Category Archives: Entertainment
Music has been part and parcel of humanity for a long time. Not every sound is musical, but sound has meaning and sometimes the meaning of sound is specific to its context.
But when it comes to archaeology there is scant evidence of music or sound producing artefacts from southern Africa. This is because of poor preservation of the mostly organic materials that were used to manufacture musical instruments. Rock art offers depictions of musical instruments as well as scenes of dancing that can be linked with music performance, but here only music-related artefacts will be discussed.
I conducted original research as well as a survey of the literature available on these artefacts. Ethnographic sources were also consulted in order to attempt to provide a broader contextual background against which knowledge of the archaeological implements could be expanded. The Percival Kirby online musical instrument repository has also been used. Music archaeology is multidisciplinary in nature.
The result is one of the first reports on southern African sound- and music-related artefacts.
Research in music archaeology in southern Africa has just begun. Available evidence dates back from around 10,000 years ago, from the Later Stone Age up to the Iron Age. The artefacts fall into two groups, namely aerophones, where sound is produced by vibrating air, and idiophones, where sound is produced by solid material vibrating. These artefacts include spinning disks, bullroarers, bone tubes that could have been used as flutes or whistles, clay whistles, keys from thumb pianos (also called lamellophones or mbiras), musical bells and an ivory trumpet. The list is not exhaustive and more research needs to be conducted.
These music-related or sound-producing artefacts are made from various materials, including bone, ivory, metal and clay. The artefacts show how integral sound and music production was in the socio-cultural practices of people in the past, most likely for entertainment and rituals. Sound production and music making is a sign of being fully human.
Recent experimental work established that some Later Stone Age bone implements from the Klasies River Mouth and Matjes River sites are a spinning disk and a bullroarer respectively. Their replicas produced powerful whirring sounds and they can be referred to as sound-producing implements even though the purpose of the sound or their use cannot be clearly ascertained. They could have been used as signalling implements, toys, in ritual settings or in musical contexts, among others. Nowadays these implements are seldom found in the region.
Bone tubes, mainly in bird bone, have been recovered from Later Stone Age contexts from the southern and western Cape of South Africa and some were also recovered from historical contexts. Previously, these bone tubes were interpreted as sucking tubes and beads. But morphological analysis – or studying their form – has indicated that considering the various lengths and widths as well as their smoothened ends, they could have been used as flutes or whistles. There is no a clear-cut distinction between flutes and whistles.
If they were used as flutes they were single tone flutes since none has finger holes that can enable the production of more tones. Some of the archaeological bone tubes bear chevron and cross hatching patterns, but it is not clear if the decorations have a meaning or were just made for aesthetic purposes. The San and Khoe people in South Africa used reed flutes in the past. Flutes are still used today by various cultural groups in South Africa, for example the Venda people in South Africa use flutes when performing the tshikona dance.
Clay whistles have been recovered from the sites of K2 and Mapungubwe from Early Iron Age contexts. Similar clay whistles are very rare and are not mentioned ethnographically, but it has been said that the Basotho herders in Lesotho used similar whistles. Whistles can also be used during a musical procession or as signalling implements in sending a message.
An ivory trumpet was recovered from Sofala site in Mozambique. It has a blow hole and some decorations on its body.
Ivory trumpets are not common in southern Africa, but are known in west Africa. For example, in Ghana among the Asante people they had a spiritual significance and were associated with the royal court. Ivory trumpets are also said to have been used to announce the arrival of kings. The trumpets that are found in southern Africa are not in ivory.
Thumb piano, lamellophone or mbira keys have been recovered from the Later Iron Age contexts in Zimbabwe and in Zambia. This idiophone became popular with the introduction of iron technology and it is still used today. Some popular musicians play the lamellophone, for example Stella Chiweshe from Zimbabwe. Mbira is closely associated with spirituality, especially among the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The lamellophone is now a common musical instrument globally.
Musical bells were found in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia from Later Iron Age contexts. Both double and single bells existed and, for example, at Great Zimbabwe both were recovered. Ethnographically, musical bells are known to have originated in West and Central Africa and they were most likely introduced to southern Africa through trade. These idiophones are said to have been played to announce the arrival of kings. Musical bells are still used today.
Musical instruments are seldom found in the archaeological record and are not easily identifiable, so there is a lot of debate among researchers when it comes to identifying these instruments from the archaeological record. Some instruments may not have been musical instruments per se but rather sound-producing implements that were used to convey certain messages or used for ritual purposes.
The history of women making excellent films but not having their achievements fully acknowledged stretches back a very long way. This was most recently seen in Pamela B Green’s documentary Be Natural about the “lost” foremother of film, Alice Guy-Blaché. The French-American filmmaker was largely forgotten in formative accounts of the history of cinema. This was despite her important innovations, including making what is arguably the first narrative film La Fée aux Choux (1896).
It is vital historical work to recover women’s filmmaking, which is always prone to being overlooked, downplayed or forgotten. Organisations like the Women Film Pioneers Project and the Women’s Film and Television History Network, alongside other initiatives and people, have laboured to prevent its erasure from the historical record, but there is always more to be done to ensure its preservation and celebration. Archiving is key to this.
The recently released report, Invisible Innovators: Making Women’s Filmmaking Visible across the UK Film Archives, strives to rewrite women into history. Commissioned by Film Archives UK, the report surveys work by women held in UK media archives and proposes strategies for making it more accessible. It suggests there are incredible riches waiting to be unlocked, and compelling stories that deserve to be more widely known.
Amateur film of various kinds constitutes a large proportion of those collections. Many are home movies, which women were actively encouraged to make at the advent of home movie-making technology in the early 20th century. This was because it was seen as an extension of their roles as wives, mothers and custodians of family keepsakes.
Although some amateur films might have interest solely as historical or familial records, others are much more aesthetically inventive. Such films suggest how filmmaking could become a vehicle for unleashing women’s creativity.
For instance, one of the most intriguing filmmakers discussed in the report is Ruth Stuart. A teenage prodigy, she was described as “the maestra of Manchester” by Movie Maker magazine after her 1933 travelogue To Egypt and Back (begun when she was only 16) and her 1934 apocalyptic vision Doomsday. Both won the highest accolades for non-professional work from American Cinematographer and Amateur Cine World.
However, a gendered double standard was in operation around the status of amateur film at this time. While amateur filmmaking could act as a launchpad for the professional filmmaking careers of talented young men like Ken Russell and Peter Watkins – who both went from amateur filmmaking to the BBC and onto acclaimed feature film production – no such leverage seems to have been available to their female equivalents, however talented. As such, Stuart’s filmography is frustratingly brief. Little is known about her life or why she appears to have stopped making films altogether by the 1940s.
Clearly some women relished their adventures as hobbyist filmmakers and enjoyed the freedom of amateurism. In the flourishing cine club culture from the 1930s to 1960s, women were key participants, and not merely as helpful companions or tea-makers. As early as 1928, an all-female amateur filmmaking team put together the madcap comedy Sally Sallies Forth. Featuring an all-female cast, it was a rare gynocentric achievement.
More often women worked collaboratively with men, but this has resulted in systemic problems in their work’s attribution. When the prize-winning films made by married couple Laurie and Stuart Day were discussed in amateur film magazines, it was automatically assumed that Stuart was the main filmmaker and Laurie just his wifely assistant. Evidence from the films themselves seems to suggest that actually the reverse was true. However, these kinds of assumptions have impacted the cataloguing of films when deposited in archives, inadvertently effacing women’s contributions.
Films by female filmmakers to watch:
Women’s films should be a priority for digitisation, and archival catalogues and records should accurately reflect female contributors. If all relevant works across all film collections could be marked with an easily searchable term like “woman filmmaker”, it would really help to bring these women’s works out from the shadows.
Here are five films by female filmmakers that have been successfully digitised from the East Anglian Film Archive which give a flavour of the range and richness of women’s filmmaking across the 20th century:
Doomsday (1934): Ruth Stuart’s haunting vision of a very English apocalypse.
1938, the Last Year of Peace (1948): Laurie and Stuart Day’s montage of memories of suburban family life just before the outbreak of the second world war.
England May Be Home (1957): A moving documentary about Italian migrant workers. Bedfordshire cine-club member Margaret Hodkin is part of the team behind this.
The Stray (1965): Marjorie Martin’s moody tale of an errant wife with laddered stockings returning to her taciturn shepherd husband.
Broadcast turns 100: from the Hindenburg disaster to the Hottest 100, here’s how radio shaped the world
Eighty-one years ago, a broadcast of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds supposedly caused mass hysteria in America, as listeners thought martians had invaded New Jersey.
There are varying accounts of the controversial incident, and it remains a topic of fascination, even today.
Back when Welles’s fictional martians attacked, broadcast radio was considered a state-of-the-art technology.
And since the first transatlantic radio signal was transmitted in 1901 by Guglielmo Marconi, radio has greatly innovated the way we communicate.
Dots and dashes
At the start of the 20th century, Marconi’s system dominated radio wave-based media. Radio was called “wireless telegraphy” as it was considered a telegraph without the wires, and did what telegraphs had done globally since 1844.
Messages were sent in Morse code as dots and dashes from one point to another via radio waves. At the time, receiving radio required specialists to translate the dots and dashes into words.
The more refined technology underpinning broadcast radio was developed during the first world war, with “broadcast” referring to the use of radio waves to transmit audio from one point to many listeners.
This year, organised broadcast radio turns 100. These days it’s considered a basic technology, but that may be why it remains such a vital medium.
SOS: the Titanic sinks
By 1912, radio was used to run economies, empires and armed forces.
Its importance for shipping was obvious – battleships, merchant ships and passenger ships were all equipped with it. People had faith in technological progress and radio provided proof of how modern machines benefited humans.
However, the sinking of the Titanic that year caused a crisis in the world’s relationship with technology, by revealing its fallibility. Not even the newest technologies such as radio could avoid disaster.
Some argue radio use may have increased the ship’s death toll, as the Titanic’s radio was outdated and wasn’t intended to be used in an emergency. There were also accusations that amateur “ham radio” operators had hogged the bandwidth, adding to an already confusing and dire situation.
Nonetheless, the Titanic’s SOS signal managed to reach another ship, which led to the rescue of hundreds of passengers. Radio remains the go-to medium when disasters strike.
Making masts and networks
Broadcast radio got traction in the early 1920s and spread like a virus. Governments, companies and consumers started investing in the amazing new technology that brought the sounds of the world into the home.
Huge networks of transmitting towers and radio stations popped-up across continents, and factories churned out millions of radio receivers to meet demand.
Some countries started major public broadcasting networks, including the BBC.
Radio stations sought ways around regulations and, by the mid 1930s, some broadcasters were operating stations that generated up to 500,000 watts.
One Mexican station, XERA, could be heard in New Zealand.
Hearing the Hindenburg
On May 6, 1937, journalist Herbert Morrison was experimenting with recording news bulletins for radio when the Hindenburg airship burst into flames.
His famous commentary, “Oh the humanity”, is often mistaken for a live broadcast, but it was actually a recording.
Broadcasts could now be stored and heard repeatedly at different places instead of disappearing into the ether.
Transistors and FM
In 1953 radios got smaller, as the first all transistor radio was built.
Transistor circuits replaced valves and made radios very cheap and portable.
Along with being portable, radio sound quality improved after the rise of FM broadcasting in the 1960s. While both FM and AM are effective ways to modulate carrier waves, FM (frequency modulation) offers better audio quality and less noise compared to AM (amplitude modulation).
Music on FM radio sounded as good as on a home stereo. Rock and roll and the revolutionary changes of the 1960s started to spread via the medium.
AM radio was reserved for talkback, news and sport.
Beeps in space
In 1957, radio experienced lift-off when the USSR launched the world’s first satellite.
Sputnik 1 didn’t do much other than broadcast a regular “beep” sound by radio.
Sputnik’s beeps were propaganda heard all round the world, and they heralded the age of space exploration.
Today, radio is still used to communicate with astronauts and robots in space.
Radio astronomy, which uses radio waves, has also revealed a lot about the universe to astronomers.
Digital, and beyond
Meanwhile on Earth, radio stations continue to use the internet to extend their reach beyond that of analogue technologies.
Social media helps broadcasters generate and spread content, and digital editing tools have boosted the possibilities of what can be done with podcasts and radio documentaries.
The radio industry has learnt to use digital plenitude to the max, with broadcasters building archives and producing an endless flood of material beyond what they broadcast.
This year marks a century of organised broadcast radio around the world.
Media such as movies, television, the internet and podcasts were expected to sound its death knell. But radio embraces new technology. It survives, and advances.
In 1932, the musicologist Wilfrid Perrett reported to an audience at the Royal Musical Association in London the words of an unnamed professor of Greek with musical leanings: “Nobody has ever made head or tail of ancient Greek music, and nobody ever will. That way madness lies.”
Indeed, ancient Greek music has long posed a maddening enigma. Yet music was ubiquitous in classical Greece, with most of the poetry from around 750BC to 350BC – the songs of Homer, Sappho, and others – composed and performed as sung music, sometimes accompanied by dance. Literary texts provide abundant and highly specific details about the notes, scales, effects, and instruments used. The lyre was a common feature, along with the popular aulos, two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer so as to sound like two powerful oboes played in concert.
Despite this wealth of information, the sense and sound of ancient Greek music has proved incredibly elusive. This is because the terms and notions found in ancient sources – mode, enharmonic, diesis, and so on – are complicated and unfamiliar. And while notated music exists and can be reliably interpreted, it is scarce and fragmentary. What could be reconstructed in practice has often sounded quite strange and unappealing – so ancient Greek music had by many been deemed a lost art.
But recent developments have excitingly overturned this gloomy assessment. A project to investigate ancient Greek music that I have been working on since 2013 has generated stunning insights into how ancient Greeks made music. My research has even led to its performance – and hopefully, in the future, we’ll see many more such reconstructions.
The situation has changed largely because over the past few years some very well preserved auloi have been reconstructed by expert technicians such as Robin Howell and researchers associated with the European Music Archaeology Project. Played by highly skilled pipers such as Barnaby Brown and Callum Armstrong, they provide a faithful guide to the pitch range of ancient music, as well as to the instruments’ own pitches, timbres, and tunings.
Central to ancient song was its rhythms, and the rhythms of ancient Greek music can be derived from the metres of the poetry. These were based strictly on the durations of syllables of words, which create patterns of long and short elements. While there are no tempo indications for ancient songs, it is often clear whether a metre should be sung fast or slow (until the invention of mechanical chronometers, tempo was in any case not fixed, and was bound to vary between performances). Setting an appropriate tempo is essential if music is to sound right.
What about the tunes – the melody and harmony? This is what most people mean when they claim that ancient Greek “music” is lost. Thousands of words about the theory of melody and harmony survive in the writings of ancient authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Aristoxenus, Ptolemy, and Aristides Quintilianus; and a few fragmentary scores with ancient musical notation first came to light in Florence in the late 16th century. But this evidence for actual music gave no real sense of the melodic and harmonic riches that we learn of from literary sources.
More documents with ancient notation on papyrus or stone have intermittently come to light since 1581, and now around 60 fragments exist. Carefully compiled, transcribed, and interpreted by scholars such as Martin West and Egert Pöhlmann, they give us a better chance of understanding how the music sounded.
Ancient Greek music performed
The earliest substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus from the Athenian tragedian Euripides’ Orestes of 408BC. It has long posed problems for interpretation, mainly owing to its use of quarter-tone intervals, which have seemed to suggest an alien melodic sensibility. Western music operates with whole tones and semitones; any smaller interval sounds to our ears as if a note is being played or sung out of tune.
But my analyses of the Orestes fragment, published earlier this year, led to striking insights. First, I demonstrated that elements of the score clearly indicate word-painting – the imitation of the meaning of words by the shape of the melodic line. We find a falling cadence set to the word “lament”, and a large upward interval leap accompanying the word “leaps up”.
Second, I showed that if the quarter-tones functioned as “passing-notes”, the composition was in fact tonal (focused on a pitch to which the tune regularly reverts). This should not be very surprising, as such tonality exists in all the documents of ancient music from later centuries, including the large-scale Delphic Paeans preserved on stone.
With these premises in view, in 2016 I reconstructed the music of the Orestes papyrus for choral realisation with aulos accompaniment, setting a brisk tempo as indicated by the metre and the content of the chorus’s words. This Orestes chorus was performed by choir and aulos-player at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in July 2017, together with other reconstructed ancient scores.
It remains for me to realise, in the next few years, the other few dozen ancient scores that exist, many extremely fragmentary, and to stage a complete ancient drama with historically informed music in an ancient theatre such as that of Epidaurus.
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Meanwhile, an exciting conclusion may be drawn. The Western tradition of classical music is often said to begin with the Gregorian plainsong of the 9th century AD. But the reconstruction and performance of Greek music has demonstrated that ancient Greek music should be recognised as the root of the European musical tradition.
In 1825, Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld watched an Aboriginal Dance of Welcome at Newcastle’s East End Settlement. From the AusStage database – the research gateway to crucial information about live performance in Australia – we can learn it was held “in consequence of our coming among them”.
The papers and reminiscences (1824-1859) of Threlkeld, who trained with the evangelical London Missionary Society, were published in 1979 and can be accessed for further research. The singing and dancing he described may have looked like the Corroboree around a campfire painted by the convict artist Joseph Lycett in the Newcastle region circa 1817.
A simple search of the database using the term “corroboree” reveals hundreds of records of corroborees across the continent between 1816 and 1927, the earliest being 300 men and women singing and dancing at Main Beach opposite George Rocks in Tasmania. The early settler who witnessed this event also recorded the name of one of the male performers: Tolobunganah.
The first theatre production to be staged by white settlers in Australia appears in the database as well — the Irish playwright George Farquhar’s 1706 play, The Recruiting Officer.
A scan of this entry reveals convicts performed it in Sydney in 1789 “in a mud-wall hut in honour of the birthday of King George III”, and gives the complete cast list. Captains Arthur Phillip and Watkin Tench were noted as in the audience.
From its beginnings 18 years ago, AusStage is now recognised globally as the “gold standard” for open access records of live performance. Based at Flinders University, AusStage is the result of a pioneering collective research effort between 18 universities and industry partners. In May this year, the 100,000th record of live performance in Australia was added to it.
The database, which dates from 1789 to the present day, acknowledges the significance of professional and amateur performance for Australia’s performing arts ecology. Live performances in regional towns and rural locations are of equal importance to those in major cities; even animal and android performers are recorded.
Down the rabbit hole
Delving deeper into our theatre history is made possible through AusStage’s links to records on books and articles held in other collections and domains. Entering the database is like going down the proverbial rabbit hole. It has the capacity to inform complex journeys of discovery on Australian theatre history, the production and consumption of commercial and non-commercial performance, and audience analysis. It also enables researchers to track artists’ national and international careers.
For example, my current research on child actors between 1880-1920 is significantly helped by AusStage. Ivy Emms (1905-1949) was a hard working juvenile singer and dancer in regional Victoria during World War I. A search of the database reveals that 30 years after she performed patriotic songs in popular pantomimes, she was working as a choreographer at Melbourne’s Tivoli Theatre. (An obituary from The Argus states that she died after a brief illness.) AusStage makes visualisation of her creative relationships possible.
As of July 11, AusStage held records on 102,643 performance events, 142,285 contributors, 15,536 organisations, 17,170 works, 9,991 venues and 64,088 resources. During the period from 1st January 2018 to 11th July access to it has been from 138 different countries with 78% of the users in Australia.
AusStage’s goal is to preserve and retrieve Australia’s performing arts heritage, and make it freely available through digital means. Currently, research teams from 12 Australian Universities are developing visualisations of some of Australia’s historically significant theatre venues.
This floor plan of Newcastle’s Victoria Theatre is just one element contributing to a digital recreation and 3D experience of the theatre and its colourful neo-Grecian interiors during its first year of productions, 1891-92. The Victoria is the oldest standing theatre in New South Wales.
Remodelled in the 1920s when it was primarily a Variety theatre, the installation of cinema projection technology in the 1920s saw the Victoria host live performance and cinema for many decades more. Finally closed in 1999 and currently derelict, the theatre’s new owners, Century Venues, reportedly have plans to re-open it.
AusStage is also facilitating research on historical theatres, using virtual technology. Several projects are building VR versions of Australian theatre venues that no longer exist. From these models, we can understand how performance in them operated.
Ian Maxwell of the University of Sydney is looking at two lost theatres of Sydney. The Royal Victoria Theatre on Pitt St, which opened in 1838 with a production of Othello, was a grand, state of the art building accommodating 1900 spectators.
The Paris Theatre, with a façade designed by Walter Burley Griffin, was located on Whitlam Square. In 1979 the Paris was home to the Paris Theatre Company, the short-lived experimental precursor to the Sydney Theatre Company under the direction of Jim Sharman and Rex Cramphorn. The Royal Victoria burnt down in 1880, while the Paris was demolished in 1981 to make way for a residential high-rise.
These are just several of the dozens of projects that have been, or are, facilitated by the database. “Capturing lightning in a bottle” is the phrase sometimes used to describe what AusStage does. It sums up the fragility and excitement of the task.
The performing arts are ephemeral events, physically passing from the world once they cease to be presented to audiences. AusStage ensures they do not pass from our historical memory.
Review: A Coveted Possession: The Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia by Michael Atherton
In his recent book, A Coveted Possession, Michael Atherton traces the history of the piano in Australia. The book’s cover seems almost intent on giving the story away, informing us that its pages chart the instrument’s “rise and fall”.
As Atherton, an emeritus professor from Western Sydney University, explains, the story of the piano in Australia begins with the First Fleet, namely a small instrument brought from England on the Sirius in 1788, by George Worgan. A short preliminary chapter sets out the prior development of the instrument, from the “plucked” action of the older harpsichord to the felt-covered hammers used in later pianos. This information will be useful for readers with little background knowledge.
Yet, as the author reminds us, the piano has been more than a musical instrument or a finely crafted piece of furniture; he refers to it as “a machine that conveyed socially constructed meanings”. In this regard, the book is rich in subtext. Two dominant undercurrents emerge: that the possession of a piano (and the skill to play it) signified status; and that the Australian “cultural cringe” led to preferences for foreign-made instruments.
The first piano believed to have been built in Australia dated from 1834 and was constructed by an English emigrant named John Benham. As Atherton tells us, native timbers proved highly adaptable to piano manufacture, both in terms of their outer casework and, more importantly, the soundboard within.
An example of a Benham piano is housed in the archives of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. It’s one of many instruments stored in the shed-like building next to the main exhibition spaces, which are rarely viewed by anybody, let alone heard. If ever there was a counter-argument for keeping the Powerhouse where it is and opening satellite venues such as at Parramatta so as to allow for the greater display of items, surely this is one.
Atherton provides a brief but concise history of the early builders of pianos in Australia, before moving to the more substantial manufacturers, Jabez Carnegie, Octavius Beale and Hugo Wertheim. For a period, it was a burgeoning and profitable business, complementing the homegrown production and sale of printed music, and the promotion of local virtuoso performers, such as Percy Grainger.
Yet lasting success proved elusive. As a pianist, I have promoted modern Australian pianos in concerts and recordings, and, sadly, Atherton’s pages detailing the decline of Beale’s factory in Sydney’s Annandale and Wertheim’s in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond were almost predictable. Those who profited from importing instruments from overseas (sometimes with quite inferior products) argued powerfully to remove tariffs and, aligned with the interruption of the second world war, “market forces” ultimately brought about the industry’s demise.
Changes in entertainment technologies – such as the development of the radio and the gramophone – also played their part in that process. But despite the decline in the popularity of the “goanna” (rhyming slang for the instrument), Atherton is highly informative when recounting its role as a social healer. Many pianos were donated to so-called “Cheer-Up Huts”, where they were played to boost the spirits of those returning injured from war.
Particularly fascinating is the story of the “Changi” piano, an instrument that brought happiness to countless POWs. It is now housed in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Other instruments made it as far as battle front lines where, as Atherton observes, their playing represented order among the “anarchic, chaotic and destructive sounds of war”.
Atherton can write with an enthralling sense of narrative, which is perhaps most evident in the final part of the book. Here he recounts the role of pianos in various post-modern creative projects.
Noting his own participation in what could be termed “pianofortecide”, these endeavours involved the ritualistic destruction and burning of old and unwanted instruments, all in the name of art. Aptly, the chapter is titled “Where do old pianos go to die?”. It provides a sobering, realistic glimpse of the fate of pianos that were once treated with love, care and respect. More often than not old pianos are dumped unceremoniously at the tip.
Wayne Stuart and Ron Overs have both, in their own ways, worked in recent years to establish locally made piano businesses, although their efforts seem somewhat in vain. Atherton, who has advocated strongly for Stuart’s instruments, asks some pointed questions:
Has Stuart been given a short life as a piano builder because most concert pianists do not wish to move out of their comfort zone? Have conventional sounds, conservatism in music and economics, and also, possibly, Australian tall poppy syndrome damaged the longevity of the piano, not to mention the ongoing vested interests and monopolies courted by local organisations and promoters?
The same could be asked of the never-ending stream of imported pianists who perform with our major orchestras on a weekly basis, while the wealth of talented Australian artists is fairly much ignored!
At times, A Coveted Possession is marred by insufficient attention in the proof-reading stage. And it feels as if the researcher’s bullet-point notes have been fleshed out rather casually in early chapters recounting historical developments, where a deeper sense of narrative would have satisfied more.
But for those who are interested in the history of the piano in Australia (and music in general), the book has much to offer. Despite the foretelling of the instrument’s demise on the cover, Atherton’s book ends on a high note: “The ‘goanna’ will still be sounding at the end of the century.”
By now, you’ve probably heard about Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve disaster. After some technical malfunctions, Carey – who was supposed to lip-sync over a vocal track for “Emotions” and “We Belong Together” – ended up neither singing nor dancing much, and mostly talked about tech issues over the musical accompaniment track.
The reaction to the gaffe – which evoked Ashlee Simpson’s Saturday Night Live jig and Britney Spears’ bumbling 2007 VMA performance – was swift and harsh. Social media unleashed an avalanche of snark, while comedians like Stephen Colbert pounced.
But is the “scandal” of lip-syncing really so scandalous? Whether it’s a necessary evil or an efficacious substitute for performing live is a matter of perspective.
See no evil, hear no evil
The history of lip-syncing begins in the 1940s with “soundies,” short music videos produced for film jukeboxes. Baby boomers likely associate the practice with the television shows “American Bandstand” and “Soultrain,” where musical guests mimed their latest hits, often absent a live band.
But faking became controversial only when it was revealed in 1967 that the made-for-TV-band The Monkees didn’t always play their own instruments, relying heavily on studio musicians, especially on their early recordings. Critics derided the band, calling them the “Pre-Fab Four.” But they seemed more concerned than fans, many of whom cared little about whether or not The Monkees played their own instruments. The group rode out the storm, increasingly handling the playing (and also songwriting) duties.
Interestingly, while a number of popular bands like The Beach Boys, The Byrds and The Association would perform live in concert, behind the scenes – when recording their albums – they’d use a pool of Los Angeles studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew (who, in fact, also played on the early Monkees albums).
Meanwhile, in film musicals, it was a common (and uncontroversial) practice to use trained singers like Marni Nixon to cover the vocals for actors, whether it was Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady,” Deborah Kerr in “The King and I” or Natalie Wood in “West Side Story.”
Better safe than sorry
In the 1980s, MTV emerged. With it, the proliferation of a new form – the music video – heightened the importance of spectacle during live and televised performances.
The demands of choreography and acting – coupled with the acoustic and weather-related challenges of large outdoor venues – made live singing both more difficult and less of a priority. Covert lip-syncing in concert and on television became more common.
Many artists, especially those who perform in large, outdoor venues with complex, choreographed dance numbers, will lip-sync or sing along with prerecorded vocal tracks. These include Beyoncé, Madonna and Britney Spears.
For an aging virtuosa like Mariah Carey – known for her stunning upper register and vocal gymnastics – the risks of failed technology may outweigh the risk of veering off note. This is, of course, a different matter entirely from using digital devices to mask limited ability, a move more familiarly associated with auto-tune, a popular pitch-correcting device employed by artists ranging from Lady Gaga to Tim McGraw.
But the most infamous musical masquerade – and the incident most likely responsible for the intense scrutiny of lip-syncing – was the short-lived career of European R&B duo Milli Vanilli. After Milli Vanilli won the 1990 Grammy Award for Best New Artist, singer Charles Shaw, who actually performed on the group’s debut album, revealed that, on top of lip-syncing their way through all their live performances, they hadn’t sung any of the tracks recorded on their album. The Recording Academy rescinded its Grammy and, despite efforts to remake themselves as real vocalists, the duo faded into obscurity.
Yet the public and media can be inconsistent in their denunciations of musical fakery. While it was well-known that actresses Hepburn, Kerr and Wood lip-synced over Marni Nixon’s vocals, they appear not to have suffered any damage to their subsequent careers. (Kerr was even nominated for an Oscar for her role in “The King and I.”)
In contrast, Beyoncé came under fire for lip-syncing the National Anthem at President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration. This was, of course, a high-stakes event fraught with challenges for a live vocalist: winter weather, outdoor acoustics and an enormous audience (to say nothing of a notoriously difficult song with an exceptionally wide range). According to Rickey Minor, who has produced a number of Super Bowl halftime shows, the pitfalls of these situations make performing live not worth it. And despite some controversy immediately following her performance, Beyoncé’s career and reputation certainly didn’t suffer any lasting effects.
With the exception of Milli Vanilli, nearly every major act that has endured a lip-sync scandal has eventually recovered. Given Mariah Carey’s heretofore brilliant career, her reputation remains on firm ground.