Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

On Ethnomusicology and Universality in Music

A Note on Recent Reading Methods
While I only read about 70 books cover-to-cover last calendar year, I've been doing lots of slow, intensive reading and re-reading of texts that my nervous system perceives as extremely dense, endlessly fascinating, and challenging to my self-miseducation. Scholars of reading like David Hall and Rolf Engelsing have confirmed and drawn out something I'd assumed: around 1750 or so, "intensive" reading - in which a reader reads a book or books over and over - gave way to our modern "extensive" way of reading a book, rather quickly, then moving on to the next thing. I know certain 20th century writers - Robert Frost comes to mind - were known for reading the same 20 books over and over. I think many of us do both types of reading. Some of the books I've been reading "in" without any real goal of "finishing," over the past year are: The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. by Sloane; How We Think, by Fauconnier and Turner; A Thousand Plateaus, by Deleuze and Guattari, and George Lakoff's Philosophy In The Flesh. Each of these represent a boundless rich intellectual environment and they all intersect with each other...because I make them intersect.

One of the main themes of How We Think is that the highwater marks of 20th century thought were all formalist in assumption. Incredible formalist works were produced in cybernetics, linguistics, math, and psychology, but they all ran dry when they bumped up against meaning. In art there's no problem with formalist work, because it has no assumptions about finding some ultimate key to unlock the final secrets of the universe: Schoenberg's stuff is perhaps the ultimate in formal thought in music, and if you dig serialism, cool. If formalist thinking in color and shape is your thing in painting, rush to the Kandinsky exhibit post-haste! Schoenberg and Kandinsky (or Elliot Carter, Paul Klee and James Joyce) produced work that did not call for formal proofs from the rest of the community in order that research may build from there.

Currently I see the formalist works of Godel, Chomsky (in linguistics), Minsky and the pre-1980s AI giants, and all modes of structuralism as odd, wonderful intellectual works of art. They all ran aground and could not - will not - account for the way human nervous systems make meaning. Are they formally elegant works? I think so. But what I'm trying to do to my mind by immersing myself in the works cited supra is to get it out of the 20th and into the 21st c. I think it would be easier if I were 23, but I am not 23. Still, it's fun. And I'm not sure there is as clean a break between formalist modes of meaning and embodied ones. But the break seems fairly sharp. Hence, the re-re-reading of those dense texts and a few others like them.

                                          a Javanese gamelan

Ted Gioia and Universality In Music
Which reminds me: every now and then I read some article about "human universals" in some domain, and I remain piqued, even though I associate the search for universals with the 20th c. and hence formalist assumptions about "reality."

Which brings me to Ted Gioia's piece on universality in music from last October. He sees lots of new neuroscience as pointing to music as universal, but says musicologists seem to feel threatened by the idea. Historically, ethnomusicologists have always strived to show how each peoples' music was different from others. There were fears about ethnocentrism and Western hegemony, ideas about technology and "race" and complexity and who was "advanced" and who wasn't, etc. I still see their point; but Gioia's impetus was his own research for his books on music. It's a wonderful article and you really ought to read it. I think he brings up some very rousing issues: examples of musical similarities in emotional types of music that share striking similarities with peoples so far-flung that it's difficult to account for except by universality; Witzel's recent work in 50,000 year old monomyths that seem virtually worldwide - how come almost everyone has a Flood Myth, a creation-destruction myth, an Orpheus, a trickster?; how, against anthropologists of music, there have always been great systematizers and taxonomists who tabulated and cross-collated data in an attempt to obtain a universalist Grand Schema; how the current work in historical genetics in search of the African "Eve" is a universalist idea; how Jung's collective unconscious might have a resurgence with new neuroscientific/math techniques (even though I think Gioia's reading of synchronicity as merely a re-naming of "coincidence"- a Begging the Q - isn't nuanced enough); and I particularly like how he laid out six "Possible Explanations of Human Universals, which are:

  1. Diffusion: transfer of social practices from one group to another (Gioia ain't buying)
  2. Common Origin: when social groups separate and migrate, they retain their practices (sorta maybe-ish, not really)
  3. Shared Biology/Brain Structure: humans share physiology and basic neurological tendencies (this is Gioia's main squeeze here)
  4. Shared Archteypes  (Ted G seems to think this too woo-woo, but I see it the way Joseph Campbell saw myth: Jung and others like Frobenius and Eliade pretty much see archetypal templates as metaphorical biology)
  5. Similar Contextual Situations (Both Gioia and I like this idea. Ever since I first started reading cultural anthropology, the idea that hunter-gatherers would have different modes of thought than pastoral-herding peoples made sense to me. Ideas about universality get a bit dicey here, but it's a good kind of dicey. This guy said it better.)
  6. Coincidence: which Gioia thinks is functionally the same as Jung/Pauli synchronicity.

Gioia thinks ethnomusicologists should work with brain researchers on this project, and I agree. Let's see what can be figured out! This exhortation to get the musicologists with the cognitive scientists seems to hermetically traverse boundaries, which we're all for. Why not use techniques once reserved for Naturwissenschaften to impinge on Geisteswissenschaften? Wot?

At the same time, the phenomenology of listening to "world music," for me, will not be changed much no matter how much is "proved" about the universality of music. When I listen to Tuvan throat singers, Balinese "monkey music," some Greek wiz on the Bouzouki, koto virtuosos, Zakir Hussein playing with anyone, any of the Alan Lomax recordings, jazz, The Master Musicians of Jajouka, Hank Williams, Eno, Laswell, Kronos Quartet, or Celtic music: it takes me somewhere else. I want - and will inevitably find - an exoticism that alters my sense perceptions. Your personal "reality" and imagination will always be some remainder in the Total Equation, eh?

Ted G says a great many of us are interested in ideas about universality in music, and he cites Oliver Sacks's book Musicophilia and Daniel J. Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music. Hey, I loved both books. Here's Levitin, after citing Chomsky's idea of our innate capacity to learn any of the world's languages, due to genetic endowment and merely hearing the language during childhood:

"Similarly, I believe that we all have an innate capacity to learn any of the world's musics, although they, too, differ in substantive ways from one another. The brain undergoes a period of rapid neural development after birth, continuing for the first years of life. During this time, new neural connections are forming more rapidly than at any other time in our lives, and during our midchildhood years, the brain starts to prune these connections, retaining only the most important and most often used ones. This becomes the basis for our understanding music, and ultimately the basis for what we like in music, what music moves us, and how it moves us. This is not to say that we can't learn to appreciate new music as adults, but basic structural elements are incorporated into the very wiring of our brains when we listen to music early in our lives." (p.109)(This idea may answer some of the Qs I posed back in this blogspew?)

Now: is this part and parcel the same argument Ted Gioia makes? Or does it modify it? Does anyone think the implications here modify Ted G's idea about universality to the point a qualitative difference arises? Does this idea I've selected from Levitin have nothing to do with what Gioia's tryna get at? I'm not sure...Ted G says in his article that the "modern age of research on brainwaves and music can be dated back to the 1960s," citing Neher's "Auditory Driving Observed With Scalp Electrodes In Normal Subjects." Well, it may not have been "brainwaves" but Seashore's work in The Psychology of Music dates to 1938 and attempts to chart enormous amounts of data about the human nervous system and perception of music. It's not massively cross-cultural, but we can assume - because of #3 on Ted's chart: "Shared Biology/Brain Structure," that it has at least some relevance.

Robert Crumb: Some Sort of Wonderful Musicologist Too
Get a load of Public Radio International's Marco Werman visiting Crumb, the giant of counterculch comic book artists in his house in Southern France, in 2004. I knew from the documentary Crumb that Robert was a tremendous collector of old 78s, but this interview yields proof of Crumb's cantankerous erudition and reverence for roots music that would put the most serious hipster to shame. Crumb asserts that when we listen to some of his very rare recordings, we "time travel" to some "lost world" and I couldn't agree more. Listen to the quote at 2:45 in the second sound bar, when he talks about the "effort"it takes to listen to some of this non-Western, alien, wonderful music. Note Crumb's delineation between the ethnomusicologist's strategy of going into some remote village and asking, "Who knows the old songs?" and the Music Business people, who ask, "Who are the best players around?"

What kills me - and maybe you too, if you listen to Crumb - is that he sounds dubious that anyone will want his massive collection when he dies. He says the idea that some university will want it is mistaken: he found Alan Lomax's recordings untended, falling apart. He was even allowed to take some home, as a gift, apparently. Jeez.

                                          above artwork by the brilliant Bobby Campbell


Eric Wagner said...

Great post, as usual. Have you read Joseph Kerman's "Contemplating Music" (also known as "Musicology")? It has an interesting chapter on the rise of ethnomusicology. Also, I think recording technology has really affect how I hear music from other cultures. I remember how scratchy the recordings of non-Western music sounded back in the 80's. Now we can hear cherry recordings from all over the planet.

Thinking about teaching music theory, I have listened mostly to classical music from the Common Practice Period over the past three years to help me with teaching AP Music Theory. In fact, I have Brahms' Third Symphony playing right now. I have tried to expose myself to a lot of new music at other times in my life.

I think Proust did tremendous research on the way music affects the nervous system.

Have you read "The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs" by Greil Marcus. I just read it over Christmas Break and I enjoyed it.

michael said...

I haven't read the 30 yr old Kerman book, but it's one I've been "meaning to get to." I haven't read the Greil Marcus book either. I love his Lipstick Traces. He doesn't see or value the eroticism in popular music I like and seems too much to think his Left-academic-ish valuations (like Dylan, Elvis, Clash) are "right." I said "seems."

If you listened to the R. Crumb interview, he talks about the oldest physical mediums for recording non-Western musics.

Some day I hope to get to Proust.

I had a good laff the other day with a student, who reproduced a lead guitar run by Randy Rhoads and asked how it could possibly fit with the scale/theory. Rhoads used appogiatura/mordents/trills/grace notes in a long, flashy run. I ended up saying - and I think this is true - that our best music was always played from imagination first, then we theorized to account for why "it sounded good." We can always explain via theory why something had its affect. Theory "is" only a MAP.

Of course!

Ben Turpin said...

As for the unviversal theories,
1 is in 2 and the in 3. Fine. Sociology.
4 is woo - emotional inspiration translated as stuff perceived as universal.
5 is sheer discordianism and extended from 3
6 is just coincidance at play, some extension of woo-woo

Woolly emotional woo woo built civilization.
When you say long, as in "long flashy run", compare it to a Donald Trump speaking moment.
Perspective is a lot. Look at the trumps long enough. You see yourself from the inside out!
The appeal to emotion. Rhoads was a scholar of emotional output. How will trump play out?
What could he accomplish with a fife and drum?

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...


I do both kinds of readings, too. I also sit down and read what seem to be "reference books" from cover to cover sometimes, which my wife thinks is weird.

You say that listening to various kinds of world musics take you to a different place. What is your reaction when you listen to the formalist music you mention, such as 12-tone and atonal music? Is it different from what happens when you listen to world music?

michael said...

@Ben Turpin-
Trump's blatherings have been analyzed by those who specialize in doing such things. His speech is apparently at a 4th grade level, and may account for the sorts who support him. That's what the speech analysts are saying. As for fife and drums and Trump, I can see it now: a ye olde style fife and drum riff with Trump singing "I Gotta Be Me" to it very off-key, like Ozzy Osbourne live. The Crowd - as described by Gustave LeBon - loves it! Film at 11.

I referenced Randy Rhoads but doubt anyone who reads this blog felt any resonance at all.

@Tom Jackson-
I like what two of Schoenberg's students did with his formalist ideas more than Schoenberg, but as R. Crumb says about exotic musics, you gotta be in a certain mood, you hafta make an effort, but when you do, it can really pay off. For me: in altered consciousness, a trip out of my "normal" (cough) self and into what Peter Berger called a "finite province of meaning." Let's take Schoenberg works for solo piano: I become acutely aware there is no home chord, no root, no tonality, and so I'm floating, in a well-made space suit in cold intellectually abstract music space. I try to discern the tone row, then tell when its treated in retrograde, retrograde inversion, where the rhythmic values shifted as if some very distanced Mind activated an algorithm. In general, dodecaphonic music treated serially feels "beyond" my understanding, like reading some article in advanced number theory concept: I want to "get it" but I also know my limitations, so I negotiate with it on my own terms, which are about the moods this music evokes. All our musics growing up were given as fluent, harmonically, melodically and rhythmically. There is an utter lack of fluency when listening to Schoenberg, and it's very eerie and unsettling to me. Another subjective impression: after listening to serialism intensely for a few days, even Mozart sounds so comprehensible, "sunny" (lots of music in major keys, possibly to write himself into happier moods) and GROUNDED. And pop music contrasts so starkly with serialism it's almost jarring.

When sprechtstimme is used - take Pierrot Lunaire, for example - the voice is so theatrical to me that I feel it gets me deep into German expressionist aesthetic as well as watching one of Fritz Lang's Dr.Mabuse films.

Many different world musics affect me in different ways. I have a CD of pygmies from the Ituri rain forest singing and I find it uplifting. Indian classical music seems as dense as Western classical and Duke Ellington to me. I LOVE to combine cannabis with low lights and some sitar whiz playing a raga suitable for night-time: talk about sweetness and fire!

One thing phenomenologically - and that's the approach I'm taking here, obviously - that listening to all sorts of music from "world music" bins: the timbre of the instruments is wondrous. I find timbre more fascinating the more I learn about it.

I bet you're sorry you asked. Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Care to weigh in?

michael said...

Re: Tom Jackson's weirdness reading reference books cover-to-cover.

Lately one of the great buzzes I get reading a book that would probably be found in many of the library's "you can't check this out" reference book sections: _The Order of Things_, by Barbara Ann Kipfer. Accumulated cultural knowledge of all sorts, categorized and listed in order from "large to small" in general. It's a time-binding wonderland of a book.

Eric Wagner said...

MJ, I suspect you would love Proust. I just reread chapter two of Prometheus Rising. The section where Bob suggests that mind software exists outside of the brain parallels Proust's notion that memory exists outside of us.

Eric Wagner said...

Michael, I decided to take your suggestion. I just ordered Walter Piston's Harmony book from the library.

michael said...

@Eric: Maturana and Varela seem to have seen their stock rise over the years: biology of self-organizing complex adaptive systems and the perennial metaphor of Mind at Large.

I love the Piston book. It addresses the 1700-1850 (or so) period really well.

Meanwhile, I finally obtained my own copy of Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (1934), and I love to geek out on it. A bible for guys like Zappa, I see it as one of the great formalist works of the 20th c.