Playing the Conch: A Skill from Ancient Times

While people may be familiar with holding a conch shell up to their ear to hear the ocean, they may be surprised to learn that it is an important musical instrument for many ancient cultures, such as in South America, Southern Asia, and on the Pacific Islands.

A GIFT FROM THE SEA

A conch is the shell of a large sea snail and the shape makes it perfectly suited to be used as a musical instrument. The shells are a long and spiral shape with a tapered tip called a spire. When the spire is removed, the shells can be used as wind instruments by blowing through the hole.

Because each conch shell is unique, they all provide a slightly different sound.  Generally, the sound of a conch is loud and dramatic, however it has also been described as having an eerie quality. An experienced player can produce a variety of sounds from the shell.  The shape of the mouth, called the embouchure, controls the pitch of the sound. The sound can also be modified by putting a hand into the hole of the shell.

STANDING THE TEST OF TIME

Conch shells have been used since ancient times and have been a mainstay in religious ceremonies. The durability of the shells have allowed scientists to study these early instruments. In 2018, scientists discovered a 3,000-year-old conch instrument at a pre-Inca religious site in Peru. Conch shells have also been located at an ancient ceremonial center in the Andes, which were well-preserved with painted and etched symbols.

Modern technology allows scientists to emulate how the conch may have been heard and used in ancient times. In Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, scientists calculated how sound waves would transmit in the specific, physical environment in the canyon. They determined that 1,000 years ago, the sound produced by a conch could be heard for 1.5 kilometers.

TEST YOUR CONCH SKILLS

If you think you have what it takes to be a conch musician, consider attending the annual conch-playing contest in the Florida Keys.

Maddale: The Perfect Percussion Back-Up Singer

Karnatak and traditional South Indian music have a heavy emphasis on the beat.

With a great selection of drums all coming from the mridangam family of percussion instruments, there are a lot of options to choose from.

Maddales are double-sided drums that are similar to other popular drums in the region like the pakhavaj. But this one is special because players can hit the right tone regardless of where they hit on the surface.

Who Plays Maddale Drums?

Maddales are the primary percussion instrument in Yakshagana ensembles. Yakshagana ensembles play music in a form of traditional theatre from India’s Kannada districts. The musical ensemble in Yakshagana performances are called the himmela, and they play as the mummela dance or talk. Himmelas include the lead singer, or bhagawata, and people playing various instruments including the maddale, a pipe called the pungi, and the harmonium. Some groups also play chande, or loud South Indian drums.

What Do Maddale Drums Look Like?

Maddales are double-sided drums that look like barrels. Made from jackfruit wood like a lot of their cousin percussion instruments, maddales also have drum heads made from goatskin and are covered in leather straps that can adjust and tune the maddale. Each drum head is shaped slightly differently so one produces a deeper sound than the other. The left-hand side produces the deeper sound, and the right-hand side includes a circular disk — called a karne — that produces harmonic sounds when the drum head is tapped.

What Makes Them Different from Mridangam?

If you’ve been researching different types of drums from South India, a maddale might sound a lot like a mridangam. The difference is the tonality: maddales can produce more complex sounds. The karne harmonic disc also makes the maddale sound very different from the mridangam. Maddales are also specifically tuned to align with the bhagawata’s, or the Yakshagana singer’s voice before every performance.

Ghatam: Ancient Drum with a Renewed Future

The ghatam is an ancient percussion instrument consisting of a clay pot reinforced with brass, copper and iron fillings.

Some players are so dedicated to ensuring a pure sound from the ghatam that they play with their shirts off in order to avoid dampening the sound.

Different from Other Drums

The ghatam is unique compared to other drums as it doesn’t have any type of membrane placed over the mouth of the drum. Instead, the ghatam players place the drum against their stomach. The surface of the drum is tapped, and the pitch and resonance are changed by applying different amounts of pressure against the stomach.

The drum produces a metallic sound and the pitch of the drum will vary depending on its size.

Preserving History

Ghatams are incredibly ancient with a long history in the Carnatic music tradition. The drums are predominantly made in three locations in South India: Devanahalli, Chennai, and Manamadurai. The Manamadurai ghatam drums are believed to be sturdier and to have a unique metallic sound.

There is only one family in Manamadurai that has been making the ghatam for the last century. U.V.K. Ramesh gave up a job in Singapore in 2000 to return to Manamadurai to continue the family tradition of ghatam-making. Ramesh, along with his mother, are the only two master ghatam makers in the region. Ramesh’s mother, Meenakshi, was awarded the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2014 for her ghatam-making skill before passing away in 2017.

The art of ghatam-making is likely waning because it isn’t a highly profitable business. The family supports itself by making other clay products that are sold at a local market. To help the family’s continued commitment to the ghatam, a member of the India Foundation for the Arts started an online funding campaign. These additional funds have allowed them to experiment with using an electric kiln while creating the ghatam.

The global campaign raised almost $8,000 thanks to a number of prominent musicians and artists sharing the cause. The global support allowed the family to manufacture a modernized, custom kiln. This outpouring of support will allow the ghatam to be modernized for the future while preserving its legacy of the past.

Electronic Tanpura: Prioritizing Practicality

The tanpura is an Indian string instrument that provides a supporting acoustic sound.

Playing the tanpura requires a certain amount of grace and skill. The electronic tanpura, on the other hand, makes tanpura music accessible to even the most rudimentary player – by turning it into a machine resembling a boom box.

From Musicality to Practicality

The traditional tanpura is a large instrument that is generally played from a seated position. It requires a skill to position the instrument and pluck the strings in the appropriate rhythms. It provides the backbone of much Indian classical music.

The electronic tanpura makes it much easier to keep the beat. This instrument was first invented by G. Raj Narayan in the 1970’s. The device was first demonstrated at the Music Academy Chennai in 1979 and manufactured by Narayan’s company, Radel Advanced Technology.

Technological Transformation

The electronic tanpura has evolved with the technology of the time:

  • In the 1970s it was made using discrete components and transistors;
  • In the 1990s it used sampled recordings on a chip;
  • In the 2000s, mobile apps were created;
  • In 2016, the Sonic Arts Research Center of Queen’s University Belfast created a mathematical model representing a physics-based synthesis of the instrument; and
  • In 2018, the mathematical model was developed into the Android app Pocket Shruti Box whose reviews indicate it is a very useful app for students learning Carnatic music.

The consistent innovation around the instrument show that it serves a valuable purpose for the Indian musical community. While it isn’t a match for the art of the original tanpura, prioritizing convenience over quality, it continues to offer a number of benefits, including its lower cost, easy portability, and straightforward use.

If you’d like to try your hand at one of the many electronic variations of the tanpura, you can test your skills with the Tanpura Drone Generator.

 

Duitara: Folk Instrument of Meghalaya

Very little is known about the history of the duitara, a guitar-like stringed instrument found in northern India.

Thanks to its broadening appeal in the region, however, the duitara is becoming the folk instrument of choice for performers from all walks of life.

Basic Construction

The duitara features a narrow, hollow body constructed from hardwood and covered with dried animal skin. There may be one or more small sound holes near the center of the body. Four strings attached to tuning pegs at the top of the long neck are plucked using a wooden plectrum during performances. Duitaras are often homemade, allowing craftsmen to add some unique design touches to their instruments.

Where It’s Played

The rhythmic plucking of duitara strings is frequently heard in Meghalaya, a hilly state in northern India. Men and women of the indigenous Khasi tribe play the duitara while singing or accompanying traditional ballads. Other popular instruments in the region include the bamboo besli flute and the mieng, a type of bamboo mouth harp. Like other types of folk music throughout the world, traditional Khasi music is handed down through the generations, with constant, repetitive practice required to master the songs.

How It’s Played

Duitara players typically incorporate one of a few rhythms that match those used for the ksing, a traditional Khasi drum. Although the duitara is played extensively throughout the Khasi community, there is not a standard method for tuning the instrument. Typical finger techniques used on the neck include slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.

Broadening Appeal

Although it was originally played in the home by elderly family members, the duitara has become widely popular throughout Khasi society. You may find the duitara used in weddings, religious ceremonies, and secular settings. Professional musicians, vegetable vendors, and everyone in between can become skilled duitara players.

The duitara is one of many stringed instruments favored in Meghalaya. Along with the duitara, the maryngod, marynthing, and saitar help make up the unique musical works of the Khasi people.

Venus Of Willendorf

Believed to have been made in 30,000 BCE, the Venus of Willendorf is a tiny sculpture with a massive history. 

Found on August 7th, 1908, the sculpture gives historians and archeologists an inside look into some of the traditions and beliefs of early man. 

A Limestone Sculpture

Venus of Willendorf stands at 11.1 centimeters tall, or just about 4.4 inches. The figurine was discovered during excavations conducted by archaeologists Hugo Obermaier, Josef Szombathy, and Josef Bayer. 

The figure doesn’t have a visible face, but her head is covered with a kind of headdress or rows of plaited hair. 

It’s believed that the figure was carved during the European Upper Paleolithic, often referred to as the “Old Stone Age”. Stratigraphy of the site in which the figure was discovered suggests that it was made between 28,000 BCE and 25,000 BCE, making the figure nearly 30,000 years older than any person alive today!

You can see the figurine for yourself at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. 

The Purpose Of The Figurine

This isn’t the first statuette to depict a nude woman. In fact, similar figures discovered in the 1800s and 1900s were referred to as “Venus figurines”.

Of course, figurines like this one predate the mythology of Venus by thousands of years. Because of this, you may find that scholars, archeologists, and art historians refer to the figure as the “Woman of” or “Woman from Willendorf”. 

There isn’t much more known about the figure’s origins, though, both in how it was created and what kind of significance it may have held at the time of its creation. 

One hypothesis behind the creation of the piece comes from Catherine McCoid and LeRoy McDermott. The two believe that these figurines may have been self-portraits. This follows the idea that some of the proportions may have come from women looking down at themselves, as this would have been the only way to view their bodies at the time. 

However, the theory has been criticized by those who say that pools of water could have been used as “mirrors”. 

Upper Paleolithic Art

Venus of Willendorf isn’t the only example of Upper Paleolithic art that you can see today. 

This form of art is the oldest known to man and is present in Europe and Indonesia. Both figurative and non-figurative cave paintings date back as far as 40,000 years. 

The study of this artwork has been used to theorize upon the behavioral characteristics of those humans living at the time. 

European Upper Paleolithic rock, such as Venus of Willendorf, includes such things as cave paintings, jewelry, drawings, carvings, engravings, and sculptures. These were typically made out of such things as: 

  • Clay
  • Bone
  • Antler
  • Ivory
  • Stone

A Key To The Past

As we continue to learn more about the Venus of Willendorf, we’ll continue learning more about humanity’s past – and the ways in which art played a part in everyday life.

Discobolus, Myron – Sculpture

Often known as “The Discus Thrower”, the Discobolus of Myron is a classic, widely recognizable Greek sculpture. 

Created between 460-450 BC, the original sculpture has been lost to time. However, a variety of Roman copies in both bronze and marble have allowed generations to witness the beauty of the piece. 

A Long, Legendary History 

The Discobolus of Myron is attributed to Myron of Eleutherae, an Athenian sculptor from the mid 5th century BC. 

The first-ever copy of the sculpture was discovered around 1781. Dating back to the 1st century AD, the copy was discovered at a Roman property in the Villa Palombara on the Esquiline Hill. It was restored by Giuseppe Angelini and then installed at the Massimo family’s Palazzo Massimo all Colonne.

Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista Visconti identified the sculpture as a copy from the original, making it instantly famous. 

In 1938, Adolf Hitler negotiated to purchase the statue. Galeazzo Ciano sold it to him for five million lire, much to the disappointment of Italy’s community of scholars. However, it was returned to Italy in 1948, and can now be found in the National Museum of Rome, displayed at the Palazzo Massimo. 

https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/rome-domes-roof-tops-next-national-83107249

An Homage To Athleticism

According to art historian Kenneth Clark, “Myron has created the enduring pattern of athletic energy. He has taken a moment of action so transitory that students of athletics still debate if it is feasible, and he has given it the completeness of a cameo.” 

This moment is captured in an example of “rhythmos”, a greek term for harmony and balance. 

https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/classical-white-marble-statue-naked-discus-27766648

Because of the fluidity of this and several other of his works, Myron is credited with being one of the first – if not the first – sculptors to master this particular style. 

A Classical Sculpture

“Discobolus” is an example of Classical Archaic sculpture. The Archaic period, which is thought to have run from the 8th to the early 5th century BC, moved into classical sculpture through advancements like the ones seen in Discobolus. 

Though the bodies of these sculptures were idealized, there was still a level of naturalism that was adhered to throughout classical pieces. This is certainly the case with “Discobolus”, as the subject twists his torso to ramp up for the discus throw. 

Myron Of Eleutherae

Born in Eleutherae, Myron produced most of his work in bronze. Most of his fame was attributed to his presentations of athletes, including the famous “Discobolus” sculpture. 

He’s known for having revolutionized the representation of these athletes, introducing bold poses and potential energy too much of his work. 

Besides “Discobolus”, some of Myron’s most famous work includes a statue of Minerva or Athena, a statue of Hercules, and a statue of Apollo for the city of Ephesus. 

A Statue Of Grace And Energy 

A gorgeous representation of classical work, Myron’s “Discobolus” features many of the innovations that would transform Hellenistic sculptures. If you have the chance to see the copy of “Discobolus” at the National Museum of Rome, you should definitely take some time to see the sculpture in person!

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate

Anish Kapoor is an Indian-born artist with multiple sculptures, paintings, and other artworks to his name.

Perhaps the most famous artwork he had ever created is Cloud Gate. Never heard of it? Sure you have! You probably just call it “Chicago’s Bean.”

The Bean

Cloud Gate is referred to as the Bean because of its overt, bean-like shape when viewed from a lateral angle. However, the colloquial title, The Bean, doesn’t captivate the essence of the artwork nearly as well as Cloud Gate.

Anish Kapoor designed and built Cloud Gate between the years of 2004 and 2006 in Millenium Park, Chicago, where it remains as of 2019. Day or night, the 168 steel plates that compose the exterior of the structure mingle with the light of the city.

The purpose of this rather ambitious steel sculpture is 42 feet wide, 66 feet long, and 32 feet high. At all times, the polished, metallic finish reflects the light of the city, acting as a gate to both the clouds and the concrete jungle surrounding it.

The Origins of the Gate

Cloud Gate was intended to be more than a simple gate welcoming people to the park while blending into the structures of an archway, fence, etcetera. Instead, this piece took the form of a massive metallic structure that wrapped the clouds, city, and sky together in one simple stroke.

Kapoor wanted Cloud Gate to be more than that, more than the traditional, humdrum landscaping ornament that goes unnoticed in a public space, a role into which almost all gates and entryways fall today.

With the creation of a massive, steel structure that manipulates the Sun, stars, and the sky while creating the illusion that the viewers can simply walk right up into them, Kappor did just that.

One out of Two Proposals

In 1999, two proposals were sent before the planning committee for Millenium Park. The park might have had an entirely different look with a stranger and more peculiar feel had this “futuristic” steel bean not been chosen for construction in the park.

Pitched on a budget of $6 million, construction of Cloud Gate would go on to more than triple that, with the final cost of production weighing in at more than $18 million.

More of Kapoor

Although when people think of Anish Kapoor they think of the “Bean,” he has created multiple prominent public art displays each with a unique sense of import and smooth styling that plays with unity and light in an interesting manner.

One such piece is Kapoor’s Sky Mirror, a polished stainless-steel mirror almost exactly 35 feet in diameter. This piece accomplished much of what Cloud Gate accomplished, but was only on display for just over a month.

Conclusion

One of the greatest living contemporaries, at least in terms of fame and success, Anish Kapoor continues to surprise us by creating ingenious works of art that brilliantly capture the power of the sky, the turbulence of the clouds, and the human yearning for elevation and spirituality.

Louise Bourgeois – Spider

The motif of spiders was more than just an eight-legged arachnid capable of feats of incredible strength given its size.

To Louise Bourgeois, the spider was a symbol of her mother, a powerful, strong, caretaker as ready to protect as to weave a web of support for her daughter.

. To Louise Bourgeois, the spider was a symbol of her mother, a powerful, strong, caretaker as ready to protect as to weave a web of support for her daughter.

Maman (1999)

The image of the spider as a positive influence first appeared in the work of Louis Bourgeois in the 1940s. Bourgois saw the spider as a sort of guardian figure, as powerful as it was mistaken by society.

That power is demonstrated in the massive size of the Maman, crafter from bronze, marble, and stainless steel. More than 30 feet high, Maman towers over all who approach it, filling viewers with a sense of proportion capable of dwarfing the strongest person and making them feel weak, yet secure.

While this sculpture bears the universal image of the spider, occupying the form of the sculpture, the essence is much more deeply personal than that, probing into the psychology of the collective unconscious.

If you wish to see this enormous sculpture on display, head to the Long Museum in Shanghai China. The Maman was moved there in 2018 and remains as of 2019.

A Mother’s Love

Louis Bourgeois was strikingly close to her mother, in part because of the terrifying childhood she had and the protection afforded to her by her mother. Bourgeois was born in Paris, France, in 1911, and would have first been forming memories when the Germans began to invade in 1914.

The German military poured over the borders into France in the end of 1914 and waged countless bloody battles over the years that followed. 

Casualties were so severe and destruction was so widespread in France that a single battle, the Battle of Verdun, resulted in more than 162,000 deaths and another 118,000 living casualties. Bourgeois was certain to have endured this destruction and seen the suffering of the war firsthand.

A Standalone Piece

Louise Bourgeois’s Maman is not part of any particular collection, at least it wasn’t intended to be. Maman was designed simply as an overtly ambitious attempt to create a massive portrayal of the spider, the theme that permeated all of Bourgeois’s works.

More Spider-Influenced Designs

Bourgeois produced more than a dozen famous works, many of which incorporated the motif of the spider into their structures or imagery.

One of Bourgeois’s pieces that details the pain and suffering imprinted on her by being raised in a war and surrounded by death and destruction from an early age is The Destruction of the Father, created in 1974.

In this piece, Bourgeois not only created a cave-like / womb-like surface scattered with objects and designs that resembled severed body parts, but she also incorporated real hunks of lamb into the sculpture to further highlight the violence and gore of the piece.

Conclusion

From a violent upbringing to her death in the security of New York City, Louise Bourgeois lived a varied and diverse life. As a child essentially born into war, she was protected by her mother for years.

As she matured and her mother was no longer with her, she lived through countless more wars, never forgetting the image of her mother as a protective spider watching over her.

Yayoi Kusama, Accumulation No 1 – Sculpture

Among the most peculiar pieces of avant garde sculpting ever created is Yayoi Kusama’s Accumulation No 1.

Description

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama created Accumulation No 1 in 1962, but it was not shown to the public until its inclusion in the “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968” collection in 1988. 

To provide a singular description of what Accumulation No 1 looks like would be a disservice to the sculpture. Meant to be displayed in the center of the room, this artwork appears different from every angle.

The general aesthetic however, is one of shocking oddities. Not only does the armchair base look blob-like and misshapen, as though it had been dripped on by sediment-laden water for centuries, the fabric and enamel protrusions quite vividly remember male genitalia.

This perception is further supported by a quote from Kusama herself, saying that many of her artworks “bristle with phalluses.” This effect is compounded when one understands that she used the exact same materials as the preeminent male avant garde artists Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning.

The Healing Process

As with all of Yayoi Kusama’s artworks, Accumulation No 1 began from a place of love and a desire for acceptance, although not of herself.

Kusama believed that by crafting various forms and shapes of the male genitalia, she could heal these negative emotions within herself and grow to become a more loving and understanding person.

Through a process of hand-stitching and hand-crafting hundreds of phalluses, Kusama was able to heal her emotions and render a vivid portrayal of what she had been feeling in the form of a simple armchair completely devoured and consumed by genitalia.

Love Forever

Kusama had several of her more influential pieces displayed in the exhibition entitled “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968.” Each of these pieces was indicative of Kusama’s minimalist stylings and pop influences in a predominantly avant garde manner.

Among the other works displayed in this exhibit was the Infinity Room–Phalli’s Field piece. A pioneer of its time, this piece was the embodiment of all the repetitive, shock-inducing emotions that Kusama had been producing in that time.

What sets this piece apart, however, was the fact that these aspects were all captured in a physical medium that enable the viewers to undergo a perceptual experience of the art rather than simply perceiving it.

Additional Works

Over the past several decades, Kusama has produced countless works of art, though not all of them have gone on to receive the levels of critical acclaim enjoyed by works such as Infinity Room or Accumulation No 1.

Many of these works are featured in the biographical film, Kusama Infinity, produced by Magnolia Pictures for publication in 2018.

Conclusion

The shocking and phallic nature of avant garde art can be said to belong first to Kusama. More than just genitalia on couches, the emotions of conflicting hate and love shine equally bright in Yayoi Kusama’s Accumulation No 1.