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July 06, 2008

Comments

The above was supposed to have a link to this post in it; I will leave finding a suitable place as an exercise for the reader.

I also wanted to mention this book, none of which I've read.

Taruskin is like an inflammatory Ruskin, I guess.

re: the recordist joins in on a field recording

But one of the interesting things about kentucky fiddle music (as opposed to, say, scottish bagpipe music) is that it evolved in considerable isolation for an extended period of time. In contrast, the speed and breadth of modern channels of communication ensure that any musical style exposed to them will inevitably undergo regular metamorphosis under the influence of their infectious cargo.

Not that musical forms evolving under such pressures are inferior (or superior) to ones which have evolved primarily in isolation. Rather, that music which has evolved in comparative isolation may develop in a qualitatively different manner than that exposed to a broad pool of influences. In particular, isolated development may plumb the depths of such idiosyncratic techniques as are produced and encouraged by only small homogeneous populations stewing in their inbred tastes and predilections.

Surely these rare excesses of the human spirit are worth preserving? Whether they be produced by one at the heart of an homogeneous fusion, or on the fringe of an appalachian wilderness, if there is uniqueness to the performance, it deserves unsullied preservation. The inoculation of the homogeneous world pool of music style sharing by such a rare serum can have a far more profound restorative effect than the frequent but disappointing salves from those musical traditions already continuously infected by their stylistically distant neighbors.

Let us preserve these medicines whilst yet they can be found.

P.S. This is in no way meant as a defense of Wilson.

I think I completely agree with the above—such things are worth preserving, and the best way of preserving them as they are currently constituted is via recording. And if I seem to be defending the participation of the recordist on the recordings, then I must have expressed myself sloppily; I think that's pretty much bound to be a bad idea, given what the point of such an archival recording is.

I do think that it ought to be possible for someone to study with Kentucky fiddler X and become fluent in his style, though I also assume that that would take quite a while. If such a person really were willing to be a student of the fiddler, that probably wouldn't result in the importation of too many external influence. Wilson's way of presenting the issue makes the recordists out to be dilettantes of dubious musicality, which is rhetorically effective if not necessarily accurate, and his doomsaying example of insensitive swing revivalists just shows that those people were, well, insensitive, not that it was no longer possible for anyone to play that way. (Although?) That still doesn't mean that, if you're going to make a recording of fiddler X, you should put yourself on it. I'm thinking of recording the current players, and learning to play oneself, as separate endeavors.

I thought that Paul Pena travelled to Tuva to learn throat singing, but the wikipedia article makes it seem as if he did it by sheer force of will.

The Pena story is accurate; you can see him visiting Tuva for the first time to participate in the competition in Genghis Blues. However, I do think there's a worthwhile distinction between learning a technique and participating in a tradition. Pena impressed the Tuvans with his technique, but it was certainly influenced by his blues background. I would be surprised if Pena would be taken by a Tuvan expert as representative of traditional throat singing (but then one would have to be a Tuvan expert to know . . .).

I agree that learning about a tradition can be important, but Wilson seems to be criticizing changes in the pattern of data gathering by ethnomusicologists. If the trends he identifies are real, I think his criticism is legitimate (as is tracing the changes to critical theory's nefarious influence).

On the other hand, now that I've read some of them, I don't agree with the arguments he gives for this conclusion. In particular, the claims about, say, sadness being a defining quality of a particular piece and the corruptive influence of too much exposure to other musical forms on one's ability to identify such sadness seem totally confused.

From the standpoint of a discipline such as ethnomusicology, field recordings are an act of data gathering, it's as simple as that. As such, all the concerns which govern data gathering in any field apply, including standards of purity and clarity. This is why ethnomusicologists shouldn't join in on field recordings which are intended as data for their work.

(Though, obviously, if they want to play along with musicians in the field, and record these performances as well, so much the better for them. On the other hand, if such tendencies on the part of the ethnomusicologist quantitatively reduce the actual date gathered in the above sense, this trend could indeed be legitimately harmful to the discipline.)

Sure sure. Pena's a red herring: I thought he might be an example for my case, but it turns out he's not (but he's still interesting).

And surely one can participate in a tradition just as much as one can learn a technique, even a foreign tradition, even if Pena isn't an example of that.

I think his criticism is legitimate (as is tracing the changes to critical theory's nefarious influence)

I actually think his tracing of these changes to critical theory's influence is kind of unconvincing. The guy who wants to play along with the people he records seems to rely at least as much on some sort of cod-Schopenhauerian babble about music as about any theoretical concerns about holism or whatever, and such concerns could equally well lead one simply to try to minimize the harm done while acknowledging that one will, simply through making contact, effect some changes—which seems to be Wilson's own view; after all, he does acknowledge that earlier ethnomusicologists wreaked some degree of havoc in the communities they entered.

I agree about the confusion. The snark about someone's ear being able to accomodate just fine Mozart, the Beatles, and Ellington was supposed to highlight some of it; I'll need to reread the chapter (which itself seemed kind of disorganized) to make more of the particular arguments about music's being defined in such-and-such a way.

Oh, I meant also to say that I'm not sure Wilson's target is really just the unsavory hijinks of ethnomusicologists when recording: consider the scorn with which he mentions the one guy (book's not on me...) who plays in a little old-timey orchestra. One reason he seems to be against pernicious recording practices is that he seems to think that the fiddle music, and fiddlers, are completely hived off from and inaccessible to the rest of us except by recording—that you couldn't possibly learn to play like that. That seems too much. (When you want to say that someone who's come from outside is really a participant in the tradition instead of just a student of it seems practically undecideable to me—all the more reason to separate the role of data-collecting musicologist from that of performer-in-arms.)

Pena impressed the Tuvans with his technique, but it was certainly influenced by his blues background.

Well, he did win in one of the traditional categories in the competition. Maybe as a result of whatever new twist he brought from the blues, maybe not.

The Pena story is accurate; you can see him visiting Tuva for the first time to participate in the competition in Genghis Blues. However, I do think there's a worthwhile distinction between learning a technique and participating in a tradition. Pena impressed the Tuvans with his technique, but it was certainly influenced by his blues background. I would be surprised if Pena would be taken by a Tuvan expert as representative of traditional throat singing (but then one would have to be a Tuvan expert to know . . .).

I agree that learning about a tradition can be important, but Wilson seems to be criticizing changes in the pattern of data gathering by ethnomusicologists. If the trends he identifies are real, I think his criticism is legitimate (as is tracing the changes to critical theory's nefarious influence).

On the other hand, now that I've read some of them, I don't agree with the arguments he gives for this conclusion. In particular, the claims about, say, sadness being a defining quality of a particular piece and the corruptive influence of too much exposure to other musical forms on one's ability to identify such sadness seem totally confused.

From the standpoint of a discipline such as ethnomusicology, field recordings are an act of data gathering, it's as simple as that. As such, all the concerns which govern data gathering in any field apply, including standards of purity and clarity. This is why ethnomusicologists shouldn't join in on field recordings which are intended as data for their work.

(Though, obviously, if they want to play along with musicians in the field, and record these performances as well, so much the better for them. On the other hand, if such tendencies on the part of the ethnomusicologist quantitatively reduce the actual date gathered in the above sense, this trend could indeed be legitimately harmful to the discipline.)

Wilson aside, I don't think the assumption that "you couldn't possibly learn to play like that" is "too much" at all. Consider the analogy with learning a foreign language: one can learn to speak a foreign language "fluently," yet nevertheless discover that there are nuances which come naturally to the "native" speaker, but which persistently elude his mastery. Lera Boroditsky's neo-Whorfianism basically amounts to a version of this claim: you can never escape the cognitive influence of your native language (and, conversely, the cognitive experience of speaking some language natively can never be fully experienced by an outsider).

The claim I want to make for musical traditions is basically the same, though, I think, even more plausible. Pena can learn the ins and outs of Tuvan singing such that he wins competitions and is lauded by Tuvans. But won't there always be nuances (perhaps even only extant in singers less technically competent than Pena) which are the result of being steeped in that tradition and which, as such, elude him? These won't necessarily be nuances the Tuvans themselves see as important, or crucial, to their music, but they may be part of what make it distinctive. There are numerous horror stories about Westerners attempting to learn Indian classical music, for example, where the glass ceiling they can't break through has nothing to do with technique, but with an ineffable cultural attitude, too subtle to be fully understood by an outsider, but essential to the musical practice.

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