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Photo: Masha Karpoukhina for Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.
Soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause. Bernie Krause, 2021.

Spring is a time of year when birds are so vocal, I really do feel accompanied by music on my walk. Today’s story is about turning the sounds of nature into a kind of music that can be heard at any time of year.

Christine Ajudua at Artnet interviewed the artist behind “The Great Animal Orchestra” in November. His show will be at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, until May 22.

“In the late 1960s, Bernie Krause was at the top of his game as a musician, sound designer, and master of the Moog synthesizer, recording with the likes of Van Morrison, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Brian Eno, and The Doors, while working on films such as Apocalypse Now. Then, he gave it all up and went wild — literally.

“Krause has been exploring the natural world as a pioneering soundscape ecologist ever since. And his masterpiece —’The Great Animal Orchestra‘ (November 20–May 22, 2022), originally commissioned by Paris’s Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in 2016 — is about to have its North American premiere at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. …

“The exhibition is based on 5,000 hours of Krause’s field recordings from the past 50 years, featuring 15,000 terrestrial and marine species from around the globe — many of them since lost or currently at risk. With the soundscapes reinterpreted as large-scale, animated spectrograms by the London-based collective United Visual Artists, it is an immersive and highly moving experience of the ever-vulnerable sound universe.

“Krause is meanwhile the subject of a new Cartier Foundation–produced documentary directed by the French filmmaker Vincent Tricon. …

ARTNET: What inspired you to move on from your life as a musician to explore the natural world as a soundscape ecologist? What are the biggest differences — and perhaps similarities — between your lives then versus now?

BERNIE KRAUSE: Paul Beaver, my late music partner, and I got invited to record with some awesome artists and groups [in the late 1960s]. But when it got to the point where we were being asked to replicate the sounds produced on previous sessions, something inside snapped — I found myself staring at the padded, windowless walls of studios in L.A., London, and New York, with mixed feelings of terror, boredom, and immobility. It was at that point that I began looking for an escape. …

“As it happened, Paul and I had just been signed by Warner Brothers to do three albums. For our own mental health, we sought to produce something thematic that hadn’t been tried before and where we could explore some of the Moog’s performance options we hadn’t shared with other artists. Our initial album, titled In a Wild Sanctuary, centered on the theme of ecology, and natural soundscapes [were] a main constituent of the orchestration. We needed a quiet rural area or wild forest in which to record.

“I didn’t go terribly far to secure those early recordings — just across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to a small park in Marin. But when I cranked up my new stereo recorder and heard the numinous impression of a nearby stream, the illusion of larger-than-life sonic space, the edge-tones of a pair of ravens’ wingbeats as they cut an arc across the sky overhead, and a gentle sea breeze in the redwood canopy wafting in from the Pacific to my west …

… something inside me instantly changed. I felt relaxed and present in the living world and amazingly free of anxiety.

“I had discovered for myself a new sense of being and felt obliged to go wherever that reaction took me. I was 30 years old then. …

“I begin by finding habitats that are relatively untouched by human endeavor. Then I identify a local naturalist or biologist that knows intimate details of the area [and its] unique wildlife [to] help facilitate my time on site. But for the most part, I prefer to work alone.

Over the course of a 24-hour day, I’ll likely record four two-hour sessions: a dawn chorus, a midday chorus, dusk and nighttime choruses, times when biophonies are likely at their peak. [These are] the collective sounds coming from all organisms in a given habitat at one moment in time.

“When I return to the studio, the first thing I do is transfer all of the field data related to that recording into my archive. Then I have two basic avenues of expression. The first, through science, is to write and publish a paper related to what I’ve observed given what the data show. The problem with that avenue is that very few people read this literature.

“If I want to reach a much larger audience, I turn to the arts, transforming the data into programs that are widely accessible and emotionally evocative while at the same time keeping the integrity of the message firmly intact. …

“I had written and released a book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places — basically the story of how we learned to sing, dance, and speak from mimicking the voices of the natural world. [It] was translated into seven languages, one of which was French. Somehow, a French anthropologist, Bruce Albert, who has been working with the Yanomami tribe in northern Brazil for decades, found a copy and gave one to his good friend, Hervé Chandès, director of the [Cartier] foundation. After reading it, Hervé contacted me in 2014 proposing that I take some of the raw field data and transform them into large-scale sonic art pieces. …

“Over the course of a few intense days, we auditioned the soundscapes of many habitats, whittling them down to a couple of dozen. From those, I proposed a selection of 15 or 16 habitat recordings to choose from. With the field recordings from those selections, I began the transformation process, taking raw material representing each location, assembling and mixing the various segments and generating a seamless acoustic narrative that I felt would capture and evoke the essence of each unique biome.

“And because most of what we observe of the living world has been through what we see, we decided to include a visual component — one that illuminated the soundscapes. …

“If the habitats they represented were healthy, that condition [would] show in the structured detail of the spectrograms. Conversely, if the habitats are under stress, then the spectrogram images will appear to be chaotic and incoherent.

“With the expertise and insight of Matt Clark and his team at UVA [United Visual Artists], the problem of converting those sounds into instantaneous streaming spectrograms was solved.”

More at Artnet, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Early Music America.
Catalina Vicens often performs on an organetto replica built in 2013 by Stefan and Annette Kepler, who run the Wolkenstayn Gothic Organ company in southern Germany.

For something a little different today, let’s look at a forgotten medieval instrument that a few enthusiasts have brought back to the world’s attention: a handheld pipe organ.

Kyle MacMillan reports at Early Music America last week, “Attend a few organ recitals in a church or concert hall and you’ll know that the instruments can vary widely in size — from behemoths with several thousand pipes to moveable, chamber models with just a handful of stops.

“Almost completely forgotten, though, is that an even smaller kind of pipe organ once existed. Called an organetto, it was typically played perpendicularly on a performer’s lap and was one of the most popular instruments in the 13th and the 14th centuries.

“A contemporary reproduction of this tiny organ will be front and center this week when the Chicago-based Newberry Consort presents Music Fit for the Medicis, featuring works that would have been heard at the powerful family’s court. Showcased will be 14th-century songs and dances taken from manuscripts found in the library of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492). …

“Featured as the Newberry’s organetto soloist will be Chilean-born Catalina Vicens, an internationally known historical keyboard performer and teacher who lives in Basel, Switzerland, and Bologna, Italy. She is artistic director of the Museo San Colombano, housed in a former monastery in Bologna, which dates to the Seventh Century. She also serves as curator of the Tagliavini Collection, the museum’s prize holding and one of the largest historical keyboard collections in Europe. …

“The organetto fell out of fashion by the 16th century. ‘They weren’t use in anymore, as far as we know, and they didn’t survive,’ Vicens told me.

What experts know today about the organetto comes from its depiction in hundreds of medieval paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and stained-glass windows, and well as the literature of the period.

“The instrument is mentioned, for example, in the Roman de la Rose, a famous medieval poem written in Old French, and the organetto playing of Francesco Landini, a famed 14th-century Italian composer and organist, is described in a novella by Giovanni da Prato.

“Today’s organettos, which are based on this historical imagery and documentation and technical knowledge drawn from larger extant medieval organs, typically have 28 pipes in two rows spanning just beyond two musical octaves.

” ‘From iconography, we see mostly instruments with fewer pipes,’ Vicens said. But balancing historically informed instrument building with modern performance needs, she points out that, ‘for us, it is very convenient to take those models with more pipes, because we want to be able to play more notes.’

“Air is produced by a bellows operated with the left hand while the right plays the instrument’s keys. … Because no original organetto exists, it is impossible to know exactly how the medieval instruments sounded. The aural qualities of today’s organettos vary depending on the builder and are affected by the pipes, which can be made of such materials as copper, wood, or a tin-lead alloy.

“ ‘It does sound like a small organ,’ Vicens said of the instrument, ‘but to the ears of many, also suggested by how it looks, it sounds more like a bagpipe. Or I’ve even gotten people who think it sounds like an accordion.’

“Vicens often performs on an organetto built in 2013 by Stefan and Annette Kepler, who run the Wolkenstayn Gothic Organ company in southern Germany, with pipes in a high-leaded alloy made by Winold van der Putten in the Netherlands. ‘I have sort of a custom instrument by different builders,’ she said. …

“While a student of harpsichord performance at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Vicens became fascinated with the instrument’s sound and how it was produced. That curiosity led her to study the harpsichord’s origins, including how instruments from several centuries ago were constructed and what early repertoire was written for them. Her interest in turn motivated her to learn about other historical instruments like the organ and fortepianos. Drawing on this background in historical performance and her knowledge of the organ and harpsichord, Vicens taught herself to play the organetto in 2009 and 2010 and soon got regular requests to perform on the instrument across Europe and beyond.

“The organetto poses two main hurdles for performers, starting with playing the keyboard with just one hand, which makes it difficult to convey different musical voices at the same time. The larger challenge is manipulating the instrument’s single bellows. ‘I have to breathe like a singer,’ Vicens said, ‘because with one bellow, you need to fill it every time you run out of air.’ “

More at Early Music America, here. Hat tip: Arts Journal.

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Photo: Special Music School.
Three of the student authors of Who Is Florence Price? (left to right: Sebastián Núñez, Hazel Peebles and Sophia Shao), joined by their English teacher, Shannon Potts.

I want to follow where today’s kids are leading. So many of them seem to recognize they have to take matters into their own hands if they want change in their lifetimes, whether it’s a question of global warming or gun safety or race relations.

In today’s story, we see that empowerment can start early.

Anastasia Tsioulcas reports at Natural Public Radio (NPR), “For decades, it was almost impossible to hear a piece of music written by Florence Price. Price was a Black, female composer who died in 1953. But a group of New York City middle school students had the opportunity to quite literally write Florence Price’s history. Their [book]Who Is Florence Price? is now out and available in stores.

“The kids attend Special Music School, a K-12 public school in Manhattan that teaches high-level music instruction alongside academics. Shannon Potts is an English teacher there.

” ‘Our children are musicians, so whether or not we intentionally draw it together, they bring music into the classroom every day in the most delightful ways,’ Potts says. …

“Potts assigned her sixth, seventh and eighth grade students to study Florence Price — a composer born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887. She was the first Black woman to have her music played by a major American orchestra: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her Symphony No. 1 in 1933 and her Piano Concerto in One Movement the next year. …

“Despite Price’s talent and drive, most classical music performers and gatekeepers put her aside, and her work failed to gain traction with the large, almost exclusively white institutions that could have catapulted her to mainstream renown. …

“Recently, though, there’s been a blossoming of interest in Price’s work. A recording of her symphonies by the Philadelphia Orchestra was just nominated for a Grammy. In the months ahead, her music will be performed by the San Francisco Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“When the students began researching Price, however, they realized that although there were a few materials written about her life for grown-ups, there was nothing aimed at kids.

“That gave Potts had an idea: She would have her students write and illustrate their own book about Florence Price, and about how her music was rediscovered. As the kids’ book begins:

” ‘In 2009, a couple bought an old house outside of Chicago. in the attic, they found boxes filled with yellowed sheets of music. Every piece was written by the same woman, Florence Price. “Who is Florence Price?” they wondered…

” ‘Florence’s mind was filled with music, but she had a big question. She was a girl and her skin was a different color than so many of the composers she knew about. Could she grow up to be a famous composer, too? When Florence was only 11, her first piece was published. Was it possible that Florence’s music could change things?’

Special Music School [executive] director Kate Sheeran was extremely enthusiastic about the students’ work. …

“Sheeran was so impressed that she ordered a small, self-published print run of their work. She sent it around to various people in the classical music community — including Robert Thompson, the president of G. Schirmer, the company that publishes Florence Price’s music.

‘I think it’s one of the few moments in my job where I had to cancel the next meeting and I was just kind of filled with tears,’ Thompson recalls. ‘It was just an incredibly beautiful moment.’

“Thompson agreed to publish the book; all royalties will go to Kaufman Music Center, which is a non-profit organization.

Rebecca Beato is a 14-year-old violinist from Queens. She was also one of the lead illustrators of Who Is Florence Price? and she says that Price has been a personal inspiration. ‘Her music has been out there, performed by major orchestras,’ Beato says, ‘and she’s a woman of color, which even now — it’s like difficult to get your music shown to the world.’ …

“Hazel Peebles, a 13-year-old violist from Harlem, says that you can hear Price’s personal history in her music. ‘It really is beautiful,’ Peebles observes. ‘She worked in some of her history, some of her Black background into the music.’ …

“What the students learned in creating this book goes far beyond music, Kate Sheeran says.

‘They’re also seeing that they can have a voice in shaping who writes history and who tells stories … and that we don’t have to just accept the way music is presented to us or the way music history is presented to us — that they too can shape that.’ …

“Potts says that the very last lines of her students’ book have already come true, thanks to their hard work and creativity. ‘Today, Florence’s music can be heard all around the world just like she dreamed of when she was young,’ Potts reads. ‘If someone asks, “Who is Florence Price?” you can tell them.’ “

More at NPR, here.

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Photo: Classical Voice America.
The composers represented in the African Diaspora Music Project include (top row, left to right) Nathaniel Dett, Donal Fox, Anthony Green, and Jacqueline B. Hairston, and (bottom row, left to right) Robert A. Harris, Roland Hayes, Lori Hicks, and Moses Hogan.

During lockdown, I read an excellent biography of Black classical singer Marian Anderson and learned a lot I didn’t know about Black musicians and composers of the early 20th century. To America’s shame, most of these musicians had to seek training and experience in Europe, which was more open to giving their talents space to grow.

There are still challenges for Black musicians, especially in the classical arena, which is why Louise Toppin has created the African Diaspora Music Project.

Xenia Hanusiak at Classical Voice America has the story.

“ ‘How do you move something from being token to intentional?’ asks musical polymath Louise Toppin. This provocation is just one of the many questions that occupy the mind of the international scholar, opera singer, and activist. As a musical avatar who has performed at Carnegie Hall and Elbphilharmonie, Toppin is on a mission to recalibrate who, what, and how we program our concert seasons to enable a more equitable representation of music from composers of African descent. She is seeking a sustained and systemic cultural shift.

“Toppin’s solution? Her recently launched African Diaspora Music Project, a database that houses nearly 4,000 songs and 1,200 symphonies by composers of African descent. …

‘We need to stop presenting one movement of Florence Price for Black History Month and giving no time to rehearse it,’ she says, ‘and then spend two weeks on the Beethoven Ninth Symphony that everyone has played for the last 30 years.’ … 

“The spotlight programming on African American composers during this year’s post-COVID season openers points to recent mea culpa moments. The staging of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night represented the first production of an opera by a Black composer in the company’s 138-year-old history. Riccardo Muti conducted a work by Florence Price for his opener with the Chicago Symphony. The question arises about what happens next.

“ ‘Before the pandemic, I was talking to programmers about their programming in Black History Month,’ says Toppin. ‘You are bringing in singers of color to sing Mozart? What does this have to do with Black History Month?’

“You might think Toppin is angry or frustrated with the historical lack of representation of African American composers in programming. But in our recent Zoom conversation from her office at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where she is professor of music and voice, Toppin presented her case with high-octane optimism and boundless passion.

“Her life’s work is genetically pre-determined to advocacy and pushing boundaries. Toppin’s commitment continues the legacy of her father, Edgar Allan Toppin (1928-2004), an author and professor of history specializing in Civil War, Reconstruction, and African American history. His accomplishments were many. But perhaps his most enduring legacies eventuated as board president of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. In this role, he was instrumental in turning Black History Week into Black History Month in 1976. …

“Toppin’s database is built on her lifelong commitment to her cause. She has been researching, recording, editing, and performing African American music across the globe. In October, Toppin gave a recital dedicated to the songs of Harry T. Burleigh — one of the most influential figures in the history of American song — at London’s Oxford Lieder Festival. The impetus for her database is further inspired by the vocal competition on African American art song and opera that she co-founded with tenor George Shirley. Toppin realized pretty quickly that the same repertoire kept resurfacing in the competition. So, the idea of a database to expand knowledge of the repertoire for the young singers began to take shape.

“ ‘My father’s passion for history as a public historian — not someone who spent his time just writing works for an academic audience, but hosting television and radio shows, writing for newspapers, finding ways to reach a wide audience — has deeply informed my approach and scope for this project.’ …

“Toppin’s father devoted his life to academia, but in equal parts he shared his work with his children. For the Toppin household, the line between his work and their play entwined with daily life.

“ ‘When I was a little girl, my father would take me to the library, and I would do the microfiche with him,’ says Toppin. ‘He would also take me to the stacks. He would teach me to look things up for him. He would give me a date. I could barely read, but I could manage January 1865.’ …

“Toppin began her African American Music Diaspora project in earnest during the 1990s as a way to catalog the music she had been collecting. She became a doctoral research student of Willis Patterson, bass-baritone and professor emeritus associate dean at the University of Michigan, who edited what the New York Times described as a ‘ground-breaking anthology of black art songs’ in 1977. ‘It made an international splash, and it is still selling,’ says Toppin.

“ ‘While I was organizing his music, I made sure that I made extras copies. It was part of what inspired me to start collecting. I had the foresight to see and record everything you see on the data base today: Dedications, dates, performances, biographical information, and recordings are all part of the catalog.’ ”

More at Classical Voice America, here.

You might also be interested a New York Times article on the importance of Europe for Black composers neglected at home. It begins, “In early September 1945, amid the rubble of a bombed-out Berlin, the Afro-Caribbean conductor Rudolph Dunbar stepped onto a podium and bowed to an enthusiastic audience of German citizens and American military personnel.

“The orchestra had gathered in an old movie theater functioning as a makeshift concert hall in the newly designated American zone of the city. First on the program was ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Then came a fairly standard set of orchestral pieces, with Carl Maria von Weber’s ‘Oberon’ Overture followed by Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony. But one piece stood out from the rest: William Grant Still’s ‘Afro-American Symphony.’ When it premiered in 1931 in Rochester, N.Y., it was the first symphony by a Black American to be performed by a major orchestra.” Europe helped that happen. Continue here.

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I love my vinyl records and can easily understand the renewed demand for them. They’re so popular, there isn’t enough vinyl or pressing equipment to create all the new ones wanted right now. I sympathize, but what should I do with my anti-plastic concerns? Buying vintage is always a good solution for getting products that don’t hurt the environment, but new bands can hardly use vintage vinyl.

Ben Sisario wrote recently at the New York Times about the challenges.

“Within the Indianapolis office of Joyful Noise Recordings, a specialty label that caters to vinyl-loving fans of underground rock, is a corner that employees call the ‘lathe cave.’ There sits a Presto 6N record lathe — a 1940s-vintage machine the size of a microwave that makes records by cutting a groove into a blank vinyl platter. Unlike most standard records, which are pressed by the hundreds or thousands, each lathe-cut disc must be created individually.

‘It’s incredibly laborious,’ said Karl Hofstetter, the label’s founder. ‘If a song is three minutes long, it takes three minutes to make every one.’

“This ancient technology — scuffed and dinged, the lathe looks like something from a World War II submarine — is a key part of Joyful Noise’s strategy to survive the very surge of vinyl popularity the label has helped fuel. Left for dead with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, vinyl records are now the music industry’s most popular and highest-grossing physical format, with fans choosing it for collectibility, sound quality or simply the tactile experience of music in an age of digital ephemerality. After growing steadily for more than a decade, LP sales exploded during the pandemic.

“In the first six months of this year, 17 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, generating $467 million in retail revenue, nearly double the amount from the same period in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. …

“Yet there are worrying signs that the vinyl bonanza has exceeded the industrial capacity needed to sustain it. Production logjams and a reliance on balky, decades-old pressing machines have led to what executives say are unprecedented delays. A couple of years ago, a new record could be turned around in a few months; now it can take up to a year, wreaking havoc on artists’ release plans.

“Kevin Morby, a singer-songwriter from Kansas City, Kan., said that his latest LP, ‘A Night at the Little Los Angeles,’ barely arrived in time to sell on his fall tour. And he is one of the lucky ones. Artists from the Beach Boys to Tyler, the Creator have seen their vinyl held up recently. …

“For Joyful Noise, the vinyl crunch has also presented a puzzling problem. Up to 500 V.I.P. customers pay the label $200 a year for special editions of every LP it makes. But the production holdups mean the label cannot predict which titles will be ready during 2022. …

“The label’s solution is to make lathe-cut singles for each of the eight albums it intends to release next year, as placeholder bonuses while its customers wait. Doing so will cost Joyful Noise money and time — Hofstetter groaned as we calculated that eight records with five minutes of music per side, cut 500 times each, would take 666 hours of lathe work — but the label sees it as a necessary investment. …

“The pandemic shut down many plants for a time, and problems in the global supply chain have slowed the movement of everything from cardboard and polyvinyl chloride — the ‘vinyl’ that records (and plumbing pipes) are made from — to finished albums. In early 2020, a fire destroyed one of only two plants in the world that made lacquer discs, an essential part of the record-making process.

“But the bigger issue may be simple supply and demand. Consumption of vinyl LPs has grown much faster than the industry’s ability to make records. …

“ ‘What worries me more than anything is that the major labels will dominate and take over all of the capacity, which I don’t think is a good idea,’ said Rick Hashimoto of Record Technology Inc., a midsize plant in Camarillo, Calif., that works with many indie labels. Others say the big labels are just a convenient target. The real problem, they believe, isn’t celebrities jumping on the vinyl bandwagon but that the industrial network simply has not expanded quickly enough to meet growing demand.

“ ‘Am I mad that Olivia Rodrigo sold 76,000 vinyl copies of her album?’ said Ben Blackwell of Third Man, the record label and vinyl empire that counts Jack White of the White Stripes as one of its founders. ‘Not at all! This is what I would have dreamed of when we started Third Man — that the biggest frontline artists are all pushing vinyl, and that young kids are into it. If someone is mad that that prevents some other title from being pressed,’ Blackwell continued, ‘it feels a little bit elitist and gatekeep-y.’ “

More at the Times, here.

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Photo: Laura Mam.
The artist’s mother writes the Cambodian lyrics. It makes her feel like a teenager again. She says, “This is what I would have wanted to be, you know, be silly, be brave,”

In today’s story, a pop star of Cambodian heritage stumbles on the fun of sharing her parents’ language with audiences hungry for a contemporary vibe.

Quinn Libson reported the story for National Public Radio (NPR) in February 2020.

“Laura Mam is one of Cambodia’s biggest pop stars, but she wasn’t born or raised in the country. She’s American, and even though both of her parents are originally from Cambodia, she hardly spoke a word of the country’s language, Khmer, when she first became famous there.

“Laura’s fame happened almost by accident. It all started 10 years ago, at her mother’s house in San Jose, Calif. It was Christmas Eve and Laura was home after graduating with a degree in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley.

” ‘I had been writing music and my mom was kind of interested in what I was doing. I think I went to her room and I was playing this song. I was like “Hey mom, could you write lyrics in Khmer on top of it?” ‘ Laura says. …

” ‘The first song, I didn’t understand what I was doing and I didn’t know how to rhyme,’ Thida says.

“But Thida gave it a try, and it turned out she had a knack for it. They called the song ‘Pka proheam rik popreay,’ which means ‘morning flower is beautifully blossoming.’ A few months later, Laura and some friends made a music video and uploaded the song to YouTube, not expecting much.

“The morning after the music video went live, they woke up to a big surprise. The video had reached 75,000 views in the course of a single night. But it wasn’t just about the numbers. The viewers’ reactions stunned them.

” ‘The comments were all just like “Yes! Original Cambodian music, oh my god!” ‘ Laura remembers. The comments came streaming in from all over the world. …

” ‘I was from Phnom Penh. And when I was growing up the music scene was huge. During that time there were all these new artists writing all these new sounds, new music,’ [Thida] says.

“This was the early 1970s and Cambodia was in the middle of a music renaissance. … While most fathers at the time might have discouraged their young daughters from diving headfirst into Phnom Penh’s music landscape, Thida’s father was different. …

“Thida says. ‘It was a beautiful childhood I had here in Phnom Penh until the war.’

“[In] the background of Thida’s childhood, bombing campaigns by the United States as part of the Vietnam war and political upheaval meant Cambodia was growing more and more unstable. And in the countryside, a radical Marxist insurgent group — the Khmer Rouge — was steadily amassing power. …

“Educated, urban families like Thida’s were considered politically suspect and were forced to live under intense scrutiny in regime-controlled villages.

” ‘As a child, I was wild,’ Thida says. ‘And then [during] the Khmer Rouge, I had to shut down the feeling. It’s as if there’s a lid put on top of something that bubble[s].’ … When the Vietnamese army swept through Cambodia in 1979, Thida’s family fled across the border to a camp in Thailand. And in 1980, when Thida was 19, she and her family came to California as refugees.

“Thida wanted her children to grow up feeling fully American — Laura and her younger brother had American friends and spoke English at home — but at the same time, Thida found ways to weave bits of Cambodia into their lives. Much of that revolved around music. …

“The Khmer Rouge had targeted and killed musicians. … The Cambodian music industry that came after had been shaped by that grim reality. The result was a country whose airwaves were flooded with cheaply produced, karaoke-style covers.

” ‘There was no pride in that kind of music for me,’ says Laura. Thida agrees. … ‘We were longing for something of our own. It’s a quiet longing.’

“The global reaction to the song they wrote showed Laura and Thida they weren’t the only Cambodians who felt that way. So they wrote more. … The process wasn’t always easy. For Thida, helping Laura transform her lyrics from English to Khmer often meant not just translating words, but translating culture as well. …

‘I would write these very American songs with such American attitude and then my mom would have to translate it into this really good girl who doesn’t break any of the rules and just loves with all the poetry of her heart,’ Laura says.

“But they got better at melding their points of view, and Laura’s fame in Cambodia started to grow. But fame alone wasn’t the goal: For both women, the real mission was to foster a more creative Cambodian music industry. To do that, Laura saw she’d have to leave California behind. …

“Moving to Cambodia opened Laura’s eyes to what was happening behind the scenes of the country’s music industry. ‘Once I got here, it was realizing that it’s not that people can’t do original music, it’s that they aren’t allowed to. [Karaoke] houses were like “No, you can’t do original music because that would be only one album a year and I need to sell 12 to 25.” ‘

Read more about this mother-daughter success story and why they created their own production company, here.

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Photo: Singapore Chinese Orchestra.
Ionisers attached to ornamental snake plants in front of the stage improve air circulation with an “ionising curtain” between the performers and audience at a Singapore Chinese Orchestra concert. The idea is to keep people safe from Covid.

I was saddened and surprised the other day when I offended a woman wearing a mask by asking her if she was also vaccinated. We were in a small room where there was little air circulation, and she was there to give me a hearing test.

Sadness was my primary reaction as the question really upset her. But I was also surprised because so many clinics, performance spaces, restaurants, etc. bend over backwards to make patrons feel safe, even if their requests seem unreasonable.

Consider the introduction of snake plants at the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. Toh Wen Li reports for the Straits Times about their role in an unusual air-quality initiative.

“The air was charged with more than just emotion when the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) staged its first wind concert in months last Saturday (Sept 25).

“As the rousing sounds of the dizi, sheng and suona filled the concert hall, high-tech devices attached to 20 ornamental snake plants in front of the stage created an ‘ionising curtain’ between the performers and audience.

“The ionisers, designed to reduce the spread of Covid-19, induce a negative charge in the air particles around the plants. This pulls positively charged aerosols, droplets and particulate matter towards the leaves of the plants.

“The devices were introduced following a six-month collaboration between the orchestra and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

“SCO’s executive director Terence Ho hopes these — and a slew of other measures, such as a filterless high-volume air purifier developed by A*Star to be used in the foyer — will give people peace of mind and encourage them to attend live concerts.

” ‘We have to work towards bringing audiences back to the hall and more musicians back on stage,’ he tells The Straits Times, adding that the plant-based ionisers will remain for future concerts at Singapore Conference Hall, home to the SCO. …

“SCO’s suona and guan principal Jin Shiyi, 56, says in Mandarin: ‘Wind players are now a “high-risk” occupation, and we have had fewer opportunities to go on stage. I’m so happy we can perform on stage again.’

“Last Saturday’s wind concert, also available online for streaming, was part of the recently concluded Singapore Chinese Music Festival. It had drawn a physical audience of about 100 people, less than half the permitted capacity of 250 for that venue.

“Mr Ho says audiences are worried about the recent spike in Covid-19 cases. … For now, he is keeping his fingers crossed as the orchestra prepares for two concerts in early October to celebrate the SCO’s 25th anniversary, while taking precautions to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission. It has split performers  into separate ‘teams,’ cut down on rehearsals and roped in understudies in case performers are hit by the virus or with a 10-day quarantine order. …

“The orchestra would have launched it even without the pandemic, [Chief executive Chng Hak-Peng ] adds, as a way to maintain ties with local and overseas audiences. Before the pandemic, as many as 10 per cent of SSO’s live audience members were tourists.

“Home-grown charity the Foundation For The Arts And Social Enterprise has also launched a 10-year Music Commissioning Series to support Singapore composers and build up a canon of local contemporary music — from Chinese orchestra and cross-cultural works to jazz and musicals. …

“Founder Michael Tay says: ‘While we have had Singapore composers write works for wind bands and orchestras in the past, we don’t see a systematic plan to encourage the writing of major works (of at least 30 minutes).’ The series, he adds, ‘is meant to plug this gap.’ …

“Despite the resumption of live concerts … life has not returned to normal for orchestras. While live performances with up to 1,000 audience members, subject to conditions, are allowed, most venues can accommodate only a fraction of this after factoring in safe distancing measures. …

“[Mr Chng] adds: ‘Even though we are having concerts, we still have not, for the last year and a half, been able to have our entire orchestra perform together.’

“Then there is the impact on freelancers, who in pre-pandemic times would often perform with the orchestra and give pre-concert talks. …

“Countertenor and freelance choral director and educator Phua Ee Kia, 41, had no income for eight months last year and has not performed since 2019. He has been doing his rehearsals online during the pandemic.

” ‘Conductors are really struggling,’ he says. ‘Not all of us are tech-savvy and we don’t just have to cope with our own (issues), but also have to deal with situations when our students say, … “My screen went blank.” ‘

“Phua, who tapped a training grant to take a course in audio production software Logic Pro, hopes there will be more upskilling opportunities and financial support for freelancers. …

“Phua says: ‘A choir is not formed of just five people. I hope in the near future, we are allowed to gather and sing in a bigger group, albeit with masks on. Some of us are forgetting what it’s like to be able to perform in a bigger group.’ “

More at the Straits Times, here.

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Image: James Hilston/Post-Gazette.

Are you ever annoyed by the same tune going ’round and ’round in your head for hours — maybe even days? Drives me crazy. As fast as I can get to a radio, I put on a music station to drive the tune out. Here’s a theory about that repeating phenomenon.

Jeremy Reynolds reports at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “In the dark corners of the internet hides a playlist of some of the most torturous, addictive music known to man. That’s right, Spotify, SoundCloud and Apple Music all have playlists of ‘Baby Shark’ remixes. Do doo, do do, do do, do.

“Would you walk 500 miles to get away from that tune? Will your poker face crack the thousandth time it plays in your head? Does it remind you of somebody that you used to know? Do you value the sound of silence?

“You aren’t alone. These so-called earworms — gross — are annoying but useful, as new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in June helps illuminate the exact function these loops play. …

“Music therapists and shrewd marketers have long taken advantage of music’s ability to trigger memory. As research continues to illuminate how the process works, their techniques and goals are likely to become increasingly refined and targeted.

[Per Janata, a researcher at the University of California, Davis] says earworms help your brain encode and parse through daily memories and sensations that may not have anything to do with the exact moment when you first heard the tune. As it plays over and over in your head, you may come to associate memories or sensations different from those you experienced on first listening.

“These musical fragments became a kind of sorting mechanism that triggers clearer recall at a later date, especially when the tune plays once more, according to the study Spontaneous Mental Replay of Music Improves Memory for Incidentally Associated Event Knowledge. …

“In general, musicians and scientists alike have concluded that faster music with simple, repetitive melodies and harmonies are more likely to loop in the brain. …

“[Pittsburg composer Nancy Galbraith] differentiates between musical ‘hooks,’ a fragment designed to catch the ear, and earworms. Many earworms come from song hooks, but not all hooks become earworms. …

“ ‘Tchaikovsky was a really great hook writer, but we don’t really call them that in classical music,’ she said. ‘Personally I don’t associate them with anything specific. It’s more of an emotion or sensation.’ …

“Music therapists already use music’s ability to trigger a range of emotional states with their patients. According to Brittany Meyer, a neurologic music therapist at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, music’s ability to activate multiple parts of the brain simultaneously makes it a useful tool for rebuilding and strengthening pathways in the brain.

“ ‘Repetition is really great for creating earworms,’ Ms. Meyer said. ‘And we know that music is great for both encoding and retrieving memories.’

“She explained that music can trigger reaction in both the hippocampus, which plays a role in learning and memory, and the amygdala, which is involved in experiencing emotions. So listening to the same music at a later date can trigger the same emotions as when the listener last experienced the music.

“Ms. Meyer also said that a patient’s prior associations with a tune are more important than the inherent characteristics of the tune itself. For example, she cited an experience working with a child on the autism spectrum who didn’t want to brush his teeth. Ms. Meyer made up a song about brushing teeth to the tune of a song he liked. Then his mother could sing with him every night, which helped him remember to brush his teeth.

“Mr. Janata wonders how long it will be before this research is used in a more targeted way. Many Americans above a certain age can recall a few jingles from their childhoods and the products they advertised, and some educators use songs or tunes to help memorize information.

“But the possibilities don’t stop there. Mr. Janata’s recent study found that music can function as a targeted memory aid. That means learning names or new faces or places could one day be paired with an individual tune, almost like a personalized musical tag. 

“Mr. Janata is exploring that idea in his research and attempting to observe how the brain responds to musical stimuli and earworms using neural imaging technology. …

“ ‘That’s what our current experiments are trying to show and see whether that’s possible.’ ”

More at the Post-Gazette, here.

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Photo: Colorado Public Radio.
Cherish Ross is with FLOW, a sign language interpreting agency that specializes exclusively in performing arts.

So many interesting kinds of jobs in the world! And the luckiest people are the ones whose work aligns with what they love doing. Consider those who interpret for the deaf at concerts.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim has a cool story at the New York Times. “On a recent afternoon in a brightly lit studio in Brooklyn, Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant and Brandon Kazen-Maddox were filming a music video. They were recording a cover version of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ but the voices that filled the room were those of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who made the song a hit in the 1970s. And yet the two men in the studio were also singing — with their hands.

“Primeaux-O’Bryant is a deaf actor and dancer; Kazen-Maddox is a hearing dancer and choreographer who is, thanks to seven deaf family members, a native speaker of American Sign Language. Their version of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ is part of a 10-song series of American Sign Language covers of seminal works by Black female artists that Kazen-Maddox is producing for Broadstream, an arts streaming platform.

“Around the world, music knits together communities as it tells foundational stories, teaches emotional intelligence and cements a sense of belonging. … As sign language music videos proliferate on YouTube, where they spark comments from deaf and hearing viewers, the richness of American Sign Language, or A.S.L., has gotten a broader stage.

“ ‘Music is many different things to different people,’ Alexandria Wailes, a deaf actress and dancer told me in a video interview, using an interpreter. Wailes performed ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 2018 Super Bowl, and last year drew thousands of views on YouTube with her sign language contribution to ‘Sing Gently,’ a choral work by Eric Whitacre. …

“A good A.S.L. performance prioritizes dynamics, phrasing and flow. The parameters of sign language — hand shape, movement, location, palm orientation and facial expression — can be combined with elements of visual vernacular, a body of codified gestures, allowing a skilled A.S.L. speaker to engage in the kind of sound painting that composers use to enrich a text.

“At the recent video shoot, Gladys Knight’s voice boomed out of a large speaker while a much smaller one was tucked inside Primeaux-O’Bryant’s clothes, so that he could ‘tangibly feel the music,’ he said in an interview, with Kazen-Maddox interpreting. Out of sight of the camera, an interpreter stood ready to translate any instructions from the crew, all hearing, while a laptop displayed the song lyrics.

“In the song, the backup singers — here personified by Kazen-Maddox — encourage Knight as she rallies herself to join her lover, who has returned home to Georgia. In the original recording the Pips repeat the phrase ‘all aboard.’ But as Kazen-Maddox signed it, those words grew into signs evoking the movement of the train and its gears. A playful tug at an invisible whistle corresponded to the woo-woo of the band’s horns. Primeaux-O’Bryant signed the lead vocals with movements that gently extended the words, just as in the song: on the drawn-out ‘oh’ of ‘not so long ago-oh-oh,’ his hands fluttered into his lap. The two men also incorporated signs from Black A.S.L.

‘The hands have their own emotions,’ Primeaux-O’Bryant said. ‘They have their own mind.’

“Deaf singers prepare for their interpretations by experiencing a song through any means available to them. Many people speak about their heightened receptivity to the vibrations of sound, which they experience through their body. As a dancer trained in ballet, Primeaux-O’Bryant said he was particularly attuned to the vibrations of a piano as transmitted through a wooden floor.

“Primeaux-O’Bryant was a student at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington in the early 1990s when a teacher asked him to sign a Michael Jackson song during Black History Month. His first reaction was to refuse.

“But the teacher ‘pulled it out’ of him, he said, and he was thrust into the limelight in front of a large audience. Then, Primeaux-O’Bryant said, ‘the lights came on and my cue happened and I just exploded and signed the work and it felt good.’ Afterward the audience erupted in applause: ‘I fell in love with performing onstage.’ ”

Find information on things like the role of ballet training in ASL interpretation, the impact of the pandemic, and Egyptian Arabic Sign Language at the Times, here.

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Photo: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
Listening to music can soothe people of any age. The woman above was 108 when the photo was taken.

We have been keeping an eye on the use of music to connect dementia patients to calming memories. (For example, in this post.)

Today we have Robert Booth reporting at the Guardian that when hospital staff in the UK worked with Alzheimer’s patients on a targeted playlist for each person, the results included lowered heart rate and less agitation.

“Trials are under way at an NHS trust to see if an algorithm can curate music playlists to reduce suffering in Alzheimer’s patients as well as in stressed medical staff.

“A test among people with dementia found an algorithm that ‘prescribes’ songs based on listeners’ personal backgrounds and tastes resulted in reductions in heart rate of up to 22%, lowering agitation and distress in some cases.

“[Now] Lancashire teaching hospitals NHS trust is extending trials to medical staff who worked in critical care during Covid to see if it can ease anxiety and stress. It is also planning to test it on recovering critical care patients, needle-phobic children and outpatients coping with chronic pain in the hope of reducing opiate prescriptions.

“The technology operates as a musical ‘drip.’ playing songs to patients and monitoring their heart rates as they listen. … An algorithm allows the software, which is linked to a streaming service like Spotify, to change forthcoming tracks if the prescription doesn’t appear to be working. Its artificial intelligence system assesses the ‘DNA’ of songs, examining 36 different qualities including tempo, timbre, key, time signatures, the amount of syncopation and the lowest notes. Gary Jones, the chief executive of MediMusic, the company developing the software, said these were among the factors that can shape the heart rate and blood pressure response to a track.

“A trial of 25 people with Alzheimer’s aged from their 60s to their 90s conducted at the Lancashire NHS trust has shown some promising results, the trust said. …

Said Dr Jacqueline Twamley, academic research and innovation manager, ‘Some people it doesn’t affect the heart rate at all, but you can see the effect in their facial expressions and in them tapping along. One patient burst out crying. He said the song brought back happy memories and they were happy tears.’ …

“When Twamley tried it, she was surprised to see the algorithm prescribed her songs by Gloria Estefan, the Pretenders, Lionel Richie and Billy Ocean. She is a fan of more raucous bands, including Led Zeppelin, Queens of the Stone Age and the niche progressive rock outfit Porcupine Tree. But it still had an effect.

” ‘I was quite stressed at the beginning of it, but I just felt calm afterwards,’ she said.

“The system aims to select songs that create a gradation in heart rate, starting with something bracing like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture and moving towards a lullaby.”

At the Guardian, here, you can check out the playlists recommended for patients of different ages.

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Photo: Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Robert Black started playing tuba with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at 19.

The photo above reminds me of a long-ago time that one of my brothers played the tuba. Even today, people remember how it hung out the door of the VW bug when my mother drove him to junior high.

A tuba is a mighty big instrument, and it takes a certain kind of musician to fall in love with it. For example, the young man in today’s story.

Jim Higgins writes at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “If Robert Black drops out of college, and that day could be coming soon, his professor and his parents aren’t going to cry or scold.

“Black, 19, beat out dozens of older musicians to win the job of tuba player in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra through a blind audition process. He’s the orchestra’s youngest musician and only member of the Gen Z cohort.

“He signed his contract in early 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted chances to play last spring. So Black [made] his MSO subscription debut March 6, playing Paul Hindemith’s ‘Morgenmusik,’ though he did play a Christmas music quintet with MSO colleagues in December. 

“A calm speaker, Black finds it easy to explain why he enjoys being an orchestra tuba player. A tuba — and the low brass section — adds fullness in an ensemble filled with higher register instruments.

” ‘I just really love being … the person that gets to add that (depth) to the whole sound of the ensemble,’ he said.

“Black said he likely became a tuba player because his late godfather, who played the instrument, gave his family a small E-flat three-valve tuba. Black’s mother was a middle school and high school band teacher, and both his mom and his older sister played horns, so brass music was a regular part of family life in Vernon Hills, Illinois. …

“After finishing his college auditions and choosing Rice University in Houston, Black took part in the 2019 auditions for the Milwaukee Symphony’s open tuba position with 61 other musicians. He did not expect much to come from it.

” ‘My kind of goal was if I can advance past the first round, I’ll consider it a success,’ he said. 

“In the ‘elephant room’ where the tuba auditioners warmed up, he recognized musicians he knew from Facebook, people who already had jobs. But to his pleasant surprise, Black made it through to the final round, playing excerpts from Bruckner’s Seventh with a professional trombone section for the first time.  

“The MSO didn’t hire a player out of that audition, but Black went off to his freshman year at Rice with helpful feedback. … At Rice, he worked closely with professor David Kirk, who is also the principal tubist of the Houston Symphony. 

‘It was clear to me from when I first heard him that he would have a very short time as a student. He was destined for professional success,’ Kirk said during a telephone interview.

“For his second audition in January 2020, in attempting to prepare as much as possible at Rice while still making his flight to Milwaukee, but with dorms closed for winter break, Black slept on a couch in a practice room for a few days. …

“After the final round, assistant personnel manager Rip Prétat took him to meet the panel of musicians and music director Ken-David Masur, who welcomed him to the orchestra. …

” ‘Robert is an incredible musician,’ principal trombonist Megumi Kanda said in an email message. ‘He is sensitive to his surroundings and has great style. His playing and blending skills are remarkably mature, especially given his youthfulness! His ability and willingness to musically interact and adjust quickly will make him a great fit.’

“Lest Black’s parents have any concern about his adjustment to life in the MSO, Kanda wrote: ‘As his neighbors in the orchestra, the trombones are a nurturing bunch; we will take good care of him!’

“Kirk said he has counseled Black on integrating himself into the orchestra. Ask questions, don’t make statements, he has told the young musician: ‘You have to be respectful of the fact that those people have been playing music together for so long. They have their own habits, their own customs and they must be respected.’ “

More at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, here.

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Photo: Business Trip Friend, 2017.
An Ice Music Festival is held in Norway most every year, although it was cancelled for 2021 because of Covid. In 2020, it was held in the village of Finse, near the Hardangerjøkulen glacier.

Finally, the ice is melting where I live. I can’t help but think “good riddance” after an outdoor birthday party Sunday that saw us slipping and sliding with the grandchildren through the woods. But I have to remind myself that they actually love the ice (two kids are hockey players), and in fact, there are a variety of reasons to love ice.

Consider Lola Akinmade Åkerström’s report at National Geographic.

“Brittle bursts that mimic cymbals. Deep hollowed notes reminiscent of metal drums. These are some of the surprising sounds that Siberian percussion group Ethnobeat created from Russia’s frozen Lake Baikal in a 2012 viral video that introduced millions around the globe to ice music.

“But similarly haunting melodies had been filling dark Arctic nights across Norway and Sweden for several years. In 2000 Norwegian composer and percussionist Terje Isungset performed the world’s first ice music concert inside a frozen waterfall in Lillehammer.

“Six years later Isungset founded the annual Ice Music Festival Norway, drawing curious adventurers willing to brave subzero temperatures in order to experience this unique way of bonding with nature through music. (This winter’s festival was canceled due to the pandemic, but he’s planning to livestream a concert on March 14.)

“For Isungset, who was already experimenting with natural elements such as stone and wood when composing music, his foray into ice was an organic next step.

‘When I first started playing on clear ice, I found its pure sound surprisingly warm and gentle compared to the sound of crushed ice beneath your feet.’ …

“So what exactly is ice music? Musicians tap beats out of naturally occurring ice or play instruments crafted from ice. Many of the instruments may seem familiar, but with ice music, nature takes center stage—and brings more than a few notes of unpredictability. Both the making and playing of the instruments are processes that can’t be fully controlled, which only adds to the art’s appeal.

“Carved instruments can be either completely made of ice, such as horns and percussion, or hybrids, like harps, in which the main body is ice with metal strings attached. Isungset collaborates with award-winning ice sculptor Bill Covitz, who is based in the United States but travels to concert destinations around the world to make instruments on location.

“Another American artist, Tim Linhart focused on snow and ice sculptures in the U.S. before moving to Europe and building a reputation for crafting ice instruments. Thirty-six years later he has created hundreds of them. …

“By studying and intricately blending materials — such as homemade clear ice and carbonated water, plus crushed mountain snow — Linhart can make instruments like violins and tune them as close to perfect as nature allows. …

” ‘When you approach that breaking point between the tension of the string and the thickness of the material, right there is where music truly happens,’ says Linhart, who honed his craft through trial, error, and a few exploding instruments. …

“When the show starts, other complications arise. “’Ice is always in motion; expanding, contracting and sublimating away into the atmosphere,’ says Linhart. ‘Warm bodies melt instruments. Audiences increase temperatures because they are breathing. Instruments need to be re-tuned differently. Some drop several notes, others rise.’ To mitigate this, he designs domed concert venues that ventilate heat away from the instruments.

“Another hazard? Horn players’ lips can stick to the mouthpieces of their instruments. And most of the time, the performers can’t practice on their delicate tools, so they often compose music live and improvise in front of the audience. …

“Other instruments such as the ‘iceofon’ — a cross between a xylophone and a marimba that pairs nicely with the harp — need to be tuned differently to avoid playing entire concerts in one tone.”

Lots more about musicians up for a challenge at National Geographic, here.

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Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP.
National Museum of African American Music, Nashville, Tennessee.

I haven’t headed back to museums yet, but I’m pretty sure I will be allowing myself to go this year. I’ve been interested to read that many museums plan to keep some presentation techniques they’ve used during the pandemic. Meanwhile, other museums are actually just launching.

Kristin M. Hall reports at the Associated Press (AP), “A new museum two decades in the making is telling the interconnected story of Black musical genres through the lens of American history.

“The National Museum of African American Music, which opened with a virtual ribbon-cutting on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is seated in the heart of Nashville’s musical tourism district. …

“Even as Nashville has long celebrated its role in the history of music, the new museum fills a gap by telling an important and often overlooked story about the roots of American popular music, including gospel, blues, jazz, R&B and hip-hop.

” ‘When we think of the history of African American music and the important part it has played in our country, it was long overdue to honor it in this type of way,’ said gospel great CeCe Winans, who serves as a national chair for the museum.

“The idea for the museum came from two Nashville business and civic leaders, Francis Guess and T.B. Boyd, back in 1998, who wanted a museum dedicated to Black arts and culture. And while there are museums around the country that focus on certain aspects of Black music, this museum bills itself as the first of its kind to be all encompassing. …

“Said H. Beecher Hicks III, the museum’s president and CEO, ‘[It’s]it’s one thing to say that I’m a hip hop fan or I’m a blues fan, but why? What was going on in our country and our lived experience and our political environment that made that music so moving, so inspirational, such the soundtrack for that part of our lives?’

The museum tells a chronological story of Black music starting in the 1600s through present day and framed around major cultural movements including the music and instruments brought by African slaves, the emergence of blues through the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement.

“When Winans recently took a tour of the museum, she saw her own family of gospel singers, the Winans, represented in the museum’s exhibit on spiritual music alongside the artists that influenced her own musical career.

” ‘You never start out doing what you’re doing to be a part of history or even be a part of a museum,’ said the 12-time Grammy-winning singer. She noted that the museum put gospel music in context with how it inspired social change, especially during the civil rights era. …

“The museum has 1,600 artifacts in their collection, including clothes and a Grammy Award belonging to Ella Fitzgerald, a guitar owned by B.B. King and a trumpet played by Louis Armstrong. To make the best use out of the space, the exhibits are layered with interactive features, including 25 stations that allow visitors to virtually explore the music.

“Visitors can learn choreographed dance moves with a virtual instructor, sing ‘Oh Happy Day’ with a choir led by gospel legend Bobby Jones and make their own hip-hop beats. Visitors can take home their recordings to share via a personal RFID wristband.

“There will be a changing exhibit gallery, with the first topic to be the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an a cappella group originally formed in 1871 to raise money for Fisk University. The group sang slave spirituals at their concerts. The tradition continues today.

“After a year of racial reckoning through the movement of Black Lives Matter, Hicks said the timing couldn’t be more perfect to highlight the contributions of Black music to our shared American experience.

“ ‘[It] is not an accident that we are able to finish and get the museum open in this moment, in this moment where we need to be reminded, perhaps more than others or more than in the recent past that we are brothers and we share more together than we do our differences.’ “

More at AP, here

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Photo: Carole Fritz.
This ancient conch shell from modern-day France was once used to play music.

For today’s story, you’ll want to go to the original article to see the detailed illustrations showing how a conch shell was turned into a musical instrument thousands of years ago — and how archaeologists figured it out.

Matt Simon reports at Wired, “Some 18,000 years ago, in a cave in what we now call France, a human being left behind something precious: a conch shell. It was not just any conch shell. Its tip had been lopped off—unlikely by accident, given that this is the strongest part of the shell—allowing a person to blow air into it. The shell’s jagged outer lip was trimmed smooth, perhaps to assist in gripping, and it also bore red, smudgy fingerprints that matched the pigment from a cave painting just feet away from where the object was found in 1931.

“But those archaeologists missed its true significance: It was an intentionally crafted musical instrument. Writing today in the journal Science Advances, researchers from several universities and museums in France describe how they used CT scans and other imaging wizardry to show that a person during the Upper Paleolithic age took great care to modify the shell, the oldest such instrument ever found. They even got a musician to play it for us, revealing sounds that have not rung out for millennia.

“The first clue to suggest this shell was actually an instrument is that broken tip, or apex. If you find a conch shell on a beach, you can’t just toot it as-is — you’ve got to knock that tip off to get air flowing through the internal chambers and to exit through the opening of the outer lip. …

“The researchers had a musician try playing the shell in the lab. You can hear three notes [at Wired]. The sound is a bit breathy, like a more earthy version of a trumpet or trombone.

“But the breakage around the apex turned out to be quite jagged. ‘It’s very irregular, and it was hurting his lips,’ says archaeologist Gilles Tosello of the University of Toulouse, a corresponding author on the paper. … Why would an ancient human take the trouble to modify a conch shell and then not add a mouthpiece? …

“As for the shell’s outer lip, Tosello and his colleagues could tell it had been chipped away, both from wear patterns and by comparing it to pristine shells of the same species, which have significantly larger lips. In addition, the researchers enhanced a photo of the inside of the lip … to reveal faint red splotches.

These are fingerprints left behind in ocher, and the pigment matches a wall painting of a bison that was mere feet from where the shell was found. That bison was actually etched into the wall, then covered with over 300 ocher fingerprints to shade it in.

“The researchers couldn’t date the shell itself, since that’d require breaking a piece of it off to do carbon dating. But … based on these nearby objects, which they think would have been used by the same people around the same era, they surmised that the shell is likely 18,000 years old. …

“This was in pre-agricultural times, so they would have been Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. [It is] likely that this person belonged to a band of 10 or 20 humans working together to survive.

“We also know that life must not have been too terrible, since people had the time and energy to make music. And after all, they didn’t need an instrument to make music in the first place. ‘With a voice, you can make music,’ says archaeologist Carole Fritz of the University of Toulouse, a corresponding author on the paper. That is, the shell is extraneous. ‘I think music is a very symbolic art for people,’ Fritz adds. …

“This find emphasizes the richness of Upper Paleolithic culture, says University of Victoria paleolithic archaeologist April Nowell, who wasn’t involved in the research. ‘We have music, we have art, we have textiles, we have ceramics,’ she says. ‘These were really complex people.’

More at Wired, here.

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Photo: Ryan Collerd
Bowerbird, a group of musicians in Philadelphia, is streaming late-night concerts that may help you sleep — or at least put you in a relaxed state
.

When I wrote about people having trouble falling asleep, here, it was September 2020. It seemed like a more stressful time than January 2021, despite today’s increasing numbers of Covid cases. Readers who had their own reasons for stress in September, weighed in with their techniques for getting to sleep. Today, I offer a new one.

David Patrick Stearns remarks at the Philadelphia Inquirer that musicians work hard to keep audiences awake, but “not in the new Bowerbird concert series Liminal States, seven streamed events slotted at 10 or 11 p.m. that aim to put listeners into a sort-of slumber somewhere between sleeping and waking. The series is co-produced with West Philly’s Rotunda, Bowerbird’s home venue.

“ ‘Everybody is so traumatized and beat up that if a concert involves another state of awareness, that’s a very attractive prospect,’ said pianist Marilyn Nonken, who [opened] with Morton Feldman’s spare, meditative, 90-minute Triadic Memories.

‘It’s not a piece so much as it’s an environment, a sanctuary, where you can go and stay a while. … where your brain waves change.’

“If the other Liminal musicians have anything in common it’s a concept of sound that proceeds without a predictable end in sight.

“The hard-to-categorize indy artists include Jeff Zeigler (Jan. 31), next on the schedule after Nonken, an engineer and producer whose own music falls in the ambient zone. Philadelphia-born Laraaji (Feb. 14), the series’ third performer, is described as often as a mystic as he is a percussionist who creates shimmering, luminous sound environments.

“Laura Baird (Feb. 25) arises more from the folk tradition but crosses over into the electronic zone. Tatsuya Nakatani (March 10) has a gong orchestra, with instruments gently bowed more often than they’re struck. If there’s such a thing as an experimental harpist, it’s Mary Lattimore (March 25), whose ambient collaborations with Zeigler have her harp giving definition to his washes of sound.

“Relatively traditional — at least on the surface — is Variant 6, a Philadelphia-based vocal sextet that ends the series on May 6, and typically sings a range from Monteverdi to newly written vocal works. …

“Bowerbird artistic director Dustin Hurt is encouraging live performances — a particularly atmospheric possibility for Nakatani’s gongs, since the East Coast streaming time will be around dusk in the New Mexico desert where the artist lives. Some artists will be pre-recorded, though nocturnally, in the late-night slot that their streaming will occupy. …

“ ‘This idea has been around, inside my mind, for a long time,’ said Hurt, who has enjoyed liminal states when listening to Feldman while lying on the floor (an option not available at most in-person concerts).

” ‘The music levitates very slowly, so that when you wake up, you wonder “Was I asleep for 10 minutes or an hour?” ‘

“Variant 6 member Elisa Sutherland said working remotely, and given the lag time that can come with conference technology, ‘there’s potential for a powerful, somewhat spooky experience.’

“Liminal States concerts are pay-what-you-wish, with a suggested donation of $25. Information: bowerbird.org.

More at the Inquirer, here.

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