Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Íngrid Betancourt on hearing Led Zeppelin in her captivity

Íngrid Betancourt, a presidential candidate in Colombia in 2002, was kidnapped by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and held captive until her rescue by the Colombian army in the summer of 2008. In her recent book Even Silence Has an End, she describes how a battery-operated radio was her lifeline to the world. What she heard might surprise you:

It was December 8, the feast of the Virgin, and an urgent need to listen to music from the outside world grabbed me. I had a thirst for life again. By chance I heard a countdown of Led Zeppelin's best songs, and I wept in gratitude. "Stairway to Heaven" was my hymn to life. Hearing it reminded me that I was born for happiness. I had collected all their records, and they were my treasure back in the days when music came only on vinyl records.

I knew that among die-hard fans it was frowned upon to like "Stairway to Heaven." It had become too popular. Connoisseurs were not supposed to share the taste of the masses. But I never disowned my first loves. From the age of fourteen, I'd been convinced that the song was written for me. On hearing the song again in that impenetrable jungle, I wept at the promise of freedom made to me long ago, that I had never understood before: "And a new day will dawn for those who stand long, And the forests will echo with laughter."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tradition and the pursuit of happiness

can be seen as the bad old days,
a straitjacket of custom, ignorance, and intolerance,
to be superseded by a bright, new modern tomorrow,
a liberation from hidebound views,
oppressive authorities,
and arbitrary violence.

At the same time,
tradition can be seen from a romantic perspective
as a repository of solid, genuine, humane, community values,
rich with sentiment, sincerity, and peacefulness,
which is being corrupted by modernity,
thought of as some combination of
the prison of bureaucracy,
the inhumanity of commercial imperatives,
the glossy sham of rapidly changing appearance,
and increasing violence to humankind and nature.

more broadly understood as contentment,
being at one with the world and oneself—
may lie in either, or both, directions,
depending on one's point of view.

(From Peter Wade, Music, Race, and Nation: Música Tropical in Colombia, p. 140.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Convergence of Ethnomusicology and Jurisprudence

Today I presented a talk, "A Convergence of Ethnomusicology and Jurisprudence: Contextual views on whether performing sacred choral music endorses religion in U.S. public schools," at the conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology in Los Angeles. This talk is based on my recent article published in the Journal of the Society for American Music.

I provide commentary on a 1997 court case, Bauchman v. West High School, concerning the performance and study of sacred vocal music in a public school curriculum. I argue that the doctrine of "endorsement," first articulated by Sandra Day O'Connor in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), has much in common with an ethnomusicological approach to finding musical meaning in the context of performance. It is not sufficient to study the content of a musical work and declare that this content automatically promotes religion. Only a case-by-case examination of the context of performance can show when performance of a certain work promotes religion.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Linguistic anthropology at the grocery

When I saw the heading "cultural foods" at a Whole Foods Market in Princeton, New Jersey, it reminded me of people who ask me about "cultural music." If I were not a native English speaker, I might consult a dictionary and surmise that the "cultural foods" aisle contains items produced through agriculture, or perhaps items like yogurt that deliberately serve as hosts for microorganisms.

Of course, this meaning is not the intended one. In reality, this aisle is similar to one labeled "ethnic foods" at other groceries. There seems to be a distinction being made between foods that are "cultural" or "ethnic," and foods that are not (i.e. what is found in the other aisles).

What makes a food "cultural"? The other entries on the signs give some clues: not a definition but a series of examples. In the foreground the sign lists Mexican and Jewish foods; in the background at the other end of the aisle, Asian, Indian (distinct from Asian?), and Mediterranean.

What do these five examples have in common? With the possible exception of Mediterranean, these terms describe social groups that have faced marginalization and exclusion from U.S. society at some point in their histories. ("Mediterranean" seems to me more a trendy term for a certain health-conscious diet than a coherent social group or cuisine.)

  • Is the answer that to be "cultural" is to be an immigrant? Perhaps, but think of how many emblematic American picnic foods have immigrant origins: hamburgers, hot dogs, coleslaw, French fries (actually Belgian), ketchup. Is a hamburger a "cultural food"? Not at this Whole Foods, it seems.
  • Is the answer that to be "cultural" is to practice a religion other than Protestant Christianity? Perhaps, though it is striking that kosher food is listed on the sign but not halal food. Is Islam "not cultural enough"?
  • Is the answer that to be "cultural" is to be nonwhite? Not in the case of Jews, of course. Some people of Indian descent identify themselves as white according to the U.S. Census racial classifications (which have a dubious past). Wouldn't African foods be advertised as part of this aisle if being nonwhite were essential to being "cultural"?

In short, there is no coherent principle that accounts for every example. But it is clear that the anthropological concept of culture is not guiding the designer of this store. An anthropologist would say that all social groups have a culture: learned behavior for coping with the environment, including foodways. Native-born white Protestants have a culture (or cultures) of food just as much as the groups singled out in these signs.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sacred Harp "Hoboken Style"

Laurie Kay Sommers, a folklorist from Georgia, has published "Hoboken Style: Meaning and Change in Okefenokee Sacred Harp Singing" in the online journal Southern Spaces. Besides being a definitive treatment of the unique traditions associated with Sacred Harp singing in the Okefenokee Swamp region of southern Georgia, this article also beautifully exploits the possiblities of online publication.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Liberal Religion, Artistic Autonomy, and the Culture of Secular Choral Societies

My article, "Liberal Religion, Artistic Autonomy, and the Culture of Secular Choral Societies," has been published in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of the Society for American Music (4: 339-367).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A week at Westminster Choir College

I spent last week at Westminster Choir College, now part of the Westminster College of the Arts of Rider University, located a short walk from Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. I was there to take the Group Vocal Techniques course offered by James Jordan, in which he presents a systematic approach to developing a choir's voices through the warmup sequence.

Besides learning much from the course, I also was thrilled to visit one of the totemic places in the history of choral music in the United States. As Jordan says, Westminster Choir College may be more devoted to the maintenance of a particular choral sound than any other place. Its founder, John Finley Williamson (1887-1964), was a visionary musician and organizer, one of the giants in the history of American music of the 20th century.

So many aspects of choral singing are often passed down in a process more resembling folklore than schooling. Anyone who has sung with a variety of directors knows that there is great variation in the warmup procedure from group to group. Of course, there is no one "right" warmup that is applicable to every possible choral ensemble; but on the other hand, many warmups seem to owe their genesis more to habit than to systematic thought. Moreover, in the culture of a choral society, the warmup sometimes acts more as a framing device to put distance between the "real world" and musical labor, than as an effort to accomplish specific goals in the development of the voice. Put more bluntly, if a choir has a certain vocalise that begins every warmup, its function is as much to communicate "please stop socializing and take your seats" than anything else.

Jordan's teaching serves to question these habits and to make the warmup serve a purpose. One area in which he opened new doors for me is to rethink the role of the accompanist in the warmup. When I have led choirs, I have used vocalises that climb by a half step with each repetition. (Having sung bass before, I also like to use vocalises that descend, something that is less common in the choral warmup, in my experience.) But I did not give much thought to the accompaniment to these vocalises. Usually, I would just play the tonic chord of whatever key the vocalise is in, and perhaps hammer out the notes of the vocalise if the singers were having trouble staying on pitch.

Jordan's technique (developed in collaboration with accompanist Marilyn Shenenberger, whom I also met at this seminar) is not obvious but makes perfect sense once encountered. First of all, one should use the dominant chord, not the tonic, to introduce each successive key. Second, the accompaniment should not simply hammer out the notes of the vocalise, but should provide a contrasting line which singers should hear and sing in harmony with. Finally, the accompaniment can often include high-pitched, percussive notes outlining the harmony. (Warmup exercises employing these techniques can be found in Jordan's textbook Evoking Sound: The Choral Warm-Up.)

(Photo: the Playhouse at Westminster Choir College, an imaginative use of an iconic mid-20th century architectural form, the Quonset Hut.)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Mim's Conn organs

You always take for granted what you experience growing up. Unlike many people, I had a variety of keyboard instruments available to me in my formative years. One of the instruments I fondly remember is pictured at left: a 1970 Conn electronic organ (Prelude Theater model 305), which I got to play whenever I visited the farm where Mim, my maternal grandmother lives (and is still going strong at the age of 90).

When she was younger, she used to play often for me. I wish I could remember more of the songs she used to play. One of her favorites was "Rose of Washington Square," here presented in a Dixieland jazz arrangement by Red Nichols and His Five Pennies:

Unfortunately, this instrument no longer works. It may have fallen victim to a lightning strike. I suspect that the problem may be as simple as a failed power supply, since there are two power switches to the organ (one for the sound and one for the lights), and both are equally dead. It's a shame that I can't share a sample of what this instrument sounded like.

The Conn organs do not have the panache (or resale value) of the legendary Hammond B3, but they have much to recommend them. The Prelude Theater had a wonderful sound that I associate with baseball and roller skating. The key to the sound was a shimmer produced by a rotating Leslie speaker (much like in the Hammond B3), as well as a deep reverb produced by a set of coiled springs inside a metal box (also found in many guitar amplifiers of the era).

(At the end of Deep Purple's 1972 song "Highway Star," the crash you hear is caused by kicking or dropping a reverb unit, causing the springs to rattle violently inside the metal box.)

On YouTube there are several videos of Conn organs of similar vintage. This one has just the sound I remember from my grandmother's instrument, though this instrument has more bells and whistles (including a buggy whip effect, apparently triggered by a toe button). It also has a full pedalboard and larger manuals.

The Prelude Theater 305 also had a drum machine, the Min-O-Matic. Amazingly, someone has made a digital emulator of this drum machine. The sound is a little tinny compared to what I remember, but I'll take it. "Teen Beat" is a rhythm often used in 50s rock 'n' roll: a backbeat with snare drum doubled on beat 2. "Latin" is the familiar 3+2 clave. "Metro" is a metronome. "Double Beat" caused the bass drum to sound twice as often. There's no "Fatback" or "16 beat" button, sadly.