Sunday, November 27, 2011

2012 Grawemeyer Award Winner, or, Hey look, another Violin Concerto

Greetings from the University of Louisville, or as we're known this time of year, Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition central.* I'm taking a break (ok, procrastinating) from my nearly-completed PhD applications to tell you (ok, post links I cribbed from Alex Ross) about this year's Grawemeyer Award winner, Esa-Pekka Salonen. I haven't heard the work, and I won't begin speculating wildly about what yet another award going to a Violin Concerto means (4 or 5, depending on how you split the Kurtág, out of 25), but I figured you'd want to know. Either way, new music FTW!

* No one actually calls us this.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Transcription: The Ethnomusicologist’s Greatest Tool, or The Most Over-Rated Aspect of the Field?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about transcription’s relevance to the contemporary field of ethnomusicology. My conclusion: like it or not, transcription is a necessary evil, but only in certain instances, as it is often a complete waste of time.

Before going any further, I must submit to full disclosure. I am currently taking a course in transcription methods and it is proving to be the bane of my existence. Not only does it take up an enormous amount of time, but it also is the source of unrelenting stress. To make matters worse, I am amazingly terrible at it. For reference, each week I (attempt) to transcribe musics from varying cultures and genres: British ballads, country blues, Cambodian orchestras, central African hocketing flute tunes, Bulgarian women’s choirs, etc.

Now, I don’t mean this post to be a proverbial pity party, nor do I intend it to function as an outlet for my frustration. I am truly interested in opening a dialogue regarding the necessity of a skill that takes many years of hard work to simply hone to acceptable levels.

For those of you who are not ethnomusicologists, transcription (the process of visually representing music by way of writing it in standard Western notation or by devising an alternative means of achieving the same effect) began as a way for ethnomusicologists to discuss music with people who had no means of hearing the sounds for themselves. As technology has improved and recordings have become immediately accessible, there are some in the field who feel that the practice has run its course—Nettl seems to have aligned himself with this school of thought, at least to a degree. Some, such as Seeger, have even taken a proactive approach to eliminating the need for researchers to make their own transcriptions by developing transcribing machines—now, I know someone out will say that Seeger and the like spent countless hours working on devices such as the Melograph in hopes removing the biases of the human ear, though do you honestly think that was the only motivation? And, on the other hand, there is no shortage of those who stand unwaveringly by the skill as the principle tool in the ethnomusicologist’s arsenal. So what is the answer?

Now, I have already given away my thoughts, but some explanation may be in order. Like it or not, technology is advancing so rapidly that we are capable of embedding recordings in whatever e-Book or online journal article we happen to publish; until the takeover of e-books, online guides and supplemental CDs serve the same function. Additionally, it seems that a computer program capable of accurately analyzing tones and rhythms is within grasp. Moreover, if the ethnomusicologist is well trained in analytic techniques, s/he can effectively convey her/his thoughts with words alone.

However, spending hours listening to, and tweezing-apart, a single piece of music in order to accurately transcribe it provides access to otherwise unobtainable insights. Furthermore, the inclusion of a detailed transcription alongside a published text allows others to make their own judgments and to form their own opinions about the music; to deny this chance not only adversely affects the student, but the field of knowledge as a whole.

So, what do to? Should we continue to torture pupils of ethnomusicology through the forced acquisition of a skill that serves no genuine purpose outside of some sadistic rite of passage? Or, should we continue to ensure that no ethnomusicologist is sent out in to the field without the foremost skill necessary to accurately and justly serve the music s/he is to encounter?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rethinking My Position

Ok, here’s the deal; I was wrong. I hate to admit it, I really do, but I must be honest with myself. After watching Tuesday’s semifinal round of “America’s Got Talent,” the grandest display of amateur talent the world has ever seen, I fear I must mourn the loss of the starry-eyed idealism that I expressed in last year’s post concerning this hit TV series. For those you who may not remember (or who never read), last year's post chocked back excitement for the rise in classical music’s cultural capital—a phenomenon that I truly felt we were witnessing. In summary of the previous entry, I expressed the opinion that the competition’s continued dominance by classically trained (and more importantly competent) musicians was a sign that Americans were starting to make the long and arduous return to artistic refinement. After watching the latest round of the current season, I am left questioning the haste of my celebration. At this moment, my sentiments on the subject read more like a cantankerous old coot who scolds the neighborhood kids for “playing that god-awful racket too darn loud.” In the first draft of this post, I even went so far as to say, “I am now forced to recognize that the American masses are so blinded by the pizzazz that the talent-less hacks of today’s Top 40 continually pass off as ‘music,’ that we as a society, are truly incapable of differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ That is to say, when something is presented to us under the guise of talent and refinement, we accept it without question.” However, in review of my words, I acknowledge that I may have been too harsh. After all, we as trained musicologists must remember that we listen deeper and more acutely than most other folks. If this were not the case, the little need there is for us would be greatly diminished. Nonetheless, I stand by my aggravation and disappointment.

My fit of exaggerated discontent was caused by the performance (and all performances prior) of Lyes Agnes, a self-proclaimed, though utterly untrained opera singer. Ms. Agnes is a favorite of both the judges and the audience, as she has strikingly beautiful personal style and a heart-warming story. Throughout the show, her talents have been praised for her ability to perform classical works—though her song on Tuesday night was a rock song with “classical” vocal stylings—with technique and poise. However, I am always left wondering if the judges and I saw the same performance. Again, recognizing my belligerent attitude, her spotty pitch, over singing, inappropriate use of ornamentation, incorrect breathing and poor posture, leave me feeling utterly unimpressed.

I do not mean to single out Ms. Agnes, or to suggest that her decidedly “unclassical” approaches are the reasons that classical music will not witness an elevation in cultural capital anytime soon. She has, though, opened my eyes (and I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing). Music, as suggested by my heroes of the Marxist School of Cultural theory, has simply been commercialized and commoditized to the point that an understanding and appreciation of true art has slipped from our collective consciousness.

With that said, there are several very good musicians still in the game, not the least of which are Daniel Joseph Baker and the band Poplyfe. The difference however, is that the aforementioned groups are not watered-down versions of classical musicians; they are powerful and talented popular music acts. And, for some reason, this sort of labeling makes a world of difference in how I perceive them.