 1925–26. Early in 1927 he asked her to write an opera libretto, and the plans for Four saints in three acts began to take shape; the text was completed in June of that year and the music was finished in July 1928.
The opera concerns two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius of Loyola, who are surrounded by groups of young religious figures. In fact the work has four acts and over 30 saints. A compère and commère introduce the characters and announce the progress of the action. The strangely haunting and at times repetitive poetry of Stein is declaimed by the singers in a musical language derived from many sources, including Gregorian and Anglican chant, children’s songs, and Sunday School hymn singing, with a harmonious accompaniment for small orchestra. Although the setting of the words is deceptively simple and direct, there are considerable subtleties in the music to parallel the implied imagery of the words.
Four saints in three acts was first heard in Hartford, Connecticut, in February 1934, produced by an organization called the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. When the production moved to New York City it created theatrical history with its all-black cast. The opera received over 60 performances within a year, and Thomson’s reputation was made almost overnight.
This according to “Thomson, Virgil Garnett” by Neil Butterworth (Dictionary of American classical composers, 2nd ed. [Abington: Routledge, 2005] pp. 456–59); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Thomson’s 120th birthday! Above, the 1934 New York production; below, the opening of Mark Morris Dance Group’s 2006 production.
BONUS: A brief documentary with archival footage from 1934, including the voice of Gertrude Stein.
In the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses James Joyce made words represent music by playing with or even overcoming certain conventional features of language. Particularly notable are Joyce’s representation of polyphony, melody, rhythm, and of music’s traditional absence of conventional meaning.
The essence of Joycean onomatopoeia in “Sirens” is not that it represents music iconically, but that it makes music linguistically. Joycean onomatopoeia is not the natural union of meaning and form, of signified and signifier—it is the signifier freeing itself from the link with the signified.
“Sirens” is a step toward absolute form and abstraction; it breaks with the representational conventions of naturalistic and realistic fiction and points the way toward modernism.
This according to “Strange words, strange music: The verbal music of ‘Sirens’” by Andreas Fischer, an essay included in Bronze by gold: The music of James Joyce (New York: General Music, 1999).
Today is Bloomsday! Above, Joyce with his wife, Nora; he chose 16 June 1904 for the events of Ulysses because it coincided with their first date. Below, Cathy Berberian reads an excerpt from the “Sirens” episode.
In 2015 Technische Universität Dortmund launched the series Dortmunder Schriften zur Musikpädagogik und Musikwissenschaft with Ludwig Uhland und seine Komponisten: Zum Verhältnis von Musik und Politik in Werken von Conradin Kreutzer, Friedrich Silcher, Carl Loewe und Robert Schumann by Burkhard Sauerwald.
The large number of settings of his poems is one indication of the significance of the poet, politician, and scholar Ludwig Uhland (1787–1862) in 19th-century intellectual history.
The composers employed a variety of compositional strategies to convey the linguistic characteristics of Uhland’s poetry, such as their folk-like vocabulary and design. A detailed excursus of the Uhland–Silcher song Der gute Kamerad provides a representative example of the history of the political reception of Uhland settings.
Below, Richard Tauber sings Der gute Kamerad.
In On the road (New York: Viking, 1957), Jack Kerouac described an encounter with the pianist, guitarist, and percussionist Slim Gaillard, “a tall, thin Negro with big sad eyes who’s always saying ‘Right-orooni’ and ‘How ‘bout a little bourbon-arooni.’”
“Slim sits down at the piano and hits two notes, two Cs, then two more, then one, then two, and suddenly the big burly bass-player wakes up from a reverie and realizes Slim is playing C-Jam blues and he slugs in his big forefinger on the string and the big booming beat begins and everybody starts rocking and Slim looks just as sad as ever, and they blow jazz for half an hour, and then Slim goes mad and grabs the bongos and plays tremendous rapid Cubana beats and yells crazy things in Spanish, in Arabic, in Peruvian dialect, in Egyptian, in every language he knows, and he knows innumerable languages.”
“Dean stands in the back, saying, ‘God! Yes!’ and clasping his hands in prayer and sweating. ‘Sal, Slim knows time, he knows time.’”
“Finally the set is over…Slim Gaillard goes and stands against a post, looking sadly over everybody’s head as people come to talk to him. A bourbon is slipped into his hand. ‘Bourbon-orooni—thank-you-ovauti.’”
Quoted in “Nobody knows where Slim Gaillard is” (Literary kicks, 1994).
Today would have been Gaillard’s 100th birthday! Below, some rare early footage. Can anyone date this film for us?
The inscription Dum vixi tacui, mortua dulce cano on an early 18th-century Italian spinet in Edinburgh is identifiable with the second line of a riddling couplet found in Nikolaus von Reusner’s Aenigmatographia (1599). The literary ancestry of Reusner’s couplet is traceable to a traditional Greek riddle about the tortoise-lyre, where the tortoise becomes vocal only after its death.
Many examples from classical authors and imitators in later European literature and popular tradition can be found. The motif was transferred to instruments made of wood, and Reusner’s couplet was much used as a motto on early violins; the famous luthier Gasparo Duiffopruggar particularly appears to have been associated with it.
This according to “The riddle of the tortoise and the lyre” by Edward Kerr Borthwick (Music & letters LI/4 [October 1970] pp. 373–87).
Above, a harpsichord in the Flemish style that includes the inscription; below, an instrumental work inspired by the original four-line poem.
Michael Tippett called T.S. Eliot his spiritual and artistic mentor, and their numerous discussions in the 1930s proved a lasting influence on the composer’s beliefs about the coming-together of words and music.
Tippett quoted from and alluded to the work of Eliot not only in his early pieces, as has previously been noted, but in much later compositions such as The ice break, The mask of time, and Byzantium.
Eliot’s essay The three voices of poetry examines the number of voices in which the I of a poem can speak, freed from the specificities of prose, and Tippett, influenced by Eliot, harnessed the form of oratorio, freed from the specificities of opera, to allow it to speak in many voices.
This according to “Tippett and Eliot” by Oliver Soden (Tempo LXVII/266 [October 2013] pp. 28–53).
Today is Tippett’s 110th birthday! Below, the opening movements of A child of our time, another of Tippett’s works that was influenced by Eliot.
The German town of Hameln continues to re-enact the legend of the Rattenfänger, known in English as the Pied Piper, each weekend during the summer. A number of musicians have assumed the role of the piper since the 1950s, playing flute, oboe, or clarinet.
Since 1979 the role of the Rattenfänger has been played by the Pennsylvania-born clarinetist Michael Boyer, who performs on one of two U.S.-made metal clarinets: a Gladiator model from the 1930s or an American Standard model from the 1920s, both made by the H.N. White company of Cleveland, Ohio.
This according to “Hamelin’s Pied Piper: An unexpected American connection” by James Gillespie (The clarinet XLI/3 [June 2014] pp. 56–60). Above and below, Mr. Boyer’s summer job.
A week-long festival centered on stories about the deity Kṛṣṇa is held in the hamlet of Naluna, Garhwal district, Northern India; this practice (known as a saptāh) is primarily a product of an elite Hindu community of the North Indian Plain.
Two loci of power are salient: the village deity representing local authority, and the text-as-artifact of the Bhāgavata purāṇa, the metonymy of the authority of the recently imported cultural practice.
The local community comprises modern subjects and empowered agents, accounting for the nature of the interaction between the village deity and the sacred text, and the new cultural synthesis that emerges.
This according to “Village deity and sacred text: Power relations and cultural synthesis as an oral performance of the Bhāgavatapurāṇa in a Garhwal community” by McComas Taylor (Asian ethnology LXX  pp. 197–221).
Above and below, the saptāh in Naluna.
Filed under Asia, Literature