Flamenco in Chiswick

*Sequel to my three posts on flamenco:
palmas;
gender, politics, wine, deviance; and
cante jondo!*

flamenco

Among the varied aesthetic pleasures on offer in west London (“Come and live in Chiswick, your statistical chance of survival is relatively high“), what better for a rainy autumn Sunday evening than another flamenco gig?

It was a small price to pay for missing the public moral verdict on the Strictly dance/snog of shame—though I would suggest to the BBC that such quandaries would be obviated by my Strictly north Chinese Daoist ritual project.

The show featured stalwarts Anita La Maltesa with Ramon Ruiz on guitar, the fine Sevillian singer Julio Lopez (another London local), and the star guest dancer Juan Polvillo on a visit from Seville, all sensitively accompanied by the cajon player Antonio Romero.

After worthy recent distractions (blind Ukrainian minstrels, Chinese female spirit mediums, Barbara Hannigan as Gepopo, and so on), I’m delighted to reinvigorate my naïve studies of the riches of flamenco—continuing to get to grips with palmas hand-clapping patterns with the aid of the amazing Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco series and various useful websites (see my first post).

In order to appreciate Mozart you don’t have to analyse sonata form—indeed, the term hadn’t even taken shape in Mozart’s day. But a basic understanding of what’s going on, as with the pitch relationships in Indian music, can enrich our enjoyment.

For a hidebound classically-trained Brit like me, learning is a lot to do with switching off the tedious analytical brain and engaging the body‚ experiencing the performance whole—singing, lyrics, palmas, dance, guitar and all. After all, homing in on the fancy footwork would help me get the hang of the palmas (but don’t worry, the dance world is safe).

How envious I feel of the sleeping Andalucian child in the arms of her mother as she sings her heart out (DO admire the footage of Cristobalina Suarez in this post!)—that’s the way to learn. Anita and Ramon’s sessions must be great for London schoolkids too.

Presenting world music on stage always involves striking a balance between what Chairman Mao called “popularization” and “raising standards” (puji 普及 and tigao 提高). The Rito series shows how in more informal social gatherings in Andalucia, dancing can serve as an organic physical response to the intense singing that draws me to flamenco. By contrast, in more polished shows (at least in the minds of foreign audiences) the balance is often reversed, with the cante subsidiary to the virtuosic dance items—which while also intense, are more popular than, say, an entire evening with a solo gypsy blacksmith singing anguished siguiriyas, perhaps a tad heavy for some. Anita and Ramon manage to strike an effective balance between peña and tablau, incorporating all the elements of flamenco into an inspiring evening.

London, microcosm of world music—for now, anyway: if some people have their way, from here on we may have content ourselves with Morris dancing. For more flamenco in London, see here.

 

 

Blind minstrels of Ukraine

Kobzar 1915

Having just been reading about turbulent changing times along the eastern borders of Europe, and to follow my post on blind bards of Shaanbei, here’s more on the maintenance (or destruction) of culture through the state socialist era in Ukraine.

William Noll has a most thoughtful article unpacking ways of doing fieldwork on the past, and the multiple voices of ethnography:

  • “Selecting partners: questions of personal choice and problems of history in fieldwork and its interpretation”, in Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley (eds.), Shadows in the field: new perspectives for fieldwork in ethnomusicology, pp.163–88.

To provide perspectives for my work on China, this ranks alongside some of my other canons—such as Nettl, Small, McClary, Lortat-Jacob, and Bigenho.

Noll observes the issues involved in the common case where ethnographers of one cultural heritage conduct fieldwork among a people of  different cultural heritage, but both groups live within the political boundaries of one state—such as Swedes and other Scandinavians among Sami; Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans among Native Americans; Russian fieldworkers in Ukrainian villages; Ukrainian fieldworkers in Russian or Belarussian villages; Hungarians among Slovaks and Romanians; and so on. Another salient, and distressingly topical, instance is Chinese studying Uyghur culture.

Moreover, educated urban ethnographers are culturally quite different from the peasant populations they study.

Eastern Europe was at the vanguard of early folklore studies, producing an enormous ethnographic literature (one inevitably thinks of Bartók‘s fieldwork throughout eastern Europe, Turkey, and north Africa). Impressively, in Ukraine the itinerant male blind minstrels* accompanying themselves on kobza or bandura plucked lute (kobzari) or lira hurdy-gurdy (lirnyki) were an early object of study. Here you can even hear remasterered cylinder recordings of their duma songs, made between 1904 and 1912. This photo comes from a convention in 1902:

kobzars

As Noll observes, the instruments, repertory, and performance practices of the large-scale sanitized staged bandura ensembles that, from the 1920s, were presented as “traditional” had virtually nothing in common with village music practice—as I keep noting for China, of course (e.g. here, and here).

lirnyki 1939

At the same time, along with other ways of musicking the minstrels—along with their patrons, and the whole social system that nourished them (life-cycle and calendrical rituals, and so on)—were under attack; no-one was untouched by coerced collectivization and the Holodomor (see e.g. here and here; cf. the Chinese famine of 1959–61).

Holodomor

Holodomor, 1933. Photo: Alexander Wienerberger.

Most of the kobzari

were gone from village life by the 1950s, probably eliminated through radical and deliberate repression by state authorities (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) and through a gradual change in village culture over a period of several decades.

Indeed, the kobzari seem to have been destroyed much more effectively in Ukraine than were the Chinese bards under Maoism—which, I should say, is not to excuse the sufferings inflicted by the latter. In Stalin’s Ukraine, Noll asserts, the imposed network of community centres (“houses of culture”) was largely successful in changing and controlling new norms of expressive culture—again, I’d suggest, by contrast with China. But more brutal techniques were used too:

The methods of proscribing the music of the blind minstrels most often included threats of arrest. Some minstrels were beaten, others apparently arrested or imprisoned. Some starved to death in the purposely engineered famine of 1932–1933, their blindness probably contributing to their losses. Others may have been shot, and many laid down their instruments out of fear or confusion and ceased to perform. Still others survived, and stopped performing only in the 1950s when the state began to provide subsidies for the blind and the handicapped as well as pensions for the elderly in villages.

But Noll gives a nuanced account of cultural realities and cultural authorities over time. This isn’t simply about “salvage“, but must encompass an understanding of what we’re doing when we undertake such work, reflecting mutiple perspectives. While (as in China) research continued through the period, with its particular prescriptive demands, ethnography itself became dangerous. Some scholars were themselves persecuted—like Kateryna Hrushevs’ka, who lost her job in the early 1930s, was sentenced to prison in 1937, and died in a labour camp in 1943; not just the performers but a generation of fieldworkers were virtually wiped out.

Even the brave ethnographers of the period found themselves censoring their own research, in terms of both the people they studied and the subjects of the songs they collected—choosing secular over ritual performance. In China, “reading between the lines“, fieldwork on ritual music under Maoism now looks impressive given such constraints; and upon the liberalizations of the 1980s collectors reversed their approach, with one local fieldworker commenting (Bards of Shaanbei, under “Research and images”):

When I recorded them, I chose anything about Heaven, Earth and Man, and rejected everything about the Party, Chairman Mao, and Socialism!

But even recently, my observation that “religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue” has itself been deemed too sensitive in China! Agendas continue to change, as with the reified, secularized mission of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.

Noll goes on:

I am extremely skeptical of an ethnomusicology or an anthropology of aesthetics that uncritically treats the Stalinist period as if it were unrelated to the present, and these institutions as if they were just another mechanism for state support of expressive culture. Virtually all discussions on cultural authority are in general agreement that the ethnographer needs to place critical value at some point on that which is researched. This ought to include that which is brutally repressed. A respect for the inhabitants of the past is no less appropriate than for the living.

He has a fine project online here. In English, see also

  • Natalie Kononenko, Ukrainian minstrels: why the blind should sing (1998),

and her site here, as well as this site. Note also the Polyphony project, with groupings under region, context, and themes. For a beginner’s guide to folk and popular genres in Ukraine, including some CDs of archive recordings and leads to the emigré community in the USA (cf. Accordion crimes), see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia and Pacific, pp.426–34. And then we might move on the Balkan bards…

 

* In English, scholars tend to use “minstrels” for Ukraine, whereas I went for “bard” in my writings on Shaanbei. “You say potato…“—a suitable vegetable, or légume juste, for both venues.

Analysing world music

AAWM

My writings on Chinese ritual may seem to privilege ethnography and social change. But I do also like to relate all this to the nuts and bolts of the language of sound, as with my Dissolving boundaries (comparing qin and shawm pieces!), and for the liturgy of the Li family Daoists, clues in my book, chs. 14 to 16.

Having just made a plea for soundscape to be considered an intrinsic component of ritual studies, these analyses are highly technical, so I may now be shooting myself in the foot, but hey.

Once upon a time, analysis was the bread-and-butter of world music studies, often following Western Art Music musicology in taking reified “works of art” as its object. Recently the online journal Analytical approaches to world music takes a valuable step forward—enriching silent text by embedded audio examples. And while the analyses are dense, they always take note of changing social and performance contexts.

Some highlights that appeal to my own tastes—starting with flamenco, since I’m always grappling with the palmas hand-clapping patterns:

And a perspective on chant:

Anyway, none of this should dissuade the ethnographer with a less technical grasp of musical elements from paying attention to the soundscape of ritual and the lives of performers and their patrons!

 

Thinking outside the (music) box

Li Yuan qushui better

In studying any socially-grounded human activity such as Chinese ritual, those with an interest in soundscape (which, after all, is the basis of ritual performance) may feel pigeonholed, marginalized. And I’m not alone in resisting the categorization of “ethnomusicologist” (for an accessible overview of the field, see Nettl).

Michelle Bigenho reflects cogently on the issue in her chapter

“Why I’m not an ethnomusicologist”

in the stimulating volume

  • Henry Stobart (ed.), The New (Ethno)musicologies (Scarecrow Press, 2008).

I take her words to heart. As she writes,

I resist being classified as an ethnomusicologist because the label often inadvertently carries with it certain assumptions. Under the label “ethnomusicologist,” “music” becomes my object of study, and I am then expected to musically map the geographic area of my purported expertise, an expectation that clings to a notion of bounded, discrete cultures tied to specifically grounded places. When music becomes the object and geographic mapping becomes the project, many compelling anthropological and theoretical questions are swept to the sidelines. Many ethnomusicologists are working beyond and outside of these two problematic assumptions, but the discipline’s institutional affiliations often inhibit its ability to move beyond these conceptualizations of “culture.” Furthermore, the ethnomusicologist label also carries with it expectations about a researcher’s position as a participating musician. While this point is usually held up as a particular strength of ethnomusicology, to privilege “doing music” over other kinds of fieldwork participation is to play into Western ideologies about music, talent, giftedness etc.—all points that should be under anthropological scrutiny rather than assumed as givens.
[…]
I contend that even though maintaining the idea of music participation as a special realm of ethnographic work may have its benefits, such framings also have significant drawbacks. All forms of fieldwork participation are different and unique, but constructing music participation as a privileged realm works hand in hand with an ethnocentric ideology that affords music an autonomous space. Emerging from very powerful ideologies about music in Western society, the awe factor cuts two ways—amazement at the imagined talented colleague who “does music too,” and a tendency to assume that one cannot fully understand work on music without being a musician. While anthropologists seem to be quite adept at opening their minds to absorb complex specialized information about kinship or linguistics, strong ideologies about musical knowledge, who has access to it, and who is empowered to speak about it, shape their open-ness to hear about musical details of ethnographic work. The apologetic “I’m not a musician, so…” seems to be invoked in a peculiar way. I suggest that anthropologists might heed Michael Herzfeld’s suggestion that we learn proficiency in other expressive modes beyond what is usually expected in terms of language training (2001:280).

Not everyone who learns Quechua as a fieldwork language ends up speaking it fluently, but having studied it at all is considered one of the many ways to struggle toward an anthropological understanding. I think more supposed “non-musicians” should be learning proficiencies in music and writing about social life through the lens of music.
[…]
When music participation is claimed as a privileged form of ethnographic experience the claim plays into hidden Western ideologies about talent and giftedness (see Kingsbury 1988), about music as an autonomous sphere, and about experience and personhood.

Bigenho unpacks the assumptions of insider and outsider status, as well as the constraints of academic disciplines and area studies.

Anthropologists may admire their colleague who does music, but along with that admiration come ideas about an imposed insider-ship and the suspicion that one may be having too much fun to do anything of theoretical significance. Herzfeld calls attention to how anthropologists suspect media as a legitimate area of inquiry because of media’s associations with pleasure (2001:312). Similarly, music—unless it is closely allied with linguistic anthropology (see Feld and Fox 1994)—may be seen as a realm of too much pleasure, a realm from which substantive theoretical contributions are imagined to rarely emerge.
[…]
When anthropologists present work with intricate details of kinship, linguistics, and the law, these details are not the object of analysis, but rather the lenses through which to examine broader cultural questions. When people call me an ethnomusicologist, music implicitly becomes the object of my studies; the practice of music-making becomes my work; and I am immediately imagined on conference panels with others who “do music,” even though I feel much more in dialogue with scholars focussing on anthropologies of nationalism, the State, indigeneity, and embodied experience. Even though ethnomusicologists have worked on these themes, music still overwhelms ethnomusicology’s project. Like it or not, external perspectives and institutional demands (more below) on ethnomusicology still construct music as the discipline’s central object, and this construction, because of powerful Western ideologies about music, remains at odds with one of ethnomusicology’s major projects (at least as I understand it): to move music out of the autonomous space afforded it by Western-centered musicology. Michelle Kisliuk argued the same point from a different angle, underscoring the problem of analyzing music as a separate entity when in many contexts there is no such conceptualization of “music” (1998:313; also see Herzfeld 2001:280). Ethnomusicology may benefit from a closer positioning with musicology and a focus on specific questions of music practice—a positioning where ethnomusicology might wield a productive influence over transformations within the older and usually dominant of the two disciplines. But when music is taken as the object or when music practices are privileged over other kinds of fieldwork participation, “music” begins to get in the way of questions that could be of interest to both anthropologists and ethnomusicologists.
[…]
Most of my courses do not have “music” in the title because the questions I find most compelling are about embodiment, the politics of sensory  perceptions, the politics of pleasure, nationalism and indigenous representations, ideas of property, national patrimony, and performance in social life.

music box

She concludes:

I have found it useful to think outside the “music” box. My work through music evokes questions about the politics of perception, the politics of authenticity, ideas of property, processes of folklorization, the pleasures of viewing/listening to Others etc. (Bigenho 2002; Bigenho 2005). Participation in music performance led me to these broader questions, but I resist claiming a privileged position for this kind of ethnographic participation. Like many anthropologists, I am engaged in the practice of  participant-observation, a problematic methodology of ethnographic fieldwork, no matter how you slice it. Oh yes… and I “do music” too, and I usually have a great deal of fun doing it.

As we get to grips with Chinese ritual performance in changing society, all this should strike a chord (in this case, the organum of the sheng mouth-organ and the heterophony of the voices and instruments in long slow hymns at the ritual site!). Among the varied social, political, and economic topics that concern so-called ethnomusicologists, we are interested in all kinds of sounds, performers, behaviour, and audiences that some might not even consider under the narrow rubric of “music” (and again, see Nettl)—such as spirit mediums and their utterances. We want to know how performers learn, about their social status, and how patrons assess the success of an event; the impact of collectivization and migration, indeed people’s changing lives; the ancestry of ritual manuals, and their relationship with texts as performed; where wind players get their reeds, how percussion patterns may vary according to context; and so on and on. Without demanding detailed semiotic analysis, none of this is beyond the abilities of scholars less highly trained in “music”.

So returning to my theme, here’s the deal: if we come to your party, you have to come to ours too:

Just as “music scholars” have learned to consider all kinds of social elements as they study performance, so scholars of ritual too must include in their brief all kinds of issues arising from soundscape, rather than coyly farming it out to musicologists.

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.

A playlist of songs

 

Apart from the mainly-Chinese playlist in the sidebar (commentary here), below are some links to an eclectic selection of All-time Great Songs* on this blog. Besides the songs, the posts are worth reading too—Trust Me, I’m a Doctor.

*Of course, varied as this selection is (à la McClary; see also here, and here), it isn’t so eclectic as to include Transylvanian funeral laments, Sardinian tenores, flamenco deep song, Umm Kulthum, Indian singing, or Aboriginal dream songs…

For a similarly diverse playlist of trumpeters, see here (indeed, trumpet has its own tag); and for some feminist lists, here (with bonus tracks including Sheridan’s Smith’s amazing cover of Anyone who had a heart) and 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 unspoken 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), inviting a global view of the meanings of performance within social interaction.

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. 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.