While Kitty Wells’s publicity depicted her as sweet and subservient, her performances told a different story; her steel-blade voice conveyed a maturity and temerity that was impossible to misread.
Confident but not flashy, plaintive but not abject, Wells tapped into a rich vein of deeply loyal fans who heard the grit and forbearance of her experience as she sang to and about them. A role model for women who felt both fidelity and frustration toward family values, she was a transitional figure who represented changing times: a fierce traditionalist with her band, the career wife in an otherwise traditional marriage, and the voice of women who predated the feminist movement but still embraced women’s universal desire to be heard.
Projecting a toughness and stamina honed by 16 years as a professional musician, Wells forged feminine stereotypes into tools of power and strength. She built her reputation on this contradiction: She would not make waves and she would open doors.
This according to “Kitty Wells, queen of denial” by Georgia Christgau, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 211–30).
Today would have been Wells’s 100th birthday! Below, her signature hit It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels.
BONUS: A classic cover of the song.
Alfred Hitchcock held an ambivalent position toward the sound elements of cinema. He remained faithful to the idea of pure cinema realized through shots and sequences, and considered dialogue as a lesser expressive resource due to its tendency to break down the narrative tension gained by the images.
On the other hand, he considered sound effects and music to be highly effective devices, with their ability to modify the rhythm of the action, or to voice the depth of characters and the hidden forces of dramatic situations. He often gave sound effects and music central roles in dramaturgy and structure.
The 1956 version of The man who knew too much is a film completely pervaded by music. The recurring song Que sera, sera is one of Hitchcock’s most remarkable examples of diegetic music, informing the audiovisual structures in concurrence with concepts developed by Gilles Deleuze in L’image-mouvement.
This according to “Immagine, suono, relazione mentale in The man who knew too much (1956) di Alfred Hitchcock” by Matteo Giuggioli (Philomusica on-line XI ).
Tomorrow is Hitchcock’s 120th birthday! Above and below, Doris Day’s iconic performance in The man who knew too much.
The Soviet composer Georgij Aleksandrovič Mušel’ was deeply influenced by Uzbek traditional music and Central Asian musical culture.
While his arrangements of Uzbek traditional songs display the most characteristic aspects of his style, this influence is also evident in his three symphonies, seven concertos, and nine other orchestral pieces, as well as in his chamber music and stage works, securing him a unique place among Russian composers.
This according to Творчество Г.А. Мушеля в аспекте проблемы взаимосвязей музыкальныx культур братских народов (The music of G.A. Mušel’ in connection with the interchange of musical cultures among the Soviet republics) by Galina Vasil’evna Kuznecova, a dissertation accepted by the Taškentskaja Gosudarstvennaja Konservatorija in 1974.
Today would have been Mušel’s 110th birthday! Below, a performance of one of his piano works.
The African American artist Norman Lewis’s artistic background was similar to those of the abstract expressionists; but with abstract expressionism defined chiefly by white male artists and critics, Lewis’s contributions to the movement were ignored.
Abstract expressionism valued originality apart from European influence, yet Lewis borrowed ideas from Picasso, Mondrian, Klee, and Kandinsky to recontextualize into his work. Lewis also changed styles frequently. From Musicians (1945), through Jazz musicians (1948, above), to Jazz band (1948, below), a development can be traced—from depicting overt human forms merging with musical instruments, through human forms gradually more abstracted, to emphasis on visual interpretation of musical lines, sound, embellishments, and rhythms (called “pure eye music” by the critic Henry McBride).
While Lewis’s blending and recombining of many artistic influences may have run against the abstract expressionism aesthetic, his recontextualizing of styles parallels the innovative borrowing from standard tunes and chord substitution that were characteristics of bebop.
This according to “‘Pure eye music’: Norman Lewis, abstract expressionism, and bebop” by Sara K. Wood, an essay included in The hearing eye: Jazz & blues influences in African American visual art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 95–119).
Today would have been Lewis’s 110th birthday! Below, a brief documentary chronicles his artistic development, including references to his jazz-influenced works.
Selected as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, “I put a spell on you”—written, composed, and performed by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—proved to make him one of the early pioneers of both goth rock and shock rock.
Hawkins originally intended the song to be a relatively innocuous love ballad, but, as he recalled in an interview, the recording producer “brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version…Before, I was just a normal blues singer; I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.”
Quoted in Contemporary musicians. VIII: Profiles of the people in music (Detroit: Gale, 1993, p. 117).
Today would have been Hawkins’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 1979; below, the original 1956 recording.
In the 1950s and 1960s the musical avant-garde developed a new type of vocal composition that incorporated everyday vocal sounds, such as gestural utterances or expressions of affect, into aesthetic parameters. Cathy Berberian took center stage in this development thanks to the extraordinary range of her vocal capabilities; she inspired numerous composers to write in this emerging style, and was herself engaged in the creative process.
Berberian’s composition Stripsody (1966), a sounding glossary of typical onomatopoeia of comic strips, can be understood as a musical pendant to the paintings of pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
Her creative process was closely intertwined with input from the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, who was a close friend of Berberian and her former husband, the composer Luciano Berio. Eco encouraged her to create a composition out of her interest for comic onomatopoeia, and he acquainted her with the Italian artist Eugenio Carmi, who created the first visual transformation of her vocal glossary.
The connection to pop art, however, is not restricted to the aesthetic approach; in form and content, Berberian and her Stripsody relate to pop art characteristics on several levels: (1) with her appearance, performances, and image, Berberian stylized herself as a pop icon; (2) with Stripsody, she took exactly the same path that Umberto Eco described in Apocalypse postponed, from avant-garde music through pop art to comic strips; (3) several components of Stripsody allude directly to typical popular themes that can also be found in the works of contemporaneous pop artists; and (4) the work directly quotes comics that enjoyed pop-icon status.
This according to “Musical pop art: Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody (1966)” by Marie Louise Herzfeld-Schild, an essay included in Music and figurative arts in the twentieth century (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016, pp. 150–65).
Today is Berberian’s birthday! Above and below, performing Stripsody.
Benny Goodman was only 28 years old when he reached the pinnacle of his career, bringing his big band to Carnegie Hall in January 1938.
Joseph Szigeti, who took an interest in jazz and admired Goodman’s playing for its expressiveness and technical proficiency, was present at that tremendously successful historic concert. That same year, he suggested the idea to Goodman to underwrite a commission for a short concert piece by Bela Bartók for clarinet, violin, and piano, with virtuoso candenzas in the vein of the violin rhapsodies.
Bartók completed the piece in September 1938, and Goodman returned to Carnegie Hall a year after his famous jazz concert with the premiere of two movements of Bartók’s work. The reviews of the sound recording of Contrasts, made during the composer’s visit to the United States in the spring of 1940, were unequivocal in their praise of Goodman’s performance.
This according to “Bartók: Kontrasztok, Benny Goodman és a szabad előadásmód” by Vera Lampert (Magyar zene: Zenetudományi folyóirat LIII/1 [február 2015] pp. 48–65).
Today would have been Goodman’s 110th birthday! Above and below, the 1940 session.
Pete Seeger essentially created the folk revival movement in the United States—carrying on the work of Woody Guthrie and helping to spawn the careers of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among others—while also linking this movement to political protest and iconoclasm.
As a result of his anti-war crusading and open Communist leanings, Seeger was a central target of the infamous HUAC witch hunts, and was widely blacklisted and condemned. In the process, however, he ended up inventing the college circuit and becoming the cornerstone of the 1960s folk revolution.
Galvanized by the 1998 tribute album Where have all the flowers gone?, the late 1990s and 2000s saw a reawakening of interest in Seeger’s music and cultural legacy, which included Bruce Springsteen’s album-length We shall overcome: The Seeger sessions.
This according to “Voice of America” by Phil Sutcliffe (Mojo February 2007).
Today would have been Seeger’s 100th birthday! Below, his iconic 1968 broadcast of Waist deep in the Big Muddy; the antiwar song was censored by CBS when he taped it for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, but the following year the network caved to pressure from the show’s hosts and allowed it to be aired.
A member of Bach’s circle, long known only as Anonymous Vg, was identified early in the 21st century as Friedrich Christian Mohrheim.
From 1733 to 1736 Mohrheim was a documented boarder at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where he studied with Bach. He later influenced musical life in Gdańsk through his extensive concert activity and his work as Kapellmeister at the Bazylika Mariacka.
This according to “Der Bachschüler Friedrich Christian Samuel Mohrheim (1719–1780) als Danziger Kapellmeister und Konzertveranstalter” by Karla Neschke, an essay included in Vom rechten Thon der Orgeln und anderer Instrumenten: Festschrift Christian Ahrens zum 60. Geburtstag (Bad Köstritz: Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Heinrich-Schütz-Haus, 2003, pp. 210–21).
Today is Mohrheim’s 300th birthday! Above, the Bazylika Mariacka; below, Mohrheim’s cantata Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn from 1762.
The freedom that Merce Cunningham advocated involved the performer becoming independent mentally, facing himself or herself, and reaching the state of mind of nō, true freedom achieved by overcoming ego.
Cunningham attempted to discipline the dancer’s body and mind in order to attain this ideal state of mind of nō at all the phases of his practical activity, by stipulating an environment where the performer must concentrate on his or her own movement—in particular on two elements, the shape of the movement and the energy that serves as its basis.
Cunningham’s concept of freedom did not stay only within the scope of negative concepts, in which freedom and liberty indicate “free from…”, but also connotes a creative and positive meaning, indicated by the Zen word jiyū (free to…).
This according to “Merce Cunningham’s concept of freedom and its philosophical background” by Sako Haruko, an essay included in Proceedings: Society of Dance History Scholars (Stoughton: Society of Dance History Scholars, 2002, pp. 125–28).
Today would have been Cunningham’s 100th birthday! Below, a collaboration with the video artist Nam June Paik.