Author Archives: rilm

Mudrās in Karṇāṭak song texts

A longstanding tradition among Karṇāṭak composers involves weaving hidden meanings into their song texts; generally known as mudrās, such terms may serve to identify the composer through a pseudonym, or they may indicate aspects of the music itself.

The highly revered composer Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar typically included his signature pseudonym Guruguha somewhere in his song texts. He also often worked in the name of the rāga in which the composition is set, sometimes ingeniously encasing the reference in two adjacent words that, taken together, reveal the rāga mudrā.

This according to Rāga mudrās in Dīkshitar kritis by K. Omanakutty (Thiruvananthapuram: University of Kerala, 2012; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-50861).

Above, a depiction of Dīkṣitar on a stamp issued by India Post; below, Gayathri Girish sings his Sārasa daḷa nayana, one of the works discussed in the book.

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David Byrne and performance

In a 2004 interview, David Byrne recalled “In hindsight I realize that at first I used to get onstage out of some desperate need—I was so painfully shy that strangely it was the only way I could express myself. So it was cathartic and powerful, but hardly what you would call pleasure.”

“When Talking Heads became a big funk ensemble, I sensed there was something more. I began to dance, to enjoy myself, to sense the connection between secular music and the gospel church, with the ecstatic religions like Candomblé and Santeria.”

“Now it’s completely pleasurable—just the physical and emotional pleasure of singing is completely transporting. The act of singing recreates the emotions that went into the songs in the first place—like adding water to freeze-dried food, the emotions get reconstituted and the singing is the water you add. And I still dance, sort of.”

Quoted in “An interview with David Byrne” by Dave Eggers (The believer II/6 [June 2004]; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2004-22964.)

Today is Byrne’s 70th birthday! Above, performing with Talking Heads in 1983; below, with his American utopia tour in 2018.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Rap as Mexican women’s protest

Mexico is not officially at war, yet violence is pervasive, and young Mexican women increasingly use rap music to protest the ubiquity of homicides, systematic violence, and widespread impunity in their country.

Non-activist rap songs encouraging introspection can be as political as explicitly activist ones, and the aim of both can be to shift people’s understandings and promote change. This is significant because it is only by attending to distinct actors’ positionalities, to their similarities and differences, that negotiation can be collectively enabled to fight violence in Mexico.

This according to “Contesting resistance, protesting violence: Women, war, and hip hop in Mexico” by Hettie Malcomson (Music and arts in action VII/1 [2019] 46–63; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2019-20968).

Above and below, the Oaxaca-based activist Mare Advertencia Lírika, one of the artists discussed in the article (photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0).

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Filed under Popular music, Women's studies

Aurel Stroe and the Romanian avant-garde

In the 1960s Romanian culture had just escaped from communist control, and free expression was only recently permitted. Aurel Stroe represents the first Romanian avant-garde wave in composition.

Stroe’s artistic development may be viewed in three compositional stages. The first one relates to the aesthetic ideas of composition classes, to tone-chord music, and to geometric music with certain archetypal intersections. The second stage, dating to the 1970s, is in compliance with morphogenetic music. The third stage, which started in the 1980s and lasted to the end of the composer’s life, employed the sound palette of music written in different tuning systems.

This according to “Aurel Stroe’s artistic ideas within the context of the aesthetic turmoil of the composition scene in Romania and world-wide (1960–1990)” by Octavian Nemescu (Musicology today: Journal of the National University of Music Bucharest XXX/11 [July–September 2012] 121–28; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-7829).

Today would have been Stroe’s 90th birthday! Below, his Arcade for orchestra (1962).

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music

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; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-5091).

Today is Kircher’s 420th birthday! 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

Mingus and group oneness

In the mid-1950s Charles Mingus embraced the collective improvisation of early New Orleans jazz and the ecstatic worship and singing rituals of the Black Pentecostal church— two historical African-derived approaches that emphasized group expression.

Mingus used these two approaches to advance both musical expression and political and spiritual ideas, charting a trajectory toward group oneness. His recordings from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s progressed from short sections of collective interplay and group improvisation reminiscent of early jazz to longer forms of ecstatic ritual. This latter practice—in the form of solos, band, and audience participation—was a direct invocation of the spiritual communion or Holy Spirit possession that he had witnessed in Pentecostal church services as a youth.

This according to “Mingus in the workshop: Leading the improvisation from New Orleans to Pentecostal trance” by Jennifer Griffith (Black music research journal XXV/1 [spring 2015] 71–96; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-87883).

Today is Mingus’s 100th birthday! Below, Wednesday night prayer meeting (1959), one of the recordings discussed in the article.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Performers

Germaine Tailleferre and 1920s feminism

In 1923 Germaine Tailleferre completed Le marchand d’oiseaux for the Ballets Suédois, with a scenario, costumes, and set designs by the artist and poet Hélène Perdriat.

While the (male) critics generally praised the ballet, they primarily commented on it as the work of two women; for example, one wrote “here is something that will certainly please the feminists”, while another drew comparisons to the equally male-dominated field of sport: “Nervous and supple like the manner of these female tennis champions, who triumph so easily over the raw brutality of hard masculine wrists…Mme Hélène Perdriat…has imagined the affabulation [sic]…with a sprig of perversity….These candid and malicious games are exactly to the taste of the lovely Muse who dictates to Mlle Germaine Tailleferre her better inspirations.”

Despite this patronizing reception of Le marchand d’oiseaux as a female work, there is nothing feminist in the dramatic action or the music. The ballet is a neoclassical creation that may be seen in the context of a wider trend within interwar modernism, and Tailleferre may be understood as contributing to the development and propagation of this musical style.

A product of two female artists whose immense talents allowed them to overcome the misogynistic social tendencies of their time and achieve success on the Parisian ballet stage, Le marchand d’oiseaux demonstrated that despite all of the French government’s best attempts to suppress the voices of women, with sufficient talent and determination they could still succeed and be recognized as contemporary creative artists.

This according to “Germaine Tailleferre and Hélène Perdriat’s Le marchand d’oiseaux (1923): French feminist ballet?” by Laura Hamer (Studies in musical theatre IV/1 [2010] 113–20; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-14319).

Today is Tailleferre’s 130th birthday! Above, the composer as photographed by Man Ray around the time of the ballet’s premiere; below, Tailleferre’s score for the work.

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

Donizetti studies

In 2021 Musicom launched Donizetti studies (ISSN 2785-0331; EISSN 2785-4140),  a peer-reviewed print and online journal whose scope is not limited to Donizetti, but extends to include Simon Mayr, the rich musical tradition of Bergamo, and, in general, Italian and French opera in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The journal’s format involves multiple sections: the first comprises original essays, the second presents unpublished or partially known documents, and the third takes on varying contents and forms, depending on needs. Also, the journal provides bibliographic materials that cover the most recent studies on Donizetti and his period.

Below, an excerpt from L’ange de Nisida, one of the works discussed in the inaugural issue.

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Filed under New periodicals, Opera, Romantic era

Hanuman and Suvannamaccha

Reamker (The glory of Rama) is the Khmer version of the epic known as Rāmāyaa in India. While it generally hews close to the original tale, Reamker includes episodes not found in the archetypal Sanskrit version; one of these involves the mermaid princess Suvannamaccha.

In this episode, the monkey warrior Hanuman, with his band of Varanas, is trying to build a causeway to the island of Lanka, where Rama’s wife Sita is being held against her will. He discovers that his work is being sabotaged by a group of mischievous mermaids, and he confronts their leader, Suvannamaccha. At first she is defiant; but then she falls in love with him, apologizes, helps him to rebuild the causeway, and eventually gives birth to their son Macchanu.

This according to “Reamker: The Ramayana from Cambodia” by Bharathi Ramasubban (Sruti 357 [June 2014] 48–51; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-4405).

Above, a mural painting of Hanuman and Suvannamaccha at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok; below, an excerpt from the episode as performed by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Dance

Lightnin’ Hopkins, folk poet

A master of the blues guitar, a gifted storyteller and songwriter, Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins was one of the most prolific and successful of the Texas blues musicians of the post-World War II era.

Combining ominous, single-note runs on the high strings of his guitar with a hard-driving bass, his guitar playing included sudden bursts of speed and equally sudden silences; flurries of notes; sharp, hammered punctuations; and irregular, unpredictable rhythms. 

Hopkins’s talent for improvisation also extended to songwriting. He could create both slow and energetic songs on the spot, with subjects ranging from autobiographical matters to social protest to world events. He often seemed simply to be speaking his mind, almost talking to himself, with lyrics that were sometimes bitter, always vivid. He sang in a slow, country drawl and often answered lyrical phrases with a flourish on the guitar. This combination of haunting guitar and verbal inventiveness earned him the status of a true folk poet.

This according to “Hopkins, Sam Lightnin’” by Stan Hieronymus (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013]); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Hopkins’s 110th birthday!

Above and below, Hopkins in 1967, from Les Blank’s The blues accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers