You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘musical’ tag.

tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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August is almost over…and we have yet to present the August eclogue of Shepheardes Calender.  Mercifully, the situation for the 8th (and fairest) month doesn’t require too much explanation: two shepherds sing a song while the third shepherd, the redoubtable Cuddy, judges who sings better.  Cuddy refuses to truly choose and instead recites an exceedingly sad poem of unrequited love.  The meter throughout this eclogue is more songlike and the meanings more straightforward than in previous months. Also Cuddy’s sad poem is truly plaintive and beautifully evokes classical Greco-Roman poetry.  The whole August eclogue is strong and fair, and prefigures the complexity and elegance of Shakespeare, who must surely have looked to this as an example (and whose songs echo the songs of the shepherds).  But judge for yourself…and enjoy the remainder of August!

 

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Shepheardes Calender VIII: August.

WILLY. PERIGOT. CUDDY.

Tell me, Perigot, what shall be the Game,
Wherefore with mine thou dare thy Musick match?
Or been thy Bagpipes ren far out of frame?
Or hath the Cramp thy Joints benumb’d with ach?

PERIGOT.
Ah Willy, when the Heart is ill assay’d,
How can Bagpipe or Joints be well apay’d?

WILLY.
What the foul Evil hath thee so bestad?
Whylom thou west peregal to the best,
And wont to make the jolly Shepherds glad,
With piping and dancing did past the rest.

PERIGOT.
Ah, Willy, now I have learn’d a new Dance;
My old Musick marr’d by a new Mischance.

WILLY.
Mischief mought to that Mischance befall,
That so hath raft us of our Meriment:
But read me, What pain doth thee so appall?
Or lovest thou, or been thy Yonglings miswent?

PERIGOT.
Love hath misled both my Yonglings and me:
I pine for pain, and they my plaint to see.

WILLY.
Perdy and weal away! ill may they thrive;
Never knew I Lovers Sheep in good plight:
But and if Rimes with me thou dare strive,
Such fond Fantasies shall soon be put to flight.

PERIGOT.
That shall I do, though mouchel worse I far’d:
Never shall be said that Perigot was dar’d.

WILLY.
Then lo, Perigot, the pledge which I plight,
A Mazer ywrought of the Maple Ware;
Wherein is enchased many a fair sight,
Of Bears and Tygers, that maken fierce War:
And over them spred a goodly wild Vine,
Entrail’d with a wanton Ivy Twine.

Thereby is a Lamb in the Wolve’s Jaws:
But see, how fast renneth the Shepherd’s Swain,
To save the Innocent from the Beast’s Paws;
And here with his Sheep-hook hath him slain.
Tell me, such a Cup hast thou ever seen?
Well mought it beseem any harvest Queen.

PERIGOT.
Thereto will I pawn yonder spotted Lamb,
Of all my Flock there nis sike another;
For I brought him up without the Damb:
But Colin Clout raft me of his Brother,
That he purchast of me in the plain Field:
Sore against my Will was I forst to yield.

WILLY.
Siker make like account of his Brother:
But who shall judg the Wager won or lost?

PERIGOT.
That shall yonder Herd-groom, and none other,
Which over the Pousse hitherward doth post.

WILLY.
But for the Sun-beam so fore doth us beat,
Were not better, to shun the scorching Heat?

PERIGOT.
Well agreed Willy: then sit thee down Swain;
Sike a Song never heardest thou, but Colin sing.

CUDDY.
‘Gin, when ye list, ye jolly Shepherds twain:
Sike a Judg, as Cuddy, were for a King.

PER. It fell upon a holy Eve,
WILL. Hey ho Holiday!
PER. When holy Fathers wont to shrive:
WILL. Now ‘ginneth this Roundelay.
PER. Sitting upon a Hill so high,
WILL. Hey ho the high Hill!
PER. The while my Flock did feed thereby,
WILL. The while the Shepherd self did spill:
PER. I saw the bouncing Bellibone;
WILL. Hey ho Bonnibel!
PER. Tripping over the Dale alone,
WILL. She can trip it very well.
PER. Well decked in a Frock of grey,
WILL. Hey ho grey is greet!
PER. And in a Kirtle of green Say,
WILL. The green is for Maidens meet.
PER. A Chaplet on her Mead she wore,
WILL. Hey ho Chapelet!
PER. Of sweet Violets therein was store,
WILL. She sweeter than the Violet.
PER. My Sheep did leave their wonted Food,
WILL. Hey ho seely Sheep!
PER. And gaz’d on her, as thy were wood;
WILL. Wood as he, that did them keep.
PER. As the bony Lass passed by,
WILL. Hey ho bony Lass!
PER. She rov’d at me with glauncing Eye,
WILL. As clear as the crystal Glass:
PER. All as the sunny Beam so bright,
WILL. Hey ho the Sun-beam!
PER. Glanceth from Phoebus’ Face forthright,
WILL. So Love into thy Heart did stream;
PER. Or as the Thunder cleaves the Clouds,
WILL. Hey ho the Thunder!
PER. Wherein the lightsom Levin shrouds,
WILL. So cleaves thy Soul asunder:
PER. Or as Dame Cynthia’s silver Ray,
WILL. Hey ho the Moon-light!
PER. Upon the glittering Wave doth play;
WILL. Such play is a piteous Plight.
PER. The Glance into my Heart did glide,
WILL. Hey ho the Glider!
PER. Therewith my Soul was sharply gride,
WILL. Such Wounds soon wexen wider.
PER. Hasting to raunch the Arrow out,
WILL. Hey ho Perigot!
PER. I left the Head in my Heart-root:
WILL. It was a desperate shot.
PER. There it rancleth aye more and more,
WILL. Hey ho the Arrow!
PER. Ne can I find Salve for my Sore:
WILL. Love is a careless Sorrow.
PER. And though my Bale with Death I bought,
WILL. Hey ho heavy Chear!
PER. Yet should thilk Lass not from my thought:
WILL. So you may buy Gold too dear.
PER. But whether in painful Love I pine,
WILL. Hey ho pinching Pain!
PER. Or thrive in Wealth, she shall be mine,
WILL. But if thou can her obtain.
PER. And if for graceless Grief I die,
WILL. Hey ho graceless Grief!
PER. Witness, she slew me with her Eye,
WILL. Let thy folly be the prief.
PER. And you that saw it, simple Sheep,
WILL. Hey ho the fair Flock!
PER. For prief thereof, my Death shall weep,
WILL. And mone with many a Mock.
PER. So learn’d I love on a holy Eve,
WILL. Hey ho Holy-day!
PER. That ever since my Heart did grieve,
WILL. Now endeth our Roundelay.

CUDDY.
Siker, sike a Roundle never heard I none,
Little lacketh Perigot of the best,
And Willy is not greatly over-gone,
So weren his under-songs well addrest.

WILLY.
Herd-groom, I fear me, thou have a squint Eye;
Areed uprightly who has the Victory.

CUDDY.
Faith of my Soul, I deem each have gained;
For-thy, let the Lamb be Willy his own:
And for Perigot so well hath him pained,
To him be the wroughten Mazer alone.

PERIGOT.
Perigot is well pleased with the Doom:
Ne can Willy wite the witless Herd-groom.

WILLY.
Never dempt more right of Beauty, I ween,
The Shepherd of Ida, that judg’d Beauty’s Queen.

CUDDY.
But tell me, Shepherds, should it not yshend
Your Roundels fresh, to hear a doleful Verse
Of Rosalind (who knows not Rosalind?)
That Colin made? ylke can I you rehearse.

PERIGOT.
Now say it, Cuddy, as thou art a Lad;
With merry thing it’s good to meddle sad.

WILLY.
Faith of my Soul, thou shalt ycrowned be
In Colin’s steed, if thou this Song areed:
For never thing on Earth so pleaseth me,
As him to hear, or matter of his Deed.

CUDDY.
Then listen each unto my heavy Lay,
And tune your Pipes as ruthful as ye may.

Ye wastful Woods bear witness of my Woe,
Wherein my Plaints did oftentimes resound;
Ye careless Birds are privy to my Cryes,
Which in your Songs were wont to make a part:
Thou pleasant Spring hast lull’d me oft asleep,
Whose streams my trickling rears did oft augment.

Resort of People doth my Grief augment,
The walled Towns do work my greater Woe:
The Forest wide is fitter to resound
The hollow Eccho of my careful Cryes;
I hate the House, since thence my Love did part,
Whose wailful Want debars mine Eyes of sleep.

Let Streams of Tears supply the place of Sleep:
Let all that sweet is, void; and all that may augment
My Dole, draw near. More meet to wail my Woe,
Been the wild Woods, my Sorrows to resound,
Than Bed, nor Bower, both which I fill with Cryes,
When I them see so waste, and find no part

Of pleasure past. Here will I dwell apart
In gastful Grove therefore, till my last Sleep
Do close mine Eyes: so shall I not augment
With sight of such as change my restless Woe.
Help me, ye baneful Birds, whose shrieking sound
Is sign of dreery Death, my deadly Cryes

Most ruthfully to tune. And as my Cryes
(Which of my Woe cannot bewray least part)
You hear all Night, when Nature craveth Sleep,
Increase, so let your yrksome Yelles augment.
Thus all the Night in Plaints, the Day in Woe,
I vowed have to waste, till safe and sound

She home return, whose Voice’s silver Sound
To chearful Songs can change my chearless Cryes.
Hence, with the Nightingale will I take part,
That blessed Bird, that spends her time of sleep
In Songs and plaintive Pleas, the more t’ augment
The memory of his Misdeed, that bred her Woe.

And you that feel no Woe, when as the Sound
Of these my nightly Cryes ye hear apart,
Let break your sounder Sleep, and Pity augment.

PERIGOT.
O Colin, Colin, the Shepherd’s Joy,
How I admire each turning of the Verse:
And Cuddy, fresh Cuddy, the liefest Boy,
How dolefully his Dole thou didst rehearse!

CUDDY.
Then blow Your Pipes, Shepherds, till yon be at home:
The Night hieth fast, it’s time to be gone.

PERIGOT’S EMBLEM.
Vicenti gloria victi.

WILLY’S EMBLEM.
Vinto non vitto.

CUDDY’S EMBLEM.
Felice chi puo.

The Guiro (by Nino)

The Guiro (manufactured by Nino)

I was busy drawing musicians playing crazy instruments for a project when the sinking feeling hit me that I would have to scrape together a blog entry for Valentine’s Day. Then it further hit me that I would also have to scrape together an additional post before that. Suddenly, there was the answer, right in front of me: scrape…weird musical instrument…the guiro!

A Guiro Made from a Gourd

A Guiro Made from a Gourd

The guiro is a percussion instrument with hard ribbed sides which produce an insectoid clicking when rubbed with a little stick. Musicologists classify such a thing as a scraped idiophone. The ratchet sound which the guiro produces doesn’t sound very good when I describe it, but it is delightful in traditional Latin American music (especially music from the Greater Antilles—Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, etc.). Some sources contend that the guiro has Pre-Colombian roots and is an ancient part of the culture of the Americas, but, sadly, I couldn’t find any unimpeachable examples online (and it’s too late to bang on the Met’s door)—so believe this dubious history at your peril.

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Traditional guiros are made with gourds, wood, or horn. Modern ones can also be made of fiberglass and plastic. Although I like the sound which they make, the best part of the guiro tends to be its fanciful appearance. The instrument can be a big utilitarian cylinder, however for aesthetic reasons, it is often made in a fanciful animal shape—particularly that of a colorful fish. During music class in first grade, the teacher would sometimes dump out a huge box of simple percussion instruments—chimes, bells, triangles, castanets, maracas, tambourines, rattles, and clackers of all sorts—and we would each choose one and all play together to make a terrible cacophonous din (maybe the music teacher was trying to scare evil spirits away from Falmouth). Anyway there was always a fight for the magnificent fish guiro—which was then always allocated by the teacher to a student who was not me.

A Magnificently Colored Fish Guiro

A Magnificently Colored Fish Guiro

Below is a video demonstrating how to play the guiro (although I feel like most individuals could figure this out on their own). It does however present the rasping sound of the guiro. Another one of these little video clips put forth some useful pronunciation advice: the “g” in guiro is a Spanish “g” and is pronounced rather like a “w” in English. “Guiro” should be said sort of like “weirdo” (but with no “d” sound). Hmm…


The fish is colorful and traditional, but it is not the only animal shape which guiros come in. Here are some animal-shaped guiros which include a crocodile, an armadillo, and even a snail!

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Snail Guiro!

Snail Guiro!

These are beautiful! I wonder if I added one of these things to my music collection, would my roommates fight for it—or would they just fight me for making such musical scraping noises. Maybe we had better appreciate the guiro from afar for the moment….

2011-08-14-glencoe-bagpiper-2-e1315714718954Imagine you are in the Scottish highlands! Gorgeous mountains surround a glistening lock with strange dark depths. A rainbow shines in the sky above a haunting castle ruin. The crisp air smells of pine forests and peat smoke while in the distance is the evocative sound of…a mastodon with bronchitis? Swans being murdered? An eldritch spirit caught in an industrial machine? No! You listen more carefully and the screech swells into splendid martial music and suddenly your heart is filled with bravery and your eyes with tears. The bagpipes can somehow produce a horrible grating rasp while simultaneously shaping it into the most dulcet melody. The sweet yet troubling dichotomy lies at the core of Gaelic music. Yet bagpipes probably do not originally come from Scotland or Ireland (although you probably should not bring this up to drunken Scots or Irishmen).

If you are wondering where bagpipes originally came from, you are not alone. For a long time musical scholars, nationalists, historians, and classicists have argued about the origins of the distinctive woodwind instrument. The great Scottish bagpipes have been famous since the eighteenth century (and are now nearly synonymous with British marshal might during their ascendant era of world empire). The Scottish bagpipes evolved in a logical progression from a medieval antecedent, the smallpipes, which were played around Europe, the Mediterranean basin, North Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India for centuries. The smallpipes are recognizably bagpipes: a reed instrument is connected to an air reserve in the form of an animal skin bag. Various bones with holes hang from the bag for the purpose of adjusting tone and pitch. You can listen to some pretty musical samples of these medieval smallpipes here. The issue of where these pipes originated, however, becomes more contentious. Various groups proudly assert national origin or fight over obscure textual or visual references. At present, the question has no certain answer, but by going back further and further into history a plausible outline takes shape.

Medieval smallpipes (modern recreation from wood-n-bone.co.nz)

Medieval smallpipes (modern recreation from wood-n-bone.co.nz)

From the 12th century on bagpipes appeared frequently in art and sculpture from across Western Eurasia. We even have some of the actual instruments! Before that time, during the dark ages, the bagpipes appear to have been largely a peasant instrument and, as such, they are not referenced in the exiguous writings of that era. Unfortunately skin sacks, bellows, and reeds quickly deteriorate but a number of bone pipes have been found in Scandinavia and Western Europe which could have been parts of bagpipes (I have heard Viking re-enactors at the American Museum of Natural History, attach these pipes to bladders and play whistle-ghost tunes on them).

 

An illumination of a droneless bagpipe

A monastic illumination of a droneless bagpipe

It seems certain that the Romans had a version of the bagpipe, the tibia utricularis, which was a woodwind instrument played from an air-reserve bag made of hide (although it is not clear how close it otherwise was to the medieval smallpipe). The legions carried this intimidating instrument around the empire and it is even referenced in the history of Emperor Nero’s life (it seems the dark autocrat played the instrument and may even have called upon it to save himself from a mob), however we have no pictures or examples of the Roman instrument—only textual citations.

 

A modern interpretation of a Roman bagpipe (by David Marshall)

A modern interpretation of a Roman bagpipe (by David Marshall)

Most Roman musical instruments came originally from Greece, and it seems the tibia utricularis was no exception. In his 425 BC play The Archarnians, Aristophanes (apparently) references a bagpipe-like instrument. One of the bombastic characters orders the band to play by shouting, “Musicians from Thebes, pipe with your bone flutes into a dog’s rump.” Seemingly this device consisted of a sewn-up dog skin which was attached to a reed and to various bone chanters (“flute” being a famous translator’s shorthand for the ubiquitous woodwind reed pipe of classical antiquity). Classics scholars generally agree that this was a reference to a bagpipe and not just a ribald insult to Thebans and dogs.

 

Whereas the contemporary Greek bagpipe is made of a sheep...

Whereas the contemporary Greek bagpipe is made of a sheep…

The very first (possible) references to the bagpipe however long predate 5th century Greece and go back to the Fertile Crescent where civilization itself first rose from the mud. The Hittites, the bellicose masters of the chariot, may have been the first people to leave a record of the bagpipes. A weathered Hittite carving from Eyuk appears to show a musician blowing into a sack. Additionally there are illustrations of military divers breathing from skin sacks which date back to that era. A clever reader will note many conditional words strewn through the previous paragraph—the evidence is not 100% compelling—but it is what we have.

Hmm? Surely that poor Hittite isn't just blowing into a stomach?

Hmm? Surely that poor Hittite isn’t just blowing into a stomach?

Before their empire collapsed in the great crisis of the 12th century, the Hittites got around. They could have appropriated the bagpipes from Sumeria, Egypt, the Mycenean palace kingdoms, Persia, or even the Harappans. Maybe they invented it themselves when they were thinking up the chariot. We have gone as far as we can without more archaeological evidence. The mystery of where bagpipes come from goes cold about three (and a fraction) millennia ago. Considering how dismissive literary sources have been about the peasant instrument, perhaps bagpipes were being played before civilization arose—or maybe the Greeks invented them (like so many things). What is certain is that the plangent music of the bagpipes has appealed to people for a long time. Relax, think about the mysterious vicissitudes of history and enjoy some bagpipe music!

A Conch Used as a Trumpet

Conches are large sea snails.  True conches are from the family Strombidae, but there are a number of other large marine snails which are also colloquially called conches including horse conches (Fasciolariidae), crown conches (Melongenidae), and the “sacred chank” (a member of the Turbinellidae family).  These powerful marine snails are fascinating organisms in their own right—but today’s post is not about biology, rather it concerns music. When properly prepared, conches can be made into lovely and powerful wind instruments. Such shell trumpets have been found in use by cultures from around the world and specimens have been found dating back to the Neolithic era (although the musical use of shells might predate even that).

3000 year old Strombus galeatus shell modified as a musical instrument by pre-Inca people of Peru

Different cultures obviously use different shells for their trumpets and the instruments also serve varying purposes.  The magnificent big pink queen conch (Lobatus gigas) from the Caribbean was used as a trumpet by the Carib, the Arawak and Taíno peoples.  In India, the shell of the big predatory sea snail, Turbinella pyrum has long been crafted into the shankha, a religious musical instrument emblematic of the Hindu preserver god Vishnu (who last appeared in Ferrebeekeeper slaying the demon of Lake Lonar).  The shankha (also known as the sacred chank in English) can be intricately carved.  Though initially used as a charm to ward off the dangers of ocean travel, it long ago came to be associated with Vishnu worship and with nagas—water serpent deities.  Buddhists from the subcontinent also esteem the same instrument  as one of the eight auspicious symbols of that faith.  The Tibetan Buddhists call such a trumpet a “Tung.”

Vamavarta shankhas, c. 11-12th century

The Triton shell, Charonia tritonis, is used as a wind instrument throughout its Pacific range.  In Polynesia the instrument is called a “pu” whereas in Japan the horn is known as the horagai.  Likewise the Triton’s shell is a military instrument in traditional Korean music (where it is known as a nagak).

A Korean Bugler plays a Nagak

The cultures of the Mediterranean also made extensive use of conch-horns as foghorns and signaling devices and it is through Greek art and literature that conch horns made their way into mainstream Western art of the last two millennia.

Triton blowing on a Conch from the Bailey Fountain in Brooklyn

There seem to be two major ways of crafting a wind instrument from a large gastropod– both of which essentially involve creating an aperture in the whorl of a large gastropod shell. Mitchell Clark summarizes them with admirable clarity in his excellent article about shell-trumpets writing:

 There are two basic places this hole may be placed, and so there are two basic approaches that can be taken for making a conch shell into a shell trumpet. A hole is made either at the apex (the tip of the spire) of the shell, or, alternatively, in one of the whorls to the side of the spire…. In some cases the hole itself forms the mouth hole; in others, a mouthpiece is added.

The sound of such a trumpet is a rich rumbling primal roar—but it is usually only one note in one key.  Although pitch can be modified with finger holes or embouchure, such an approach is unusual.  But enough talk about shell trumpets!  Below is a Youtube video of a um…contest-winner playing one.

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