music

Posted by Ellen

The contraflutes of the Metropolitan Flute Orchestra, at Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, County Galway, in the west of Ireland. The three flautists in the front row are holding contrabass flutes tuned in C; behind them are two sub contrabass flutes in G.

There is also a double contrabass flute, which is capable of playing the lowest C on a piano. Its tone sounds even lower, we're told, because flutes have fewer harmonic vibrations than stringed instruments.

To hear a little contrabass fluting and see how the dang things are held and played, try this.

Posted by Ellen

Guest of honor at this Valentine's Day party in 1944 was Eleanor Roosevelt; serenading her was a soldier by the name of Pete Seeger.

The gathering celebrated not only Valentine's Day but also the grand opening of the new Labor Canteen of the United Federal Workers of America, CIO, near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.

United Federal Workers was a labor union representing U.S. government employees. Though soldiers and sailors were certainly not unionized, they may have frequented the new canteen for political and/or social activities.

The UFW included both black and white members. But the scene in this room was extremely unusual for 1940s Washington, which was still a completely segregated city. The military was also still segregated. Eleanor Roosevelt's presence was making a political statement about race as well as labor.

The cartoons on the wall in the background may have been the work of Woody Guthrie.

As some of you will surely point out, the banjo Pete Seeger is playing here does not look like the long-necked music machine he was long associated with. That one came a few years later.

Happy Valentine's Day 2015.

Posted by Ellen

This is the front panel of a Nechada barrel organ, made in Odessa, Ukraine, in the early years of the twentieth century. It was often set up in the street outside a bar or brothel, in hopes that the popular tunes it blasted out would draw a crowd of potential customers. Sometimes, of course, the organ grinder had a monkey as an added attraction, or a troupe of very young girls, perhaps eight or ten years old, who danced and sang and turned cartwheels to entertain the drunks.

Odessa was home to a number of piano manufacturers, who made these organs as a sideline. No musical skill was required to operate them; the organ grinder just turned the crank on one side of the box, which pumped air through the organ pipes and also spun rolls of paper that had been pre-programmed with the desired musical compositions. The paper blocked air from entering the pipes except where holes had been punched; when a hole in the paper came in line with the opening to a pipe of the desired pitch, air was forced through the pipe, generating each note of a song.

Odessa street organs, called sharmankas, were sold throughout the Russian empire from about 1860 until they began to be replaced by more modern music machines, notably record players, in the 1920s. Even then, they remained in use by street buskers, particularly in Tbilisi and other Georgian cities, where street organs were popular well into the 1960s.

The inscription across the bottom of this organ gives the name and address of its maker. Ivan Viktorovich Nechada worked out of a piano factory on Balskovskaya Street, now Isaac Babel Street, in Odessa. This organ is in the collection of the new Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, but recently a very similar Nechada organ, said to be in perfect working order, was advertised in Moscow; "May be sold or exchanged for a car," wrote the seller, in an ad in Mechanical Music Digest.

Posted by Ellen

The musical instrument in the 1928 photo above is a contrabass tuba, considerably larger and lower-pitched than a regular tuba. It is designed to be strapped onto a musician in a marching band and played in its strapped-on position, without need for lifting or rearranging.

The extremely rare instrument in the photo below from Greenwich, England, is a sub-contrabass tuba, which emits sounds an octave lower than those produced by the contrabass tuba. It is probably not intended for use in a marching band.

Posted by Ellen

On Saturday morning, geophysicists believed Iceland's Bardarbunga volcanic system had begun erupting beneath the huge glacier that hides it from view. By Saturday evening, however, new data or new interpretations of the data were raising doubts about this conclusion; the magma might still be trapped in rock a few kilometers below the bottom of the ice.

The actual eruption might have already begun or might begin at any moment or might never happen at all. But Bardarbunga's magma is definitely on the move down there in the earth's crust, melting some of the rock in its path and shouldering the rest out of its way, along a northeasterly route tracked by literally thousands of earthquakes.

Halldor Eldjarn has set the earthquake data to music, which you can listen to in near-real time.

Posted by Ellen

On Sunday afternoon, there was nyckelharpa music in the air at Third Street Gallery on Second Street (don't ask) in Philadelphia's Old City.

That doesn't happen too often in Philly or really anywhere in the United States, with the possible exception of the Seattle area, home to the American Nyckelharpa Association and site of occasional dance evenings accompanied by nyckelharpists.

In Sweden, on the other hand, there are an estimaed 10,000 nyckelharpa players, and the keyed fiddle is featured on the back of the 50-krona note and has in fact been declared the country's official musical instrument. Swedes have been building and playing and composing music for nyckelharpor for more than six hundred years. Five-hundred-year-old stained glass windows feature angels playing the nyckelharpa.

The modern version of the instrument has 16 strings, 4 of which are played by the bow; the other 12 vibrate sympathetically, producing a resonant, vaguely organ-like sound.

The bowed string on the upper side of the neck, closest to the player's body, is a drone, unaffected by the keys and used rarely. The other three bowed strings can be shortened by pressing different keys to produce several octaves' worth of tones; there are three rows of keys, each dedicated to a different string.

Most nyckelharpa music harks back to folksong or polka, but the instrument is used by a handful of Swedish rock bands, and some serious musicians can play pretty much anything on it, such as Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor.

The nyckelharpa occasion on Sunday was a reception for an art show featuring two Philly-area artists: Judith Schermer, who exhibited twelve paintings of clotheslines, and Priscilla Snow Algava, who showed a variety of drawings and paintings of "matriarchs and sages." 

Posted by Ellen
Maud Humphrey, born in 1868 in upstate New York, educated at New York City's new Art Students League and then, of course, in Paris, was a rare creature in her place and time: a highly successful professional woman who managed to combine a brilliant career with conventional marriage and family life. She married a doctor but out-earned him several times over, producing commercial artwork for immensely popular books, magazines, and advertising campaigns; she specialized in sentimental watercolor illustrations that featured plump children and adorable animals. Think: Gerber baby.
 
During her student days, Maud had become friends with another aspiring career woman, Grace Hall, a contralto from Illinois who was studying music and beginning a career on the New York opera and concert stage. Grace enjoyed considerable professional success right from the start, performing at Madison Square Garden among other venues, but she soon began to fear that the pressures of a heavy performance schedule were taking a toll on her health. Her eyesight had been weakened by childhood scarlet fever, and the newfangled electric stage lights seemed blinding. She suffered headaches and exhaustion after every show and lasted only a year before returning home to conventional bourgeois domesticity in the suburbs of Chicago. Like her friend Maud, she married a doctor, and also like her she earned substantially more money than her husband, in her case by offering voice and piano lessons to Chicago's nouveau riche.
 
The two women stayed in touch, and in 1899, when Grace wrote Maud that she was expecting her second child, Maud responded by sending Grace a half-dozen watercolors to decorate her nursery. And Maud had some news of her own: she too was expecting.
 
That year, both women gave birth to sons: Maud's boy was named Humphrey Bogart, and Grace's was named Ernest Hemingway.  Fifty or so years later, Bogart and Hemingway got to know each other during the filming of a Hemingway story, and they figured out their mothers' connection and the provenance of the nursery paintings.
 
The photo above shows two of the Maud Humphrey watercolors above Ernest Hemingway's baby bed in the family home in Oak Park, just outside Chicago.
 
Although Grace Hall Hemingway was still alive when her son met the son of her old friend Maud, she may never have learned about the meeting. Hemingway rather famously nursed grievances against his mother and was distant to his family. His main complaint was that his mother was a cold bitch who had emasculated his father by earning too much money and refusing to defer to husbandly authority.
 
Every summer, when the family vacationed at a lake cabin in Michigan, where Ernest's father loved to hunt and fish, Grace vacationed instead in a cottage across the lake that she had built for herself and her one-time music student Ruth Arnold, who had previously worked as the children's nanny. Grace clearly preferred Ruth's company to that of her husband and six children, even after her husband created a public commotion when he tried to expel Ruth from their property. Ernest's version of the story emphasized a financial angle: he believed that the money his mother had used to build her lake retreat should have been used instead to send him to college.
 
Humphrey Bogart is alleged to have complained similarly about his own mother, Maud, although many more details of the Hemingway mother-son issues have been thrashed out in public. But one Maud Humphrey legend can definitely be put to rest: no, the young Humphrey Bogart was not the Gerber baby. His mother did paint his likeness for a baby-food advertising campaign, but that was for a different brand.
Posted by Ellen

Willie Nelson's guitar, Trigger, is almost as old and torn up as Willie himself. Willie marked his eightieth birthday with a show last weekend at the 2013 New Orleans Jazz Fest; Trigger's been his concert workhorse for forty years now, ever since a drunk stepped on his prize Gibson guitar and he needed a replacement fast, from off the shelf.

Trigger is a classical-style guitar with with an electric pickup attached. It was meant to be played acoustically, strummed with the fingers, not amplified with a pick, and forty years of picking have worn right through the wood on the front face, leaving a big hole that's getting bigger.

There are also scrapes and scratches and dings and cracks, all of which seem completely predictable for anything in Willie Nelson's life, even something as precious to him as Trigger. And then there are the autographs, more than a hundred by now, beginning with Leon Russell and including the names of fellow musicians, friends, and of course his lawyers. The signatures are scratched into the wood, not inked on the surface; the cellphone camera failed to pick them out clearly.

Jazz Fest weather in New Orleans is supposed to be hot and humid; there may be rain and mud, but always there should be sweat and sunburn. This year, Willie and all the other performers sang into a hard, cold wind, nothing like what's normal for New Orleans in May. Most festival-goers were not prepared for the shivery conditions, but the music definitely took the edge off the chill.

Posted by Ellen

The Roches–sisters Maggie, Terre, and Suzzie–don't always sing like this, but when they do, they're from New Jersey.

Posted by Ellen

In the awkward but sort of proud tradition of bloggers promoting cool stuff from their friends and relations, we are pleased as punch to point you to Savvy Lessons, the new venture by Ted Stein and his partners Brad Clements and Bhagwan Khalsa.

A few years back, Ted wrote some software to help Brad and Bhagwan run their music school. By logging in online, students and teachers could schedule their lessons, track invoices, and generally deal with the business side of their musical life. On the music school website, somebody who wanted to learn, say, trombone could read about various trombone teachers around town and choose one based on musical taste, recommendations and reviews, credentials, teaching philosophy, and/or location. And somebody who wanted to teach trombone could catch the eye of potential students on that same website.
 
In other words, this software combines a bit of advertising, even matchmaking, with the basic business operations necessary for music teachers . . . or any other service professionals–from photographers to yoga instructors, tech support to babysitters. Currently, solo entrepreneurs or small businesses who offer services to the public cannot maintain an online presence and computerize their routine business activities without purchasing multiple software products and/or hiring a programmer.
 
Savvy Lessons, the first offering in the new Savvy Ware line of software, scales up Brad, Bhagwan, and Ted's music-school product for a nationwide market. Music teachers anywhere in the country can be matched to interested students nearby, using a web portal that can also manage lesson scheduling, accounting, invoicing, and other business functions.
 
Next will come a series of similar offerings optimized for different sorts of service businesses. Savvy Tutors, for example, will help tutors market themselves to students who need tutoring; it will also support them in their pedagogy with business-management software like that used by musicians.
 
Down the road, there's even a plan for Savvy Plumbers. Why not?
 
About that trombone teacher. Savvy Lessons offers many choices, but I think I'm inclined to go with a young Baltimorean, Corey Wallace, because his experience included a season with a touring company of The Music Man. In other words, he's one of the 76 trombones for real–definitely my kind of musician. You can hear him play, even watch a video of his solo with the Brent Birckhead Quintet, right there on Savvy Lessons.