Friday, June 17, 2011

Missed the Boat

When I go back to my regular life in the fall, I will teach the Introduction to Music Study for Graduate Students. On sweltering tropical afternoons while seven kids play on the bamboo back porch, I’ve been perusing articles from previous years of teaching and checking out recent journal issues. This I can do while occasionally saying “yes, you are totally tougher than a droid; no, you may not make paint out of flowers and turn the porch floor into a mural, of course that paint is toxic; it’s made in china, do not kick your brother.”

Getting ready for the graduate class involves a literature survey ranging from 19th century musicological texts to the New York Times and recent cultural theory. This time I’m coming to the sad realization that as a professional music scholar I missed the boat. A hundred year ago I could have donned a fetching straw hat and called the whole adventure anthropology or comparative musicology. And if I were slightly older or slightly younger I would have the proper vocabulary and scholarly comportment to take sound bites, turn them into aural moments of global tourism, and get a publication out of them. If either of those approaches seemed appropriate, I could write up a monograph and a few articles, put them on my annual report, and earn either a promotion or a $200 merit raise.

The graduate class always starts with Guido Adler—a father of musicology. I’ve always loved the 1885 chart delineating the details of systematic musicology. His version of ethnomusicology attended to “folksongs of the various peoples of the earth” by which he meant “non-western” or “exotic.” A comparative scholar following his model would have loved this weeks graduation ceremony. The students planted a tree—biologist’s equivalent of Jews virtually planting trees in Israel. Each participant then dumped a shovel full of dirt on the tree—much like the Jewish funeral. Moving out of the garden I would no doubt have celebrated bucolic village life and admired the exotic beauty of the local women. Their humming in augmented seconds surely would have stood for an inherent bond with the land. The fact that I can speak neither the local language nor the national language would not have hampered my ability to make aesthetic judgments and gross cultural generalizations. I would have been very bothered by what the tuning which I would have described as “lack of equal temperament” (translation: pitches are different here.) I don’t think the ever-present pentatonic scale would have given me much comfort. But the thirds and fifths that seem to pepper the local music here would have felt nice and triadic at moments. The kids and I would have zipped around transcribing and recording to our hearts content. The resemblance of the Erhu to a violin or cello would have thrilled me; especially when I heard a player zip seamlessly between classical tunes and Dai melodies. I would have tried really hard to name the modulation that allowed that transition and eventually settled on “pivot chord on ‘roids”

The cultural tourism model could be even more fun especially if it was peppered with discussions of cultural transfer. Just today I encountered incipets for two such articles. The first would be titled Traditional Dai Music and the Modern Machine. I would begin with the traditional ethnographic anecdote and note that while I was firing up my ipod to go for my morning jungle run, I was almost run over by a huge construction vehicle with a roller. The driver appeared to be not more than twelve and had music blaring. From what I can gather from my amateur ethnography and internet research, the tune was a traditional Dai Buddhist chant. The dissonances between small boy, driving large machine, blasting Buddhist ritualistic sounds took my breath away. The fact that my ipod shuffled to man-eater just as I started running only made the soundscape wackier and added that enticing note of dissonance. The article would stop there as I cranked up the volume on my ipod and tuned out the Buddhist chant, street sweepers, loud tropical birds, and buzzing motorcyles.

The second sound bite from today could fall under the rubric of “musical ecologies.” Today I took seven kids to the “exotic” or “ethnic” plant garden. (It depends on which sign you read; the translations are different) We moved around amidst packs of Chinese tourists led by garden tour guides--Dai women wearing traditional Dai clothing. The main attractions are the little shop of horros plant that grabs your finger when you touch it and the grass that dances if you sing to it. Yes really you can sing to the grass. We learned that it does not respond to non-melodic singing or to children pretending to be opera singers. It’s a music 101 student style plant—to count as singing it must have a melody…. From this I could of course pontificate on the inherent musicality of the universe (a-la-Ficino). Even the plants respond to the magic of song… Or I could do the cultural tourism route and describe the different musical activities that the poor plant must endure on a given Friday morning. It seems to prefer high voices. The cultural tourism approach to the plant would have to center on the women singing traditional Dai melodies in a distance, catching the ears of western children and chinese tourists alike; plucking ritual song out of its context and marketing it for eco-tourists. They sang to one set of plants while a china pipa and flute duo sounded; the overplayed Rachmaninoff Vocalise, mixing unmistakably western classical tunes with quintessentially Chinese timbres creating a live sonic pastiche….. And just to make sure that everyone played their musical roles the only song that all seven kids I had with me knew was Do Re Me. And yes they did blast it out and successfully got the plants to do a jig—apparently the ethnic and exotic plants do respond to the diatonic scale. And again the sight and sound of seven kids representing four different ethnicities matching pitch in a song that essential serenades tonal harmony while talking to plants in rural china is certainly worth a caption. This turned out to be their musical highpoint as they then spent a ridiculous amount of time making up a song about various gruesome ways to die that featured crucifixion, live burial, venomous snake attack, and other lovely things.

Sadly thought I missed the musicological boat on comparative musicology when you don’t speak the language and on cultural tourism. So for now I’ll stick to the mommy blog and return to Castrati in the fall.

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