Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest]

Takht Ensemble of the Michigan Arab Orchestra

There’s a phrase in post-colonial criticism and politics that essentially states that the overriding dichotomy is the “West vs.the Rest.”  One of the things that strikes me about discussions (in the US and in Europe to some extent) about the decline of Classical Music (and by “Classical Music” I’m obviously meaning the Western or European Classical Music tradition) is the debate about relevancy and/or the relative (though usually couched in terms of absolute) worth of “Great Art Music.”

The title to this post reflects that di(tri)chotomy as the bracketed section is the part of the discussion that so often gets left out.  I’ve blogged somewhat about what I’m calling the false dichotomy of Classical vs. Pop in the past and have attempted to infuse some of these discussions with a much broader context than most of the disputants are willing to acknowledge.

A recent piece in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette by Emma Downs has made me think more about the changing demographic of the US and how that is ultimately going to impact the quality (in the hierarchical sense) of music in the US.  The piece is titled Orchestras slowly add racial, ethnic diversity and is a discussion of the proportion of ethnic minorities in US orchestras in general and the ethnic make-up of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic (which is slightly higher than the national average) in particular.

The piece starts with the bold (and sometimes tired)

Although racial and ethnic diversity is increasing in the United States, many orchestras and symphonies across the country still do not represent the communities they play for.

which I don’t think is a controversial claim when looking at the basic numbers and implied issue of a “quota.”  On the whole, US Orchestras are primarily composed of whites.

Los Angeles Balalaika Orchestra, formerly known as the Los Angeles – St. Petersburg Russian Folk Orchestra

The piece gives a few reasons for this, but this one is the important one for my purposes

The lack of diversity is based on several factors, including historical precedents. For hundreds of years, orchestral music was predominantly a European tradition and a venue for self-expression that seemed to be “an unwelcome field for minorities,” [John] Bence says.

This is obviously a problem–and something that non-minorities can’t fully appreciate.  A poignant story Eric Edberg posted about one of his former students (full disclosure: I am also one of Eric’s former students), Troy Stuart, can drive this home.  I’m taking the quote Eric posted from a profile in the Baltimore Sun (link is dead) about Mr. Stuart:

In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the toughest challenge Stuart faced wasn’t in the pieces he studied, but in a large mirror on the practice room wall – the reflection of an African-American staring back at him.
“I had to cover it for the first half-year,” Stuart says. “I wasn’t gaining any confidence from seeing myself.  If I had had a Yo-Yo Ma to look up to, I know I wouldn’t have had any problem looking into that mirror. I still remember the first time I saw an African-American on a classical album cover, I almost fainted.”

Not having a role model to look up to can be very trying psychologically.  I remember while growing up in the States that the only Asian role models on television I could see were those found in the occasional Hong Kong Kung Fu films or in Japanese Daikaiju (e.g. Godzilla, Gamera).  Of course, I’m neither Chinese nor Japanese, but Thai and we could probably debate the relevancy of having revenge-minded martial artists or giant-monster-fighting heroes (to be candid–I always identified with the “good” monsters) as a role model for participation in real life society.

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Le Violon d’Ingres

Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres. Gelatin silver print (1924)

This is probably the single most recognizable “cello” images to be found anywhere.  I remember first studying Man Ray and the New York Dada in Art History Class and then later as I got into performing Dada and Fluxus works and doing performance art.  In fact, it was one of the inspirations for an experimental cello video I did as part of a video collage component of a multi-media Performance Art performance I did at DePauw University back in 2002.

The Getty Museum has a very nice and concise description of the work:

Man Ray
American, 1924
Gelatin silver print
11 5/8 x 8 15/16 in.
86.XM.626.10

Man Ray was an admirer of the paintings of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and made a series of photographs, inspired by Ingres’s languorous nudes, of the model Kiki in a turban. Painting the f-holes of a stringed instrument onto the photographic print and then rephotographing the print, Man Ray altered what was originally a classical nude. He also added the title Le Violon d’Ingres, a French idiom that means “hobby.” The transformation of Kiki’s body into a musical instrument with the crude addition of a few brushstrokes makes this a humorous image, but her armless form is also disturbing to contemplate. The title seems to suggest that, while playing the violin was Ingres’s hobby, toying with Kiki was a pastime of Man Ray. The picture maintains a tension between objectification and appreciation of the female form.

The video piece I did, titled le violoncelle de Silpayamanant, was simply a video of me ‘shaving’ one of my cellos.  The title of the video fading into view at the end of the act and before the fade out the word “rase” (shaved) appears onscreen in my attempt to invoke Marcel Duchamp‘s “shaved Mona Lisa” series.  Here’s a still from the video:

still from the video, le violoncelle de Silpayamanant (2002)

 

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The cello as a percussion instrument

Romanian Garon
Romanian Gardon player (photo by Jack Campin)

This is going to be a quick post as I have to go teach this afternoon and then rehearse with the IU Southeast Orchestra tonight.  But I had come across what’s called a “pogo cello” just a bit ago.  The wikipedia entry for the instrument states:

The pogo cello was created in the 1950s in Brooklyn, New York by a chemist, Mack Perry, the husband of a music educator, Sylvia Perry. Perry patterned it after a similar instrument called a bumbass (boombas, boomba, or boom bass) also known as a stump fiddle (or stumpf fiddle). Pogocellos were manufactured in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway, New York and in New Jersey. The pogocello was sold in the United States for decades as a musical instrument for children, but many adults also bought them for themselves.

Pogocellos have been seen in marching bands in Iowa and in the Mummers’ parade in Philadelphia, PA on New Year’s Day. Similar instruments may be found today in Australia, Czechoslovakia and in Sweden (a Devil’s fiddle or Devil’s stick) and in other countries, for example at Oktoberfests. They have been played in blues, soul, bluegrass and other kinds of musical groups. Television show host, Garry Moore, played one on his show in the 1950s. Since 1975 the Gloucester Hornpipe and Clog Society, an American traditional music group which plays Celtic, French Canadian, Appalachian, nautical, and other kinds of folk music, has featured a pogocello made by woodcarver Rita Dunipace, and pogocello player David “Doc” Rosen.

A great video describing and demonstrating the instrument:

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Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Markos Sifnios, Marika Papagika and the Greek Cello

Marika Papagika

I wish I had more information about Markos Sifnios, but as there is only been a recent resurgence of interest in his collaborator Marika Papagika and I’m not in a position to be doing extensive research into her career in the US during the earlier part of the 20th century (yet).

I had first come across Sifnios’ work when I found this wonderful youtube video (see below) of a tune called Smyrneiko Minore (Smyrnaean Air) which, given the date (1919) here (if it is correct) would coincide with Papagika’s first recording in the states with Victor Records.

There is a brief snippet about Sifnios’ collaboration with Papagika at the Wikipedia entry which I can’t really verify or attest to the truth of though interesting in its own right:

Cellist Markos Sifneos [sic] collaborated with Marika Papagika on at least 24 separate occasions. Aside from Kostas, he is her most frequent collaborator, and was one of the few people to play cello on Greek recordings before World War II. There are no records of him recording with anyone except the Papagikas as Cello was not an acceptable instrument for Greek music at the time.

So I came across this video and though I had already known about Marika Papagika I knew nothing about the fact she had a cellist in her Greek band.  So that was something of a revelation.  I doubt cellos were typically a part of traditional or folk Greek ensembles as the above quote seems to indicate, and more than likely, as is the case with Klezmer and other folk music ensembles (and “pick-up” bands in general) Sifnios and his cello just happened to be at her disposal.   But what this also says is that Sifnios could be considered one of the first “Alternative Cellists” in the US (if not the world).

Continue reading “Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Markos Sifnios, Marika Papagika and the Greek Cello”