Art

A Pitched Battle

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In The Book of the Harp (2005), John Marson mentions a musical oddity — in 1932, a committee devoted to equal temperament was so incensed at the Royal Schools of Music that it hauled them before London’s Central Criminal Court for obtaining money under false pretenses. From The Music Lover magazine, April 30, 1932:

There is a touch of knight errantry about the action of Lennox Atkins F.R.C.O., hon. sec. of the Equal Temperament Committee, in applying at Bow Street for process against the Associated Board of Examiners in Music on the grounds that they were not qualified to know whether the music was being played in tune or not, and that therefore their diplomas were valueless. It certainly savours of the ‘ingenious gentleman’ of La Mancha who tilted at windmills. The temperament question seems to have upon those who take it up an effect similar to that which temperament produces in a prima donna. They become, to say the least, unreasonable. Happily Mr Fry, the magistrate, decided that this was not a matter for a criminal court, so that Sir John B. McEwan and Sir Hugh Allen are not to be shot at dawn, as was at first feared.

McEwan headed the Royal Academy of Music and Allen the Royal College of Music at the time. I find a bit more in the Musical Times, June 1, 1932:

Candidates were allowed to pass off the tuner’s scale as their own, and to obtain certificates to which, the E.T.C. claimed, they were not in equity entitled. Every sound produced was the tuner’s and not the candidate’s. Famous examiners, such as the late Sir Frederick Bridge, had wrongly passed thousands of candidates in keyed instrument examinations. From the point of view of the E.T.C., the candidates were not really examined at all.

The magistrate added that if it was thought that the examiners’ knowledge was insufficient then civil proceedings might be undertaken.

“We have only once before heard of the Equal Temperament Committee — a long while ago — and we were, and are still, vague as to its aims,” noted the Musical Times. “We had imagined it to be a learned Society that met from time to time to exchange light and airy chat about ratios, partials, mesotonics, and other temperamental details. But it seems that it is a body with a Mission, though we are not clear what that Mission is. Judging from the Bow Street evidence, the Committee’s aim is to make ‘Every Musician His Own Tuner’ — which seems rather rough on real tuners.”

Steps Back

For what it’s worth, here’s a dance from the 1780s:

  1. Glissade round (first part of tune).
  2. Double shuffle down, do.
  3. Heel and toe back, finish with back shuffle.
  4. Cut the buckle down, finish the shuffle.
  5. Side shuffle right and left, finishing with beats.
  6. Pigeon wing going round.
  7. Heel and toe haul in back.
  8. Steady toes down.
  9. Changes back, finish with back shuffle and beats.
  10. Wave step down.
  11. Heel and toe shuffle obliquely back.
  12. Whirligig, with beats down.
  13. Sissone and entrechats back.
  14. Running forward on the heels.
  15. Double Scotch step, with a heel Brand in Plase. [sic]
  16. Single Scotch step back.
  17. Parried toes round, or feet in and out.
  18. The Cooper shuffle right and left back.
  19. Grasshopper step down.
  20. Terre-a-terre [sic] or beating on toes back.
  21. Jockey crotch down.
  22. Traverse round, with hornpipe glissade.

It’s “A Sailor Hornpipe — Old Style,” by John Durang, George Washington’s favorite dancer. Durang taught it to his son Charles, who reproduced it in a study of theatrical dancing published in 1855, which is how it comes down to us.

The terminology is influenced by French ballet, but already it incorporates innovations such as “shuffles”; in time the hornpipe would evolve into modern tap dancing. In Tap Roots, Mark Knowles writes, “It is believed that the ‘whirligig, with beats down’ is similar to a renversé turn such as the kind later done by the tap dancing film star Eleanor Powell.”

(From Julian Mates, The American Musical Stage Before 1800, 1962.)

Small Business

Klaus Kemp is the sole modern practitioner of a lost Victorian art form — arranging diatoms into tiny, dazzling patterns, like microscopic stained-glass windows.

Diatoms are single-celled algae that live in shells of glasslike silica. There are hundreds of thousands of varieties, ranging in size from 5 to 50 thousandths of a millimeter. In the latter part of the 19th century, professional microscopists arranged them into patterns for wealthy clients, but how they did this is unknown — they took their secrets with them. Kemp spent eight years perfecting his own technique, which involves arranging the shapes meticulously in a film of glue over a period of several days.

“As a youngster of 16 I had a great passion for natural history and came across a collection of sample tubes of diatoms from the Victorian era,” he told Wired. “I was immediately struck by the beauty and symmetry of diatoms. The symmetry and sculpturing on an organism that one cannot see with the naked eye astonished me, and after 60 years of following this passion I can still get excited from the next sample I receive or collect.”

Making Fun

Minutes from a New Yorker editorial meeting to consider the week’s cartoon submissions, Feb. 5, 1935:

PRICE, Gar.: Man and two small boys in picture gallery; man has stopped before nude painting. One of the small boys is saying to the other, ‘There’s something about it gets the old man every time.’

Not right type of people; should be smart people.

SHERMUND: Scene in beauty parlor; masseuse is massaging the back of a woman’s neck and saying, ‘You’re one of the lucky few who have a normal skin, Madame.’

Make better drawing; this too unpleasant.

DUNN: Couple looking at grandmother in next room mixing herself a whiskey and soda. ‘Just because it’s Mother’s Day she thinks the lid is off.’

Better whiskey bottle.

The Tuesday afternoon cartoon meeting had been a fixture in the editorial routine since the magazine’s inception. Editor Harold Ross would point out each drawing’s weaknesses with knitting needles while art department administrator Daise Terry took notes. The resulting feedback ranged from hopelessly vague (“Make funnier”) to absurdly specific (“Mr. Ross is troubled by the fact that a man wouldn’t use a sledge hammer in the house, and thinks the scene had better be in the back yard with the doll placed on a large stone”).

Among the cartoonists whom this infuriated was James Thurber, who wrote to Terry in resubmitting a rejected drawing in 1937, “If this drawing is not funny, and is not a swell drawing, I shall engage to eat it, and with it all of Price’s fantasies that just miss, all of Taylor’s S. Klein women, and all eleven versions of every drawing Day does of two men in a restaurant. I will also eat every drawing of a man and a woman on a raft, every drawing of a man and a native woman on a desert island, and every drawing of two thin women in big-backed chairs. … I will also eat every drawing of a small animal talking to its parents, and every drawing of two large animals talking about their young.” Terry’s response is not recorded.

(From Ben Yagoda, About Town, 2000.)

Simple Enough

Anton Reicha’s piano fugue number 18 has an uninspired subject — it’s just the same note repeated 34 times:

Or maybe that is inspired?

Double Duty

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Except for the final chord, the last movement of Paul Hindemith’s 1942 piano work Ludus Tonalis is the same as the first rotated 180 degrees.

In between is an hour of music, with 12 three-part fugues and 11 interludes. The title means “Game of Tones.”

Last Thoughts

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Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz unveiled a gruesome triptych in 1853: Thoughts and Visions of a Severed Head depicts a guillotined head’s impressions of its final three minutes of awareness.

Wietz added a verbal description of each of the panels. Here’s an excerpt from the second minute, “Under the Scaffold”:

For the first time the executed prisoner is conscious of his position.

He measures with his fiery eyes the distance that separates his head from his body and tells himself, ‘My head really is cut off.’

Now the frenzy redoubles in force and energy.

The executed prisoner imagines that his head is burning and turning on itself, that the universe is collapsing and turning with it, that a phosphorescent fluid is whirling around his skull as it melts down.

In this midst of this horrible fever, a mad, incredible, unheard of idea takes possession of the dying brain.

Would you believe it? This man whose head has been chopped off still conceives of a hope. All the blood that remains bubbles, gushes, and courses with fury through all the canals of life to grasp at this hope.

At this moment the executed prisoner is convinced that he is stretching out his convulsive and rage-filled hands toward his expiring head.

I don’t know what this imaginary movement means. Wait … I understand … It’s horrible!

Oh! My God, what is life that it continues the struggle to the very last drop of blood?

In the same year, American author Theodore Witmer had recorded his own impressions of seeing an execution in the 1840s. “Why don’t somebody give us ‘The Reflections of a Decapitated Man?'” he asked. “If it turned out stupid, he might excuse himself for want of a head.”

Tech Talk

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Reviewing Heathcote Statham’s book Form and Design in Music in 1893, George Bernard Shaw decried the “insufferable affectation” of music criticism. He quoted Statham’s analysis of a Mozart symphony:

The principal subject, hitherto only heard in the treble, is transferred to the bass (Ex. 28), the violins playing a new counterpoint to it instead of the original mere accompaniment figure of the first part. Then the parts are reversed, the violins taking the subject and the basses the counterpoint figure, and so on till we come to a close on the dominant of D minor, a nearly related key (commencement of Ex. 29) and then comes the passage by which we return to the first subject in its original form and key.

“How succulent this is,” Shaw wrote, “and how full of Mesopotamian words like ‘the dominant of D minor.’ I will now, ladies and gentlemen, give you my celebrated ‘analysis’ of Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide, in the same scientific style”:

Shakespear, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.

“I break off here, because, to confess the truth, my grammar is giving out,” he wrote. “But I want to know whether it is just that a literary critic should be forbidden to make his living in this way on pain of being interviewed by two doctors and a magistrate, and haled off to Bedlam forthwith; while the more a music critic does it, the deeper the veneration he inspires.”

(From The World, May 31, 1893.)

No Waiting

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Image: Flickr

For Fuse 18, the experimental typographic publication that appeared in February 2001, type designer Matthew Carter reflected on the grand lettering that appears on public buildings: It’s meant to last for eternity, but inevitably it’s effaced by weather, by other inscriptions, and by the graffiti of vandals.

So, wryly, he offered DeFace, which speeds up the process.

“This typeface,” he wrote, “contains a set of inscriptional capitals that are self-vandalizing: each letter has graffiti associated with it that deface neighboring letters. Depending on the text, the graffiti can vandalize both the underlying capitals and other graffiti to make a palimpsest of marks that are individually legible but obscure in combination.”

A Tone Palette

In his Musical Biography of 1824, John R. Parker attempts to characterize musical keys in words:

parker keys

“It is sufficient to have hinted at these effects,” he writes. “To account for them, is difficult; but every musician is sensible of their existence.”