Tag Archives: Performers

Choe Seung-hui and modernism

Choe Seung-hui’s career moved in the reverse of the developmental narrative often associated with non-Western choreographers who study Western dance.

The earliest dance photographs of Choe show her in form-fitting leotards and short tunics, showing off her muscular and flexible body through extended lines, pointed feet, and angular planes, her face expressing seriousness or ecstasy—the epitome what one might envision today as modern dance.

But for her, this style ultimately came to represent imitation and convention rather than innovation and creativity. Whereas those early dances followed in the styles of others and worked in their voices, it was in formulating dances involving traditional Korean models that Choe invented her own style and established something new that would influence others.

For Choe, what looked like modern dance from a Western perspective was less modern than the Korean-style modern choreographies with which she made her mark as a modernist choreographer, dancer, theorist, and pedagogue.

This according to “Locating performance: Choe Seung-Hui, East Asian modernism and the case for area knowledge in dance studies” by Emily E. Wilcox, and essay included in Futures of dance studies (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020, 505–22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 202o-14576).

Today is Choe Seung-hui’s 110th birthday! Above, a photo from the 1950s; below, a partial reconstruction of Choe’s choreography.

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Filed under Dance, Performers

Minnie Hauk, American savage

When the U.S. operatic soprano Minnie Hauk (1851–1929) first toured Europe in 1868, her instant success was due largely to shrewd marketing by her teacher and manager Maurice Strakosch.

Capitalizing on Hauk’s childhood on the American prairie, Strakosch’s advance publicity described her as “a kind of half-civilized Pocahontas, who, back in the wilds of her homeland, was accustomed to riding a mustang bareback and being worshipped by the continent’s aborigines as a ‘dusky daughter of the sun.’”

Thanks to widespread curiosity about this exotic creature—and, of course, to her prodigious talent—Hauk remained abroad for the next eight years, performing at all the major opera houses in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, and Russia.

This according to Women in the spotlight: Divas in nineteenth-century New York by Andrea Saposnik (Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing).

Today is Hauk’s 170th birthday! Above, the soprano in her highly acclaimed role as Carmen; over the course of her career she performed the work in four languages.

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Filed under Opera, Romantic era

Mahalia Jackson and the Black gospel field

Nearly a half century after her death in 1972, Mahalia Jackson remains the most esteemed figure in Black gospel music history. Born in the backstreets of New Orleans in 1911, during the Great Depression Jackson joined the Great Migration to Chicago, where she became a highly regarded church singer and, by the mid-fifties, a coveted recording artist lauded as the world’s greatest gospel singer.

This “Louisiana Cinderella” narrative of Jackson’s career during the decade following World War II carried important meanings for African Americans, though it remains a story half told. Jackson was gospel’s first multi-mediated artist, with a nationally broadcast radio program, a Chicago-based television show, and early recordings that introduced straight-out-of-the-church Black gospel to American and European audiences while also tapping the vogue for religious pop in the early Cold War.

In some ways, Jackson’s successes made her an exceptional case, though she is perhaps best understood as part of broader developments in the Black gospel field. Built upon foundations laid by pioneering Chicago organizers in the 1930s, Black gospel singing, with Jackson as its most visible representative, began to circulate in novel ways as a form of popular culture in the 1940s and 1950s, its practitioners accruing prestige not only through devout integrity but also from their charismatic artistry, public recognition, and pop-cultural cachet. These years also saw shifting strategies in the Black freedom struggle that gave new cultural-political significance to African American vernacular culture.

 This according to Mahalia Jackson and the Black gospel field by Mark Burford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Today would have been Jackson’s 110th birthday! Below, performing in 1962.

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Filed under Black studies, Performers

Doctor Love’s diagnoses

The Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Paul Matavire was widely celebrated for his witty but sharply pointed songs addressing themes of intimacy, romance, and social relations, earning him the nickname Doctor Love.

Matavire’s well-calculated social commentary, disseminated through sungura music, continues to hold a special place of reverence in Zimbabwe, even long after his death. His songs are unique in the ways that he used humor to drive his concerns home.

For example, in Akanaka akarara (A person is only good when asleep) Matavire code-switches between Shona and English phrases and expressions, joking that his wife may be possessed by spirits, and maintaining that he is not asking her to cook sadza for him—he just wants money for beer to treat his hangover. Using intrinsic Shona linguistic structures, the song satirizes the foibles of both men and women as they grapple with tensions between traditional and modern gender roles.

This according to “Tracing humour in Paul Matavire’s selected songs” by Umali Saidi (Muziki: Journal of music research in Africa XII/1 [May 2015] 53–61; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-6205).

Today would have been Doctor Love’s 60th birthday! Below, his recording of Akanaka akarara.

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Filed under Humor, Performers, Popular music

Billy Taylor, jazz advocate

“There’s no question that being an advocate eclipsed my reputation as a musician” Billy Taylor said in a 2007 interview. “It was my doing. I wanted to prove to people that jazz has an audience. I had to do that for me.”

Taylor’s career spanned nearly 70 years and included collaborations with almost every significant performer in jazz, from Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker to Wynton Marsalis; but he had an even rarer gift for explaining his music and drawing people to it.

With a doctorate in education, Taylor was considered perhaps the foremost jazz educator of his time. He taught in colleges, lectured widely, served on panels, traveled the world as a jazz ambassador, and organized events that took renowned jazz musicians directly to the streets.

Fully conversant as a performer in the complexities of bebop, he was among the few musicians who were comfortable with explaining it to the uninitiated. “It bothered me when Diz and Bird would start talking bebop and giving nonsensical answers to what they were intelligent enough to know was a seriously meant question” he said in 1971. “It bothered me so much that every chance I got, I tried to set the record straight.”

This according to “Billy Taylor, revered musician, broadcaster and spokesman for jazz, dies at 89” by Matt Schudel (The Washington post 30 December 2010; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-50027).

Today would have been Taylor’s 100th birthday! Above, Billy Taylor in 2000  by John Mathew Smith is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; below, Taylor plays Ellington’s In a sentimental mood.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Pauline Viardot’s legacy

Pauline Viardot was one of the most influential women in nineteenth century European classical music. As a singer, her prodigious talent and charisma on the stage inspired dedications, premieres, and roles written specifically for her. Her music salon hosted many major composers of the time—including Berlioz, Liszt, Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Meyerbeer, Brahms, and Wagner—allowing them to showcase and perfect their works.

Throughout her career, Viardot also worked as a composer. She composed over 100 lieder and mélodies, many intended for use as teaching tools for her own students. She also composed five salon operettas mainly intended to be sung by her pupils and children. As word of her operettas spread, she followed with larger stage works, including the very successful Le dernier sorcier, with a libretto by Ivan Turgenev.

Viardot’s later songs often involved intricate piano writing and elaborate bel canto vocal cadenzas. Jamée Ard aptly described them as “dramatic and virtuosic, painting the musical atmosphere with the broad strokes of Bizet rather than the impressionism of Debussy.”

This according to “The life of Pauline Viardot: Her influence on the music and musicians of nineteenth century Europe” by Katherine LaPorta Jesensky (Journal of singing LXVII/3 [January-February 2011] 267–75; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-21).

Today is Viardot’s 200th birthday! Below, Cecilia Bartoli sings her Havanaise.

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Filed under Performers, Romantic era

Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” period

Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue is one of her most universally recognized works. Generations of people have come of age listening to it, inspired by the way it clarified their own difficult emotions, and critics and musicians admire the idiosyncratic virtuosity of its compositions. The largely autobiographical albums of what might be called Mitchell’s Blue period lasted through the mid-1970s.

In 1970 Mitchell was living with Graham Nash in Laurel Canyon and had made a name for herself as a singer-songwriter notable for her soaring voice and skillful compositions. Soon, though, feeling hemmed in, she fled to the hippie community of Matala, Greece. Here and on further travels, her compositions were freshly inspired by the lands and people she encountered as well as by her own radically changing interior landscape.

After returning home to record Blue, Mitchell retreated to British Columbia, eventually reemerging as the leader of a successful jazz-rock group and turning outward in her songwriting toward social commentary. Finally, a stint with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and a pivotal meeting with a Tibetan lama prompted her return to personal songwriting, which resulted in her 1976 album Hejira.

Mitchell’s Blue period featured her innovative manner of marrying lyrics to melody; her inventive, highly expressive chord progressions that achieved her signature blend of wonder and melancholy; her pioneering approach to personal songwriting; and her contributions to bringing a new literacy to the popular song.

This according to Will you take me as I am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer (New York: Free Press, 2009; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2009-1442).

Blue is 50 years old today! Below, the full album.

Related article: Joni Mitchell and 1960s sexuality

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Erroll Garner and “Misty”

When Clint Eastwood was asked to “play Misty for me” in the classic movie of the same name, the song was played by its composer Erroll Garner, one of jazz’s most popular and prolific artists.

A completely self-taught pianist who never learned to read music, Garner created a unique and idiosyncratic but always accessible style. His musical approach was based on elements of swing and bop, while being harmonically reminiscent of French impressionistic composers such as Debussy and Ravel. This style, combined with a winning stage persona, made him arguably the most successful jazz artist of the 1950s.

Garner composed several songs that went on to become jazz standards, but the one with which he will be linked forever is “Misty” (1954). With lyrics by Johnny Burke, the song became a hit for such artists as Johnny Mathis and Sarah Vaughan

The critic Leonard Feather eulogized him as a pianist who played “cascades of jubilant chords that seemed to tell you, ‘Boy, am I having a ball!’”

This according to “Garner, Erroll” by Michael R. Ross (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 641); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Garner’s 10oth birthday! Below, the composer holds forth.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Melissa Etheridge’s creative process

In a 2020 interview, Melissa Etheridge recalled the genesis of her Grammy Award-winning Come to my window.

“I almost didn’t put it on the album. I thought it was a little too ambiguous of a song, that maybe people wouldn’t quite know what I’m talking about.”

“The chorus came first. Actually, I wanted to write a chorus that had a lifting melody, that kind of went up.”

“I was in a relationship that was the kind of relationship you have in your early 30s. You think you’re all in it, but it’s all complicated.  I had just hung up from a conversation where we didn’t say anything.  And I just hung up and said, ‘Why did I do this?’ Oh, well, ‘I would dial the numbers, just to listen to your breath.’  I just want to connect with you so badly.”

“It certainly wasn’t what I thought a hit song was. And then, man, it came out and it just kept going and going and going. What do I know, you know?”

This according to “Melissa Etheridge: The Rolling stone interview” by Brian Hiatt (Rolling stone 16 September 2020; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2020-57467).

Today is Etheridge’s 60th birthday! Above, a photo from 2011 by Angela George (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0); below, a live performance.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

Enya and the female myth of Ireland

The personification of Enya as a modern archetype of female Ireland has become irrevocably intertwined into the grand narratives of popular culture that make up the last decades of the 20th century.

Her music has many cultural significations; Celticism, romance, fantasy, spirituality, and femininity. The common denominator in Enya’s translucent embodiment of this myth is her seemingly unconscious femininity and her self-distancing from the media and her followers. The unwillingness of Eithne Ní Bhraonáin and her co-creators to discuss their work in turn assists the reading of Enya as a text rather than as an object of ethnographic inquiry.

The significations in the music of Enya’s How can I keep from singing? interrelate with the significations in the lyrics, and a semiotic analysis of the visual imagery in the song’s music video further illuminates how her work perpetuates and reinvigorates the myth of Ireland and Irish womanhood for popular culture.

This according to “How can I keep from singing?” Enya and the female myth of Ireland by Anna Maria Dore, an M.A. thesis accepted by the University of Limerick/Ollscoil Luimnigh in 2003 (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2003-21780).

Today is Enya’s 60th birthday! Above and below, the video in question.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies