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Photo: Raph_PH
Juliana Hatfield in concert, 2019.

Musicians and other artists who are not big names don’t get paid what they’re worth in the best of times, and a pandemic is not the best of times.

At the online magazine Slate, William Ralston and Niko Seizov suggest that fans in large enough numbers can help musicians survive by making micropayments. The writers point to a model in China.

“Back in July, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek caught flak for saying it’s no longer enough for artists to record ‘once every three to four years’ — that they need to pump out more product if they want to make a living streaming their music on his platform. As the man cutting their modest checks, Ek would know.

“Streaming on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora accounted for 79.5 percent of the $8.8 billion total global revenue for recorded music last year. But … while these platforms generate mammoth revenues through advertising and subscriptions, they pay out negligible amounts per stream, and only a portion of this ends up in creators’ pockets. To make it even worse, Spotify has proposed a new feature that will enable artists and rights holders to boost specific tracks in the platform’s recommendation algorithms provided they agree to a lower royalty rate for those streams. It’s a race to a bottom we didn’t know existed.

“The shortcomings of the streaming payment model have long been blunted by a swelling live music industry: Streaming barely paid for most artists, the argument went, but at least it facilitated audience expansion so that musicians could better make a living on the road. The pandemic has killed that argument, at least for now — and now many artists must wonder where their next paycheck will come from. It has underlined a profound need to restructure, so that artists can depend on selling their art as well as their time. …

“An integral part of any solution may exist within China’s walled-off internet. On several streaming platforms under the umbrella of China’s Tencent Music … micropayments from fans help compensate artists where royalties fall short. …

“What’s interesting is that only around 30 percent of Tencent Music’s revenue comes from subscriptions, music downloads, and advertising revenue; the lion’s share comes through a commission on one-off payments given to artists by listeners, called micropayments. These can be straight-up donations, or given in exchange for virtual goods. …

“There’s no reason why Tencent Music’s model can’t be applied beyond China. We all inherently crave a deeper emotional bond with our favorite artists, and we will part with money for it. …

“The on-demand streaming model has ruptured the audience-artist relationship. There’s no longer a traditional exchange of X record for Y; instead, platforms like Spotify have become gatekeepers, and music has become more like a utility: unlimited supply for a monthly charge. We listen to curated playlists with the creators demoted to the background, their work consumed by a detached and disengaged audience. With its micropayment features, Tencent Music bridges this gap, and provides artists with a toolkit to foster and more importantly monetize deep fan loyalty.

“Skeptics might say that the Tencent model wouldn’t work in the west because there isn’t the same culture of tipping over the internet. … But western platforms like Anchor and Twitch have been successful in implementing micropayment features in podcasting and gaming, and the same could be true of music. There just has to be a convenient mechanism.

“Social media platforms like Facebook have capitalized on this dynamic … without rewarding artists for their efforts for their own contributions to these networks. Not only are the artists not rewarded, but they must invest in advertising to reach the followers they attracted to their page in the first place.

“The toolkit in the west is materializing. Bandcamp, the independent-focused online music store, has offered the ‘pay what you wish’ model for years. Artists set a minimum purchase price for goods, but leave you free to add more. And during the coronavirus crisis, major streaming platforms have started to tip-toe toward this model. Spotify, for one, has launched ‘Artist Fundraising Pick,’ which allows listeners to make donations via artists’ profiles … but it’s not enough. …

“On Patreon, on the other hand, around 4 million fans, or patrons, subscribe to their favorite creators in return for rewards like exclusive songs, physical merchandise, or private lessons. There are no micropayments per se, but the platform is monetizing the direct artist-audience channel, becoming a digital incarnation of a fan club. …

“One major barrier for Patreon is that it exists as an isolated ecosystem separate from where you actually go to listen to music. … It’s a lot to expect listeners to jump to another site, but Patreon does provide a foundation that could feasibly be integrated into a major streaming platform. …

“In the meantime, we must support artists in any way we can. … When you purchase a record, as opposed to streaming it, a larger amount of money ends up with the artist.” More at Slate, here.

Over at Will McMillan’s blog “A Musical Life on Planet Earth,” the cabaret artist/music teacher has been pondering the same issues. Read him here.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Malian musician Oumou Sangaré in Madrid, Spain, 2018.

On my first day at the Boston Fed in 2005, I attended orientation with two other new hires, one an immigrant from Mali. In the years since, especially after Mamoudou returned to Africa, I’ve read with alarm about the many tragedies his country has suffered. How do people live through great upheaval and keep their sense of self and their spirits intact?

Anastasia Tsioulcas has some thoughts at National Public Radio.

“The northwestern African country of Mali is one of the world’s musical cradles. Its rich traditions helped give birth to American blues and jazz, traditions brought by enslaved Africans to these shores. But today, Mali is in turmoil. The country has suffered a long civil war spurred by Islamist insurgents (whose attacks are still ongoing), and the government fell to a coup in August. The country is also trying, like the rest of the world, to cope with the coronavirus.

“Despite all of those challenges, however, Malian musicians are still creating amid the chaos — and have some important lessons to share about how to get through tough times.

“The band Songhoy Blues plays rollicking music of resistance against the political and social threats its country is facing.

“These Malian musicians came together in 2012 after attacks by local and foreign jihadists forced people to flee the country’s northern cities and towns as well as its vast Saharan desert. …

” ‘When the civil war start in Mali, when they banned music, all the people from the north of Mali has to move to the south just to be safe at that moment,’ explains Aliou Touré. He’s the lead singer of Songhoy Blues. …

” ‘When you come far away from your hometown and you meet each other,’ Touré explains. ‘you speak the same language. It’s kind of like a satisfaction of nostalgia when you meet someone who speak your language, who do what you do, who love something that you love.’ …

“The Malian musicians are a thoroughly modern band, but they’re also walking in the footsteps of some of their country’s most revered musicians, like Ali Farka Toure and Salif Keita.

“And like those other artists, the music of Songhoy Blues is born of struggle — and not just political. When I spoke to Aliou Touré (no relation to Ali Farka) by phone in Bamako, he had just recovered from a bout of malaria. And, like so many other places in the world, the coronavirus pandemic has shut down his country. He says enduring each hurdle is like surfing.

‘As every single band in the world during now,’ [Aliou Touré] says, ‘we just keep surfing on the waves — see what’s gonna happen next day, what’s gonna happen next day, next month.’

“The pandemic shutdown, though, has created some interesting creative opportunities for artists. … The pandemic has also provided a respite for one of the country’s most beloved singers, Oumou Sangare.

“Sangare spent much of the coronavirus shutdown in the U.S. — first in New York, and then in Baltimore. She’s since returned to her home in Bamako. She says the isolation was actually nourishing.

” ‘I rejoiced in my confinement,’ she says in French. ‘I’ve never had the chance to rest like that in the 30 years of my career.’ …

“That period of reflection gave Sangare the creative energy to start work on a new album herself. Sangare also acknowledges that Mali’s ongoing civil strife has taken a severe toll across the nation — across ethnic and geographic boundaries. …

” ‘The whole country is suffering. I think that the Malians must unite. That’s my point of view: It is unity that makes strength.’

“For years, musicians have been at the forefront of urging the country to stay united and to stand for peace. Their voices are now again in the lead — trying to bolster the country’s courage.

“Songhoy Blues decided to name its latest album Optimisme — ‘optimism.’

“Lead singer Aliou Touré says that he’s learned that it’s the only way forward. ‘That’s the only thing keeping us, keeping people smiling, and that’s the only, only way to give ourselves a hope,’ he says. ‘It’s the best way to keep yourself alive. To be optimist, I think, is the biggest message ever that the whole world need to hear right now.’ “

As Bonnie Johnson at WICN jazz radio says, “Stay Positive. Test negative.”

More at NPR, here.

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Keane Southard, composer of ‘An Appalachian Trail Symphony: New England (Symphony No. 1).’

People have so many different sides to them! My friend Ann — retired human resource professional, acclaimed textile artist, and hiker — told me recently about a pianist-composer-hiker who conquered the New England portion of the Appalachian Trail and then wrote a symphony about the experience. As I write, I’m listening to this wonderful piece online.

In a 2018 broadcast, Mary Engisch at Vermont Public Radio (VPR) shared part of Southard’s story in a podcast.

Keane Southard,” writes Engisch, “spent many of his childhood weekends hiking and camping with his family in New Hampshire and Vermont. From that early age, he imagined one day he would hike the legendary Appalachian Trail.

“Southard went on to study [music] composition and theory, and all the while, the idea of hiking the trail and composing a piece about the experience percolated in his mind.

In April [2018], Southard completed ‘An Appalachian Trail Symphony: New England (Symphony No. 1),’ inspired by his 66-day, 734-mile hike of the New England portion of the trail.

” ‘I entered the trip knowing I [would] write this piece afterwards, but kind of having a blank slate to start off, and to have the music and the ideas come out of my experience,’ Southard said.

“In this podcast, learn about … how he transformed the trail sounds of footsteps, buzzing bugs and bird songs that he heard along the way into this composition for orchestra.”

Southard tells Engisch, “I’m really inspired by New England. I grew up in Massachusetts, and my parents took me and my siblings on so many trips up to New Hampshire and Vermont. And it wasn’t until leaving New England and going off to school that I realized how much this region is ingrained in me and how much I love it.” More at VPR, here.

At Southard’s website, he writes about the symphony and some of his other compostions.

“In June, I found out that my orchestral work Titanium and Mercury (which is the first movement of my in-progress second symphony but extracted as a stand-alone work) [won] First Prize in the [Eastern European] 2nd International Michal Kloefas Oginski Symphony Orchestra Contest for Young Composers! I’ve never won first prize in an overseas competition before, so it was great to hear this news! 

“The jury told me that my piece really reminded them of Prokofiev (which is a bit surprising to me) and it looks like the piece will be scheduled to be premiered in Molodechno, Belarus, in spring 2021!

“Just last week, on August 10, I had my first performance since February when the British pianist Maria Marchant gave a beautiful premiere of my Prelude No. 17 (For the Left Hand) in London, UK as part of her ‘7 Notes in 7 Days at 7pm’ project.  

“Back in April, I was fortunate to have pianist Adam Marks record a video of my Prelude No. 18 (On the Day of Penderecki’s Death) as part of his ‘One Page Pieces’ project.  As the title suggests, I wrote this short work (about 30 seconds long) on the day I heard that legendary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki passed away at the end of March.  While not a ‘threnody’ for him, I was thinking about him as I wrote the piece.

“In April, I also found out my Missa Brevis for Choir was awarded the Belle S. Gitelman Award from the composition department here at Eastman.

“And way back in February before the pandemic hit, I was lucky to have a reading of my wind ensemble transcription of John Foulds’ wonderful piece April-England with the Eastman Wind Orchestra led by David Baker.”  More here.

You might also like to check out an interview Southard gave to the Claflin Hill Symphony, here.

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Photo: Music for Milestones
Spurred by a grant from Dragon Kim Foundation
, Los Angeles teenagers Katheryn Williams, left, and Charu Balamurugan set up a music program for children.

As I often say to my grandchildren when they come up with creative ideas, “I love people with ideas!” And nowadays I find young leaders with ideas especially inspiring. I think if teens and 20-somethings working to end gun violence and reduce global warming are successful, they will have earned the mantle of the Great Generation.

Today’s story is about a couple of teens who wanted to use music to help children smile.

Kyle Melnick writes at the Washington Post, “After asking nine children on her computer screen to retrieve a piece of paper and something to draw with, Charu Balamurugan explains the class’s next lesson.

“ ‘We’re going to listen to parts from each of these three different songs,’ Balamurugan says, ‘and you’re going to use … different types of lines [or drawings] to show how it makes you feel; the emotions you feel.’

“A few moments later, when Balamurugan plays the first song, Peter Schmalfuss’s version of ‘Clair De Lune,’ the children put their heads down and draw images that pop into their minds.

“By the time Balamurugan has streamed three classical songs during this Zoom class on a Friday evening in late August, the kids’ papers feature drawings of watermelon, roller coasters, chocolate bars, sunsets, cupcakes, pumpkin patches and Snoopy.

“Los Angeles high school students Balamurugan and Katheryn Williams created this class, Music for Milestones, to provide local children a creative outlet through music. The free Zoom classes give children a chance to socialize and clear their minds at a time when they’re usually stuck in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

‘The most meaningful part about all of this is getting to see the kids smile every single class and the joy on their faces,’ Williams said. …

“Balamurugan began playing the piano at age 6. She went through hour-long practices almost every day and partook in local competitions. Balamurugan enjoyed playing waltz, but she also liked performing pop songs to energize family and friends. Playing the piano would boost her family members’ spirits after they returned from work.

“In high school, the piano became more of a creative outlet for Balamurugan as she realized how composers deliver a story or message through their performances. She taught piano to family friends who had money for lessons, but she wanted to reach those who didn’t.

“Meanwhile, music was a driver in Williams, improving her state of mind. When she was 9, she lost motivation to pursue goals in and outside of school. She felt angry at the world.

“Around that time, Williams’s grandmother, Delmy Lopez, played her ‘Esta Vida’ by Jorge Celedón — a song that preaches appreciating the small pleasures in life. That song changed her perspective, and the next day she signed up for her school’s band, learning the bass, guitar and drums. She later gained the confidence to try out for the school’s basketball team.

“In December, Balamurugan and Williams attended a meeting at their school about the Dragon Kim Foundation, which offers a fellowship program that provides $5,000 to a handful of California teenagers, helping jump-start programs they aim to form in their communities. … They wanted to team up to create a music program.

“They decided they would teach music to children around the Los Angeles area. They would create a free workbook for the class and use the grant they’d receive to purchase keyboards for the children participating. …

“Balamurugan said, ‘Katheryn is an amazing public speaker and has such an affable personality, and with me taking the reins on the organizational aspects, we played on each other’s strengths.’ …

“The original plan was for the hour-long classes to occur in-person, but they shifted to Zoom when the pandemic arrived. Online classes have allowed Balamurugan and Williams to expand their reach, as families have inquired about joining from multiple states. … Balamurugan and Williams go over the basics of music notes and tempos, give instructions on how to play the piano and suggest how to use music to improve one’s mind-set. …

“Balamurugan and Williams are proud to inspire children by showing them women of color can create and teach music, too.

“ ‘We want kids to know that through all your struggles, through anything that you’re facing,’ Williams said. More here.

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Photo: YouTube
The enthusiasm of YouTube phenomenon Twinsisthenewtrend (brothers Tim and Fred Williams) pushed an old Phil Collins song back to the top of the charts.

I’ve been getting a kick out of YouTube videos showing young people listening to pop music that was big decades ago. If you haven’t heard of this trend, read Luke Holland’s overview at the Guardian.

“Earlier this month a wonderful thing – remember those? – happened. Twin brothers Tim and Fred Williams, who post YouTube vids under the name Twinsisthenewtrend, shared a clip that went viral. In it, the affably enthusiastic 21-year-olds sit down to listen to Phil Collins’s moody, 1981 reverb anthem In the Air Tonight.

“And, well, that’s it. The clip is just them, doing that. But their reactions made it one of the most talked-about videos of the year, clocking up over six million views in three weeks.

Because there’s a twist: the twins had never heard this song before. Their minds are suitably, and adorably, blown.

“ ‘I ain’t never seen nobody drop a beat three minutes in a song!’ they hoot, delighted, after Phil clatters in with that drum fill – the one we’ve been so familiar with for so long that it’s passed into the graveyard of hoary old cliche. But hearing it through fresh ears – their ears – and watching the twins as they’re floored for the first time reminded people what an amazing musical moment it is. As a direct result of the clip, the song shot to No 2 in the US iTunes charts.

“First-reaction videos have been a thriving, and rather joyous, subsection of social media for years. In 2018, YouTuber Bman shared a video of him experiencing Bohemian Rhapsody cold. Watching the full gamut of human emotions – gentle contemplation, wistful sadness, wide-gobbed amazement – shimmer across his face, as the song lunges from one operatic movement to the next, is nothing short of wonderful.

“ ‘WHERE HAVE I BEEN?!’ he asks at the end, on the verge of tears. Bohemian Rhapsody is such a pillar of music that it’s taken for granted, in the same way gravity is taken for granted. Bman reminds you what a monumental achievement Freddie Mercury managed to pull off, because you’re right there with him, hearing it anew. …

“As viewers, it goes beyond simple nostalgic appreciation of these songs: it’s a way of reliving your own first experiences of them by proxy.

“Most importantly, despite predictably joyless accusations that many of the videos are staged, they represent a level of wholesomeness that is sorely lacking in music appreciation right now. No snark, no whataboutery, absolutely no pretension. Just people loving some great music, possibly reminding you that you – yes, you – still love it, too.” More at the Guardian, here.

If you want another angle, Jody Rosen at the New York Times sees a darker side to the current trend. “The viral popularity of this display of intergenerational sympathy — Black 20-somethings professing love for a white boomer’s pop-rock chestnut — may also tell us something else about the ambient tensions and neuroses that are, you might say, in the air, adrift in the ether of 2020. …

“Race is a crucial component of music-reaction videos. There are many Black YouTubers who specialize in responding to white musicians, and the twins’ most popular clips feature white performers. These videos … suggest that Black and white people inhabit walled-off cultural spheres — a dodgy proposition in the first place — and then perform a symbolic rapprochement, in which a sick beat-drop holds the power to bridge a racial divide.”

OK, I take his point, but I still think these videos are delightful.

In 2018, YouTuber Bman showed himself listening to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time.

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Photo: Ken Hofheinz
Brandon Steppe, the founder of the David’s Harp Foundation, received a grant for his work using music education and multimedia training to help at-risk youth.

When philanthropists step up to fill a need, it may be a sign that our tax money is not being used in some important ways. Arts education, for example, provides so many benefits to students that it really should be available in every school, but too often it’s the first thing to go when districts are underfunded.

So hooray for philanthropists filling a gap! Lauren Messman wrote at the New York Times, “The Lewis Prize for Music, a new philanthropic organization focused on fostering music education and career development in young people, announced its first slate of winners on [January 14]. The $1.75 million will be awarded to the leaders of nine organizations in eight states.

“The prize, which is split into three categories and includes both long-term and single-year support, was founded in 2019 by the philanthropist Daniel R. Lewis.

“ ‘My vision is to ensure opportunities to learn, perform and create music are available to all young people,’ said Mr. Lewis in a statement. ‘Ideally, this would be happening in every school, but that isn’t the case, especially in low-income and historically marginalized communities.’

“The Accelerator Award, which provides $500,000 for multiyear support, was given to Community MusicWorks, which provides classical music educational programs in Providence, R.I.; My Voice Music, which brings songwriting, recording and performance mentorships to mental health treatment and detention centers in Portland, Ore; and The David’s Harp Foundation, a San Diego-based organization that works to develop job skills through music with youth in the juvenile justice system. …

“ ‘What we’ve noticed is that when these young people come from being incarcerated back into the community, there’s a gap in our service there,’ [Brandon Steppe, the founder,] said in a phone interview. He added that the rest of the money will go toward building ‘arts-based diversionary programming in the community,’ in an effort to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system.

“Winners of the Infusion Award, which provides $50,000 over one year, include programs aimed at inspiring Native American music educators and composers, bringing traditional Mexican music education to the children of immigrants, providing music and entrepreneurship training for young musicians of color in Detroit and building support for the next generation of New Orleans brass band musicians.” More at the Times, here.

I liked reading further about one of the Infusion Award winners, the Native American Composer Apprentice Project. The Grand Canyon Music Festival website explains, “Since 1984, the Grand Canyon Music Festival has been dedicated to bringing the world’s finest musicians to Grand Canyon National Park in celebration of the power and beauty of this magnificent World Heritage site.

“Since 1985, the Festival has extended this gift of music to the students of northern Arizona’s under-served and rural communities, primarily at schools on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. In 2001, the Festival initiated its Native American Composers Apprentice Project (NACAP) to extend its outreach to training talented Native American students in the art of composition. NACAP develops musical literacy and enhances critical thinking and decision making skills through the study of music composition. It introduces students to European ‘classical’ music techniques, develops their understanding of their own musical heritages and how to use that knowledge to develop their own compositional voices.”

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Photo: Alessandro Grassani for the New York Times
This woman in Milan is part of Italy’s spontaneous self-isolation music scene. I love the look on her face. For all I know she may be thinking about making dinner or washing the bathtub, but it sure looks like she’s conscious of performing a sacrament.

If you’re on social media or following the news in some other way — and who isn’t? — you probably already know about this lovely aspect of the Italian spirit, but I thought the piece by Jason Horowitz at the New York Times was especially good.

“It started with the national anthem. Then came the piano chords, trumpet blasts, violin serenades and even the clanging of pots and pans — all of it spilling from people’s homes, out of windows and from balconies, and rippling across rooftops.

“Finally, on Saturday afternoon, a nationwide round of applause broke out for the doctors on the medical front lines fighting the spread of Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak. …

“Italians remain essentially under house arrest as the nation, the European front in the global fight against the coronavirus, has ordered extraordinary restrictions on their movement to prevent contagions. … But the cacophony erupting over the streets, from people stuck in their homes, reflects the spirit, resilience and humor of a nation facing its worst national emergency since the Second World War.

“Like any national crisis, the virus has exposed the flaws of those countries it has struck the hardest, whether it be the reflex for secrecy in China, the downplaying of the crisis in Iran or the initial confusion and fragmentation in the Italian response.

“But to the extent that this is a virus that tries people’s souls, it has also demonstrated the strengths of those national characters.

In China, patriotic truck drivers risked infection to bring desperately needed food to the people of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. In Iran, videos show doctors in full scrubs and masks dancing to keep spirits up.

“And in Italy, the gestures of gratitude and music ring out above the country’s vacated streets, while social media feeds fill with encouraging, sentimental and humorous web videos.

“On Friday evening, at the exact hour that health officials normally update the daily numbers of the country’s increasing infected and dead, Italians from the southern islands to the Alps sang the national anthem and played instruments. … On Saturday, one image circulating widely showed a nurse cradling the Italian peninsula in her arms. …

“The duress also seemed to stir patriotism in a country that has a deep suspicion of nationalism. The Italian media reported a spike in sales of the Italian flag. The national anthem, usually limited to the start of soccer matches, reverberated off palazzo walls at 6 p.m. on Friday. …

“At noon in Verona on Saturday, the peal of church bells gave way to the clapping of hands as Cristina Del Fabbro, 53, stood on her balcony applauding with her daughter Elisa, 21.

“ ‘We want to thank doctors and nurses,’ she said. ‘They can’t stay safe at home as we do, they are tired and worried but they stay there, for those who get sick and need them.’ …

“A reporter working at home in the Chinatown section of Milan for the online newspaper Il Post, stuck his head out the window on Friday and added to the concert with refrains from ‘Nessun Dorma.’ He considered the sudden symphony ‘a small brick in nation building.’

‘We showed that in this hard time we can stick together,’ he said. ‘We were a community, not just a bunch of individuals.’

Lots of other lovely examples at the New York Times, here.

PS. Don’t you find that your perceptions of how you should behave change on a daily, almost hourly, basis? When I woke up Thursday, I thought I’d be going for my annual physical Friday — on the subway. Nope. Rescheduled. Now I don’t even meet my grandchildren unless it’s outdoors. And I’m ordering home delivery of milk in bottles from a dairy. It won’t be delivered by horse, but it’s still kind of cool.

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Musician Diane Moser says, “Six of my bird song compositions [were] originally created back in 2008 during a 5-week residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.”

The more we lose from nature, the more we’re stunned to discover what we’ve lost. As National Public Radio (NPR) reported recently, “Over the past half-century, North America has lost more than a quarter of its entire bird population, or around 3 billion birds. … Researchers estimate that the population of North American shorebirds alone has fallen by more than a third since 1970.”

Maybe it’s not too late to do something. People are waking up. And artists, as usual, are at the forefront of raising consciousness. In this story, a composer is bringing the music of birds to the attention of concert audiences.

Diane Moser writes at New Music USA, “For the past 11 years, I have been working on incorporating bird songs into my music. When I say ‘my music,’ I am talking about my improvisations, because all of the music I compose starts with improvisation, which I then sculpt into compositions. To me, this is a more ‘natural’ way to go. … Six of my bird song compositions that are currently in my repertoire were originally created back in 2008 during a 5-week residency at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. …

“I was completely seduced by the bird songs around my studio and decided to play around with them for just one afternoon, then get back to work. One afternoon turned into the entire residency; I just had to play with those birds! When would I ever get another chance like this, to have a piano in the middle of the woods, and to play freely? …

“My designated studio was Delta Omicron, and inside was a beautiful Mason and Hamlin grand piano. I had a digital recorder and was able to put the microphone in a small window, covering it with a curtain to have a little separation from the piano, which enabled me to hear the birds clearly through my headphones. In this way I was able to adjust the volume I played on the piano so that the birds and I were balanced. I never saw them, so I was never sure who was singing what.

Every day for five weeks, I improvised with songbirds and any other creatures that made their voices heard, and recorded each session. My goal was to become a member of their band. …

“We had a standing jam session time at around 10 a.m. each morning until lunch. Then they would retreat, and I would do some reading and listen to our recordings. They would come back out to sing with me around 4 p.m. until I left them for a swim in the local pond. …

“The first bird I began improvising with was the American Robin. In fact, the most well known song, Cheerily, Cheerily, seemed to creep into all of my improvisations. I slowed down the song just a bit, and lengthened the motif, and played around with it in Garage Band. …

“Just before sunrise, the first bird I heard singing was the Hermit Thrush. The landscapers at MacDowell referred to the hermit thrush as a deep woods singer, and told me it was the first one singing at the break of day, and first one back into the woods just before sunset. Commonly known as the Nightingale of the Americas, this bird has an amazing set of songs and calls. It’s no wonder that Amy Beach composed two piano pieces based on these songs. …

“The bird I had the most fun with was the chipping sparrow. His dry trill and constant singing at regular intervals of time provided tempo and an ostinato for my improvisations. I used the age old technique of a repetitive note as an imitation of the chipping sparrows dry trill, and that became a “thread” for the composition, tying it together. …

“One of the benefits of being a performer-composer are the ensembles that I lead, and other people’s ensembles that I perform with, where I can arrange the music I compose for any combination of instruments. … Thankfully, the musicians I performed with had a wide range of musical experiences and could untether themselves from the standard go-to licks, as we say in the jazz world.”

More at New Music USA, here. Listen to the birds and the compositions there.

Photo: Dennis Connors
Mark Dresser (bass) and Diane Moser (piano) perform Moser compositions that incorporate birdsong.

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Photo: Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette
When Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, sets his feet wide, furrows his brow and flings his arms out, it essentially means “play louder.” But there are nuances.

Have you ever wondered what messages the gestures of conductors are meant to convey — or whether the orchestra players understand them? What about last-minute substitute conductors? Do they change their style to be readable by musicians who have never worked with them  — and how difficult would that be for conductors trying to concentrate on a piece they hadn’t expected to play that night?

Jeremy Reynolds writes at the Post-Gazette, “When talking to a body language expert, the mere dilating of pupils can reveal the difference between truth and a bald-faced lie. Facial expression, hand gestures and eye contact all carry similar significance.

“Just as actors and dancers are experts in communicating with their anatomy, orchestra conductors also extensively train in nonverbal communication, as their primary role is to beat time and use their bodies to direct emotional intensity and nuance during a performance.

“At the root level, some cues have obvious meanings. When Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, sets his feet wide, furrows his brow and flings his arms out, this essentially boils down to ‘play louder.’ But to a trumpet player, his meaning might be as nuanced as ‘play this as though you’re standing alone on a precipice yowling into an infinite void.’ His smoother, smaller movements generally imply softer melodies and phrases but might suggest to a violinist playing with a sound no louder than the pattering of a mouse’s footsteps.

“ ‘I have to be the music for every moment, every gesture, every bit of eye contact,’ Mr. Honeck said in a telephone interview from Paris. ‘If I conduct a piece, I fill it in with character, the meaning of the music.

 ‘It takes me weeks to find the right gesture for the right music.’

“In Pittsburgh, Lauren Tan, 28, is a certified body language expert. [She’s] reviewed surveillance footage for court cases and works with businesspeople looking for that nonverbal deal-closing edge. … For this article, she reviewed footage of several conductors including Mr. Honeck, the famous Leonard Bernstein, Venezuela’s Gustavo Dudamel and others to assess their movements and nonverbal cues.

“ ‘The first thing you notice is somebody’s hands,’ Ms. Tan said. “People will say that they notice the eyes first, but that’s not true. … Keeping your hands visible is typically a great cue for meeting people and introductions.’ …

“When Mr. Honeck began conducting, she zeroed in on moments when he leaned toward the musicians. ‘I tell businessmen this, it’s a good way to indicate agreement and say, “Hey, I’m on your side.” When Honeck does this, it’s about giving the music more feeling.’

“So are all of these cues practiced and polished? Mr. Honeck says no.

“ ‘You can train and rehearse things, but in the moment of making music, things are spontaneous, you can’t calculate and you have to see how you feel with your body,’ he said. …

“Watching footage of Bernstein, Ms. Tan noted that he consistently nodded to his musicians, which functions both as a cue but also as a sign of approval, an encouraging gesture that builds conscious and subconscious rapport. She said that the audience will pick up on such movements as a sign of mutual respect and positivity …

“While the audience can’t see a conductor’s face, Ms. Tan said that from the videos she could see conductors using different facial micro expressions to project certain emotional qualities for the musicians. There are seven such expressions: happiness, surprise, anger, fear, disgust, contempt and sadness. Sadness is the hardest to mimic, while contempt is most often mistaken. …

“Mr. Honeck has spent years training his hands to move in certain ways to cue musicians for specific kinds of sounds, and he said that the right gesture will be effective no matter which orchestra he is conducting.

“ ‘I train with my hands not because of technical things but because I want to have a special sound,’ he said. ‘If I move in a different way, I get a different and better sound. That’s what counts. The sound must be right.’ ”

More at the Post-Gazette, here.

The famously emotional conductor Arturo Toscanini conducts Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (circa 1937).

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Photo: Linda Ibbotson
Recent research has found that music-based therapy may be a suitable alternative to anti-anxiety benzodiazepines administered to patients before an operation.

Years ago, after my own bout with cancer — a kind that, unlike my sister’s, is often curable — I took a dance class with patients and former patients. There was one elderly woman whose cancer was quite advanced.

One day, her daughter, who was also in the class, told us her mother was lying in bed upstairs in the hospital and had been unconscious for hours. The teacher suggested we take the music and our dance moves upstairs and perform the familiar, gentle routines at her bedside. It was quite a lovely moment.

Since then I have heard of church groups and nonchurch groups that sing at bedsides, and I have come to believe that even a patient who shows no clear response can hear and appreciate the music.

In this story from the Irish Times, music is also being used to calm patients before surgery.

Emer Moreau writes, “Music-based therapy may be a suitable alternative to anti-anxiety benzodiazepines administered to patients before an operation, new research has found.

“Results of a clinical trial published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) showed listening to music had similar effects to that of a sedative offered to calm the nerves before the use of regional anaesthesia.

“The trial, carried out in the University of Pennsylvania, had 157 participants randomly assigned to receive either 1-2mg of midazolam, a type of benzodiazepine, or to listen to Marconi Union’s Weightless series of music. The track is considered to be one of the most relaxing in the world.

“Both groups showed similar reductions in pre-operative anxiety among participants.

“Anxiety is common among patients due to undergo an operation, and can affect postoperative recovery due to increased levels of stress hormones in the body. …

“There are currently 88 music therapists in Ireland, who work in a variety of contexts, including educational settings, care for dementia patients, palliative care, neo-natal settings, oncology, burn treatment, acquired brain injury and stroke. Dr Hilary Moss, the Course Director for the MA in Music Therapy in the University of Limerick, said that music therapy is usually employed alongside other treatments, rather than replacing them.

“The therapy works by ‘engaging in enjoyable activity to change our perception of pain,’ she said. ‘It’s not a cure, but it helps – many patients show significant improvement.’

More here.

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Photo: American Kennel Club
Most species respond to music, just not in the same way humans do.

Now that you have absorbed yesterday’s post on the responsiveness of cheese to music, it should come as no surprise that mammals, birds, and fish also have an affinity for music.

University of Amsterdam professor of music cognition Henkjan Honing writes at Nautilus, “We are all born with a predisposition for music, a predisposition that develops spontaneously and is refined by listening to music. Nearly everyone possesses the musical skills essential to experiencing and appreciating music. … Is musicality something uniquely human? Or do we share musicality with other animals. …

“By the beginning of the 20th century, Ivan Pavlov had discovered that dogs could remember a single tone and associate it with food. Wolves and rats also recognize members of their own species by the perfect pitch of their call and can also differentiate tones. The same applies to starlings and rhesus macaques. …

“Zebra finches turn out to focus mostly on the musical aspects of [sequences, as opposed to the order]. This does not mean they are insensitive to the order … but it is mainly the differences in pitch (intonation), duration, and dynamic accents [that] they use to differentiate the sequences. …

“Humans may share a form of musical listening with zebra finches, a form of listening in which attention is paid to the musical aspects of sound (musical prosody), not to the syntax and semantics that humans heed so closely in speech. … The research on starlings and zebra finches reveals that songbirds use the entire sound spectrum to gather information. They appear to have a capacity for listening ‘relatively,’ that is, on the basis of the contours of the timbre, intonation, and dynamic range of the sound. …

“What we know for sure is that humans, songbirds, pigeons, rats, and some fish (such as goldfish and carp) can easily distinguish between different melodies. It remains highly questionable, though, whether [animals] do so in the same way as humans do, that is, by listening to the structural features of the music.

“A North American study using koi carp — a fish species that, like goldfish, hears better than most other fish — offers an unusual example. Carp are often called ‘hearing specialists’ because of their good hearing. The sensitivity of a carp’s hearing can be compared to the way sounds might be heard over a telephone line: Though quality may be lacking in the higher and lower ranges, the carp will hear most of the sounds very clearly.

“Three koi — Beauty, Oro, and Pepi — were housed in an aquarium at Harvard University’s Rowland Institute, where they had already participated in a variety of other listening experiments. … In the discrimination experiment, the koi were exposed to compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and the blues singer John Lee Hooker to see whether they could differentiate between the two. In the categorization experiment, the koi were tested to see if they could classify a composition as belonging to either the blues or the classical genre. In the latter experiment, they were alternately exposed to recordings of different blues singers and classical composers ranging from Vivaldi to Schubert.

“The surprising outcome was that all three koi were able to distinguish not only between compositions by John Lee Hooker and Bach, but also between the blues and classical genres in general. The fish appeared to be able to generalize, to correctly classify a new, as yet unheard piece of music based on a previously learned distinction. …

“Rock doves, too, [pigeons] can distinguish between compositions by Bach and Stravinsky. And, like carp, rock doves can also generalize what they have learned from only two pieces of music to other, unfamiliar pieces of music. They can even distinguish between compositions by contemporaries of Bach and Stravinsky. …

“These species can do all of this with no significant listening experience. … This, in itself, is an exceptional trait. Most likely it is a successful tactic to generate food. Yet it still offers no insight into the ‘perception, if not the enjoyment,’ of music. That may be one aspect of musicality that belongs to humans alone.”

More at Nautilus, here. And while we are on the subject of critters’ artistic sensibilities, be sure to read the children’s book This is a Poem that Heals Fish. Hat tip: The inestimable Brainpickings.

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Delicious array of gourmet cheese on a platter

Photo: Foodandmore

Dear Readers, You know that you have been wondering why the taste of cheese changes depending on what music it was exposed to during the aging process. So much more agreeable than wondering who the next president will be or “why the sea is boiling hot,” to quote the prescient Lewis Carroll!

Well, wonder no more. Jason Daley at the Smithsonian has the musical cheese story covered.

The creation of good cheese involves a complex dance between milk and bacteria. In a quite literal sense, playing the right tune while this dance unfolds changes the final product’s taste, a new study shows.

“Denis Balibouse and Cecile Mantovani at Reuters report that hip-hop, for example, gave the cheese an especially funky flavor, while cheese that rocked out to Led Zeppelin or relaxed with Mozart had milder zests.

“Last September, Swiss cheesemaker Beat Wampfler [whose day job is as a veterinarian] and a team of researchers from the Bern University of Arts placed nine 22-pound wheels of Emmental cheese in individual wooden crates in Wampfler’s cheese cellar. Then, for the next six months each cheese was exposed to an endless, 24-hour loop of one song using a mini-transducer, which directed the sound waves directly into the cheese wheels.

“The ‘classical’ cheese mellowed to the sounds of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The ‘rock’ cheese listened to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ An ambient cheese listened to Yello’s ‘Monolith,’ the hip-hop cheese was exposed to A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)’ and the techno fromage raved to Vril’s ‘UV.’ A control cheese aged in silence, while three other wheels were exposed to simple high, medium and low frequency tones.

“According to a press release, the cheese was then examined by food technologists from the ZHAW Food Perception Research Group, which concluded that the cheese exposed to music had a milder flavor compared to the non-musical cheese. They also found that the hip-hop cheese had a stronger aroma and stronger flavor than other samples.

“The cheeses were then sampled by a jury of culinary experts during two rounds of a blind taste test. Their results were similar to the research group’s conclusions and the hip-hop cheese came out on top. …

“Michael Harenberg, director of the music program at Bern University of the Arts says he was skeptical of the whole project when Wampfler first approached him. ‘Then we discovered there is a field called sonochemistry that looks at the influences of sound waves, the effect of sound on solid bodies.’

“It turns out that Wampfler was rooting for the hip-hop cheese to win all along. Now, reports Reuters, he and his collaborators want to expose cheese to five to ten different types of hip-hop to see if it has similar effects.”

More here.

 

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William Sidney Mount painting “Just in Tune,” 1849. See more paintings at FidlleHangout.

I’ve been meaning to share blogger KerryCan’s 2013 post at “Love Those Hands at Home” about the origins of her musical tastes. Her story about the farmhand with the drinking problem and the inspired fiddle playing really struck me, and I wondered if other people could pinpoint the musical influences in their own lives. I certainly thought about mine.

I commented at KerryCan’s blog that my earliest influences included traditional nursery songs, my father’s loud classical records, one brother’s folk tastes and his later blues show on college radio (http://mydadsrecords.tumblr.com/), the movie “My Geisha” about an opera singer, Broadway, jazz, and Edith Piaf. Eclectic. Like my blog. I used to sing loudly with younger kids on the school bus and on family trips. I got involved in Fire Island’s teenage musicals, for which the brilliant Lynn Lavner wrote the songs I still like to sing.

Here’s what KerryCan reported about her early influences. “Weirdly, the music that I am drawn to has little to do with anything I was exposed to early, except for one faint memory. The music I love best is folk music and the memory is of a man playing the fiddle in our living room at the farm.

“The man was Vic Parrotte (or Parrott); he was an occasional hired hand on the farm when I was very young. As I recall, he would work for a while then take his pay and go on a ‘toot,’ as my grandfather called it; he’d go off and get drunk. Then he wouldn’t show up for chores for a few days and my grandmother would urge my grandfather never to let him come back.

“Then Vic would come back and my grandfather would hire him and the whole cycle would begin again.

“But Vic could play the fiddle. I wasn’t allowed to stay downstairs and watch him play much — this wasn’t really considered appropriate music for a good girl to hear. But I would lie in bed, upstairs above the parlor, and listen to that incredible sound coming out of his instrument. As I recall, he put the end of the fiddle on his knee, instead of under his chin, and, boy, could he play!

“And, it turns out, we weren’t the only people who knew about Vic’s fiddle. Vic was always a sort of tragic-comic character at our house, a rambler who couldn’t hold his drink and played wild music. But years later I mentioned his name to an expert in Adirondack roots music who responded, first with stunned silence and then said, ‘Vic Parrotte was your hired hand?! He played the fiddle for you?!’ Vic was famous in some circles — imagine my surprise!”

Anyone want to weigh in on their earliest music memories? Will McM.?

 

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Photo: Afghanistan National Institute of Music
Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra, Zohra, is touring.

I’ve been interested in Afghanistan since before the headlines were all about the US conflict there. At least since reading Jason Elliot’s excellent An Unexpected Light and seeing the Tony Kushner play Homebody: Kabul. But lately I have an even stronger interest as Erik’s sister works on women’s rights in Afghanistan for the United Nations.

This BBC story provides one angle on Afghan women’s rights. Vincent Dowd has the report.

“Five years ago, a unique all-female orchestra was formed in Afghanistan, a nation where only a few years previously music had been outlawed and women barred from education. Now Zohra is visiting the UK for the first time.

“No-one claims that in Afghanistan, the Taliban influence has been rooted out entirely. Violence continues. But two decades ago, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music would have been unthinkable.

“ANIM was founded in 2008, with international support, to bring music education to young Afghans. … ANIM teaches music skills to some 250 young people, both male and female. That figure is about to rise to 320 and there are plans to expand to cities such as Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Jalalabad.

“About 70% of the young people at the institute come from disadvantaged backgrounds — some used to work the streets selling vegetables, plastic bags or chewing gum to support their families. Ages range from 12 to around 20.

“But five years ago, ANIM founder by Dr Ahmad Sarmast was urged to start a new project specifically to benefit girls.

” ‘One of our students told me we needed a group of four or five girls to play pop music,’ he says. ‘I liked the idea but almost at once it became clear most of the girls at ANIM wanted to join. Suddenly we were talking about a full orchestra.’ …

“There are around 100 female students at ANIM, 23 of whom have come to Britain. Their numbers will be doubled when they play in concert with the London-based Orchestra of St John’s and others. Instruments they’ve brought with them include the sarod, the rubab, tabla drums and the dutar.

“The music performed is a combination of traditional Afghan music and western classical. For instance, their new arrangement of Greensleeves contains attractive new instrumentation probably not envisaged by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1934.

“The conductor for the Afghan pieces is Negin Khpalwak, who at 22 is one of the older musicians in the group. She joined the school not long after it opened — not initially with the idea of conducting at all. …

” ‘It’s much easier for me to conduct when we play Afghan music,’ she says. ‘We’re very familiar with it and we play together easily. If we perform something like Greensleeves — which I think is very well-known in England — we have to concentrate extra hard.’ …

“Negin Khpalwak says even in Kabul, students can still sometimes encounter people beyond the school who think it’s wrong that the orchestra even exists.

” ‘They will say that in Islam women aren’t allowed to go to school, not just for music but to study anything. But it’s not true — women have their own rights and those people need to be educated. Our music isn’t the only way to do that — but it’s one way.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Musica Secreta
A new effort to bring back the choral music of Renaissance nuns is getting attention in classical circles. Composer and princess Leonora d’Este is the focus of this research.

Like other achievements of women centuries ago, the music of nuns in the Renaissance has been mostly lost to time. Until now.

At Bachtrack, Laura Volpi reports on a gifted daughter of Lucrezia Borgia.

“In 16th-century Italy – and across Europe – convents were the backbones of the economic and spiritual well-being of a city. At their core were expertly run choirs of nuns, so talented and so popular that they were considered tourist attractions. … During this vibrant yet under-explored chapter in Renaissance musical history, a princess nun was composing for her convent in Ferrara, and her anonymously published motets lay unsung and unloved for 500 years.

“To find out more, I spoke to Dr Laurie Stras, Professor of Music at the University of Huddersfield, author of the recently published book Women and Music in Sixteenth-Century Ferrara, musicologist and co-director of two early music female-voice ensembles – Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens. …

” ‘Most families couldn’t afford to pay a marriage dowry for more than one daughter,’ explains Stras. … ‘So families who wanted the best for their daughter would get her into a convent with plenty of income. But a comfortable convent might have had quite a high dowry in itself, so one of the ways to get a reduction was by bringing a skill to it, such as music.’

“Music was really profitable for convents: it brought in money from the community, donating to hear mass on their behalf, while a great musical reputation brought in girls of higher status and wealth. Music also kept the nuns entertained and helped develop and maintain community harmony. …

“Music composed for convents would only be for the choirs’ consumption, so to find some published was unusual. Yet princess Leonora d’Este is strongly believed to be the author of 23 motets. …

“Leonora D’Este was the daughter of Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso I, the Duke of Ferrara. She became Mother Superior at Corpus Domini when she was 18 and several of her contemporaries write of her exceptional musical abilities. We know that her family supported her musical activities up to her death.

“Despite the limitations of a life of enclosure, for many women life in a convent was a passport to freedom.

‘Some women chose a monastic life because they were creatively driven and felt that they had more space to develop as creative or intellectuals in the convent than they would outside.’ …

“ ‘Leonora sent these motets for publication to see them preserved for posterity. Hers are incredible works, so far beyond what was already in print in the 1540s. Technically they are an amazing achievement. All these motets are written for five, equal voices, voci pari, all of which are more or less in the same compass. You get some very interesting dissonance treatment when you have five parts moving in such a confined space. … One of the most outlandish pieces is a setting of the Mass Gradual for Easter Sunday, Haec dies, in which the voices imitate the sounds of all the bells of the city going off.’ …

“It is important to bring this music back to choral ensembles today. ‘We know about the Sistine Chapel, we know about Palestrina and we know about Josquin des Prez only because of the way history has been written and the things that have been given value,’ says Stras. ‘By recovering this wonderful music, we bring the balance back. The English choral tradition has given prominence to boys’ voices as more appropriate for Renaissance music, but the sound of women singing is the sound of the Renaissance. It’s not something that is unusual or that should be suppressed: this is part of our heritage.’ ”

More at Bachtrack, here.

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