December 18, 2013
In 2009, Smithsonian Folkways assumed stewardship of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, a pioneering series of more than 100 field recordings from around the world. First out of the vault is the Anthology of Indian Classical Music, a tribute to the ethnomusicologist Alain Daniélou, an expert on Hinduism who founded the UNESCO project in 1961. This three-CD set includes performances by virtuosos Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, recordings made in villages, as well as a track (“Sandehamunu”) that Mick Jagger recently named as one of his world-music favorites. All these sounds offer “windows to a completely different worldview,” says Folkways associate director Atesh Sonneborn.
We spoke with Sonneborn about the making of this landmark record—and what makes it special.
Who was Alain Daniélou, and how did he go about making this recording?
Most of the recordings that went into this tribute, which was re-released after Daniélou’s death, were made between 1950 and 1955. Daniélou was a singer and a dancer, went to South Asia with a friend and fell deeply in love with the arts and philosophy of India, particularly the underlying metaphysics of Shaivism. In his book, Gods of Love and Ecstasy, he connected Shiva and Dionysus as being essentially the same, springing from the same ground. He was disappointed in what he saw of modernity growing up in France and just drank in, in great draughts, this culture that he was now immersed in. He found his way to people like Rabindranath Tagore and was introduced to the circle of people who were promoting Indian identity beyond colonialism.
Daniélou went on to get involved with UNESCO to make this monumental collection, which grew to well over 100 albums of music recorded from all over the world, at the village level, in field contexts, working with many people who had lots of deep expertise and passion. I think the keyword about Daniélou is his passion for life and the arts.
Daniélou had great taste—[discovering] not only [Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan] as exemplars of Indian classical music, but also Indian village-level folk music. The great South Asian classical traditions and folk traditions all came in Daniélou’s purview. He was sociable, outgoing. People responded to him, and the standard way of finding great music is asking around.
How did this music become popular in the West?
France has been a very important gateway for nonwestern musics to make their way into western awareness. UNESCO’s headquarters is in Paris, and there’s a significant community of producers and concertgoers in Paris and all over France who would have embraced this. Germany and England all had substantive audiences for South Asian music already. By the time this came out, there was also a circuit in North America, at least in Canada and the U.S.
In the early 1960s, I was a kid, and some of these UNESCO titles made their way into my house because of family interest. My parents had some interest in music from all over the place, and there was a great radio station in Chicago that introduced various world musics. These things were like windows to a completely different world view than I was able to observe or experience at the time. Daniélou had already brought Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan to the West in the early 1950s and introduced them to English, French and American audiences. This was a really important gateway for the beginning of interest beyond the work that Moe Asch was already doing [at Folkways], which was making its way into schools and libraries, into a more public appreciation.
Where can you hear the influence of Indian classical music in Western music?
What are some highlights of this album?
Track 209, “Tirmana,” starts out with a fine illustration of how one musician communicates to others about rhythm in South Asian music. Track 306, “Varnam,” is quite approachable for a Western ear, and perhaps a better illustration than the Ravi Shankar/Ali Akbar Khan example.
What appeals to me about this album is it’s a great reflection of Daniélou’s curiosity, his voracious hunger for knowledge. “Tip of the iceberg” would not be a bad phrase to describe this particular album. There’s a lot more coming from the UNESCO collection.
December 16, 2013
There aren’t many biological specimens that require the use of a gantry lift and the labor of eight people just to be moved. But even before a massive, extremely rare North Atlantic right whale skeleton arrived at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center to join the Natural History Museum’s collections last month, it was clear that it was no ordinary specimen: Apparently, during the drive down from Massachusetts on an open trailer, the bones prompted some bystanders to call the police, reporting they’d seen a dinosaur skeleton being driven down the highway.
“Right whales are an extreme, in many ways: They’re enormous, they’re very beautiful, they’re charismatic and they’re critically endangered,” said Charles Potter, who manages the museum’s marine mammal collections, after leading the operation to lift the massive specimen from the trailer to a warehouse in Suitland, Maryland, that houses hundreds of whale specimens. “This is the first complete whale from this species to enter our collection, so it’s really a milestone for us.”
The whale, which died in 2010, was a male nicknamed “Tips” because of the scars on the tips of its flukes. Tips was one of roughly 400 surviving North Atlantic right whales, which are among the most endangered of all whale species. It was first sighted and catalogued by New England Aquarium Right Whale Group in 1980, and had since been sighted around 75 times. Researchers knew Tips well for his unusual behaviors—he was particularly curious about boats, at times swimming circles around research vessels in the Bay of Fundy while blowing bubbles underwater.
“I’ve been hoping to get a complete specimen from this species since I’ve been here,” Potter says. “But on the other hand, it’s sort of melancholy.”
Tips was found dead, floating offshore of Cape May tangled in fishing equipment. Over the past few decades, an estimated 11 percent of the deaths of this species have occurred as a result of this threat.
Although there are programs in place to rescue tangled whales, for Tips, it was too late. “When we found it, there was rope wrapped around the whale and around its beak,” said Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, who performed a necropsy on the animal at the time of its death and has facilitated its donation to the Smithsonian. “By the time we pulled it ashore, the rope had washed off, but there was plenty of evidence of long-term entanglement that involved both flippers, the head and the jaw.”
For three years, after the specimen had been cleaned and prepared by Tom French of the Massachusetts Department of Fish & Game, its identity was unknown. “Up until about three weeks ago it was a John Doe whale, a cold case,” Moore said. “We didn’t know who it was.”
Eventually, though, Philip Hamilton of New England Aquarium closed the case. While looking at photos of the carcass, “I found one image taken by the Coast Guard that showed some distinctive scars on a fluke tip that had been overlooked,” he writes on the aquarium’s blog. “I knew those scars. With a sinking feeling, I called up comparable images from the catalog and had my suspicions confirmed—those marks belonged to an old friend, Tips.” A subsequent genetic comparison between tissue samples taken from Tips during his life and after his death confirmed the identification.
By entering the Smithsonian research collections, Tips can help researchers reduce similar deaths in the future. “The diagnosis of dead animals can enable us to mitigate the mortality factors that are driving these animals towards extinction,” Moore said. Analysis of the skeleton, for instance, has already revealed bone breaks and scarring that were missed during the initial autopsy.
Other sorts of research will help scientists better understand other aspects of the species that might help ensure its survival. Genetic testing on this specimen and others will allow researchers to figure out which individuals parented which calves, ultimately constructing models of the species’ biodiversity. Anatomical analysis, meanwhile, could provide information on the whales’ still poorly-understood auditory system, and perhaps indicate why noise from ships has been shown to increase stress in the species.
“This is such a critically endangered species,” Potter said. “It’s crucial for us to have an idea about how these animals make a living, how they’ve evolved and how they’re affected by human activities.”
December 13, 2013
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.” And just as Lewis Carroll took license with the word, making Alice’s wonderland world “curiouser and curiouser,” the National Museum of Natural History, has coined a new version— Q?rius.
“It’s like a highly secure password,” says Shari Werb, the museum’s assistant director for education and outreach. “It’s a word that makes you stop, and try to decode. By then, you’re curious.”
The name marks a new 10,000-square-food education space that is packed with stuff that kids (and adults, too) can pick-up, smell, squeeze, and otherwise analyze. Some 6,000 specimens—fossils and plants and minerals and even human bones—from the collections are housed in a setting that the museum is calling “part lab, part collections vault, part DIY garage and part hangout.” It features a lab with high-tech microscopes and problem-solving projects, a 100-seat theater for lectures, films and live-feeds from scientific field stations around the world, a loft for just hanging out and socializing, a collections area where objects and specimens can be examined, and a studio classroom for workshops and other activities. All the activities can be logged into a personalized digital repository that approximates a scientist’s notebook, complete with notes, drawings and observations.
And the preparation that went into creating Q?rius was actually kid-tested and kid-approved. One of the members of the exhibit’s Youth Advisory Board, 18-year-old Olivia Persons, who recently was awarded George Washington University’s prestigious Trachtenberg scholarship, was on hand to explain her role.
So you worked here four hours a week? What kinds of things did you do?
Four hours a week, for about a couple of months, working on the space. I work on a lot of design problems and the activities. We helped develop ways that Q?rius can reach out to teens—to actually reach out to our friends. My participation was very thorough. It’s not just one specific thing, or aspect of the Q?rius center, we worked over all.
Did you have any “Aha!” moments?
Definitely. The technology that’s used in the space, my Aha! moment was seeing it come to life. It’s way different on paper, our web designers were telling us how they were going to do this or that. To actually see the results on a computer screen was completely exciting, all of it relevant and accessible.
What’s your field of study?
At George Washington University, I’m majoring in biological anthropology. That is because of the Smithsonian. If not for the Smithsonian, I don’t know where I’d be or what I’d be studying.
Is there a question you’d like to pursue in science?
That’s a good question, I’ve never been asked that before. I’m definitely thinking about that.
Biological anthropology? What is that, and how did you come to that from this experience?
Biological anthropology is the study of humans, evolution and our relations to apes and monkeys. Biological anthropology came from my experience working at the National Zoo, and the Hall of Human Origins. My interest in anthropology had to do with the lab here where they do cases where they try to identify a person through their bones, very much like the TV show “Bones.”
And you’ve done that?
So tell me about the Lab area. I understand you can handle the bones. What did the bones tell you?
There was one case that turned out to be an African slave who died in rural Virginia. I remember being so excited that you could actually determine if the skeleton belonged to a male or female just by looking at the bones. You know, take away the flesh, the skin and the hair. Also we could figure out and learn, just from her bones, that she was a slave.
From the bones, a slave, how could you tell that?
This lab represents all kinds of anthropology, biological anthropology but also cultural anthropology. They have some cultural items that represent the person who was murdered. So in my example of the African slave, the cultural anthropology was represented by beads that were used as currency in Africa. We were able to narrow down when she was a slave, the time period, and the fact that she had these shells or beads that were used as currency.
And you could tell it was once a girl, or a woman, what told you that?
The pelvic bone.
Interesting. Did you determine her age?
Yes, we did. From the teeth.
The teeth told you her age?
At certain times in a person’s life, the molars and teeth, in general, will come out at a certain time. If you see where the teeth are embedded in the gum, you are able to determine the age.
Now that you’re a student at GW, are you going to continue volunteering here?
I would love to, especially since it’s four metro stops away. I live so close to the museum now, I have no excuse not to.
Let’s say you have a friend who has absolutely no interest in science, who has never been to the museum, ever, and you bring them in here. What are you going to show them first? Would you bring them to Q?rius?
I do that all the time. I bring friends to Q?rius. I would definitely start off here. It shows the depth of the museum.
Q?rius actually gives visitors a peek, an introduction to every thing in the museum, this is the first time that kids can get a sense of what goes on behind the scenes. That’s what I stress to my friends. There are collections along the walls, in these drawers, showing how much research and science is happening at the museum. There is so, so much more here than what is on display.
Yes, and in most museums you are not allowed to touch. This whole place is so tactile.
Exactly. That’s another reason why this lab is my favorite part of Q?rius. Everything is very technological in here. It’s great, because students love that. This lab is my favorite part because it just grabs you, it’s just you and the bones, and a guide to make sure you’re on the right track. You can see the people here: they are all smiling, happy to be here. I think it’s a good opportunity; most teens do not get a close, personal encounter with bones.
What have you seen kids do when they first hold a human bone in their hand? Are they grossed out or weirdly fascinated?
I know what I did when I held my first human bone.
What did you do?
I was so excited, I was flipping out.
Did you smell it?
No I did not!
Did you hold it firmly or loose in your hand? Were you squeamish? Did you think “Ewww”?
No, because of all the shows like “Bones, “NCIS,” everything is on TV. It was so cool to put a story, a face around it, or at least try. This is what’s inside all of us, this is our skeleton. Very, very science-y. That’s how I would put it.
Q?rius, a new permanent exhibition is now open for business on the ground floor of the Natural History Museum, from 10 to 2 on weekdays and all day during the weekends.
December 12, 2013
As anyone who has ever taken tap or ballet knows, timing is essential. You need to start on the right foot and step off when everyone else does. Rhythm counts, too.
The exhibition “Dancing the Dream” currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, explains how timing in a larger sense was crucial to the evolution of dance as America’s culture in motion. For the past century, the fleeting nature of dance has brilliantly reflected America’s life and times in captured “moments.” Examples include the work of Loie Fuller, who danced barefoot and nearly-naked as she interpreted the “New Woman” in the early 20th century, and Russian greats Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who sought artistic freedom here during the Cold War and electrified the American dance world.
Timing and media technology are inextricably linked in our constantly changing culture, and dance is a fascinating illumination of this connection. Iconic dancers from Josephine Baker to Beyoncé trace the cultural shift from live performance to viral videos, but choreographers have also shaped the cultural landscape.
Recently, my attention has been focused on the work of Bob Fosse. A new biography Fosse by film critic Sam Wasson narrates the choreographer’s creative journey from postwar Broadway through movies and television in post-Watergate America—decades that began with an optimistic sense of unity and ended with a drumbeat of cultural dissolve.
Wasson, author of the best-selling Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, depicts Fosse as a modern master of dance. Timing—gritty, intricate, and aggressive—was his choreographic signature.
Growing up in Chicago, Fosse had a tap dance act that he performed in burlesque houses. His mother thought that nothing untoward would affect him because he was a “good boy.” As it happened, the strippers proved not only fond companions but also stamped Fosse’s work with a lasting appreciation for sleaze. His choreography always reverberated with a cock-of-the-walk intensity and a style that radiated edginess: fingers snapped, shoulders rolled, hips swiveled and dancers strutted.
Fosse’s first Broadway hit was the 1954 Pajama Game, whose big number, “Steam Heat,” featured dancers jerking, bobbing and otherwise comporting like parts of a plumbing system. Over the next 20 years, he became a leading Broadway choreographer with such successes as Sweet Charity in 1955 and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying in 1961. Verging off into movies and television, he created the ground-breaking 1972 movie musical Cabaret, which won eight Academy Awards (including a Best Director Oscar for Fosse), and the 1972 NBC special “Liza with a Z,” which won him an Emmy.
Surprisingly, Fosse’s life-long hero was the elegant, gentlemanly Fred Astaire. Wasson describes how Astaire wowed him even more when he effortlessly toe-tapped a nail lying on the ground—he simply “flicked his foot, and ping!—the nail was in the air and then careening off the sound-stage wall with the force of a rifle shot.” After Astaire floated away, Fosse tried to duplicate the “ping” sound, but after dozens of kicks, Wasson notes, he was still Bob Fosse.
Fosse’s most important partner was Gwen Verdon, his third wife and a strong influence on the evolution of his dance style. A renowned dancer herself, she was instrumental in persuading him to create the 1975 Chicago, a story originally derived from the actual trials of two Chicago women who were both acquitted of murder in 1924. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book, direction and choreography by Fosse, Chicago starred Verdon as one of the murderers, Roxie Hart and Chita Rivera as the other, Velma Kelly.
Wasson thinks it was the perfectly timed cultural moment for Chicago to become a smash hit: in the wake of President Nixon’s resignation, the show echoed the country’s cynicism. New York Times critic Walter Kerr called it “deliberately seedy” and filled with “wicked chorus girls” costumed in black netting and spiked heels. He decried its “aura of doomsday,” and regretted that it substituted raunchiness for heart. But people flocked to the box office, and the show ran for 936 performances.
Kander and Ebb’s score included “All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango,” “When You’re Good to Mama,” “We Both Reached for the Gun,” “Razzle Dazzle,” and “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag.” Fosse brought their score to life with a choreography that was in-your-face sinister and brassy. He lived as hard as the dances he created, and he died of a heart attack in 1987. The lyrics for “All That Jazz” suited:
Come on, babe
Why don’t we paint the town?
And all that jazz….
Come on, babe
We’re gonna brush the sky
I betcha Lucky Lindy
Never flew so high
‘Cause in the stratosphere
How could he lend an ear
To all that jazz?
December 10, 2013
Schools throughout the Washington, D.C. region and the Federal government are shut down today due to a winter snow storm. But for any parent wondering what to do with the kids today, the Smithsonian museums will be open despite the winter storm. The Smithsonian Institution announced that only the Zoo will be closed today due to the snow. All of the museums on the National Mall, as well as the Anacostia Community Museum and the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum will open their doors to the public today. Hours for operation can be found here.