Writing about World Music

Davidson College, Spring 2016

Author: mdbegley

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.

Behind the Scenes

Because I am a bit behind on my hours for work study, I came in early Saturday morning of frolics. When I got there I started talking to the one of the guys who does the AV setup for basically every major event on campus. We started talking about the Battle of the Bands the previous night and the present day’s activities as the conversation progressed. After about ten minutes of conversation, that eventually came to “have fun, but remember to be safe and keep your friends safe” and the conversation ended. As he was leaving to setup a drum kit and a keyboard he said to me “I guess I’ll see you around later today, we will be where all the fun is happening,” which made me realize how much music during frolics would not be available without the people working behind the scenes. Battle of the Bands would be hard to put together well without the microphones and soundchecks for each band and the music at court parties and F wouldn’t be the same without the excessively loud speakers. So, even though no one will probably read this in time, I encourage y’all to thank the people setting up the frolics activities behind the scenes because they are under-appreciated to say the least

Real World Application

A couple of nights ago my brother and I were talking about music that we had recently heard and had enjoyed, and I encountered something familiar – the concept of separating the music from its source. This is also called schismogenesis. The party or dance remixes of songs are a more and more common form in our music environment today, but typically these remixes don’t alter the meaning of the song completely. However, the remix of “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” turns the song completely on its head. The original song, which is a reflective and acoustic piece on his regrets of attempting to fit in with the party music and musician atmosphere, is turned into the party style music and atmosphere he is attempting to fit in with. In essence the remix is a hypocritical version of the song, which is an interesting take on the song. Seeing how the remix has 197,882,428 views on Spotify and the original only has 5,454,029 views, the song is vastly misrepresented by the remix. Without the context of the original, a large amount of the artist’s expression is lost, and the song is made almost hypocritical by the setting in which it is typically played.

What are your thoughts?

Ragas and Digital Music Composition

Thursday, we had our first semi-one-on-one meeting with our professor for our final project. The other student, who shared the hour meeting time with me, decided to create something akin to a raga. She showed the professor what she had Thursday, and my professor commented that the drone had more to it in her piece than it usually have in ragas. The drone typically takes the 1st and 5th note in the raga and does variations of playing those alone or simultaneously and in various registers. However, instead of only playing the open 5th chord using the 1st and 5th notes in her raga, she often added in the 3rd note as well. This created a more full sound. Today I reflected on that and realized that she was recontextualizing the sound of the raga from India to digital music composition, and with the changed context the concept of the raga changed as well. This reminded me of the schismogenesis of pigmy music in Feld’s piece “The Poetics and Politics of Pigmy Pop.” It is much more evident here, thanks to my professor’s insight, that the recontextualization of another culture’s music actually changed the musical sounds enough that it was no longer in the style of a raga. It got me wondering if this could entail that with every schismogenic action or recontextualization done actually changes the music itself to some degree. Context is an important part of music; so does changing the context of music change the music itself to an extent?

Practicing to Practice for the Sake of Practicing

One interesting thing about the Riaz in Neuman’s description, is that the primary reason for interacting with the music is for intrinsic purposes. This may seem like a foreign concept to many people in other cultures that focus so much on the performance aspect, but I think we interact with the music for intrinsic purposes more often than we realize. For example, I play the guitar. Many people will never see me play my guitar because I use it solely for relieving stress and relaxing. Rarely ever do I volunteer to play for other people, and when others ask me to play for them it is very uncomfortable for me because I do not focus on performing when I play my guitar. I do sing for others, but the guitar remains my own instrument of relaxation. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t performed with my guitar, but it feels wrong or at least unsettling to do so.

The guitar is an emotional and even a spiritual release for me, much like the musicians who practice Riaz. However, these musicians still play for others. I am amazed at these musicians’ ability to expose themselves through their music, which is such a large part of their lives, and still have it remain their personal spiritual tool. This is another form of discipline I see in this chapter, other than those directly stated. To maintain the music of their instrument as both an internal, spiritual tool and use it to play for others for external purposes astounds me. This, in my own experience, has been extremely challenging.

Have any of you had any similar interactions with music for intrinsic purposes?

Is the Banjo an African Instrument?

The discussion of the mbira and the kalimba reminded me of another instrument and its recontextualization into another culture. The concept of the banjo originated in Africa and like the mbira and kalimba has been introduced into another culture. However, unlike the mbira and kalimba, which are not major parts of any western culture, the banjo is now one of the most recognizable instruments of Southern Appalachian music (along with the guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and upright bass). The concept of the banjo was brought to the Americas via the Atlantic slave trade. From there, it went on to become the premium instrument of blackface minstrels performing in the United States. The instrument spread throughout the Southern Appalachian mountains and the surrounding area. Now it is used primarily in bluegrass music and is not primarily thought of as an African instrument. The banjo, like the mbira was westernized and conformed to the western pitches and standardized to a number of strings (4 or 5, but occasionally 6). At what point is the banjo considered a new instrument from its origins. The style of play in the Appalachian culture is very different from the style in the African culture from which it originated, the pitches have been standardized in the banjo, and the cultural location and context of the instrument has changed. How should we determine whether this instrument is a different instrument from the instrument used in African cultures, or is it a different instrument at all?

Are Sounds Universal in Music?

Nettl writes that the “‘musicness’ of sounds is the most significant universal [in music]” (Nettl 33). I disagree with this statement. By this ideology rests are not considered as part of the music itself. However, one of the most integral parts of music and as Dr. Stasack, a music professor at Davidson College, said in her introduction to digital music composition class, writing in rests and leaving space is one of the hardest things for a beginning composer to do (Stasack).

According to Nettl, a “[musical] utterance would be a song (long or minuscule), a piece, an opera, a symphony…” (Nettl 33). The piece 4’33” defies the claims that musical utterances like songs and pieces are universally unified by their sounds. John Cage’s 4’33”, which he composed in 1952, is a three movement piece. All three movements of the score are notated with the word “tacet” (meaning rest). Cage also did not place any restrictions on the overall length of the piece or the instruments required to play the piece.

This contradicts Nettl’s connections of the universality of sound in musical utterances (that is if we use his definition of musical utterances). However, music is far more interactive than a performer/audience relationship that is suggested by defining them as songs, pieces, etc… A live concert with five people in the audience is not nearly the same atmosphere as a concert with thousands of people in attendance. Therefore, music should be seen as an interaction (which is not quite the same as communication). The composer has an interaction with the pages, the pitches, the absence of pitches, etc…; the performers have an interaction with the composer’s thoughts as expressed on the page and with the audience; and the audience interacts with the performer(s) by listening and giving feedback and becoming a part of the performance themselves. All three of these levels become part of the performance. Music’s universality is not defined most prominently by sound, but by the interactions that cause and react to the sound or absence of it. John Cage’s quote in the video stating that “everything we do is music” supports the dependence on interactions; everything we do is an interaction either ourselves or the environment around us.


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.

Stasack, Jennifer. Davidson College. Sloan Music Center, Davidson, NC. 21 January 2015. Lecture.

My Music Connections

Music has been a major part of my life since it began almost 19 years ago. My church became the primary place where I performed, whether it was the children’s choir, in the musicals we performed, in the church’s band, or doing something else when it was needed. I started playing guitar in third grade, but stopped in middle school to play the trumpet in band at school. In high school, I picked up the guitar again attempting to self-teach myself, I joined the Chambers Chorale my senior year and was selected to be a member of the high school men’s barbershop quartet (called The Sons of Pitches), and I learned to play piano (at a very basic level) as part of my graduation project. Now, music is something I use to relax and destress by playing guitar or listening to music I enjoy, like bluegrass and Appalachian folk music. This video is about an hour long but the segment displaying my musical identity is between 19:43 and 22:30 of this video.