Heartland excursions

Ethnomusicology at home

Heartland

Following the recent loss of the great Bruno Nettl, I’ve been revisiting another of his stimulating books,

  • Heartland excursions: ethnomusicological reflections on schools of music (1995).

It’s thanks to works like this that we can now understand WAM within the context of musicking in societies throughout the world. Such “ethnography at home” belongs with a corpus of studies like those of Henry Kingsbury, Christopher Small, Ruth Finnegan, and more recently Stephen Cottrell.

Nettl opens his Introduction thus:

Let me be quite personal. What is it about ethnomusicology that has fascinated me for over some four decades? At first, it was the opportunity of looking at something quite strange, of hearing totally unexpected musical sounds and experiencing thoroughly unfamiliar ideas about music. Later, to learn to look at any of the world’s cultures, and listen to any of the musics, without being judgmental. And further on, the notion that one should find ways of comprehending an entire musical culture, identifying its central paradigms, and finding points of entry, or perhaps handles, for grasping a culture or capturing a music. And eventually, having also practiced the outsider’s view, to look also at the familiar as if it were not, at one’s own culture as if one were a foreigner to it.

He shows that while this idea was taking root in ethnomusicology by the 1980s, scholars native to the traditions they researched (Africans, Indians, Native Americans, Indonesians, and so on—and Chinese, of course) had been studying the musics of their own “cultural backyards” all along; as indeed had those studying urban minority cultures in North America and Europe, including popular genres.

Listing some major contributors to the field, Nettl explains his description of WAM as “the last bastion of unstudied musical culture”: ethnomusicologists

try to understand the musical culture through a microcosm, to provide an even-handed approach without judgment, to look as well as possible at the familiar as if one were an outsider, to see the world of music as a component of culture in the anthropological sense of that word, and to view their own music from a world perspective.

Here his main subject is his own musical “home”: schools of music in universities in the Midwest (rather than the world of professional WAM performance, for which see Small, Cottrell, and so on). He makes suggestive comparisons with other musical cultures, notably those of the Blackfoot, Tehran, and Madras.

Always seeking to elicit structures, he comments

A wonderful musical system may not mean a wonderful cultural system, only the desire for one; a musical system with sharp social distinctions may reflect a social system, or it may only remind us that the social system contains the seeds of inequality.

He ends the Introduction by explaining that his purpose is not (quite?) to criticize, reminding me of Small’s ambivalence and the doubts of his reviewers:

Although I may discuss Western classical music—and the subculture that practices and teaches it in one of its 20th-century venues—with a raised forefinger, or with tongue in cheek, or with wrinkled nose, and maybe even with a note of cynicism or sarcasm, and although I think it may reflect the cultural structure of a sometimes mean and unkind society, I nevertheless cannot imagine life without it.

RCMThe Royal College of Music, London.

In Chapter 1 Nettl views the music school as “something like a religious system or a social system in which both the living and the dead participate” (cf. aboriginal culture), viewing it as “a society ruled by deities with sacred texts, rituals, ceremonial numbers, and a priesthood”. He introduces the extraterrestrial ethnomusicologist from Mars, who

arrives at the mid-western school of music and begins work by listening to conversations, reading concert programs, and eavesdropping at rehearsals, lessons, and performances. The E.T. is overwhelmed by hearing a huge number of names of persons, but eventually it realizes that many of these persons are alive, but many are no longer living and yet the rhetoric treats them similarly. […]
The E.T. soon finds that many kinds of figures populate the school: students, teachers, administrators, members of audiences, musicians who are not present but are known, and a large number of musicians who are not living but are treated as friends in conversation. Among these are a few who seem to be dominant figures in the school. They constitute pantheon, the composers about whom one rarely if ever hears a critical word. Two seem to get more (well, just a tiny bit more) attention than the rest: their names are Mozart and Beethoven, and they appear to have the roles of chief deities.

He discusses

the Mozart and Beethoven of the present, as they are perceived by music lovers today, as living figures in today’s musical culture. My purpose is not, however, to participate in the now widely respected study of reception history, but to characterize contemporary art music culture.

Going on to describe pantheons and canons. By way of the dream songs of the Blackfoot, he discusses acts of creation, and the identity of the quasi-sacred composer. The “great works” of the WAM canon are akin to religious scriptures, served by a priesthood of performers and musicologists.

The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam; right, Mahler.

He discusses the significance of the names of the great composers engraved on concert halls and music schools, making the analogy with bumper stickers and T-shirts. What is the purpose here? Such buildings are like shrines where we should pay homage.

Despite the apparent claim to eternity, tastes change: as with other league tables, composers can be promoted or demoted over time. This can be entertaining; to Nettl’s instances from the USA, we might add the list of names at the Concertgebouw, where

around the balcony and ceiling of each are inscribed the names of the great composers, perceived from an earlier Dutch perspective: Wagenaar beside Tchaikovsky, Dopper next to Debussy, and Rontgen alongside Richard Strauss, while in the small hall Rubinstein and Hiller rub shoulders with Mozart and Beethoven.

Suggesting that the Mozart–Beethoven axis reflects the dualism of modern Western thought (genius and labour, light and heavy, Zeus and Prometheus), he notes that as in other pantheons, lesser deities have their distinct personalities too.

As in The study of ethnomusicology, Nettl explores the nature and role of genius. He discusses myths central to cultures, from the supernatural beaver of the Blackfoot to those of Mozart and Beethoven. He explores the notion of greatness—large orchestral performances of great works by great composers; and costume (“tuxedos, blazers, turtlenecks, robes, dhotis, Elizabethan garb, T-shirts with holes, leather jackets”) as an indicator of musical hierarchies:

Uniform accomplishes the depersonalization of the individual, giving the orchestra a faceless quality that is exacerbated by requirements of such uniform behaviour as bowing. […] Your uniform tells people what you do, and musical uniforms tell what kind of music musicians “do”.

He is alert to gender:

It is indicative of gender roles in American society that these uniforms derive principally from men’s dress, that there is less difference among their various female versions, and that women sometimes simply use the men’s versions of uniforms.

and always takes a broad view:

The tendency of musicians in Western culture to wear clothes different from their everyday attire contrasts with the custom of Plains Indian powwow singers, who wear precisely and determinedly what they might wear at other times—jeans, T-shirts, and farmers’ caps—despite the clearly special nature of musical performance. Perhaps they do so because virtually all others present—the dancers—are in costume, and the singers wish to separate themselves from them.

The symphony orchestra may be seen as a metaphor of industrial factory, political organization, and colonial empire. The concert master is “a kind of factory foreman keeping things in shape for the management”, while the conductor, with a “baton” of military origin, is the general:

he gets credits for victories, is listed on the album cover, takes bows, but is not heard and so risks little. […] The occupants of the first chairs are officers who have a certain amount of authority over their trrops, whose main task is to march—that is, bow and finger—in unison, mainly for the appearance of discipline. There is little democratic discussion. […] Conductors are often permitted or even expected to be eccentric; sport long hair, strange dress, and a foreign accent; and lead a strange life.

He enjoys reiterating the metaphor:

If the orchestra is a kind of factory or plantation for producing great music or an army for exhibiting perfection on the parade ground, it is principally in the service of the great masters.

Nettl unpacks the major role of notation in the culture, and the strange notion of “reading” music:

Having perhaps forgotten that they learned their first songs by hearing them, many of the denizens cannot conceive of a musical culture that does not use notation, and until recently my colleagues were inclined to marvel at my account of Indian musicians’ improvising interestingly for an hour, or Blackfoot Indians’ maintaining a repertory of hundreds of songs, keeping them separate and knowning which go where in rituals, without any visual mnemonics.

Notation is a meta-language:

Various musicians can communicate with each other and play in the same orchestra, even when they do not share a language. It is also a separating device in the sense that it enables individual musicians in orchestras or bands to play their parts without knowing what sounds will emerge or how the entire work sounds.

He wonders what it is that is transmitted:

We should ascertain whether a performer is required to play a piece exactly as he or she learns it, whether changes are permitted, whether there are interpretive choices, or even whether there is the requirement that a piece be altered every time it is rendered. The cultures of the world vary greatly in their answers to these questions.

He discusses the changing structures of concert programming, again comparing other cultures:

In a concert of the classical music of South India, the multi-sectioned improvised number called ragam-tanam-pallavi begins just after the midpoint, although there is actually no intermission. In Persian classical music, the conceptually central and most prestigious section, the improvised Āvāz, appears in the very centre of the full-blown performance.

He ends the chapter provocatively:

In this system of Western culture that produces wonderful music, what are the principles and values that are expressed and that underlie it? Here are intriguing concepts such as genius, discipline, efficiency, the hierarchical pyramid of musics and composers, the musician as stranger and outsider, the wonders of complexity, the stimulus of innovation, and music as a great thing with metaphorical extensions. But we are also forced to suggest dictatorship, conformity, a rigid class structure, overspecialization, and a love of mere bigness are all explicitly or by implication extolled. One may counter that the analysis is faulty, that instead of conformity there is cooperation, instead of authoritarians there are leaders. Or argue that the kind of social structure described, for all its undesirable aspects, is essential for the proper performance of music by the great masters, that in order for music of such an incredibly elite character as that of Mozart’s or Beethoven’s to be created and performed one must simply sacrifice independence and personal opinion, must undertake an incredible amount of discipline and accept dictates of an elite wherever they lead.

But Nettl never downplays the role of hierarchies in other traditions. He opens Chapter 2 by observing the competitive, even conflicting distinctions among performers in south Indian music, where caste, professional status, and gender play major roles. He then explores the opposing forces of our schools of music (teachers, students, administrators; performers and academics; singers, string players, wind players; conductors and conducted), reflecting the hierarchies, the “corporate ladders”, in American society. As ever he offers parallels: the progression by age of singing and playing didjeridu in Aboriginal societies, Persian radif, and south India again. He elaborates on the industrial model, with its customers (students and audiences) and products; and he discusses classes of musicianship, and competing central and peripheral roles. On the tension between music educationists and musicologists, he observes:

Performers see musicologists as a kind of police, imposing music history requirements on their students, making them take entrance examinations, and otherwise forcing them to jump through hoops of (they think) an essentially irrelevant defence of an obscure and ephemeral canon. They may see little need for their students to know about medieval and Renaissance music, or about the music of India and China.

Still more revealing is the division between singers and instrumentalists. Again he highlights gender, noting that in other societies (and indeed in our own popular music and jazz) women sing more commonly than playing instruments. Of course, in line with broader social changes over recent decades, women have come to play an increasing role in orchestras and as conductors. Nettl unpacks cultural stereotypes:

Men are traditionally thought in this society to be better at handling tools (e.g., instruments) and better at solving intellectual problems, whereas women are “closer to nature” and more “emotional”.

Such distinctions are to some extent submerged beneath the wider struggles between the music school and the rest of the university, the arts versus the sciences, and art music versus pop and rock.

He observes a further distinction between “bowing and blowing”, with string players generally more esteemed than wind players, mainly due to their greater place in the canon. And he notes the major role of the piano.

The maintenance of the stock of pianos is one of the major financial—and ideological—commitments of the school.

By way of a discussion of the importance of heritage (like Indian gharanas), adducing pedagogical lineages such as those of Theodor Leschetisky, Leopold Auer, and Ivan Galamian, he moves onto the various types of ensembles within the school. The role of the conductor (another godlike persona, further elevated in the professional world) is discussed at greater length in Small’s Musicking.and Norman Lebrecht, The maestro myth.

If the music school might seem a potential meeting-place for all musics, in Chapter 3 Nettl’s ethnomusicologist from Mars quickly notes that not even the various genres of WAM are treated on equal terms, and when other types of music are considered at all, it is only on special terms; indeed, in some ways

The music school functions almost as an institution for the suppression of certain musics.

This is worth noting, though it’s no great surprise: other musical institutions around the world (families in Rajasthan or Andalucia, and so on) also naturally privilege their own traditions; outside music too, other Western institutions have long been selective about including popular genres. Nettl likens such policing of choices to “purification rituals”. He suggests the model of concentric circles to evoke the taxonomy and relative value of musics at the school, with the canon at its centre; as in the world’s cultures at large, genres converge and collide. Again, he outlines the changing modern history of the school of music, with early and contemporary musics gaining a certain ground, as well as jazz, folk, and world music, noting degrees of bimusicality and polymusicality, as is routine outside the elite institution.

A Blackfoot man whom I knew claimed to have two musics central to his life—the intertribal powwow repertory of Plains Indian culture and the country and western music that he plays in a small band in a bar. He was also trying to learn, but slowly, some older and explicitly Blackfoot ceremonial music. He played trumpet in high school band and learned the typical repertory of such institutions (marches and some concert band music), he goes to a Methodist church and can sing several hymns from memory, and—a person of some curiosity—he has seen two opera or musical comedy productions at a nearby college.

Many institutions, however (his list includes the Met, the First Lutheran Church, groups in Tehran and Madras, and some radio stations), are mainly unimusical.

In North American society he finds a certain potential mediation between styles in the form of concerts, record stores, the film industry, and even the music school. He unpacks the various kinds of music presented in concert—quite diverse, yet still only rarely encompassing rock and Country.

The similarity of the concentric circle structure to a colonial system is suggestive. Musics outside the central repertory may enter the hallowed space by way of a servants’ entrance: classes in musicology. They may be accepted (performed) as long as they behave like the central repertory (performed in concerts with traditional structure) but remain separate (no sitar or electronic music in an orchestral and quartet concert). It is difficult to avoid a comparison with the colonialist who expects the colonized native to behave like himself (take up Christianity and give up having two wives) but at the same time to keep his distance (avoid intermarrying with the colonialist population).

He reminds us that each society has its own music history:

Nowhere is music simply “what happened”; it is always interpreted in ways that are determined by, and support, fundamental values and principles of culture. Even where societies have little information about their own musical past, they still have ideas and beliefs of what happened based on myth, folklore, and oral tradition; they also have some idea of how music history “works”, about its mechanisms of change and continuity.

While many cultures emphasize that their music is ancient, a pure expression of the culture, distinct from—and even superior to—the music of other societies, this notion is particularly central to WAM. Nettl ponders the “specialness” of Western music history.

Other societies also insist on the uniqueness of their own music, but they usually do not suggest that it ought to be adopted by all other cultures. Western musicians, like the Western politicians of yore, impose their music on the rest of the world. Western society regards its [art—SJ] culture as different from the rest, not only in degree but also in kind, and reflects this in its attitude towards music.

Nettl notes the contrasting stresses in WAM between the values of the old and the demand for innovation. In the potential meeting of musics he finds convergences and collisions, encouraged or inhibited by the preservation of purity, specialized audiences, and among the “peripheral” ensembles, the privileging of those that seem to reflect the values of the central canon.

He broaches the widely-used metaphors of the melting-pot and mosaic (and the bazaar is another one). Within the central repertoire the meeting of musics is blunted, while genres outside it—which are often unsuitable to concerts, for a start—are approximated to its ethos: the (modern) concert format rules. Mediation is limited: the peripheral genres are “permitted to maintain a modest spot in the institution if they bow to the values of the centre”. Again, all this may seem unremarkable, a common feature of musical groups around the world.

In Chapter 4, mustering his usual cross-cultural comparisons, Nettl further explores the school’s repertoire, with its central canon. But he begins with more Martian contextualizing, considering the obligatory songs of the music school and the wider society, “that everybody seems to know and can sing, a group that she may not find attractive but seems to hear a lot”: the ceremonial repertoire, such as songs for life-cycle and calendrical events and graduation ceremonies, including Happy Birthday, Auld lang syne, and Stars and stripes forever. Such songs might also seem to be “central”, yet “it is not what the denizens of the Music Building regard as their culture’s great music, and most of it is not serious music to them”; despite the ritual origins of much of the core repertoire,

in the art music world of today, it seems inappropriate to associate what we consider the best music with specific ritual or ceremonial functions; it is a way of denigrating the music’s stature.

Typically, he compares such pieces to ritual items like Peyote songs and the Proper and Ordinary of the Christian Mass. The rituals of the Music Building

are not carried out, in the last analysis, for the sake of humans and their necessary activities, but in the service of the great masters, whose works stand above the hustle and bustle of human coming and going and exist as art for art’s sake.

He now points out that rather than defining the “central” as “normal” or indeed “popular”, in the world of WAM it resides in the more abstruse “great works” of the canon, which he proceeds to unpack. Musical “greatness” seem to reside in bigness and complexity, and its centre lies between 1720 and 1920.

Do the typical musical structures of that time reflect the social structure that the American middle-class desires, or was it what society used to desire, or did musical structure and the relationship of musical and social organization just freeze at some point, as Small has suggested?

Nettl surmises that

the kinds of relationships that are evident in the the society of people in the Music Building, and in art music generally, play an important role in determining ways in which they conceive of the musical materials themselves—pieces of music, kinds of compositions, and instruments.

YYXY 86Cellist, Shanghai Conservatoire, 1986. My photo.

Noting that the taxonomy of instruments among cultures is modeled on important aspects of their worldviews, adducing Chinese and Arabic classifications, he considers “families” of instruments—a concept also adopted in African societies. He adduces the development of orchestras with SATB “choirs” of “traditional” instruments as a pervasive pattern of musical Westernization:

The four-part structure does reflect some major tensions in family and between genders and generations in society—and this perhaps accounts for its amazing tenacity.

He discusses the hierarchical concept of leaders and followers (accompanists) in music and society (cf. McClary on Brandenburg 5), going on to consider genres and forms within the “ruling class” of WAM.

Is it not conceivable that certain composers and groups of composers or musical cultures simply discovered better ways of producing music, and that this ability was recognized by later musicians and listeners?

Yet

We are tempted to ask whether modern music listeners are most comfortable with music reflecting a social structure that precedes the social upheavals of the French revolution and the 19th and early 20th centuries.

While noting that some of the canonical works, like Mozart operas, “go further than simply representing or going along with the inequalities and inequities of society”: they also provide a critique of the system. Nettl is

struck by the ways in which the critique is incorporated into a style that otherwise reflects a conservative view of society.

He explores the values of the concerto, with its “tension between art as the organization of forces and art as individual accomplishment”.

Under “the priesthood of the repertory” and the concept of equality he notes some of the most highly valued music, such as fugues,

in which there is textual equality of parts, and in which distinctions of power, volume, tone colour, and role specialization are relatively unimportant, a body of music that has, in addition to its sonic existence, a life in the abstract. This is music whose structural details play a greater role than the pleasurable nature of its sound, moment to moment. In general, it has no programmatic content and perhaps little in the way of obvious emotional connotations.

The discipline of the fugue “seems to result from a combination of technical and social principles”, and it had a significant afterlife even after the heyday of the art.

He reflects on the role of the string quartet in the canon—I’d love to see him or Susan McClary discussing the Große Fuge, so very full of conflict. And he surveys the quartet audience (“broken down by age and sex”, like Keith Richards).

Discussing “cultural performance”, Nettl again opens with the instructive instance of the Blackfoot powwow, going on to consider the tensions of the secular academic “commencement” ceremony, where the values and allegiances of the WAM community are celebrated and graduates admitted to the priesthood of elite music, an army to defend its beleaguered position in society. He offers an interlude on the colour pink, suggestive of subordination, curiously used for their academic hoods since 1895.

In his brief Afterword, Nettl, like Small, expands on the trepidation he expressed at surveying his heartland in such terms. In an important passage he considers the related work of Henry Kingsbury, Music, talent and performance: a conservatory system (1988), and its review by Ellen Koskoff (Ethnomusicology 34.2, 1990)—herself no hidebound defender of the autonomy of WAM, but a great ethnomusicologist focused on gender issues (see Flamenco 2, under “Gender”):

The impression Kingsbury gives to some readers is of a culture or subculture that is essentially mean and even brutish to most of its population. Ellen Koskoff’s review suggests that Kingsbury has “an axe to grind”; that he wishes to “laugh, poke fun at, or cry… at the grim reality of conservatory life” [cf. Mozart in the jungle]; and that he will only convince those musicians “who remember their own musical training with resentment and who want, deep down, to settle the score”. Kingsbury does not totally deny these aims in his response, because he closes his rejoinder by citing Howard Becker to the effect that social scientists must make judgments and that “appeals for ‘balanced’ accounts in the social sciences are all to often merely veiled admonitions to endorse the status quo”. Kingsbury would presumably like to see change in the conservatory, change that would improve life and maybe improve music, and I applaud and agree. Even the rosiest picture would have to contain its share of grimness. And so I, too, would like to see change, although at this point I am not sure from what to what.

It’s a complicated place, the Heartland music school, existing as it does at a number of crossroads. It’s a place that aims specifically to teach a set of values, and it does so not only through practical instruction but also through the presentation of a quasi-religious system. It’s a place that puts “music” first and looks at music as if it were a reflection of a homogeneous human society. It is an umbrella under which different approaches to music can coexist, interact, and argue. It collects many kinds of music, brought from many places and composed at many different times, putting them all under one roof but making them all march to the drummer of the central classical tradition. It reflects the culture in which it lives, but it also tries to direct that culture in certain directions. […]

However, I have tried to avoid endorsing anything. If an explicitly critical stance will preach only to the converted, then perhaps an approach that tries to present a balanced picture might show champions of the status quo why they should depart from it. But that will have to be their own choice. An article of faith with most ethnomusicologists is that they should try their best to avoid disturbing the cultures they study or introducing new musics and practices, and that they should also restrain themselves from unduly encouraging musical cultures to eschew change in order to preserve the past. And, in my role of ethnomusicologist, I wish to abide by this principle, even when considering the culture in which I live. As much as I can.

Yet again I relish the lucid accessibility of Nettl’s style. As a system within a particular society, the rules of WAM deserve unpacking just like those of any other. But, just as Nettl implies, while WAM scholars and aficionados would benefit greatly from such an analysis, I suspect they may be the last to read studies like this; still, they should feel stimulated rather than threatened by such an approach.

For more armchair ethnography from my Chiswick home, see here.

 

 

 

 

Musicking

There is no such thing as music. Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do.

Musicking

It should go without saying that “music” (and, by extension ritual), in all its manifestations, is not some trivial diversion; nor is it some disembodied object for solitary contemplation. Rather, it’s a basic part of what makes us human.

Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening (1998), by Christopher Small (1927–2011), is already a classic. While his insights have long been part of the basic credo of ethnomusicology, the book is more accessible than some weightier tomes, and deserves a far wider readership—not least in Daoist ritual studies…

A deeply personal work, it’s also part of a corpus that approaches WAM with the same mindset that we would apply to any genre of world music (cf. Nettl, Kingsbury, McClary, Taruskin, Finnegan, and more recently Cottrell; note also Ethnomusicology forum 20.3 (2011), “The ethnomusicology of Western Art Music”, with Laudan Nooshin’s introduction here), inviting a global view of the meanings of performance within social interaction (cf. Das land ohne Musik).

It’s worth citing the opening at some length, as it expresses such a basic way of understanding:

In a concert hall, two thousand people settle in their seats, and an intense silence falls. A hundred musicians bring their instruments to the ready. The conductor raises his baton, and after a few moments the symphony begins. As the orchestra plays, each member of the audience sits alone, listening to the work of the great, dead, composer.

In a supermarket, loudspeakers fill the big space with anodyne melodies that envelop customers, checkout clerks, shelf assistants and managers, uniting them in their common purpose of buying and selling.

In a big stadium, fifty thousand voices cheer and fifty thousand pairs of hands applaud. A blaze of colored light and a crash of drums and amplified guitars greet the appearance onstage of the famous star of popular music, who is often heard on record and seen on video but whose presence here in the flesh is an experience of another kind. The noise is so great that the first few minutes of the performance are inaudible.

A young man walks down a city street, his Walkman clamped across his ears, isolating him from his surroundings. Inside his head is an infinite space charged with music that only he can hear.

A saxophonist finishes his improvised solo with a cascade of notes that ornament an old popular song. He wipes his forehead with a handkerchief and nods absently to acknowledge the applause of a hundred pairs of hands. The pianist takes up the tune.

A church organist plays the first line of a familiar hymn tune, and the congregation begins to sing, a medley of voices in ragged unison.

At an outdoor rally, with bodies erect and hands at the salute, fifty thousand men and women thunder out a patriotic song. The sounds they make rise toward the God whom they are imploring to make their country great. Others hear the singing and shiver with fear.

In an opera house, a soprano, in long blond wig and white gown streaked with red, reaches the climax of her mad scene and dies pathetically. Her death in song provokes not tears but a roar of satisfaction that echoes around the theater. As the curtain descends, hands clap thunderously and feet stamp on the floor. In a few moments, restored to life, she will appear before the curtain to receive her homage with a torrent of applause and a shower of roses thrown from the galleries.

A housewife making the beds in the morning sings to herself an old popular song, its words imperfectly remembered.

So many different settings, so many different kinds of action, so many different ways of organizing sounds into meanings, all of them given the name music.
[…]
But none has succeeded in giving a satisfactory answer to the question—or rather, pair of questions—What is the meaning of music? and What is the function of music in human life?—in the life, that is, of every member of the human species.

It is easy to understand why. Those are the wrong questions to ask. There is no such thing as music.

Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do. The apparent thing music is a figment, an abstraction of the action, whose reality vanishes as soon as we examine it at all closely. This habit of thinking in abstractions, of taking from an action what appears to be its essence and of giving that essence a name, is probably as old as language; it is useful in the conceptualizing of our world but it has its dangers. It is very easy to come to think of the abstraction as more real than the reality it represents, to think, for example, of those abstractions which we call love, hate, good and evil as having an existence apart from the acts of loving, hating, or performing good and evil deeds and even to think of them as being in some way more real than the acts themselves, a kind of universal or ideal lying behind and suffusing the actions. This is the trap of reification, and it has been a besetting fault of Western thinking ever since Plato, who was one of its earliest perpetrators.

Note how he could have used more “exotic” examples from further afield, but rather chooses cases that we take for granted in Western society. As he goes on to unpack the meanings of a symphony concert with Geertzian thick description, he doesn’t belittle his (and my) heritage, but asks What’s really going on here? In a personal passage that will strike chords, he observes:

It is my heritage and I cannot escape it, and I understand well the continuing urge on the part of performers, as well as of musicologists, theorists, and historians, to explore those repertories and learn their secrets. I myself continue to love playing such piano works of that tradition as are within the reach of my modest technique and take every opportunity to do so, both in public and in private.

But from the moment when I began to attend large-scale public concerts, I have never felt at ease in that environment. Loving to hear and to play the works but feeling uncomfortable during the events at which they are presented has produced a deep ambivalence that has not lessened over the years. Now, in my seventy-first year, I have come nearer to pinning down what is wrong. I do not feel at ease with the social relationships of concert halls. I can say that they do not correspond with my ideal of human relationships. For me there is a dissonance between the meanings—the relationships—that are generated by the works that are being performed and those that are generated by the performance events.
[…]
It seems obvious to me that performing these works under certain circumstances generates different meanings from performing them under others. For instance, when I, an amateur pianist using material provided by Josef Haydn under the name of Piano Sonata in E-flat and charging nothing for admission, play the piano to a couple hundred of my fellow citizens of the little Catalan town where I live, people from a variety of occupations that could be called working-class as well as middle-class, most of whom I know and who know me, at least by sight in the street, I think: we are together making different meanings from those made when a famous virtuoso pianist performs from that same material to an anonymous paying audience in a big concert hall. At the same time, since we are both playing from the same material, making more or less the same sounds in the same relationships, there must also be a residue of meanings that are common to both performances. Maybe if we knew completely where the differences and the similarities lay, we should understand completely the nature of musical performance. In any case the first step is taken when we ask the question What’s really going on here?

Rotunda

Contrasting the social behaviour reflected in and encouraged by earlier buildings (like the Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens, painted by Canaletto in 1754, with people standing or walking about, talking, coming and going), Small unpacks the assumptions of modern concert-going—such as architecture, planning, organization, tickets, programming, programme booklets, sponsorship, dress codes, behaviour.

On the 19th-century invention of the concert hall, sealed from the outside world, with its “quiet opulence” and discreet colours:

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this building is that it is here at all. For musicking, even large-scale musicking, does not need a building such as this.

and the audience:

A grand ceremonial space such as this imposes a mode of behavior on those who are unaccustomed to it. They become somewhat self-conscious, lowering their voices, muting their gestures, looking around them, bearing themselves in general more formally.
[…]
The very form of the auditorium tells us that the performance is aimed not at a community of interacting people but at a collection of individuals, strangers even, who happen to have come together to hear the musical works. We leave our sociability behind at the auditorium doors.

Small cites George Lipsitz’s comment on sharing “intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers”. Indeed, as in other contexts like theatre, sporting events and popular concerts,

the building is designed to discourage social contact between performers and listeners.

By contrast with the premiere of the Rite of spring,

today’s concert audiences pride themselves on their good manners, on knowing their place and keeping quiet.

At rock festivals, as at any kind of musical event, there were, and are, right and wrong ways to behave, right and wrong ways to dress, to speak and respond, both to one another and of course to the musical performances.

Comparing WAM musicking in the 18th century and today,

That audience took from the performance what they wanted, and we take from it what we want. Like any other building, a concert hall is a social construction, designed and built by human beings in accordance with certain assumptions about desirable human behavior and relationships. These assumptions concern not only what takes place in the building but go deep into the nature of human relationships themselves.

Musicking is reduced to consumers and producers. Meanwhile scholars of Western music,

rather than directing their attention to the activity we call music, whose meanings have to be grasped in time as it flies and cannot be fixed on paper, have quietly carried out a process of elision by means of which the word music becomes equated with “works of music in the Western tradition.”
[…]
This privileging of Western classical music above all other musics is a strange and contradictory phenomenon. On the one hand, it is claimed to be an intellectual and spiritual achievement that is unique in the world’s musical cultures; […] on the other hand, it appeals to only a very tiny minority of people, even within Western industrialized societies; classical music records account for only around 3 percent of all record sales.
[…]
It is regarded as somehow unique and not to be subjected to the same modes of inquiry as other musics, especially in respect to its social meanings. […] It is in fact a perfectly normal human music, an ethnic music if you like, like any other and, like any other, susceptible to social as well as purely musical comment.

He rails against the concept of “autonomous art”, encapsulated in Walter Benjamin’s maxim “The supreme reality of art is the isolated, self- contained work” (sure, discredited in more enlightened circles, but still widespread), where

What is valued is not the action of art, not the act of creating, and even less that of perceiving and responding, but the created art object itself. Whatever meaning art may have is thought to reside in the object, persisting independently of what the perceiver may bring to it. It is simply there, floating through history untouched by time and change, waiting for the ideal perceiver to draw it out.
[…]
It suggests also that music is an individual matter, that composing, performing and listening take place in a social vacuum; the presence of other listeners is at best an irrelevance and at worst an interference in the individual’s contemplation of the musical work as it is presented by the performers.

Instead,

Neither the idea that musical meaning resides uniquely in musical objects nor any of its corollaries bears much relation to music as it is actually practiced throughout the human race. Most of the world’s musicians—and by that word I mean, here and throughout this book, not just professional musicians, not just those who make a living from singing or playing or composing, but anyone who sings or plays or composes—have no use for musical scores and do not treasure musical works but simply play and sing, drawing on remembered melodies and rhythms and on their own powers of invention within the strict order of tradition.
[…]
Music’s primary meanings are not individual at all but social. Those social meaning are not to be hived off into something called a “sociology” of music that is separate from the meaning of the sounds but are fundamental to an understanding of the activity that is called music.

On orchestral musicians, Small’s remarks anticipate Cottrell. As he notes, they live in a paradoxical world. Highly tuned virtuosi, proud of their skills, generally well paid, their profession enjoying a social status that is respectable and even considered glamorous:

Although any glamor they themselves might initially have felt the job to have quickly wears off under everyday work pressures, [cf. Alan Bennett!] they do feel themselves generally to be heirs and guardians of a great tradition.

But most orchestral musicians do not investigate their feelings about this very deeply. […] They resemble, in fact, the members of any other occupational group in that they will engage in any amount of shop talk, gossip, and locker-room humor.
[…]
In general their attitude is more that of the craftsman than that of the autonomous artist.

Like Cottrell, Small notes the “guerrilla warfare” they wage on over-paid conductors.

With its rigid division of labour and social hierarchy,

the modern professional symphony orchestra is in fact the very model of a modern industrial enterprise.
[…]
What for members of the audience may at its best be a transcendental experience of communication with a great musical mind, for the orchestra members may be just another evening’s work and even, for some, a time of boredom and frustration.

On the conductor—a rather recent job-description, with a defined geographical base, of course—Small discusses the changing authority of the “heroic” conductor (or industrial boss), “the incarnation of power” (cf. Lebrecht):

He is the magus, the shaman, who immerses himself in the sacred book and summons up the spirit of the dead composer.

He goes on to unpack the myth of the Great Composers, and the sacrosanct nature of the score. Again he notes things we take for granted—like the music stand, a humble piece of furniture without which the performance could not take place. As he observes, notation is the exception rather than the rule in human musicking.

Invoking Susan McClary, he explores the dramatic conventions of tonal harmony, and is disturbed by the violence of Beethoven.

This is the great paradox of the symphony concert, that such passionate outpourings of sound are being produced by staid-looking ladies and gentlemen dressed uniformly in black and white, making the minimal amount of bodily gesture that is needed to produce the sounds, their expressionless faces concentrated on a piece of paper on a stand before them, while their listeners sit motionless and equally expressionless listening to the sounds. Neither group shows any outward signs of the experience they are all presumably undergoing. It is no wonder that members of other musical cultures should find it a curious, if not downright comical, scene.

All this is punctuated with three theoretical Interludes exploring the nature of performance—The language of gesture (based on Bateson), The mother of all the arts (on ritual), and Socially constructed meanings.

While it is fruitful to view WAM as just another genre of world music, it may seem like an eccentric form of behaviour in many respects. But despite the prestige claimed for it by elites, it is far from a dominant form of musicking worldwide.

Criticisms
Though the book has been criticized, it’s a refreshing and valuable tirade. Those deeply invested in WAM will feel threatened (tough); even ethnomusicologists have reservations about his romantic contrast with ideal local communities.

In the final chapter he evokes a solitary African herdsman playing the flute. Even with no clear social relations involved, he imagines the technology of the instrument’s construction (based on personal relationships), and the generational experience involved in mastering its playing, with its different style of complexity from which musicians in Western industrial societies enjoy, and its delicate inflections, timbre, and rhythms.

Whatever he is playing, it will not be invented from nothing. No human being ever invents anything from nothing but is guided always in his invention by the assumptions, the practices and the customs of the society in which he or she lives—in other words, by its style.
[…]
How he plays will be within the limits of the style he has received from the group, and in playing in that style he will be exploring, affirming, and celebrating the concepts of relationships of the group, as well as his own relationships within it and with it.

Such relationships, he notes, stand along a continuum of conformity–innovation.

He himself notes that some of his friends found this characterization

too much like a totalized representation of the “other” that has beset European thinking about the rest of the human race.

In the Postlude he contrasts the Western divorce of musicianship from society with the way that children grow into music in traditional societies.

I report this, not to demonstrate any inherent superiority that Africans may have in this regard (it happens, in fact, to various extents and in various ways, in most traditional societies), and certainly not in any sentimental spirit of harking back to imagined “simpler” times, but to show that the universal distribution of musical ability is not a fantasy but in many societies and cultures an everyday reality.
[…]
The big challenge to music educators today seems to me to be not how to produce more skilled professional musicians but how to provide that kind of social context that leads to real development and to the musicalizing of the society as a whole.

Earlier he observes,

What is going on in this concert hall is essentially the same as that which goes on during any musical performance. Members of a certain social group at a particular point in its history are using sounds that have been brought into certain kinds of relationships with one another as the focus for a ceremony in which the values—that is, the concepts of what constitute right relationships—of that group are explored, affirmed, and celebrated.

Despite his explanations, I still take issue with his “explored, affirmed, and celebrated” mantra, when (as he would have been the first to observe) all kinds of performances (whether in the concert hall or the notional village community) are so contested and conflicted, often taking place in social milieux that are far from ideal (cf. Geertz).

* * *

Small’s plea for musics of the world to take their place within academic musicology has to some extent already been realized (though see here). Like other disciplines, ethnomusicology can be arcane, jargon-ridden, and forbidding, but Small spells out its mission in an accessible fashion. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m all for detailed analysis of musicking in every society, including WAM. However—and mutatis mutandis this is a caricature that runs through academia since the 1960s—corduroyed professors churning out earnest lectures analysing Renaissance polyphony are now up in arms that their birthright is being threatened by trendy young whippersnappers presiding over jam sessions with nose-flutes and bongos. ** “Whatever next—will women will be allowed to vote? PC gone mad if you ask me.”

Small (and indeed ethnomusicology) provides us with the tools not only to appraise musicking in all kinds of changing social contexts (a Prom, a Sardinian festa, a Chinese or Javanese funeral)—to make critical reflections, observing how participants experience such events as successful or flawed.

In the end I love this book for raising issues that were so long submerged.

 

** More harmless fun for all the family: create your own parody of the perfect fusion gig, along the lines of

Throat-singing gala with Dame Kiri and Ry Cooder—Afro-Cuban grooves, kora, and didgeridoo!!! In a yurt, FFS.

For the abolition of world music, see here.

 

 

Flamenco, 1: palmas—soleares, bulerías

*Revised, with some sections moved to Part 3! Part 2 is here.*

palmas

Tony and Two-Jags explore the intricacies of flamenco palmas.

Coinciding with the thrilling Portugal–Spain match the other day was a flamenco gig in Chiswick with the splendid Ramon Ruiz.

Unlike the football, it’s not a competition, but much as I love fado (and you just have to listen to the Carminho song there; see also here), I’ve long been enchanted by flamenco. One benefit of the life of a touring WAM muso: how blessed to have had the chance to wind down from performing Bach Passions in Andalucia in time for late-night sessions in flamenco bars.

Acton

The rustic Andalucian charm of Ramon’s courtyard. Photo: Ramon Ruiz.

Recently my passion has been reinvigorated by occasional palmas sessions with Ramon. Flamenco is yet another illustration of the wonders of all the diverse regional cultures throughout Europe (e.g. east Europe, or Italy). And despite the efforts of those who would float off into an imperial ocean idyll of tweed and Morris dancing, London is still a wonderful microcosm of world music! You can find everything…

YouTube opens up a rich world of flamenco, not least the fantastic documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante. [1] Here’s a briefer introduction to flamenco as part of social life:

This is just a preliminary reccy—more to follow.

* * *

Flamenco is about as far as you could possibly get from its cosy tourist image—Torremolinos, castanets, rose between the teeth, and all that. Like tango or rebetika, its life is “among the folk”, as the Chinese would say: at lineage gatherings, at informal fiestas and local peña clubs; and it’s rooted in the exorcizing of suffering. Rather than the commodified tablau shows, one lives in hope of sitting in on a juerga among aficionados (cf. the touring musos’ game). [2]

* * *

Like Lorca [name-dropper—Ed.], my taste draws me to the intensity of cante jondo “deep singing”, with genres like seguiriyas and martinetes. But my Spanish is rudimentary, I don’t play guitar, and No Way am I going to dance (like, ever)—so a great way of learning is to get a basic grasp of the wonderful palmas hand-clapping that accompanies singing, guitar, and dancing. Not to mention foot stamping, and the cajón box.

Come to that, palmas is a great way for British kids to become musically competent, growing into music—as Ramon finds in his school workshops.

Like the human voice, our hands, our bodies, are the most elemental musical instruments. Hand-clapping, relegated in northern societies to children’s games, is a captivating art in some Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures. And it’s belatedly come into its own with so-called minimalism—Steve Reich’s Clapping music,

and Anna Meredith’s exhilarating Hands free.

* * *

Complementing my explorations of YouTube clips, I’m finding some practical sites useful, like this and this; also instructive are Ian Biddle’s chapter on cante and the Appendix “Cante, definition and classification” of Paul Hecht’s The wind cried.

As usual, we need an overview of the genres: this tree suggests the riches of all the various palos styles.

And then, within all these palos are the compas rhythmic patterns—embodied by specific (hands-on!) palmas. Not to mention all the local styles of towns throughout Andalucia—Seville, Jerez, Cádiz, Morón de la Frontera, Granada…

For a sophisticated model of metrical analysis, see here.

Palmas seems like a relatively easy way of getting a basic grip on flamenco. But focusing narrowly on the rhythms, it still takes me a lot of time to absorb the important clues from the guitar and voice that are equally basic.

Ramon suggests I begin with soleares (linguistic note: associated with soledad, like saudade in fado!) and buleríasthe latter faster, difficult but much prized.

Here’s a soleares from Perrate de Utrera:

And bulerías by the de Utrera sisters, with Diego del Gastor:

I start by internalising the basic 12-beat cycle while swimming, taking breaths before the accents:

       1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

or rather (beginning on 12)

12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

So it’s a recurring hemiola* pattern; that should be simple enough, but at first, for pedantic hidebound WAMmies like me it feels as if it begins on the “wrong” beat. (¿¡Surely this is as wacky as the Spanish upside-down question and exclamation marks?!). One soon learns to bounce off the 12, but I find it harder to internalize the varying patterns in the second half of the cycle.

Anyway, you can already hear just how complex the rhythmic variations are. As always, if you’re hampered by a classical education like wat I is (innit), or if you don’t happen to come from a long lineage of Andalucian blacksmiths, then you have to unlearn any ingrained assumptions from WAM and just immerse yourself in the whole style through the experience of the body.

I think of Indian tala; or even the way that household Daoists in Yanggao pick up, largely by ear, their ritual percussion items—seemingly simple but endlessly varied, with large cymbals and drum interacting. Indeed, the way that the clappers often leave the main beat empty reminds me somewhat of Li Manshan “calling the beat” with a busy drum pattern just before the down-beat on the small cymbals.

It’s no good just going oom-pa-pa like a waltz—in one video, Ramon spots some old ladies at the back doing just that! And then there’s the nuance of fuertes hard and sordas soft dynamics, and all the contra-tiempo cross-accents between multiple clappers.

As Ramon explains, it’s a series of questions and answers. I’ll have a better handle on this once I’ve learned to latch onto the guitar, with its chord change on 3, and the extra cadential flourish ending on 10—though the beginner may find few landmarks in between those points. The YouTube option of slowing down playback can come in handy.

Here’s yet another fine programme in the Rito series, with a series of bulérias (featuring, after Camaron, Cristobalina Suarez with young sleeping child from 23.20—see also my Part 2):

This is seriously complex funky stuff. No sooner have you learned a basic pattern than you find how variable it is—like sonata form. Given its considerable theorization (as if that mattered), that theory is orally transmitted, and the brilliant exponents are often semi-literate. But while insisting that flamenco should absolutely be admissible to the ranks of “serious music” (whatever that means), the only important point is that it’s extraordinarily life-enhancing.

For more bulérias, see here.

* * *

I also love it when all extraneous elements are stripped away: when everyone just claps their complex patterns in counterpoint with the dancer’s feet. Or the cantes a palo seco, when the singer dispenses entirely with guitar and even palmas, just howling in solitary pain… I’ll pursue these songs in my third post.

Talking of the Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco series, with all its precious archive footage, the programmes on the Utrera sisters illustrate the compilers’ fine ethnography of lineages, changing society and music, the amateur–professional continuum, and all the subtle distinctions that folk musicians always make:

All this wealth of musicking on our doorstep! I’ll keep studying and updating this post. The next post in this series outlines gender, politics, wine, and deviance!

As an aperitivo for the third post we just have to have a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:

 

*BTW, lutenist Paul O’Dette told me this story on a long tour of the USA:
Summer school in Utah on baroque music. A professor from England solemnly writes “HEMIOLA” on the board and begins to explain the occasional use of three groups of two within a triple metre. One of the local students guffaws,
“HEY! We don’t have no hee-my-olas in Utaww!”
For another vignette from that tour, see here.

 

[1] In a nice illustration of how the concepts of “singing” and “music” are culturally conditioned (see also Is music a universal language?), the word flamenco doesn’t appear in the series title!

[2] Among a wealth of sources, in English one might start with the flamenco chapter of The Rough Guide to world music; William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics and popular culture; ethnographies like  D.E. Pohren, A way of life and Paul Hecht, The wind cried; and for cante jondo, see e.g. Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song. Some of these are cited in Parts 2 and 3 of this series.

Deviating from behavioural norms

Deviation

In Paris with the Li family Daoists, 2017.

Under my fetish for taxonomy, the new subhead for humour under the WAM category contains many orchestral stories.

As Stephen Cottrell observes, they may often be subsumed under what Merriam calls the musician’s “licence to depart from behavioural norms”.

Many, indeed, relate to maestro-baiting (see also conducting tag), like John Wilbraham‘s celebrated comments.

Several stories go in pairs, like

And there’s an indecent wealth of Matthew Passion stories, such as Mein Gott.

Spreading the net wider, for instances of deviant behaviour

  • in Iberian folk traditions, see here and here;
  • and for jazz, e.g. Chet Baker, here and here.

Of course, it’s not only musicians who may have license to depart from behavioural norms, as is clear from the career of Bumbling Boris.

Armchair ethnography: Chiswick

Chiswick old map

Why bother traipsing halfway around the world to hang out in poor dusty Chinese villages, I hear you ask, when my home “village” of Chiswick offers such rich potental for local history?! OK, it’s not noted for its Daoist ritual; its cosy church fêtes can’t quite compete with the bustle of Chinese temple fairs; and doubtless any séances held there were rather different from those of the Yanggao spirit mediums—but still. For my culture shock on coming home, see here; and for flamenco in Chiswick, here.

In that latter post I cite Nigel Barley‘s classic The innocent anthropologist, and talking of armchair ethnography, in a chapter bearing the fine title “Honi soit qui Malinowski” he has some wise words qualifying the demonology of missionaries:

It was something of a betrayal of anthropological principles even to be talking to missionaries: anthropologists have been obsessed with keeping themselves free of this taint since Malinowski, self-styled inventor of fieldwork, first issued his impassioned cry to the ethnographer to get off the mission veranda and go out into the villages. Still, I would be on my guard against the devil’s wiles and might save myself much time by talking to people who had actually lived in Dowayoland.

To my great surprise, I was received with much warmth. Far from being rampant cultural imperialists, I found the missionaries—except for one or two of the old school—to be extremely diffident about imposing their own views.

Evoking some fine work by missionaries in China such as Grootaers, he notes:

It was surprising how much work was being done on the local cultures and languages, translation work, pure linguistic research and attempts to adapt liturgy to local symbolic idiom; my own research would have been quite impossible without the mission’s support.

“Ethnomusicology at home” has an impressive tradition too: from Ruth Finnegan’s The hidden musicians (on the exotic musical rituals of the tribes of Milton Keynes) to wise analyses of WAM by Nettl, Kingsbury, and Cottrell, as well as Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the jungle.

* * *

I’ve already noted the leaning pillarbox of Chiswick. The Chiswick timeline project provides fine material on the area’s changing topography with artwork and maps (albeit not by Artisan the Sixth or Li Manshan), also now adorning the archway by Turnham Green station. Would that such material were available for Li Manshan’s village of Upper Liangyuan! This is just the kind of community project that can be achieved in a bourgeois enclave, even as desperate families are being incinerated a mere stone’s throw away in North Kensington.

This advertisement from 1882 (“Annual death rate under 6 per thousand”) is particularly drôle, evoking flawed campaigns like that for Chumleys vinegar:

healthy Chiswick

“Come and live in Chiswick, your statistical chance of survival is relatively high”.

Blake

Peter Blake, Chiswick Empire Theatre, 2017. I hardly need point out the Sgt Pepper link.

* * *

painting of pool

John Lavery (1856-1941), Chiswick Baths, 1929.

Even without getting onto Chiswick House, or Bedford Park and its fine architecture in the Dutch style, I’m intrigued to learn about the history of my regular swimming pool (see also here), the New Chiswick Pool—like the “old” and “new” musics of the Tang dynasty, and the stile nuovo of 17th-century Italian music, it was new when they chose the name. [1]

Chiswick Baths opened in Edensor road in 1910:

With their innovative architecture—including the double-decker changing cabins—and risqué mixed bathing sessions, this watery west London meeting place was a prototype for the classic art deco lidos, promoting freedom, frolicking and fun [a Chiswick variant on fado, football, and Fátima].

You can watch charming clips here, from 1924 and 1927 (“California hasn’t a monopoly of bathing belles or the latest in beach costumes”)—and many more on that site.

No matter what doom and gloom was going on elsewhere in the country [Phew–Ed.], the flighty, sprightly, bright young bathers of Chiswick’s “inland seaside” could be found embracing a sense of gay abandon.

Just as with Daoist ritual in Yanggao, it’s safe to say that Things ain’t what they used to be.

But by 1981, the council found the lido (as it had become known) too expensive to maintain, and it was closed, amidst considerable—if perhaps genteel—protest. Half of the site became home to the Moldovian Embassy (“Not a lot of people know that”), while by 1991 the New Chiswick Pool was opened on the other half.

So that’s the background of my regular swimming pool; it’s closed for repairs at the moment, so it’ll be even newer soon (with or without the gay abandon).

In case you haven’t spotted my fictional address at the foot of the home page, I rather like it:

Priory of the Azure Cloud Bottle* within the Belvedere of Tenuous Obscurity, Chiswick
京西微玄觀內碧雲罐庵

*Azure Cloud Bottle: Bombay Sapphire

 

[1] See Picken and Nickson, Music from the Tang court 7, ch.3; for stile nuovo, among much analysis, I’m dead keen on Susan McClary, Feminine endings, ch.2.

 

 

A stunning keyboard break

The work of Susan McClaryboth for its ideas and its lively language, has prompted such a major “disciplinary explosion” in musicology, with her iconic book Feminine endings. Her ideas, “received as radical—even outrageous—within musicology, only brought to music studies the kind of projects that had long since become standard fare in most other areas of the humanities” (p.ix).

McClary’s work shouldn’t be reduced to soundbites, but alongside astute gender-based discussions of a broad range of music from Monteverdi to Madonna, Carmen to Laurie Anderson, many passages have both inspired and shocked—her detailed unpackings of patriarchal assumptions, such as on Beethoven (“assaultive pelvic pounding… and sexual violence “), or the “erotic friction” of Italian trio sonatas (“two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions”—an interactive texture that was later displaced).

Meanwhile, listening again to Brandenburg 5 recently after my post on his fawning letter to its churlish recipient, I was reminded of one of McClary’s most famous accounts, from her 1987 article “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach year”.

Somehow I long took for granted Bach’s “frenzied” harpsichord solo near the end of the 1st movement—McClary observes how our senses are dulled by familiarity with later romantic concertos (and anyway we fiddlers tend to think it’s none of our business—we know our place, which is precisely McClary’s argument). So I’d like to run through the way she unpacks it; whatever you think, she’s always stimulating (see also this post).

She begins by summarizing important background, her constant theme:

At the very moment that music was beginning to be produced for a mass bourgeois audience, that audience sought to legitimize its artifacts by grounding them in the “certainty” of another, presumably more absolute realm—rather than in terms of its own social tastes and values.
[…]
From very early times up to and including the present, there has been a strain of Western culture that accounts for music in non-social, implicitly metaphysical terms. But parallel with that strain (and also from earliest times) is another which regards music as essentially a human, socially-grounded, socially altered construct. Most polemical battles in the history of music theory and criticism involve the irreconcilable confrontation of these two positions.

Inspired by Attali’s book Noise, McClary seeks “the tension between order (indeed, competing claims to legitimate order) and deviation —if not outright violence…” Reminding us of harmonic music’s underlying assumptions of goal-attainment (“playing with (teasing and postponing, gratifying) the expectation of imminent closure”), she plunges into the 1st movement of Brandenburg 5.

She notes the rise of the concerto form, where “the soloist is an virtuosic individualist who flaunts the collectivity of the large ensemble”. […] “It begins as if it is going to be a concerto for solo flute and violin, but it soon becomes clear that “there is a darkhorse competitor for the role of soloist: the harpsichord”. Its normal “service role” at the time seems self-effacing, but “the harpsichordist is often a Svengali or puppet master who works the strings from behind the keyboard. Here s/he “creates a ‘Revenge of the continuo player’: the harpsichord begins in its rightful, traditional, supporting norm-articulating role but then gradually emerges to shove everyone else […] out of the way for one of the most outlandish displays in music history.”

The harpsichord, which first serves as continuo support, then begins to compete with the soloists for attention, and finally overthrows the other forces in a kind of hijacking of the piece. […] The ritornello seems to know how to deal with the more well-behaved soloists, how to appropriate, absorb, and contain their energy.” But Bach now “composes the parts of the ensemble, flute, and violin to make it appear that their piece has been violently derailed. They drop out inconclusively, one after another, exactly in the way an orchestra would do if one of its members started making up a new piece in the middle of a performance. Their parts no longer make sense. They fall silent in the face of this affront from the ensemble’s lackey, and all expectations for orderly reconciliation and harmonic closure are suspended.
[…]
It unleashes elements of chaos, irrationality, and noise until finally it blurs almost entirely the sense of key, meter, and form upon which 18th century style depends.

McClary concludes provocatively:

 The usual nice, tight fit between the social norm, as represented by the convention of concerto procedure, and specific content is here highly problematized. Certainly social order and freedom are possible, but apparently only so long as the individuals in question—like the sweet-tempered flute and violin—abide by the rules and permit themselves to be appropriated. What happens when a genuine deviant (and one from the ensemble’s service staff yet!) declares itself a genius unrestrained by convention, and takes over? We readily identify with the self-appointed protagonist’s adventure (its storming of the Bastille, if you will), and at the same time fear for what might happen as a result of the suspension of traditional authority. […] The possibility of virtual social overthrow, and the violence implied by such overthrow, is suggested in the movement, and the reconciliation of individual and social hierarchy at the end— while welcome—may seem largely motivated by convention. To pull this dramatization back within the limits of self-contained structure and order may seem to avoid the dilemma, but it does so at the expense of silencing the piece. For Bach is here enacting the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.

McClary’s work is akin to ethnomusicology (“If I can no longer privilege any one tradition, I find myself perpetually in awe of the countless ways societies have devised for articulating their most basic beliefs through the medium of sound”), and its class and gender implications cry out to be applied to Chinese musical cultures (I made a preliminary and rather unsuccessful attempt in my “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”).

With Bach’s solo, it’s easy to think “that’s just how it goes”, but whatever your “class standpoint” (阶级立场), if you listen to it afresh, every few bars you think, WTF??? I know the analogy with jazz can be overdone, but even jazz solos, however virtuosic, also generally fit within fixed (and democratic?) parameters—except when someone like Coltrane goes off on an interminable fantasy. In its wackiness Bach’s solo reminds me of a pianist like Hiromi—or a Hendrix guitar solo.

It makes a suitably awe-inspiring opening to The chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, all the more exhilarating in Gustav Leonhardt’s restrained version:

* * *

And now for something completely different: Glenn Gould, 1962—don’t worry about the rest of it, just listen from 8.06ish:

Reception history and performance practice are always intriguing. Little is known of any performances in Bach’s lifetime, but it looks as if the concerto may not have been played again, at least in public, until 1853. Like Rudolf Serkin’s 1935 recording with the Busch Chamber Players, Alfred Cortot’s 1932 version (still on piano) is more genteel than manic:

And here’s Furtwangler in 1950 (cadenza from 8.54ish)—praised by Richard Taruskin, no less:

But performances only became more common with the harpsichord revival of the mid-20th century. So now, despite a rearguard action to rehabilitate the Golden Age before HIP (see Alternative Bach, and Playing with history), modern ears may find such early versions heavy going.

Richard Egarr always offers wacky insights (from 21.31ish):

Having blown everyone away, the harpsichordist gives a little signal of the return to normality (“relents and politely (ironically?) permits the ensemble to re-enter”) so that they can pick themselves off the floor to come in with the ritornello that innocently began the whole trip.

Sure, one can’t really cheer at every manic new turn, but I still think the only possible reaction of both band and audience, whether now or in Bach’s lifetime, would be akin to that of Billie Holiday as she exults in the succession of amazing solos her band offer up to her.

180!!!

More local cultural knowledge:

One morning in Maida Vale studios, as the great Pierre Boulez was rehearsing the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he stopped and said suavely,

“Please, we play again from measure* 180.”

Brilliant cockney percussionist Gary Kettel, from the back of the orchestra, punched the air gleefully and screamed out,

“ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTYYY!!!”

Since Boulez’s broad erudition didn’t stretch to the world of UK darts, he was somewhat nonplussed [‘Ow you say in French?] by Gary’s recondite allusion to the fabled score of three triple 20s. Still, he and Gary always had the utmost respect for each other’s musicianship.

 

*Boulez always used the French word for “bar”. Endearingly, he called the cor anglais “ze English ‘orn”.