Category Archives: Nature

A song to save the Salish Sea

 

On the coast of Washington and British Columbia sit the misty forests and towering mountains of Cascadia. With archipelagos surrounding its shores and tidal surges of the Salish Sea trundling through the interior, this bioregion has long attracted loggers, fishing fleets, and land developers, each generation seeking successively harder to reach resources as old-growth stands, salmon stocks, and other natural endowments are depleted.

Alongside encroaching developers and industrialists is the presence of a rich environmental movement that has historically built community through musical activism. From the WobbliesLittle red songbook (1909) to Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River collection (1941) on through to the Raging Grannies’ formation in 1987, Cascadia’s ecology has inspired legions of songwriters and musicians to advocate for preservation through music.

The divergent strategies—musical, organizational, and technological—used by each musician and group to reach different audiences and to mobilize action suggest directions for applied ecomusicology at the community level.

This according to A song to save the Salish Sea: Musical performance as environmental activism by Mark Pedelty (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).

Above, an orca breaches in the Salish Sea, with Mount Baker in the background; below, Idle no More, one of the groups discussed in the book, at the River People Festival in 2014.

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Filed under Nature, North America, Popular music

Cymbals and symbols in ancient Greece

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses an astonishing bronze figurine, perhaps unearthed in Cyprus: a nude woman playing a pair of cymbals, standing on a frog (inv. no. 74.51.5680). It was probably the handle of a mirror, and the craftmanship is typical of ancient Laconia.

Scholars have never explained the relationships between all the represented elements, but the figurine is obviously related to ancient Spartan music, or at least to its soundscape.

We may wonder whether there is a link between the frog and the cymbals in terms of sound. Did ancient Greeks perceive the croaking as a percussive sound? In Greek antiquity, frogs seem to be associated with several types of instruments.

Since the figurine might come from Cyprus and it depicts a nude woman, it is usually interpreted as Aphrodite. However, if it is a Laconian piece of art, it seems more relevant to recognize here one of the main goddesses of Sparta, Artemis Orthia. She stands on a frog, because her sanctuary was located in the marshlands of Sparta, a place appropriate for batrachia. This place had a specific soundscape of croaking frogs and water sounds. Further, there are remains of feline paws on her shoulders; the archaic Artemis is the mistress of wild beasts.

In the sanctuary, archaeologists found cymbals and auloi dedicated to the goddess for apotropaic purposes. It may be opportune to compare this piece with Asian drums decorated with frogs, which were used to ask for rain fertility: perhaps the cymbals associated with croaking had the same function in ancient Spartan marshlands.

This according to “Croaking and clapping: A new look at an ancient Greek bronze figurine (from Sparta)” by Sylvain Perrot (Music in art XLIII/1–2 [2018] pp. 175–83)

Below, an illicit visit to the sanctuary.

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Filed under Animals, Antiquity, Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments, Nature

Slime mold music

Physarum polycephalum

Die Lebensfreude is a pioneering piece of music composed with the aid of an amoeba-like plasmodial slime mold called physarum polycephalum.

The composition is for an ensemble of five instruments (flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano) and six channels of electronically synthesized sounds. The instrumental parts and the synthesized sounds are musifications and sonifications, respectively, of a multi-agent based simulation of physarum foraging for food.

Physarum polycephalum inhabits cool, moist, shaded areas over decaying plant matter, and it eats nutrients such as oat flakes, bacteria, and dead organic matter. It is a biological computing substrate, and has been enjoying much popularity within the unconventional computing research community for its astonishing computational properties.

This according to “Harnessing the intelligence of physarum polycephalum for unconventional computing-aided musical composition”by Eduardo R. Miranda, an article included in Music and unconventional computing (London: AISB, 2013).

Many thanks to the Annals of Improbable Research for bringing this to our attention! Above, the co-composer; below, the work’s premiere.

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

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, visual artist

When Mendelssohn Bartholdy was 13 a family trip to Switzerland afforded his first opportunity to devote himself to drawing; subsequently a sketch book was always an indispensable part of his holiday luggage.

Soon the prodigy’s musical career precluded other artistic activities, but after the death of his beloved sister Fanny when he was 38 he returned to Switzerland and completed a remarkable series of watercolors. These were among his final creative activities; he died in November of that year.

This according to the preface by Margaret Crum for Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1972), which reproduces items from the Bodleian Library’s collection.

Above, Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s depiction of Lucerne in July 1847; below, Piero Bellugi conducts the final movements of his sixth string symphony, written around the time he first started drawing.

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Filed under Curiosities, Nature, Romantic era, Visual art

Insects in rock ’n’ roll cover art

Insects in rock ’n’ roll cover art is an article and an online database by Joseph R. Coelho, who teaches in the Biology Program at Quincy University.

The article, which can be read online here, was published in American entomologist (L/3 [fall 2004] pp. 142–151). The database (here)  is part of a larger project called Insects in rock ’n’ roll music, which also includes lists of insect-related songs, albums, and artist names.

Above, a classic Iron Butterfly album cover. Below, ants dancing to Ant man bee from the legendary Trout mask replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.

Many thanks to the Improbable Research blog for alerting us about Professor Coelho’s work!

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Filed under Animals, Nature, Popular music, Resources, Science, Visual art

Old MacDonald’s ancestors

The earliest known ancestor of Old MacDonald had a farm is A charming country life in Thomas D’Urfey’s Pills to purge melancholy (1719–20); while the verses have no resemblance to the later song, the chorus of “Here a ___, there a ___, everywhere a ___” is structurally identical.

Further eighteenth-century versions appear in other collections, and in the nineteenth century others, always with the same stock chorus but differing in other particulars, emerged in blackface minstrelsy. A version from a 1917 book of soldiers’ songs produced in London gives the first direct predecessor of the modern version, with a similar tune for the chorus and an identification of the farmer as “Old MacDougal”; it also explains the nonsensical “ee-i-ee-i-o”—Old MacDougal’s farm was “in O-hi-o-hi-o.”

This according to “Farmyard cacaphonies: Three centuries of a popular song” by Vic Gammon (Folk music journal XI/1, pp. 42-72). Above, D’Urfey, who claimed—perhaps unreliably—to have written the original song. Below, Sesame Street’s justly neglected Old MacDonald cantata.

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Filed under Animals, Europe, Humor, Nature

Flute or food?

In 1996 Mira Omerzel-Terlep reported that a bone fragment excavated at the Divje Babe I cave site in Slovenia is considered to be the oldest man-made flute, dating from 45,000 years ago (“Koščene piščali: Pričetek slovenske, evropske in svetovne inštrumentalne glasbene zgodovine” [Bone whistles: Origins of the Slovenian, European, and world history of instrumental music], Etnolog: Glasnik Slovenskega Etnografskega Muzeja/Bulletin of the Slovene Ethnographic Museum VI, pp. 235–294). Further studies sought to demonstrate that the fragment had originally belonged to an instrument capable of producing a diatonic scale.

Other researchers were skeptical, though, and in 1998 Paola Villa et al. tried to put the speculation to rest, showing that the holes in the bone were the results of gnawing by animals (“A Middle Paleolithic origin of music? Using cave-bear bone accumulations to assess the Divje Babe I bone ‘flute’”, Antiquity LXXII/275 [March], pp. 65–79).

The argument has not abated. In 2002 a pair of essays staking out the opposing camps was issued in Archäologie früher Klangerzeugung und Tonordnung/The archaeology of sound origin and organization; Musikarchäologie in der Ägäis und Anatolien/Music archaeology in the Aegean and Anatolia (Rahden: Leidorf); April Nowell states that the results of taphonomic testing offered no viable proof that the bone fragment was an instrument (“Is a cave bear bone from Divje Babe, Slovenia, a Neanderthal flute?” pp. 69–81) while Robert Fink presents research supports the theory that it was (“The Neanderthal flute and origin of the scale: Fang or flint? A response” pp. 83–87).

More recently, an exhaustive study by Cajus G. Diedrich of Paleo-Logic, Independent Institute of Geosciences, ends with the conclusion that “The ‘cave bear cub femora with holes’ are, in all cases, neither instruments nor human made at all” (Royal Society Open Science, 2 : 140022; the paper can be read in full here).

Still, the controversy is alive and thriving on the Internet.

Below, Ljuben Dimkaroski performs on a reconstruction of the alleged original bone flute.

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Filed under Animals, Instruments, Nature, Science

Avian music culture

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.

This according to “Decoding the song of the pied butcherbird: An initial survey” by Hollis Taylor (TRANS: Revista transcultural de música/Transcultural music review XII [July 2008]). Below, a pied butcherbird duet followed by a solo.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Nature

Béla Bartók, entomologist

Béla Bartók is renowned as one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and as one of the founders of ethnomusicology. Less known is his love of animals, particularly his fascination with insects.

When he was a child he bred silkworms, and later he systematically collected insects, assembling a beautiful assortment. His son Béla Jr. recalled helping him with this hobby. “The most important instruction that he gave…was that no pain whatsoever was to be inflicted on the animals. And so he always took the appropriate drug with him on his insect-collecting expeditions. The insects, therefore, died and came into his collection without any suffering.”

This according to “The private man” by Béla Bartók, Jr. (as translated by Judit Rácz), which is included in The Bartók companion (London: Faber & Faber, 1993).

Today is Bartók’s 130th birthday! Above, a watercolor caricature of him as an insect enthusiast by his cousin Ervin Voit. Below, his “Mese a kis légyrõl” (From the diary of a fly, Mikrokosmos, BB 105, Sz. 107, VI/142).

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Animals, Nature, Science

Waiting for qi

Houqi (waiting for qi) was a technique employed by Chinese authorities in the fourteenth century to determine the onset of spring by measuring the emanations of qi, the active principal of life. A set of standard pitchpipes, each corresponding to a specific calendar period, was filled with ashes and buried in a sealed chamber; when the sun entered the second two-week period of a given month the seminal force of qi was supposed to rise and expel the ashes from the pipe that matched the calendar period.

Unfortunately, the method failed to produce the desired results, and a great deal of discussion over the millennia as to what kind of soil to use, where to place the pitchpipes, and so on, failed to improve it. Ultimately the great music theorist Zhu Zaiyu (朱載堉, 1536–1611) criticized houqi as a poor example of scientific method.

This according to “Origins of the controversy over the houqi method (候气法疑案之发端)” by Tang Jikai (唐继凯) in Jiaoxiang: Journal of Xi’an Conservatory of Music (交响:西安音乐学院学报), vol. 22, no. 3:101 (fall 2003), pp. 27–31. Above, a calligrapher’s rendition of the Chinese character for qi.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Instruments, Nature, Science