BLOG #8: An Ethiopian Singer

A longstanding musical tradition exists in Ethiopia. This country experienced its own “Golden Age” of music in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Despite the political upheaval and official rejection of arts during the 1980’s, Ethiopia’s musical heritage has remained strong, and more recently the country has bequeathed its rich tradition to the world through singers such as Ejigayehu Shibabaw.

Shibabaw, known popularly and professionally as Gigi, was born in 1974 in Ethiopia but has lived in the United States since the late 1990’s. She has released seven albums since coming to America, most of which have been produced by her husband Bill Lasswell.

Gigi’s music reflects her life in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Most of the material on her albums is original and delivered in Amharic, or in one case Agaw (a local dialect of Amharic), giving the material an exotic sound almost immediately. At the same time, when compared to traditional Ethiopian artists, like Tilahun Gessesse, her music sounds almost tame. This is partly due to its Western production and partly to the sound of the jazz musicians with whom she records. As a whole, her music has a modern, hip-hop sound to it. Yet the modality and traditional rhythms of the Ethiopian heritage are still there, lending a unique flavor to every track.

Although no two Gigi songs sound alike, making it hard to offer a “typical” example of her sound, all of her material is unmistakably “different”, and it’s easy to imagine her Ethiopian upbringing coloring many of her melodies. This is Gigi’s song Ethiopia from her album Mesgana Ethiopia, released in 2010. I would like to note that, after stumbling upon this album, I liked some of the music so much that I purchased it.

The main thing you notice about this track is something it has in common with much Ethiopian music – the accompaniment is constant. No drastic harmonic changes or polyphonic progressions. There is a feeling of peace and nostalgia as Gigi croons one stanza after another, repeating a flowing melody that seems like audible shape shifting. Although the language of this song is completely foreign, with the exception of the title phrase, it doesn’t even matter. The artist’s emotion in writing and performing in honor of her motherland shines through the music.

Also, here is a live jazz track with Gigi singing – a little longer but just as interesting, even mesmerizing. There are other cultural elements at play in this one, such as East Indian, but if anything these add to the general atmosphere. I really like this track.

Of course, one may rightly assume that Gigi has made many a concession to the Western musical tradition in order to obtain the recording and performing deals that she has. But her identity as an Ethiopian artist still shines, and her music remains – at least to me – a form of exotic hip-hop that I plan to continue to enjoy.

Sidenote: I now appreciate a lot of Ethiopian music, thanks to the research for this post. Some of the really old sounding traditional music from the 1940’s and 1950’s is surprisingly good, and the indigenous Ethiopian musical instruments are unique and fascinating as well.

BLOG #7: A Mexican Muralist

The movement of Mexican Muralism embodied a new approach to art that spread from Latin America throughout the Western Hemisphere over the course of the 20th century. A pioneer of this movement was the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who lived from 1896 to 1974. Siqueiros led a double life as both warrior and artist, and often fought on the wrong side of whatever government he was under and consequently served a number of jail terms. As an artist, he specialized in mural painting, often on vast scales; however, he worked in the traditional form as well, particularly during his years in prison.

In my opinion, a substantial portion of Siqueiros’s output is of high quality and very fascinating. I’m going to give two examples, the first a little tamer and the second more typical for him.

Here is the first picture, Vista Aerea. I was first drawn to it because of its bold colors and sharp yet convoluted outlines. Siqueiros painted this picture in 1968, near the end of his life. It is one of his few landscape pieces, and lacks the political content of much of his work.

Upon viewing this picture, I felt that the scene was familiar, as if it is an abstract reconstruction of an actual vista. Sure enough, a little browsing on the web revealed the  photograph below, a current portrayal of the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. And indeed, there is an eerie similarity between the art and the photograph.

I wasn’t able to find a connection between the artwork and any mention of the famous Incan city online, but I do feel that the layout and shapes of the art contain an uncanny resemblance to the photograph. Since Siqueiros was known to base some of his art upon photographs, the picture may have had a conscious connection to the place, at least in its creator’s mind. However, whatever the inspiration for Vista Aerea, it remains a great example of abstract art from the Mexican Muralist art culture.

A more typical, and striking, example of Siqueiros’s art is Echo of a Scream.

Created much earlier, in 1937, this picture depicts the pain and terror associated with life in many of the Latin countries, particularly Mexico, during that time period. Stylistically, this art better reflects Siqueiros’s common usage of mural techniques. There is an unmistakable three-dimensional quality wrapped up in the shapes and colors. In addition, this painting is done on wood, a base material of which Siqueiros was fond.

The childlike figure and its enlarged counterpart (presumably representing the echo) are the only human features in the work. A feeling of cold mingled with the clanking of rusty iron suggests a world of machinery in which the person is inexorably trapped.  To me, this picture is the perfect example of why art can never be replaced. Such a scene could never exist in the real world, yet there is no finer depiction of the suffering of innocent humanity at the hands of relentless political machines at war.

In a twist of irony, this picture was created during one of the artist’s stints in America, when he ran workshops for young artists. One of these was Jackson Pollock, who would go on to become a pioneer in pure, or true abstract, art.



BLOG #6: Virtual Exhibit on “Land Art”

I’ve always liked dirt and rock– moving it, making shapes with it, and working it with heavy equipment. So it makes sense, at least to me, that I find the post-modern art style known as “land art” to be fascinating.

Land art is a form of environmental art that makes specific landforms intrinsic to the artwork. Often, though not always, these landforms are artificial. The movement’s inception during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw the creation of gigantic works with huge amounts of material, as well as significant environmental impacts.

Since that time, land art has become slightly less ambitious, but remains striking, as in the pictures below.It’s important to understand, however, that some of the seminal works of land art existed before 1970, such as the Spiral Jetty by Robert Simpson, and are of a magnificent scale on the order of many acres. It was the expense involved in creating such large projects that eventually caused artists in this style to limit themselves to rock structures of a more modest size.

First, here are a few examples by Andrew Rogers, an Ameran artist who began by creating sculptures in bronze before moving to larger works in landscapes. In 1998, he began perhaps his most ambitious project, an international sculpting event that involved completing large structures, or geoglyphs, in rock in thirteen countries around the globe. Here is the one he created in Turkey, entitled Rhythms of Life.

The below work, the Bunjil Geoglyph, is in the same series. but it is located in Australia.

Both of these are similar concepts, but what I like is how Rogers managed to tailor each to the surrounding landscape, and the precision he used in creating the shapes. It’s as if they could have existed forever, such is the care he took in giving them a natural appearance.

Below is yet another, the Chili Geoglyph, named for its home country. Notice how in this one, the shapes are thicker and taller, requiring far more rocks and care in construction. This sculpture appears to me to resemble an alpaca, which makes sense considering the country to which this land belongs.

Another artist who employs the land art style is British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Here is his Stone River, created in 2001 near Standford, California.

In a similar vein is the sculpture Wall, done in 1998 in the sculpture park near New York City.

Both of these walls are constructed in drystone, with every stone carefully fitted together with old-time craftsmanship. Their beauty lies not only in the cleanliness of the rock patterns and sinuosity of the shape, but in the way that they interact with their environment. This is a key feature of land art, for while the work of art may be a standalone structure, it is intended to unlock an entire world of meaning drawn from the land and environment around it.

Finally, we come to a very unique work by Goldsworthy. An exhibit done in 2005 at the Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, California, this one is called Drawn Stone.

The intent of the long rectangular structure intersected by a random crack is intended to evoke the consequences of the earthquakes common to California. Goldsworthy masterfully aligns the cracked block with the cracked floor, making all cracks and joints by hand one piece at a time. It’s quite amazing, if you stop to think about it.

While these are only a few examples of recent art in the style, I find them quite representative of a lot of artists today. The urge to alter the earth in such a way as to both discover and create beauty in a scene attracts many to attempt this style. Of course, like any other, it is difficult to work in, and occasionally exists only in a photograh taken of the completed work directly after that completion. However, all that being said, I think this style of artistic expression is, well, fantastic.

Goldsworthy, A. and Thompson, J. (2000). Wall. H.N. Abrams.


BLOG #5: Early Modern Art – A Dada Relief

Probably my favorite of the number of Dada works that I browsed through during this lesson is Hans Arp’s Portrait of Tzara: The Entombment of Birds and Butterflies. Arp, one of the founders of Dadaism, created poetry, paintings, and sculptures, but the majority of his output was sculptures or reliefs. This fine example of his art is a painted wooden relief.


The work was created in 1916 and 1917 in Zurich during the seminal phase of Dadaism in Switzerland. As the title suggests, it honors another founder of the Dada school of thought, Tristan Tzara. But with further study, the essential message of this relief as implied in the title becomes twofold.

First, as a portrait of Arp’s friend Tzara, it is an abstract personality study. In fact, some see in this work a distorted resemblance to the human figure and hints of Tzara’s physical quirks, such as his manner of flapping his hands in a bird-like fashion.

However, this work contains more than a human character study. For by suggesting the entombment of innocent and beautiful creatures, Arp also makes reference to the nihilistic and anti-war philosophy of Tzara and many of the Dada members. This idea is also supported by the tomb-like arrangement and dark charcoal coloring.

The entire Dada movement embodied an angry reaction to tradition, since its adherents believed that the traditional order of society was responsible for the great suffering of World War I. Hence, in this Portrait, there is no direct homage no either Tzara’s actual face or to the actual shapes of birds or butterflies – even though these are the legitimate subjects of the work. The rejection of tradition is clear. Arp’s work is not abstract, but it is completely different from any artistic approach before him.

This relief appeals to me not only because of its distorted and almost ghastly appearance, but because of the dichotomy at work in its creation. It hangs somewhere between traditional art and abstract art in form, while conveying two separate messages at once. Personally, I find this piece a work of genius.

BLOG #4: Comparison of Impressionistic and Romantic Art Styles

I find the Impressionist approach to art very appealing. In fact, every artist that this lesson has introduced produced at least a few works that I really like, and I feel more strongly about this art form than most of the earlier periods. Let me try to explain why.

The very name Impressionism indicates the goal of these artists: to make an impression upon the viewer about a scene, to evoke an emotional response rather than to directly imitate an external appearance. Personally, I think this philosophy represents the highest achievement of visual art – the communication of emotions. While all art seeks to inspire a reaction of some type, Impressionist art is intended to subtly suggest a specific feeling that the viewer ought to experience.

I also find it a bit of a paradox that this insistence on subduing realism to emotion was an early influence on abstract art. After all, abstract art is about sending messages that are open to interpretation, right? This is something I’d like to see answered as I continue studying this course.

So with that being said, here are a couple of examples of art in both Romantic and Impressionist styles that I really like. I use these examples to compare the styles.

Here is a painting by Pierre Renoir titled Girl Stretched out on the Grass. This work was painted in 1890 while Renoir was living in Paris. It is a fine example of the emphasis on light and color, with shapes deliberately blurred. It almost allows you to feel the shimmering heat rays that a meadow appears to emit under bright sunlight and gives you a hazy, relaxed feeling. There is little to actually look at in this picture, but there is much to experience.

Contrast this with a study along similar lines done by Eugene Delacroix, a famous Romantic painter. This painting was called Two Moroccans seated in the Countryside. The time and place of this painting’s creation are unknown, but it would have been between Delacroix’s first visit to Morocco in 1832 and his death in 1863, placing it at least 30 years prior to Girl, above.

This painting is a fine work of illustration. You get a sense of the starkness of the scene and the characters appear worn and busy, even as they rest. Colors are bold, forms are crisp. Delacroix’s message is not about what these characters may be feeling. Rather he wishes us to see what he saw in his travels, perhaps slightly dramatized.

The difference between these styles is clear. I personally like both. In comparing these two specifically, I cannot even say which I prefer. But I connect with Renoir’s painting. I feel what he felt, or at least that is how it seems to me.

Here is another set of contrasts, done by the same pair of artists, The first painting is Renoir’s Rocky Craigs at l’Estaque, done in 1882, probably in France soon after his visit to Italy which ended in that year. The second is Delocroix’s The Porte d’Amont, Etretat, painted in 1849, probably at Delacroix’s Paris studio.

Once again, these are comparable and very professional studies of rocky, craggy landscapes. But what a contrast! Again, light and color rule Renoir’s work, coupled with soft strokes that defy boundaries between his objects. Delacroix’s work is rather an organized, drawn-and-colored reproduction of a place that he found interesting and that he felt he could share.

Of course, I picked paintings with similar subject matter to demonstrate some major contrasts in styles for this blog. Other paintings, even by these two great artists, share more qualities than not. The differences aren’t always this stark. But they do exist.

Is one style better? I don’t think so. In fact, the Romantic style of art comes very close in my book to being as aesthetically pleasing as Impressionistic art. But I definitely have a soft spot for the way Impressionism can conjure up a mood. That, to me, is its unique quality.

BLOG #3: A Masterpiece by the “Father of the Symphony”

The Classical era produced a skillful and prolific composer in Austrian musician Franz Joseph Haydn. During his long life, he experienced almost every type of musical environment in existence and composed at least a little in every musical form as well. 

Born into a musical family in 1732, he was raised as an apprentice to a musician, which gave him both theoretical and practical musical knowledge. During his twenties, he struggled to maintain himself as an independent composer, occasionally working for the nobility; then at the age of 31 he became a court composer and his career began to flourish. 

After almost thirty years working as chief musician for the court of the Esterhazy family, Haydn found himself justly famous as a master in the developing symphonic form, as well as for his chamber music. With the blessing of his employers, he began composing works commissioned by foreigners, and travelling around Europe to conduct them. 

Between 1791 and 1795, at the behest of the impresario Johann Salomon, Haydn composed a set of 12 symphonies specifically for a musical audience in London, England. He also spent much time in England conducting these and other works by him, to the point that he was a fluent English speaker by the time he returned permanently to Vienna in 1796, where he lived for the remainder of his life. 

The London cycle of symphonies contains several symphonies for which Haydn is still known today. They are considered his best, for they are remarkably fine works that foreshadow many of the developments that later took place in the mid- to late-1800’s. Among these is his Symphony No. 94 in G Major, popularly known both then and now as the Surprise Symphony. 

While relatively straightforward as a whole, the symphony incorporates a fortissimo crash, for no apparent reason, near the beginning of the second movement, Andante. This unexpected bit of whimsy bemused and fascinated Haydn’s English audience, just as he no doubt intended. 

Here is a link to the entire second movement. The surprise is in the first minute of the recording. I would say the exact time, but then what would happen to the suspense? Listen at least once. It’s quite humorous. 

Of course, the work can stand on its own without the help of the surprise at all. For instance, this movement goes on to a C minor variation that sounds remarkably modern and incorporates a nice bit of brass orchestration. 

The context of this symphony is vital, for Haydn, by this time, found himself composing for the public at large. In the 1750’s he was barely able to scrape by, living off of occasional publications of his early works and a few noble commissions. Now, forty years later, an entire educated public was eager for him to travel from Vienna to London to conduct symphonies old and new for them. What better indication of the importance of the middle class to the development of music? What more could an aged composer achieve, in return for a lifetime of court composition, than sudden popularity among common people? Indeed, Haydn had the honor of conducting the London symphonies in one of the earliest public concert halls in Britain, the Hanover Square Rooms. No longer was he, or his music, the exclusive privilege of the counts and royal houses. Now, the masses were willing and eager to hear his work. 

Runciman, J.F. (2009). Haydn. (Reissue ed.). BiblioBazaar.

Hadden, J.C. (2010). Haydn. (Reissue ed.). London: Cambridge University Press.

Brendel, A. (2001). “Does classical music have to be entirely serious?”. In Margalit et. al. Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

BLOG #2: A Snippet of Baroque Music

The Baroque period saw the composition of musical works of the highest order, for some of the finest composers in history lived during this time. Among these was George Frederic Handel, a German by birth who travelled extensively throughout Europe and spent most of his adult life in England.


Handel’s music, like that of his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach, has endured for over 250 years since his death in 1759. He provided the Western culture with timeless ideas and melodies that are still found in music to this day. In particular, his “Hallelujah Chorus” from the oratorio Messiah is familiar to a vast majority of the Western population.


Another of his works for which he was famous in his day, and which continues to be among his most popular compositions, is the three-suite instrumental work Water Music (HMV 348-350) composed in 1717. Handel, by this time, had spent five years in London and was on his way to recasting himself as an icon of British music. Furthermore, the work was written specifically for a royal occasion – a performance on the River Thames to accompany a river trip by the court of King George I of England.


Because of the length of this work, I chose to analyze only the first part, Suite 1 in F major. This section of Water Music contains eleven movements and lasts around 26 – 28 minutes in performance. Here is a link to the entirety of Suite 1.


(I should point out that the video at this link is adorned with an impressionistic painting of nudes. Some people find the art detracting, but some appreciate it. In any case, I used this link simply because it actually gives the entire work and not for any effect by the art on the music itself.)


To me, a lot of music of this period is serious and deep. I like this work because it maintains depth without being somber. Much of the suite is upbeat and quick, owing to the dance forms on which most of the movements are based. The music is very skillfully orchestrated and several sections place a lot of emphasis on the horn section. Because Handel was unable to incorporate a harpsichord or timpani into the work (limitations caused by performance on a boat) he had to make his string and wind sections work that much harder. I think he succeeded very nicely and I like his material a lot. It does not sound too dated.


This work has a direct and fascinating connection to royal influence. As stated above, the music was composed specifically for a royal occasion. However, there is no direct evidence that it was commissioned. Rather, it is thought to have been intended as a surprise demonstration to King George of Handel’s ability as a composer (and conductor, since he oversaw the river performance). Handel was interested in taking over the position of head of the Royal Academy of Music and he seems to have felt that this type of display of skill would tip the scales in his favor, as far as the royal benefactor was concerned.


An interesting (and probably apocryphal) twist in this story concerns the supposedly strained relationship between Handel and King George I. Handel’s German upbringing had made him a subject of the Duke of Hanover in Germany, and he is said to have settled in London in preference to service as a musician to the Duke’s court. Due to the passing of the British throne to the House of Hanover, the Duke was none other than the future King George I, and his arrival in London caused difficulty for Handel, or so the story goes. Whether or not there actually were any hard feelings, we may never know, but it is entertaining to imagine that Water Music may have also been something of an attempt to regain lost favor with an estranged benefactor.


In any case, the work served its purpose, and Handel went on to serve the British people as a royal composer for many years, before he turned to the composition of oratorios.


Whatever the intent behind its creation, Water Music is a fine example by a fine composer of the depth and genius of music in the Baroque period. It continues to be quoted in modern music and no doubt will be a much-played work for years to come.




Water Music, HWV 348-350 (Handel, George Frederic). Retrieved 18 June 2012 from,_HWV_348-350_(Handel,_George_Frideric


Hogwood, Christopher. (2006). Handel: Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Cambridge University Press.


Handel-Haus, Center for the Fostering of Handel Studies Worldwide. (online)

Retrieved 18 June 2012 from

BLOG #1: Example of Visual Art from the Renaissance


For an example of Renaissance visual art, I’m choosing an engraving done by my favorite artist of the period, Albrecht Durer.

While Durer’s work covered the whole spectrum of visual art forms – as might be expected of one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance – he specialized in engravings. He used both wood and copper for his work in this medium. Among Durer’s most famous engravings are a series of 3 works, done in copper by his own hand, in the early 1500’s. I’d like to focus on the second of these, a work that I find particularly fascinating both in conception and execution.

Knight, Death, and the Devil first saw the light of day in 1513, in Nurnberg (modern Nuremberg), Germany. The work was completed at a time when Durer had just recently begun service as an artist to Maximilian I of Germany. However, no commission was responsible for the creation of the work. Durer crafted it purely from inspiration.

This engraving exemplifies perfectly Durer’s use of symbolism and unwritten themes in his art. Various devices – some obvious, some subtle – convey a number of messages that are open to interpretation by the viewer, but without question the overall tone is one of grimness, solemnity, and doom. It strikes me anew every time I view it and attempt in vain to grasp the message.

I believe this work also reflects the humanism thought of the time. After all, the subject and central character of the work is the knight, and the storyline that is captured in this scene revolves around the struggle and ultimate fate of the knight. And indeed, it has been suggested that the inspiration for the knight may have come from Durer’s familiarity with the work of the humanist scholar Erasmus, who in his 1504 book Instructions for the Christian Soldier penned a vivid passage of the ideal religious warrior.

Although many meanings have been teased out of this work, it is first and foremost a fascinating and grim allegorical depiction. I consider it to be among the finest examples of the visual arts that may be found from the entire Renaissance period. Durer’s skill in arranging the many symbols in this work and ability to work in fine detail keeps me coming back every so often to see what new things I myself can discover in it.


“Albrecht Dürer: Knight, Death, and the Devil (43.106.2)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Retrieved from (October 2006)

Albrecht Durer. (2012). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from (June 2012)