Writing about World Music

Davidson College, Spring 2016

Author: lekirchgeorg

Final WRI 101 Comment – Bidding adieu to World Music… for now

For the final post on the blog of the course I wanted to reflect a little on the course as a whole and how is may shape the future.

I didn’t quite know what to expect of the course when I signed up. All I knew was that I had to complete the WRI 101 requirement and that I was a musician… so why not complete the requirement in World Music. If I am honest, I didn’t exactly understand the spectrum of World Music before the course even though I like to think of myself as a good well-rounded and knowledgeable musician. I didn’t really know what an ethnomusicologist does or how/what he or she studies. But the course has definitely opened my eyes in that regard. I learned much about the principles of how to study non-Western music and obviously how to write about it.

But what struck me the most was how many types of music there is that nobody will ever learn about unless they are literally aiming to study it. There is no way I would have been exposed to the Peruvian musical culture in Conima or find out about the extreme nature of riaz. To learn about these cultures you have to want to learn about them because it is very unlikely that you will be exposed to that type of music and practices on your “discover weekly” on Spotify. It is kind of sad to conclude this statement and I was thinking about ways to change the nature of world music. However, I wouldn’t exactly know how the different musical cultures would get greater exposure, especially because many are based in small-communities with very diverse practices.

Furthermore, there is another element that I noticed that I do not approve of: I don’t like the absence of female ethnomusicologists. I believe there were one or two chapters written by women but it was generally very male dominated. The only conclusion that I could reach to explain the absence of women is that in many cultures, that are not Westernized, women are not regarded equal to men, which is why women researchers may not be allowed to follow the different musical cultures. I remember that riaz is only male dominated and women aren’t even allowed to participate. Or perhaps women are not taken seriously when they want to learn about the different musical cultures, which is reflected in the way they may interact with them.

So, now that the course is almost over I have to say goodbye to world music for a while. I did not realize how unrelated world music was from my understanding of music. But this doesn’t mean that I haven’t been exposed to the different nature of music but simply that I never understood the concept. For example, a couple of years back I went to Namibia and Botswana and listened to the music produced by the Bushmen that would constitute part of the world music. Now that the course is over, I hope that in future I will draw those connections to world music and ethnomusicology much sooner and discover the field that I only just learned about.



How to determine when to slip into the role of an ethnomusicologist

Frolics was quite a weekend filled with craziness, fun and perhaps the odd beer here and there. But it was also filled with music in many different forms. At one point my friends and I went to Ksig where Catfish Disco was playing as brilliantly as always. It was there that I ran into Will Thurston and he greeted me with the phrase “There is the band I’m writing about”. Given that I knew that he was writing about Catfish Disco I was actually jokingly thinking about whether I would see Will sitting somewhere on the edge with a notebook taking notes on the band. Obviously he wasn’t but it was funny that he would mention it given that I just thought about it at Ksig.

This got me thinking about the relationship between writing an ethnography and what should be included. Does the ethnomusicologist have some kind of scholarly obligation to include every single detail about the investigation? Or can he just include the details according to his pleasing? It is a question a determination and the craft of filtering out the relevant information and experiences. It must be quite a challenge to learn how to go about finding the right balance of experience and the written word and something I guess you will become accustomed to with practice.

Gender Equality

Having read a couple of chapters into Dangdut Stories, it is quite refreshing to read about women as musicians. All the texts we have read so far were mostly about men and when women were mentioned it was simply to say that ‘women did not take part in this’ or even ‘women were not allowed to follow such musical practices’. Even though Dangdut Stories does occasionally sexualize women, at least they are considered successful musicians. Yes, one may argue that the research and articles were written some time ago where woman empowerment wasn’t as strong yet, but this isn’t an issue that is not present nowadays. Even today women have to fight harder battles to become professional musicians and are often taken less seriously than men. Additionally, even though their sacrifices they have to make to become professional musicians are often higher, they get paid far less – and this is something that is a phenomenon throughout several disciplines.

It amazes me that we’re in 2016 now and women still aren’t on an equivalent level with men. And this has to change. I stand firmly behind that. Yes, I’m a feminist but no, I’m not one of those who don’t shave their legs or yells at the guy who opens the door for her. But I am one that strives for gender equality and hopes that someday women will be seen as equals not just in music but in every single field there is. I don’t see this happening in the near future but a girl is allowed to dream, right? Let’s hope that with every sundown we’re a day closer to that day and that that day will be sooner rather than later.

When being an idiot makes you think of ethnomusicology

Yesterday I was probably the biggest idiot in the world and dropped my most valued possession I own: my beloved violin. Ironically, it was actually during my violin lesson, which is supposed to be my safe place and I can still see the shocked face of my violin teacher. It’s burned in my mind. When I saw my violin on the floor I couldn’t stop laughing because that’s what I do when I’m in shock and couldn’t stop giggling throughout the whole of the afternoon. I couldn’t believe what I had done. Anyway, I broke my chinrest, part of the wood and a little of the wood is cracked, which left me in a very distressed sleep. However, I went to Davidson violins today and they should be able to fix everything (sadly at a price…) but I will still remain uneasy until I finally hold my violin again and I know she will be ok.

You may have noticed that I say ‘she’, which may be weird for a non-musician but for a musician it just highlights how personal an instrument is. It becomes such a familiar object and is usually the most expensive and valuable thing you possess (and I ironically I let it drop). For me, my violin is this elegant baby on my shoulder.

However, it also made me realize how all the texts we have read so far focuse not so much on the instrument themselves but simply the production of the music, which I actually find quite peculiar. Sure, the texts include all these fancy words that need explaining and do describe the function of the different parts. But where is relationship between the musician and the instrument? For me, it’s one of the most important things there is. I mean, without it there wouldn’t be such a thing as music. I started thinking that maybe in those different cultures it really isn’t as much about the relationship of the instrument and music but a greater focus on achievement of the art form. And this also highlights the different mindsets of cultures, which is why ethnomusicology is more than just the exploration of world music.

When you’re familiar with something

During our class today I asked the question whether I could write about an ensemble that I am involved in for our project in the third section to which Professor Weinstein replied that if I wanted to I can but it may turn out to be harder to do so. And now the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. While this was in relation to writing, there is also a connection you can draw to music. When I play the violin, I sometimes find myself messing up the parts I know best that I have practiced multiple times. So perhaps there is a correlation between familiarity and being successful in something. I am not trying to suggest or encourage that less practice will make someone successful but I guess there is a threshold point. For example, when you study too much there may come a point where no more information will go in and may end up just confusing you, which is a pity. So I guess when using this analogy and relate it to music, it becomes evident that limits are there for a reason. I haven’t made up my mind yet whether I will or will not write about a form of music that I am too familiar with but I will definitely keep that in the back of my head.

Like seriously?

The more I think about the chapter “Becoming a Musician” from The Life of Music in North India by Neuman, the stranger I feel about it. I hate to read about the image of tying your hair up so you don’t fall asleep as you practice. I mean, that’s really not human. It’s bizarre, unhealthy and sick. And yet it is supposed to be this desirable accomplishment. It is a contest of who can stay up the longest, the most tired, the unhealthiest, the least human… How is that ok? How is that tradition not illegal? It forces children to commit to something no one should ever have to commit to. There is too much pain and suffering in the world as it is and it is just immensely frustrating to see individuals do it to themselves on purpose just to prove that they can. There is definitely an unhealthy relationship between the traditional Northern Indian music and the concept of the musical practice of riaz. It is one thing that people suffer but if it is self-induced I just want to punch them in the face. I have seen to many people do it to them in past through studying that they lost the ability to speak because of sleep deprivation, through eating disorders, through, through, through… really there is no point listing them.

The point of all this rambling and my rather unusual rant is that I am quite angry at the concept of riaz. I usually don’t voice things like this or like to communicate my opinion on these things because it can be quite a sensitive topic. But I just felt that it is something that is an issue that should be raised. How can riaz be seen as admirable and desirable if it means to force yourself to do things nobody should be asked to do?

The Description of Pichiaddas

Having read the first couple of chapters in the Sardinian chronicles, one concept that Lortat-Jacob mentions has got me thinking. The quotation about Pichiaddas description is very striking as well as humorous: “His accordion was part of his body; it was a natural extension of his hands, which, because of his girth, did not seem to be able to meet in front of is belly.” This imagery, however, goes beyond a simple physical description but allows the reader to apply the concept beyond the realms of the literature.

As a musician I have been surrounded by many kinds of musicians whether professional or simply my fellow orchestra friends. It is therefore interesting for me to imagine the identity of the musicians I have had the pleasure of meeting in relation to their instrument. Several questions arose such as ‘What does the type of instrument say about the character of the individual?’ or ‘What social significance does his musical talent have’? In my opinion I do believe that the type of instrument says something about the kind of person you are just like a specific dog breed does. However, I also believe that given that an instrument is an object, it can only speak so much for a character; the individual controls the instrument and the instrument doesn’t control you. Therefore, I feel rather ambiguous about the relationship of musical instruments and identity.

What do you think?

Lortat-Jacob, Bernard. “Desulo.” Sardinian Chronicles. The University of Chicago Press, 1995. Page 7. Print.

Musical Utterance & John Cage

Nettl hypothesizes that the “concept of ‘musical utterance’ is itself a universal phenomenon” by suggesting several features that characterize this phenomenon. For example, he mentions a beginning and end, repetition, redundancy, variety, rhythm, melody, etc. However, when one considers John Cage’s famous piece “4’33” this hypothesis is challenged. The piece is famous for the absence of the orchestra and the sense of quietness that the audience is supposed to appreciate. It is noticeable, however, that there never is an absence of sound even though it is no orchestral melody. Nevertheless, when drawing the connection with the piece and musical utterance, it is evident how the only connection that can be drawn between the two concepts is that it has some form of beginning (the soloist tuning and the conductor giving an entrance) and ending. This means that there is no sense of repetition, rhythm or melody that is supposed to characterize this utterance. Therefore, how can we know whether this piece of music even is part of the musical utterance or just music in general? How can we draw the line between how many of the details characterizing musical utterance are necessary to characterize a piece of music as part of the hypothesis?


Nettl, Bruno. “Is Music the Universal Language of Mankind?: Commonalities and the Origins of Music.” The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-Three Discussions. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 31-46. Print.

My Relationship to Music

While music was always part of my upbringing through the radio or my father’s occasional Beethoven record, I officially had my start in music at the age of eight when I decided to play the violin. It was also from this age onwards where my musical taste developed towards mostly Alternative and Rock with bands such as Death Cab for Cutie as well as music from the 1950’s onwards such as David Bowie or The Cure on top of the list. While keeping up the violin through private lessons and the orchestra, I was also encouraged to pick up singing, join the choir and participate in musicals as a soprano. And most of this is still applicable to me now.

The song I chose “Citizens” by the Rival Kings is applicable to me not just because of the genre but also because of the band’s origin. The band, like me, is Swiss but have English lyrics. They are a very young band with their first album being released in 2014 but have gained good receptions in Switzerland and have a promising future.