And the Music Goes Round and Round
If I didn’t listen to NPR, I’d still be in the dark about the Harlem Shake. Apparently everyone else in the country has been doing it and watching (by the millions) YouTube videos of office workers, senior citizens, stadiums filled with people and other assorted groups break into the dance set to a song by Baauer. There’s even a video of a washing machine doing the Harlem Shake.
When I heard about this “phenomenon” (I hesitate to call anything a phenomenon these days without putting the word in quotes, as the entire world seems filled with rampant peculiarities), I did what I always do: I looked it up on Wikipedia. There are three entries: one for the dance, one for the song and one for the meme. The entry for the song notes, “Not to be confused with Harlem Shake (meme). Of course not.
In any event, Wikipedia describes the song as incorporating “an undulating synth, harsh snares, a mechanical bass line and samples of growling-lion sounds.”
That brings to mind the unusual instruments I recently saw at Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park. The museum has an exhibition running through July 28 titled Make Your Own Kind of Music. One display shows Kithara I (shown above) — an instrument made of wood, metal and Pyrex made in 1972 by Harry Partch. It has 72 strings (12 sets of six). According to the exhibition information, Partch influenced the music of Frank Zappa and Tom Waits and lived in San Diego in the early 1970s. These two bits of information intrigued me, so I did what I always do: I looked him up on Wikipedia. The entry for Harry Partch notes, “Not to be confused with Harry Patch. Of course not.
Partch is indeed an intriguing fellow with a fascinating history. And when he invented instruments, he gave them appropriately inventive names like Quadrangularis Reversum, which sounds to me like the name of galaxy on Star Trek; Zymo-Xyl, which sounds to me like the name of a drug one might see advertised on television; and Mazda Marimba, which sounds to me like the name of a martini.
When I read that the latter instrument is made of Mazda light bulbs, I thought of the car headlights, but Wikipedia has an entry for Mazda light bulbs too, which, oddly, doesn’t note, “Not to be confused with Mazda car headlights.”
I learned that Mazda was a trade name given to incandescent bulbs by General Electric and subsequently was also used by Westinghouse, which advertised the bulbs with paintings by Maxfield Parrish. Wikipedia also informs us that Mazda lamps were Felix the Cat’s choice of car headlights in a 1925 cartoon (so, you see, my confusion has historical backing).
But, circling back to the Kithara I, displayed on the same platform was a theremin. I now wonder if Baauer’s “undulating synth” came from a theremin. Wikipedia is silent on the matter.
It’s amazing how much one can learn not only from NPR and Wikipedia, but also just from exploring their community and experiencing public events. I had not gone to the Mingei specifically to see Kithara I or the theremin, but they were both fitting in that what had brought me there was my appreciation for another music innovator: Astor Piazzolla. The local Camarada chamber music organization was at the museum to perform Tango Nuevo, a program of Piazzolla music.
With his musical talent and love for dissonance, I wonder what Piazzolla could have done with Kithara I or the theremin. And I wonder why Baauer didn’t mix in a little Piazzolla with his “Harlem Shake, the song.”