Data sonification: more fun than you ever had in high school statistics

Here are two things that I think are really cool:

  • Thermonuclear Testing, Made Into Music, 1945-1998 (h/t Wayne Marshall): an aural/visual representation of all the thermonuclear tests that were done in the world in the given time period.  The staggering number of tests, juxtaposed with the almost delicate beauty of the colorful dots and sounds, took me a while to process emotionally.
  • Dodgers Musical History (h/t Matt Meltzer): Here, the creator assigned a musical note to each outcome of each season the Dodgers have been in existence, layered over a beat.  Pretty nice way to condense a lot of data, and it doesn’t sound half-bad.

Some thoughts on musical science

I’ve recently been chugging through a bunch of pre-grad school reading suggestions, and read Guido Adler‘s 1885 article laying out the (then) new “science” of musicology–”The Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology.”  His thoughts, and the article itself, are, of course, products of their time, and have been really influential, and all that.  I’m glad I read it in terms of my own edification in the history of a discipline whose cousin I am entering, but his essential notion that music can be studied and systematized like any natural science bothers me incredibly, to say the least.  (Maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t still floating around, though.)

I’ve been bothered by this tendency for a long time, since I first became interested in ethnomusicology, and I think what it really boils down to is this: people aren’t simple and neither are things that people create.  People are, in fact, inordinately complex, and the communities they create and in which they participate are even more so, and how those communities interact and develop over time even more so.  How much more infinitely complex, then, are the often highly-idiosyncratic artistic products of these communities?

This isn’t to say that we can’t possibly begin to try to understand music–but it’s so, so extremely important to do so with the biggest dose of humility we can summon up.  People who think about music, and who study music, have to come to terms with the fact that all our thinking and writing, no matter how clear, insightful, perceptive, granular, deep, broad, what have you, is pretty much just a thin crust of simplification floating on a huge mass of complex and at times even chaotic music-making.  It’s simplification that is often very useful, but we can’t possibly hope to represent, let alone systematize, everything out there in an exhaustive fashion.

Of course, these are issues with any kind of intellectual inquiry into natural or human phenomena–it’s not something that even a true natural science like biology, for example, can escape.  Biological phenomena, though, are quite a bit more regular than artistic phenomena and thus, I think, lend themselves a lot more elegantly to positivist systematization.

I’m not saying anything here that I don’t think a whole bunch of ethnomusicologists would agree with–I just feel it important, for my own intellectual development if nothing else, to lay it out.  These thoughts mean that my work has tended, and will continue to tend, I hope and believe, toward the granular; if over time I can create some kind of pointillist image that eventually points to bigger theories, then I’ll go there–but until that time I think it’s wise to be somewhat conservative in what I believe to be the implications of any particular project for anything else.

The other, semantic consequence of these thoughts is that “ethnomusicology” is a rather poor, and unnecessarily scientific-sounding, title for the essentially humanistic and anti-positivist discipline I think it is and/or should be.  Unfortunately I can’t think of another term that is quite as short and convenient, but I’ll keep you posted.

Announcing the Philadelphia Sher Project

After a long hiatus while I finished up my semester (my second-last at Penn!) I’m back at eartotheground.

On Sunday, I had the privilege of playing in my synagogue’s klezmer band for the début performance of the Philadelphia sher at our annual Chanukah party.  The sher is a traditional Eastern European/Ashkenazi Jewish social dance in 2/4 time for four couples, with an accompanying set of tunes. Eastern European Jews who came to the United States brought it with them, and by the early twentieth century, Philadelphia had its own characteristic sher medley, as did New York and other major cities.

The sher was hugely popular at weddings and other social events and quickly became beloved by the Philadelphia Jewish community and beyond, eventually becoming the preeminent American sher medley. Unfortunately, widespread performance of the sher died out by the 1960s due to the pressures of Israeli music and dance, assimilation and suburbanization. It is kept alive in klezmer circles at events like KlezKamp, but not often performed at everyday parties and events.

Over the last few months, the Simcha Band, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann and the Religious Life Committee of Kol Tzedek, and I put together a grant application to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Kehillah of Center City to fund an exciting community-based project built around the sher–and we received $2200 from them for this project and a concurrent prayer leader training program!

Sherri Cohen, the Simcha Band’s trombonist, and I have been taking lessons with the eminent klezmer trumpeter Susan Watts, whose family has deep roots in Philadelphia’s Jewish music scene, and learning the sher.  Naomi Segal, a member of Kol Tzedek, re-learned the sher (which she danced as a kid growing up in Philly) and taught it to the congregation on Sunday.  People had a great time dancing it and the band (featuring Susan and her mom, fantastic drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts) certainly had a great time playing it.

Right now we’re recruiting volunteers from Kol Tzedek, the Philly Jewish community, and beyond to help with this project.  Community members can get involved in any number of ways:

  • Coming to Kol Tzedek events where we will be performing the sher (TBA here, or if you get in touch with me)
  • Learning how to perform it with the Simcha Band
  • Volunteering to learn the dance and teach it to others in the area
  • Getting involved in the historical and archival research on the sher and on klezmer in Philly that I’ll be conducting beginning next month
  • Conducting oral interviews about Philly’s Jewish music scene with members of the Philly Jewish community
  • Designing the final web archive, where we will be storing educational materials, video, audio, sheet music and historical and ethnographic information about the sher

By April, we hope to have:

  • Published (online and in hard copy) the sher music, recordings, performance notes, video of events at which it was performed, instructional video, and a history/ethnography of the Philadelphia sher.
  • Performed and taught the Philadelphia sher medley at area Jewish events and simchas, along with a short historical presentation.
  • Established a foothold for the Philly sher as a meaningful, living, breathing part of Philadelphia Jewish life, and self-sustaining methods for its transmission to future generations of musicians, dancers and partygoers.

There might also be a documentary film somewhere in there, depending on how things go.  Stay tuned for the launch of the official Philadelphia Sher Project blog within the next week or so, with photos, video and audio of this year’s Chanukah festivities!  Drop me an email or comment here if you want to get involved with this project at any level.

What was really groundbreaking about “Rapper’s Delight”?

Matthew Guerrieri of the Boston Globe argues that the truly original thing about the 1979 hit rap single “Rapper’s Delight” is the fact that it doesn’t have a chorus, that staple of the pop-song form since, he says, the 1840′s, when the blackface group Christy’s Minstrels popularized the chorus.

I’m not buying it.

First, what music scholars call “strophic form“–varied verses alternating with the same refrain, or chorus–goes way back, to medieval European folk songs and perhaps even earlier, or in other places (we have no way of knowing precisely because they weren’t usually written down, or written about).  Since then, plenty of musical forms, from hymns to yes, pop songs to jams to lots of kinds of folk music to the twelve-bar blues have relied on this form.

Christy’s Minstrels may have popularized the use of vocal harmony on the chorus alternating with solo verses in the contemporary United States, but that’s nothing new in the grand scheme of things–this practice was commonplace in many musical traditions, from West African music to responsorial chant in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church.

The really original thing about “Rapper’s Delight” was that Sylvia Robinson and the Sugar Hill Gang found a way to get the new musical style of rap to the mainstream.  While rap had already been around for a while at this point, people were mostly performing for fun and for parties and other events–it wasn’t considered a business opportunity.  Robinson capitalized, not without contention from other folks in the rap scene, on the infectiousness and grassroots popularity of the style and made a hit song, paving the way for people like Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, Diddy, Jay-Z and many other hip-hop entrepreneurs.

“Rapper’s Delight” is a good song, but it’s not that original per se in terms of its form or other aesthetic parameters.  It was truly groundbreaking because of what it represented and foreshadowed: hip hop’s potential as a very lucrative sector of the music business.

Here’s a short clip of “Rapper’s Delight” (it’s really closer to 15′):

Also, I think with a little stretching of the standard rules of formal structure, you could consider “I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop and you don’t stop, the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie, to the rhythm of the boogie the beat” a chorus of sorts.  Just sayin’.

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