Ora Watson, buck dancing fiddler

“I was born a-dancing” Ora Watson used to say, and indeed when she was barely old enough to stand she would try dancing on her mother’s lap at church when the music started. Watson’s father, an expert old-time musician, was also a great buck dancer, and she recalled picking up steps from him.

A farmer, mother of four, and veteran of several old-time and bluegrass bands, Watson could raise the energy on any stage by playing fiddle and dancing at the same time, often to her favorite fiddle tune, “Ragtime Annie”. In her youth she won several dance competitions, including at least one Charleston competition, and old-time buck dancing aficionados could spot the Charleston’s influence on her footwork.

This according to “Ora Watson, Watauga County’s senior musician: ‘Music keeps me young!’” by Mark Freed (The old-time herald XI/1 [October-November 2007] 16–21; RILM Abstracts 2007-29464).

Today would have been Ora Watson’s 110th birthday! Above and below, holding forth in 1993, when she was 82.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance

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 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

Wagner in Vienna

Although Gustav Gaul is not mentioned in Wagner’s correspondence or autobiography, he was clearly a part of the social circle that Wagner engaged with when he visited Vienna in the early 1860s and in 1875.

Gaul made a number of sketches of the composer, including three recently found in the Nachlaβ of his papers at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (A-Wn Autogr. 194/3-1, 3-2, and 3-4); two are from a meeting of October 1861 at the Hotel Kaiserin Elisabeth (above and inset), one of them depicting Peter Cornelius, Karl Tausig, and Gaul himself (far right), as well as Wagner wearing a pince-nez.

This according to “Richard Wagner and the artist Gustav Gaul: Newly discovered drawings in the Austrian National Library” by Chris Walton (The Wagner journal XV/1 [2021] 43–49; RILM Abstracts 2021-1807).

Below, Joseph Moog performs Tausig’s arrangement of Wagner’s Walkürenritt.

More posts about Wagner are here.

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Filed under Iconography, Romantic era

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

Cole Porter and café society

Asked once whether his songs would endure, Cole Porter replied “I never gave it a thought…my enjoyment was in writing them.”

Porter’s passion for music was socially embedded; his personal performances were as central to his life as his songwriting. From early in his career, he loved references to historical as well as contemporary figures, usually in some brash situation that flatters his audience.

As a lyricist, Porter loved metonymic things, particularly lists. On the one hand, these lists frame a particular kind of eroticism—they most often appear in songs of romance (however ambivalent) and employ potentially endless wit, since the list could hypothetically continue to exhaustion, in the service of courtship.

But the list also serves to create an implied social world in which Cole’s immediate audience, which certainly recognized the references, was joined by a larger and more inchoate audience through magazines, recordings, and radio. Still, he depended heavily on the evanescence of the references, so his lists can have an unusually short cultural half-life—which is a cornerstone of their charm.

This according to “Lists of louche living: Music in Cole Porter’s social world” by Mitchell Morris, an essay included in A Cole Porter companion (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016 73–85; RILM Abstracts 2016-2611).

Today is Porter’s 130th birthday! Above, with his wife, Linda Lee Thomas; below, Anything goes includes numerous references to café society figures and events that were well known in Porter’s time, but are largely unfamiliar to today’s audiences.

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Contemporary African concert dance

The discourse surrounding contemporary concert dance in Africa is complex. Writings on the practice suggest that it could be considered both a neocolonial imposition and a contributor to processes of decolonization.

The growth of contemporary dance in Africa was stimulated by the establishment of an inter-Africa dance competition in 1995 by a French-sponsored dance biennale, which at the time was called the Choreographic Encounters of Africa and the Indian Ocean, and has since been renamed Danse l’Afrique danse!

A major controversy about contemporary dance was caused by the departure from the organization soon after its first event of one of its key instigators, the Ivorian choreographer Alphonse Tierou, in protest against the imposition of French artistic criteria by competition judges.

Tierou’s philosophical tenets for contemporary dance in Africa, which had guided the artistic activities leading up to the launch of the competition, were sidelined by the organizers, who set rules that insisted that entrants present new forms of dance that should not be associated with ideas of African tradition, but which still retain motifs or signifiers which a Western audience would perceive as being African. Both African choreographers and scholars feared the competition was a form of cultural neocolonialism.

While these justifiable concerns persist, there is an emerging academic discourse that promotes the ownership of contemporary dance by African choreographers and dance artists. Observing developments in contemporary dance in Nigeria, Chukwuma Okoye suggested that contemporary dance is undergoing a process of indigenization, arguing that when a foreign dance form is absorbed into a society on the terms of the people in that society the resulting practices cannot be considered a mere copy of the form that was appropriated.

This according to “James Mweu & Kunja Dance Theatre: Contemporary dance as African cultural production” by ‘Funmi Adewole (African theatre XVII [2018] 3–22; RILM Abstracts 2018-60720).

Above and below, Kenya’s Kunja Dance Theatre, a case study in the article.

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Filed under Africa, Dance

Maguy Marin’s posthuman “Cendrillion”

Grotesque masks replace powdered noses, blushed cheekbones, and false eyelashes. Padded suits expand thin body lines. The doll costumes in Maguy Marin’s Cendrillion (Cinderella) push the boundaries of late 20th-century Western ballet aesthetics. Simultaneously, they raise questions about the ballet dancer’s role as subject and object onstage.

Combined with Prokof’ev’s Zoluška score, Marin’s characters, movement, and costumes expose and challenge multiple layers of dancer objectification. Situating the choreographer’s tactics within a feminist framework illuminates how Marin’s radical strategy centers on posthuman philosophy, paradoxically suggesting that a ballerina, through her thingness and cyborgian relations, can function outside of object-subject constraints.

This according to “Maguy Marin’s posthuman Cinderella: Thingness, grotesquerie, and cyborgs” by Mara Mandradjieff (Dance chronicle XL/3 [2017] 374–92; RILM Abstracts 2017-56181).

Today is Marin’s 70th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from productions of Cendrillion.

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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 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

The Air Horn Orchestra

Comprising area musicians, band members, and concerned residents, the Raleigh-based Air Horn Orchestra staged a months-long sonic protest in 2016 to ensure that North Carolina governor Pat McCrory really heard their outcry against the infamous House Bill 2, better known as HB2 or the Bathroom Bill, which eliminated important anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community in North Carolina.

And how could he not hear? Air horns, whistles, trumpets, bells, and just about anything that could produce noise wailed outside the Governor’s Mansion weekly for over eight months. In addition to annoying the sitting governor, his staff, and their security detail, the cacophony stirred up national media attention and raised needed funds to help overturn the bill.

This according to “Sound politics: The Air Horn Orchestra blasts HB2” by Tina Haver Currin (Southern cultures XXIV/3 [fall 2018] 107–24; RILM Abstracts 2018-58458).

Below, a documentation of the Air Horn Orchestra’s efforts (Ms. Haver Currin addresses the group first; the performance begins around 2:00).

Related article: Cacerolazo and social media

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Filed under Curiosities, Politics

Dürer’s bathing musicians

Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Das Männerbad (ca. 1496–97) includes a portrayal of two men playing recorder and rebec in a public bath.

The artist’s meticulous attention to detail shows clearly that the recorder is a flûte à neuf trous (drilled to give the player a choice of left or right little finger, the unused hole to be filled with wax).

In the bath, singing is probably more widely practiced than instrumental playing, and indeed, wooden instruments might not take too kindly to the humidity; some people might be more attracted to drinking while bathing, like the gentleman to the musicians’ left.

This according to “Musical ablutions” by Herbert Hersom (The recorder magazine X/1 [March 1990] 20–21; RILM Abstracts 1990-30337).

Today is Dürer’s 550th birthday! Below, music by Ludwig Senfl, who worked at the court of Maximillian I around the time that Dürer was employed there.

More posts about iconography are here.

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Filed under Curiosities, Iconography, Iconography, Instruments, Renaissance