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

Monday, September 19, 2011

In memoriam Christopher Small

The musicologist Christopher Small has died at the age of 84. His three books republished by Wesleyan University Press, Music, Society, Education (1977), Music of the Common Tongue (1987), and Musicking (1998) were a formative influence on me as I studied ethnomusicology at Brown University. (Small also published a monograph on Arnold Schoenberg, not mentioned in the Times obituary.)

Not only did I find his ideas provocative, but I also was fascinated with him as an individual.
  • Like me, he began with an early interest in the natural sciences (in his case, zoology), before turning to music.
  • Also like me, he grew up away from major musical centers (in his case, New Zealand) before moving to the metropolis.
  • Also like me, he had made some attempts at composition but had become discouraged with the task, and this discouragement led to an ethnomusicological point of view.
If I were to pick out one book that convinced me of the necessity of a global discipline for studying music, it would be Musicking. Small starts with a radically simple idea: rather than think of music as a thing that we can buy, sell, and study, think of it as an activity that takes place among a certain group of people in a certain time. In other words, turn the word music in a verb.

(If you reflect on how we talk about dance, this approach is not as utopian as it seems. Dance can be a noun, but more often it is a verb that describes an activity. And if we do speak of "a dance," we usually mean a genre classification such as waltz, samba, and so forth. There is no such thing as a "dance store" that sells recorded or notated versions of dances, for the simple reason that at least until the 20th century, it was impossible to record or notate dance. Today there are notation systems for choreography, such as Laban movement notation, but these are only used by specialists and are not sold to a mass public like musical scores.)

One of the advantages of thinking of music as an event rather than a thing is that it makes it easier for us to develop a musical discipline that is not biased toward a specific time or place. In music studies we have a strange disciplinary situation that our colleagues in visual art and linguistics must find puzzling: there are some disciplines (historical musicology, music theory) that primarily study notated compositions of Western art music, and other disciplines (ethnomusicology, folklore) that primarily study non-Western or non-notated music. (Mass-mediated popular music is a political football kicked between the two camps.) To the first camp, the object of study is a musical score, while to the other camp, it is a field recording or transcription. The two camps have different institutional and intellectual histories, and it can be hard for them to talk to each other.

But each side leaves out an important part of the story of musicking.
  • To a composer in the Western art music tradition, musical material and its meanings partly come from the unwritten music that exists in the composer's world but does not reach the page. Historical musicologists and theorists have sometimes forgotten this, focusing exclusively on the biography, psychology, or technique of a genius composer.
  • Conversely, unwritten musical traditions may have concepts of authorship and a persistent musical work, even in the absence of prescriptive notation. Ethnomusicologists and folklorists have sometimes forgotten this, ascribing unwritten music to groups of people rather than to individuals.
To me, Small's work offered a possible way out of the horns of this dilemma. In effect, he is advocating that we take the same point of view toward written compositions that linguists take toward written language. To the linguist, spoken language is always the primary phenomenon and writing secondary. Description of a language must be grounded in observations of speaking, not in the prescriptions of the guardians of written language.

The idea that music is fundamentally an act of performance is, of course, not original to Small, and he could be faulted for failing to acknowledge the progenitors of his ideas (for example, John Dewey's Art as Experience.) But as an evangelist for a bracingly contrarian point of view, Small was without peer.

One passage from Musicking stands out as a direct impetus for my own research with choral singers. As part of his criticism of Western art music concerts performed by a few star professionals for a passive and uncomprehending audience, he poses a thought experiment:

"If we imagine a performance in which the members of the orchestra sold the tickets themselves, arranged their own seating and moved the piano around and where everyone, audience as well as conductor, soloist and orchestra members, stayed afterward to clean up, there would be brought into existence another set of human relationships, another kind of society. It would not necessarily be a better society, but we may be sure that those taking part would not remain strangers to one another for very long.” (Musicking, pp. 35-36)

If you have any experience with an amateur or volunteer chorus, you know that what Small describes is no utopian fantasy. It is the everyday reality of making a choral concert happen. I took it as a challenge to do fieldwork among choral singers to demonstrate empirically what Small had surmised.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Reflections on fieldwork, ten years later

It's hard to believe that it has been over ten years since I began the fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation in ethnomusicology, which I received from Brown University in 2004. Looking back now as a busy parent and professional, the time I spent living in Pawcatuck, Connecticut (across the river from Westerly, Rhode Island) and studying the culture of choral singing in that area seems an unimaginable luxury. (Photo from 2004: The Blue Mitten Thrift Shop, "The Store That Helps Westerly Sing")

Moreover, my professional and personal lives have taken a different course than I imagined they would. Trying to accomplish one thing, I wound up setting myself on a path that I could not have envisioned in 2001. And perhaps my assessment of this path in 2011 will seem just as subject to revision in another ten years. My work as a musician remains a work in progress.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, I am again reminded of how different the world is now. As I was planning my dissertation research, the long-predicted deflation of the tech bubble had begun, and the nation had gone through the trauma of the 2000 presidential election, but in so many ways the future of the United States and of the world seemed brighter. On later reflection, my decision to do ethnomusicological fieldwork close to home, rather than abroad, was a product of this era of relative international calm and domestic prosperity. My ideas about "American culture" have surely changed during a decade that has seen terrorist attack, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the abandonment of New Orleans, erosion of civil liberties, attempts to legalize torture, and a prolonged economic malaise.

When Americans talk about history, they often talk about changes in technology. Sometimes these technological changes are mere surface detail, more visible but less momentous than intangible changes in behavior. But I do think there have been some truly transformative changes when I compare 2001 and 2011. Here are some vignettes:
  • I decided to sell an old computer. The way to do this, I assumed, was to place a classified ad in the local newspaper, the Westerly Sun. I walked over the worn threshold into the Sun's office in downtown Westerly, paid a considerable sum of money for a small ad, and waited at home for the phone to ring. It never did. I forget what happened to that computer, but I didn't sell it to anyone via classified ad. Of course, since 2001 Craigslist (here for southern Rhode Island, here for eastern Connecticut) and similar services have decimated this mainstay of a newspaper's income stream, and it's hard to be nostalgic for the old way. Today I would be able to sell the computer, and without having to pay for a placement, either.
  • One of the concerts during my tenure with The Chorus of Westerly featured Debussy's infrequently performed cantata for women's voices, La damoiselle √©lue. At the first rehearsal, not enough copies of the vocal score were available, and in fact, Kalmus had to print more to meet the demand. Today, the website IMSLP has a reproduction of a public domain edition of the work, available for the cost of printer paper and an Internet connection.
  • In 2001, the Chorus of Westerly had a website, but online ticket sales were still not possible. One had to call the office during business hours from Monday to Friday and give a credit card number over the phone.
It's also hard not to ignore the rise of social networking software like Facebook since 2001. Today the Chorus of Westerly, like many arts organizations, uses Facebook to stay in touch with its stakeholders. Its manager, Ryan Saunders, frequently posts updates of the chorus's activities, complete with pictures. Facebook is a boon for someone like me who no longer lives in Westerly and cannot be actively involved with musical life there, but who wants a stronger connection than a monthly mass mailing.

Surely some of my research would have taken a different course if tools like Facebook had existed. Part of my task was to map out a social network (actually, a nexus of several overlapping but distinct social networks). At one point, I actually had a map of southern Rhode Island tacked to poster board, with push pins representing different actors in the social network. With a tool like Facebook, such a task becomes much less laborious. Imagine, for example, that 20 members of chorus A are "friends" with the director of chorus B, but only 2 members of chorus B are "friends" with the director of A. At a glance you learn something important about the social world, something that might emerge only gradually through patient interviewing when doing fieldwork pre-Facebook.

Another thing I noticed when Facebook came online was a social distinction between the Westerly social world and the other singing subculture I have studied, New England area shape-note singers. I find that the shape-note singers are more intense users of Facebook than the Westerly singers. I could venture several reasons: shape-note singers tend to be younger, tend to have a professional background (especially in the sciences), and in general tend to come from the demographic of early adopters of technology. But also, I would say that that shape-note community is self-consciously a scattered community: in Kiri Miller's term, a diaspora. Shape-note singing may look to the rural South as its ancestral home, but it is also a movement that can take root anywhere. On the other hand, the Westerly singing subculture is more closely tied to one place on the map (though this place also has a summer satellite, Camp Ogontz in New Hampshire). But perhaps the use of Facebook may give the Chorus of Westerly more of the aspect of a dispersed movement, as stakeholders outside of its geographic reach become incorporated into the organism that is an online social network.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why do nonbelievers enjoy choral music from the Christian liturgies?

By chance I encountered a book of essays, The Woods Hole Cantata: Essays on Science and Society (1985) by the medical doctor Gerald Weissmann. The book is a contribution to medical humanities, and it contains a fascinating account of the role that choral music plays in the community of scientists that gathers to study at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod in the summer.

This essay makes explicit something that I have often noticed among choral singers: quite a few singers make their careers in the natural sciences. Yet the compositions chosen by the ensemble at Woods Hole, like those programmed by most choral societies, originate not from the context of science, but rather from Christian liturgies. Weissmann sets the scene of a performance of Vivaldi's well-known Gloria:
The "Gloria" is Catholic liturgy, the church Episcopalian. The composer was a priest, the majority of performers are probably freethinkers. Vivaldi is Art, the audience lives Science. Under the roof of one church sit Moslem [sic] with Jew, Indian with Pakistani, Harvard with Yale: a truce is obtained, the conditions for which seem to have eluded a good bit of mankind.
Weissmann continues,
Nowhere have I seen it recorded ... that late August evenings in the Hamptons, in Big Sur, or Woodstock are devoted to responsive readings from Darwin's Origin of the Species or Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene. Nor, to return to clerical considerations, have I heard that religious enthusiasts have sat in rapt attention as, in joyous phalanx, they chant sections of Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, H. L. Mencken's essays, or Jacques Loeb's The Mechanistic Conception of Life.
The last name, Jacques Loeb, is not a famous one today, but at the turn of the 20th century he was a well-known popularizer of the idea that, in Weissmann's words, "the sum of all life phenomena can be unequivocally explained in physico-chemical terms." As Weissmann reminds the reader, Loeb is actually buried in the very Woods Hole churchyard where a future generation of scientists is singing and listening to Vivaldi.

Ethnomusicologists often use the term "homology" to describe a fit between music and life: a situation where musical structure and cultural structure complement each other.
  • To take a well-known example, John Miller Chernoff's African Rhythm and African Sensibility discusses West African musical traditions as not merely a collection of styles and techniques, but a fundamental way of experiencing the world, inseparable from dance and from community life.
  • Or, to take an example closer to my own experience, participants in shape-note singing conventions often describe the performance ritual (the inward-facing square of singers, with singers taking turns leading songs from the center) as homologous with an idealized America of participatory democracy and small-town virtue.
The performance of choral music at Woods Hole resists such interpretation as homology. On first glance, the musical performance seems to be discordant with its cultural setting. But perhaps the cultural purpose of music is sometimes not to affirm its cultural setting. Perhaps music sometimes serves to compensate for the shortcomings of a culture, rather than to reinforce its strengths. In the same way that a summer on Cape Cod compensates for the limitations of a life in a large East Coast city, perhaps Vivaldi's Gloria compensates for the limitations of the scientific career.

Weissmann offers commentary along these lines, making reference to the fact/value distinction that is so central to humanists' conceptions of themselves:

While mechanistic philosophy may describe adequately how science works, it does not offer consolation for the world it produces: Vivaldi may be more appropriate for that task. Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, all experimental scientists are mechanists now. Ravished by Art in this church tonight, we will wake in the morning to work in the mills of Fact, the construction of which we owe to the mechanistic conception of life.

Reading this saddens me a bit. It is a shame that a scientist must learn to compartmentalize his career and to only assign value to mechanistic explanations. And yet, the very fact that Weissmann took the time to write The Woods Hole Cantata suggests that this separation of what he (tendentiously, in my view) calls Art and Fact can never quite be achieved.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A summer teaching Chinese students at Northeastern

I spent the summer of 2011 teaching a course on American music for students in the US-Sino Pathway Program at Northeastern University. This is a special transition program for Chinese students entering American universities. The students complete a year of English-language instruction in China, then the summer program in the US, and then move on to one of several universities in the US to continue their educations. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article on this educational model (subscription required).

As someone with an educational background in ethnomusicology, I found this teaching assignment an interesting application of my training in cross-cultural music studies. Superficially, it would appear that I was an American introducing American culture to a group of foreign students. But in reality, it's not possible to make such a neat division between "us" and "them." Like many international students, these Chinese students have arrived with a deep appreciation of American popular culture. Michael Jackson was a particular favorite. When we watched Michael Jackson videos, many of the students knew all the words to the songs and heartily sang along.

The students also introduced me to Chinese interpretations of American music. One favorite of mine is the Taiwanese country singer, Jay Chou:

I had some surprising moments when I tried to draw connections between American and Chinese culture. The American composer John Cage, for example, is known for developing methods of composing music by chance. One of his methods involves his idiosyncratic use of the ancient Chinese divination text, the I Ching. Some of the students had never heard of it. Others knew about it but did not attach much importance to it. It goes to show that we must be wary of defining cultures in term of some eternal essence with ancient roots.

The conclusion of the course was a concert performed by the students. Here is a group of students doing a dance to Scott Joplin's ragtime composition, "The Entertainer." I am accompanying at the piano.

Thanks to my students and to my fellow instructors, Hubert Ho (Northeastern), Jeremy Van Buskirk (Longy School of Music), and Dominic Ferrara (Berklee School of Music) for a memorable summer.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tim Eriksen reviews The Makers of the Sacred Harp

Singer and ethnomusicologist Tim Eriksen has published a review of The Makers of the Sacred Harp, the much-awaited volume by David Warren Steel and Richard Hulan. This volume greatly augments the published record on this essential American music practice.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Nancy Newman on the Germania Musical Society

My former Brown classmate Nancy Newman, now a professor at SUNY Albany, has just published Good Music for a Free People, a much-awaited book on the Germania Musical Society, a mid-19th century orchestra of German-American musicians who played a key role in shaping the nascent art music culture of the United States. Nancy discusses her research in more depth at the excellent blog, "From Beyond the Stave."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In praise of POTS (plain old telephone service)

Our family was touched by the tornado outbreak that struck Alabama on April 27, 2011. Though none of our family members suffered a direct hit from a tornado, straight line winds caused severe damage away from the tornado's path. In Jasper, the storm felled a massive tree that had been standing since at least the 1940s at the farm where my 92 year old grandmother lives.

As a consequence of the storm, much of northern Alabama lost power for an extended period. In my grandmother's case, there was no power from Wednesday until Sunday. However, the phone still worked, because it was "plain old telephone service" (POTS). For a 92 year old person who needs assistance to live at home, the phone is a lifeline. Had the phone failed, she would have been in a difficult position, because she would not be able to drive or walk for help.

Sometimes the older way is better. Cell phones, Skype, and voice over IP are wonderful inventions, and I could not imagine life without them. It's tempting to get rid of the landline phone so that there's one less bill to pay. But natural disasters and massive power failures do happen, and these newer technologies require electricity. And even what passes for a landline phone today may not be as robust as my grandmother's. I get my landline service (and internet and cable) from Verizon FiOS, which uses a converter box plugged into the wall to transmit data over the phone lines. There is a battery backup, but it lasts only about 8 hours.

(Photo: Volunteer workers from the Southern Baptist Convention clear the downed tree.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Robert Shaw Chorale and the Shape-note Heritage, 1948-1967

I presented a paper entitled "The Robert Shaw Chorale and the Shape-note Heritage, 1948-1967" at a conference, Teaching the Harp of Voices: Discovering America's Choral Roots ... Today, at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York. I have been researching the efforts of Robert Shaw and Alice Parker to popularize songs from shape-note tunebooks, both in performances by the Robert Shaw Chorale and through publication of the arrangements the Chorale employed in its performances.

Many thanks to Tom Malone, professor of music education at Molloy, for his efforts in organizing this conference.