4 posts from May 2015

May 26, 2015

Hearing Place in Music

Travis D. Stimeling (West Virginia University) 

In his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experiences, cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan defines place as “centers of felt value where biological needs, such as those for food, water, rest, and procreation, are satisfied.”1 It is in place, most cultural geographers argue, that we make meaning of the world around us, using our senses to respond to the environments in which we find ourselves.2 For instance, distant memories can be recalled through the smell of a spring rain. The sight of far-off mountains can feel simultaneously comforting and claustrophobic. So, too, do we construct senses of place through our auditory experiences. As Canadian composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer describes in his landmark book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, “hearing is a way of touching at a distance and the intimacy of the first sense is fused with sociability whenever people gather together to hear something special.”3 When we hear familiar popular songs from our childhoods, then, we might think of the people who filled our youthful spaces and feel a surge of (potentially inexplicable) emotions in response. The sounds of seagulls might take us back to a relaxing coastal vacation, perhaps even conjuring the faint smell of the ocean breeze or the taste of food from a favorite beachside bistro. If “the sounds of place,” to borrow a term coined by musicologist Denise Van Glahn, are so important to the ways we understand the world, how, then, might musicians—people who are, to a great extent, significantly engaged with sound—respond to the particular places in which they make their lives?4 Or, even more generally, how might musicians encourage us to conjure the natural world through their compositional and performative choices?

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May 18, 2015

The Popular Songwriter

Travis D. Stimeling (West Virginia University) 

In November 1975, Barry Manilow hit the top of the Billboard “Top 40” chart with “I Write the Songs.” Singing from the perspective of Music itself, the song’s protagonist “write[s] the songs that make the whole world sing.” Although that line has made headline writers happy for the past four decades, it has also come to represent Manilow’s professional career as a songwriter. During the 1960s and 1970s, Manilow composed some of the most singable music imaginable: commercial jingles. Among his best-known compositions—including songs such as “Copacabana” and “Mandy”—is State Farm Insurance’s memorable “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there” jingle. Although Manilow’s career as a recording artist was over by the early 1980s, his songs continue to “make the whole world sing,” if only for seconds at a time.

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May 11, 2015

Bespoke Opera: Handel, Fach, and Gender

Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas at Austin)

Twenty-first century opera singers obtain—and train for—principal roles in “warhorse” works worldwide according to a system of voice-types, widely known as the “fach” system (using a German word that means “classification”). Casting directors, teachers, and the stars themselves have become accustomed to linking singers to roles by these voice-types, so that a singer might think of herself as a “dramatic soprano” (associated, for example, with the roles of Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs and Aïda in Verdi’s opera of that name) or of himself as a “lyric baritone” (associated with the roles of Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute and Figaro in Rossini’s Barber of Seville).

When George Frideric Handel wrote his operatic roles in the early 1700s, by contrast, he wrote them specifically for individual singers who had been hired to star in his shows; he tailored the specific musical details of the parts to those star singers’ vocal strengths. If Handel chose to reprise an opera, and the singer for whom he had created the role was not available, he changed the music to suit the new singer’s vocal apparatus, just as a high-end clothing designer today might be expected to shorten or lengthen a dress so that it would fit perfectly, or add details that would create the best effect for the high-paying customer.

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May 4, 2015

“I Can’t Breathe”: Protest Music Now

Felicia Miyakawa (Round Rock, TX)

The following essay discusses violence and brutality. Music videos contain news footage of violent acts, accompanied by strong, explicit language.

In 2012, the New York Times offered a retrospective about Woody Guthrie’s life to honor his centenary, noting his legendary ability to sing truth to power, to embody protest in song, and contrasting his legacy with today’s artists whom the op-ed author characterized as tepid, quiet, and Republican. In the same year, Emily Kopp pondered the lack of political bite in contemporary punk and the general dearth of political song, despite the plentiful nature of contemporary injustices. “Maybe artists don't feel equipped to write songs about the recession and the Arab Spring just yet,” Greg Kot argued in the Denver Post, “but you would think that the Occupy Wall Street movement might've sparked a few protest songs by now.”

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A History of Western Music

J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca

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Kristine Forney, Andrew Dell’Antonio, and Joseph Machlis

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