5 posts from March 2016

March 28, 2016

Temperamental Differences

Blake Howe (Louisiana State University)

In their lessons, violinists must train very hard to play “in tune.” Singers face the same challenge; some, fearful of sounding “pitchy,” might even use Auto-Tune to prevent mistakes in live performance. The slightest change in temperature and humidity can knock a piano “out of tune,” so concert halls usually hire a professional tuner to “retune” the instrument before each concert—a grueling process that can take hours.

To play or sing in tune is to match the pitch frequencies prescribed by a tuning system. Despite an infinite number of possible systems, for the past 200 years most Western musicians have used just one, called “equal temperament. Listeners have become so accustomed to the sound of equal temperament that its organization of pitch frequencies sounds normal, and a performer’s failure to match those frequencies produces music that sounds wrong. But equal temperament, much like the very concept of normality, is a product of its time and place. It reflects the politics of a culture that values consistency over variety, uniformity over difference—and, as we will learn, a prototypical nondisabled body over the extraordinary diversity of human morphology.

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March 21, 2016

America Goes to the Opera

Kristen M. Turner (North Carolina State University)

To many people, opera means expensive productions of long, melodramatic works composed more than a century ago and sung in a language other than English. The genre conjures up images of formally dressed, older audiences who have spent a small fortune on tickets to attend a performance in a regally appointed opera house in Manhattan or Paris. But opera is not always like this. A quick perusal of YouTube reveals smaller, sometimes student productions, which lack the elaborate scenery, large orchestral accompaniments, and beautiful costumes often associated with opera.

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March 14, 2016

The Power of Sound: The 2016 Presidential Campaign

Justin Patch (Vassar College)

The modern political campaign is an emotional and sensory affair. It is not rational or reasonable, nor is it concerned with presenting best policies and practices for governance, fostering the greatest good for all, or sensibly managing the world’s largest economy. Instead, campaigns appeal to pathos, optimism, nationalism, and fear. They use stereotype and caricature, level unverifiable accusations, present policies and platitudes devoid of possibility, and deal in clichés and sound bites. Campaign ads stimulate emotions and provoke strong (partisan and intra-party) reactions rather than laying the groundwork for deliberative debates on policy, process, purpose, or vision. The modern campaign, as the founders of democracy in the New and Old Worlds feared, is an appeal to humanity’s basest instincts: fear, hatred, paranoiacompetition, and hope. The power and profundity of sound make it an essential but dangerous element of political campaigns. 

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March 7, 2016

From Ziggy to Blackstar: David Bowie’s Musical Masks

Katherine Reed (Utah Valley University)


In a segment from D.A. Pennebaker’s concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie shows the experimental fashion and performance style with which he would be linked for the rest of his career.


Perhaps the most memorable images of David Bowie feature the flaming red mullet and custom Kansai Yamamoto wardrobe of this final Ziggy Stardust concert. In a 2002 interview with Terry Gross, though, Bowie bristles at the suggestion that his career consisted of a parade of dresses and makeup: “That was for eighteen months, actually . . . which out of a career of nearly forty years is not very long.” He isn’t wrong about that, but the image of Bowie as a glammed-up chameleon persists in the days after his death. As the man himself said in March 2004, “I’ve always felt bemused at being called the chameleon of rock. Doesn't a chameleon exert tremendous energy to become indistinguishable from its environment?” Bowie, of course, rarely fit into his environment. Countless memorials and think pieces since his death on January 10, 2016 pay homage to the performer’s groundbreaking gender bending and sartorial reinvention. What many forget, though, is that these masks weren’t just physical—Bowie reinvented himself musically, picking up new styles and idioms as it suited him.

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March 2, 2016

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