Archive for January, 2009

Brian Eno on singing

January 29, 2009

Brian Eno wrote this essay on a capella group singing earlier this year. His points about the power of group singing are important, but I’m more interested in his views on harmonizing. He notes that songs with complex chord progressions are not conducive to spontaneous harmonization and that long vowels are where the opportunities are for the harmonies to express themselves. His also describes the experience of harmonizing:

It’s thrilling to get the rhythm of something tight and sing it well together. The second is tone. To hit the same vowel sound at a number of pitches seems unremarkable, but it’s beautiful when it happens.

His reaction is similar to the one I’ve had when singing with a group and everything comes together just right on a particular note or phrase. I think some listeners experience the thrill and beauty, too, and that that is what draws them to particular kinds of songs, especially ones by groups like the Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel, Loggins and Messina, etc.


Graduate Student Conference

January 28, 2009

I’m a (founding) member of the Boston University Music Society, a group for the musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory students at BU. I’m going to shamelessly plug our upcoming graduate student conference. 

Our keynote speaker is Dr. Kiri Miller from Brown University. Her talk is tentatively titled “Virtual Virtuosity and Mediated Musicality: Why Guitar Hero Players Don’t Just Play Real Guitars.”  We have six student papers being presented that day that represent the wide and varied research interest of graduate students today. I served on the program committee and I am quite excited by both the submissions we had and the choices we made. You can see the program and read the abstracts here.

So if you’re in Boston on March 28, stop by. We are still making arrangements, but it looks like we’ll be in room B12 of the College of Arts and Sciences building, 725 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. Keep checking our website for information or email us at bums _at_

Duets in Broadway shows of the 1940s and 50s

January 26, 2009

I promised this a while back. Go here for a list of the duets from the most popular of the Broadway shows of the 1940s and 50s. 

An explanation about which shows are in my list: The Internet Broadway Database reports over 150 musicals that opened on Broadway between 1950 and 1959, including revues and revivals. I have chosen only the ones that had significant runs after opening, were revived during the 1950s, or had a film adaptation during the 1950s or later. Certain less successful shows are included because the composer and/or lyricist are important figures in American music, such as Leonard Bernstein, or in American musical theater. The list is not meant to be comprehensive but rather representative of what Americans were hearing and seeing on stage and in the theater during the 1950s.

Making the connection between American musical theater and duos

January 26, 2009
Muttering to myself…
  • Vocal duets are inherently dramatic. Two voices suggests two people. The voices interact, even if they sing in unison. That interaction defines the dramatic elements and adds a layer to the interpretation of the text. 
  • Duets can be found throughout opera and other forms of musical drama but less so in other forms of vocal art music, such as lied or chanson. Duets in American popular music are directly connected, historically and paradigmatically, to musical theater. This is due in part to the fact that popular music in America, at least until the advent of rock and roll, was intertwined with musical theater–Broadway, revues, variety, vaudeville, minstrelsy.
  • Musical theater, for a long time, provided the model (as well as the material) for the musical and rhetorical structure of duets. For example, voices in alternation suggest a dialogue. If the same text is sung by both, then two viewpoints (possibly in opposition) exist. The point at which the voices join implies a connection or a reconciliation.

Pick Yourself Up

January 23, 2009

President Obama’s inauguration speech included a number of important historical and literary references or allusions, from the New Testament to Abraham Lincoln to George Washington to Dr. Martin Luther King. My personal favorite, though, was to Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. Obama’s line, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” is a sly reference to the song”Pick Yourself Up” in Swing Time, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

I wonder if his mother sang that line to him (“pick yourself, dust yourself off, and start all over again”) every time he fell or got hurt or didn’t succeed at something or had some kind of setback, as my mother did to me. All these years later, I still find myself using these lines as a mantra to get through difficult times. There are many other lines my mother would sing to us, as if all of life’s instructions could be conveyed through the hooks of songs from musical theater.

That may be the real power in America’s Broadway shows–the didactic and instructive potential through memorable textual and melodic lines.


January 22, 2009

I’m slowly moving things from here to my site at BU where it’s a little easier to create and maintain pages. I will continue to mutter here, though.

The bibliography is the first thing to move. You can now find it here.

Singing Duo

January 21, 2009

Singing Duo

I saw this license plate in New Hampshire. I wanted to hop out of the car and rush up to this person and ask about it, but the line of traffic behind me presented a problem.

The Bottomless Pit

January 13, 2009

I have a horoscope gadget on my iGoogle home page, along with the weather report from Maui, my to-do list, the top items on Digg, Things to Ponder, and a set of eyeballs that follows my cursor.

While I don’t put much stock in cosmic star alignments and crystal power, I had to laugh when I saw today’s horoscope:


It’s hard to know if you have gone deep enough, for the more you dig, the more you learn. At some point, however, you must finish your research and actually put what you’ve learned to practical use. Once you accept that your investigation has uncovered a bottomless pit, you’ll be more likely to stop spinning your intellectual wheels and get to work, applying your wealth of knowledge.

And there you have it. I have fallen in a bottomless pit and have to claw my way out of it.

Harmonic Convergence

January 13, 2009

According to scientists at Cornell, the mosquito Aedes aegypti harmonize when mating. The female (400 Hz) and the male (600 Hz) adjust their whines to a common frequency (1200 Hz) to create a duet.

This reminds me of the bird duet phenomena I found earlier.

Old Hat Records

January 8, 2009

My dad sent me a link to Old Hat Records. This company reissues vintage music on CDs. Oddly enough, they are based in my old hometown, Raleigh, NC. I’ve been looking through the track lists for their CDs and there are a couple of examples of brother vocal duos, as well as other vocal duos. Some of these include:

  • Cranford and Thompson (a.k.a. The Red Fox Chasers)
  • Dixon Brothers
  • Charlie Parker and Mack Woolbright
  • Allen Brothers
  • Kirk McGee and Blythe Poteet
  • Grayson and Whitter
  • Woodie Brothers (a.k.a. Ephraim Woodie and the Henpecked Husbands)

These tracks appear on the medicine show CD and the two CDs centered on music from North Carolina.