Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Jean-Paul Sartre posed the following scenario: Imagine listening to a raw recording of everyday conversations transpiring in a foreign time and place. They begin mid-sentence, jump organically from topic to topic and come with no guidelines or commentary. Even if we could understand the language, much of the substance of the dialogue would be lost. The words would be laden with subtleties, references and turns of phrase natural to the speakers’ environment and experiences, but alien to our own. Context would be a matter of conjecture, as people generally avoid dwelling on the details of their surroundings or the larger conditions in which their discussions are taking place. Extraneous and unnecessary information is left out without conscious consideration. The actors simply know who they are, where they are and what they’re talking about. They intuitively favor an economy of language.
Sartre saw a parallel between such conversations and literature written in and about a given culture. Native readers do not require lengthy descriptions, meticulous word-pictures or fleshed-out narratives. As Sartre wrote: “[P]eople of a same period and collectivity, who have lived through the same events, who have raised or avoided the same questions, have the same taste in their mouth; they have the same complicity, and there are the same corpses among them. That is why it is not necessary to write so much; there are key-words.” But when their stories and ideas are told to an outside audience, many pages are needed to introduce history, outline customs, explain prejudices, chronicle social tensions, describe economic conditions and so on.
Something similar occurs in music. Like the direct language of everyday speech and the concision of certain time- and space-specific writings, music is able to communicate an abundance of information with minimal material. A brief melodic sequence, stylistic signature or pithy phrase can capture the ethos of the group or subgroup from which the music sprang and to which it is addressed. Its sound—and, in the case of song, its subject matter—encapsulates collective experiences, consolidates common concerns, addresses ubiquitous feelings, accentuates shared fondnesses and enfolds many layers of cultural expression.
Group-defining music is like a time capsule, gathering together tastes, struggles, longings, tendencies, aspirations and other particulars. Take the American baby boomer who nods knowingly to a Bob Dylan record, or the Yoruba of West Africa who understand the messages and milieu of their talking drums. Each time the music is played, its contents are spilled out. The insider knows precisely what it means; she is overtaken by a flood of familiar associations. For that person and others of her background and heritage, the music is an instant and unmistakable identity marker. It is history, memory, emotion, spirit, essence and conviction rolled into a sonic container.
This is partly why we are attracted to the music that attracts us: it is our music in a deep sense of the term. But it also accounts for why outsiders often have difficulty relating to or fully appreciating the music of others. For those who lived the stories and know the references, the music is a constant source of meaning and identification. Yet those unfamiliar with the music and its context can find it dated, irrelevant, uninteresting, unimportant, unapproachable or worse. And when an outsider desires to learn what the music recalls and represents, he needs the sort of informational and analytical framework insiders happily do without.
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