Category Archives: Performers

Carmontelle and Mozart

 

A resurgence of scholarly interest in Louis Carogis de Carmontelle has drawn attention to the diverse accomplishments of a neglected playwright, critic, inventor, and artist.

While serving as lecteur to Louis-Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, Carmontelle was responsible for the education of the Duke’s son; organized performances and other entertainments at the Duke’s château; wrote over 100 plays; designed landscape gardens; and created, among other drawings and watercolors, over 700 portraits of musicians.

These portraits offer a unique historical and cultural record of French society, musical practice, and taste in the 1760s and 1770s—including a portrait of the young Mozart performing at the harpsichord with his father and sister during their visit to Paris and Versailles from late 1763 to early 1764 (above; click to enlarge).

This according to “Carmontelle’s portraits of 18th-century musicians” by Mary Cyr (The musical times CLVIII/1941 [winter 2017] pp. 39–54).

Today is Carmontelle’s 301st birthday! Below, a silent film of his rouleau transparent depicting figures walking in a park, one of the many diversions he created for Louis-Philippe’s court.

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Filed under Iconography, Performers

Kathleen Battle and spirituals

 

One of Kathleen Battle’s signature achievements has been live and recorded performances of American spirituals. Her recital at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016—Underground railroad: A spiritual journey—was her first performance at the house in more than twenty years.

One of Battle’s best spiritual performances is her 1983 version of His eye is on the sparrow. She seems to be the songbird herself: sparrows really do seem to sing for no other reason than because they’re happy, and they turn their heads upward at the very last millisecond of a long bubbling trill. The rendition is a vivid display of her connection with the words of faith, certainty, and hope.

This according to “Dazzlingby Jennifer Melick (Opera news LXXXI/5 [November 2016] pp. 20–21).

Today is Battle’s 70th birthday! Above, the 2016 performance; below, the 1983 performance.

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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 in at the opera (London: Libbey, 1994 pp. 253–65).

Above and below, classic Marxian mayhem.

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Filed under Humor, Opera, Performers

The Rebirth Brass Band

In a city where music traditions are held sacred, the Rebirth Brass Band, anchored by leader Philip “Tuba Phil” Frazier alongside his brother, Keith “Bass Drum Shorty” Frazier, occupies a unique place in New Orleans culture.

Over the course of three decades, the group’s R&B and funk motifs have redefined the standard for brass band music without losing sight of the music’s heritage. Rebirth’s profound influence on brass band musicians endures during second line parades and jazz funerals, and in classrooms and rehearsal spaces citywide.

This according to “Rebirth Brass Band: Keep it goin’ like a heartbeat” by Jennifer Odell (DownBeat LXXXI/9 [September 2014] pp. 44–47).

Above and below, Rebirth in action.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Kate Bush arrives

 

Kate Bush appeared at a moment in the history of British rock in which a great deal of space for a singer like her had just opened up.

One of the victories won by female singers in the mid-1970s punk era was the opportunity to experiment with a wider range of vocal sounds. Bush, who gained popularity in post-punk England with a repertoire of unearthly shrieks and guttural whispers, took advantage of this space to convey a disturbing breadth of emotion. Yet her music was also a reaction against the one-dimensional angst and discord of punk, using melody and often frail vocals to create a surreal world of affect.

To Bush, the visual presentation of music cannot be divorced from the music itself, so it is not surprising that she was the first female pop star to combine her music with her classical and modern dance training. Her idea that the combination of music and movement allows the artist to express a more complex range of emotion has proved highly influential, having been translated—though in simplified form—into the work of current music video superstars.

This according to “Kate Bush: Enigmatic chanteuse as pop pioneer” by Holly Kruse (Soundscapes III [November 2000]).

Today is Kate Bush’s 60th birthday! Above, Bush with friends in 1985; below, Running up that hill, the most successful of her 1980s releases.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Leon Fleisher’s second act

In 1964, while preparing for a tour of the USSR, Leon Fleisher experienced the first signs of a problem. Two of the fingers of his right hand began to curl uncontrollably; within 10 months they were clenched in a fist. He was not in pain, and medical experts were baffled.

“I guess my fantasy was that with the same mystery with which it had appeared, it would disappear,” he said in a 2007 interview. His attempts to regain control of his fingers ran the gamut from A to Z, he said, “from aromatherapy to Zen Buddhism.” Meanwhile, he redirected his musical energies to performing the left-hand repertory, teaching, and conducting.

Finally, some 30 years later, a diagnosis of focal dystonia, a neurological disorder linked to repetitive tasks, led to an experimental treatment involving Botox injections.

His comeback catapulted him as a symbol of the human spirit and an inspiration to a broader public. Egon Petri’s transcription of Bach’s Schafe können sicher weiden (Sheep may safely graze) has become something of a signature piece, a staple of Fleisher’s solo programs. It is to his mind “the antiterror piece of our time.”

This according to “The pianist Leon Fleisher: A life-altering debility, reconsidered” by Holly Brubach (The New York times, 12 June 2007).

Today is Fleisher’s 90th birthday! Above, a photo by Eli Turner; below, the sublime Bach work.

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Filed under Performers, Science

Coltrane’s saxophonic scream

The critical reception of John Coltrane’s saxophonic scream—an incredibly high-pitched, raw, and intense explosion of timbre—demonstrates how our precognitive reaction to sonic timbres can invoke tropes of masculinity and race.

A perceptual/cognitive approach that focuses on the degree to which the listener identifies with the sound, citing recent research on the neurophysiology of audition, locates a biological reason for the phenomenon of musical empathy—the perception that in listening to a sound we also participate in it. Our participation, however, is culturally conditioned.

Coltrane’s saxophonic scream was variously interpreted by music critics as the sound of black masculine violence and rage or as a sign of the jazz icon’s spirituality, a transcendent sound. Music critics’ visceral, embodied interpretations of Coltrane’s saxophonic scream turned on their reactions to the birth of free jazz in the context of the U.S. civil rights movement.

This according to “Theorizing the saxophonic scream in free jazz improvisation” by Zachary Wallmark, an essay included in Negotiated moments: Improvisation, sound, and subjectivity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 233–44).

Below, the Coltrane’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966.

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Jazz and blues, Performers, Reception

Béla Fleck’s Africa Project

In early 2005 Béla Fleck traveled to Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia, and Mali to meet, jam, and record with an impressive array of musicians, bringing along a recording engineer, a film crew, and enough gear to ensure that no encounter would go unrecorded. He accompanied the player of a massive marimba in Uganda, played with kalimba masters and harpists in Tanzania, and encountered a possible banjo ancestor—the akonting—in Gambia.

In an interview, Fleck explained that his aggressive travel agenda was part of a strategy to circumvent his inner control freak. “By putting myself in a situation where I couldn’t really be completely prepared, I was forced to dig deep into things that I do that I can’t tell you where they come from. I have been pegged as a complicated guy, and so it’s funny that I feel freer not being complicated in this setting.”

This according to “Béla Fleck’s Africa Project” by Banning Eyre (Guitar player August 2009).

Today is Fleck’s 60th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from his award-winning film Throw down your heart.

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Filed under Africa, Instruments, Performers

Louis Jordan and “Caldonia”

In an interview, Louis Jordan recalled the background of his 1945 hit Caldonia:

Caldonia started a long time before I came to New York. There used to be a long, lean, lanky girl in Memphis, Tennessee, where Jim Cannon used to have a gambling place where people used to come to shoot a bale of cotton because they didn’t have too much money to gamble.”

“This long, lean, lanky gal used to hang out in this place and she wouldn’t do anything you asked her to do. That’s why they said ‘Your head was so hard,’ and…Hot Lips Page was very young then and I met him and he said ‘You should make a tune out of that, just a plain old blues.’”

Quoted in Let the good times roll: The story of Louis Jordan and his music by John Chilton (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p. 112).

Today is Jordan’s 110th birthday! Below, a 1946 performance of the song.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Cathy Berberian’s humor

Irony and humor were inseparable parts of Cathy Berberian’s musical life; they permeated and guided her musical choices, her works, and her interpretations and stage performances. A key feature of her artistic personality was her love of laughter, derision, and amusement, her skill at combining seriousness and mockery, professionalism and frivolity, respect and irony.

The little girl playing with her voice, imitating what she heard—animals, sounds, singers—became the young woman who married Luciano Berio without abandoning her free spirit, which inspired John Cage and many others. Later, in her works and those composed for her, she gave free rein to parody, pastiche, diversion, and an array of peaceful weapons for fighting fixed ideas and shaking up certainties.

Berberian’s deep desire to question tradition and express an inventive concept of music—an open concept, anchoring music and singing in life—could not be fulfilled without destroying idols and wringing the neck of popular belief in a burst of laughter. She wielded irony as a corrective to dogmatism, parochialism, and obscurantism.

A daughter of exiles, always a foreigner in a host country, a woman among famous men, and intelligent far beyond what was expected from a performer and a singer, Berberian triumphed by defending humor, the wealth of the oppressed.

This according to “L’errance infitie de l’humor: L’humor de Cathy Berberian” by Marie-Christine Vila (Itamar: Revista de investigación musical–Territorios para el arte III [2010] pp. 311–21).

Today is Berberian’s birthday! Above and below, performing her own Stripsody (1966), which uses a graphic score to indicate comic strip sounds.

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