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Posts Tagged ‘music’

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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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Photo: Bruce Mendelsohn
A teen at a Youth Services center in Massachusetts takes a turn at conducting musicians from the Sarasa Chamber Music Ensemble.

Years ago, just before Christmas every year, I would receive a funding request from a volunteer who was concerned for teens held in state custody. He would write that these young people were largely forgotten at the holidays, and he would take whatever donations he could round up and go buy them small gifts. I always thought he sounded like a very kind person.

This past holiday season, I heard about a similar outreach to youth in trouble and wanted to tell you about it.

Cintia Lopez reported at WBUR radio, “On a recent morning, a teen living at the Metro Regional Center, a Department of Youth Services facility, nervously stood in front of a string quartet in a windowless recreation room. Trying his hand at conducting a group of classically trained musicians, he tentatively moved his hands like a conductor, setting the tempo for the musicians as they played Bach’s ‘The Art of Fugue.’

“His peers laughed in the background, while the musicians offered words of encouragement. When he got a better feel for the music, he began to dance, pointing his fingers up and down, bobbing his head and rolling his arms to the rhythm of the music.

“ ‘It kind of gave me a warm and kind of calm feeling and then as the tempo got a little bit higher it kind of gave me like a little adrenaline rush,’ another teen said of the classical performance. …

“The teens were being visited by musicians from Sarasa, a Boston-based chamber ensemble. Artistic Director Timothy Merton said he likes helping the teens talk about the music.

“ ‘They don’t have much contact with the outside while they’re there. And certainly not with arts programs,’ Merton said. He founded Sarasa about 20 years ago. … The group now performs in youth service facilities about a dozen times a year.

“For the teen, Sarasa taught him that he can listen to classical music to calm down when he is feeling angry.

‘I think it’s a very good experience for the youth here,’ he said. ‘Just to show culture that people aren’t always exposed to and it’s kind of like getting everyone to see other parts of cultures and kind of the diversity that the world has.’ …

“Later in the visit, violinist Rodolfo Richter played Krzysztof Penderecki’s ‘Cadenza’ for a second group of teens. The teens perked up at the speed at which Richter played, seemingly with ease. One teen likened the piece to an old ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoon. …

“Here are teens, who in some ways have been hardened by life’s turns, awed by the sounds of a cartoon, revealing how much innocence they still possess.

“Seeing the teens connect with the music reminds cellist Jennifer Morsches of her own discovery of classical music.

“ ‘That’s where I learned much about classical music, watching “Bugs Bunny,” ‘ Morsches said. ‘And a lot of people react, young kids, react that way. It’s true and it does sound like Tom and Jerry chasing.’ ”

More at WBUR, here.

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Photo: Katherine Taylor for the Boston Globe
Eureka Ensemble, whose mission is to nurture social change, launched a Women’s Chorus that welcomes women experiencing severe poverty and homelessness.

How does one write a headline for a story like this? It’s not exactly about music giving homeless people hope. It’s more that focusing on music — music performed for you and music you make — activates a positive side of who you are. It’s that positive things can lead to other positive things.

During the 2018 Christmas season, there was quite a bit of comfort and joy being spread by music in the Greater Boston homeless community. Zoë Madonna wrote about it at the Boston Globe.

“The CASPAR homeless shelter, a low-slung brick building, crouches on Albany Street in Cambridge. When percussionist Jennie Dorris wheels her marimba through the front door, half of a large central room has been cleared, and a line of grizzled men sits at a long row of tables, watching. An enthusiastic older man in a Boston Strong T-shirt marches up, introducing himself as Danny. ‘Finally, the marimba’s here!’ he exclaims, grinning. ‘I wait all year for this.’…

” ‘What compels me is to take music where it’s needed and treat everyone with respect,’ says founder Julie Leven, a violinist. This year, its eighth, Shelter Music Boston has mounted scores of concerts in shelters throughout the Greater Boston area, including a full schedule in the days leading up to Christmas.

“It’s not the only music group focusing on the homeless around Boston. Eureka Ensemble, whose mission is to nurture social change, launched a Women’s Chorus that welcomes women experiencing severe poverty and homelessness. …

“Eureka’s most ambitious project, according to cofounder and conductor Kristo Kondakci, was a commissioned composition, Stephanie Ann Boyd’s ‘Sheltering Voices.’ Auditions for choral fellowships for women were held at Pine Street Inn and Women’s Lunch Place, says Kondakci, a recent graduate of New England Conservatory who has worked with the homeless since his student days at Boston College High School. Around 15 took part.

“Carrie Jaynes and Rottisha Mewborn are friends who met at Pine Street Inn. When they saw the audition sign-up sheet, they were initially skeptical, they say — they’re used to well-meaning outsiders putting in a few hours and then disappearing. But they went to the audition in March, in a room where the heater was going haywire. To cool it down, Kondakci threw open the door of a nearby freezer.

“And that, Mewborn says, put them at ease. … As Eureka Fellows, Jaynes and Mewborn rehearsed weekly with Kondakci, learning ‘Sheltering Voices.’ They were never treated as anything less than important and independent, they say.

“ ‘We became so desensitized at Pine Street that we forgot how we can be treated like a normal person,’ says Jaynes. At the rehearsals, she says, ‘we knew that we were in this together. We knew that we were all right . . . we could be human again. We could show emotion and not be judged if we cried, or laughed, or showed a softer side of us.’ …

“Shelter staff say that after Shelter Music Boston concerts, the atmosphere is more peaceful, and nights are more restful, notes Leven, who also plays with Handel and Haydn Society and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. …

“As for the Eureka fellowships, Jaynes and Mewborn say their experiences were powerful. ‘Having Kristo say “We’ll get you there no matter what” built up our trust and our safety,’ Mewborn says. Because Pine Street Inn has a daily lottery, she explains, she never knows if she’ll have a bed to sleep in each night. There’s little in her life she can truly count on. ‘So just having this little safety — even if things are going crazy out here, we can get there — it’s amazing.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Michelle Groskopf
Scenes from the fifth annual Write On Song Camp at Atlantic Records in Los Angeles. From left, Federico Vindver, Angel Lopez, Oscarcito, Sam Derosa, and Adriel Favela.

I know almost nothing about popular music these days or the names of current stars, but I thought this article about songwriting camps was interesting. The artists’ collaborative process might be fun for creatives in other arts to try once in a while.

Steve Knopper writes at Vulture, “At a studio in 2016, Dave Longstreth was working by himself on a chord progression, as he usually does when writing for his band, Dirty Projectors.

” ‘It’s normally a pretty solitary process,’ he says now. But that time, Solange was there, as were Sampha, a British songwriter and producer; Blue, Solange’s engineer; and a bunch of other creative people, all part of what Longstreth calls ‘the camps,’ to make Solange’s 2016 album, ‘A Seat at the Table.’

“ ‘I’d have a melody from her, and would be just harmonizing on it, and she would come over and say, “Ooh, I really love this chord and that chord, but this one is too dissonant,” ‘ he recalls. ‘To be just a spoke on the wheel was a novel experience, and to be thinking in a collective way was just really fresh for me.’

“As long as there has been indie rock, songwriters have worked in their own band bubbles. … But over the past decade, the genre’s biggest names … have substantively contributed to albums by Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and others. Many of these connections happen by serendipity — Beyoncé’s ‘They don’t love you like I love you’ hook in ‘Hold Up,’ [was] the result of Koenig tweeting a slightly misremembered line from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2003 single ‘Maps,’ then recording it with Diplo. …

“When I walked into a room at the Lakehouse Recording Studios in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in late June,” reporter Knopper continues, “my eyes took a few seconds to adjust from the fluorescent hallway lighting. Through flickering candles, I made out Chelsea Jade, a New Zealand singer-songwriter, dressed in black, singing in a high, glassy pitch; Danny Mercer, a Colombian-American guitarist and singer, tapping out a Depeche Mode–style riff on a keyboard; and Randy Class, a Bronx producer, capturing everything on a laptop and looping it back. This was the BMI songwriters’ camp, which split up ten top writers into groups of three or more with the hope of regurgitating multiple daily songs. … Jade improvised: ‘I’m a psychopath.’ Class quickly discerned a double meaning about a ‘psycho’s path.’ Mercer fleshed out the melody with Spanish-guitar runs. …

“Ben Dickey, manager of Future Islands, Washed Out, and other indie-rock stars, believes the trend begins with hip-hop, in which artists are more experimental and willing to take chances than those in any other genre. Whereas a songwriter in a rock band can be stuck in a routine, collaborating with the same people in the same configurations, West, Drake, and Beyoncé pick the best material from whoever inspires them at the time. ‘You come up with what can be a really interesting song that has way more diverse influences than what one singular singer-songwriter would come up with — then you have Kanye or Drake come in and rap over it,’ Dickey says.” Read more at Vulture, here.

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Photo: Marc Royce/Los Angeles Times
Conductor Eric Whitacre (above), the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and a 2,200-person audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall participated in “the largest free group singing event in California history” on July 21.

Kudos to creative thinkers who keep coming up with new ideas to engage people in the arts! In July, the conductor of the Los Angeles Master Chorale led an exceptionally large audience of interested Californians in a free singing event that must have warmed the cockles of a lot of hearts. This went well beyond the annual singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which many other choral groups invite the public to join.

Jessica Gelt of the Los Angeles Times reports, “Eric Whitacre, the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s Swan family artist-in-residence, says he’s like that old cola commercial — he wants to teach the world to sing. The whole world. And he’s not joking. But he’ll start with a statewide singing event, ‘Big Sing California.’ …

“The massive project, years in the making, [featured] the 100-voice Master Chorale onstage singing along with 2,200 audience members to a program of songs selected and conducted by Whitacre and Master Chorale Artistic Director Grant Gershon, along with guest conductors Moira Smiley and Rollo Dilworth.

“Those proceedings [were] simulcast to five venues all over the state packed with additional audience members [also] singing along. Each venue [rehearsed] with its audience for a few hours before the event. …

“ ‘If you’ve never experienced a couple thousand people singing together, it just brings chills. … It’s the best of human experience … the best of who we are distilled together.’

“Whitacre began singing when he was 18, and it changed his life. He has been singing and composing since then, traveling the world in the process, establishing a massive social media following and creating a series of online ‘virtual choirs,’ which are edited together after participants upload videos of themselves all singing the same song. …

“Gershon adds that Whitacre has ‘single-handedly gotten more people excited about singing together than anyone else on the planet. He confirms that the choral experience is transcendent and transformative.’ ”

More at the Los Angeles Times, here. The list of songs are here.

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Photo: Celeste Sloman for The New York Times
Camryn Cowan and Jordan Millar, 11-year-old students in the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers (VYC) program, received a burst of media attention after being featured along with their compositions in the New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks.

The young composers in this story got a boost for their musical talent thanks to a New York Philharmonic program. Just imagine what could be accomplished with similar programs in all areas of the arts — playwriting, painting, poetry, sculpture, etc.! Giving kids an opportunity to blossom benefits us all.

Joshua Barone described the experience of two gifted girls in a New York Times article: “It was the kind of debut most musicians only dream of: a world-class orchestra, tens of thousands of listeners.

“At its outdoor parks concerts [in June], the New York Philharmonic performed works by two 11-year-old girls, Camryn Cowan and Jordan Millar — newcomers to the world of composing. They won over the crowds, who gave standing ovations. Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times gave them an effusive review. …

“Where does a composer go from here? Ms. Cowan and Ms. Millar — two students from Brooklyn who are part of the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers initiative — followed up on their victorious tour of New York City by, well, returning to class. …

“Both girls … were confident in explaining their works, originally written for a Harlem Renaissance-theme program earlier this year. Ms. Cowan, who was 10 at the time, said that her ‘Harlem Shake’ was an exercise in layering, but with saxophone improvisations that nodded to the neighborhood’s past.

“Ms. Millar’s ‘Boogie Down Uptown’ conjures stepping out of the subway onto the streets of Harlem for the first time, with musical textures inspired by the shadowy movement of Aaron Douglas paintings. (For all this seriousness, they are still children: Ms. Millar said her fascination with Douglas’s art comes from her favorite Disney movie, ‘The Princess and the Frog,’ which borrows its aesthetic from his paintings.) …

“Jon Deak — a composer, the Philharmonic’s longtime associate principal bassist, and the founder of its Very Young Composers initiative — said that … all children are creative. ‘People ask whether I’ve found the next little Mozart, and I say yes, I’ve found dozens of them,’ he said. ‘They’re all over the place. We just need to listen to them.’

“Participants in the program come from about 15 partner schools in New York. … Eventually, they graduate to writing complex scores that they workshop with one another and try out at Young People’s Concerts.

“In the process, Mr. Deak said, the students have to become leaders: ‘Look at a 10-year-old who comes up to a bassoonist’s kneecaps and says “That’s too fast” or “There’s something wrong with that note.” They have to defend their pieces, and boy, do they … do it.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Ge Wang
The Stanford Laptop Orchestra rehearsing for its tenth anniversary concert last month.

Not sure I would enjoy the sound of an all-electronic orchestra even though I did think MIT professor Tod Machover’s partly electronic opera Resurrection was lovely. What I do like about the Stanford Laptop Orchestra is the idea that the most important requirement for taking the course is curiosity. I’m all for curiosity.

Arielle Pardes Gear writes at Wired magazine, “Ten days before the big concert, the members of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra are performing technology triage. Rehearsal has only just started, but already, things seemed to be falling apart. First there was trouble with the network that connects the laptops to one another. Then one of the laptops crashed. …

“The orchestra members have gathered at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics to rehearse a new kind of musical composition. Together, sitting on meditation pillows in front of MacBooks, they create songs that stretch the definition of music. The orchestra plays laptops like accordions, turns video games into musical scores, and harnesses face-tracking software to turn webcams into instruments. …

“Fixing a broken network isn’t as simple as a replacing a snapped string on a violin. But in a laptop orchestra, the potential for disaster is part of the delight. Since it was founded in 2008, the SLOrk has been making music that surprises audiences while it subverts the concept of orchestral performance. The compositions, part-machine and part-human, don’t always go according to plan. Technical difficulties are all but guaranteed.  …

” ‘Nothing’s better at being a cello than a cello,’ says [Ge Wang, the SLOrk’s founder and director]. ‘So we’re not trying to make a cello. We’re trying to make something you don’t have a name for yet.’ …

“[The Stanford Laptop Orchestra is] a for-credit course at Stanford — Music 128, cross-listed in the computer science department as CS 170 — but getting in isn’t easy. The group of 15 students includes those with computer science credentials, and those with more traditional music backgrounds, but neither is enough to become a great laptop orchestra player. The most important thing is curiosity. ‘We’re unified by this interest to make music together with computers,’ says Wang, ‘and to figure out what that means.’ ”

More here.

 

 

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