The sounds of baseball

On Wednesday night, Matt and I went up to Milwaukee to take in the Brewers-Twins game with my family.  I hadn’t been to a game in a while and was really intrigued by the diversity of sounds and music there.  One of the Brewers’ aural hallmarks is, of course, the singing of “Roll Out the Barrel” (aka the “Beer Barrel Polka”) at the seventh inning stretch, which is accompanied by dancing polka (!!):

And as per usual at baseball games, each player chooses a song that will play when he comes up to bat.  These tended to be hit songs with a prominent, fast beat–rock, hip-hop (the most aurally prominent song being Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” I believe) and reggaeton (chosen by Alcides Escobar, originally from Venezuela).

This was nothing, however, compared with the sound effects used to try to get the crowd excited.  Like many teams, the Brewers have had an organist forever to play the sequenced “Charge!” melody and arrangements of popular songs here and there.  This time, I was surprised to find a much larger array of synthesized sounds, coordinated with bright, flashing graphics on the screens that circle the stadium.  The speakers played the rhythm that people generally clap (long-long-short-short-short) to get people making noise; a swooshing sound played along with the quintessentially Midwestern message “How about that one, folks!” when a Brewer had an especially good hit; and various plays were emphasized with sound effects, lightning-bolt graphics and other messages.

I personally found this a bit disorienting.  The Miller Park (and before that, County Stadium) I had been used to typically only had the organist, a few recorded songs, the national anthem and whatever noise the crowd wanted to make.  This game–despite the fact that the roof was open–was a much louder baseball experience than I’ve had in a while, and one that seemed much more manipulated.  Brewers crowds are not typically as loud, in my experience, as others I’ve seen (especially in Philly and Boston!).  I was bothered by the constant aural demands coming from the stadium; it felt forced and annoying to me.

Nonetheless, no one seemed obviously disturbed by this.  The rhythms coming over the speakers were generally successful in getting people to cheer, which energized the atmosphere.  And “How about that one, folks!” provided endless amusement for Matt, who isn’t used to Midwestern customs yet.  I’d be interested to hear more about how and why the Brewers chose these sounds.

Ethnomusicology as a practice of freedom?

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading a lot of works lately that deal with the histories of anthropology and ethnomusicology.  I’ve also recently begun the second book in bell hooks‘ trilogy on education, Teaching Community.

The history of ethnography, in short, is a story of its use as an instrument of domination and oppression, the realization of this and a desire to turn away from it, and subsequently attempts at creating new ways of writing and thinking to avoid the re-inscription of domination.  While the original means of producing and using ethnography were pretty horrible, the last several decades of challenging the ways in which we represent other people have been productive, courageous and incredibly necessary.  A lot of good things have come out of this challenge, these re-thinkings; I’m convinced that there is now a good-sized body of work that does very little or nothing to reify the oppression inherent, and even desired, in earlier eras of ethnography.

However, as I read hooks, and try to digest her notions of “education as the practice of freedom,” I’m not convinced that leaving the smallest footprint of oppression possible is the right way of thinking about doing ethnography and ethnomusicology–and I’m not convinced that new ways of writing about the ethnographic experience can go all the way in flattening power relationships.  Two major changes need to be made (and I want to stipulate that I know of some people, and I’m sure there are many more out there, who are making these changes as individuals–but this needs to be done on a disciplinary level):

  • Ethnomusicologists, and ethnographers more generally, need to think about how the research experience itself, and not just our models of writing, can be inherently liberating; and
  • We need to go beyond trying not to act in oppressive ways in our research, to actively undoing systems of oppression (whether within ethnography or in the world more generally) in our research and in our writing.

In my experience, limited as it is, most ethnomusicologists I know are truly committed to feminist, anti-racist, anti-classist, etc. points of view and have every intention of making their work reflect these commitments; it’s taboo in the discipline as a whole not to espouse these beliefs at some level.  But what I would like to see is not just a verbal commitment to these ideals.

Instead of asking how we can make ethnomusicology as it stands more feminist, anti-racist, etc., we need to start from the bottom up and ask, what would a liberating and liberated practice of the study of music as embedded in sociocultural processes look like? Continue reading

South African vuvuzelas at the World Cup

Interesting article from the NYT about fans’ use of trumpets, called vuvuzelas, at the World Cup and the controversy this is causing.  Also: an audio clip!

Some thoughts on musical science

I’ve recently been chugging through a bunch of pre-grad school reading suggestions, and read Guido Adler‘s 1885 article laying out the (then) new “science” of musicology–”The Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology.”  His thoughts, and the article itself, are, of course, products of their time, and have been really influential, and all that.  I’m glad I read it in terms of my own edification in the history of a discipline whose cousin I am entering, but his essential notion that music can be studied and systematized like any natural science bothers me incredibly, to say the least.  (Maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t still floating around, though.)

I’ve been bothered by this tendency for a long time, since I first became interested in ethnomusicology, and I think what it really boils down to is this: people aren’t simple and neither are things that people create.  People are, in fact, inordinately complex, and the communities they create and in which they participate are even more so, and how those communities interact and develop over time even more so.  How much more infinitely complex, then, are the often highly-idiosyncratic artistic products of these communities?

This isn’t to say that we can’t possibly begin to try to understand music–but it’s so, so extremely important to do so with the biggest dose of humility we can summon up.  People who think about music, and who study music, have to come to terms with the fact that all our thinking and writing, no matter how clear, insightful, perceptive, granular, deep, broad, what have you, is pretty much just a thin crust of simplification floating on a huge mass of complex and at times even chaotic music-making.  It’s simplification that is often very useful, but we can’t possibly hope to represent, let alone systematize, everything out there in an exhaustive fashion.

Of course, these are issues with any kind of intellectual inquiry into natural or human phenomena–it’s not something that even a true natural science like biology, for example, can escape.  Biological phenomena, though, are quite a bit more regular than artistic phenomena and thus, I think, lend themselves a lot more elegantly to positivist systematization.

I’m not saying anything here that I don’t think a whole bunch of ethnomusicologists would agree with–I just feel it important, for my own intellectual development if nothing else, to lay it out.  These thoughts mean that my work has tended, and will continue to tend, I hope and believe, toward the granular; if over time I can create some kind of pointillist image that eventually points to bigger theories, then I’ll go there–but until that time I think it’s wise to be somewhat conservative in what I believe to be the implications of any particular project for anything else.

The other, semantic consequence of these thoughts is that “ethnomusicology” is a rather poor, and unnecessarily scientific-sounding, title for the essentially humanistic and anti-positivist discipline I think it is and/or should be.  Unfortunately I can’t think of another term that is quite as short and convenient, but I’ll keep you posted.

I’m a hemophiliac and I support lifting the ban on blood donations from gay men

Here is the first of the non-music posts I warned you about yesterday.  I’ll keep it short, but this is important.

In yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, an article buried in the front section summarized the latest in the debate around blood donation policy.  As most of you probably know, various categories of “high-risk” people are currently forbidden from donating blood or have to wait a certain length of time since their last incidence, generally a year, to donate blood.  These categories include intravenous drug users, people who have gotten tattoos within the past year, people who have traveled to countries where certain diseases are prevalent, and men who engage in anal intercourse with other men (MSM).

These restrictions are meant well: many of these behaviors put people at risk for blood-borne illness, which, obviously, we don’t want in our blood supply.  And many of these categories were created under sound scientific reasoning: IV drug use, for example, is one of the riskiest behaviors in which people can engage.

The ban on MSMs may have been sound in the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was rampant in the gay community, the disease and its control were poorly understood, and medical technology for screening blood was relatively primitive.  Now, however, the ban is outdated and discriminatory, for several reasons:

  • HIV/AIDS is no longer confined to any one group of people.  In fact, heterosexuals represent the fastest-growing category of new HIV diagnoses.  Therefore, to single out one group of donors for a lifetime ban is discriminatory and not supported by scientific evidence.
  • Behaviors that are far riskier than anal intercourse (especially safe anal intercourse, with condoms and monogamous partners), such as IV drug use, are restricted less severely.  A man who has EVER had sex with another man since 1977–even if he tests negative for every disease in the book and has always practiced safe sex–cannot donate blood. A man who has only had sex with women could, in theory, donate blood if he had been an IV drug user more than a year ago, and could donate blood even if he did not observe safe sex practices–both of which put this hypothetical man at great risk for carrying blood-borne disease.  Even heterosexuals who have had sex with a known carrier of HIV only have to wait one year to donate blood.
  • Medical technology has advanced to the point where we can screen all donated blood–no matter its source–for diseases.  In fact, this happens regularly, because people lie about all kinds of risk factors when they donate blood.  No HIV infections from donated blood have been reported since at least 2002, and possibly earlier.

I was especially saddened to read that major hemophilia advocacy groups have been pushing to keep the ban on MSM donation in place, despite mounting scientific evidence that, as I’ve described, it’s unnecessary.  Many of you reading this are probably aware that I have an atypical form of von Willebrand disease, a mild type of hemophilia; it bothers me deeply that advocacy groups purporting to speak for my best interests are perpetuating discrimination at the federal level in the process.

It’s especially shocking when one considers that we always seem to have blood bank shortages.  The thought that we are turning down potentially-lifesaving donations on the basis of pure bigotry is unconscionable to me.

Here’s what I’d like to see, both as a hemophiliac who understands the importance of keeping the blood supply safe, and as someone who supports full equality for people of all sexual orientations:

  • A scientific review of all risk factors for blood-borne pathogens AND a scientifically-rigorous analysis of how long someone must wait after engaging in said risky behaviors for donated blood to be reasonably safe;
  • A donor screening process that sorts people of all sexual orientations, and of other demographic groups, by actual risky behavior (i.e., not using barrier protection during sex, no matter who you are) rather than by a personal characteristic that is perceived to be risky (i.e., being a gay man); and
  • Further research into testing and securing the post-donation blood supply so that, in the event that someone with a blood-borne pathogen did donate blood, we would be able to catch it and keep all donated blood safe for all recipients.

Hemophilia advocacy groups do NOT speak for my medical needs and for my beliefs when they perpetuate discriminatory practices against the gay community.

Tavi’s post on “Alejandro” just made my day

So, I’ve been a little monster for Tavi Gevinson for a while, and just when I thought she couldn’t get any better, she writes this post (click through or get out of here) on Gaga’s video for “Alejandro” that sums up my thoughts exactly.  (Btw–now that I’m in Chicago, Tavi and I are practically neighbors!  Let’s hang out!  Despite my entrenched dislike of fabric products formerly owned by other people, I would go thrifting with you or whatever!)

On the heels of a whole bucket full of interesting or at least provocative videos from strong and important female artists (more on that later), “Alejandro” was a let-down, especially for Gaga.

Latex nun habits–boring; probably sweaty.

I can’t believe that I live in a pop-cultural world where a whole lot of people would agree with the above sentiment, but hey.

I did think that the song itself was a lot more listenable minus visuals this time–something I can’t always say about La Gaga–but much more thematically disconnected from the visuals.  Still, boring.

Changes to the site

Aight, so:

  • new layout
  • new color scheme
  • new domain (
  • more frequent posts
  • posts not always and/or necessarily about music (departures will, however, be infrequent)
  • more posts about my own work

Add it to your Google Reader or RSS or whatever makes you happy.

Upcoming changes around here

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably noticed the new design and color scheme the blog is reppin.  I’ve decided that I’m going to merge my personal site and blog–coming soon, one-stop shopping for blogging (such as it is), research info, yada yada.  The focus is going to be a little different and I’m planning on updating more frequently.  Look for a domain change in the near future as well.

Blog at
The Esquire Theme.


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