In 2005 and 2006 Joan Tower’s Made in America embarked on a tour of all 50 American states, featured on programs by some 65 orchestras. In an interview just after the work’s premiere, the composer looked ahead to the experience:
“I’m very curious as to the way they view me as a living composer, because I’m a litmus test. I’m very curious as to how they’ll negotiate my piece. Now, I know some of them are much better than others; there are all levels. But I’m curious whether the piece is strong enough to make them want to work harder and what the level of passion is that’s going to be in there. Part of that depends on the piece and part of that depends on the nature of their community orchestra and the people in their orchestra.”
“If my piece has some impact, and draws the players in a little bit, or a lot, and draws the audience in a little bit or a lot, then it has some reverberation. I’m putting the entire burden of this thing on me, because the music is the center of everything no matter what anybody’s telling you. Whatever the PR, marketing, historical value, blah, blah, blah, that’s going on around it, you still have this living entity in front of you that has to do its work, whatever that is.”
Quoted in “Joan Tower: Made in America” by Frank J. Oteri (NewMusicBox 1 October 2005).
Today is Tower’s 80th birthday! Below, a performance from 2012.
The complexity and range of Meshell Ndegeocello’s hip-hop works extend largely from her willingness to push boundaries—but in pushing sexual and gender boundaries, Ndegeocello declines to traffic in singular dimensions. Danyel Smith has described her as “an African American, woman, lesbian, musician, and mother” who thrives on “pondering the riddles that accompany all her selves.”
In Berry farms Ndegeocello addresses a female lover: “Can you love me without shame?” Giving way to the bass groove, she aggressively concludes: “Yeah, you like to mess around!” She goes on to suggest that her girlfriend prohibits them from sharing honest, enduring love for fear of public scorn because they are lesbians and because she desires the material things her “boy” can give her.
“You know how we like material things,” she observes, reminding us of the dominant perception that most black women effortlessly and willingly sacrifice substantive self-fulfillment for social approval and material gratification. The discursive modes of many of the tracks on Cookie: The anthropological mixtape strike an unambiguously combative chord with this perception by elaborating the tensions of same-sex female desire, fulfillment, and repression.
This according to “‘You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass’: Rhythms of black female sexuality and subjectvity in Meshell Ndegeocello’s Cookie: The anthropological mixtape” by Nghana Lewis (Black music research journal XXVI/1 [spring 2006] pp. 111–30).
Today is Ndegeocello’s 50th birthday! Below, the song in question.
The legendary nāgasvaram player T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai performed in two films—once just in a cameo as himself, but once as the star!
In 1940 Rajarathnam Pillai appeared in Kalamegam, portraying the 15th-century Tamil poet Kavi Kalamegam. The film’s director, Ellis R. Dungan, recalled working with him:
“When Rajarathnam was sober, he was fine and took direction well with interest. But when he was lit, he could not be controlled and proved a nuisance and a pest on the set. Of course, when he became sober, he would apologize for his unruly conduct. People treated him like some kind of god because he was a big gun…I also found that he was very fond of women! But then who is not?”
The role required Rajarathnam Pillai to sing, which he did beautifully—but unfortunately his many fans only wanted to hear him play the nāgasvaram, and the film failed at the box office. No prints remain; only a handful of stills and recordings attest to Rajarathnam’s single appearance as a film star.
This according to “Foray into films” by Randor Guy (Sruti CLXXI [December 1998] pp. 39–42).
Today is Rajarathnam Pillai’s 120th birthday! Above and below, rare artefacts of the film.
BONUS: Rajarathnam Pillai plays the nāgasvaram!
Filed under Asia, Performers
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Telemusik represents an effort to create universally valid music.
In an analogy to Le Corbusier’s modulor concept, Telemusik is based on a proportional framework constructed on the Fibonacci series, through which so-called Klangobjekte—both found sounds and electronically modulated ones of the most diverse ethnic provenance—acquire musical form.
Still, the limits of the universalism sought by Stockhausen are seen in conspicuous traces of Western compositional practice.
This according to “Universalismus und Exotik in Karlheinz Stockhausens Telemusik” by Peter W. Schatt (Musica: Zweimonatsschrift XLIII/4 [Juli-August 1989] pp. 315–20).
Today would have been Stockhausen’s 90th birthday! Above, the composer around the time of Telemusik; below, the work in question.
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 “Dazzling” by 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.