Thursday, October 11, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 53 (music-socialization edition)

On campus again, at the satellite Office in the Student Union adjacent to Music. As I said to a colleague from another department (portrait from the back above), "I like to be within sprinting distance if there's a fire I need to put out."

Recent thoughts prompted by a discussion elsewhere on the lily-white status of too many middle-class summer music workshops, and the (healthy) culture-crossing that can ensue through the learning of music:

>But, I knew context already, from years of immersion in culture and dance and stuff like that. If you don't have that, a >compete "other culture" experience can be daunting.
Agreed. I'd expand upon this, to suggest that, for those who are interested in crossing-culture, music(s) are often a comparatively and intentionally accessible path to do this. This is because all music requires learning--not only learning, of course, because environment, cultural inheritance, context, and nurture play key roles, but explicit learning nevertheless. And in the performative arts, as with other apprenticeship-based models, approaches to teaching have been developed in each tradition. If you want to learn blacksmithing, or midwifery, or gardening, or welding, or storytelling, or dancing, or music, learning has to take place. And in oral/aural cultures, that learning/teaching has typically been on a demonstration-imitation-critique model. It is the height of ego- and ethno-centrism for any musical tradition (most commonly, since the Enlightenment, the "Classical" tradition) to presume that its own pedagogical methods are the most highly-developed or appropriate tools for teaching other musical traditions. This insistence upon employing western-Classical pedagogies and analysis has led to outrageous distortions of the musical values (and value) of other musical traditions.

This is why, when I teach world traditions to young people, I have to perform an act of translation. By definition, teaching one culture's youngsters about another culture's music requires compromise: you cannot teach the indigenous tradition entirely using the indigenous methods, because your students don't have the cultural frame or experience to benefit from that indigenous pedagogy.

But historically, the above has been the excuse to swing the pendulum much too far in the other direction: toward the abstraction, adaptation, and distortion of the indigenous tradition in order to make is accessible to the target student. "Oh, my students are all music readers; they could never learn (or even worse "they don't need") to learn something by ear." This betrays a complete misunderstanding of the indigenous tradition's priorities--and this misunderstanding leads to a distortion of the indigenous music itself.

And at the root of that misunderstanding is an implicit but nevertheless real presumption of cultural superiority. E.g., "well, those 'Other' people have to learn by ear because they haven't developed their capacities for notation as much as We Ourselves have."

Many years ago, I was giving a chant workshop with my medieval ensemble at a small northern Midwestern college. We had been hired in, as part of a concert weekend, to give this workshop to members of the uni's concert choir, and we proceeded as we always did: by teaching the choir a fragment of chant--by ear--and then beginning to add in improvised organum (improvised parallel harmony at the fifth above or fourth below)--also by ear. It was sounding good, and the kids were self-evidently fascinated by the experience that this musical sound, which most of them associated with the head-smacking monks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, could be improvised, and that they could do it--when the pole-up-the-butt Conductor leaned over to me and said, in a patented snippy-Conductor voice, "just where are we going with this?" I whispered back that this was the historical performance practice and the prick said "well, my students are very competent readers and I hardly think we need to waste time doing this." So we wrenched the fucking thing back toward--not the kids'--but the professor's comfort zone. And the music, and the cross-cultural learning, fell flat.

In my observation and experience, and despite the racist presumptions of too many western teachers, musical traditions evolve pedagogical techniques that are perfectly tailored to teach the musical information that particular culture prioritizes. African music evolved a pedagogy which was perfectly adapted to convey its musical priorities. That European musical aesthetics heard African music as inadequate is indicative of the inapplicability of those aesthetics to such music; not of the relative value of that music. Irish traditional music, Mississippi Delta blues, Pakistani Qawwali, Hindi classical music, Spanish flamenco--all these and others have evolved pedagogical methods as uniquely adapted and beautifully different as the musics those methods teach.

Learning another culture's music using the indigenous pedagogy can also teach you about even more than just where to put your fingers, or your ears.

It can be difficult to understand social, ethical, or behavioral expectations in another culture not your own: because these are typically taught over several decades of a young human's development, and mostly by indirect observation (eg, "No, don't point the soles of your feet at another person," or "No, don't dip into the food dish with that hand"). In the performance arts, on the other hand (as in blacksmithing, midwifery, etc), some elder has to take you in hand and show you where your fingers go--or at least you have to sit at the feet of that elder and watch his/her fingers, in order to teach yourself.

All socialized learning is like this, of course: but music, because it is a specific set of skills within a discreet area of expertise, and not one engaged in by every member of the population, is an area in which it is permissible to be a beginner. A 40-year-old outsider who doesn't know not to point soles or to dip with the wrong hand is regarded as socially maladroit at best. In contrast, a 40-year-old outsider who doesn't know how to play the qin is regarded as harmless and permitted to be a novice. Moreover, music, because it is a slightly more formalized type of expression (in contrast, say, to conversation or body-language), tends to have a slightly more formalized, sequential, incremental and developmental learning sequence. You can be a novice, and be accepted. And as a novice in music you tend to be shown relatively clear and logical paths toward greater expertise.

This has larger implications for outsiders who wish to learn insider social behaviors and values. If musical aesthetics and behaviors reflect their culture's values, to whatever extent, then we can reverse the inference, and suggest at least that learning to participate appropriately and insightfully in another music culture can in turn teach you how to behave appropriately in terms of that culture's social, cultural, ethical, and spiritual values. Thus, both young insiders and adult outsiders both can be socialized using music's tools for development.

This is why learning music has sometimes been used as a tool by those wishing to cross cultural boundaries. And why, in my opinion, learning a culture's musical procedures and values can make you a better person.

Bonus image: sunrise on the South Plains.

More below the jump.

[And a music shout-out to Elder Brother, who last night quoted (from Bombay, via email) the following line from Toot Hibberts's version of "Maggie's Farm": "[s]he's sixty-eight but [s]he says [s]he's fifty-four." My elder brother is building and budgeting low-income housing units for poor people worldwide. I'd say he hasn't wasted his half century. Happy Birthday, big brother!]

Now playing: toots hibbert - maggies farm

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