The Lithophone, Miles and Super Mario, and Prince's contribution to Stand Back
|Sep 12||Public post|
This is a YouTube heavy bunch of bananas. It also just so happened to all relate to music - I didn’t plan it to have a theme. They just presented themselves to me.
Ring ring ring ring, lithophone. There’s a captivating video that made the rounds on Twitter, of a guy playing stones as if they were a melodic xylophone. The tones deliver far beyond what I expected.
It got me. Like really captivated me. It’s so unexpectedly harmonious. I hadn’t spent a ton of time thinking about ancient musical instruments before, and now I want to know everything! It turns out this is an emerging field, called archaeoacoustics, which is really in its beginning stages.
Lithophones are also known as rock gongs, and they are one of a number of instrument types that we think have been around for a really long time - like at least 7,000 years. They’ve been discovered in archaeological digs all over the world. Since they’re pretty straightforward and made of stone, it’s a lot easier to imagine how they might have been played as compared to something like a bone flute fragment. With the latter, the reed or mouthpiece or thing you put up to your mouth determines a great deal about what it’ll sound like tuning-wise, and those aren’t found intact.
In a helpful backgrounder article on Open Culture, I found this great video clip from the British Museum, a conversation between rock and roll drummer Liam Williamson and archaeologist Cornelia Kleinetz, in which he messes around for a while with what seems to be an ancient rock drum.
Miles Davis and the Super Mario Brothers theme song(s). I’m chalking this up to lore for now. Bass player Michael Henderson from the 70’s Miles Davis bands suggests that some of the motifs from Pangaea and Agartha, two legendary live albums Miles and band recorded in the same day in Japan in 1975, sound remarkably like the theme music for the legendary video game. The video game theme would be released ten years later and was composed by Koji Kondo.
In the 2012 clip, Henderson and his current band play some nice choice snippets from the Mario music, too.
Search twitter and you’ll find a zillion people who have also compared the Miles jam Calypso Frelimo from 1973 to the underground music in Mario. I’m not gonna lie, the “dunna dunna dunna” sounds a hell of a lot like the bass line in this jam. You’ll know when you hear it in the song. It’s worth a listen on its own merits, whether or not there’s some kind of a connection there. There are a ton of sounds he had going on in 1973 that predict, influence, or otherwise some of the aesthetics of 8-bit sound much later.
Yet another demonstration of Prince’s uncanny virtuosity. I found this one via a Reddit thread. It turns out that not only did Prince contribute the synth part for Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back” (a song that I like to think of as a historical nod to the Stamp Act of 1765), but he just kind of waltzed up to the keys and reeled it off like it was not a thing. In Nicks’ own words:
“I phoned Prince out of the blue, hummed a melody, and he listened," says Nicks of the latter hit's gestation. "I hung up, and he came over within the hour. He listened again, and I said, 'Do you hate it?' He said, 'No,' and walked over to the synthesizers that were set up, was absolutely brilliant for about twenty five minutes, and then left. He was so uncanny, so wild, he spoiled me for every band I've ever had because nobody can exactly re-create - not even with two piano players-what Prince did all by his little self.”
Check out her extended recollections about creating Stand Back.
Bonus Bananas: A tribute to the loading sounds of the old floppy disk-loaded video games. Sounds a little like some of that rock gong stuff.
Those are the bananas I found for you this week. Help me spread the word if you like what I bring you each week. I haven’t mentioned it in a while, but there’s a small Slack community of banana readers that I run. It’s a really warm place to hang out online, and doesn’t demand too much of your time. If that interests you, drop me a note.
And as always, you can hit “reply” and your note will go only to me. Thank you.