Tag Archives: Curiosities

Psychedelia and children’s literature

 

In contrast to their American counterparts, English musicians in the late 1960s found psychedelic inspiration in their childhood reading lists, which, for just about every English child, included Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne.

Songwriters like Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band), Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Peter Daltrey (Kaleidoscope), and others went on to create their own fantastical characters, nonsense verses, and imagery around themes of anthropomorphism, lost childhood, and The Quest.

This according to “Grumbly grimblies, frozen dogs, and other boojums: Eccentricity from Chaucer to Carroll in English psychedelia” by Peter Grant, an essay included in The Routledge companion to popular music and humor (New York: Routledge, 2019, pp. 49–57).

Above, Richard Dadd’s The fairy feller’s master-stroke, a painting beloved by fans of psychedelia; below, Syd Barrett’s The gnome, from Pink Floyd’s debut album.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music

Music and handwashing

 

In an attempt to determine the effects of a training song in maintaining a self-help skill that was taught with the aid of a song, 21 preschool children were first taught to wash their hands as a ten-step procedure; then they received ten training sessions in which they washed their hands with the aid of the Handwashing song.

After training they were post-tested, then divided into four equalized groups for maintenance. The first group served as a control; the second group heard the music only from the training song as they washed their hands; the third group heard only the words, spoken in a normal voice; and the fourth group heard the complete song while washing their hands.

None of the maintenance procedures showed effects that were statistically significant when compared to any of the other procedures; however, subjects who received the words-only and complete-song conditions showed better maintenance of their post-test scores than subjects assigned to the first two groups.

This according to “Effects of music as a cue in maintaining handwashing in preschool children” by Shirley A. Kramer (Journal of music therapy XV/3 [fall 1978] pp. 136–44).

Many thanks to Improbable Research for reminding us of this timely study! Below, Danial Kheirikhah offers a dramtic demonstration.

Image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto from Pixabay

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Filed under Curiosities, Science

Bobby McFerrin and science

 

In an interview, Bobby McFerrin responded to being termed a “science guy”:

“I’m not really much of a science guy, but I’ve been privileged to work with Daniel Levitan and Elaina Mannes, scientists who are interested in how music affects people. Well, every time I give a concert I spend my whole time observing how music affects the people! So it’s very interesting to me.”

“The piece I did at the World Science Festival is called the Pentatonic romp. I’ve performed it all over the world, and people everywhere can sing that scale by ear. Doesn’t matter what language they speak or what kind of music they listen to. It’s like it’s built in. I’ve done it for decades now and I still think it’s amazing!”

Quoted in “Science, faith and improv: An interview with Bobby McFerrin” (Bandwagon 17 February 2015).

Today is McFerrin’s 70th birthday! Above, performing at !Sing: Day of Song in 2010 (photo by Michael Koschinski); below, the 2009 World Science Festival performance.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Science

“Wild rover” redux

 

On this St. Patrick’s Day, countless fans of Irish traditional music will sing along to The wild rover, with its irresistible “no, nay, never” refrain. Little will they realize the song’s multifarious past.

The text originated in The good fellow’s resolution, a 17th-century English broadside written by Thomas Lanfiere—one of any number of moralistic broadsides of the period describing the wayward behavior and subsequent regrets of “bad husbands” and the duplicity of alewives.

Over the course of 300 years several distinct textual and musical changes altered the moral thrust of the song, assisting its enduring popularity. Lanfiere’s 13-verse text was edited and condensed, appearing in late 18th- and early 19th-century chapbooks and broadsides with the “bad husband” being converted to a “wild rover” along the way.

Stages in the song’s evolution are preserved in these print versions, which found their way into English oral tradition (sung to a different tune from the currently familiar one) by the early 19th century, when a harmonized version cropped up in Thomas Hardy’s grandfather’s songbook.

The song was also reproduced in mid-19th century American songsters, and was extremely popular in Australia, where three different strains and a country & western rewrite all made the rounds.

At some point the “no, nay, never” chorus replaced the original “wild rover, wild rover” refrain. The form with the distinctive four-beat pause was first recorded in Nova Scotia in the early 20th century, and the version familiar today is the result of further adaptation by performers in the 1960s British folk revival.

This according to “The well-travelled Wild rover” by Brian Peters (Folk music journal X/5 [2015] pp. 609–36). Above, in 1958 Burl Ives identified the song as Australian; below, in 1965 The Clancy Brothers did too.

BONUS: A lesser-known variant.

 

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Filed under Curiosities, Reception

Smithsonian Collections Object: The Sony TPS-L2 “Walkman” Cassette Player, National Museum of American History

For it [the Walkman] permits the possibility…of imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment, it can all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FOWARD, PAUSE and REWIND buttons–Iain Chambers, “The Aural Walk”

When first launched by Sony on July 1, 1979, you would have called it something different depending on where you lived. In the United States, it was the Sound-About; in Sweden, the Freestyle; in the United Kingdom, the Stowaway. Such diversity reflected concerns that, while acceptable in Asia, Latin American, and the Middle East, the name Walkman was just too grammatically awkward, too “Japanese-made” to be marketable in the Anglophone world. However, like much of the music it mediated, its catchiness could not be denied. The Walkman would become the standard not only for a specific stereo cassette player made by Sony, but for all personal cassette players throughout the world. There was a time when, just as you might reach for a Kleenex instead of a tissue, or a Xerox instead of a photocopy, your portable listening device was the Walkman, even if it was not one proper.

As urban populations continue to swell, and portable, “smart” personal devices rapidly accumulate functionalities, the Sony Walkman seems like a relic and a premonition: an icon of the last two decades of the 20th century that helped construct the idea of the modern “urban nomad.”

First introduced in the United States in June of 1980, the TPS-L2 Walkman (featured above) was clad in sleek blue and silver, weighed 14 ounces, and came with a carrying case and headphones. This original model featured two headphone jack sockets and a hotline feature that allowed you to talk to your companion without having to lower the volume or remove your headphones. Early commercials for the product present it as a device that could unite different cultures and ages, a meeting ground for the traditional and modern:

Two commercials, aired in Japan in 1979, promoting the Sony Walkman

Another commercial—this one featuring the TPS-L2’s direct offspring, the “classic” Walkman II (WM-2)—shows us how the stereo cassette player and radio can provide an enhanced version of the everyday work day.

People of all ages, but especially young, energetic, modern urbanites, are illuminated, in color, by the (“hi-fi”) sounds offered by the Walkman. The scene features enclosed, autonomous characters listening to their personal devices in a social context. The commercial’s negotiation of the ambiguous boundary between diegetic sounds (i.e., music is a part of the narrative; we assume the characters on screen can hear it) and non-diegetic sounds (i.e., disconnected from the narrative; music that remains unheard by characters) drives the point home: when the jingle fades in, only after the protagonist “sees the light” (that shines on the Walkman side of the street of course), some people—couples and shopkeepers—clearly dance to the same music we hear. But perhaps others—the roller skater, the juggler, the skateboarder—are left “to their own devices” (quite literally, as Sony would release different versions of their Walkman to suit specific youth tastes). This polyphony of movement streams suggests a freedom and escape from the silent, black-and-white “dark” that enshrouds the toiling city-dwellers who, alone without the Walkman, fail to take part in a shared experience.

Over and above these media texts’ “datedness” and function (to sell you the product), they point to an issue that is just as provocative now as it was when sociologists and media/cultural studies researchers approached the Walkman in the early 1980s: the social consequences of the potential for personal, portable devices to blur the boundaries between the domestic and public spheres in an urban environment. By roughly 1983, the hotline feature was removed, and two headphone jacks brought down to one. Contrary to Sony head Akio Morita’s conviction that it would be rude for one person to listen to music alone, he discovered shortly after the device’s release that “buyers began to see their little portable stereo sets as very personal.” More than sharing music, people were more interested in curating their own unique “theatrical” experiences—with themselves as protagonist—as they traversed urban environments. The Walkman became a part of an urban strategy, an autonomous and perhaps solitary (but not isolating!) means through which to negotiate the urban soundscape.

If Walkman users were protagonists, some spectators (non-Walkman users) were not entertained or enthused. “Cultural moralists,” as Umberto Eco has called them, had serious reservations about the mixture of the two spheres, public and private, just as Morita did. Included in the primer, Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, which takes the Walkman as a case study through which to examine key concepts in sociology and media studies, we find a reprint of a brief article that details the experiences of one Walkman user in London. In his short piece, “Menace II Society,” Vincent Jackson writes,

You pull out your Walkman, You stick in your tape […] You press the play button. BAM! The Eyes. Ice glares tell it all. In the short time it takes for the other passengers to look you up and down with utter contempt, you have already had a huge label slapped across your forehead. You are a scumbag, a low-life, a loser. For some strange reason, the Walkman has become the scourge of the modern day traveler, the leper’s bell, symbolic of the endemic rebellion in today’s youth culture. Wear a Walkman and you’re travelling strapped. A Menace to Society.

Despite the hyperbolic tone of this account, it is undeniable that, particularly in the direct wake of its release, the Walkman’s ability to facilitate isolation in a public setting, where it “doesn’t belong,” was disquieting to many an onlooker. Never mind that testimony from Walkman users themselves revealed that many found the device not only useful as a way to shut out unwanted aspects of the city, but also to sculpt the city’s sounds and images in such a way as to commune with it. To many, Walkman users were flaunting a secret—what are they listening to?!—in plain sight. Perhaps the silence of this secret was louder (and more offensive) than the cacophony of all the city’s ambulances, police cars, fire engines, construction, and subways combined.

Whatever one’s perspective, it is undeniable that the Walkman opened a door to practices—both intimate and social at once—that have endured. For this reason and many others, it is of extraordinary value, not only as a cultural object, but also as just one example of human beings’ desire to use music as a vehicle through which to situate themselves among others.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Bull, Michael. “Investigating the culture of mobile listening: From Walkman to iPod”, Consuming music together: Social and collaborative aspects of music consumption technologies, ed. by Kenton O’Hara and Barry Brown. Computer supported cooperative work 35 (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006) 131–149. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2006-26623]

_____. Sounding out the city: Personal stereos and the management of everyday life. Materializing culture (Oxford: Berg, 2000). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2000-57258]

Examines the auditory experience of self and place by exploring the reasons why and the ways in which people tune into their personal stereos (e.g., Walkmans, etc.) and tune out city sounds. Urban, cultural, and anthropological studies have been dominated by explanations of experiences drawing upon notions of visuality. But culture always has an auditory component that shapes attitudes and behavior—perhaps nowhere more so than in the city, where sound is intensified. Strictly visual approaches to culture are challenged here by proposing an auditory understanding of behavior through an ethnographic analysis of personal stereo use. Our understanding of how people, through the senses, negotiate central experiences of the urban—such as space, place, time, and the management of everyday experience—are reformulated, and the critical role played by technology is examined. (publisher)

Chambers, Iain. “A miniature history of the Walkman”, New formations: A journal of culture/theory/politics 11 (summer 1990) 1–4. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1990-40156]

_____. “The aural walk”, Audio culture: Readings in modern music, ed. by Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner. (2nd ed.; New York: Bloomsbury, 2013) 98–101. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-15440]

_____. Urban rhythms: Pop music and popular culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1986-4279]

Chow, Rey. “Listening otherwise, music miniaturized: A different type of question about revolution”, The cultural studies reader, ed. by Simon During (2nd ed.; London: Routledge, 1999) 462–478. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-62371]

Du Gay, Paul and Stuart Hall, et. al. Doing cultural studies: The story of the Sony Walkman (2nd ed.; Los Angeles: Sage, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-46759]

What does the Walkman have to do with the 21st century? The long-awaited second edition of this classic textbook takes students on a journey between past and present, giving them the skills do to cultural analysis along the way. Through the notion of the circuit of culture, this book teaches students to critically examine what culture means, and how and why it is enmeshed with the media texts and objects in their lives. Students will gain practical experience with the historical comparative method, learn to think about some of the cultural conundrums of the present and their relation to the past, unpack the key concepts of contemporary culture, such as mobility and materiality, look with fresh eyes at today’s media world and the cultural practices it gives rise to, and practice their critical skills with up-to-date exercises and activities. This book remains the perfect how-to for cultural studies. It is an essential classic, reworked for today’s students in cultural studies, media studies, and sociology. (publisher)

Hosokawa, Shūhei. “The Walkman effect”, The sound studies reader, ed. by Jonathan Sterne (New York: Routledge, 2012): 104–116. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-11796]

The 1980 Sony invention has been paramount in the creation of “musica mobilis”, a music whose source follows “the corporal transportation of the source owner”. The internal effects of listening, the internal-external relationship between inner hearing and outside (urban) sounds, and the external theatricality of “wearing” a Walkman are all examined. It is argued that to think about the Walkman is to reflect on the urban itself.

_____. “Walkman as urban strategy”, OneTwoThreeFour: A rock ‘n’ roll quarterly 6 (summer 1988): 40–45. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1988-26630]

Schönhammer, Rainer. “The Walkman and the primary world of the sense”, Phenomenology + pedagogy 7 (1989) 127–144. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1989-14178]

Williams, Andrew Paul. The functions of Walkman music (Ph.D. diss., The University of Adelaide, 2004). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2004-26911]

Since its release in 1979, the Walkman has engendered new modes of musical experience for millions of listeners. Its portability and the apparent isolation offered by its headphones enable Walkman users to listen to music in situations where it would otherwise be impossible. They can also use Walkman music to achieve outcomes for which other forms of music may not be suited. Eleven functions of Walkman music, ten adapted from Michael Bull’s (2000) strategies of Walkman use and one derived from this study’s fieldwork results, are examined here. Following Timothy Rice’s (1987) model for ethnomusicological study, the functions’ origins in historical musical practice are investigated, as well as their maintenance in social interaction and listeners’ individual experience of them. This study demonstrates Walkman listeners are focused entirely on their Walkman music in only two functions, either enjoying it or trying to learn it. Four functions involve Walkman listeners’ interactions with their surroundings—namely, listeners use Walkman music to control their environments’ soundscapes, to ease their negotiation of places they consider unpleasant, to control personal interactions and, in combination with their surroundings, Walkman music gives listeners the impression they are viewing or acting in a film for which their music is the soundtrack. Listeners use Walkman music for its effects on themselves in five functions. They choose rhythmic music for motivation during exercise or music which will influence their mood. Listeners also use Walkman music to simulate the presence of a companion or because they consider it a more enjoyable or productive use of time they would otherwise consider wasted. Finally, Walkman music can prompt listeners’ memories of past events. While similar observations have been made in previous studies and particularly by Bull, music’s role has not been appropriately acknowledged. This study’s examination of Walkman music in terms of the functions it fulfills for listeners corrects this imbalance. Observations in the literature relating to Walkman use are tested for their resonance with Walkman listeners in ethnographic interviews conducted in Adelaide, Australia. Conclusions are drawn regarding the degree of isolation listeners actually achieve from their surroundings and also regarding the relative novelty or otherwise of the uses to which listeners put their Walkman music. (author)

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Filed under Curiosities, Mass media

Queering Bruce Springsteen

 

The narratives of Bruce Springsteen’s songs resonate with many queer people, who are well aware of the possibility of a life-altering freedom that presents itself as the reward for stepping into your true self (even when that freedom comes, as is often the case, at great cost).

Springsteen is far from gay; some might argue he is one of the straightest men alive. Nonetheless, some fans regard his work as, in Rosalie Zdzienicka Fanshel’s words, “homoerotic or queerly suggestive”.

There’s also Carmen Rios’s “We’re here and we’re queering Bruce Springsteen” at one of the longest-running sites for queer women, Autostraddle; the queer writer Tennessee Jones’s short story collection Deliver me from nowhere, based on the album Nebraska; and the many queer Bruce Springsteen zines, from Because the Boss belongs to us to Butt Springsteen.

What exactly is so queer about Springsteen? Is it his extreme butchness, so practiced and so precise that he might as well have learned it from the oldest lesbian at a gay bar? Is it because his hard-earned, roughly hewn version of love is recognizable to those for whom desire has often meant sacrifice? Or is it something simpler? Do many queers love Springsteen because nearly every song he has produced in his 50-year career reflects a crushing, unabiding sense of alienation and longing—and what could be more queer than that?

This according to “Things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town: The queerness of Bruce Springsteen” by Naomi Gordon-Loebl (The nation 6 November 2019).

Below, Springsteen’s Tougher than the rest, a song (and video) discussed in the article.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music

Ernst Krenek and Charles V

 

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V is a testimony to the anachronistic—in the best sense of the word—exploitation of the memory of the Holy Roman Empire, or the imperial idea of Charles V as the composer understood it, reflecting the unrealized possibility of a transformation of the medieval concept of empire into a contemporary form.

In its interpretation of the Holy Roman Empire, the opera builds a bridge to the world of values of the Austrian corporative state, which sought to attribute a special mission to Austria by linking it with the supranational idea of the Habsburg Empire.  This involves a distinct rejection of the National Socialist idea of empire. On the musical level, this is expressed by the use of the proscribed 12-tone technique. which in various respects corresponds to the conceptual theme of the work.

Krenek’s position can be defined both from the standpoint of music-art and of philosophy-politics, as that of a border-crosser, one which resists classification in any specific direction.

This according to “Die Idee des Reiches in Ernst Kreneks Bühnenwerk mit Musik Karl V, op. 73 (1933)” by Raymond Dittrich, s essay included in Was vom Alten Reiche blieb…: Deutungen, Institutionen und Bilder des frühneuzeitlichen Heiligen Römischen Reiches Deutscher Nation im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (München: Bayerische Landeszentrale für Politische Bildungsarbeit, 2011, pp. 421–33).

Today is Charles V’s 520th birthday! Above, Titian’s La gloria, once owned by the birthday boy, who is depicted in white near the top; Krenek called for the painting to be used as a stage backdrop for his opera. Below, the opening of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production.

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

Novelty and influence in classical piano music

 

While innovation is crucial for novel and influential achievements, quantifying these qualities in creative works remains a challenge. An information-theoretic framework for computing the novelty and influence of creative works based on their generation probabilities reflects the degree of uniqueness of their elements in comparison with other works.

Applying this formalism to a high-quality, large-scale data set of classical piano compositions–works of significant scientific and intellectual value–spanning several centuries of musical history, represented as symbolic progressions of chords, a study found that the enterprise’s developmental history can be characterized as a dynamic process composed of the emergence of dominant, paradigmatic creative styles that define distinct historical periods. These findings can offer a new understanding of the evolution of creative enterprises based on principled measures of novelty and influence.

This according to “Novelty and influence of creative works, and quantifying patterns of advances based on probabilistic references networks” by Doheum Park, Juhan Nam, and Juyong Park (EPJ data science IX/2 [2020]).

Many thanks to Marc Abrahams of Improbable Research for bringing this to our attention!

Above, two illustrations from the article (click to enlarge); below, Chopin’s prelude in A Major, op. 28, no.7, which provides the basis for the second illustration.

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A playlist for Japanese food

 

Since the late 1970s, when he was a founding member of the electronic-pop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi Sakamoto has composed and produced music for dance floors, concert halls, films, video games, ringtones, and acts of ecological awareness and political resistance. Many consider him exemplary not only for his music but also for his listening, and for his understanding of how music can be used and shared.

In 2017 Sakamoto assembled a gustatory soundtrack for Kajitsu, a Japanese restaurant in Murray Hill, Manhattan. In an interview, he compared Kajitsu’s cuisine to the beauty of Katsura Rikyu, a palatial villa in Kyoto, but said that the restaurant’s former musical backdrop was more akin to that of Trump Tower.

Sakamoto created at least five rough drafts before settling on the current version of the Kajitsu playlist, now available for public consumption on Spotify.

This according to “Annoyed by restaurant playlists, a master musician made his own” by Ben Ratliff (The New York times 23 July 2018, p. D1).

Above, a meal at Kajitsu; below, the Kajitsu playlist.

 

Course 3: All dishes by Laissez Fare is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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Filed under Curiosities, Food

Busnois, Tinctoris, and “L’homme armé”

 

Antoine Busnois’s Missa “L’homme armé” commits one notational error after another—at least according to Johannes Tinctoris.

As several scathing passages in his Proportionale musices attest, Tinctoris abhorred Busnois’s mensural innovations. And yet Busnois’s notational choices, while certainly idiosyncratic, were also arguably justifiable: the composer was merely finding ways of recording novel musical ideas that had no agreed-upon notational solutions.

Tinctoris’s response to Busnois was not limited to the criticisms in his theoretical treatises. Tinctoris the composer responded far more comprehensively, and at times with far greater sympathy for Busnois’s practice, in his own Missa “L’homme armé”. He echoed Busnois’s Mass notationally, in that he treated it as an example of what not to do; his response was also deeply musical, in that he tackled similar technical problems as a means of achieving analogous contrapuntal effects.

Tinctoris’s and Busnois’s settings need to be understood in the context of 15th-century Masses, one in which composers were not necessarily content to work within the system but invented new ways of writing to create new sounds. In doing so, mere composers could sometimes achieve significance as theorists. Taken together, the L’homme armé Masses of Busnois and Tinctoris raise a range of historiographical issues that invite us to reassess the figure of the theorist-composer.

This according to “Composing in theory: Busnoys, Tinctoris, and the L’homme armé tradition” by Emily Zazulia (Journal of the American Musicological Society LXXI/1 [spring 2018] pp. 1–73).

This year we celebrate the 590th anniversary of Busnois’s birth! (His exact birthdate is unknown.)

Above, the version of L’homme armé that Busnois used as his cantus firmus, from I-NapBN MS VI.E.40 (with editorial markings); below, the Kyrie from his Missa “L’homme armé” followed by the corresponding movement from Tinctoris’s work.

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Filed under Curiosities, Renaissance