Category Archives: Musicians

Posts about specific musicians

Virtuality

Some time ago I discussed multimediality as a means to study and understand some artistic experiences. Virtuality is another such concept. With all the “virtual reality” hype of the recent years – perhaps even decades already – the term has become part of the vernacular without too much “resistance”, or people wondering about it. So I’m going to do some “wondering about it” right here.

Let’s start from the beginning and look at the etymology of the word. “Virtual” has three meanings in dictionary. From its Medieval Latin roots it carries the meaning of “effective,” as in “the company is effectively bankrupt.” It also means something that exists only in our minds; imagined. The third meaning is probably the most familiar to many relating to computer simulations of aspects of life and rendered through some virtual reality technology.

The word “virtuality” comes from the old Latin word “virtus”; “virtue”. Given the central place “virtue” – moral excellence – has had in western philosophy from the Ancient Greeks to our days, our “virtual realities” seem to be normatively positive imaginations. Here we could think of the Cartesian mind-body dichotomy. The current forms of virtual realities through devices such as VR glasses create an experience which largely neglects the body, although we’re already seeing the technology developing passed this limitation. Being divorced from the physical reality virtual “realities” are “safe” in that what happens in them has little consequences in the “real world.” For deeper discussion on a phenomenological approach to virtuality, see here.

Multimediality of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly pleasures
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Pleasures (1500), oil on oak panels, Museo del Prado, Madrid

There’s also a strongly music-related term pertinent to this discussion. “Virtuoso” stands for someone with excellent skills in some area, but most often the term is connected to musical skills. This is rather interesting considering the changing valuation of music and musicians. I’ve previously discussed The Garden of Earthly Pleasures by Hieronymus Bosch which places music – through musical instruments – in the depiction of hell on the right. Even more interesting, however, is perhaps the way in which musicality – depicted through musical instruments – became a highly valued skill a century later and is displayed in a much more positive light in some paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. The virtues of music and musicians have since varied, also depending on the context, but it seems that this connotation of “virtuoso” has been established rather recently.

Portrait of a member of the family Van der Mersch, Cornelis Troost, 1736. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Portrait of a member of the family Van der Mersch, Cornelis Troost, 1736. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Musical virtuality

Music as sound is by nature – if not by definition – virtual. Assuming the view of Heideggerian phenomenology, I’ve discussed before, the already-in-the-world nature  of music meaning – and I would extended it this case to experience – exists in our minds without a material counterpart in the “real” world. As professor Henkjan Honing would say, music is a cognitive phenomenon; there’s no music without a listener.

Musical virtuality

The abstract nature of music enables it to conjure images and impressions of “other” realities. In other words, sounds are very effective in triggering our imagination. Certain instruments, scales, harmonies, etc. call up associations. Due to the abstractness of sound and the constant evolving of cultural practices such associations always remain “virtual” to some extent. They’re of course also dependent on the listener’s prior experience.

Recorded music is a prime example of musical virtuality. It’s the art of creating an illusion that what you’re listening to is an actual performance of actual musicians in the way you hear them. What you listen to, however, is a result of production processes where musical performances are recorded together and/or individually and the recordings are edited, mixed and processes in many ways resulting in the final product you hear.

I’ve previously discussed Janelle Monae’s Tightrope and how it references – creates virtual connections – with the past, present and future in various ways. Next I’d like to discuss a song that takes up the topic of virtuality quite literally.

Virtual insanity

Futures made of virtual insanity now
Always seem to, be governed by this love we have
For useless, twisting, our new technology
Oh, now there is no sound for we all live underground

Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity is an excellent commentary, but also a demonstration, of the steadfast believe in technology we hold in the western world and beyond. The title is a funny word game referring – in my interpretation – to the way technological mediations remove our experiences of the world further away from the “real” into the virtual realms. People have the tendency to do what they can and technological advances – or “innovations” – are often inspired by aspirations to do something not previously possible or do it in a new way. Sometimes these innovations result in “useless, twisting” gadgets, other times to something more lasting.

The way the last phrase of the refrain is sung makes me always think of how sound – in my experience – is often the first victim when something goes wrong with these new gadgets, whether there’s a gable loose or a software glitch. But the song text is actually talking about a more serious scenario, possibly even an apocalyptic one where people have had to retrieve living underground – perhaps due to something gone seriously wrong with our blind trust on technology.

The refrain also talks about “futures”, in plural. An essential aspect of virtual reality technologies is that multiple “realities” – and also “futures” – can be created with them. It’s not hard to imagine how too deeply submerging into these alternative reality might result in difficulties dealing with the “real” world, i.e insanity.

The video combines the various meanings of “virtual”. The room with its soft walls could be a mental asylum for the “insane” but there are also various “virtual”, illusionary, things going on. While the floor seems to be moving, it’s actually the walls that move. The cuts between the scenes when the camera shows the floor remind moving between levels in a computer game – a sort of virtual reality. There’s also some early CGI in the video with the bugs crawling around.

Oh this world has got to change
‘Cause I just, I just can’t keep going on
In this virtual, virtual insanity
That we’re living in, that we’re living in
That virtual insanity is what is…

Virtual insanity is what we’re living in
Yeah, well it’s alright now

Towards the end the protagonist of the song seems to come to terms with the conditions of the world. While he’s determined to see the world change, he realises that it’s not going to get back to the way it was. There’s no turning back the time. For the full text and further analysis, see here.

 

Material culture – Part II

Continuing my account on the Bake society’s Day on musical instruments. Next in the program was a presentation of Masumi Nagasawa who already had brought three harps on the stage before.

Harp

Another family of instruments found nearly everywhere in the world is the harp. After a short lecture on harp in Asia by Fred Gales, Masumi Nagasawa performed for us on three different harps. She played first a composition of her own on the modern double-action harp. This composition showcases the various techniques available for harpists bringing out a very rich world of sounds out of the instrument. I found the following video in which many of these techniques are demonstrated.

Nagasawa then told us a bit about the kugo, ancient Japanese harp, and played a short piece on it. Kugo is usually played in an ensemble such as a Gagaku Japanese court music ensemble. However, there’s also new music being composed for it. Below an example based on some melodic material from Gagaku music. Notable in this performance is that Sugawara also uses a modern technique of playing harmonics on the harp.

The main part of Nagasawa’s presentation was about the single-action pedal harp and the transition to the modern Grand Harp with double-action in the early 19th century, which is the topic of her PhD research. Nagasawa had, nearly by coincident, found an original instrument by F.J. Naderman, the most famous harp builder of the early 19th century Paris as well as a composer and a teacher. As Marie-Antoinette played harp it was a very popular instrument among high society women of the period and there were up 16 instrument builders making harps in Paris during the period.

Nagasawa then performed a composition by Naderman on the Naderman harp. An interesting story about this composition was that Naderman wrote it for her wife. Meanwhile, however, the new double-action harp had been invented and she was encouraged to perform the composition on the new model. As she had played the single-action harp for a long time and practised her technique on it, she wasn’t very comfortable taking on taking on the challenge of premiering the new composition on the new harp. She eventually did it anyway but gave up the harp soon after.

Music Instruments in Musea and Academia in the Netherlands

This was the title of the panel discussion that closed the day. In the panel were:

Joep Bor from the University of Leiden, Wayne Modest from the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden and the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam and Giovanni di Stefano from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The discussion began with establishing the state of instrument collections in the Netherlands and the considerable lack of attention to the study of musical instruments – organology in the Dutch universities, although it had a prominent role in early ethnomusicology. There’s also no instrument museum currently in the Netherlands and most instrument collections focus on Western classical instruments. Giovanni di Stefano is currently the only full time instrument curator in the country.  He’s working in the Rijksmuseum with the instrument collection they got back in 2013 when the restoration of the building was complete. The collection had been borrowed to The Hague for 60 years.

The discussion really kicked off when Mr Modest posed a question how to get people interested in the instrument collections in museums. After the inspiring recital-lectures we had seen, many – myself included – were of the view that these kinds of live presentations should attract people and get them interested. E.g. the instrument museum of Brussels is doing this already, recently with Estonian folk instruments.

Digitalisation of the collections – like the Music Instrument Museum Online is doing – should also help interested people find information deepen their knowledge.  It currently has largely European museums participating and no instruments from the Americas. It could also use some audio samples to make the online collection really interesting.

As discussed before, due to its abstract nature it is difficult to represent music in a way that could be displayed in a conventional museum. Watching displayed instruments – perhaps with some audio samples through a headset – give a rather distant impression of how an instrument functions in real life. As the recital-lectures demonstrated, there are ways to bring the instruments alive for people to experience them.

Some instruments have thousands of years of history but are still played today. What I’d love to see in an instrument museum are more horizontal rather than vertical histories of instruments. The recital-lectures showed how some instruments – flutes and harps in this case, but e.g. drums would fit the bill as well – are played in different variations around the world. Such instruments in a way represent vast distances in space and time and when played a connection could be established.

I found this Day on Musical Instruments organised by the Arnold Bake Society very inspiring. I’ll certainly be posting back here again soon about further thoughts regarding this so stay tuned!

Material culture

I recently attended the Day on Musical instruments of the Arnold Bake Ethnomusicological society at the University of Amsterdam. This session was dedicated to musical instruments with talks and performances by musicians and scholars and closed up with a panel discussions about musical instruments in Dutch museums. The afternoon’s presentations and discussions got me thinking about musical instruments as sort of embodiment of musical cultures helping as study them as material cultures.

Representations of music

Due to the nature of music as an intangible art form, it’s most often studied using various forms of visual representations.  They translate music from audible to visual form and allow disrupting the temporal flow of music. In the European art music tradition musical representation is mostly thought of in terms of musical notation. The main purpose of it is to communicate musical ideas from composer to performer and on to the listener. Interpreting the representation the performer translates it back to the temporal realm of sounding music.

This applies to much popular music as well, although most of it is not made or played from written music in a way art or orchestral music is. Vernacular music-making – or producing – nowadays is more likely to happen on computer screens where sound wave representations are manipulated to produce a form of digitalized music to be pressed on a CD, distributed as mp3 files or streamed online.

The benefit of digital representation of music is that it can, in principle, be used for any kind of music. The only prerequisite is that it must be recorded digitally, which is not always easy e.g. when the performance is taking place outside and/or the players widely distributed in space and/or moving. As such it can be used to capture musics of oral traditions as well. Meanwhile, computers can now be considered musical instruments as well, but I’ll leave further discussion of that to another time. Jacob Collier, I’ve discussed before, is a master of “millennial” music production.

For the actual study of music, however, digital representation is of little use. It can be used to study rhythms and certain aspects of timbre and dynamics in a great detail. Any pitch related study, however, requires various sorts of analytical software to be applied.

Musical objects

Whereas representations of music are helpful for the study of music as an auditory art form, musical instruments embody a musical culture in a broader way. Musical instruments can be studied as archaeological artefacts broadening our knowledge of e.g. an ancient civilization, the music of which we don’t have representations – and the history of the human kind in general. They can also teach us a lot about the social and cultural lives of people distant in time and space. The spread of certain instruments and instrument building techniques may reveal changes in spheres of cultural influences.

Musical instruments as objects of study allow multi- and cross-disciplinary studies of musical cultures. For a while now music has offered new insights to e.g. neurologists, psychologists and architects in their respective disciplines. In the same way musical instruments can be studied by archaeologists, art historians, sociologists and anthropologists to help them form fuller understandings their fields of study – possibly with the help of some musicologists.

Material culture

The presentations of the afternoon demonstrated the lively manner in which cultures, distant in time and space, can be studied through musical instruments. The instruments presented were not only centuries or even millennia old from different parts of the world, near and far. They were also all brought to live by the presenting musicians. One could say that we experienced what Edward W. Soja calls the Third Space; these instruments embody past, present and future geographical and social spaces and the performances, to some extent, brought those to the present and implied something of their potential future.

Ney

Painting from Hasht-Behesht palace, Isbahan, Iran, from 1669
Painting from Hasht-Behesht palace, Isbahan, Iran, from 1669

The first presentation we heard was by Sinan Arat. He first gave us a short introduction to ney and then played an improvisation with a few maqamat and some traditional melodies in between in the traditional manner of Arab music. Arat plays the Turkish ney and told us about the Ottoman tradition of the instrument.

Different kinds of flutes are some of the oldest instruments around the world but due to the simple way in which the early flutes where constructed, few very early flutes have survived. The ney has its origins in the Middle East and its history is documented in various artefacts of the ancient civilisations in the region. In Turkey the ney preceded Islam and continued to be a central instrument in the Mevlevi Sufi rituals.

Despite the relative simplicity of the instrument, the ney requires a lot of practice to even produce a decent sound on it. It’s traditionally used in religious rituals and has an important place in the mythologies of the region it hails from. According to Arat the ney is not played by blowing through it but saying “Hu” – the name of God in Sufism – into it. Although Islam doesn’t recognize music as we understand it in the West, Arat told us that he was accepted into a Turkish mosque with his ney. A frame drum is the only other instrument allowed in mosques.

In many cultures where instruments are parts of religious rituals they are learned in an apprenticeship with a master or guru; often orally as the music is not written down – or even cannot be as it’s mostly improvised. This is also the case with ney and Arat studied it with Kudsi Ergüner at the Codarts in Rotterdam. In the traditional master-apprentice manner, the studies included learning the cultural context by studying the rituals and mythologies as well as how to make and maintain the instrument.

Although the ney is an ancient instrument and deeply embedded into its cultural roots, it’s also used in contemporary music. In fact, I had heard Arat before performing with the Mehmet Polat trio. The performance was part of the Dutch Delta Sounds series in Amstelkerk in Amsterdam and showed how such old instruments – the group consists of an oud and an African Kora – can still be relevant to contemporary artists and audiences while carrying their respective cultural backgrounds with them.

The Brazilian bamboo flute pifano

Next we heard the story of, and a performance on, the Brazilian bamboo flute pifano by Ivan Vendemiatti. This flute has its origins with the farmers in the North of Brazil where it was first used to scare off birds. The rhythmic way of playing gradually developed into a music genre of its own and was performed together with drums.  While fife and drums have been played in Europe and its colonies for centuries, the European tradition is strongly connected to military music.  Like so many musical instruments and practices, the fife and drum tradition exists also in West Africa and the North Brazilian tradition is a typical hybrid or synchronised tradition. It’s performed in social occasions for dancing as well as in some religious processions.

What intrigued me especially in Vendemiatti’s story was that he had no musical background or education when he picked up this instrument. He had bought one on his travels and “fooled around” with it by himself before he got more seriously interested in it. He then went back to the North of Brazil and learned more about the instrument and its cultural background. Back in his native South he initiated a pifano and drum group before getting interested in the Indian bansuri flute which he now studies at the Codarts in Rotterdam.

I´ll stop here for now. Please, click below for the second part for more about the last presentation of the day as well as the very inspiring panel discussion.