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“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it”*…

In the early 1950s, James Baldwin moved to a Swiss village in the Alps with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter under his arm. It was there that he finished his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), which he largely attributes to Smith’s bluesy intonations: “It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken…and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep,” Baldwin wrote in an essay.

For the eminent American novelist and essayist, music was generative, unearthing inspiration that may otherwise remain concealed. Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, a curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, hopes to rouse a new generation of writers with “Chez Baldwin,” a 478-track, 32-hour-long Spotify playlist based on Baldwin’s vinyl record collection.

“The playlist is a balm of sorts when one is writing,” Onyewuenyi told Hyperallergic. “Baldwin referred to his office as a ‘torture chamber.’ We’ve all encountered those moments of writers’ block, where the process of putting pen to paper feels like bloodletting. That process of torture for Baldwin was negotiated with these records.”…

Listening to the Joy in James Baldwin’s Record Collection“: “Chez Baldwin,” a 32-hour-long Spotify playlist based on Baldwin’s vinyl record collection.

* “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.” – James Baldwin


As we listen, we might recall that it was on this date in 1575 that Queen Elizabeth granted choral composer Thomas Tallis and his student William Byrd a 21-year monopoly for polyphonic music and a patent to print and publish “set songe or songes in parts,” one of the first arrangements of its kind in England. Tallis had exclusive rights to print any music in any language, and he and Byrd had sole use of the paper used in printing music.


“Some things cost more than you realize”*…

A demo tape made by the band On A Friday is poised to hit the auction block of Omega Auctions on January 26. The TDK cassette tape has recordings of six tracks, three of which the auction house claims have not been heard yet: “Promise Me,” “Boy In A Box” and “These Chains.” The tape was recorded sometime before 1991, which we know because that’s the year that they signed with EMI Records and decided to change their name to Radiohead. The tape was given to a friend of the band and is expected to fetch £2,000, so if you’re a fan of the band and you want to make sure this one existing copy doesn’t get purchased by some insipid owner of a pharmaceutical company, now is the time to creep on over to the auction site and ready a bid…

It includes handwritten notes and a label design by frontman Thom Yorke

Radiohead’s demo tape from their school band days is coming up for bid: “Exit Music (for an Auction)” More details at the BBC.

[Via the ever-illuminating Numlock News]

* Radiohead


As we ruminate on roots, we might spare a thought for Steve Wahrer, drummer and vocalist of the Minneapolis-based (!) surf rock group The Trashmen– best known for their (one) hit, “Surfin’ Bird,” a 1963 mash-up of two R&B hits by The Rivingtons, “The Bird’s the Word” and “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.” Wahrer died, at age 47, on this date in 1989 (of throat cancer).

The Trashmen; Wahrer is the blond, second from right


“If and when all the laws governing physical phenomena are finally discovered, and all the empirical constants occurring in these laws are finally expressed through the four independent basic constants, we will be able to say that physical science has reached its end”*…

The fine-structure constant was introduced in 1916 to quantify the tiny gap between two lines in the spectrum of colors emitted by certain atoms. The closely spaced frequencies are seen here through a Fabry-Pérot interferometer.

As fundamental constants go, the speed of light, c, enjoys all the fame, yet c’s numerical value says nothing about nature; it differs depending on whether it’s measured in meters per second or miles per hour. The fine-structure constant, by contrast, has no dimensions or units. It’s a pure number that shapes the universe to an astonishing degree — “a magic number that comes to us with no understanding,” as Richard Feynman described it. Paul Dirac considered the origin of the number “the most fundamental unsolved problem of physics.”

Numerically, the fine-structure constant, denoted by the Greek letter α (alpha), comes very close to the ratio 1/137. It commonly appears in formulas governing light and matter. “It’s like in architecture, there’s the golden ratio,” said Eric Cornell, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “In the physics of low-energy matter — atoms, molecules, chemistry, biology — there’s always a ratio” of bigger things to smaller things, he said. “Those ratios tend to be powers of the fine-structure constant.”

The constant is everywhere because it characterizes the strength of the electromagnetic force affecting charged particles such as electrons and protons. “In our everyday world, everything is either gravity or electromagnetism. And that’s why alpha is so important,” said Holger Müller, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. Because 1/137 is small, electromagnetism is weak; as a consequence, charged particles form airy atoms whose electrons orbit at a distance and easily hop away, enabling chemical bonds. On the other hand, the constant is also just big enough: Physicists have argued that if it were something like 1/138, stars would not be able to create carbon, and life as we know it wouldn’t exist.

Physicists have more or less given up on a century-old obsession over where alpha’s particular value comes from; they now acknowledge that the fundamental constants could be random, decided in cosmic dice rolls during the universe’s birth. But a new goal has taken over.

Physicists want to measure the fine-structure constant as precisely as possible. Because it’s so ubiquitous, measuring it precisely allows them to test their theory of the interrelationships between elementary particles — the majestic set of equations known as the Standard Model of particle physics. Any discrepancy between ultra-precise measurements of related quantities could point to novel particles or effects not accounted for by the standard equations. Cornell calls these kinds of precision measurements a third way of experimentally discovering the fundamental workings of the universe, along with particle colliders and telescopes…

In a new paper in the journal Nature, a team of four physicists led by Saïda Guellati-Khélifa at the Kastler Brossel Laboratory in Paris reported the most precise measurement yet of the fine-structure constant. The team measured the constant’s value to the 11th decimal place, reporting that α = 1/137.03599920611. (The last two digits are uncertain.)

With a margin of error of just 81 parts per trillion, the new measurement is nearly three times more precise than the previous best measurement in 2018 by Müller’s group at Berkeley, the main competition. (Guellati-Khélifa made the most precise measurement before Müller’s in 2011.) Müller said of his rival’s new measurement of alpha, “A factor of three is a big deal. Let’s not be shy about calling this a big accomplishment”… largely ruling out some proposals for new particles

A team in Paris has made the most precise measurement yet of the fine-structure constant, killing hopes for a new force of nature: “Physicists Nail Down the ‘Magic Number’ That Shapes the Universe.”

[TotH to MK]

* George Gamow


As we ponder precision, we might spare a thought for Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet died on this date in 1131.  While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of the quatrains that comprise the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Omar was one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important works on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle).  His astronomical observations contributed to the reform of the Persian calendar.  And he made important contributions to mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, climatology, and Islamic theology.


“Every record I put on was like a baptism”*…

The sensation of being “in the groove” is the holy grail of jazz. As the renowned drummer Charli Persip described it, “When you get in that groove, you ride right down that groove with no strain and no pain—you can’t lay back or go forward. That’s why they call it a groove. It’s where the beat is, and we’re always trying to find that.”

This expression from the Roaring Twenties is an allusion to an insect secretion. The close fit between a phonograph needle and the grooves in early shellac 78 rpm records determined the quality of the playback. Shellac—a resinous, amber-colored secretion of the tiny scale insect Kerria lacca—served as the key ingredient in the first generation of phonographic disks. Odd as it may seem, a gummy substance manufactured by bugs and their human hosts in South Asia was the pioneering medium for the transmission of recorded sound.

The curious story of how a sticky discharge from billions of insect bodies became a vehicle for the globalization of audio culture spans millennia and crosses oceans…

The miraculous properties, and fascinating history, of shellac: “Like Jazz, Bowling, and Old Hollywood Hairdos? Thank Insects.

* Questlove, Mo’ Meta Blues


As we gently lower the needle, we might send tuneful birthday greetings to James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix; he was born (Johnny Allen Hendrix) on this date in 1942. Though his career as a front man lasted only four years, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music, and one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. Indeed, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes him as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.”


Written by LW

November 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Mozart died too late rather than too soon”*…

Glenn Gould was a gloriously talented and profoundly iconoclastic pianist, unafraid to challenge the conventions of the canon.

His April 1962 performance of Brahms’ first piano concerto, with the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein conducting, gave rise to an extraordinary situation in which Mr. Bernstein disagreed with Gould’s interpretation so vehemently that he felt it necessary to warn the audience beforehand. The performance was subsequently broadcast on the radio with Bernstein’s comments included. A draft copy of those comments can be found in the Leonard Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress and is available to read online…

But perhaps his most egregiously unpopular opinion was his conviction that Mozart– especially late Mozart– was a “bad composer.”

How Mozart Became a Bad Composer, which was originally broadcast on a weekly public television series titled Public Broadcast Laboratory in 1968. The Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center recently digitized the episode that includes the 37-minute segment from a two-inch tape found in the Library’s collection. It is now available on the web site of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, which is a collaborative effort by the Library of Congress and WGBH in Boston, Massachusetts.

On the reception of the program, Peter Goddard in The Great Gould (2017) wrote, “Recognizing the outrage-driven ratings possibilities here, the Public Broadcasting [sic] Laboratory series by National Educational Television, the precursor to PBS in the United States, broadcast Gould’s thirty-seven-minute-long How Mozart Became a Bad Composer on April 28, 1968. After that, the show disappeared from sight worldwide, and a version of the script was only uncovered years later by New York-based documentarian Lucille Carra.” Kevin Bazzana in Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (2004) notes, “The program outraged viewers in both the United States and Canada, including formerly sympathetic fans and critics.” The program is now widely available to the public for the first time since its broadcast. Although, ardent Glenn Gould fans may remember his interview in Piano Quarterly, which was reprinted in The Glenn Gould Reader (1984), “Mozart and Related Matters: Glenn Gould in Conversation with Bruno Monsaingeon,” in which he expresses many of the same reservations about Mozart’s music that are heard in the television segment…

Cait Miller (of the Music Division of the Library of Congress) puts it in a personal context:

My parents are or were both musicians – my father was a composer – and so my appreciation for classical music was probably equal parts nature and nurture. So, when I entered graduate school as a musicologist and met a fellow student named Masa Yoshioka, who became one of my best friends during my doctoral study, it was more than a little shocking when, during one of our many extended conversations about music, he revealed to me that he did not think that Mozart was a particularly interesting composer. As a musicologist who had come from a previous incarnation as a classical singer, this was tantamount to heresy. However, due to my regard for Masa and his well-thought-out opinions, I did not discount it out of hand. Instead, I took it as a challenge to listen to the music of Mozart and, in fact, the music of all composers, with fresh ears every time I encountered it and to let no preconceptions that I had learned as a child allow me to speak as a child when I heard new works by a composer whom I had been conditioned to revere. It is with this spirit in mind that I hope you will view Glenn Gould’s television segment…

Your correspondent would agree. In any event, enjoy:

The Unpopular Opinions of Glenn Gould or “How Mozart Became a Bad Composer.”

[image at top: source]

* Glenn Gould (who also once suggested that “Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of a bag of nails, with here and there also a dropped hammer”)


As we tickle the ivories, we might recall that it was on this date in 1976 that another group of musical iconoclasts, The Sex Pistols, released their single ‘Anarchy In The UK‘. Originally issued in a plain black sleeve, the single was the only Sex Pistols recording released by EMI, and reached the No.38 spot on the UK Singles Chart before EMI dropped the group on 6 January 1977. (The band ran through five labels; their only album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977; #1 on the UK charts) was released by Virgin.)


Written by LW

November 26, 2020 at 1:01 am

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