Henry David Thoreau was the only nineteenth-century American writer of the very first rank who paid prolonged and intense attention to sound-worlds, particularly non-human ones. As a naturalist, his fieldwork involved not only botany but also sound-collecting.
Thoreau’s writings illuminate how he understood music as sound. He discussed ambient sound and animal sound communication in acoustic ecological niches; he understood that sound announces presence and enables co-presence; and he developed a relational epistemology and alternative economy based in sound. His responses to the vibrations of the environment through prolonged and deep listening make him valuable for sound studies today.
This according to “Thoreau’s ear” by Jeff Todd Titon (Sound studies I/1  pp. 144–54).
Today is Thoreau’s 200th birthday! Below, one of Charles Ives’s meditations on the man and his work.
Arlo Guthrie’s classic story-song Alice’s restaurant massacree hinges on an episode in which the teenaged Guthrie and a friend help Alice and Ray Brock clean their Stockbridge, Massachusetts, home—a deconsecrated 17th-century church—for Thanksgiving dinner, by hauling away a half-ton of garbage.
When Arthur Penn made his film Alice’s restaurant, he used the Brocks’ church/home as a metaphor, including a scene in which a man stands up and says “We’re going to reconsecrate this church.”
And so it came to pass: “Alice’s church” is now the Guthrie Center, an interfaith church celebrating religious and cultural diversity, and a not-for-profit educational foundation (inset; click to enlarge).
The church provides weekly community free lunches and support for families living with HIV/AIDS as well as other life-threatening illnesses. It also hosts a summer concert series; Arlo does several fundraising shows there every year. There are also annual events, including a Thanksgiving dinner for families, friends, doctors, and scientists who live and work with Huntington’s disease (a condition that afflicted Arlo’s father, Woody Guthrie).
This according to “Arlo Guthrie’s storied career” by Richard Harrington (The Washington post 12 August 2005).
Today is Arlo Guthrie’s 70th birthday! Above, a scene in the church from the film; below, the film’s ending, outside the church.
During 1957 and 1958 Frank Lloyd Wright was working on what might have become his magnum opus: beginning with a commission for an opera house in Baġdād, he developed a far-reaching Plan for Greater Baghdad.
Wright arrived in Iraq in May 1957, just one month short of his 90th birthday, and after two audiences with King Faisal II he left with permission to build an opera house and incorporate it into development of a vast site in the middle of the Tigris River—an uninhabited area that Wright believed was the site of the Garden of Eden.
In July 1957, in a speech back in the U.S., he said “I happen to be doing a cultural center for the place where civilization was invented—that is, Iraq. Before Iraq was destroyed it was a beautiful circular city built by Harun al-Rashid, but the Mongols came from the north and practically destroyed it. Now what is left of the city has struck oil and they have immense sums of money. They can bring back the city of Harun al-Rashid today.”
Unfortunately, following the military coup of July 1958 the project was rejected; it was too extravagant for the military leadership, and too closely identified with the old monarchy.
This according to “Arabian opera nights” by John Allison (Opera LIX/1 [January 2008] pp. 26–30).
Today is Wright’s 150th birthday! Above, his plan for the Crescent Opera House; inset, a drawing of the full cultural center (click images to enlarge); below, a computerized 3-D rendition of the opera house.
808s & heartbreak was a jarring departure from Kanye West’s previous work, and, although its initial reception was mixed at best, it has proven to be the most influential album of his career both as a performer and a producer.
Written and recorded in haste on the heels of his mother’s death and a breakup with his fiancée, 808s features chilly synth textures, brittle drum machines, and West’s blatantly auto-tuned singing throughout. With the help of T-Pain, who, ironically, had come to be mocked for his extensive use of auto-tune, the album made the pitch-correction technology relevant again.
Another unexpected source of inspiration was found in Phil Collins—both in terms of his vocal style and the gated reverb drum sound that he invented in the 1980s. Trapping and snuffing out overtones with a signal processor, the noise gate made the programmed beats of the iconic Roland TR-808 drum machine sound both vivid and lifeless.
The album’s distinctive sound has since filtered into contemporary hip hop and R&B, and the only thing more influential than its sound is its tone: bitter, confused, self-pitying, defensive, and accusatory. 808s & heartbreak made sullen solitude fashionable, with many a male R&B star now presenting himself as a misunderstood antihero, reenacting the public breakdown that West staged without a net.
This according to “The coldest story ever told: The influence of Kanye West’s 808s & heartbreak” by Jayson Greene (Pitchfork 22 September 2015).
Today is West’s 40th birthday! Above, performing Love lockdown, the album’s lead single; below, the full album.
For 20 years Edward Elgar worked for The Gramophone Company as both an advocate of his music and an advocate of the gramophone.
During this period, recording technology changed from the cramped conditions of the acoustic studio of 1914 (above) to the specialized recording studio of Abbey Road using the electrical system of 1933, in which year Elgar conducted his last recordings, with the extraordinary appendix of Elgar supervising a recording by telephone connection from his deathbed in 1934.
As an interpreter of his own music—we cannot comment from direct experience on his success with the music of others, for nothing was recorded—he was as fine a conductor as Furtwängler for Wagner and Mengelberg for Brahms. His conducting ability extended to every aspect of the art, from the purely technical quality of the playing he repeatedly drew from orchestras to the inexhaustible fascination of the interpretations themselves.
This according to “Elgar’s recordings” by Simon Trezise (Nineteenth-century music review V/1  pp. 111–31).
Today is Elgar’s 160th birthday! Below, Elgar conducts the prelude to The dream of Gerontius in 1927, a recording singled out for praise in the article.
BONUS: Elgar conducts the trio of Pomp and circumstance march no. 1 at the opening of the Abbey Road Studios on 12 November 1931. After mounting the podium, he says to the orchestra “Good morning, gentlemen. Glad to see you all. Very light programme this morning. Please play this tune as though you’ve never heard it before.”
When he was about ten years old, Joseph Pujol discovered that he had the rare ability to draw air into his anus and expel it at will.
Not content to have a simple party trick, he trained his sonic instrument just as others would train their vocal chords, and by young adulthood he could produce a startling range of sounds, nuanced with tonal, timbral, and dynamic variation, and animated by his natural sense of humor. By the 1890s he was performing as Le Pétomane to packed audiences at the Moulin Rouge.
Pujol’s idiosyncratic career has rarely been considered as an historical object—and when it has, the gaze has been light-hearted and filled with puns, much like those that surrounded him in his lifetime. But if the temptation to giggle is resisted for a moment, Le Pétomane can teach us much about symbolic physiological meanings in late nineteenth-century Paris.
This according to “The spectacular anus of Joseph Pujol: Recovering the Pétomane’s unique historic context” by Alison Moore (French cultural studies XXIV/1  pp. 27–43).
Today is Pujol’s 160th birthday! Below, Le Pétomane in action (silent).
BONUS: A recording from 1904.
The pianist, composer, and bandleader Reginald Foresythe occupied a critical location as a black British musician within Anglo-American jazz culture and the African diaspora. Foresythe warrants attention for his highly influential yet neglected contribution to 1930s jazz during a crucial period in which the rapid proliferation and commodification of recorded jazz meant that it increasingly became the focus of searching critique.
In this respect, he stands at a fascinating conjunction of three intersecting critical discourses. First, Foresythe offers an opportunity to reconsider modernist concerns about the form and functions of jazz in social relations as expounded by Theodor Adorno. Second, Foresythe offers an opportunity to develop broader transnational perspectives of jazz’s modernity, derived from his position within the spaces of movement that Paul Gilroy called the Black Atlantic. Third, the double consciousness suggested by such a figuring is further complicated by Foresythe’s sexualized performance as a decidedly camp figure in this arena.
The resulting interplay of such triple consciousness in the person of Foresythe offers an illuminating new way to reflect on how Adorno and Gilroy understood jazz’s role in modernity.
This according to “Camping it up: Jazz’s modernity, Reginald Foresythe, Theodor Adorno and the Black Atlantic” by George Burrows, an essay included in Black British jazz: Routes, ownership and performance (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014, pp. 173-198).
Today is Foresythe’s 110th birthday! Above, entertaining members of No. 325 Wing RAF in Setif, Algeria, ca. 1941; below, The Duke insists from 1934.
In Frances Densmore’s broad sweep through Native American communities, practicing what is now considered salvage anthropology, she worked with more Native American cultures than any anthropologist of her time.
After Densmore’s passing in 1957, others found it difficult to assess the results of her decades of work or to fit them into histories of various types. She had participated actively in communities of musicologists, anthropologists, and other professional women, as well as with Native communities as she pursued her social science. These communities were historically imbricated.
Densmore saw her work as the single focus of a lifetime. That work, over time, became but one part of a larger cultural context within which musicologists and anthropologists as a whole, as well as women anthropologists in particular and Native American writers, examined her work.
This according to “Gone but not quite forgotten” by Joan M. Jensen, an essay included in Travels with Frances Densmore: Her life, work, and legacy in Native American studies (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015, pp. 242–83).
Today is Densmore’s 150th birthday! Above, with Susan Windgrow (Maka Waste’ Win/Good Earth Woman), ca. 1930; below, Sitting Bull’s favorite song, recorded by Densmore from a man who had learned it by hearing it sung repeatedly by Sitting Bull himself.
Helen May Butler’s career provides a welcome counternarrative to the men’s professional bands—such as John Philip Sousa’s—that were the rage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Butler had the professional and musical clout to attract the top female talent needed to form a first-rate professional ensemble. Her Ladies’ Military Band rose to prominence during a time when being a professional woman required sacrifice, in terms of both family life and customary female identity. Butler’s perseverance and tenacity in creating an accomplished ensemble of women in a male-dominated field is an important and inspirational addition to the history of both U.S. concert bands and the women’s movement of her time.
This according to “Helen May Butler and her Ladies’ Military Band: Being professional during the golden age of bands” by Brian D. Meyers, an essay included in Women’s bands in America: Performing music and gender (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, pp. 15–49).
Today is Butler’s 150th birthday! Below, an undated photograph of her Ladies’ Brass Band, which toured between 1901 and 1912 (click to enlarge).
Claudio Monteverdi’s seconda pratica was a return to basic verbal expression (listening, recognition, and revelation from emotional vocal accentuation).
Monteverdi’s art agrees with poetic expression as defined in Plato’s three forms expounded in the third book of Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics. For Monteverdi, musical language is music and the synthesis of text, harmony, and rhythm; the phonetic exposition of continuous thought becomes poetry.
This according to Preparazione alla interpretazione della poiesis Monteverdiana by Nella Anfuso and Annibale Gianuario (Firenze: Centro Studi e Rinascimento Musicale, 1971).
Today is the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s baptism! Above, a portrait from ca. 1630 by Bernardo Strozzi; below, the madrigal Cruda Amarilli, an especially clear example of Monteverdi’s seconda pratica.