Tag Archives: Birthdays

Obrecht and the sphinx

The symmetries of Jacob Obrecht’s Missa “Maria zart” can be deconstructed into constituent elements, like a puzzle, to re-create certain stages of the composer’s working methods.

Described by Rob Wegman as “the sphinx among Obrecht’s Masses”, the work ideally lends itself to this approach because of the simplicity of the melodic and rhythmic layout of its cantus firmus. These characteristics may have inspired the composer to write even more geometrically than is usual in his oeuvre.

This according to “Looking at the sphinx: Obrecht’s Missa “Maria zart” by János Bali (Journal of the Alamire Foundation II/2 [fall 2010] pp. 208–30).

According to some sources, today is Obrecht’s 560th birthday! Below, an excerpt from the work, conducted by Prof. Bali.

Leave a comment

Filed under Renaissance

Mose Allison and “Parchman Farm”

In November 1957 Mose Allison recorded what would became his most celebrated and requested piece: Parchman Farm, a wickedly clever blues written from the viewpoint of an inmate at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary. But by the mid-1960s Allison had ceased performing the song, reportedly disturbed by audience reactions to it.

The adverse reactions were prompted by the song’s surprise ending, where the seemingly sympathetic prisoner-singer suddenly declares “I’m a-gonna be here for the rest of my life, and all I did was shoot my wife.”

Such responses to a song whose title evokes the Jim Crow South, and whose author is a white performer whom many listeners have assumed to be black, are worthy of closer scrutiny. In addition to its surface appeal, Parchman Farm possesses subtextual layers replete with complex, troubling questions about race, gender, and power, particularly as these manifest in popular discourses about blues.

Allison returned to the topic in 1964 with New Parchman, which offers an implicit critique of the ideology informing the 1957 work.

This according to “One Parchman Farm or another: Mose Allison, irony, and racial formation” by John Kimsey (Journal of popular music studies XVII/2 [2005] pp. 105–32).

Today would have been Mose Allison’s 90th birthday! Above, recording in the mid-1960s; below, the original Parchman Farm and its sequel.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jazz and blues

Ilmari Krohn and Finnish ethnomusicology

Ilmari Krohn was the founder of the Finnish school of ethnomusicology, and he was one of the first to develop lexicographical methods for the classification and study of traditional music.

Krohn derived support and inspiration from the Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, which pioneered the collection of Finnish folklore and the publication of Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. He was also influenced by the historic-geographic method in folklore, originated by his father Julius and his older brother Kaarle.

The main focus of Krohn’s approach was on the collection, classification, and publication of traditional songs, not ethnography or the musicians themselves. The principles Krohn laid were later adopted by Bartók and Kodály, and then spread to a number of European countries.

This according to “History, geography, and diffusion: Ilmari Krohn’s early influence on the study of European folk music” by Erkki Pekkilä (Ethnomusicology L/2 [spring–summer 2006] pp. 353–59).

Today is Krohn’s 150th birthday! Below, a 1977 recording of his Rukous (Prayer).

Leave a comment

Filed under Ethnomusicology, Europe

Dizzy Gillespie, cultural ambassador

In early 1956 Dizzy Gillespie was playing with a small group in Washington, DC, when he received a call from Adam Clayton Powell, who asked him to stop by his office the next day.

Gillespie arrived to find a group of reporters waiting, and Powell made a statement to the press: “I’m going to propose to President Eisenhower that he send this man, who’s a great contributor to our music, on a State Department sponsored cultural mission to Africa, the Near East, the Middle East, and Asia.”

Although Gillespie had a stellar international reputation, the proposal was daring: the U.S. South was in wide disarray over segregation, and the suggestion that a black man should represent the nation abroad was bound to be highly controversial.

Nevertheless, in February of that year the State Department announced a ten-week tour of South Asia, the Near East, and the Balkans by Gillespie and a group of some 20 people—in Gillespie’s words, “an American assortment of blacks, whites, males, females, Jews, and Gentiles.” The U.S. government wanted to send a signal that bigotry was waning at home, and, again in Gillespie’s words,

“They [foreign audiences] could see it wasn’t as intense because we had white boys and I was the leader of the band. That was strange to them because they’d heard about blacks being lynched and burned, and here I come with half whites and blacks and a girl playing in the band. And everybody seemed to be getting along fine. So I didn’t try to hide anything. I said ‘Yeah…we have our problems but we’re still working on it. I’m the leader of this band, and those white guys are working for me.’ That’s a helluva thing.”

This according to “Jazz strategy: Dizzy, foreign policy, and government in 1956” by Scott Gac (Americana IV/1 [Spring 2005]).

Today is Gillespie’s 100th birthday! Above, playing for snakes on the tour in Karachi, Pakistan; below, World statesman, an album recorded with the historic touring group.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jazz and blues, Politics

Thelonious Monk’s syntactic dissonances

Thelonious Monk has long been celebrated for his playing as much as for his compositions, but his pianism continues to occasion critical unease; a defensiveness is detectable in discussions of his technique even today.

Considerations of Monk’s playing tend to avoid or finesse peculiarities that raised questions about his ability in the first place; these include the jarring dissonances that strike some listeners as mistakes. An examination of his dissonance usage suggests two analytic categories: timbral dissonance and syntactic dissonance.

Monk’s 1968 solo recording of ’Round midnight exemplifies his use of syntactic wrong-note dissonances. Neither errors nor merely facets of Monk’s tone, their significance is bound up with their wrongness: They make sense because they sound wrong in a meaningful way, as significations on musical norms.

This according to “The right mistakes: Confronting the old question of Thelonious Monk’s chops” by David Feurzeig (Jazz perspectives V/1 [April 2011] pp. 29–59).

Today is Monk’s 100th birthday! Above, in 1969; below, the recording in question.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jazz and blues, Reception

Faulkner and blues

Although the story of blues was never his direct subject, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha chronicles obliquely address the processes through which mainstream America embraced, dismissed, romanticized, adapted, and came to respect blues and other forms of traditional and popular music.

From the scenes of white people dancing to an African American band in Soldiers’ pay through the country blues guitarist emerging out of the flood in Old man to the symbolic engagement with a broad multicultural tradition of popular song in The mansion, Faulkner’s writings reflect shifting social attitudes toward southern roots music.

This according to Yoknapatawpha blues: Faulkner’s fiction and southern roots music by Tim A. Ryan (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2015).

Today is Faulkner’s 120th birthday! Above, the author with Billie Holiday in 1956; below, Charley Patton’s High water everywhere, a recording linked to Old man.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jazz and blues, Literature

Amy Beach’s “Gaelic symphony”

Amy Beach’s highly polished Gaelic symphony represents her triumph over 19th-century women’s socialization and her honest desire to present a feminine image worthy of imitation.

After the work’s 1896 premiere Beach was described by the critic Philip Hale as “an epoch maker who has broken through old boundaries and presented an enrichment and expansion of woman’s sphere in art.” Even the Boston Brahmin composer George Whitefield Chadwick wrote, in a letter to her, “I am pleased that an American and a woman can produce such strong and beautiful musical ideas . . . You are now one of the boys.”

This according to “Amy Beach: Muse, conscience, and society” by Susan Mardinly (Journal of singing LXX/5 [May–June 2014] pp. 527–40).

Today is Beach’s 150th birthday! Below, the work’s finale.

Leave a comment

Filed under Romantic era, Women's studies

Alice Coltrane’s legacy

Critics, historians, musicians, and jazz enthusiasts still debate the identity of the heir to John Coltrane’s musical throne; but his widow, Alice Coltrane, who performed with him from 1966 until his death in 1967, was the one artist who continued his experiments in marrying spirituality with jazz and furthered his explorations of new compositional approaches by introducing African, Indian, and Middle Eastern influences into the genre.

She was the first to develop a jazz harp sound into something more than a curiosity, and her use of non-Western instruments predated similar trends in other genres. The albums that she recorded after her husband’s death serve as documentation of her development as an innovator, and offer an alternative reading of the history and evolution of the free jazz or avant-garde movement.

This according to “Freedom is a constant struggle: Alice Coltrane and the redefining of the jazz avant-garde” by Tammy L. Kernodle, an essay included in John Coltrane and black America’s quest for freedom: Spirituality and the music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 73–98).

Today would have been Alice Coltrane’s 80th birthday! Above, performing in 2006; below, the title track from her last album, Translinear light.

1 Comment

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

John Lee Hooker and “Boom boom”

In an interview, John Lee Hooker described the genesis of his 1961 hit Boom boom:

“I used to play at this place called the Apex Bar in Detroit. There was a young lady there named Luilla, she was a bartender there. I would come in there at night and I’d never be on time. Every night the band would beat me there; sometimes they’d be on the bandstand playing by the time I got there. Whenever I’d come in she’d point at me and say ‘Boom boom, you’re late again.’ It dawned on me that that was a good name for a song. Then one night she said, “Boom boom, I’m gonna shoot you down.’ She gave me a song but she didn’t know it.”

“I took that thing and I hummed it all the way home from the bar. At night I went to bed and I was still thinking of it. I got up the next day and put one and one together, two and two together, trying to piece it out—taking things out, putting things in. I finally got it down right, got it together, got it down in my head. Then I went and sang it, and everybody went, Wow!”

“About two months later I recorded it, and the record shot straight to the top. That barmaid felt pretty good. She went around telling everybody ‘I got John Lee to write that song.’ I gave her some bread for it, too, so she was pretty happy.”

Quoted in Working musicians: Defining moments from the road, the studio, and the stage by Bruce Pollock (New York: HarperEntertainment, 2002, pp. 290–91).

According to most sources, today is Hooker’s 100th birthday! Above, recording in 1960, a year before Boom boom; below, a classic performance.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Tovey’s marginalia

Donald Francis Tovey left thousands of marginal comments on the sheet music he owned, dating from different periods of his life.

Here and there one finds a score that is chock-full of pencil scribblings, critical, historical, personal—clearly remarks that Tovey meant for his own eyes alone, though it is impressive that he often wrote complete sentences with full punctuation. Most commonly he sang the praise of some compositional marvel in words of simple rapture: “Splendid!” “Magnificent climax!” “Wonderful!”

But Tovey was at his wittiest with composers he didn’t much like. Muzio Clementi came in for some particularly choice remarks, such as “Silly little beast in bad Mozartian style with one or two idiotically difficult bits of pianistics.” A passage in Clementi’s op. 50, no. 3, subtitled Didone abbandonata, elicited the comment “and here comes the Bishop, or the Pope with triple crown.” This whimsy is petulantly crossed out, and below, in a different but equally Toveyan hand, are the words “Pretentious NONSENSE” (see above). Where the theme is inverted he wrote “Here Dido stands on her head.”

This according to “Tovey’s marginalia” by Raymond Monelle (The musical times CXXXI/1769 [July 1990] pp. 351–53). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Today would have been Monelle’s 80th birthday! Below, the jovial finale of Tovey’s Sonata for two cellos.

2 Comments

Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Humor, Musicologists