Friday, August 28, 2015

Mariah Carey in Vegas: Going for the High

by William Cheng
This essay first appeared in Ryot, 29 July 2015, and was reposted by the Huffington Post, 30 July 2015.

As Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj work through their bad blood, there’s no better time to take stock of how artists, fans, and critics snub and snipe at one another. Amid clashes in the music world, are we leaving enough room for celebration and compassion?

This month, Mariah Carey kicked off the summer stretch of her Las Vegas residency with the concert series Mariah Carey #1 to Infinity, featuring the singer’s 18 No. 1 U.S. hits (1990–2008). Fans packed the Caesar’s Palace auditorium, twittering and tweeting with anticipation before the show, then erupting in screams as soon as the faintest silhouette of the diva materialized on stage. Carey’s supersonic vocals, flashy props, and electrified audience came together for a virtuosic production from beginning to end.



I went to the show not so much as a musicologist (my profession), but as a fan. I yearned to hear some of my favorite Mariah pop hits and power ballades, the songs I played on a loop on my Discman during carefree childhood and angsty adolescence. Listening to Carey’s chronological, live renditions of Billboard-topping songs, I succumbed to an overdose of nostalgia.

But throughout the night, as Carey’s colossal voice made me break out into goofy grins and unabashed tears, a tiny voice chirped in the back of my mind. No, not my conscience: rather, it was Jon Caramanica’s scathing New York Times review of Carey’s Vegas debut back in May. I stumbled across this review before coming to see Carey for myself. In his narrative, Caramanica bemoaned Mariah as a fallen legend, a singer who was once “something superhuman,” but now, mere “decaying manufacturing machinery.” He fixated on Carey’s struggle with her signature high notes, as have several other critics (see here, here, here, and here).

Yes, it’s the job of music critics to pick at details and submit concrete opinions. Yet let’s face it: when judging musicians, we pick on things like pitch and intonation not least because it’s easy to do so—literally as easy as A, B, C. We have standard vocabularies for such technicalities, and it’s effortless to pick on high notes precisely because they’re so hard to hit. With weekly diets of American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent, everyone these days can feel like an expert when it comes to assessing singers. If Randy Jackson can blithely say “pitchy” as a catch-all appraisal of countless Idol contestants, surely we can too.

In our Internet era’s culture of humiliation, people jump at opportunities to shame singers who sound off, as with last year’s leaked raw (pre-Auto-Tuned) vocals of Britney Spears. It’s “gotcha!” journalism, music edition.

To nitpick that someone sounds sharp or flat can make us feel smart and superior. (Or consider Internet discussion threads and people’s tendencies to assail others’ grammatical and spelling errors; as with music, commenters seem to obsess over such minutiae only when they don’t have anything better to say.) If I wanted to quibble about details, I could point out that Caramanica mistakenly observed how Carey “sang parts of several songs an octave lower than the recordings.” Carey, in fact, rarely dropped down full octaves: instead, she frequently came down intervals of 3rds and 6ths (texturally compensated with light melismas), and the occasional bluesy 4th/flat-5th (as in the chorus of “Hero”). But I won’t quibble, since to me, these details are uninteresting.

Because so what if Mariah Carey indeed can no longer belt out accurate high notes like she once could? With her multi-decade career, she has taxed her vocal cords to the max. If her voice today sounds relatively strained—a stark matter of anatomy and aging (what musicologists who study disability might call “late style,” e.g., concerning Beethoven’s deafness)—it’s not her responsibility to somehow regain the able-voicedness she once possessed. No: it falls on us, the listeners, to listen to this difference differently, compassionately. Fans, of all people, understand this best. At the concert I attended, audience members cheered (a particularly shrill man in the row behind me kept shouting “I love you!” and “You’re perfection!”) even in moments when Carey sounded imperfect. They did so not because they necessarily lacked critical faculties or musical chops, but because they were marching to a different drum, grooving to beats of loyalty and love.

In his review, Caramanica quipped that Carey’s “rasp felt like a glitch, not a goal.” How many of us, however, can claim we haven’t all felt like a glitch from time to time—out of tune, out of order? Isn’t it when we’re at our most vulnerable that we most desperately crave acceptance, care, and leeway? Is it possible to measure a singer’s merit not by odd notes here and there, but by the metrics of tears, smiles, and inner stirrings? For that matter, did you care whether Barack Obama sang perfectly when he performed “Amazing Grace” at the end of his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney? Even if we can discern he didn’t sing perfectly well (on key, in time), would any of us deny he sang profoundly good (with heart, with purpose)?

You could argue that when you pay good money to see a professional artist, you expect something professional. But I suppose that depends on what we want to get out of a performance, professional or otherwise. Pleasure? Uplift? Edification? Does any of this depend on whether Carey hits her multiple high-high-E’s at the end of “Emotions”?

No one likes fair-weather friends—the people who stick around for the high points, but abandon ship when you need a shoulder to cry on. I’m not sure we should be fair-weather listeners either—critics who applaud solid high notes, yet cry foul at the first sign of weakness.

Next time you go to a concert where a singer’s voice cracks, why not try treating it as a learning opportunity—not for the musician, but for yourself? Ask yourself why you judge and why you care. Contemplate whether your ears have become so entrained to certain tonal and musical standards that you’re missing other aural pathways to beauty and truth.

In other words, let’s go not for the high notes, but for the high.

William Cheng is Assistant Professor at Dartmouth College (website HERE) and Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He is the author of Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination (Oxford UP, 2014) and recipient of the AMS Philip Brett Award. He is working on two monographs: Misrule in Meritopia: Listening for Beauty and Injury in the 21st Century and Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hildegard's Cosmos, cont'd.

Margot Fassler, Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, presented the AMS President’s Endowed Plenary Lecture on 6 November 2014 at the American Musicological Society's annual meeting in Milwaukee. The talk was entitled “Hildegard’s Cosmos and Its Music: Making a Digital Model for the Modern Planetarium.” Our preliminary coverage HERE.

Margot Fassler
The work reported on in this talk is a collaborative effort involving forces performative, scholarly, and technological. Because of the way Hildegard describes her understanding of the cosmos in the treatise Scivias, the model unfolds in two acts. The First Act allows for the events that occur before the universe as she depicts it was set in motion with all its epic struggles, and the Second Act places the Cosmic Egg in motion, with zoomable features. To do this work, the creators have transformed flat illuminations into moving, sounding three-dimensional images, following Hildegard’s instructions for how they work as faithfully as possible. It is as though a twelfth-century composer wrote a storyboard for us to follow, lacking the technology herself.

The talk lasts about 50 minutes, and includes the lecture's visual and aural illustrations.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Boulez Turns 90, Scholarship on Boulez Turns 60

by Jonathan Goldman

Last March 26th was not only the 188th anniversary of Beethoven’s death but also the 90th birthday of that most influential of 20th-century musicians, Pierre Boulez. Like Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt, longevity mixed with unparalleled stature (though one that is of course far from uncontested by those anxious to wake up from musical modernism as from a bad dream) has meant that several earlier birthdays have already been celebrated (in particular the 60th and 75th) with a myriad of musical and scholarly manifestations including concerts, recordings, and publications. Sadly, the maestro’s failing health has prevented him from attending most of these events, including, alarmingly, a festival of his music in Baden-Baden, which he has called home since the late 1950s.


Highlights leading up to the birthday celebrations include the 2013 Deutsche Grammophon release of the composer’s “Complete Works” on 13 CDs. The title of the box set is doubly unexpected, since it seems both to acknowledge that no additions to the Boulezian catalogue will be forthcoming and also to fly in the face of the composer’s Joycean aesthetics of incompleteness that has meant that many of his works exist in multiple versions, often fashioned over the span of decades. Fittingly, the two U.S. symphony orchestras with which he is most closely associated, Cleveland and Chicago, have celebrated his music in high-profile concerts, the latter even producing a multimedia film/concert in collaboration with the architect Frank Gehry, premiered on 14 November 2014, entitled “A Pierre Dream: A Portrait of Pierre Boulez.” A Paris exhibition on Boulez’s life and music took place at the Musée de la Musique and at the brand new Philharmonie de Paris, both located at the Cité de la Musique, the musical complex in La Villette in the outskirts of Paris that was Boulez’s brainchild, accompanied by a handsome catalogue (ed. Sarah Bernadette) to which I was happy to contribute. In London, where Boulez once conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, that orchestra as well as the London Symphony Orchestra, together with the new music-outfit that Boulez founded, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, offered a Boulez “Total Immersion Day” at the Barbican.

The 90th-birthday festivities have also been the occasion to consider once again Boulez’s musical legacy as a composer, sometimes in the popular press. The British composer George Benjamin, like Boulez a former pupil of Messiaen, published a calm plaidoyer for Boulez’s music in The Guardian. He felt the need for such a gesture after he “once asked a group of young composers ... whether there was any modern music they didn’t like. More than half of them mentioned Pierre Boulez.” This is a pity, since, as Benjamin writes of Boulez’s orchestral Notations,
There is no better postwar piece written for orchestra than Notations, his five hyper-elaborate orchestral canvases, all based on very simple serial pieces he wrote for the piano in his early 20s. Arguably the most important composer-conductor since Mahler, Boulez knows the orchestra more intimately than any of his colleagues, and these short, dazzling showpieces have an intoxicating exuberance and elegance. (George Benjamin, “In Praise of Pierre Boulez at 90,” The Guardian, 20 March 2015).
It’s also too bad that the Notations score is too tall to lend itself to convenient study in the classroom. Still, something needs to be done about the monopoly that the rather uncharacteristically arid Structure 1a from the first book of Structures pour deux pianos (1951–52) continues to enjoy in 20th-century music theory classes in North American universities. Perhaps instructors should consider presenting the more sensuous (if less radical—to paraphrase the title of an NPR radio documentary on Boulez produced by Tom Huizenga last March) chamber works like Dérives 1 (1984) or Mémoriale (...explosante-fixe...Originel) (1985), not to mention the many teachable moments available in certain movements of the truly seminal Le Marteau sans maître (1952–55).

The last ten years have also been rich in scholarship on Boulez. New approaches to research on Boulez have been offered by Catherine Steinegger, who published a book-length study of Boulez’s work in the theatre (Pierre Boulez et le théâtre: 
de la Compagnie Renaud‑Barrault 
à Patrice Chéreau, Brussels: Mardaga, 2012); and Edward Campbell (Boulez, Music and Philosophy, Cambridge UP, 2010), who takes seriously the philosophical sources of Boulez musical thought. The last few years have also seen new discoveries on the analytical front (by such theorists as Catherine Losada and Ciro Scotto), and most of all, a flurry of sketch studies made possible by the establishment of the Boulez Fund at the Paul Sacher Foundation (Fonds Boulez, Fondation Paul Sacher) in Basel in 1986, that despite the sometimes forbidding nature of the technical and philological apparatus used, constitutes a major breakthrough in Boulez studies (including pioneering work by Robert Piencikowski, Pascal Decroupet, Peter O’Hagan, and Paolo Dal Molin). The Sacher Foundation has so far produced two beautiful (and giant) facsimile editions of Boulez’s works, Le Marteau sans maître (ed. Pascal Decroupet, London: Schott, 2005) and Tombeau, the last movement of Pli selon pli  (ed. Robert Piencikowski, Universal Edition, 2010). I hope that more are on their way.

All of these are welcome additions to scholarship on the composer that is already indescribably vast: a bibliography of writings on Boulez that spanned sixteen dense journal pages was published as far back as 1972! (Michael Fink, “Pierre Boulez: a Selective Bibliography,” Current Musicology 13, 1972: 135–50). And that was the year that Boulez was named principal conductor of both the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony and the point at which scholarly (and general) interest in his music really began to gather steam. I’ll be publishing a detailed annotated bibliography of writings on Boulez in Oxford Bibliographies, which I had to painfully prune down to the bare minimum of sources (some 150-odd), since it is likely that no composer from the postwar period has been the subject of so many articles, interviews and journalistic pieces, not to mention the many book-length scholarly publications on Pierre Boulez, the first dating all the way back to Antoine Goléa’s Rencontres avec Boulez (Paris: Julliard, 1958).

And yet, seen from another angle, it almost seems as if scholarship on Boulez and his contemporaries were just getting under way. The tempering of the influence of hard-boiled modernism on historiography in the last two decades has made room for scholarship that might not have been possible in the era when the musicology of the postwar avant-garde was spellbound by these composers’ own hyper-confident discourse, already unquestionably infused with historiographic raw materials, as Charles Wilson (“György Ligeti and the Rhetoric of Autonomy,” Twentieth-Century Music 1/1, 2004: 5–28) and Anne-Sylvie Barthel-Calvet (in her introduction to Propositions pour une historiographie critique de la création musicale après 1945, Metz, 2011) have both noted. Some recent scholarship offers historiographic narratives that diverge considerably from those suggested by the composer’s own pronouncements. Georgina Born’s classic Rationalizing Culture (University of California Press, 1995), with its sociological methods, certainly deserves to be mentioned in this regard, as does Mark Carroll’s study of Boulez’s Structures in the context of that famous Cold-War era cultural showdown, the 1954 “Oeuvre du 20e Siècle” organized in Paris by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (Music and Ideology in Cold War Europe, Cambridge UP, 2006) or an article by Ben Parsons that parses the political and social context of Boulez’s writings from the 1950s (“Sets and the City: Serial Analysis, Parisian Reception, and Pierre Boulez’s Structures 1a,Current Musicology 76, 2003: 53–79).

In my own work, I have lately become interested in the relationship of modernist composers of Boulez’s generation with the sound technology of their era. This is particularly striking in Boulez’s 1958 orchestral work Doubles, later expanded into Figures Doubles Prismes. Its most obvious feature is its use of an unusual seating plan, in which the orchestral choirs are divided into several groups and scattered across the stage; it shares this interest in orchestral space with Stockhausen’s Gruppen, a work that was premiered barely a week after Doubles. I was interested in viewing Doubles as a product of its times, one of the important technological developments of which for music concerns sound recording and reproduction, specifically the commercial introduction of stereo long-playing records that led to the mass-distribution of stereo sound technology into homes throughout the western world. This led me to wonder whether an allusion to the technology of stereophony might have been inscribed into Doubles and whether contemporary concert-goers might have heard it in relation to this new cutting-edge audio technology. I developed this hypothesis on the basis of the seating plan of the work, and of the title that might have been in part an allusion to the two-tracks of stereo and to the coincidence that stereo LPs were introduced into the commercial market in the same year as the work’s premiere. I was gratified when I finally dug up the program note from the work’s Parisian premiere to find that Boulez claimed there that “no one will contradict me when I claim that the ear in our time requires stereophony in its desire for clarity and movement.” Later, with successive performances of new versions of the work throughout the 1960s, Boulez either downplays the association with stereophony (Boulez would write in the interview published in the program of a 1965 performance in Cleveland that “there is no aiming for spectacular effects of the ‘tennis’ or ‘ping-pong’ type; rather a structural disposition of the orchestra which allows what in physics is called ‘Brownian movements’ ”) or omits it altogether. I go on to try to analyze this shift in terms of the ambiguous relationship modernist composers have with technology. This is the subject of a chapter I will be contributing to an upcoming volume: Boulez Studies, ed. Edward Campbell and Peter O’Hagan, forthcoming from Cambridge UP.

Jonathan Goldman is Associate Professor of Musicology at the Université de Montréal (website HERE). He is the author of The Musical Language of Pierre Boulez. Writings and Compositions (Cambridge UP 2011), editor of the volume La Création musicale au Québec (Collection PUM, 2014), and co-editor of the volume La Pensée de Pierre Boulez à travers ses écrits (Sampzon, Delatour France, 2010). He is also editor-in-chief of the journal Circuit, musiques contemporaines.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Transforming Musicology

A Report from Britain

by Carolin Rindfleisch


As a three-year project funded under the British Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Digital Transformations scheme, Transforming Musicology is part of a broader effort to understand how digital technologies and digital culture can transform scholarly work in several disciplines. Acknowledging that musicological research and academic culture are inescapably changing, the project aims to be at the forefront of defining—or suggesting—what “Digital Musicology” can look like.



It is being carried out collaboratively by musicologists, computer scientists, and psychologists at Goldsmiths College, Queen Mary College, Oxford University, the Oxford e-Research Centre, Lancaster University, and Utrecht University. Within its three main investigative strands and four associated mini-projects, the research project encompasses a wide range of musicological subjects, methods, perspectives, sources, and topics:
  • Sixteenth Century Lute and Vocal Music explores methods of digitizing early printed sources from images to encoded scores, and also works towards the enrichment and digital publication of metadata on such sources, so that they can be the subject of large-scale investigations.
  • Musicology of the Social Media explores the phenomenon of non-traditional musical expertise as evidenced on the Web, and employs techniques of social network analysis in studying current as well as historical musical networks.
  • Richard Wagner and the Leitmotiv Technique brings together historical and philological approaches with empirical psychological methods and “Semantic Web” technologies in order to investigate the reception, interpretation and perception of Wagner’s leitmotivs through changing historical and cultural contexts from the Ring premiere in 1876 until today.
 Mini-projects:
  •  Large-scale corpus analysis of historical electronic music using MIR tools is building a corpus of electronic music and using audio analysis techniques to explore it.
  •  In Concert: Towards a Collaborative Digital Archive of Musical Ephemera federates a number of databases of materials relating to historical performances such as concert programs and analyzes them in order to explore trends in musical tastes. 
  • Medieval Music, Big Data and the Research Blend takes a rigorous approach to mining the Web for new sources of conductus texts.
  • Characterizing stylistic interpretations through automated analysis of ornamentation in Irish traditional music recordings uses sophisticated audio analysis techniques to “fingerprint” ornamentation styles in Irish traditional music. 
Taking a particular research question as its starting point, each of these contributing strands aims to explore how digital technologies, tools and digitally shaped research methods can be integrated into the research process, how they can change and broaden the field of questions we are capable of asking and addressing, and how they can enrich the methodological “toolbox” of musicologists. They present a variety of scenarios, which explore ‘traditional’ questions and accustomed source types as well as genuinely digital material.

In addition to its research activities, the project also includes efforts in teaching, scholarly collaboration and public engagement (such as the Digital Libraries for Musicology workshop, a Digital Musicology workshop within the Digital Humanities Summer School at the University of Oxford, or the Hearing Wagner experiment and public engagement event.

An example of a rather traditional music-historical problem that lends itself to the exploration of new digital perspectives is presented by the investigation of Wagner-reception. The unusual vastness of Wagnerian literature has become almost proverbial, Wagner’s leitmotivs especially being subject to varied interpretations in different times and different cultures. In order to find out how Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen has been understood in specific situations, and how those interpretations influence and inform our understanding of Wagner today, the history of Wagner interpretation has been chosen as the subject of a comprehensive and comparative analysis. But if we want to study reception across historical situations and cultural contexts, and yet not restrict ourselves to general characteristics, but compare interpretations down to the individual concepts of leitmotivs, the problem quickly becomes too large to handle manually.

We therefore explore the possibilities of “Semantic Web” technologies. The Semantic Web builds on the existing infrastructure of the World Wide Web, but aims at representing information (or data) in a way that allows it to be handled and “understood” not only by humans but also by machines, in order to enable an automatic inference of knowledge. One of the key technologies of the Semantic Web is thus the so-called “ontology”: a structured and explicit definition and representation of concepts and their relationships in a given domain, which enables data and knowledge to be shared on a common ground.

Can this help us to model and describe the numerous leitmotiv-concepts and the differentiated and varied relationships, contrasts and influences that exist between reception practices and related documents? Can we make use of the enhanced capabilities for searching, querying and restructuring of data sources facilitated by the Semantic Web, in order to discover connections that otherwise might have been overlooked due to the scope of the matter? A particular challenge—which is characteristic for the open and collaborative nature of the digital culture, blurring conventional boundaries and challenging traditional ways of communication and interaction—lies thereby in integrating different perspectives, approaches, academic cultures, not to say “world views”: How can we translate musicological methods and ways of thinking into those of Semantic Web research (and the other way round)? Can we truly integrate “old” and new approaches, instead of just replacing one with the other? Finding questions and perspectives that work both ways makes up a considerable part of the undertaking.

Carolin Rindfleisch is a PhD student with Transforming Musicology at the University of Oxford. You can read more about the other researchers on the Transforming Musicology project HERE.

Friday, August 14, 2015

What I Do in Musicology

by Jason Hanley
NOTE: The AMS Newsletter of the American Musicological Society features a series of reflections from musicologists who have pursued non-tenure-track careers. We are pleased to co-publish this essay from the August 2015 Newsletter. Earlier essays in this series HERE and HERE.
As musicologists, one of our greatest challenges is developing and sustaining a meaningful dialogue with diverse listeners and learners.While public musicology is a step in the right direction, we need to establish what we mean when we say “public,” over and above the word simply signaling “not employed in academia.” Every day for the past eleven years, as Director of Education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, I have engaged a wide-ranging and changing audience through public musicology.


The Hall’s mission is to “engage, teach, and inspire through the power of rock and roll.” In the Education Department, we fulfill this mission through a variety of programs for both students and adults, while always keeping rock and roll at the core. These include numeracy- and literacy-building programsfor toddlers, multi-disciplinary classes for K–12 students, free lecture series for college students and adults, as well as numerous public and community events. All reach a diverse array of learners while fostering artful critical-thinking skills. This requires finding multiple pathways to learning while maintaining analytical rigor and being mindful to keep important musical and historical issues at the forefront of the rock and roll story.

This rigor informs the work I do when working directly with artists, especially those inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Artists are interviewed in front of a live audience, and the footage is archived for later use at the Rock Hall’s Library and Archives. These interviews become a way of digging deeper into the history of rock and roll and preserving it for the future. A few examples include Peter Hook of New Order discussing the use of step-time recording in the song “Blue Monday”; Spooner Oldham talking about writing and performing as a session musician at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals; and Alan Parsons explaining how he worked to effectively translate live music into the studio while recording Dark Side of the Moon with Pink Floyd.

For me, public musicology extends beyond my work at the Rock Hall. This year I published a book on rock music history, Music Lab: We Rock! A Fun Family Guide for Exploring Rock Music History (Quarry, 2015). From the start, I envisioned the book as a work of public musicology using aspects of the pedagogy I helped design at the Rock Hall. Each of the book’s fifty-two labs contains a full listening guide for a specific song. The School Library Journal  wrote: “Though books introducing pop and rock and roll artists to the younger generation are legion, this attractive volume, aimed at families, sets itself apart through its focus on the music itself.” I was happy to read this, given that focusing on the music was my primary goal in writing the book.

I chose to work outside academe, even though, when I did, it seemed like walking into the great unknown. I’m glad I did. I’m also glad the AMS promotes public musicology. I hope this will lead to a time when such work is central to our field.

Jason Hanley is  Director of Education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
and Museum, in Cleveland, Ohio. More information about their education programming is available HERE.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Critical Karaoke Radio Project

by Ryan Raul Bañagale

This past March witnessed the debut of a new public musicology endeavor called the Critical Karaoke Radio Project. Founded at Colorado College by playwright and hip-hop professor Idris Goodwin, novelist and literary critic Steven Hayward, and myself, Ryan Bañagale, professor of American music, the project consists of an hour-long, monthly program called Critical Karaoke and daily, 90-second modules called A Day in the Life. These interrelated audio programs bridge the divide between scholarly and public audiences, introducing new perspectives and insights on both familiar and unknown encounters with music. We hope to use music to inspire a wide-ranging, highly engaging, and uniquely diverse discussion of key themes not only in musicological scholarship, but also in the humanities more broadly.

To date we have recorded, produced, and released five episodes of Critical Karaoke and 115 A Day in the Life modules. All of our programming can be accessed on our website or Facebook page. Perhaps the easiest way to listen is via our iTunes podcast.

Like most good ideas, ours was based on an existing one—though we have pushed the concept to the next level. Originating in the spring of 2004 at the Experience Music Project's annual Pop Conference in Seattle, “Critical Karaoke” was first intended as a response to the never-ending lists naming “The Greatest Songs of All Time.” The basic premise of “Critical Karaoke” is that you deliver a prepared discussion of a song that holds special significance to you for exactly its duration. No more, no less. That is, you hit “play” and start talking. You should talk continuously over the course of the song, timing out the delivery of your remarks to highlight specific aspects of the music and lyrics—that is where the “karaoke” aspect emerges. When the song is over you must stop.

Here, for example, is my “Critical Karaoke” of the song “Philosophy” by Ben Folds Five:



The goal of the Critical Karaoke Radio Project is to re-envision the practice of “Critical Karaoke” with the specific aim of broadcasting it via radio and podcasts—to render the auditory particularity of the form as richly as possible, while opening up space for further discussion and critique of the ideas inspired by the music itself.

Our hour-long Critical Karaoke radio program is designed to feel like a casual, intellectually informed conversation. Each episode offers sustained interdisciplinary discussion of a selection of musical works oriented around a particular topic that trigger an exploration of a wide variety of humanities-related themes. For example, our episode on “Cover Songs” opens up into the ramifications of the politics of appropriation that arise when one artist performs another artist’s music. We delve into issues of racial representation, appropriation of voice, and the wide problematic of how history is captured and reinterpreted through the musical act.



As a means of keeping our audience engaged between episodes of Critical Karaoke, we have created a series of daily modules called A Day in the Life—sort of like Pulse of the Planet or Writers Almanac, but quirkier, more engaging, with a better soundtrack and focused on music. Some of our more popular recet segments have focused on “Blackbird” by The Beatles, Kent State, Gustav Mahler, MTV Unplugged, and Back to the Future. We produce a new episode every weekday.

As a former (Amusicological) blogger myself, I see A Day in the Life as an opportunity to spin out a brief, focused piece on a subject that may not necessarily become part of a larger research project. But this is not to say that they do not serve as an interesting musicological exercise. For example, I contributed the following A Day in the Life on John Casper Henry Dielman for July 24th, the anniversary of the day he became the first person in the United States to receive a Doctor of Music Degree:



Preparing my remarks for this episode, I located very little information on Dielman beyond his mention in a few books and other publications. Nor could I locate any recordings of his presidential compositions, which makes sense given their date of creation.

Faced with the question of how to provide audio for the episode, I turned to the Sheet Music Consortium, which preserves piano-reductions of his more popular works. I recorded a few of these to sound “old-timey,” including a version of “President Taylor’s Grand Inauguration March.” However, I realized after the episode had been released that the version cataloged by the Library of Congress Performing Arts Encyclopedia was NOT actually by Dielman: although the cover page bears his name, the subsequent score is by Albert Holland. I have alerted the authorities on this error. Now I just need to go back and edit in the correct “Grand Inauguration March” into the podcast—which is possible when dealing with digital media!




This episode accomplishes three musicological tasks: it brings attention to Dielman’s existence, it makes his music audible, and it uncovers an error within a publicly available archive. These are admittedly small errands—but not too shabby for ninety seconds of airtime.

As the Critical Karaoke Radio Project develops, we actively seek wider distribution. Both A Day in the Life and Critical Karaoke can be made available for free to any public radio station. As mentioned above, the podcast is available for free as well.

Perhaps more importantly, we are looking for others who are interested in being part of this innovative, not-very-labor-intensive-but-still-very-cool-project. Matthew Mugmon (University of Arizona) has been contributing regularly to our A Day in the Life episodes, including the Mahler segment mentioned above. Other musicologists who have committed to contributing to the Critical Karaoke Radio Project at this time include Vilde Aaslid (Columbia University), Hannah Lewis (University of Texas at Austin), and Travis Stimeling (West Virginia University).

Would you like to be involved too? Please comment below, send me a quick email, or ping us on Twitter to me with subject suggestions for individual days or ideas authoring an individual A Day in the Life episode yourself—there is no shortage of days and we are happy to showcase your expertise!

Ryan Bañagale is Assistant Professor of Music at Colorado College. He is author of Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and the Creation of an American Icon (Oxford UP, 2014) and was both an AMS-50 and an AMS-75 PAYS recipient.

Friday, August 7, 2015

HIP, HIP . . .

From the front lines of historically informed performance…

by Kate van Orden

                                                                                                   5 August, 2015
For the better part of a century, musicians and musicologists have used performance as a laboratory. Behind much of it has been material history: Instrument builders restored harpsichords and viols to playing condition; players rescued flutes and bassoons from the dark corners of antique shops, old theaters, and organ lofts; and makers coordinated with museum curators to measure and copy items in their collections in a great project of archeology and revival. Treatises, letters, and anecdotal accounts offered up information about scoring, and reconstruction began to reinhabit original sites of performance. In the 1980s, the eighteenth-century court theatre of Drottningholm swung back into action with the operas of Mozart employing period staging, San Marco in Venice rang with canzone of Giovanni Gabrieli on early brass, and in 2005—to mention just one spectacular reconstruction—Le Poème Harmonique recreated the premiere of the Molière-Lully collaboration Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme with original staging conforming to the limitations of the temporary theater erected on the first floor of the Chateau of Chambord, lighting provided by over 500 candles, seventeenth-century gesture and pronunciation, and a full orchestra with ample continuo.

But these ventures have relied on the architectural and staging advantages of  theatrical environments to assist in imaginative time-travel. Audiences walk into a church or theater or focus their attention on the action framed by a proscenium, all of which help spectators sink into the past that performance offers up for a few hours. What about the many ephemeral settings in which music was made, the streets and palace courtyards that provided the backdrop for musical pageantry? What of the Te Deums and royal entries, Corpus Christi processions, fireworks, and equestrian or mock naval events mounted with music?

Arrival of the Pikes
Last month, Marignan 2015 brought historical reconstruction to a new scale in a series of performances based on a spectacle designed by Leonardo Da Vinci to celebrate the victory of François Ier at Marignano, Italy, in 1515. Best-known to musicologists as the inspiration for Clément Janequin’s rousing chanson La Guerre, the Battle of Marignano proved such a defining event of François’s long reign that a frieze of it decorates his tomb at St. Denis. Three years after the victory, in May of 1518, the marriage of Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, again put François at the center of international politics, and the pressure to assert his greatness mobilized the royal household to produce a spectacle that would impress its Italian guests. Held at Amboise across a period of two days, Leonardo’s magnificence culminated with a festive reenactment of Marignano featuring glitteringly armored French knights, troops costumed as German and Swiss mercenaries, newly invented pyrotechnics, a gigantic faux castle, and cannon fire so loud it broke windows half a kilometer away.

The raw materials for last month’s reconstruction consisted of ambassadorial avvisi, letters, court chronicles, and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, which allowed the historian Pascal Brioist (Professor, Centre d’Études de la Renaissance, Université François Rabelais de Tours) and a veritable army of scholars, costume designers, choreographers, riders, directors, and designers to reimagine the 1518 event. Transcriptions and reproductions of key evidence are provided in the lush booklet Marignan 1515/2015, Grand spectacle historique inédit d’après Léonard de Vinci and on the glorious website www.marignan2015.com, which highlights the research leading up to the production.

Geoffroy Lopez as François Ier
Compressing the two days of banquets, dancing, and mock warfare into two hours, Marignan 2015 opened with historical background conveyed in a conversation between Leonardo and the strapping young François Ier that was staged as asides between rounds in the king’s fencing practice. Then the extensive and gorgeously costumed court entered in procession led by a band of minstrels. Stationing themselves in a royal pavilion, the courtiers cheered on the combattants in a jousting tourney and enjoyed a ballet with music from a loud band. The highpoint of the spectacle was the mock battle that turned around assaults on a fortress constructed—now as then—from a wooden skeleton covered with painted canvas. A pulley system released one section of the fortified walls to produce a breach when the cannons fired thunderous smoky blanks at them, a posse of Venetian knights galloped in to buck up the French troops and German Landsknechts, and the Swiss pikemen finally capitulated. Then François Ier dispelled the carnage by reviving all the players who “died” in the battle and declaring a lasting peace. Photos of the event are courtesy of Jean-Louis Pironio, and stay tuned for a film that is currently in the works.

Over 10,000 spectators attended the performances, which included over 300 actors, horsemen, and musicians. Even Mick Jagger took in one of the shows in Amboise, and the popular press in France was considerable. With parades before the performances, a free concert of music from the Medici Codex that incited two standing ovations, and historic crafts and food for sale, a Renaissance Faire atmosphere certainly surrounded the event, but all the more reason, it seems to me, to call out the scholarly insights enabled by the reconstruction. To take one striking example, the international scope of the collaboration brought together forces from across Europe, as did early modern warfare, diplomatic missions, and the 1518 marriage ceremony itself. From “Medici” Florence came the Corteo Storico in glorious red, blue, and yellow livery with a rank of drummers, fifes, and trumpets perfect for parades and announcing the arrivals of dignitaries; the Compagnia della Fenice took the part of the Swiss pikemen in the battle, with the Bund Oberschwäbischer Landsknechten opposing them in the role of German mercenaries. These groups set up their own camps and spent the week living their parts, mostly in costume and dining on sixteenth-century foodstuffs cooked over open fires using traditional means. A magnificent royal blue tent emblazoned with gold fleurs-de-lys provided backstage space for the king and some of his courtiers.

Thus the two-hour spectacle was embedded in a lived setting where differences of vernacular language, customs, food, clothing, shelter, military expertise, dance types, and musical style all came to the fore both onstage and off. Indeed, the encampments set up at the Parc de Beauvais in Romorantin, which also included fifty artisans from the group Les Forges de la Brume, turned out to be a major attraction, where people could watch blacksmiths operate a small forge, women spinning and weaving, and all stages of food preparation in a massive open kitchen. Children played Renaissance games, soldiers gambled and crashed out exhausted under shade trees, and some of the German women cleaned the arquebuses they shot off noisily during the show. The effect was that of a Brueghel painting come to life, a scene nicely captured by director Jean-Louis Dumont and his assistant Sandro Pasqualetto in the staging of the nighttime bivouac that separated the two “days” of battle. Another counterpoise to the firepower, swordplay, and jousts that made the performances so exciting was the commanding presence of Geoffroy Lopez as François Ier, who electrified the audience, adding the rhetorical elegance of his royal “harangues” to what otherwise would have been a mere demonstration of martial arts; so too, Patrice Zonta, as Leonardo Da Vinci, projected the brilliance of that wonderful scientist, poet, musician, and inventor who spent his last days at the Clos Lucé in Amboise and was the mastermind behind the 1518 festivities, down to working out costume designs and the stage machinery that operated the falling walls of the fortress. A mechanical lion designed by Leonardo and recreated by Michel Campana for the event was a magnet for crowds before and after the show and helped underscore the technological sophistication of the engineering that went into the staging.

Michel Campana demonstrating the mechanical lion for ladies of the court.
The total experience of Marignan 2015 came very close to what I imagine the BBC mini series Victorian Farm achieved for English country life, in which the archeologists Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn and domestic historian Ruth Goodman reenacted the experiences of daily life in historical clothing and architectural spaces using the tools and materials available at the time to get at the otherwise dimly documented basics of provisioning a household and staying warm, fed, clean, and dry. (See Goodman’s How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk to Victorian Life [New York, 2013]). Participating in Marignan 2015 brought home to me the practicalities of life for a wind player on the road in the sixteenth century, the social station of most musicians, the kinds of music that worked best to enliven Renaissance festivities, and the limited times and places for polyphony at court.

Next will be for France and England to reconstruct the meeting of François Ier and King Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold for the 500th anniversary in 2020. Sign me up to play some music by Jean Mouton or William Cornyshe for Mass in the temporary chapel constructed for the summit or dances for revels in the 100,000 square foot “palace” built of wood frame and canvas for Henry’s court. Replete with carved entry gates, windows, and beautifully painted timbered ceilings, some of these materials were so exquisite that they were repurposed after their month in the field. And the model for the 1520 event? It was Da Vinci’s spectacle of 1518, a legend in its own time and reborn in our own thanks to the research of Pascal Brioist, his ability to mobilize an international army of talent, and the support of a legion of backers, especially the Centre d’Études Supérieures de la Renaissance, R2V2 (Romorantin), and le Parc Leonardo da Vinci au Clos Lucé, who co-produced the event.

Kate van Orden is Professor of Music at Harvard University, past editor of the Journal of the American Musicological Society, and an early instrumentalist.