Category Archives: Performers

Enya and the female myth of Ireland

The personification of Enya as a modern archetype of female Ireland has become irrevocably intertwined into the grand narratives of popular culture that make up the last decades of the 20th century.

Her music has many cultural significations; Celticism, romance, fantasy, spirituality, and femininity. The common denominator in Enya’s translucent embodiment of this myth is her seemingly unconscious femininity and her self-distancing from the media and her followers. The unwillingness of Eithne Ní Bhraonáin and her co-creators to discuss their work in turn assists the reading of Enya as a text rather than as an object of ethnographic inquiry.

The significations in the music of Enya’s How can I keep from singing? interrelate with the significations in the lyrics, and a semiotic analysis of the visual imagery in the song’s music video further illuminates how her work perpetuates and reinvigorates the myth of Ireland and Irish womanhood for popular culture.

This according to “How can I keep from singing?” Enya and the female myth of Ireland by Anna Maria Dore, an M.A. thesis accepted by the University of Limerick/Ollscoil Luimnigh in 2003 (RILM Abstracts 2003-21780).

Today is Enya’s 60th birthday! Above and below, the video in question.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

The Yandong Grand Singers

The Yandong Grand Singers are a choir of the Kam/Dong people from Guizhou province, China, specializing in the galao (grand song), a form of polyphonic song through which the Kam people transmit much of their history, culture, and knowledge. In 2009 the Grand Song was inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Nearly every Kam person sings in a choir at some time in their life. From a community singing group of the Yandong township, the Yandong Grand Singers have gradually made their name known internationally through their album Everyone listen close—Wanp-wanp jangl kap and international tours. In 2019 they toured five cities in the United States to give concerts and workshops, which turned out to be a special experience of cultural exchange for both the musicians and audiences.

This according to “From the mountain to the world: My travels with the Chinese Yandong Grand Singers” by Mu Qian (Folklife 19 April 2021).

Below, excerpts from the 2019 tour.

More posts about China are here.

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Filed under Asia, Performers

Jack Cole’s double bind

Jack Cole is often called “the father of theatrical jazz dance”, and “Cole technique” has strongly influenced both film dance and American theatrical dance generally. In his heyday he was one of the most powerful choreographers working in Hollywood, with contractual control over the movement design, camerawork, costuming, lighting, and editing of his dance numbers.

Cole’s status as an “invisible” gay man is crucial to more than an understanding of the satiric, parodic, or camp elements of his film work; it is also a necessary precondition for his particular mode of deployment of so-called Oriental dance practices.

Cole engaged the double bind that both women and men are prisoners of gender roles. His use of the body’s physical beauty to stand for more than spiritual power combined the theatricality and spirituality of Denishawn, the voluptuousness and intensity of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Oriental and other ethnic dance styles. His approach to dance and gender had profound effects on mid-20th-century hegemonic dance culture.

This according to “The thousand ways there are to move: Camp and Oriental dance in the Hollywood musicals of Jack Cole” by Adrienne L. McLean (Journal for the anthropological study of human movement XII/3 [spring 2003] 59–77).

Today would have been Cole’s 110th birthday! Above, a portrait by Carl Van Vechten from 1937 (public domain); below, the Denishawn parody “Greek ballet” from Down to earth (1947).

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Filed under Dance, Performers

Selena crosses over

As a musician, Selena Quintanilla Pérez will be remembered for her ability to transform traditional Latino musical styles such as cumbia into viable pop mainstream commodities. As a personality, she has acquired a larger-than-life status, symbolizing tejano music’s increasing profile within the record industry during the 1990s.

Born in Freeport, Texas, Selena was encouraged to perform and record as a preteen. In 1989 the family band, Selena y Los Dinos (simply called Selena by 1991), graduated from generic synth-flavored, dance-pop released on indie labels to a more individualized sound.

The emotional depth of her singing, along with her brother A.B.’s clever songs and slick rhythmic arrangements, netted a Grammy for  Selena live in 1993. Amor prohibido, the last album released prior to her tragic shooting by a former fan in 1995, demonstrated the band’s wide range of styles, including reggae-inflected dance fare, hard-edged rock, and torchy ballads.

This according to “Selena” by Frank Hoffman (Encyclopedia of recorded sound; this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works).

Today would have been Selena’s 50th birthday! Above, Selena live in concert in 1994 by hellboy_93 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0;  below, performing in 1993.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

The Bristol sessions

In the summer of 1927 a group of musicians gathered for a recording session in Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, including musicians who would become some of the most influential names in American music—the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Stoneman, and more.

Organized by Ralph Peer for Victor Records to capitalize on the popularity of “hillbilly” music, the Bristol sessions were a key moment in country music’s evolution, producing the first commercial recordings by these artists.

The musicians played a variety of styles largely endemic to the Appalachian region. Rather than attempting to record purely traditional sounds, however, Peer sought a combination of musical elements, an amalgam that would form the backbone of modern country music. The reverberations of the Bristol sessions are still felt, yet their influence is widely misunderstood, and popular accounts of the event are more legend than history.

This according to The Bristol sessions: Writings about the big bang of country music (Jefferson: McFarland, 2005; RILM Abstracts 2005-19593).

Below, all four tracks from the Carter Family’s Bristol session.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Jascha Heifetz and popular culture

 

Throughout Jascha Heifetz’s career he was celebrated as an epitome of highbrow taste; but he was no stranger to popular culture. He appeared in three films: Carnegie Hall, Of men and music, and They shall have music, in which he performed the finale of the Mendelssohn violin concerto and four other works.

Heifetz also composed popular songs, including “When you make love to me (don’t make believe)” and “So much in love”. “When you make love to me” (1946) was published under the pseudonym “Jim Hoyl” (maintaining the initials J.H.) to prove Heifetz’s point that the name of the composer would have little bearing on its success. The song was recorded by Bing Crosby and sold 300,000 copies when first released.

This according to “Heifetz, Jascha” (Biographical dictionary of Russian/Soviet composers Westport: Greenwood, 1989).

Today is Heifetz’s 120th birthday! Below, his own recording of “When you make love to me”.

BONUS: The Bing Crosby version:

Related article: Paganini and Marfan syndrome (featuring Heifetz on the violin)

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

One finger too many

 

The classical music world knows Alfred Brendel as one of the foremost pianists of his time. Far fewer people know him as a poet, with two books of poetry in German and one—One finger too many—in English translation (New York: Random House, 1999).

The collection’s title poem concerns a pianist who developed a third index finger “not to play the piano with/though it sometimes did intervene/discreetly/in tricky passages/but to point things out/when both hands were busy.”

While some of Brendel’s poems are serious, many are light-hearted. He explains, “At one stage in my life I didn’t laugh enough…some mechanism in my psyche may have come to my rescue.” The title of another poem, “Not Brahms again”, points to a humorous but therapeutic reflection that he describes as “a little revenge for the perversity of the B♭ concerto…the passages which, as they stand, are literally unplayable.”

This according to “The poet speaks” by Michael Church (BBC music magazine, VII/3 [November 1998], pp. 32–33; RILM 1998-4729).

Today is Maestro Brendel’s 90th birthday! Below, Brendel plays Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 899 (op. 90).

BONUS: Cover half of Brendel’s face in the above photograph, then the other half, to see two completely different expressions.

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Filed under Humor, Literature, Performers

John Langstaff and the Christmas Revels

 

On Christmas Eve in 1920 John Meredith Langstaff was born into a music-filled home where a rousing, wassailing carol party was the peak of his family’s year.

Half a century later, the Christmas Revels was born, a theatrical weaving of traditional song, dance, and drama that has become a beloved institution across the country.

From his years as a star choirboy (and notorious troublemaker) to his early career as a noted recital singer; from a daunting World War II injury to his work as recording artist, TV performer, teacher, and children’s author, Langstaff fused his passions for music, ritual, and community to create the participatory celebration that is the Revels.

This according to The magic maker: A portrait of John Langstaff, creator of the Christmas Revels by Susan Cooper (Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2011; RILM Abstracts 2011-12592).

Today would have been Langstaff’s 100th birthday! Above, Langstaff at the 1998 Revels (photo by Roger Ide); below, highlights from the 2004 Revels.

More Christmas-related posts are here.

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Uday Shankar’s “Kalpana”

 

The feature film Kalpana (Imagination) is the only kinetic record of Uday Shankar’s choreographic work. Directed by and starring Shankar himself, it is semi-autobiographical and also stars his wife, Amala Shankar.

The film involved a fair amount of social commentary, and Shankar’s opening statement in it still feels strikingly appropriate:

“I request you all to be very alert while you watch this unusual picture—a Fantasy. Some of the events depicted here will reel off at great speed and if you miss any piece you will really be missing a vital aspect of our country’s life in its Religion, Politics, Education, Society, Art and Culture, Agriculture and Industry.”

“I do not deliberately aim my criticism at any particular group of people or institutions, but if it appears so, it just happens to be so, that is all. It is my duty as an Artist to be fully alive to all conditions of life and thought relating to our country and present it truthfully with all the faults and merits, through the medium of my Art.”

“And I hope that you will be with me in our final purpose to rectify our own shortcomings and become worthy of our cultural heritage and make our motherland once again the greatest in the world.”

This according to “Uday Shankar’s Kalpana” by Sunil Kothari (Sruti 195 [December 2000] 53–57).

Today is Uday Shankar’s 120th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from the film.

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Filed under Asia, Dance, Film music, Performers

Dave Brubeck’s legacy

 

Dave Brubeck helped to rekindle jazz’s mainstream popularity in the 1950s and 1960s with recordings like Time out, the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and Take five, the still instantly recognizable hit single that was that album’s centerpiece.

In a long and successful career, Brubeck brought a distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility that won over listeners who had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single. He experimented with time signatures and polytonality and explored musical theater and the oratorio, Baroque compositional devices, and non-Western modes.

Brubeck did not always please the critics, who often described his music as schematic, bombastic, and—a word he particularly disliked—stolid. But his very stubbornness and strangeness—the blockiness of his playing, the oppositional push-and-pull between his piano and Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone—make the Brubeck quartet’s best work still sound original.

This according to “Dave Brubeck 1920–2012: His music gave jazz new pop” by Ben Ratliff (The New York times 6 December A1; RILM Abstracts 2012-10080).

Today is Brubeck’s 100th birthday! Above and below, the composer and pianist in 1964. (Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers