Writing about World Music

Davidson College, Spring 2016

New Music Davidson

While enjoying the many compositions of my fellow colleagues at the concert last Friday, it was difficult not to think about an ethnomusicological perspective on the event and the process. From the event, one could not fully understand what was really going on around them. I could not begin to guess what an ethnomusicologist would make of a piece with elements from ragas, a piece that was a dance mix to a reading of a Dylan Thomas poem, a piece that sounded like an acoustic, singer-songwriter single until numerous effects were introduced, and many more. None of these seemed similar in the overall scope of the concert. It seemed as though the ethnomusicologist would almost have to observe every one of our pasts to understand why we chose to do what we did, and the context it took in the concert and class, as well as in our personal lives. I still don’t fully understand why those people chose to do what they did after observing them every step of the process of composing and deciding what to compose. These pieces from nine people in the two sections of the class certainly would have seemed random to any outsider, but for the four other people in my section it made some sense. The composer who made the raga-like piece was in the professor’s world music class at the time, the composer who made a dance mix to a poem was always interested in mixing and mixing software, and the composer who made the singer-songwriter type piece had taken the songwriting class the previous semester and was part of a band on-campus. This was very interesting and fulfilling, as an insider, to observe this culmination of ideas expressed early on in the semester into a final presentation. Throughout it all though, I couldn’t help but wonder what this would mean to an ethnomusicologist or someone just coming to the concert to support their friend. Without the background knowledge, they would not have understood, and even with the knowledge that I had I still felt like I needed to know more to understand what they produced. All in all, this was very distracting during the concert, but it made me realize just how much someone needs to observe a musical context or musical setting to understand it, even if it is only at a basic level.

1 Comment

  1. This is a really interesting idea. We kind of touched on this when we watched the clip from the ethnomusicologist conducting field work on The Poet’s Salary, but it is an interesting idea to go into further.

    Being an ethnographer not only requires an extensive knowledge on conducting the research and handling the process, but also on who you are studying, and pre-requisite information on them as a cultural focus. You can’t simply walk into the field, expecting to successfully conduct research without having done any previous thought.

    Your instance is also very interesting – the context in which the composer wrote the piece is an important part of the analysis of the piece, and its place in the concert as a whole. Had this person not been in the world music class offered by the other professor, their composition – given that it was still a raga, even – would have been a very interesting choice. Obviously, in the setting, the composition was a free composition, but a raga is still a rather specific choice, and isn’t a musical form that most instantly acknowledge.

    I’d be curious as to how you thought of the piece after that. Depending on how the composer acted, their choice of composition could have potentially been motivated by their pursuit of musical recognition, and after seeing why they chose a raga, their pursuit may have been compromised. If it was a composer simply finding interest in the raga form, this would likely have not been a worry – in either scenario, however, their professor likely influenced their compositional choices, due to their experience in the class.

    Applying this to the modern ethnography model presents interesting results. Consider a situation where the focus of the study makes a rather strange musical or cultural choice, based on their background. Without having looked any further into the scenario, the ethnographer might not have given any thought to the idea that this choice could have been motivated by an external force, eventually reaching the artist’s choices, and resulting in a hybrid mindset of the artist and their influence. In a sense, this process results in disingenuous results, but on another hand, the artist likely has the power to deny the influences from the external force, and create using only their mindset.

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