Monday, November 25, 2013
Posted by Christopher Smith at 5:44 PM
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Quite some time back, maybe when I first en-'twittered, I got into the habit of using hashtag sparingly and specifically, and seldom/never the hashtags that were "trending" ("yes, please, let me tag along on the daisy chain of lemming-like shiny media objects!"). More often, I used them a little more like keywords or tags--that is, as ways of identifying particular items as addressing one or another topic I knew I'd revisit and which I inferred others might possibly treat similarly. The first of that series, I think, was the #NuminousMoment hashtag--just a way for me to record and remind myself of certain mindfulness realizations, as or nearly when they occurred. A lot of time they are realizations about the natural world, weather, animals, and other close-to-the-senses moments--the sort of things that can be the kernel of poems.
But the "#<>Wisdom" hashtag is a little different. In my life, as I suspect in those of many others, certain professions--certain jobs--have taught me certain skills and provided certain insights: maybe even "rules for living." So #CarpentersWisdom, #ProfessorsWisdom, #BandleadersWisdom, #ITMWisdom ("Irish Traditional Music Wisdom"), #CooksWisdom are insights that come out of my having held those jobs: e.g., "Pay Attention" might be good practical safety advice under the heading of #CarpentersWisdom or #CooksWisdom, but it's probably also sound, if more metaphorical, when you're dealing with the moment-by-moment improvisation of the bandstand or the classroom.
At the same time, the "#<>Wisdom" hashtags do not only connote "here's the magisterial advice upon which, from my position of vastly greater and meaningful life experience, I will pontificate" (though sometimes such vanity slips through). It connotes, at least as commonly, the self-directed advice "hey, dummy, remember when you learned through painful error not to take your eye off the Skil-Saw blade? You wanna remember that accident the next time you find your attention slipping, please?"
In other words, the #<>Wisdom hashtags can connote: "here's something I learned in the trades, and which either you or I might do well to remember." But it can also connote "hey, dummy, your profession is particularly prone to this or that stupid unnecessary error" (more commonly that's the "Professors" or "Bandleaders" tag) "and maybe you oughta avoid it, huh?"
So if, in my social media stream, you see a #<>Wisdom hashtag, you can figure that it means either "hey, here's something I learned sometime that's worth remembering," e.g., "Professor's Wisdom" for others, but equally likely "here's something you yourself, Coyote, ought to know well enough to remember."
It's a not-bad way to cultivate a record of some minimal degree of mindfulness. As much as one can.
Posted by Christopher Smith at 8:19 AM
Thursday, October 24, 2013
Posted by Christopher Smith at 6:41 AM
Thursday, October 17, 2013
Don't ask me survey questions like this on a Thursday evening after a hard week and a glass of wine unless you want an honest answer (and I suspect you don't):
"What changes, if any, could be made to improve the quality of your graduate program(s)?"
Graduate stipends within my Unit (as set by the University) are scandalously low. Too few graduate TA lines are available. Too little financial support (especially TA positions) is afforded graduate students. Improvement in this area is essential.
More money for outreach. More money for national & international visibility. More money for graduate student research and conference travel. We produce a phenomenally high-value product with a shockingly low level of financial support from the university as a whole.
Posted by Christopher Smith at 5:10 PM
Monday, October 07, 2013
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Biographical sketch & image of Alexei Andreevitch Boyar, paratrooper, folklorist, and exponent of the Bassandan pipe organ tradition, and a fragment of poetry, translated from Old Bassandan, by Professor Homer St John, from the pre-literate shamanic chant. See http://elegantsavagesorchestra.weebly.com/bassanda-correspondence.html (and scroll to the bottom).
Posted by Christopher Smith at 4:33 PM
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Monday, September 23, 2013
Group moderator asked fora bio and suggestions for SIG's topical focii; here's what I said:
Chris Smith here, director of the Vernacular Music Center at Texas Tech (http://vernacularmusiccenter.org); full bio here: http://www.depts.ttu.edu/music/Faculty/ChristopherSmith.asp Play (for this music) tenor banjo, bouzouki, button accordion. Record, tour, produce, etc. Day job is Chair of Musicology at TTU. Have published practical methods (Celtic Backup), book chapters (relevant to this group: on Irish film, session culture, community arts, Renaissance-period harmonic languages in Ireland, Seamus Ennis), CDs (3-disc set with Altramar: historical performance settings of medieval Celtic repertoire), theatrical dance show ( http://dancingatthecrossroads.com ), new book on Anglo-Celtic and Afro-Caribbean interactions before the US Civil War (http://www.amazon.com/The-Creolization-American-Culture-Minstrelsy/dp/0252037766), new book project on street dance as rebellion in American popular history. I'll be presenting at Indy on a related topic. I've served as External Examiner for dissertations at UC Cork and U Limerick, and for the BA program in traditional music and dance at UL's Irish World Academy; may soon be starting similar appointment with the MA program. Teach an annual spring-semester course ("Music, Folklore, and Tradition in Irish Cultural History") at TTU, whose capstone is a 2-week Maymester "roving seminar" field-trip to Connacht; lot of friends in Galway, Clare, Limerick, and Mayo. Drive the damned mini-buses ourselves :-/
Posted by Christopher Smith at 9:37 AM
Sunday, September 22, 2013
Disorganized, running very late, technology glitches, making it up as I went along. This is pretty much uncut CJS, slipping and sliding and trying to raise the loas.
Posted by Christopher Smith at 6:25 PM
Friday, September 20, 2013
Posted by Christopher Smith at 10:00 AM
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Further to the previous: Mount's "Dancing on the Barn Floor"(1831--e.g., very early in his career: he was only 25): this would conventionally be understood as a conventionally pastoral idealization of rural experience: "lads and maids" dancing on the barn floor which, in the conventions of the time, is employed as a kind of theatrical proscenium. But, tracing some sketches from life which served as inspiration for this oil (most notably, as the book demonstrates, the remarkable pencil sketch "Comb and Brush"), it's possible to "see" elements of Afro-Caribbean / "creole" body postures and movements, especially in the dancing boy's hips, shoulders, and arms. This is the "hidden language" of the body that, among other things, the book identifies.
Posted by Christopher Smith at 9:42 PM
Q: Were there any common misconceptions of “creolization” that you examined in your research for the book?
I wouldn’t necessarily say there were “misconceptions,” so much as gaps in the record. The book certainly argues that creolization—the process by which two languages, or rhythmic vocabularies, or music & dance idioms, collide and create a shared dialect—was much more widespread in a much wider array of locations, and much earlier, than previous scholarship has perhaps understood. The argument would be that contact between disparate groups—black/white, African/European, slave/free, working-class/middle-class—would have yielded this exchange, whether participants intended or even recognized that it was happening. People heard other people’s music and they learned to move and experience sound differently, and in this new, shared dialect. I think, in fact, that this phenomenon—maybe we could call it “a creolization of bodily experience”—happens everywhere disparate populations come into close proximity with one another. I think it’s at the core of where urban culture arises.
I might suggest that one useful contribution the book provides to that sort of study is to develop a set of analytical tools (particularly rhythmic and iconographic) which let us “see” creole or Afro-Caribbean characteristics—rhythms, body postures, body movements—in tunes or scenes which, on the surface, seem to be “simply depicting” idealized Anglo-Celtic culture. The book suggests that we can identify creole motion—of the pelvis, hips, shoulders; of melodic shapes and rhythms—in the bodies of the dancers, even if they “seem” to be idyllic, pastoral shepherd boys and girls. I don’t necessarily think that Mount intended or consciously imported creole aesthetics into those body vocabularies—quite the contrary: I think that he was simply, accurately, precisely, and sympathetically providing visual reportage on the way that his neighbors and artistic models moved—and that those body vocabularies were already creole, even if the individuals he depicted didn’t consciously realize this.
Posted by Christopher Smith at 9:00 PM
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Posted by Christopher Smith at 3:45 PM
Sunday, September 15, 2013
In the 40th anniversary year of Perry Hensell's remarkable film--the first full-length feature ever made in Jamaica, the one that launched the astonishing riches of Jamaican syncretic music upon the world, the one that captured in remarkable verite techniques the based-in-fact but still archetypal story of the singer/gunman/Robin Hood character Ivanhoe "Rhygin" Martin--I have to give a shout-out to Michael Thelwell's remarkable novelization of the film.
Usually novelizations of existing films are just another way of merchandising the electronic media: I think of the execrable Rat Patrol novelizations I engulfed avidly at age 8, or the endless stream of Star Trek / Star Wars spin-offs, or the not-very-much better redrilling of the dry holes of the Bond or Zelazny "brands" long after their originators have passed on.
But what Thelwell has done is much different, much deeper, and still one of the best portraits of the roots of ska and reggae and of Rastafarianism I've ever encountered. Still assign it in my "Musics of the African Diaspora" seminar because, even if it is "fiction", it conveys the truth of those experiences more deeply, profoundly and truthfully than any ethnography of the region I've ever read. What Thelwell did, quite consciously and intentionally, was not to "novelize" the screenplay of the film--as is the usual, mundane practice--but rather to imagine the folk-story and ghetto myths upon which such a film might have been made. It's the same kind of thing that Peter Jackson et al did with The Hobbit. The originating book is a kid's book, but his mandate (no doubt economic) was to expand it into a tale that could sustain 2 or more feature-length films. So what they did, quite intentionally (and, I think, effectively), was to imagine that the children's book which Tolkien authored was in fact a "children's version" of a much more intense folk-tale of heroic grandeur. In this respect--whether Tolkien intended this or not--Jackson and crew are also able to draw upon the depth and richness of the world that Tolkien created in the Silmarillion. He wasn't a very competent storyteller, but (as the Bassanda experiment makes clear) there is a tremendous and engaging creative energy to be accessed by imagining, or recreating, a world.
That's what Thelwell does in The Harder They Come: he provides a nuanced, detailed, and rich back-story for Ivanhoe/Rhygin as Jimmy Cliff portrayed him in the film, but also a meditation on urbanization, the loss of home, modernization in Caribbean creole contexts, the roots of Rastafari (the way in which Thelwell compresses about 100 years of evolving Jamaican syncretic religion into one parade witnessed by Ivanhoe is a tour de force), the relationship between spirituality, ganja, and crime. It's a remarkable, virtuoso novelistic performance, and it accomplishes the remarkable trick of making the film deeper, more resonant, more profound.
Big ups to Ras Michael. Respect! http://amzn.to/15v1YMT
Posted by Christopher Smith at 10:24 AM
Saturday, September 14, 2013
That’s also the job of the bandleader: to organize the shit that musicians do in a fashion that is unique, new, powerful, and expressive. The craft of the bandleader, particularly in the American musical traditions—in fact, the potential genius of that role, one that is largely ignored or neglected in the study of musicology because it involves organizing musical consciousnesses rather than musical objects—is putting people together. My friend & brother in music Roger Landes taught me that, with his remarkable festival-of-the-tribes called “Zoukfest”; he once said, “the whole point of having the festival is make it possible to put certain people in a room together at the same time, because you’re convinced that unique and beautiful things will happen.” Sometimes, as in the case of a festival or workshop or artists’ colony, you go to a lot of time, hassle, and expense in order to put those certain people (teachers and students, musicians and dancers, performers and audience) in a room together at the same time.
Because the craft and art of making musical, and musical events, is a time-bound phenomenon—unlike a sculpture or video or painting or installation, a music-dance-theatre event has to happen in the same chronological moment and (at least in the vernacular forms I work in) the same geographical space for both performers and audience. Yes, you can stream such events over the web, or live-cast on radio, and that at least permits audiences elsewhere to experience the event at the same time as those physically present: in Singapore, a highly secularized and regulated multi-ethnic city that also has a devout Muslim population, the Call to Prayer is broadcast over a certain radio frequency five times daily, so that the Faithful can at least hear the Call simultaneously as other others, even if in isolated physical environments; I had a Buddhist meditation teacher who said “all I need to know is that someone somewhere is sitting zazen at the same time as myself; if I know that, I know that I have a sangha, I know I’m not sitting “alone”.
But even the radio simul-cast or the web stream is imperfect and, in the case of the intimate communities of traditional music, it almost makes us sadder to know that our friends are out there somewhere in the world but can’t be here. Because vernacular/traditional events are about using music-and-dance to create community, sometimes in environments, locations, or circumstances that are far distant from the ideal, original, or remembered contexts in which the art forms began. The great gift of these forms is that they are so portable, resilient, and memorable that it is actually possible to engage in such re-creation.
But the best things happen when you arrange certain objects in relation to one another with a vision of those patterns’ expressive power, when you arrange for certain people to be together in a room because you have enough insight, experience, and sensitivity to recognize that simply arranging for that meeting will make good things happen. That’s why Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, Art Blakey, Carla Bley, Buck Owens, Arthur Ailey, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa, David Baker, Kim Pineda and so many others would be artists of genius even they themselves had never played, dance, or even composed a note or motion themselves: because they had the insight, experience, sensitivity and—let’s face it—sheer bullheaded stubborn insistence upon the validity of their vision to put certain people together in a room. And then to trust that the artistic potential of that meeting, the sheer unchained creative energy that emerges when artists find new companions and new challenges. Two dancers from Louisiana. A handful of crazy hippie Baroque (and “broke”) musicians in Indiana. A mandolin player from New Zealand and another from Ireland. A bouzouki player from Alabama and another from Kansas City.
And this lot.
Posted by CJS at 5:54 AM
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Posted by CJS at 5:52 PM
Saturday, August 31, 2013
In conversation with a PhD advisee the other day, we were working with the idea that, in her body of historical investigation, certain individuals seem to have sought and/or found ways in which to "subvert" canonic social expectations about identity: gender markers & behavior, class markers & behavior, and so forth. These individuals are often comparatively though modestly successful at shifting the very social expectations they are subverting. Duke Ellington might be an example: though his 1920s and early '30s compositions were labeled and framed as "jungle music," because of the racist expectations of the time, and though his artistic opportunities were channeled and constrained for similar reasons, Ellington found ways to subvert the most restrictive elements of those expectations, to conduct himself in a "ducal" fashion, and to write extraordinarily original and imaginative music beneath the primitivist surface that was imposed upon that music's presentation.
Such thinking is "strategic", in the classic military sense: it is the ability to observe both available resources and unavoidable situational restrictions, to deploy those resources with maximum positive impact, and in a fashion that minimizes the negative impact of the situational restrictions. In the semiotics of art forms like politics and musical composition, these individuals tend toward recognizing and exploiting opportunities provided by existing power structures, even if the eventual intent is the subversion or dismantling of those structures. In the world of politics, the strategic impulse is captured with incredible energy in The War Room, about the Carville/Stephanopoulas experiencing running the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. In the world of women's rights, Hillary Clinton might be an apposite related example. In the world of composition, Ellington's an example; we might cite the example of academic composers who wish to create very new sounds but experience an imperative to accommodate, "rationalize" or otherwise operate within the aesthetics of a tradition they've inherited (Second Viennese School, maybe?).
In contrast, there are those individuals (generals, political activists, composers, musicians, authors) who seem to manifest a more "revolutionary" impulse, the Hippie/Yippie/Panther "Up against the wall, motherfuckers!" of the 1960s Cultural Revolution. This "tear down the castle" impulse might be described as "revolutionary"--as intending, not just to succeed within (and perhaps subsequently modify) existing power structures, but to deny and/or dismantle their power. This revolutionary impulse tends rhetorically and tactically to reject the idea that it is even possible to work within the existing power structures without being destroyed or co-opted. In the world of politics, the aforementioned Hippies/Yippie/Panther/Weather Underground cadres might be an example. In the world of composition, the ultra-modernists like Varese or the avant-garde/"anti-academic" composers like Cage or Nancarrow might be suit.
I should emphasize that I have not worked this out in any detailed, consistent or cogent way. But it seems important to me, even in this preliminary form, because of the particular set of factors which seem to me to link parallel cases of "strategic versus revolutionary thinking" in politics and in composition.
It has to do with class and privilege. If you are a political person or a composer, whose background, lineage, inheritance, or economic class admit to you at least the hypothetical possibility of success within (perhaps a modification of) the system, then you are likely to follow that path toward success: it is easier, it is subtler, it is infinitely less dangerous, and it provides at least the possibility of significant reward within the system. But if your background, lineage, inheritance, or economic class (or a combination therefore) seem inescapably to deny you that hypothetical possibility of success within the system, why would you even wish to preserve it? What wouldn't you wish to tear it down?
This may explain why, at least in the world of composition, "strategic" thinkers tend to come from within relatively privileged middle-class-or-above backgrounds: these admit of at least the hypothetical possibility of success within the power structure. Revolutionary thinkers, at least in the world of composition, tend to be individuals who don't see the hypothetical possibility of success.
Of course personality and individual priorities come into this. Of course there are many exceptions. Of course "revolutionaries", not infrequently, come from the privileged (or at least well-read) bourgeois. But if I'm right, and the individuals who think and succeed strategically within the system tend to come from one matrix of relatively privileged circumstances, and those who seek the destruction of the system from outside those worlds of privilege, it might provide a tool for linking class, politics, gender, education, ethnicity, immigrant/native identity, to the kinds of artistic choices composers take. It might also explain why composers tend to be revolutionaries when they are young (unprivileged, outside the existing artistic power structures, with little positive investment in those structures) and to tend toward conservatism as they age and if they succeed.
Posted by CJS at 12:23 PM
Thursday, August 29, 2013
Posted by CJS at 4:54 PM
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
The other night, at the end of what will be the first inaugural VMC barn-dance, at the local Yoga studio and coffee shop, the self-described "redneck Rasta" owner, whose day job is as an addictions counselor and suicide-hotline supervisor, said "well, I'm just an energy pimp. And a tavern keeper." I laughed and said "yeah, in my parallel universe." But as I thought about it, I realized it's a pretty profound, cut-to-the-chase definition of what we artists and teaching artists do: we raise the energy, invoke the loas, inspire the divine, channel the creative spirit, re-knit the ravelled sleeve of community. There's a reason that blacksmiths are regarded as sorcerers in West Africa, poets as magicians in the West of Ireland, shamans and healers and writers and preachers throughout the 40,000 years of vernacular culture. There's a reason religious fundamentalists and oligarchic dictators hate us, and repress us, and tear out our tongues and cut off our hands and call us wastrels and "takers".
They fear what we make, and do, and create, and teach. And how we remind our communities of the infinite capacity of sentient beings for transcendence.
They fear us.
Posted by CJS at 6:48 PM
Monday, August 19, 2013
Here's where we're at:
Upper level seminars:
- Latino Musics of the Southwest : TR 11-12:20 SOM:209
- Musics of the Romantic Period : TR 9:30-10:50 SOM:209
- Ethnomusicology : TR 9:30-10:50 SOM:218
- Mozart : TR 12:30-1:50 SOM:209
- Twentieth Century : TR 12:30-1:50 SOM:123
- Renaissance : TR 2-3:20 SOM:209
- Grad Music History : 3:30-4:50 SOM:209
- Early Music /a>
- Balkian 
- Tzumba World Music 
- Mbira Group 
- Celtic 
- Mariachi Ensembles 
Damned proud of my guys. Damned proud of the mission and the execution.
Posted by CJS at 3:21 PM
Thursday, August 15, 2013
I have read and understood the contents of the syllabus for this course and agree to abide by the rules, guidelines, and schedule contained within it. In particular, I understand that:
I understand that my continued enrollment in the course will be taken as indicating my consent to these conditions.
- Dr X also agrees to abide by the rules, guidelines, and schedule in the syllabus.
- I will consult the syllabus if I have a question about the course rules, guidelines, and schedule.
- Dr. X cannot make special exceptions for me without being unfair to everyone else taking this course.
If you are the instructor of record for a room full of 21st century college students, trust me: you want this in your syllabus. Scarred experience talking here.
Posted by CJS at 2:52 PM
Monday, August 12, 2013
At this point--another promotion-year--it seems it might be useful revisit the day-to-day from the post-tenure perspective, and try to articulate and share the insights of how that stage is different. Primary goal, kind of like the "Good Peasant Food" series--is to capture useful information and stick it in a format that is accessible and helpful to others.
Summer graduation this past weekend. For about the next 8 days, my near-campus neighborhood will be quiet and pleasant; ambient noise from the 8-lane "residential" streets a few blocks away will die down; parking on campus will be easy (though I'll still take the bike--it was only when I got back on the bicycle that I realized just how much I actually hate being in a car); library will be quiet and shelving-order will be in good shape; lot of support staff will be on their much-needed vacations; and everybody will essentially take a few deep breaths before it all starts again.
Tomorrow: the pre-semester "badass warning letter", and CJS as motivational speaker--which is kinda like Chris Farley as "The World's Worst Motivational Speaker", or a dancing bear wearing a funny little fez.
Posted by CJS at 9:34 AM
Friday, August 09, 2013
Posted by CJS at 1:16 PM
- The Creolization of American Culture (tumblr) (facebook) (UIP)
- Dancing at the Crossroads (tumblr) (facebook) (URL)
- TTU Vernacular Music Center (URL) Texas Tech University Musicology (URL)
- TTU Celtic Ensemble) (URL)
Posted by CJS at 10:24 AM