Monday, November 26, 2012

Critical Review #10: Meintjes 1990

Louise Meintjes in "Paul Simon's Graceland, South Africa, and the Mediation of Musical Meaning" discusses a number the semiotics of Paul Simon's Graceland album. She asserts that the album is primarily understood as a symbol of collaboration, which is interpreted in a number of different lights by various populations in South Africa. Simon encodes the idea of collaboration into his album by emphasizing the creative process which involved a number of indigenous South African musicians and the union of multiple distinct indigenous musical traditions. While Simon prominently gives credit to a few of his collaborators -- particularly Ladysmith Black Mambazo -- he does so inconsistently. There is a subtext of colonialism and a power dynamic in his work due to the work's commercial nature, and the fact that Simon is from a powerful Western nation. He also leaves the album's message open to interpretation by making no overt references of the state's political situation. White South Africans have a number of responses which emphasize the nonracial aspects of collaboration. The album can serve a nationalist purpose by facilitating the creation of a nonracial South African music culture in which White South Africans can claim indigenous music as their own. Also, it serves to Westernize African music and make it more palatable to White South African audience. Liberal and Conservative Whites alike can utilize Graceland as a tool for reform; either as a vision of future racial cooperation, or as an example of such successful cooperation under the current regime. Black South Africans, on the other hand, emphasize the international aspects of the Graceland collaboration. Recognition from a prominent Western artist lends them international legitimacy and establishes their music as potentially lucrative commodity both abroad and at home. While this serves to give more power to Black South Africans, it also compromises the music's value to some. Furthermore, the records relationship with the liberation movement is controversial, as it both promotes Black culture and violates international sanctions on the South African for the maintenance of Apartheid. Clearly, Graceland's multifaceted relationship with South Africa makes it a topic for much debate. Its collaborative nature allows it to be utilized for a number of different purposes by groups with vastly different interests.

Discussion question:
Meintjes assumes that collaboration is the basic message of Graceland to be interpreted by South Africans. But what else might it signify either in South Africa or the international community?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Critical Review #9: Miller 2004

In her essay "First Sing the Notes" Miller discusses modes of transmission in the Sacred Harp tradition. She explores a dichotomy between oral and written transmission. On the one hand, aspects of the tradition are passed down orally to knew members, simply because so much of it is unwritten. Practices such as raising the sixth scale degree in the minor mode, conventions for leading, and parameters for embellishment on the musical line must be learned from attending singings and gaining experience. In addition, non-standard local practices are passed down orally. Most striking is the case study of the Lee family, which developed its own highly idiosyncratic tradition in isolation from the larger Sacred Harp community over the course of a few generations. Because so much must be learned from experience, most new members, even musically literate ones, face similar challenges acquiring fluency with the shapenote notation. Nevertheless, Sacred Harp also has a rich written history. The Sacred Harp book has been revised multiple times, each revision changing the repertoire from which the singers may choose. The book is not merely an artifact with symbolic significance. It is a living document that changes and develops, and has the power to alter tradition.

Discussion question: In what ways does the emphasis on oral transmission in Sacred Harp strengthen the tradition's bonds to the past or distance modern practice from older practices, or both?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Critical Review #8: Campbell 1997

Campbell's essay discusses the period of fracture and change in shapenote singing around the turn of the 20th century. In the late 19th century, a number of innovative styles branched off from the original tradition, including new pedagogical systems using seven shapes instead of the older four and the new genre of gospel singing. While the original shapenote tradition had been born of innovation during the time of the Second Great Awakening at the beginning of the 19th century, many Southerners nearly a hundred years later began to view the tradition as immutable, representing their uniquely rural way of life and way of worshipping. This yearning for constancy in the tradition was especially relevant in light of socioeconomic changes in the "New South," including to the growth of urban areas, cultivation of cash crops, and industry. After a number of revisions to the Sacred Harp failed to integrate the new notational system and songs into the tradition, Joseph James's The Original Sacred Harp was published in 1911. James promised that his edition was not trying to be new, but rather upholding tradition and preserving the old style. Nevertheless, Campbell points out, James's various publications are really a milestone in the invention of tradition. In other anthologies, he included a number of new gospel songs in the original four-shape notation that was able to cater to more conservative singers. Perhaps more importantly, he mediated the invention of a shapenote singing tradition that valued preservation, history, and nostalgia.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Challenge Question Response

In this post, I consider Kenna's first challenge question:

 In her chapter Moving Deborah Wong states that people invested in “elite western forms of performance are susceptible to certain ideological problems, including… the understanding that performing is categorically different from everyday life.” (Bartz & Cooley 2008, p. 80). In your opinion, is this understanding problematic, and if so, how? Do you feel that this assumption reflects any truths about the nature of performance? Does Wong’s described disconnect between performance and everyday life exist uniquely in western art music, or does it also apply to other musical cultures? Draw from your own experiences and thoughts as well as examples from readings and web supplements.   

Wong's indictment of "elite western forms of performance" is certainly controversial. Rather than decide immediately whether it is right or wrong, it is perhaps better to first discuss different conceptions of what a performance truly is. 

Titon in his textbook Worlds of Music would argue that a performance is fundamentally "separate from  the flow  of ordinary life" (Titon 2009; p. 15). Indeed, performance often has significant ritual elements that strive to separate it from "everyday life" in a number of music cultures. Notably, normal social dynamics are altered during performance in many cultures. Certainly, one can see an orchestra performance as an ornate ritual which prescribes certain roles to the participants that they may not occupy outside the performance. The concert hall is silent awaiting the entrance of the conductor, even when many spectators have come with friends and family with whom they would normally talk. The conductor is applauded by the audience upon his appearance, even by world leaders who would command that sort of deference from the conductor himself outside the context of performance. Similarly, Agawu describes from his experiences in the field in Ghana the tradition of "songs of insult" (2003; p. 208). Normally egalitarian African societies that rely on cooperation between members to function condone the explicit insulting of individuals in the highly specialized context of musical performance. Similarly, Peruvian performers of pumpin music began to use musical performance as a platform for controversial political criticism and social commentary. The privileged status of music encouraged these performers to engage in such risky behaviors despite the consequences for political dissidents in Peru at the time. In these cases, the rules for everyday life seem to checked at the door to the metaphorical concert hall. In performances such as these, participants enter into mutual agreement to behave within a certain set of parameters. This not to say that all music cultures strive to establish this boundary which sets performance apart, but it appears at least to be a goal of many music cultures.

On another level, however, it may not be possible for any human activity to exist apart from everyday life. Are not the societal rules that govern ordinary behavior also the same one's that dictate when performance is to occur? In this sense, performance is subservient to everyday life. In Titon's view of performance, a Sacred Harp singing is separate from everyday live, able to operate under its own code of conduct, which would demand that all singers be treated and viewed equally. However, if the Queen of England were to come to a singing, no participant could truly isolate her relative importance in everyday life from her equal role at the singing. Even more than that, all the singers belong to a society which allows the singing to exist and places value on the context of Sacred Harp performance. Without the permission of the broader society, the singing could not exist. This is perhaps the view that Wong is espousing. Performers and spectators of western art music want to act as though attending an orchestra concert is fundamentally different from brushing their teeth or driving to work. However, like those mundane "everyday life" activities, musical performance occurs in a regular, predictable way. Every week on Friday night, you can hear the James Levine conduct the BSO in Symphony Hall, just like every morning at seven you can see James Levine brush his teeth in his bathroom. It would be just as inappropriate for him to brush his teeth in a tuxedo as it would be for him conduct the BSO in his bathrobe.

In this case, perhaps it is the attempts of the society to separate and elevate performance, not the inherent separateness of the performance itself, that helps to define it. Wong's criticism cites this goal of western art music as problematic, when in fact it is a very common attitude in music cultures of the world. While this may be a music culture that is often exclusionary, that perpetuates strict class structures, and that is used to devalue other musics, it does not necessarily follow that this elitism is due to the separateness of performance. Such class dynamics are characteristic of western society over its long history. Even relatively egalitarian Sacred Harp or African music cultures strive to establish boundaries between performance and non-performance. In response to Wong, then, while it may be problematic for the ethnographer to view performance as fundamentally separate in his or her efforts to contextualize the music culture within its respective society, it is not problematic for music cultures to value such a separation.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Critical Review #7: Miller

The introduction and first chapter of Kiri Miller's Traveling Home provides a brief overview of the history and modern landscape of Sacred Harp singing. Originally part of a movement of democratizing musical training across the United States, Sacred Harp singing eventually found its stronghold in the rural south, where it became associated with poor, white, Scotch-Irish populations. Today, as singing spreads to more diverse urban populations across the country, the historical, racial, and regional origins of this music culture have a number of implications. Among Sacred Harp singers, nostalgia and reverence for a disappearing era, an agrarian "medieval" South clashes with the invention of tradition in contemporary diaspora communities. These diaspora communities have a number of distinctive features that are having widespread affects on the practice of Sacred Harp singing. Pilgrimages to faraway conventions, particularly to those in the South, are an important aspect of joining this community to a number of members of these new diaspora communities. People are no longer motivated primarily for the sake of worship within Southern Protestant systems, but have a number of reasons for singing, including emotional expression, musical appreciation, and more individualized forms of worship.

Discussion question: How is it possible that so many people can respond to Sacred Harp singing both with a fascination with its exoticism and "otherness" and also with its familiarity? How does this paradoxical state relate to other liminal or insider/outsider states that members of other music cultures, such as Deborah Wong and Kofi Agawu, occupy?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Challenge Questions

1. The crisis of representation brought around major shifts in how ethnographers textualized their research. Modern ethnography is reflexive, based on the ethnographers own subjective experience, far removed from the positivist approach of the past. In this class, we have been exposed mostly to work done after this theoretical upheaval. As students, how does reflexivity affect how we relate to ethnographic work? In comparison to the the few examples of older ethnographies we have read, in what ways are these modern works more and/or less easy to understand and learn from? How might other groups of people potentially interested in this work, such as hobbyists and ethnomusicologists, be affected by reading these newer works?

2. The ethnographer's relationship with the people who are his or her subjects is both highly essential and complex. Titon describes forming friendships with subjects as both a goal and a consequent of fieldwork in his "friendship model" (in Barz and Cooley 2008: 37-40). On the other hand, Wong asserts that "the ethnographer is always an outsider" (in Barz and Cooley 2008: 82). And Shelemay becomes somehow both an outsider and more of an insider than her subjects when she is asked by them to mediate tradition to the community she studies itself in the role of "expert" (in Barz and Cooley 2008: 151). How is it possible for the ethnographer to assume these many roles at once? How can these roles be seen as beneficial, harmful, or incidental to the processes of fieldwork and ethnography?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Critical Review #6: Kaminsky

In this article Kaminsky explores the role of gender in Swedish Polska dancing. Like many folk dance traditions, the genre typically reinforces a gender binary, prescribing different roles to men and women encouraging flirtation between the sexes. However, in modern Sweden, Kaminsky notes, gender roles are less strict and gender equality is actively sought out, leading to a number of changes in the dance tradition. Same sex dancing partnerships, regardless of the participants' sexual orientations, grow more common, and dancers are beginning to take on certain roles in the dance characteristic of the opposite gender. The element of flirtation, however, remains largely heterosexual (or homosexual interactions are underreported), or heteronormative in the few cases of overt homosexual flirtation. Women usually take on weak, submissive roles and men chivalrous, dominant roles in flirtations. A number of factors also discourage flirtation, such as the danger of assault or of appearing loose, and even the choreography of the dance itself.

Discussion question: Why are the sexual undertones of Polska not so openly discussed if they are generally present? What does this tell us about the nature of sex in this culture?