Laurie Stras

Senior Lecturer in Music, University of Southampton


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Project Pages - Current abstracts for writing projects

“Al gioco si conosce il galantuomo”:  Artifice, Humour and Play in the enigmi musicali of Don Lodovico Agostini 

In the late sixteenth century, a Ferrarese cleric-musician, Don Lodovico Agostini, published two books of musical novelties called enigmi musicali, musical puzzles that are neither just games, nor just musical compositions.  They lie on the fringes of both categories, fulfilling a rich variety of functions:  a medium for technical and intellectual display; a source of laughter or the basis of a practical joke; a springboard for philosophical discussion; a cover for titillation; a diverting method for teaching and testing notation; a demonstration of their creator’s expertise; or a means of developing the musician’s spiritual self.  Agostini’s position at the Ferrarese court has never been fully explained, but the existence of the enigmas suggests that he may have combined the roles of scholar, musician, cleric and fool in the service of his employer, Duke Alfonso II d’Este.  His works draw on a learned tradition of artificioso composition, and conceptually they reflect the philosophical trends of the new Platonism, but nonetheless they are framed as genteel amusements, perfectly suited to the Ferrarese taste for the enigmatic, the playful and the bizarre.


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When is a madrigal not a madrigal?

For many decades, musicologist and performers have recognised the ‘mutability’ of sixteenth-century musical genres – polyphonic chansons become canzone francesi da sonar, sections of mass settings become music for viol consorts, madrigals become motets or solo songs. Written evidence abounds of the myriad versions in which recognisable and discrete musical entities may appear, but there has been little practical investigation of the process of transformation itself. Furthermore, musicological studies of the repertoire tend to treat the printed or written score as uniquely representative, concentrating on (or indeed inventing) diachronic relationships between paradigms of developing genres. The AHRB-funded project ‘Female musicians in Parma and Ferrara, 1565-1589’ was set up to investigate precisely the relationship of the transcribed score with a variety of performance possibilities suggested by contemporary documents, musical or otherwise. The results of our experimentation show that the repertoire generated by musicians working along the ‘Po Valley axis’ has been, at the very least, imperfectly understood by musicologist and performer alike, and lead to interesting speculations about the emergence of monody and duet as early Baroque musical genres.

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White Face, Black Noise:  The Boswell Sisters and the Transmogrification of Minstrelsy

Recognized by their colleagues and peers to be among the finest singers, instrumentalists and arrangers of their day, the Boswell Sisters – Martha, Connie and Vet – were one of the most influential musical forces of the early 30s, shaping and changing forever the sound of jazz and popular singing.  Yet today the Boswells are all but ignored by jazz historians, their status seemingly diminished by their racial origin (white) and their sex (female).  Nevertheless, when they are mentioned, it is usually to acknowledge them as the first white singers really to “sound black.”  As infrequent as these references are, they even less frequently interrogate what “sounding black” means, not just in purely technical or musical terms, but also as a expression of the cultural attitudes and ideologies that shape stylistic judgements.  The idea of a singer “sounding black,” regardless of skin color, is now so ubiquitous that, as with other Boswell traits, it is generally passed over as a quality ripe for deconstruction.  More fundamentally, the process of racialization which has determined what “black” sounds like has made the concept part of American “common sense,” a given that functions at almost a subconscious level.  However, the phrase may not have carried the same connotations for the Boswells’ original audience, which heard “blackness” through the filter of minstrelsy’s legacy.  This paper examines what it was and what it meant for a white voice to sound black in the Jazz Age, and describes how the Boswells permeated the cultural, racial and gender boundaries implicit in “blackness” as they developed their collective musical voice.


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Voice of the beehive:  vocal technique at the turn of the 1960s

In the mid-1950s, the American teenage girl took her first tentative steps towards establishing her unique social self, separating her image from those of her younger sisters and her mother.  Her gradual, but inexorable, emancipation was quick to take effect on the music business, which viewed her not only as a potential market but also as a potential product.  By the early 1960s, records made for and by teenage girls dominated pop music production, and commentators have rightly pointed out that the new girl singers gave the American female teenager both a visual identity to which she could aspire and lyrics which expressed her unique hopes, desires and anxieties.  But even more fundamentally, teen pop gave the American girl, quite literally and for the first time, her own voice.  Unlike teenage popular stars of earlier decades, the voices of the girl group era are almost invariably only partially developed and partially trained, if at all.  Their appeal lay not in vocally polished performances or precocious displays of technical control, but in the way their records exposed the fragility of their developing voices, which crack, break and blur at extremes of range and volume.  This essay charts the emergence of a new vocal identity for the American teen girl singer, one which more closely reflected the real teen voice, as it was heard in bedrooms, school halls, church halls and gymnasium dances.


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“Concentratin’ on You”:  Connie Boswell and a Musical Discourse of Disability

In the early 1930s, a musician emerged whose (dis)embodied voice created a paradox for popular culture:  “the most imitated singer of all time,” Connie Boswell, who is nonetheless now an obscure figure.  Her remarkable singing quickly became the standard to which jazz singers aspired, but despite the fact that her legacy is still heard, Boswell’s presence has been effectively erased in most histories of jazz. Hidden from sight by radio and phonography, Boswell provoked confusion and consternation, defying notions of how white girl singers should sound and playing against gender stereotypes, vocally and professionally.  The non-visual media provided a further mask for Boswell, whose legs were almost completely paralysed from poliomyelitis.  Through her lyrics and rhythmic delivery, she was physically “normalised;” Boswell dances and strolls in song, and the listener visualises her doing so.  Moreover, her duets with Bing Crosby conjure powerful images of domesticity and conventional coupledom.  In her analysis of disability in popular photography, Rosemarie Thomson notes being stared at is “one of the universal social experiences of being disabled.”  That Boswell’s recordings promoted alternative visual constructions might be seen as a conscious deflection of the hard gaze, and her manipulation of racialized/gendered discourses a way of preventing engagement with disability.  However, like images of the disabled, Boswell’s arrangements, with her trademark structural and melodic fragmention of songs, invite listeners to focus on “disfigurement.”  Therefore, Boswell’s constructed musical persona mirrors her physical body and a discourse of disability mediates her music, as inevitably it did her daily life.


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Written by Laurie Stras

Last updated 06 November, 2003.

The views expressed in this document are those of the author and not those of the University of Southampton.