Tag Archives: Curiosities

Le style ballets russes

The influence of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the worlds of dance and music has been well-documented; less known today are the reverberations that the company’s productions sent straight to the heart of Parisian fashion and interior design. Schèhèrezade, the hit of the 1910 season, epitomized the exoticism of “le style ballets russes” for designers and their galvanized patrons.

The first, and perhaps the foremost, to espouse the company’s saturated hues, sumptuous fabrics, and seductive Orientalism was Paul Poiret, who daringly introduced harem pants and turbans (inset), with boldly colored silks and velvets. Poiret also popularized brightly colored interiors, replacing conventional furniture with divans and tasselled cushions.

The company’s visits to London had a similar impact. “Before you could say Nijinsky” Osbert Lancaster recalled in Homes, sweet homes (London: Murray, 1939) “the pastel shades which had reigned supreme on the walls of the Mayfair for almost two decades were replaced by a variety of barbaric hues—jade green, purple, every variety of crimson and scarlet, and, above all, orange.” He added that the style’s adherents had “a tendency to regard a room not so much as a place to live in, but as a setting for a party.”

This according to “The wider influence of the Russian ballet” by Stephen Calloway, an essay included in Diaghilev and the golden age of the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-20723).

Above, one of George Lepape’s illustrations for Les choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape (Paris: 1911), a book commissioned and published by Poiret in a limited edition of 300.

Below, a reconstruction of Schèhèrezade.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Reception

Globalization of the Rising Sun

Most people know the The House of the Rising Sun as a 1964 hit by The Animals about a place in New Orleans—a whorehouse or a prison or a gambling joint that has been the ruin of many poor girls or boys—but few songs have traveled such an intricate journey.

The launch of the song’s world travels can be traced to Georgia Turner (above), a poor 16-year-old daughter of a miner living in Middlesboro, Kentucky, when the young folk music collector Alan Lomax captured her voice singing The Rising Sun blues in 1937. Lomax deposited the song in the Library of Congress and included it in the 1941 collection Our singing country.

In short order, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Josh White learned the song and each recorded it. From there it began to move to the planet’s farthest corners. Today, hundreds of artists have recorded House of the Rising Sun, and it can be heard in the most diverse of places—Chinese karaoke bars, Gatorade ads, and as a ring tone on cell phones. The song’s journey is a case study of how a cultural artifact moves through the modern world, propelled by technology, globalization, and recorded sound.

This according to Chasing the Rising Sun: The journey of an American song by Ted Anthony (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2007-6177). Below, Lomax’s original recording of Georgia Turner.

BONUS: The Animals’ classic recording.

Related article: Kumbaya: A song’s evolution

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Filed under Curiosities, Jazz and blues, Popular music

“God Save the Queen”

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022) Credit: Avalon/ABACA

On 8 September 2022, the world learned of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest ruling monarch. As one of any number of public displays of gratitude to her seven decades of service, communities across the globe, large and small, sang God save the Queen, the first song in the world to serve in the function of a nation’s anthem. A kind of prayer en-masse, the singing of the text is an expression of national devotion.

Christopher (Kit) Kelen, in his article “‘And ever give us cause’: Understanding the investments of the Ur-anthem God save the King/Queen” (National identities: Critical inquiries into nationhood, politics, and culture XVII/1 [2015] 45–61; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-86813), explores the kind of work the anthem’s text does to construct a sense of nationalism and national commitment, in a British context and beyond. A glance at the abstract brings the essay’s scope and goals into focus:

This close analytical reading of the lyrics of God save the King/Queen seeks to understand what the functional survival of this song reveals about the rhetorical-affective investments of national devotion in the British sense; it examines the lyrics’ meaning in the context of the general definition of anthem and the generic classification of anthems worldwide. Because of the song’s international distribution, and status as Ur-anthem, it provides insight into the nature of the speech act entailed in the prayer-type of anthem and the nature of anthem quality (defined as that soul-stirring effect which certain combinations of music and lyrics achieve, most typically in the service of national affiliation) more generally. Theories of nation and nationalism serve to frame affective relations between nation, state, and citizenry as implied by, fostered by, and used in anthems.

The three public performances of God save the Queen below vary in terms of setting, historical moment, and function. But each one reveals, in its own way, the anthem effect about which Kelen writes. They produce a sense of national closeness and identity, reverence, and pride, demonstrating how lyrics and music can be combined to stir the soul.

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Filed under Curiosities, Politics, Reception

Moroccan insult contests

Marrakech

A performance that occurred almost daily in a public square in Marrakech in the early 1980s traded on ethnic identity for fun and profit.

The performance began with an Arab duo singing in Arabic; as a crowd began to gather around them, a Berber—a member of a rival ethnic group—leaped into the circle with a song in Tashlit. After a few moments of cacaphony a shouting match began, with the Berber and one of the Arabs trading insults while the other Arab took one side and then the other, upping the ante.

“Monkey, block-headed windbag, long-fingernailed King Kong, hick, salt stealer, son of a whore!” Each string of insults was preceded by an ethnic designator, and audience members were encouraged to contribute money to the aggrieved party to demonstrate their own ethnic pride. Occasionally fisticuffs between audience members ensued.

The high point of the performance came when the monetarily losing antagonist was figuratively turned into a donkey and the winner climbed onto his back and called for his instrument; victory, however temporary, meant both being on top and singing one’s own song there.

This according to “Saints, prostitutes, and rotten sardines: The musical construction of place and ethnicity in a Moroccan insult contest” by Philip D. Schuyler, an essay included in Ethnomusicological encounters with music and musicians: Essays in honor of Robert Garfias (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, pp. 249–259; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-5436).

Above and below, examples of street music in Marrakech.

Related article: 50 best literary insults

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Humor

Women and gramophones

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.

Related article: Gramophone ethics

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Filed under Curiosities, Mass media, Reception, Women's studies

Debussy and gamelan

Claude Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music from a relatively small group at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle; he finally heard a full ensemble at the 1900 Exposition.

While he generally disapproved of the Orientalism of earlier Romantic-era composers, he found tremendous inspiration in gamelan music—not in its surface exoticism, but in the details of its structure, texture, and modality.

Exposure to Javanese gamelan music was one of the important catalysts in the flowering of Debussy’s mature style, and it left its mark on his work in a much broader and more profound way than is generally supposed.

“Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play,” he wrote, “and if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.”

He also wrote of “Javanese rhapsodies, which, instead of confining themselves in a traditional form, develop according to the fantasy of countless arabesques.”

This according to Echoes from the East: The Javanese gamelan and its influence on the music of Claude Debussy, a 1988 dissertation for the University of Texas, Austin, by Kiyoshi Tamagawa (RILM Abstracts 1988-4625).

Today is Debussy’s 160th birthday! Below, “Sirènes” from his Nocturnes, a piece in which Tamagawa demonstrates extensive influence of gamelan music; this influence may be best discerned in the two-piano version presented here.

Related article: Historic Balinese gamelans

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Impressionism

Romy Lowdermilk redux

ts

In the mid-1990s a staff member at the American Folklife Center received a note asking if the Center would be interested in an old LP of a cowboy singer named Romaine Lowdermilk. Not having heard of the singer, she stopped by the office of the director, Alan Jabbour. “Romy Lowdermilk!” he exclaimed, “Who’s got a recording of Romy Lowdermilk?”

Jabbour knew the name only through accounts of the singer (1890–1970), who had written and published several popular cowboy songs (including Goin’ back to Arizona, which Patsy Montana performed as Goin’ back to old Montana). Lowdermilk had stated that he never made a commercial recording; this LP appeared to be a unique record of his singing. The owner generously supplied the disc in 1999 and the Center digitized it, assuming that it was a solitary specimen.

The discovery of an exact copy in 2006 led to a full unraveling of the story. Lowdermilk had recorded several songs in a recording studio in 1951; the studio then had copies pressed on demand for the singer’s clients at Rancho Mañana, the Arizona dude ranch where he worked.

This according to “Long-lost twins: The curious case of the Romaine Lowdermilk discs” by Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXXVI/3 [summer 2006] pp. 11–12; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2006-10837).

Below, Patsy Montana’s recording of Goin’ back to old Montana. In a letter to John I. White, Lowdermilk wrote “Patsy Montana liked it and wanted to sing it on her road appearances, so I just called it Goin’ back to old Montana and she recorded it for Victor and it was on the juke boxes for quite a spell. You can sing it Back to California or Oklahoma or Wyoming—or any damn place you want to go back to. So I figured it was an all-around western. I got paid for it by WLS, so I didn’t really care where the singer went back to.” (Quoted in Ten thousand goddam cattle: A history of the American cowboy in song, story, and verse [Flagstaff: Northland University, 1975; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1978-3562].)

More stories about the American Folklife Center are here.

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Filed under Curiosities, North America, Performers, Popular music

Music for cats

David Teie has composed music for cats, and he has published, along with two colleagues, a report on a scientific study demonstrating this music’s efficacy.

The report presents two examples of Teie’s cat music in counter-balanced order with two examples of human music, and evaluates the behavior and response latencies of cats to each piece.

The cats showed a significant preference for, and interest in, species-appropriate music compared with human music (Median (IQR) 1.5 (0.5-2.0) acts for cat music, 0.25 (0.0-0.5) acts for human music (P<0.002) and responded with significantly shorter latencies (Median (IQR) 110.0 (54-138.75) s for cat music, 171.75 (151-180) s for human music (P<0.001). Younger and older cats were more responsive to cat music than middle-aged acts (cubic trend, r2 = 0.477, P<0.001).

This according to “Cats prefer species-appropriate music” by Teie, Charles T. Snowdon, and Megan Savage (Applied animal behavior science 20 February 2015; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-1206).

Today is International Cat Day! Below, Teie sketches the background of his music for cats, followed by brief samples.

BONUS: One of our favorite scientific studies of cat behavior is here.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Science

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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Filed under Asia, Curiosities

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