Tag Archives: Curiosities

Mozart’s starling

 

On 27 May 1784 Mozart purchased a European starling (Sturnus vulgaris, above). The pleasure he expressed at hearing the bird’s song—“Das war schon!”—is all the more understandable when one compares his notation of it with the beginning of the last movement of his Piano Concerto in G major, K.453, which was written around the same time.

Three years later the bird died, and he buried it with much ceremony. Heavily veiled mourners marched in a procession, sang hymns, and listened to a graveside recitation of a poem Mozart had composed for the occasion.

Although many questions remain about starlings’ vocal capacities, a recent study supports a definite link between their mimicry and their lively social interactions, illuminating Mozart’s response to his beloved pet’s death.

This according to “Mozart’s starling” by Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King (American scientist LXXVIII/2 [May–August 1990] pp. 106–114).

Below, the concerto movement sung by Mozart’s starling.

Related articles: 

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Filed under Animals, Classic era, Curiosities

Dancing elephants in ancient Rome

In his De natura animalium, Claudius Aelianus described the training of dancing elephants.

“To begin with, [the trainer] introduced them in a quiet, gentle fashion to his instructions, supplying them with delicacies and the most appetizing food, varied so as to allure and entice them into abandoning all trace of ferocity…So what they learned was not to go wild at the sound of the flutes (auloi), not to be alarmed at the beating of drums (tympanon), to be charmed by the pipe (syrinx), and to endure the beat of marching feet and the singing of crowds.”

Noting that elephants have a keen sense of music and an aptitude for learning, Aelian reported that they successfully mastered “the movements of a chorus, the steps of a dance, how to march in time, how to enjoy the sound of auloi, and how to distinguish different notes.”

This according to “Vox naturae: Music as human-animal communication in the context of animal training in ancient Rome” by Rodney Martin Cross (Greek and Roman musical studies V/2 [2017] pp. 147–58).

Below, two elephants enjoying a serenade.

Related article: The Thai Elephant Orchestra

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Filed under Animals, Antiquity, Curiosities, Dance

The Vatican’s Top 10

The Vatican has recommended ten pop and rock albums as perfect listening for being marooned on a desert island. The recordings serve as an alternative to the mediocre songs featured at Italian pop festivals and on the radio.

The Top 10 list includes the Beatles’ Revolver, David Crosby’s If I could only remember my name, Pink Floyd’s The dark side of the moon, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Donald Fagan’s The nightfly, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Paul Simon’s Graceland, U2’s Achtung baby, Oasis’s (What’s the story) Morning glory?, and Carlos Santana’s Supernatural. Bob Dylan is excluded from the list because he spawned generations of singer-songwriters who have harshly tested the ears and the patience of listeners with their tormented stories.

This according to “Dieci dischi per sopravvivere ai festival: Prontuario semiserio di resistenza musicale” by Guiseppe Fiorentino and Gaetano Vallini (L’Osservatore Romano CXLVIII/37 [14 February 2010]).

Below, the concluding track from David Crosby’s album.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Renaissance

Marcel Duchamp, noise, and music

 

Starting in 1912, Marcel Duchamp incorporated musical concepts and structures into his work, thereby promoting the emancipation of noise and confirming composition and music-making as a cottage industry.

Duchamp’s Avoir l’apprenti dans le soleil (To have the apprentice in the sun, 1914) was created at a time when the artist was concerned with the challenges of combining elements of various arts. The cyclist is a symbol of the French avant-garde and the modern spirit; the viewer sees the cyclist’s effort to mount the staff lines as a contrast between silence and noisy corporeality. The battle between the arts is not to be ironed out by means of assimilation, but must be fought out or brought to a détente in the artwork itself.

This according to “Marcel Duchamp, John Cage und eine Kunstgeschichte des Geräusches/Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and an art history of noise” by Michael C. Glasmeier, an essay included in Resonanzen: Aspekte der Klangkunst/Resonances: Aspects of sound art (Heidelberg: Kehrer, 2002, pp. 49–70).

Today is Duchamp’s 130th birthday! Above, the drawing in question; below, the artist describes his readymade À bruit secret (With hidden noise, 1916): “Before I finished it Arensberg put something inside the ball of twine, and never told me what it was, and I didn’t want to know.”

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Filed under Curiosities, Visual art

Swearing on the scepter

At their commencement ceremony, graduates of the Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Wien (MDW) swear to remain forever true to their alma mater with the words Ich gelobe! (I swear!) while touching the university’s scepter.

Designed by the renowned Viennese sculptor Ferdinand Welz, the head of the scepter depicts King David playing his harp. The scrolls under the figure read Universitas rerum musicarum et artis dramaticae vindobonensis and Musica est bene modulandi scientia, the latter drawing on a quotation from Augustine of Hippo.

This according to “Daz zepter der MDW/The sceptre of the MDW” by Christian Meyer (MDW-magazin 2017/2, pp. 22–25).

The MDW celebrates its 200th anniversary this year! Above, three views of the scepter’s head (click to enlarge); below, the anniversary’s official visualization.

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Filed under Curiosities, Iconography

Drumming cockatoos

 

All human societies have music with a rhythmic beat, typically produced with percussive instruments such as drums. The set of capacities that allows humans to produce and perceive music appears to be deeply rooted in human biology, but an understanding of its evolutionary origins requires cross-taxa comparisons.

Drumming by palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) shares the key rudiments of human instrumental music, including manufacture of a sound tool, performance in a consistent context, regular beat production, repeated components, and individual styles.

Throughout 131 drumming sequences produced by 18 males, the beats occurred at nonrandom, regular intervals; yet individual males differed significantly in the distribution parameters of their beat patterns, indicating individual drumming styles. Autocorrelation analyses of the longest drumming sequences further showed that they were highly regular and predictable, like human music.

These discoveries provide a rare comparative perspective on the evolution of rhythmicity and instrumental music in our own species, and show that a preference for a regular beat can have other origins before being co-opted into group-based music and dance.

This according to “Tool-assisted rhythmic drumming in palm cockatoos shares key elements of human instrumental music” by Robert Heinsohn, Christina N. Zdenek, et al. (Science advances III/6 [2017]).

Above, a male cockatoo (right) drumming with a stick for a female; below, a video produced by the research team.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Science

Thoreau’s ear

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 [2015] pp. 144–54).

Today is Thoreau’s 200th birthday! Below, one of Charles Ives’s meditations on the man and his work.

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Filed under Curiosities, Literature

The Dancing Queens of Mumbai

For many Indian hijras—a casteless and classless queer minority—badhais (ritualistic music and dance) are the only available means of revenue aside from sex work and bar dance; this has been the practical reality for hijras for nearly two centuries of legal persecution.

While the current reality does not bode well for the continuation of hijra badhais as we once knew them, newly emerging transgender ensembles like Mumbai’s Dancing Queens are introducing new possibilities for hijra performativity and empowerment.

Established within a reconstituted urban Indian context, new adaptive strategies are predicated on the exchange of devalued ways of encoding hijra difference for updated, modern ones based upon the distinctly LGBTIQ discourse of pehchān (acknowledgement of the self, or identity). The Dancing Queens’s staging of pehchān empowers hijras through a global transgender lexicon while simultaneously renewing particular preexisting performance repertoires of homo-sociality.

This according to “The Dancing Queens: Negotiating hijra pehchān from India’s streets onto the global stage” by Jeff Roy (Ethnomusicology review XX [2015] pp. 69–91). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above and below, the Dancing Queens in action.

BONUS: Ready for more? Here’s a full performance.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Dance

Roll over, Stradivari?

Old Italian violins are routinely credited with playing qualities supposedly unobtainable in new instruments. These qualities include the ability to project their sound more effectively in a concert hall—despite seeming relatively quiet under the ear of the player—compared with new violins.

Although researchers have long tried to explain the mystery of Antonio Stradivari’s sound, it is only recently that studies have addressed the fundamental assumption of tonal superiority. Results from two studies show that, under blind conditions, experienced violinists tend to prefer playing new violins over Old Italians. Moreover, they are unable to tell new from old at better than chance levels.

In two separate experiments, three new violins were compared with three by Stradivari. Projection was tested both with and without orchestral accompaniment. Projection and preference were judged simultaneously by dividing listeners into two groups.

The results were unambiguous. The new violins projected better than the Stradivaris whether tested with orchestra or without, the new violins were generally preferred by the listeners, and the listeners could not reliably distinguish new from old. The single best-projecting violin was considered the loudest under the ear by players, and on average, violins that were quieter under the ear were found to project less well.

This according to “Listener evaluations of new and Old Italian violins” by Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, and Fan-Chia Tao. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 8 May 2017).

Above, detail from Antonio Stradivari in his atelier by Antonio Rinaldi; below, a report on one of the experiments, including excerpts from interviews with Fritz and Curtin.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments

Rhythm and experimental psychology

 

In the laboratories of 19th-century experimental psychologists, new concepts of precision-oriented, mechanically regulated musical time emerged as a positive ideal—one that led to the ubiquity of the metronome in the training and practice regimes of classical musicians and pervasive understandings of “good” and “bad” musical rhythm in the 20th century.

Most notably, Wilhelm Wundt included a metronome in the assembly of clockwork instruments employed in his research into the variables of human perception and action. His experiments helped to shape and define modern concepts of rhythm, radically shifting the concept of musical rhythm from a subjective, internal pulse reference to an objective, unerringly precise phenomenon independent of human agency.

At the turn of the 20th century, other psychologists, such as Carl Seashore, disseminated these scientific ideals to a wider public through important music publications, and by the 1920s such ideals were becoming pervasive among both amateur and professional music practitioners.

This according to “Refashioning rhythm: Hearing, acting and reacting to metronomic sound in experimental psychology and beyond, c. 1875–1920” by Alexander Bonus, an essay included in Cultural histories of noise, sound and listening in Europe, 1300–1918 (Abington: Routledge, 2017, pp. 76–105).

Above, Dr. Wundt (seated) and colleagues in his psychological laboratory, the first of its kind, ca. 1880; below, an abridged version of György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes.

BONUS: For the purists, a complete performance of Ligeti’s work.

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Filed under Curiosities, Source studies