Category Archives: Performers

Beethoven’s ninth in millennial culture

For nearly two centuries, Beethoven’s ninth symphony, which premiered on 7 May 1824 at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna, has held musical audiences captive. Few other musical works hold such a prominent place in the collective imagination, and each subsequent generation has rediscovered the work for itself and made it its own. Understanding the significance of the symphony in contemporary culture requires a dialog between Beethoven’s world and ours, marked by the earth-shattering events of 1789 and of 1989.

What is special about the ninth in contemporary millennial culture is that the music is encoded not only as score but also as digital technology. We encounter Beethoven 9 flashmobs, digitally reconstructed concert halls, globally synchronized performances, and other time-bending procedures. The digital artwork 9 beet stretch by Leif Inge, for instance, presents the ninth at glacial speed over the span of 24 hours, challenging our understanding of the symphony and encouraging us to confront the temporal dimension of Beethoven’s music. In the digital age, the ninth emerges as a musical work that is recomposed and reshaped; robust enough to live up to such treatment, and continually adapting to a changing world with changing media.

A presentation of <9 beet stretch> by Leif Inge.

Learn more in Beethoven’s symphony no. 9 by Alexander Rehding (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2018). Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature. In case you missed it, the 200th anniversary of the premiere of Beethoven’s ninth symphony was on 7 May 2024.

Below are three videos of Beethoven flash mobs in Hong Kong, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the last in Azerbaijan.

Hong Kong
Minneapolis
Azerbaijan

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Filed under Classic era, Performers, Reception, Space

Laura Jane Grace sings the gender dysphoria blues

Photo: Mat Stokes

It has been noted that the durability of punk has been driven by a communal ethos that embodies inclusivity, resistance, challenge, and transformation. First wave punk represented this ethos, and it remains evident in punk’s ongoing engagement with queer politics and gender fluidity. In recent decades, articulations of transgender punk have centered on Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of the U.S. anarcho-punk band Against Me!, who came out as transgender five albums deep into her public life as an established musician. Against Me! began as Grace’s adolescent DIY solo project, through which she crafted a series of lo-fi and limited releases on local labels, including Misanthrope Records, Crasshole Records, and Plan-It-X Records, resulting in the eventual release of the band’s well-received debut LP, Reinventing Axl Rose in 2002.

From 2002 to 2009, Grace and Against Me! released five albums that saw the band emerge from DIY basement shows and self-reliance to playing stadiums and being labeled as “industry sellouts”, drawing sharp criticism from the anarcho-punk community. It was after this period that Grace chose to openly discuss her struggles with gender dysphoria and growing up closeted in her first interview with Rolling Stone in 2012. As Grace explained,

“You know, one of the very appealing things to me about the punk rock world when I was 15, 16, especially stumbling onto anarchist punk rock and activist punk rock. And a scene that was really strongly feminist and anti-racist and anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, all about body liberation, all about . . . just being yourself.”

Laura Jane Grace (center) performing with Miley Cyrus (left) and Joan Jett.

A literary analysis of Grace’s early song lyrics, composed before she came out publicly in 2012, stands out for its emotional complexity and unique insight into the mind of someone, who for many years, had wrestled with their gender identity. The purity and conviction of punk initially offered Grace a platform to counteract the turmoil of growing up experiencing gender dysphoria. However, she describes becoming frustrated and disappointed with punk’s rigidity and found herself impeded by its codes of masculinity that, in many ways, reinforced gender norms and her own gender insecurity. Facing criticism from the scene she once called home, Grace turned inward, often within the spatial confines of her own songs. On the final track from the album Searching for a former clarity, Grace writes,

No the doctors didn’t tell you that you were dying.
They just collected their money,
And send you on your way.
But you knew all along.
Went on pretending nothing was wrong.
You said I will keep my focus,
Till the end.
And in the journal you kept,
By the side of your bed.
You wrote nightly an aspiration,
Of developing as an author.
Confessing childhood secrets,
Of dressing up in women’s clothes.
Compulsions you never knew the reasons to.
Will everyone,
You ever meet or love,
Be just a relationship based,
On a false presumption.

Read more in “Tonight we’re gonna give it 35%: Expressions of transgender identity in the early work of Laura Jane Grace” by Kristen Carella and Kathryn Wymer (Journal of gender studies 29/3 [2020] 257–268), and ““Delicate, petite, & other things I’ll never be”: Trans-punk anthems and love songs” by Gareth Schott (European journal of English studies 24/1 [2020] 37–51). Find both articles in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Listen to the track Searching for a former clarity below.

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Filed under Gender and sexuality, Performers, Popular music

Musical expressions of the Harlem Renaissance: An annotated bibliography

Emerging from a New York neighborhood in the early 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance was a period of vibrant intellectual and artistic development in the African American community. Considered a turning point in Black history, the Harlem Renaissance offered African American writers and artists the chance to express their cultures and experiences during a time when they continued to face racism and discrimination. The end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 brought many African Americans in the South newfound freedoms and hopes for inclusion economically, politically, and socially within society. Unfortunately, these hopes were dashed by white supremacy and the rise of Jim Crow Laws that legalized racial segregation on state and local levels. Such laws existed for nearly the next 100 years, making African Americans second class citizens while denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, and become educated.

Many Southern Black people were denied ownership of land and were exploited in a system of sharecropping, a form of farming where families rented small plots of land from a landowner in exchange for a portion of the crops they had grown. Hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan also terrorized Black communities through murder and intimidation, discouraging Black communities from exercising their newly won rights. Conversely, Northern cities offered industrial jobs in fast growing economies to people of all races. Many African Americans left the South in search of such opportunities, leading to what was termed the “Great Migration” in the 20th century.

The Cotton Club in New York City

The Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan during this period drew more the 175,000 African Americans and quickly became one of the largest concentrations of Black people in the United States. African Americans of all social backgrounds congregated in Harlem based on their shared experiences of racial oppression, slavery, emancipation, and future aspirations as a free people. Harlem also served as a cultural node where artists and writers lived and creatively shared their ideas of modernity, folk culture, and religion. In this sense, the Harlem Renaissance represented a rebirth not only for intellectuals and artists but for all Black people, providing a cultural space to reshape the existing predominant narratives on Blackness.

In this context, it is nearly impossible to explore the Harlem Renaissance without considering its music. Despite being known as a genuinely American art form today, jazz emerged from small urban bars, clubs, and halls to the national stage during the Harlem Renaissance, announcing the arrival of renowned musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith. These early jazz artists reconfigured African American folk musical elements into expressions that were more distilled and elegant, and ready for mass consumption.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra

Like other Harlem Renaissance writers and visual artists, musicians such as Josephine Baker (pictured at the beginning of this piece) were in continuous conversation with audiences beyond Harlem and the United States. In Europe, Baker became an icon of the early jazz age as many European audiences had never seen such a visually striking Black chanteuse who could sing fluently in French and perform such suggestive dance moves. In this context, the Harlem Renaissance sounded in the rhythms of jazz and swing a radically new and modern Black subject that was central to the development of international modern art. It also made Harlem (and venues like the Cotton Club) the place to be modern in the early 20th century.

The selected texts below taken from RILM Abstracts of Music Literature reflect the diverse expressions of the Harlem Renaissance and its lasting impact on music, theater, visual art, poetry, and other fields in the arts. The bibliography foregrounds the significant contributions of jazz women, including Florence Mills and Melba Liston, as well as themes of voice, community values, modernism, migration, and the paradoxical qualities of Blackness.

–Written and compiled by Russ Skelchy, Editor, RILM

__________________________________________

Newton, Elizabeth. “Ethnic irony in Melvin B. Tolson’s Dark symphony”, Journal of the Society for American Music 15/2 (May 2021), 224–245. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-2157]

Abstract: Historicizes musical symbolism in Melvin B. Tolson’s poem Dark symphony. In a time when Black writers and musicians alike were encouraged to aspire to European standards of greatness, Tolson’s Afro-Modernist poem establishes an ambivalent critical stance toward the genre in its title. In pursuit of a richer understanding of the poet’s attitude, the poem is situated within histories of Black music, racial uplift, and white supremacy, exploring its relation to other media from the Harlem Renaissance. The changing language across the poem’s sections is analyzed and informed by Houston A. Baker Jr.’s study of mastery and deformation, the poet’s tone is theorized. While prior critics have read the poem’s lofty conclusion as sincerely aspirational toward assimilation, here the ambiguity, or irony, that Tolson develops is emphasized: he embraces the symphony’s capacity as a symbol to encompass multiple meanings, using the genre metaphorically as a mark of achievement, even as he implicates such usage as a practice rooted in conservative thought. The symphony, celebrated as a symbol of pluralistic democracy and liberal progress, meanwhile functions to reinforce racialized difference and inequality–a duality that becomes apparent when this poem is read alongside Tolson’s concurrent poems, notes, and criticism. Such analysis demonstrates that Dark symphony functions as a site for heightened consciousness of racialized musical language, giving shape to Tolson’s ideas as a critic, educator, and advocate for public health.

Doktor, Stephanie. “Finding Florence Mills: The voice of the Harlem Jazz Queen in the compositions of William Grant Still and Edmund Thornton Jenkins.” Journal of the Society for American Music 14/4 (November 2020) 451–479. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-12258]

Abstract: After her performances in Shuffle along (1921) on Broadway and in Dover Street to Dixie (1923) in London, Florence Mills became one of the most famous jazz and vaudeville singers. Known as the “Harlem Jazz Queen”, Mills was revered by Black Americans for her international breakthrough and because she used her commercial success as a platform to speak out against racial inequality. Extensive descriptions of her performance style and voice exist in writing, but there are no recordings of her singing. The sound of Mills’s voice is considered in two compositions written for her: William Grant Still’s Levee land (1925) and Edmund Thornton Jenkins’s Afram (1924). It is shown that Still and Jenkins imagined a much more musically complicated and politically powerful voice than that found in the racialized and gendered stereotypes permeating both her vaudeville and Broadway repertoire and the language of her reception. While scholars have written about how Mills’ outspokenness regarding issues of race and omission of sexually explicit roles made her central to 1920s Black political and artistic life, the sonic properties of her voice positioned her as a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Banfield, William C. “Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1935: Artistry, aesthetics, politics, and popular culture”, Ethnomusicologizing: Essays on music in the new paradigms, by William C. Banfield (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) 223–232. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-11893]

Abstract: The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Arts Movement (1920-1935), was a period in U.S. cultural history where preserving the life and culture of community was simultaneously an investment into cultural relevancy at all levels through music, literature, arts, dance, education, and business, and social-cultural engagement. People from New York’s Harlem community–extending across the national, artistic, entrepreneurial, and educational lines–were asking: What do we value now, and why? What and how are the best ways forward to create, project, and live in those values? What are we investing in, and what do we believe in for our future? In addition, for the first time in U.S. history, artists and thinkers worked to address needs, projections, and outcomes. The interests in these questions and arts movement as critical historical cultural markers, the artists and artistry from this period, and with that, the processes that led to the creation of progressive U.S. culture. A secondary theme is the impact those art questions and results have had on commercial political and cultural currency and relevancy on at least two other musical arts periods: the civil rights/social protest/soul period (1960-1975) and hip-hop, X, and millennium generation music (1980-2010s).

Lassiter, Fran L. “From toasts to raps: New approaches for teaching the Harlem Renaissance”, Pedagogy: Critical approaches to teaching literature, language, composition, and culture 15/2 (2015) 374–377. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-85442]

Abstract: Outlines the use of contemporary hip hop lyrics to access the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. A strategy is outlined for tracing the progression and evolution of African American political and social resistance in literature and music, introducing students to forgotten or overlooked texts of the Harlem Renaissance by exploring the connection between sociopolitical protest and artistic expression.

Colbert, Soyica Diggs. “Harlem Renaissance theater and performance”, A companion to the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson (Malden: Blackwell, 2015) 285–300. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-84653]

Abstract: Explores how theater and performance of the Harlem Renaissance depicts paradoxes at the heart of modern Black cultural production. Theater and performance emerge in response to competing generational, artistic, aesthetic, and market demands and desires. Blackness appears here as a paradoxical category in the themes, characterizations, and formal attributes of the work. Social practices such as lynching and the separation of public space due to Jim Crow defined Blackness as an easily decipherable physical category. At the same time cultural practices including passing, the cakewalk, and signifying demonstrated the slipperiness of Blackness. Harlem Renaissance theater and performance changes the optics of Blackness from a biological category able to be regulated in the social sphere to a contingent category that emerges in distinctive forms of embodiment.

Melba Liston

Price, Emmett G., III. “Melba Liston: Renaissance woman”, Black music research journal 34/1 (Spring 2014) 159–168. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-5983]

We might better understand Melba Liston’s (pictured above) achievements, importance, and influence, as well as her artistic and political motivations by viewing her and her work through the lens of the Harlem Renaissance. The movement’s terms and cultural politics provide insight into Liston’s personal experiences and professional realities. Melba Liston is revealed here as a renaissance woman as defined by an expanded reading of the intellectual zeitgeist of the New Negro, gleaning historiographical insight about Liston (and other jazz women) through the experiences of better-, but still under-documented Renaissance women writers.

Reid, Grant Harper. Rhythm for sale. (North Charleston: CreateSpace Books, 2013) [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-37077]

Abstract: Ventures into the beating heart of the Harlem Renaissance through the life of the author’s grandfather Leonard Harper. Born the son of a poor singer in Birmingham, Alabama, Harper performed on the street for pennies as a child. He became a talented performer, and after his father died, he studied soft-shoe to provide for his family. Young Harper traveled with vaudeville shows until he found his way to New York, where he went solo at 16. By his early 20s, he found himself at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, and he worked with such legends as Duke Ellington, Florence Mills, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong. An account of the era’s racial tensions is provided, with white producers often swindling Harper and his fellow African American theater professionals out of the rights to their works. However, Harper was resourceful enough to successfully stage dozens of shows. His barrier-breaking achievements are chronicled, including his 1929 debut of Hot chocolates, an African American production that received great acclaim on Broadway. Though the book is full of praise for Harper, it also recounts his extramarital affairs and some of the more colorful stories of gangsters and burlesque dancers in the Harlem nightclub scene. Through this biographical profile, a revealing profile is drawn of early 20th century Black American music, dance, culture, and the racial politics surrounding all of it.

Young, Kevin. “It don’t mean a thing: The blues mask of modernism”, The poetics of American song lyrics, ed. by Charlotte Pence (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2012) 43–74. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-13801]

Abstract: The rise of modernism coincided with the emergence and reach of the blues. The influence of blues music on modernism is explored here, focusing on the importance, intricacies, and intimacies of the Harlem or “New Negro” Renaissance. It is argued that the achievement of African American writers, sculptors, and artists should be considered one of the high points of modernism. The recent disregard heaped upon the notion of Africa as a popular theme in the Harlem Renaissance is also discussed, along with how this attitude denies the power of place in the Black imagination.

Jones, Meta DuEwa. The muse is music: Jazz poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to spoken word. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011) [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-6634]

An interdisciplinary study that traces jazz’s influence on African American poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary spoken word poetry. Examining established poets such as Langston Hughes, Ntozake Shange, and Nathaniel Mackey as well as a generation of up-and-coming contemporary writers and performers, it highlights the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality within the jazz tradition and its representation in poetry. The prosodic analysis to emphasize the musicality of African American poetic performance examines the gendered meanings evident in collaborative performances and in the criticism, images, and sounds circulating within jazz cultures. Some of the poets who participated in contemporary venues for Black writing such as the Dark Room Collective and the Cave Canem Foundation, including Harryette Mullen, Elizabeth Alexander, and Carl Phillips are also key in this discussion. The Black Arts Movement, the poetry-jazz fusion of the late 1950s, and slam and spoken word performance milieus such as Def Poetry Jam, exemplify how jazz and hip hop influenced performance artists. The attention to cadence, rhythm, and structure fills a gap in literary scholarship by attending to issues of gender in jazz and poetry. The analysis includes exploring the formal innovation and queer performance of Langston Hughes’s recorded collaboration with jazz musicians, delineating the relationship between punctuation and performance in the post-soul John Coltrane poem, and closely examining jazz improvisation and hip hop stylization. This elaborate articulation of the connections between jazz, poetry and spoken word, and gender offers valuable criticism of specific texts and performances and a convincing argument about the shape of jazz and African American poetic performance in the contemporary era.

Patterson, Jody. “It don’t mean a thing…: Jazz, modernism, and murals in New Deal New York”, Music and modernism, c. 1849-1950, edited by Charlotte De Mille. (Newcastle upon Tyme: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011) 229–254. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-2812]

Abstract: Examines the ways in which jazz was taken up by the U.S. painters Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) and Stuart Davis (1892–1964), who both sought to achieve a rapprochement between modernist aesthetics and leftist politics within the context of the New Deal arts projects. Douglas painted a four-panel cycle of murals, collectively entitled Aspects of Negro life (1939), under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP; 1933–34), which were commissioned for the Assembly Hall of the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Douglas’s use of abbreviated forms and his repetition of schematized motifs within each composition not only demonstrate his understanding of the lessons of cubist composition but represent a self-conscious effort to engage the compositional strategies of jazz. Davis, one of the political left’s most vociferous and visible artist-activists, connected his paintings to swing, a musical form that was decidedly modern and which attracted a mass audience. Through the unexpected placement of accents on beats where they would not conventionally occur, swing musicians deliberately interrupt the regular flow of rhythm. This approach to abstraction is amply demonstrated in Davis’s 1939 mural for the New York Municipal Broadcasting Company’s Radio Station WNYC and the mural Swing landscape (1938), also executed under the auspices of the Federal Art Project, for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Literature, North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Celebrating Tyagaraja ārādhana in South India

The social organization of musicians in South India is often reflected in the Tyagaraja ārādhana, the annual death-anniversary celebration in honor of the revered composer Tyagaraja (1767–1847, pictured above). Thousands of musicians appear at this huge annual celebration, including men and women of different social communities and performance traditions. These musicians include performers in the Karṇāṭak art music tradition–ubiquitous in the contemporary concert halls of South India–as well as two closely related performance traditions sharing the Karṇāṭak musical language of raga and tala: the periya mēḷam instrumental tradition of Hindu temple ritual music and the music ensemble (formerly known as cinna mēḷam) that accompanies the South Indian classical dance form bharatanāṭyam.

After Tyagaraja’s passing in 1847, some of his disciples (śiṣya) would visit his gravesite at Tiruvaiyaru on the anniversary of his death each January. The commemorations were at first extremely simple; the disciples would pray, sing songs, and return home. As Tyagaraja’s lineage of students and students’ students multiplied, more musicians came to the site to offer their worship. About 60 years after Tyagaraja’s death, the commemoration became institutionalized, due to the efforts of two Brahmin brothers from the village of Tillaisthanam, adjacent to Tiruvaiyaru. These brothers, Narasimha Bhagavatar and Panju Ayyar, collected sufficient money and food to feed the Brahmins who would assemble for the rites. Narasimha Bhagavatar, a disciple’s disciple of Tyagaraja, also published a major edition of Tyagaraja’s kriti compositions and a biographical account of the composer in 1908.

The dynamic nature of the Tyagaraja ārādhana, which takes place over three days each January, in the town of Tiruvaiyaru, Tanjavur district, in Tamil Nadu, facilitates the study of two parameters at the heart of India’s changing social organization: gender and caste. Attention to these two central parameters illuminates other aspects of social organization such as the patronage, presentation, and transmission of music, and people’s attitudes about music, musicians, and music making. In locating caste and gender relations within the history of the Tyagaraja celebration, the roles played by two important transitional figures, namely Sri Malaikottai Govindasvami Pillai and Srimati (Smt.) Bangalore Nagaratnammal, illustrate the changes in the gender and caste organization of South Indian musicians in the 20th century.

Read on in The Garland encyclopedia of world music. South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below is a video of the 172nd Tyagaraja ārādhana circa January 2019.

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Filed under Asia, Performers, Religious music, World music

Nash The Slash reinvents classic rock

Electric mandolin and violin player and vocalist Nash The Slash (Jeff Plewman), whose name comes from the 1927 Laurel & Hardy movie Do detectives think?, is well known for his instrumental soundtrack work and reinvention of classic rock cover tunes while his image, that of a bandaged, walking, Invisible Man has made him instantly recognizable. During a performance in the late 1970’s to raise awareness of the threat from the Three Mile Island disaster, Nash walked on stage wearing bandages dipped in phosphorous paint and exclaimed: “Look, this is what happens to you!” Since that appearance, the bandages became his sartorial trademark. Although he was a guitarist for the late 1960’s Toronto band Breathless, Nash The Slash made his auspicious debut on 17 March 1975 sporting a top hat and tails (the bandages came later) at the Roxy Theatre to perform his soundtrack to Luis Buñuel’s silent film Un chien andalou (1929).

Nash The Slash would put out a half dozen releases between 1980 and 1984 as writer, producer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist as well as work doing engineering and production. His album Children of the night was produced by Steve Hillage and eventually became Nash’s biggest selling solo record with estimates at 100,000 copies worldwide. A fledgling engineer named Daniel Lanois later produced the single Dance after curfew from the And you thought you were normal album. Nash played violin on Gary Numan’s Dance album and was invited by Numan to tour the UK through 1980 and 1981. His long career included numerous appearances on various television shows in Canada and elsewhere, studio recordings, collaborations, and film soundtracks. In 1989, Nash The Slash landed a movie soundtrack deal with Toronto’s Sinister Cinema which hired him to add soundtrack scores to old silent films such as Lon Chaney’s 1925 Phantom of the opera and the 1919 German The cabinet of Dr. Caligari specifically for home video release. Nash The Slash would later perform the works live at special screenings in Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall.

Read the full entry on Nash The Slash in The Canadian pop music encyclopedia (2020). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below is the video for Nash The Slash’s 1982 classic Dance after curfew and his cover of The Rolling Stones’ 19th nervous breakdown.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Performers, Popular music

Kaija Saariaho’s sound worlds

From 1972 to 1974, the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho studied at the University of Industrial Art and Design in Helsinki. Although she had played violin since childhood, she initially did not pursue her interests in music and composition because she saw no professional prospects in music as a woman. By 1976, however, Saariaho had enrolled at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki where she studied with Paavo Heininen until 1981. After completing a degree in composition, she continued her studies at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg (Freiburg University of Music), where she studied with Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber before moving to Paris in 1982.

Saariahobegan her career with short compositions using serial techniques. Generally, her music was considered rather avant-garde for Finland in the 1980s, a period when she was began composing with computers and other digital technology. After moving to Paris, Saariaho further developed her techniques for computer-assisted composition in the music studios of IRCAM (Institut de recherche musicale et coordination acoustic et musique) and GRM (Groupe de recherches musicales). Throughout the 1980s, her compositions (particularly her electroacoustic compositions) increasingly gained international recognition, and some were performed in Europe, Japan, and the United States.

Besides her training in serial composition techniques, Saariaho’s musical thinking was deeply influenced by the performing arts and above all, by the color theory of Goethe and Wassily Kandinsky. They inspired her to experiment with the transition between vowels and consonants and to generate transition processes between sound and the human voice. In a 2014 interview, she discussed her use of the human voice as an instrument and a vehicle for text, including poetry and literature. According to Saariaho,

“I have such an affinity for the human voice–and a personal predilection for texts! In a sense, it’s the richest form of expression because the instrument is inside a human being and there are many things that cannot be falsified when using your voice. Whether or not a work for voice originates from a text, it’s necessarily a different mode of communication than instrumental music. Of course, using a text adds another layer of richness and meaning. I really love using voice, but it was difficult for me to write for it at first, probably because the historical context was difficult. I’ve always loved Berio, for instance, and what he did with voice, but I don’t like music that imitates Berio–and at some point, it felt as though you could only write for voice in that way, you had to write that way. So, it took time for me to find a certain freedom and my own way of writing for voice–and to accept it.”

Read the full entry on Kaija Saariaho in MGG Online.

Below is Saariaho’s Verblendungen (1984), a piece commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company that sees her experimenting with electroacoustic music by manipulating pre-recorded sounds on a tape to create eerie textures.

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

Sly Stone, funk, and Black church aesthetics

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sly and the Family Stone were pioneers of funk music. Different from other funk acts of that era, Sly and the Family Stone’s funk variant fused psychedelic rock stylings with classic soul, and in that sense, their style differed considerably from the bass-heavy grooves of mainstream funk. The band’s success on the pop charts as well as with urban Black youth made the group especially influential, especially evident in the music of crossover giants such as George Clinton, Rick James, and Prince.

As the band’s creative force, Texas-native Sylvester Stewart (better known as Sly Stone) developed an impressive music business resumé in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, excelling as a radio disc jockey, songwriter, and record producer for the likes of he Beau Brummels, Bobby Freeman, and the Mojo Men. His first attempt at heading a group, the Stoners, failed in 1966; however, Sly and the Family Stone, which included his brother, guitarist Freddie Stone and sister Rosie Stone, who sang and played keyboards and harmonica, and a cousin, bassist Larry Graham drew sufficient attention locally in 1967 to garner a contract from Epic Records.

Sly and the Family Stone played a crucial role in introducing Black church aesthetics to mainstream popular music audiences in the late 1960s. Sly introduced secular audiences to what James Cleveland called “the Sanctified Church” through his personal experiences in the Black Pentecostal church. In the foreground of Sly’s work was the recording Stand! (1969), particularly the single I want to take you higher. Furthermore, the band’s integrated gender and racial demographic along with an overall message that all people need to work together in harmony represent the epitome of post-Civil Rights culture. In a 2023 interview, Sly spoke about his work and the transformative power of music. According to him, “I know music can always make a difference. I knew it back when I was [a radio DJ]. People would call into the station and say that they wanted me to play this song or that song and I could tell how much it meant to them. That was what we wanted to do with the music that we made. That’s what we did.”

Sly Stone turns 81 on 15 March 2024.

Read the full entry on Sly and the Family Stone in the Encyclopedia of recorded sound (2005; find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias), and in “Sly Stone and the sanctified church” by Mark Anthony Neal, an essay included in The funk era and beyond: New perspectives on Black popular culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature).

Below, Sly and the Family Stone perform If you want me to stay on the television show Soul train circa 1970.

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Filed under From the archives, Performers, Popular music

Le Corbusier, architecture, and sound

The Swiss-French architect and designer Le Corbusier’s (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) work on the Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp, France (pictured below) has been touted as iconic of the international style. Built between 1950 and 1955, the chapel has a tower reminiscent of a grain silo, a sweeping roof that resembles a floppy hat and curved walls with rectangular apertures of various shapes and sizes. These characteristics all reflect Le Corbusier’s taste for articulated light and reinforced concrete, as well as his distinct penchant for sparse and ascetic design. Due to one wall of the chapel being set several feet inside the edge of the roof, it is possible to be both under the roof and open to the elements. Le Corbusier used the east wall of the chapel as a cyclorama against which the public and private altars were set, incorporating a swiveling statue of the Virgin Mary to accommodate both. The building’s architecture also reminds of Le Corbusier’s past as a Cubist painter and that he continued to produce two-dimensional visual art throughout his career.

Le Corbusier also is well-known for his work on Edgard Varése’s Poéme électronique for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The work was performed in an elaborate installation of sound routes which circled the performance space in a building designed by Iannis Xenakis. Le Corbusier designed a spectacle of colored lights and images to accompany Varèse’s piece, which was a self-sufficient musical work, part of a larger composition of architecture, sound, light, and image. Unpublished correspondence between Varèse and Le Corbusier suggests that they originally intended to conceptually coordinate sound and image. At the very least, Le Corbusier’s script influenced the form and sound material of Varèse’s piece.

Learn more in the entry on Le Corbusier in A dictionary of the avant-gardes (2001). Find it in RILM Music Encylopedias.

Below is a performance of Varése’s Poéme électronique by the Tufts University Electronic Music Ensemble, followed by a video featuring a walk-through of Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut chapel in Ronchamp.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Architecture, Europe, Performers, Sound

Teresa Teng and Hong Kong’s colonial modernity

Teresa Teng (鄧麗君, born Deng Lijun) was one of the most influential singers in Asia during the Cold War era. She rose to fame in 1960s Taiwan, and by 1971, at the age of 18, shifted the focus of her career from Taiwan to Hong Kong. This decision would become the most important chapter in Teng’s music career, as she would live in Hong Kong for next 20 years. Her preference for Hong Kong was expressed in the release of two singles, namely Night of Hong Kong (香港之夜,1982) and Hong Kong, Hong Kong (香港香港, 1989), which she recorded specifically for her local fans. Teng’s other well-known songs also told the stories of small rural towns in China, where many of her other loyal fans lived.

Teng recalled that as a second-generation migrant from China to Taiwan, she frequently experienced discrimination by Taiwanese people towards her. Unable to overcome of the feeling of being a stranger there, she found safe harbor in Hong Kong‘s immigrant community. Teng’s rise to become one of Asia’s most influential singers is also the story of Hong Kong’s expanding political and economic influence in the region, along with the cross-cultural appeal of Hong Kong’s popular culture during the Cold War period. A series of albums entitled Island love songs (島國之情歌), produced when Teng was employed by PolyGram Music in Hong Kong, as well as her two albums in Cantonese, and the album Light exquisite feeling, which promoted the idea of a transnational “imagined China”, aurally evoke a sense of Hong Kong’s colonial modernity.

Celebrate the first day of women’s history month by reading “Love songs from an island with blurred boundaries: Teresa Teng’s anchoring and wandering in Hong Kong” by Chen-Ching Cheng, in Made in Hong Kong: Studies in popular music (Routledge, 2020). Find it in RILM Abstracts.

Below, Teresa Teng sings one of her most popular songs The moon represents my heart (released in 1977).

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Filed under Asia, Performers, Popular music, Uncategorized, Voice

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composer and conductor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the son of a doctor from Sierra Leone and an English woman, was born in Croydon, England on 15 August 1875. At the age of 15, he was accepted into a violin class at the Royal College of Music in London and studied composition before being awarded a composition scholarship in March 1893. As a composer he progressed far more quickly than his fellow students. At a young age, Coleridge-Taylor became familiar with the works of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had a strong influence on Coleridge-Taylor, especially on his compositions Seven African romances op. 17 (1897), A corn song (1897), African suite op. 35 (1897) and the opera Dream lovers op. 25 (1898). He was also familiar with the writings of Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois, whose collection of essays, The souls of Black folk, he called “the finest book I have ever read by a colored man, and one of the best by any author, White or Black”.

At the age of 23, Coleridge-Taylor was commissioned to write his Ballade in A minor for Britain’s Three Choirs Festival; although he is best known for Hiawatha’s wedding feast, based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The overture Coleridge-Taylor wrote for the piece was inspired by the African American spiritual Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. In 1904, he made the first of three trips to the United States where he toured during the post-Reconstruction era and met notable African American figures such as the poet James Weldon Johnson and the statesman Booker T. Washington. During this period, he also conducted performances of his works at the Washington Festival and Litchfield Festival on the East Coast. Later, Coleridge-Taylor became a professor of composition at Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music. In addition to cantatas, chamber music, and orchestral works, he also wrote popular songs and incidental music. Coleridge-Taylor passed away at the age of 37 from pneumonia.

Read the full entry on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in MGG Online.

Listen to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha overture below.

A related Bibliolore post:

A new Coleridge-Taylor edition

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Filed under Black studies, Europe, Musicology, North America, Opera, Performers