Material culture

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I recently attended the Day on Musical instruments of the Arnold Bake Ethnomusicological society at the University of Amsterdam. This session was dedicated to musical instruments with talks and performances by musicians and scholars and closed up with a panel discussions about musical instruments in Dutch museums. The afternoon’s presentations and discussions got me thinking about musical instruments as sort of embodiment of musical cultures helping as study them as material cultures.

Representations of music

Due to the nature of music as an intangible art form, it’s most often studied using various forms of visual representations.  They translate music from audible to visual form and allow disrupting the temporal flow of music. In the European art music tradition musical representation is mostly thought of in terms of musical notation. The main purpose of it is to communicate musical ideas from composer to performer and on to the listener. Interpreting the representation the performer translates it back to the temporal realm of sounding music.

This applies to much popular music as well, although most of it is not made or played from written music in a way art or orchestral music is. Vernacular music-making – or producing – nowadays is more likely to happen on computer screens where sound wave representations are manipulated to produce a form of digitalized music to be pressed on a CD, distributed as mp3 files or streamed online.

The benefit of digital representation of music is that it can, in principle, be used for any kind of music. The only prerequisite is that it must be recorded digitally, which is not always easy e.g. when the performance is taking place outside and/or the players widely distributed in space and/or moving. As such it can be used to capture musics of oral traditions as well. Meanwhile, computers can now be considered musical instruments as well, but I’ll leave further discussion of that to another time. Jacob Collier, I’ve discussed before, is a master of “millennial” music production.

For the actual study of music, however, digital representation is of little use. It can be used to study rhythms and certain aspects of timbre and dynamics in a great detail. Any pitch related study, however, requires various sorts of analytical software to be applied.

Musical objects

Whereas representations of music are helpful for the study of music as an auditory art form, musical instruments embody a musical culture in a broader way. Musical instruments can be studied as archaeological artefacts broadening our knowledge of e.g. an ancient civilization, the music of which we don’t have representations – and the history of the human kind in general. They can also teach us a lot about the social and cultural lives of people distant in time and space. The spread of certain instruments and instrument building techniques may reveal changes in spheres of cultural influences.

Musical instruments as objects of study allow multi- and cross-disciplinary studies of musical cultures. For a while now music has offered new insights to e.g. neurologists, psychologists and architects in their respective disciplines. In the same way musical instruments can be studied by archaeologists, art historians, sociologists and anthropologists to help them form fuller understandings their fields of study – possibly with the help of some musicologists.

Material culture

The presentations of the afternoon demonstrated the lively manner in which cultures, distant in time and space, can be studied through musical instruments. The instruments presented were not only centuries or even millennia old from different parts of the world, near and far. They were also all brought to live by the presenting musicians. One could say that we experienced what Edward W. Soja calls the Third Space; these instruments embody past, present and future geographical and social spaces and the performances, to some extent, brought those to the present and implied something of their potential future.

Ney

Painting from Hasht-Behesht palace, Isbahan, Iran, from 1669
Painting from Hasht-Behesht palace, Isbahan, Iran, from 1669

The first presentation we heard was by Sinan Arat. He first gave us a short introduction to ney and then played an improvisation with a few maqamat and some traditional melodies in between in the traditional manner of Arab music. Arat plays the Turkish ney and told us about the Ottoman tradition of the instrument.

Different kinds of flutes are some of the oldest instruments around the world but due to the simple way in which the early flutes where constructed, few very early flutes have survived. The ney has its origins in the Middle East and its history is documented in various artefacts of the ancient civilisations in the region. In Turkey the ney preceded Islam and continued to be a central instrument in the Mevlevi Sufi rituals.

Despite the relative simplicity of the instrument, the ney requires a lot of practice to even produce a decent sound on it. It’s traditionally used in religious rituals and has an important place in the mythologies of the region it hails from. According to Arat the ney is not played by blowing through it but saying “Hu” – the name of God in Sufism – into it. Although Islam doesn’t recognize music as we understand it in the West, Arat told us that he was accepted into a Turkish mosque with his ney. A frame drum is the only other instrument allowed in mosques.

In many cultures where instruments are parts of religious rituals they are learned in an apprenticeship with a master or guru; often orally as the music is not written down – or even cannot be as it’s mostly improvised. This is also the case with ney and Arat studied it with Kudsi Ergüner at the Codarts in Rotterdam. In the traditional master-apprentice manner, the studies included learning the cultural context by studying the rituals and mythologies as well as how to make and maintain the instrument.

Although the ney is an ancient instrument and deeply embedded into its cultural roots, it’s also used in contemporary music. In fact, I had heard Arat before performing with the Mehmet Polat trio. The performance was part of the Dutch Delta Sounds series in Amstelkerk in Amsterdam and showed how such old instruments – the group consists of an oud and an African Kora – can still be relevant to contemporary artists and audiences while carrying their respective cultural backgrounds with them.

The Brazilian bamboo flute pifano

Next we heard the story of, and a performance on, the Brazilian bamboo flute pifano by Ivan Vendemiatti. This flute has its origins with the farmers in the North of Brazil where it was first used to scare off birds. The rhythmic way of playing gradually developed into a music genre of its own and was performed together with drums.  While fife and drums have been played in Europe and its colonies for centuries, the European tradition is strongly connected to military music.  Like so many musical instruments and practices, the fife and drum tradition exists also in West Africa and the North Brazilian tradition is a typical hybrid or synchronised tradition. It’s performed in social occasions for dancing as well as in some religious processions.

What intrigued me especially in Vendemiatti’s story was that he had no musical background or education when he picked up this instrument. He had bought one on his travels and “fooled around” with it by himself before he got more seriously interested in it. He then went back to the North of Brazil and learned more about the instrument and its cultural background. Back in his native South he initiated a pifano and drum group before getting interested in the Indian bansuri flute which he now studies at the Codarts in Rotterdam.

I´ll stop here for now. Please, click below for the second part for more about the last presentation of the day as well as the very inspiring panel discussion.

 

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Modern music

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The Pianoduo Festival under the artistic leadership of the Dutch Pianoduo Scholtes & Janssens took place for the fifth time in Amsterdam this year and October 13th I attended a concert titled Modern Masters. Before the concert musicologist Leo Samama gave a short lecture on North American Classical music after the second World War. The concert of the Maltese-Belgian duo Gabi Sultana & Mirek Coutigny consisted of works for piano duo of well – and not so well – known US composers. Most of the works where written for two pianos but some were also played four handedly on one piano.

Classical music is not my expertise nor main interest but this event attracted me for a couple of reasons. When I found out about this festival, I was surprised to learn that there exists such a body of works written for two pianos or two pianists. I must admit that the term piano duo first brought to my mind the sort of “adapted” duo performances Victor Borge was famous for 😉

I had heard such repertoire before but always thought these works were more of peculiarities and outliers in the larger corpora of composers. And they probably are, but apparently there are enough compositions, not only to justify a dedicated festival, but also enable a group of pianists to specialise in this repertoire. A quick googling revealed that there are thousands of compositions written for more than one piano and/or more than two hands, although I couldn’t find many of the evenings works in these listings.

East coast vs West coast

Although the North American developments were also discussed during my musicology studies at the University of Amsterdam, I don’t recall the different approaches to music in opposite sides of United States being discussed in the terms Samama did in his lecture. He pointed out, that while the composers on the East coast where closely following developments in Europe and continuing the continental tradition of progressivist modernism, the West coast composers looked the other way to Hawaii, Japan and the rest of Asia for inspiration. They were also more interested in how the folk, rock and pop artists made music than in their more scientifically minded colleagues at the East coast.

Looking across fences

Artists were of course looking across the genre “fences” from the rock and pop side as well. Towards the mid 1960s e.g. members of The Beatles started getting interested in broadening their musical horizons, each in their own way. George Harrison turned to Indian philosophy and music, Paul McCartney was more interested in honing his composing skills inspired by the Western art music tradition and John Lennon was more oriented with the folk ways of making music.  As they worked out their musical ideas largely together in the studio, the final recorded versions were likely to a combination of many of the above directions. So e.g. the Norwegian Wood of John Lennon is a folk song with some Indian influences.

But whenever they have the chance people tend to look over the fences everywhere. Some 20 years later the Japanese author Haruki Muarakami wrote the novel Noruwei no Mori inspired by Lennon’s song. In 2010 Tran Anh Hung directed a film based on the book. The levels of cultural and linguistic translation as well as the artistic experiences travelling through time and space in these works are intriguing, but have to be discussed another time.

The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album inspired e.g. The Beach Boys to make their Pet Sounds to which again The Beatles responded with the Revolver album. For Eleanor Rigby Paul McCartney asked the producer George Martin to write a string arrangement.

All these and other experiments went on in the rock/pop circles leading up to the Progressive Rock of the 1970s and on.

Artistic reactions to World War II

The East and West coast composers had also a different reaction to the horrors of World War II. The rise of the Nazis drove most of the left leaning – mostly Jewish – intellects to exile, many across the Atlantic. Among those immigrating to the US before and during the World War were e.g. the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky and nearly all of the Frankfurt School philosophers. They had witnessed first hand the Enlightenment project leading to sentimental National Romantic ideals and together with unchecked emotions resulted in the concentration camps and genocide.

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant. (Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectics of Enlightenment (1947))

What the Nazis called the “Final Solution” has been viewed as the “unexpected” result of a blind belief in technological progress. Nevertheless, this hasn’t been enough to everyone away from modernist beliefs, and the response of composers on the East coast – although Schoenberg actually lived in California – was to dig deeper into the modernist scientific approach to music-making; incorporating the latest technologies and theories to create new music that would be more “rational” rather than emotional in content. Some referred this development as the “American academic avant-garde”, although views differ on this.

Also in Europe this kind of thinking prevailed in the so-called Darmstadt school, to which the above quoted Adorno was also a frequent attendee. The Darmstadt school composers first continued working on the ideas of composers the Nazis had oppressed, such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warshaw is one of the best known early musical responses to the Holocaust.

Composed using the twelve tone technique Schoenberg had been developing already before the war, the Survivor is an expressionistic commemoration of the horrors Jews faced during the war. Luigi Nono, one of the most prominent members of the Darmstadt school, continued Schoenberg’s musical legacy. While not directly reacting to the war, Nono’s strongly Marxist criticism in his work in the decade after the war is in line with Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s critic mentioned above.

On the West coast, however, composers like Steve Reich and John Cage started looking into ways of making music which were less hierarchical in the traditional sense where the composer writes down his musical ideas in a set of instructions, the score, and the musicians perform – or execute – them. The more conceptual approach of composers and artists like Reich and Cage grew into the  Fluxus movement in the 1960s aspiring to move away from “art works” and emphasising processes – of creation as well as experience. One of the most extreme experiments in this direction was Cage’s composition 4’33”, which questions the very nature of music as sound, let alone the roles of composer, performer and listener/audience. The Dutch philosopher Rob van Gerwen has called it perhaps “the greatest work of art that 20th century has produced, but it is not a piece of music.”

I warmly recommend to also watch the audience responses to this performance. They’re very telling of what we normally expect from a performance and what may happen when these expectations are not met 🙂

I’ll stop here for now. I’ll be back shortly with a few words about the actual performance that evening.

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Fences

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I’ve written about music and film a couple of times before and although Denzel Washington’s latest film Fences is not about music and in fact has very little music in it, walking out of the cinema I thought it was an experience I’d like to share. Music has a role in the film as well, but it was the experience of watching this film in a sold out hall that I’d like to focus on here. This is also why I’ve included this post in the Gigs category.

One of the scenes, that for me came closest to an experience I usually have in concerts, didn’t have music playing at all. The film, however, is a good example of effective use of music in ways that serve the story – or are a part of it. But most of all I was reminded that watching a film in cinema is a social event, however little social interaction there might be – which is often preferable.

Fences is a story of a working class African American family trying to get by the best they can in a 1950’s post second World War but pre-Civil Rights Era suburban town. The main character is a man played by Denzel Washington who’s taking his role as the head of his family very seriously but, although he loves his family, he thinks it’s enough – or doesn’t know better than – to show it by providing them with material well-being to the best of his abilities.

Music first enters the story as the main character Troy’s eldest son walks in the house to borrow money. The son is trying to make a living as a musician and his father doesn’t approve. Although, as discussed before, music has provided professional opportunities to many African Americans, it’s been an uncertain bread bringer at bes and not a much more respected profession African Americans than it has in the mainstream society.

Watching together – Silence

As said, most of the film doesn’t have music at all. The “musical” experience I mentioned above was a moment in the scene, a part of which you can see in the trailer above, in which Troy is telling some very unpleasant news to his wife (I don’t want to spoil this for those who haven’t seen the film yet). Once he’s spilled out the words there’s a long silences as the words sink in, as much for the wife hearing the news, Troy waiting for her reaction and the audience watching the drama.

This intense moment of silence reminded me of my favourite moments in concerts; the endings of a performance where the whole hall – or whatever performance space – in intense stillness hangs on the last sounds as they fade away. In such moments one can kind of feel time. Every passing second, as the sounds fade, we come to terms with the performance we’ve witnessed and (hopefully) appreciate the efforts the artists have made to create it for us. In the scene of Fences I described above, the tension of between the characters was palpable as the sold out hall of around 100 people were sitting in silence and living the moment with the characters on the screen.

Like all performances, such moments are unique. Although this film is exactly the same every time it’s projected, the audiences are different. I’ve noticed it lately to be quite rare that audiences have the patience to keep quite in such moments. This can be also heard in the clip below (at 5’20”) where after the solo performance of Lars Danielsson starts to clap while the last notes are still ringing.

Music in storytelling

In Fences, music proper only enters the story after the above described scene; after the story takes a turn in the Golden Cut.  We see Troy in blue thoughts at the bar while Dinah Washington sings You Don’t Know What Love Is (“until you’ve learned the meaning of the Blues”) in the background. Washington’s bluesy interpretations is a great choice, but also realistic as a contemporary of the story.

This scene also introduces Troy singing an old folk song Old Blue to himself, which helps bring closure to his relation to his youngest son in the end of the film. Again, I don’t want to disclose too much of the story not to spoil it for the “uninitiated” 😉

Troy sings Old Blue as an unaccompanied Blues, whereas all the versions I could find of it are in more country or American folk style. In Troy’s Blues rendition the dog of the story seems to be himself, which in the end his youngest son also realises helping him to make peace with his father.

Thus, in Fences we have music being part of the story – as it is part of life – in good and in (perceived) bad as well as accompanying life. Most impressive for me, however, was the performative similarity of the experience of that intense silence in the cinema. It takes a strong performance to capture an audience in a way that it stays silent for longer than 5 seconds and Fences, at least last night, it worked.

With various streaming services gaining popularity among music and film lovers alike, I find it good to keep in mind that there’s more to listening to music and watching films together as part of an audience, than individual pleasure of listening and watching art being performed. But more about this another time. While I think music will always be performed, with films it’s a bit different and we’ll have to see how things develop.

Meanwhile, go to movies! 😀

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