Feminine endings: Madonna and McClary


Left: I found this postcard in Ireland in the mid-1990s; though still drôle, it no longer seems quite so fantastical.
Right: Susan McClary—less futuristically.

Since the party for Madonna’s 60th birthday [I know…] has already begun (see e.g. here), it may seem a tad cerebral to celebrate by revisiting the work of the great Susan McClary (notably her classic 1991 book Feminine endings: music, gender, and sexuality). But given that academics are mostly lumbered with writing, she does at least rejoice in the physical.

Of course, many female performers have continued exploring the trail that Madonna blazed, and she no longer has such power to shock. Similarly, while many critics (not least feminist authors) have disputed and refined McClary’s work, the thrust [sic: her own writings are full of such ludic language, matching her theme] of her argument has practically become mainstream—but her thoughts remain most perceptive.

Fem endings

So far I’ve mainly written about Susan McClary in the context of her provocative analysis of the extraordinary harpsichord solo of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg concerto. Her insights also get a mention in my post on Ute Lemper.

It would be quite wrong to reduce her oeuvre to soundbites—but hey, here goes! With her early research based in baroque music, she notes the historical contingency, mutability, of musical signifiers. Inspired by Greenblatt on Shakespeare (“once science discovered that female arousal served no reproductive purpose, cultural forms silenced not only the necessity but even the possibility of sexual desire in the ‘normal’ female”), she revels in the (pre-watershed) erotic friction of the 17th-century trio texture from Monteverdi through Corelli:

in which two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that achingly resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions. This interactive texture (and its attendant metaphors) is largely displaced in music after the 17th century by individualistic, narrative monologues.

Aww, shucks. A review goes on:

The narrative structure of 19th-century instrumental music becomes for her
“a prolonged sexual encounter of intense foreplay that results inevitably in a cataclysmic metaphorical ejaculation. Beethoven becomes the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music, whose recapitulation of the first movement of the 9th symphony “unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music”.

McClary was a pioneer in broadening our concepts of cross-genre “music” studies, encompassing both WAM from a wide period and notably pop music—all with a focus on gender. Feminine endings also covers Monteverdi, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, and Laurie Anderson—and such breadth is just what makes her so great. She’s a real genre-bender. As she writes in Conventional wisdom: the content of musical form (2000),

If I tend to reread the European past in my own Postmodern image, if I frequently write about Bach and Beethoven in the same ways in which I discuss the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and John Zorn, it is not to denigrate the canon but rather to show the power of music all throughout its history as a signifying practice. For this is how culture always works—always grounded in codes and social contracts, always open to fusions, extensions, transformations. To me, music never seems so trivial as in its “purely musical” readings. If there was at one time a rationale for adopting such an intellectual position, that time has long since past. And if the belief in the 19th-century notion of aesthetic autonomy continues to be an issue when we study cultural history, it can no longer be privileged as somehow true.

In the final chapter of Feminine endings,

  • “Living to tell: Madonna’s resurrection of the fleshly”,

McClary notes the conflicting strands of interpretation between viewing her as mere commodified sexuality or as a feminist in control. But as she comments, what most reactions share is an automatic dismissal of her music as irrelevant. Visual appearance and image seems primary, yet the music in music videos is also powerful. Hilary Mantel’s 1992 review doesn’t even bother with any of these features (and an apt riposte there draws attention to McClary’s work).

Her pieces explore—sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously—various ways of constituting identities that refuse stability, that remain fluid, that resist definition.

Citing the historical demeaning by sexualization of composer–performers Barbara Strozzi (as featured on the wonderful T-shirt) and Clara Schumann, and continuing to unpack the sexual politics of opera, she observes:

One of Madonna’s principal accomplishments is that she brings this hypocrisy to the surface and problematizes it. […]
The fear of female sexuality and anxiety over the body are inscribed in the Western music tradition. […]
Like Carmen or Lulu, she invokes the body and female sexuality; but unlike them, she refuses to be framed by a structure that will push her back into submission or annihilation.

McClary reiterates the historical trivializing of dance by (male) critics. Madonna’s

engagement with traditional signs of childish vulnerability projects her knowledge that this is what the patriarchy expects of her and also her awareness that this fantasy is ludicrous.

No matter what genre she discusses, McClary’s work is always detailed in musical analysis. She repeats her thesis of tonal structures, with the exploration and subduing of “Other” keys—the “desire–dread–purge sequence”, returning to her much-cited portrayal of the violence of Beethoven.

in her analysis of Live to tell McClary shows in detail how such assumptions are subverted:

and she validates the contradictions of Open your heart:

She takes Like a prayer seriously, its ancient virgin–whore cliché mingling with an exploration of religion and race, sexuality and spirituality—

about the possibility of creating musical and visual narratives that celebrate multiple rather than unitary identities, that are concerned with ecstatic continuation rather than with purging and containment.

Her footnotes (endnotes, actually) are always wonderful too. McClary’s, not Madonna’s.

* * *

Whether or not you concur with all of McClary’s conclusions (apart from a host of critiques, do read her thoughtful introduction “Feminine endings in retrospect” to the more recent edition), it’s a throughly stimulating way of reflecting on culture.

All my own gadding about from century to century, culture to culture is partly inspired by her work. But that’s not her fault. As ethnomusicology shows, if elites invariably try to prescribe and control the prestige of genres across the world, in studying them a level playing field is essential (for a cross-class analysis of Chinese music, see here).

Among numerous youtube clips, albeit less physically engaging than those of Madonna, here’s a sample of McClary’s wisdom:

I used to delight in Bach without stopping to think about Leipzig society of his time; flamenco, without noticing gender and social issues; and it took me some time to unpack gendered aspects of Chinese ritual. Such a mindset is basic to ethnomusicology, to which McClary’s work is a major stimulus.

In the 1990s, for what it’s worth (and not for what it’s not worth), on returning from village funerals in Hebei to regroup at Matt’s place in Beijing, I would regularly bask in Holiday:


In their different spheres, Madonna and Susan McClary are both iconic and iconoclasts!



A plea to publishers

Ansai 2

I’d like to discuss in-text citations—yeah, funky, I know. I guess this issue has been subject to debate over the years, but (like Brexit) nothing seems to be happening.

I’ve just been admiring an excellent, well-argued book on Chinese folk culture. Having resigned myself to leaping the constant hurdles of parenthetical references, I finally lost it when, right in the middle of a purple passage, I was confronted with an indigestible mouthful:


That’s not just an Olympic hurdle, it might defeat even a motorbike jumper.

Sure, such references may be useful—in the form of notes (and between footnotes and endnotes, the latter make for a more readable text). But please, I really don’t want to choke on Ansaixian Weiyuanhui Wenshi Ziliao Yanjiu Weiyuanhui 1989! When forced to adopt in-text citations I sometimes give abbreviations (in this case, perhaps ASX 1989; in my latest book I often cite the Yanggao xianzhi as YG, though a more pedantic publisher might expect me to pepper the text with a longer citation).

There’s endless guidance about in-text citations, and I’m not going to address house-style here. But even short in-text citations are irritating. I know we’re used to it; often we just get in the habit of skipping over the parenthesis. If you’re interested in following up, then look at the note, FFS. Often the reader won’t be, in which case a parenthesis is seriously tedious.

And while I’m about it, even if we really want to limit our audience to sinologists, Chinese characters in the text are another distraction. Again, it suggests, “Look at me! I’m a sinologist!” Characters are useful; but assuming one gives them on first appearance, then it’s too much to expect us to try and search back for the characters a couple of hundred pages later. The place for characters is in a combined Glossary–Index.

Most authors are happy enough to get their research in print with a reputable publisher. They are helpless victims. But it’s galling that all their hard work in making their text more reader-friendly than their PhDs should be cancelled out by this fusty academic convention. Meanwhile academic publishers don’t care, as long as they fulfil quotas.

Thing is, as technology improves constantly, there’s hardly an economic argument to be made. Such issues are solveable—as long as publishers care whether their authors’ texts can reach out to a wider audience. It suggests that they simply don’t care if all their authors’ hard work is readable (“Hey, no-one’s gonna read this book anyway”); or perhaps that the very hallmark of academic excellence is to be unreadable. Yet distinguished works of detailed research published outside the narrow ghetto of academia provide notes, not in-text citations; and—surprise surprise—such books sell very well.

Academics seem to be getting mixed messages: even amidst all the modern pressures to “outreach”, academic publishing remains a bastion of obscurity. Scholarly prose is quite impenetrable enough already without these further obstacles.

Meanwhile on a blog like this, apart from the luxury of including colour photos and maps, while I do include some notes (and even some in-text citations), it’s a great feeling to be able to provide online links—like the way that de Selby footnotes increasingly take over the text of The third policeman.


A Shakespeare mélange


I won’t go so far as to create a “Shakespeare” tag, but I discover there’s a pleasant chain of related stories on this blog:

  • The fine programme by Philomena Cunk (now she does have her own tag…), complete with quiz on words invented by Shakespeare, or not (cuckoo? ukulele? sushi? titwank?).
  • Arthur Smith’s Hamlet story
  • Shakespeare bettered by D.H. Lawrence;

and by extension—thinking of cultural gulfs:

Flamenco, 3: the soul of cante jondo

*Following Part 1 and (you guessed it) Part 2!*


As we saw in my previous posts, the soul of flamenco is cante jondo (“deep singing”). It may be nourished by the toques of the guitar, and may lead into dancing; but at its heart is anguished solo singing and palmas. Besides Washabaugh’s social analysis, I’m also much taken by

  • Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song (1994).

While recognizing the power of cante jondo, Mitchell takes a refreshingly detached, even jaundiced view:

A decoding of flamenco from a psychohistorical perspective will reveal self-pity, posturing machismo, hypersensitive adolescent egos, and a defensive flight into narcissistic ethnicity.

Again, as a counterpoint to the wholesome family revamp subtly promoted in the Rito series, Mitchell shows that the moods and musical techniques of cante jondo

are inseparable from alcohol abuse. […] Flamenco creativity sought to recover Catholicism’s lost catharsis in saloons, bordellos, and prisons. At the behest of playboy-philanthropists, the haunting cries and brash guitars of a stigmatized underclass were harnessed to explore every aspect of co-dependency. To be worthy of deep song, male performers needed to get their hearts trampled by some dark-skinned dancer; female singers needed to be abandoned or battered by their men. Flamenco artistry as we know it today makes sublime psychodrama out of alcoholism, fatalism, masochism, and ethnic rivalry.

Music can convey the most profound expressions of anguish, from the arias of the Bach Passions to the hymns of mourning of the Li family DaoistsCante jondo has long entranced outsiders, from Lorca and Falla’s 1922 festival to the films of Carlos Saura. But Mitchell confronts the crucial question:

Why does flamenco deep song appeal to people who never shared the traumas that precipitated its birth?

—one that we might ask about our esteem for the ravings of mad women and men in WAM opera, for that matter.

He reflects (evoking jazz, and reminding me of China—I plead guilty on all counts),

All forms of human expressive culture may be intrinsically or potentially artistic. In practice only a small range of creative endeavors come to be designated as Art with a capital A. […] A given expressive behavior becomes art because the right people rally to redefine it as such in accordance with their needs at a given historical moment and usually in conscious opposition to some other group’s standards. Forms of creativity that originated with the “wrong” people can always be redeemed (and thereby transformed) by talking or writing about them in ways associated with established genres.

He is critical of scholars like Demófilo in the 1880s:

With his selective compassion, unabashed elitism, neoromantic primitivism, spurious notions of purity and contamination, classificatory compulsion, lack of sociological acumen, nostalgia, and racialist aesthetics, he paved the way for numerous 20th-century flamencologists.

As Mitchell observes, the performance style

can strike even the most open-minded as brazen, overwrought, tortured, or histrionic.
Male-female relationships […] contained considerable amounts of codependency, sado-masochism, self-destruction, and (in compensation) large amounts of transgressive ecstasy.

He gives a nice parallel with reactions to the waltz from an 1816 article in the Times:

So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now it is attempted to be forced on respectable classes of society by the evil example of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing their daughter to so fatal a contagion.

Still, he concludes:

The flamenco style is not only about trauma but about the quest to recover from trauma; it is about distress and discharge too; it is about taking pain, expressing it, playing with it, and possibly working through it.

* * *


Near the base of the flamenco treetrunk (for full tree, see here), the cluster of tonás (cantes a palo seco, solo songs without guitar, often even without palmas) includes the unaccompanied saeta ritual songs, as well as no-less-intense secular deblas (“goddess”), carceleras (jailhouse songs; there were even penitential jailhouse saeta), martinetes, and seguiriyas (¿are the latter shown on the right side of the trunk?).

Melodically, in their narrow range and in the frequent cadences on do, most of these songs show a contrast with the common minor descending phrygian tetrachord of other flamenco palos.

I’ve already featured the solo saeta ritual singing in honour of the Virgin as her statue passes—alternating with percussion, and wind ensemble with piercing trumpets. Mitchell’s discussion is illuminating as ever (pp.100–103, 137–42).

Here are some more examples, starting with Niña de los Peines in 1920:

This early programme in the Rito series, clearly explained as ever, includes searing instances of martinetes, as well as rare deblas and carceleras, from Juan Talega, Antonio Mairena, Aguejetas with Tio BorricoTia Anica de la Piriñaca, Rafael Romero, and José Menese:

These stark searing solo songs are literally forged—in forges, with hammer and anvil. Here’s Agujetas el viejo:

And his son:

Here Aguejetas fils sings some intense martinetes from the ¿Y a quién le voy a contar yo mis peñas? genre:*

Ian Biddle (ch.2, pp.31–6, and ch.3, pp.16–18) analyses in detail the martinete “A la puertecita de la fragua” sung by Pepe El Culata:

A la puertecita de la fragua            At the little door of the forge
tú a mí no me vengas a buscar       don’t come looking for me
con el fango a las roillas                  with the mud on your hem,
y las enagüitas remangás.               rolling up your petticoat.

Vinieron y me dijeron                       They came and told me
che tú habías hablao                         that you had been saying
muy mal de mí                                    
bad things about me
y mira mi buen pensamiento:          and look at my good thoughts:
yo siempre pensando en ti.               I am always thinking about you.

Ma fin tenga la persona                    May that person have a bad end
que anda llevando y trayendo          who goes about gossiping,
poniéndole mal corazón                    giving a bad heart
a aquel que lo tiene bueno.                to the one who is good.

La maresita de toítos los gitanos,   The mother of all the gitanos,
toítos venian al tren.                          they were all coming by train.
La mía como estaba malita              Mine, being so bad
no me ha poio venir a ver.                could not come to see me.

La lunita crece y mengua                  The moon waxes and wanes
y yo me mantengo en mi ser,            and I remain in my own being
yo soy un cuadro de triste                 I am a picture of sadness
pegaíto a la paré.                                I will stop being stuck to her.

Most often heard among the intense solo tonasseguiriyas—like soleares and bulerías— have an underlying 12-beat metre, though it can take some concentration to detect it; as ever, the studioflamenco site is useful.

Especially in these more intense slow songs, non-lexical sounds are important, like the opening “ay“—”a knife-at-the-throat sound, a chain, a parched throat, a wound”, as Hecht describes it. Another integral aspect of the flamenco event is the jaleo—of which palmas are part—exclamations of encouragement, way beyond the familiar “¡Olé!”

The Rito series dedicates two programmes to seguiriyasFramed as ever by perceptive comments, this first programme (based around Cádiz) opens with a precious sequence from Tia Anica de la Piriñaca, and concludes with brilliant seguiriyas from Aguejeta and Terremoto de Jerez:

The second programme is centred on Seville. Again it opens with the venerable cantaor Juan Talega, leading on to Chocolate, Louis de Cabellero, and Antonio Mairena:

Oh all right then, here’s the programme dedicated to Terremoto (with another bulería from 17.14):

And more from Agujeta, father and son—with soleares (4.59), romance y alboreá (10.05), bulerías por soleá (21.07), culminating in a mesmerizing seguiriya (27.28)—how intently they listen!

And a complete concert from 1996:

And we just have to include a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:

The Rito series captured Camarón’s early career. Two excerpts:

Near the beginning of the second excerpt (from 1.37) is a wonderful bulería in which Camarón follows his mother:

Along with Pohren’s A way of life,

  • Paul Hecht, The wind cried: an American discovery of the world of flamenco (1993)

is a fine ethnography of flamenco social life in the 1960s; and it also contains plentiful translations of coplas verses (or letras, lyrics).

Just a few examples:

A las rejas de la cárcel            Don’t come and weep
no me vengas a llorar             at the jailhouse gate;
ya que no me quitas pena       since you can’t ease my sorrow,
no me la vengas a dar.            don’t darken my fate.

Cuando yo me muera              When I die,
te pido encargo                         in you I confide:
que con las trenzas                  with the braids
de tu pelo negro                        of your black hair
me amarren las manos.          let my hands be tied.

The ¿Y a quién le voy a contar yo mis peñas? genre includes some intense gems of oedipal Catholic masochism (maudlin Andalucian haiku?)—one from Agujetas ticks all the boxes:

Que a nadie se las puedo contar   I’ve got no-one to tell my woes
Yo tengo a mi mare loca                 My mother is crazy
La llevan pa un hospital                 They’re taking her to a hospital.

* * *

There’s a whole treasury of videos to explore on youtube. The depth and artistry of flamenco never cease to amaze me—if we think we know European culture, or even flamenco, all this makes an ear-scouring awakening.


*Cf. the more stoic Chinese genre “On visiting a hermit and not finding him in“.

Flamenco, 1: palmas—soleares, bulerías

*Revised, with some sections moved to Part 3! Part 2 is here.*


Tony and Two-Jags explore the intricacies of flamenco palmas.

Coinciding with the thrilling Portugal–Spain match the other day was a flamenco gig in Chiswick with the splendid Ramon Ruiz.

Unlike the football, it’s not a competition, but much as I love fado (and you just have to listen to the Carminho song there; see also here), I’ve long been enchanted by flamenco. One benefit of the life of a touring WAM muso: how blessed to have had the chance to wind down from performing Bach Passions in Andalucia in time for late-night sessions in flamenco bars.

Recently my passion has been reinvigorated by occasional palmas sessions with Ramon. Flamenco is yet another illustration of the wonders of all the diverse regional cultures throughout Europe. And despite the efforts of those who would float off into an imperial ocean idyll of tweed and Morris dancing, London is still a wonderful microcosm of world music! You can find everything…

Youtube opens up a rich world of flamenco, not least the fantastic documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco.

This is just a preliminary reccy—more to follow.

* * *

Flamenco is about as far as you could possibly get from its cosy tourist image—Torremolinos, castanets, rose between the teeth, and all that. Like tango or rebetika, its life is among lineage gatherings, at informal fiestas and local peña clubs; and it’s rooted in the exorcizing of suffering. Rather than the commodified tablau shows, one lives in hope of sitting in on a juerga among aficionados (cf. the touring musos’ game). [1]

* * *

Like Lorca [name-dropper—Ed.], my taste draws me to the intensity of cante jondo “deep singing”, with genres like seguiriyas and martinetes. But my Spanish is rudimentary, I don’t play guitar, and No Way am I going to dance (like, ever)—so a great way of learning is to get a basic grasp of the wonderful palmas hand-clapping that accompanies singing, guitar, and dancing. Not to mention foot stamping, and the cajón box.

Come to that, palmas is a great way for British kids to become musically competent, growing into music—as Ramon finds in his school workshops.

Like the human voice, our hands, our bodies, are the most elemental musical instruments. Hand-clapping, relegated in northern societies to children’s games, is a captivating art in some Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures. And it’s belatedly come into its own with so-called minimalism—Steve Reich’s Clapping music,

and Anna Meredith’s exhilarating Hands free.

* * *

Complementing my explorations of youtube clips, I’m finding some practical sites useful, like this and this; also instructive are Ian Biddle’s chapter on cante and the Appendix “Cante, definition and classification” of Paul Hecht’s The wind cried.

As usual, we need an overview of the genres: this tree suggests the riches of all the various palos styles.

And then, within all these palos are the compas rhythmic patterns—embodied by specific (hands-on!) palmas. Not to mention all the local styles of towns throughout Andalucia—Seville, Jerez, Cádiz, Morón de la Frontera, Granada…

Palmas seems like a relatively easy way of getting a basic grip on flamenco. But focusing narrowly on the rhythms, it still takes me a lot of time to absorb the important clues from the guitar and voice that are equally basic.

Ramon suggests I begin with soleares (linguistic note: associated with soledad, like saudade in fado!) and (faster) bulérias. Here’s a soleares from Perrate de Utrera:

And bulerias by the de Utrera sisters, with Diego del Gastor:

I start by internalising the basic 12-beat cycle while swimming, taking breaths before the accents:

       1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

or (beginning on 12)

12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

So it’s a recurring hemiola* pattern; that should be simple enough, but for pedantic hidebound WAMmies like me it feels as if it begins on the “wrong” beat. (¿¡Surely this is as wacky as the Spanish upside-down question and exclamation marks?!). Anyway, you can already hear just how complex the rhythmic variations are. As always, if you’re hampered by a classical education like wat I is (innit), or if you don’t happen to come from a long lineage of Andalucian blacksmiths, then you have to unlearn any ingrained assumptions from WAM and just immerse yourself in the whole style through the experience of the body.

I think of Indian tala; or even the way that household Daoists in Yanggao pick up, largely by ear, their ritual percussion items—seemingly simple but endlessly varied, with large cymbals and drum interacting. Indeed, the way that the clappers often leave the main beat empty reminds me somewhat of Li Manshan “calling the beat” with a busy drum pattern just before the down-beat on the small cymbals.

It’s no good just going oom-pa-pa like a waltz—in one video, Ramon spots some old ladies at the back doing just that! And then there’s the nuance of fuertes hard and sordas soft dynamics, and all the contra-tiempo cross-accents between multiple clappers.

As Ramon explains, it’s a series of questions and answers. I’ll have a better handle on this once I’ve learned to latch onto the guitar, with its chord change on 3, and the extra cadential flourish ending on 10—though the beginner may find few landmarks in between those points. The youtube option of slowing down playback can come in handy.

Here’s yet another fine programme in the Rito series, with a series of bulérias (featuring, after Camaron, Cristobalina Suarez with young sleeping child from 23.20—see also Part 2):

This is seriously complex funky stuff. No sooner have you learned a basic pattern than you find how variable it is—like sonata form. Given its considerable theorization (as if that mattered), that theory is orally transmitted, and the brilliant exponents are often semi-literate. But while insisting that flamenco should absolutely be admissible to the ranks of “serious music” (whatever that means), the only important point is that it’s extraordinarily life-enhancing.

* * *

I also love it when all extraneous elements are stripped away: when everyone just claps their complex patterns in counterpoint with the dancer’s feet. Or the cantes a palo seco, when the singer dispenses entirely with guitar and even palmas, just howling in solitary pain… I’ll pursue these songs in my third post.

Talking of the Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco series, with all its precious archive footage, the programmes on the Utrera sisters illustrate the compilers’ fine ethnography of lineages, changing society and music, the amateur–professional continuum, and all the subtle distinctions that folk musicians always make:

All this wealth of musicking on our doorstep! I’ll keep studying and updating this post. The next post in this series outlines gender, politics, wine, and deviance!

As an aperitivo for the third post we just have to have a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:


*BTW, lutenist Paul O’Dette told me this story on a long tour of the USA:
Summer school in Utah on baroque music. A professor from England solemnly writes “HEMIOLA” on the board and begins to explain the occasional use of three groups of two within a triple metre. One of the local students guffaws,
“HEY! We don’t have no hee-my-olas in Utaww!”


[1] Among a wealth of sources, in English one might start with the flamenco chapter of The rough guide to world music; William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics and popular culture; ethnographies like  D.E. Pohren, A way of life and Paul Hecht, The wind cried; and for cante jondo, see e.g. Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song.


Further to the mondegreen, the mountweazel is also a fine creation—a bogus entry deliberately inserted in a reference work.

While I was editing the “China” entries for the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, I tried in vain to persuade the powers-that-be that a vast civilization with a continuous history of thousands of years might just deserve as much coverage as a composer who lived for thirty-five years (Mozart). Anyway, what with all the labrynthine complexities of the Grove style “Bible”, one needs the occasional light relief (cf. the popular “composer or pasta?” quiz); and Grove now has a competition for spoof entries.

The 2016 winner was Caroline Potter:

Musical Cheesegrater
(Fr. râpe à fromage musicale; It. grattugia musicale)
A percussion instrument that enjoyed a brief vogue in Rome and Paris in the 1910s and early 1920s. In the Hornbostel-Sachs classification the instrument is reckoned as a friction idiophone. Of metal construction, it typically has four sides, each with raised perforations of a particular size. The player strokes one or more of the sides with a metal implement, producing a distinctive rasping sound. A rare rotating variant, where a perforated barrel is turned using a crankhandle to create friction against metal tangents, survives in the Musée de la Musique in Paris. The musical cheesegrater is cited in a posthumously published appendix to Luigi Russolo’s celebrated manifesto L’Arte dei rumori in the fourth category of his sound classification (screeches, creaks, rumbles, buzzes, crackles, scrapes). Its best-known use is in Maurice Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (1924), where it is rubbed with a triangle beater.

The musical cheesegrater was employed by Italian Futurist composers and associates of the Dada movement in Paris, and its popularity and decline mirrors the fortunes of these artistic groupings. The manuscript of Erik Satie’s Rabelais-themed Trois petites pièces montées (1919) features the instrument rubbed with a hard cheese, though scholars disagree whether Satie intended this to be a percussion instrument or part of a projected staging. Edgard Varèse showed enthusiasm for the musical cheesegrater during a dinner with Russolo; it appears in sketches for Amériques (1918-21), but not in the final version. Recent academic research in gastromusicology has revived interest in the instrument.

I’m gratified by the reference to the numinous Sachs–Hornbostel organological taxonomy, even if a whole host of stranger instruments appear there. So it’s of little consequence that just such an instrument is indeed used in several world traditions, such as the guiro/güira of merengue. Indeed, it brings to mind “our” very own washboard.

If it’s pithy organology you need, there’s also the vuvuzela.


Wacky indexing, continued


Following my post on indexing, the erudite Hannibal Taubes has taken time out from his intrepid explorations of Chinese village temples to alert me to the fine subject index of A Stuffed owl: an anthology of bad verse, edited by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee (1930).

It’s a fine collection anyway, from which few major British poets are exempt:

 He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease—Tennyson

 Forgive my transports on a theme like this
I cannot bear a French metropolis—Johnson

 Salubrious hinds the festive dance explore—John Nichols

This piteous news so much it shocked her
She quite forgot to send the doctor—Wordsworth

If there is no such anthology for Tang poetry, then someone should compile one forthwith.

Indexes for such works, like The Lexicon of musical invective or, um, Bazza pulls it off, can take on a life of their own:

Beethoven, light thrown on his ancestry, xv; his shaky octave-playing, 6

Byron, believed to be a poet, 235; his low character, 236; his career sketched in a few bold strokes 236–7

England, small but well-known, 200; emphatically undegenerate, 202

Italy, not recommended to tourists, 125; examples of what goes on there, 204, 219, 221

Liverpool, rapture experienced at, 196