Louisa May Alcott effectively depicted collective musical performances to affirm community in Little women; but more significantly, she used music to represent the feminine sphere as she and the culture of her time defined it.
Each sister’s acceptance of or entry into that domain is depicted through scenes of musical performance: “No one but Beth could get much music out of the old piano; but she had a way of softly touching the yellow keys and making a pleasant accompaniment to the simple songs they sang. Meg had a voice like a flute, and she and her mother led the little choir. Amy chirped like a cricket, and Jo wandered through the airs at her own sweet will, always coming out at the wrong place with a croak or a quaver that spoilt the most pensive tune.”
Laurie, the rich boy next door, who is a talented pianist, must take the opposite path on his journey; his attainment of manhood is symbolically represented through the silencing of his musical voice.
In these and more ways, the musical leitmotif in Little Women tells us much about gender roles in American culture and about the limited choices facing both nineteenth-century American women and nineteenth-century American men.
This according to “Music as leitmotif in Louisa May Alcott’s Little women” by Colleen Reardon (Children’s literature XXIV  74-85; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-26449).
Today is Alcott’s 190th birthday! Below, Beth’s Christmas scene from the 1994 film.
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A letter published in the June 1925 issue of Gramophone noted the magazine’s general absence of women correspondents: “are the sweet little things too shy, or what?” A response published in August of that year dismissed the idea of women enjoying the gramophone: “ladies…want to be seen and also to see. They don’t want to listen. That will never interest them.”
The October issue included a letter from a woman reader who noted that women have less money at their disposal for entertainment than men, and that when she attends concerts she sees many women, including poor ones, listening attentively. “I can only conclude,” she wrote, “that certain of your correspondents have been singularly unfortunate in the circle of women they have drawn about them.”
The letters are reprinted in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2012-7059). Below, a gramophone recording by the incomparable Josephine Baker.
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  46–63; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2019-20968).
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  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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In the “Sirens” episode of UlyssesJames Joyce made words represent music by playing with or even overcoming certain conventional features of language. Particularly notable are Joyce’s representation of polyphony, melody, rhythm, and of music’s traditional absence of conventional meaning.
The essence of Joycean onomatopoeia in “Sirens” is not that it represents music iconically, but that it makes music linguistically. Joycean onomatopoeia is not the natural union of meaning and form, of signified and signifier—it is the signifier freeing itself from the link with the signified.
“Sirens” is a step toward absolute form and abstraction; it breaks with the representational conventions of naturalistic and realistic fiction and points the way toward modernism.
This according to “Strange words, strange music: The verbal music of ‘Sirens’” by Andreas Fischer, an essay included in Bronze by gold: The music of James Joyce (New York: General Music, 1999).
Ulysses was first published 100 years ago today! Above, Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s wife and muse, on their wedding day in 1931; the novel takes place on the day they met in 1904. Below, Cathy Berberian reads an excerpt from the “Sirens” episode.
The Swahili word mpasho is related to the verb -pasha, “to cause to get”, and it refers to someone “getting the message”.
In the popular genre taarab, mpasho performances involve sending and receiving powerful communications—often competetive and antagonistic in nature—through song texts. The subject may be an individual, an organization, or social group, any of which may respond with their own mpasho performance. The phenomenon arose among women singers, most notably Siti binti Saad (above).
This according to “Hot kabisa! The mpasho phenomenon and taarab in Zanzibar” by Janet Topp Fargion, an essay included in Mashindano! Competitive music performance in East Africa (Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2000; 39–53). Below, Siti binti Saad’s Wewe paka (You are a cat, 1930) sends a message about unwanted sexual advances that would resonate with today’s #MeToo movement.
Dame Ethel Mary Smyth was a member of the women’s suffrage movement, and was alternately praised and panned for writing music that was considered too masculine for a “lady composer”; yet when she produced more delicate compositions they were criticized for not measuring up to the standard of her male counterparts. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1922, becoming the first woman composer to be awarded a damehood.
This critical edition is based on a photocopy of the autograph manuscript, now in the Royal College of Music Library, with reference also to a fair copy of the score, now in the British Library. The extensive critical notes by John L, Snyder document the changes made by the composer, as well as editorial and performance suggestions made by both the composer and August Manns, who conducted the premiere.
A close reading of Beyoncé’s Video phone illuminates the strategic interplay of subjectivities in a video that essentially disrupts and complicates heteronormative notions of viewing.
In this analysis, the workings of female power versus the male gaze lead to a theoretical conception of gender that contextualizes masculinity and hegemonic femininity. Ultimately, it is in the aestheticized landscape of Video phone that a counter-argument to mainstream heterosexual male imaginary emerges, one where the posthuman figure, in all its hyperreality, is musicalized in a way that defies all conventions.
This according to “Gender, sexuality and the politics of looking in Beyoncé’s Video phone (featuring Lady Gaga)” by Lori Burns and Marc Lafrance, an essay included in The Routledge research companion to popular music and gender (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017, pp. 102–16).
Today is Beyoncé’s 40th birthday! Above and below, the video in question.
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“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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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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The main entrance to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’s exhibition Lou Reed: Caught between the twisted stars opens up on Lincoln Plaza, directly adjacent to the The Metropolitan Opera house. On a sunny day, the Met’s … Continue reading →
Seven strings/Сім струн (dedicated to Uncle Michael)* For thee, O Ukraine, O our mother unfortunate, bound, The first string I touch is for thee. The string will vibrate with a quiet yet deep solemn sound, The song from my heart … Continue reading →
Introduction: Dr. Philip Ewell, Associate Professor of Music at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, posted a series of daily tweets during Black History Month (February 2021) providing information on some under-researched Black … Continue reading →
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 … Continue reading →