Sometimes I worry about spending my life in academia…

I just finished reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology, a major work of “criticism.”  I’m not going to comment on my thoughts about the substance of the book itself, because to quote my dad and grandfather, it’s not prudent to get into a pissing match with a skunk.

I just wanted to point out that the following blurb is on the back of the book (I have the 1998 corrected edition, the English translation by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) and that it makes me die a little inside to be a member of a world where this is considered some kind of meaningful praise (up there on the back cover with “One of the major works in the development of contemporary criticism and philosophy.” from J. Hillis Miller of Yale University):

Of Grammatology is the tool-kit for anyone who wants to empty the ‘presence’ out of any text he has taken a dislike to.  A handy arsenal of deconstructive tools are to be found in its pages, and the technique, once learnt, is as simple, and as destructive, as leaving a bomb in a brown paper bag outside (or inside) a pub. –Roger Poole, Notes and Queries

Participation, the Wauwatosa casserole brigade, and the notion of gospel brunch

A few weeks back, Matt and I went to gospel brunch at the Chicago branch of the House of Blues.  For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, gospel brunch is exactly that: you go to a brunch event at which a gospel group performs.  I don’t remember how we alighted on this as an option when we were trying to think of a performing arts event to go to, but alight upon it we did, both because we like gospel and because we thought it would be sociologically interesting.

As we made our way up to the near north side, we tried to guess what it would be like, who would be there and how they might react to or interpret gospel.  At first, with no prior knowledge of how gospel brunches work, we thought that the audience might be predominantly black; when we got there, we were surprised to see that not only was the audience predominantly white, but that the audience seemed primarily composed of white tourist types who looked very much like the soccer moms and Lutheran casserole brigade of my hometown, Wauwatosa, WI.  (Not that I’m knocking Tosans–I say this in a loving way!  But, you know, some of my friends like to refer to it as “Comatosa.”)

We waited in the lobby for a long time before we were allowed to go in and sit (which I thought odd); the food was served buffet-style, and was in my opinion pretty darn good although lacking in vegetarian options (unnecessary bacon in things, always so frustrating); and then we all sat down for the show.  The bandleader, of the group William Smith Jr. and the Renewed Voices for Christ, opened by introducing the group and welcoming everyone to the “ecumenical church of…” and listed just about every religion under the sun.  The music was fantastic, in my opinion: they had a mixed choir, a drummer, and an organist; all the musicians were truly excellent at what they did; the arrangements were tight and energetic; the repertoire selection was good, etc.  I bought their CD and have listened to it a couple times.

What I was really interested in was the interaction between the musicians and the audience.  The bandleader was really good about trying to have the audience participate, exhorting us to clap, sway, dance, sing responsorial phrases, and at one point had a couple people come up on stage and mock-conduct.  Here’s where things got awkward.

In my past experience (having a preschool teacher who was an excellent singer and did gospel with us, and doing fieldwork in a Jamaican Pentecostalist church, as well as going to various friends’ churches here and there), gospel is a participatory musical form: although there are designated “musicians” or “performers” in the church setting, everyone joins in one way or another, by clapping, singing along, pulling out a tambourine, dancing, or just active, engaged listening.  Those who raised their hand when the band asked who had been to gospel events before seemed to know this.  Matt and I, the family next to us, and various other small groups scattered throughout the crowd had no problem clapping, waving our hands, dancing or singing as we felt moved.

However, the casserole brigade folks were painfully reticent, to the confusion of the bandleader.  At first I chalked it up to the combination of intercultural awkwardness, perceived lack of musical knowledge on the part of the audience, or the desire to eat rather than participate in the goings-on.

A few days earlier, I had begun to read Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation, by ethnomusicologist Tom Turino.  In this book, he introduces a four-part classification scheme for all musical types that I think is really useful: 1) participatory traditions, musics in which there is no distinction between performer and audience, such as, for example, the traditional Andean music that he studies, or Irish session music, and many more; 2) presentational traditions, such as European classical music; 3) high-fidelity recording, or recording that tries its best to capture an audio event accurately; and 4) studio audio art, or recorded music that does not pretend to have any fidelity to acoustically produced sound, such as computer-generated music.

What I realized about the gospel brunch after reading this book is that the very notion of the gospel brunch seeks to use a participation-based tradition in a presentational setting.  In my experience, gospel tends to run along a spectrum of participation: at one end is the model where the entire church participates in singing gospel hymns, a completely participatory experience; in the middle is the setup I mentioned earlier, where there are designated musicians but the churchgoers actively participate in “secondary” ways; and at the more presentational end of the spectrum, commercial gospel concerts where the audience nonetheless is often actively and physically engaged.  This expectation of a participatory experience is what conditioned me and those few others who did clap and sing along at the brunch.

However, Turino also makes the point that, in contemporary American culture, especially urban and suburban culture, the majority of the music we know is presentational or falls into one of the two recorded categories.  The average American musical experience includes attending concerts at which audience participation is somewhat limited (perhaps restricted to cheering or clapping) and purchasing recorded music.  The only participatory moments that many of us have might be at our preferred place of worship or if we happen to be musicians ourselves, which is not terribly common.

I realized that the people who seemed awkward probably came in with the expectation of having a presentational musical experience: the gospel group performs during brunch, and they expect to sit and appreciate it rather than participate directly, as they had probably been trained to do in other musical settings.  The difference between the varied sets of expectations was probably a major cause of the stiffness and tension.

After all, I grew up in the same kind of environment that I am assuming many of these folks came from–so why did I feel comfortable clapping and singing where others might not have?  It seems to me that the answer lies in my particular set of musical experiences, arrived at somewhat randomly: if I had had a different preschool teacher, or chosen not to take the course “Field Methods in Ethnomusicology” during the semester in which it had been decided that we would all do fieldwork in a particular type of church, I would not have known what to do or felt comfortable doing it, given that the majority of my musical training as both performer and audience member has been within the context of the highly presentational tradition of European classical music.

To me, this insight gives some hope.  Rather than attributing the reluctance to participate on the part of the white folks in the casserole brigade to racial issues, or to some inherent rhythmic deficiencies that people joke about white people having,

it’s about our exposure to diverse musical traditions and the communities in which they are embedded that helps us develop ease and comfort with each other and with each other’s music.  Granted, this doesn’t take away the complexity with which these encounters are often fraught, but it does speak to the power of relationship-building, of sustained engagement with the unfamiliar, and of not being afraid to mess up.

I haven’t really addressed here the complex issues of putting historically black musical traditions on display for paying white audiences, a topic that’s highly fraught.  I admit that the situation made me uncomfortable at first, especially because it brought up the specter of gospel tourism, something I’ve previously discussed: the increasing trend of white people going on tours of black gospel churches, gawking at what they seem to consider a primitive spectacle put on for their benefit.  In my previous post, I expressed my belief that learning about new kinds of music is a good thing, and building respectful relationships with members of the communities that make that music is also a good thing, but that objectifying and exploiting people is obviously not.

I would rather have a bunch of white suburban folks pay to go to a gospel event that is designated as a commercial performance–thus ensuring the consent and fair compensation of the performers, and not turning an overtly participatory event into an overtly presentational one–than go to a gospel church as a tourist.  The gospel brunch setup seems more fair.  The House of Blues setup is a space designated for controlled, consensual spectacle, as it were.  In this context, I felt that it was okay.

The final point that Matt and I pondered was, what is the motivation for tourists to come to a gospel brunch?  We went out of curiosity as to how such an event works, and a love of gospel, but we’re not tourists; it was something to do on a Sunday morning in the city in which we live.  We came up with a couple hypotheses:

  • If you’re a tourist, you have to eat on Sunday morning, and why not go to a brunch that also has some music?
  • White Americans have long been both fascinated with and scared of African-American culture, especially music.  Chicago is well-known for its excellence in several musical styles rooted in the African-American musical tradition: blues and jazz, among others.  Rather than going to a jazz or blues club on a weekend evening in a predominantly black neighborhood, which might not be considered “safe,” or a predominantly black church, which offers a very different worship model than your average white Lutheran church, the House of Blues, a corporate chain barely out of the Loop, presents a way of engaging with gospel that feels safer, easier and more comfortable–it’s perceived as just like going to any other concert.

So, in conclusion: stepping out of our comfortable molds is difficult.  People may not know the behavior that is expected of them, or the setting may conflate conflicting sets of behavioral expectations (which I think was part of the difficulty at the House of Blues).  Unfortunately, our society prescribes such rigid racial/ethnic/cultural boundaries that we often have few if any tools at our disposal when we want to try something new, much less build relationships with those who are not like us in one way or another.  On the one hand, an experience like this gospel brunch can reify some of these boundaries; on the other, it’s a better alternative for allowing people to begin to engage with new cultural experiences than gospel tourism.  This is compounded by the fact that American culture does not teach us how to behave in participatory musical settings, such that many people feel awkward and ashamed about their perceived lack of musical ability despite their desire to try to participate.

What could some solutions be?  Nothing simple, I’m afraid.  A true solution would have to encompass a vast and concerted effort to combat the racism that still lingers in our culture, and a similarly large-scale effort to build participatory music-making, and music education, into daily life.  In the meantime, conscious attempts at self-education and relationship-building, in both areas, would go a long way.

Data sonification: more fun than you ever had in high school statistics

Here are two things that I think are really cool:

  • Thermonuclear Testing, Made Into Music, 1945-1998 (h/t Wayne Marshall): an aural/visual representation of all the thermonuclear tests that were done in the world in the given time period.  The staggering number of tests, juxtaposed with the almost delicate beauty of the colorful dots and sounds, took me a while to process emotionally.
  • Dodgers Musical History (h/t Matt Meltzer): Here, the creator assigned a musical note to each outcome of each season the Dodgers have been in existence, layered over a beat.  Pretty nice way to condense a lot of data, and it doesn’t sound half-bad.

Kanye + New Yorker cartoons

Also, I’m loving this.  THIS IS GONNA BE A DOPE ASS DAY is my new motto.

(pic taken from above-linked site)

Wyclef Jean’s presidential bid

Some ethnomusicologist better get on this story asap.  Diasporism, Caribbean studies, music and national identity, global hip-hop, the music business, it’s all here…

My musician crush on Janelle Monáe is now official

Ok, check this clip.  Not only is Janelle Monáe incredibly talented, her emotive skills as a performer are on display in her most recent video, for “Cold War” (as if the amazing dancing, etc. in “Tightrope” weren’t enough to prove that).  She lip-syncs to the song in one really intimate and mesmerizing take.  (Click through to the article on Pitchfork.)

Soundtrack: What I’ve been listening to lately

1) K’naan. I just hopped on this bandwagon and I’ve been enjoying it.  I like his first album a little better than his most recent one, but both are good.

2) Janelle Monáe. I wish I were super fly, an amazing dancer and owned a tux (the last part I can probably achieve with minimal effort, at least) so I could join her posse.  This video has been on constant rotation around here.

3) The Black Keys. I’ve loved them for a couple years now, and recently decided to buy a bunch of their older stuff as well as, of course, their new album.  Here’s one of my favorites from this year’s Brothers:

4) Bach Cello Suites. I’m working up the G major viola transcription right now (the famous one) just for fun.  Here’s Yo-Yo Ma:

The sounds of baseball, part two

Last Wednesday night, Matt and I went up to Wrigley Field to catch a minor-league game between the Peoria Chiefs and the Kane County Cougars…all for the low low price of $26 total (!).  I was struck by the relative quiet in comparison to our Miller Park experience of a few weeks ago.  Wrigley is the second-oldest major league ballpark (behind Fenway), built in 1914.  It’s obviously been modernized some since then, but many of the bells and whistles that we’ve come to associate with ballparks are conspicuously absent–notably, large advertisements and a fancy scoreboard.

As opposed to Miller Park, which has a large light-up scoreboard and several somewhat-smaller, multicolor scoreboards and an up-to-date soundsystem, all of which work in tandem to produce the effects I discussed earlier, Wrigley has an old-school, manually manipulated scoreboard and just a few light-up strips.  I would also assume that their soundsystem is much smaller.  The standard baseball organ was present, as well as each player’s entrance song, but the constant music, sounds and exhortations for the crowd to cheer were gone.  Instead, the mascots’ antics and the baseball being played provided the impetus for crowd noise.

I’m sure that the Miller Park model is more enjoyable for many people, but I really appreciated the relative calm of Wrigley–I felt like I could experience the game, and decide how to interact with it, at my own pace and not at the urging of whoever’s running the soundsystem.

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

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