Tag Archives: Curiosities

Cymbals and symbols in ancient Greece

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses an astonishing bronze figurine, perhaps unearthed in Cyprus: a nude woman playing a pair of cymbals, standing on a frog (inv. no. 74.51.5680). It was probably the handle of a mirror, and the craftmanship is typical of ancient Laconia.

Scholars have never explained the relationships between all the represented elements, but the figurine is obviously related to ancient Spartan music, or at least to its soundscape.

We may wonder whether there is a link between the frog and the cymbals in terms of sound. Did ancient Greeks perceive the croaking as a percussive sound? In Greek antiquity, frogs seem to be associated with several types of instruments.

Since the figurine might come from Cyprus and it depicts a nude woman, it is usually interpreted as Aphrodite. However, if it is a Laconian piece of art, it seems more relevant to recognize here one of the main goddesses of Sparta, Artemis Orthia. She stands on a frog, because her sanctuary was located in the marshlands of Sparta, a place appropriate for batrachia. This place had a specific soundscape of croaking frogs and water sounds. Further, there are remains of feline paws on her shoulders; the archaic Artemis is the mistress of wild beasts.

In the sanctuary, archaeologists found cymbals and auloi dedicated to the goddess for apotropaic purposes. It may be opportune to compare this piece with Asian drums decorated with frogs, which were used to ask for rain fertility: perhaps the cymbals associated with croaking had the same function in ancient Spartan marshlands.

This according to “Croaking and clapping: A new look at an ancient Greek bronze figurine (from Sparta)” by Sylvain Perrot (Music in art XLIII/1–2 [2018] pp. 175–83)

Below, an illicit visit to the sanctuary.

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Filed under Animals, Antiquity, Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments, Nature

“White Christmas” and fantasy proneness

 

In an experiment, 44 undergraduate students were asked to listen to white noise and instructed to press a button when they believed that they were hearing a recording of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas without this recording actually being presented.

Fourteen participants (32%) pressed the button at least once. These participants had higher scores on fantasy proneness and the Launay–Slade Hallucination Scale (LSHS) compared to participants without hallucinatory reports. Both groups did not differ in terms of imagery vividness or sensitivity to social demands.

Logistic regression suggested that fantasy proneness is a better predictor of hallucinatory reports than are LSHS scores. This might imply that hallucinatory reports obtained during the White Christmas test reflect a non-specific preference for odd items rather than schizophrenia-like internal experiences.

This according to “Another White Christmas: Fantasy proneness and reports of hallucinatory experiences in undergraduate students” by Harald Merckelbach and Vincent van de Ven (Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry XXXII/3 [September 2001] pp. 137–44). Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this study to our attention!

Below, White Christmas and fantasy proneness in Hollywood; wait for the dialogue around 2:00!

Related article: White Christmas goes viral

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Science

Not Luka Sorkočević

In 2015 the Hrvatska pošta produced a stamp honoring the eighteenth-century Croatian composer Luka Sorkočević, inadvertently illustrated with an image of the U.S. president Thomas Jefferson.

The mistake was discovered just before the stamp’s release, and the entire run was withdrawn and destroyed, though one post office had sold 22 examples of it prior to the release date.

In view of the events and given the fact that apparently no copies had yet reached the philatelic market, a 2018 advertisement from the auction house Barac & Pervan noted that this stamp should become widely sought after; and since this rarity is also important for the American philatelic market, its value is expected to increase over time.

This according to “Unissued stamp from 2015 supposed to show Mr. Luka Sorkočević” (Barac & Pervan 2018). Below, one of the composer’s symphonies.

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Iconography, Reception

The Mills violano virtuoso

 

Nobody knows how many of the 2,500 violano virtuosos manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company between 1912 and 1926 exist today, but one ended up in the Smithsonian Institution in 1959, where it was designated one of the eight greatest inventions of the decade.

A complex instrument, it contains a 44-note piano with bass strings in the center and treble notes on either side in addition to a real violin. An electric motor with variable speeds simulates the action of bowing through the use of electromagnets.

Arthur Sanders, a specialist in mechanical instruments, was engaged to oversee the instrument’s restoration. “I assumed theirs had been in operating condition when they got it,” Sanders later noted, “but the grease had jelled, the oil had become gummy, and it needed new strings.” Mr. Sanders worked on it with some spare parts from similar instruments. “Even the curators from the fossil section came around,” he said, describing what must have been an exciting moment for the famous museum.

This according to “Making music with machines” by James Feron (The New York times 17 June 1984, pp. 507, 529). Above and below, the rare double violano virtuoso.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

Athanasius Kircher’s global reach

Musical commodities frequently accompanied European explorers, soldiers, merchants, and missionaries who traveled to Asia in the early modern period. During this time, numerous theoretical treatises and musical scores—both printed and manuscript—were disseminated throughout Asia.

One of the most significant of these musical imports was Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia universalis, which provided far-flung missions with vital information on music theory, history, organology, composition, and performance. An unexpected letter to Kircher from Manila, sent just four years after the treatise’s publication in Rome, provides testimony to its importance:

“I am so obliged to Your Reverence not only for the great kindness with which Your Reverence treated me in Rome, but also for the instruction that Your Reverence gives me all day in these remote parts of the world by means of your books, which are no less esteemed here than [they are] in Europe.”

“Here in Manila I am studying the fourth year of theology, and I see for myself the many marvels that Your Reverence recounts in his books. I have been the first to bring one of these, that is, the Musurgia, to the Indies, and I do not doubt that it will be of great usefulness to the Fathers of the missions, where music is taught publicly. Father Ignatio Monti Germano, Rector of Silang, wants to read it, and I will send it to him shortly.”

This according to “The dissemination and use of European music books in early modern Asia” by David R.M. Irving (Early music history XXVIII [2009] pp. 39–59).

This year marks the 390th anniversary of Kircher’s ordination! Above, the frontispiece to the first volume, engraved after a drawing by Johann Paul Schor; below, Kircher’s celebrated musical cure for a tarantula bite.

Related article: Baroque birdsong

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Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities, Reception

Père Castel’s ocular harpsichord

 

The Jesuit priest Louis-Bertrand Castel had his hour of fame in the 18th century thanks to his ocular harpsichord.

Starting from the idea of a physical analogy between sound and color, Castel conceived of a harpsichord that would diffuse a music of colors organized into a scale on the basis of their natural correspondence with sounds. In this way he sought to reveal the rational principles that determine the order of nature, grounding art in reason. Art would thus bear witness to a divine intelligence compatible with reason, and the music of colors would be a form of revelation.

In addition, this development would rescue people from boredom, the languor that takes away their feeling of existing, by ensuring continuous movement and surprise, renewing the pleasure of variety, and satisfying the natural inconstancy that goads them relentlessly to seek other objects of pleasure. From this to the preaching of a libertine art was a matter of a single step, which Castel took without realizing it. For him, amusement had achieved a respected place in the world.

This according to Le Père Castel et le clavecin oculaire by Corinna Gepner (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2014).

Today is Castel’s 330th birthday! Above, a caricature of Père Castel and his instrument by Charles Germain de Saint Aubin; below, a brief discussion.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

Dance video games and media ecology

 

What happens when machines teach humans to dance?

Dance video games transform players’ experiences of popular music, invite experimentation with gendered and racialized movement styles, and present new possibilities for teaching, learning, and archiving choreography.

Dance games are part of a media ecology that includes the larger game industry, viral music videos, reality TV competitions, marketing campaigns, and emerging surveillance technologies. The circulation of dance gameplay and related body projects across media platforms illuminates how dance games function as intimate media, configuring new relationships among humans, interfaces, music and dance repertoires, and social media practices.

This according to Playable bodies: Dance games and intimate media by Kiri Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Above, a Just dance session; below, a Dance central session. Both game series serve as case studies in the book, which draws on five years of research with players, game designers, and choreographers.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Popular music

Asante gold-dust weights

Until the second half of the mid-19th century, the Asante and related peoples of Ghana and the Ivory Coast used small brass castings made by the lost-wax process as weights for measuring their gold-dust currency.

These weights, made in large numbers by professional metal workers, came in all shapes and sizes. There were two sorts of weights: those which represent miniature objects, creatures, and activities from local life, and those in non-representational, geometrical forms.

Many of the representational weights depicted musical instruments, either on their own or being played, and activities which traditionally took place to the accompaniment of music. The great majority of these weights show only two types of instruments: ivory trumpets, and various types of drums.

This according to “Music and gold-weights in Asante” by Malcolm Donald McLeod (British museum yearbook 1980, pp. 225–42).

Above, a weight depicting a pair of atumpan drums of the Akan people; below, the atumpan in action.

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments

Gershwin and Berg

Most fans of George Gershwin’s music would be surprised to learn of his admiration for an early atonal masterpiece: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. He visited Berg in Vienna, and the score he owned of Wozzeck was one of his most prized possessions; he traveled to Philadelphia in 1931 to attend the work’s American premiere.

Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess is heavily indebted to Wozzeck. These debts primarily involve structural processes, understanding structure as patterns of discrete events shared by the two operas. Motives and chords play a role in the discussion, alongside musical events that range from the large—a fugue or a lullaby—to the small—a pedal, an ostinato, or some detail of counterpoint.

Beyond the presence in both operas of a lullaby, a fugue, a mock sermon, and an upright piano, the greater relevance of these parallels and others is to be found in the ways in which Gershwin situated them in comparable musical contexts.

This according to “Porgy and Bess: An American Wozzeck” by Christopher A. Reynolds (Journal of the Society for American Music I/1 [February 2007] pp. 1–28).

Today is Gershwin’s 120th birthday! Below, the atonal fugue depicting the murder of Crown from Catfish Row, his suite from the opera.

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

Le Pétomane and physiological symbolism

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 [2013] pp. 27–43).

Today is Pujol’s 160th birthday! Below, Le Pétomane in action (silent).

BONUS: A recording from 1904.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Humor, Performers