The cosmology of the tarantella

This Sunday, I am doing a Curved Radio spot on the tarantella (podcast recording here). It follows on from the show in which I talked about the ‘Mexican baroque’ and other black and indigenous influences on early and classical music. Much of it is based on two albums (Los Impossibles and La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae) by an experimental baroque ensemble called L’Arpeggiata, led by the Austrian theorbist/harpist Christina Pluhar. These albums, and the booklets that accompany them, provided a starting point for looking up other versions of the songs they performed, but also more on the hidden histories of music we usually perceive as ‘European’ and devoid of all associations we might have with music from other countries. For instance, we do not often connect European music with ritual, not even when we talk about folk music. We also tend to forget about European histories of trade, travel, war and colonialism, which all brought Europeans into contact with other musical traditions.

L’Arpeggiata’s Los Impossibles album, for instance, features a couple of villancicos, a musical form that was shared across Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain) and Latin America in the 15-18th centuries. This style was known for incorporating instruments, rhythms, speech rhythms and words (actual or made up) from other cultures, such as African or Native American. Although this appropriation was often done in a mocking fashion, satirising the primitiveness of the Other, it nevertheless constituted an influence that then proceeded to move to other musical and poetic forms. The negrillo (such as L’Arpeggiata’s version of ‘Sa qui turo‘ above, another example is ‘Bastiao‘) is an example of attempts to copy African speech and music. It has also been argued that some of this music was used for subversive ends, to express commonalities and even solidarities between poor people from both sides of the colonial divide and their political struggles. Robert Stevenson, in his survey of baroque villancicos, gives the example of a 1677 song by early feminist villancico poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose lyrics translate as “tumba, la-lá-la, tumba la-lé-le/wherever Peter enters, no one remains a slave”. The active influence on negrillos by black musicians (from the mid-15th century) has also been documented by Stevenson. Curiously, by the close of the 18th century, negrillos – and villancicos as a whole – were forbidden (by royal edict!) in both Portugal and Spain.

The tarantella, an Italian (and, through migration, Argentinian) folk dance, was popular during a similar time, although some sources date it back to the Middle Ages or earlier. In fact, the beginnings of the tarantella are so obscure that the myths that surround it sound as plausible as the many origin stories that have been suggested across the last 600-or-so years. The L’Arpeggiata booklet samples some of these legends, from medieval field workers’ spider bite treatments to dancing sirens that tried to overcome Ulysses’ resistance to their songs. At its most basic level, the tarantella is a song and dance combo, most often in 6/8 time. Its name appears to reference spiders (or the Italian city of Taranto), and it is commonly portrayed as a highly ritualised cure for spider bites. More recently, anthropologists such as Ernesto de Martino have been looking at 20th century practices of tarantism (you can sample some of their films and audio recordings at the Wellcome Collection archives and also on youtube), and ethnomusicologists such as Giovanna Marini and Diego Carpitella have been been instrumental in reviving research into this cultural phenomenon.

What I find interesting about the tarantella is that its history, whichever one is true, suggests a series of different oppressions, especially from the Church. For instance, it has been proposed that the tarantella is a remnant of Greek/Roman pagan rituals devoted to gods such as Diana or Dionysus that were driven underground by the Church and then became redefined as a medical cure and also a social dance for courtship, funerals et cetera. At a later point, the Church seemed to have intervened again, initially banning the dance and the music. When this containment did not work, they banned the music, forcing performers to solely rely on vocalisations and the use of colours. The Church additionally proceeded to ascribe the healing powers to Saint Paul, in an effort to create, as Jean-Paul Combet put it, “theologically satisfactory explanations” for this obstinate insanity. This suppression has strong parallels with other ‘civilising missions’, for instance, the ban on indigenous and slave music in many European colonies (there is a powerful talk by Tanya Tagaq on the attempt to erase throat singing as a First Nations cultural practice).

The question that always fascinates me is how much music (and often dance, too) is perceived as threatening, even more threatening than words. Not only was the music of the tarantella periodically banned, but also any publications on the topic. So, what does the tarantella look like in practice, and what does it allow performers and ‘victims’ to do? Christina Pluhar, the creative director of L’Arpeggiata, describes the ‘healing’ version of the tarantella as follows:

“In order to overcome the poison, he must overcome the broken equilibrium in himself. On his journey the sick person identifies himself with Nature, whose harmony he perceives through sounds and colours and whose vibrations he absorbs into his body. The sick person becomes the black sun (or black spider) in the centre, surrounded by the planets, which are symbolised by the people and the musicians who accompany him in his quest for healing. It has always been written that each sick person reacts to different melodies, rhythms, colours and instruments according to his own character and the nature of his illness. The appropriate music is found by empirical means: the musicians play different melodies until the sick person reacts and his body begins to move. The healing process can spread over several days of almost uninterrupted dancing.”

For her, the disorienting change and improvisation over recognisably stable repetitive sequences – basically a long quasi-psychedelic jam – serves to dislocate the afflicted person from their current state in order to “restore the cosmic order”. The tarantella serves supernatural ends and therefore constitutes a rival to other providers of supernatural services such as the Church.

While the tarantella may have had an actual function, at least at some point, to keep a person alive after a spider bite – the music would certainly keep a person awake, which is often crucial in the first stages of paralysis or convulsion inducing spider bites – this functionality seemed to spill into spiritual life (or is it the other way round?). What is interesting here is the role of the spider. As Combet describes, different spiders are assigned different moods (melancholia, anger etc) and colours (red, green, yellow or black). Given that the tarantella appears to enable a number of controversial boundary crossings such as gendered behaviour – for instance, the tarantella allows women to express themselves differently erotically and socially (e.g. their role as musicians) – the connection with the lowly but feared spider, an animal mainly encountered by peasants during harvest (Combet writes that some municipalities even paid for musicians to ‘treat’ farm workers, so they wouldn’t get into debt and miss out on work more than necessary), suggests a strategic affiliation with the nonhuman. The nonhuman element appears to permit not just boundary crossings, but extravagant enactments of these transgressions. Pluhar even wonders whether the role of women as not only as singers and dancer, but primarily as percussionists, adds another nonhuman dimension: “woman as the pulsating rhythm of the earth…?” This seems to affirm Athanasius Kircher’s mid-17th century view that “the cosmos was revealed in musical ratios and that musical harmony mirrored universal harmony” (reference source: J-P Combet).

For me, the music-spider-farming-gender-cosmos connections that appear to endure against the onslaught of time feel like a form of resistance to the imposition of a different worldview (monotheism, modernism etc) – a worldview that was perceived as limiting. Here, the role of sound and oral culture stands out as a more successful format than print, both in terms of its accessibility, communicability and destrucibility. So few print works have survived from ancient times, on the tarantella and overall, but we still, despite the inevitable mutation and evolution of the songs and dances, hear the same songs, the same lyrics, the same themes (the lyrics are often in old and/or local languages such as Griko). While the lyrics may not speak of political or spiritual struggle – the lyrics often seem quite bawdy and rude, speaking of voluptuous women, heartache, inebriation, food, poverty, madness, death – they feel like a Bakhtinian/Rabelaisian use of the grotesque as a celebration of that which is being excluded from official culture. Some of my favourite lyrics accompany the intensely percussive Pizzica Ucci: for me, they represent an undisguised mockery of the Church’s attempt to clean up the spiritual side of the tarantella via an association with St Paul:

St Paul of Galatina, pardon this young lady!

St Paul of tarantulas, pinch the girls’ bottoms.

St Paul of serpents, pinch the boys’ balls.

The imagery is brilliant in its takedown of the officially ‘highest’. It is also funny and highly understandable, qualities that assure its wider appeal and transmission. The music, too, despite its filtration through a variety of contexts, instrumentation and other ‘treatments’, powerfully transmits a concept. Whether it is the maddening speed and repetition of the pizzica or the frighteningly grating ‘harmonies’ of the funeral laments, a tarantella almost never fails to disturb and/or arouse, even in its most sanitised renditions. There is something raw and alien about the dance, the music, the lyrics – or all three of them at once – that makes you want to know more about it. While no one may ever be able to trace the tarantella’s exact history and purpose, it is perhaps sufficient that it has survived and continues to trouble and inspire, from women in rural Italy to people in unexpected locations, searching for a different connection to the world than one is supposed to be having.

Notes: This post follows on from Protest music: questions of travel (2013)

The Curved Radio show that features the tarantella spot broadcasts on Sunday 14 May 2017, 11pm – 2am Sydney time, 2-5pm UK time.

DIY Cultures 2017 festival: Zines, Artists’ Books and Comics


Illustration by Sofia Niazi

12pm – 7pm
Sunday 14 May
Rich Mix
35 – 47 Bethnal Green Road
London E1 6LA

(nearest stop: Shoreditch High Street Overground)

DIY Cultures fair is back for its 5th year on Sunday 14th May to takeover all 4 floors of Rich Mix. DIY Cultures is an annual day festival exploring intersections of art and activism, running since 2013. The programme consists of a zine fair, exhibitions, workshops, contemporary craft, panel discussions, comic illustration, video art and digital animation exploring DIY practice. The event has established itself as a leading national forum for artists-run initiatives and alternative publishing. The event distinguishes itself by by its commitment to Black and people of colour empowerment and centralising marginalised histories and subcultures such as neurodiversity, diaspora stories, prisoner solidarity, radical mental health and Muslim communities under the War on terror.

This year’s event is bigger than ever with more than 90 stalls showcasing the best in independent publishing and stands as Rich Mix’s most-attended event of the year. The festival extends to a 4 week exhibition DIY Knowledge running from 3rd May until 2nd June in Lower Cafe Gallery. The curators have commissioned outdoor art, interactive animation and architectural collective Involve to make a communal table.

This years highlights include:

+ New film commission on how zines helped Hillsborough justice before the mainstream media (with archival collection of Liverpool zines under under Thatcher)

+ Zines East Africa showcase how DIY Culture influence spread to Africa with Zines from Tanzania & Uganda exhibition display

+ OOMK Malaysia self-publishing project

+ Book launch of Shy Radicals : the Antisystemic politics of the militant introvert – described as “the Black Panthers of the introvert-class” by DIY Culture co-founder Hamja Ahsan

+ Life-size clay sculpture of Theresa May by May Ayres

+ Longtable on Neurodiversity with Daniel Olivier & Guiliane Kinouni

+ Chicago as DIY Cultures twin city with a collection

+ Artist taxi driver on new BREXIT movie BREXSHIT

+ Kevin Sampson of Hillsborough Voice on learning from the Thatcher era

+ Reclaim Holloway on turning criminal justice into social justice + a live broadcast soapbox run by Clapham Film Unit

+ Autism arts reconsidered with Paul Wady’s Guerilla Aspies & Shaun May

DIY Knowledge exhibition – Lower Café Gallery (3rd May to 2nd June)

DIY Knowledge is a multimedia group exhibition that explores DIY Cultures ongoing concerns with self-education, information and news beneath the mainstream, imparting knowledge from margins. The exhibition will feature short film, comics, infographics, digital art and zine archival collections. It features 6 new commissions.

Artists: Leila Abdelrazaq (Chicago), Gemma Anderson, Sang Mun

Collectives: Keep It Complex, Antiuniversity, Bookstop Sanaa Art Library & Creative Learning Space (Tanzania), Temporary Services (Chicago), Turn Your PHD into a zine (Performed by Nina Power), Other Asias (toybox lexicon)

 

Day Festival Timetable

Talks Panels – Main Stage

1:00pm Theresa May & the Others

2.30pm Shy, Autistic, Introvert Resistance and Identity

4:00pm BREXIT: Creative DIY responses 5.30pm Detention & Deportation & Prisoner Solidarity

Participatory Longtable (Upstairs in Venue 1 Theatre – 4th floor)

4.30pm Neurodiversity Long table (Daniel Olivier, Guiliane Kinouni, Shaun May of Autism Arts Festival)

Workshops – Venue 1 Theatre – 4th floor

1:30pm Working the phones – Jamie Woodcock

1:30pm Origami mandala cards – Origami 4 Fun

2:30pm Hip Hop Garden – May Project Gardens

2:30pm Cognitive Workshop – Lauren Baxter

3:30pm Create a pop up disobedient exhibition – Clara Palliard (PCS union Culture Group, using examples from Disabled People Against Cuts, BP-or-not-BP)

3:30pm Black Arts Magazines with Stuart Hall Library

Film and Animation programme – Venue 2 – 4th floor

Byba Dolby Sakula, Map Squad, Kahori Kamiya, Stacy Bias, Ursula Pelczar, Gio Lingao, Beth Sabey, Rozine Jahfar, Duncan Poulton, Daniel Wechsler, Sharmaine Kwan, Mab Jones & Alex Taylor, R.L. Wilson, Jordan Antonowicz-Behnan, Barnie Emma, Tito Aderemi-Ibitola, Jose Saravia

Day festival art commissions:

Communal zine table commission: Involve

Interactive art commission: “Run to Run” by Hannah Whittaker

Outdoor commission: “State of the Nation Digital Soap Box” by Clapham Film Unit

Prep-Up – Camberwell MA Visual Arts: Book Arts exhibition – Venue 2 – 4th floor

Zine Fair Exhibitors: Come and browse over 90 exhibitors’ stalls and buy original publications direct from the artists.”

For a list of exhibitors, please visit the official website.

Honorary Fellowship @ Warwick Sociology


Image: Susanna Castleden ‘Bermuda Sunset, Rottnest Sunrise’ (2014)

Today, I received the official letter that I am now Honorary Fellow in the Department of Sociology. Big thank you to Gurminder K. Bhambra and Claire Blencowe who organised this via the Warwick Social Theory Centre. I will be there for three years, working on my book and related activities, such as the BA/Leverhulme workshop. From today, I can be contacted at a.last@warwick.ac.uk as well as the mutablematter@gmail.com address.

 

British Academy/Leverhulme Grant for Mutable Matter Workshop


Image: David Alfaro Siqueiros ‘Cosmos and Disaster’ (circa 1936)

Mutable Matter will be hosting its first workshop this year, generously supported by a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant and Warwick Social Theory Centre. The workshop, entitled ‘Cosmos & Crisis: interdisciplinary conversations’ will be taking place in late Summer/early autumn. More details coming soon!

Mutable Matter on Curved Radio again


Image by fellow Curved Radio crew member Olivia Louvel

Curved Radio is back from their (Australian) summer break, and I’m going to be joining them next Sunday at 11pm – Monday 2am Sydney time (about 12-3pm Sunday UK time). Am doing a mini series around borders, starting with tunes by Latin American feminist musicians. For the moment, leaving you with this brilliant collaboration:

Open Call for ROYAL TRASH

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DEADLINE: SATURDAY 18 MARCH 2017
OPEN CALL FOR DEEP TRASH: ROYAL TRASH

More information here.

“We are now accepting proposals for a new episode of Deep Trash, the unique multi-disciplinary exhibition and performance club night in London.

Calling for performances, videos and artworks to be shown on Saturday 29 April 2017 at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London. We accept proposals by artists of any artistic background and nationality. We are also keen to hear from writers and academics responding to the call either in written form (theory and cross-genre) or through a performative lecture.

For the next 3 episodes of Deep Trash, we are delighted to have the support of the Department of Drama at Queen Mary University (London) – one of the leading research centres for performance and drama across the UK – who will host our symposium on Thursday 27 April 2017 entitled ‘Power, Subcultures & Queer Stages’ with a keynote talk by Dr. Shaun Cole, fashion historian, curator and writer. Our headline artist for the live art night will be the one and only “Un-Royal Variety” Star Jonny Woo.

This call mainly looks at the relations & tensions between subcultures & high society, state & monarchy, class & sexual expressions, empires and colonialism. We welcome proposals at the intersections of queer, feminist, postcolonial discourses or artistic frameworks.

This event’s applications may include, respond to, be affected by, but not restricted to:

– (Un)making the Empire: examining the social construction of Whiteness.
– A cabinet of curiosities: colonialist and patriarchal spectacles re-imagined.
– Contemporary takes on Victorian literature & class discourses.
– Kings and Queens: royalty and drag culture.
– Royal Scandals: revival and re-appropriation of Royal chronicles.
– Dancefloors, podiums & other queer stages: sub- and counter-cultures at the club.
– ‘Jubilee’: Punk & Anarchy as a resistance to monarchy.
– Aristocrazy: middle/upper class Bohemia and extravagance.
– Camp: style, subcultures and sexual politics.
– ‘I want a Dyke for President’: counter-actions, anti-heroes and alternative role models
– Rulers & Responsibility: eco-feminist critiques of Earth Crimes.
– The Golden Cage: female domesticity and oppression in the house, the castle or the Harem.
– Vajazzles, Golden Showers, Royal Albert and Pearl Necklaces: Royal Slang & Sexual PracticesOrientalism and Occidentalism: Art as social distortion.
– ‘Let them eat cake’: inequalities between the people and the monarchy.
– Waacking and Voguing: the relation of dance and dance spaces to the queer community.
– Oligarchy, kleptocracy and plutocracy: critiques of wealth and state corruption.
– Non-noble entities of wealth and power, such as mafia, “nouveau riches”, yuppies, socialites and media personalities.
– Sex and power in Dynasty and contemporary soap operas.
– An Un-Royal Variety: subverting the canon of mainstream culture.

To apply please follow the link: http://www.cuntemporary.org/open-call-deep-trash-royal-trash

The programme is supported using public funding by Arts Council England.”

For further information:
CUNTemporary
Arts | Feminism | Queer
email: info@cuntemporary.org
web: http://www.cuntemporary.org

Mutable Matter 10th anniversary celebration

Mutable Matter

I first posted on Mutable Matter on 24 September 2007. Since then, the blog has moved from its original purpose to build a dialogue with Open University students and other interested publics about methods to explore “invisible risk” to a more general focus on matter and materiality. My writing has hopefully improved over the last 324 posts, too!

I am extremely grateful for all the experiences and connections that writing Mutable Matter has enabled and continues to enable, and I would like to use the blog’s 10th anniversary to say thank you to all the readers and subscribers. I am currently working on a free book publication which will feature a selection of essays from the book, and also some contributions from readers. There will also be a little celebration this summer, probably around the time of the RGS-IBG 2017 (end of August/beginning of September). If there is anything that you would like to see, happen or contribute, please get in touch!

With love,

Angela