musically-expressed ideas about music
ki mantle hood, dr. bi-musicality himself, in the UCLA gamelan room
last saturday i "gave" a paper at the semi-annual meeting of the new england chapter of the society for ethnomusicology (that's NECSEM, for the uninitiated). the paper proposed an embrace of digital music technologies as providing new pedagogical and publishing possibilities to add to our scholarly toolkit. readers of this blog - and of the riddim method - will know that this is something i've been exporing for a little while now.
up to this point, however, i have been sharing the approach more with receptive readers across the musico-critical blogosphere, not so much with my colleagues in SEM. as you will see in the paper below, i feel no little trepidation around making such an approach more public to SEM, as it will no doubt raise all kinds of eyebrows. but ultimately i think the method justifies - audibly and immediately - its own value to our practices as scholars and communicators. and i was most enheartened by the fact that nearly every graduate student in attendance came up to me over the course of the day to say that they really liked what i was doing. several professors were encouraging, too. i rest assured that others will hear the potential.
i began my talk by playing one of my latest musically-expressed ideas about music: a mashup of four versions of "mbube"/"wimoweh" - a song (and a story) that has been generating a lot of conversation recently, and a good example, i think, of how we might raise a number of critical questions through the act of musical juxtaposition, or as the kids say, teh mashup.
at any rate, pardon all the text i'm about to dump here. (and - e.ek! - the lack of lowercase letters.) i hope some of you out there will find it provocative, if not compelling.
Musically Expressed Ideas about Music:
Techniques and Technologies for Performing Ethnomusicology in the Digital Age
Introducing their Audio Culture Reader (2003), a volume which foregrounds sound in contemporary studies of culture and society, Michael Bull and Les Back offer a provocative corrective to the wider (and often unremarked) epistemological orientation around sight and seeing. “Thinking with our ears,” write Bull and Back, “offers an opportunity to augment our critical imaginations” (2). This is something, we might agree, that ethnomusicologists have known and practiced for some time. And yet, we rarely seem to take this insight as literally as we might, especially with regard to pedagogy (outside of performance ensembles) and publishing. Despite the advent of powerful computer software for making and manipulating music and for publishing immediately in multimedia form, our pedagogical and publishing practices remain largely confined to drop-the-needle style examples and prose or graphical representations. This morning I would like to consider, and offer, some potentially fruitful new approaches for performing our ideas and arguments, for thinking with our ears and lending them to others, all with the help of digital technologies.
In particular, I am interested in what we might call “musically expressed ideas about music” (i.e., compositions, performances, or remixes with an explicit critical orientation) as providing a novel, compelling approach for engaging with the music we study and expressing our ideas about it. Though such methods may raise questions, or at least eyebrows, as they challenge various norms of scholarship and copyright, their value to the contemporary study of music is, I argue, immediately audible. Moreover, for all its enmeshment in contemporary forms of technologically-mediated musical practice (and musically-mediated technological practice – e.g., the music blogosphere), such an approach also finds a number of theoretical allies and precedents in ethnomusicology and related fields.
Foregrounding performance as an important dimension of ethnomusicological method is not, of course, remotely new as a proposition. Mantle Hood wrote explicitly about the “music mode of discourse” in his seminal work, The Ethnomusicologist (1971), noting the advantages of being able to communicate in both speech and music modes (230). For Hood, “bi-musicality,” or proficiency in various music modes of discourse, constituted a crucial means of understanding musical style and practice, a good way to inform “descriptive and analytical studies” (230), but not to perform them – semi-annual gamelan concerts notwithstanding. Hood’s proposition was an important one for moving the musicological side of the field more firmly into the realm of cultural context, but by so strongly advancing the music mode of discourse in the realms of hands-on pedagogy and hermeneutical understanding of musical structures, practices, and culturally-specific meanings, “bi-musicality” seems also to have consigned performance to the role of background analysis.
I don’t mean to take the venerable Dr. Hood to task here. On the contrary, his discussion of the importance of the music mode of discourse provides an intellectual foundation of sorts for the kind of method I am proposing today. Rather than bi-musicality, however, I would like to advance the notion of what we might call techno-musicality – by which I mean, the use of music-making technologies not only to understand the styles and genres and practices we study, especially in the realm of contemporary popular music (though increasingly seemingly all music is mediated, if not produced, through such technologies), but also to express the critical and cultural perspectives we bring to bear on the music we study. Like Hood, my position here is informed by my own ethnomusicological endeavors, as shaped in the field and the classroom and my laptop-ready armchair, to come to terms – and there’s a speech-mode bias for you – with the ways that hip-hop, reggae, and other inherently electronic musics are put together, with how producers, performers, and audiences make meanings from the coherence of style, and with how musical styles are produced and circulated more and more often with the help of computers and other digital technologies.
Producing and performing music with computers has served as the primary musical competency through which I have made social inroads in “the field” – from Kingston to Boston to cyberspace and beyond – and through which I have best been able to understand contemporary modes of performance and production. Music technologies today present a sort of global musical practice perhaps unprecedented in the degree to which musicians worldwide increasingly use the same tools (if in different ways) and share their music directly with peers and audiences. Just as music notation and transcription facilitate the work of music scholars researching traditions which themselves employ notation, it would seem that today’s worldwide web of musical interaction might be best interpreted and expressed through the very tools and technologies that artists and audiences are using to create and engage their music.
An interesting if unwitting anticipation of this argument might be heard in Richard Taruskin’s early 80s polemic, “On Letting the Music Speak for Itself” (1983). Though concerned more with perceptions of authenticity around the performance of Western art music, Taruskin asserts at one point that “music can never under any circumstances but electronic speak for itself” (53). This is something of an idealistic perspective on electronic music, emerging from the attempts of certain composers – Milton Babbitt, for example – to prevent the “imperfections” or interpretations of human performers from tainting “the work.” I’m not sure, however, that that there’s no “middle man” – as Taruskin implies – in the case of electronic music, especially in the unambiguously manipulated, mixed, and mashed styles of performance, production, and publication that I take as my subject today. In my own attempts at musically-expressed ideas about music, the express acknowledgment of my role as a creative agent and “critical remixer,” if you will, is absolutely crucial. As an explicit ethnomusicological practice, it is imperative to draw listeners’ attention to the express juxtaposition or manipulation of the music in question (though we might imagine more subtle, subversive examples as well). In this sense, we might think of musically-expressed ideas about music as bringing together what media theorist John Fiske calls a “writerly” text – i.e., that which “foregrounds its own nature as discourse” (94) – as well as a “producerly” text, which “relies on discursive competencies that the viewer [or in this case, listener] already possesses” (95). Nevertheless, I’d like to hear in Taruskin’s statement a belief in the potential of electronic technologies to let music speak for itself, to facilitate a music mode of discourse that can communicate with the complexity, logic, and subtlety of the speech mode of discourse – and perhaps, in some ways, more directly, more powerfully.
Along these lines we might also hear musically-expressed ideas about music as another attempt to address what Charles Seeger referred to as the “musicological juncture” – that seemingly inherent distance between communicating “about” one “system of human communication” (music) through another (speech) (16). Seeger’s vigilant warnings about the “shortcomings of linguocentrism in music scholarship” (Feld 1984:78) and his attempts to think through precise models for talking about music – not to mention new technologies for representing music (e.g., the melograph) – represent important precedents for the advocacy and use of music-technologies to reconcile some of the dilemmas presented by the musicological juncture. In seeking to amplify Seeger’s cautions as well as to move beyond questions about the distinction between the music mode and the speech mode, Steve Feld, in his allusively-titled essay, “Communication, Music, and Speech about Music” (1984), affirms both the speech and music modes even as he shifts the conversation toward a concern “more with the general question of communication” – which Feld defines succinctly as “the process of meaningful interpretation explicitly conceived as social activity” (77). Whereas Seeger distinguishes between speech as the communication of “world view as the intellection of reality” and music as the communication of “world view as the feeling of reality” (77), Feld attempts to move beyond such a distinction in his conception of music as a “feelingful” realm of experience, a useful concept not because it implies that music is “untranslatable and irreducible to the verbal mode but that its generality and multiplicity of possible messages and interpretations brings out a special kind of ‘feelingful’ activity and engagement . . . that unites the material and mental dimensions of musical experience as fully embodied” (91). Aligning himself with John Blacking in conceiving of music as a “primary modeling system . . . with unique and irreducible symbolic properties” (94), Feld reformulates Seeger’s distinction: music represents an “instantaneously apprehensible metaphorical expression of one symbolic order” while speech about music constitutes “metaphorical expression of another order that reflects secondary interpretive awareness, recognition, or engagement” (95).
Despite Feld’s compelling explication of the rich possibilities of the speech mode’s “metaphorical expression of another order,” it is this fundamental secondariness of speech about music which, in part, motivates the new forms of ethnomusicological practice I offer today. (I have, after all, provided a great deal of “speech about music about music” already, and – lest I appear too cavalier – I should note that I see musically-expressed ideas about music as complementing, not supplanting, current practices.) If “speech about music” is, as Feld asserts, “an attempt to construct a metaphoric discourse to signify awareness of the more fundamental metaphoric discourse that music communicates in its own right” (93), why aren’t we more concerned with expressing our ideas, our analyses, our constellations and conversations, in this “fundamental metaphoric discourse that music communicates in its own right”?
I believe the reasons are several, among them: disciplinary orthodoxies, institutional barriers, and the fact that the tools that make such an approach possible have only recently become widely available and accessible to those outside the realm of elite electronic music production. I also believe that the reasons for embracing these tools and approaches at this moment far outweigh the potential perils of going against the grain of convention with regard to academic publishing and notions of musical ownership and fair use. In this way, I recognize that such a position might be seen as activist, and so I would like to embrace this orientation as well, drawing one more intellectual lineage before offering a few examples.
Because musically-expressed ideas about music represent, in my opinion, an irresistible opportunity to share my research and perspectives with a wider group of interlocutors and listeners than, say, that of the fine group assembled here this morning, I see such an approach dovetailing in a number of ways with Charles Keil’s notion of “applied ethnomusicology.” Despite my embrace of what Keil in his seminal essay pejoratively refers to as “electrocuted music” (407), I think that we share an overriding concern with the impact that ethnomusicological practices and perspectives can have in the so-called public sphere, with the ways that, as Keil puts it, “our work can make a difference, that it can intersect both the world outside and the university in more challenging and constructive ways” (ibid.). Although Keil distrusts the mediation of musical practice by electronic technologies, in my own experience, especially as a volunteer in community centers where I’ve shared beat-making techniques with inner-city youths – not to mention as a blogger attempting to cultivate an international conversation about music, culture, and society – it seems clear that music software, and the technologies that enable one to share music and thoughts about it, have had a rather stimulating and democratizing effect on musical production and reception.
Today’s popular styles, most of which are made on computers and distributed on the internet, represent important ways to connect with young people and with non-expert peers more generally. Writing in the early 80s, before the advent and radical repurposing of more widely accessible electronic music technologies, Keil saw “the seductiveness of electric amplification and mediation” as making the application of ethnomusicology rather “difficult” (408). I suspect that Keil, in his commitment to “sustained,” local communities, might distrust such aspects of “mass culture” (407) as I here call to embrace, if in something of an interventionist manner. If we think instead through the lens of “mash culture,” we might hear what Keil bemoans as “packaged disco distortions” as things that can be repackaged, remixed, and repurposed, and to the same sort of critical ends, perhaps, as Keil sought to pursue (408). My position, then, attempts to grapple with the inevitable layers of mediation in modern cultural practice and seeks to make sense of (if not to signify on) such mediation – to provoke and to teach, to study and to play.
Digital technologies offer unprecedented possibilities, as Christopher Small might say, for us to music about music. If ethnomusicologists have exploited the mechanical reproduction of sound for some time now, we have in general limited our use to playing discrete musical examples in the classroom and recording performances in the lab or the field. Programs such as Ableton Live, however, facilitate the playing and mixing of multiple sound sources while offering a host of techniques for isolating and manipulating particular musical passages. Such software allows one to tap into the power of direct, digital reproduction where previously one might have had to rely on methods such as transposition (say, to a piano), translation, or transcription of musical examples. One can draw connections between different performances and styles, raise questions – both of a musical and socio-cultural nature – and highlight particular relationships in an immediate, audible manner.
My interest in the possibility of expressing ideas about music through music emerges not just from a consideration of the methodological literature but also from my experiences as a listener and performer. It was while acting as a participant-observer at clubs in Boston and on the blogosphere that I began to notice the subtle pedagogical power of particular forms of musical performance – in particular, DJ-mixing and mashup production, both of which are based on the art of juxtaposition, whether sequential or simultaneous – to shape one’s sense of the ways that musical style articulates, in a feelingful way, with ideas about community, tradition, influence, and interaction. The parallel emergence of genre-blending DJs and genre-bending mashup artists drew my attention to the intrinsic cultural critique in such juxtapositions. I became aware of the ways one could structure a musical argument – drawing genealogies, counterposing seemingly distant sounds, mixing and mashing the obvious as well as the unlikely. To mix in Richard Taruskin’s voice yet again, I was struck, repeatedly, by how, as he readily admits, “good performers can teach receptive scholars a great deal” (63). Thus, what I propose here is not so much an imposition of ethnomusicological method on mash culture, but a recognition and embrace of the ways that the two can work in dialogue, with music scholars highlighting the cultural work that mashups and mixes do as we employ these very forms to share our perspectives on music’s social and cultural significance – perhaps even issuing a creative challenge to producers and DJs to consider the forms and meanings of their mixes and mashes beyond clever or purely pleasurable correspondences in title, theme, tempo, rhythm, or key.
But enough speech about music about music! Let’s hear (and see) a few examples of music about music:
1) "the lion seeps tonight" (click on title for sound clips and commentary)
2) "musical examples" (click on title for sound clips and commentary)
3) "big gyptian" (click on title for sound clips and commentary)
If musically-expressed ideas about music remain an undeveloped area of our work, it will be, I suspect, due to some of the impediments I mentioned above. One major obstacle is the current copyright regime and the strictures it creates throughout the publishing world. In a climate in which editors and publishers discourage the quotation of song lyrics and even, in some cases, robust transcriptions, it is almost impossible to imagine attempting to share in a forum more public than one’s local classroom – or regional meeting – the kinds of musical-expressions I’ve just played for you. Although the internet would seem to present an obvious place to publish such multimedia works, the institutions from which we derive so much of our support – our departments and libraries for example – are not often very able, or willing, to push the legal definitions of “fair use” in the academy. Far too frequently, it falls to us as individuals to advocate for our rights on our own, which requires no small degree of technological fluency and no small amount of courage (or folly, depending where you stand).
Another factor which may hamper the advent of musically-expressed ideas about music is the often unspoken dichotomy among ethnomusicologists separating those primarily engaged with performance from those primary engaged in the production of written works, with the former often relegated to the role of enthusiast. Though I risk associating myself here with the undervalued camp in this implicit division, I am more interested in blurring these lines, promoting a practice of performance as scholarship without the attendant connotation of a certain lack of rigor. I would like to hope that the pedagogical and critical value of this approach, like Taruskin’s ideal electronic music, might speak for itself.
Finally, because such a practice can produce “musical examples” that are at once analytically interesting and aesthetically pleasing, the contexts for which they are suitable extend beyond the classroom to the club and the internet, among other non-traditional venues for ethnomusicological publication. One can thus communicate the issues and concepts of our field in a mode of discourse more accessible to those unfamiliar with our specialized lexicon.
For all the reasons above, then, we ethnomusicologists who are committed to “applying” our methods and sharing our perspectives with the wider world might consider musically-expressed ideas about music as offering a compelling way to advance our discipline amid the sea changes of the digital age.
Bull, Michael and Les Back, eds. 2003. "Introduction: Into Sound." In The Audio Culture Reader, 1-24. Oxford and New York: Berg.
Feld, Steven. 1984. “Communication, Music and Speech about Music.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 16:1-18.
Fiske, John. 1987. Television Culture. New York: Routledge.
Hood, Mantle. 1971. “The Music Mode of Discourse.” In The Ethnomusicologist, 230-242. New York: McGraw Hill.
Keil, Charles. 1982. “Applied Ethnomusicology and a Rebirth of Music from the Spirit of Tragedy.” Ethnomusicology 26(3): 407-411.
Seeger, Charles. 1987. "Speech, Music and Speech about Music." In Studies in Musicology 1935-1975, 16-35. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press.
Taruskin, Richard. 1983/1995. “On Letting the Music Speak for Itself.” In Text and Act, 51-66. Oxford: Oxford University Press.