Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Let's Have Fun!

I am having a really wonderful and surprising experience with this book I'm reading. I’m starting to work on my chapter on the Berlioz Requiem, and I needed to learn about church music in the Nineteenth century. This book is called "Church Music in the Nineteenth Century," by Arthur Hutchings. Considering its title at least 50% promising, I brought it home, or rather, I had my husband bring it home for me, as I leave the house but rarely. It was written in 1967. I expected it to be curmudgeonly and/or dry as dust, and I readied my pen to take down some boring but necessary facts and figures. But! So far from being wrong in that presumption was I that I quickly found myself actually delighted by the book! It is an absolute treasure.

For starters, there is the most charming preface I have ever read. Some excerpts:

"I lack courage to forgo this traditional opportunity to forestall criticism, for I have discovered that if the subject upon which I so readily agreed to write were comprehensively surveyed, even in a small book, I should need more time and travel than I can afford for several years to come."

Then he talks about how it's easy to say what was sung in Vienna at Schubert's church, or at Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey; but what was sung forty miles away at Kuckucksdorf am Donau or Little Cucking? "An exercise bombastically called research, but accurately called prying into cupboards and pestering friends, leaves my answers still vague."

Thus, he says, "It seems sensible to supplement knowledge with imagination and to declare any indulgence in guessing." He says if he didn't do it this way, he "should keep the publisher waiting for a very stodgy tome."

He then does this great joke where he says, "I wanted to dedicate these pages to Canon Kenneth Meux," and delivers a whole long paragraph about what a great guy Canon Meux is, but then he says, "Yet he would agree that the dedicatees should be Mgr. Paul Grant, President of Ushaw College, and the Vice President and Choirmaster, Mr. Laurence Hollis. My protestant tongue does not falter at 'Father Hollis' but Ushaw proudly recalls the style of address brought from Douai and still used in this country during the penal years."


So if that preface were not enough to stoke me up greatly 'pon the reading of this un-stodgy tome, here is the first paragraph of the book:

"We hear more sermons on faith than on hope, without which faith lacks radiance. Most outstanding men of the nineteenth century were such optimists that they either forgot the Devil or treated him as a medieval superstition. Two vast wars have since then set carpenters and clerks killing and maiming carpenters and clerks, few of whom wished to kill and maim; they could acknowledge their contribution to human error but could they reasonably believe that the horrors they witnessed were the just retribution for their sins? The wars 'came'; evil overtakes us because evil is with us."


I genuinely did not expect a survey of church music in the Nineteenth century to indulge in such whimsical flights of fancy, nor did I anticipate an exposition on Good and Evil and the Hearts of Man. It just goes to show you that you quite literally can not judge a book by its cover. I was struck over and over again, reading through this dude’s words, by the love of his subject that shone forth betwixt each page, but even more than that, I was struck by how much he clearly enjoyed the act of writing itself. Clever turns of phrases, beautiful and evocative passages, and always taking an extra moment to point out something humorous or interesting. He uses his imagination! He holds no grudges, even against the atheists. He speculates. He turns what could be dry historical facts into a rich and inviting world. Even when I disagreed with him on some point, or found a section boring, which is surely the fate of almost any book, scholarly ones especially, I still felt compelled to continue, because his prose was so charming, his weird personality apparent on every page.

It reminded me, as almost everything does these days, of my deep and abiding love of Jacques Barzun. I love a smart fancy person who can be serious without taking himself too seriously. There is a certain ease of address with Barzun that I enjoy whenever I encounter it. Can’t we just write down our thoughts and have fun doing it? We can’t, really. We need too many footnotes. We are too scared of the job market. And the disciplines have separated and become so rigid—gone are the days when somebody in the academy could write about Berlioz and baseball and race in America and crime fiction and the educational system without batting an eye. (And by "we" and "somebody" I don’t presume to mean "me," obviously, as I am nobody’s idea of a public intellectual, being but a proto-junior junior scholar who doesn’t really know about anything yet, except zombie movies, and certainly not baseball (sidenote: how much would I love to read something Jacques Barzun wrote about zombie movies?? Impossible to quantify)). I would just like to encourage everyone to take pleasure in writing, I guess, and I would like to try to continue enjoying writing even as I (hopefully) become smarter. I would like to read things written by people who like to write. I would like everyone to write in an enjoyable and compelling manner, such that people outside their discipline could still read and appreciate their words. This is how the Humanities will thrive, and how people outside the academy will understand what it is we are doing and why it is important for the world.

Anyway. This book is really taking the bad taste out of my mouth that was caused by the inadvised reading of two back-to-back devastating New Yorker articles, about global warming and the CIA's predator drone program, all at once, without coffee. Jesus, where is the New Yorker of bygone days, which taught me about how insights happen and how bees communicate???? What good is learning about this horrible world if there's nothing I can do about it except get blown up in my bed by an errant missile launched by a remote-controlled robot hovering in the sky over Pakistan whose coordinates got screwed up by the guy operating it from a bunker in suburban Denver?


Monday, October 26, 2009

Everyone Loves Tico-Tico

One of my favorite recent memes on Google Reader (especially Bruitus at Immanent Discursivity) is the flood of interesting videos of various people performing the Brazilian choro classic "Tico-Tico no Fubá" by Zequinha de Abreu. To get an idea of what I am talking about, here is the world's most famous Brazilian parrot, Joe (Zé) Carioca, teaching Donald Duck about samba through a demonstration of "Tico-Tico" (start around 04:41).

The title literally means "a little bit of (maize) flour" and was a way of describing how dancers looked as they danced to this song. Despite its popularity at dance events around Rio de Janeiro, this choro was only recorded in 1931, a full 14 years after it was first composed.* It was incredibly successful and attained its height of popularity during 1940s – no small feat at a time when sambas and choros were all the rage in the Brazilian record industry.

Eventually, "Tico-Tico" became one of the most widespread Brazilian songs from Hollywood's embrace of Brazilian music during the Good Neighbor Policy Period; it appeared in 4 additional films and was performed by Carmen Miranda in Copacabana(1947) after she'd already starred in a number of popular Fox musicals. A recording by organist Ethel Smith from 1944 was probably the most successful on the hit parade.

True to the demanding choro genre, this song is often a vehicle for tour-de-force instrumental virtuosity and showmanship (even if it is sometimes reinterpreted as a tango). By way of example, look at this impressive duo performing "Tico-Tico" on one guitar.

Clearly, this is some very impressive stuff. The first performance of it that I heard after learning a thing or two about Brazilian music was by Shooby "The Human Horn" Taylor in a class I took at UCSD. Here is a video that includes some animation to accompany Shooby's characteristically creative interpretation.

As someone who has heard all of Shooby's recordings, this is probably the closest I've ever heard him come to how a song is performed in other contexts. Stunning stuff, really.

Which bring me to my point: "Tico-Tico" has a sustained popularity in certain circles, especially among aspiring musicians wishing to demonstrate their instrumental prowess. How does burning through this chorinho (little choro) give so many people pleasure? And why does it still enjoy widespread popularity on so many different instruments? Sure, there is something fun about the song: it's upbeat and melodically and harmonically intricate. Something tells me that its larger than that, perhaps having something to with novelty. Thoughts from the peanut gallery?

* Jairo Severiano and Zuza Homem de Mello, A Canção no Tempo: 85 Anos de Músicas Brasileiras (Vol. 1: 1901-1957), 6th ed. (São Paulo: Editora 34, 2006), 107.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


It's nice to see that the slow wheels of academic musicology are finally swinging into motion:


Special Issue:
Michael Jackson: Musical Subjectivities

Edited by Susan Fast and Stan Hawkins

Submissions are invited for a special edition of Popular Music and Society that examines constructions of subjectivity in Michael Jackson's music, with a focus on gender, sexuality, age, disability, and race. Contributors are invited to address ways in which Jackson's vocality, grooves, rhythmic invention, songwriting, conformity with and/or irreconcilability of generic categories, particular songs, song categories (such as ballads) or albums, record production, use of technology, and live or mediated performance work to produce his own, often spectacularized, subjectivities, as well as those of his listeners. We are interested in drawing together articles that engage in an interdisciplinary manner the myriad ways in which subjectivity is constructed in Jackson's work: narratives of desire, healing, redemption, anger, violence, celebrity; engagement with world politics, charity; intergenerational relationships; the spectacular body in performance; illness as it impacted his music and performance; freakishness/the fantastic; challenges to hegemonic constructions of race, masculinity, sexuality, gender--to name only a few possibilities. Although we welcome contributions that employ a broad range of methodologies, including the development of new methodologies for the analysis of popular music, we intend that these essays address musical sound and sound related to text (lyrics), image(s), and dance directly. While the complexity, ambiguity, and irreconcilability of Jackson's subjectivity/ies have been covered exhaustively, mainly by the mass media, only a few scholarly essays have made significant inroads to understanding these phenomena; moreover, none of these has addressed musical sound in detail. We therefore see the need for rigorous scholarship into Jackson's creative output, with specific emphasis on musical sound, the place where he, himself, arguably commented most explicitly upon the matters referred to above. Our vision is that this issue will include essays that range over Jackson's long career, from his time with the Jackson 5 through his last studio album, Invincible, and final live performances, perhaps including the forthcoming film documenting preparation for his This Is It tour.

Essays of 6,000-8,000 words are due by September 2010. Essays will be peer-reviewed. Inquiries regarding potential essay topics and their suitability for inclusion are welcome. Please include your professional/academic affiliations, a postal address, and preferred email contact with your essay; for purposes of blind peer-review, please do not include your name within the body of the essay.

Please address all communications to: Susan Fast (McMaster University, Canada) fastfs@mcmaster.ca or Stan Hawkins (University of Oslo) e.s.hawkins@imv.uio.no

Friday, October 9, 2009

Google Keeps Changing the Music Reception History Game

For two chapters of my dissertation (remember that?), I attempted to tackle that music history beast known as reception history. I spent weeks on end in libraries browsing through old issues of Vogue, Downbeat, New Yorker, and Billboard among other periodicals. And as I refined my ideas about samba in the 1940s and bossa nova in the 1960s, I sometimes had to revisit these collections causing further damage to my eyesight. (Nothing exhausts one's eyes quite like spending days in a row searching and browsing microfilm.) But this process was good for me. It hardened my research resolve, and I had the opportunity to make connections that otherwise would not have been possible.

But I have a confession to make: I knew to search in these periodicals because I did a few lazy searches in ProQuest's historical newspaper database. If that didn't exist, I never would have thought about going down that road. For many young scholars, ProQuest and other services like it changed the game of how we do reception history, and on a larger level, research. The mere fact that someone was treating old periodicals the way that Lexis Nexus or IIMP treated recent stuff was a revelation.

A few months ago, I heard something absolutely crazy through Phil's Blog: Google Books now has full issues of Billboard on hand. They also have Life Magazine, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and Ebony. This is fascinating. Of course, as luck would have it, Google Books did this well after I defended and filed my dissertation, so I am officially off the hook for what a lazy person's word search might reveal. However, as I adapt my research for publication, I cannot ignore what recent searches turn up. Already, my mind is spinning and I am already embarking on similar browsing sessions that I never would have considered were it not for digitization. Many people bemoan the lost insights that come with not having to do searches while being physically present in the library (you know, those books you only would have picked up because they were on the same shelf as something you sought out). But in this case, there are some clear positives. Thank you Google! You keep changing the research game.