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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In an interview, Maddy Prior recalled her early impressions of English traditional music.
“We did a bit at school and as a result I didn’t like it very much,” she says, “but it was cool in my adolescence to sing American folk songs and get into Bob Dylan. From that I started going to folk clubs.”
“I drove Reverend Gary Davis around for a month in 1966. That was a character forming experience! Then I met this American couple and drove them around for a year. They told me to stop singing American folk songs, because they said I was rubbish at it!”
“They had lots of tapes of English folk music and I started to listen to them, reluctantly at first, I might add. I found the songs old and boring. But I listened to the tapes again, and again, and eventually I found ‘Oh I like that song’, ‘Oh I like that one too’. You get your ear in, that’s what you have to do with any music.”
Quoted in “Please to see the folk-rock queen” by Kernan Andrews (Galway advertiser 8 May 2014).
Today is Prior’s 70th birthday! Above, at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention in 2016; below, singing Steeleye Span’s 1975 hit All around my hat in 2004.
BONUS: The female drummer in 1971, when the Steeleye Span lineup included the legendary Martin Carthy and Ashley Hutchings.
While Cécile Chaminade’s works were much loved in her day, she has been largely written out of musical history due to her enduring nostalgia for the aesthetics of her youth. “I confess,” she wrote to a friend in the 1920s, “that I can adapt myself no more to modern music than to modern painting, architecture, poetry, literature, mentality, or morality.”
Most of Chaminade’s successes were melancholy, nostalgic works. Her piano piece Automne at one time sold over 6000 copies a year, and a statement about it in one of her articles for the American magazine The etude shows her allegiance to the Romantic idea of correspondences between nature and the imagination in an almost Symbolist way. “Automne was composed…at the time of the year when nature is at peace and where one looks back on the fine days that have passed and, looking back, realising with heartfelt regret that they are now things of the past.”
This according to “Sister of perpetual indulgence” by Richard Langham Smith (The musical times CXXXV/1822 [December 1994] pp. 740–44). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Today is Chaminade’s 160th birthday! Below, a performance of Automne by Valerie Tryon.
Starting in 1912, Marcel Duchamp incorporated musical concepts and structures into his work, thereby promoting the emancipation of noise and confirming composition and music-making as a cottage industry.
Duchamp’s Avoir l’apprenti dans le soleil (To have the apprentice in the sun, 1914) was created at a time when the artist was concerned with the challenges of combining elements of various arts. The cyclist is a symbol of the French avant-garde and the modern spirit; the viewer sees the cyclist’s effort to mount the staff lines as a contrast between silence and noisy corporeality. The battle between the arts is not to be ironed out by means of assimilation, but must be fought out or brought to a détente in the artwork itself.
This according to “Marcel Duchamp, John Cage und eine Kunstgeschichte des Geräusches/Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and an art history of noise” by Michael C. Glasmeier, an essay included in Resonanzen: Aspekte der Klangkunst/Resonances: Aspects of sound art (Heidelberg: Kehrer, 2002, pp. 49–70).
Today is Duchamp’s 130th birthday! Above, the drawing in question; below, the artist describes his readymade À bruit secret (With hidden noise, 1916): “Before I finished it Arensberg put something inside the ball of twine, and never told me what it was, and I didn’t want to know.”
Enrique Granados’s Duo-Art piano-roll performance of his Danza española no. 5 (Andaluza), made some 20 years after the piece was published, illuminates much about late-Romantic piano performance practices.
Transcription and analysis of this piano roll illustrate the disparity between score and performance. Granados added and changed notes, ornaments, articulations, and chords. He also altered many rhythmic values, desynchronized melody and accompaniment, rolled chords at will, and introduced drastic tempo changes not indicated in the score. His performing style thus reflects a personal approach to the piano that lies well within the broader context of the Romantic performance tradition.
This according to “Piano-roll recordings of Enrique Granados: A study of a transcription of the composer’s performance” by Anatole Leikin (Journal of musicological research XXI/1–2 [January–June 2002] pp. 3–19).
Today is Granados’s 150th birthday! Below, the recording in question.