Tag Archives: Humor

Shine and the Titanic

Religious African Americans saw the sinking of the Titanic as an example of God’s intervention in human affairs, as a divine overriding of the advantages conferred by wealth and mastery of technology.

Their secular songs about the disaster either nihilistically stress the fact that terrible things can happen at any time and when they are least expected, or take up the trickster theme. This latter type, which implies that blacks can survive in the white man’s world even when whites do not, often features Shine, a trickster figure created by blacks for blacks.

Shine—a derogatory form of address invented by whites—is the first to warn the captain of the ship of impending disaster, but is ignored. As the ship is sinking, desperate white women offer him sex or money if he will save them, but he determines to abandon ship at once and save himself—a mocking comment on the white supremacist fantasy of the black man always ready to ravish white women.

This according to “The Titanic: A case study of religious and secular attitudes in African American song” by Chris Smith, an essay included in Saints and sinners: Religion, blues and (d)evil in African-American music and literature (Liège: Société Liégeoise de Musicologie, 1996, pp. 213–27).

Today is the 110th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic! Below, Willis Lonzer performs a comparatively chaste version of the classic tale.

Related article: The Britannic organ (sister ship of the Titanic)

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Filed under Black studies, Humor

Modulations and caterpillars

A fragment of Pherecrates’s comedy Chiron, as quoted in Plutarch’s Peri mousikēs, provides insights into aesthetic controversies in ancient Greece.

The scene depicts Dame Music as she recounts to Dame Justice the torments she has undergone at the hands of certain musicians of the time: Melanippides seized, debased, and weakened her with 12 tones; Cinesias ruined her with badly composed modulations; Phrynis bent, twisted, and completely destroyed her by sounding all 12 tones on the kithara; and, most egregiously of all, Timotheus, with his shrill dissonances and sinfully high-pitched and piercing notes and whistles, crammed her with modulations just as a cabbage-head is crammed with caterpillars, depriving her of all decency with his 12 tones.

This according to “Studies in musical terminology in 5th-century literature” by Ingemar Düring, an essay included in Eranos Löfstedtianus: Opuscula philologica Einaro Löfstedt A.D. XVII kal. iul. anno MCMXLV dedicata (Uppsala : Eranos Förlag, 1945; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1945-34).

More posts about ancient Greece are here.

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Filed under Antiquity, Curiosities, Humor, Literature, Theory

Music theory with attitude

Although the notion that Musicae rudimenta was written by Nicolaus Faber has persisted for centuries, internal evidence points conclusively to the Bavarian historian and philologist Johannes Aventinus (Johann Turmair or Thurmayr, 1477–1534) as its author. One of the first music treatises to use German as well as Latin, it borrows heavily from other sources, usually with due citations.

The author’s unequivocal style is striking: for example, the table of contents lists Chapter 1 as “The origins of music, a subject about which the barbarians err disgracefully, not to say ignorantly”, while other entries include such observations as “I am embarrassed to report what empty, fatuous things some writers have to say on this topic” and “In this matter, the run-of-the-mill singers are like night owls in the sunlight—blind!”

Nor does he spare himself, noting of his second chapter that “Most of the things here are quoted from others and are not very important, being pedantic and technical.” His preface concludes: “Look me over and buy me, the price is so low. Believe me, you won’t regret it.”

This according to “Musicae rudimenta: Augsburg, 1556” by T. Herman Keahey in Paul A. Pisk: Essays in his honor (Austin: University of Texas, 1966).

Above, an illustration from the treatise.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Musicologists, Renaissance, Theory

Lilliput in Greece

In 1975, during the transition in Greece from military dictatorship to democracy, the composer Manos Chatzidakis was appointed director of the Third Program of Ellīnikī Radiofonīa and asked the choreographer and director Reggina Kapetanaki to help him create an educational radio show for small children.

The result of this collaboration was Edō Lilipoupolī (“Here is Lilliput”), set in an imaginary world loosely based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s travels. The show’s locations and characters could often be identified by older listeners as satirical references to Greek places and people, and songs composed for it became popular vehicles of political commentary. Sometimes the satire bit too deeply for the government, which accused the creators of producing Communist propaganda, but Chatzidakis, thanks to his personal prestige, was generally able to protect them. The program ran until 1980.

This according to “Children’s songs as socio-political comment in the Greek radio show Edō Lilipoupoli” by Aikaterinī Giampoura, an essay included in Radio art and music: Culture, aesthetics, politics (Lanham: Lexington Books 2020, 235–54).

Below, an album compiled from various episodes.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Mass media, Pedagogy, Politics

Rita Moreno, EGOT

In 1977 Rita Moreno became the third person in history to achieve what has been called the “grand slam” of show business—a winner of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards, or EGOT.

The clincher was her Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program for an appearance on The Muppet show. In a 2021 interview, she recalled the experience.

“They had a studio two streets from us on Broadway. I saw [Jim Henson] at a restaurant one day, and I literally got on my knees. I said, ‘I beg you to let me do some little-girl Muppet voices.’ And I did. I would say, ‘You don’t have to pay me.’ And he said, ‘No, I do. This is a union shop. We have to pay you.’ And then, a number of years later, I went to England to do The Muppet show.”

“You [have to avoid] looking at the Muppeteer, which a lot of people do because it’s a natural instinct to look at the person who’s doing the voice. But I love comedy. This was my idea, by the way: ‘What if I’m trying to be really sexy?’ We had me in a great gown and a long wig, and I looked absolutely smashing. Animal’s last line, after I smash him with the cymbals is ‘That’s my kind of woman!’ And most people don’t hear that because they’re laughing.”

Quoted in “Rita Moreno has time only for the truth” by Michael Schulman (The New Yorker, 17 June 2021 [online]; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2021-10493).

Today is Rita Moreno’s 90th birthday! Above and below, the historic performance.

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Filed under Humor, Performers, Popular music

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

Improv Everywhere!

The improvisation collective Improv Everywhere specializes in staging public-space interventions, which they refer to as pranks or missions.

By enlisting pedestrians in discrete one-time events that challenge protocols of public contact and that expand our understanding of public flexibility and empathy, Improv Everywhere offers an antidote to mainstream, hegemonic formulations of spectacle, virtuosity, and generalized expectations concerning the purpose of performance.

The group’s integration of trained and untrained performers (whom they refer to as agents), the kinds of space and sociality that they create, and the connections between their live and web presences reveal noteworthy contemporary understandings of intimacy and the social fabric.

This according to “Why not Improv Everywhere?” by Susan Leigh Foster, an essay included in The Oxford handbook of dance and theater (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, 196–212; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-23390).

Above and below, Conduct us, a collaboration with the designer Ilya Smelansky and New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Performance practice

Jack Cole’s double bind

Jack Cole is often called “the father of theatrical jazz dance”, and “Cole technique” has strongly influenced both film dance and American theatrical dance generally. In his heyday he was one of the most powerful choreographers working in Hollywood, with contractual control over the movement design, camerawork, costuming, lighting, and editing of his dance numbers.

Cole’s status as an “invisible” gay man is crucial to more than an understanding of the satiric, parodic, or camp elements of his film work; it is also a necessary precondition for his particular mode of deployment of so-called Oriental dance practices.

Cole engaged the double bind that both women and men are prisoners of gender roles. His use of the body’s physical beauty to stand for more than spiritual power combined the theatricality and spirituality of Denishawn, the voluptuousness and intensity of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Oriental and other ethnic dance styles. His approach to dance and gender had profound effects on mid-20th-century hegemonic dance culture.

This according to “The thousand ways there are to move: Camp and Oriental dance in the Hollywood musicals of Jack Cole” by Adrienne L. McLean (Journal for the anthropological study of human movement XII/3 [spring 2003] 59–77; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2003-42184).

Today would have been Cole’s 110th birthday! Above, a portrait by Carl Van Vechten from 1937 (public domain); below, the Denishawn parody “Greek ballet” from Down to earth (1947).

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Filed under Dance, Performers

NPR’s April Fools’ Day hoaxes

On this April Fools’ Day we celebrate a resource that chronicles how National Public Radio (NPR) has annually planted a hoax in their programming each first day of April since the 1980s.

NPR’s April Fools’ Day hoaxes (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-86280) is an online collection of brief articles published by The Museum of Hoaxes. Music-related entries include Orchestra steroid scandal, Ring-tone rage, and Beethoven’s 10th symphony.

Above and below, Robin Olson’s appearance on NPR’s Tiny desk concert series on 1 April 2018.

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Filed under Humor

Telemann’s wit

Georg Philipp Telemann’s ability to produce high-quality works at lightning speed is well known; less remembered today is his mischievous sense of humor. He was known among his friends for writing wickedly clever satirical verses and playing musical practical jokes, as he once did with a cantor from a nearby village.

Seeking to aggrandize himself, this cantor determined that he would honor a certain festival day by performing a new sacred work by the local master. He repeatedly requested that Telemann write something for him and his choir, and, knowing that their musicianship was decidedly inferior, the composer repeatedly declined. At last the cantor made such a pest of himself that Telemann told him that he and a few friends would arrive with the new work for a rehearsal before the performance.

On the appointed day the composer handed the new work—a treacherously difficult fugue—to the cantor, whispering to his friends “Now the thieves shall confess their sins.” The singers proceeded to produce a dismal, discordant rendition as they unknowingly made fun of themselves. Telemann had set the line “Wir können nichts wider den Herrn reden” (We cannot speak against the Lord) in such a way that the hapless singers were “confessing” their ineptitude by repeating the words “Wir können nichts” (We cannot)!

The composer laughed heartily. “That certainly won’t do” he said. “Let’s see how we can remedy this.” He then took out a different composition, and he and his friends performed it—both saving the day and humiliating the presumptuous cantor.

This according to “Images of Telemann: Narratives of reception in the composer’s anecdote, 1750–1830” by Steven Zohn (The journal of musicology XXI/4 [2005] 459–486; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2004-6402).

Today is Telemann’s 340th birthday! Below, a merry bit of tone-painting—“Postillion” from his Tafelmusik.

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Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities, Humor