Is music a universal language?

Nettl

What is music, anyway?
And who’s asking?

Ethnomusicologists have long questioned the seductive idea—derived from 19th-century Europe and latterly popular with the peace-and-love brigade—that music is a global language transcending the conventions of time and space. As always,

  • Bruno NettlThe study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions,

gives a masterly and accessible overview of the field, in chapters 2, 3 and 5—and indeed passim.

In Ch.2 he notes the wide range of definitions among societies of what constitutes “music”:

There is no conceptualization of definition of music that is shared by all or perhaps even many cultures, and very few societies have a concept (and a term) precisely parallel to the word “music”. They may instead have taxonomies whose borders cut across the universe of sounds produced by humans (or even animals) in ways quite different from those of Western societies.
[…]
Fieldworkers early on learn this major lesson: they may get one kind of answer when asking a question that would normally have no place in the culture and another when observing the society’s behavior. And we may note rather different approaches in formal statements by authorities, informal interviews, and ordinary conversations. Of the three, the cocktail party conversation may give us the most reliable perspective on the way urban, middle-class Americans actually use the concept of music in their lives.

The perspective of the (“gluttonous, insatiable”) ethnomusicologist is broader than that of a cultural insider—itself, as he observes, an ethnocentric approach, though, always broad-minded, he approves of a plurality of ethnomusicologies as much as of musickings.

In Ch.3, while noting changing trends, Nettl cites a 1939 article by George Herzog stressing the diversity of world musicking.

It seems to me that for some twenty years after about 1940, musics—as conceived in Western academia—had to be liberated, as it were, from Western ethnocentrism; ethnomusicology had to make clear their mutual independence, had to urge the acceptance of each on its own terms and not simply as evolutionary way stations to something greater and more perfect. This mission accomplished, ethnomusicology could return to exploring the world’s musics as part of a single whole.

He goes on to discuss different kinds of universals; and under origins, besides worship and individual or group bonding, he notes competition and conflict. Music separates and defines us just as much as it brings us together—varying constantly and delineating boundaries not only of ethnicity but over time, and by class, age, gender, and so on.

In Ch.5 Nettl explores some boundaries of concept, space, and time, borrowing from linguistics and noting idiolects as well as heterogeneity and polymusicality within individual cultures. Musical cultures may not be universal, but it would be unwise to draw clear boundaries.

* * *.

Meanwhile on BBC Radio 3, Tom Service’s long-running series The listening service always broadens the mind beyond the confines of the station’s largely WAM audience (cf. here, and here)—ethnomusicology in plain clothes, perhaps. He debunks cosy Western myths in a series of three programmes to accompany the TV series Civilizations (which wisely limited its brief to material culture)—a welcome antidote to Radio 3’s mystifyingly ethnocentric complement to Neil MacGregor’s fine series Living with the gods.

In the first programme, Searching for paradise, Service notes the basic importance of music to religious observances, with a collage of ritual music from around the world (shamans, qawwali, plainchant, Sardinian liturgy, Bach…). Unpacking the “spiritual” and reflecting on the historical ambivalence of religious leaders towards the embodiment of ritual texts through sound, he makes connections with the latter-day rituals of the concert hall.

Indeed, the search for exotic Oriental mysticism is a major theme in Western studies of the East. In his second programme, Orientalism and the music of elsewhere, Service adduces Mozart, catering to the 19th-century craze for all things Turkish; the taste for the exotic sounds of Indonesia and Japan in 19th-century France (later furthered by Messiaen); and more recently, raga, the music of Africa (Reich, Ligeti), film music, and the whole “world music” fad with its gleeful taste for “fusion” (for a parody of which, scroll down here).

But, he suggests, for some composers such sounds were more than a “titillating and imperialist added extra”: they also transformed our ways of experiencing sound, suggesting other modes beyond the discursive, nay “shouty”, 19th-century ethos. Here we might also add Mahler’s Abschied. And so for visual culture too.

Along with my early fascination with Eastern mysticism (see series beginning here), I too was seduced by all this, and remain so—even as I found through fieldwork (as one does) that musicking in local Chinese societies was anything but an exotic activity.

Meanwhile in the notionally Mystic East, led by Japan, Western culture became suddenly desirable, with profound and lasting consequences—not least in China, where traditional culture came to be considered “unscientific”. There’s a thoughtful cameo from Unsuk Chin (who adorns the splendid T-shirt of female composers!), with her piece for the sheng mouth-organ. But the “two-way conversation” surely remains unequal.

Service suggests we listen to music in its own terms (that is, in the terms of its own culture), rather than as sonic propaganda. I like his bald question “Is our music better than theirs?”, evoking Judith Becker’s influential 1986 article “Is Western Art Music superior?“, which debunks some major Western preconceptions.

In his last programme, Is music a universal language?, Service opens with a discussion of the “universality” of Fidelio, observing, “You need to be conversant with the patterns of tension and release in the specific confines of the Western tonal harmonic system”—not to mention knowing what opera means, and what it meant in Vienna at the start of the 19th century, and so on. He then segues adroitly to Chinese opera.

As he notes, identifying “universals” (fast repeated rhythms for dancing, slow repeating lyrical melodies for lullabies, and so on) may be a bland exercise. We can find similar building blocks, such as the (anhemitonic!) pentatonic scale, but the way they are used and experienced will differ widely. It’s nature and nurture again. And then there’s timbre…

* * *.

Such issues, bearing not just on “music” but on human cultures, are among the standard fare of ethnomusicology. While in my studies of Chinese ritual I tend not to scare the sinological horses by focusing too narrowly on music, the discipline is really most stimulating. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before: sound is not some optional decoration to rital, it’s the very medium through which it is expressed! Whatever your cultural focus, do follow up The listening service by reading Nettl! And for further canonical works, see here and here.

Ravel: an enchanted Prom

Rattle’s Ravel, or Ravel’s rattle

Ravel prom

After Boléro as a pulsating early overture the previous week, S-S-Simon‘s Ravel Prom was a delight from start to finish.

Even the opening Ma mère l’Oyein the expanded ballet version (1912), less often heard than the suite—was charming, chiming with the childlike world of L’enfant et les sortilèges after the interval. Here too there’s a magic garden, a princess, and birdsong. Ravel’s orientalism, like that of Debussy, was inspired by hearing gamelan at the 1889 Exposition universelle. Indeed, the organum of the oboes at the beginning and end of L’enfant reminds me of the sheng mouth-organ.

Chinoiserie is prominent in Shéhérazade too. Last year at the Proms Marianne Crebassa sang it exquisitely; in a week when we rejoiced in Aretha Franklin and Madonna, Magdalena Kožená’s singing was further cause for celebration of the wonders of the human voice.

L’enfant et les sortilèges (first performed in 1925, but not heard in Britain until 1958!) is an enchanted, enchanting lyric fantasy. In the story the protagonist is 6 or 7 years old—the same age as the girls for whom Ravel wrote the original piano pieces of Ma mère l’Oye. 

Whereas Colette wrote the text in eight days, Ravel worked on it over several years—she was in awe of the way he brought her libretto to life. Full of variety, the piece blends the comic drôlerie of the furniture, with ragtime and foxtrot, and the astounding fire aria, with the moving scene of shepherds and shepherdesses from the wallpaper leading into the boy’s poignant duet with the storybook princess.

The cat duet leads into a magical evocation of the garden. Here Ravel’s music anticipates Messiaen‘s use of birdsong and the ondes martenot, with evocative use of a slide whistle (Sachs-Hornbostel 421.221.312!—the cheese grater escapes me, though). Now it’s the turn of the animals and birds to indict the boy’s casual cruelties.

Amidst all the quirky virtuosic pastiche, and ravishing orchestration, the moments of tendresse register all the deeper, as he reflects on his errors; redeeming himself at last, the final chorus is a moving atonement.

If only a certain other public figure in the news could be converted from infantile petulant tantrums…

* * *

Both as player and concert-goer, I do admire conductors who trust to memory, dispensing with a distracting score, as S-Simon did for the first half.

Here’s the audio link to the concert—and do watch it on BBC4 while you can!

 

 

This season’s Proms

Mahler 10 scream

Notwithstanding my admiration for Christopher Small‘s critique of the curious behaviour that is concert-going, as opposed to more communal kinds of musicking (see e.g. here), I’m enjoying visits to this year’s Proms.

So far, among the feast (nay, “veritable smorgasbord“) of musicking on offer, I’ve basked in Turangalîlaalways an overwhelming experience, as well as the NYO Prom.

The latter included Debussy’s La mer (which I played with the NYO at the Proms under Boulez in 1971!) and the Ravel Piano Concerto for the left hand (for ways of occupying the other hand, see here). Now I’m looking forward to Les enfants et les sortilèges with S-S-Simon.

Meanwhile it was wonderful to hear the Philharmonia with the great maestro Salonen (the drôle story of whose interview encapsulates Some People’s attitude to WAM!). Effectively, from the spartan pointillism of Webern he segued directly into the desolate viola line the opens the first movement of Mahler 10, before its devastating prophetic catclysm (see my fantasy timeline here; lots more under Mahler tag). Salonen conducted this first half of the concert without a baton, recalling Boulez with his expressive hand gestures and the insights of a composer. I can’t wait to hear him conduct the complete symphony live.

For Salonen’s Mahler 9, see here.

 

The Proms: more Ravel

I always admire Esa-Pekka Salonen in concert—and not merely because of the fine story (about his interview for the LA Phil) that I love to relay, illustrating establishment mindsets in both WAM and Daoist studies.

And I can never resist a live performance of Ravel’s Shéhérazade.

At the Prom yesterday it was just magical. The venue itself creates a remarkable intimacy—the special communication between performers and Prommers, rapt attention, unique silences. Marianne Crebassa’s singing was exquisite: embodying Ravel’s intimate parlando style, she was always a vehicle for the nuance and drama of the text, deftly avoiding the diva trap. And Salonen conducts with suitably detached clarity. (For L’indifférent, see also here.)

Reluctant as I was to break the spell, John Adams’s grand Naïve and sentimental music eventually won me over.

Hot on the heels of my implausible link from Bach to Stravinsky, the concert began with a more convincing one, Stravinsky’s Variations on Vom himmel hoch. Reading Richard Taruskin as I am just now, I was more in the mood for it than usual.

Concert etiquette, and auditions

À propos Ravel’s Piano concerto for the left hand: two-handed pianists soon got in on the act, though how to occupy the spare hand must take some thought. In This Day and Age one imagines young pianists saying,

“You know what’s so great about the concerto? You can text your mates while you’re playing it!”

<OMG GUESS WHAT I’M DOING LOL>

Alternatively one could wear a boxing glove on the right hand, or a glove puppet, making suitably cute gestures to reflect the changing moods.

In Certain Quarters such behaviour might go down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party.

Conversely, watching people texting with two thumbs, I think of the mbira.

While we’re on deficiencies in the limb department, apart from the one-legged men in The third policeman, this classic audition springs to mind (Tarzan, “A role that is traditionally associated with…”):

Parks and recreation

More from the Terpsichorean muse:

Just as brilliant as Family guy and Soap is Parks and recreation, with the most joyous theme tune ever:

From the innocent vamp, with its tiny yet prophetic throw-away ending, to the zany syncopated opening of the tune (like the end of Boléro played a lot faster than the much-too-fast versions of lesser “maestros”), via the crazy successive modulations à la Berlioz, to the manic ascending scale introducing the recapitulation to coy simplicity—how does it cover so much ground in 30”?! And this is the full version that doesn’t always get aired!

Ecstatic…