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.

The pitfalls of gospel tourism

Fiqah over at Racialicious and Possum Stew has an extensive, fascinating and much-needed take-down of Harlem gospel tours, from a personal perspective.

As you may know, there are plenty of African-American, largely Baptist, churches in Harlem which are well-known for their excellent (primarily gospel) music.  It’s not necessary to be a believer to appreciate the talent and incredible sound, and Fiqah herself describes how she’s not religious, but rather goes to church with a friend occasionally just to appreciate the music.  This doesn’t seem at all problematic to me; a few people going occasionally, behaving respectfully toward church community members, and appreciating good music can only be positive.

However, to make money, some churches have opened up to “gospel tours,” which essentially means white Americans and European and Asian tourists paying money to come in and hear the music.  But Fiqah describes some downright disrespectful behavior: nonstop talking, cell phone conversations, and worst of all, acting like the service and the music were spectacles to be gawked at instead of human beings making some good sounds in the service of their beliefs.

When people’s experiences on these tours have been written up, it sounds uncomfortably like old-school ethnomusicology (read: “I went to a faraway place with strange brown-skinned natives and listened to their crazy music.  They are so sensual and primitive!”):

I meet Tim Rawlins at the Memorial Baptist church choir practise. He’s rare proof of the fact that white men can sing gospel. He says I’ve got to surrender to the music – feel it – and forget I’m English.

Tim: “What I like about gospel music, is that it breaks from that old European tradition which separates intellect and reason from feeling and really in Gospel music you feel with great thought and you think with great feeling…”

That probably means loosening up physically too. When the elderly women start to practice I find myself entranced watching the soloist, Lonnie Gray. She’s 77 years old but she’s out there, her face enraptured, her hips swaying, moving with the rhythm – feeling it.

Please, spare me.

The takeaway: respectfully appreciating, enjoying, potentially participating in, learning about music of other communities, and hopefully thereby building relationships across communities = good.  Fetishizing those communities and reinforcing existing problematic power structures = emphatically not good.

Ethnomusicology has largely moved on from this approach; maybe we need to be doing more as a discipline to help educate mainstream society on respectful, egalitarian ways to learn about musical communities.

Drumroll, please, for the blogroll

Introducing: the blogroll, just in time for your long-weekend perusal.

I’ve rounded up a number of music blogs that are well worth your time in checking out.  They run the gamut from musicology to ethnomusicology to music news and criticism.  (And one transit blog whose author I have a bit of a crush on…but it’s good regardless of the fact that my partner writes it, so take a look!)

Hit me up if there’s a site I’ve overlooked that you think is worthy of inclusion.  The blogroll will of course be updated as I roam the musicblogosphere.

Norteño music, south-of-the-border hot dogs

Yesterday’s dining section of the New York Times featured an article about Sonoran-style hot dogs: bacon-wrapped, smothered in beans, guac, tomatoes, onions, salsa of all kinds, mayo, potato chips, etc.

Despite the fact that I’m rather intrigued by this development–given that I grew up in the land of a thousand variations on cooking bratwurst, sausage culture nostalgically interests me–I valiantly tried to ignore the food part of the article so that I wouldn’t be tempted to try a Sonoran hot dog.  (Bacon+pork hot dog+dairy products=quite unfriendly to the quasi-kosher vegetarian who authors this blog.)

What really caught my attention instead was how the reporter deployed music to set the scene for his detailed descriptions of southwestern-U.S./northern Mexico hot-dog-eating life.  Check it out:

One Sunday afternoon, as a mariachi band played, an after-church crowd, half Anglo and half Hispanic, thronged El Güero’s outdoor dining pavilion.  Babies cried.  Teenagers table-hopped.  And parents argued that, rather than order a second dog, children should fill up at the salsa bar at the back of the pavilion, stocked with peeled cucumbers, sliced radishes and chunky guacamole.  Front and center at every third table was a Sonoran hot dog.

Doesn’t knowing that a mariachi band was playing help you taste the sliced radishes a little more pungently?

One recent afternoon, at one of the two Oop’s hot dog stands he operates on Tucson’s south side, Martin Lizarraga sat beneath a tent-draped ramada anchored on one end by a flattop-equipped hot dog cart, and on the other end by a minivan painted with a hip hop-inspired, anthropomorphic hot dog character.

As a tripod-mounted speaker blared norteño music into the street, and toritos–mozzarella-stuffed, bacon-wrapped güerito chiles–browned and then blistered on the flattop, Mr. Lizarraga talked of the days when he worked as a liquor salesman in the Sonoran capital city of Hermosillo, frequenting the “table dancing club” for which he named his two hot dog stands.

With his 14-year-old daughter, Abigail Lizarraga, by his side, he spoke, with great enthusiasm, of Hermosillo, where “every corner has a hot dog stand” and “the health department is not so strict” and vendors have the freedom to garnish a dog with everything from cucumbers in sour cream to crumbled chorizo.

Notice how different music is linked to each type of setting.  The family-oriented setting plays mariachi; it’s characterized by restraint, with parents telling kids not to get another dog, but rather to fill up on toppings if they need to.  The second cart both plays norteño and has a hip-hop-inspired logo.  The owner used to be a liquor salesman and enjoys the creative freedom his profession enjoys back in Hermosillo–the description of his business is characterized by more expansiveness and sensual joy.

The music evoked in each case is also a provocative commentary on U.S.-Mexican border culture.  Given the popularity of Sonoran hot dogs and northern Mexican musical styles in the southern U.S., along with many other cultural signifiers of course, what conclusions can we draw about border culture and the effects of immigration and colonization?

One easy way to think about the ethnomusicological approach is to think about both how music is influenced by its context, and how it in turn influences that context.  Both dimensions are operating here: how do you think about norteño and mariachi (whether or not you have ever heard either style) based on the settings the reporter evokes?  How do you think about each hot-dog-eating setting based on the musical descriptions that have been embedded in the story?

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