December 18 – Oh, Nuts!

Today’s factismal: When the Nutcracker debuted on December 18, 1892, it was a flop.

Ask someone about Christmas traditions today and odds are that they’ll mention going to see either a ballet of the Nutcracker or listening to a concert of it. Every tradition has a start, and the Nutcracker is no exception. However, unlike many other holiday traditions (wassailing, gift-giving, sodium bicarbonate), the Nutcracker wasn’t an immediate hit. As a matter of fact, it was a complete flop.

The music was written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky when he was at the height of his popularity and was based on a well-known and loved children’s story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. In the story, a child named Clara falls asleep and dreams that her favorite Christmas toy does battle with the forces of the Mouse King; when she helps the toys win the battle, she is rewarded by being taken to the land of sweets where the various goodies dance for her before she eats them. (Lewis Carol must have been taking notes…) Tchaikovsky kept the story but phrased it as a ballet. He spent the better part of two years working on the score before it debuted in St. Petersburg, but was never happy with the final version.

The Nutcracker being done by the ballet corp that made it popular (Image courtesy San Francisco Ballet)

The Nutcracker being done by the ballet corp that made it popular
(Image courtesy San Francisco Ballet)

And neither was the audience at the debut performance. They found it confusing and boring and many left the theater. Tchaikovsky would later blame his co-worker Marius Petipa for many of the short-comings in the ballet. Petipa demanded that he have control over the music that Tchaikovsky wrote, down to the number of bars in each number and the tempo that they were performed. Tchaikovsky was crushed, but found some measure of content (and healthy music sales) in the response to a much-abridged suite that he extracted from the ballet.

And there the music stayed for nearly fifty years. Though a few daring ballets did perform the entire piece, most considered it a minor work of a major composer and ignored it in favor of more modern productions. And most non-ballet music lovers only knew it through the excerpt that Tchaikovsky had promoted and that Disney used for his failure, Fantasia. But in 1944, the San Francisco Ballet revived the production and made it click. For the first time, the Nutcracker was popular. And ever since, it has been a part of the holiday.

A large part of the reason that it has been so popular is that the music is undeniably catchy. Though it is not Tchaikovsky’s best work (I’d argue for Capriccio Italien), it is one of his most recognizable. Each act has a distinct musical signature that allows the audience to identify and enjoy it almost immediately; in the business, this is known as a hook. But what is interesting about hooks is that we still don’t know how they work and why they are so memorable. Fortunately, there is a group of scientists who are researching this very topic. Called logically enough #Hooked, they are trying to understand hooks so that they can be applied to other areas of our life. If you’d like to take part in their experiment, then swing on by:
http://www.manchestersciencefestival.com/citizenscience/hooked

November 9 – Singing In The Brain

Today’s factismal: In 1992, Thomas School yodeled 22 tones in one second, setting a new world’s record.

Let’s suppose that it is 1500 and you live on an Alpine meadow where you herd your goats, and that your best friend lives on an Alpine meadow across the valley where he herds his goats. Now let’s suppose that you just thought of the world’s funniest joke and want to tell it to him. You could pull out your cell phone, except that they haven’t been invented yet. You could walk over to tell it to him, but it is an all day journey down into the valley and back up. You could try to tell it to him by semaphore except he may not see you waving your arms. Or you could sing it to him.

Believe it or not, that’s exactly what the people in the Alps do. Over the years, they have developed a way to call across the mountains by singing. And they aren’t alone; yodeling is used by tribes in Africa, groups in Pakistan, and even field hands in America. By using a series of musical tones to carry information, the goatherds and other folks were able to send the information clearly and easily. Where words would blur and become confused by echoes, musical tones remain clear and easy to understand.

Today, the goatherds have cellular phones and yodeling is mostly found on country and western albums. But it still remains as a reminder of what life was like back when the only way to talk to a friend was to sing.

If you’d like to help anthropologists as they learn more about the ways we communicate, then head on over to the Open Anthropology Project:
http://openanthcoop.ning.com/

September 1 – Music With Some Class

Today’s factismal: The most successful opera singer of all time was Adelina Patti, who was paid $5,000 in gold before each performance.

September is National Classical Music Month, which means it is time to pay some attention to musicians with class, like Adelina Patti. Being an artist is a chancy thing. Your work may never be appreciated or it might be just a passing fad. And even if you do get paid, you rarely make as much as you would have digging ditches. While this can be annoying for a writer or painter, they at least have the solace that their work will endure even after they have gone (indeed, many writers and painters became famous only after they had died). But for actors and even more so for singers, the only time that their work can truly be appreciated is while they are alive because that is the only time that their work can truly be experienced.

A picture of the artist as a young lady (Image courtesy nananan)

A picture of the artist as a young lady
(Image courtesy Carte de Visite Woodburytype)

So it is always something special when an artist makes good. And nobody made better than Adelina Patti. The child of two opera singers and with three very musical siblings, Patti sang almost before she could talk. But where their careers were the usual, with periods of blissful employment interspersed between long stretches of looking for work, Patti was never unemployed except when she wanted to be. The secret to her success was her voice which was rich, full, and carried well (an important consideration in those pre-amplifier days). She first took to the stage in 1852 and within five years had become the toast of Europe and America, with concert halls vying for her presence and composers such as Verdi and Rossini creating works specifically for her. By 1865 her popularity was such that she could command $5,000 in gold (the equivalent of $110,000 today) each night, payable before she sang a single note. When she sang 200 concerts in a year, she made the equivalent of $20 million!

Though her voice is gone, except for a few recordings made when she was older and her voice had matured out of its previous sweet clarity, the scores written for and about her are still around. However, many of them are only partially cataloged and lack the metadata that is needed to make them truly useful to both the casual music lover and the devoted musical historian. If you’d like to help clear up the backlog, then why not check out What’s the Score At the Bodleian?
http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/weston/our-work/projects/whats-the-score

April 1 – All That Jazz

Today’s factismal: The central melody of a jazz tune is called the head.

Welcome to April, a month of weird weather, strange jokes, and lots of great music. That last happens because April is National Jazz Appreciation Month. But what is jazz? Simply put, jazz is the music that musicians like to play.

Many consider this to be the home of true jazz (My camera)

Many consider this to be the home of true jazz
(My camera)

 

There are two reasons that jazz musicians like jazz. The first is because it is so adaptable; you can turn just about any form of music into jazz. There are jazz versions of gospel songs, rock songs, brass band songs, and even classical music. The second is because jazz is a balance of improvisation and team work. Even though each player in a jazz combo has a solo to display his licks (the specific way he varies the tone and timing of notes), the combo must work together as a team to make the music make sense.

Jazz is played in small clubs and giant concert halls across the world (My camera)

Jazz is played in small clubs and giant concert halls across the world
(My camera)

Part of the way that they work together is by having each musician play her music in a different time; this is known as polyrythm. In jazz, it is common for some of the musicians to play three notes in the same amount of time that the others use to play two notes. Interestingly, the time used for each note in jazz also varies. For example, the first note of the three may get a full beat while the other two are given only half a beat each. In jazz lingo, these are swung notes. When everyone plays the same melody but uses different times, the music feels more vibrant.

Jazz is played everywhere that people love music (My camera)

Jazz is played everywhere that people love music
(My camera)

And part of the way that the musicians work together is by always returning to the central melody. Because the melody is usually played once with no changes at the start of the song, it is called the head. As the song progresses, the musicians each try out different variations on the melody, much as Bach did with his famous Goldberg variations (only without the wigs). The soloists will try changing the pitch while keeping the melody in a motivic improvisation. Or she might try shifting some of the notes in a paraphrase improvisation. But the best musicians will change the melody by inserting sets of notes known as licks into the melody in what is known as a formulaic improvisation.

The interesting thing is that citizen scientists are much like jazz players. We also work together as a team while working on our own individual solo projects that all come together to improve our understanding of the world around us. If you’d like to combine the two worlds even more closely, then why not Sing About Science? This project aims to gather all of the science songs ever written into one directory so that musicians and teachers and just plain geeks can find the right jazz:
http://singaboutscience.org/wp/homepage/

August 20 – A Lot Of Brass

Today’s Factismal: Even though the saxophone is made out of brass, it is classified as a woodwind.

If you are an average person, then you probably don’t think much about musical instruments. The piano, the harp, the guitar – for most of us, they’ve always been there. But musicians know better. Every musical instrument had to be invented at some time by some person. The invention could happen when someone tries to duplicate an existing instrument electronically, as Moog did with the synthesizer. It could happen when someone notices an unusual sound being produced by something with another use, as happened with Theremin’s eponymous invention. Or it could happen when someone tries to combine the best parts of two different instruments, as Sax did with the saxophone.

Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone (and many other instruments) (Image courtesy Famous Belgians)

Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone (and many other instruments)
(Image courtesy Famous Belgians)

Sax was a musician living in Paris, who made a living by building musical instruments. His specialty was woodwinds and brass instruments and he had achieved a minor level of fame for some improvements he made to the bass clarinet. But Sax had noticed that there was a problem with most woodwinds: either they had a wide range but were quiet or they had a limited range but were loud. He decided to fix this by taking the mouthpiece of a clarinet (the most versatile of the woodwinds) and marrying it to the larger horn of an oboe (the loudest of the woodwinds). He tinkered with the design for a bit, including making them straight or curved depending on the register, until he found the right combination and revealed it to the world as the Saxophone.

Originally, he made saxophones out of wood. But as anyone who has priced a Stradivarius can attest, working with wood can be very expensive. Fortunately for Sax, a new process for stamping forms out of metal using the hydraulic press had just been invented. By adapting his design to a metal form, Sax was able to bring down the price of his new instrument which made it popular and him rich. Unfortunately, he also made a lot of enemies who attacked his patents and twice drove him into bankruptcy. Nevertheless, his instrument lives on as one of the most popular ways to make music ever invented.

If you’d like to see if you have what it takes to be a musician, then why not take the Perfect Pitch Test? These scientists are trying to determine why some people (like Florence Henderson) have the ability to determine any note by ear and other people (like me) couldn’t carry a tune if it were in a bucket.
http://perfectpitch.ucsf.edu/study/

August 18 – Voice of Gold

Today’s factismal: The most successful opera singer of all time was Adelina Patti, who was paid $5,000 in gold before each performance.

Being an artist is a chancy thing. Your work may never be appreciated or it might be just a passing fad. And even if you do get paid, you rarely make as much as you would have digging ditches. While this can be annoying for a writer or painter, they at least have the solace that their work will endure even after they have gone (indeed, many writers and painters became famous only after they had died). But for actors and even more so for singers, the only time that their work can truly be appreciated is while they are alive because that is the only time that their work can truly be experienced.

A picture of the artist as a young lady (Image courtesy nananan)

A picture of the artist as a young lady
(Image courtesy Carte de Visite Woodburytype)

So it is always something special when an artist makes good. And nobody made better than Adelina Patti. The child of two opera singers and with three very musical siblings, Patti sang almost before she could talk. But where their careers were the usual, with periods of blissful employment interspersed between long stretches of looking for work, Patti was never unemployed except when she wanted to be. The secret to her success was her voice which was rich, full, and carried well (an important consideration in those pre-amplifier days). She first took to the stage in 1852 and within five years had become the toast of Europe and America, with concert halls vying for her presence and composers such as Verdi and Rossini creating works specifically for her. By 1865 her popularity was such that she could command $5000 in gold (the equivalent of $110,000 today) each night, payable before she sang a single note. When she sang 200 concerts in a year, she made the equivalent of $20 million!

Though her voice is gone, except for a few recordings made when she was older and her voice had matured out of its previous sweet clarity, the scores written for and about her are still around. However, many of them are only partially cataloged and lack the metadata that is needed to make them truly useful to both the casual music lover and the devoted musical historian. If you’d like to help clear up the backlog, then why not check out What’s the Score At the Bodleian?
http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/bodley/finding-resources/special/projects/whats-the-score

February 9 – Singing in the Brain

Today’s Factismal: In 1992, Thomas School yodeled 22 tones in one second, setting a new world’s record.

Let’s suppose that it is 1500 and you live on an Alpine meadow where you herd your goats, and that your best friend lives on an Alpine meadow across the valley where he herds his goats. Now let’s suppose that you just thought of the world’s funniest joke and want to tell it to him. You could pull out your cell phone, except that they haven’t been invented yet. You could walk over to tell it to him, but it is an all day journey down into the valley and back up. You could try to tell it to him by semaphore except he may not see you waving your arms. Or you could sing it to him.

Believe it or not, that’s exactly what the people in the Alps do. Over the years, they have developed a way to call across the mountains by singing. And they aren’t alone; yodeling is used by tribes in Africa, groups in Pakistan, and even field hands in America. By using a series of musical tones to carry information, the goatherds and other folks were able to send the information clearly and easily. Where words would blur and become confused by echoes, musical tones remain clear and easy to understand.

Today, the goatherds have cellular phones and yodeling is mostly found on country and western albums. But it still remains as a reminder of what life was like back when the only way to talk to a friend was to sing.

If you’d like to help anthropologists as they learn more about the ways we communicate, then head on over to the Open Anthropology Project:
http://openanthcoop.ning.com/