5 posts from November 2015

November 30, 2015

Religious Listening

Joshua Kalin Busman (University of North Carolina, Pembroke)

A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 40 percent of religiously unaffiliated people identify as “spiritual, but not religious.” In 2010, USA Today reported that nearly 72 percent of millennials would describe themselves as “more spiritual than religious.” By all accounts, the “spiritual, but not religious” trend (“SBNR” in Internet shorthand) is an important aspect of contemporary religious life. Writer Matthew Becklo has argued that SBNR has a uniquely strong hold in the musical sphere, becoming “the boring new normal” among contemporary pop musicians. Citing quotes from a laundry list of the biggest names in popular music, Becklo argues that SBNR creates a “middle way” that allows artists to avoid the shallow hedonism of materialism while simultaneously side-stepping the specificity of any particular religious tradition. Take, for instance, the title track of British folk-pop titans Mumford and Sons’s 2009 album Sigh No MoreThe first verse and chorus lyrics explicitly mention religious concepts like God, love, salvation, charity, and the possibility of an afterlife, but maintain a level of ambiguity that allow them to function effectively in a host of different religious value systems.


 “Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons

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November 23, 2015

Art Mimics Art: Anthony Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony: A Novel in Four Movements

Kendra Leonard (Humble, TX) 

“Show me a family of readers, and I will show you the people who move the world.”

—Napoleon Bonaparte

Ludwig van Beethoven greatly admired the young Napoleon Bonaparte while the latter was serving as First Consul of France. The composer thought that Napoleon represented the three ideals of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, and fraternity—and so Beethoven dedicated his Third Symphony to him, calling it the “Symphony Buonaparte.” However, Napoleon himself was not so much into the equality part of the Revolution’s goals, and in 1804 declared himself emperor. Furious, Beethoven tore out the dedication and reinscribed it as being “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” The phrase “great man”—rendered by Beethoven as “heroic” or eroica—has stayed with the piece ever since, but even Beethoven admitted that the work was about Napoleon before his power grab: when Napoleon died in 1821, the composer commented that he had already written the now-exiled emperor’s funeral march as the second movement of the 1804 symphony.

In 1974, author and composer Anthony Burgess wrote a novel called Napoleon Symphony. He structured this experimental novel on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” The intersection of music and the written word in Napoleon Symphony is more complicated than an author including songs in her work, or musicians being inspired by an author’s work and creating music based on it. Burgess wanted to write a fictionalized life of Napoleon, and, according to the text on the cover of one edition of Napoleon Symphony, believed that “in the fusion of musical and literary form lies a possible future for the novel.”

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November 16, 2015

Re-thinking Convention and Innovation

Nicholas Lockey (Sam Houston State University)


 Closing scene of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)


The end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) defies the conventions of film endings. After the credits are over, the music has stopped, and the screen has faded to darkness, we are suddenly confronted with an interior shot of Ferris Bueller’s (Matthew Broderick) home. Is this the start of a new movie? Did the film’s editors make a mistake and forget to remove some material from the final product? The mystery is resolved when Ferris (or perhaps it’s meant to be Broderick speaking to us?) appears, breaks the fourth wall, and addresses the audience with bewilderment: “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. … Go.”  We realize that the director has played a humorous game with our expectations. American audiences in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have come to expect that a darkened screen after the closing credits means that the movie is over and, except for a company logo or two, there is nothing else to see. Ferris Bueller presents us with these conventional ending cues and then defies our expectations by not ending when it is “supposed” to. This scene surprises us precisely because we have reason to expect something different to happen—expectation that is built on the establishment of, and our familiarity with, conventions. In the decades since Ferris Bueller (and similar movies) first appeared, more and more films have included post-credit scenes. Sometimes, innovations themselves can become conventions.

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November 9, 2015

Bromantic Singing: Madrigals and Authenticity

(Andrew Dell’Antonio, University of Texas at Austin)

It’s been a common schtick among music history teachers to tell our students that sixteenth-century Italian and English madrigals are not the wholesome, jolly songs about shepherds, nymphs, and fa la la they learned to sing in high school. Ultimately, they’re about sex. Amused at having mildly shocked our charges, we are often satisfied to leave the matter at that and forge ahead to the “progress” of Baroque music. But if we’re willing to take the issue a bit deeper, there’s more for us to consider about gender dynamics and social singing—not just in the Renaissance, but up to the present day. Because madrigal singing was not just about sex: it was largely about bromance. 

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November 2, 2015

American Folk Rock Cattle Raid: The Decemberists’s The Tain

Kendra Leonard (Humble, TX)

The Decemberists’s The Tain is a five-part, 18-minute audiovisual piece in which the music and lyrics obliquely comment on the story, crafted in stop-motion animation using paper silhouettes. In this confluence of music and literature, we hear and see an ancient Irish epic become a twentieth-century folk rock narrative. The combination of roots music with an edge and sly, knowing lyrics—together with the animation—offers an imaginative approach to the legend, the action of which is said to have taken place in the first century CE.


 The Decemberists’s The Tain. It’s worth the whole 18 minutes, I promise.

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Norton Music

A History of Western Music

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

The Enjoyment of Music

Kristine Forney, Andrew Dell’Antonio, and Joseph Machlis

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