Category Archives: Culture

Posts about broader cultural topics not restricted to, but approached through, music

Music matters – Part II

As my  earlier discussions of Black music have hopefully illustrated, music can also have a significant socio-cultural agency with implications reaching into the realms of politics and ethics. In a way it could be boiled down to the notion of “good music”. We’d all like to think the music we like is “good”, but there are nearly as many definitions – often less than precise – of “good music” as there are listeners.

This affords music an ethical dimension. Sharing musical tastes – musically marked aesthetic spaces – is a way of connecting ourselves with others; or distinguishing from them, i.e. performing our identity through musicking.

There are many factors and agencies shaping this “aesthetic space” in which we form and articulate our ideas of good music. Our musical tastes, much like all our other tastes, have their roots in our up-bringing and socio-cultural environment. They are also subject to changes in our environment and our choices within it, shaping the development of our tastes.

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2nd line February 6th 2011
Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

And unless we consider music to be an “auditory cheesecake” – and I hope you don’t – the choices we make regarding the kinds of music we like and consume, are not irrelevant. They speak volumes about our socio-cultural, and even political, dispositions – albeit often quite ambiguously.

Music and ideas/ideologies

Let’s try and interrogate this proposition with some concrete examples, shall we? In what kinds of situations do musically created aesthetic spaces have en ethical dimension and how does this happen?

I have two premises for this thought experiment: First, music as sound is not capable of carrying meanings unless these sounds are – and they always inevitably are since musicking involves human agency – performed and/or experienced in a socio-cultural context. And second, choices, for the present purposes, are always “choices of” something within our reach.

Associations through musical sounds

I base the first premise on Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology and his notion of “Being-in-the-world”; the idea that we interpret the world around us immediately upon perceiving it. Any abstraction of the perception is an effort to “undo” the already made interpretation in order to “objectively” encounter the world. Heidegger’s example is an object we’ll immediately recognise as a table. Any attempt to perceive this object as e.g. a construction of specific material and particular assemblage requires an active attempt to “forget” that it’s a table in order to abstract it.  He also discusses “sound objects” to demonstrate his theory:

What we ‘first’ hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling… It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear’ a ‘pure noise’. (Being and Time 34: 207)

This also entails that it’s not so much the physical properties of the sounds of brass and wind instruments as such that raises in us e.g an image of a pastoral landscape or a military band. Rather this comes from the historical use of these instruments in western classical music to depict nature and rural life and the military music tradition. And this again recalls the use of horns as a signal for e.g. approaching postman in rural villages or when hunting and the association we still easily make between flutes and shepherds. Or at least it did when Beethoven wrote his 6th symphony.

Then again the sound of the French horn might not bring forth these kinds of associations for you, but perhaps rather remind of film music as in the theme of Universal Studios or Richard Strauss’ Thus said Zarazusthra (see my earlier discussion of this). In yet other words, it depends on your musical background, including where and when you have lived, etc. – i.e. your socio-cultural background.

Probably needless to say that my examples here are drawn from my own cultural environment of western Europe and should you be e.g. Asian, African or South American you’d probably have different associations for these sounds; or imagine different sonic representations for e.g. nature and rural life.

The bottom line is that the sound itself is arbitrary. Any association(s) a sound may call forth is a result of the “socio-cultural life” of the given sound. This is akin to what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has discussed pertaining to the “social life of things“. Objects are usually made for a more or less specific purpose and their value depends largely on their scarcity or abundance. As time passes and the world changes all these factors may change; the original purposes may no longer be relevant, objects may become scarce or more abundant due to changes in methods of production and/or the availability of their raw materials.

All this also applies to music as materials to make certain instruments may become scarce – e.g. big enough trees growing on mountains for making double basses – or instrument-making techniques lost in generations – e.g. the violins of Stradivarious for which the secret was long thought to be in the varnish he used.

Antonio Stradivari (b. 1644) inspecting a violin
Antonio Stradivari (b. 1644) inspecting a violin

As my examples above illustrate the most significant changes impacting music, however, are socio-cultural. The widely different uses of music create various associations with particular compositions/instruments/genres, etc. These associations may again be quite remote from their origins, and impossible to predict as we continue to – not only consume – but make music in ever new ways. New music is made by recycling old musical ideas and old music gets new meanings in new contexts.

Political music

Some rather radical political thinkers conceive of nearly all human actions and undertakings as political; even seemingly apolitical enterprise as e.g. popular music without a political message can be viewed as political as it doesn’t challenge, and therefore implicitly accepts, the status quo.

W.E.B DuBois in 1918
W.E.B DuBois in 1918

One such thinker was W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the leading post-Reconstruction black intellectuals in the United States. He wrote for instance that “a black artist is first of all a black artist” and was strongly of the opinion that the emerging Black American culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries needed to reach, and preferably surpass, the mainstream white culture with any measures; an effort in many ways culminating – albeit by no means concluding with – in the Harlem Renaissance. This view was against the “pragmatic” one of Booker T. Washington and his supporters who thought that the blacks should rather keep to “their place” in the society.

Du Bois’ life is a rewarding study for anyone interested in the history of racial relations in the United States as it stretches from right after the Emancipation to just before the declaration of Civil Rights Act.

But then again, even music not taking any political stance could be said to be political by it’s very act of celebrating life itself, sometimes against the odds. As I’ve discussed before pertaining to Black music, the social aesthetic of the music centres around the people and their lives, not on the actual music.

There’s a lot more to be said about the topics I’ve touched on here. Anyhow, I’ll stop here for now and come back with some further thoughts soon.


Some time ago I discussed multimediality as a means to study and understand some artistic experiences. Virtuality is another such concept. With all the “virtual reality” hype of the recent years – perhaps even decades already – the term has become part of the vernacular without too much “resistance”, or people wondering about it. So I’m going to do some “wondering about it” right here.

Let’s start from the beginning and look at the etymology of the word. “Virtual” has three meanings in dictionary. From its Medieval Latin roots it carries the meaning of “effective,” as in “the company is effectively bankrupt.” It also means something that exists only in our minds; imagined. The third meaning is probably the most familiar to many relating to computer simulations of aspects of life and rendered through some virtual reality technology.

The word “virtuality” comes from the old Latin word “virtus”; “virtue”. Given the central place “virtue” – moral excellence – has had in western philosophy from the Ancient Greeks to our days, our “virtual realities” seem to be normatively positive imaginations. Here we could think of the Cartesian mind-body dichotomy. The current forms of virtual realities through devices such as VR glasses create an experience which largely neglects the body, although we’re already seeing the technology developing passed this limitation. Being divorced from the physical reality virtual “realities” are “safe” in that what happens in them has little consequences in the “real world.” For deeper discussion on a phenomenological approach to virtuality, see here.

Multimediality of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly pleasures
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Pleasures (1500), oil on oak panels, Museo del Prado, Madrid

There’s also a strongly music-related term pertinent to this discussion. “Virtuoso” stands for someone with excellent skills in some area, but most often the term is connected to musical skills. This is rather interesting considering the changing valuation of music and musicians. I’ve previously discussed The Garden of Earthly Pleasures by Hieronymus Bosch which places music – through musical instruments – in the depiction of hell on the right. Even more interesting, however, is perhaps the way in which musicality – depicted through musical instruments – became a highly valued skill a century later and is displayed in a much more positive light in some paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. The virtues of music and musicians have since varied, also depending on the context, but it seems that this connotation of “virtuoso” has been established rather recently.

Portrait of a member of the family Van der Mersch, Cornelis Troost, 1736. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Portrait of a member of the family Van der Mersch, Cornelis Troost, 1736. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Musical virtuality

Music as sound is by nature – if not by definition – virtual. Assuming the view of Heideggerian phenomenology, I’ve discussed before, the already-in-the-world nature  of music meaning – and I would extended it this case to experience – exists in our minds without a material counterpart in the “real” world. As professor Henkjan Honing would say, music is a cognitive phenomenon; there’s no music without a listener.

Musical virtuality

The abstract nature of music enables it to conjure images and impressions of “other” realities. In other words, sounds are very effective in triggering our imagination. Certain instruments, scales, harmonies, etc. call up associations. Due to the abstractness of sound and the constant evolving of cultural practices such associations always remain “virtual” to some extent. They’re of course also dependent on the listener’s prior experience.

Recorded music is a prime example of musical virtuality. It’s the art of creating an illusion that what you’re listening to is an actual performance of actual musicians in the way you hear them. What you listen to, however, is a result of production processes where musical performances are recorded together and/or individually and the recordings are edited, mixed and processes in many ways resulting in the final product you hear.

I’ve previously discussed Janelle Monae’s Tightrope and how it references – creates virtual connections – with the past, present and future in various ways. Next I’d like to discuss a song that takes up the topic of virtuality quite literally.

Virtual insanity

Futures made of virtual insanity now
Always seem to, be governed by this love we have
For useless, twisting, our new technology
Oh, now there is no sound for we all live underground

Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity is an excellent commentary, but also a demonstration, of the steadfast believe in technology we hold in the western world and beyond. The title is a funny word game referring – in my interpretation – to the way technological mediations remove our experiences of the world further away from the “real” into the virtual realms. People have the tendency to do what they can and technological advances – or “innovations” – are often inspired by aspirations to do something not previously possible or do it in a new way. Sometimes these innovations result in “useless, twisting” gadgets, other times to something more lasting.

The way the last phrase of the refrain is sung makes me always think of how sound – in my experience – is often the first victim when something goes wrong with these new gadgets, whether there’s a gable loose or a software glitch. But the song text is actually talking about a more serious scenario, possibly even an apocalyptic one where people have had to retrieve living underground – perhaps due to something gone seriously wrong with our blind trust on technology.

The refrain also talks about “futures”, in plural. An essential aspect of virtual reality technologies is that multiple “realities” – and also “futures” – can be created with them. It’s not hard to imagine how too deeply submerging into these alternative reality might result in difficulties dealing with the “real” world, i.e insanity.

The video combines the various meanings of “virtual”. The room with its soft walls could be a mental asylum for the “insane” but there are also various “virtual”, illusionary, things going on. While the floor seems to be moving, it’s actually the walls that move. The cuts between the scenes when the camera shows the floor remind moving between levels in a computer game – a sort of virtual reality. There’s also some early CGI in the video with the bugs crawling around.

Oh this world has got to change
‘Cause I just, I just can’t keep going on
In this virtual, virtual insanity
That we’re living in, that we’re living in
That virtual insanity is what is…

Virtual insanity is what we’re living in
Yeah, well it’s alright now

Towards the end the protagonist of the song seems to come to terms with the conditions of the world. While he’s determined to see the world change, he realises that it’s not going to get back to the way it was. There’s no turning back the time. For the full text and further analysis, see here.


Material culture – Part II

Continuing my account on the Bake society’s Day on musical instruments. Next in the program was a presentation of Masumi Nagasawa who already had brought three harps on the stage before.


Another family of instruments found nearly everywhere in the world is the harp. After a short lecture on harp in Asia by Fred Gales, Masumi Nagasawa performed for us on three different harps. She played first a composition of her own on the modern double-action harp. This composition showcases the various techniques available for harpists bringing out a very rich world of sounds out of the instrument. I found the following video in which many of these techniques are demonstrated.

Nagasawa then told us a bit about the kugo, ancient Japanese harp, and played a short piece on it. Kugo is usually played in an ensemble such as a Gagaku Japanese court music ensemble. However, there’s also new music being composed for it. Below an example based on some melodic material from Gagaku music. Notable in this performance is that Sugawara also uses a modern technique of playing harmonics on the harp.

The main part of Nagasawa’s presentation was about the single-action pedal harp and the transition to the modern Grand Harp with double-action in the early 19th century, which is the topic of her PhD research. Nagasawa had, nearly by coincident, found an original instrument by F.J. Naderman, the most famous harp builder of the early 19th century Paris as well as a composer and a teacher. As Marie-Antoinette played harp it was a very popular instrument among high society women of the period and there were up 16 instrument builders making harps in Paris during the period.

Nagasawa then performed a composition by Naderman on the Naderman harp. An interesting story about this composition was that Naderman wrote it for her wife. Meanwhile, however, the new double-action harp had been invented and she was encouraged to perform the composition on the new model. As she had played the single-action harp for a long time and practised her technique on it, she wasn’t very comfortable taking on taking on the challenge of premiering the new composition on the new harp. She eventually did it anyway but gave up the harp soon after.

Music Instruments in Musea and Academia in the Netherlands

This was the title of the panel discussion that closed the day. In the panel were:

Joep Bor from the University of Leiden, Wayne Modest from the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden and the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam and Giovanni di Stefano from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The discussion began with establishing the state of instrument collections in the Netherlands and the considerable lack of attention to the study of musical instruments – organology in the Dutch universities, although it had a prominent role in early ethnomusicology. There’s also no instrument museum currently in the Netherlands and most instrument collections focus on Western classical instruments. Giovanni di Stefano is currently the only full time instrument curator in the country.  He’s working in the Rijksmuseum with the instrument collection they got back in 2013 when the restoration of the building was complete. The collection had been borrowed to The Hague for 60 years.

The discussion really kicked off when Mr Modest posed a question how to get people interested in the instrument collections in museums. After the inspiring recital-lectures we had seen, many – myself included – were of the view that these kinds of live presentations should attract people and get them interested. E.g. the instrument museum of Brussels is doing this already, recently with Estonian folk instruments.

Digitalisation of the collections – like the Music Instrument Museum Online is doing – should also help interested people find information deepen their knowledge.  It currently has largely European museums participating and no instruments from the Americas. It could also use some audio samples to make the online collection really interesting.

As discussed before, due to its abstract nature it is difficult to represent music in a way that could be displayed in a conventional museum. Watching displayed instruments – perhaps with some audio samples through a headset – give a rather distant impression of how an instrument functions in real life. As the recital-lectures demonstrated, there are ways to bring the instruments alive for people to experience them.

Some instruments have thousands of years of history but are still played today. What I’d love to see in an instrument museum are more horizontal rather than vertical histories of instruments. The recital-lectures showed how some instruments – flutes and harps in this case, but e.g. drums would fit the bill as well – are played in different variations around the world. Such instruments in a way represent vast distances in space and time and when played a connection could be established.

I found this Day on Musical Instruments organised by the Arnold Bake Society very inspiring. I’ll certainly be posting back here again soon about further thoughts regarding this so stay tuned!