Writing about World Music

Section F, Fall 2016

Author: towebb

Farewell etc.

The course is nearly over. We’ve had our run,  friends. We discussed a mountain of things, from Sardinia to ethnomusicological sailboats, and in the process we’ve listened to a great deal of music and written a great number of words.

I should have learned not to write in generalities like that, but I wanted to capture a bit of what this course was aside from writing assignments and being up by 9:40 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We actually did engage with material separate from writing method, and oftentimes that material was fused into our learning. I constantly asked myself how exactly this was, that we could simultaneously be learning about a new subject and learning about the process of writing, and came to the conclusion that we must only have learned a tiny fraction of what ethnomusicology truly is. That’s ok, I think. The style of writing demanded by the subject is appropriately meticulous, honest, forthright, and, in a way, quite bare. While it, like many subjects, asks a great deal of one’s analytical skill, it asks in a way that omits unnecessary detail and challenges one’s ability to truly observe a situation rather than simply describe it. I found it quite strange. I’m used to looking at works of art like films or novels and weaving the author’s intention into my analysis of what exists and why it does. However, in the style we’ve used in this course, I did precisely the opposite. The things that happened served as evidence for the purpose of that which I described. And my paper’s not done, of course, but it is truly bizarre to think that one could draw any knowledge from the limited observations we make about the world every day, the kind that make up that paper’s research. Narrative story building, such as that in media, becomes all the more clear, at least to me, as something unsure and questionable. The style of writing that we studied had its limitations. The research process puts a boundary on knowledge, and, as my old high school history teacher said, even if you know the facts, you may still not really know much of anything at all. Even things that we are absolutely sure of about the musical contexts we look at could change at any moment–someone we observe just has to want to change them.

The class, too, is a human context subject to volatile change. It had its consistencies: certain people talked more than others (sorry! the boat metaphor was great though), the pedagogical circle stayed loose, and we always had fun with any strange gadgets or ideas that Dr. Weinstein brought in to be played with. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed something quite so much as I enjoyed the phonograph; there was something fascinating about hearing music stored so very long ago. However, that music is truly gone, and the strange sort of nostalgia it inspires seems impossible to satisfy. Moreover, the music is, I think, no longer ours. We are a generation made separate by time from that music. If the old music there can be anything, it must first by alien; perhaps that’s what allows it to be “academic,” as it were.

On that note–in high school, I discussed the idea of an “intellectual” or an “academic” knowing that it would be a person educated moreso than others, but I was unsure of how that was. I think I understand now. It comes in nuance of expression, in technique and style, and the careful way in which one organizes an argument not only for themselves, but for others. I don’t think I want some snooty form of intellectualism, but rather one which adheres to the “for others” part of that sentence. I want to make the arguments I make accessible to more than myself, and my experience in this course has conducted my mind towards that end. There’s a lot of learning left to do; that said, this blog post probably qualifies as disorganized and difficult to follow. For that, I apologize. I have a distracted style. I’m working on it, and I will probably continue to work on it. For now; consider me reflected, at least somewhat, in this post.

Have fun writing, everyone.



Migildi, Magildi, Hie Now Now!

One of the songs I’ve referenced often in my project so far is Migildi Magildi, an old Welsh folk tune that the group I’m observing, Davidson’s Collegium Musicum, sings in English. When I discussed it in my thick description last week, I ran into the issue of knowing that Migildi Magildi was fun to sing, but not knowing exactly why; one of the reasons I wanted to be able to cite was the nature of Migildi Magildi as a song, but, given that it is traditional Welsh music, I had no capability to discuss it as though every member of my group knew what it was. To that end, I will discuss it here.

Migildi Magildi is an upbeat song that gives a bit of story and onomatopoeia from an iron forge during winter in Wales. It is upbeat, jolly, and unassuming; voices convalesce on chords, sung on the rollicking “Migildi, Magildi, hie now now.” The song is fun because of that innocent nature, and, when it is executed properly, because it is actually quite difficult. To explain this difficulty; first, coordinating the “Migildi Magildi” lines can be difficult to count properly so all the lines come in at the same time. Then, there are some more obvious challenges inherent to a capella music; keeping the key from changing (magically!), getting the notes and intervals right, and keeping the tempo consistent all qualify as challenges of the piece. That is not to mention, of course, the stylistically light nature of the song; keeping straight tone with very little vibrato could be a real challenge, if not for the generally short phrases. This is all keeping mind the basics of ensemble singing, that the voices should mix together with little contrast and the volume should be about the same for each. I, for one, have a very loud voice; that alone makes things a little difficult for me.

That said, the music is obviously not impossible–just fun to get right. It being fast and about a pleasant topic helps, and the words sounding a bit silly to English speaking ears helps more. It gives a sort of nonsense to the everyday that clashes with the stoicism Davidson and the world around it can illicit from its students at times. The song makes something silly happen because something silly is good. I think that much is true; silly is good, especially when choral music and especially early music can sometimes feel all about a classical style or a weighty and beautiful sound. Regular madrigals are usually a little silly too but, early in the semester, Collegium had been fiddling with more serious sounding music to perform in a professor’s lecture. Returning to what the madrigal feels as though it is really supposed to be served a productive purpose, then: to have fun singing the music we can’t sing in Chorale. It’s a good purpose, and Migildi Magildi has been a great return to that.

Here’s a version recorded by the King’s Singers, because they tend to be a very very good and I like listening to it:

Lessons in Music

Music can serve very specific purposes in social contexts; for example, take the current racial climate. It obviously exerts a strain on the U.S. at the moment.

I want to avoid being political or aggressive with my personal views in this case, if only because this venue may not be the best to discuss them. I think it interesting to observe, though, how music reacts to the violent events taking place around the U.S., and, through writing, I hope to better interpret that music. It seems important that it be listened to and understood, by me or by another, so that its message can reverberate a little bit more broadly. I also don’t claim to really understand it because of my background as a white male. However, listening takes the forefront, and I think I may be able to open the door a bit, at least for myself.

We’ve used art to discuss issues of oppression, anger, or sadness for a while.  When it comes to racial issues in the U.S., the first things that come to many people’s minds would probably be the “spiritual” genre of music. To add other genres to the discussion of people’s issues–well, most love songs express some deep-seated frustration, as do the blues, as does rock… We all try to express our difficult feelings in some way or another, and music is a regular way in which we do it. Those have no relevance to what caused this post, though, and thus inspired the topic in question (although many genres of music were inspired by the stylistic elements present in traditionally “black” music). I was exploring music today when I came several songs by an artist called “KAMAU,” and decided to do some musical exploration. I try not to only listen to classical and indie music, and it seemed like what the artist produced was neither. After going through a few on Spotify, a particular one caught my attention (the video has some graphic violence, as a warning).

At first, I wondered what the title was supposed to reference. It became exceedingly clear when the song began to play through what it was, and it made sense. Although Kamau is from Toronto, Canada, the events here struck him and inspired him to make the song. The song was released well before the shooting in Charlotte, and that also makes sense; the attention given to prejudiced and unjust police activity in the U.S. has been flaring up for a few years now. It’s a growing issue, not because it was in some way not present before, but because now people are beginning to acknowledge it. That may be more political than I intended to be. Regardless, the music fits the zeitgeist of North American social conflict. It works. It makes sense. But, I have the background of a “white” male. I don’t fully understand what it feels like to make this music, or to feel the need to express the message that comes along with it. So I think it exceedingly important to listen to and understand, and, ultimately, the goal of this post is to draw attention to works like these. They express a deep-seated psychological suffering made manifest by that selfsame social conflict which disproportionately destroys a particular “genre” of human being. The song above is fearful as much as it is artistic, bold as much as it is frustrated.

I want to understand more of what the music really means. One can say all one wishes to about wanting to empathize with suffering, to delete it or protect others from it, but suffering is something people have written about for a long time. It does not simply vanish. Pete Seeger wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” to challenge the institution of war. Oscar Wilde challenged the morals of the British gentry with almost every word he wrote. That means it is nothing new to write about, yes; but, the challenge posed by works of art in defiance of suffering is not so much one of combating that which causes it oneself, but a challenge posed to others to combat it in tandem with the author. I won’t try to put words in anyone’s mouths about what they did or didn’t mean any more, but it does seem important to listen for those calls to action and determine if they are calls worth heeding. We heard them before. Ultimately, a change comes when the world wishes it to come; we hold the capability to make much of the world how we wish it now. In this case, though, it seems as though we fight a slippery, sneaky enemy, as unseen biases tend to be. I’m looking forward to the day that conflict can change into  one against something more concrete, although I think this may be one of the most salient and obvious things we will come up against in the near future. I wish I spent more of this blog post writing about how these songs came about, but that requires sources I don’t have and more learning than I might have for years. It seems obvious that they are created in response to that which they discuss. I hope that which they discuss is allowed to change; not by the creators, since they seem to have little choice, but by us. By those who are given the onus of action against evil, to understand it and to listen to the fears and hopes and dreams of all involved. Actively listening (ethically listening?) to this music, or at least attempting to, seems a responsibility at this point. If we listen, and truly do, we can move towards helping those who need to be listened to.



Bon Iver’s New Album, Electronic/Sampling Music

Justin Vernon, through the mechanism of his, as I’ve most often heard it referred to, “project,” Bon Iver, released a new album yesterday entitled “22, A Million.” The album is the most recent released by the group in five years, and has enjoyed favorable reviews; given that albums like it take many years to create, it would have been disappointing if it didn’t.

That out of the way, I want to express that I present this post from a biased position, given that I am both a fan of Vernon’s music in general and regularly enjoy music in the style of what he produces. I like calm music. I like music that samples heavily from other sources, or perhaps just sound like they do; electronic styles, perhaps. I like music that presents a pacific exterior. Whether or not that exterior eventually gives way to something more aggressive, honest, or emotional is up to the artist; in Bon Iver’s case, it often does, but I am similarly sated if it remains as peaceful as it seemed to be at outset. Given these preferences, it really comes as no surprise that I like Vernon’s music and, honestly, a lot of people do. Many people would have to for the new album to get a score of 9.0 on Pitchfork.

I do not, however, intend to give you an album review, as that would be a poor use of my current position as well as a pitiable attempt at matching the words that already exist about “22, A Million.” Rather, I want to focus on the second preference, heavy sampling and electronically stylized music, for a moment, because they have more relevance to the what we’ve talked about in regards to schizophonic mimesis; actually, sampling is really interesting in regards to this. Sampling is the usage of a portion of another artist’s recorded music in one’s own work; to put it in course-relevant terms, sampling is the usage of an already schizophonic sound in another context to achieve another purpose, but not necessarily with mimesis. The sound is often directly taken instead of copied. Hearing work clearly not intended for the medium it presents itself in creates a jarring effect a bit like a crisp autumn breeze, at least for me, and I imagine artists might feel the same way; they can organize their influences, inspirations, and stories into a sort of separate musical reality. It creates a bit of a fantasy. That said, it can at least be called questionable, perhaps even illegal, if done incorrectly or without permission. That is not to say, of course, that there are not entire songs or albums built on heavy sampling; Vanilla’s Soft Focus would be one of them.

But, Bon Iver’s new album does not make so much a use of sampling as it does electronic modification of sound. In performance, Vernon apparently uses a special kind of machine in order to modify his voice in real time in order to achieve the desired effect. The album has vocal glitches and disharmonious elements that reflect this apparently mechanical element in the sound. This has a similar effect, at least on me, to the sampling I talked about earlier; once one is used to it, it feels fresh to hear something so different from less altered music heard elsewhere. The feeling, though, comes separate from what the modification actually achieves–as a recording device is used to change the sound itself in a way similar to autotone, it feels almost schizophonic (which I think might be one interpretation of where that chilly feeling comes from) but, in reality, it only modifies a sound still coming into existence with every beat. Still, though, the production process of an album, = so different from Bon Iver’s first For Emma, Forever Ago, like this, makes even more notable use than is usual with Bon Iver of composite sound, stacks of instruments recorded on top of one another to make a sound that is satisfying in part because of how utterly complete it feels. It truly is electronic age music; we finally achieve complete music and something that might resemble a “true” expression of one’s emotion musically, but still remains imperfect. There are always other ways of saying it, and the audible, intentional glitches of 22, A Million I think prove that. Every story can be told in a unique way. Every feeling has a thousand words and ways that describe it. Music only makes up a few of those possible ways.

My favorite song is 8 (circle), by the way.

Explaining the Ship Metaphor More

I want to explain the ship metaphor I used in class on Thursday, not because I think the metaphor is perfect, but because I want to think more about why I used it, what it meant, and what parts of it remain relevant in spite of the ways it might “break down”; further, I want to address some of the frustrations I felt in class because I was on the cusp of completing the idea, but was also limited by the time we had and my intention to listen to the ideas of everyone else. No one actually has to read this, though, so I can vent as I wish! So, without further ado:

The idea of the ship being made with several parts drew upon the idea of the Ship of Theseus from philosophical thought. The actual function of that ship philosophically is, well, unrelated; to summarize, the idea is that the ship constantly has its parts replaced to the point where it no longer maintains any of its original parts. While this is a fun thought experiment in regard to the actual identity of the ship, the ship metaphor I brought up in class used the assumption that the ship had an overarching identity greater than its parts, that the particular organization of the differing parts of the ship made up its identity rather than the parts themselves. I assume this particular “solution” to the paradox and proceed from there.

The important part of the ship, though, was no so much its organization but its country, or area or, most specifically, culture, of origin. The idea I tried to present was that the parts themselves could be from a variety of areas, but the specific combination of parts, the Adiemus or other simulated world music, could be unique to a particular area–that being the Western advertising market. The ship itself could have any number of American or Japanese planks, but could still fly a British flag. What I realized was that this example cracked when considering the multiple possible definitions of world music. Two in particular stood out: one in which each individual country counts as part of the world music, and the other in which the idea of “world music” as a whole represented its own type of music. If one is to take the second interpretation, it would be difficult to even consider the metaphor. The ship, being made of music, would essentially just be a performance of various parts of what already was “world music,” and, consequentially, would be the same, its own sort of world music. However, when considering “world music” as a broad word encompassing a wide array of cultures and musical traditions instead of a specific side of a dichotomy that was the opposite of western, the advertising music seems clearly not to fit in. After all, no single country or culture could lay claim to a tradition of music that was Frankenstein’d together from each one of them. Rather, the reason for the music’s creation would have to be considered, that reason being a western one; as would the composer, the intention, and the literal genre of the music.

The problem with calling the advertising music “world music” is its inability to fit into any singular world musical tradition. In fact, the only tradition it fits into is the Western music tradition, in spite of being composed of influences all sourcing themselves outside of that tradition.  Like the ship, the music is less of an actual structure and more of an organization (admittedly less solid than wood), and in many cases music has drawn upon other music without becoming that music; for example, some modern electronic Western styles sample heavily from swing music. Those types of music are not called “swing,” but rather, either “electronica,” or “electro-swing,” or even “low-fi hip-hop.” In spite of the fact that they draw from old sounds, they don’t fit into the old genres because the organization of those sounds is modern with modern instrumental backing. The advertising music is similar. In spite of being made up of ideas from different cultures, it is ultimately still music made for advertisements, which is still a tradition for Western peoples made by Western composers that fits into no other specific world music tradition. The ship that takes wood from South Africa and sails from Colombia, but is made in Britain and follows a British construction style, it is not South African or South American–it is British. That said, if the boat was made by a Colombian or South African shipwright to fit the style of traditional boats from those countries (should there be traditional boats from those countries) and bequeathed to the British naval force, it must then be labelled Colombian or South African. The important part of the identity of the boat is which tradition it actually falls under and, because the advertising music has no tradition outside of its own, it must be labelled as being part of, primarily, that tradition–the Western one. That said, I am not particularly proud of it being from a Western tradition, should I communicate myself that way; I simply feel that designation to be the most accurate.

Group Music, Bonding

This morning, I took a trip over to our very own Sloan Music building to rehearse with the Davidson Chorale for about 5 hours of time. We cracked a few jokes, ate donuts and pizza and, most importantly, made music. We made a wide variety of music, ranging from more modern songs to western European Classical pieces, that will make up our concert repertoire in the coming season. I only knew a few of the songs we’ll be learning in the upcoming month prior to the beginning of rehearsals this past week because of personal interest; the rest were new to me. The same could probably be said for many of the singers in that choir. Step by step we worked through pieces with the help of the director, discovering little unheard flourishes and shifts in the sound we produced in order to better develop the sound we made. We hadn’t touched most of the music earlier this week, so it was especially new; still, somehow, it felt perfectly natural to sit down in a room of people basically strangers to me (aside from Riley; Riley’s in the choir too!) to interpret and nearly perform music that was perfectly unnatural to me.

What a bizarre phenomenon it is to sing in a choir! I have a bit of a leg up in terms of the social situation created because I’ve spent enough time singing in them before to feel comfortable being next to both sheet music and people, but it still is stunning how those people can use that sheet music to turn perfect, awkward silence into an expression of emotion vivid enough to make you forget that you form part of the the sound which creates it, and then somehow in an instant return to the silence which started it all; albeit, that statement is no revolution or special nod to choral singing. Most ensemble music allows people to do something similar. When there’s  a script to follow, the conversation is easier to have, and thus recreate differently; jazz musicians in big bands improvise notes on standards, cellists in orchestras move to a more expressive forte, and heavy metal guitarists take solos that may derive themselves entirely from creative reinterpretation of the music’s structure. It’s wild, but, all the same, it’s music, and, like math, it’s a language that allows anyone who understands it to communicate.

Thinking about the choral experience I’ve been having all week and had more intensely today, it makes more sense that the people Lortat-Jacob described in Sardinian Chronicles stuck to easily to the idea of singing in a chorus. Having a soloist as a leader allows one person to show off a bit; having a chorus to support them allows many more to be part of the music made. It stimulates the creation of companions in a village or town. Music, of course, can still be frustrating; different people can perceive those sheets of music and  differently, like I’m sure Lortat-Jacob observed in the religious singers of Castelsardo, and sometimes the music can be so hard to read that it takes many times to get right, but, all the same, reaching the goal together feels so liberating that it would be difficult to ignore the group’s role in that purpose. It makes sense that choral singing could help someone in a variety of ways, and the speculation that it might help fight serious disease is similarly unsurprising. People perform social activities for a variety of reasons, but people singing together showing up in more than one culture is no coincidence; choral singing exists for a reason, and I imagine that the ease with which people can do it and share their culture and their interpretation of the world through music will always make it valuable to me, at least.

I leave you with one of my favorite choral pieces: Daniel Elder’s “Ballade to the Moon.”

Mixed Up in Music

My story in music starts somewhere between the first and fifth grades. I maintained a fairly straightforward attitude towards the art form for the duration of that time period; I disliked it. That is to say, I wanted no part in music, wanted no involvement in sound, found the organization of notes (that is, the musical variety) on a page annoying, and stayed away from musicals because they could be explaining the story much more effectively by doing something other than singing and dancing. My sister involved herself in choirs for most of this time and, indeed, on into the future, even into college, so I became tired of songs, singing, and the music accompanying each like one becomes tired of eating too many ham-and-cheese sandwiches. I also came to dislike those, but that story bears no relation to music, so there’s no need to talk about it.


This, however, looks far more appetizing.

I caught myself by surprise a few years after elementary school when I started to listen to music for the express purpose of enjoying it. Music ranging from my  mother’s preference–the solid and unwavering but still young Josh Groban–to my own, more folky preferences, a la the early years of Mumford and Sons but contrasted to an embarrassing stint with Rise Against, floated around my messy teenage bedroom. When my mother required I take up some sort of instrument in high school, probably because she was a band kid herself, I shocked myself by agreeing to lessons in the instrument my sister was most familiar with: the human voice. As I studied voice and, contemporaneously, theater (as per my own interests since elementary school), I ironically started to drift towards music theater, appreciating the sounds of Stephen Sondheim’s anthems of the middle class and the powerful voices of slightly modern musicals like Wicked or Les Miserables. My personal favorite is Richard Nelson and Tim Rice’s chess-inspired musical called, and this one is a shocker, Chess.


Maybe the critics didn’t love it, but I really enjoyed how the pieces of the play seemed almost to be positioned strategically. 

From a desire to improve in voice came a more earnest study in classical music. I wanted to more intimately understand how I could use my voice to its fullest (read: loudest) potential in the healthiest way possible, and classical music ends up being the topic of choice for that understanding. Of course, over my years of study in both music theater and classical voice, I’ve found that volume often holds no bearing on the quality of the song; rather, sensitivity and an earnest understanding of the text matter much more. I guess that may be a little bit of what they call experience and a little of my learning that singing cannot be, and indeed is not, the vocal equivalent of “practicing” drums loudly in your parents’ garage (of course, drums are loud whether or not you are productive with practice time).  That said, I’ve always held an affection for the proud voice in the front of the sound belting out the melody. I also appreciate a quality choir, given that I was in one for a majority of my time in high school, and enjoy exploring classical styles I’ve listened to less, like orchestral or band music, and the non-classical but equally sonorous sounds of jazz instrumentation.


Music had an almost percussive impact on my emotional development. 

Vocal music served as a sort of introduction for me into what music actually was, at least as I now see it; a mode of expression entirely different from others, but understood in ways that language most certainly cannot be. Artists like Ryo Fukui, Takenobu, Fleet Foxes, Passion Pit, Vaughan-Williams, Edgar, and Holst make up more of my listening experience now, and I always look for new music to try to understand. Still, though, my focus on vocals is almost inescapable when I listen; it seems to me that being educated in a particular part of art makes it easier also to be critical of that piece, coming with the humility of knowing that I likely understand much less than professional musicians do about how and why we make sound with our faces and throats in the way that we do. Further, I have to understand that the language of music as I understand it should not, indeed, cannot, be the same as every listener around the world. That might be a piece of why I wanted to understand world music in more depth; I want to know what music honestly means for all the people that make and listen to it, not only my singular, incomplete self.