Feeling Gezelligheid on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, December 2012

Julie Kocsis (W.W. Norton)

With the exception of maybe Bruce Springsteen, there is no musician I enjoy seeing live more than Andrew Bird, whom I’ve been fortunate enough to see play at least a half-dozen times over the past ten years throughout New York City. Each performance is a real show for the senses— attendees are not only treated to his vocals and violin playing, but are also able to visually observe the physicality that goes into the music he creates. He plucks, bows, claps, sings, whistles, strums, and twists the knobs of and stomps on the looping and distortion pedals that surround him on the stage.

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Where There’s a Waltz There’s a Way: Exploring the Secrets of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations

Robin Wallace (School of Music, Baylor University)

Ludwig van Beethoven receives a waltz by Anton Diabelli in early 1819, about a year after getting his new Broadwood piano and well into the final decline of his hearing. The piece initially seems unpromising to him, but it feels amazing on this new instrument, whose keys have unprecedented tactile depth and whose frame is uncommonly reactive to vibration across its width. In the first eight measures the melody plunges three and a half octaves into the bass, and the pattern of sequences that follows culminates in a stretch covering three quarters of the keyboard. He realizes that this is material that will allow his sense of touch to lead him in novel directions.

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Before It Goes Away: Performance and Reclamation of Songs from Blackface Minstrelsy

Sheryl Kaskowitz (Providence, Rhode Island)

Blackface minstrelsy was a popular and pervasive form of entertainment in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s, and its legacy continues to haunt American popular culture. Whether or not songs have roots in minstrelsy can be difficult to determine; their lyrics have often been changed and their original performance contexts have become lost to history. Remnants of this slippery history can be found in well-known children’s songs such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and many others.

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Blurring Categories: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

Sally K Sommers Smith Wells (Division of Natural Science and Mathematics, Boston University)

 

 

Patti Smith performs Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at the 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony. Smith accepted Bob Dylan’s award on his behalf.

 

The Swedish Academy’s decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan was one of the biggest news stories of 2016. Major news sources including the New York Times and The Guardian reacted to the announcement, and Dylan’s initial refusal to acknowledge the award brought another wave of comment and criticism. Some critics focused on the meaning of literature in the wake of this award. Others were far more concerned about whether one could separate an artist’s lyrics from the music that presents them. The award—and the debate over whether Dylan’s lyrics could be considered poetry—prompted heated discussions about the nature of art and celebrity and served as the centerpiece for an amusing short story in The New Yorker.  Although Dylan did not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm in early December, he ultimately acknowledged the award with a “warm, humble” acceptance statement that alluded to the ongoing philosophical conversation that the Swedish Academy’s decision had inspired, without providing any answers on the subject.

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Beethoven’s Deafness and the Myth of the Isolated Artist

Linda Shaver-Gleason (Lompoc, CA)

 

In a scene from the 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, music teacher Glenn Holland tells his high school students about Beethoven’s deafness while playing the second movement of the composer’s seventh symphony (the same movement used fifteen years later during the climax of The King’s Speech). Holland has just learned that his toddler son is deaf. While Holland describes the irony of Beethoven’s situation—one of the greatest composers not being able to hear—it’s clear to the viewer that he’s connecting it to his personal irony, as his son will never be able to hear the music that has been his life’s purpose.

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