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

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.