Musicking: the crutch of exegesis

Ravel prom

When I go to concerts, I’ve always resented forking out for a programme. Such insights as it may bequeath are sandwiched between an array of glossy advertisements, reminding us of the mundane capitalism from which the event promises to afford us temporary refuge. Sometimes I do grudgingly buy a programme in search of some nugget of wisdom, but ideally I’d rather not be distracted from the experience of live musicking.

Having broached the issue here, sorry to go all world music on you again, but I can’t help going back to the ethnomusicological studies viewing Western Art Music (WAM) through the eyes and ears of a Martian, like Christopher Small’s Musicking or Bruno Nettl’s Heartland excursions. Concert audiences being highly literate, they tend to use that literacy as a crutch, a comfort blanket, seeking verbal explanation for an experience that might otherwise be more somatic and socially immersive. I wonder if we’re not quite prepared to immerse ourselves thus, almost as if we need some kind of distraction to allay potential embarrassment—while clubbers enter more fully into the live experience, audiences at rock concerts are distracted by filming the event on their phones…

Literacy is enshrined among the orchestral performers too, faithfully reproducing the printed score set before them; the conductor’s score on the podium serves as a holy text (the “quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance”), with only some maestros enhancing the experience by conducting from memory.

Ahouach
Ahouach
festivity, Morocco.

Conversely, at the musical gatherings of communities around much of the world (take your pick: Aboriginal dream songs, a Daoist ritual, an Alevi cem ceremony…)—where the participants may not even be literate—no need is felt to explicate the event in words, to list the performers and the conductor’s glittering list of recordings and forthcoming engagements, nor to tell us what Haydn was doing in London in 1795; rather, expressive culture is part of the fabric of the community, not hived off into a museum. Tickets aren’t on sale. I should add that there are plenty of events in Western societies where you don’t have to buy a ticket, or a programme, for an enriching musical experience—weddings, lullabies, Irish pub sessions

As to fieldworkers, no matter how they immerse themselves in a community, through the very nature of their constant questions (“Do you always do it like this? Is there a crucial part of the ceremony? Why are you inviting two groups of ritual specialists today?”) they will never attain the state of the inhabitants, for whom musical events form an intrinsic part of their lives. Of course, local participants may be quite capable of reflection, aware of nuances in performance, and concerned with the rules of variation; but such awareness is embedded in their hearts and bodies. The discursive mission of the ethnographer can only violate this sense.

Having already tried the patience of my Daoist master Li Manshan over the years by seeking to unravel the functions of the family ritual manuals, the changing performance practice since the 1950s, and so on, once I began depping occasionally for funerals with his Daoist band, I was able to add a most important insight: this is jolly hard work!

For the little segment of modern Western society that attends WAM concerts, the written exegeses of the programme booklet may enrich our appreciation of the event as well as distracting us from it. I now realise that the copious ads (for insurance companies, corporate sponsors, posh schools, retirement homes), so diligently blanked out by those drawn to the repertoire by some kind of spiritual bent, are just as revealing as the programme notes. Whether or not the ads are welcome, they convey a subliminal message, making a telling commentary on the social demographic of the audience. Concert-goers may be seduced by the myth of “music as a universal language”, but advertisers know better; programmes don’t tend to feature ads for food banks, helplines for immigrants, or offers of legal aid for striking health workers. As often in fieldwork, seemingly peripheral aspects, easily neglected, can afford valuable insights into the nature of the event.

The concerns of an audience for Mahler 7, apparently—
perhaps not so different from those of participants at a Chinese folk ritual:
providing for the security of the family?

Just saying, like… See also under Society and soundscape.

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