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Saturday, October 19, 2013

(Dirty) Maggie May

I was a bit secretive some time ago about my new research project. I'll be more open now: it's the phenomenon of the shanty choir. A phenomenon hugely popular in the Netherlands and Germany, as this little map of the membership of the International  Shanty and Seasong Association shows:


Basically the phenomenon consists of male singers gathering once a week, singing shanties and seasongs, and occasionally performing, mostly in some kind of uniform. The main question in my research is, as usual, Clifford Geertz' question: "What the hell is going on here?" I want to figure out why shanty choirs are so abundant, what it brings their members, their audiences, and eventually what this might learn me, the conservatoire where I work, and the professional musicians trained there, about what music does with people.

I was listening to a shanty CD, and heard a German shanty choir perform the famous song 'Maggie May'. No no, not Rod Stewart's song, but this one. For some explanation I of course first consulted Wikipedia; then realizing that the story of the song reminds me of many other songs, including New York Girls.

But on hearing the song I was of course also reminded of the Beatles' version of the song, beginning with Lennon singing in his most Liverpudlian voice "Oh, Dirty Maggie Mae, they have taken her away...".

Which reminded me of the tendency of songs to become less and less explicit as they become more known - the 'dirty' is dropped when a German shantychoir sings "Maggie May". Or was it an addition by the Beatles? Something to find out. Let's call sir Paul one of these days.

Which reminded me of the Dutch song "Daar was laatst een meisje loos..." (loads of versions on YouTube, but also check out lots of recordings of people singing this song at the Dutch folksong database "De Nederlandse Liederenbank"), a song which - as so many Dutch folk songs - ended up as a children's song; an innocent school song about a girl who dresses up as a boy to go to sea.  Most school teachers teaching the song to our kids probably don't realise that this actually was rather an explicit song - the girl had to 'climb into the mast' (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more, know what I mean?) and ends up coming home pregnant and marrying the captain of the boat.

Just that you know how much fun I am having with this new research topic of mine...

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Secret of André Rieu

I hope you know who André Rieu is - if not, just check YouTube. I wrote about him before, because I like to try to understand why other people like other music than I do, and Rieu for me is a good field to examine this. And also I like occasionally to mention his name in the conservatoire where I work, just to check the reactions of my colleagues (horror, concern - "Do you feel alright?", the assumption that I am sarcastic; but also sometimes sheer admiration).

But I am not the only one who is curious. In Maastricht (Rieu comes from that area, I remember being taught by one of his brothers when I studied at the Maastricht Conservatoire, and his father was conductor of the local symphony orchestra and one of the music tycoons there), in Maastricht - as I was starting to say - there is a group of researchers who will study Rieu the coming few years. The project is called"The secret of André Rieu", and they present themselves to the general public as the "Rieu Academy".

They have at least learnt something from Rieu's PR-machine. "This research project will bring together art, science, cultural history and the Rieu-audience", the Rieu Academy writes in an announcement for an afternoon where they will discuss Rieu's work, stating that this, "our first performance" (!), will deepen the experience of Rieu's concert visitors.

So what are they going to research? I quote: how do Rieu, his orchestra, his musical guests and his choice of repertoire contribute to bridging the gap between 'low' and 'high' culture? How does Rieu popularize classical music? What is he doing with it? How does he revive old songs, nearly vanished from our collective memory? What is the contribution of the attire of the orchestra members , how do the special effects work, when does he move the listeners?

Mildly interesting, I would say. I would never start any research based on ideas about a gap between 'low' and 'high' culture. I mean: project those terms in your questions and rest assured that they will boomerang back on you in the conclusions. "Mind the gap", the English say - "Avoid the gap" would, in this case, be more fitting.

Elsewhere I read that one of the questions is whether Rieu's success can be replicated by someone else in the future. Hardly a question, I guess. The answer is "Yes, if that someone else is André Rieu and the future cirumstances are the same as the current circumstances". Annoying, those social scientists who still want to figure out whether history is repeatable or not, and whether or not mankind is a machine.

And in yet another place, about Rieu's waltzes: "The dance is one of the most ancient sources of music. Folk music actually is nothing else then dance music."

I don't think there is much hope for this research project.