Tag Archives: Composers

James Brown’s Deleuzian idiocy

James Brown had an uncanny ability to synthesize the talents of musicians from disparate musical fields into a cohesive ensemble. Still, many of his peers had little regard for his own musical abilities.

“He has no real musical skills…yet he could hold his own onstage with any jazz virtuoso—because of his guts” one of his former bandleaders explained. Indeed, many of Brown’s own players dreamed of eventually moving from pop to jazz, where their individual abilities would shine more brightly.

There is a certain irony in the fact that someone maligned by his colleagues for his apparent musical ineptitude would end up influencing the very musicians that they looked up to: Miles Davis, for example, changed the bebop world when he took the radical step of incorporating Brown’s rhythmic innovations into his music. Further, Brown’s influence is explicitly acknowledged by rap musicians, spawning developments in popular music that continue to reverberate around the world.

A compelling valorization of Brown’s approach is suggested by Gilles Deleuze’s account, in Différence et répétition, of the Idiot as the pedant’s polar opposite. As a musical Idiot, Brown’s naive immunity to conceptual rules or institutionally dominant forms of thinking—his capacity for thought without presupposition—enabled modes of conceptual originality that evaded the musically trained.

Funk was not a project” he explained. “It happened as part of my ongoing thing…I wasn’t going for some known sound, I was aimin’ for what I could hear.”

Brown’s bravado and innovations were necessary because he lacked the musical and cultural capital of his peers. Deleuze’s Idiot is self-assured because he is not bothered with any image of thought that cannot see him; for Brown, reason yielded to experimentation because his poverty-stricken childhood had demonstrated that abstractions were useless for solving the immanent problems at hand.

Brown had a superlative ability to forge new connections, to make music work regardless of its orthodoxy. This is what Deleuze attributed to the great artist—one who could make new and unforeseen connections.

This according to “James Brown: The illogic of innovation” by John Scannell (New formations: A journal of culture/theory/politics 66 [spring 2009] pp. 118–133; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2009-17662).

Today would have been Brown’s 90th birthday! Below, the Godfather of Soul defies logic in his heyday.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music

Max Reger’s Würstiade

reger2

The Bavarian composer Max Reger was famous for his appetite. According to his biographer Fritz Stein, he was capable of consuming up to 30 little Bavarian weißwürste or up to 12 Regensburger würste at one sitting. Such meals needed to be washed down with up to ten liters of beer, but after giving up alcohol while he was living in Meiningen (as conductor of the Hoforchester of Duke Georg II, from 1911 to 1915), he kept up with the sausage habit.

Thus, from a letter to the Duke of 27 May 1912: “Yesterday afternoon we took another walk to the Helenenhöhe, where I sampled the Thuringian Rostbratwürste for the first time, and immediately devoured ten of them, to my wife’s disgust. But they agreed with me extremely well; I worked until ten o’clock last night, woke up fit as a fiddle, and feel fine, although everybody warned me that the bratwurst was too greasy. They were revolted by my drinking cold milk with the ten sausages. I thus brilliantly disproved the old myth that says one has to have alcohol with greasy foods, in the form of schnapps.”

The Duke replied “In the name of God, don’t repeat that Würstiade very often, if you don’t want to get popped underground or into the crematorium soon. Mass-produced sausages often contain nasty things.”

This according to Über die Lebensgewohnheiten eines Genies by Hans-Joachim Marks (Mitteilungen der Internationalen Max-Reger-Gesellschaft XXI [2012] pp. 23-27).

Today is Reger’s 150th birthday! Below, Hans-Dieter Bauer performs Reger’s Humoresque for the left hand alone—presumably composed so he could continue to eat würste with his right hand.

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Filed under Curiosities, Food, Romantic era

Verdi and Falstaff

On 27 November 1890 Milan’s Corriere della sera broke the news that Giuseppi Verdi, then 77 years old, had already composed more than half of a comic opera drawn from Shakespeare, to be called Falstaff. The revelation took Italy by storm, and newspapers throughout the country immediately amplified the story.

“[Verdi] said that Boito’s libretto is beautiful,” La perseveranza gushed, “so comic that even while composing it he has to break off work from time to time to burst into laughter.”

This was amazing news, since Verdi’s name was universally linked with a brilliant succession of tragic operas over a span of more than 40 years, and it was widely assumed that his serious temperament was unsuited to comedy.

Verdi and Boito worked together closely, modifying Shakespeare’s work to make it more suitable for operatic treatment. They were particularly concerned about focusing the dramatic interest of the third act, and Verdi suggested several specific lines and passages from Shakespeare as promising anchors for musical treatment.

“I’m amusing myself by writing fugues!” Verdi wrote to him at one point. “Yes, sir; a fugue…and a comic fugue, which would be in place in Falstaff!” He may well have been referring to the opera’s finale—meaning that he composed its music before he received its text!

For the work’s premiere (pictured above), La Scala’s ticket prices were 30 times higher than usual, and royalty, aristocracy, and critics from around the world attended. The performance was hugely successful; numbers were encored, and at the end the applause for the composer and the cast lasted an hour.

This according to Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff by James A. Hepokoski (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1983-2848).

Today is the 130th anniversary of Falstaff’s premiere!

Below, the celebrated fugal finale.

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Filed under Humor, Opera

Esoteric orchestration

Gérard Encausee (Papus)

Aligned with the Symbolists, Camille Mauclair considered the orchestra a transposed symbol of the emotions in nature and cited Wagner’s music as an outstanding realization of this concept.

Although he was a staunch Positivist who attacked the Symbolists, Ange-Marie Auzende described the symbolic qualities of instruments and considered the orchestra a mirror of the soul. Ernestine-André van Hasselt wrote for popular audiences, characterizing instruments as expressing or even embodying various personalities and psychological states.

In the 1894 pamphlet Anatomie et physiologie de l’orchestre, co-authored by the popular occult writer Gérard Encausee (writing under his esoteric pseudonym Papus) and the young Frederick Delius, the four instrumental groups—strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion—were associated respectively with God, the head, and the nervous system; man, the chest, and the arterial system; woman, the chest, and the venous system; and nature, the abdomen, and the lymphatic system.

Further subdivisions and associations were outlined in preparation for a larger prescriptive work for composers that never materialized.

This according to “Sound as symbol: Fin de siècle perceptions of the orchestra” by Eric Frederick Jensen (The music review LV/3 [August 1994] pp. 227–240; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-16688).

Above, Papus in the back room of the Librairie du Merveilleux ca. 1890; below, the opening of Delius’s Appalachia from 1896, perhaps an example of his application of such theories.

Related article: F, the keynote of nature

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Filed under Curiosities, Romantic era

Uncracking the Nutcracker

Photo from the original 1892 production of “Nutcracker” showing Varvara Nikitina as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Pavel Gerdt as the Cavalier.

Although the place of Ŝelkunčik (Nutcracker) in the hearts of today’s audiences is secure, its genesis hardly seemed auspicious.

Čajkovskij repeatedly sought to abandon work on the project, and complained bitterly about it to the Director of Imperial Theaters; the reasons why he begged to be released from it, or why he ultimately persevered, remain unknown.

The problems probably involved the libretto, which the fastidious composer may well have found vexing. Parts of it lack any rationale, the balance of mime and dance is lopsided, and the overall arc of the story is incoherent, with several essential plot elements entirely missing.

These issues can be resolved by rendering most of the ballet as Drosselmayer’s thoughts rather than Clara’s dream. One can easily imagine the composer taking delight in this solution.

This according to “On meaning in Nutcracker” by Roland John Wiley (Dance research III/1 (fall 1984) 3–28; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1984-12142).

Today is the 130th anniversary of Nutcracker‘s premiere!

Below, part I of Mark Morris’s approach, which he called The hard nut.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Romantic era

Paganini and Marfan syndrome

Since the 1950s scientists have increasingly agreed that Paganini was probably a victim of Marfan syndrome—although beneficiary seems a more appropriate word than victim.

The typical characteristics of this pathological condition—a tall, thin body and particularly long, thin arms and hands—are perfectly in keeping with the virtuoso’s somatic characteristics, noted by all who described him and confirmed by the concert sketch by the writer and painter Johann Peter Lyser, the only artist known to have reproduced the violinist’s exact physiology (above; click to enlarge).

There can be no doubt that Paganini’s abnormal ligaments—together, of course, with his extraordinary musical talent—were a definite advantage in his chosen career.

This according to “Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840)” by G. Sperati and D. Felisati (Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica XXV/2 [April 2005] pp. 125–128; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-51589).

Today is Paganini’s 240th birthday! Below, Jascha Heifetz plays the composer’s Caprice, op. 1, no. 24.

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Filed under Performers, Romantic era, Science

Citizen Kane and the Isle of the Dead

Die_Toteninsel

A five-note motive in Rahmaninov’s Ostrov mërtvyh (The isle of the dead, op. 29), which evokes the opening of the Dies irae melody used by Berlioz and Liszt, is strikingly similar to what Bernard Herrmann referred to as the motive of power or fate in his score for Citizen Kane.

Rahmaninov’s work was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting Die Toteninsel (above; click to enlarge), and Herrmann’s statements about his creative process suggest that the opening images of the film might have unconsciously reminded him of the painting, which in turn could have aroused an association with Rahmaninov’s work.

This according to “The Dies irae in Citizen Kane: Musical hermeneutics applied to film music” by William H. Rosar, an essay included in Film music: Critical approaches (New York: Continuum, 2001, pp. 103–116). Below, the first minutes of Citizen Kane, followed by Rahmaninov’s symphonic poem.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Film music, Visual art

Vaughan Williams and Blake

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Job: A masque for dancing is based on William Blake’s cycle of illustrations of the biblical tale; but a study of the scenario and of preserved correspondence indicates disparate theological and philosophical arguments and conflicts.

The composer put his own stamp on the story, while accepting the symbolism of Blake’s drawings, and effectively deconstructed the illustrations in favor of his own intentions. Job: A masque for dancing is no ordinary theater piece—it reveals a personal view as individual as that present in Blake’s original illustrations.

This according to “A deconstruction of William Blake’s vision: Vaughan Williams and Job” by Alison Sanders McFarland (International journal of musicology III [1994], 339–371; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1995-4362).

Today is Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday!

Above, Blake’s depiction of Job and his family restored to prosperity; below, a complete recording of Vaughan Williams’s ballet.

Related article: Blake and Jerusalem

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Visual art

Szymanowski and Eros

The desire to voice the artistic revelation of the truth of a precarious, multifaceted, yet integrated self lies behind much of Karol Szymanowski’s work.

This self is projected through the voices of deities who speak languages of love. The unifying figure is Eros, who may be embodied as Dionysus, Christ, Narcissus, or Orpheus, and the gospel he proclaims tells of the resurrection and freedom of the desiring subject.

In Król Roger Szymanowski used the unifying Christ/Eros figure as a means of indicating that the King might be transformed from an anguished despot to a loving expressive subject; this is demonstrated in the encounters of King Roger with the voices of Narcissus, the Siren, and Dionysus. Throughout, the composer fused Slavonic and Middle-Eastern mythological inspirations to fulfill a utopian vision of a pan-European culture bound together by the spirit of Eros.

This according to Szymanowski, eroticism, and the voices of mythology by Stephen C. Downes (London: Royal Musical Association, 2003; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2003-4450).

Today is Szymanowski’s 140th birthday! Above, a portrait by Stanisław Witkacy. Below, the ending of Roksana’s aria from Król Roger.

Related article: Wagner and Eros

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Opera

John Cage’s microtonal rāgas

John Cage’s 18 microtonal rāgas are found in Solo for voice 58 from Song books (1970).

To perform them, the dhrupad and experimental music specialist Amelia Cuni decided to apply experimental procedures to dhrupad vocalism and to elaborate her Indian music background in a new music context. She also wanted to explore an influential contemporary composer’s take on rāgas and step back from her personal involvement with the tradition and observe it from another perspective.

In collaboration with the Berliner Festspiele and several other contemporary music venues, Cuni’s interpretation of Solo for voice 58 was premiered in Berlin in 2006 and has been performed since then at several European and U.S. festivals.

This according to Cuni’s “Chance generated ragas in Solo for voice 58: A dhrupad singer performs John Cage” (Journal of the Indian Musicological Society  XLI [2011–12] pp. 127–54; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-23192).

Today is Cage’s 110th birthday!

Below, a studio recording of Cuni’s realization; a full live performance can be viewed here (the performance starts at 10:00).

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music