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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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